by Chase Dearinger

Friday Afternoon

            As Carl took the exit marked SH 33, confidence dissolved into panic.  His veins narrowed with the road.  The two-lane state highway meant that the Cimarron was close and the river meant that Corina was closer.  His blue Mark III van rolled up and down the Oklahoma hills, the wheel well on the back rattling with every uneven seam on the road.  As he looked out his window at a tractor dealership, a motorcycle roared past the van; a blonde woman with a long French braid emerging from beneath her helmet wrapped her arms around the waist of the man driving the bike.  He thought about Corina and the first time they would touch. 

Carl gripped the steering wheel tightly and grit his teeth.  He had been drinking too much caffeine and the effects were not mixing well with his newfound anxiety.  It was only a nine-hour trip from Dodson, Louisiana, but he hadn’t slept the night before; he’d stayed up debating whether or not to go on the trip.  He’d never been to Oklahoma and he’d never driven that far for a girl. 

This is how he met her: on the Internet.  She wasn’t the first girl he’d met that way; it was just so easy.  He could lie about the way he looked and they could lie about their age.  Fat became “built” and thirteen became “seventeen.” Carl loved the conversation the young girls made, too.  They opened up completely, like they felt safe on the Internet.  They told him things they wouldn’t even tell their closest friends.  He had never met one in person, however.  Take Cindy Egan, for instance.  She was perfect: fourteen, hated her new stepfather, had just discovered marijuana.  She would’ve been so easy.  But she must have told someone about Carl, because she eventually vanished from the chat rooms.
Corina was different.  Carl thought he was in love with Corina.  The thirteen-year-old wanted to do more than talk about her exaggerated sexual past, how much she hated her parents or confess to awful things she wouldn’t tell her friends.  She was pure: he hadn’t been able to talk her into phone sex as easily as the others.  It had taken almost three weeks of chatting late into the night, talking about their days and what had been on her mind.  Her father was the manager at the RadioShack in a small town in Oklahoma and some kind of Christian.  He spent all his time at work and at church and Corina’s mother spent as much time away from home as possible.  

Carl had just turned forty that year.  He was a short, fat man with a thick layer of black fur all over his body.  He typically wore khaki pants and Hawaiian shirts.  He stuffed the coarse, black hair on his head under a mesh hat that read LOUISIANA across the front.  He had a tattoo of a panther’s head on his left forearm.  The panther growled and bared its teeth beneath layers of sun damage and arm hair.  This tattoo was Carl’s favorite thing about himself.  He hated the shape of his body and the disgusting hair patterns growing everywhere. 

*          *          *

He took a hand away from the steering wheel and rubbed the tattoo.  He had had the ink done ten years earlier, when he lost his job.  Since then he had lived between his mother’s house and the van.  The van was virtually empty; the upholstery and back seats had been torn out.  All that was left were the captain seats in the front, the microfiber on the ceiling and the rope of lights around the top that lit up when the door was opened.  A twin mattress was on the floor; the single sheet was crumpled up in the back corner.  The floor was littered with cigarette butts and a variety of Hawaiian shirts.  A video camera and its tripod sat between the front seats. 

When Carl thought of Corina Dulas, he rubbed the tattoo on his forearm.  Sometimes, when they would chat late into the night, the incessant rubbing of his arm would slow his typing down.  He would apologize, telling Corina that he was touching himself. 

Carl was famous for his tattoo in Dodson.  He was one of the few citizens in the small town to bear one.  He could often be found in the town’s only gas station – a major truck stop at the edge of the town – leaning on the counter, drinking coffee and chatting with Kelly, the store manager.  Kelly had offered Carl a job many times in the ten-year span since he had been fired from the school, but Carl wouldn’t have it.  “I’m not going to be here much longer,” Carl would always say.  “Some time soon someone’s going to come through here and sweep me away, and I’ll end up happy, somewhere far away.”  Kelly would just laugh. 

One night, sitting at the computer in his mother’s room while she slept, Carl had told Corina that he had a tattoo. 

“I hope this doesn’t bother you,” he had told her, pausing to rub the panther head.  “But I have a tattoo.  On my arm, where you can see it.”  He waited for an answer.  The blue light of the computer screen crept out into the room, dimly revealing the green wallpaper that his mother had put up decades before. 

“A tattoo?  I think tattoos are sexy,” she responded.  Carl let out a sigh.  She thinks I’m sexy.   They kept on through the night, the only noise in the room the barely audible clicks of the keyboard and the muffled snores of Carl’s mother.  She thinks I’m sexy.   

“You know, if you want, we could run away together,” Carl told her, feeling confident of her absolute acceptance of him.  She did not respond.  He covered his face with his hands and began rocking back and forth in the metal folding chair he sat in.  That was stupid.  He rubbed his face and listened to his mother’s snores until he heard the faint chime that told him she’d responded. 

“I’d love to run away with you.  But maybe we should meet first.”  He couldn’t control himself.  He slapped his hand down over the tattoo and began to squeeze as he rocked.  That was stupid.  She thinks I’m pathetic.  He had to think fast to make up for his hastiness. 

“I was just joking,” he told her.  “You know I’m too old for you.”  He squeezed his arm once more and shut down the computer.

*          *          *

In another life, Carl Eleftherakis had taught music at a Christian school in Shreveport.  He was in charge of the students’ favorite activity of the year: the Christmas pageant.  Mr. Eleftherakis had written this particular musical pageant himself; everything from the music and the lyrics to the stage directions had been his creation.  The students spent all fall preparing for this pageant and the entire spring preparing for a passion play, but the Christmas pageant was their favorite.

Carl had the kind of disposition that all children love – that of a child himself.  He taught his students that God had a sense of humor and that they should have fun with the holiday production and not take it too seriously.  As the pageant got closer and closer, students would stay in the music room after school and practice their lines and songs with Mr. Eleftherakis.  He loved to play the piano while the children sang.  This went on every year for seven years; teachers and parents alike praised Mr. Eleftherakis for his hard work and good spirits. 

One year, the little girl playing Mary, Charlotte Thompson, took a special liking to Mr. Eleftherakis.  Her father had recently left the family and she was especially fond of Mr. Eleftherakis’s attention.  She stayed longer than any of the students, practicing her number while her teacher played along on the piano backstage.  This is when everything went wrong for Carl.  When Charlotte’s mother came to pick her up, she found her daughter sitting in Mr. Eleftherakis’s lap, one arm wrapped around her and his other hand running through her hair, smiling at her.  Mrs. Thompson reported the incident to the principal and Mr. Eleftherakis was promptly fired. 

Carl left Shreveport and moved back in with his mother in Dodson.  He couldn’t stay in Shreveport; just thinking about running into people from the school humiliated him.  Before he left town, though, Carl had the panther tattooed on his forearm.  It was cathartic for him.  He had wanted the tattoo of the panther as a symbol of power, courage and spiritual independence.  Carl no longer believed that God had a sense of humor.   

He rotted for several years in Dodson.  He had had several job offerings, especially from Kelly, the closest thing he had to a friend; no one knew about the events that got him fired him Shreveport.  He told everyone that he couldn’t handle the religious aspect of his job anymore.  Occasionally, he was responsible for a robbery or a car stereo theft, but he never got caught.  He lived out the back of his van when he was drinking and he lived with his mother when he was clean and talking to girls.  He never went further than phone sex with any of them; he simply didn’t have the courage.  But Corina was different.  Corina gave him courage. 

*          *          *

Carl could see the heat waves over the Cimarron River climbing over the bank and making their way onto the highway.  She’s a mile away.   He lit a cigarette and placed the lighter in the cup holder.  She thinks I’m sexy.  He covered the tattoo up with his hand and squeezed the panther tightly.  She thinks I’m sexy

Friday Night

Charlotte twisted the knob to Pots and Pans and leaned back on the dishwasher.  Dinner had been a nightmare.  Victor had dragged another one of his transients to dinner so that he could shove potatoes and Jesus down everyone’s throats.  This one had been particularly strange, from Louisiana or some other swampy hellhole.  It was the third time that her husband had invited a complete stranger into their home without notice.  She was just waiting for their television or teenage daughter to disappear. 

Charlotte had large, prosthetic breasts and long, muscular legs that she believed looked great when wearing high heels.  Her breasts were the product of a five-year stretch of exotic dancing and personal entertainment; her legs were the product of fifteen years of jogging.  She was forty-three years old but most men in town believed she was thirty.  This made her husband, Victor, jealous.  She spent most of her days now in her husband’s house – at least that’s what she’d begun calling it – folding her husband and thirteen year old daughter’s laundry and preparing their meals.

She was seriously thinking about leaving Victor; that much was for sure.  A certain allure about her past life had begun creeping into the house under the doors and through the cracks around the windows where seal had been broken.  It was something about the freedom.  After all, she had left her old life for Victor and now Victor had, in his own way, left her.  Alone, in a house full of cracks and open spaces.  The only real thing that stopped her from leaving was Corina.  Charlotte loved her daughter but knew that she couldn’t take her with her where she might be going.  Wherever it was, it was no place for a thirteen-year-old girl. 

The phone rang and Charlotte pushed herself away from the warmth of the dishwasher.  It was her sister, Kathy. 

“My friend David from work and I are going to the Grasslands tonight.  You in?”  Charlotte thought about it for a minute as she peered into Corina’s room.   She was sitting on her bed, flipping through the pages of a magazine, reading nothing.  Victor was at work doing inventory.   

“Can you pick me up right now?”  Kathy agreed and Charlotte hung up the phone. Kathy and Charlotte had been inseparable during Charlotte’s younger years; she still called occasionally to see if she could drag her sister out one more time.  Victor hated Kathy.

Charlotte knocked on Corina’s partially opened door as if she hadn’t been watching and opened the door up all the way. 

“I’m going to go do some things with Aunt Kathy, sweetie.  Just wait for daddy.  Don’t answer the door and don’t use the phone unless it’s an emergency.  Understand?”  Corina simply nodded and returned her attention to the magazine.  Charlotte was pleased that Corina wasn’t at the computer; she’d been staying up after midnight lately, chatting with some friend on the Internet.  “Be safe.”

*          *          *

Charlotte’s husband was a short, stocky man with very little hair left on his head.  They had been married for sixteen years and in that time his waist had grown considerably, his hair had fallen out and he had become increasing involved in the First Baptist church in Livingwell, the small Oklahoma town they called home. 

He had been ambitious when they were first married; he was a salesman at RadioShack but had hopes of opening his own store.  His dream was to open up an electronics store that specialized in model trains and other hobbies.  He would explain to her, as he held her in bed, that the community didn’t want some corporate chain as their only source of electronics.  He would tell her that places like RadioShack sold unnecessary electronics by convincing people that they needed them.  But his store would be different.  His store would do whatever it took to get people what they wanted, all the while introducing them to the wonders of model trains.   A good, old-fashioned hobby store like the one where his father had bought his train set.   He’d never been there, he’d say, but he knew just what it looked like in his mind.  

After three years of marriage Corina had been born and Victor had taken a manager position at the RadioShack out of necessity.  He had remained in that position ever since. 

Corina had changed everything.  Charlotte quit her job as a teller at Livingwell National and made her daughter the center of her life.  Corina was smart, funny and easy; Charlotte had never imagined raising a child would be so natural to her.  By the time her daughter was ten, the two were more friends than anything.  Corina made A’s without effort, spent most of her time at home and had very few friends outside of her mother. 

Lately, the two had been staying up late watching TV Land together; Charlotte would sit on the couch and Corina would sit at the computer in the corner, watching TV and chatting with her friends.  Usually Corina was focused on the computer screen and Charlotte was focused on Corina.  I can’t leave her now.  She needs me more than ever.   

For two weeks Victor had been working late.  He claimed he was doing inventory at the store and couldn’t get any of the salesmen to help, but Charlotte didn’t believe him.  She didn’t think there was anyone else; he just wasn’t as interested in her anymore.  She couldn’t blame him.  She wasn’t very interested in him, either. 

*          *          *

The Grasslands was an anonymous bar inside the Holiday Inn, the only hotel in town, and the bar where Charlotte had met Victor.  It was typically empty and nothing was different that Friday night.  David was thirty-something and dusty; he wore jeans and a flannel shirt and had a dark brown mop on top of his head.  He pulled Charlotte’s chair out for her when they sat down at the bar. 

“Do you go out very much with Kathy?  I’ve never seen you before.” 

Charlotte and David shared David’s cigarettes and a square yellow ashtray on the table between them.  Kathy brought beers punctuated with stories about their childhood. 

“Charlotte practically raised me herself,” she told David.  “Mom was always drunk and dad was always on the road.  We were on our own.”  The two sisters clanked their glasses and downed the rest of the beer.  Charlotte’s head was starting to spin.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a stripper,” David said.  He reached across the table and lit the cigarette that Charlotte had put in her mouth.  She coughed loudly; the cigarette was backwards.  All three of them erupted in laughter.  Charlotte clumsily crawled out of the booth and offered a hand to David.

“It’s not that hard.  All you have to do is dance.”  David made his way out of his side of the booth and took her by the hand. 

“Why don’t you show me a move or two?”  He wrapped his hand around her waist.  She wore a short khaki skirt and a tight, yellow t-shirt.  She noticed that David couldn’t keep his eyes off of her breasts.  They danced without music in the empty bar for half an hour.  Occasionally she dug her hip into him and pressed her lips to his long neck, breathing deeply.

David brought Charlotte home sometime around midnight.  She dropped her keys on the hardwood floor when she went to hang them on the hook by the door.  “Be quiet, they’re sleeping,” she said to herself and laughed.  She slipped off her heels and dropped them on the floor.  As she crept down the hallway to her bedroom, she noticed a light coming from Corina’s room.  Charlotte leaned on the doorpost and peered into the room through the crack in the door.  Corina was where she had left her, asleep, with the same magazine across her chest.  Her room was as it had been since she was three.  The walls were a light green; her bedspread was pink; her lace curtains cast a water-like shadow on a picture of a sad clown hanging over her bed.  Charlotte turned out the light and watched her daughter sleep.  She needs me now more than ever.   

When she crawled into bed, Victor was already asleep.  Sometimes he pretended to be asleep when she came to bed but she could always tell; he snored loudly. 

When she first met him he had rescued her; he told her she could do more than dance for money.  He told her she deserved more.  And she believed him.  She had spent her first five years out of high school dancing and dabbling in a variety of amphetamines.  Victor hadn’t judged her.  They met one night at Grasslands.  He asked her to dance despite the fact there was no music and she had agreed.  Fifteen years later she was an avid jogger and the mother of a thirteen-year-old girl.  She was going to leave him; that much was for sure.   

*          *          *

Charlotte heard something shatter in the kitchen and got out of bed.  Victor didn’t budge.  She found Corina in the kitchen, cleaning broken glass up off the tile floor. 

“What are you doing?” she asked as she pushed her daughter aside and began picking up the broken pieces for her. 

“I was just pouring a glass of milk.”  Charlotte put the broken glass in the trashcan and pulled another glass out of the cabinet.  She filled the glass with milk and handed it to her daughter.

“You shouldn’t still be up, you know.”  She leaned against the counter and waited for Corina’s response. 

“Have you ever thought about running away with another man?”  Corina asked. 

“What kind of question is that?  Why in the world would I ever think of such a thing?”

“I don’t know,” Corina said.  She placed the half empty glass of milk in the sink.  “It just sounds kind of romantic, you know.” 

“There’s nothing romantic about abandoning the people you love, Corina.”  The two sat in silence for a minute pondering the response.  Corina told her mother goodnight, kissed her on the cheek and left the room.  Charlotte picked the glass up out of the sink, rinsed it out and put it back in the cabinet.  She would take Corina with her when she left.  She needs me now more than ever. 

Saturday Morning

The first thing Victor noticed when he got out of bed was that his keys were missing.  His keys were always on top of the chest of drawers, on the left side closest to the front.  His wallet was where it belonged – right next to the keys – but the keys were missing.  

Victor dressed himself methodically.  First his boxers, then his short-sleeved white shirt, then his khaki slacks and brown belt, then his penny loafers and finally his RadioShack nametag.  His wallet and change went in his pockets, but not his keys.  He reassured himself that everything hadn’t gone to chaos.  At least I have my family.  He rummaged through his wife’s purse and found his spare car key.  He hoped he hadn’t lock the keys in the store; he had never done that before.  He looked at his sleeping wife before he left the room.  Her stage name had been “Autumn” when she was a stripper.  He sometimes called her this condescendingly when they argued.   

They had argued the night before.  Victor brought home what his wife Charlotte had called a “transient” for dinner.  Her evidence for him being a transient had been his odor and a tattoo of a growling panther on his forearm.  Victor pointed out to her that she had a tattoo herself and she simply stormed out of the room.  He was glad that she didn’t know that the man had a bed in the back of his van.  This would have upset her even more. 

He introduced himself to Victor as “Mr. Thompson” when he came into RadioShack to tell Victor his van had broken down.  Victor noticed the bed in the back when he pretended to know what he was doing under the van’s hood.  He had done what he considered the Christian thing to do and invited him home for dinner.  He had looked like he could use a warm meal.

*          *          *

Victor had been avoiding these arguments lately by telling Charlotte he had to do inventory without help and that he wouldn’t be home until almost midnight.  In reality, Victor was building a new neighborhood for his train set.  He had stayed late for almost two weeks, meticulously assembling and painting the twelve houses.  The day after he finished, Mr. Thompson’s van broke down in the RadioShack parking lot.  Mr. Thompson had been fascinated with the train set. 

“You do all of this yourself?”  he asked, running his fingers along the astro-turf covered plywood that made up the ground beneath the tracks and surrounding city. 

“Well, most of it.  The original track and town were a gift from my grandfather.  It’s a Lionel set.  Classic.  The rest of it I built on my own, custom.  Set means a lot to me.  That’s why I have it here right in the middle of the store.”

“You can’t judge a man for putting something in the center of your life,” Carl said.  He bent over and squinted, like he was trying to look into the window of one of the tiny houses. 

“Don’t get me wrong,” Victor protested.  “It’s just the center of the store.  The center of my life is my family.”  He repeated it to himself.  My family’s at the center of my life.  Sometimes he just needed a reminder.   

“Well, a man still needs a hobby, I suppose,” Mr. Thompson added. 
At least I have my family.

*          *          *

Victor had been worrying quite a bit about Charlotte.  Since the day he married her he’d been afraid that she was having an affair.  Something about her exotic past made him not trust her.  Sure, he’d loved her once.  He even went as far as to act like the dancing thing didn’t bother him at all.  But that confidence hadn’t lasted long. 

He had changed her, he knew that.  When he met her she had plans of going out east with her sister, Kathy.  That was the extent of their plans, “to go out east,” like the east possessed some mystical power that would forever change their destinies.  But he had rescued her from that life, from Kathy.  It made him even angrier to think of her cheating on him after all he had done for her. 

It didn’t stop there, either.  He had taken the manager position at the RadioShack because of her – her and Corina.  The money he had saved to start his own business had to move them out of their apartment and into a larger house; Charlotte had demanded it.  Charlotte had quickly informed him that there was no longer room for risk.  He had to take the manager position so that he could support their new daughter.  He began getting involved at First Baptist church around that time, too.  It gave him something to throw his mind and body into that didn’t revolve around Charlotte and Corina. 

Between work, church and the train set, Victor had enough to focus on that wasn’t his family.  It was a world he could control.  It was a world of his own.  In a way, Victor envied Mr. Thompson.  He may not have had control over his circumstances, but he had control over himself.  In the end, though, he knew he could never be Mr. Thompson.  He had people that cared about him, needed him.  At least I have my family.   

*          *          *

As he parked his car in front of the RadioShack, he noticed that the front door of the store was ajar.  There was no way he had left it unlocked.  He got closer to the door: his keys were in the lock.  Panic overtook him.  This couldn’t happen to him.  He put his keys in the same place every time.      
The store was a mess.  Display items were all over the place.  The store phone began ringing.  A TV was smashed on the floor.  A pyramid of shower radios had been toppled.  But it wasn’t just the display room; the inventory room was half cleared out.  Televisions, computers and VCR players were gone.  Victor’s heartbeat synced up with the phone, which wouldn’t stop ringing.  The car phone display case had been smashed in; broken glass and bag phones were strewn across the floor.  Only Charlotte would let it ring that much.   

In the middle of the room, however, one thing remained untouched: Victor’s train set.  He braced himself with the table.  For a moment he wished he was inside the tiny city, living in one of the houses in the new edition, shopping at the five and dime, chatting with other community figures at the church.  He knew he couldn’t go there, though.  He had people here that depended on him.  The phone continued to ring, isolated explosions in the silence that engulfed him. 
At least I have my family. 

*          *          *

He had taken her to his mother’s house on their first date.   In the basement he had an elaborate toy train set that he was particularly proud of.  The tracks were laid out on a large piece of plywood covered in green astro-turf.  The set had been a given to him by his grandfather when Victor’s father never came back from the Korean War.  Victor was particularly proud of the town that he had built up around the train. 

“The thing I like most about this set is the control it gives me,” Victor said, fingering the remote control.  He seemed to have forgotten Charlotte was even in the room; his eyes followed the train across a small bridge and into the train yard.  “I have complete control over everything: the speed and direction of the train, the shape of the loop, the colors of the town.  It’s like my own little world.” 
When he became manager at RadioShack he had moved the set out of his mother’s basement and into the store.  He set up the plywood table top on two sawhorses in the middle of the room.  The set served as a testament to the manager’s obsession with detail and long-term commitment to things that plug into outlets. 

*          *          *

“I once knew a girl named Charlotte,” Mr. Thompson told Victor’s wife as she handed him the vegetable plate.  “Girlfriend of mine, actually.  Though she wasn’t as pretty as you, if Mr. Dulas doesn’t mind me saying.”  Charlotte pretended to be shy and changed the subject.

“So where are you from, Mr. Thompson?”  Mr. Thompson hesitated as he dished cauliflower and carrots onto his plate.

“Louisiana.  Out to see America.  And a few folks I know.”  He handed the vegetable plate to Victor’s daughter, Corina.  

“I know a man from Louisiana,” Corina interrupted. 

“Who do you know from Louisiana?” Victor asked.  Corina hesitated, too, as she piled veggies onto her dish. 

“You remember Karen?  Her dad was from Louisiana.”  She passed the plate to her father.  The room fell silent except for the clanking of silverware against plates and the chewing of food.  Charlotte glared at Victor. 

After Mr. Thompson left on foot – he insisted – to see about his van, Victor and Charlotte fought while Charlotte loaded the dishwasher. 

“I can’t believe you brought that vagrant into this house,” Charlotte said as she scraped the remaining food into the trashcan.  “Who knows what he’s really like.”  The two went back and forth until Victor called Charlotte “Autumn” and she quit speaking to him. 

About the Author:

Chase Dearinger’s stories have appeared in Bayou Magazine, The Southampton Review, Fiddleblack, Short Story America, Heavy Feather Review, and other magazines. He’s currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Pittsburg State University.