Summer days dozens of boys jumped off the train bridge. Their skin was pale at the beginning of summer, deep gold by the end. They shouted, laughed, shoving each other, horsing around, hurling insults and challenges. When a train came, they would jump into the water and watch the cars pass, sides marked with graffiti from Trenton trainyards. At certain periods every day the river ebbed, exposing some of the murky riverbed, and they would be unable to safely jump into the water, so they would sit on concrete piles, the concrete scratching their bare legs, and smoke, both joints and cigarettes. They had the rawboned torsos and pinched faces of rural American youth. They were alive and curious and tempestuous, often angry, the anger sometimes taking the form of laughter, sometimes of physical violence.
One day in late June Angel’s body washed up on the riverbank two hundred yards down from the train bridge. Angel’s family lived in a small white cinderblock rancher on the outskirts of town, on route 50, a family that flew a Mexican flag and had cookouts, the men roasting meats in grills that had almost rusted-out bottoms, the women tending to children, the children running wild. Illegals, most of the boys on the bridge assumed. Nobody remembered ever seeing Angel at the train bridge, though some of the boys talked to Angel, teasing him, never bullying, calling him The Mexican. Angel was good-natured and shy. He was big boned and dark skinned, and when his body was fished out of the river there was a gash on his forehead where he had either hit against a rock in the river or where someone had clocked him.
Stories circulated. Two of the boys and Angel on the train bridge late at night. A bottle of something. Something said that shouldn’t have been said, something that couldn’t be taken back, something, maybe, about Angel’s mother. A tussle, at first just fooling around then escalating. Angel unexpectedly strong. One of the boys raising a rock in his fist. Angel falling through the darkness. But the truth was that none of the boys knew what had happened. Or were willing to talk about it.
They clung to the trestle of the train bridge the day Angel was found. The air was humid, in the mid 90’s, their skin coated in a fine layer of sweat. They would swim for a while, washing off the sweat, then find a place in the shade to rest. They were quieter than normal, a coiled energy inside them that seemed about to strike. Three girls, seventh graders, one large and brown-haired, the other two thin and blonde, sisters, picked their way down the other side of the train bridge to fish with a hook on a line. They had not heard about the body in the river. The girls wore pale blue bathing suits and shorts and their limbs were pale and skinny. The boys felt protective of them. When they walked into the cedar water their legs would almost disappear.
Most of the boys knew the two police officers who came to question them. Officer Straight. Officer Worley. Officer Straight was a small woman with dark hair pulled back in a severe bun, a mouth like a fish’s, who did not take any shit. The boys told her what they knew: nothing. Officer Worley was big, his chest filling out his uniform, but he still wore the face of a kid who had been bullied, which made him dangerous. They wrote things on little notebooks and looked agitated. They walked across the train bridge looking for clues. The whole bridge might have been a crime scene, but there was nothing to see. A dozen stones could have been used as the murder weapon. It was too hot. When they got back to their squad car they drank from insulated thermoses of water and didn’t look at each other.
“Sometimes one of them just dies,” Worley said. Straight did not respond.
After the body was autopsied, a Mass was held. The Mexican family — really several families — attended. They were solemn as Father Raj went through the ritual. They stood, sang quietly, wished each other peace. A cross was placed on the coffin and the coffin was censed. It was difficult for Angel’s mother to believe that he was in there, that her son was dead. She had experienced enough death in her life already. He was buried in a cemetery off route 9. They watched the casket lowered into the ground. They knew he had been killed, murdered by one of the boys on the bridge, but what could they do? They saw him being treated roughly, shoved. They saw him fighting back. They saw a boy with a bare chest raising a rock. Their Angel, who had never done anyone any harm, falling into the river.
The boys would not ever leave the bridge. They would be replaced by other boys, but by all appearances they were always the same boys. One of them might return — a few of them managed to get away — and he might sit on the piles late one night, in autumn, the reeds in the salt flats brown and flattening in the wind, and think about what he had done. Or seen done. What had happened here. No one would ever know the truth about Angel, but it was just another in a long series of injustices, inhumanities, expulsions and murders that had happened here and been forgotten. The river would keep running, regardless, with its ebb and flow.
Jamey Gallagher lives in Baltimore.