Letter to Charlotte
by NANCY BONNINGTON
Charlotte’s gone. Good thing for her. She dreamed of au pairing her way across Europe and I wished her luck. She’s in Baden right now, seeing to the care of a two-month old. She wants me to meet up with her overseas for the ‘time of our lives.’ The last post card from her said, Hey, Judy, weather’s grim but the baby has my heart. Write something real soon. That was a month ago. I don’t think we’ll keep in touch. I’m in the middle of a semester and can’t just take off to Europe. I can’t just fly the coop, dismiss my life, put reality on hold. Who does she think I am? That was probably the last I’ll hear of her. She’s one of five roommates I’ve had in six months. But I’m trying to write to her, anyway: Dear Charlotte…I have a job interview tomorrow and have to get up early… “This is pure drivel!” Ray gets off the couch, where he and Lee are watching television. He walks gingerly to my side and stares at the computer screen. “Whatcha doin’?” “Out of my face, Ray.” I swing an arm at his fat belly, see the wobble upset his tight, Levi shirt. “I’m going out for a joint. You rock, Judy.” Ray brushes my shoulder, like someone might rub a good-luck charm. “I rock,” I repeat. I’m thinking of how little there is to say to Charlotte. I nod at Lee over on the couch. “Going where no man has ever gone before,” Lee recites, along with a voice on TV. “I love morality tales, man. You’re so wrong, Ray. You know, they don’t make shit like this anymore.” He glances at me and back at the TV—his wide, green eyes fixed on another planet as he rolls a joint, one-handed. “Outside,” I order Lee. “Both you guys. Out. And close the door.” The guys absentmindedly obey and wander out the sliding glass door, where a patio is surrounded by a high wall. We’re sure the neighbors smell weed from time to time, but nobody has ever complained. Still, I have paranoia about the cops bashing down the door and throwing me in prison for life, in which case I would lose the last of my dwindling college scholarship that lets me sit around in my pajamas and pretend to be a writer—a serious, no-holds-barred, 21st century femme de lettres. After all, I’m the fourth best undergraduate writer at the University. I know this for a fact because I received the fourth-place prize in a 500-word “write what this painting says to you” contest. The unsigned painting was horrible: dull colors splashed on the canvas by a trained monkey. It reminded me of the enormous difficulty my father had when he suffered a perforated colon, so I wrote the first thing that came to me: a graphic story of my father’s contested bowels in the hands of a sophomoric surgeon. And I used a lot of exclamation marks to make my point!!!! Instead of chastising my infinite ignorance about art (turns out the painting was famous and so-good-it-sparked-a-revolution), the committee—Mrs. Walker and her secret lover Chairman Davis—awarded me a yellow ribbon for originality. Blue ribbon went to first place, red to second, green to third, and yellow to fourth. As I was shaking Mrs. Walker’s generous hand and picking up my award, my mind played the association game, super fast, like this: Yellow for cowardly puss yellow lemon yellow yellow submarine yellow ribbon around the old oak tree a yellow finch on my shoulder for good luck don’t eat the yellow snow mellow yellow legal yellow slow-down yellow or just plain, it’s all we had left yellow: Take it or leave it yellow. Of course, it’s possible there were only a total of four entries. I don’t personally know anyone else who tried their luck at the contest. There was no monetary reward, no incentive for busy students, no advertisement in the school paper. In fact, it’s probable there were only four entries. I’ve thought about this, too: pity yellow. In any case, I wrote to my mother to brag and seek further validation from home. But I admitted to her later, and after two beers, that I may have exaggerated my accomplishment. Lee and Ray duck their heads through the patio door and say, just about in unison, “Tell Charlotte hi.” “Leave me alone and let me write and you don’t even know her,” I whine. The computer screen flashes at me, a profane billboard. An unwanted pop-up advertises girls, girls, girls. Even though I’m a girl myself, I’m still curious. I think about following the prompts to the land of Girlie Oz to see what ‘hoes’ on the internet are all about. But I don’t have time. “She needs her space,” says Ray. “You know Judy doesn’t smoke pot.” “Yeah, lucky girl,” says Lee. “Addiction is hell.” The two imbeciles snicker. “Tell Charlotte about Vegas, how you lost your shirt.” “Yeah, literally,” says Ray. He snorts hard to gather the last remnants of smoke into the depths of his lungs. “Your titties hanging out and all that,” he manages. “Tell her you’re the best roommate we’ve ever had.” “Or not had,” says Lee, and they crack up. I imagine their voices spilling out the open door, fading into the night for the neighbors’ entertainment. “Get a life.” I look at Lee and Ray. I train my eyes at Lee’s stupid forehead, the Z-shaped scar where he ran through a glass door at a frat house. Then I squint at Ray with one eye closed, to see what he sees. (His deep black hair covers half his face.) “Your pants are unzipped, Lee” He looks down real quick. “Woo-ha,” he laughs. “Good one.” He’s wearing zip-less sweats. Our under-funded trip to Vegas, during which we had nothing to gamble, had me seated across from Lee and Ray in a cafeteria debating the pros and cons of ordering a fudge sundae. The second and third buttons of my blouse had apparently popped open, and I happened not to be wearing a bra, an event of such importance to the guys that months later they still refer to it as “the flash.” “Get a life,” I repeat. “Leave me alone.” They stand fixed, staring at me. Lee shakes his long hair; he thinks he’s a rock star, although he knows only three chords on the guitar. “Really, say hi to Charlotte. So cool she’s getting around.” I turn back to the keyboard, ignore their stoned pouts, their squinty stares. Dear Charlotte…I have an interview tomorrow morning at Starbucks’ headquarters. I know nothing about coffee. You know me—Tea Queen. But I need the job. Money’s almost gone. Ray and Lee say hi. The theme music to Star Trek escalates from the TV in a savage crescendo—some poor bastard in a red shirt has probably just been eaten by an outer space bad guy. Doesn’t bother me, I think. A good writer should be able to ignore their surroundings. They say Dickens wrote in a room surrounded by his ten screaming children. I threw in the screaming part, because I figure kids are kids in every era. I’m blank now, anyway—writer’s block—which is weird because it’s never happened to me. My father used to say my pen has diarrhea.
Then I’m finally struck by a unique idea. “Hey, you guys want me to put on a pot of coffee?”
Lee and Ray gulp like idiots. “Coffee? You? Judy? Huh? Whassup? You don’t do coffee.” “I need to learn. I have an interview at Starbucks.” They shake their heads, not done getting high. I shrug and shut down the computer. I go into the kitchen and mess around with a coffeemaker for the first time in my life. It’s a Black and Decker, but it’s white. It’s obvious where the coffee goes and where the water goes. When something dark brown starts dripping into the carafe, I feel success, gratitude, a change of heart. I join my comrades on the porch. “Just this once, huh?” teases Ray. “This is one-puff shit, babe. Go easy.” “Naw,” I shrug and refuse a hit. I’ve never had a desire for drugs. Besides, Starbucks probably does drug testing. That night, I drink my first cup of coffee in seven years. It tastes putrid, like flakes of aspirin, poison oak and paint thinner. I go to sleep dreading my interview. The next night, I continue my letter to Charlotte: …So anyhow, Charlotte, at 9am sharp, Barry Leathermeyer held out a dry hand and I shook it. He looked me up and down, without hiding the fact. I let him look, because I’m all for letting my body get me the job at Starbucks, if that’s what Barry Leathermeyer wants. “Coffee?” Barry asked. I nodded, black. Barry sat back and made a phone call, then he looked up and said, “How about a latte?” “Sure.” I said. (I was on the spot.) Barry asked me why I wanted to work at Starbucks and I told him that I had to support my imaginary child. Of course, I didn’t explain the imaginary part. I figured this would either work for me or against me. Barry assumed I would be hard-working and punctual, having a kid to support. He ran down the bennies for me, all the family stuff. While he was reciting the “history of the greatest coffee company on earth,” there was a loud bang that rattled the office window.
I looked to Barry to explain the explosion, as if it was something that came with his territory. Scared and stunned, he looked at me. We both looked out the window and right in the middle of the street a dog was convulsing.
“Dang,” I said. “It’s hurt bad.” By this time, people were poking their heads in Barry’s office, asking him if he’d heard the noise. Out on the street, we surveyed the damage. No humans were hurt, but the dog was losing a lot of blood; guts hung out of its stomach. For some reason I thought about my dad who was dead but used to carry a gun. He’d have put it out of its misery. Pretty quickly the cops arrived, and we crowded them trying to get answers, but they were trying to get the answers from us. The blind questioning the blind. The dog lay there ignored, near death but not dead. How cruel can a cop be? All they cared about were the perpetrators. Nobody in the office saw anything. Nobody on the street saw anything. No doubt a drive-by, an animal thrill-kill. “Holy Moly!” Ray is standing behind my computer. I’ve stopped typing. I don’t know how to explain the rest. I want to answer Ray with something witty, but my eyes are welling up. If I trusted my voice, I would tell him to get a life.
We have a terrarium full of cacti, and I decide it’s high time to water them. I leave Ray and the computer and go into the kitchen for a pitcher of water. When I’m finished with the cacti, I see Ray and Lee both leaning over the letter to Charlotte. They don’t even give me room to sit back down.
“What happened to the dog?” Ray and Lee want to know. Three days later, Ray and Lee are gone, the TV is off and I sit down at the computer to compose the rest of the letter to Charlotte. Kill it, I begged silently. Leathermeyer looked at me sadly; a cop put a hand on his holstered gun and unlocked the holster. But he stood back, waiting for some sort of professional animal rescuers, all the while saying, “Stand back, everybody.” I stop writing. Does Charlotte need to hear about this? I have a homework assignment to write ten pages on any subject related to the Civil War. I want to start it by asking, what was so civil about the Civil War? Ha ha. At this point, I make a chocolate milkshake, and let my mind home in on the soothing sound of the blender. I think about the Civil War long enough to know that I’m going to write about the trials and tribulations of Dr. Mary Walker, who I read about in my history book. She was a surgeon during the Civil War and the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor. She was battling Death all over the place at a time when his ugly head reared so proudly. Sometimes, she would sneak behind enemy lines to save lives. I’ll write about Dr. Mary Walker, because she’s my new hero. I sit down and Google on Mary Walker: “a humanitarian devoted to the care and treatment of the sick and wounded.” Most women are better than me, I think. I should never have won any award in that stupid contest. I’m a gutless writer. The perforated colon was my father’s story, not mine, and I didn’t even tell it right. I ended it all rosy and Disney-like with him surviving. The truth was too hard for me. Surgery can come too late. Or infection sets in and spreads through the body. The body temperature rises. The white blood cell count goes way up. The man in the bed hallucinates. The loved ones surround the bed and watch the man moan about the death of his own mother some 20 years earlier. The body shuts down slowly and he lingers for eight days. He doesn’t know me when he dies. “I have something to tell you,” I whispered to the man who didn’t know me. “I think I want to be a writer. I’m moving to Seattle. Hang in there, dad.” The nurse came and went. A soft buzz in the corner of the room gave away the presence of an insect. The breathing machine flickered in the sunlight, like a bright Mylar balloon. A grey shadow crawled over my father’s covered torso. I watched the toe of one of my brother’s sneakers slide back and forth in aimless wonder at the prospect of loss. Actually, I don’t have an eidetic memory; so the scene may have been different than that. But it’s a fact that silent pain made my father’s eyes water and flow and we could do nothing about it. “Chess?” my brother asked. A small magnetic chessboard was on a table near my father’s bed, left over from a day when he was stronger. The pieces were arranged as though a late game had been interrupted. The white ones on my father’s side were in a dismal predicament—the queen gone, the rooks pinned down, three steps from checkmate. I nodded at my brother. My mother was asleep in a chair. My brother took up the black pieces. There is a game rule in my family that if someone has to answer a phone call—or a call of nature—another person can take over for them if they promise to play their best. I took over for my father, and promised, although I’m a lousy chess player. My brother was good; he saw the three moves and claimed his victory. We didn’t even have to touch the pieces. We both glanced at my father—his ghostly chest rising and falling, eye lids that shivered to comatose thoughts—then we set up the board for a new game. Waiting for death is probably like waiting for a battle—there’s a lot of boring parts. “Helluva way for a man like him,” whispered my brother. My father was a woodsman from Alaska. He actually survived a deep plunge over a waterfall while being chased by a grizzly bear. “You’ve gotta submit this stuff to Reader’s Digest,” my mother used to say, whenever my father shared his life’s highlights. “Helluva way for anyone,” I replied. We buried him in a rainstorm. We played musical umbrellas, as the funeral home had come up one short. Then everyone talked about celebrating his life instead of mourning his death. I felt like shit either way. The dog writhed in pain, yelping then too tired to make any sound but that of a soft whimper. The cop was facing away from me, calling across the street to onlookers. “Did you see anything?” “No,” they called. Shrugs all around. People looking up at office windows, as though it might have been a sniper. I don’t know how, but I slipped my hand onto the butt of the cop’s revolver. I rescued it from the holster and swung it in line with dog’s head. The poor creature was nearly at my feet then, a pool of blood painting a neat circle around its flanks. When I pulled the trigger, it was so easy to do. There was a loud bang at the same time that the dog’s body bounced slightly on the pavement. Then all was silent. I saw myself handing the gun back to the startled cop. People across the street were fleeing, as though from a madwoman. I saw them running in slow motion. And so, Charlotte, I put the dog out of its misery, just as my father would have done. I may be facing charges… Lee and Ray come home just then, find me staring at my own white hands—frail but capable, only slightly shaking. My body is shaking, too, but my face is a stone—a rarefied creature from long ago. Is this what they call a breakdown? “You rock,” says Lee, his standard greeting. He goes to surf the TV for Star Trek. Ray merely pats his coat pocket to signify fresh weed, but I shake my head. Then I change my mind: “Gimme a sec.” Lee and Ray head out to the patio. As they’re going through the door, I hear a gunshot pretty far off. Way off. Actually, it might have been a firecracker. Tires squeal past the apartment, drunks from the Ruddy Inn Tavern. Then I hear the zip of a lighter and smell a sweet odor. Did I tell you Lee and Ray say hi? I think I did. You’d like them; they take nothing seriously. By the way, Charlotte, I got an F on my Mary Walker Civil War paper. Dinged for the opposite of plagiarism…what do you call it when you totally make stuff up and not copy it? Fiction. I said Mary Walker put a whole regiment out of its misery. I imagined her going up and down the line shooting soldiers—bang! bang! you’re dead!—before they had to die like wounded animals on the blood-soaked battlefield. I went into detail about this man (just a boy, really) named Figaro who was the Colonel’s valet and couldn’t walk due to a massive fungal infection in both of his feet. His buddies dragged him, limping and screaming into the pre-battle encampment, where they rubbed his feet with a mixture of tar and mud, to no avail. Dr. Mary Walker arrived in the nick of time, as the enemy was approaching, and Figaro could no longer sing. In lieu of harsh treatment at the hands of the Rebels, Figaro begged his end from Walker, who obliged. Oh yeah, one more thing…Barry Leathermeyer decided not to hire me; something about a woman yielding a gun frightened him. I look up at the murky curtains, frayed at the edges, that surround a small window in our apartment. Something is stuck in a web between the folds, a small indefinable insect. We are all very bad housekeepers. Very bad. I don’t even want to deal with it. Then I smile, because I’m high, but also because something is tickling at my gut, something is rising in my head, something is breaking through my sparrowed mind: I’m a hopeless writer, I’m a free woman, and I’ve never seen Switzerland. I’m about out of money, Charlotte. However, if I sold my car, I could meet you in Baden by next week. Let me know where and when. Looking forward to it. Love, Judy. P.S. — Kisses for the baby, too. Is it a boy or a girl?
NANCY BONNINGTON has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington, and recently completed her first literary novel. She works as a systems analyst/programmer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.