There was a seam on the roadway crossing the bridge, such that when a car passed over, it sent a “thump thump” echoing underneath. When it was busy during the day, the thump thumps came frequently, overlapping and creating a thunder that echoed along the riverbank. During the night the sound came infrequently and accented the stillness.
It was going to be a very cold Christmas Eve— with the scent of snow already in the air— and there had been a few flurries as the afternoon gathered into dusk before the clutch of night took its frigid hold.
Rainbow and Gal were huddled around their meager fire, kept alive by scavenging the riverbank for anything that would burn — hopefully through the entire night. Their few belongings were stacked up like sandbags around a foxhole to help keep out the needles of icy wind. The tips of their fingers poked out of worn gloves as they fumbled with a dented pot to heat water so they could use the damaged ramen noodle soup packet scrounged from a dumpster behind the 7-Eleven. Maybe Gal would wait till midnight to give Rainbow his gift— a short flask of brandy that Gal had saved for from a week of panhandling when Rainbow wasn’t around.
In-country, the copters flew overhead like crazy wheeling drunks — thump thump, thump thump. Rainbow was Cpl. Edward Declan Connelly— Boston Irish. So raw he still thought they were fighting the enemy for the good of the country. He was called Rainbow because he was that way. His best and only buddy was Gallagher— Gal— short for Gallagher, of course, but also because he was perceived to be Rainbow’s gal. They had found each other despite the monsoons, the mud, the lousy food, the blood, the moans, the endless boredom, the constant rain of shells— thump thump, thump thump. They managed, however, to get away together now and then for half an hour— hidden amongst the sacks of flour in the storeroom behind the mess— time so precious, and ever so brief, their hearts— thump thump, thump thump.
After the slaughter was over and they were shipped home and dumped on the streets of L.A., they stayed together. Somewhat broken, keenly cunning, resourceful as two feral cats, together they opened a shop repairing typewriters and small business machines. Then came the computer. They struggled, tried to adapt, created more debt to stay afloat, and finally had to flee in the dead of night in their broken-down Pontiac to the Rocky MountainWest. Their car barely made it across the Continental Divide— thump thump.
They never completely recovered. Too many demons. Too much alcohol. Inner wounds too tender. But they stayed together through it all. There was never one without the other through many decades, many journeys, many disappointments.
“Deck, oh Deck. I can’t believe you’re still abed. And this being Christmas morning and all.” His mother called him Deck, not Eddie. But he didn’t want to stir. The room was cold. The covers warm, scooched up tight around his head, cradling his ear — only his susceptible eyes and nose were exposed to the bite from the slightly ajar window. He promised he’d get up at the count of 10. “Eight, nine, nine and a half, nine and three-quarters …” “Soup’s ready.” Gal offered Rainbow the watery soft noodles. “Thanks.” It was dark now. The fire glowed and sputtered. Gal put on a few more pieces of wood from a broken table someone had tossed onto the riverbank rather than take it to the dump. They ate in silence.
Thump thump. Rainbow’s mind wandered to the sleeper car his family was taking to Chicago to visit his grandmother; snuggled in his berth, eyes almost closed. Thump thump. The sound of the train lulled him toward sleep. Thump thump. He always watched for that moment when waking turns into sleep like a snake gliding silently into water. But he could never quite grasp it— it always just slipped away. Thump thump, thump thump.
Gal always cooked. Rainbow always cleaned, tonight taking their few bowls and cooking pot down to the stream to wash up. With tonight’s cold it was hard to find any running water, and Rainbow had to hack at some ice to find the little trickle to serve his need. Though poor and without much provision, they were both meticulous about keeping clean— their persons and their possessions. Rainbow carefully rinsed the pot and bowls and climbed back up the bank to their shelter under the bridge. He stored the utensils and scooted up close to Gal, sitting by the fire.
“Here, let me warm you.” Gal whispered as he straddled Rainbow from behind, wrapping his blanket around the both of them. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his gift. “I know it’s not quite Christmas but thought you could use this now.” He opened the brandy and handed it to Rainbow. Rainbow bowed his head in gratitude and offered the first sip to Gal.
They sat like that for some time, drinking quietly, the cars overhead passing less often now. Thump… thump.
Rainbow was the first to notice the child— 6, maybe 7. The way the boy stood at the edge of the bridge, it looked as though he was lit from within, but of course, Rainbow thought, it had to be the play of the streetlight against the ice reflecting up from the river below.
“Gal,” Rainbow breathed so softly it could hardly be heard. Gal looked up and saw the child now holding out both his hands, filled with Christmas cookies. “For you,” the child said softly. Eddie continued his countdown. “Nine, nine and a half, nine and three-quarters. Nine and seven-eighths …”
“Edward Declan Connelly, I am not going to call you again!” His mother boomed from the kitchen.
“Oh, boy. She means business now.” Eddie knew that for sure. And for just a minute longer he savored the warmth of the covers trying to drag him back into sleep. But then he could smell the wafting scents of Christmas— oatmeal, apples, cinnamon, brown sugar. And there were tangerines, coffee, and bacon sizzling on the stove. He bounded up and out of bed, shut tight the window, and still in his pajamas with the fuzzy feet, faced the light pouring through the door and quietly walked toward his mother.
The police cruiser was parked on the bridge, the lights blinking and swirling. Thump thump. Two officers were responding to a call from a pedestrian who believed he had spotted something suspicious under the bridge. The officers scrambled down the riverbank and peered. It was dim and hard to see. There were the remains of a fire still smoldering, sending up curls of smoke like lazy spirits going home. And there, huddled together, and covered with a thin blanket, were the bodies of two men locked in a tight embrace, drifted snow cradling their faces.
“Oh, jeez,” one of the officers commented. “Looks like we got ourselves a couple of stiffs. Better call it in.”
The second officer stared uncomfortably at the bodies. “Will you look at that.” He said. “Two guys in each other’s arms. So desperate to keep warm they had to resort to that.”