Eleven-year-old Theo sits in a wheelchair in front of his bedroom window, drawing the suspension cables hung in groups of four that hold up the roadway of the Blatnick Bridge. Theo doesn’t normally rely on a wheelchair. His legs though short for his body allow him to get around okay, although his walk is more like a waddle and sometimes his hips ache. At school he is better known for his brain, which test scores prove to be robust and even superlative. He’s dreamed for quite some time now of becoming an engineer to study how things come together, but for the past three weeks now, Theo himself has been falling apart.
Instead of going to school, he stays home, his neighborhood on the bay side of Minnesota Point, crammed on the wisp of a seven-mile sandbar so thin that from up there on the bridge, it looks like a table-top model with fake houses and trees glued right up to the water’s edge.
Aside from the bridge, the view outside his window is like an orphan’s meal, utterly lacking. There hasn’t been sun in days; it’s spring yet there are ice floes in the river. A figure walks along the shoulder of the bridge, hunched against the wind.
“Theo, time for lunch.” His mother blames herself for the wheelchair. Since getting sick, he’s had increased pain in his lower back, swelling and inflammation in his joints. She urged him back to school once the doctor said it was safe, because she thought it would help cheer him up; instead it landed him in the wheelchair because he wasn’t ready and the illness only came back.
“I’m not really hungry, mom. Can I just finish my drawing?”
Of all the things he could be drawing, he enjoys this bridge the most, the steel truss arch that swoops up over the St. Louis River 123 feet below, to cross a channel 480 feet wide.
“It’s late, honey,” his mom is saying, “almost two o’clock.” She combs a hand through the dark fuzz of his hair. “I got so busy with work I forgot about lunch. You must be starving.”
“Are you feeling better today?”
He feels her avoiding the corner of the room where the wrecked model of his skyscraper sits on a square of dusty cardboard. “Maybe. I don’t know. About the same.”
“Well, I’ve made you some soup. Come find me when you’re done.” She leaves him to finish. Outside, large flakes tumble through the pewter air.
When the Blatnick Bridge first opened in December of 1961, it was the longest bridge in Minnesota, spanning 8,000 feet. It replaced the Interstate Bridge with its 485-foot long swing span that was tricky to operate, and once a hundred years ago a steamship smashed into it, leaving thirty-three ships trapped in the harbor for ten days. So the new bridge was called the High Bridge, no swing span, until 1971 when it was renamed after Senator John Blatnik. The bridge behind it is named after Richard Bong, a World War II fighter pilot. Before Theo got sick, he thought of himself as the kind of kid who might grow up to one day become the kind of man people name bridges after. That dream unraveled three weeks ago when the skyscraper he constructed from spaghetti noodles and marshmallows failed the shake table test.
The shake table mimics an earthquake, and there are seven different settings. Theo confidently engineered his structure to survive the seventh level. To get a passing grade, all he had to do was keep it together up to level three, but no, he told all his classmates he would make it to the top. The day of the test arrived; Theo placed his structure on the table.
It came apart at level two.
In 1855 engineer John Roebling had a dream to build the world’s longest suspension bridge crossing the East River in Brooklyn. Roebling invented a machine that twisted steel wires to make cables, but then he got his foot crushed by a ferry and so his son, Washington, also an engineer, had to take over until 1872, when he became too feeble and sick, so it was Washington’s wife, Emily, who finally finished the job.
Emily Roebling was the first person ever to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, and she rode across in a horse drawn vehicle with a rooster in her lap as a sign of victory.
Theo knows his parents would do something like that for him. They both knew about his birth defect before he was even born. His mother told him that when they found out she cried, but then a fierceness rose up inside her that made her love him even more. Maybe because she knew her love would have to be big enough to make up for people who thought him small.
It stops snowing. Cars slide past the man still out walking across the bridge. This is unusual, because the Blatnick doesn’t have a bike path like the Bong. Is that his stopped car back there? Did it break down?
As an engineer, Theo will have to consider traffic flow when designing solutions to problems. Bridges are his favorite solutions. They are like man-made hands joining together two things that would normally be apart, the great arch at the center where the hands clasp.
Under the arch of the bridge, the figure stops. He steps up onto the cement girder, grasps the cables with outstretched hands. Theo drops his pencil.
“Mom!” he shouts. Is this really happening? Theo stands, his bowed legs quivering. He slaps both palms to the window. “Don’t do it!” he shouts. “Don’t do it!”
The man releases the cable, his body tips, and he drops like a dark asterisk through the gray air.
That night Theo doesn’t sleep. He thinks about the man falling off the bridge. After they called 911, they watched the police close down the bridge, but it wasn’t until Saturday that the authorities found the man in the river. Theo’s parents try to get him to talk about it; his mom worries.
At first he is mad at the man. He whispers to him in the dark, “I saw you.” He saw a man fall apart. At school when he was watching his skyscraper fall apart, he could see what he did wrong. He thinks how it’s the same with people as it is with structures. The weakening begins inside of you, where no one can see; then when life shakes you, that weakness stresses everything else until you fall apart.
“Theo?” His mother knocks on his door Monday morning. “Are you awake?”
“I’m ready,” he says, standing dressed for school, wearing his backpack and holding the square of cardboard with his model. “I put it back together,” he says. “I know what I did wrong. I’m going to ask my teacher if I can take the test again, even if he can’t change my grade.” Theo holds it up, “Shake this!”
She drives him to school, and Theo sits in the backseat holding not a rooster, but a model on his lap as sign of his victory.