CONTEMPLATION: CHARLENE

A Short Story [Raymond J. Harding, 4/20/28-1/3/97]

I pulled over to the side of the road and began to cry right after I drove through a swirl of brown oak leaves. They made me think of a flock of little birds. Birds who had learned to fly too late to go south for the winter – to Florida where my mother lives. Mother goes to Florida because she can’t stand New York in the winter, and I am in New England because I, too often, can’t stand my mother. I found that I couldn’t stand New York at all, and I couldn’t stand modeling any longer either. Too much shallowness, too much groping from overzealous buyers, too much of everything that made me sick. So there I was, putting some distance between my mother and me which put me on a country road on a Friday morning when I should have been teaching.

Maybe it was Max, our friendly chemistry teacher in the room across from mine, who takes sadistic pleasure in baiting the younger teachers, especially the women, and who likes to impress us with his years of service; “When I started here, my salary wouldn’t even pay your bar bill.” Max did it; he got me started.

On Monday he caught a bunch of us in the teachers’ lounge with the quaint observation: “The suicide lady’s here. Get ready to lose half your kids today.”

“Suicide lady?”

“Yeah, from County Mental Health. Lectures them on suicide. Better ways of doing it? Who knows?

That was Max.

If mother could have seen me crying at the side of a road in the middle of nowhere, she would have said, “Charlene, Charlene. You’re just like your father. Neither one of you could face up to a problem and solve it. No, you have to spend all that time and energy running away from your problems. You saw what it got your father. If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t have gotten a college education, and you never would have landed that modeling job, which I can never understand your giving up, especially to go into teaching. Just another example of running away from your problems. Come down here with me for a while; we’ll get your life together for you…

So maybe that’s why I found myself heading north. A very good direction. I had plenty of money and plenty of credit cards. Thank you Mother. Maybe, I thought, I’ll just drift on up to James Bay and see who’s responsible for killing all those caribou. Or better still, hook a left and head for Fairbanks and watch the polar bears raid the town dump. They do that somewhere. I think it is Fairbanks.

Max was hard enough to take, but when Dave Brock, whom the senior girls call Brock the Jock, and who undressed me every morning with his nasty, little eyes, — when Brock picked up the cue from Max and started complaining about a ninth-grade girl named Cindy something, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I marched out of the lounge as Brock was bitching, “She spends more time in guidance than she does in my class. I complained about it, but it doesn’t do any good. Nobody down there listens!”

Poor little Cindy — probably short for Cinderella! “Nobody loves me. I get all the shit work to do. My brother never has to do anything, just me. Sometimes I wish I were dead.” And there were times that I wished that she would just vanish onto some other planet and leave me alone. I don’t want to listen to this. I want to discuss Poe’s evaluation of Hawthorne, or James’ evaluation of Hawthorne, or Hawthorne’s evaluation of secret sin.

When things really start getting to me I have this little device that I learned a long time ago. I go out and buy a new pair of sun glasses. I always try top pick a lens color that’s different: pink, green, orange, anything to make the world look new, brighter, more worth living in. This time I had my new pair in a delicious tan color that did great things for the cloud formations.

After I was finished crying and thinking about what my mother would have to say about my calling the school and telling them that I’d be out a couple of days, which might really mean forever, I started off again in the general direction of Canada. Those pretty red, white and blue shields that say, “TO 95 NORTH guided me onto the Maine turnpike, and for a while things were fine. There was just the road and I, zipping along northbound at a conservative seventy miles an hour, in my make-the-world-look-pretty glasses. Then there was a straight stretch over a bridge with a little green sign saying that the river down below is the Androscoggin, and with the light, the clouds, and my magic glasses all just right, there was Ellsworth, Maine, perched on its hillside like El Greco’s Toledo, a thing of beauty.

But then to the right, further down-stream on the scenic Androscoggin, someone, sometime, had carved the hillside into a nightmare moonscape that only a Dante could have dreamed. Do we call it mother earth because men have raped it so often? Why does every place of beauty have to be paired with its counterpart in ugliness?

It took a long time for that sad feeling to wear off, which left me time to contemplate the signs that the state of Maine puts up for highway safety: ARE YOUR TIRES SAFE? in gold letters on a blue background. Who knows? How many women know what a safe tire looks like? How many men for that matter? I mean if the rubber isn’t hanging off in tatters, or they’re not as bald as Uncle Harry, they look ok to me. I had the impulse to jam on the brakes right there in the high-speed lane, stop the car and contemplate my tires. Might as well contemplate my navel. Great word, contemplate. “Have you ever contemplated suicide?” I saw that once on a medical history form that I had been given by my friendly family physician, and I had laughed. I wasn’t laughing now. I was up to eighty miles an hour, and the scenery was heading south at an alarming rate. How does one contemplate suicide? Is curiosity the same as contemplation? Is thinking about it contemplation? Is thinking about contemplation, contemplation? If I wanted to do it right now, how would I go about it? Bridge abutment! How many of our kids have picked that way to go? “You’ll be sorry … You’ll be sorry … and the other kids will all say, “Boy did she go out with a bang!”

I had to wait a long time before a bridge abutment came up, and I was pleased to note that the state of Maine, at least along I-95 had made it rather difficult. You don’t get a clear shot at the abutment since they’re set pretty well back from the shoulder, and protected by a well-built guard rail that would probably mess things up, turn the car on it side and skid me into somebody else, some nice husband with his nice wife and their nice little kids who don’t deserve to die on the particular day that I might pick to pack up and head west. Or with my luck, I wouldn’t die. I’d just get my face messed up, or ruin my legs, or – I don’t even want to think about it, and I don’t want to think about smashing into bridge abutments and scattering myself about the highway in disgusting little pieces that will make some cute state trooper who might have liked me if he could have gotten to know me, sick to his stomach at what I’ve done to myself.

There are other ways.

I thought about, contemplated – some of the other ways:

Poison – probably hurts; gunshot – definitely hurts and also leaves a mess. They would all leave a mess, on me, on the floor. So much for contemplating suicide. There would have to be a way that didn’t hurt. Just the idea of wrist slashing makes me shudder.

“ … But I’m telling you, Charlene, the kid’s arms are a mess. She’s been carving at herself with a pen or a jack-knife, or something sharp. I told the nurse and she’s going to talk to her parents and guidance.  You keep an eye on her too, will you?

“Sure, Marge.” Marge thinks I’m a lesbian. I know this because I once overheard her say to Bill Miller, “I think Charlene’s gay.” Bill said, “Yeah?” as if it were the most challenging thing he had ever heard, and he’s been hitting on me ever since. One of those guys who knows that once a pretty, little “lez” like me gets it from him, she’ll never want to go back to women again. Sure, Bill.

I don’t like either one of them, but I did promise Marge that I would keep an eye on Cinderella Cindy because I had noticed the wrist scratches too, and they worried me.

They worried me almost as much as the speedometer what was now tapping at 85 mph. Good way to meet one of those cute state troopers, I thought, except with my luck, I’ll get caught by an old, married veteran with no sense of humor, or by a real pervert – “prevert”, as the kids call them. So to avoid meeting perverts or otherwise, I lifted my heavy right foot a little, waited for the car to slack off speed, and set the cruise control for sixty. Safe, but boring.

And boring was what I had with Danny. We had gone together for three months before he made love to me, and the first time was in the back of his van in the high school parking lot behind the gym after a basketball game. He was the coach and the last one out, so there wasn’t too much chance of our being caught. It was fantastic! I can still feel the rough carpeting against my bare skin. I wanted him to slide the door open, let the night air in, sell tickets! Who cares? But after that he only wanted to make it in bed with the lights out. I don’t know if he thought he had a size problem, or if he didn’t like the shape of my nipples, or what it was. Maybe it was a fear-reaction to the parking lot scenario. If we had been caught, he might have been out of a job and a career. Me too, but I couldn’t care less. Whatever the reason, we bored ourselves right out of our affair and that was two years ago, and there hasn’t been anyone since, which is probably why Margie thinks I’m gay.

The funny thing is that Danny had a much younger brother who is now a junior. He saw me talking to Cinderella Cindy before class a few days ago, and after Cindy had trudged off, head bent, books clutched tightly in front of her, he said, “That is one weird kid! She keeps telling my girlfriend how sorry everyone is going to be when she’s gone. Stuff like that.” He shook his head. “That kid needs help.”

Well, kid, we all need help. I was hungry. Since I can’t stand the food in those turnpike pit-stop restaurants, I pulled off I-95 somewhere north of Augusta when the sign read, “PHONE, FUEL, LODGING, and FOOD”.  After about twenty miles of small towns and fast food chains that hadn’t made it to the big time up on the interstate, I found a restaurant that looked as if it might offer something that didn’t taste as if its basic ingredient was sawdust. Outside the restaurant were several cars and one big, eighteen- wheeler with its diesel idling.

Inside the hostess handed me a menu and guided me to a seat by a window through which I could watch the eighteen-wheeler, or by turning half-way around in the other direction, where I could see into the lounge where a tall man in his mid thirties had turned in his seat to watch either my legs, the hostesses chest, or the eighteen-wheeler which was obviously his since he was the only likely Teamster candidate. He was wearing a western shirt, a cowboy hat, a leather vest, and a big, brass belt buckle with what looked like PETERBUILT stamped on it. It was hard to tell from a distance, but that was what the truck had printed on the side of its engine, PETERBUILT.

He was nice enough looking, and the truck had one of those sleeping compartments behind the cab, and for a brief moment, I contemplated whether or not it would be as much fun as it had been in the back of Danny’s van, but then I thought about Herpes and other nasty things and decided that I had better stop staring at the man’s belt buckle before he got the wrong idea. Or any idea.

I had a martini and then a steak and then another martini. The truck driver-cowpoke waved to me as he left. I had watched through the window as his big truck hissed, and then hunched itself into gear and swung slowly out onto the road, heading for who knows, maybe Canada maybe James Bay, maybe Fairbanks, maybe Florida with a trailer full of excuses for my mother. Maybe I should have gone with him and to hell with the herpes. Maybe he would have turned out to be me my knight in shining armor. Maybe we’ll meet again some day. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I lifted my martini glass in a too-late salute to the empty road. I wondered if Cindy, too, was counting her maybes.

Then I thought about adding up my problems. You call in sick on a Friday and head for the big escape route because your mother irritates you, your friends, some of them, think you’re gay, and the others are jerks, and your last affair was two years ago and boring at that, and pretty soon you’ll be thirty years old and your face and body will probably collapse overnight, and you’re sick of teen-aged girls with menstrual problems, and acne, and too much sex-drive coupled with not enough sense, and …

I was back in the car. The truck and I heading in opposite directions. All these thoughts were an afternoon jumble in my head. You’re right again, Ma. I don’t like to think and it’s much nicer to run away. I’ll tell them that I was suddenly taken ill. Terminal boredom. Had to contact a specialist in Vancouver. What am I bitching about, anyway? I don’t have any problems. I’ve still got my looks and my figure. To hell with what Marge thinks, and who needs her, or Max, or Brock-the-Jock? I’ve got all these things going for me and enough money to afford to be a school teacher if I want to be one.

Ahead of me the tall pines lined either side of the road, their upper branches forming an arch over my asphalt aisle. The wind picked up considerably. Suddenly, high up ahead of me, one lone pine cone detached itself from its branch, and with the wind at its back, began its long arch of descent. I saw it all as if in slow motion. Me, the car, the pine cone, the road, moving in our separate and relative motions. It was a long, thin pine cone, similar to the ones that the cuckoo clock makers hang on their thin chains as weights. Yet I saw it as a person, a sprite, a spirit, a smoke-colored faerie with gossamer wings, tucked back against her slim, boyish body, arms tight back, close to her sides in a perfectly executed, flawless dive.

The cone bounced once on the pavement and rolled stiffly to the side of the road in the blast of air from my passing car. It was gone. They drop like that by the thousands later in the winter, whenever there’s a high wind, an army of gossamer-winged faeries, diving headlong to earth, jarring loose the thin seed-wafers they hold, giving up in an orgasmic burst, the life that they contain. It is an act of love, not …

… suicide

And that’s when I hit the brakes and spun the car around and headed back for home. South; a dangerous direction, but one that I had to face. I was right. I didn’t have any problems. Just one. I was running away, not from my life, but from the fact that I knew that Cinderella Cindy was going to kill herself, and I didn’t know how to stop her. Well, I was going to try. I’ll find out how, and I’ll save her if I can, and if I can’t, then I’ll know that I gave it all I had.

And what will you tell your friends “Where were you since last Thursday?”

Screw it. Tell them you went to New York for an abortion. They’ll believe that.

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