You always run. In case it opens up beneath you, splits in two so that each half can hinge up and let boats pass through on the river.
You know, don’t you, that it won’t open without warning? That there are bridge tenders stationed in the towers at either end all day, that it’ll be blocked off and cleared of pedestrians and vehicles well before the steel leaves begin their upward swing. You know this bridge has been here nearly three decades, since 1920, and it’s been opened thousands of times each of those years, and not once has somebody been caught in the middle.
Not once has a young white lady like you, a smartly dressed and carefully coiffed secretary, the daughter of clenched-jawed Polish immigrants who taught their children to never complain—at least not to them—been trapped on this bridge in the heart of Chicago with gravity turning against her. Yet you can’t help picturing your half of the bridge tilting, spilling you along its surface, denying you a handhold, somehow managing to pitch you off it entirely and condemning you to the river. You see yourself being pulled under by the weight of your heels and pencil skirt and pressed blouse and cheap watch and the meticulously organized contents of your handbag—the compact with the mirror that’s always a bit cloudy, the datebook and the extra ballpoint pens you’ve swiped from the office over the last several months, the pocketbook with the money you’ve earned by sitting at a desk and smiling at men who call you “sweetheart.” You are not sweet, but you are also not fearless and no one would guess that except at this time of day.
You know you’re safe. But you run anyway, because knowing and feeling are very different experiences. And knowing is so often a lie.
Running in heels takes commitment. Maintaining your balance mostly comes down to momentum. It helps that you’re short and compact: no gangly limbs to wrangle, no unruly center of gravity. You stay well away from the railing, of course, and just far enough from the curb that you’re not in danger of pitching into the path of a car if you trip. You’ve never tripped in more than a year as a working woman, but that’s no more reassuring than the raised curb guard.
You weave around people crossing from the other side, around people going in the same direction as you but not quickly enough. You know they won’t look askance at you for it; they’ll assume you’re on a pressing errand and have no time to waste, and in essence they’ll be right. You don’t look out at the water and you don’t stumble.
“Excuse me, miss—”
But you’re already past him, whoever he is. You wouldn’t have stopped anyway. It’s always somebody wanting money. That’s what your father warned you when you first landed your job and started walking through the city alone five days a week.
You trust your father’s warnings. Didn’t he tell you not to eat the ice straight off the truck, and didn’t you heave up your guts afterward, that minute of miraculous coolness on your tongue paved over by agonies of stomach and soul? Didn’t he caution you about the neighbors’ dog, and doesn’t the scar on your hand still twinge when the weather’s turning? Your father steers you toward survival: toward making your own way in the world just long enough to find a husband who can provide for you, whom you will never argue with or even contradict in front of your children—the children whom you will clothe and feed and punish for their moments of carelessness or wastefulness. Steady footfalls on the path of your parents and grandparents, a circle so large that it feels to you like a straight line.
You don’t stop for anyone.
I need to ask you a very important question is often how it begins, and once somebody followed up by yelling at your receding back, I only wanted to ask, Why are you so beautiful?
You are not beautiful. You recognize a trap when you see one. You do not listen to lies.
“Miss! Excuse me!”
For the rest of your life when someone says they have something important to ask you, when someone starts a sentence with Why, you will refuse to stop for them, refuse to believe there is any answer other than the bills crisply folded into thirds inside your pocketbook. This will be true even six and a half decades from now, when the bridge has been renamed the DuSable Bridge and you’ve been rechristened as Mrs., as Mom . . . beloved wife, beloved grandmother . . .
“I just need the time, miss!”
And perhaps he does. The thought has the taste of fresh-cut ice on your tongue.
There are plenty of other people, on this bridge alone, whom he could ask. Even more people if he presses on, back to solid ground, where lives don’t hang suspended forty feet above oblivion. This city is full of people who know the time and think they have nothing to fear.
But suppose he is deciding, this very moment, which direction he ought to go on this bridge. Suppose he’s forgotten something at his place of work but knows he can’t be late for whatever his evening holds, and he’s stuck here, uncertain if it’s early enough for him to double back. Suppose he’s still lingering here when the bridge opens up.
Without breaking your stride, you hitch up your hand to see your watch. Over your shoulder you yell, “Quarter to six!” and keep running until you reach the other side.
Amy Fitzgerald grew up in northwest Indiana and is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is an editorial director for Carolrhoda Books at Lerner Publishing Group, where she specializes in middle-grade and young adult fiction.