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Charlie — Katie Lunsford
Mrs. Askew was standing in her trailer, staring at me through a window. She wasn’t a shy woman, so we were making eye contact. She was judging me, but I couldn’t tell by what. I was sunbathing behind our neighbor’s trailer, which was beside Mrs. Askew’s. Shaun and what’s-her- face weren’t home, so I folded up my lounge chair and moved it in between their trailers. It was later in the day and the sun had slid across the sky, creating a shadow that covered half our yard. I wasn’t doing anything wrong though. I hadn’t broken into their house or allow my dogs to shit all over Shaun’s yard like Mrs. Askew did.
“You’re trespassing,” said Mrs. Askew. She’d opened her door, and stuck her wide gray head out. I craned my neck up and focused on her face through sun and shadow.
“No, I’m not,” I said. I laid my head back down and closed my eyes, examining the blue and red spots that stuck to the inside of my eyes. There was no sound of the door creaking shut, but I refused to look at her again. She finally let it snap shut, so I looked up, squinting to make sure she was gone, only to find her staring at me out through the window. Mrs. Askew was vital, yet also detrimental to the rest of the trailer park. She knew everyone’s business and had no issue with spreading it around or beefing it up to meet the drama level she required for that day.
Mom says that Mrs. Askew didn’t use to be like that, but once her husband died, she kind of lost it. I could say the same about my mother. Dad didn’t die, but I suspect that we all wish he had. It would have made sense that way. Life would have been easier that way.
“Charlie! It’s time for supper. Get your ass in here,” Mom said, yelling my name out the back door. Mrs. Askew heard Mom call for me, and feeling the victory of me packing up and leaving the neighbors’ yard relieved her of her station. She closed the blinds. I folded my chair, carried it to the back porch and threw it underneath it. I went through the back door right into the kitchen.
“Charlie, stick this broccoli in the microwave and go change,” Mom said. Sweat was gathered on her forehead and her upper lip. She looked too panicked for a woman only cooking hamburger helper and microwavable broccoli.
“We’re having company and I don’t think it’s right for them to see you in your underwear. That’s why,” she said.
Company. That meant a man was coming over, and that after supper me and my three sisters would be asked to go play outside for a few hours. Lisa, Dilan, and Marlee loved it when we had company. For them, it meant two to three hours of outside time without supervision. For me, it meant two to three hours of pretending I was supervising, while the three played in the dirt pile in the middle of the Blue Bird Trailer Park.
I put the frozen bag of broccoli into the microwave and set it for two minutes. The smell of hamburger helper followed me to my room, making my stomach roll over itself. I shut the door and laid on my bed. The floral quilt that grandma made for me laid under me, and I traced my fingers across the hand stitching, counting each one. Grandma used to tell me that anytime my head and my heart started to feel heavy, counting something I loved would make me feel better.
I had counted forty stitches when he knocked on the door, and heard my sisters squeal. I threw on a white dress with little pink flowers on it and opened my door. Lisa ran out of her room, which was right beside mine, with an old toothbrush tucked into the back of her little turquoise shorts. Dilan and Marlee followed, shoving paint brushes into their pockets. Company was so frequent that even they knew that they would get to go play in the dirt piles. The three liked to pretend they were archaeologists from Jurassic Park, by gently brushing away dirt from rocks and sticks they found in the dirt. Mom used to hate it when they got in the dirt pile, but one evening after the company had left, and Mom was on the back porch smoking, Dilan found an old engagement ring in it. She brought it to the porch and showed Mom, who dropped her cigarette and wiped it off with her shirt. There was a small diamond in it that sparkled like the star that was the farthest away. Mom pawned it after wearing it around the house for a few days. We didn’t eat hamburger helper for a few weeks.
I followed the girls into the living room to find Mom standing beside Jeremy Walker, the plumber that moved into Glen and Christine’s old trailer after they won three hundred thousand dollars on a scratch off. They still send us Christmas cards with a fifty in it every year. After Dad left, we stayed at Grandma’s to give Mom time to heal. When Grandma died, Mom said she needed more time, so me and the girls stayed with Glen and Christine across the trailer park most days and nights. I’m not sure how much she really healed during that time though. Every night she would call me, drunk, and ask if I thought he left because of my three sisters. She never mentioned Grandma again.
“Four little girls? That had to be too much for him. I don’t think it was my fault, Charlie,” she would say, slurring her speech in such a pathetic way that I would have to hang up before I screamed. After each phone call, I counted the pretty dresses hanging in the closet that Grandma had made for me. There were twelve of them. I only had one left by the time Jeremy Walker was invited to dinner. It was white with little pink flowers.
The three girls ate fast and quiet, while the conversation between my Mom and Jeremy made it impossible for me to swallow anything.
“So how do you like Blue Bird?” Mom’s eyes didn’t leave his face for a moment. She finished her beer, tipping it farther back than necessary, but her eyes were still on his.
“It’s very nice,” Jeremy said, shoveling food into his mouth. “Even nicer now that I know a woman like you lives here.” Jeremy winked at her and Mom giggled while she got two more beers from the fridge. “Charlie, that’s a very pretty dress. Where did you get it from?”
“I made it,” Mom said before I could speak up. She handed Jeremy his beer and shot me a look that told me to keep my mouth shut. I wanted to scream and hang up the phone up. In my mind there was an image of a phone smashing down onto its reciever over and over again.
“Well, it looks very good on you, Charlie,” he said, winking at me just as he had at my mom. With his face turned towards mine, he looked strong and kind. His smell was distinct in a home of five girls. It was sweat and men’s deodorant layered on thick. My head felt lighter.
“Thanks,” I said. My chest tightened and, smiling, I looked down at my plate. I wondered if this was what it was like to have a dad. Mom never told me I was pretty.
“Look at my dress, Jeremy,” Mom said, standing up and spinning around. Her black dress fanned out at the bottom as she spun. An image of her slipping and hitting her head on the corner of the stove repeated itself in the middle of my mind.
“Oh, it’s very nice too,” he said. Jeremy looked at me again and smiled halfway. I returned it with the other half.
“Thank you, Jeremy,” Mom said. His name sounded sickly sweet in her mouth. She sat back down and continued drinking. Mom had barely eaten anything on her plate, but was four beers in. Only Jeremy and the three girls ate. Dilan finished first and asked to go outside, and so did the other two after shoving what was left on their plates into their mouths.
“Alright, alright,” Mom said. “You all go outside and play now. Charlie, go and watch them.”
Dilan, Lisa, and Marlee scattered across the dirt pile, squatting down and brushing away small amounts of dirt. I sat in the grass a few yards away and tied clover blossoms together into a long chain. The grass was damp with the evening, sticking to my legs, causing them to itch. “Marlee, I got something,” Dilan said, motioning her over with her hand. Marlee was the oldest of the three, so Lisa and Dilan decided she was the utmost authority on archaeology. I used to be the authority on everything for the three girls. When I started high school I didn’t have as much time for them, so Marlee took my place.
“Good work, soldier,” Marlee said, giving Dilan a salute. Lisa pretended to shoot a gun into the air a few times. They loved Jurassic Park, but also war movies. Their favorite was The Patriot, because they thought Mel Gibson was cute. I tried to tell them otherwise, but they just kept on talking about his little ponytail and how brave he was.
Marlee brought me what Dilan found and told me to watch over it. Apparently, it was a dinosaur egg that belonged to a civil war general. Marlee ran back to the excavation site and our front door opened and closed. I watched Jeremy turned the corner and walked over to me. We had been out there about thirty minutes. Company never left that early.
“Hey, Charlie” Jeremy said. “What are you doing?”
“Just making a flower crown while I watch the girls,” I said. “Why are you leaving so soon?” “What do you mean? We finished supper, and I helped wash the dishes,” he said. “Did you guys have something else planned for me?” He smiled.
“Men usually stay a lot longer when we have them over for supper,” I said. I was betraying my mother, which made me break out into a cold sweat, but I couldn’t stop. “I think she has sex with them,” I said, looking back down at the flower crown, now torn apart and withered from my nervous hands.
“I think so, too,” he said. He was smiling at me. “Which is why I didn’t stay.” The smell that made me light headed during dinner turned heavy and sick. His short, blonde hair caught the sun and became transparent.
“Oh,” I said. “Do you not like her? Don’t think she’s pretty enough?” Part of me wanted him to tell me that he didn’t like her, that she was ugly and a bad cook. I wanted him to tell me what I had been waiting to hear my whole life. That she was an awful mother and I needed to be taken out of this.
“No, she’s fine, very pretty, just like you,” he said. “I’m just not into all of that sex stuff, you know?” Jeremy sat down, and his shoulder touched mine.
“Yeah, me either,” I said, still blushing from the fact that he called me pretty. Then there was a silence. We sat watching the girls clamber all over the dirt pile, while I continued to shred the circlet of clover blossoms. My fingers were sticky and light green. Jeremy looked over at me and my fingers froze as he took the flowers from my hands.
“You can come over to my place anytime, you know,” he said, his voice lower than before. “If you ever need to get away from your mom.”
The sun was going down and it’s warmth left my face. I watched him rub a clover blossom between two fingers until the petals fell off. Suddenly I was that flower, trapped between his fingers, my limbs falling off and floating down to the ground.
“I could make supper for you,” he said. “My trailer is that one way over there with the American flag on the porch. You can come visit me anytime.”
“Can I bring my sisters?”
“Maybe this could be a secret between us,” he said, glancing behind him. “Your mom might get a little jealous if she thinks I’m better friends with you than her. Your sisters are young. They might accidentally tell her.” Jeremy’s eyes looked into mine, unwavering, until I nodded. His eyebrows raised and his ever present smile faded. He wasn’t wrong. She would be jealous if I became friends with Jeremy after he had left early.
“I guess you’re right,” I said.
His smile grew stronger and he winked at me. “You’re a smart girl, Charlie,” he said, standing up. I sat there a looked up at him. He was still holding my flowers as he walked across the park to his trailer. I watched him the whole way to make sure I knew which one was his. He stopped on his porch and turned back to wave at me. I raised my hand and let it fall.
Back inside the trailer, I found Mom drunk and watching The Wheel of Fortune. The girls ran to their room with their Civil War era Dinosaur egg to play.
“How was the rest of supper? Do you like Jeremy?” I asked.
“I think he’s gay,” she said, not looking away from the television set. There was a hurt confusion on her face. The image of Jeremy rubbing the flower between his fingers came to the front of my mind. It was scratchy and dim. I wanted to tell her about what Jeremy said to me. “Do you need something?”
“No, I just thought I could watch some TV with you,” I said.
“I’m not in the mood, Charlie,” she said with a hand covering her eyes. “Just go to your room.” She didn’t remove her hand from her eyes. The TV lit up the dim room, locating all six of the empty bottles on the coffee table. Large school photos of me and the girls hung behind the couch, mirroring the pictures on the TV screen. Mom looked pretty, and I wondered again why Jeremy didn’t like her. She had long hair and nice fingernails. Her make-up looked flawless. I wanted to slide my fingertips down her soft, powdered, cheek.
“Ok,” I said. I went down the hallway and heard the three girls arguing about what to name their new dinosaur.
“General Lee, that should be his name,” Dilan said.
“No, Dilan, it’s a girl. Let’s name her Scarlett,” Lisa said.
“This animal is a threat to human life. We must kill it,” Marlee said.
I smiled and the tears stationed on my cheeks fell into the corners of my mouth. I closed my bedroom door and turned my little TV on and watched The Wheel of Fortune. The TV in the living room was louder than mine and made the sounds of wheels clicking and letters turning seem to come from all around me. I counted stitches on my quilt and ran my hands along the bottom of my dress. I wondered if Mom’s hand was still over her eyes. I heard her calling out wrong answers at the TV. My room was hot, to the point I thought I might throw up. She isn’t in the mood. She isn’t in the mood, I kept telling myself. I opened my window and stuck my head out into the night. The air the same temperature as my skin took away the sickness at the back of my throat. I looked out into the park at everyone’s trailers and yard decorations, lightning bugs wandered around. The American flag that hung off Jeremy’s porch. Through a window I could see him watching TV.