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A. Major/ Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1752


Fiction | 26 minute read
An exclusive short story by Erica Wagner

A note on ‘Explosive’

In 2017 my friends at Bloomsbury published my biography of Washington Roebling, entitled Chief Engineer. Roebling’s most notable achievement was the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, begun in 1869 and not completed until 1883. Born in 1837, Roebling – although crippled by his work on the bridge – lived to a ripe old age; he died in 1926, a year after The Great Gatsby appeared.  His life spanned the days of the American frontier and the industrial revolution straight through to the Jazz Age; it is a life that has fascinated me for a great many years.

And despite all my work on the book, my fascination for its subject has not passed from my mind. It has, rather, taken another form. In biography, it’s important to be rigorous about not over-interpreting the material you are faced with: I don’t have any truck with this ‘he must have felt…’ business. My aim was to avoid that entirely in Chief Engineer.

Fiction, of course, is different; discovering a character’s thoughts and feelings is what fiction is for. There were moments of Washington’s story that have stayed with me powerfully, asking for some other kind of telling.

So here is a piece along these lines. A story which lifts off from Chief Engineer but stands on its own, about work and war and success and the price which all can exact.

Chief Engineer is published in paperback by Bloomsbury, £10.99

‘A more brilliant illumination within a restricted area has never been witnessed in the city.’ —Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 25 May, 1883.



The weight of the pistol was heavy in his hand. Years since he had held one. Five years.

—All right?

Paine nodded, a group of men huddling behind him. In the half-light their faces gleamed with sweat; Washington’s own shirt was soaked beneath his waistcoat.

He cocked the pistol and fired it, pointing the barrel down towards the iron shoe of the caisson. Even though the gun was in his own hand the crack made him jump, his wrist twitching, his eyes closing, his heart beating even faster than it normally did down here.

—Nothing, Paine said. Fine.

Another charge, heavier, and nothing in the caisson was affected. For two weeks they had hardly been able to get the thing to sink at all: great boulders underneath the edges of the chamber stopped all progress, and picks and shovels were no good against them. Craggy surfaces of crystalline traprock, gneiss and rotten quartz. This rate of progress was useless. No caisson; no tower. No tower; no bridge. We must blast the boulders away, Washington had said to Paine last week. I fear it will be the only way. Are you sure? Paine had asked, as they stood in the twilight, both of them weary from a day’s nearly fruitless labor. The effect of any blast might be—

—I know, Washington said. I know. But what else is there to do?

The concussion of the blasts might damage the men—deafen them—might wreck the caisson itself. The whole experiment could be fatal.

—We must try, Washington said. We can start small.

The pistol was the trial. And soon enough, they were blasting all day, drilling holes in the base of the boulders, some of them fourteen feet across, so they would shoot bodily into the caisson where the men would break them up with pickaxes. The rifle powder made clouds of black smoke that darkened the chamber; the men were slicked with the sulphur-smelling dust.

Emily made him go down the scullery to remove his clothes at the end of the day, told the maid to have hot water and towels ready for his return. That return was unpredictable, and often the water would have to be heated again by the time he was able to use it. He kept even longer hours than he had before, prowling around the caisson as the blasting went on. There were days he didn’t see the light, down before sunrise, back up after sunset. He saw his little boy only when he slept.

And one day he noticed Paine watching him as the men finished drilling a boulder before laying in the powder charge; only then did he realize that he was standing with his hand clamped over his mouth, his shoulders tight, his stomach in a knot, the concussion of the blast carrying those visions of cannon and shell—he must not think of it—

He bent over, vomited. Spattering his boots. No one cared. It happened all the time down here. Paine still watching him when he managed to straighten himself, and he nodded so that Paine would see that he was fine, just fine. The compressed air thick in his chest. That was the beginning. That was the first time.


The boy had appeared at breakfast. Sitting on a rock, staring at him as Washington dipped his cracker in his coffee to soften it, green eyes in a dirty face, a ragged uniform and his boots too big, the skin around his ankles chafed raw above the leather. The boy’s jacket was buttoned right up; Washington couldn’t see a shirt beneath it. He took a bite of biscuit, chewed, made the effort to swallow. The boy’s gaze didn’t move.

—You eaten? he said to the boy.

—Nuh-uh, the boy answered.

—Who are you with? Washington couldn’t see any badge on the boy’s coat; he wasn’t wearing a cap. All around them were the sounds of the camp in the morning, the chorus of lung-tearing coughs that drowned out the songs of any birds foolish enough to linger in this place; the rattle of pans and tin plates, rammers shoved down into musket barrels, swearing, coarse laughter. Smoke rose up from their fires and mingled with the dawn mist.

The boy gave no answer, but kept staring at Washington’s breakfast, such as it was; and so Washington handed him the coffee and the cracker and watched as the boy wolfed it down, or tried to. There weren’t many teeth left in his mouth. He had to bite and gulp like a dog, turning his head to the side to soften the biscuit, which was nearly hard as wood.

—Go a little slower, Washington said. You’ll make yourself sick.

There was a second tin cup on the ground by the tent flap; Washington reached in and poured himself another cup from the pot. It tasted awful, burned and thin, but it was hot. He gave the boy two more crackers and a piece of salt pork, the last he had. The boy didn’t look much more than thirteen or fourteen. When Washington asked his name, his regiment, he got no answer. Even in the summer’s heat the boy shook, his hands trembling so the coffee nearly spilled from the cup.

Washington supposed he’d have to figure out what to do about the boy. Paine was still asleep inside the tent; he’d be sure to have a good idea when he woke. Maybe it didn’t matter, anyhow. He thought of himself at that age, hungry and lost. But at least there hadn’t been a war. At least there hadn’t been this.

A few tents along Washington heard the sound of a scuffle; the dull crack of a fist on bone.

—I’ll shit wherever I fuckin well want! You stay out of my shittin way! I’ll shit all over you, all over you and your mother, too!

He smiled at the boy, because what else was there to do? The boy smiled back.

And then there was another crack, and where the boy’s nose and mouth had been there was a blossom of brilliant red, a gray-pink cloud that hovered around the boy’s head, and a noise from the boy’s throat and lungs, a gurgling shriek and then a sigh of breath, and the boy’s eyes, bright as emeralds, bright as sunlight shining through spring leaves, opened wide and wider,  blinked once as if affronted at the sight of Washington spitting out his coffee, throwing the tin cup aside to catch the boy before he fell on his face, what was left of his face, in the dirt. The pale shards of his teeth, what was left of them, in that awful crater.

And then the major riding by, spraying up the earth on the boy, over them both, his fine black horse in a sweat for all it wasn’t yet eight o’clock.

       —Come on boys, he yelled, come on! We’re gunna give em hell today!

Roebling Collection, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY


Her two quick raps on the door. He could sense her hand, hovering, waiting to see whether she should knock again. He might let her: pretend to be asleep. He could keep pretending, even after that. She would not try three times. He smiled at the plaster ceiling: there was a hairline crack running out from the chandelier’s rose. How had he not noticed it before? She would wish to have it seen to. Don’t worry, little crack, he thought to himself. I won’t give you up to her.

—Come in, he said.

The click of the latch; a pair of straw-colored kid gloves in her hand, her hair tied in a knot at her neck. He could see a little gray in there now, at her temples; she pretended not to mind.

She had that look around her mouth. A stranger might think she was frowning. He knew she was not.

—Have you rested? Her hand still lightly on the doorknob. Standing in the space between entry and exit. Assessing the quality of her welcome.

—My dear. As you see, he said. Come, sit. You must be weary from your exertions.

—Exertions? she said. Why do you presume I have been exerting myself? Perhaps I have only been to the dressmaker’s, or to tea with Mrs Gordon.

—I think either would be exertion enough, at least for me, he said. Certainly, I should be weary if I had been to the dressmakers. If I’d had tea with Mrs Gordon I might turn into Rip Van Winkle and not wake for a hundred years.

—Oh, now, she said. Mrs Gordon is ever so fond of you.

—I wish I had a dollar for all the ladies you say are fond of me. I should be a wealthy man.

Her eyebrow raised, just a fraction. At her throat she was wearing the black opal he had given her—what? A decade ago? A Mr O’Brien had written from Queensland, with a description of the stone. Washington had asked for it to be set in a plain gold bezel with a sturdy pin; whatever color she wore, the stone would spark an echo, blazing a rainbow in sunlight.

—In any case, he said. I think you have been to the dressmakers. Do I know that frock?

—I am sure you do, she said. It is not new. I have not been to the dressmakers. I took the carriage to the park. Such a glorious day.

—And yet, he said, I am not sure it is of those glories you wish to speak.

—Well, no, she said. Dearest. I passed by the bridge office, you know, and—

—Dearest, he said. He took her hand. It was warm in his own. You need not go there anymore. They are doing just fine without us, now.

Sometimes she would simply choose not to listen. He could not blame her.

—Mr Detwiller was there, she said, with his proposal.

The clock in the hall downstairs, ticking. A ferry horn on the river, the boat coming in to dock, or setting off to the opposite shore. The looping call of a red cardinal.

—I think what he suggests will make a very fine sight, she continued. A very fine sight indeed.

—You know my thoughts on Mr Detwiller’s proposal, he said. You know them very well indeed.

He pulled himself up from the chaise. There was a pain under his ribs, and a pain that circled the back of his head, from ear to ear; sitting up made it worse. Sunlight flashed off the surface of the river and through the window’s wide panes, making him squint; he put a hand over his eyes.

—Shall I draw the blind? she asked. Her voice was cool.

—Yes, he said. Please.

Her skirt rustled as she moved across the room. At the window she took hold of the cord to the blind, but then stood, for just a moment, gazing outward; he watched her as she looked at the structure now spanning the water from shore to shore. He could not see it from where he sat: her expression, as she gazed at the bridge, did not change. She pulled the blind closed and the room fell into shadow.

—There is a danger of fire, he said. I have said this time and again. And—beyond the fire—how will the bridge be cleared? Mayor Low will not wish to be rushed from this structure of which he claims to be so proud. Who will harry him from the promenade? The police? Mr Kingsley? The President of the United States? Mr Detwiller’s proposal may seem attractive to those who wish to trumpet an achievement which is not, in fact, theirs—but it is not attractive to me. I will not allow it. There will be no fireworks on the bridge. No bombs. No rockets. No roman candles. The very idea is asinine. That is the end of it.

His breath came short, now. The walls of the room closed in tight around him. The edges of his vision blurred. He gripped the chaise with both his hands, digging his nails into the velvet.

—Washington, she said, in that soft voice.

—Don’t, he said.

Washington, she said. Husband.

—That is the end of it, I said.

He did not look at her. His eyes on the Turkey carpet under his slippers; and then to the shaded window, the blind glowing ochre against the afternoon sun.

—I do not imagine it is, she said gently, the end of it. In any case, you must rest now. I shall leave you be.

—I am sorry, he said, and turned to her. She touched his shoulder with her small strong hand; she bent and kissed him lightly on the forehead.

—Are you? she asked. I’m not so sure of that.


He had observed Paine, holding a notebook and pencil in his left hand as he rode along, the reins looped around the pommel of his saddle so that it was a simple matter to write on horseback, never pausing to fumble for the book in his pocket or pull the writing instrument out from behind his ear. Paine could write at a trot, and Washington had seen him draw a map this way, the horse’s back rising and falling beneath him, Paine seeming never to move, no matter how rough the ground, his eyes flicking from the landscape to his work, his pencil moving as lightly and carefully as if he had been seated at a desk in a library.

And so when Butterfield had ordered, Roebling, you must observe the line and report on the strength of our divisions, Washington had thought only of how he would hold his notebook and pencil; that was far better than considering how many Reb shooters there would be along that distance, happy to see a lone Union man touring this place as if these Pennsylvania fields were a park and he was out for his morning ride. There had been the boy at breakfast, just yesterday, shot where they sat. Butterfield’s aide had shaken Washington’s shoulder at dawn, told him to go immediately to the general, who had hardly met his eye as he issued his instruction. Butterfield’s father was a businessman, they said; he had the air of one who expected to find his shoes shined and lined up by his bed every morning.

Now, away from camp, he could hear the birds singing. For these birds, he thought, this is an ordinary morning. Orioles, chickadees, the sharp shouts of jays; they would scatter in time and be silenced. He saw them flit from tree to tree, trees still standing tall or trees blasted to pieces; the birds would peck seeds off the ground, not an inch away from the corpses strewn everywhere, the bodies through which he had to find a path. He looked outward, not down, or at least this is what he tried to do: but if he did not look down he would hear the crunch of bone when his mount stepped on the body of a fallen man, the blue and gray uniforms indistinguishable in the mud.

Everything was sensation. The trickle of sweat through his hair and down his collar as the sun rose higher and fixed its gaze on his back; the rough leather of the reins against his palm; the sounds of the camps, little groups of men rising, eating, pissing, groaning, shrieking. He tried to hear the birdsong, not the noises made by the men: he tried to listen out for the distant rustle that would mean a Reb and his weapon laying down in the brush, closing one eye before he squeezed the trigger. He made his notes in his little book: sometimes he could see a flag fixed into the ground that would identify a brigade, sometimes he had to canter up, dismount, poke his head into a tent: We’re the 1st Rhode Island Light, said a boy with bare, filthy feet; the 5th Michigan here, said a man old enough to be his father, gray hair gathered in a tail down his back. General Meade wanted to stitch them all back together just so, into an orderly quilt of war, as if there were any such thing.

Crack!—and his horse shied up, rearing on her hind legs, the ball was that close. A little loosening in his bowels: there was nothing like a rifle shot to clear the sphincter. He opened his mouth wide, taking in the morning air to calm himself. With his left hand still holding his little notebook tight he stroked his horse’s neck, Sally, someone had named her. Sally, he said. Good girl. Three miles of this, the sun getting hotter until he had to fan himself with his hat. Three more rifle shots, and before the last one came he felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck as if he knew what was coming. Peculiar. Holding on tight with his knees to Sally’s flanks so she hardly shuddered as the ball passed by. A man can get used to anything.

Back at camp he stood before Butterfield, tore pages out of his book and handed over his notes. Neat writing, Butterfield said. Good. Washington did not reply, as no remark seemed to be called for. Butterfield looked like the kind of man who would think he ought to be foreman at the wire mill, but wouldn’t last: the kind of man the others talked about behind his back, who got his lunch pail stolen or his shoelaces snatched. But he wore a cloak of money so he would never have to work at a mill. Washington saluted and set out to find some breakfast, but Paine found him before he could.

—General wants us to look at some maps, he said. Meade, he meant.

—Wish I could get something to eat, you know. Riding all morning.

—I heard. Along the line?

—Indeed. All helter-skelter. No one knows where anyone else is.

Paine shook his head. And so it goes, he said. He patted his pockets. Thought I had a spare biscuit in there for you, Wash, he said, but no. Fear you’d get just crumbs and lint.

—I’m not yet ready to eat the lining of your pockets, Will. We’ll see if it comes to that. But thanks.

Meade was in a two-room log-built house that served as his headquarters. It was old and had been poorly-made: broken shingles littered the ground all around and the spaces between the logs let in as much light as the crooked windows. The general’s coat was stained and his eyes were tired; he looked like he could have done without the task of running the army, but like all the rest of them, he had no choice.

—Good morning, gentlemen, he said to them. He looked at Washington. You the surveyor?

—I’ve been along the line this morning, sir, Washington said. But Captain Paine here is your surveyor.

—Come look at these maps, then, Meade said. There was a table in the middle of the room; maps that looked like they’d been dragged through the mud were unrolled on its surface, the corners held down with rocks on one side, tin cups on the other. How Washington wished for coffee. His stomach growled. We got them from a land-agent, Meade went on. I can’t say how reliable they are.

Just then there was a rumble, like thunder in the distance, though the sky this morning was a clean clear blue. Paine stood on one side of the table, Washington and the general on the other, and later on Washington would recall how Paine reached out to hold onto the edges of the table to steady himself, or so it seemed, bracing his feet apart like a man on a ship in a storm. The tin cups shook a little, and now Washington saw that one of them was full of cold coffee, he could have drunk that right down, but it slopped out onto the map when the cup tipped over from the force of the thunder that was now roaring above them and around them as the Confederate cannon began blasting all together, a roaring chorus of artillery, hundreds of pieces—it must have been—firing all at once.

A man can get used to anything, he had thought only an hour ago, but this was something else, as if the noise was a wall he was being thrown against, and for a moment he felt his father’s hands on his collar, the force of his father’s wiry arms just before he threw him across a room or out a door, but this was not his father’s rage, it was something larger and more awful even than that, and immediately the rough-hewn logs of the little building began to splinter, the exploding shells hacking like axes against the wood. Paine stared at him and he stared at Paine and by this time the general and his aide-de-camp—what was the man’s name?—had hurled themselves to the ground, and the door was still open, and through the open door he saw the horses tethered outside bucking and rearing and screaming, and then one of them, a bay with a bright white blaze down its nose, was cut clean in half by a ball, the two halves dropping to the earth suddenly but silently, or rather, the sound the body would have made was drowned out, drowned out completely by the bombardment that was everywhere.

He thought the drums of his ears would burst. And now he too threw himself to the ground, and when he did he felt that spilled cup of coffee drip down on his neck from the table. The liquid slid along his cheek and down along towards his lip, and even in this moment when the coffee touched his tongue Washington thought, that was fine coffee, I wished I’d had a cup of coffee, and ever after he would consider this to be extraordinary, that in a moment of mortal fear he could still taste that coffee. Now Paine was on the floor too, the dirt of the ground in his whiskers—he always kept his whiskers neat—and then Paine reached out his ungloved hand and Washington took it in his own, because at a moment like this what else was there to do.

Roebling Collection, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY


The papers were on the table at his bedside, beside the water-jug, the glass, and the saucer where the syringe rested. A telegram confirming that the promenade of the bridge would be thoroughly soaked with water; the Chief Engineer had wished to know how many thousands of gallons would be used, for a plain assurance was not enough. He would send a letter of instruction. The soaking must be performed by the Fire Department, not by Mr Detwiller and his men. It was not Mr Detwiller who would be called to put a conflagration out, therefore we cannot be assured that Mr Detwiller will pay sufficient attention to the task. Mr Detwiller, indeed, is the man to ensure a conflagration begins, is he not?

—Washington, she had said when he dictated his orders to her, this is not the best way to go about this.

How many times. How many times had she said these words to him. He said nothing.

—Oh Wash, she said. You must be reconciled. There is no choice.

She hardly ever called him that anymore, Wash. She would say, the Colonel, if there were others in the room; Husband, she might say to him, or the three long syllables of his name. He had not been Wash in years. And yet, just now, it had come round again.

—You have ensured there is no choice, Em, he said. That I have no choice here is a deed of your own making.

And yet she saw he was smiling. That too was rare, these days.

—No one will ever forget this occasion, my dear, she said. I promise.

He shook his head. Two days ago he had already heard the servants traipsing through the house, dusting, polishing, standing on chairs to tie bows of white ribbon to the banisters and light fixtures, arranging sprays of bay laurel and moving chairs and tables from this room to that, a whole commotion of preparation for the opening of the bridge, commotion not confined to the bridge itself but marching right into their home, where there would be exclaiming, and handshaking, and oyster-eating and Champagne-drinking.

And so the Fire Department had offered their confirmation, and here was the telegram to prove it, right beside him. The house was quiet now, at last. The servants were moving the chairs and tables back to their rightful places, untying the white ribbons from the banisters and light fixtures, disposing of broken glasses, mopping up the melting ice which had cradled those platters of oysters. How he had survived the evening, he hardly knew. I will stay here, he had told Emily, on this settee by the stairs. If there’s anyone I must speak to, you can bring them to me. She had agreed; and for the most part, in fact, he had been left in peace. For a while he had smoked a cigar; mostly he had been able to observe the men in their frock-coats, the women in their bright spring dresses; and while sometimes he could hear them exclaiming at the wonder of the bridge, marvelling at the extraordinary procession which had just crossed it—crossed it as if it had always been there—for the most part they spoke of whatever it is people in society speak of, and in that he had not much interest at all. At one point Emily had brought over a beaming, portly gentleman with muttonchop whiskers and a heavy gold watchchain.

—Colonel, she said. May I present the President of the United States.

Washington moved to stand, but the gentleman put out his hand, urging Washington to say in his seat. Arthur, that was the President’s name. Washington did not think much of him, but smiled and nodded as the President recited platitudes regarding progress, improvement, growth—there was something in there too about the fellowship of man. Yes.

He had been about to go upstairs when Paine came over, slipping neatly through the throng. He held a glass of beer in his hand.

—Where did you get that? Washington asked.

—Oh, there’s beer, Paine said. Would you like some?

—No, thank you, Washington answered. She has catered to all tastes, I see. Come, he said to Paine, sit down a moment.

And so Paine sat down beside him on the settee, and they looked out together at the finery, the drifting cigar smoke, the sugar model of the great East River Bridge on the long table.

—Impressive that lasted this long, Paine said, gesturing at the confection.

—I wouldn’t like to tell you the price of that, Washington said. I think I shall get myself into the sweetmeat trade.

Paine touched his hand to Washington’s shoulder. Well, he said, I imagine you’ll want to rest. I should be going. Yet he did not rise, not yet, and they sat in silence for a moment or two, before Paine got to his feet.

—Good to see you, Colonel, Washington said. I’m glad you came to find me.

—And very good to see you too, Colonel, Paine said. You look after yourself.

He made a little salute, and Washington returned it. Paine turned his back, walked purposefully through the crowd and disappeared into it.

It had cheered him to see Paine, he thought now as he lay in his bed. He was not, in fact, especially tired; but they had all expected him to want to go to bed. Emily had followed the last guest out to attend yet another celebration. The small clock over the mantlepiece ticked. Five minutes to eight. He closed his eyes and lay still, the pillows against his neck, the weight of the coverlet over his lap and arms. He opened his eyes and looked at the syringe, and then back at the clock. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

From the shore, from the Heights, there was a constant roaring sound, the noise of the crowd pressing against the barriers, calling, shouting, a blurred cacophony of humanity, and from the river itself the sound of ships’ horns and boats’ whistles of every description, hooting, blaring, just as they had the day they brought the first rope across. The noise swallowed the hiss of the first rockets (young Miss Detwiller, apparently, lighting the fuze) as they rose from the centre of the span, but he heard them, all fifty of them, when they exploded high over the bridge.

He stared at the ceiling. He laced his fingers together over his chest and felt his heart beat against his palms. He had asked for an inventory from the pyrotechnicist—so he called himself—who had happily provided one: six thousand four-pound skyrockets, four hundred bombshells, one hundred and twenty-five fountains of colored lights. Zinc bombshells, ten inches in diameter, to be fired five hundred feet in the air from mortars arranged along the bridge: each bombshell to hold six hundred stars of various colors. Balloons would be launched, discharging ‘stars and meteors’, he had been told; to each balloon a postal card was attached: the finder of the balloon was to notify the pyrotechnicists when and where it was found. This is calculated to keep up the excitement over the opening of the bridge, Detwiller had written; when Washington had made to tear up the letter Emily had snatched it from his hands.

He had not drawn the blinds—he should have—he could not rise now from his bed—the light against his eyelids was pink and gold and green. The thunder of the explosions, rattling the glass, shaking the house, volley after volley of manufactured radiance—he could hear the screams of the crowd, the shrieking of the multitude, and he could feel against his cheek the dirt floor of that cabin in Pennsylvania, see the entrails of that fine bay horse; he could taste the bitter coffee he’d drunk with that nameless boy. Where was Paine. Ah, Paine had gone. And Emily, out there amidst the blasting stars. He must wait, that was all. It would be over soon. Wait.

In memory of Donald Sayenga