Gray Metal Faces – September 8

An hour later, Dan felt a wintry chill as he walked out to his car in the school parking lot. Typically deserted by this time on Friday, the lot was actually half full ahead of the evening’s football game, and Dan had to negotiate around several incoming cars on the way to his own. There was also more traffic than usual as he drove towards the center of Bark Bay; busy by the town’s standards, yet nothing like the congestion experienced during the summer tourist season. Left on Main Street, right on Bridge Street; the traffic lights would still operate fully until ten that evening, and then begin flashing yellow on the east-west roads, red for the north-south.

He crossed the bridge over the East River, upstream of the bay that had given the town its name during its long-forgotten days as a major lumber port. A gust of wind pushed his car left, nearly crossing the yellow painted divider; he corrected the vehicle without much effort. The East Bridge, as it was called, had become a perpetual source of frustration in Bark Bay; winter’s ice and snow made driving treacherous at times, while increased traffic volume in summer caused interminable delays, angry motorists making improper decisions in haste. An accident on the bridge had delayed Coach Dan several hours on his first visit to Bark Bay, nearly a decade ago, and upon moving to the town he’d taken an interest in the bridge’s history. Built over the East River late in the seventeenth century, it had been re-built several times, with increasingly better material. But the last rebuild had been over a quarter century upon Dan’s arrival, and a single lane in either direction had clearly become inadequate; everyone in town agreed the next rebuild had to meet the demands of the modern world.

The state’s department of transportation, however, had a different plan. A new bridge, a mile further upstream of the river, would effectively replace the East Bridge as the principal arterial route for the region. Bark Bay’s political and commercial leaders fought the proposal vehemently, the new bridge would effectively bypass the town, destroy our economy; state leaders responded with studies demonstrating the new bridge’s impact on Bark Bay’s summer tourism industry would be minimal. The Minimal Bridge, its detractors called it, as they pleaded with Lee Stephens, Bark Bay’s elderly state senator, to wield his still considerable clout against the plan.

The battle lines had been drawn, talking points in the debate memorized, by the time Coach Dan had settled in Bark Bay. Never particularly drawn to either side, he had taken a sardonic view of the ongoing controversy – both bridges, old and new, East and Minimal, had become ciphers, symbolic representations of the town’s uneasy relationship with modernity. If there wasn’t a debate over the bridge, the people of Bark Bay would have to find some other focus for their collective anxiety.

Coach Dan took the first right off the bridge, accelerated in the direction of the new bridge’s area. Land owned by the Hutchinson family, at least formerly. Carl Hutchinson – Annie’s father – insisted he had sold all that land to a developer, years ago. But rumor had it that Carl also planned to run against Stephens in next year’s election. Dan had never met Carl, knew of him only through Annie; she was evanescent and hard-working, respected and liked by everyone on the team. And she loved her parents. Seeking political office for personal gain seemed to Dan more Chicago than Bark Bay; could Carl Hutchinson really be so bold?

Five minutes and three stop signs later, he arrived at the Odyssey Condominiums, his home for the past four years. He pulled his five-year-old sedan into his reserved spot next to the middle building, “Odd B” as it was called. His was one of few single-resident units in the complex, and his living there for seven years was probably a record, his landlord had told him last month. Still have nice units at the new place. Other side of the river, closer to the school. And yes they were affordable, yes it would be convenient, but no thanks, he could not articulate exactly what but there was something about this complex, the Odd B in particular, that appealed to him. Unlike the young couples and upwardly mobile singles who were the primary demographic for the Odyssey, Coach Dan was not saving money for a home. He had found his comfort zone at the Odd B, had no intention of disrupting his routine.

Long sheets of plastic hung over the entrance, like unfurled sails on a still vessel; construction of a new, more secure entry door had begun last month, would be complete before the holidays. Dan swam his body through the plastic, unlocked and passed through the temporary door, the dust of wood and plaster filling his nose. He sneezed as he walked past the former location of the mailboxes, now just a shattered wall. Until the new mailroom was finished in October, the Odd B’s head custodian delivered mail to the units, sliding envelopes under doors as well as notices of packages, stored in the office.

Dan took the elevator to the third floor, turned right as soon as the doors opened, walked more purposefully than usual to his apartment door. He didn’t count the steps this time, but felt certain he had taken fewer than the usual 14 to B306. Late afternoon light slanted under the front door, except for a small patch of shadow in the middle. He thrust his key into the lock, turned and pushed the door to B306 open, and immediately looked down.

Three envelopes, just like the custodian’s text message had said. Each face down, none of them displaying the distinctive gloss of junk mail. He pounced down, deft fingers scooping up each envelope and turning them over as he stood, stepped forward, closed the door behind him without looking.

Yes, three pieces of personal mail. Two expected, the third unsurprising considering the source. Dan walked past the back of the couch that lay across the room at the front of his unit, then laid his briefcase atop one of the many loose piles of stacked papers on top of his dining table, the only piece of furniture that had stayed with him from his first apartment in Chicago, fifteen years ago.

Dan’s routine was to leave his mail unopened on the couch as he changed into his leisure clothes and prepared dinner, which he would eat while sorting through his mail and answering machine messages. But, three letters — he considered breaking with his routine, opening each of the letters now.

“Nah.” He tossed the letters on top of his briefcase. He would have more than enough time this evening, this weekend, to read through those letters. And decide upon his reply, because he knew without looking at their contents that each would require some response from him.

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