Though Marley had always been comforted by the clip-clip-clip of her high-heeled boots on the sidewalk, tonight she was very aware of the black ice scheming to throw her over the thick, concrete railing.
Bridge may ice in winter, the sign warned as she approached it, her thick knuckles and cold-shrunken fingers in an icy cluth at the faux fur trim of her white bubble jacket, the one her mama told her made girls look like the Michelin man. The comment last year had sparked the first of many arguments between mother and daughter, and they were always about the same thing.
The bridge itself arched like a cat stretching after sleep, its belly as far away from the freezing river as the taut extension cables could manage. It was due to the bowing James T. Hooper Memorial Bridge that Marley did not see him until she was high on its slope.
He must have heard the slowing of her previously steady clip-clip-clip, Marley thought, though he hadn't turned in her direction yet. The sounds of her hesitance carried across the river like the brown bottle the haggard man had pitched over the and was watching intently. As if the bob of the bottle was tapping out a private message in Morse code. His naked fingers gripped the railing's edge and drummed with the bottle's rise and fall.
Marley clutched her jacket tighter at the sight of him, trapping her purse as her arms pulled closer to her body. Her mama had shouted at her today, telling her not to go walking home after dark.
"Ain't good for a girl goin' out by herself late at night - 'specially one dressin' like you dress."
"There's nothin' wrong with my clothes," Marley snarled. "I'll do what I wanna do!"
"I won't have you windin' up like I did, Marley Mae!" Mama screamed, her hands thrust in the air as if she could stop all the evils of the world. Marley didn't stop to think as she stared down her mama. The woman's face flushed, circled by a cloud of brown strands come loose from her bun.
"I'm not gonna wind up like you," she said, her voice sharp. "I'm not a white girl walking the street at three in the mornin' like a goddamn target."
Marley had felt bad about what she'd said to her mother, considering the night that had ushered Marley into existence. She knew she would have to fight the image of blood rushing from her mother's face and the stunned look that replaced it.
But now, just for a moment, Marley felt the flash of fear her mama had felt that night. The night that... Marley shook her head clear of the thought. Every once in a while during a fight, her mama would whip it out, throw her choice in Marley's face when she thought her daughter was being ugly.
Marley picked up the pace, stepping off the sidewalk and onto the cracking pavement. The man's head turned at the change of the clip-clip-clip and he regarded her under bushy white brows. She could feel his eyes on her, taking in the jacket, the skirt, and the boots. The scowl that further creased his wrinkled face made the hair on her legs push up against her stockings uncomfortably. Then, just like that, he turned back to the river, chucking another bottle out over the bridge. Both hands braced against the railing as he leaned over the edge to watch it fall. He had to shove the worn heels of his sneakers off the ground so he could see clearly into the crested black waters below.
Her mother was short too, just like her mama's daddy. She'd only seen him a few times, like at the funeral for him. Mama never called him anything else. Never talked about him at all. Not after Marley was born. Marley didn't even know her grandfather's first name. The man, now unbuttoning his faded green jacket, could have been a relative of her mama's. As if he'd heard the absurd thought, he turned his flint-colored eyes on Marley again and caught her staring. Jerking her head to the side, Marley kept walking, near to passing him on the other side of the bridge.
The clip-clip-clip got faster, faster than the push of air heating up the night in front of her, but not quite matching the beats against her rib cage. In her rushed step, the heel of her boot, her damned boot, caught the patch of slickness lying in wait, and she tumbled to the pavement.
Through the pain that exploded from her knee and the coldness of the ground, Marley felt the man fast approaching her and flipped quickly on to her knees. Seeing him crouching, advancing, Marley scrambled away from him, crab-walking backwards through the cracked blacktop bit into her palms.
"Get away from me!" She screeched as he closed in.
Marley was surprised when he stopped and gave her a look that could have been called devastated if it had appeared on a less weathered face. The scowl crept back into his features, as if from the folds of his wrinkles. His face was a pallid gray color. The man shifted his focus from her face to her torn stockings and bloody kneecap.
"Was just trying to help--"
"I don't need your goddamn help," Marley blurted, her cheeks heating up now with embarrassment.
The tightening of his jaw made the sunken face look a bit less rounded. Fear shot back through Marley as his face hardened.
"Get you home, young lady," he drawled finally, taking off his coat as he walked back to the side of the bridge. Marley started to stand, ignoring the pain, her eyes still on him.
"Stupid white girl, walking out here alone," he mumbled.
"I'm not white!" Marley snapped, suddenly wanting, needing him to know she was black. She needed to claim that part of herself that made her different from her little brother, from her mother. From him.
"You're a white, rude little thing," he said, shrugging the coat off his bony shoulders and placing it on the railing.
"I'm black. Black," Marley affirmed to his back.
"One of your parents, maybe, but..." He started to say something else, but shrugged instead.
"I'm not like you," Marley spat, brushing off the road from her clothes. When she looked back up at him, he was facing her, his face grave.
"Let's hope not, girl."
"Don't call me girl," Marley's scraped hands ran over the back of her shirt. "It's racist." She imagined him calling a black man 'boy' in a grocery store in the 60s or 70s. Or now.
"You got a name then, girl?"
She blurted it out before thinking. He huffed. "I hate reggae. Damn drums and jerk chicken." For some reason his mumbled response nearly made her smile, but for the fact that her Mama had named her Marley after the singer. Naming her Marley was lucky, her mama would say, 'cause the other option was Cosby after the only Black T.V. show she knew. Marley asserted again that she wasn't white as he bent down to his ratty sneakers.
"What's wrong with being white?"
Marley's mama had said those words too. She didn't really remember how she had replied, or shouted, really. The argument had started when Marley blew off her old friends in middle school who used to come by their cramped apartment every day after school. Marley had told her mama she didn't need anybody else who could not understand her and her people. Marley had been fourteen. Her mama had been pissed. SHe didn't have to respond to this man, though. She was distracted by him taking off his shoe.
"What are you doing?"
He was silent for a moment, took off the other shoe, and then backed up to the railing.
"Why would I tell you?" he asked. Marley's eyes widened as he hoisted himself up on the railing and swung his feet over the side like a gymnast half a century younger.
"Oh my God! You white people are so dramatic!"
He turned towards her. "My kids are like you - damned stubborn and mean. You should be ashamed to talk like that. You probably even talk to your parents like that." He looked back over the water, searching for something - maybe the bottles - and then added, "I bet they want to jump off a bridge, too."
Marley took a few wobbly steps toward him. "You can't jump! You said you had kids!"
"They don't want me. Wife doesn't want me neither. I didn't really want her, but us men... some of us men... that's just what you did." He hung his head though his frail back was straight. Marley thrust her arms out by either side as another patch of ice threatened her balance.
"So you got divorced. Lots of people get divorced."
"You ever been divorced?"
"Of course not," Marley snapped, then bit her tongue. Even she knew that snapping at a suicidal man wasn't a good idea. "What do you mean, that's what you did?"
"Faggots. That's what we did."
Marley straightened at the crude word. More the implication of the word, something that made her uncomfortable - something society and her mama told her was wrong.
"So your wife caught you having sex with a guy?" He turned on her, his scowl firmly in place. "I didn't cheat on my wife. She knew who I was, and when she finally acknowledged it, she left." He turned away from Marley when she reached the railing a few feet from him. "Kids were grown, wasn't a reason for it anymore. But them... they won't talk to me. Won't even claim me. Tell their wives and kids, I'm dead." Marley didn't know what to say.
"Oh, you have grandkids. That's great." That, apparently, wasn't what she should have said. The man scooted a few feet away from her.
"Bottle took seven seconds to hit the water," he said after a tense minute. "It's not too deep, it's the best bridge for it, though." Marley fisted her cold hadns in anger.
"So you're gonna jump off a damn bridge because no one accepts you? That's crazy!"
"Coming from someone who can't accept herself?" He shouted, his face bright red with anger, redder than her mama's ever got.
"I accept myself," she denied, but even that sounded whiny and false to her ears.
"You can't even see yourself as white and black in the same skin," he shouted, wobbling on the bridge as he thrust a finger at her. "You're worse off than I am!" The man thrusted his age-spotted hands on either side of him and swung back down from the railing, ranting to himself about "the stupid girl who couldn't even let him die in peace," as he put on his shoes. Marley didn't hear most of it, his earlier words too loud in her ears. He swung on his coat, putting distance between them while snarling a few choice words. She stood at the railing, peering down the slope of the bridge, watching the figure of the old man disappear. Just like her grandfather, who had never accepted her, she had not learned the man's name.
You're worse off than I am.
Marley stayed on the bridge; the cold biting her scraped skin as she looked out over the water. The old man was not in the river tonight. She was not sure that he would have jumped. For all she knew though, he would be back on the bridge tomorrow.
The clip-clip-clip of her shoes kept her company while she continued across the bridge that night, and Marley knew she was not worse off than the old man. The two parts in her had not yet blended like her skin, but Marley had begun to build that bridge in her mind. She knew where it was now, and though it might take a while to get across, she knew she would be able to reach the other side.
Jennifer Johnson, 24, is a journalism major and transfer stuent from Georgia Perimeter College, where she served as Editor in chief of their student newspaper. This is her first semester at the University of Georgia.