It was one of those hot September days when ﬂies ﬂock to the sweet scent of coconut-oiled skin and the rotting smell of death.
Santa Ana winds were spreading their evil dust and waves of heat were oozing from exhaust pipes, casting a blur over the gridlock of cars ahead of Detective Ken Goode. Santa Anas always made him feel a little off.
Sweat dripped into his tired eyes as he sat in his Volkswagen van, waiting for the light to change on Mission Boulevard in Paciﬁc Beach. He’d stayed up too late the night before reading Camus’ An Absurd Reasoning, pausing intermittently to deconstruct the state of his life. He needed a mind-bending career change. He felt it coming, any day in fact, just around the corner. But patience wasn’t one of his strongest traits. He wanted out of undercover narcotics and into a permanent gig working homicides. Not just as a relief detective, as he’d been for the past three years, but the real thing. The only questions were how and when.
Goode always took stock at this time of year and he was rarely satisﬁed. After getting the green light, he drove a few blocks to a ﬂower shop he’d passed a hundred times. He was constantly on the lookout for ﬂorists because he didn’t want to go to the same one twice. He chose to keep his annual ritual to himself, even more private than the rest of his rather solitary existence.
Goode parked near the door and glanced at himself in the rearview mirror, running his ﬁngers through his sun-bleached brown hair and wiping moisture from his forehead with a beach towel. His green eyes had been red around the edges since the Santa Ana kicked up and he hadn’t been sleeping much either, although that wasn’t unusual lately.
The cool air inside the shop chilled his overheated skin, making the hairs on his arms stand up. Inside the refrigerated case nearest the door, a few dozen long-stemmed red roses poked their heads out of a white bucket of water. He slid open the door and bent his tall, lean frame over to inspect them more closely. He wanted the most perfect one he could ﬁnd, just starting to bloom. He selected one from the middle, sliding it carefully out of the bunch.
“How would you like a pretty bud vase for that?” the sales girl chirped. She was a teenager. Bright-eyed. Hopeful.
“No, thank you,” Goode told her. He knew she meant well, but she had no idea. “That won’t be necessary.”
She looked a little disappointed. “Then how ’bout you let me wrap it up with some baby’s breath?”
“Sure,” he said, smiling weakly and nodding. He didn’t want to have to tell her that wouldn’t be necessary either. “That would be nice.”
The cellophane crinkled as he walked back to the van and gingerly laid the rose on the passenger seat. He turned right on Grand Avenue and headed south on Interstate 5 toward Coronado.
He still remembered how green and sparkly the bay had looked that day thirty years ago. He’d just turned six. He, his mother, father and baby sister had ﬁnished a lunch of tuna sandwiches together at their small, rented house in La Jolla—all two high school teachers could afford—when his mother announced she was going for a drive. His father, Ken Sr., said he’d planned to take a nap while the baby took hers and asked if she’d take Kenny Jr. with her. She looked a little irritated and a little sad, so Kenny thought she didn’t want him to come along. When she looked over at him and saw she’d upset him, she gave him that forced melancholy smile she’d been wearing of late and tousled his hair.
“Okay, then,” she said quietly. “Let’s go.”
The two of them piled into the family’s Honda Accord and she stopped at Baskin Robbins to buy him a Pralines-and-Cream cone and a strawberry shake for herself. She took a prescription vial of pink pills out of her purse and popped one of them into her mouth, chasing it with a long draw on her shake. She announced that she wanted to drive over the new bridge to Coronado.
“You can see forever up there,” she said. “It feels like you can just ﬂy off into the clouds. Don’t you think?”
Kenny nodded happily, feeling privileged to have some one-on-one time with his mother. She’d been acting so down since Maureen was born. She hardly ever wanted to play with him. It felt nice when she talked to him like that.
They were about halfway across the bridge, where the two lanes turned into three, when she pulled over to the side and told him to wait. He watched her get out of the car in her black dress, the one with the bright red roses and green leaves all over it. She stepped out of her red pumps and reached through the driver’s-side window to set them on the seat next to him, giving him that same droopy smile again. The skin around her eyes wrinkled softly, reﬂecting a sense of tragedy that made her seem older than her thirty-six years.
“It’s dangerous out here, so stay buckled up, okay, pumpkin?” she said.
He’d watched her put on some red lipstick before they left the house, and he thought again how it set off the whiteness of her very straight teeth. She was so much more beautiful than any of his friends’ mothers. It made him proud.
Kenny took her words as the law, never questioning why she’d parked where there was no shoulder. With his seat belt fastened as instructed, he watched the cars whizzing by and wondered where she’d gone. Strapped in and helpless, he couldn’t see into the rearview mirror without undoing his belt. Surely she wouldn’t be gone for long. Finally, he undid the buckle and twisted the mirror so he could see behind the car. There she was, gazing intently out into the distance. He carefully refastened the seat belt, feeling guilty as it clicked home.
Minutes later, he still couldn’t shake the feeling of apprehension, so he looked into the mirror again. This time he saw her throw one leg over the railing, and then the other. What was she doing? Then, in one quick movement, she dropped herself over the edge.
For a while there, he was sure she’d climb right back over the top of the railing. When she didn’t reappear, the ice cream began to curdle in his stomach and his heart began to pound.
It seemed like hours that he sat there, waiting for her, when a police cruiser pulled up behind the car. A young ofﬁcer slowly approached, his hand on his gun, and stuck his head through the open window.
“Where are your parents, son?” he asked.
But all Kenny could do was stare straight ahead, his ﬁsts clenched so tightly his nails bit into his palms. He knew he would start crying if he met the ofﬁcer’s questioning gaze. He ﬁgured what the man really wanted to know was why he hadn’t tried to stop his mother from jumping into the nothingness.
The ofﬁcer went back to his cruiser for a minute to talk into his radio; then he got in the car with Kenny while they waited for a tow truck to arrive. He put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and made Kenny feel safe enough to convey the bare facts of what had happened and to obediently recite his home address. The ofﬁcer patiently walked Kenny back to the police cruiser and took him home to what was left of his family.
From that day on, Ken Goode knew he wanted to be a policeman.
Goode drove a little more than halfway over the bridge before he reached the spot where his mother had jumped. He pulled to the side, turned on his hazard lights and unwound the rubber band holding the cellophane together, easing the stem out of its casing. He brought the bud to his nose and breathed in its sweet fullness. He felt a stab of the old pain and his eyes teared up. He was feeling really tired and vulnerable for some reason. But that was okay. He’d allow himself that, for a few minutes at least. Maybe it was just the hot wind blowing the hair into his eyes.
He stood at the railing facing north. To his left was the small island city of Coronado and to his right were the blue steel towers of the bridge, curving around to the San Diego marina and downtown skyscape. He tried to push the hair out of his face so he could take in the view, but it was useless. He could only look down.
Goode began his ritual of tearing off the rose petals, one at a time, and watching them catch the breeze. It always amazed him what a long way down it was to the bay. He looked it up on the Internet once and learned it was a two-hundred-foot drop. Sometimes he’d start to wonder how much the fall would hurt from this height, but he’d immediately push the thought from his brain. He wouldn’t go there. Couldn’t go there.
“How are you, Mom?” he said into the wind. “Are you happy?”
A seagull swooped out of the sky, settled on the railing a few feet away, and looked right at him. Part of the bird’s upper beak was chipped off. He found its proximity a little unnerving and he wondered for a second whether that could possibly be his mother. He wasn’t a religious man, but he did get spiritual from time to time. It couldn’t be, he thought. That’s ridiculous. He turned away and watched the sun reﬂect off the ripples in the San Diego Bay.
“What’s it like where you are?” he asked. “Do you have friends?”
A few moments later, a second seagull touched down on the railing, right next to the ﬁrst. Goode really didn’t believe in the whole New Age thing, but this seemed a little weird, even to him. He broke the stamen from the rose and tossed it over, watching it ﬂoat down.
“Okay, if this is real,” he said into the wind, “then show me one more sign.”
One of the cars whipping past honked. He felt the wind pick up and blow his hair out of his eyes. It was a little cooler, there by the ocean. He closed his eyes and let the breeze kiss his face. But then, abruptly, it …just… stopped…blowing. The high-pitched trafﬁc noise dulled and he felt a strange calm. Soon, beads of sweat began to form on his upper lip. He started feeling woozy.
He heard the crunch of tires on asphalt and turned to see a police cruiser park behind his van. Just like the ﬁrst time. A young ofﬁcer in his midtwenties approached with his hand on his gun. It could have been the son of the ofﬁcer who’d stopped there thirty years ago.
Goode shivered. “No shit,” he whispered. He smiled and shook his head.
“Everything okay here? You know you can’t park your van on the bridge,” the ofﬁcer said, sticking his chest out with more than enough bravado. Bulletproof vests always made cops seem more macho than they really were.
Strangely enough, Goode hadn’t had to deal with Coronado police much during his yearly ceremony, usually because he did it in the middle of the night when trafﬁc was light to nonexistent. He ﬁgured he’d tell his fellow ofﬁcer the truth.
Goode extended his hand to shake the ofﬁcer’s. “Ken Goode, San Diego PD,” he said, retrieving his badge from his shorts pocket. “Just checking in with my mother. She jumped here thirty years ago today.”
The ofﬁcer gave him a ﬁrm shake, but his eyes softened and he relaxed into a less aggressive stance. “Joe Johnston, Coronado PD,” he said. “Wow. That’s rough.” Johnston paused and shook his head as if he didn’t know what else to say. “Well, I guess I’ll…hang out here in my cruiser for a few minutes to make sure no one bothers you. Take your time.”
Goode thanked him. He wasn’t sure what it all meant, but he felt as if his mother was okay, wherever she was. Maybe she was a teacher there, too. Or maybe she’d become a painter like she’d always dreamed. He threw the rose stem over the side and watched it swing idly down to the water, coming to rest on the surface and bob along with the current. He wiped a tear from his cheek with his sleeve. Read more of this post