By: Dorrit Corwin
Marlborough School, CA, USA
Where Charlie Stevens came from, it was always fall or summer. In autumn, he would rake leaves from the rigid Southern roots of the oak out front. In summer, he would watch them wallow in heavy wind until dusk swept them out of sight. Sometimes he’d walk the dog or ride his bike into town, the music of foreign places and better times filling a void they entered the small holes in the sides of his ovular skull and replaced the church bells that he could never hear.
He never quite belonged there, but it never occurred to him to leave. He’d marry a Southern Belle who might be his high school sweetheart or Homecoming Queen— some bullshit of the sort that was written on cheap picture frames and scrawled across Hallmark cards. They’d have three children, though he didn’t like to plan— two boys, who would learn chivalry and sports from Charlie, and one girl, who would learn cooking and courtship from Cassie. They’d all be named with matching initials so the monogrammed bath towels could never be out of place (like he always was), and they’d walk to the same bus stop that Charlie walked to with his same vacant stare and his same piercing blue eyes that told you there was much more to his story than he wanted to share.
This wasn’t what he wanted, but it would have to do. His paintbrush was his ammunition to shoot his canvas full of fluid. They’d vacation by the seaside that would portray the same palette as his paint, and his Eckelburg irises of aquamarine would get swept up in sea glass and leave with the riptide. His mundane Daisy, eyes green with envy, would crave his papers of the same stain. He’d take his dad’s old job accounting, and his watercolor passion would fade out of sight like the waning summer sun.
One day he met a stranger unfamiliar with the smoothly paved roads that always looked and smelled of tangerines. Her comfort food was sushi. Instead of Dalmatians, she praised donkeys. She wore everything on her sleeve and had never dressed in Sunday best, never driven through fields of green where state lines bled into places where the people didn’t know who they were any more than he or she did.
He wasn’t quite sure who he was, though he did put on a compelling show of who he was not. He was blind to his imperfections, and when his classmates asked what was in his ears, he’d say a podcast from his pastor about painting pillars, burning bridges, and coloring inside of the lines.
He never cared for the pillars of his house. They were too white, too rigid, too expected, and not reliable enough to support the weight of the sorrows contained inside of their brick walls. Cobblestones were far too bumpy for his troubled, broken soul, so he’d take the rural path to school before anyone woke. He’d sit down by the banks of the swampy river thinking about that strange girl he met one day at the corner store.
She wasn’t quiet and was hardly polite, unlike his other suitors. When he eyed her by the produce, she was picking up peaches by the dozen and clutching Bertha Mason’s twisted fate to her mountainous chest. She was much more like Jane in terms of intuition and beliefs, but certainly not as plain or proper. Charlie stared as though she was an alien, his jaw agape. She wasn’t beautiful— or at least not according to the standards etched into his frontal lobe. Her eyes looked like the smell of the paved roads that led to nowhere, except that her tangerines were speckled with tints of brown and green. She brushed his cheek gingerly to close his mouth in fear that flies would swarm inside and infest his already rotting heart.
He never saw her again. But that didn’t stop him from pondering alternate realities in which he cooked her dinner and she held doors open for the children whom he never wanted. They would share politically charged badinage over dinner and wine, and never agree but never hold grudges. He would get the hell out of the maze of flags, where stars formed crosses instead of spangled rectangles, and go to Paris or Los Angeles or even Zanzibar. There would be nothing he wouldn’t do for a girl he’d never met, and he’d wander all over as long as no one knew his name.
None of it made sense, but not much did those days— like the saying “respect your elders.” His dad was gone with a flask in a flash of lightning when he was five and figuring out how to grow up. His mom’s new companion brought home big bucks but kept Charlie up at night with his mother’s whimpers shed the coming dawn into his morning cup of tea. And his mother just stood there, not saying a word because, where he came from, tongues stayed tied; it was “better that way.”
Conflict is to be avoided. No boy is to be raised without a father. Always hold the door. Always wear a collar. Etcetera, exhaustion, exhaling deeply, Charlie had broken each and every promise, and each and every rule–or so he thought. It was all his fault, he thought. He’d never be satisfactory to anyone broken enough to heal his open wounds, like the girl from the corner store.
He knew exactly where it rested and began tightening his tie, and as its chilled and wicked barrel breathed softly down his neck, he began thinking of other barrels. Of peaches and mangoes and leaves caked in dust, tangerine highways and roads radiating rust. So he picked up his paintbrush and reached for the green like the oak in summertime where the blue jays found light. Green fields, once indigo, turned congested and alive into a cityscape skyline peppered with posters of eyes.