- Tim Mathis
Ghost sighting: Crybaby Bridge, West Alexandria, Ohio. June 22, 2022.
It seems like there’s a Crybaby Bridge in every small town in the Midwestern United States.
I don’t normally go for that stuff, but I swear the one on Fudge Road in West Alexandria, Ohio is actually haunted.
The bridge sits on a back road on the route between Buckeye Jake’s Eatery in West Alexandria and Middletown, Ohio. West Alex is a small town, and Middletown feels like a veritable Rust Belt metropolis in comparison. It has a Cracker Barrel and an Olive Garden, and my dad grew up there during a time when it was an All American City. He died a few years ago, from brain cancer that I can’t help but attribute to the chemicals that Middletown’s steel and paper mills spewed into the air he breathed his entire life. That might not be fair, but who knows? My parents raised my brother, sister and me in a town nearby called Camden.
None of that is really important, other than to explain why I was driving country roads through Ohio at midnight in June.
I’d been at Buckeye Jake’s because my best friend from high school had moved to West Alexandria “to get away from the drama of Camden,” as he described it. The thing is, the towns are basically walking distance apart so it didn’t exactly seem like a grand escape to me. We had beers and wings and talked about high school. We ran out of common experiences when we got past that. He had to get home to his wife and kids. I had to go back to the hotel I’d rented in Middletown, near the interstate.
These sorts of interactions always make me feel sad. I don’t know why. It wasn’t because he wasn’t happy. I felt like maybe he’d missed an opportunity at a better life. He was always the smart one in our class. But I’m sure that was projection. I miss fried Midwestern junk food, and I miss these types of friendships - people who shared my upbringing. I haven’t had that kind of friendship in decades now. Those kinds of connection are his whole life.
I’d Google-mapped the route, but I was surprised to realize that I didn’t need the directions. I hadn’t thought about these roads in a decade but the turns seemed seared in, like the music you listen to when you’re a teenager. I had it on the radio - the Ohio playlist that I’d built in Seattle when I was feeling nostalgic: The Afghan Whigs, the Ass Ponies, Guided by Voices.
A song by Over the Rhine was playing - Poughkeepsie. It’s not about Ohio, but it feels like it should be to me. It’s melancholy, haunting like an old murder ballad. Karen Bergquist singing, her voice rich like Joni MItchell:
“I thought I'd go up Poughkeepsie
Look out over the Hudson
And I'd throw my body down on the river
And I'd know no more sorrow
I'd fly like the sparrow
And I'd ride on the backs of the angels tonight.”
It was good to be driving late at night there again in the Summer. The windows were down and the temperature was finally comfortable after a muggy, hot day. I’d forgotten how empty it all feels on the back roads and through the cornfields. When I was seventeen I’d push my Chevy Cavalier to 80 mph on these sorts of roads, bouncing over hills and skidding around corners, but that night I wasn’t in any hurry. My brights were on, which almost never happens in Seattle. My home was passing by, all cow fields and patches of scrubby woods that no one’s bothered to farm.
I’d forgotten about the bridge. I’d also forgotten to urinate before I left Buckeye Jake’s, and how long the drives take out there.
I pulled over at a side road with a graffiti'd, broken “Road Closed” sign across a rusted metal bridge crossing a creek.
I relieved myself under an oak tree. The air smelled like cow manure and cut grass and a vague waft of dead animal somewhere. It was familiar, and quiet. Someone’s dog was barking in the distance. Stars were bright. It’s subtle, but you forget these little bits of beauty when you’re away.
Looking to my right, the bridge was iron, industrial like a thousand others in the Midwest, but I felt a buzz of recognition.
This is Fudge Road. That’s Crybaby Bridge. I’m sure of it.
I laughed, then shivered.
I’d always heard the legend as a kid, but I’d totally forgotten about this place. I can’t remember the full deal but supposedly a mom threw her baby off the bridge in the 1800s and now it’s haunted. If you turn off your car, flash your lights and say “mama” three times you’ll hear a baby crying. Then you’ll die or something.
They say devil worshippers used to do rituals out here - burn dogs alive and that sort of thing. I’ve never met one, but it seemed like there were a lot of devil worshippers in the country when I was a kid.
I don’t like this sort of thing, but there were still a couple of Kentucky Bourbon Ales in my system from Buckeye Jake’s.
I decided to give it a shot. Why not? There was no chance I’d ever be in this situation again.
I got back in the car. Settled into the seat.
I flashed the lights.
“Mama. Mama. Mama.” You have to say it out loud. There was no one else around, but I didn’t shout, I was conversational. I remember smirking, but if I’m honest that was because I was anxious.
In a situation like this you expect suspense, but there was no suspense. As soon as I said “mama” for the third time, I heard it - screaming whines, sounding as distant as the dog that was barking earlier.
A light appeared across the bridge, like a spotlight, and progressed towards me, quickly and smoothly - a teenager’s car over country roads. It passed through, the seats and dashboard of my car briefly illuminated. Behind the light was a white cloud, a concentrated mist. The air stayed still but the temperature dropped and goosebumps broke out on my arms.
The mist congealed into a small figure in the dark. I turned my lights back on, and they lit up the face of a child, no older than two, standing alone in the center of the bridge. He was holding what appeared to be a soda can.
I don’t remember what I did, exactly. I’m sure I shouted. I’m sure I cursed. I remember feeling like my stomach was dropping. They say that happens because in the fight or flight response, your body shunts blood away from your digestive system towards the organs that are more relevant in that moment - your muscles, your nerves, your heart.
There’s a feeling you get during a nightmare, where something terrible is about to happen but your body won’t move. It won’t respond to your mental instructions.
Real panic isn’t like that. It’s like accelerated, intensified confusion.
I punched the glove box trying to open it. I’m not sure why. It was a rental. I guess i thought there were meant to be guns in country glove boxes. I spun my head searching the back for something that I could use to hit a baby. There was nothing. It’s a rental.
I pressed the ignition - it’s one of those new, stupid Hondas. Why don’t cars have keys anymore?!
At this point it was like the nightmare because the car didn’t start.
I could see the child approaching. Toddling.
I remember clutching the steering wheel. What else could I do?.
He stopped in front of my car. I could see the child more clearly. The can he was holding was a Miller Lite. My headlights illuminated tiny Levi’s, a faded black White Zombie T-shirt, and a fitted orange Bengals hat, backwards.
I was shouting involuntarily, “What are you??!! Oh my God!!”
His face was obscured but I imagined that he was staring at me with cold, dead eyes when he said, “Chill man. I’m just a baby.” His voice was gravelly and pinched, like Vern Troyer after ten years smoking a pack a day.
He sipped the beer, looking at me sideways like he knew what I was thinking. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket, and placed it in the corner of his mouth.
“I’m 184 years old. I can do what I want. Anyway, I don’t know why everyone gets so freaked out. You come out here and call me and then act all weird when I show up.”
There was alcohol in my system but my anxiety peaked over the buzz. My hands started to shake.
“What the hell is happening here?! What the hell are you?!”
“Calm down buddy. I told you, I’m a ghost baby. I live here. You obviously know that. I don’t actually murder people if that’s what you’ve heard. Bunch of rednecks with guns out here anyway are what you need to worry about. I saw one of them accidentally shoot his buddy once when they were goofing around. Every decade or two a kid’ll hang himself off the bridge but that’s not my fault.”
I remember thinking for some reason about how nobody actually believes this stuff is real.
He seemed to read my mind. He leaned against the railing.
“People claim every bridge in the Midwest is haunted. I’m not sure where those stories came from. Most of them actually aren’t though. Most ghosts left years ago.”
I tried the ignition on the car again. I pounded the button. I punched it.
I opened the door and stepped out, prepared to run.
“Your car’s already on man. You probably can’t hear it. It’s one of those hippie hybrids. You’re going to get somebody killed.”
Shit, he’s right.
The lights switched off automatically, a safety feature engaged now that I was outside of the car.
Under the moonlight I could see that he didn’t have those vacant ghost eyes that you see in movies. His eyes looked young, glowing like the child that he was. I looked away.
“Who are you anyway? What’s with the flannel and skinny jeans? You from Dayton or something?”
Standing, facing him, the adrenaline was draining. I felt…embarrassed? Defensive? “No! I mean - I grew up around here but I moved away 20 years ago. My best friend is in West Alex.”
The air seemed to warm back up. His own affect brightened. “Ah yeah?! Cool! That’s a relief. I get worried that people from out of town are going to hear about this place and keep me awake. It’s on the internet now. I’m surprised you’ve never called me before. Seems like every teenager in Preble County has been bugging me on the weekend for a century. What are you doing back in town?”
For a ghost, there was something disarming about this guy. He seemed friendly, earnest. Curled blond bangs were poking from underneath his Bengals cap, like he'd done it intentionally, the way we used to wear our hair in the '90s.
“I grew up in Camden so I didn’t get out this way that much. My mom is having her 65th in Middletown so we’re all back for a few weeks.”
“Ah? Nice. Family’s important. You having a good trip?”
I don’t want to say the wrong thing. He’s been here for almost 200 years.
“I mean, yeah, it’s home. It’s weird because I’ve been in the city for 20 years now and traveling around for the last five. It’s weird to be home.”
“Ah yeah? What do you mean?”
“I lived in Seattle, like right in the middle of a giant city for most of that time, and I have been all over the world. I lived in New Zealand for a bit. I spent a bunch of time in Mexico and South America. It’s kind of weird to come home and feel like things haven’t changed.”
I’d actually been feeling like all of the Trump flags that were everywhere now were directly intended to make people like me know we weren’t welcome. People who’d fled to the cities. People who’d left their religion and family to fraternize with immigrants and call people by their preferred pronouns.
“New Zealand? Is that like up around Boston and stuff?”
“No - that’s New England. This is in the Pacific Ocean - kind of between Hawaii and Australia.”
“Ah, wow, crazy. I’ve always wanted to see a kangaroo…” He stared off quietly.
I started to feel like he definitely wasn’t going to hurt me.
“Listen, I don’t want to talk about this stuff. I’m really sorry you died when you were a baby and got stuck here. I’m pretty privileged with the life I’ve lived.”
“Oh - what? No, I’m not stuck here! I could leave if I wanted to. I just never have. I went to Chicago once on the back of this guy’s truck and that was awesome. This homeless guy called me a freak baby. I just don’t like the city that much. This is home.”
I looked off the bridge, down at the water. An old piece of white Tyvek sheeting was caught on a branch in the stream, rippling along under the surface. The breeze picked up and I smelled manure again, fertilizer from the field across the creek, most likely.
“I’m not stuck here but I could never leave.”
“I’m a free spirit so I could go, but my mom can’t. She tossed me over the bridge and then hung herself so she’s condemned to haunt the place for eternity. It’s the rules. She mostly wanders around the corn fields - that’s where she is tonight, probably. We’ve had our issues but she’s still my mom. We talk every day.
I know it’s no New York City but there’s decent fishing. That’s what I care about. People leave beer on the weekends even if a lot of them are half-empties. It’s home, man.”
“Don’t you want to get out though? You’ve been here for hundreds of years.”
He struggled onto the hood of the car and leaned back. It was cute watching him wiggle his way up, feet dangling off the hood.
He offered me a Miller Lite. I clutched the lukewarm can to my chest and it triggered a memory - the anxiety of my first beer, pushed into my hand by an older friend just a few miles from here. I could remember the smell of that particular bonfire, on a summer night like this, lighter fluid on a dried pine that produced an impressive initial rage that settled to embers across the night.
“No, what’s the point?”, the crybaby said, “Plus, it’s not like it was when you left. They’re going to paint the bridge. They’re putting new railings up. They’re putting in a bike trail through to Dayton that is going to pass over. This place is really growing up. WIth Trump winning and then with the Bengals in the Super Bowl it really got some local pride going.”
I changed the subject, gesturing at his shirt. Voice cracking a little. “You a White Zombie fan? My brother’s actually met Rob Zombie.”
“Whaaaat?! No! That’s so fucking cool man! I love Zombie. There’s this guy who comes and just sits here by the bridge most weekends. Listens to music. White Zombie. Been doing it for 20 years now so I hear them all the time. They’ve been my favorite band since “Thunder Kiss ‘65”.
Movies and music were all we talked about when I was a kid. What else was there to talk about in Ohio? I was glad it kept us away from politics.
“That’s awesome man. I actually saw them in like ‘95 or something in Dayton with The Ramones on their farewell tour. My brother works for this record label in New York that Rob Zombie is signed to so he’s been in meetings with him and stuff. He said he’s a funny guy.”
“Dude, that’s incredible. You’re famous! If they ever play back around here I’m totally going to figure out how to get there. We should go!”
He hopped off of the car and pulled another Miller from a box in the ditch. I sat quietly for a time, watching the creek running under the bridge. There was the rusted husk of a riding lawnmower that someone had dumped off the edge. I remember there were lightning bugs flashing in the field across the way.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure man, anything.”
“Why do you think she did it? I mean, tossed you over.”
He paused. Took a deep breath.
“You know, people ask me that. I still don’t know man. I think she wasn’t grounded. You know she wasn’t from here, right? She was a city girl. She drove over from Dayton. My dad was a business man. I think people in the city get caught up in stuff that doesn’t matter. They lose touch with their people and their roots. Lose their sense of meaning. That’s the only way you could end up doing something like that, killing your own kid.”
It hurt in a way, but I knew what he meant. Coming home reminds you that you’ve left your community. You can never really replace your home. And he was right that it’s hard to keep a handle on meaning in the city when connections almost never feel real.
It’s really hard sometimes.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. The city…”
He burst out laughing.
“I’m screwing with you city boy! She lived on the farm across the street her whole life. She’s always been off dude. She still tries to smother me in my sleep every once in a while and we’re ghosts! She thinks there’s a demon in me or something. Normal people don’t throw their babies off bridges, right?”
It’s embarrassing to get tricked by a toddler. “Yeah, right.”
“She’s still my mom though and you only get one of those, so I love her,” laughing.
We sat for a minute on the hood of the car. I could feel the heat from my engine starting to dissipate.
The crybaby broke the silence. “It’s really good to have you here man. You want to put on some Zombie? I have a bunch of beer. These kids left behind a half-rack last night ‘cause a cop showed up when they were drinking. ”
“Or we could go for a drive or something?”
I did picture it for a moment.
But it seemed like, if I let this progress, I might end up stuck haunting this bridge in Ohio for eternity.
“I don’t know man. It’s after midnight. My family’s probably worried about me. Plus I shouldn’t drink any more if I’m going to drive home.
“Alright, well - You can do what you want but I’m drinking. My mom’s out for the evening so I’m going to live it up, listen to some Zombie. You sure you don’t want to join man?! I’d love to hang out!”
“I just… I really do need to go.”
Driving home, I thought about how I grew up 10 minutes away and spent my formative years on these back roads. The night was still comfortably warm, humid. I could still smell manure. We used to go swimming on these kinds of nights at my friend’s pool just a few miles away, the water warmed like a bath by 90 degree heat during the day.
Living in the city I’d forgotten how dark it is there at night.
With the light of the moon, you can see the corn rustling in the wind.
It’s easy to imagine that the ghosts in a place like this don’t really want to hurt you.
But it screws with your head, imagining the alternative timelines you can live. That baby’s never going to know anything but that bridge. And his mom, she’s always going to be mad and wandering in these same cornfields.
Home is always like this.
I have a hard time picturing myself listening to the same music, drinking the same beer, dealing with the same family problems and the same punk kids for all those years.
To be honest, the crybaby seemed fine though. Happy even.
Passing through Jacksonburg, a new sign proudly advertising “Population: 55,” I was startled by red and blue lights in my mirror.
The town is a speed trap and always has been. I got my first ticket there when I was 16. I was going 2 miles over the limit at the time. It's "Ohio's Smallest Incorporated Village."
I pulled to the shoulder, and when the cop stepped out of his car, I groaned. He was jowly now, waddling uncomfortably, but I knew him immediately. He was the linebacker on our football team. He’d pressed his bare ass against my face in a locker room once to make his friends laugh. He used to show off his pubic hair and brag about having sex with his girlfriend in the 8th grade when I was in 6th. I remember thinking she was beautiful and deserved better than that.
He shoved a Maglite in my eyes.
“Hey man!” Squinting, I tried to sound happy to see him.
He put his hand on his gun holster. I don’t know why cops do that sort of thing. “License and registration please. Where you from? These are Florida plates.”
It’s a rental. He didn’t seem to recognize me. I’m sure I hadn’t changed that much.
“Yeah - sorry officer. It’s a rental. I’m back visiting home from Seattle.”
“Seattle? Well I don’t know how you do things in Seattle but in Jacksonburg we drive the speed limit. I clocked you at 39 and the speed limit is 35. It’s clearly marked.”
“I’m sorry officer, I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
I wondered about whether I should remind him who I was. About how we have history? Or if I should say anything about the ghost. About how the ghost was actually a pretty nice guy?
He wrote a ticket.
He tore it off.
He shoved it in my face.
“Don’t let it happen again.”
I turned the car back on and pulled out. He rode my bumper - brights in my rearview - until I passed beyond the corporation limits.
I hadn’t introduced myself, but he saw my ID. He knows my brother. I’m sure he recognized me.
The ghosts are one thing, but man - that sort of experience. It tips you over the edge. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own town. Even if your friends hung around, or your family, it makes you feel like you could never really come back.
Check out my books for some slightly less fictional stories.