Gary Baney attended college for Scientific-Technical Communication but found the material a bit to constrained. After several "How to" publications ranging from white water rafting to pamphlets on machinery brokerage, he decided to unleash the desirable side of creativity and began writing short stories. Scientific-Technical writing has willingly taken a back seat.
“Look at the sweeping, grand descenders of his writing,” commented Mr. Tibble, holding the note in admiration. “This person was probably an intense lover.”
“I write like that,” commented Carl as he dug out a pen from his vest.
Mr. Tibble dismissed his houseman's comment as delusional. He’d seen Carl’s writing. He turned to set the note down on his oak desk in preparation for a museum board mount.
“Really, I do – watch this,” said Carl, not wanting to be so easily ignored.
Carl tore off a sheet of paper from a desk pad and began to recreate the actor’s signature. He was slow and methodical, trying to match each letter. He finished with an underscore and handed it over, smiling a quiet victory.
“There you go,” boasted Carl.
Mr. Tibble looks at it obligingly, placing it next to the original, comparing the two side-by-side, then snorted disapproval.
“Line fodder,” was Tibble’s curt response.
“Hey, that’s almost identical! Look at the way I crossed that ‘t’ and how the tails–”
“—descenders” corrected Mr. Tibble.
“Yeah, dissenters. Look how they’re the same length. And what about that ‘g’? Looks like a photocopy!” protested Carl.
“My good fellow, had you taken the time to really analyze his signature, you’d have seen that the formation of his letters are slanted forward with such uniformity they appear typeset, an indicator of consistent emotion – albeit intense. The variable slant of your copy is a demonstration of emotional instability coupled with a general lack of coordination. It is inconsistent and makes the reader question whether you want to live in the past, participate in the present, or dilly-dally around as you wait for the future. Final analysis is that you appear to be a candidate for electro-convulsive therapy.”
Carl looked at the two signatures more closely then replied, “Yeah, so? It’s still close, but then, who cares? Nobody looks at that kind of thing except you.”
Mr. Tibble rolled his eyes, signaling disgust with somebody incapable of understanding the fine art of signature appreciation. He lifted his crystal glass of Shiraz to finish the last bit, noting its flavorful impact as it glided over his tongue, generating a warm glow his pallet had come to appreciate. He drew in a deep breath, preparing for a lengthy explanation of the underlying tones of written communication and how your personal signature is far more than a simple verification of identity for common bank clerks, that a person’s signature is an insight into the very depths of character. But, he exhaled, realizing that such a discourse with Carl would be a waste of oxygen. Besides, he had better things to do this evening. Mondays were usually good for collecting and the cold, dismal rain contributed to the atmosphere nicely. He set his glass down and motioned for Carl to get the keys to the Chrysler Imperial.
Although not always the best place, Mr. Tibble had Carl drive the twenty-three miles to Crush River Bridge and pull into a graveled park-n-ride next to its east entrance. Across the bridge was an economically-deprived town offering a college specializing in GED preparation, animal husbandry, welding and two-year nursing certificates.
Carl shut off the lights and engine.
It was nearly 10:00pm and after two hours of surveillance, Mr. Tibble and his houseman were getting impatient. At 150 feet above the water line, the bridge’s pedestrian path was a recent add-on to the old, steel bridge originally constructed to carry farm trucks loaded with various field crops to waiting markets on the other side. Mr. Tibble looked over the attached walkway and saw the bolted-on light poles vibrate with each gust of wind-driven rain. Although the main structure has survived for over a century, locals suspect it is really the multiple layers of paint that hold the girders in place. The small, battleship gray bumps implying rivet heads beneath were simply coincidental.
Mr. Tibble reached into his pocket again to make sure his pad and pen were ready. Several travelers had already crossed in the downpour but their lively step indicated a destination that promised warmth, dry clothes, and perhaps comfort from a loved one.
Indeed, their steps were far too lively.
Carl was fidgeting and scooted forward in the leather upholstery, reaching behind himself again to either adjust his wallet or pick at his backside as he was prone to do. This activity repulsed Mr. Tibble and he often mentioned this annoyance to Carl saying that anybody with any breeding would never pick at their undergarments in the presence of others – it implied terrible personal hygiene and disrespect to those having to witness such an event. Still, the picking continued.
“I know you have your reasons for this, Mr. Tibble,” commented Carl after settling back, “but why couldn’t you just collect stamps, or coins, or some other damned thing?”
“We indulge in hobbies for both entertainment and enjoyment, my dear fellow. And for some of us, the pursuit is as rewarding as the actual possession of the prize. Although I do have my trophies, they are also a reminder of the hunt and yet another subject’s failure to address our ongoing human condition.”
Carl just shook his head and replied, “We’ve come here off and on for almost a month now. You said this might be a good spot but nothing’s happened yet.” He pushed in the cigarette lighter then reached into his vest pocket for a fresh pack. He tapped it on the dashboard several times then peeled back the cellophane wrap. As he lit his unfiltered cigarette and drew in the first breath, he lightly touched the “down” button of the driver’s window for ventilation, creating an opening of about an inch. Even at that modest exposure, raindrops found their way onto his lap and he cursed, “Damned rain. Does it ever stop around here?”
Mr. Tibble didn’t respond. His eyes were on the entryway to the bridge watching the approach of a dim light in the distance that appeared to be a bicycle. Normally not a good candidate, but as Mr. Tibble continued to watch, the bike turned onto the walkway in such a fashion that gave hope. This rider didn’t seem to care if he even made it around the corner. Gone was the usual energetic clip to get home as quickly and as dry as possible. Also gone was any raincoat or hat. Such despondency was always a good sign.
He watched carefully as the bike began its slow, wavering climb up the walkway towards the modest summit of the bridge. Once there, the rider simply dismounted in motion, leaving the still-moving bike to skid on the wooden walkway. If it weren’t for the pedestrian safety cables running along the edge, the bike would have slid off into the black waters far below. Instead, the bottom cable caught the bike’s handlebars, leaving the slowly spinning front wheel to dangle over the edge. The dim headlight and taillight continued to drain life out of the batteries.
This showed promise, thought Mr. Tibble. It was time.
He pulled his fedora down tightly to prevent losing it in the wind then opened the car door to begin his intercepting walk. Mr. Tibble watched as the rider of the bike swung one leg over the handrail, then the other and just sat there, staring down into the dark, rumbling waters far below. His bare, wet fingers curling over the top of the handrail showed only a loose placement. He did not move, even when Mr. Tibble came within a mugger’s distance, the rider did not move. Mr. Tibble stepped over the bike and said, “Good evening, young man.”
“My, my, a little rain never hurt anyone,” commented Mr. Tibble cheerfully. “It’s what brings life.”
“I don’t care about the rain, old man.”
“Bad day, eh?”
“Unless you’re going to shoot me, get out of here and leave me alone. Or maybe you just want my wallet?” The young man reached into his back pocket and threw his wallet out into the darkness over the water.
“Go get it,” said the young man defiantly.
Mr. Tibble winced, his eyes followed its arc as far as the bridge’s pale lamp light would allow. There was probably a driver’s license in there with a verifiable signature. Several seconds went by but there was no audible splash – not that he really expected to hear it from up here. Perhaps the wind blew the contents onto a rocky shore and could be retrieved later, he thought.
Mr. Tibble looked back up and said, “I’m not going to shoot you, or rob you, young man.”
“You ain’t stopping me from doing this. And if Marna sent you, you can just tell her she’s wasting her time and yours.”
Mr. Tibble wondered if a note had already been written.
“I don’t know anybody named Marna, and no, I’m not going to stop you from anything. If you have an issue with Marna, perhaps you should write it down here and sign it so she knows it was from you.” Mr. Tibble reached into his coat pocket, extracting his pad and pen.
The young man looked at the offering. “Ain’t that convenient?” He turned his attention back to the abyss below and said, “Look, I got nothing to say to her that I ain’t already said.”
“Ah, people forget conversations. Sometimes, they aren’t even listening to what you say and miss a very important point. They are often so distracted by their own thoughts of what they are going to say next that they couldn’t hear a train pass. Sometimes, the best way to be sure the other person has understood you is to write it out,” suggested Mr. Tibble and offered the pad and pen again.
The young man looked up and said, “What the hell are you, some kind of retired do-gooder psychiatrist trying to right the world’s wrongs?”
“I’m a collector,” answered Mr. Tibble with a faint smile.
The young man slowly turned full body to face Mr. Tibble. His eyes were fierce with anger as his legs and hands came back off the rail, feet hitting the walkway with a bang, fists clinched, his broad shoulders topping the frame of a full 6-foot-5 man radiating pure hate.
“Good Christ! How did you find me here? Will you people ever stop? Maybe when I’m gone you’ll know I got nothing left for you to collect!”
Mr. Tibble momentarily saw himself held tightly around the neck and dragged over the handrail, unable to break free from the grip of a desperate man trying to eliminate the last debt collector he’d ever see as they both fell to their death.
Mr. Tibble quickly stepped back and said, “Wait a minute! I am not a debt collector, young man. I collect signatures.”
“So you are one of those damned shrinks, nestled in your financially secure and removed little world, looking down on the rest of us like experiments to be shared among your kind at weekend seminars that cost more than a year’s tuition. Am I going to be just another one of your journal entries or will you create enough material on me to publish an entire article: ‘Slingarm McTavish, Football Hero Makes Last Throw’?”
Mr. Tibble immediately recognized the name as a very talented local college football player with substance abuse problems. This was indeed promising.
“The notepad and pen I offer is a way for you to make one last statement before you jump – if that is your plan. All I ask for is a signature for authenticity.” Mr. Tibble again extended the small tablet to the young man, pen attached.
“Listen old man, you need more help than I do!”
“Perhaps so,” answered Mr. Tibble. “Humor me and sign the note – after you tell your Marna one last thing before you go, of course.”
“Yeah, right. And as soon as I get distracted and start writing you’ll try to stop me from jumping. Ain’t gonna work.”
“Young man, do I look like I could subdue you? I am five-foot one and might weigh one hundred twenty pounds if you include this wet trench coat and hat.”
The young man looked him over and realized the old codger had a point. At six-foot-five and over two hundred fifty pounds, the young man would make short work of the scrawny, old kook. He stared at Mr. Tibble in the meager light of the bridge walkway lamps and said, “Fine, give me the damned pen.”
Mr. Tibble smiled as he cautiously extended his arm, pad and pen in hand.
“You may not know it, old man, but I used to be quite the football star in these parts. Had everything I wanted. Even the professional teams were starting to contact me, wanted to talk contract, they’d said. They were talking salary potential of six figures. Then there was Marna. She was real impressed as long as I was winning. But after I broke my arm, things went downhill. I missed a lot of practices, couldn’t stay in shape, fell out of favor with the coaches.”
Mr. Tibble watched as the young man’s eyes began to tear up, adding to the trails of raindrops while he composed himself to write.
Mr. Tibble just stood there, listening, waiting for the note.
“Marna became more and more scarce when I called on her. Wasn’t in much anymore and when I phoned her, she was always on her way out. I knew what was going on; she was going out with that low-browed, knuckle-dragging linebacker because he drove a Lexus and had an apartment on River Front Drive.”
“Ah, love, the reason for many a man’s fall,” said Mr. Tibble on purpose.
“I tried winning her back by showing her that I really loved her . . . sent her flowers . . . rented a billboard to say ‘I love you, Marna’. . . even had an airplane write our names in the sky during a football game. Cost me plenty that did.”
Mr. Tibble noticed his trench coat was beginning to soak through at the shoulders, but felt obligated to say something. “Women,” he said in disgust.
“Marna isn’t just any woman, old man, she’s special.”
“Yes, of course.”
Mr. Tibble looked down at the pad of paper the young man was holding. The cover was still repelling the raindrops, but it was only a matter of time before the water-resistant coating was defeated. He made a mental note to put plastic over the next one. Mr. Tibble shuffled his foot position, anxious for the young man to finish with his emotional drivel.
“Her eyes - ”
“Perhaps you should tell her in that note,” interrupted Mr. Tibble, “and sign it so that she knows it came from you,”
“I should tell her how much I really love her, how much I will miss her.”
“You’ll be dead,” commented Mr. Tibble impatiently, crossing his arms.
The young man just stood there, arms dropped to his sides. He looked out across the river below. You could hear the waters scrubbing over the irregularities of the underlying basalt rock formations and could occasionally hear small stones rolling downstream to a resting spot only time would determine.
The young man turned and said, “I can’t do this to her.”
“And why not?” asked Mr. Tibble in a voice that was a too loud for the occasion. “I know your type; you fall for some pretty face that pays attention to you and you fantasize that you’ll have never-ending reciprocating love, that it will be you and her to the end. Well, I have news for you young man, the end comes quickly. And for every set of gams that turns your eye, there’s another pair of eyes scanning your girlfriend, gawking, lusting, responding to her sensuous movements she’s now making because she’s become aware of their stares. As she teases, the wolves are prowling, waiting for you to have a weak moment so they can pounce. Some don’t wait.”
“She’s not like that.”
“They’re all like that,” said Mr. Tibble bitterly, repressing memories.
“Maybe if I could just talk to her we could clear things up between us?”
“She’s probably out with that linebacker tonight, young fella,” jabbed Mr. Tibble.
“But once I told her how much I really loved her, she’d forget about him.”
“I doubt it,” said Mr. Tibble.
The young man dismissed the remark and began scribbling something on the notepad. Mr. Tibble’s eyes brightened and moved back to give clearance for the jump. The young man finished his note, tore off the top piece, folded it over and handed the wet pen and notepad back to the old man.
“Here, I have to get back to Marna,” he said, then picked up his bike and quickly pedaled back the way he came.
Mr. Tibble just stood there and watched as the young man rode away.
The fedora was beginning to leak around the brim now and he was anxious to return to the warm, dry interior of the Imperial. As he opened the door, Carl could tell by Mr. Tibble’s expression that something was wrong.
“So, what happened? I didn’t see anybody go over the edge.”
“He changed his mind,” replied Mr. Tibble.
“How can he change his mind? This is a horrible evening. Heck, I’ve thought about jumping off myself because of all this damned rain constantly falling. . . never ending smothering cloud-covered darkness . . . always–”
“Yes, I get the idea, Carl.”
“But I thought I saw him hand you something?”
Mr. Tibble pulled out the note and read aloud, “Good luck with your collection, doc.” But there was no signature.
“Well, maybe tomorrow night will be better, Mr. Tibble. It’s supposed to keep raining like this all week,” sighed Carl.
“Yes. Perhaps tomorrow night.”