“Overpass” begins in what the narrator Alex thinks is the final moments of his life. He is staring over the edge of a bridge with a busy freeway below it. He also realizes it’s cold out, and no one should have to die freezing. He spots his regular hangout, the Funky Perk, and decides he has time for one last cup of coffee.
There, he has a seemingly casual chat with Emily, the owner. She notices he’s depressed and tells him about the worst time in her life, which was the end of her marriage.
This story started out as an academic assignment, much like “We Be Cool” and “The Confessor” began life. Those stories, however, were much easier to conceive of than “Overpass.” For “The Confessor,” I had the option to rewrite a short story we studied from a different character’s point of view. Well, who the hell was Montressor talking to in Poe’s “A Cask of Amantillado”? That spun an entirely different character and a twist of irony. Plus I had a month to pull it off. From the same class, I had the option to write a story about a poem we read. “We Be Cool” gets its title from “We Real Cool” and was one of several stories I’d written about Rufus and Ralph, two characters from Holland Bay. “Overpass”?
I had taken a class in Modern Short Story to polish off my English requirements. Our teacher did not know until the morning she announced it that we had to write a short story for our final. I had a week to come up with something. And then I heard the line every writer who goes to college later in life hates hearing: “Oh, well, you write. This should be easy for you.”
Yeah… See, I generally sketch out shorts ahead of time, maybe outline the longer ones. A story may sit on my hard drive for months before a draft is written. This story needed to be mainstream and apply to our class.
OK, at least it was under 2000 words. I can do that. Right?
Confession time here. Once, when I was 19 and my life had hit rock bottom – no job, no car, no girlfriend – I had contemplated jumping off an overpass near my house. It was about a mile away, and I often took a walk out there to clear my head. By the time I walked back home, I’d realized that, if I was having thoughts like that, I had no place to go but up. Not everyone pulls back from it like that, so let’s agree that I got lucky with beating back depression.
For some reason, that incident returned to mind, so I pictured an overpass closer to where I now live and thought about it. I also thought about a coffee shop I used to go to called the Pleasant Perk (now Coffee Exchange.) I’d gone to that shop through three owners since about 2009, and it was a happy way to start my morning before heading to work downtown or on the westside. So the Perk/Exchange became the model for the Funky Perk. Emily bears a striking resemblance physically to one of the previous owners, but she is based on several women I’ve met who owned places like that. They always seem to be rebellious free spirits, which probably infuses such places with their atmosphere. (The Exchange is now run by a suburban mom and her family, but it’s still a nice place to stop first thing in the morning.)
Alex is at a point lower than I’d ever gotten, and it was fifty-fifty when I started the story as to whether he’d jump or not. In fact, when I read it to the class, one lady interrupted me and told me I was a sick bastard for writing something like that. By the time I finished, everyone had warm fuzzies after Emily reset Alex’s mental state just by sharing her own problems with him.