Leave Charlotte Vale Behind ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
After washing her hair in the kitchen sink, grandma sat down at the kitchen table before her little round mirror from Woolworth’s to “pin it up.” She twisted each strand of wet hair expertly around the index finger of her right hand and when the strand was a perfect coil she secured it with not one, but two, bobby pins crossed like tiny swords, which she opened with her teeth.
When she was finished, her hair was all-over coils arranged in rows like planted crops. From a distance she looked to have been snatched bald-headed and her hair replaced by a brown skull cap.
She would never have gone outside the house with her hair pinned up that way, so, while the hair dried, she tied it up with a colorful scarf and left the two ends of the scarf sticking up over her forehead like the antennae on an insect.
“What do you think?” she asked Evan.
“That scarf is so cute!” he said.
She lit one of her Pall Mall menthol cigarettes and, balancing it on her favorite ashtray, began applying makeup. She started with a thick layer of face powder all over her face, and then she drew on her eyebrows in graceful arcs over each eye.
“That looks so good!” Evan said. “You look like a movie star!”
“Now for some color,” she said.
She put a spot of rouge on each cheek and then spread it out, blending it in, with her fingertips.
Next came the lipstick. She outlined her lips with the audaciously red stuff and then smacked her lips together several times to even it out, after which she blotted with a limp Kleenex that she produced from the pocket of her house coat.
“Not bad if I do say so myself,” she said, turning her head this way and that before the mirror.
“What time is Finis coming for dinner?” Evan asked.
“About six. He’s bringing dessert.”
“Did he say what?”
“It’ll be something good, you can be sure of that.”
Evan liked grandma’s boyfriend Finis. He was over seventy, tall and thin, a real snappy dresser. He always wore a suit, tie and shiny shoes. He told funny stories about when he was married to one Siamese twin (he wanted to marry the other twin but didn’t want to go to jail for bigamy), and when he worked for gangsters (he got out before members of a rival gang had him killed). Some of his stories were hard to believe, but they were always worth listening to.
“Why don’t you marry Finis?” Evan asked. “Then he’ll already be here at dinnertime and he won’t have to come from someplace else.”
“We’ve talked about it,” grandma said, “but we both like our freedom too much. I don’t want to be tied down and neither does he.”
“How long has grandpa been dead?”
“Seventeen years. You weren’t even born yet.”
“Don’t you miss having a husband?”
Grandma started to put away the mirror and cosmetics, but Evan pointed to his own lips.
“Well, all right,” she said. “Come on over here.”
She set him on her left thigh and, with her left arm around his shoulders, applied lipstick to his lower and then his upper lip with her right hand and then had him smack his lips together the way she showed him.
“How’s that?” she asked.
“Perfect!” he said, looking at himself in the mirror. “I want some eyebrow pencil, too, though. My eyebrows have been so uninteresting lately.”
“Just a little bit,” she said. “We don’t want to ever forget that you’re a boy.”
“I won’t forget it,” he said.
In the space between the table and the refrigerator he minced around, pretending to be a girl, making grandma laugh. He didn’t mind cutting up that way with grandma and Finis, but he wouldn’t want just anybody to see him.
“I’m going to get my wig!” he said.
He ran upstairs to his room and dug the wig out of the bottom drawer of the dresser and put it on in front of the dresser mirror. The wig was long and red, rather shopworn and dusty, but it did make him look like a bonafide girl.
He ran back downstairs to the kitchen to show grandma.
“How do I look?” he asked.
“Stunningly beautiful,” grandma said.
“My name is Charlotte Vale,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“I’m only your old grandma.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right! I remember now!”
“I want you to walk to the store and get a few things.”
“Can I go as Charlotte?”
“You can go as Al Capone if you want to. Now, are you listening? Here are the things I want: a quart of milk…”
“A quart of milk. Check.”
“…a pound of butter…”
“A pound of butter. Check.”
“…a loaf of white bread…”
“A loaf of white break. Check.”
“…and two packs of Pall Mall menthol cigarettes.”
“Two packs of Pall Mall menthols. Check.”
“Can you remember all that without a list?”
“Of course, I can,” he said. “I made it all the way through retarded school, remember?”
She gave him the money and he ran out the kitchen door, the long red hair flying.
When he went into the store, nobody looked at him, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if they had. He felt a little funny as a girl, out in public, but it was only because he wasn’t used to it. He liked the feeling he got from being somebody else. He couldn’t keep from smiling.
He went to the back of the store to get the milk, butter and bread. Then he had to stand in line up front to pay and to get the Pall Mall menthols.
When his turn came, the sour-faced cashier looked at him and then looked away without interest.
“Anything else?” she asked, after ringing up the purchases.
“Two packs of Pall Mall menthol cigarettes.”
She reached around on the other side of the cash register and pulled the two packs of cigarettes out of a rack.
“You don’t ever want to start smokin’ them things,” she said. “They’ll kill ya.”
“They’re for my grandma.”
He paid the money and held out his hand for the change. She put the things into a large bag and folded down the top of the bag and handed it to him.
“Have a nice day,” she said without expression.
When he got home, grandma and Finis were sitting at the kitchen table, laughing and smoking. Grandma had combed her hair out and it was sticking up all over her head. Too much curl, she’d say.
“Who is this enchanting child?” Finis said when Charlotte entered the room.
“That’s my young granddaughter, Charlotte Vale,” grandma said, “visiting from out of town.”
Finis stood up and made a show of shaking Hester’s hand. “So happy to make your acquaintance, my dear!” he said.
The song Amapola was playing on the radio. Finis took hold of Charlotte’s hands and danced her vigorously all over the kitchen until they both collapsed into chairs.
Charlotte wanted something a little fancier for dinner than walking-to-the-store clothes, so she went upstairs and put on a dark-green dress that she found in one of grandma’s trunks in the attic. Since it was a dress for a fully grown lady and since Charlotte was only eleven years old, the dress was a little too big and went all the way to the floor. It didn’t matter, though, because it was elegant. Perfect for a cruise to Buenos Aires and a shipboard romance.
Grandma cooked spaghetti and meatballs for dinner; she had a bottle of rosé wine to go with it. She let Charlotte taste the wine and drink almost a whole glass of it, but then she replaced the wine with iced tea. She didn’t want to be responsible, she said, for turning her grandson into an alcoholic.
“Granddaughter,” Finis said.
“Oh, that’s right! I almost forgot!”
“I’m not really a girl,” Evan said. “I just like pretending sometimes.”
“We know,” grandma said.
“A man wears many masks in his lifetime,” Finis said. “Whatever the moment calls for. When I was a young fellow in college, my friends and I used to get all made up as women and go downtown on the bus. We could flirt like nobody’s business! We could have had any number of dates. It was fun and it felt good!”
“I’ll bet you made the prettiest girl,” grandma said.
She set the big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs in the middle of the table and let Finis and Evan help themselves. They ate until the bowl was nearly empty.
“Best spaghetti I ever ate,” Finis said.
Before grandma cut the cherry pie that Finis brought for dessert, she brought a letter out of her apron pocket and set it on the table by her plate.
“I had a letter from your mother today, Evan,” grandma said.
“She’s asking me for money again. She’s out of the hospital, but she’s seeing a new psychiatrist and she says he’s more expensive than the others.”
“I think it’s time for her to stand on her own and stop asking you for money!” Finis said.
“The money’s not all,” grandma said, looking directly across the table at Evan. “There’s something else.”
He knew he wasn’t going to like what she was about to say.
“She has a new boyfriend. They’re going to be married right away because she’s going to have a baby.”
“Uh-oh!” Finis said.
“Who is she marrying?” Evan asked. “Is he a mental patient too?”
“She didn’t say, but you’ll be able to find out for yourself soon enough.”
“She wants you to come home.”
“She wants me to put you on the bus on Saturday morning.”
“I don’t want to go! I want to stay here with you and Finis!”
“I know you do, but…”
“She’s your mother and you’re a minor. Where you live is not up to you; it’s up to your mother.”
“Why can’t she just leave me alone?”
“She wants you to start school when the new school year begins.”
“I won’t go!”
“We can take him down in my car,” Finis said. “He doesn’t have to ride on the bus.”
“It’s more than two hours each way,” grandma said.
“I know. I don’t mind.”
“I won’t go!” Evan said. “I’ll run away!”
“And where will you go?”
“I’ll join the circus!”
“What would you do in the circus? Be a tightrope walker?”
“No, I’ll be a He-She in the freak show.”
“But you’re not a He-She. You’re a perfectly normal boy.”
“I’m not normal! I don’t want to be normal if it means I’m like everybody else! I want to be a He-She!”
“All right, then! Be a He-She! Suit yourself!”
“You don’t have to go today or tomorrow,” Finis said. “You have a few more days. Try to enjoy the time you have left.”
“Finis is right,” grandma said. “Let’s have some cherry pie.”
“I don’t want any pie!” Evan said. “I’m going to bed!”
“But cherry pie is your favorite!”
“No, it isn’t!”
He went upstairs to his room, making sure to slam the door loud enough so that grandma and Finis would hear it in the kitchen.
Although it wasn’t quite seven o’clock, he closed the blinds and put on his pajamas, got into bed and covered up his head. How could that bitch (his mother) marry some jackass and then expect him (Evan) to go back home and live with them while she had a stupid baby? He hoped the baby was a freak with two heads. It would be exactly what the bitch deserved.
When Evan awoke in the morning, he swore he was going to be Charlotte Vale the whole time he had left at grandma’s house. If anybody told him to go change back into Evan, he was going to refuse. Even though he was only eleven, he had some rights. If he was too young to have his way about where he lived, at least he could stand up for himself about something as elemental as being a He-She.
As Charlotte, he rode the bus all over the city, by himself, for hours. He loved the city: the crowds and traffic, the buildings, the noise and excitement. He and grandma had had a good time during his stay, seeing all the latest movies, shopping in the stores and eating at the restaurants. Grandma was from the small town, too, but she had lived in the city for thirty years and couldn’t imagine living anyplace else.
Saturday morning came quicker than Evan hoped it would. He awoke early and took a bath and washed his hair. Then, sitting in his underwear before the dresser mirror, he put on heavy rouge, eyebrow pencil and lipstick. When he was satisfied with the way he looked, he slipped a dress on over his head; not the fancy green dress for the cruise to Buenos Aires, but a more sensible, daytime dress of yellow and blue.
When he went down for breakfast with his packed suitcase, Finis had already arrived and was sitting at the table smoking a cigarillo and drinking tea.
“Hello there, Evan,” Finis said.
“It’s Charlotte. Charlotte Vale.”
“Oh, yes. I forgot for the moment.”
“From now on I’m Charlotte. Evan’s dead. Don’t you think the circus freak show would be happy to have me as a He-She?
“I can’t say,” Finis said. “I think eleven is probably a little young for a He-She.”
“I won’t always be eleven.”
“You’re going home today for the first time in three months, Evan,” grandma said.
“Not Evan. Charlotte.”
“Don’t you think it would be best to go home as Evan and leave Charlotte Vale here? She’ll still be here when you get back.”
“No! You’ve already told me I don’t have any choice about going. If I have to go, I’m going as Charlotte. Evan’s dead, I said.”
“All right. If you say so. Evan’s dead.”
“Won’t mother be surprised when she sees I’ve turned into a He-She?”
“We’ve better get a move on,” Finis said. “We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.”
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp