Art Builds Bridges

J. David Stephens

First came the Bridge of Grocery Tins in Terre Haute. For months, Meredith picked through dumpsters as far north as Clinton and as far south as Farmersburg, even across the Illinois line. She loved the colorful metal: the rich luster of Campbell’s soup, the reflective mirror of Le Sueur peas, cobalt Spam. We stacked the garbage by the Wabash River, where we had a permit. Our volunteers from the local college drove a fleet of used pickups borrowed from the campus motor pool. They came and went like ants, freighting the refuse that was Meredith’s medium.
       Some loads failed to yield one good piece. “Not this again,” Meredith would crab, backhanding the air. “Can no one see what I’m going for?” And the assistants would cart the useless mess to the landfill before flinging themselves back into the countryside, searching.
       Meredith was all aesthetics back then; I was all structure. I tried to keep busy checking blueprints and flood levels, but mostly it was a waiting game. I had advocated a simple beam design, but Meredith insisted on a truss, wanting her first bridge to impress. She erected a mock-up on the eastern shore of the Wabash, and I walked around it, pointing out problems with the cantilevers. We disassembled and started again.
       The people of Terre Haute fretted. Some expressed their concern in clipped editorials hurled from the windows of passing trucks. Journalists came from as far away as Indianapolis, mostly to lampoon. But Meredith swore all publicity was welcome. She even swore it when the politicians swooped in. “We warned you they were impractical,” the politicians said, mugging for cameras and sweeping their arms to take in the cohort of volunteers cleaning tins by the river. 
       The day the bridge opened, the Mayor of Terre Haute edged out to where a satin ribbon swayed in the September breeze. The fire department stood ready. The Mayor cut the ribbon with a pair of oversized scissors then looked over the rail into the slow current of the Wabash, his face relaxing. He jumped a little. Then he waited as the small crowds filtered onto the bridge from both banks. Even the protesters dropped their signs and climbed onto the bridge, their feet stirring up a soft metallic echo. 
       Word spread. Businesses closed for the day. It seemed like all of Terre Haute—and beyond—was suddenly making its way to the bridge. People clambered onto both ends, laughed and danced, shook hands at the middle. And the sun dazzled a faceted reflection deep into the chambers of the Wabash.
       “See?” Meredith said, taking my arm and draping it across her shoulders.

The Bridge of Used Chopsticks came next, across the Brazos near College Station. Then the Bridge of Old Batteries over the Shiawassee outside Saginaw. The Bridge of Spent Incandescent Bulbs was a commissioned affair for a Pilchuck tributary north of Seattle. And the Bridge of Frayed Unitards spanned the Colorado in a canyon southwest of Moab. For a few glorious years, everyone wanted Meredith for their rivers. She handled them all: the Los Pinos, the Ocmulgee, the Us-kab-wan-ka, the North Anna, the Machias.
       Then came the fly-by-night outfits and their promises: better, faster, cheaper. Meredith shrugged dismissively, but it was hard to ignore the calls for bids, the towns and cities leaping at lowball estimates. News of the collapses started to roll in: Bonner Springs, Kansas; Pallisade, Colorado; Rome, Georgia. We saw the West Virginia footage on TV, the workers sputtering in the cold water outside Wheeling, all those used egg cartons.
       Later, at the hearings, I watched from the gallery as the committee members plumped and preened. They had summoned Meredith at the last minute, probably hoping she wouldn’t show. “We told you,” they began.
       But Meredith stood her ground. “Did you think just anyone could do it?” 
       In the photos on screen, on the committee floor, our bridges shone forth in silent luminescence. The committee members pointed at each with a laser pointer: the Bridge of Mattress Springs, the Bridge of Obsolete Microfiche, the Bridge of Audited Tax Returns. “How can these support anything?” they carped.
       “And yet…” Meredith replied, gesturing toward the trucks and bikes and pedestrians.
       We went back to the hotel bar. Meredith stirred her martini listlessly. “It’s not the lack of funding,” she said. “It’s how good ideas get smashed without a thought.” 
       She didn’t really want a reply. Her mind was elsewhere. She considered the toothpick joining her two olives. 
       “What do you want to do?” I said after a while.
       “Like we’ve ever had a choice.”

Did she love me back then? I think so. But she loved the work, too, and without it she would not have been the same person. We orbited each project together. Even the hatred that people leveled at the bridges drew us closer.  A shared futile resistance: love in its own way.
       She accepted smaller jobs—the Bridge of Hardened Cacti, the Bridge of Fridge Magnets—but things weren’t the same. Once after a lecture in Buffalo, an audience member approached her at the reception. “The future of art is digital,” he volunteered. “Why keep messing with crap?” In response, Meredith erected the Bridge of Slide-Rules, Mimeos, and Sledgehammered Hard Drives over the northernmost knuckle of Lake Chautauqua.
       Nonetheless, she could make only so many statements, and each took its toll. Inspiration flecked away. “You should rest,” I said, “at least for a while.” I took her to Alaska. We walked on the shore. I wanted to get her mind off things. 
       Instead, she looked at the glum Alaskans, then across the water. “Do you see that?” she asked. But I’d never had her vision. “Russia,” she explained.
       I knew what she was thinking: “Too far.”
       “It’s what we’ve dreamed of.”