Exchange Rate: 4-Allyson

Exchange Rate: 1-Jeff
Exchange Rate: 2-Allyson
Exchange Rate: 3-Jeff
Exchange Rate: 4-Allyson
Exchange Rate: 5-Jeff
Exchange Rate: 6-Jeff

4 – Allyson

Whenever Allyson looked down as she continued along the walkway to the middle, she thought she would begin to have second thoughts. She wasn’t sure how far to the bottom it was, but it was far enough. In the daytime, the Snake River flowing through the canyon was easily visible, but hard to judge as to its precise location at the bottom. She wondered if it was the slight vertigo she got when looking down from this height.

The wind was much more forceful in the middle of the bridge. Allyson wasn’t sure if it was a good thing that it was late May and the weather was warm enough for shorts during the day, yet cool enough at night to need a jacket. If it were colder, she wouldn’t be able to hang on for very long. The steel would be freezing to the touch, and the wind would be like an icy dump truck crashing into her. That would give her less time to ponder things, less time to change her mind. As cool as it was, she knew she could probably hold on to the ledge and fend off the wind for a while.

Allyson had chosen to come at night so she wouldn’t spend too much time staring at the open space and into the black hole of nothingness below. She’d thought about it daily for the last month. With the worsening harassment online, the huge chasm between her and her mother, her inability to make any real friends in this conservative, white-dominated rural farmland, and her knowledge that no matter where she went she’d always be a nigger to anyone that didn’t have her skin color, she just couldn’t think of any alternative.

How long would she be able to put up with it before she or one of her tormentors snapped and went too far? It was more likely that she’d end up on the losing end if that ever happened. Rosie’s cousins and nephews and uncles might stick up for her, but only if shit went down in front of them. Allyson wasn’t family, and Rosie was almost not-family because of how weird she was in their eyes. She believed Rosie would throw a fit until someone in her family stepped up… and then backed away when he saw that the odds weren’t in his favor. Allyson wasn’t a martyr and didn’t want to be one.

No one else seemed to care. She couldn’t run back to Florida. Her father had moved out of Orlando and over to New Smyrna on the coast, and it had been too many years since she’d hung out with her old friends. There was no way they would take her in, and Allyson wouldn’t dream of asking them. Besides, her father liked to get drunk and let everyone know how good he was with his fists. He’d put Allyson’s mother in the hospital before, and Allyson herself was no stranger to her father’s drunken punishment.

Janelle, the only female friend she had ever loved and trusted with every fiber of her being, had made it clear there was to be no quarter between them. The only boy she ever loved was now her biggest tormentor, delighting in describing what her naked body looked like, having Q&A sessions within her hearing about the anatomy of an African-American female. Not that he ever used such a politically correct term as African-American when it came to describing Allyson or her mother.

She reached the middle and immediately pulled herself up on the guardrail, swinging her legs over the edge. A thin steel pole extended down five feet below the pedestrian walkway. At the bottom of the pole was a small, welded T-joint that protruded three inches from each side. Beyond that, a lethal drop into the darkness. Without thinking about it, she wrapped her arms around the pole and swung her behind out enough to get it off the guardrail. Her feet touched the T joint at the bottom and she forced her feet to tighten around the pole, trying to make sure as much of her shoes were on the protrusions as possible.

The car that had blown by as she lowered herself made a strange noise as it slowed down, then the engine gunned again for a few seconds, followed by the sound of gravel under tires. I should let go right now she thought. I should let go before anyone calls the police and there’s this big scene and my name gets in the papers or on the news. The torture she’d been living with would somehow increase again by a hundredfold. On top of the already unbearable gay slurs, racial slurs, and female slurs, would be attention-whore slurs. And failed suicide slurs.

You’re such a worthless fuckin’ nigger-queer that you couldn’t even kill yourself!

Allyson heard it in her mind from a hundred different voices, each distinct and belonging to someone she knew. Every voice dripped with venom, every stare full of thick, unbridled hatred hiding behind a fake smile. The voices in her mind were drowned out by a man’s voice shouting over the side. As the light from another oncoming car shined on him, she saw it was the man from the truck stop who had been staring at her.

“Hey! Hey you! What the hell are you doing?” he shouted down to her.

“Leave me alone!” Allyson screamed up at him with such force that her feet came apart enough to make her heart skip a beat. A tidal wave of fear coursed through her at the thought of slipping from the pole. Her shoes scrabbled frantically at the tiny footholds, finally finding purchase enough to take some of the weight from her arms.

The man looked down at her for a few seconds. It was just her luck, and was how everything in her life seemed to go these days. Holding on for dear life while waiting for the right moment to let go and end it all. If the man even tried to reach down to her, she would let go. Fuck him, she thought. Let her falling away into darkness be his nightmare for daring to interrupt her final moments. All Allyson wanted was a few minutes alone, a few minutes of silence to make peace with everything in her head and in her heart. And now this asshole shows up.

He’d feed her some line of bullshit about how her life was worth more than this, that people would miss her. She’d scream at him to shut his fucking mouth. He’d start pleading with her, and at some point, he’d try to reach out and snatch her by the arm. Or another driver would slow down, stop and ask just what the hell was going on at midnight on the East Bridge. Or worse, one of the county deputies or State Police cruisers that regularly rolled across the bridge would stop. They would definitely be curious.

Then it would be ambulance, fire truck, maybe even a helicopter. What then? If she let them talk her out of it, she’d be weak, lazy, and fitting of every insult her tormentors could throw at her. If she let go, she’d be a martyr at best, just another tragic statistic at worst. Allyson bet on the worst. Her mother would miss her for a month before deciding to get on with her life of pleasing Steve. Her daughter was just a distraction as it was right now, continually tripping her marriage up with how frequently Steve and Allyson were clashing.

“Hey. Listen to me. I’m not going to try and grab you, okay?” the man was saying, practically shouting down to her. The wind picked up, pulling heavily at her ankles. “I just want to talk to you for a minute, then you can do whatever you came here to do.”

Allyson almost let go from sheer surprise when he said that. Her feet felt like they were coming apart again, but she squeezed them and her knees around the pole as hard as she could.

“My name is Jefferson Charles. I’d shake your hand, but…” he said to her. He was leaning over the guardrail, but he looked casual enough to just be out here for the beautiful view. If it wasn’t midnight and visibility was only about thirty feet in any direction.

“What do you want?” Allyson asked. She tried to keep her voice calm, even defiant, but it sounded to her own ears like the scared whine of a little girl. A little girl that had tried to reason with her father when she was seven, but he didn’t listen, and her mom had ended up in the hospital for three days.

“Just your name, and maybe a couple of questions,” Jeff answered. He sounded almost bored with a slight hint of curiosity. There was something about his voice that was different than the way others talked to her. He had to know that she was the weird-looking black girl from the truck stop, and the way he had gawked at her while pretending not to had made her expect him to be just one more asshole. Maybe even a secret white supremacist that would try to talk her into letting go now since there were no witnesses around. Instead, he talked to her like she heard others around her talk to each other. There was no fake friendliness, no feigned interest, no disdain, no hatred, whether veiled or outright, in his voice.

“Allyson,” she answered.

“Okay, Allyson,” Jeff said, “I don’t know why you are hanging off that pole. You look pretty serious about it though, like you’ve thought about it for a while. And you know, coming out here at midnight is the best way to not be seen by people like me who might try to stop you. So I apologize for interrupting a serious moment in your life, but I want to know… what’s with your hair?”

“What?” she asked. The little speech he made caught her off guard, but the question almost made her lose her grip again from the surprise.

“Your hair. It’s really awesome, but it doesn’t look like the kind of hair that fits in around here.”

“Awesome?” was all she could reply with. Was he confusing her on purpose?

“Awesome!” he shouted. He must have thought she couldn’t hear him over a sudden gust of wind. “Seriously. I really dig how the red goes from light to dark. The shaved part is really neat as well, it gives the hair you do have a really good contrast.”

Allyson didn’t say anything. She was too startled by the things the man, Jeff, was saying to her. There was something about his voice that made her want to hear more. She felt like he really did want to know about her hair.

“All right, well… I guess you got things to do, so I’ll leave you to them,” he called down before turning to walk away.

“WAIT!” Allyson screamed, her feet slipping off for a second. She panicked, thinking he had walked away completely when his face appeared over the guardrail, a smile on it. “My hair… I did it because I thought it looked cool.”

“It does look cool,” Jeff said with a smile, the words drifting down to her.

“And because I was already an outsider, a weirdo, a freak. So I thought I would make sure everyone knew that I knew what they were thinking.”

“Hah,” was all he said, but it wasn’t condescending or insulting.

“Why do you care anyway?” she shouted up to him, anger in her voice. Who was he to ask her stupid questions when all she wanted was to let go?

“Ah. Well you see, I’m a bit of an amateur sociologist. Or psychologist. Sometimes a little of both. People interest me. The fact that you are a young black girl in very white southern Idaho and dress like… what are those kids called? Goths? Emo? You know, the ones who cut themselves.”

“Emo,” Allyson replied.

“Right, emo. And that hair. I’ll say again, it’s pretty awesome. But it isn’t like any hair I’ve ever seen on a young black woman.”

“And you have so much experience with black women?” she shouted the question up to him, almost spitting the last two words.

“Yeah, I guess I do. I dated one for a few months at Harvard.” Jeff chuckled as the memory came back to him, “I guess you could say I went through my black phase.”

“So you dated one sister and that’s your experience?” Allyson was trying to stay angry with him. His words were infuriating her, but the way he said them, the tone of his voice was like a calm sea, a voice of reason. “You better not be trying to trick me, asshole!”

Jeff raised his hands up in an innocent gesture. “No tricks. But I did mention Harvard, right? You do know there are a lot of African-Americans at Harvard these days, right? And there are even more at Penn State where I went before law school. You know this don’t you?”

Allyson felt stupid for some reason. “Of course I know that. Doesn’t make you an expert.”

“I never said I was an expert,” he said. “I’ve been around enough to know that you don’t fit the mold. You, and no offense here, you look like an emo white girl, honestly. It’s a little weird seeing it on you, but I think it’s really neat. Badass, even.”

“You look like a hillbilly in a suit!” she shouted.

Jeff laughed and held his hands out again. “Okay, okay, you got me. I grew up in Fairfield, so there’s no denial about the hillbilly part. I’m just a hillbilly with a law degree from Harvard. You can take the redneck out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer park out of the redneck, etc. etc.”

She laughed, almost against her will.

“So… my other question, and then I’ll let you get back to business, is this: Was it worth it?”

“What? Was what worth it?” she asked, confused again.

“Everything that has led you up to this point? Whatever has caused you to hang from a pole four hundred feet above sharp rocks and a swift river.”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“You know, the life experience. I’m sure it has been hard for you, to be right here, right now, having this conversation with a stranger. A strange white stranger.” Allyson couldn’t see him wink, but she could hear it in his voice.

“What do you care?”

“Uh-uh. I asked the question first. You better answer it quickly if you want to hear why I care. Your arms must be getting tired by now. I can’t really see your feet, but they must be aching something fierce hugging that pole.”

“It fucking sucks!” she screamed at the emptiness around her. “It’s shit. Utter shit. My father likes to beat on women. My mother likes to be beaten on or at least told what to do by men. She doesn’t give a shit about me. The journey with her wasn’t worth it. It was only worth it while we were running away from my father. To this shithole.”

“What about everything else?”

“What the hell do you think? And what can you possibly know anyway? You don’t know what I have to live with. You don’t know the names they call me. You don’t know shit!”

“I bet they call you the N-word a lot, don’t they? Probably a lot of other colorful things that have to do with your heritage, your skin color, your looks, and that was before the awesome crazy hair, right? Maybe even the standard colorful female terms like ‘whore’ and ‘slut?’”

“Faggot. Lesbian. Dyke. Box-licker. Carpet muncher.” She had tears running down her cheeks.

“Oh, my… I see.” Jeff stayed silent for a little bit. “I can see now why you’re hanging out down there.”

Allyson laughed through her tears at the hanging out part. He made it sound like a joke without making it sound like a joke. If she wasn’t hanging four hundred feet above the ground, she’d have laughed even more.

“So,” Jeff went on, “you realize that being gay in Idaho is probably worse than being black in Idaho, right?”

“I’m not gay!” she cried out.

“Oh. It’s just girls being mean and calling you that then?”

“Yes. No. I had a girlfriend.”

“Hrmm. So you are a lesbian? I’m confused.”

“I like girls,” Allyson said. He was confusing her again. “I like boys too. I like both.”

“Oh… oh… oh! I gotcha,” he said with a grimace. “Bisexual. That’s possibly even worse than being a lesbian.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Well, you like boys, which is ‘normal,’ but you like girls also, which is ‘gay,’ so you confuse the stereotypes of your gender to others. To the bible-thumpers around here, no one is gay by biology. Queers are gay by choice. And the fact that you ‘choose’ boys and girls propagates that myth to them.”

“What are you, some kind of psychiatrist?”

“Nope. A lawyer, like I said. I just pretend to be the other in my spare time. I told you, humans interest me.”

“I can’t help who I am,” Allyson said. “I’ve always liked both. And I can’t help being black. Just like I can’t help having the mother I do, or her shitty husband. I can’t help being a magnet for hateful people around here. I’d run away but what good would that do?”

“True,” Jeff said, as if it was a deep, thoughtful subject. “You’d find hate pretty much anywhere you went. Hell, could you even go back to where you came from, where there are a lot more African-Americans? Would they accept you after living in whitebread Idaho and looking like some emo-goth white girl with your hair and the way you dress?”

Allyson began to cry at the realization she wouldn’t even be black enough to be accepted among her own kind. She’d tried to be whiter to fit in here, and it had only screwed her identity up even more.

“Fuck you! You don’t have to sound so smug about it!” she screamed at him, enraged now by his suppositions about her life and who she was. “Why don’t you just go back to your pretty white life and your pretty white wife. Go live like a lawyer. I’m just some stupid kid to you aren’t I? You don’t even give a shit!” Allyson was shrieking at him while sobbing, sniffling, crying, and trying to keep her grip on the pole. “You don’t know a goddamn thing about me!”

“I know that you’re about to let go of that pole and plunge to your death,” Jeff said to her. He sounded full of sadness, but she couldn’t be sure of it with the way the wind was rushing around her.

“So what? What do you care? What does anyone care? No one does! No one gives a shit about me! You don’t. You’re just trying to make yourself feel good, do your good deed for the week to make up for being a piece of shit lawyer who probably rips people off every day!”

“Allyson,” he called down to her, his voice changing. “I care.”

She wanted to believe it. Something in his voice made her want to believe it more than anything. But something in her mind wanted to shut him up by just letting go. The last thing she would hear besides the rush of the air as she plummeted would be his scream. As if reading her mind, he called down to her again.

“Allyson. Don’t let go.”

“Why shouldn’t I? You don’t have to live my life. You get to go home and back to your life. I have nothing!”

“You have me,” he said.

“What good does that do me?”

“It means that even when no one else in the world gives a shit about you, at least I do. It means that someone cares about you enough to stop and question you about your life. A total stranger at that. What does that say about your life when some random person out of the blue happens upon you just at the time you are going to literally throw your life away?

“I’m not talking about coincidences either, though you have to admit this is pretty weird, to say the least. Did you know that when you were smoking out front of The Rest, I wanted to run up to you and ask you a bunch of stupid questions? Because you looked so out of place? Like you weren’t from here, had only stopped to get gas and then you’d be on your way, like everyone else that comes through here.”

“What kind of questions?” Allyson asked.

“Listen, I’m getting tired of having to shout down to you because of the wind.”

“What kind of questions?” she screamed.

“Basically all the things I’ve already asked you. Where are you from? Why are you here? How weird is it to be in a place with nothing but white faces? Now that I know you a little more, I’d would also ask how does it feel to be bisexual in a religiously intolerant place? Though I would have never asked or even assumed that before a few minutes ago.”

“Why do you care? You haven’t told me why you care.”

“I care because I’m a human fucking being, that’s why!” Jeff’s angry shout back to her made her feel guilty, made her feel like shit for some reason. “What kind of world do we live in that not a single human being gives a damn whether you live or die? I don’t know what kind of shitty life you have going on other than I’m sure it’s a thousand times worse than what little you’ve told me. I can’t imagine what you live through every day.

“I just know that if I did nothing, if I just drove by without stopping and read about you in the paper tomorrow, I’d never forgive myself. Not because I need to do my good deeds, as you say. But because I can’t stand to think I didn’t care enough about someone to try and lend them a hand.”

Jeff’s arm came over the side, hand out to let her know she could reach for it anytime she chose to. His voice was confusing her again. The more he talked, the more the pendulum inside her swung from letting go to reaching out for his hand.

“There’s a lot of life for you left to live. I can’t promise anything will get easier for you. Life is supposed to be hard. If it was easy, we’d have no reason to go on as a species. Nothing gets handed to you. You have to tough it out every single day. For every ten days, hell, maybe every hundred days, you might have one really good twenty-four hour stretchblack .

“There’s got to be someone, anyone in your life that you can talk to, go to for help. If the person you go to turns you away or only wants to help you for their own selfish reasons, you walk away and go to the next person. And if you get through everyone and no one will help you, then you say ‘fuck them’ and you come and find me. I’m Jefferson Charles. I work in Borah at Maser, Franklin, Waters, & Charles. On Sawtooth Avenue. If I have to be the one and only person in your life that gives a shit, then I will be. At least you’ll have someone to turn to.

“But think about if you let go. You won’t ever get to find out that life is really fucking hard but the fleeting moments of happiness more than make up for it. You’ve been in love right? How will you ever experience that again? What about if you want to have a baby one day? My wife can tell you all about that feeling of carrying a life inside you, being responsible for it, nurturing it, watching it grow into a person. Don’t you want to know how it all turns out?”

His voice finally broke her last barriers. There was something in it that put little pictures in her head. She saw herself finding love with another woman. Another man. Having a bulging stomach from being pregnant. Graduating high school, maybe even college, and moving to a place that would accept her for who she was. San Francisco, or maybe Seattle. Portland. Even New York City. There had to be a place for her in the world.

She loosened her feet and tried to lift herself with her toes on the protrusions while reaching out with one hand. Just as their hands were about to touch, red and blue lights began to flash, and the short WHOOP! of a police siren made her flinch. Allyson’s feet slipped off the T junction. Her eyes went wide as she felt herself falling, a scream of fear trying to dislodge itself from her throat.

Exchange Rate: 5-Jeff

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