Heroes of the Bridge

“Well, I’m all for tearing it down.” The speaker was a busty young woman in a leopard-print trench coat. “There’s absolutely no question that it glorifies oppressive dictatorship.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” The man turned up the collar of his vintage tweed jacket against the chill of the foggy fall night. “Vladimir Lenin’s a symbol of idealistic revolution, and we could certainly use some more of that these days.”

“Oppressive, idealistic–who cares?” The woman stumbled in her spike-heeled leather boots, then righted herself. “All I know is the mayor’s office is getting complaints about that stupid statue, and it’s an election year.”

Lenin? Were they talking about my friend Len?

The conversation faded away as the pair made their way down the hill and out of my park. I spent the next few hours worrying. At last the city streets emptied, lights went out in the old brick apartment buildings, and Len’s heavy footsteps grated on the wet pavement.

“Yes. Is terrible news. Again, they are wanting to tear me down.” Len took an angry pull on his cigarette as he paced back and forth beneath the streetlight. Vladimir Lenin may have despised cigarettes, but the bronze statue of Lenin burned through a pack of Nate Sherman Ovals every night. And this was a bad night.

I wanted to nod my concern, but as a one-armed, one-eyed bust of a troll carved into a concrete bridge buttress, I’m pretty much immobile. So I sighed instead, a deep shuddering exhalation that sent the highway above me rattling.

“What’s wrong with humans?” I muttered. “They make statues, they sit us in public places–and then they spray us with graffiti. Fifty years later they pull us down because we’re in the path of a new highway. Or because we’re ‘outdated.’ Or because no one can remember why they put us up in the first place.”

Len nodded. He threw down the cigarette butt and ground it out beneath his massive bronze shoe. “Or because we represent something they are not wanting to remember. So, Stoneman, you know the famous story of how I was toppled by the raging crowd in Prague during the Velvet Revolution?”

“Of course.” It was one of Len’s favorite tales.

There was a long silence as Len scuffed viciously at the cigarette butt. “Is a lie,” he said. “It was not until some months after the Revolution that they came for me. And was not a raging crowd that came. Was four men from the department of public works. They loaded me onto a truck and hauled me away. To the city dump.”

Len paused again, keeping his face turned toward the canal below us. “You see, I was an embarrassment. The Czechs, they were wanting only to forget Lenin. Were wanting to forget his statue. Were wanting to forget me.

“But, Len, you survived. And you came here, to Seattle.”

“Where now it is happening yet again!” Len paced restlessly back and forth on the cracked sidewalk. “The Arts Council cannot make up its mind. Am I a symbol of idealistic revolution? A glorification of oppressive dictatorship? Or an ironic reminder of, of,” he waved his great arms, “something or another?”

“These are bad times for statues,” I ventured.

“These are bad times for irony.” Len stuck another tiny cigarette between his lips and snapped his lighter. He exhaled, sending plumes of smoke spiraling up past the halogen streetlamp and into the deep indigo sky. “Bad times.”

My heart, somewhere deep in the bridge buttress that formed my torso, ached. What if they took my friend? I could not endure the monotony that had defined my existence before the night that he’d appeared in my park and introduced himself.

“T?ší m? že vás poznávám! Pleased to meet you. I am Len. Better known in Fremont as The Statue of Lenin.” He’d explained that a group of hippie occultists, rehearsing for Burning Man, had cast a spell that enabled him to step down off his pedestal between the hours of midnight and dawn.

“Don’t people get upset when they encounter a 10-foot-tall statue of Lenin roaming the streets at 3 a.m.?” I’d asked.

He’d shrugged. “Are many strange things in this district. Belly dancers. Fire eaters. You have seen all the people riding bicycles wearing no clothes? Is strange place. People see me, they think is more of that ‘performing art.’”

I envied Len the artist’s design that had given him a fully human form, complete with legs. He’d discovered theaters. Restaurants. A chocolate factory. He told me there was another statue in Fremont, a group of commuters waiting for a public transit system that had never been built.

“But you do not want to meet them,” Len advised. “Terrible people. Always they are complaining. St?žovatelé!“

Len started his nights at the Kwikee Mart down the hill where he helped the clerk unload boxes and was paid in cigarettes. I’d come to relish the scent of his sweet dark tobacco, wafting on the breeze and lingering in my alcove beneath the bridge.

Tonight, as Len smoked and surveyed the black canal below us, I cast my monocular gaze around the park. Movement far out on the bridge caught my eye.

The boy in the raincoat.

I’d noticed him just after Len had arrived. He’d come out of the run-down apartment building across the park wearing a faded green trench coat and jeans, his feet, without socks, in moccasins. He’ll catch cold, I’d thought. Must be running down to the Kwikee Mart.

But I’d been wrong. The boy in the trench coat had slipped past us, preoccupied by Len’s problems as we were. He’d taken the flight of metal stairs up to the bridge. And now he stood on the rain-slicked bridge deck, far out over the canal. It was nearly 5 a.m. This was bad.

“Len! Len! There’s another one.” With some effort, I lifted my giant stone hand and unfurled my index finger to indicate the bridge above.

“Eh?” Len glanced up where I was pointing. He shrugged.

I frowned. I’d told him, again and again, about the humans who climbed the dark stairway to the road. How they would walk out onto the bridge and stand there for a long time, leaning over the railing as if testing it. Or testing themselves. Staring down into the black water of the canal. These people took a toll on me, worse than the steady dripping of the winter rain on my concrete form. Usually they walked back down, but sometimes…sometimes there’d be a flailing of arms, a cycling of legs, or, worse, a human arrow aimed at an unseen target. A splash. And then silence.

“You need to get up there,” I said. “Stop him.”


“Yes! Him!” I repeated. “He went up the stairs. He’s out on the bridge. I think he’s crying.”

Len hesitated. I reminded myself he was hard of hearing, and not good at listening, either. Perhaps it was all the bronze. And, after all, he was a statue. It wasn’t in his nature to notice or to interfere with the ways of humans. He’d point out that his massive feet would not fit on the metal steps leading up to the bridge.

Fear chilled my concrete heart. “At least, you could try!”

A shrug. “Look, really–”

“Len!” For once, I cut him off. “Magic freed you from your pedestal, didn’t it? Well, magic has a price. Maybe it’s time for you to pay it.”

To my shock, Len just rummaged in the deep pocket of his overcoat for his cigarettes. “Eh. You know my story, Stoneman. Hard times. Long journeys. If there is a price, I have already paid it.”

I couldn’t believe it. Len sounded as heartless as the revolutionary leader whose visage he wore. I fixed him with my single eye and tried to glare my disappointment, but he didn’t notice. In desperation, I made an appeal to his self-interest. “Len, save him, and you’ll be a hero. The hero of the bridge! The Arts Council will be impressed. They won’t be able to tear you down.”

“Hero?” He gave a bitter laugh. “You think I do not know what happens when they are making heroes?” Len tipped his heavy head and squinted at the stairway and its narrow metal steps. He snorted. Out on the bridge above us, the boy leaned over the railing.

“No time for the stairs! Len, climb across my face. Hurry. Hurry! Please.”

Len turned to me. We were eye-to-eye, his cast-bronze features gleaming in the glow from the streetlamp.

“I am not hero,” he said. “I do not think that Lenin”–he sneered the name–“was hero. But you, my friend, have never asked me for anything. For you, I go.”

Len placed one heavy foot on my sloping shoulder, grabbed my giant ear, and pulled himself up. I winced as my concrete crumbled. But Len was able to reach the roadway overhead. Slowly, his bronzed overcoat clanking, Len clambered onto the bridge.

Just able to see over the bridge railing, I strained to watch him, to see what he would do. The bridge deck lay silent and misty, all blacks and grays, flat pavement and long metal railings that stretched into infinite darkness. Len adjusted the brim of his bronze cap and squinted into the drizzle.

“I am seeing the boy,” he reported.

“Yes. Yes. Go on.” In truth, I wasn’t exactly sure what Len could do. Distract him, at the least?

Len moved forward. It must have been the scraping of Len’s bronze shoes against the rough asphalt that made the boy turn. Now he was hesitating, looking. But what if Len’s approach frightened him and he leapt into the water? I began to regret interfering.

But, for now, the boy was watching Len. Holding tight to the railing of the bridge–but watching Len. For a moment, I worried that Len might try his dictatorial pose: arm raised, striding into the future. Decisive. Powerful. And absurd. All that was Lenin. And this was just Len. My friend Len. A bronze statue on a bridge.

The boy stepped back from the railing and rose up on his toes, as if he were about to vault. I closed my eye.

A crash, and the bridge rocked, shuddering my stone to its depth. Len was gone! An earthquake? Then I saw his cap, and realized the crash was Len. He’d fallen to his knees. He’d flung his giant arms wide.

I took a deep breath and held it. All was stillness. Then, with the simplest of movements, the boy stepped away from the edge and began walking. Walking toward Len.

Yes! Now Len’s massive torso hid the boy from my view. So I had to guess at the rest of it: slim hands clutching the thick lapels of Len’s overcoat. The boy resting his forehead on Len’s broad chest. The two in an embrace I would never know and could not imagine.

The boy must have pulled away. Because now he was walking past Len, coming toward me and toward the staircase. In his moccasins he padded down the steps to the park, to safety, in silence.

When he’d crossed the park and entered his building, I sighed so hard that the bridge deck trembled. I heard Len grunt in response, a sound of relief and exhaustion and pride. I saw his bronze hand reach out and feel around for the slim guardrail. Metal groaned and creaked as he hauled himself to his feet. I smiled. Len had saved a life. And now he would tell me about it as we watched the sky above the cedars glow with the first light of dawn.

Dawn! The mist on the bridge had vanished. The railings no longer glistened with the night’s intrigue. In the dull gray light of what could only be morning, Len was struggling to turn.

It was too late! Daylight had come, and Len had frozen. And in his original form: Vladimir Lenin, striding into the future. Decisive. Powerful. But in the wrong place and heading in the wrong direction.

I closed my eye and tried to think of what I could do to get Len down from the bridge. But it was too late. I heard the screech of brakes and looked up to see the top of a small car as it swerved and scraped the guardrail. The car door opened, someone stepped out, and a woman’s voice, trembling and angry, told a 911 operator that really, no joke, a statue of Vladimir Lenin was blocking the highway’s southbound lanes.

Soon sirens wailed. Cars braked. Doors slammed. Police officers shouted. A flat-bed tow-truck arrived and its heavy machinery groaned and rumbled. I watched in dismay as they loaded Len onto the truck bed and secured him with rope. Horns honked and a mindless cheer went up.

“Great prank!” a man yelled.

“Hey, they were going to pull it down anyway,” someone further back in the line of cars shouted.

Car doors slammed and with a growl the truck hauling Len started up and drove away. Morning traffic resumed its customary flow. The sun had come up, and a sickly glow suffused the City’s perennial overcast.

Soon the ragged men who sleep in the bushes above my park were rolling up their sleeping bags and moving out for the morning. An Arts Council employee in a Day-Glo yellow vest came through, picking up garbage. By 8 a.m. the first double-decker tour bus pulled in to my park. Visitors pointed cameras at me, the City’s famous troll. I stared straight ahead, expressionless, my eye fixed on the distance. Only when no one was looking did I glance at the front door of the apartment building across the park.

At last, the door opened and the boy from the bridge stepped out. He wore his trench coat again but, instead of jeans and moccasins, he had on black trousers and polished black boots. He hesitated on the steps, looked up at the bridge and took a deep breath. Then he ran across the street and boarded the bus to downtown, as he did every day. Len will be so pleased when I tell him tonight, I thought–and then I remembered.

The chattering tourists clustered around their guide, a sallow young man in an ill-fitting uniform.

“O.K., people, listen up,” he called out. “We have a last-minute change in the itinerary. We’re, ah, skipping the Statue of Lenin”–groans from the group–” and heading directly to the, ah, zoo. The zoo. Hey, folks, you’re going to love the new tiger cubs!”

The tourists grumbled but queued obediently for the bus. All but one skinny little girl. She pointed at me. “Mommy! Look, Mommy! Look at the Troll!”

“Time to go. Now. I said now.” Eyes on her smartphone, the mother reached down, grabbed the child by the back of her pink fleece jacket and hauled her onto the bus.

No one else had noticed. The bus lurched out of the park, and I took a moment to pull myself together. My tears would be dry by the time the next busload came.

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