Part 4 – Ordinary


                Charlotte jerked awake. The bedroom was hot. Her bedspread was streaked with horizontal stripes, black and yellow, black and yellow. Nervous and sleepy, she rolled over on her back and held her hand up in front of blinds, interrupting the symmetry of the shadows. She looked at the clock, jumped out of bed, and put on her robe.


                “Jesus, it’s past noon,” she said.  “How did it get so late? I have to go check on Mom.”


                Charlotte tiptoed down the hall to her mom and dad’s bedroom. Though her dad had been dead for over 10 years, she still expected to see his work clothes draped on the chair next to his side of the bed. She opened the door, and peered in. Her mom’s eyes fluttered open, adjusting to the bright light.  She looked at Charlotte and smiled.


                “Emily, you’re here,” she said. “Let’s go swimming today. I’m glad it’s summer vacation.”


                Charlotte walked over and picked up her mom’s hand. It was so light now, papery and frail. Since her mom’s stroke, her toes and fingers, arms and legs, were curling in on themselves. She looked at Charlotte, her smile fading. “Who are you?” she asked.


                “I’m your daughter Charlotte, Mom,” she answered, smoothing her thin grey hair off her forehead. She felt warm from the afternoon heat. “I’m going to get you lunch now.” Charlotte shook out the blanket and sheet, and draped them lightly over her mom’s thin body. She fluffed up her pillows and saw she needed more water. “Do you want water or juice with lunch Mom?” she asked.


                “But I’m not hungry now,” her mom said. “It’s not time to eat yet. I’m not even hungry.” Charlotte had gotten used to this by now. It was upsetting at first. Her Mom had lost so much weight that Charlotte was worried that she’d have to go on a feeding tube. Each weekly visit to the doctor, her mom had weighed progressively less.


                Her mom’s steady weight loss made Charlotte feel inadequate for the first time that she could remember. She could head up a studio marketing division, but wasn’t able to convince her mom to eat enough to keep from wasting away. Her appetite had diminished week by week. At last week’s doctor appointment Charlotte was frantic.


                “What should I feed her?” she asked the doctor. “She’s emaciated. She’s never hungry anymore. She won’t eat. I’ve tried everything. I make all the stuff she likes. I even make her cookies and pie for dinner just to get her to eat something. I’m the only one in the house gaining weight.”


                “Charlotte, it’s not your fault. She’s just slowing down,” the doctor said. “Her body is telling her what to do. I have a lot of patients who resist it after a severe stroke. In a way, she’s lucky that her Alzheimer’s is so far along. She doesn’t have to fight so hard anymore. She can finally relax.”


                He looked at Charlotte’s stricken face. “Your mom’s not scared,” he said gently. “You shouldn’t be either. After everything she’s been through, it’s inevitable. It’s not just your mom. We’re all going to get there sooner or later.” He held Charlotte’s hand and politely looked away while she cried.

                After that discussion with the doctor, Charlotte decided to let her mom do whatever she wanted. Eat or not eat. Get out of bed or stay in bed. Watch TV or stare at the ceiling. It was her choice. All Charlotte could do was make her as comfortable as she could. Still, she didn’t give up on the food.


                “I’ll be right back with lunch, Mom,” Charlotte said. She went to the kitchen and pulled out the chicken noodle soup she made last night. It was too hot for soup, but by the time she got some into her mom, the soup would probably be cold.


                She turned on the soup and popped four slices of bread in the toaster. Charlotte had forgotten how much she loved bread. Noodles too. Or basically everything that existed in the form of a processed carbohydrate. Lancaster might be a small town, but the bakery ratio per person was far greater than it was in Los Angeles. A person’s weight and BMI didn’t seem to be a such a huge issue either.


                When she was living in Los Angeles, Charlotte had avoided all processed carbs like she would avoid eating poison mushrooms or a piece of dog shit. She and her friends discussed food endlessly, how much they ate, how many calories they allowed themselves per day, their personal gluten situations, vegan versus vegetarian, and the all the food they would consume after a night out drinking.


                Some of her girlfriends talked incessantly about how much they regretted their situational promiscuity after drinking and ingesting assorted drugs during a night out. Not Charlotte. The only regrets Charlotte had after an uncivilized night were all the In-N-Out wrappers on the floor next to her bed the next morning. Sometimes she’d wake up to the guy she’d been out with the night before, and a handful of cold French fries in her bed.


                Over the years, Charlotte had developed a routine to deal with any binge-eating emergency. She would throw away wrappers and stray fries immediately, then get rid of her evening companion. After that, she’d drive to Santa Monica and run up and down Ocean Drive until her wrist tracker signaled she had burned 2,000 calories. If Charlotte was too tired or hung over to run it off, she would throw up in a trash can. She appreciated the fact that nobody in Los Angeles was surprised by much, including public vomiting. LA took a lot out of you, but if you were a certain kind of person it gave a lot back.


                Her toast popped up. Charlotte used her thumb and forefinger to get the pieces of hot bread out of the toaster and set them on a paper plate. She made two sandwiches, each with thick layer of peanut butter and the jam she had bought on Saturday at the farmer’s market. Charlotte ladled some soup into a small bowl and set it on her mom’s tray. As an afterthought, she grabbed a couple of snickerdoodles she made on Tuesday. She turned the stove down, and returned to her mom’s room.


                Charlotte set the tray on her mom’s lap, unfolded the napkin, and draped it around her thin neck above her loose nightgown. Her mom smiled at Charlotte, her eyes clear and happy. “Where have you been sweetheart?” she asked. “I’m hungry. Is that chicken noodle? That’s my favorite.”


                She reached for the spoon, but was unable to grasp it with her gnarled hand. Charlotte watched her struggle intently for a few minutes before she picked up the spoon. She blew on the warm soup and aimed it at her mom’s mouth. After several months, Charlotte was finally getting the hang of it. She managed to get her to eat half the bowl before her mom held up her hand. “I’m full now,” she said.


                “Do you want a cookie, Mom?” she asked. “Snickerdoodles. We used to make them when we were kids.” Her mom didn’t reply, but she ate both cookies. Crumbs were everywhere. Charlotte brushed them onto the tray.


                She watched curiously as Charlotte straightened up her bedside table and picked up stray items off the floor. “Are you married, dear?” she asked. “Do you have any children?’ Charlotte managed to suppress a laugh. She got into the bed and laid down next to her mom. She picked up her withered hand and held it.


                “Not yet Mom,” she said. “Why do ask? Are you afraid I’m going to be an old maid?” They both laughed. “It just seems like a nice lady like you should be married,” her mom said. “But you look a little old to be starting a family.”


                “You think I look old?” Charlotte asked. “Oh, now come on Mom, don’t tease me like that. I don’t look a day over 39 and we both know it. Remember my high school girlfriends? Now that is a grim looking group. I don’t look old.” Charlotte kissed her mom’s hand. “You aren’t worried about me, are you?” she asked. “I’m doing great. I’ve always done great.”


                “I know you’ve done well for yourself,” her mom said. “You moved all the way to that city alone and you made something of yourself. You’re the oldest, and me and your dad were always the hardest on you. You had to set an example for your sisters and brother. We’re really proud of you.”


                Charlotte stared at her, surprised. It had been a while since her last bout of lucidity, at least a few weeks. Maybe a month. “Thanks, Mom,” she said. “It means a lot to me for you to say that. I always thought you were disappointed with me, upset that I never got married and never had kids.”


                Her mom smiled at Charlotte. “How could I be disappointed with you, honey?” she asked. “You’re so sweet. Look at you, cleaning up after me. I’m so glad you here. I’ve missed bingo so much. It’s hot out, isn’t it? I hope the grocery store won’t be too hot this morning.” Her mom’s eyes fluttered. “I worry that the milk’s going to go bad in the car.” She closed her eyes and began to gently snore. Charlotte picked up her tray and closed the door softly behind her.


                She set her mom’s dishes in the sink and checked the soup. It was still warm, but not too hot. She got a couple of bowls, spoons, and dished everything up. She opened the refrigerator and pulled out a couple of beers. Chicken noodle soup and beer. And cookies, don’t forget those cookies. She set everything on the tray, and headed for her room. She turned around, grabbed the sandwiches, and balanced them on the bowls. She thought briefly about getting some fruit, but the tray was full now. She would start eating fruit again, maybe vegetables too, when she moved back to Los Angeles.

                Charlotte walked down the hall to her room. She nudged the door open with her foot and set the tray down on her nightstand. She took off her robe and slid back into bed.


                “How’s your mom,” Danny asked. “Is she feeling OK?” He rolled over and pulled Charlotte close to him. She buried her face in his neck. He still had those broad football shoulders and long arms. Charlotte liked it when he wrapped his arms around her and held her until she fell asleep. It was either Danny or the fact that she wasn’t starving, but Charlotte was able to sleep for the first time in years.


                “She ate most of her lunch,” Charlotte said. “But she’s not doing very good. The doctor said she probably wouldn’t recover.” Her throat tightened and her eyes burned. She didn’t feel like discussing her mom with Danny right now. He was just too nice. Charlotte thought that things would have gone a lot better for him if he wasn’t so nice. Or if he hadn’t been so stupid. Charlotte found how surprisingly easy it was to use the words ‘stupid’ and ‘nice’ interchangeably.


                Charlotte wriggled out of Danny’s grasp and reached for her sandwich. “I love eating in bed,” she said, taking a bite over the tray. “You know how everybody is always so freaked out about eating in bed. I’m not. You can always brush out the crumbs or throw the sheets in the laundry if you really make a mess. I could never figure out what the big deal was.” She grabbed her bowl of soup. “Now something hot, that’s a little trickier,” she said. “Don’t bump into me, or you’ll get burned.”


                He pulled the tray up to his chest, and ate some soup. “This is good, Charlotte,” he said. “You’re a hell of a cook. I’d never figure you as a good cook. You look like the kind of person who always eats in restaurants.”


                “So I love a good cliché,” Charlotte said. “And I can’t pass this one up. ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover.’ Have you heard that one yet?” She was interrupted by a sudden burst of yelling and screaming from across the street. She set her soup down, jumped out of bed, and peered out between the shades. She turned around and laughed.


                “It looks like your kids are fighting again,” she said. “Do they yell all day then quiet down at night? Or are they nocturnal, like raccoons? If they were like raccoons, that would explain all the trash lying around your yard.”


                Danny sighed. “I thought you were going to stop hassling me about my kids,” he said. “Didn’t we agree that the kids would be off limits?” He watched as she took the last cookie from the tray and ate it in a couple of bites.


                “Maybe you agreed,” Charlotte said, jumping back into the bed. She scooted over and put her head on his chest. “But I can’t remember if I agreed to agree to your bargain. Did I give you my input into this compromise? I’ll tell you what—I’ll only hassle you about two of your kids, and leave the other two alone, the youngest two.” She laughed. “Deal?” she asked.


                Danny rolled away from her and got out of bed. “No deal,” he said. “I have to get home. Jenny’s going to wonder where I am.”


                He put on his jeans, and searched around for his flip flops. Charlotte watched him as he pulled his tee shirt on. He still looked pretty good, she thought. Not like he did in high school, nothing like that. But he was still handsome, a little fleshy, but who wasn’t anymore.  She rolled onto her back and kicked off the sheet. He stared at her naked body in silence.


                Charlotte put her hand over her stomach, self-conscious beneath his gaze. After four months of eating what she pleased, her belly button piercing was strained to the last millimeter of spare flesh. Charlotte figured those few extra pounds she gained since she’d been home were nothing that a little exercise and a couple weeks of cocaine wouldn’t get rid of when she went back to Los Angeles.


                “Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if you had left?” Charlotte asked. “If you hadn’t gotten married to Jenny. What does Danny’s alternative universe look like?”


                “I don’t think about it,” he said. “I don’t like playing this game.”


                “Never?” Charlotte continued. “You never think what it would have been like if you had moved away like me, gotten a job, were free of any responsibilities, no wife, no kids, nothing. Huh. I’d be surprised.” He stared at her, silent and expressionless. “In fact,” she continued. “In fact, I think you’d be lying. I know you’d be lying. You’re here with me. You must be thinking about something different. I can’t think of anyone more different than me than your wife.”


                He sat on the bed. “Do you remember 9-11?” he asked.


                “No,” she said. “What’s that. What’s 9-11? Are you fucking kidding me, of course I remember 9-11. What’s your point?”


                “I remember after about a week, after the buildings had come down and the firefighters and the police and the Red Cross, everyone had gone through every inch of that place but there still were people missing, people who hadn’t come home that day.” Danny paused.


                “When I was watching the news, all I could think about was that if I were there, if I were in one of the towers or maybe close by in another building, or even walking down the street, I’d disappear forever. That’s what I would do, just disappear. Never go home. Be one of those names, ‘missing,’ I’d be gone.” He stared at her. “Jenny and the kids would get my life insurance, so I wouldn’t worry about that part of it. I could just start someplace new, become somebody else.”


                “That’s insane,” Charlotte said. “You’ve really lost your mind. Your wish is to disappear. Is it the heat? Lack of sleep? Jenny’s bitching all day?”


                Danny walked over to her and kissed her. “All of the above. I don’t want to leave,” he said. “I’d rather stay here with you and let you make fun of me some more. But I have to go home.” He stroked Charlotte’s hair and kissed her again. “I can’t believe you’re still such a bitch,” he said. “It’s would almost be funny, if you also weren’t such a pain in the ass.”


                “Go,” Charlotte said. “Take some cookies with you or I’m going to eat the rest myself. I can’t let myself go, even though I’m living here right now.”


                “You’re too vain,” he said. “That hasn’t changed in 30 years either. Bye.” He walked to the door. “Open or closed?” he asked.

                “Open,” she said. “I want to be able to hear Mom.” Charlotte rolled over and looked at the clock. It was 2:30. Perfect. She smiled. She had enough time to read and get another nap in before she made Mom dinner.


About bbcstudiowrites

This blog is me archiving the BBC Studio Writers Workshop.

Posted on October 26, 2016, in Fiction, Seattle, Short Stories. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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