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Underbridge

by Peter S. Beagle

The Seattle position came through just in time.

It was a near thing, even for Richardson. As an untenured professor of children’s literature he was bitterly used to cutting it close, but now, with nothing in the wings to follow his MSSU gig but Jake Riskin’s offer to sub remedial English in the Joplin high schools, life was officially the bleakest Richardson could remember. Easy enough to blink through grad school dreaming of life as a Matthew Arnold — esque scholar-gypsy; harder to slog through decades of futureless jobs in second-rank college towns, never being offered the cozy sinecure he had once assumed inevitable. What about professional respect and privileges? What about medical insurance, teaching assistants, preferred parking? What about sabbaticals?

Rescue found him shopping in the West 7th Street Save-A-Lot. His cell phone rang, and wondrously, instead of Jake pushing for a decision, the call was from a secretary at the University of Washington English department. Would he, she wondered, be free to take over classes for a professor who had just been awarded a sizable grant to spend eighteen months at Cambridge, producing a study of the life and works of Joan Aiken?

He said yes, of course, then took a brief time settling the details, which were neither many nor complicated. At no time did he show the slightest degree of unprofessional emotion. But after he snapped his phone shut he stood very still and whispered “Saved…” to himself, and when he left the store there were red baby potatoes ($2.40 a pound!) in his bag instead of 34-cent russets.

* * *

Most especially was he grateful at being able to take over the Queen Anne Hill apartment of the traveling professor. It was snug — the man lived alone, except for an old cat, whom Richardson, who disliked cats, had dourly agreed to care for — but also well appointed, including cable television, washer and dryer, microwave and dishwasher, a handsome fireplace, and a one-car garage, with a cord of split wood for the winter neatly stacked at the far end. The rent was manageable, as was the drive to the UW; and his classes were surprisingly enjoyable, containing as they did a fair number of students who actually wanted to be there. Richardson could have done decidedly worse, and most often had.

He had been welcomed to the school with impersonal warmth by the chairman of the English department, who was younger than Richardson and looked it. The chairman’s name was Philip Austin Watkins IV, but he preferred to be called “Aussie,” though he had never been to Australia. He assured Richardson earnestly on their first meeting, “I want you to know, I’m really happy to have you on board, and I’ll do everything I can to get you extended here if possible. That’s a promise.” Richardson, who knew much better at fifty-one than to believe this, believed.

His students generally seemed to like him — at least they paid attention, worked hard on their assignments, didn’t mock his serious manner, and often brought up intelligent questions about Milne and Greene, Erich Kastner, Hugh Lofting, Astrid Lindgren, or his own beloved E. Nesbit. But they never took him into their confidence, even during his office hours — never wept or broke down, confessing anxieties or sins or dreams (which would have terrified him), never came to him merely to visit. Nor did he make any significant connections with his fellows on the faculty. He knew well enough that he made friends with difficulty and wasn’t good at keeping them, being naturally formal in his style and uncomfortable in his body, so that he appeared to be forever leaning away from people even when he was making an earnest effort to be close to them. With women, his lifelong awkwardness became worse in the terminally friendly Seattle atmosphere. Once, younger, he had wished to be different; now he no longer believed it possible.

The legendary rain of the Pacific Northwest was not an issue; if anything, he discovered that he enjoyed it. Having studied the data on the Seattle climate carefully, once he knew he was going there, he understood that many areas of both coasts get notably more rain, in terms of inches, and endure distinctly colder winters. And the year-round greenness and lack of air pollution more than made up for the mildew, as far as Richardson was concerned. Damp or not, it beat Joplin. Or Hobbs, New Mexico. Or Enterprise, Alabama.

What the greenness did not make up for was the near-perpetual overcast. Seattle’s sky was dazzlingly, exaltingly, shockingly blue when it chose to be so; but there was a reason that the city consumed more than its share of vitamin D and was the first marketplace for various full-spectrum lightbulbs. Seattle introduced Richardson to an entirely new understanding of the word overcast, sometimes going two months and more without seeing either clear skies or an honest raindrop. He had not been prepared for this.

Many things that shrink from sunlight gain power in fog and murk. Richardson began to find himself reluctant enough to leave the atmosphere of the UW campus that he often stayed on after work, attending lectures that bored him, going to showings of films he didn’t understand — even once dropping in on a faculty meeting, though this was not required of him. The main subject under discussion was the urgent need to replace a particular TA, who for six years had been covering most of the undergraduate classes of professors far too occupied with important matters to deal with actual students. Another year would have required granting him a tenure-track assistant professorship, which was, of course, out of the question. Sitting uncomfortably in the back, saying nothing, Richardson felt he was somehow attending his own autopsy.

And when Richardson finally went home in darkness to the warm, comfortable apartment that was not his own, and the company of the sour-smelling old gray cat, he frequently went out again to walk aimlessly on steep, silent Queen Anne Hill and beyond, watching the lights go out in window after window. If rain did not fall, he might well wander until three or four in the morning, as he had never before done in his life.

But it was in daylight that Richardson first saw the Troll.

He had walked across the blue-and-orange drawbridge at the foot of Queen Anne Hill into Fremont, which had become a favorite weekend ramble of his, though the quirky, rakish little pocket always made him nervous and wistful at the same time. He wished he were the sort of person who could fit comfortably into a neighborhood that could proclaim itself “The Center of the Universe,” hold a nude bicycle parade as part of a solstice celebration, and put up signs advising visitors to throw their watches away. He would have liked to be able to imagine living in Fremont.

Richardson had read about the Fremont Bridge Troll online while preparing to leave Joplin. He knew that it was not actually located under the Fremont Bridge, but under the north end of the nearby Aurora Avenue Bridge; and that the Troll was made of concrete, had been created by a team of four artists, weighed four thousand pounds, was more than eighteen feet high, had one staring eye made of an automobile hubcap, and was crushing a cement-spattered Volkswagen Beetle in its left hand. As beloved a tourist photo op as the Space Needle, it had the inestimable further advantages of being free, unique, and something no lover of children’s books could ignore.

It took Richardson a while to come face-to-face with the Troll, because the day was blue and brisk, and the families were out in force, shoving up to the statue to take pictures, posing small children and puzzled-looking babies within the Troll’s embrace, or actually placing them on its shoulder. Richardson made no effort to approach until the crowd had thinned to a few teenagers with cell-phone cameras; then he went close enough to see his distorted reflection in the battered aluminum eye. He said nothing but stayed there until a couple of the teenagers pushed past him to be photographed kissing and snuggling in the shadow of the Troll. Then he went on home.

Two weeks later, driven by increasing insomnia, he crossed the Fremont Bridge again and eventually found himself facing the glowering concrete monster where it crouched in its streetside cave. Alone in darkness, with no fond throng to warm and humanize it, the hubcap eye now seemed to be sizing him up as a tender improvement on a VW Beetle. Grendel, Richardson thought, this is what Grendel looked like. Aloud, he said, “Hello. Off for the night?”

The Troll made no answer. Richardson went a few steps closer, fascinated by the expression and personality it was possible to impose on two tons of concrete. He asked it, “Do you ever get tired of tourists gaping at you every day? I would.” For some reason, he wanted the Troll to know that he was a sympathetic, understanding person. He said, “My name’s Richardson.”

A roupy old voice behind him said, “Don’t you get too close. He’s mean.”

Richardson turned to see a black rain slicker, which appeared to be almost entirely inhabited by a huge gray beard. The hood of the slicker was pulled close around the old man’s face, so that only the beard and a pair of bright, bloodshot gray eyes were visible as he squatted on the sidewalk that approached the underpass, with four

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