May 3, 2016: “Six Ways to Jump Off a Bridge” by Brian Leung

Happy Tuesday, Story366! I noted a couple of days ago, on May 1, that May began the middle third of this blog project, four months down, eight to go. I’d forgotten, though, that at the heels of the much-touted and more publicized and recognized National Poetry Month, May is National Short Story Month, meaning we’re supposed to celebrate the hell out of short stories. Since I’m reading from a short story collection every day and writing this blog, I’m certainly doing my part. But while we’re on the subject, let me tell you the story of how I came to know about National Short Story Month, something that has influenced the direction of my life and writing career—and Story366—as much as anything.

So, the first time I heard about National Short Story Month, it was the mid-2000s, probably 2005 or 2006. I was FB friends with this guy named Dan Wickett, who had this blog called the Emerging Writers Network. On this blog, Dan—a lineman for Michigan Bell living around Ann Arbor—was writing about short story collections, and often, singular short stories that he found in lit mags. Dan, a couple of times, focused on a story of mine that he found in a journal, initially during National Short Story Month. That was pretty cool, mainly because I didn’t have a book out yet and had therefore never been reviewed in any way. I’d published a lot of stories at that point, but someone writing critically about your work, and then publishing that criticism, is no small thing. It’s kind of surreal, really, to realize someone is actually reading your work, and has thoughts about it. That, since I’ve been a writer, is the most surprising aspect, one I hadn’t ever considered: I knew that I wrote stories, and I knew that journals published them, but never once, not ever, did I ever picture anyone reading them, let alone reacting to them. That made my writing about more than just me, more than for me, something I truly had never considered.

But anyway, by late 2006, Dan was putting together, with publisher Steve Gillis, Dzanc Books (“DZANC” is a collection of the first letters of their five kids’ first names, by the way). Dan wrote me and asked if I knew anyone I’d published in Mid-American Review who was shopping a collection, as he was starting this new press. I came up with a couple of names, but also told him that my book—stuck in collection contest limbo for five years at that point—wasn’t published. Dan reacted in a way I really wasn’t expecting: He said he was surprised, as he’d assumed I had a book already. Then he told me to send him my manuscript. Six months or so later, we were signing contracts.

So that’s how my first book, Elephants in Our Bedroom, came to be, starting with National Short Story Month posts on Emerging Writers Network. Ten years later, when I conceived the idea for Story366, I thought of Dan’s posts about short stories on EWN, a few of which I did myself, (I remember one on a Ben Percy story about Bigfoot that scared the shit out of me). It was simple: Read a story, then write something about that story. And for four months and three days, that’s what I’ve done.

Today’s story isn’t related to that at all, except that I’ve read a story and I’m writing about it. “Six Ways to Jump Off a Bridge” by Brian Leung is from his Mary McCarthy Prize-winning collection World Famous Love Acts, out from Sarabande. It’s the first story in this great collection. I read a few and liked them all, but the bridge story stayed with me the most, so here we go.

Pak “Parker” Cheung is the protagonist of “Six Ways,” a sixty-year old guy who lives right next to this little waterfall, a waterfall that has a bridge dissecting the water, a hopeful tourist trap that hasn’t brought in any tourism—at one point, Parker ruminates on this, wondering, in all these years, if a single person has come to see the falls because of this bridge, which he suggested and helped to build, hoping to sell post cards and other knick-knacks to visitors.

Just about the only people who come to the bridge under the waterfall are jumpers, people who are there to commit suicide. Parker’s seen several in his day, looking out his back window, from his deck. Not exactly what he had in mind when he had the bridge built. The story starts with another jumping incident, the fourth of his lifetime, and since he’s a stone’s throw from the crime scene, it has his attention.

There’s considerable backstory, which Leung reveals at a steady rate, that plays heavily into the story, into how these suicides affect Parker. Firstly, Parker used to live in this waterfallside house with his wife and daughter. His wife has died, while his daughter, gone off to college, is missing, but not in a suspicious way: She’s estranged by choice. The house, along with being a would-be gift shop, served as an egg ranch as well, and Parker may have spent a bit too much time making the family business grow, often ignoring his daughter, Susan. It was years before Parker found out, for example, that the bridge’s very first jumper wasn’t some random druggie, but was Susan’s druggie boyfriend. Parker even told Susan, that day, not to worry, that it was just some random druggie, having no idea he was turning a dagger in his daughter’s heart. Not a lot of communication in Parker’s family, apparently, not when his daughter was fourteen, not in the nine years since he’s spoken to her, when she told him never to call her again. Then she disappeared.

So this is Parker, the burden he’s carrying. Eventually, his wife died—he was never even able to track down Susan to tell her—and he was left alone, in the house, a failed chicken egg ranch (oh, the egg ranch failed, by the way), alongside a waterfall bridge, attractive only to the hopeless and downtrodden.

Oh, the day the story takes place would have been Parker’s wife’s sixtieth birthday, which gives Leung an occasion to tell this story. It also gives Parker a specific reason to hope, but I won’t go into that here.

And really, this is most of the story. A local sheriff, Katie, comes by to visit Parker, ask him if he saw anything. Katie is Leung giving Parker someone to talk to, a chance for us to hear his voice, see him interact with a live human. As most of the story is told in interior monologue and backstory, there’s not a whole lot going on in the frontstory, but “Six Ways to Jump Off a Bridge” never feels bogged down in the past. Leung has smooth prose, bleeds in good detail of Parker’s day, and there’s always a sense of something at stake, some impending escalation (in this and the other stories I read). It’s a sad story, for sure, but Parker seems so content in his life, such an easy-going, friendly guy—who, remember, gets to live next to a freakin’ waterfall—so it’s hard to reckon what happens (or I assume happens) at story’s end.

So, this is a post about a Brian Leung and his fantastic book World Famous Love Acts, but it also was kinda more about me, this blog, and National Short Story Month. With 365 essays to write this year, I’m okay with that, Still, the moral of today’s story is get yourself some Leung.