The Goat Bridge by Brian Kelly
2008 was a year of great failure, and I was on my way out of Portland Oregon. I quit waiting tables before I could get fired for habitual tardiness. It didn’t matter that I lived four blocks away from work: I was acutely apathetic. Although it was everywhere in the press, the market crash hadn’t made an impression on me, didn’t make me feel grateful to serve brunch in a hip town, or fortify my work ethic. Rash changes were risky even with the aid of unemployment benefits coming in every week due to hourly cutbacks. However, I was tired of the hiding.
I kept a bottle of Smirnoff vodka inside a small red locker in the basement of the hotel where I worked. At the beginning of a dinner shift I would go downstairs and quietly fill a sports bottle with half iced coffee, half vodka. I would visit that locker at least two more times before leaving the building; and I’d let the stress of the yelling, the clanking plates, and the extra long ticket times wash over me. I returned curt attitude to whoever I wanted because I was highly inebriated.
Just before a migraine would set in, when all the iced tea filters and the sauces were well stocked, glasses polished and cash collected, I would go to a bar down the block and drink more until I couldn’t remember who I had met or what time it was. Every conversation outside of work was always about work: who we hated, why we hated him or her, and how the restaurant should be run by someone who knew what that hell was going on, someone like me, perhaps. ‘I would do it,’ I hiccuped, ‘if I didn’t have to take the pay cut.’
But I stopped doing all that. I quit and hid in my basement room, pacing every day for a year within four walls of white cinder block dankness, occasionally looking out one small window to the garage. Barely any natural light shone through that window because there was always a car blocking my dismal view. The basement was a cell but it was big enough to walk around and collect thoughts and talk to myself like a corporate executive conducting a board meeting of one .
I wanted to start writing and be the next great American novelist. But of course that didn’t happen. That never happens! No one in their right mind sets out to write the Great American Novel and does it. Not even when he buys a typewriter on ebay and prepares giant pitchers of French press coffee and drinks all that coffee and reads all the books by Chomsky, Pollan, Dewey, Russell, and Steinbeck.
The waking hours of a depressed person are incompatible with society. I awoke each day at four in the afternoon as the house started its healthy pulse, roommates returning from their day jobs to fix dinner and converse. Their footsteps overhead bothered me. I was paranoid that they would discover I had no job or worse; that I was walking around in a smelly bathrobe drinking too much coffee and not socializing. I’d wait quietly until the house went silent and then I’d start to work. But the work suffered because I was always tired and too careful not to wake anyone.
Artists should not be afraid, and I was terrified. My girlfriend no longer wanted to touch me because she saw the fear. However, she still cared for me urged that the solution was simply to get out and get another job. But I didn’t have any desire or money to get another job, and my attitude embraced the idea of homelessness more than corporatism. When my mother called and I told her that, she told me to fly home. I reluctantly complied.
In Arizona my mother was excited to have what appeared to be a man living with her. That excitement lasted maybe two hours before I could see that we were both depressed. She had lost her job too and was struggling to find something in hotel management. She was six months out of work surviving with the help of her parents who had employed her after the layoff. They needed help getting around and had four caretakers living at their house around the clock fetching things, running errands, sorting the mail, and, of course, moving them to and from the bathroom when they needed assistance bathing and shitting.
I tried to stay busy by turning my frustration on my mom’s dormant house. It was too much house to care for with only two people living in it. I emptied the garage and made it my own study. Then I went to work clearing dead branches from overgrown trees. When that was finished I mixed mortar, bought bricks and repaired her fireplace. Then I moved on to more niggling tasks she didn’t care for like rummaging through junk drawers and taking the rust off old pennies. I organized every drawer to the point she didn’t know where anything was because I had set everything in a new ‘proper’ place. It was stir crazy behavior resembling that from within the basement in Portland. My mother saw this, sat me down, and told me that it was the time to do something. I had to get another job.
Uncle Terry and I were vegans when we went to work on the goat bridge. But we practiced veganism for different reasons. I was an idealistic twenty-something who had read too much Peter Singer and Michael Pollan. He was a working class foreman and recovering alcoholic who didn’t read but lost a tremendous amount of weight, easily 85 pounds, when the new the lifestyle took hold. My Aunt Grace confided that it was like he was 30 years old again and had gone back in time to the seventies when he fucked like a rodeo bull. Grace made sure that he kept the body he had recovered. She prepared healthy meals of quinoa and grilled vegetables, gave soothing rubdowns and encouraged him to keep working hard.
The market crash had sent Terry back to the construction site, back to working with idiot carpenters who were dodging the law and carrying license plates from different states along with a revoked driver’s license from a 4th or 5th D.U.I. offense. Terry had done well transitioning to real estate as the housing bubble grew. But it was no longer a flush industry. The country’s debt had poisoned that well. Terry hung up the suit, grabbed the hard hat and went back to long days, sometimes 12 to 14 hours on site only to rest for 3 hours and be back again early the next morning before sunrise.
The company Terry worked for made bids on federal works projects from the state and retained one that called for the construction of wildlife bridges. These bridges would preserve the habitat for the indigenous mountain goats crossing to and from their water source and grazing land in the Mojave desert. The one obstacle keeping these goats stranded on one side was the state highway 21, a congested two-way stretch of traffic that carried tourists and hopefuls from to the Hoover Dam to the glittered land of Las Vegas.
Terry offered me a job on this project after several conversations between my mom and Grace. He told me I’d go in as a day laborer, which on the construction site meant that I’d be a bitch. I carried scrap, lifted huge pieces of plywood, pulled out nails and emptied them into salvage buckets. I moved anything that needed moving. And everything had a ridiculous name that sounded like everything else. I’d scurry away asking myself, Did he want the ‘t-whipper’ or ‘beam gripper’; and when I didn’t know I asked around like a shy foreign exchange student, sometimes even pantomiming the tool I needed for the crew’s amusement.
I went into this job hoping to come out a man surrounded by men who made things with their bare hands and climbed dangerous heights with no fear, spit on the ground, cursed at each other and came back the next day to repeat it all again. But I didn’t come out a man. Instead I got away from myself and focused on the bridge. There wasn’t one moment, not one time did I ever see a mountain goat standing on a hill with its horns wrapped around its face. But I liked to imagine a creature who didn’t know what was going on all day for several months until the trucks cleared out and the men went away and there was nothing left standing but a new road leading to water. I imagined that animal would have instinct and would know that the bridge was for him. I hoped the same for myself, that when I returned to wherever I was going to live, there would be a new bridge set for me, and I would have the goat balls to plant my feet on the bridge and cross it even if I didn’t know where it was leading me.
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