Burning Bridges

Again I call Sarah Anne, but still the answer was no.

Usually, by now, we would be sitting closely on the bench beneath the tree in the Burnwoods’ front yard. It was a tradition, Sarah Anne once told me, that had gone back generations. Her great-grandfather had planted the tree when he was a boy, and ever since then every couple who had sat under the tree had fallen in love and got married.

I was only seventeen at the time, and knew little about traditions. As far as I could tell there were no traditions in my family, unless you counted my Uncle Jeff, who for many years, stole hubcaps and car stereos. That, as I understood it, however, wasn’t so much a tradition as what was known as “recalcitrant criminal behavior.”

So I bowed to Sarah Anne’s superior knowledge of traditions. I totally believed everything she claimed, which was why it took a full month for her to cajole me to go near the gnarled old tree. It wasn’t that I didn’t like her– I liked her just fine. She was smart but not snobbish about it. She was pretty with long wavy blonde hair and green eyes and a face that could have been the inspiration for cameos. She came from a good old family, which seemed to still mean something to people. It meant little to me, though, other than her parents on a daily basis wore the same clothes my parents wore while going to a wedding or funeral. No, I liked Sarah Anne pretty much, and in the end let her talk me into sitting under that old tree.

On summer nights we would sit out there and hold hands while her mother pretended she wasn’t peeking through the front window at us but a pesky raccoon that often visited the home to scavenge through the garbage, I would kiss her now and then, and she would rest her head on my shoulder. It was all very enjoyable, comforting to know that you weren’t all alone in the universe, as it sometimes seemed when you were a teenager. I don’t think it was love, really, not unless you defined love as only a strong dependency on another’s presence. Whatever it was, it was pleasant enough, and after I kissed her for the last time each night, I would walk home each night warmed by the thought that tomorrow we would be together again.

But when I called on her one day, she said, “No, not tonight.” She said it simply, as though, no, she didn’t care for the Brussels sprouts somebody was trying to pass her at Sunday dinner. To make matters worse, she actually shut the door on me before I could ask why.

So, confused, I started to wander back home. Oddly it was like going to the drug store for cough syrup but finding the store was sold out, leaving you to return empty-handed to home, where you would be sick for the rest of the night.

I passed through town square, and saw a crowd gathered round round the statue of Sterling Oland, the civil war hero after whom our town had been named (Sterling Oland, I believed, had been labeled a hero not because he’d done something to win a war, but rather because he hadn’t done something to lose it.) Since crowds of people usually formed in Oland only at times of disaster, curiosity forced me to see what was happening.

Mayor Lockwood was addressing the people. I stood at the rear of the crowd, and soon learned that he was talking about the Russians. (This was 1961, when all the rich crazy people in California were having bomb shelters built in their back yards.) As in all times of global tension, small-town people turned their attention from pork prices to exaggerated notions of their place in the world. At first I thought the mayor was just exercising his right to free speech, but in a moment I discovered there might actually be a point to what he was saying. He announced gravely that Oland would certainly be a Russian target if hostilities broke out. How could it not be? The railroad cars that passed through Oland County weekly transported titanium west, where it was used to make ICBMs and warplanes. The crowded nodded in agreement, apparently not wondering at what the mayor claimed. They shifted anxiously from one foot to the other. Someone shouted up at the mayor, asking what we could do? The mayor shrugged hopelessly, and you could feel panic grow in the crowd, as though Oland might actually be a prime target, one of the first cities to have its population vaporized. One man suggested that the town obtain a court injunction, but he was shouted down by several others who believed there wasn’t enough time and that the tracks east of town ought to be “disabled,” so that no kind of war materials could pass anywhere near the town. But a shop-owner complained that necessary stock and supplies wouldn’t be able to reach Oland– not by train, anyway, but only by truck and because of those damned teamsters the prices of everything would go up. The mayor suggested that the best way to save Oland from a nuclear holocaust was if the bridge by which the trained crossed the river east of town was somehow destroyed by a natural disaster. Damned the price of tomatoes– at least everyone would be alive. Many people cheered agreement, obviously not realizing it would have to be a mighty co-incidental natural disaster.

I decided they were just spouting off hot air, and that nothing would ever happen to the bridge; the river hadn’t even run over but twice in the last hundred years.

I was about to resuming walking home, when I felt suddenly empty. I had no one to talk to about all this nonsense. If I went home and told my parents, they would have just run down here to support whatever the mayor proposed. Sarah Anne, with whom I discussed everything, was unavailable for some secret reason. That began to rankle me to no end. I felt that she was letting me down, really, and for nothing that I’d done.

I decided to return to her house. I would demand an explanation. I had never wanted to sit with her beneath that old tree from the start, and now that it had worked some magical on me, she was going to start playing games.

When I reached the house, it appeared to be empty. All the lights were out and the family station wagon wasn’t in the driveway. I moved up the cobblestone path, past the tall old tree and toward the front door. It was a long time before she answered my knock, and while I waited I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being avoided.

The door opened a rack, and she peeked out at me with watery blue eyes. It looked as though she’d be crying.

“Richie,” she said, surprised. “What are you doing back.”

“I came to make sure you’re all right,” I lied. I knew now she was up to something.

“Aw, that’s sweet,” she cooed.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“Then why won’t you come out tonight?” I demanded.

“I can’t, Richie,” she said sadly.

“There must be a reason.”

“There is, but I’d rather not say.”


“Please, Richie, don’t bother about it.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then?” I asked suspiciously, already sensing the answer.

“I’m not sure,” she said, and she hedged and made a big show how it all was so important to see me again.

“What do you mean?” I think I really started to hate her, then

“Well– maybe in a few days– I don’t know.”

Maybe in a few days! I was outraged

“Please,” she pleaded, “just go home and I’ll call you.” And she quickly shut the door.

I stared at nothing for a moment. It all made such little sense, like playing a cruel joke on someone just because they trust enough to let you do it. I finally turned away to leave.

When I saw the tree, then, anger really flared inside me. It had all been some stupid lie, with me falling for it completely. I suddenly hated that tree and all those who had ever sat under it before Sarah Anne and me– assuming that, too, hadn’t been a lie. My anger took hold of me, then, and I rushed to the rear of the house, behind which was an old tool shed. From inside I took gasoline can that the Burnwoods’ used to fill their lawn mower. I doused the trunk of the tree and the wooden bench with gasoline. When I tossed a lighted match on the bench, there was a low fruuump sound as the blaze flared. The flames slowly rose upward and spread out onto the lower limbs. As I walked away, the fire was burning so brightly I could see Sarah Anne’s horrified face peering through the front window. I saw the tears running down her cheeks, and I felt a delicious sense of satisfaction that I had harmed her as much as she had harmed me.

I started down the road and the cracking of the fire faded behind me. I had not walked far before the Burnwoods’ station wagon slowed down and pulled up next to me. The back of the wagon was filled with grocery bags, and Mrs. Burnwood pushed her face out the side window.

“You see Sarah Anne?” she asked. She was being her usual, pleasant self, and facing her now was difficult; in a short while she would reach her house and discover what I’d done.

“Yeah,” I said meekly.

“It’s too bad you two can’t see each other for a while.”

“Yeah,” I said, acid creeping into my tone, starting to suspect her mother of this sudden separation.

“These things happen now and then.”


“The poor dear is suffering so.”

“Suffering?” I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach.

“Oh, she didn’t tell you, did she? Well, I’m not surprised. She always was sensitive about these things, about what you would think. It’s silly really. When you get older you never think twice, because it’s all so natural. But when you’re young, you want everybody to think you’re perfect.”

“What things are we talking about?”

“I probably shouldn’t tell you. She would just kill me if I said a word. Well, maybe, if you promise not to say anything.”

I promised.

“It’s really silly.”


“She just has the stomach flu.”


“Silly, right? She just didn’t want you to know, let along see her sick– you know, vomiting and such.”

“Oh, vomiting,” I said; it sounded like a good idea at the moment.

“And other things– you know. What did she tell you, anyway?

“She told me not to bother about it.”

“Well, don’t then,” she said cheerfully. “In a couple days, everything will be back to normal.”

She shifted back into drive, and the station wagon headed down the road. I watched after it until it was out of sight. I stood in the middle of the road, not sure what to do. Then I heard the distant explosions, like rumbling thunder that warns of a coming storm, and I realized what had happened. I could see in my mind the fiery ruins of the bridge falling into the river, hissing, steam rising off the water.

“Idiots.” I shouted. “Idiot.”

But no one was around to hear me.


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