Feeling A Little Charles
by Jason Shults
Laura Gillette asks me if I like her hair. She’s so full of shit. Over
across the food court, her girlfriends are slobbering and barking like a
bunch of hyenas, and Laura Gillette’s out scouting potential carcasses, and
I’m supposed to be like the antelope, I guess, flopping around with a bad
leg or an arrow through my neck. I’m sitting at a table by the Chick-Fil-A
when she comes over. I check my watch like she doesn’t even exist.
“Ky-yle,” she says. She’s saying it like a nursery rhyme, sing-songy. She
runs a hand through her hair like a shampoo model. I’m thinking, Bite my
ass, Laura Gillette.
“You like the new do?” she says. “Take a good look, now.”
I look down at the table instead. There’s a copy of Consumer Reports left
there by the last people, and a Cinnabon napkin and a coffee cup lid that
smells like green vomit. Crumbs are sticking to the bellies of my forearms
and I have to keep brushing them off, and this magazine’s open to a page
showing pictures of giant television sets. I’m not actually reading it, but
I’ve got it open so nobody will bug me.
Laura Gillette’s quiet for a minute. I’m not looking at her, but I can tell
she’s moving around some, probably confabbing long-distance with the pack.
Over by the Starbucks island, they bust out with a round of jumpy barks and
then go quiet.
Laura Gillette asks me, “You ever seen a pair of boobies, Kyle?”
That sets off the hyenas again. I can’t imagine they’ve heard it, but they
laugh anyway. I don’t care. I don’t look up.
Something about “boobies,” though, it hits me weird. I realize I’ve never
said the word in my entire life. I don’t know why. So I try it, saying it
with the sound turned off. Boobies. Boobies? Boobies.
Laura Gillette’s watching my lips.
“What,” I say.
“You look like a goldfish when you do that.” She makes a fish mouth. She’s
got big teeth, and the fish mouth makes her head look like a fat pirhanna.
Her ears are curly pink fins.
“Fuck off,” I tell her. I use my bored voice, the one that drives my mom
crazy. I fluff my fingers at her. “Go on. Fuck off. Leave me alone,” and
then under my breath I say, “skankazoid.”
Laura Gillette hears it all, but it doesn’t faze her. Her dad owns the
biggest car dealership in town. Nothing I say means anything.
“Boobies,” she says. Not out loud. She only mouths it, making fun of me. I
have no idea why she’s doing this. I doubt she knows, either. It’s just pure
randomness. She hasn’t spoken more than two words to me since kindergarten,
but here she is.
She does it again, just her mouth: “Boobies.”
I check my watch. My job on the second floor starts in two minutes. I tell
her: “I’m trying to read here, yeah?”
“Yeah?” she says.
She steps up right in front of me. She smells like fabric softener and some
peppery kind of meat. Salami, maybe. Under those is another smell, like a
jar full of wet pennies. She grabs the magazine away from me, and flips a
page. She pulls out a chair and sits across from me, and flips another page.
Up close, I can see she’s wearing tons of makeup. There’s a giant zit on the
bridge of her nose that’s been plastered with skin-colored mud.
“You buying a television?” she says.
It’s so far out of the realm of possibility that I don’t even know how to
answer her. Why anybody needs a television, I don’t know. Or a magazine, for
that matter. All this crap coming at you already. I whip the magazine back
to my side of the table and pretend to read.
She stares at me for a full minute, maybe more. It’s thirty seconds until
my shift starts, but I don’t move.
“So are you, like, actually retarded?” she says. “I mean, you know,
officially?” She looks serious. She touches a fingertip to the zit on her
nose, and then realizes what she’s doing and stops. “I mean, I have this
cousin, so it’s no big deal. He can even make change. With real money. So, I
mean, I’m sure you can live a regular life or whatever if you work hard
She’s a good actress. The way she says it makes me wonder if she believes
what she’s saying. Maybe somebody really did tell her I’m retarded. I’m
halfway to answering her when I realize I’m wearing my Radio Shack name tag
and the black Radio Shack polo shirt. I can’t be retarded, and she knows it.
That’s when the hyenas go off again. It’s a whole explosion.
Usually I like noise. Any noise, especially in the food court. It’s a good
place to sit. The hum of the mixers and blenders and everybody talking, and
the way everything anybody says echoes around and around and never really
goes away. Something people said a year ago, it’s still here.
Laura Gillette licks her lips. She sits up straight, leans her chest over
the table. “Kyle? Sweetie? You ever had a blow job?”
Finally I just look at her. Her hair’s some pumpkin color, cut short. Her
friends have dyed their hair too, different but the same. Not pumpkin but
brown and red and yellow. Fake brown and fake red and fake yellow. Over
across the food court, they’re squeezed together under an air vent, the one
I always walk way around because it’s so cold. I’ve seen them there a few
times. They throw their shoulders back and let the fake wind blow their fake
I look at Laura Gillette’s giant zit.
“Aspens,” I say.
The aspens are something my mom told me. Every night since I can remember,
she comes into my room and tells me a factoid. She’s the one who calls them
that, factoids. Okay, Kyle, here’s your factoid for the day. She reads it to
me from a book she keeps in her room, the Guiness Illustrated Encyclopedia
of Facts. She flips it open at random, and it can be anything. History or
science or whatever. She reads it to me, and then does this little wave from
across the room. She blows me a kiss and closes the door and leaves me
Lucien B. Smith invented barbed wire in 1867.
The human brain weighs three pounds and has ten billion nerve cells.
In five billion years, the sun will become a red dwarf, and the oceans will
boil and evaporate.
When I was maybe twelve, she reads to me about aspens. How they aren’t
really separate trees at all. They’re just one big living thing under the
ground. The trees are just an expression, is how the book said it, of the
one big thing, but they’re not really the thing itself. They’re only part of
Back then I didn’t understand it, but now I can see what it meant: the
girls over by Starbucks with their shoulders back and their fall-colored
It’s five-oh-three, but I don’t move. I’m looking at the girls, and then at
Laura Gillette, who says, “I had an abortion last year. My dad took me to a
hospital in Denver, and they gave me a shot. It wasn’t any big deal.”
“Is that right?” It’s not exactly a factoid, and I don’t believe her
anyway. I’m back to not looking at her again. I’m looking at pictures of
shiny metal refrigerators in Consumer Reports.
“Well?” she says.
“Don’t you wanna know who knocked me up?”
“Not particularly.” For no reason at all, I say it with a British accent.
She leans in close, like she’s going to tell me the biggest secret of all
“You did!” she says.
Now it’s my turn to laugh. It’s just a short cough-laugh, because after
about a half-second it’s not funny anymore. I drop the British accent. “I
“Last Valentine’s Day? Don’t you remember? We—“
“You’re so full of shit.” I say it looking right at her.
“—we went roller skating. It was all very romantic. They played our song,
and we skated until we were all hot and sweaty, and then we slipped out the
back door and made love in the parking lot.” The way she says “made love” is
like the way she talked about me being retarded. It sounds real.
Her eyes make a loop-de-loop: “It was so fucking wild,” she says.
I picture this. I try not to, but I can’t help it. Laura Gillette and me,
naked, in the bed of a truck. I can feel my face bunching up. I have to stop
and think back over everything she’s just said.
“Our song,” I say.
“You know. Our song.”
“Oh, right,” I say. I nod a few times like an old lady. “Right, of course.
And they were playing it the whole time we made love.”
“Sure. Until we got caught.”
“I wouldn’t get caught.”
“Well, not usually,” she says. “But your dad came by to drive you home, and
that’s when he caught us in the back of somebody’s pickup. It’s not like it
was your fault or anything.”
“Seriously,” I say, “you’d do it in a truck?”
Laura Gillette is smiling a birthday smile, like she’s opening presents and
somebody’s taking her picture. “With you I did. Under the stars. And the
music. It was nice.”
I tell her I don’t know how to roller skate.
“Sure you do.” She does this slinky deal with her shoulders, like she’s
skating. “You were great. You were a natural.”
“And what if I say I wouldn’t touch you if you were the last girl on
It seems like that actually stops her for a second. There’s a pause that
might mean something. Then she says, “That night, I was the last girl on
earth, you dipshit. I was the only girl on earth.”
Her eyes are getting watery. It’s all too weird.
“Look,” I say. “My dad died when I was, like, two, so I don’t think he
would’ve caught us doing it in the back of a pickup.”
“Oh.” All of a sudden it’s like somebody stuck a popsicle up her butt. She
gets this look on her face.
“Well,” she says. “Maybe I was mistaken.”
She turns to check the pack. The hyenas are still standing by the
Starbucks, but they’re not laughing anymore. They’re pointing at this store
and that store, all around the food court.
When she turns back, Laura Gillette’s got this sour look on her face.
“Now it’s your turn,” she says.
“For telling me something.”
“Oh, sure,” I say.
“No,” she says. “Seriously. Tell me anything.”
“Seriously,” she says. “Anything.”
If I had the time I could probably think of thirty-seven different things
to tell her, but instead I decide to tell her about Charles. Even before I
say anything, I know it’s probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever decided in
my whole life. “Okay.”
“So,” I say. And I tell her how my mom was pregnant with twins, but then
she wasn’t anymore. I ended up coming out alone.
“What, the other one died?” she says.
“Charles,” I say.
“Sure, okay, but did he die or what?”
I take my time before saying this next part.
“I ate him,” I say.
“When I was still inside. It happens sometimes. Like a Lava Lamp,” I say.
“One blob eats another blob.”
Her face scrunches up. The makeup on her zit crackles and looks like it’s
going to flake off.
“So he like, what, disappeared?” she says.
Now it’s my turn to lean over the table. I shake my head and look her in
the eyes. Then I lean back until I’m straight up in the chair, and tickle my
fingers over my belly button.
“He’s still in there,” I say.
Laura Gillette’s pumpkin-colored eyebrows do a sort of dance.
“No fucking way,” she says.
“Seriously. He’s still in there. You can feel him.”
“Seriously. He’s right here.”
Laura Gillette’s eyes flash back and forth, from nothing to nothing, and
then her mouth drops open and hangs there.
“God,” she says.
“You can feel him if you want.”
There’s that minute again, when it seems like something might mean
something. She checks the pack again, but they’ve moved on. They’re over at
the entrance of Foot Locker, talking to Steve Birdsong.
“Seriously?” she says. “You’d let me?”
“Well, I mean, if you want. Sure.”
She looks over her shoulder to make sure nobody’s watching. She stands up,
comes over, and sqats down next to me, close to me, almost under the edge of
the table, like she’s trying to make herself invisible.
She’s whispering now. “Does it feel weird? I mean, having it inside you
“Like being pregnant, I guess.” I’m whispering too. “But I’ve sort of been
pregnant since I was born. So, you know.”
I pull the bottom of the Radio Shack shirt out of the front of my pants. I
lift the shirt up without making a big deal of it, lift it up just enough
for a hand to get into.
Laura Gillette’s staring at the little bit of my belly that’s showing. And
then her arm lifts up by itself, like she’s been hypnotized. The pink tips
of her fingers are squirming like baby mice.
“Touch him,” I say. “It’s all right. He won’t mind. Will you, Charles?”
Lindbergh made the first solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1927.
Angel Falls, in Venezuela, is the tallest waterfall in the world.
A single bolt of lightning can reach a temperature five times as hot as the
surface of the sun.
Sometimes I wonder if the Guiness Illustrated Encyclopedia of Facts
doesn’t have it all wrong. What if all the factoids I ever learned are
complete bullshit? What if everything I ever learned about science and
history and math is just a bunch of stuff somebody made up to make people
feel like they know something. You know, to give them something to hold onto
so they don’t go crazy.
In science class last year, Mr. Jakarti said the universe is going to
collapse some day, that it’s all going to fall together into this tiny point
of almost-nothing until the point gets so tiny it has to explode, and then
there’ll be another big bang. Things will start all over again with a whole
new universe. He said maybe that’s been happening over and over again
forever, and it’ll keep on happening over and over again forever, and maybe
we’ve lived this exact life already in one of those billion trillion earlier
universes, and maybe we’ll live this exact life again later, some other
time, but then he said, well, or maybe the universe will just die out and
that’ll be the end of it. Those physics people don’t really know, he said.
It could happen either way.
What this has to do with anything, I don’t know. But that’s what I’m
thinking about, sitting at the table in the food court, when Laura Gillette
stuck her hand out, universes dying, universes being born.
Her hand is warm and soft and a little soggy, but that’s okay. She pokes
her pumpkin-colored fingernails into the flesh of my belly, not to hurt, but
just testing it out. She’s on her knees, and she leans her mouth up so close
to my ear that I can hear short little breaths whistling through her nose,
and I don’t think she knows she so close, but she doesn’t seem to care, and
I don’t care either, so I don’t say anything.
“I don’t feel him,” she says.
“Charles,” I say.
“Charles. I don’t feel Charles.”
“He’s in there. Right there.”
“You’re such a goddam freak, Kyle,” she says. She doesn’t say it to be
mean, but just like she’s stating a fact.
“I know,” I say.
“A goddam retard.”
And then before I know what’s going on, Laura Gillette laughs a little and
takes her hand off my belly. She stands and walks off to meet her friends
over at the Foot Locker without even saying a word, and it’s five
twenty-two, but I don’t care. I put my hand where her hand was. I give my belly a little pat.
Seriously, I say, but not out loud, really, everything's fine.