The Old Mercer Bridge


Although, I was thoroughly ready to leave France, I had one more pit stop before Spain - Bayonne, a small commerce city by the sea. Two more days to taste France before it was gone and I wasn't about to waste that. 

It's strikingly alarming what a little sunshine and warm weather does to me after four very cold and very rainy days. The Ibis Budget Hotel was souless and unremarkable, aside from the pleasant desk clerk, but it did what it claimed to do. Not knowing what I would do with two days here, I took a taxi into town that night. My first impression of Bayonne as a dull and colorless town surrounded by commercial hotels, jiffy lube type garages, and a KFC, was instantly replaced by an ever-renewed joyful wonder as I crossed the old city bridge. The sun gilstened off the water and the air was light with laughter. It was nearly 8:00 pm but the sun felt like 5:00. 

As I crossed over the middle of the bridge, my feet light again, I saw a tiny thing of a woman, ancient as they come, with two ski poles for walking sticks, straining to peer over the bridge. She couldn't have been more than 4 feet tall and the stone railing nearly reached her chin. Just as I neared her, she spun around and began to speak to me as if she had been awaiting my arrival, or anyone's for that matter. She spoke to me in French but I had the distinct notion that she had just started in the middle of a sentence. I apologized and told her that I did not speak French. 

"Oh heavens, dear. I'm an English woman," she replied in a British sing song way that only they are capable of. "Do you know what these are for?" She said scruitinizing the ground, tapping one of her ski poles against a line of metal grooves in the bridge's sidewalk. 

I suspected she was going to go into one of those old woman tales where they tell you the history and origin of the bridge and precisely the purpose the metal grooves served so very long ago. I shook my head, no, I didn't know. 

She glanced back over the side of the bridge again to the water beneath it. "It simply does not make any sense." She looked back at the metal grooves. "They look like tram tracks but they just stop here. What on earth would a tram need tracks for coming in from the sky?" She looked back at me. 

I had never felt so monstrous as I had then, looking down on this small creature. Her red and white ski poles looked like the newest arodynamic prototype in olympic skiing and downright comical with her shin-length brown skirt and soft pink sweater. I glanced down at the tracks as she had instructed, and then the road where they stopped, and then to the other side of the walk way where they picked back up again, perfectly in line with this side. 

"Well, I don't know." I said charmingly, returning my eyes to her with a smile.

"See if you can get a good look down there, honey," She nudged my bum with her ski pole, pushing me to the bridge's wall. "And see if you can figure it out for us."

I pursed my lips in a smile. She was serious about solving this mystery. Craining over the side of the bridge, looking down at the stone supports coming out of the water, I really did try to figure it out ... suddenly intrigued. 

"A draw bridge, maybe?" I asked looking back over my shoulder at her. 

"No, no, see they don't cross the road." She pointed to the street with her pole again. 

"Well, I believe the bridge has stumped the both of us." I said returning upright and facing her. 

"Where do you come from child?"  She smiled up at me. 

I have this bad habit of not knowing what to do with my eyes or where to look when people are wearing sunglasses. (How are you supposed to have a conversation with someone while looking at your own reflection?) I scanned the little white tuft whilting on the top of her head, looking for a spot, and then settled my gaze on her mouth. Her teeth had clearly began giving up on life long before she did. Browning from the bottoms up, I thought if I stood here long enough, I could watch them decay all the way to the gums. But she was English and we can't blame them for terrible dentisitry, right? Only America manufactures smiles. 

"The U.S. ... America." I answered, watching her mouth as it twitched into a crooked grin.

"Oh! Do tell where!" She responded. 

I had gotten used to Maryland being a dead end answer, but I said it anyway and went into my air diagram of where it was in relation to New York. 

She interupted with a laugh. "Yes, yes! I have family there. That city ... the one with the B."

"Baltimore." I answered.

"Yes, that's where they live."

"Oh, wow, most people don't ..." I began. 

"Or is it Boston?" She looked down at the ground and scratched her chin with the wrist strap on the top of her ski pole. "Wait a minute. It's Boston."

I smiled and began again, "Oh, Bost...."

"Birmingham? I think it's Birmingham. Yes, is that in Maryland?" She looked back up at me.

"Maybe." I smiled.

We carried on in that way, as if she was certain I had been her granddaughter in another life (although she did not propose the idea). So much so, that I considered I may have been. People passed by, strolling baby carriages, walking dogs, laughing ... because that's what people did on bridges - they crossed over; they didn't have family reunions. She caught me up on her life presently as if I already knew the first 70 years of it. I implored further. She had fallen for a French man, "by no fault of my own," she added, while traveling when she was young. They fell in love and married and he moved to England for the better part of his life to be with her. Now retired, he had insisted that it was his turn and so they returned to France. 

"We moved to {a town whose name I have no recollection of}, but Henry said to me 'Well this is just as much damned fog and rain as England! I won't have it,' so we went south and here I am." She smiled as if she had just announced herself. 

I was surprised that she lived nearby. With the curiosity that she took with the bridge, I had assumed she was on vaccation. Sadly, I wonderd if she had stood here before, maybe many times and tried to solve the same puzzle like it was the first time these tracks had stumped her ... every time. The conversation flowed with ease and we were genuinely interested in each other. She was so tiny and cute, I wanted to fold her up and put her in my pocket, so that I could pull her out whenever I felt particularly curious about something. Not so that she could give me the answers, but merely so she could demand them with me. 

We were so engrossed in one another that I had hardly noticed the woman who had stopped and was facing us on the sidewalk, mumbling some French nonsense. She got a bit louder and I turned to her and said,  "I don't speak French, I'm sorry," and then returned my eyes to the old woman's cracked lipstick mouth which hadn't stopped speaking. I didn't know if she was ignoring the stranger or was simply on the verge of going blind and deaf. 

"I speak English," the crazy woman slurred at the sides of our faces. "I need money. I'm saving the world." She stumbled closer with her hand out and my gaze met her again.

She had hair the color of straw that stuck out like it had been pressed by an iron every day of her 45 year old life. She wore a coat made for a Mt. McKinley voyager, and had 5 scarfs on, all of different colors, shapes and sizes. Her teeth made Miss Ski Poles look like Mono Lisa and she had two different shoes on. I could hear Ski Poles effortlessly continuing her story without having missed a beat. 

"I don't have any cash. I'm sorry," I looked back at the minature woman, trying to concentrate on her tale and pick up what I had missed, while minding this narcotic nutcase encroaching on my right. 

"You don't understand. I. Am. Going. To Save. The World," She said indefinitely. The words came out messy, coated in slime, with the stench of a frat house after week old kegger.

"Yes. Yes. Well go, on now then. Go save it," The old woman said in that same upbeat British song that makes it impossible to differentiate between scold and praise. She waved her pole at the woman's legs, shooing her away and returned to me, picking up the sentence as if she hadn't ever broken it. 

A few more slurs on her way out and the woman retreated. I tried to surpress my amusement as the woman carried on her tale, unaffected. I bit down on my lip to keep attentive, but my eyes betrayed me and I could feel them laughing.  

"What's your name?" I asked when she finished. It seemed inconceivable that I didn't know it. We had been friends for years. But I had learned that in France, people don't feel the need to introduce themselves on the way in or the way out.

"Mercer. Betty Mercer," She answered.

I smiled. "Well, it was very nice to meet you, Betty."

"You too dear. I'll be going now." She flashed me surely an award winning smile in the dead teeth category and scurried along on her ski poles, never caring for my name. 

I couldn't stop myself from smiling as I left her, each of us going in opposite directions. I looked back over my shoulder to watch her hobble along, searching the sky for a tram to reclaim it's tracks on the bridge. I wondered how simple and delightful the world might be if everyone was as trusting and easily trusted as Betty Mercer. A world full of candid, curious Betty Mercers. I laughed. What a wonderful place that would be. 

I realized then, that even if she had stopped on that bridge a thousand times before with the same new sense of curiosity, her life was better for it. Anyone's would be. The city, despite how long she had been there, had not been dulled down for her. Time had not succeeded. Ever captivated by those infinite possibilites that we all feel creep up within us again in a new and beautiful place. Perhaps that was life's gift to her at the end of her story. A ceaseless spirit of childish wonder. I couldn't fathom a more wonderful way to live.