I was driving on Route 17 when I got the news. The traffic was light and I had gotten lost in the brown fields of winter. The peace of being off the interstate had taken over and soon I would be back to Williamsburg. Only the phone rang and I got the efficient, but impersonal voice message, informing me that a former student had passed away. There was no cause of death given, but grief counselors would be available if necessary.
I started thinking about Brian and what a cool kid he was, polite, hardworking, and a creative person. He was a writer and musician, but most importantly he treated people well. I pictured him in class asking the thoughtful questions and holding his own in whatever group he was assigned. I saw him running on the track, a laborious task for him, but one he gave his best effort. That’s who Brian was. My first reaction was anger at why his life had been cut short. I wanted an answer that would not be forthcoming and that only frustrated me more.
While thinking about, Brian, I missed the turn for West Point and was far enough along that I decided to take advantage of some grief counseling at the Yorktown Pub. Crossing over the bridge turned my thoughts from the sadness of death to the memories of hanging out in Yorktown as a kid. My experiences at Yorktown beach were few, but one thing was for sure, I was craving a prime rib sandwich from the pub.
A winter storm was brewing off the coast and the river was gray like the sky. A bit of sleet was falling and the waterfront was vacant, but the pub was open and after the long drive, I was ready for a treat that I had not enjoyed for nearly twenty years. Stepping back into the Yorktown Pub was like going back in time. Little had changed and thankfully the prime rib sandwich was still on the menu. I ordered one with a Mr. Pibb hoping the sandwich would be as good as the first one I had back in 1987 when Kareem hit a sky hook to give the Lakers a championship win over the Pistons. That day the pub had been packed. Today, I was the lone customer.
“Hello, Scott, how are you today?” asked a man who was sitting two seats down from me.
I was surprised to see him because I thought I was the only one there. I had not heard anyone walking across the hardwood floors and the door had not opened. I figured that I had just been lost in thought.
“I’m good. Have we met before?” I asked.
“Sort of, you used to be a bus boy at A Good Place to Eat and we met there during the Yorktown Bicentennial celebration. I was dining with French sailors and you were quite unimpressive in your attempt to speak French with them.”
“Yeah, I was never good at French. I suppose I should have studied my vocabulary more,” I said. “It’s funny that you remember me. I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.”
“Thats quite okay, I’m Charles,” he said.
Charles? My mind began racing for any face that I could match up with the name, Charles. There was Driscoll, Shackleford, Schultz, but this guy was none of them. Besides he had a British accent and was really old. Most of my trips back to Williamsburg involved me faking that I remembered who someone was until I could put their now face with the one I knew from high school, so I figured Charles would once again become familiar to me in a few minutes.
The Mr. Pibb was super cold and full of carbonation that burned on the way down like a soft drink should. The bartender brought out the plate and all I saw was that sandwich. It was big, juicy, and perfect. The first bite was heaven and I knew right away I was going to need more napkins. As I wiped my mouth, I looked over to Charles who was staring blankly out the window to the river.
“Everything okay over there, Charles?” I asked.
“I was just thinking how important bridges are. Do you remember the time you came down here to see that fancy ship and it turned out to be a remote control boat?”
How did he know that? I was in second grade and the announcements made a big deal about some ship down at the beach. My dad picked me up and we went to see “the ship” and it was just some guy with a fancy model boat that had a water gun on it. Such a let down…
“Who are you and how do you know these things?” I asked.
“I’m, Charles and I know a lot about you. Let’s have a drink. Bourbon, straight, right?”
He ordered drinks for us and I ate my sandwich with a little more urgency. Hanging with this guy was a bit strange and I was beginning to wonder what his motives were. Maybe he was some kind of spy or detective. Perhaps he was looking to blackmail me for something. I had no idea who he was and what he was up to.
The drinks arrived and he offered a toast, “To bridges.”
The first sip was even better than the prime rib. Where the soda had been caustic, the bourbon was restorative and relaxing. I turned away from the bar and stared out at the river too.
“You know, Charles, they say that a man was buried alive in that bridge,” I said.
“A lot of men have died in this town. A lot of men have been reborn on this beach, too,” he said.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“Finish your drink and I’ll show you.”
I took a couple of sips from the glass and everything began to change. The weariness from the drive and the sadness of Brian’s death were lifted. Charles was already heading out the door and even though I did not know where he was going, I felt compelled to follow along.
He was light on his feet and stylish with jeans, a light sweater, and tweed jacket. I half expected him to get into a Jaguar and drive away, but he walked across the street. All that was in the direction he was going was a parking lot and Cornwallis’ cave. Legends had General Cornwallis using the cave for shelter during the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Yorktown. After surrendering Cornwallis would return to England and eventually protect the Empire’s interests in India.
We went into the cave. The smell was musty, the walls were wet, and the space cramped. He turned to me and looked like a man who was about to share the greatest secret ever. He expression went from nothing to smiling and he said, “Bridges.”
The bourbon must have hit right then. What happened was something like A Clockwork Orange smashing into Billy Joel’s Pressure video. I felt like the walls of the cave had turned into an IMAX theater and images from my life began speeding across the screen. There were kites, rides with my grandfather through the battlefield, swimming at Fort Eustis, disappointment from role models, failures at school, successes with my family. The scrolling was non-stop and was faster than anything I could have processed before crossing from Gloucester to Yorktown. I saw my grandparents, my brother, friends lost, and people who had passed away. Suddenly, it all stopped.
“Whoa, what was that some kind of It’s A Wonderful Life moment?” I yelled out.
“Sort of,” said Charles. “Take a breath.”
I did. Everything started again. The images flashing before me were different, symbols of faith, demonstrations of trust, and the importance of humility became the themes. The beauty of it all was too much and I had to sit down. There they were, important people who had moved on, giving me the okay sign. John, Brad, Matt, Doris, Champ, Millie, Brian, all smiling, all healthy, all vibrant.
“You see, Scott, we don’t stop. We keep going because we have all been taken care of. What we do here is temporary, but leads us to our next journey.”
“How?” I asked.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“You don’t have to, just believe.”
The sleet had turned to snow. Eating alone gives the mind time to wander and my little cave dream ended with the end of my counseling. I took the last bite of the sandwich and finished the fries and soda before deciding against a piece of chocolate peanut butter cake. I figured that I should hit the road because the Tidewater area is notoriously bad at keeping the roads passable when snow is falling. Even a flake can shut down schools for a week.
“Where you heading?” asked the bartender.
“Williamsburg,” I answered.
“Good thing, they’ve closed the bridge to Gloucester.”
“Hmmm, I hope the Parkway is as beautiful as the bridge was.”
“I believe, it is, Scott.”
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