Charlotte was twenty-one now. She had been raised in a small town in northern Michigan a devout Lutheran, and the envy of her whole high school with that hourglass figure; she maintained both figure and religion through the eventful first year of college, then experimented with dropping them, first alternately, then both at once, her sophomore year, and regained both due to family pressure the following summer. So here she was, October of junior year, thin, religious, doing average in her classes, and depressed as all heck. Her preacher had told her she loved God insufficiently much, so she prayed every night for an hour before bed, which drove Hattie up the wall. Her personal physician at the medical center had always been concerned with her weight (“Honey,” she’d said, “this is not called ‘beautiful’ where I come from, this is called ‘dead’ ”) so she had begun throwing up only after lunch. Still, every now and then in British Literary Criticism from 1850 to 1869 she’d suddenly feel like screaming, an uncontrollable desire that welled up in her like a toilet refilling, and she’d have to go and spend the rest of the day in her bathroom surrounded by reams of soggy crumpled tissue, leaking from the face with the ferocity of a burst Hoover dam. This had been happening for a month now, and she was tired. It took so much energy to emote all the time; she wasn’t used to it. She’d always marveled at the depressed people in high school, the people who seemed to make a hobby of manufacturing personal crises---Where do those tears come from? Don’t they ever dry up?---but now, she wished she’d been friends with one of them. She certainly needed advice.
In the absence of advice, she experimented with altering one parameter of her life at a time to see if it helped. She tried career first; it seemed promising until she talked to the head of the chemistry department, but he just stared at her breasts for the full half-hour and said his department needed more of a “soft touch” and would she be interested in going to the chem majors dinner that night, eight pee emm at the Uno’s on Compton Street, reservations in his name? Then came furniture, although even at the time she thought it doubtful that a green beanbag would change anything except the neo-Gothic atmosphere of her room (Hattie had decorated the rest). Today, it was her social life. But once she started thinking about it it took her only twenty minutes till she convinced herself that 1) men would only ever like her for her body, 2) women would only ever hate her for her body, and 3) none of them were religious anyway; death and Heaven were her only hope, but they were taking their own sweet time in arriving and besides, God and Jesus are male---see 1) above. Whereupon she’d exploded sobbing and went to the bathroom to wait it out.
It was ten before she was able to take a breath and ten thirty before she felt strong enough to straighten up and rise off the toilet. She splashed her face with water and stood there, bent, head in the sink, for five minutes as the faucet gurgled an ineffectual stream of yellow-tinged, metallic water. She concentrated on the flow, light and intermittent; it reminded her of peeing, which made her laugh. And laughing was a mistake. She couldn’t stop the laughing any more than the crying---and her diaphragm still hurt from the crying, too. Visions of bodily functions flew through her head like sugarplums. The trickle was too light to be urine; it was a lot more like her period than piss. She imagined the faucet bloating with water weight gain, and laughed so hard that she stopped making noise; a gasping little wheeze came out of her every second or so. But eventually it passed. She turned off the water and tried to regain control for a minute before she stood up straight, but when she stood up, she shut her eyes immediately. This same bathroom drama had followed the meeting with the chemistry professor, and when she’d seen herself in the mirror then, racoon-faced with running mascara, a sheen of snot clinging to the fine blonde hair on her upper lip, she’d been sent into another crying fit that lasted longer than the first one. This time she only glimpsed a blurry reflected outline through her tears, but she kept her eyes closed for safety as she went for the doorknob. There was a wet tissue under her foot as she stepped. She flipped backwards as the tissue squirted along the tile and crashed to the floor, arms flailing. Something jabbed her ankle, there was a kind of tinkly shattering noise followed by a loud hissing and an overwhelming wetness, and she opened her eyes to discover she’d kicked the pipes out from under the sink and there was lukewarm, yellowish, metallic water spraying all over the bathroom. “Hattie?” she called quietly. Then she crawled out.
The phone started to ring but she decided not to answer it. She stood up slowly, favoring her hurt ankle. Her pantyhose was hopelessly ripped and her stomach hurt; her hair was a mess. The hiss of the water was unbearable so she opened a window and leaned out into the crisp fall air. The phone was still ringing.
“Hey!” shouted Hattie from five stories below. The cigarette smoke that encircled her head glowed halolike in the light. “Hey, Charlotte!”
“Yes?” said Charlotte.
“Are you done having an attack? I wanna take a shower, man, I’m sticky, you know I hate that fucking grease pit, I stink like burgers, it’s gross as shit.”
“Well, I kicked out the pipes from under the sink, so the bathroom’s a little wet, and loud, but you’re welcome to try, I’m done with it, anyway,” said Charlotte.
“Oh, fucking Christ!” and she threw her cigarette into the trees behind her and stormed off. Charlotte watched her walk for a while, her tiny hands clenched tight in fists at her side, her baggy jeans, her black leather jacket accentuating her angular shoulders, her hunched posture, her short, slicked hair. When she felt herself getting a little horny, she blushed and said a prayer of penitence. By the time she was done Hattie was far out of sight. Charlotte looked down at the bench she’d been sitting on, and noticed a little flickering of live orange-yellow firelight from the trees where Hattie had thrown her butt.
She sighed, came back into the room, and closed the window. By now water was puddling in the low spots on the hardwood floor and a spooky layer of vapor was drifting out of the bathroom. She picked up the wastebasket, dumped the trash on the bean bag, hit the Play button on the answering machine, and limped into the bathroom to fill the basket with water.
“Hi, Charlotte, this is your mother! It’s Friday night! You’re out having a little fun, I guess---you deserve it! It is your junior year, you know! And I’m getting old, I can’t wait much longer for grandchildren or I won’t be able to take them horseback riding! Ohh, heh! heh! heh! ohhhh... Your father’s doing as well as can be expected; we’re all carrying on with God’s love to grease our wheels. The preacher and that wonderful Anderson boy keep asking after you---I won’t be able to hold him off once you come home! You are coming home for Thanksgiving, aren’t you? I know the aeroplane costs a lot, but it’s always so nice to see you---I hope you’re still watching your weight like I told you! You know, you may think you’re pretty, but you’d be surprised what men think. And there’s no excuse for a woman your age to weigh over one hundred and ten pounds. None at all. Look at what happened to the Golheimer girl! I don’t want that happening to my baby! And you are my baby, you know that, don’t you? I miss you bunches, Charlie-Chuckles, I do, I do!... Well---you just give me a call when you come home and talk to your poor mother, you know how I miss talking to you---and you know there’s a time difference, so you won’t be waking me up!---or I certainly hope you won’t be! Charlotte, don’t you forget to go to church!---oh, shut up, Bill, I’m talking to my daughter. I love you, Charlotte, and God loves all His children!---bye bye Charlie!---mwah, mwah, mwah!”
Charlotte came out of the bathroom, hugging the quarter-full wastebasket to her stomach, hit the Message Erase button, and walked out of the room. She left the door open.
Paulo, the janitor, was in the elevator with a little wooden toolbox. His eyes got very wide when she entered, and he moved the toolbox to one side when she started dripping on it.
“Ah.... Miz Johnson,” he said, then he looked at her eyes, was held there for a second, and looked concentratedly at the floor display as it dropped from five to four.
“Paulo,” said Charlotte. Her voice was about an octave and a half higher than normal.
“Ah....” he said, as the floor display went to three.
“Paulo, there’s a lot of water in my room,” she said.
“Ah hah?” he said.
“I wonder if you could fix the pipes, they broke. Well, actually, I kicked through them. I’m very sorry, Paulo, I didn’t mean to, it was an accident, really it was, I tripped. I can pay for the damage,” she said.
“Oh, don’ worry about it, that’s what we have insurance for,” he said soothingly.
“Thank you, Paulo, you’re a very good man,” she said.
The doors opened and she picked up the wastebasket and walked out.
She turned sharply as she left the building and headed into the trees towards the crackling noise. The fire was pretty big by now, and it smelled sticky and sharp; it came from a package of some kind of herb that had been wrapped several times in brown paper. She walked up to the package and gently poured the water onto it; it looked like it was out, but she put the wastebasket upside down on top of the package anyway: it’s always best to be safe. The stinging smell died away very slowly, while the thick, black smoke didn’t seem to die away at all. Charlotte felt much more relaxed. She sat down and leaned against a tree.
A sort of deadening sensation spread through her body, slowly, starting at her temples and broadening in circular waves that pulsed over her skin. She wanted to close her eyes, but everything was painted in the most interesting colors. She had to go to the bathroom but didn’t want to move. Eventually it didn’t matter any more. Her eyes drooped to half-mast and she melted into the ground.
Hattie came back at midnight and scoped out the area before she walked into the trees to pick up her package. She stared at Charlotte for a while instead. She was lying on the ground with an awkward, broken solidity Hattie hadn’t seen before. Her hair was like seaweed encrusted on her head. Her blouse was torn in half; her frilly pink bra showed through her undershirt. She was wet all over, and smelled sickly metallic, like their tap water. Her lips were slack and dead instead of primly pursed. One ankle was swollen and angry red. A dried brown crust of blood dribbled down from it. She still looked like a Barbie doll, but one of the ones Hattie had when she was a child: hair ripped out, head on backwards, limbs burnt in candle flames.
Charlotte’s eyes flickered and a pair of dilated pupils stared at Hattie, then slowly moved to stare straight ahead.
“I can’t get up,” said Charlotte.
“Hey, that’s okay,” said Hattie, nervously. “Uh... What happened?”
“Well, there was a fire,” said Charlotte. She breathed in, then out. “Your cigarette lit a fire.”
“Oh,” said Hattie. “Sorry.”
“I think it was drugs that caught fire,” said Charlotte.
“Drugs?” said Hattie. She overturned the wastebasket and saw the muddled mess of mushy pot, and stared for a minute. Then she started jumping up and down, hands above her head in the little adorable fists, “oh, fuck, fuck fuck, fuckafuckafuck, fucking shit! Fuck! Oh, fuck, oh, fuck!” She was turning around, spinning like a dervish, and her shirt billowed out like a sail. “Fucker fucka fuck fuck fuck! Oh, fuck! Fuck! Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck!” She stopped; her shirt continued swishing for a second after she landed; she stared at Charlotte with wild flashing eyes, panting.
“Well,” said Charlotte. “I would like to do that, yes.”
So they fucked. And Charlotte’s mother’s voice in the back of her head screamed curses and hatred, warning of eternal fire and brimstone, and no television, either!; but as they grunted and sighed, the voice grew tinnier and shriller, higher and smaller, until it disappeared altogether and was replaced by God and Jesus, huge friendly fat men with hairy backs chomping on Beer-Nuts, pointing at her and roaring with good-natured laughter. She passed out giggling.
Copyright 1994 Eddie Kohler. All rights reserved.