Shelly’s mother was a small woman with plump lips. Shelly’s eyes drooped. Both women looked alike. But because she lived in Arizona, Shelly’s skin had brown blotches on it. She tried to avoid the sun, but she wasn’t always diligent. She hated imperfection, hated blotches on her skin her and tried to cover them up. She hated wrinkles. She hated how she looked. What was happening to her? She hated what was happening to her. She saw that she was shriveling up. She compared herself to a prune. She had to get out of Arizona because she didn’t want to look like a prune. She had to get out of Arizona before she turned into a prune.
“Do you have any idea why my mama never liked you?” Shelly asked, glaring at Charlie who sat opposite her.
“Why bring it up again?” Charlie asked.
“Can’t we talk? Why won’t you listen? Why don’t you ever listen to me? Why can’t we have a decent conversation?”
Her mother rarely tolerated nonsense and considered her daughter’s infatuation with Charlie ridiculous. They belonged to a country club; yet Shelly’s mother hated golf, had no use for tennis, never played squash or swam. She rarely exercised and couldn’t keep weight off. Yet she wouldn’t talk to people who didn’t belong to their country club. “Never forget who you are. And hold onto it.” As a girl Shelly had this drummed into her head. And she hated it. But now …
Courage. George and Shelly had a decent conversation about courage and standing up for yourself.
“Enough self pity,” Shelly said to herself. “Face Charlie and give him a chance. Let it out. Let him have it, if need be. He prefers men, homeless men. He prefers to bury his head in the sand. I pity a man who’s staked his life on the draw of one hand. Not to mention that he’s throwing our money away. Maybe I should remind him that it’s our money and that we live in a community property state. I should have some say. We should talk about it. But his heart’s in the right place, and he’s far from stupid. We’re not wealthy, and there’s always something. He’s willing to help anyone; as everyone knows he’s always doing something for someone. So I can’t despise him. It’s crime to despise him. We can’t have children. Maybe having children would make a difference. It would make a different to me. Would it to him?”
“Shelly, you’re always frowning,” Charlie said. “It causes wrinkles. I’m sorry. We agreed …”
“We didn’t agree. We never agreed. We never agree. We never fight. We’ve never had a decent fight. To see us sit in silence is a pitiful sight. As if to complete a picture, whenever you can you flee leaving me sitting like a sphinx. We’ve never had a decent fight.
“I find you sexy.”
“Don’t change the subject. Sexy? Thanks. God knows I want to be sexy. To say I’m sexy is a compliment. You can’t mean it. Look at me. Look what’s happening to me. Look at these wrinkles, these blotches. I hate them. But I’m glad I haven’t frightened you off. I like to wear neat cotton dresses. In the summertime I like to stay cool in neat cotton dresses. Do you find them sexy? So you look at me and find me sexy. And when I’m overwhelmed, am I sexy? When I’m confused and overwhelmed, am I sexy? Or when I’m pouting? When I’m scared? Ashamed? I’m glad you find me sexy.”
“I like the way you walk.”
“The way I wiggle? I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“My feelings? My feelings weren’t hurt.”
It seemed like she never loved him.
On the day Charlie first came to her home Shelly and her mother had a big argument. Shelly couldn’t remember what the argument was about. She just remembered that they argued. And it seemed like their argument influenced Shelly. Well, perhaps. Precisely….
“I was trying to prevent more friction. I had a headache and wanted to get out of there.” She laughed and continued talking. “You know Mama has forgiven you by degrees. ‘He isn’t all bad,’ she said. ‘But if he’d only get a haircut.’ ‘Mama!’” Laughing, Shelly continued, “Do you remember coming to dinner and how nervous you were about meeting my parents?”
“I vaguely remember. You were in pigtails, remember?”
“You were very polite. As polite as you could be.”
“Rudeness fit me better.”
“Why you were a gentleman. They didn’t expect it.”
“Yes, I’m kidding. See we can kid.”
“You bring this up all the time, as if you wanted something different.”
“I hate you,” observed Shelly, as she placed a jar of peanut butter back in the fridge. “Are we missing something?”
“No, not that I know of. You just said you hate me.”
“I was kidding.”
Courage. Say what you mean.
“Our genes are good. Of course they are.”
“That’s nonsense, mama.”
Yes, and without saying anything Shelly’s mother acted superior. She always acted superior.
The whole family received Charlie in a brightly lit dinning room, but Shelly’s mother found no confront in what she saw (seeing her daughter hold hands with a long-haired hippie disturbed her), and she smiled until it drove her husband batty. What was hidden in that tortured soul? God only knew because she always smiled around Charlie.
Their house offered a perfect view of Lake Erie, and trees offered privacy. Their magnificent house couldn’t be seen from a boulevard. Over the years their house didn’t changed, only foliage around it grew thicker. Her father’s business kept them supplied with new cars.
Was Shelly desperate?
“Do you think she was?” her mother asked.
Courage. Tell the truth.
“Honey, tell me again where you were born and where you grew up.” Shelly’s demand startled Charlie. Tell the truth. Then to have her share her mother’s feeling about him startled him. “There has to be something about you that I don’t know.” She was sure he kept secrets. She was suspicious, didn’t trust him, and was sure he kept secrets.
While eating Charlie began telling her things about himself that she obviously knew. They compared facts about each other. Tell the truth. Truth was sometimes hard for them.
“Remember our house?” she asked. A house with a curved drive.
“You’re kidding. My mother’s hot chocolate? Remember she served hot chocolate? Mother’s sewing? Bridge night? Piano and songs? Twin painted pictures of ships … never finished any of them. A television-dominated every room. No conversation, only television. A large two-story lakefront home, in the wintertime, by a fire, watching television. Playing cards, or playing a piano, or singing. Couldn’t stand it. I had to get out of there. And then you came along.”
“You know what impressed me? A crystal chandelier in the dinning room.”
“You didn’t talk much. You’ve never talked much.”
“Anyhow I was impressed,” replied Charlie. “But it was a long time ago.”
“And I’m Methuselah’s wife. Methusulah’s wife with wringles.”
“Traveling across the country, passing through Cleveland, dirty and hungry, almost anything would’ve looked good. A series of breakdowns … painful separations … itchy feet … jumped in my Volkswagen bus and lost myself driving … you know the story.”
“Tell me again where you came from.”
“Three or four nights in a row spent trying to stay warm in a goose down sleeping bag that had lost its loft. Looking for warmth and went into Laundromats to find it. Unbearable loneliness, bewilderment and uncomfortable. I would’ve talked to anyone. Cleveland seemed like a foreign country to me. Then I saw you. I mean I didn’t really see you.”
“We didn’t meet in a Laundromat.”
“I’ve a fondness for Laundromats. People talk more freely in Laundromats. People talk more freely with strangers.”
“And I smelled you coming,” declared Shelly. “Kidding. Just kidding.” They began to laugh. Charlie laughed the loudest.
“My folks and I always fought. They were stupid, stingy, and miserable.”
“Why o’ why have I always believed that crap?” laughed Charlie. “Still I prefer Laundromats, the smell of Cheer. Cheer! Cheer!”
“Cheer. And are you useful, Charlie? Are you worth the trouble?” quizzed Shelly. They both laughed again.
“Loneliness revisited again,” he exclaimed.
And he went on laughing.
“But I seized a good thing,” said Shelly with renewed vigor. “I seized it and squeezed it. And squeezed it. And it squeezed me. That’s how I’ve survived. But it almost squeezed me to death though. Sometimes, Charlie, you frighten me. Thank you, Charlie. Thank you for everything. Laundromats, that’s where your heart was.”
“It was a passion.”
Shelley then said, “George saw my sadness.”
Courage. Tell him.
“Travel always depressed me.” Tell him why. I didn’t lose anything in Tucson. “You didn’t know how to hold a conversation,” said Shelly. “Why don’t we travel anymore?”
“You know why.”
“I thought I knew how to stay true to you. I thought I knew how to stay true to myself. Live in a special place with a special man. Opportunity. Now I don’t know how to stay true to you and stay true to myself. I don’t know. A long, long ways out there, barely visible, there was a buoy to hang onto. And all around me a sense of nothing, a void, emptiness, stillness. You were my lifeboat. I was sinking, and you were my lifeboat. But I couldn’t imagine living in a land without grass.”
“I couldn’t either,” said Charlie.
“Then why are we here?”
He didn’t answer her. Maybe he couldn’t answer her.
“Nothing’s worse than boredom,” said Shelly.
“Nothing?” asked Charlie with a smile. “Then I suspect life’s too exciting for you here.”
“There’s more than one way to look at it,” said Shelly. “‘There was an old woman who ran out of steam, and she didn’t know what to do. Then one day she heard a train and its diesel was idling and ready to go and she knew she had to get on it. She knew she had to get on it and out of town before she shriveled up. She remembered hearing the whistle and knew what the train could do for her. But something stopped her. She made many excuses such as what if she got stranded and couldn’t find a place to stay? What if she ran out of money? What would she do for money? What about food? Charlie, what if I’ve heard that train?”
“Are you finished?” he finally asked.
“You won’t answer me? There once was an old woman who ran out of steam….”
“And that’s not you.”
“Shouldn’t she take care of herself?”
“So you think you know what you want,” said Charlie. “Well you don’t!”
Easy now … slowly tell him. And tell he again if you have to. Courage. Shake him. Shake him up.
“People love you, so you’re not without love. So you think since you’ve helped a few people that you’ve done your bit.”
“What are you talking about?”
No longer able to sit in a chair Sally tried to explain how she felt. She felt sorry for him. He wasn’t listening, and she felt sorry for him. Then one morning she woke up and looked at herself in a mirror. And what she saw she didn’t like. This was even before Charlie rolled over and when she could still hear him snoring. Then she stopped herself. “That’s close enough. Too close.”
She ran to a window. She looked through bars. The alley was dark, and two dark figures were walking through glass. Scream for help! But she couldn’t scream. Then clutching a mirror she tried to unlock the window and gave up after discovering it was stuck. She couldn’t get to the bars because the window was stuck. Stuck. Running into a table. Way too much noise.
Courage. What if there was a fire? She couldn’t even get to the bars.
She lay back down in the dark. Awake lying in a room and listening to her husband she decided that she could no longer live a lie, and finally a day came that she most dreaded. It would be another sixty or seventy minutes before an alarm went off. An alarm had already gone off in her head. All of a sudden she felt old, perhaps too old to adapt to change. Packing would be hard for her. Saying goodbye harder. Confronting Charlie even harder, so why wouldn’t she skip out while he slept? Don’t be silly. She couldn’t do it. No matter how much she dreaded it she confronted him. She wouldn’t forgive herself if she hadn’t. She had to talk to George.
“I suppose more tears will be unavoidable,” she told George. “All the tears I’ve already shed won’t be enough.”
That last hour was worse. She had to get out of there because all four walls were converging causing her to panic. Onerous bed and sheets saturated with sweat. She had to get out of there before she screamed. She had to get out of there and talk to George and get out of Tucson. Onerous bed and sheets saturated with sweat. No, considering and compared with other rooms in Paradise their sheets were fresh.
Why? Why? And why? This Charlie asked over and over again. But she wouldn’t explain. She couldn’t explain and later she wasn’t around, so what was the point?
Yet she was still that girl, or thought she was … that girl … the same girl who believed that she had to have a man, that marriage to the right man was divine and sacred, though she knew a piece of paper didn’t necessarily make it right. There was a rule from her childhood, which before she married Charlie she broke, but if she had been maturer it wouldn’t have led to a wedding. And did not lust play a part? To substitute lust for love, and let lust decide … and she did more than marry her man, there was a promise she made and (promises or not) had suffered because of it. And she did more than be Charlie’s wife: she gave all of herself, but it was never enough. When he said come on she went, and when he mistreated her she accepted it. She accepted it and hated herself for it. Yes, her body, her mind, and her soul were entirely his, even what should’ve been hers was his and was distorted by how it should be. Should be, should be, should be! Proof of true love shouldn’t come from should be but no more should be; as hard as it was, as she asked herself, why shouldn’t her happiness be important? She had to ask George. Or why happiness wasn’t as important as freedom? Another should? But no more should because she wanted to live. Perhaps then back in Cleveland she would find some answers.
“O furious old man, I refuse to take responsibility for your unhappiness. Set me free. Name your terms. I don’t care. I’m going.”