Just another valley girl with a computer, a word processor and big hopes. I've
been published in several anthologies, had one treatment optioned...read more and am currently
working on a second novel (first was never published).
CHARLIE’S HEAD LOLLS in the chair, supported by wing-like pads covered in faux sheepskin. The sheepskin was Zack’s idea, made the chair classier, like the interior of a nice car. Her view is of the wall where it marries the ceiling. This is her world. There are cobwebs up there because her sister-in-law, Beth, is not a tidy housekeeper.
Closing her eyes, Charlie is somewhere in the past with a hot, dazzling sun overhead.
“I need to know,” the nervous young man says, kissing her hand. “Are you applying for this internship?”
Charlie looks at him. “Maybe, why?”
Rodney squints at the traffic through his wrap-around Oakley shades and guns the Jeep, changing lanes in the beige heat. “Because if I apply for it, I’ll get it. I’m a better journalist than you.”
This is a roundhouse punch to her soul but Charlie says nothing.
“You’re not going to wear that tonight, are you?”
She looks down at her dusty tank top, cargo shorts and sunburned thighs. “No, why?”
“There’s going to be people there from the newspapers, the editors, a few publishers. I’m going to dig out my ROTC tie.” He wiggles his eyebrows at her. “You like me in a tie, remember?”
She tugs the hand he was kissing free and ruffles the dark curls at the back of his head. Rodney’s hair is all curls, like a Greek statue's.
“You’re playing with my hair again,” he smiles in mock annoyance and tries to shoo her away from those curls with his right hand. “I got to get it cut next week for Reserves.”
The hot memory fades and she refocuses on the wall as Charlie’s nephew, Zack, enters the living room. His book bag, flung at the sofa, arrives a few seconds before he does. His headphones are on, hesher noise bleeds from them. The chorus sounds like ‘DEATH, SATAN, FUCK YOU’. Her hearing is supernatural since the accident.
Zack stands at the fridge and empties a carton of orange juice, belches, crushes the carton and guns it into the over-flowing trash. He wipes his mouth on his black t-shirt. Zack wears a wool cap tugged down to his blonde eyebrows. A chain that runs from his jeans to his wallet jingles as he moves in the kitchen.
He walks into the living room and notices her for the first time.
Charlie tries for ‘no’ but it sounds like ‘awg’. This causes her to cough a bit on the saliva that is forever accumulating at the back of her mouth. Please don’t change me, she thinks, not you. It’s not that he’s too rough; it’s the way he stares. She is a gutted trout, her wilted vulva, the trout’s entrails. She has become a biology class demo to be studied so a dark future might be divined by this bombastic acolyte.
Charlie’s gaze darts to one of the house cats twining his ankles. Zack looks down.
“Did you do that?”
The cat meows.
He stalks into the back porch off the kitchen and sniffs.
“Fuck,” he says.
Zack opens the back porch door on the moist September afternoon. Grays Harbor steams in the distance but she sees only tendrils of pewter sky arching above sawdust piles. Zack drags one of the plastic trash cans over and tips the litter box into it, gagging and waving the dust away. He kicks the empty box back to its post beside the washing machine and slams the porch door shut.
He yells the name again but his sister is not home.
Back in the living room he looks at his aunt in her wheelchair, her face bread dough that failed to rise.
“Did Mom go into town?”
She blinks one for ‘yes’.
“She going in to work or…?”
There’s a knock and “HeeeloOO?”
“Sneed,” Zack greets his shuffling friend who, imitating Zack, guns his book bag at the sofa. He misses and it rolls to the floor, bumps Charlie’s chair.
“You bring it?” he asks Sneed.
Sneed pats the pocket of his heavy flannel shirt.
“I get to see some pussy?”
“I don’t care but let’s blaze first.”
Nathan Sneed, who is one year younger than Zack but goes to the same community college, flops down on the sofa overlooking the cluttered living room. He props a sneakered foot on the coffee table and nudges a metal box with a hose coming out of it.
Zack takes the bag of pot from Sneed and stands at the counter in the kitchen to roll a blunt.
“It’s this mucus suction thing to vacuum the snot out of her throat and lungs.”
“Nah, she knows what’s up. She tells me things,” Zack says as he sits in a chair next to her. He lights the joint, sucks the smoke in, holds and blows it out fast through his nostrils. Sneed reaches for it and Zack avoids his hand.
He leans toward Charlie and offers the tip of the joint to her slack mouth.
“Come on, just breathe in.”
“She doesn’t look like she wants it,” Sneed says.
Zack shrugs and settles back into the chair. “Not in a party mood.” He passes the joint to Sneed.
They burn through it and Zack gets up, steps behind her chair and kicks the break off. He moves too fast, jostling Charlie, as he wheels the chair down the carpeted hallway to the old nursery. At the doorway he turns too sharply and her right hand, which hangs off the side of the armrest, smacks the doorway. She sucks in air but makes no other noise. In the room, Zack stops and locks the chair to peer at her arm. A faint blue is already blushing under vellum skin, tidal blood and fluid shifts. She is a water balloon left too long in the backyard on a summer day. She should have burst by now, everything else has.
“Sorry Charlie,” Zack says and he looks up at her as he kisses her right hand.
She thinks of Rodney in the Jeep a dozen years before but the angle is all wrong.
Zack undoes the seat belt that holds her shrinking waist to the chair. He drapes first Charlie’s right and then her left arm over his shoulders and lifts her. These days she is easy to lift, even her niece can do it. The verbal snipes about losing weight have long stopped replaced by silent apprehension. Once you truly are an object …
Helpless, her head lolls back on her neck as Zack drags her to the twin bed with the vinyl and terrycloth cover. He eases Charlie back onto it and then pulls her legs up and over so she is laid out straight as though she is going to sleep, as though she has come for a visit and they have put her up in this spare room and she is just tired. This is ridiculous as she has not slept lying down since the accident over 18 months before. We must all sit up straight, no slouching when Yama, when Thanatos comes with his scythe raised.
Sneed is at the door when Zack tugs her ugly polyester pants down and starts to undo the adhesive of the adult diaper.
“Is it bad?” Sneed asks, his dark blue eyes watching her face.
Zack moves between the bed and the nightstand where there is an assortment of wipes: baby wipes, anti-bacterial wipes, wipes that smell like lemon verbena and cucumber.
Zack pulls the diaper out from under her, balls it and slam dunks it in the pail that 19 years before was his. He takes the cucumber-scented wipe and makes ineffectual passes at her thighs. He misses the growing bedsore on the back of her left buttock, everyone does. In a month or so it will be several inches wide and full of puss. The skin around it will grow feverish; require antibiotics and a special dressing to heal.
Zack goes to the nightstand to pull out a diaper.
“Wait,” Sneed says. He comes all the way into the room and peers at her groin.
“Why do the pussy lips stick out like that?”
“I don’t know,” Zack says, “She’s old, almost 31.”
“Has it always been that way?”
“I don’t know. I never asked her ‘hey can I look at your hootch’ when she used to come visit.”
Sneed hovers over her. “Damn, that’s some bush.”
Zack looks at him, hands on hips, and imitates his mother.
“Some people only see the bad in others,” he says, doing Beth’s nasal hippie voice.
On the bed, Charlie coughs, her head still canted.
“Okay, show’s over. I got to get her back in her chair.”
Zack finishes changing his aunt and then lifts her and re-deposits her in the chair.
As he wheels her back out into the living room Sneed asks, “Did she babysit you when you were little?”
“Once or twice.”
“So she changed your diaper and now you change hers? Man, that’s weird.”
Zack sets the wheelchair back in the same place as before.
Charlie sighs because she was hoping for a different view, maybe a sliver of sky from one of the windows.
The boys leave in Sneed’s truck, spinning in the dirt driveway to leave a nice doughnut.
Alone again, her mind drifts, her eyes shut. Charlie slides back in time to a forest fire line, a hundred miles northeast of Sacramento in the Sierras. She is standing on her strapping legs with the sky over her orange and brown as hand tools clank against rocks. It is 5:40 a.m. The contractors who bring the firefighter’s meals won’t be here for another three hours. She easily lifts her Pulaski ax and swings it severing a clump of manzanita at its base. Charlie tosses the shrub into the Green. A smoldering chunk of wood, she pitches into the Black. Everything has a color. Crew bosses wear red hard hats. Rangers wear piss fir green.
She fumbles for the radio strapped to her chest. The radio harness goes over her 40-pound line gear. She has not slept in 29 hours.
“Tell your squad boss to turn his radio on.”
She squints down the line at the nearest other firefighter. Cowboy is stretched out in the dirt, his head resting on his hard hat, dozing.
“He’s going to the bathroom.”
The radio crackles.
“When he’s done wiping his ass, tell him we need him at engine 25 for the Sit Rep.”
“Copy, Fitzgerald out.”
The work day drifts, the sun shows, thinks better of it and slides behind a thunderhead. A pimply firefighter delivers a flat of warm Gatorade, and offers her an MRE. Charlie takes two of the Gatorade and declines the MRE. Around noon, the lead Hotshot crew that has been working on the ridge all night comes down the fire line single file headed to the spike camp and their sleeping bags. They are filthier than Charlie, nostrils ringed with soot like coal miners, their teeth appear bright white. One wears his crew hoodie over his yellow Aramid shirt. As they hike past with their chainsaws shouldered, she spots the logo on the back of his hoodie. It’s a firefighter wielding an ax in an inferno. In the flames a saturnian face watches the firefighter. The encircling logo reads: WE WALKED WHERE THE DEVIL DANCES.
“Are you listening?”
Charlie’s older brother is in front of her. The living room is lit by the woodstove opposite the sofa. For a moment his face, with his black hair and beard looks like the devil on the firefighter’s hoodie.
“I know you can do this, kid, it’s easy. Teleportation happens all the fucking time. Nobody knows about it or believes it because the government doesn’t want them to.”
He draws on the glass bong in his lap and exhales into her face. He is a true believer in the second-hand high.
A house cat purrs below them and tries to deposit its furry ass in her brother’s lap but the bong is in the way.
“You go over there,” he says to the cat and sets it down in her lap.
The cat curls into Charlie’s lap and looks up at her, its predator eyes shift from Christmas red to traffic light green and road-flare orange.
“I know this was a shit turn of events,” he continues. “You didn’t ask for this, hell, none of us did. Now my old lady has to deal with this because I got to work so I’m on the road.”
He looks at her, coughs on a hit and sets the bong on the table.
“You know I love you, that’s why we took you in. Nobody else was going to do it. And that state hospital was not a good place. I’m pretty sure the government was conducting experiments there.”
He squints at her. “You didn’t see anything, did you? I know you were only there a little while but …?”
He pulls the cat into his lap. Charlie is grateful. It has been over six hours since her last medication and the distant bee buzz of chronic pain is rising.
“Well kid, I’m wiped out,” he says, stretching and yawning.
Her sister-in-law enters wearing a bathrobe, hair wrapped in a towel, smelling of shampoo. Beth steps up next to her husband on lithe limbs and bends to kiss his forehead.
“Can you feed her?”
“Sure,” he says and rises, dropping the cat to the floor.
They are in the kitchen for a few moments and he returns to her in the living room balancing some jars of baby food on a tray. He sets the tray on Charlie’s chair. It snaps easily into the armrests on either side.
He spoons some creamed peas into her mouth. She tries to swallow but he goes too fast, tires of the routine too quickly.
“Come on, put a little effort into this.”
He tries the creamed carrots with chicken. She swallows a half a spoonful, remembers the MREs, and coughs the rest up onto her chin. They go on this way for a bit and he sets the jar down, not even half empty.
“Look, I’m sorry but I’m really tired. You understand.”
He takes the tray to the kitchen and puts the jars back in the fridge.
His wife re-appears sans towel, her hair half dry and falling over her shoulders. They have a long passionate kiss in the kitchen.
Her sister-in-law separates from him and goes to Charlie, to tuck her blankets in tighter, adjust her head.
“Good night Charlie,” they say in unison and walk down the hallway to the master bedroom, leaning into each other.
She sits alone in the dark living room and listens to the woodstove tick down into cool. This can’t come fast enough. Charlie is hot under the blankets and the room is suffocating.
And her demon appears again. He sits on the couch opposite but keeps his face turned. He’s ashamed of the deformities, the cowlick horn above his left eyebrow. Her demon has greasy hair dancing with alternate dimension lice and his cheeks are a primordial map of erupting acne.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice like the exhaust sighing from a furnace when it kicks on after midnight. “So sorry.”
He looks up for a second and their eyes meet. “I would like to help.”
She coughs a little and he jumps.
She blinks once.
He relaxes into the dark brown sofa.
“Do you want me to make the disability check come late again?”
“Good, good. I can help a little.” He scratches at his filthy hair. “Shall we try the truck again tonight?”
“Okay, just reach out, just drift and its there. You see the hood? It’s blue. You see the engine compartment? See the fuel injection manifold?”
She closes her eyes and she’s outside under the clear night sky. The adamantine air is frosted. The truck sits hunched before her in the moonlight. She stares at the hood and then she’s looking at the engine.
“Imagine you’re ice, no, sugar. Imagine you’re sugar and you’re drifting into the injection jets. Sticky granules of you are everywhere.”
Charlie drifts and floats, her consciousness pushed along by the demon’s soft directions until dawn.
The next morning, the truck will not start. It’s not until noon that her brother and his son get it running. Zack misses his morning classes. Beth is late for work for the fifth time. Everyone is pissed. Charlie sits in the living room already bored. The paranormal should be astonishing. Last night, she wanted roof-lifting terror, disembodied screams or lightning-tossing poltergeists. Instead it was Auto Shop 101. The following night, when the demon suggested they clog all the toilets in the house, she sighed and rolled her eyes. Purgatory is defined by late mail and bad plumbing.
Days melted into evenings. She drifted and dozed. Charlie was standing with Rodney in her kitchen, leaning into him. He was four inches shorter than her but his shoulders were broad. They both smelled of bath soap, their bodies recently scrubbed. His scalp showed in spots under his fresh buzz cut. Outside a March storm howled and beat its fists against the outside of the mobile home he rented. They kissed but it was post-coital and they were tired.
“Oh, did you hear?” he says.
“Kurt Cobain died.”
“I don’t know if I feel sorry for him, I mean, it was suicide. He had everything.”
Charlie looks into Rodney’s gray eyes.
“Maybe he was in pain.”
He sighed. “I don’t get it. He had everything going for him and he just threw it away.”
Another gray day, a copy of the previous, comprised of pills and baby food and house cats meowing. The afternoon light slides into the room along with Charlie’s niece.
“She just sits there?” her niece’s friend asks.
Rhiannon is on the sofa before her, her friend Abby, beside her. They are both 16 and they are chewing gum. The air smells of tangerine and cinnamon. Her niece’s hair is fuchsia and Abby’s hair is bright green. Rhiannon has a piercing in her lower lip. It looks like she has one silver fang but it does not detract from her beauty.
“They almost named me after her,” Rhiannon says, slouching back on the sofa. She has her smart phone out. She is texting someone with her right thumb, composing dense communiqués with one digit.
“Charlie’s a cool name,” Abby says.
“It’s a boy’s name,” Rhiannon puts the phone to her ear.
Abby ponders this. “Is she a dyke?”
“What? I don’t know. She’s not anything. She just sits there.”
“They were dancing for a bit and then they were sitting at the bar kissing,” Jules says, eyeing her for a reaction. “And then I definitely saw him with his hand on her leg.”
“And then they left,” Cassie finished. “I went out to the parking lot and they were pulling away in his Jeep, so she didn’t even bring her car.”
Charlie turns and walks away.
Jules looks surprised but Cassie looks sympathetic.
Charlie moves across the campus quad, trying to breathe, not tear up in front of random asshole frats sauntering to class in pajamas and slippers.
Back on the wrong side of town, in her efficiency apartment, she sits down on her bed and looks at her left hand. The diminutive engagement ring flickers in the light. Charlie gets up, goes into the bathroom and wrestles with the ring, using soap and water to pry it from her finger. Finally, she pulls it off and it bounces around, rolling to a stop on black and white tile. She sobs. She tries to puke, heave the pain out but it’s wedged into her solar plexus, like a tumor, destined to dim the skies over the remainder of her life.
In the front room of the apartment she picks up the phone and dials. A voice on the other end of the phone says, “Women’s health center. How can I help you?”
A cat is meowing. The sound draws Charlie back to the cell of the living room. The girls have gone. Carefully she cants her head so she can see the animal stalking from its food dish to Charlie’s chair. The cat stops, ears twitching and then it sits on a small stack of old newspapers near the woodstove. Charlie relaxes, lets her gaze find the ceiling and she slides back into memory.
She is standing in a lobby waiting for an interview. This one is for an administrative-slash-web-design assistant for a real estate firm. She is in a city near the sea. Charlie has the daily newspaper which she purchased that morning with her half-caff latte.
It’s inside the A section, the story about Iraq. It is about an Army Reserve unit. They’re calling it a massacre; a family of seven slain by Reservists during a night raid on a Ba’athist enclave. His name is the third one down. Smyth, Rodney Tyler, Specialist.
That night, she watches the news. They show a blurry shot of him in a jumpsuit being led into a court hearing. His head is shaved, eyes downcast and, she notices, he’s gained weight. Six months later Charlie finds another story about Ronald in the back of the same newspaper. He hanged himself with a bed sheet before his trial started.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do.” Her brother is before her, his eyes beet red, his voice deep and commanding. The cat that was meowing earlier is sprawled on the sofa next to him. “I’m going to lay it on the line here. We can’t keep doing this.”
She works to keep her gaze off the ceiling where it increasingly wanders and tries to focus on his face.
“That last late check almost made us miss the house payment and, I’m sorry, but that can’t happen again. So I went and checked this place out. It’s thirty minutes from here. If there’s a problem, I can zip over and we’ll be checking up on you regularly.”
He stands and tries to hug her, his arms trying to embrace the chair, the handles on the chair, everything. He sighs and gives up. This is his nature.
“I got to say, you are one of the best listeners. I’m going to miss this.”
He goes to the kitchen, chucks an empty beer bottle into the trash. He is not a recycler, not a believer. He looks at Charlie, his hands on the counter. He sniffs and one tear forms in the corner of his eye.
And his wife appears. Beth kisses him on the cheek and sets to preparing her nightly medicine. There is one now for chronic bladder and kidney infections, another for bronchial congestion and a blood thinner to slow the settling of all the red blood cells in her lower extremities.
Charlie opens her mouth extra wide to receive the D drugs.
That night, her demon comes a little late, swiping at dust on his desert tan t-shirt.
“Sorry, succubus kept me late. They keep ripping off my nuts and hiding them and then I have to go look for them,” he whispers, his voice a lone car with a blown muffler on a highway far away.
“We should do something about this latest development,” he whispers. “Showing you the door? Fuck them.”
“Will they keep your checks?” he asks.
She blinks once.
Most of his acne has formed green scabs but she can see his gray eyes over the ridge of pustules. Sometimes when he turns his head, she can see the curls at the ends of his hair, remember their coy bounce. She imagines him with one horn and his former locks, jaunty and devilish, husky and smiling.
“I say we go for a fire,” he says, his eyes watching the woodstove. With a cloven foot he reaches to kick the stove door open.
Charlie blinks twice.
He stops and looks at her.
“You want what’s behind door number two?”
She blinks once.
He taps his taloned fingers along the arm of the sofa.
“Could be serious consequences for this. I’m already looking at a hundred years in purgatory for my suicide.”
He looks at her.
“Just one thing: were you really pregnant back then?”
She looks at him, doesn’t blink. Charlie is still as a mountain.
“Fine. No ‘s’ word then, you’ve already heard that too many times.”
He stands, swiping his greasy damned hands on his tan cargo pants with their filthy piss and blood stains. Standing over her, he is finally taller.
His tears splash her face. The air is ozone and lye like oven cleaner. His hot hand cups her chin and lifts her mouth closed.
She breathes ragged breaths through her nose, her eyes on his.
He pinches her nostrils shut with his thumb and fore finger.