Seth nudges Adam to alert him to the presence of the men from the black car. Adam turns around and his mouth falls open. As the men come closer, Seth and Adam back against the bridge wall they’ve been leaning on. Seth’s stomach tightens painfully and his heart beats like a machine gun. Adam looks pale and scared. Seth believes Adam is trembling, but wonders if Adam’s seeming fear is a projection of Seth’s imagination.
A husky man with a black mustache and long black hair that curls behind his ears asks which of them flicked the cigarette on his car, calling Seth and Adam “geeks.” Seth and Adam glance at each other. Seth resolves in his head to not tell the man who did it, because Seth doesn’t believe in squealing on his friends. Then Seth notices the three men are staring at Seth and that Adam is pointing at Seth.
Seth has no time to say anything before the husky man grabs Seth by the collar and lifts him. Seth’s feet kick out uselessly as the man brings Seth to his car and throws him against the front fender. Seth hits with a thud and loses his breath. The man grabs Seth’s hair and forces Seth’s face to the windshield. He orders Seth to “lick it off.”
Seth isn’t sure what the man is referring to as Seth struggles against the man’s strength as he holds him to the glass. The man repeats the demand to lick it. Seth sees a spot of gray ash where Adam’s cigarette hit the windshield. The thought of licking the ash makes Seth sick, and he twists his head away. The man pushes his face down until it is an inch from the smooth windshield glass. Seth can barely breathe. He wonders where Adam is.
The husky man leans harder, squeezing Seth against the fender the digs into his ribs. The man pushes Seth’s face until it presses the cool glass and Seth’s lungs cry for air. But he keeps his mouth shut, unwilling to give the man the satisfaction of seeing him lick the ash.
The narrator comments that the man must know Seth won’t lick the ash up, because the man suddenly raises Seth’s head and slam it into the glass. Seth reels backward with a numb feeling in his head. He is certain his nose and a few teeth are broken. He slips and lands on the ground in a sitting position, covering his throbbing mouth and nose in his hands.
The three men laugh and return to their car. The car lurches away, leaving rubber tire marks. Adam stands over Seth and tells Seth he is bleeding. Seth sees bright red blood on his hands and mouth. Blood drips onto his denim jacket. He tilts back his head to stop the bleeding. He feels his nose bridge and touches his teeth with his tongue. Nothing is broken after all, despite the pain and what he thought.
Adam offers a hand and helps Seth up. Seth is shaky on his feet and worries about his nose bleeding again. His denim jacket is covered in blood. Adam says he tried to help Seth, but one of the men held a knife to him. Seth glances at Adam. Adam adds that it was a small knife, and he guesses the guy didn’t want anyone to see it.
Seth feels his nose again; it throbs painfully. Seth asks Adam why he pointed at him. Adam says he figured he could have “jumped them” if they made a move on Seth, adding, “How could I know they had knives?” Seth shakes his head in disbelief at Adam and starts to walk home. Adam asks if Seth is going to make it okay. Seth nods; he just wants to be alone. Adam says he will get those guys for Seth. He says he thinks he saw one of the men at the diner, and that he’s going to go back there and see. Seth nods again without turning to watch Adam go.
On the way home, Seth stops near garbage cans his neighbor left out on the curb for collection. Seth considers his denim jacket. The spots of blood are dark. He thinks that if he took it home and washed it the stains would look pretty cool; like a jacket that had been worn in tons of fights. Seth smirks as he removes the jacket and throws it in a garbage can.
The climax of “On the Bridge” involves the men in the black car confronting Adam and Seth for having flicked a cigarette onto their car. With this climactic scene and the dissolution of Seth and Adam’s friendship in the scene’s aftermath, Strasser unites the story’s major themes of social belonging, dishonesty, masculine insecurity, and authenticity.
Seth’s moral compass and instinctual need for social belonging lead him not to blame Adam for having thrown the cigarette when the husky guy demands to know who is responsible. However, in an instance of situational irony, Adam betrays Seth by pointing at him while Adam himself trembles in fear. With the sudden revelation of Adam’s true cowardice and dishonesty, Strasser makes clear that Adam’s boastfulness and lying have been propping up a false masculine image in order to hide his true insecurity. Adam’s lying also masks his authentic self, which is vulnerable and just as desperate for social belonging as Seth.
The masculine insecurity that leads Adam to habitually lie about himself also affects the men in the black car. Rather than brushing the incident off as boys being boys, or continuing to drive on as the woman in the blue sedan does, the husky guy overreacts to the affront and takes the exit ramp. Based on the muscle-bound, tough-guy look the man maintains, it is clear that he is just as insecure about his masculine identity as Adam and Seth. Because of this insecurity, the guy interprets the cigarettes as a provocation designed to question his dominance.
Feeling that he has been disrespected by the boys and that his masculine pride has been wounded, the husky guy seeks to regain dominance by humiliating Seth into licking the ash off the windshield. However, Seth refuses to indulge the man’s belittling demands. For fear of losing face in front of his accomplices, the man escalates the violence of his actions and smashes Seth’s face against the windshield with enough force to make Seth’s nose bleed. The brutality of the man’s action is ironic given Seth’s earlier belief in the coolness of being—or at least looking like—the sort of guy who frequently gets into fights. With the man’s assertion of dominance, Seth experiences the terror, pain, and humiliation of physical conflict.
After the men leave in their car, Seth realizes that despite the initial shock of making impact with the glass, his nose, while bloodied, is not broken. Adam, having been completely absent during the fight, reappears to help Seth to his feet. More overtly than anywhere else in the story, Adam’s compulsive lying is on full display as he tells Seth why he hadn’t intervened in the fight. When Adam sees that Seth doesn’t believe him when Adam claims one of the men had a knife, Adam is quick to specify that the knife had been small, adding that the man must not have wanted anyone to see it.
Adam also diverts attention away from the question of why he pointed to Seth in the first place: Rather than giving Adam an honest answer, Adam claims his plan all along had been to jump the men if they tried to fight Seth, adding that his would-be heroic plan was thwarted because of the men’s unexpected knives. The speed with which Adam replies, combined with the eye-brow raising amount of detail and extraneous logic, prompts Seth to not believe what Adam says.
Having had a change in perspective, Seth can see Adam and his boastfulness in a new light. Strasser symbolizes Seth’s perspective shift at the end of the story with an instance of situational irony: Even though Seth’s denim jacket, now bloodied, bears the marks of authenticity he craved earlier in the story, Seth smirks and then throws his jacket in the trash. With this act, Seth rejects his naïve desire to be as cool as Adam pretends to be. Having lived through the consequences of the dishonesty, inauthenticity, and insecurity inherent to Adam’s cool-guy appearance and attitude, Seth realizes that he no longer needs the approval he once sought from Adam.