Charlotte in the Desert

February 13, 2008
By Paul Cunningham, Monaca, PA

The glass of lemon-lime soda was sitting on the edge of the coffee table. Poured in an old jelly container. Effective recycling. The glass itself was sweating. Sweating more than Charlotte’s darling Uncle Freddy and part of the reason was the belligerent sun fighting its way through the silky blue curtains near the window near the sink. The light awoke tiny bubbles at the bottom of the cup and sent them soaring off and sent them screaming to the top. Fizzy.

“Don’t waste that damn stuff! You act like there’s a market right behind the trailer!” Uncle Freddy would say to Charlotte. He’d say it verbally and sometimes physically. At least that’s the way the word went when it spread. Physical retaliation was a normal and nearly expected practice in the desert. And it’s not like the town officials cared either. Because depending on what you did and who you plugged, if a cop did find you during your dramatic getaway somewhere out there on that long black strip of tar, you wouldn’t be given the chance to say “what did I do officer?” He’d shoot you right there in plain daylight, get back on his bike and spit a shot of tobacco right between the buttons on your shirt. All he needed was a legitimate reason.

No one knew Charlotte and Freddy as uncle and niece. Everyone in the park knew them as husband and wife. Their relationship was a lot like Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd. The way honest Abe would call his wife “mother”. No one paid attention to the stifling age difference, either. But then again, Charlotte wasn’t exactly the desert’s buried treasure. And when Freddy went digging, he wasn’t looking for treasure, either. He was looking for a Charlotte. Charlotte was looking for an anybody. I was the poor idiot neighbor looking for a summer job. I went to Charlotte and Freddy. They agreed to let me do things for them. Mow the lawn. Trim the bushes. Common around-the-house work. Freddy was generally too hot and tired to be bothered with typical chores. Part of that was because he couldn’t afford air conditioning.

“Careful now,” I said to Charlotte, letting her sink down into the freshly drawn bathwater. It reeked of heat. My eyes veered away from her breasts. She was, after all, a married woman. Despite the uncommon mannerisms that came with her marriage. “Won’t you talk to me?”

Charlotte lay there. Her knees protruding from the surface. The same way two mountains would protrude from the ocean’s bottom. Her head rested against the right-most corner of the tub. Her eyes gazed out the bathroom door.

“Where did your husband go? Where did--where did Uncle Freddy go?” I asked her calmly. Her eyes never left the door. They were wide like holes in space. An almost unnoticeable twinkle. Blackened stars.

I left her side for a moment. Before I left, I couldn’t help but watch her. Just lying there. Naked. Not a bruise on her. Not a scrape. Her skin had an appealing, sunny glow to it. The way you’d hear them go at it--you think she‘d be covered in cigarette burns. Not a scratch on her. Just soft, hot water.

“I’ll be back,” I said, leaving the bathroom. My skinny legs carried me quickly down the hallway. Down the hallway and into the living room and out the front door and onto the sidewalk and back to my trailer. To call the sheriff.

Charlotte waited in the bathwater. The smell of wet skin.

Just beyond the open bathroom door stood a small, narrow table made of a strong, black wire. There were three free-standing picture frames resting on the top. The first, a photo of Charlotte and Freddy. The second, a photo of Charlotte’s brother, Reynold. The third, a photo of Charlotte and Freddy. The first time they met. A carnival.

Charlotte’s eyes wandered. So eager. They spun around the hallway. More picture frames. Photographs trapped in glass. The faces in the frames didn’t look the same. The photographs themselves were fictions. Memories that could just as easily be called stories. Charlotte stared into the third frame on the small, narrow table. Her Uncle Freddy. The day of their wedding he looked down at her and said, “You’re young enough to be my daughter. Well, then again, that’s a bit weird. You could be my niece.”

Freddy eventually went “digging” around the desert while Charlotte stayed at home. A wedding and a honeymoon later he was bringing home new “treasures” from the desert’s sands. Charlotte put on a face. The same one she wore every day. The one she’d learn to perfect. She made sure it was well-adjusted when she’d walk into Freddy’s room and notice the blankets--a mess. The sheets ripped out of the sides of the bed. The bed she made four hours prior to being sent out to retrieve a package from one of Freddy’s friends. She’d say, he must have went back to bed. Woke back up. A normal thing to do. A normal thing to do.

Charlotte’s eyes continued to stare out over the bathwater. An ocean of lies. Her knees sank in closer to the bottom. The ball of her left heel creeping into the hole of the drain.

“Charlotte. Charlotte?” I returned to Charlotte’s trailer. I returned to Charlotte’s bathroom. She was still lying in the tub full of tepid water. Her neck. Her face. Her eyes. The same. All in the same position. She hadn’t moved. It seemed as though she hadn’t even blinked. “Charlotte, the sheriff’s on his way. We’re gonna’ sort this out.”

“We’re not going to do anything.” Freddy had been in the house the whole time. I had never thought to check the bedroom. One door down from the bathroom. “Can’t you see what you’ve done to my wife.” He was outraged. “How dare you. We let you into our home, and you sit in here and stare at my wife. You sicko.”

“I called for you earlier. She was just sitting on the bathroom floor. She was crying. She was naked.” I explained.

“So you helped my naked wife into my bathtub. Sat here in my bathroom and watched her.” he stepped forward, holding a cell phone. “My wife’s stupid, she can’t help that. Sometimes she cries.”

“Fred, I was just concerned for her safety. I thought maybe something happened.” I yelled. He stuffed his cell phone into my hand.

“You’re gonna’ call the damn sheriff and you’re gonna’ tell him to stay in--”

“Would you look at your wife! She’s not well!! Look at her!” I begged him. I dropped the cell phone and knelt down near the tub. I reached in the water and pulled her flaccid arm into the air. It dangled.

A knock came at the door.

Her moist body. Desperate for a dry air.

“She’s dead, Freddy! Look at her! She won’t even blink!”

Again, a knock!

“Don’t touch her! Get away from my wife!” he roared, kicking me hard in my ribs. I toppled over into the tub. Water splashed out onto the floor. Onto Freddy’s bare feet. Out the bathroom door.

The door swung open.

“My wife, sheriff! Get the boy away from my wife!”

Without a second thought, the sheriff blew me away into the side of the wall. I remember the taste of my own blood. I remember looking down and seeing myself splattered up against the wall. I remember sinking into the cold water next to Charlotte. I remember the smoke leaving the old sheriff’s shotgun. Black.

It was three days before anyone saw Uncle Freddy leave his trailer. He left at two in the morning. With nothing but a cup of coffee and a long, black bag. Lumpy. It fit fine in the back of his Toyota. He came back around six.

It was three weeks before I left the hospital, only to return to a prison.

My summer job.

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