By Steven Sherwood
Not three weeks ago Jim Pickett’s first love said she had fallen for some asshole accounting major named Vince. Now she’s calling from a bus stop in Castle Rock to ask for a ride.
“I’m visiting Aunt Bobbie in Flagstaff,” she says. “I scheduled a layover so we can talk before we go back to Grand Lake.”
“Does Vince know you’re coming to see me?”
Her silence answers his question.
“See you in twenty minutes.”
In downtown Castle Rock, Pickett smiles at the sight of Charlie—the only person he knows who routinely takes a Greyhound across country. She waits in her gawky grace, brushing honey blonde strands out of her eyes. She’s tall, only a few inches shorter than Pickett, and beneath a pair of cutoffs her long legs give her a coltish look even though by now, almost a year after they met, she’s a grown-up woman of eighteen and a half. She wears a billowy blouse and a red floppy hat in homage to the University of Nebraska, where she fell for Vince.
Pickett reaches for her luggage, also red, and she leans in for a sisterly hug and a kiss. At her touch, his body goes rigid. She straightens, her wide mouth drawn down and her eyes—large and wintergreen—now sad and searching. On the drive to his parents’ place in Perry Park, a subdivided horse and cattle ranch thirty mile south of Denver, he asks Charlie how her mother and sister are doing, and her face brightens. He does not ask about her father. A chemistry teacher during the school year, Red spends summers as an armed ranger, patrolling Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park, which Pickett patrols for litter. Big, beefy, and copper-headed, Red has a raucous laugh. Like a lot of park rangers, he looks down on maintenance workers like Pickett, who get their hands dirty. As he has made clear many times, “No goddamned trash picker’s gonna date my Charlotte.”
As Pickett takes a curve on the road to Perry Park, he recalls the National Park Service barbecue where he and Charlie met. In the glow of the bonfire, she looked younger than a few months shy of eighteen, so he ignored her provocative glances and the clownish, bouncy way she moved as she talked with her friends. Having just turned nineteen, and finished his freshman year in Boulder, Pickett had his eye on Charlie’s cousin Samantha, blonde, shapely, and twenty-two. He made several awkward plays for Cousin Samantha. So did better-looking, more experienced men, who also failed, but she kept nudging him toward Charlie until he took a close look and liked what he saw.
Red’s vow to separate them came soon after their first date. At Grand Lake’s single-screen theater, they saw Deliverance—the only option. Pickett cringed his way through the film’s graphic moments, sure Charlie would forever remember him as the guy who introduced her to Ned Beatty’s “squeal-like-a-pig” scene. She turned the scene into a long-running joke, though, insisting they stop at a tourist-trap archery range along Grand Lake’s boardwalk.
“Let’s pretend we’re shooting hillbillies,” she said.
After archery practice, they spent the evening on Grand Lake’s boardwalk, eating ice cream, laughing, and holding hands. Then she drove them back to the Park Service housing area, near Shadow Mountain Reservoir, parking her father’s red Caddy beneath a grove of pines to have a first kiss away from prying eyes.
The first kiss turned into several. Afterward, she stared up at him, her green eyes conveying a demand to take her seriously in spite of her age and easy humor. The solemn moment passed as she straightened behind the wheel of the Caddy to check her lipstick in the mirror and then pulled around the corner to park in front of her parents’ cabin. At the door, under the gaze of Red, they exchanged a kiss so prim their lips barely touched.
Not fooled, Red denied Charlie further use of his car for dates. Pickett had no car of his own—his parents had dropped him at the Park Service housing area at the start of summer—so he caught rides to work or to town with his fellow trash man and cabin mate, Leroy Calhoun. Shadow Mountain Village lay nine miles from Grand Lake, by highway or hiking trail, so without a car, Charlie and Pickett could forget movie or dinner dates.
Instead they attended evening beer call or weekend taco parties at other seasonal employees’ cabins, where they sat close, held hands, and trade steamy glances. On Pickett’s days off, while Red worked, they often spent hours paddling his inflatable kayak to a series of small, pine-covered islands in the reservoir or took long walks on the trails along the shore. Leroy sometimes dropped Pickett in town while Charlie’s mother Cindy, friendlier than Red, dropped her off for a few hours of shopping. They would meet for lunch at the Chuck Hole or Dirty Bob’s Pizza and then find a hiding place on the hillside above town to make out for a while before catching a ride home.
Still virgins at seventeen and nineteen, they had so far stayed that way in spite of tensions and temptations, thanks in part to Pickett’s fear of Red’s .357 magnum, of Colorado’s statutory rape laws, and of revealing his inexperience. He had long hoped to meet a kind and patient older woman, like Cousin Samantha, willing to tutor him. Instead, he fell for Charlie, who mistook a veneer of self-confidence for sophistication, and so far he had not found the courage to correct her.
One night in July, she invited him to her parents’ cabin for dinner. As he knocked on the front door, Pickett steeled himself to run the gauntlet of Red, Cindy, and Charlie’s younger sister Sophie. But Charlie opened the door and flung herself into his arms.
With a giddy smile, she said, “Mom and Dad are in Omaha visiting Grandma, and they took Sophie. We have the whole night.”
Pickett glanced at the surrounding cabins. “Is that a good idea?”
Charlie’s face fell. “Don’t you want to?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Are you afraid?”
Pickett shrugged and let her lead him inside.
Red’s twenty years as a seasonal ranger had earned him a three-bedroom cabin, far nicer than most park housing. Pickett and Leroy shared a tiny cabin built during World War Two, with chipped floor tiles, a permanent spilled-beer smell, and a couch decades older than they, its upholstery shined to a high gloss by generations of maintenance-worker butts. Red’s place had cable TV, a dining room table, and a nice couch in the living room.
The Doobie Brothers were playing on the stereo. Pickett sniffed the air—heavy with tomato sauce and garlic—like a coyote circling a trap, but Charlie’s sweater matched her eyes, and a short black skirt showed off her legs. As he kissed her, he tasted cherry lip gloss.
“Dinner is served, sir.”
Draped by a tablecloth and set with her mother’s china, the table looked elegant. Candlelight gleamed off a pair of her mother’s wine glasses. Beside the pasta, garlic bread, and salad sat a bottle of red wine, courtesy of Cousin Samantha. They took their time eating and talked mostly about work—the love letters and other artifacts Pickett had dug from the trash that day and the naive questions tourists had asked Charlie at her new job with the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce: “One woman asked if the high altitude would curl her hair. I said yes.”
After dinner, when they retired to the couch in the front room, Charlie revealed her agenda: “I want you to be my first. We’re alone, we have all night, we love each other, and there’s no reason to wait any longer.”
“You know I want the same thing you do,” Pickett said, “but not till you turn eighteen.”
Charlie’s eyes widened. “You are afraid. I was joking before, but it’s true, isn’t it?”
She slid to the other end of the couch, crossing her arms and legs. Pickett did his best to explain Colorado law and his desire to stay out of jail, avoid parenthood, and finish college before marriage. She rolled her eyes at his explanations, so he asked, “Are you on the pill?”
Charlie looked aghast at the question. “No.”
“Do you have condoms?”
“Don’t you?” she asked.
He shook his head, unwilling to admit he had not yet worked up the nerve to buy any. “I didn’t know I was spending the night. Anyway, we should wait a few months, until you’re legal.”
His words sounded sensible until tears filled Charlie’s eyes. Whispering, she said, “I thought you loved me.”
He slid close enough to touch her. “I think I do, Charlie, but I can’t be sure because I’ve never been in love before.”
She tried to move farther away but ran into the arm of the couch. “You either love me or you don’t,” she said. “It’s that simple.”
Pickett tamped down a smile that threatened to surface. “Is it?”
“I know I love you.”
“Then kiss me.”
After a moment, she did.
They drank the rest of Samantha’s wine and agreed to have sex after her eighteenth birthday, in late October. Sometime in the early morning, they fell asleep together. Just before dawn, he kissed her awake. Wary now about the spying eyes of park employees, she let him out the kitchen door without turning on a light. Pickett crept along the dark lane to his cabin, hoping to get inside and into bed without waking Leroy. For the most part, he trusted Leroy to keep his mouth shut, but he wanted to take no chances.
Later that day, at Farview Curve, a scenic viewpoint high above the Colorado River, Pickett and Leroy stopped to eat lunch with the road crew, who had spent the morning repaving a section of Trail Ridge Road. A George Washington University student who planned someday to join the diplomatic service, Leroy looked like a California surfer but spoke like a political science professor. Sitting on the rock wall overlooking the valley, Pickett ate lunch while Leroy argued with a laborer on the road crew. The issue: What smelled funkier—road crew sweat or the eau de garbage wafting from Leroy’s and Pickett’s uniforms? As Leroy tried to win this unwinnable debate, Pickett glanced up to find the park’s heavy equipment operator, Jasper Daniel, looking down at him with a stony expression. “Let’s take a walk, Jim. I need a word.”
At the far end of the viewpoint, Jasper turned to face him. “Red asked me to keep an eye on Charlie. I saw you coming out of their house this morning.”
Four inches shorter than Pickett’s six feet three inches, Jasper was built like his D-10 Cat. Decades earlier, he walked on as a linebacker for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. Now in his forties, he had a dark beard, thick eyebrows, and unyielding brown eyes, which looked black under the brim of his yellow hardhat.
“Oh,” Pickett said.
Through narrow lips, Jasper spat out, “Are you screwing that girl?”
Pickett raised his hands as if to push away this notion. “No, Jasper. She’s too young.”
Jasper’s lie-detecting eyes bored into Pickett’s. “A lot of us have known Charlie since she was a baby. She’s like a daughter to the park’s old-timers. You start screwing her, we’ll come for you one night, take you out in the woods, and cut your balls off with a piece of broken glass.”
Pickett clenched his fists. “You wouldn’t find that so easy to do.”
Jasper grunted and strutted toward his Cat. “You remember what I said, boy.”
A month after Charlie’s eighteenth birthday, when she visited Perry Park during Thanksgiving break, the memory of Jasper’s threat still inspired in Pickett a full-body puckering sensation. In spite of his tough talk, the image of a knifelike shard held in a gloved hand had found a permanent place in his head. In the weeks that followed this warning off, he did not speak of it to Charlie, choosing instead to keep a lid on their passion, a desperate effort to which she reacted with tears and confusion. The night before leaving for school, they set a definite date, the Friday after Thanksgiving, on which to end their virginity.
On Thanksgiving Day, already nervous about meeting his family, Charlie began fidgeting when Pickett drove through Perry Park’s of ponderosa pines and moist meadows, bounded on the west by the Rampart Range and on the east by waves of hogback ridges topped by cliffs of red and gold sandstone. Her face went pale at her first glimpse of his family home, a structure of weathered wood, big windows, and interesting roof angles, nestled under a cliff at the crest of a hill. She took her time getting out of his mother’s Jeep. “I didn’t know your parents were rich.”
“They’re not,” he said. “They put every cent they could scrape together, including my college funds, into this place. Why do you think I pay my own tuition and can’t buy a car?”
“Do they know my mom and dad are school teachers?”
His put his arm around her waist. “You’re the only girl I’ve brought home. They can’t wait to meet you, and they’re as nervous as you are.”
His parents and younger sisters, Ingrid and Lisa, met them at the door with hugs and questions. Still in high school, each with long dark hair, his sisters hung on Charlie’s every word about how she and Pickett met and his ongoing fear of her father, who was actually a “big teddy bear.” Charlie likewise captivated Ben Pickett, attorney at law, whose graying hair topped a wide, ruddy, often somber face. Ben grinned as he looked from Charlie to Pickett as if in delight and wonder that his son had brought home such a charming young woman. Shy at first, Pickett’s mother Elaine soon warmed to Charlie, who not only helped her in the kitchen but later praised a Thanksgiving meal that featured an overcooked turkey and an unsweetened pumpkin pie.
“You’re very kind,” Elaine told Charlie. Then she smiled at Pickett, as if to say, “Hang on to her.”
The next day, they hiked through the wilder patches of Perry Park in search of a private place—hidden, flat, and soft. Pickett carried a daypack containing an old blanket and a box of condoms he had dared to buy in Boulder. In a sandy hollow at the base of a rock formation, they found their spot. As they knelt and began to undress each other, Charlie said, “Jim, I want you come to Lincoln for a long weekend before finals week. And you know what? We should go somewhere special for spring break—Florida or California. What do you think?”
He stopped fumbling with the catch on her bra. “I wasn’t sure how to say this, Charlie, but I’m taking next semester off. My best friend from high school, Dave, and I are planning to use the money we made last summer to backpack through Europe—figure out what we want to do with our lives. ”
Her hands fell away, and she slumped back onto the sandy ground.
“I was trying to find a way to tell you—”
She cut him off. “After we had sex?”
Pickett met her flat green gaze without flinching. “Can you really think, after last summer, that I’d trick you into anything? If this isn’t what you want, what we both want, we shouldn’t do it.”
She wiped at a random tear. “Okay, maybe I’m not being fair, but neither are you. What am I supposed to do while you bum around Europe with someone else and throw away money we could have used to start a life together?”
The question silenced him for a moment. “I don’t know. Wait for me, I guess. Or come with me.”
“Are you crazy? I just started school, and Dad would kill me if I told him I was quitting to go anywhere with you.”
Pickett gave a half shrug. “My parents don’t like the idea either, but it’s my money and my decision. I have no clue what kind of work to do after college, so I’m just going through the motions in Boulder. I can’t start a life with you or anyone else until I get my shit together.”
She reached up to touch his face. “Nothing, including a career, matters as much as finding someone to love. You know I love you, Jim, but I won’t wait forever.”
“Well, can you wait till I finish school?”
It was Charlie’s turn to shrug. She looked at him, her body rigid and her eyes cool. “We should be getting back. Your mom probably thinks we’re out here having sex.”
She caught a Greyhound to Nebraska the next morning. They traded a few letters, and he sent her postcards from Florence, Salzburg, and Edinburgh, but he did not see her again until April, when he and Dave, after backpacking around Europe for three months, stopped for the night in Lincoln on their way home from Chicago (the terminus of their Icelandic Airlines flight). Dave’s older brother Dan had an apartment near campus and had offered to put them up for the night. While Dave and Dan drank beer and shot pool in a campus bar, Pickett called Charlie.
On the phone, she sounded wary. “I’m glad you’re back safe, Jim, but I have a few things to tell you. Why don’t you come to my dorm in an hour?”
In the lobby, she dodged his kiss to give him a stiff, formal hug. “Let’s talk upstairs.”
They rode the elevator in silence. He frowned at her cautious glances, and as she opened the door to her room, he found himself facing a posse: four of her girlfriends. They sat in pairs on the twin beds, brunettes on one side, blondes on the other. As Charlie introduced these chaperones, Pickett took in their alert, eager expressions, but he did not return their nods or muttered greetings. He waited for Charlie to get to the point, which she finally did: “Like I said before, Jim, we need to talk.”
She parted her lips and made a plaintive gesture with one hand. Finally, she turned to her friends. “This was a bad idea. We need to be alone.”
One of the blondes eyed Pickett. “Should I call Vince?”
“Gina,” Charlie said evenly. “Just go.”
As the door shut behind the last girl, Pickett turned to Charlie. “Vince?”
They sat on one of the beds, where she told him about a nice accounting major she had met a week after the fall semester started. They liked each other, but she refused to date him as long as she and Pickett were together. That all changed when Pickett ran off to Europe. “We’re in love,” she said. “We’re planning to get married next year—or the year after.”
“In November you were in love with me.”
She looked troubled. “I thought I was.”
“Now you’re in love with some asshole accounting major.”
Her expression darkened. “His name is Vince.”
They stared at different points on the wall. He recalled a night in Edinburgh when he finally realized he loved her, wanted to spend his life with her, even if that meant giving up or delaying law school—the career he had finally settled on during his travels. A laugh caught in his throat and became a cough.
“I’m sorry, Jim.”
He smacked the mattress with both hands and got to his feet. At the door, he stopped to smile back at her. “Well, hell, Charlie. You warned me you wouldn’t wait forever.”
Now, three weeks later, Pickett carries Charlie’s red suitcase up the weathered wooden staircase to his parents’ front door. Elaine meets them in the foyer. She hugs Charlie warmly and gives Pickett an odd, secret smile, but he shakes his head to dispel any hope of a rekindled romance.
Later, as they eat his mother’s charred meatloaf, Pickett realizes that Charlie now faces his posse. Lisa and Ingrid sit across the table and watch her every gesture, their eyes—one pair brown, one blue—round with speculation. Oblivious to the drama, his father pours the wine and asks Charlie how her freshman year is going. Grateful for a safe topic, Pickett is ready to intercept, with a fixed stare or a quick remark, any questions Lisa or Ingrid might ask about Charlie’s motives for showing her face here so soon after dumping him.
They make it safely through dinner and dessert, and Pickett suggests a drive. “Alone,” he says as Lisa and Ingrid start to get up.
He borrows his mother’s Jeep and heads north, past the Perry Park golf course, to a large meadow that contains a pair of sandstone monoliths shaped like tugboats, their prows aimed west at the nearby Rampart Range. The monoliths look like scale models of the formations that comprise Red Rocks, the natural amphitheater near Golden. He leads Charlie to the top of the tallest one, where they sit on a ledge above a dry basin scooped out of the rock by eons of wind and rain. A mile from the nearest house—and beyond the eager eyes and ears of his sisters—they can talk freely. For a while, though, they only look at each other or at the sunset, which has turned the ridges and rock formations surrounding them bright shades of pink and orange.
The beauty lifts Pickett’s spirits and, for a moment, he wonders if Charlie could have changed her mind about breaking up.
Then she says, “I didn’t want to leave things the way we did in Lincoln. I’m in love with Vince, but I still care about you, Jim, and I don’t want you to hate me.”
He takes her hand. “I could never hate you.”
Charlie’s face draws down and her lips tremble. “A group of my friends heard you yelling outside my dorm that night. They say you called me a vicious bitch—and worse things.”
For a moment, he looks into her eyes and wants to blame some other guy for this outrage. “When I left your dorm, I met Dave and his older brother Dan in a bar near campus. I told them about our breakup, and Dan bought us shots and beers as fast as we could drink them. Then he talked me into going back to your dorm to let you know what I thought of you. To him, it was a big joke.”
“So it was you.”
He took in a deep breath. “I don’t think you’re a vicious bitch, Charlie, or anything else I said that night. I guess I wanted to hurt you.”
“Because I cheated on you?”
Charlie, who can hardly utter the last three words, releases a strangled cry with her tears. Pickett puts an arm around her and draws her as close as she’ll allow. “Don’t feel guilty. While you were falling for Vince, I was having a fling with Costanza, a woman I met in Rome. I wasn’t ready to commit to anyone, even you. I guess I’m still not.”
Pain flashes across her face. In a small voice, she says, “You never loved me.”
She looks and sounds so desolate, he nearly tells her about his decision on that lonely night in Edinburgh to propose. “It’s about timing not love, Charlie, and our timing sucks. In three or four years, if I’m ready to start a life with someone, I hope I find a woman like you.”
She turns into him and they cling together as if they can bridge the gap, jump three or four years into the future. Then, with no conscious intent, they are kissing and, a moment later, tugging at each other’s clothes. To Pickett, the moment feels natural and right, but if waking from a disturbing dream Charlie shoves him away. “I can’t do this.”
He groans and lies back on the ledge to catch his breath. “You must really love the asshole accounting major.”
“His name is Vince. And I do, but I don’t want things to be weird between us this summer. Can we be friends, light and fun? Like we were before everything got so serious?”
Pickett has his doubts, but he nods. Friends for now, they hold hands, watch the stars grow bright over the mountains, and talk—light and fun—about his misadventures in Europe, the comical moments of her first year of school, and her continuing fight for independence from Red. Pickett finally tells her about his confrontation with Jasper Daniel at Farview Curve. She laughs when he gets to the part about the piece of broken glass. “Jasper’s a big teddy bear. He could never do something like that.”
“Well, I wasn’t taking any chances. And if you love Vince, you should keep him away from Jasper and the other teddy bears.”
Sometime in the night, they fall asleep on the soft sand that lines the dry basin. At dawn, shivering in the mountain air, they descend the monolith, collect her luggage at his parents’ place without waking anyone, and drive to Castle Rock. The Greyhound pulls up a short time after they do. “See you in Grand Lake,” Charlie says and kisses him goodbye. The driver stows her red suitcase, she waves as she climbs aboard, and the bus takes her away.
About the Author:
A writer and teacher living in Fort Worth, Texas, Steven Sherwood had published fiction or creative nonfiction in Talking River Review, The Clearing House, Red Rock Review, Northern Lights, New Texas, Weber Studies, Amarillo Bay, Descant, Outside, and other journals. His first novel, Hardwater, set in the Wind River region of Wyoming, won the 2003 George Garrett Fiction Prize and was published by the Texas Review Press in February 2005. His latest novel, No Asylum, a mystery set in central Kansas, was published in 2014, also by the Texas Review Press.