Sometimes the Zipperman likes to think that his job is sacred; so predictable in its routine, that it has become a solemn ritual. Every day like clockwork, he climbs into the driver’s cabin of his tram and sets the machinery in motion while San Diego still sleeps. And then, at a speed of 3.8 miles per hour, he rumbles his way along the arched spine of the Coronado Bridge, soaking up the world in slow-motion.
Every morning, it is the same story, como siempre. He knows the route better than anyone; five lanes of traffic, two eastbound and two westbound, with one center lane that changes direction twice a day. His job is simple: unzip the center lane in the morning. Zip it up again in the evening. Sleep, and then repeat. Muy fácil, his boss told him, because the lane-changer machine runs on autopilot.
Even still, the Zipperman knows that his job is important; vital even, to the circulation of traffic. He is the one who changes the meridian between the opposing lanes, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, to indicate the shift in direction. He is the man who moves concrete dividers from one side of the lane to the other, to accommodate rush hour traffic.
Sometimes, he likes to think of himself as the keeper of some ravenous beast. A snapping turtle, maybe, or a Gila Monster. He is the one who rides this hungry reptile. ¡Tranquilo! ¡Tranquilo! He is the guiding hand that steers it safely from Barrio Logan to Tidelands Park.
Along the way, the monster devours everything in its path. The concrete dividers disappear into the mouth of the tram, and underneath him the machine thrums and rumbles, digesting… Behind him, the dividers reemerge from the back of the tram, this time on the opposite side of the lane.
The pace is slow, the asphalt rugged and sunworn, but the Zipperman prefers his work this way. Every so often, he descends from the tram and clears the road with his litter picker, skewering styrofoam like shish kebabs. Clearing roadkill that threatens to obstruct his progress.
Across the bay, trains rumble their way through the railyard, and the metal cranes dip their beaks towards the water. They are always thirsty, he thinks. Never sated. Beasts of perpetual motion.
Ahead of him, the highway yawns onward.
He has lost his name, over the years, in the faded white lines. In the rolling gray asphalt. It seems like a souvenir from another lifetime, no vale la pena recordar. On the hottest days the asphalt trembles, and this, combined with the stench of gasoline, is enough to make his eyes water. In a way, it reminds him of home; the way his abuela used to fry jalapeños over the stovetop till the air was picante, strong enough to peel the skin from one’s face. The way his abuelo came stomping in through the door, shaking mud from his work boots. Leather hands, like gloves, from construction work. The road will play tricks on your eyes, chico. That’s what his abuelo always told him. Espejismos y espejos.
Sometimes, it hurts to look at the concrete, so the Zipperman watches the people instead.
Inbound: drivers smack their fingers on the steering wheels. People smoke their Camels out the windows, flipping their cigarette butts over the bird spikes, watching the smoke spiral down towards the ocean below. They beep at him sometimes, but he stares straight ahead, ¿entiende? Focused on his work.
Outbound: the gringo tourists scream by, headed for Coronado Beach. Who goes swimming, six o’clock in the evening? That is what he wants to know. Who wants to hit that freezing water so late in the day? Gringos, apparently.
He sees them hanging out the window sometimes, the kids with their pasty sunscreen noses, the parents with their Lucha Libre t-shirts, and he waves to them sometimes. They never notice him, because their eyes are on the road, but he likes to think that they would wave back, if they could.
The Zipperman has come across a lot of strange things in his time. Like the little girl who tried to ride her bike along the shoulder of the bridge. Like the woman who flashed him through the car window (it was the closest anyone came to waving). Like that roadkill armadillo that was stinking up the road. Ay guacala. He buried that armadillo in a Taco Bell takeout bag, because that was the only proper burial shroud he could find amongst the litter on the bridge. He tucked the armadillo safely away in that leftover tortilla shell, and he crossed la bendición over his chest, then he said a word of prayer and dropped el pobrecito over the side.
Descansa en paz, hermanito.
Sometimes, the Zipperman sees a sight that will change his life forever – like the woman smoking by the side of the bridge.
He was zippering up the lane for the evening when he spotted her; just a lone silhouette against the sky. She had lined up a whole caravan of Camels on the railing and she was smoking them, one by one, taking one huff after another as she studied the inbound clouds, breathing out as she tossed the butts over the edge…
Her car was parked slantways over the fifth lane, the engine purring, but she didn’t seem inclined to climb back inside. Instead, she ran her fingers over the bird spikes and gazed out at the road sign – San Diego City Limit. Population: 1,130,000 – as if she was imagining how they would need to update the sign tomorrow. Population: 1, 129,999.
The woman looked like a waitress; the apron tied tight around her stomach was a dead giveaway, the strings cutting deep into her belly fat. She looked like the sort of woman who would stand behind the register all day, taking orders; Chile lime sauce or chipotle? You want extra cheese, what kind?
She looked like the sort of woman who would clean the tables with a washrag, and push her janitor cart like the stroller she’d always wanted but never got, cause she never had kids or got married even. She looked like the sort of woman who sprays the plate glass with Windex and wipes it clean, the sort of woman who breathes fog on the window just to draw pictures in the condensation, who watches people pass on the sidewalk, waiting for someone to stop and notice her; the mannequin in the window.
The Zipperman waved as he passed, but he didn’t stop the zipper machine, and the woman waved back, but she didn’t stop smoking. Instead, the Zipperman kept on rumbling down the road, lifting each divider and setting it down again. And the woman kept on picking up her cigarettes and flicking them over the side, and though he longed to look back, the Zipperman kept staring straight ahead, even as he trundled his way down the bridge towards the 8, because he couldn’t bear to see what would happen when the woman reached the end of her chain.
Julian Riccobon (he/him) is a writer, editor, and artist of Italian/Panamanian descent, and the Managing Director of Polyphony Lit, an international literary magazine for teen writers and editors. His work has been published in The Acentos Review, Flash Fiction Online, Huizache: The Magazine of a New America, and Rumble Fish Quarterly, among other places, and his favorite genres to write are contemporary fiction, magical realism, and historical fiction. He is currently drafting a magical realism novel about a bunch of loco neighbors who live together in a rowhouse in San Diego.