6 – Jeff
Jeff pulled the BMW into the garage, making sure he gave Karina’s Honda enough room to get the driver’s side door open. He shut the car off and punched the remote, barely hearing the garage door descend from within the silence his luxury sedan provided. Jeff tried to get his emotions under control, but his mind ran in a thousand directions at once. He felt as if he were spinning out of control and reached out to grab the steering wheel with both hands. When the world and his brain only slowed down a little, he gripped the steering wheel as hard as he could, his thoughts only slowing down long enough to marvel at how white his knuckles were.
The instant he felt a tear slide out of his left eye, he crashed, his emotions boiling over. Within seconds, Jefferson Taylor Charles was a complete wreck, his wracking sobs, snot, and tears making him feel as if he were having a seizure from an allergic reaction. A small part of his mind, the strange, darkly humorous part, let him know that he most certainly was having an allergic reaction. He’d never really wondered if he was allergic to attempted suicide, but the black humor that was rooted deep inside him assured him that he’d passed that allergy test with flying colors. And tears. And snot.
Jeff was so lost within his inner breakdown that he didn’t notice the door to laundry room open. Karina stood in the doorway staring at him. She thought at first he might be listening to an interesting story on the radio, even at one in the morning. They were both NPR junkies, and she’d had to deal with Jessica’s incessant complaints more than a few times after being forced to sit in the car for ten minutes longer than normal while a story on “All Things Considered” or “Fresh Air” wrapped up.
She took two steps into the garage, angry it had taken him another hour to get from The Rest to their home, less than six miles away. Her initial fear that something terrible had happened to him during the short drive home was quickly replaced by the typical annoyance that he’d most likely received a phone call and hadn’t paid attention to the time. For Jeff, for any lawyer (as she soon found out after talking with the spouses of Jeff’s co-workers), it was an unfortunate side effect of the job.
Her anger turned to cold fear when she realized her husband, a man she’d seen cry one time in their sixteen years together, was a bawling mess in the front seat of his car. Karina ran to the passenger door and yanked it open, sure for just a moment that Jeff would either be covered in blood, or that he’d bought a pistol and was going to put it in his mouth and pull the trigger. She crawled on her knees across the leather seat until they ran into the center console, but by then she’d wrapped her arms around him awkwardly, her face pressed into his cheek. Karina felt the hot tears against her skin, felt the way her husband shivered as if he were naked in a snowstorm, and began to cry herself.
“Jeff?” tried to ask between her tears and his sobs. “Jeff! You’re scaring me! What’s wrong? What happened?”
Jeff’s body stopped shaking long enough for him to turn in his seat, allowing Karina to get her arms around him more securely. The hard plastic of the center console was beginning to make her thigh hurt right above the knee, but she held on to him for dear life, afraid of the words that would eventually come out of his mouth.
“Come on, baby,” she said, pressing her forehead into his, something they did with each other during the hardest times of their lives together. “Tell me what’s wrong, what’s happened.”
“I…” Jeff began, but the image of Allyson slipping from his grip flashed in his mind, and he was gone again, the tears coming even harder. He almost cried out as his cruel mind not only let the young girl slip away from him, but instead of a face full of fear, she had a serene smile on her lips, as if his inability to snag her had been her life’s dream.
“It’s okay,” Karina said, repeating it in a soft voice for more than a minute until Jeff finally calmed down enough to talk.
“I saved some girl’s life tonight,” he said, his words rushing out barely louder than a whisper.
“I saved a girl’s life tonight. She tried to jump off the bridge. I caught her.” Jeff pushed his wife back just enough to look into her eyes. “Then the police arrested her and took her to the psyche ward.”
He’d barely been able to get the last sentence out before the sobbing robbed him of his voice, his chest beginning to hitch as if he was having an asthma attack.
“Baby, you aren’t making any sense.” Karina hoped she didn’t sound accusatory, but the fear in her had grown by leaps and bounds over the last minute and a half.
“I’m sorry,” Jeff said, leaning back into his seat and wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his custom-tailored J.P. Carlton jacket. “I’m sorry. I just… It’s all so surreal. Like it didn’t happen, except it did, but in my mind, I don’t catch her. She just falls to the bottom.” His emotions threatened to overwhelm him again, but he growled loudly, turning it into almost a scream of rage.
“Jeff, you’re scaring the shit out of me,” Karina said, leaning away from him, suddenly afraid that he would lash out at her in anger. She’d never once in their sixteen years been afraid of her husband, not even the three times in those sixteen years they’d had a screaming match over something which had seemed important at the time, but turned out to be so petty that they’d laughed and joked about it after calming down.
“I’m sorry, hon,” he said, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Looks like James will get some of my lawyer money this week, he thought, thinking of the short Bangladeshi and his tall, awkward wife.
The two had immigrated to America seven years before, to southern Idaho for some reason, and they had started their own dry cleaning business in downtown Borah. Jeff had taken an instant liking to the little man and his hilariously deadpan wife after a clumsy waiter had dumped two glasses of red wine in his lap one day. It had been his fourth day at his new job, and he’d needed to find a dry cleaner as soon as possible since the ruined suit was the second of two he’d owned back then. Aaron Maser had given him such a dark look when he’d shown up at the office after lunch wearing khakis and a polo shirt that he thought he’d be looking for a new employer before he ever made it to the courthouse to stand in for Kyle Waters.
James (Jeff couldn’t pronounce the man’s Bangladeshi name) had pulled Jeff’s other suit that was in line to be cleaned from the queue and had it to him twenty minutes before his court appearance. The odd looks he’d received as he ran through the courthouse in his street clothes, then emerged from a bathroom three minutes later (a record time getting dressed for Jeff), had turned into a good amount of laughter and ribbing from the partners and the rest of the crew at Maser, Franklin, & Waters.
It had also earned him the nickname “Kent Clark,” since he’d come back out of the phone booth in his suit instead of his superhero costume. Jeff had spent years trying to convince his daughter that his suit, one that consisted of five hundred dollar shoes, a seven hundred dollar jacket and matching pants, and a Marvin the Martian tie that Karina had bought him as a gag present for getting hired on at Maser, Franklin, & Waters, was his superhero costume. It’s Maser, Franklin, Waters & Charles now, he reminded himself. He smiled at the thought, and for a moment forgot about Allyson, Deputy Bengochea, and the bridge.
“I made partner tonight. That’s what the party was for,” he said. Karina stared at him as if he’d spoken Romanian to her. “Honey? Karina? Did you hear me? I made partner tonight. That’s why I’m late.”
“Wait,” she said, finally clearing the frightened and confused look from her face. “What about this girl and the bridge?”
Jeff was worried that the image of Allyson falling to the rocks below would flood his mind and emotions again, but it seemed as if he’d finally calmed down enough to have a lucid, rational conversation with his wife.
“Okay,” Jeff said, taking a deep breath. “So I was late getting to The Rest because they’d thrown me a party for making partner.” Karina nodded her head for him to go on. “I called you from the eyesore right? Before I walked in, there was this weird-looking black girl smoking out front. Crazy red hair and shaved head and dressed like those emo or goth kids.” Jeff realized his story was wandering when Karina’s mouth curled into a frown. “Right. Okay. Anyway, this girl, well, when I drove across the bridge, I saw her go over the side. Like, blammo, she’s gone.”
He made a gesture with his hands imitating how Allyson had fallen over the guardrail, though when he focused on the memory, he realized she had gone over deliberately instead of just falling or diving. Karina’s eyes went wide as she realized he wasn’t kidding, that this is what he’d been crying about. She reached out and grabbed his arm, their hands meeting a second later, fingers meshing together tightly.
“So I slam on the brakes. I’m not even sure if I really just saw that, you know? I got the Beamer into the pull-out and ran to the middle of the bridge, screaming my head off.” Jeff laughed, a nervous sound that was more of a pressure release than true humor. “I’m thinking, as I’m running, ‘hey, dumbass, whoever jumped is dead at the bottom and can’t hear you.’ Just as I’m ready to decide I’d imagined it, a car came along and there she was, this weird-looking black girl clinging to one of the posts beyond the guardrail. She’s six feet down, holding on like Luke Skywalker after Vader cuts off his hand. And the wind, the wind is going from nothing to tornado every few seconds.”
Jeff looked over to his wife, hoping she understood his mad, rambling story. He barely understood it himself. He took a deep breath, let go of her hand, and put both of his over his eyes.
“I see her hanging on,” he continued, hands still covering his eyes, seeing the scene play out in his mind again as if it were in high definition, “and my brain just starts doing that stupid thing it does when I’m nervous. You know.”
“I know,” Karina said, a small smile replacing the fearful frown that had etched itself on her face.
Whenever Jeff was nervous, truly nervous, he would begin to babble. It was so adorable, not to mention absolutely hilarious the rare times it happened, that she’d known he was the one she would marry and hopefully spend the rest of her life with. Their first date had been a wild ride of nerves, sweaty hands, and her future husband throwing up not once, but twice before the night was over.
“Yeah. So I’m just jabbering on like an idiot, but instead of being stupid, all these things I’m saying to her are making perfect sense. Instead of trying to tell her how many people she’d hurt if she let go, I kind of just started asking her about her weird hair and what it was like to be black in Idaho with that weird hair, and that I would leave her alone so she could kill herself once she’d answered to my satisfaction.”
“Jeff!” Karina almost yelled.
“I know, I know. Like I said, I don’t know what I was saying. I mean, I do, but it was like freestyle rap or something, except this kid, her life is literally hanging in the balance. I kept telling myself to not say something stupid that would enrage her. I even got worried that she’d just let go to not have to listen to my bullshit anymore.”
Karina burst out laughing, quickly stifling it, but it made Jeff relax and chuckle himself.
“I know, right? Anyway, just as I’ve got this girl talked into letting me help her up, Deputy Dawg pulls up right behind me and blasts that goddamn siren like he’s in South Central and about to round up a street gang. Scared the shit out of both of us, and of course, that’s the moment the girl, Allyson, decided to let go with her other hand to grab mine.”
“Oh my God,” Karina said, her eyes wide again as she pictured a faceless girl letting go and her husband’s fingers just barely brushing the girl’s before she tumbled into the canyon. Karina had been in the middle of the East Bridge at least ten times, usually when family or friends came to visit, as they all loved to see it for themselves. She wasn’t afraid of heights, but she shivered at the thought of a body falling to the bottom from that height.
“More like ‘shit my pants,’” Jeff said with another nervous laugh. “Somehow, I don’t know how, I caught her. Thank God she’s just a skinny teenager. If it had been a fat girl…”
“That’s not funny.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it to be funny. I meant it as the truth. If she’d been an adult, or a fat kid, you’d probably be signing papers at the psyche ward having me committed right about now. All I’ve been able to see since I drove away after the police let me go is me missing her, seeing her face looking up at me until she’s too far down to see any detail.”
“Jesus, Jeff. I’m sorry. But you caught her.” Karina’s hand found his again. “You didn’t let her fall.”
“Yeah. I got her. I think I tore a muscle in my back, but I got her. We just stood there hugging on the walkway until the cop was there, looking ready to pull out his gun like we’d tossed someone else over the side. Next thing I know, they’re putting her in handcuffs and taking her away, and I’m filling out a statement about what happened.”
“Come on, baby. Let’s go inside. Let’s go lay down.”
“Yeah. I need to get out of this—” He’d almost called it a monkey suit, a term that he’d used his whole working life to describe work clothes of any kind. It was a big relief each day to come home and get out of his suit and tie and lounge around the house in his baggy sweats and a t-shirt until bedtime. After his conversation with Allyson, he felt dirty for even thinking it, even though it had nothing to do with race. “—I need to get out of these clothes. Kent Clark might have saved a young girl’s life, but he’s sweating like an unplugged freezer in July.”
Karina laughed at his corny sayings all the time, and this time was no different, though she’d caught his pause. She’d heard the monkey suit term the whole time they’d been together as a couple, and it took her a few seconds to figure out why Jeff might have stopped himself from saying it.
“You said she was black?” Karina asked as they exited the BMW and linked hands before walking to the door into the house.
“Yeah. Weird, right?”
“Listen, Mr. Sociologist,” she said once they’d entered the house, trying to be quiet so Jessica wouldn’t wake up. “African-Americans live in Idaho. Even here in the Magic Valley. David Gardiner is black. You’ve worked with him for what, five years now?”
“I know,” Jeff said, unsure of why it was such a weird thing for him. “But you didn’t see this girl. And let’s be honest, this isn’t exactly the most diverse place we’ve ever lived.”
“What’s so weird about a black teenager?”
“That’s not the weird part. It’s the… the hair. The clothes. The shit in her face, you know, some piercings and whatever. I told her she looked like she was pretending to be an emo white girl.”
“Jeff!” Karina hissed, punching him in the arm. “Seriously? You said that?”
“I didn’t know what else to say,” he said, embarrassed. “I mean, she wasn’t ugly or anything. Just out of place. And I don’t know how bad her life really is, but being black here in Idaho is already a strike against her.”
“So you decided to tell her she’s pretending to be a white girl as she’s about to drop a thousand feet to the bottom of the canyon?”
“Four hundred feet,” he said automatically.
“It’s four hundred and nineteen feet from the middle of the bridge to the river.”
“Jesus, Jeff, who gives a shit? Why’d you say that to her?”
“I don’t know!” It came out almost as a shout before he caught himself, remembering his daughter was asleep right above where they were standing in the kitchen. “I don’t know,” he said again, this time in a much softer voice. “Like I said, I just started babbling, but I kept feeling like these images or pictures were being drawn in my head. I don’t know. Anyway, that’s not the worst of it for her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Strike two is that she’s bisexual.”
“Oh. Oh my.” Karina’s face turned sad.
Her younger sister Kristina was gay, and she remembered the agony Kris had gone through for two years before finally telling the family. When the family reacted as if she’d thrown acid in their faces, Karina included, Kris ran away two nights later. It took almost a decade for Kristina to forgive her older sister, and only because Karina had cried, begged, pleaded, did everything she possibly could to tell her sister how sorry she’d been, how much of an ignorant bigot her and her parents had been about it. A flash of rage swept through her at the thought of her mother and father, now both dead. Neither had ever forgiven Kristina for choosing to be gay and for bringing such a sinful lifestyle into their house. Karina’s rage was intensified by the memory of how they had begun to treat her for accepting her sister’s lifestyle, for not disowning her as they had.
“Yeah,” Jeff said, knowing the storm of emotions that had just crossed his wife’s face were all about Kristina and her parents. “Apparently everyone at school found out about this girl batting for both teams, and with the internet and shit, you can only imagine the torment they put her through. Add to that being black, and around here how everyone just tosses out the N-word like it’s the word ‘the.’”
“It’s not worth killing yourself over,” Karina said, not believing her own words for an instant. Kristina had been hospitalized twice, once after she’d downed an entire bottle of pills and a fifth of whiskey, another after purposely overdosing on heroin in Phoenix.
“You don’t live this girl’s life, hon,” Jeff said, gently, not wanting to bring up her sister. “And come on, the girl is fifteen or sixteen. What a terrible age for anything.”
Karina chuckled at that, remembering her own turbulent teenage years of puberty, boys, menstruation, and all of the other completely tragic events that she’d lived through that turned out to be unimportant in the long run.
“This is true. Come on, let’s go to bed. Get you out of that suit and we can snuggle.”
“I don’t know if I can sleep, to be honest. I’m pretty wired.”
Jeff was out less than two minutes after his head hit the pillow, Karina’s chest. She held her husband for a long time, trying to imagine the events of his night in her mind, feeling like she could almost understand what he might have gone through. Her last thought was of Kristina slipping away, the paramedics shoving Karina out of the way so hard that she cut her forehead on the coffee table as they began to perform CPR on her sister.