Poem: Anne Pierson Wiese
Sutliff Bridge on the Cedar River, Johnson County, Iowa, 2008. [Photo by Jonathan Frazier]
You wouldn't know about the bridge, bar and store
unless you were local, but now that the flood-
waters are down, everyone is coming to stand
and stare at the empty space: half a bridge gone,
grabbed in the river's fist, twisted and dragged
downstream to where its dark skeletal tips break
the gentle surface, pointing awry at the sky
like rusty hindsight exclamations of distress.
People murmur that the lost half should be brought back.
It could be retrieved, restored — just a matter
of allocating the money and equipment.
But will the county ante up? It was an old
bridge with scabrous cement piers, wooden planks
that roared like thunder when you drove
over them, and diminutive spans shedding
flakes at every vibration — the puce metallic bits
freckling the roadway until the wind blew
them away. There's a newer bridge upstream —
it survived this flood and looks good for a few more.
The Sutliff store used to sell everything from seeds
to paraffin to aspirin to boots. But it's been fifty
years and now the high tin-ceilinged room — with its
bounty of varnished shelves and drawers and marble
countertops, its glass display cases a remote
emphasis of emptiness and dust, its spindle
of parcel string still hanging at shoulder height
near the silent brass register — serves only as a way
to pass from the original bar to the recent dining
addition out back, so new that its exterior
still reads, KEVLAR KEVLAR KEVLAR, from every angle.
They do a booming business in Old Milwaukee pencil-
necks, fried bluegill baskets, and chili dogs. You can
eat inside while the jukebox skips and mingles
with talk of tractor parts and DVDs, or go
out to the riverbank where a few guys
have their lines in, casting for trout or bass
around the weeds under the bridge.
Imagine, after the flood with what newly brilliantined
suddenness the sunlight must have struck through
the water where there had been the shade of the bridge
for more than a hundred years — weeds and fish shocked
in an aqueous net of umber turning to neon green,
skated upon by the movements of clouds.
Visitors in the know write their names on dollar bills
and tape them to the low ceiling and walls of the bar —
a glaze of long-forgotten singles ambered by age
and grease and smoke. The old ladies like it here,
parking their walkers along the wall, and the farmers
wanting lunch and conversation, and the Harley
riders who come through the screen door in groups
with dust from the gravel road blunting the shine
on their leather. Since the bridge went out, bar business
has been even better than usual. No one needs strong
black thread or lampwicks anymore, but they still
want potatoes piping hot out of the oil and a place
to congregate, and this small destruction — no human
deaths involved — means nature's power affirmed,
the satisfaction of fretting over an impersonal loss,
and a blank in the air that looks like change.