[Excerpt from my story "Bitterroot." Set up: Ben travels every December from Mississippi, to run a Christmas tree lot at the corner of McCullough and Basse in San Antonio. Lives in a trailer at the lot. Charlotte pretty much speaks for herself: mother of a young boy whose mouth is destroyed with a cleft palate. Ben has slipped a whole month's worth of earnings into little Sam's pocket; hard Charlotte ain't so sure about his motives. The knock on the door is Charlotte's second visit that night...]
Three o’clock in the morning, a softer knock on the door of the camper. Ben dragged himself out of sleep. Charlotte alone, a brown paper bag in her hand.
“Don’t pity me, mister,” she said.
“Not mister. Ben.”
“I don’t care who you are. Don’t pity me.”
Ben scratched his head, shivered in his sock feet and shirt sleeves. “I do not pity you. Believe me. I might feel a lot of things about you, Charlotte, before I’d ever get around to pity.”
“I seen you with my boy. I seen all that in your eyes.”
Ben stepped back from the door, motioned for her to come in. “It’s too damn cold for existentialism in the doorway, Charlotte. You want to debate my motives, get your ass in here.”
She stepped in as Ben switched on a small lamp. Yellow light buttered the small room. He offered her his reading chair and sat back on his cot. Charlotte eyed his stacks of books, sniffed back at his tiny galley kitchen.
“Coffee suit you?” said Ben.
She held out the paper bag. “Or this.”
He slid the wine bottle out of the bag. Screw top.
“Merry Christmas. I spent five bucks of your money on that.”
“Your money.” He grabbed a couple of mugs and poured the wine.
“Good God, that’s nasty,” said Charlotte.
“Imagine what the three dollar bottle tastes like,” said Ben. He raised his mug. “Cheers.”
She tapped his mug.
“Ben what’s your name, you just dropped more money on me than I’ve seen in the last six months. You sure you weren’t angling for a good fuck?”
“No, I was not. But thank you.”
“You think I was offering?”
“I do not know. But, thank you if you were.”
“Ain’t that supposed to be, ‘thank you if you was?’”
“Probably,” said Ben. He winced through another sip of wine.
“Well, I wasn’t. But thank you anyway.”
The hard-bitten fell away, and a smile struggled through years of exile to spread across her face.
She said, “Ain’t nobody ever thanked me before, if I was or if I wasn’t.”
“Well, you’re welcome.”
The smile grew bolder. It was lighting out for the territory. She had gorgeous teeth.
“Good God, those are gorgeous teeth,” said Ben.
“They are, ain’t they?” She shined them on him some more. “About all I got left from the glory days. You wouldn’t know it to see me, but I was one hot Edison Bear.”
“And that would be—”
“That would be your high school a couple of miles west of here. Under this two hundred and twenty pounds lies the remains of a head cheerleader.”
“Head quarterback bear fucked me up good my senior year. Asshole might as well have stoned me. Party boy gets a four year scholarship to Baylor and I end up with a six month scholarship to Annunciation Home for Unwed Mothers over in New Orleans.”
“Pardon my math, but your babies don’t look old enough for that adventure.”
“Oh, that one’s long gone. And not the only one either. There’s three mini-me’s running around with crater-sized holes in their hearts. Never known a momma home not to put the screws to you to give ‘em up.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ben.
“Hell, I’d have been a lousy mother. Still am.”
There was no suggestion in her tone that she was fishing for words to the contrary—Ben gave her that. Which is why he followed with, “Have to agree on that, Charlotte.”
“You’d be a fool not to. I’d have to think less of you if you didn’t.”
“I thought I was already as low as I can get.”
“You keep drinking your nasty wine—there might be hope for you yet.”
Ben poured again and they clunked.
“You takin’ my little boy home with you? You certainly won his heart. Course after the way you doted on him, my two olders hate your guts. Delilah’s offended you didn’t take to her, and Billy’s pissed you didn’t slip him the money. Says he’d have kept it to himself. Which he would have.”
“That Sam’s a sweetheart.”
“That baby’s the only one I carried sober. Lotta good that did—God fucked him up royally. Smashed his mouth up good and then moved in with a buzz saw. It’s not for lack of money that I steer clear of these damn tree lots. If I was the whore of Big Bill Gates, I wouldn’t want to spend a dime on all this hooey. Give a fuckin’ hoot for the baby of the one that fucked my baby over? Like I give a shit.”
“So, why come—even after hours?”
“The one of my babies who ought to be on my side screaming to high heaven is a fuckin’ sap. I have to listen to that damn land mine of a mouth of his ooh and ah from Halloween on. Mary this, Jesus that. Jesus loves the little children, my ass.”
“He was smitten. I’ve never seem my own babies that lit up.”
“Fuckin’ sap, he is. How many you got?”
“Three. One of my own, and two that might as well be.”
“I seen you living out here for the last few weeks—you got ‘em stashed in the closet?”
“Back in Mississippi. With their mother.”
“Hell Ben, I know Mississippi is sucking hind tit, but this the best you can do for work—play Santa for the almost dead of Olmos Park?” She slung her arm left and spilled wine on the floor. “Goddamnit, I—”
“Let it go,” said Ben. “Let it go.”
She slipped to the floor, started wiping the wine with the sleeve of her jacket.
“Charlotte, please. Let it go.”
When she looked back up at him, the hard had bitten again. Clamped down tight.
“Fuck you, Ben. I can clean up my own goddamn…No…wait. Wait.” She turned around and set the mug on the counter behind her, then picked up a dishcloth and very carefully wiped up the spill. With equal care, she found the cap to the wine and screwed it back down.
“Told myself I wouldn’t do this.”
“Do what,” said Ben, gently.
“Go off on you.” She started to cry. “Told momma I didn’t want to go off on you.”
“Hell, Charlotte, plenty have and plenty deserved the privilege.”
“You lit my baby up—over and above his confounded rambunctious mother. Nobody gives my babies nuthin’—least of all that son of a bitch we’re celebrating today.”
Softly, Ben said, “Charlotte, I just can’t do this right now. My head hurts. You’re absolutely right—there’s no way but that you and your baby weren’t absolutely royally fucked over. But, I just cannot go there right now. I can’t. I’ve spent the last six weeks of my life sucking on the big mother tit of good cheer, and I’m sorry, it’s got under my skin. I don’t even really want it to, but it does—turns me into an unimaginable sap. I tear up at damn Karen Carpenter, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Ella singing “Sleigh Ride,” and don’t even get me started on George Bailey and Scrooge and Danny Kaye and all that mess. It’s ridiculous—it flies in the face of everything that runs around in my black heart the whole rest of the year. Every year in mid-November, I come flying down the Palestine Highway, and way deep inside of me I can feel this little boy just burning to cut loose, a boy every bit as beautiful as your beautiful Sam, positively lit up inside with candy lights. Call me in two weeks and we can go completely off on that little son of a bitch in his manger, but right now, I’m sorry, I just can’t. I just can’t.”
Tears streaked from the corners of her eyes. She said, “I just want to lie down.”
“By all means,” said Ben. He started to clear off the other cot. “By all means.”
“No,” she said, putting a hand on his. Roughhewn, but beautiful, too, in its own way. He liked the feel of it on his skin.
“With you,” she said. “Just to lie down. Just to hold you.”
He felt a huge weight lifting off his chest, a weight he had not known was there. Who’s weight—hers or his?
He pulled back the covers of his cot and lay up against the wall. Charlotte slipped off her shoes and jacket and lay down beside him, as close as she could press into his body. Her hair smelled sour, her clothes smelled of fried food, but beneath it, around it, within it, the smell of roses. The more he smelled it, the more the rancidity faded.
“Nice perfume,” he whispered.
“I don’t wear any,” she said, and started to cry. He pulled her closer, gently stroked her hair.
“I smell roses. I swear I smell roses,” said Ben. “And it’s on you.”
“She always does this to me, no matter how angry and crazy I get. Always.”
“Mary. She’s the roses. Mary. Good night, Ben.”
Labels: barandgrill, for the roses, river