A word was written on an overpass, 20 feet above the splashing cars, and rising diesel exhaust. Tucked beneath the shelf of the roadbed, it’s large letters sulked in the shadow of a rainy day. They were cored in black, outlined in white, and framed below the girders of green scissoring iron. They stood as tall as a man, rising, and presumably illustrated, from a slippery narrow flange.
My car was eastbound, traveling at 60 miles per hour, and a random look caught the tag head-on. But only for an instant. The dark wing of the overpass slipped across my hood and rooftop and quickly receded into the narrowing V of my lane. But I suddenly felt strange. I’d been nicked under that bridge, some small penetrating injury, and was trailing a thin line of guilt.
Ache was the word. Not ‘fuck’, or an angry scrawl. Not some unintelligible inside encryption. And not masterfully executed. But, amplified by these stylistic inversions the word stuck. And its placement on tired ‘60’s infrastructure was like a glimpse of an SOS.
It lodged perfectly, the proper screw for my specifications. In my professional life I have had a hand in a series of bland assaults: pooling of wealth, dimming the sun, warming the earth. A part of a collective worldwide lean. But, outside the muffled backslapping circle of industry, the sound of struggle still carried. It was in the headlines and sprinkled among the homeless tents in their tiny off-ramp wedges. It was in the storm drain run-off of needles, bottles, lottery tickets, and pain pill blister packs. It flew with monarchs and swam with salmon, chased receding snowlines, and sat quietly beside silent springs. All sounds of a world aching.
I don’t pretend to know what the tagger intended with this word. It could be a nickname, an inside joke at the local high school or an homage to the Irish tag artist, Aches. But I do know this: Someone identified a spot perched high above one of the busiest freeways in town. Then, under cover of darkness, felt the way over a guard rail and shimmied along a potentially wet, two-inch flange lubricated with bird shit and sheaved paint chips. Scrabbling blind above quivering calves and speeding lines of traffic, they clutched spray cans and reached out in broad gambling sweeps again and again, until the four tall letters stood, fully formed and outlined. All under conditions many free-climbers would never attempt.
My thoughts on poverty, environment, and the future are churning. But at their heart is a spectator’s wonder and guilt. Because one of us acted. Threw a leg over. Gripped and teetered in the footlights of vans and trucks. Then vanished into the night leaving the word to shimmer high above in an invisible haunting resonance. Leaving their work to be captioned by their risk and our conscience.
Michael Parker is writing while living in complicated times, in Portland, Oregon.