by Erich Schweikher
This conscious attempt to see is producing sensations of searching
As in a museum – or walking off balance, hurrying forward in order to compensate for the weight of my eyes and even then leaning – I am drawn from one thing to another
-Lyn Hejinian, Sight
On my desk there are a few hazy photos of the St. Johns Bridge in Portland, Oregon. At its completion in 1929 (a month before the stock market crashed) it was the longest suspension bridge west of Detroit, Michigan. Beneath its north tower, along the banks of the Willamette River, is Cathedral Park. Not much exists to define it as a park: a smattering of well-worn benches and a short L-shaped pier that bobs gently on the waves. Cathedral Park is just downriver from Portland Harbor, a Superfund site since 2000. Vaudeville birthed this bridge. Look it up. It’s a fact.
I am drawn to the convergence of nature and industry. I dangle my toes in the murky waters of the Willamette, swirling the serpentine rainbow oil slick that slides past. The brown center a bulls-eye. A peephole into the river’s depths. There are sturgeon in these waters as long as a car and older than the very bridge that watches over them. These white beasts that time has forgotten. They feed on time itself. What lies at the bottom? What do they watch over: a history of shanghaied sailors, timber barons, Rose Queens, and winos?
Years ago I wrote a poem entitled “She Writes a Ghost Story” while sitting on a bench in Cathedral Park. It contains the following lines:
A meadowlark’s call from the swordfern—
You think of the naked girl stretched like a constellation across the beach—
In the newspaper appeared the word “unfortunate”
as if a ring were misplaced
I had no idea at the time that in 1949 a young woman named Thelma Taylor had been murdered on the very spot I wrote the poem. The marriage of the two makes me smile a little for coincidence. On the opposite bank the ExxonMobil storage containers are two upturned teacups. I will have a party and invite wilderness. The decorations will be perfect. Victorian.
The oil slick has moved on. It is still early enough the fog has yet to rise. Out of the corner of my eye I catch a double-crested cormorant descending from a piling to the water. Looking deeper into the fog and more appear. They are quiet this morning. Maybe surprised, like I am, by the unseasonably cool air. It is a flat July morning. The sky and water reflect the same gray. The fog, two hands reaching upward pulling earth and sky together.
The bridge has been closed for the last two months for renovation, only opened during peak traffic hours. I’ve ridden my bike from the west shore, lifting it over the concrete barriers and dodging the debris left from the previous day’s work. I live in Linton, Portland’s smallest neighborhood. Linton clings to the side of the West Hills (a low ridge that spans the length of Portland). The north/south running Willamette makes a soft bend to the west at the Steel Bridge. For a brief distance it flows parallel to the Columbia until the two great rivers meet at Sauvie Island. Often, on weeknights, my friend Joe and I sit on his brother’s deck overlooking the river and listen to the CBC news on my shortwave radio. During the day we build a series of retaining walls to keep the house upright. “I don’t want to lose any more yard,” his brother tells us every morning. I don’t mind the work and it equals free rent. Most of the day I teach kindergarten at a local Montessori school. What money I don’t use to pay off student loans, I spend on beer, books, and gas for trips to the coast or the mountains. The author, and Portland’s native son, Chuck Palahniuk lives only a block away. This is how I envision meeting him: He is walking down our street on his way to the Linton Community Center to teach a creative writing class to retired longshoreman when he looks up at us struggling in the mud, “Shitty weather to be pulling English ivy and pounding rebar. You fuckers aren’t going to kill that stuff. Next year at this time it will be everywhere. I’ll have a drink for you. Good luck fuckers.”
Night is when the big boats come to port, massive tankers and freighters from Thailand, Malaysia, China, Japan. Their contents mostly a mystery. And they move silently. Slowly coming into view, their faint signal lights reflect off the water. Some are mere outlines, appearing as hollow bodies, translucent jellyfish. Seeing is hard at night, but Joe and I lean over the railing of the deck, peer into the dark. I whisper to myself, “I wish my eyes were not my eyes, but a second pair of ears.”
Erich Schweikher teaches high school English and the occasional creative writing class in Cincinnati, OH. He wakes up some mornings wishing to be a riverboat captain.