Night, Memory

by Jona Whipple


Winter, 2016

The archivist moved quickly, collecting gray boxes of various sizes from the shelves. The cart at the end of the aisle filled as she hurried back and forth, stopping only to close her eyes and check her mental list. She took a final glance at the labels on the boxes and beamed. Was there a word for this feeling, for the sense of warmth that flooded one’s chest when helping someone find a long-sought answer, like sharing a map to forgotten places? Her arms buzzed with the excitement of this nameless feeling, and with the vibrations of the cart as she pushed it through the doors of the reading room.

Outside, a powdery snow fell on the crust of white already blanketing the sidewalks around the city library. The glow of reading lamps at each wide table gave the room a comfortable calmness, inspiring patrons to settle into their chairs a little longer, to speak in hushed tones. She smiled as she pushed the cart to the table in the back of the room, where two women were seated together, a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother, the younger helping the older to adjust her sweater across her shoulders. They brightened when they saw the amount of material on the approaching cart.

Throughout the afternoon, the archivist orbited the tables in the reading room, removing boxes and materials from the tables and replacing them with other boxes and materials from the carts. The elderly woman and her daughter took their careful time poring over every record in every container placed in front of them, reading every clipping, examining every photo. As the sky outside darkened, the tables cleared. Patrons stretched and glanced at the clock on the wall at the end of the room, then checked their watches, as though they had been so absorbed in the other worlds of their research that they no longer trusted the measurement of time in this world. They collected their belongings from lockers, tightened scarves and coat collars against the icy winds that waited outside, and disappeared through the ornate and weathered library doors.

The archivist hated closing time, loathed having to stop people in the midst of their research. Many times she had witnessed researchers who had become so absorbed in the information presented to them from the folds of history that they seemed to be in a state of meditation. As she approached the elderly woman and her daughter, the last patrons in the reading room, she expected them to look up from their documents with that same look of surprise at the amount of time that had passed. Instead, their faces held mirror-image looks of concern, of unhappiness. The elderly woman’s eyes were filled with tears, which she began to wipe away with her fingertips.

“I’m sorry,” she smiled, glancing up at the archivist as her daughter dug for tissues in the pockets of her cardigan. “It’s just too sad.”

“Don’t be sorry!” the archivist reassured her. She frantically searched her memory of the daughter’s research request and compared it to the material she had offered, looking for holes, for what she could have missed. Weeks before, she had received an email from a Mrs. Carmichael, requesting information on the city’s bridge tenders. Now that the tender houses were being torn down, the email said, her elderly mother was compelled to learn more about the men who had lived and worked in the tiny windowed rooms above the city’s bridges until the late seventies. That same week, the city had begun scheduled bridge improvements, a schedule that had been impeded by early snow. The archivist had driven across the bridge each day in the slow, single-file line of traffic, staring up at the bare bones of an empty tender house, its walls and windows gone, nothing left but destroyed pieces of roof shingles, pigeon droppings, and filthy snow on the weathered wooden frame. The mayor had championed the project, saying that the city would do well to modernize, to rid itself of the eyesores these old structures posed on the city’s landscape, and for the most part, the public agreed. Still, many stood on the sidewalks across from the demolition area late into the fall and early into winter, watching with some sense of reverence in their eyes as the historic structures were dismantled, watching as a part of the city’s soul was slowly erased.

The archivist had assumed that it was this same sad reverence that had inspired Mrs. Carmichael to bring her mother to the archives, which held a vast amount of information on the city’s bridges and bridge tenders. “Were you still unable to find what you needed?” she ventured, perplexed.

“Oh, that’s not it at all,” Mrs. Carmichael said, reaching over to place a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “We found a partial photo of the man we were looking for, which is wonderful, really, it’s more than we expected” she said. “It’s just that, well,” she hesitated, glancing down at the copies of newspaper clippings in the folder on the table before her. “It’s just that we can’t find a single nice thing about the men who did this job—it’s all public outrage.” She reached down and spread the newspaper articles across the table. “Lazy. Drunk. This one says ‘the tramp, the wharf rat, and the river pirate are the bridge tender’s neighbors.’ It’s nothing but reporting about complaints, traffic jams, bridges lifted and lowered for no reason.”

“It’s disappointing,” the elderly woman said, wiping her eyes with a crumpled tissue. “I know these things aren’t true about all of the bridge tenders, but it’s sad that this is what’s been put down in history.”

“I’m so sorry it’s not what you expected,” the archivist said. “The bridge tender had to please two groups: river traffic and land traffic. And we all know that you can’t please everyone.” She paused and the two women nodded wistfully. “Was your husband a bridge tender?” the archivist asked, attempting to explain the depth of the woman’s disappointment over the issue.

The two women chuckled. “No, he wasn’t,” the elderly woman smiled, dabbing at the last of the tears in her eyes. She dried her hands and slipped them back into white cotton gloves, then reached for a flat container to her right. Her shaking hands carefully opened the lid and removed a black-and-white photograph from the stack inside. A man, his back to the camera, leaned from the window of a tender house, watching the bridge rise, his hand on a control panel. Behind him, a view of a tiny room: a small couch with a threadbare blanket, hot plate, and a stained side table. The right side of the man’s face was barely visible, a half moon, illuminated to a brilliant white in the overexposure and the brightness of the sun. “This man,” the elderly woman said, holding the photo gently, lovingly, “this man was not my husband. In fact, I didn’t even know him, but I know this: these newspaper stories are not his story.”

Fall, 1942

“The worst sort,” said the man in the white three-piece suit, “really, the scum of the city.” His voice, sharp and irritated, quickly reached a loud, gravelly pitch. He removed his hat and began to fan his sweating face, turning as pink as raw chicken in the unseasonable afternoon heat. He turned to address the crowd of pedestrians gathering on the bridge’s edge, jamming a fist into his hip. The buttons on his vest pulled, dangerously close to popping under the strain of the massive bulk beneath. “Overpaid, underworked tyrants,” he continued, frowning into the faces of the crowd, glancing up at the tender house above the sidewalk. Behind him, the dark expanse of the bridge rose slowly, blotting out the landscape beyond. He appeared as a man on a stage, and suddenly his face shone with the realization that he had only a short time to impress upon the audience the importance of his thoughts. “The lowest, most intolerable—”

“Oh, pipe down, won’t you?!” a voice shouted over the growing crowd. The wind-worn commuters searched for he among them who had spoken. A large silk flower detached itself from a cloche hat, and, recognizing it as it fluttered overhead, the hat’s wearer raised her hand to the side of the hat a moment too late, as if to protect the rest of the silk bouquet from flying away in the dusty breeze. The silk flower landed at the feet of the man in the white three-piece suit, somewhat softening the image of the red face (now swiftly becoming purple) and battle-ready posture, prompting some in the crowd to smile slightly even as the man challenged the speaker to come forward. A man in a gray flannel suit, stained with sweat in the unseasonable heat, came forward, and the two engaged in an exchange of shouts and threats. A police officer pushed his way through the waiting crowd, stepping firmly on the silk flower, and broke up the melee. Behind the trio of men and their shouts, a barge dragged past in slow motion. The bridge began to lower, and soon the crowd pressed forward, across the river, around the officer and the overheated, arguing men, away from the site of another city scuffle.

Witnessing the fight had been one more awful moment in a day Eloise had hoped to forget forever. That afternoon, she’d been fired by Mr. Gross for misfiling a brief for the Hi-Line Garter Belt patent case, an offense that could have been forgiven if it had been the first time, and if the case hadn’t been going to court tomorrow. Trudging up the street, she’d watched the line of cars grind to a halt as the bridge raised, and joined the exasperated crowd of people waiting to cross. She considered the delay one more sign that the day was vehemently against her. She shifted the weight of the small potted plant she carried to the opposite hip. The last leaf of the plant, which had been slowly dying on her desk in the law office for two miserable months, fluttered in the strong breeze, then split in two.

Eloise spent several moments in a daze on the sidewalk, lines of commuters pushing past on either side of her. The officer, having sent the arguing men storming off in opposite directions, returned his nightstick to its holster, narrowed his eyes at her, told her to keep moving. She crossed the bridge once, toward the bus that would take her home, then crossed back again. She went back and forth a few times in the crowds before settling down for a cup of coffee at an outdoor cafe on the edge of the park. She positioned the sad plant in the middle of the table as if she were waiting for a date in much nicer circumstances, and a much nicer venue. She sipped her coffee and watched the bridge. Night fell and muted the colors of the sky, like when her roommate Grace placed a scarf over a lamp before putting on her “evening makeup.” As she wondered how to tell Grace that she would need help with the rent and the phone bill again, the cafe lights sputtered and shut off, and the waiter asked if she would mind moving along so he could finish closing. She walked back to the bridge, where the surface of the water glittered under the city lights as the last of the evening commuters and the first of the night revelers passed one another and took no notice of her.

The water, she thought, might feel quite nice, a relief after such a long, unexpectedly hot, dusty day. She imagined it seeping into her shoes, through every minuscule hole in her nylons. The long pleats in her overwarm autumn dress would absorb the water, then the bodice and sleeves. Would it feel cold, or was the surface still warm from the sun? How deep was the water, and would she make a splash? These are things you would know, her mind told her, as if speeding ahead of her and turning to face her, to stop her in her tracks, if only you had stayed in school. She filled with a new shame as this earlier failure flooded her mind. The courses had been too difficult, it had been too hard to speak when called on in a room full of other girls who carried themselves forth with confidence, who always seemed to know what to say and were somehow unaffected by a bog of panic when addressed by the professor.

The plant in its little yellow pot had once been healthy, had stood tall and straight and held more than one leaf on more than one stem. Over time, in the gloomy wood-paneled quarters of the law offices, it had caved in on itself, as if shying away from a fight it never intended to join. Eloise looked over her shoulder, waited for a moment of few passersby, and outstretched her arms over the edge, dropping the plant straight down. It hit the water with a surprising splash, but then bobbed slightly and sunk, without attracting the attention of a single person. That is how it will work, then, she thought.

Over the railing, of course, was the only way, and though it was unladylike to fling oneself over one leg at a time, she scrambled over anyway, then glanced about to be sure no one had seen. For the moment, thankfully, the bridge was deserted.

She would take a deep breath, and then go. Fear crept in when she considered the second deep breath, to be taken under the surface. She thought of the plant, still sinking below. Like the plant, she would make a splash, and then be quickly forgotten. She stepped out of one shoe.

Yellow light cast a glow on the river below. A sound exploded through her haze, as a dark silhouette approached, haloed by the bright yellow light behind it. Arms encircled under hers and pulled her back over the rail, and she looked up to see a flight of stairs leading to a small, windowed structure above the bridge. At the top of the stairs, an open door, a warm light poured down from inside.

Winter, 2016

The last clumps of snow left on the salted sidewalk crunched under her feet as she walked, slowly, arm-in-arm with her daughter, to the doors of the city library once again. In the dry heat of the vestibule, they stopped and sat on a wooden bench to allow her to catch her breath. “I’ll go and tell them we’re here,” her daughter said, then disappeared into the library and down the hall to the archives.

She breathed deeply, wiggling her toes in her snow boots as she had when she was a little girl. This was her ninety-second winter, she reminded herself, though she hardly believed it to be true. She could not clearly remember the boots she’d had as a child, but remembered so many other things: the changing landscape of the city, rising and growing over time; the faces of its people, her neighbors and friends and family; the tempo of time building faster and faster with the passage of years. She was a container filled with thousands of stories, a witness, an endless repository of the city’s forgotten moments.

She closed her eyes, seeing before her the night in the fall of 1942. It had been hot that day, unexpectedly hot, and the heat had put everyone in a terrible mood. The grit of the city blew around in the hot breeze and stuck in eyes and noses and hair. Mr. Gross, his face now a fuzzy blur, was in a terrible mood that day. He shared his office with Mr. Thompson, whose secretary’s name was Helen, and she brought an egg salad sandwich in waxed paper for lunch each day. On the day Eloise was fired, Helen had immediately eaten her sandwich at her desk, nibbling at its corners, worried she would miss her lunch break.

In a few moments, her daughter would come and tap her on the shoulder, interrupting this immersion in the gold-tinted memories of that fateful night. She would say “Are you ready?” and lead her back to the archives, where someone would be waiting in a small room with recording equipment. She would tell them of her life, she would say, My name is Eloise Chase, and I have been a resident of this city for ninety-two years, and she would tell them about the city, and her life within it. She would tell them many stories, but first she would tell them of the night on the bridge, of the bridge tender who came down from the building above and saved her life. She would tell them how he brought her in, comforted her, how he took her shoes, saved from the other side of the bridge’s railing, placed them in front of her, and said “You have to keep going.” She would offer this small view into another version of the past, this seed of a moment which, with any luck, would be found by someone in the future, and would germinate, growing into a different, better landscape.

In the spring, the snows would recede, submitting finally to the growing strength of the sun. Board by board, brick by brick, the tender houses would disappear, giving way to the new bridges, to the modern high-efficiency systems for measuring and managing their traffic. While there was still time, she would commit all of these memories to history’s hands. Her words would become sound in the air, then ink on a page, humming with a powerful chord of truth. They would ebb and shine like the surface of the water at night, reflecting the warm glow of another time.


© 2016 by Jona Whipple

About the author:

Jona Whipple is a writer and archivist living in Chicago. She holds a bachelor's in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago, and received her master's degree in library and information science from San Jose State University. She is currently the archivist and digital resources librarian at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and is the author of several short works of fiction and personal essays. Her work can be found in Catapult, Bluestem, The Hairpin, The Chicago Reader, and Hypertext Magazine.

2016 Archives Short Fiction Contest

Winning Entry:

"Family Stories" 
by Marcella Huggard

Honorable Mentions:

"The Backlog"
by Christine Borne


"The Tell-Tale Diary"
by Susan J. Illis


"Night Memory"
by Jona Whipple