My name is Charlie, and there are exactly two things you should know about me. One - I don’t want your pity. And two - I’ve been dead for about 17 hours now.
I’m not sure where I am exactly. I would love to confirm your beliefs about a kingdom of fluffy clouds in the sky. But that’s not what I see. And it’s definitely not a lake of fire either. I would tell you what it is, but it’s probably not my place to do so. I think death is like a movie with a surprise ending, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if you knew what was coming.
Anyway, the following is my story. It’s mixed in with some of my classmates’ journals, as well as this weird third person narrative I’m being presented with. Yea, I don’t understand it either, but it’s kinda cool to experience your life from an omniscient perspective. There’s no better way to put it, I’m basically spying on the people that were in my past. And it’s nice to find out what the people I knew really thought about me, but at the same time it feels so futile, because I know that I’m dead and these events all took place so many years ago.
And it’s very strange to hear my life told back to me in a long string of anecdotes, but in some weird way it’s also perfectly fitting. I mean, what better way is there to sum up a life than a story?
CONCERNING MISS PETERS - CHARLIE
My story begins with Miss Peters. It begins with bright summer dresses and the deepest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. It begins with light red lipstick, long blond hair, and the delicate touch that only a grade school teacher could have. I think I can say that with confidence now.
I first met Miss Peters when I was 6, during a heavy bout with the depression I hadn’t been diagnosed with yet. My teacher was a timid woman, squeamish around strangers, and rarely confrontational. Though she never had trouble expressing love to her kids- and she had so much love to give. When I cried on the second day of school because I missed my parents, Miss Peters cried with me. When I told her I was embarrassed of the scab on my left knee, she took a red marker and created an ugly blob on her left knee too. When I was 17 and was forced to take an anger management class, I was asked by the print on a questionnaire to write down one of my heroes. I put Miss Peters.
I was 10 years old the first time I told her I loved her. It was the third day of school after the summer break had ended. My uncertain footsteps carried me to her in the classroom during lunch hour- I remember trying so hard to not seem nervous within the gaze of those perfect blue eyes. She looked down at me, puffing my chest out to be more masculine like the television heroes I had grown up with. I could see her eyes holding back a sea of emotions as she put her hands to her mouth- I hoped to God she was impressed.
“That’s...” she quickly took a breath, “that’s a very brave thing to say to me, Charlie.”
“It’s true. I want to marry you.”
“Well, weddings are expensive. How would you pay for it?”
“I don’t know, I could save up my allowance, I guess. Or maybe I could ask my parents for some money. I get Christmas and birthday money too. We could use that.”
“That’s very sweet of you,” she smiled, but I knew she was delaying the answer.
“Thanks. So what do you say?”
“Well, I like you very much, Charlie, but just not in that way. I really don’t think we should get married. Do you remember the story of the Bear-Dragon?”
“Well, the Bear-Dragon won’t let me get married right now. I... I hope you understand.”
I looked up at her as I struggled to find my bravery. I had to prove I wasn’t a frightened little boy anymore. I might have only been 10 years old, but I was more a man than a boy. And men take what they want.
“I’m starting to think that story’s not real, Miss Peters.”
I saw something in her expression slip, something slight but powerful. Her hands ran across one another- she took a deep, nervous breath and her eyes quickly looked me over before she spoke again.
“I don’t want to hurt you Charlie, I don’t. You’re a very sweet boy, and you deserve a very sweet girl. But you’re not leaving me a choice.”
“What do you mean?”
“Charlie... I don’t love you. I have never loved you, and I never will love you. I’m a grown woman and you’re a very confused little boy. When you’re older you’ll understand, but I need you to know, I don’t have those feelings for you. You can never be more than just a student to me.”
I stared back at her, studying her like some impossible puzzle, and I waited for a sign of hope, some sort of ‘maybe,’ some hint that she might change her mind. But it wasn’t there.
The pain spread out from my chest like smoke, moving through my stomach, down my legs, across my arms. Shades of reality passed before me as a future without Miss Peters began to sink in.
“Charlie I’m... I’m sorry, I know it hurts.”
She moved in to put her hand on my shoulder, but I wrenched it back as the tears began seeping out. I had gotten rejected, my heart was breaking, and she would never love me. This wasn’t ok. I would never be ok. I began backing out of the room, trying so hard to prove how courageous I was.
“I’m gonna kill that dragon, Miss Peters! I’m gonna save you from it, and I’m gonna prove to you how much I love you- and then I’m gonna marry you. And we’re gonna be happy forever!”
I turned away from her powerful eyes that had broken and defeated me. I ran as fast as I could to my hiding spot in the bushes behind the tire swing, crying the whole way. I then threw myself down on the dirt and wrapped myself in a blanket of my own sorrow. I would not express myself to another woman in that same manner for nine years.
SERIOUS MATTERS - CHARLIE
My friend Christian and I, back in our elementary school days, raced our department store bicycles down the street as fast as we could make them go. We revved our handle bars and made noises like motorcycle engines as we tore past parked cars and the church we were dragged to every Sunday.
We raced from the town’s miniscule post office to the city hall that had been a bakery before the city bought it- behind the police station that only employed 3 officers, and in front of the library that no one I knew had ever been inside.
“Do you think we’re gonna make it?” I called out over the sound of rushing wind and our overworked bicycle chains.
“It’s ok, Charlie,” he cried back. “We’re gonna make it. Just go faster!”
We cut through the park where we played soccer on Saturdays and took a shortcut behind the public pool where Christian’s mom had gotten that strange rash. Down the grassy hill on which we used to ride the snowboard I found in a dumpster, through the chain link fence that had given a 7th grader tetanus, and across the middle school black top which would never tolerate lowly 3rd graders like us on a school day.
We turned a corner at our old preschool, that in a sign of the town’s prosperity, would years later become a strip club. We passed ‘Crybaby Court,’ took a right just before the corn field with the haunted house, and then hit the home stretch as Christian yelled out: “Afterburners!! GO!” and the two of us pedaled as fast as we could while making the “khvoooooshhhh” sound of rocket engines.
We took a sharp right and came to a halt in the dirt and gravel parking lot of Little Barry’s Burgers. Immediately we stared in horror at Kurtis and Robin, who sat with smug expressions across their faces as they sucked down their strawberry milkshakes and ate their Little Barry Combo Meals. (A milkshake, cheeseburger and large order of fries for $4.99- they never advertised it, you just had to know what to ask for.)
In shame, Christian and I pedaled to them as I let out a meager and exhausted, “You win, your way’s faster...”
Kurtis looked at the two of us suffering from the summer heat as he pulled two milkshakes out from behind his back.
“It’s ok,” he smiled. “Robin’s mom drove us. But you know... our way was still faster.”
LITTLE BARRY’S BURGERS - MR. MARK
Aside from the fact that he ran and owned Little Barry’s Burgers, few things were known about Mr. Mark. He was a cranky old man, bald with a lone tuft by his forehead that never receded along with the rest of his white hair. He was an illegitimate son of the no-good-card-cheating drunk who had initially won the burger stand with a straight flush- back when it was a humble diner.
The no-good-card-cheating drunk had an impressive set of gambling skills, which his son learned and incorporated into business skills. Mr. Mark used these skills to acquire a dry cleaning business, a pharmacy, a liquor store and a barber shop- all of which he placed next to his burger stand, making it the town’s first and only strip mall.
The gravel parking lot was about the size of a football field, and the wide open space it offered was many things to many different people. To children it was a vast universe that could transform into anything from the Amazonian rainforest, to a dystopian future society terrorized by evil robots, sometimes even the infinite depths of outer space. For teenagers it was a communal gathering place to complain about how terrible their communal gathering place was. For adults it was a convenient mecca of cheap sustenance, beer, haircuts, medicine, and dry cleaning.
Many of the town’s most innovative ideas found themselves played out on that loose gravel. Everything from the monthly flea market, to the annual haunted house. One summer it was even covered in orange cones and turned into a BMX race track to keep the neighborhood kids out of trouble.
Mr. Mark was an important man in the community. Teenagers came to him looking for summer jobs or the chance to score some weed- or whatever drugs he was holding. Kids came to him looking for milkshakes and free shade to escape the summer heat. Adults came to him with a medley of problems- sometimes it was to borrow money, or seek sound financial advice, or get some gambling tips for the Friday night football games, or just to catch up on the latest gossip about town.
Whatever council was sought, or whatever problems he was presented with- Mr. Mark would absorb them, look about himself in a coy way, stare back in silence for nearly a minute, and then speak in a surly, grunted expression. And whatever words or actions he offered would be exactly what the problem bearer was looking for. Because of this he was never treated as an entirely pleasant man- but a valuable one nonetheless.
“Hey, Kurtis!” Mr. Mark called out on one warm October day.
“Yea?” Kurtis said, trotting up to the old man before giving one last look back to Robin and Christian.
“Why do you kids always hang out in my parking lot, but never buy anything?”
“Got no money, Mr. Mark.”
“Well, go get some from your parents.”
“They’re at work.”
“Can’t you get a job? You’re what- like 13 now?”
“I’m 8 Mr. Mark.”
“Ugh...” he half grunted. “Well, tell your brother to come down here before Saturday. I want to have a look at that pitching arm of his- see if it’ll make me as much money as last year.”
“Ok, Mr. Mark.”
“Oh, and here. Here’s 5 dollars, get me a 6 pack from my liquor store.”
“Ok,” Kurtis said, taking careful hold of the bill.
HEAVY WORDS - ADRIAN
Ever since Adrian could talk she wanted only one thing. To marry a rich doctor and spend the rest of her days in Fiji. Or Bermuda. Or Puerto Rico. It didn’t really matter where, just so long as there were blue skies, a beach, and plenty of young, beautiful people to discuss what famous actors or rock stars they were dating.
Her plan was thought out, and everything from her wedding ceremony, to her ‘Save the date cards,’ to her dinner gown, was well rehearsed. The only problem became apparent when Adrian was about 7.
It was the boy who sat behind her in class that first said the word. He was a typical bully, and this wasn’t the first time he’d picked on Adrian- but somehow this felt different, and she couldn’t escape the gravity of this mysterious word. She sounded it out on the way home as she tried to decipher its meaning. “Faaaaaat.” The menace came from the way that T rolled off his tongue and collided with his two front teeth. It made a horrible clash- like a sledge hammer, like a freight train. She hated that T. The F wasn’t so bad. After all, lots of good things started with F. There was Fashion. Fun. Fairy. Fast food. All of them wonderful things. And the A was soft and fleeting. It made her think of a caterpillar that crawled along her skin- she didn’t know why. But that T was vindictive and cruel.
Adrian’s mother was a big woman, powerful and bellowing. Her whole midsection was shaped something like a pear- round, and for the most part bound with overlapping folds of flesh. Adrian wanted to ask her mother about the word, but somehow she felt frightened by it. Perhaps frightened by the answer she would receive. As her mind pulled apart the word’s individual letters, she looked down to her body, and realized it mimicked her mother’s.
She never saw her mom as an ugly woman. But she didn’t look like her friend’s mothers either. She didn’t look like Amber’s mom- trim and skinny. She didn’t look like the women on the bus ads or the magazine covers or the shampoo commercials. For the first time in her life, Adrian felt out of place in her own home. She looked at her mother and felt a new emotion, one she couldn’t describe. It wasn’t anger, because she had felt anger when her mother grounded her or made her do the dishes. And it wasn’t sadness- she had felt that before too, when her father left the same week her hamster died.
This felt like sadness, but it just wasn’t. She spent the whole rest of the afternoon and evening in her room alone, sulking, trying to understand this word and what it was doing to her. She spent time looking at her body in the mirror and poking at her pudgy belly- hating herself for being whatever this word meant.
Later she came out for dinner. And as she looked at her mother, unpacking the Little Barry cheeseburgers from the grease-drenched bag, she finally realized what this new emotion was. It wasn’t anger or sadness or fear or anything she’d felt before- it was shame. She was ashamed of the woman.
Her mother had scared away her husband, Adrian’s father. Her mother had the audacity to go out in public looking the way she did. Her mother had the nerve to convince her daughter she was pretty when this whole time she was beyond unsightly- she was hideous. And worst of all, her mother… her mother was, dare she think it- her mother was fat.