The Bridges Of Madison County (Chapter 4)
The Bridges of Tuesday
Robert Kincaid drove past Richard Johnson’s mailbox an hour before dawn, alternately chewing on a Milky Way and taking bites from an apple, squeezing the coffee cup on the seat between his thighs to keep it from tipping over. He looked up at the white house standing in thin, late moonlight as he passed and shook his head at the stupidity of men, some men, most men. They could at least drink the brandy and not bang the screen door on their way out.
Francesca heard the out-of-tune pickup go by. She lay there in bed, having slept naked for the first time as far back as she could remember . She could imagine Kincaid, hair blowing in the wind curling through the truck window, one hand on the wheel, the other holding a Camel.
She listened as the sound of his wheels faded toward Roseman Bridge. And she began to roll words over in her mind from the Yeats poem: “I went out to the hazel wood, because a fire was in my head….” Her rendering of it fell somewhere between that of teacher and supplicant.
He parked the truck well back from the bridge so it wouldn’t interfere with his compositions. From the small space behind the seat, he took a knee-high pair of rubber boots, sitting on the running board to unlace his leather ones and pull on the others. One knapsack with straps over both shoulders, tripod slung over his left shoulder by its leather strap, the other knapsack in his right hand, he worked his way down the steep bank toward the stream.
The trick would be to put the bridge at an angle for some compositional tension, get a little of the stream at the same time, and miss the graffiti on the walls near the entrance. The telephone wires in the background were a problem, too, but that could be handled through careful framing.
He took out the Nikon loaded withKodachrome and screwed it onto the heavy tripod. The camera had the 24-millimeter lens on it, and he replaced that with his favorite 105-millimeter.Gray light in the east now, and he began to experiment with his composition. Move tripod two feet left, readjust legs sticking in muddy ground by the stream. He kept the camera strap wound over his left wrist, a practice he always followed when working around water.He’d seen too many cameras go into the water when tripods tipped over.
Red color coming up, sky brightening. Lower camera six inches, adjust tripod legs. Still not there. A foot more to the left. Adjust legs again. Level camera on tripod head. Set lens to f/8. Estimate depth of field, maximize it via hyperfocal technique. Screw in cable release on shutter button. Sun 40 percent above the horizon, old paint on the bridge turning a warm red, just what he wanted.
Light meter out of left breast pocket. Check it at f/8. One second exposure, but the Kodachrome would hold well for that extreme. Look through the viewfinder.Fine-tune leveling of camera. He pushed the plunger of the shutter release and waited for a second to pass.
Just as he fired the shutter, something caught his eye. He looked through the viewfinder again. “What the hell is hanging by the entrance to the bridge?” he muttered. “A piece of paper.Wasn’t there yesterday.”
Tripod steady. Run up the bank with sun coming fast behind him. Paper neatly tacked to bridge. Pull it off, put tack and paper in vest pocket. Back toward the bank, down it, behind the camera. Sun 60 percent up.
Breathing hard from the sprint. Shoot again. Repeat twice for duplicates. No wind, grass still. Shoot three at two seconds and three at one-half second for insurance.
Click lens to f/16 setting. Repeat entire process. Carry tripod and camera to the middle of the stream. Get set up, silt from footsteps moving away behind. Shoot entire sequence again. New roll of Kodachrome. Switch lenses. Lock on the 24-millimeter,jam the 105 into a pocket. Move closer to the bridge, wading upstream. Adjust, level, light check, fire three, and bracket shots for insurance.
Flip the camera to vertical, recompose. Shoot again. Same sequence, methodical. There never was anything clumsy about his movements. All were practiced, all had a reason, the contingencies were covered, efficiently and professionally.
Up the bank, through the bridge, running with the equipment, racing the sun. Now the tough one. Grab second camera with faster film, sling both cameras around neck, climb tree behind bridge. Scrape arm on bark— “Dammit!”— keep climbing. High up now, looking down on the bridge at an angle with the stream catching sunlight.
Use spot meter to isolate bridge roof, then shady side of bridge. Take reading off water. Set camera for compromise. Shoot nine shots, bracketing, camera resting on vest wedged into tree crotch. Switch cameras. Faster film. Shoot a dozen more shots.
Down the tree. Down the bank. Set up tripod, reload Kodachrome, shoot composition similar to the first series only from the opposite side of the stream. Pull third camera out of bag. The old SP, rangefinder camera. Black-and-white work now. Light on bridge changing second by second.
After twenty intense minutes of the kind understood only by soldiers, surgeons, and photographers, Robert Kincaid swung his knapsacks into the truck and headed back down the road he had come along before. It was fifteen minutes to Hogback Bridge northwest of town, and he might just get some shots there if he hurried.
Dust flying, Camel lit, truck bouncing, past the white frame house facing north, past R i c h a r d J o h n s o n ‘ s m a i l b o x . N o s i g n o f her .
What did you expect? She’s married, doing okay. You’re doing okay. Who needs those kinds of complications? Nice evening, nice supper, nice woman. Leave it at that. God, she’s lovely , though, and there’s something about her. Something. I have trouble taking my eyes away from her.
Francesca was in the barn doing chores when he barreled past her place. Noise from the livestock cloaked any sound from the road. And Robert Kincaid headed for Hogback Bridge, racing the years, chasing the light.
Things went well at the second bridge. It sat in a valley and still had mist rising around it when he arrived. The 300-millimeter lens gave him a big sun in the upper-left part of his frame, with the rest taking in the winding white rock road toward the bridge and the bridge itself.
Then into his viewfinder came a farmer driving a team of light brown Belgians pulling a wagon along the white road. One of the last of the oldstyle boys, Kincaid thought, grinning. He knew when the good ones came by and could already see what the final print would look like as he worked. On the vertical shots he left some light sky where a title could go.
When he folded up his tripod at eight thirty-five, he felt good. The morning’s work had some keepers. Bucolic, conservative stuff, but nice and solid. The one with the farmer and horses might even be a cover shot; that’s why he had left the space at the top of the frame, room for type, for a logo. Editors liked that kind of thoughtful craftsmanship. That’s why Robert Kincaid got assignments.
He had shot all or part of seven rolls of film, emptied the three cameras, and reached into the lower-left pocket of his vest to get the other four. “Damn!” The thumbtack pricked his index finger.He had forgotten about dropping it in the pocket when he’d removed the piece of paper from Roseman Bridge. In fact, he had forgotten about the piece of paper.He fished it out, opened it, and read: “If you’d like supper again when ‘white moths are on the wing,’ come by tonight after you’re finished. Anytime
He couldn’t help smiling a little, imagining Francesca Johnson with her note and thumbtack driving through the darkness to the bridge. In five minutes he was back in town. While the Texaco man filled the tank and checked the oil (“Down half a quart”), Kincaid used the pay telephone at the station. The thin phone book was grimy from being thumbed by filling station hands. There were two listings under “R. Johnson,” but one had a town address.
He dialed the rural number and waited. Francesca was feeding the dog on the back porch when the phone rang in the kitchen. She caught it at the front of the second ring: “Johnson’s.”
“Hi, this is Robert Kincaid.”
Her insides jumped again, just as they had yesterday. A little stab of something that started in her chest and plunged to her stomach.
“Got your note. W. B. Yeats as a messenger and all that. I accept the invitation, but it might be late. The weather’s pretty good, so I’m planning on shooting the— let’s see, what’s it called? —the Cedar Bridge… this evening. It could be after nine before I’m finished. Then I’ll want to clean up a bit. So I might not be there until nine-thirty or ten. Is that all right?”
No, it wasn’t all right. She didn’t want to wait that long, but she only said, “Oh, sure. Get your work done; that’s what’s important. I’ll fix something that’ll be easy to warm up when you get here.”
Then he added, “If you want to come along while I’m shooting, that’s fine. It won’t bother me. I could stop by for you about five-thirty.”
Francesca’s mind worked the problem. She wanted to go with him. But what if someone saw her? What could she say to Richard if he found out?
Cedar Bridge sat fifty yards upstream from and parallel to the new road and its concrete bridge. She wouldn’t be too noticeable. Or would she? In less than two seconds, she decided. “Yes, I’d like that. But I’ll drive my pickup and meet you there. What time?”
“About six. I’ll see you then. Okay? ‘Bye.”
He spent the rest of the day at the local newspaper office looking through old editions. It was a pretty town, with a nice courthouse square, and he sat there on a bench in the shade at lunch with a small sack of fruit and some bread, along with a Coke from a cafe across the street.
When he had walked in the cafe and asked for a Coke to take out, it was a little after noon.
Like an old Wild West saloon when the regional gunfighter appeared, the busy conversation had stopped for a moment while they all looked him over. He hated that, felt self-conscious; but it was the standard procedure in small towns. Someone new! Someone different! Who is he? What’s he doing here?
“Somebody said he’s a photographer.Said they saw him out by Hogback Bridge this morning with all sorts of cameras.”
“Sign on his truck says he’s from
Washington, out west.”
“Been over to the newspaper office all
morning. Jim says he’s looking through the papers for information on the covered bridges.” “Yeah, young Fischer at the Texaco said he stopped in yesterday and asked directions to
all the covered bridges.”
“What’s he wanna know about them for,
“And why in the world would anybody
wanna take pictures of ’em? They’re just all fallin’ down in bad shape.”
“Sure does have long hair. Looks like one of them Beatle fellows, or what is it they been callin’ some of them other people? Hippies, ain’t that it?” That brought laughter in the back booth and to the table next to it.
Kincaid got his Coke and left, the eyes still on him as he went out the door. Maybe he’d made a mistake in inviting Francesca, for her sake, not his. If someone saw her at Cedar Bridge, word would hit the cafe next morning at breakfast, relayed by young Fischer at the Texaco station after taking a handoff from the passerby. Probably quicker than that.
He’d learned never to underestimate the telecommunicative flash of trivial news in small towns. Two million children could be dying of hunger in the Sudan, and that wouldn’t cause a bump in consciousness. But Richard Johnson’s wife seen with a long-haired stranger— now that was news! News to be passed around, news to be chewed on, news that created a vague carnal lapping in the minds of those who heard it, the only such ripple they’d feel that year.
He finished his lunch and walked over to the public phone on the parking of the courthouse. Dialed her number.She answered, slightly breathless, on the third ring. “Hi, it’s Robert Kincaid again.”
Her stomach tightened instantly as she thought, He can’t come; he’s called to say that. “Let me be direct. If it’s a problem for you to come out with me tonight, given the curiosity of small-town people, don’t feel pressured to do it. Frankly, I could care less what they think of me around here, and one way or the other,I’ll come by later. What I’m trying to say is that I might have made an error in inviting you, so don’t feel compelled in any way to do it. Though I’d love to have you along.”
She’d been thinking about just that since they’d talked earlier.But she had decided. “No, I’d like to see you do your work. I’m not worried about talk.” She was worried, but something in her had taken hold, something to do with risk. Whatever the cost; she was going out to Cedar Bridge.
“Great. Just thought I’d check. See you later .”
“Okay.” He was sensitive, but she already knew that.
At four o’clock he stopped by his motel and did some laundry in the sink, put on a clean shirt, and tossed a second one in the truck, along with a pair of khaki slacks and brown sandals he’d picked up in India in 1962 while doing a story on the baby railroad up to Darjeeling. At a tavern he purchased two six packs of Budweiser. Eight of the bottles, all that would fit, he arranged around his film in the cooler.
Hot, real hot again. The late afternoon sun in Iowa piled itself on top of its earlier damage, which had been absorbed by cement and brick and earth. It fairly blistered down out of the west.
The tavern had been dark and passably cool, with the front door open and big fans on the ceiling and one on a stand by the door whirring at about a hundred and five decibels. Somehow, though, the noise of the fans, the smell of stale beer and smoke, the blare of the jukebox, and the semihostile faces staring at him from along the bar made it seem hotter than it really was.
Out on the road the sunlight almost hurt, and he thought about the Cascades and fir trees and breezes along the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, near Kydaka Point.
Francesca Johnson looked cool, though. She was leaning against the fender of her Ford pickup where she had parked it behind some trees near the bridge. She had on the same jeans that fit her so well, sandals, and a white cotton T-shirt that did nice things for her body. He waved as he pulled up next to her truck.
“Hi. Nice to see you. Pretty hot,” he said. Innocuous talk, around-the-edges-of-things talk. That old uneasiness again, just being in the presence of a woman for whom he felt something. He never knew quite what to say, unless the talk was serious. Even though his sense of humor was well developed, if a little bizarre, he had a fundamentally serious mind and took things seriously. His mother had always said he was an adult at four years of age. That served him well as a professional. To his way of thinking, though, it did not serve him well around women such as Francesca Johnson.
“I wanted to watch you make your pictures.
“Shoot,’ as you call it.”
“Well, you’re about to see it, and you’ll find it pretty boring. At least other people generally do. It’s not like listening to someone practice the piano, where you can be part of it. In photography, production and performance are separated by a long time span. Today I’m doing production. When the pictures appear somewhere, that’s the performance. All you’re going to see is a lot of fiddling around. But you’re more than welcome. In fact, I’m glad you came.”
She hung on those last four words. He needn’t have said them. He could have stopped with “welcome,” but he didn’t. He was genuinely glad to see her; that was clear.She hoped the fact she was here implied something of the same to him.
“Can I help you in some way?” she asked as he pulled on his rubber boots.
“You can carry that blue knapsack. I’ll take the tan one and the tripod.”
So Francesca became a photographer’s assistant. He had been wrong. There was much to see. There was a performance of sorts, though he was not aware of it. It was what she had noticed yesterday and part of what drew her toward him. His grace, his quick eyes, the muscles along his forearms working. Mostly the way he moved his body.The men she knew seemed cumbrous compared to him.
It wasn’t that he hurried. In fact, he didn’t hurry at all. There was a gazellelike quality about him, though she could tell he was strong in a supple way. Maybe he, was more like a leopard than a gazelle. Yes. Leopard, that was it. He was not prey. Quite the reverse, she sensed.
“Francesca, give me the camera with the blue strap, please.”
She opened the knapsack, feeling a little overcautious about the expensive equipment he handled so casually, and took out the camera. It said “Nikon” on the chrome plating of the viewfinder,with an “F” to the upper left of the name.
He was on his knees northeast of the bridge, with the tripod low. He held out his left hand without taking his eye from the viewfinder, and she gave him the camera, watching his hand close about the lens as he felt it touch him. He worked the plunger on the end of the cord she had seen hanging out of his vest yesterday. The shutter fired. He cocked the shutter and fired again.
He reached under the tripod head and unscrewed the camera on it, which was replaced by the one she had given him. While he fastened on the new one, he turned his head toward her and grinned. “Thanks, you’re a first-class assistant.” She flushed a little. God, what was it about him! He was like some star creature who had drafted in on the tail of a comet and dropped off at the end of her lane. Why can’t I just say “you’re welcome”? she thought. I feel sort of slow around him, though it’s nothing he does. It’s me, not him. I’m just not used to being with people whose minds work as fast as his does.
He moved into the creek, then up the other bank. She went through the bridge with the blue knapsack and stood behind him, happy, strangely happy. There was energy here, a power of some kind in the way he worked. He didn’t just wait for nature, he took it over in a gentle way, shaping it to his vision, making it fit what he saw in his mind.
He imposed his will on the scene, countering changes in light with different lenses, different films, a filter occasionally. He didn’t just fight back, he dominated, using skill and intellect. Farmers also dominated the land with chemicals and bulldozers. But Robert Kincaid’s way of changing nature was elastic and always left things in their original form when he finished.
She looked at the jeans pulling themselves tight around his thigh muscles as he knelt down. At the faded denim shirt sticking to his back, gray hair over the collar of it. At how he sat back on his haunches to adjust a piece of equipment, and for the first time in ever so long, she grew wet between her legs just watching someone. When she felt it, she looked up at the evening sky and breathed deeply,listening to him quietly curse a jammed filter that wouldn’t unscrew from a lens.
He crossed the creek again back toward the trucks, sloshing along in his rubber boots. Francesca went into the covered bridge, and when she came out the other end, he was crouched and pointing a camera toward her. He fired, cocked the shutter, and fired a second and third time as she walked toward him along the road. She felt herself grin in mild embarrassment.
“Don’t worry.” He smiled. “I won’t use those anywhere without your permission. I’m finished here. Think I’ll stop by the motel and rinse off a bit before coming out.”
“Well, you can if you want. But I can spare a towel or a shower or the pump or whatever,” she said quietly,earnestly.
“Okay, you’re on. Go ahead. I’ll load the equipment in Harry— that’s my truck— and be right there.”
She backed Richard’s new Ford out of the trees and took it up on the main road away from the bridge, turned right, and headed toward Winterset, where she cut southwest toward home. The dust was too thick for her to see if he was following, though once, coming around a curve, she thought she could see his lights a mile back, rattling along in the truck he called Harry.
It must have been him, for she heard his truck coming up the lane just after she arrived. Jack barked at first but settled down right away,
muttering to himself, “Same guy as last night; okay, I guess.” Kincaid stopped for a moment to talk with him.
Francesca stepped out of the back porch door. “Shower?”
“That’d be great. Show me the way.”
She took him upstairs to the bathroom she had insisted Richard put in when the children were growing up. That was one of the few demands on which she had stood firm. She liked long hot baths in the evening, and she wasn’t going to deal with teenagers tromping around in her private spaces. Richard used the other bath, said he felt uncomfortable with all the feminine things in hers. “Too fussy,” were his words.
The bath could be reached only throughtheir bedroom. She opened the door to it and took out an assortment of towels and a washcloth from a cupboard under the sink. “Use anything you want.” She smiled while biting her lower lip slightly.
“I might borrow some shampoo if you can spare it. Mine’s at the motel.”
“Sure. Take your pick.” She set three different bottles on the counter, each partly used.
“Thanks.” He tossed his fresh clothes on the bed, and Francesca noted the khakis, white shirt, and sandals. None of the local men wore sandals. A few of them from town had started wearing Bermuda shorts at the golf course, but not the farmers. And sandals… never.
She went downstairs and heard the shower come on. He’s naked now, she thought, and felt funny in her lower belly.
Earlier in the day, after he called, she had driven the forty miles into Des Moines and went to the state liquor store. She was not experienced in this and asked a clerk about a good wine. He didn’t know any more than she did, which was nothing. So she looked through the rows of bottles until she came across a label that read “Valpolicella.” She remembered that from a long time ago. Dry,Italian red wine. She bought two bottles and another decanter of brandy,feeling sensual and worldly.
Next she looked for a new summer dress from a shop downtown. She found one, light pink with thin straps. It scooped down in back, did the same in front rather dramatically so the tops of her breasts were exposed, and gathered around her waist with a narrow sash. And new white sandals, expensive ones, flat-heeled, with delicate handiwork on the straps. In the afternoon she fixed stuffed peppers, filling them with a mixture of tomato sauce, brown rice, cheese, and chopped parsley. Then came a simple spinach salad, corn bread, and an applesauce soufflé for dessert. All of it,
except the soufflé, went into the refrigerator. She hurried to shorten her dress to knee length. The Des Moines Register had carried an article earlier in the summer saying that was the preferred length this year. She always had thought fashion and all it implied pretty weird, people behaving sheeplike in the service of European designers. But the length suited her,
so that’s where the hem went.
The wine was a problem. People around here kept it in the refrigerator,though in Italy they never had done that. Yet it was too warm just to let it sit on the counter. Then she remembered the spring house. It was about sixty degrees in there in the summer, so she put the wine along the wall.
The shower shut off upstairs just as the phone rang. It was Richard, calling from Illinois. “Everything okay?”
“Carolyn’s steer’ll be judged on Wednesday.
Some other things we want to see next day. Be home Friday,late.”
“All right, have a good time and drive carefully .”
“Frannie, you sure you’re okay? Sound a little strange.”
“No, I’m fine. Just hot. I’ll be better after my bath.”
“Okay.Say hello to Jack for me.”
“Yes, I’ll do that.” She glanced at Jack sprawled on the cement of the back porch floor. Robert Kincaid came down the stairs and
into the kitchen. White button-down-collar shirt, sleeves rolled up to just above the elbow, light khaki slacks, brown sandals, silver bracelet, top two buttons of his shirt open, silver chain. His hair was still damp and brushed neatly, with a part in the middle. And she marveled at the sandals.
“I’ll just take my field duds out to the truck and bring in the gear for a little cleaning.”
“Go ahead. I’m going to take a bath.” “Want a beer with your bath?”
“If you have an extra one.”
He brought in the cooler first, lifted out a beer for her, and opened it, while she found two tall glasses that would serve as mugs. When he went back to the truck for the cameras, she took her beer and went upstairs, noted that he had cleaned the tub, and then ran a high, warm bath for herself, settling in with her glass on the floor beside her while she shaved and soaped. He had been here just a few minutes before; she was lying where the water had run down his body, and she found that intensely erotic. Almost everything about Robert Kincaid had begun to seem erotic to her.
Something as simple as a cold glass of beer at bath time felt so elegant. Why didn’t she and Richard live this way? Part of it, she knew, was the inertia of protracted custom. All marriages, all relationships, are susceptible to that. Custom brings predictability , and predictability carries its own comforts; she was aware of that, too.
And there was the farm. Like a demanding invalid, it needed constant attention, even though the steady substitution of equipment for human labor had made much of the work less onerous than it had been in the past.
But there was something more going on here. Predictability is one thing, fear of changeis something else. And Richard was afraid of change, any kind of change, in their marriage. Didn’t want to talk about it in general. Didn’t want to talk about sex in particular.Eroticism was, in some way , dangerous business, unseemly to his way of thinking.
But he wasn’t alone and really wasn’t to blame. What was the barrier to freedom that had been erected out here? Not just on their farm, but in the rural culture. Maybe urban culture, for that matter.Why the walls and the fences preventing open, natural relationships between men and women? Why the lack of intimacy,the absence of eroticism?
The women’s magazines talked about these matters. And women were starting to have expectations about their allotted place in the grander scheme of things, as well as what transpired in the bedrooms of their lives. Men such as Richard—- most men, she guessed— were threatened by these expectations. In a way, women were asking for men to be poets and driving, passionate lovers at the same time.
Women saw no contradiction in that. Men did. The locker rooms and stag parties and pool halls and segregated gatherings of their lives defined a certain set of male characteristics in which poetry, or anything of subtlety, had no place. Hence, if eroticism was a matter of subtlety, an art form of its own, which Francesca knew it to be, it had no place in the fabric of their lives. So the distracting and conveniently clever dance that held them apart went on, while women sighed and turned their faces to the wall in the nights of Madison County .
There was something in the mind of Robert Kincaid that understood all of this, implicitly. She was sure of that.
Walking into the bedroom, toweling off, she noted it was a little after ten. Still hot, but the bath had cooled her. From the closet she took the new dress.
She pulled her long black hair behind her and fastened it with a silver clasp. Silver earrings, large hooped ones, and a loose-fitting silver bracelet she also had bought in Des Moines that morning.
The Wind Song perfume again. A little lipstick on the high cheekboned, Latin face, the shade of pink even lighter than the dress. Her tan from working outdoors in shorts and midriff tops accented the whole outfit. Her slim legs came out from under the hem looking just fine.
She turned first one way, then the other, looking at herself in the bureau mirror.That’s about as good as I can do, she thought. And there then, pleased, said half out loud, “It’s pretty good, though.”
Robert Kincaid was working on his second beer and repacking the cameras when she came into the kitchen. He looked up at her.
“Jesus,” he said softly. All of the feelings, all of the searching and reflecting, a lifetime of feeling and searching and reflecting, came together at that moment. And he fell in love with Francesca Johnson, farmer’s wife, of Madison County,Iowa, long ago from Naples.
“I mean”— his voice was a little shaky, a little rough— “if you don’t mind my boldness, you look stunning. Make-’em-run-around-the- block-howling-in-agony stunning. I’m serious. You’re big-time elegant, Francesca, in the purest sense of that word.”
His admiration was genuine, she could tell. She reveled in it, bathed in it, let it swirl over her and into the pores of her skin like soft oil from the hands of some deity somewhere who had deserted her years ago and had now returned.
And, in the catch of that moment, she fell in love with Robert Kincaid, photographer- writer , from Bellingham, Washington, who drove an old pickup truck named Harry.