“Improbable Depth” by Robert Hunter Whitworth

When I can, I try to land in the reflection of the moon. It is better to jump at night when no one is around, to land in the rippling moon and crush through it and to be underwater at night. I am under here now, thinking but not breathing, moving in the slowed down underwater way, in the dark. I’m just under here, waiting to bob back up into oxygen and noise. I think time operates differently underwater, that one underwater second is worth maybe ten dry land seconds or maybe closer to a minute. I am Tom Martin, the last Martin and my goal in life was simple: to jump from every bridge in North Carolina that stands over a body of water deep enough to jump into, and to emerge from every body of water that flows under a bridge, a little older than when I jumped.

There is no way to say this that doesn’t sound crazy: I am probably going to die very soon.

At first, on the bridges, I like to stand out on the outside of the railings and hold on to the railing with both hands and lean out as far as my arms will let me. Then I pull myself back and clap in front of my body and catch myself again before I fall forward over the water. People call me Mart. Then of course eventually I jump, but no flips or spins or anything fancy because it’s not about you, it’s about the jump and the water. Then you’re in the air and free in a way because you’ve eliminated all the forces that act on you in this world except for gravity. There are no decisions to be made, just a downward trajectory to be adhered to. You’ve briefly surrendered all responsibility.

In March and April the water is very cold.

Well, let me clarify: every member of my family has died on their 30th birthday and I am hurtling towards mine. I am falling towards 30 at the rate that a body of my mass ages in freefall.

My uncle Jeff introduced me to bridge-jumping by way of having me in the squad car with him when he arrested a pair of bridge-jumpers. They weren’t even doing it right, he said. You have to clench your cheeks or risk what he would call a Carolina enema, and these guys were just flailing all the way down. Dad was bit by a rabid dog a week before he stopped being 29 and died of what they call complications when I was eight, and my uncle used to take me on patrol with him sometimes to get me out of the house. He took part in a drug raid on his 30th where he was the only police casualty.

Well, let me clarify again: every human person born a Martin. Momma’s alive somewhere and Uncle Jeff’s wife runs a consignment shop downtown and I see her pretty often but she believes that the Martins are dying because of the curse and it’s lately been affecting her demeanor around me. They are kept safe by their maiden names, they were only cursed by marriage.

I do jump in the day sometimes and that’s when I see the birds usually, and every bird I see I name it Mart the Bird, and each one becomes a part of my legacy. I landed right on a fish one time, I think.

I started jumping as soon as I could drive, I bought a map and drove to the mountains and knocked out seven bridges a weekend and camped. People talked about me. They said a boy isn’t supposed to lose his father that young, and I call her mom out loud but I think of her as momma but either way she was never the same is what Uncle Jeff would say. Dad’s sister committed suicide off the Coral Bay Bridge in Morehead City, so you could maybe say that I’m the last practitioner of a family art.

If I jump enough, and time behaves as I think it does underwater, and I age enough inside of rivers, I can maybe beat the curse on technicality.

The curse dates back to the Civil War and Dad and Jeff’s cousin Tucker really believed in it and compiled a notebook that Jeff would talk about on patrol with me. Tucker believed that at some point in the distant past a deal of a sinister nature had been made, and that the boon from that deal was a great wealth, and that the terms of that deal were that no Martin could live past 30. Of course there’s no great wealth, though.

There’s an old myth to explain the phases of the moon, where a boy scoops out a portion of the moon’s reflection every night for a month until it’s a new moon and the reflection is gone, then replaces it bit by bit, and I like to think that when I land in the moon’s reflection as I have tonight, according to the laws set out in that myth I am exploding the moon and wreaking havoc with the tides, that I am flooding the earth until the water settles down and the moon and its reflection reform, and when I emerge the earth will be as it was when I left it.

I’d take off for weeks at a time in the summer, jumping and filling up at nowhere gas stations and looking at the puddles with oil-rainbows in them. The rainbow signified that God would never flood the world again, but I don’t know if the terms of that deal accounted for me blowing up the moon every night for 12 days.

In the summer, the sun fricassees the earth all day and the road is still warm with heat at night and when a thunderstorm drums up brief and senseless and the blacktop hisses and steams and stinks, and it rains on me where I stand, and I jump from water through water into water, then I am Thomas Kingfisher Martin, Jr., I have sired no child, my line ends with me.

I haven’t been entirely honest: it is my 30th birthday.
But let me say it this way: When I was 29 years old I jumped off a bridge and somewhere between the bridge and the moon I turned 30 and here I am now.

I wonder, what is the point of a subspecies of human that expires after only 30 years? I am incomplete, you could say, or I am a creature approaching entropy that didn’t get a shot at becoming full. Here I am.

After it rains the rivers swell up and run fast. I cut my foot on a rock once and got an infection.

at night, there is no difference between what I can’t see with my eyes open and what I can see with my eyes closed. My line ends with me. What would be the point? My child would have an abbreviated life, same as mine, truncated, bowdlerized by who knows what force or curse. Once, I looked up all the words to describe something that’s shorter than it ought to be. I hit a bird on the way down once and gashed my leg, and I don’t know what happened to Mart the Bird but he’s out there somewhere, bearing my name with the others.

I try to tell myself that being forced to check out early isn’t such a bad thing. I saw on the news that a 14-year-old boy hung his nine year-old sister from a tree by the neck to kill her. What kind of evil gets into a heart that young, except for an evil that is everywhere? What can you do with an evil like that except run away from it?

Maybe there’s not a curse, maybe the Martin deaths are a series of coincidences that appear sinister only under scrutiny from someone too close to the situation. Maybe I’ll wake up day after tomorrow, find myself alive and run into the streets and kiss a pretty redheaded girl on the mouth and take her as my wife. We shall procreate and multiply and our offspring shall thrive well past their 30s, maybe. Maybe cousin Tucker is still alive out there, hiding but breathing and breathing. I shall name them Jeff, and Tom III, and if there is a daughter Ophelia, and I shall explain to her the greatness of moving water and why she shouldn’t take everything she reads too seriously. My whole big family will hold hands and leap from bridges, removing all forces from our lives except for gravity and each other. Wouldn’t that be nice?

If the river was deeper, I could expel the air from my body and sink and keep sinking, water sliding up between my fingers and toes and I’d never touch bottom, I’d just sink and sink and sink, deep down down to improbable depth.

I don’t know why people tend to think that water is blue, it almost never is.

HunterRobert Hunter Whitworth is a graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s MFA program. He lives and teaches in Raleigh, North Carolina.