Plain China

Jump

by Anders Nienstaedt · St. Olaf College · Nonfiction Prize Winner
Home IV, Luca Molnar · Dartmouth College

1.

The New Yorker runs the article my sophomore year in college. The days are getting shorter, and my right knee is moving like it has a loose bolt in it somewhere. The muscles of my right leg have atrophied back up toward my hip because I’ve been limping, and I’ve been limping because I pushed a knee sprain until it became something else. These things are circular.  You hurt, then you hurt from the limp. I had a good summer of training on the hill behind my house, and I can feel it slipping away now. My cross-country coach stopped entering me in meets a few weeks ago, and I’ve been riding a stationary bike during practice instead of going out with the rest of the team. I pedal for as long as I can and read salt-caked, three-month-old copies of The New Yorker to pass the time.

I’ve never recognized someone from an obituary photo before, but when I see a photomontage of the East Kingsford Train Bridge in the back pages of the magazine, I feel the same mixture of recognition and shock that I’ve seen in my mother once or twice when she folds the paper and exhales and says that Tom Holster, or Karen Kempa, or someone else we know is dead. The artist has done a good job, because I recognize the bridge from the cut-apart photomontage right away—the rusted iron girders towering above the rocks and the tree-lined banks of the Menominee River. I stop pedaling and sit there for a while, sweating. I can feel something slipping inside of me. The title reads, “At the Train Bridge,” underneath the heading, “The Annals of Crime.” Trouble on a summer’s afternoon at the swimming hole. The story lies glistening in front of me, pasted over with college weight room sweat and the cool words of a New Yorker reporter. I’ve read it all before in my local paper. He’s writing about my town. He’s writing about Tony Spigarelli.

2.

Upper Michigan’s twin cities, Iron Mountain and Kingsford, grew from red earth and evergreen trees. With the exception of the paper mill, everything from the boom years closed decades ago—the mines, the railroad, the Ford plant that split trees into wooden Model T side panels. The cities shrank slowly, living inside the skeletons of the looming, ferrous things built when money still pumped in. They’re all still there: a few towering, connected-to-nothing smokestacks, three ore bridges across the Menominee river, an Olympic-size ski jump, the largest steam-driven pump engine in the world.

When the pumps shut down, most of the mineshafts and ore pits filled with water, and the water is what gets us to the top of the cliff adjacent to the mineshaft on the Henke property. I’m fifteen years old, and I’ve never jumped before. Sam Henke is there and so is Brandon Spigarelli—the other Spig—the only one I know, because I haven’t met Tony yet. Our town is small, but there’s enough Italian heritage left over from the mining days that two people can both have the last name “Spigarelli” and not necessarily be related.  Brandon and Tony might be second-cousins, but I don’t think they’re any closer than that.

It’s a thirty-five-foot drop to the surface of the water and then another five hundred feet straight down to wherever the mineshaft hits bedrock. The water is jet black except at the edges, where it fades into an eerie opalescent blue, like a wide-open pupil with the faintest iris ring before the rocks.

Sam reminds us to jump out to clear the five-foot slant at the bottom of the cliff. The sun beats down. Brandon jumps. Sam jumps. I look over again. A diver’s weight belt would take you straight to the bottom. Treading water, my friends beckon from the blackness.

3.

The summer after Tony and the other kids are killed at the East Kingsford Train Bridge, my dad is worried about our house falling into the gaping hole in our yard. He’s laying a new sewer line so that our yard won’t smell like urine every time it rains, and in the meantime we’ve got no running water and an eight-foot-deep trench running alongside our house.

Dave Spigarelli is digging. Dave is Tony’s dad, and he owns an excavating machine that can just barely squeeze between our house and the neighbors’. My dad knows Dave from the years they spent paving asphalt driveways, and he’s the only machine operator my dad trusts with the job. Dave teases my dad about the craziness of the project, but they’ve managed to move a few tons of earth out from between the two houses, one bucketful at a time.

Almost a year has passed since our old dog died, and my parents have bought another Yorkshire terrier named Max. We joke that the dog will miss the pee smell. Max broke his leg when he squirmed out of my arms his first week in our house, and he runs around the construction site on three legs, a splint on his front right paw. I’m too guilty to hold him, and he’s still too scared to come near me, so we watch from opposite corners of the hole. Dave says his daughter’s Yorkie broke his leg, too—got it caught in the expanded metal grating of a truck running board.

“That ain’t a cheap fix,” he says, “But there’s something about those dogs. You could never say no.”

Dave works over the excavator levers with the precision of an orchestra percussionist, picking up a bucket of dirt, backing far enough away to swing around and dump it, pulling in between the houses again. He has his son’s name tattooed across the knuckles of one of his hands. T-O-N-Y. The name flexes back and forth as he works over the levers. One bucket at a time.

4.

Mineshafts speckle the hills like forgotten footprints. Some are dry. Some are packed full of dirt or caved in, and after a half-century of settling, these have gently slumped like unmarked graves. The mineshaft on top of Millie Hill filled with bats at some point—fifty thousand of them in the fall, lurking underground, darting in and out around the cage that covers the opening. When I was nine years old, a forgotten, partially-filled mineshaft opened up right next to the pump engine museum. In a few seconds, a regular patch of lawn sloughed down into a gaping hole you could’ve dumped the neighborhood into—houses, pump, everything.

Kids congregate at the cliffs and the craters and the forgotten iron superstructures the way people on TV meet in malls or beaches or arcades. We get lucky. We get high. We jump from the train bridges to the water below. Ten feet. Twenty-five. Sixty from the top of the East Kingsford Bridge. We feel the pull of dangerous, alluring places, just as our parents once did. We unearth their beer cans and burn them in our bonfires.

I’ve never been to the East Kingsford Bridge—not before it happened, not after—but I’ve jumped off the Badwater Bridge a few times. It’s lower, only ten feet off the water, and covered in crumbling asphalt. A section of the railing is torn off, and underneath the water is deep and the current gentle. There’s a photograph of a man with a mullet on the Michigan side of the bridge, with artificial flowers.

You’re never there alone. In the summer, cars come and go like shiftwork. Young kids smoking cigarettes between jumps, cannonballing, swan diving, pushing each other off the bridge and climbing back up the little rocky slope for another drag. Laughter and gathering darkness and the noise of the traffic on Bass Lake Road.

Sometimes I stop to read the short, printed memorial by the flowers and the snapshot of the man with the mullet. In the winter, on the reservoir, I mark the imaginary hole between the ice shacks where another man drowned a few years ago, trapped inside his truck. A few miles away, on one of my runs, I stand at the edge of a jagged mining scar so deep that snow at the bottom never melts, and I wonder if the boy who fell was really still breathing when the firemen got to the bottom.

5.

I graduate from high school the same year Tony does, but our paths don’t cross much. He’s a Kingsford kid, and I’m from Iron Mountain. The towns share a border and a bitter football rivalry, but something more than Woodward Avenue separates the two. In eighth grade, Tony and I try out for the same soccer team. He’s the fastest kid at the tryout, and he has long wild hair like the European pros. Before the tryout is over,  my dad overhears one of the coaches telling another parent that he doesn’t like Tony’s dad. Tony doesn’t make the team. I do.

In high school, there are rumors that Tony wants to fight our star football player, or maybe the other way around. Nothing ever happens. A girl in my class talks about Tony after a party at someone’s hunting camp. I see him at Cowboy Lake once, but we don’t talk.

Before I graduate, my parents buy our first dog—our first real pet—a Yorkie named Oliver. He cries a lot the first night, but my mom sleeps next to him on our TV room couch, newspapers laid out all over the room because he isn’t housebroken yet. He’s timid for a few weeks, but his personality eventually grows larger than his six-pound frame. He learns how to bark at the mailman. He jumps out of a moving car window once and emerges unscathed. He sits in the sun, begs for food, and licks our hands for hours when the spirit moves him. We go for family walks to the Millie Hill Bat Cave, and my parents only sometimes say the dog’s name when they mean to say mine. I leave for college four months later.

6.

The article haunts me.  It clings to me like a film of dried sweat, and a cool seething bubbles up inside me. I compose imaginary letters to Calvin Trillin, New Yorker crime reporter. I ask him to rescind it all, to acknowledge that the story is fundamentally inaccurate—not in the facts, but in something just beyond them. I never knew Tony. I’ve never even been to the East Kingsford Bridge. This is a story about my hometown, and it makes sense to him. He makes it fit together because he’s a crime reporter with a magazine, and a deadline, and an apartment in New York City. The story flows like water, and that’s what makes it feel wrong. The story makes sense.

Schoolwork and a fizzled cross-country season leach the anger out of me and replace it with fatigue. I never write the letter. Three months later, I listen to both of my parents breathing on the other end of the phone connection. My dad is having a hard time talking and my mom does her best to wait for him to spit it out. I sit frozen in a chair in my dark college dorm room.

“Sometimes things don’t work out,” my dad says, finally.

I don’t say anything. Oliver is dead. My dad saw the pit bull lunge from the other side of the empty tennis court. It happened fast and slow at the same time. He tried to get between the dogs.  He spun, trying to grab Oliver, tangling in the leash. He kept spinning, and spinning, and then the whole confused mess was suddenly over. He was holding Oliver. The tennis court was covered in blood, and scratches, and a thousand black rubber marks from my dad’s shoes.

7.

Before my freshman year of college, I run on Millie Hill all summer long. Past the Bat Cave, above the pit mine, weaving back and forth with an old road now mostly concealed by tall grass, remembering not to trip on the abandoned ore cart tracks. One day in late July, I race the sunset and come back to a dark house. My mom is in the kitchen, shaking.

“There’s been a shooting,” she says. She’s overcome with relief that I’m home, but she doesn’t move. “Tony Spigarelli and Bryan Mort were killed.”

My mom is only a few years past a long stint as principal at Kingsford Middle School. She knew Tony and Bryan as students. She greeted them in hallways, talked with their parents, played guitar for them once at a school assembly.

We watch a CNN aerial footage loop of a patch of woods by the Menominee River. A girl named Tiffany Pohlson is dead too, and another Kingsford kid wounded. The shooter is still at large, somewhere in the woods by the river.

8.

The police kill the pit bull when they find it. My parents call me again when they finally track down the owner. She’s a single mom living in a run-down house near the tennis courts. The woman doesn’t have the money to feel guilty about not offering any, and she doesn’t give my parents much in the way of consolation or an apology. She got the pit bull a year ago, and she never had time to take care of it. She let it run if it wanted to. She never asked for the dog—it just fell into her lap when her friend died. The dog belonged to Bryan Mort.

My dad doesn’t talk about Oliver when Dave Spigarelli asks about the new dog scurrying around underneath the picnic table. My dad and Dave are taking a break, drinking glasses of lemonade, bullshitting. A few years ago, they both turned down the chance to own an asphalt paving company with a few other men, and they feel good about the decision now that the company has seen hard times. Their luck, seen in hindsight, brings them together.

It’s hot, and they drink out of big plastic glasses rattling with ice cubes. They’re about to get up and start working again when Dave slips momentarily. The first part of the sentence dissolves in the buzz of lawnmowers and pollen in the summer air, but the last part catches like an excavator bucket. When Tony and I go hunting this year. Dave isn’t aware of what he’s just said, but it sends chills down my spine. The tattoos glisten like the sweating lemonade glass as Dave takes a final drink.

9.

Sometimes we call Max “Oliver” by mistake. He runs on three legs even after the splint comes off. His right paw slipped when the veterinarian set the bone—it’ll be crooked forever. The sewer line no longer leaks, but Max goes on marking our side yard. We buy Max new toys because he can smell Oliver on the old ones. I wonder if he smells Oliver everywhere in our house, if he somehow shares the memory of a dog he never knew.

Calvin Trillin’s story makes it into the 2010 edition of Best American Crime Reporting. In his afterward he talks about how he culled the article from court reports. The kids. The bridge. The killer’s gun fetish; his lack of remorse. Trillin works in a quote from Dave Spigarelli’s statement at the trial—that Dave and his only son will be laughing when the man who killed Tony is raped by his prison cellmate. What Trillin can’t quote is the ensuing silence. It’s the silence that my mom and I listened to in the dark kitchen that night, and again after we finally turned off the news. A vacuum identical to the one left after Dave’s excavator eventually coughs to a stop, bucket folded like a prayer or a wounded limb.

The article closes with a description of a memorial near the East Kingsford Train Bridge. Distanced, thoughtful New Yorker prose. It’s the kind of description you could write without visiting, and I’d bet that Trillin hasn’t visited. But I haven’t been to the East Kingsford Bridge either. I never met Bryan or Tiffany, and I only knew Tony from a soccer tryout and the rumors of a football team brawl. The only part of the story that makes sense to me is what happened before 5:30 that day. Eight kids at the bridge. A few cans of beer, maybe. The thrill of height, a ten-second countdown, a rush, a splash.

10.

I’m fifteen years old, and I’m not thinking about anything. I’ve got four bounds before the edge, and then I’m hurtling out away from the cliff. I don’t have time to consider the sun, or my flailing arms, or the sensation of falling. I feel the slap of black water and in another second I’m back up, gasping, treading water, and Brandon Spigarelli and Sam are laughing and calling me the man. Shaky kicks bring me to the sudden underwater shelf at the edge of the mineshaft, and I pull myself out and sit there, panting. I don’t remember the fall, only afterwards. An unfathomable depth pulling at my ankles. Gravity still driving me down. An icy chill, a rush of bubbles, suspended for a moment in the darkness—a circle of light above me, an abyss below.

About the Author

Anders Nienstaedt · St. Olaf College

A man once told Anders Nienstaedt that “a man don't pick his name.” He likes this quote and is pretty sure that it relates to the unarticulated reasons he writes nonfiction. Anders also enjoys making sculptures and drawings. Last spring, he published a magazine called The Upper American, dedicated to stories about the upper Midwest. Anders was was born in Iron Mountain, Michigan, and currently lives in Northfield, Minnesota. His essay first appeared in St. Olaf College’s literary journal, The Quarry.

About the Artist

Luca Molnar · Dartmouth College

Luca Molnar was born in Budapest, Hungary, and currently lives and works in Hanover, New Hampshire, where she received her B.A. in studio art from Dartmouth in 2013. Her recent paintings oscillate between dealing with issues of surface and pattern and figurative works.Home IV first appeared in Stonefence Review.