Editor’s note: The Agenda is serially publishing this novella by local author Eric Linne. Read previous chapters here, and look for new chapters on Tuesday and Thursday. Heads up: There is adult language and adult themes. Read about Eric’s other work here.
Cover image mural art by Osiris Rain
I was there. Now I’m here. The last few days have been a blur. But I’m clearing up now. Let me back up and try to explain. I get tense easily. I got tense when she opened the door. Things mostly don’t go the way I see them going in my head.
Five days ago, when Heidi opened her door to me, I thought she was offering me an indefinite place to stay. A safe haven. And a springboard to my new life as an artist here in an exciting new place. But that’s not the way it went down.
What Heidi forgot to tell me, before I drove like freakin’ ten hours to get down to this dump, was that her live-in babysitter had just quit on her. Up and quit on a single mom. Like that’s something surprising. And she expected me to to just waltz in here and be her live-in nanny and maid. First off, I’m not real comfortable around people I don’t know. Check that… I’m not that comfortable around people, even people I know. But I get real nervous around kids. So…
Mama used to tell me that there are two ways to tell a story. The long way and the short way. She said unless the story was really interesting, most people want to hear the short version. So here is that one.
After just a few days alone with little five-year-old Jimmy, I was getting stressed out. Stressed out bad. So while Heidi was out doing God knows what, with God knows who, I was supposed to do a whole laundry list of things with Jimmy before his highness’ bedtime. Anyhow, I skipped most of the list, made him a mayonnaise sandwich and got him into bed by 6:30. One of the things I skipped was be sure he peed before getting into bed. But that’s the least of my problems.
I got Jimmy to bed, grabbed a can of beer, clicked on the tube and vegged out. I might have fallen asleep. Next thing I knew, Heidi comes home. Took one look at me and let out a kind of snort mixed with words I couldn’t make out. Could have been the five empty beer cans lined up on the end table next to me on the couch. I like to line them up to keep count. Heidi stomped back to the little man’s room and there was first crying, then screaming. He’d wet the bed. Like that’s supposed to be my fault. She comes out to the living room and goes off on me. Yelling about ‘responsibility’ and ‘innocent kids’ and similar stuff. I zoned her out because I can do that after a couple of cans. As I dragged myself off the couch to bed, she shouted into my closed door, “I better see your ass up at 6:30 in the mornin’ with Jimmy eatin’ and out the door to kindergarten by 7:15.”
Next day, when 6:30 and then 7:15 came and went, I was given till Jimmy came home from school to pack and get out. In retrospect, Heidi could have thrown me out right then and there, so that’s at least something. OK, there’s the short story.
So here I sit. In some kind of a diner place in Charlotte. Like the one out of the TV show Happy Days Mom used to make me watch with her. The diner’s near the big buildings downtown. A short walk, she said. Maybe short for her, but I’m lugging all my possessions from the bus station in two heavy bags. Christa said to walk toward the huge pink building and I can’t miss it. Christa was right about that pink place. Hard to miss. She was also right about walking. I have no car. No more. The guy from the tow company said a thrown rod meant a new engine. A new engine is not in this non-working girl’s budget. So he got the order from yours truly to tow my ‘83 Datsun POS to the junk yard and leave it there. Found out that there’s a Charlotte city bus out of Gastopia (snort!) right into the big city. So here I am.
Let me back up. Christa is Kayla’s friend from college. Now Kayla is…right Mom. Short story. Just the facts, ma’am. Kayla was a friend of mine from high school in Indiana. She used to be my enemy, but that’s another story…the long version. Kayla went away to college in Bloomington to become a teacher. Somewhere along the way, she became friends with this Christa chick who used to be from Indianapolis. Now Christa teaches elementary school here in Charlotte. End of short story. See, Mom? I can do it.
So here we sit in the diner, me with a strong cup of black coffee and Christa with some Yuppie iced frothy crap. I’m trying to learn not to judge, but damn it’s hard. Christa wants to know all about me. I give her the Mark version and we move on to the meat of the convo.
“So where do you want to live?” Christa asks cheerily.
“I have no idea, I just got here. I was hoping you could help me figure it out.”
“Sure!! Okay, what’s your budget? You want to rent, right?”
I almost spit my coffee out. “Uh yeah. Just rent. I don’t have a…job.”
Christa gets a bit more serious. “OK, OK. Do you have any job prospects?”
“Not yet. But I’ll start looking right away.”
“What type of job do you plan to look for?” Christa inquires in her best school teacher voice.
“I don’t know. Something to do with art?”
“Cool! Do you have an art degree? Or a teaching certificate?” I stare at my coffee, shaking my head ‘no’ to both questions.
“Alright. Do you have any… can you pay for rent? Deposit, first month, all of that?”
I take a long breath and let it out slowly “Yeah, I’ve got a few…some money saved up. So, yeah, I could do that. If the price is not too high.”
“Well, the Charlotte housing market is pretty tight right now. Rental prices prices are so high because of all the people moving here. And the economy is really booming and…” Christa sees that I’m looking kind of freaked out and changes back to her teacher voice: ”…but don’t worry! We’ll find you something. Have you checked on Craigslist yet?”
“No, I thought I’d have more time…time to…”
“Well, don’t worry. We’ll find you a nice place. We Hoosiers need to stick together!”
At the mention of the word ‘Hoosiers’, I get a little twinge, a little twinge of something. Not sure what exactly. But I think like Elle Driver in Kill Bill (another of Mom’s faves) I’m feeling a twinge of regret. Maybe for the way things went down in Indiana. And for my quick departure from Heidi’s life and…all of it.
Christa stares intently at her phone. She’s been swiping and frowning intermittently while I thought about my twinges. Then she brightens up, “Hey, what about WestHend?”
“What’s a WestHend?” I ask, trying not to be too much of a smartass.
“WestHend is an awesome neighborhood! Really one of the coolest in Charlotte. And right up your alley, it’s really artsy”. She makes fake quotation marks in the air with her fingers. “And it’s really hot right now. With all the great bars and restaurants and art galleries. Great for us 20-somethings! And you know about the light rail they’re building, right?”
I did not know about the light rail. Or heavy rail. Or any damn rail. But I know what’s important to me. “Is it walkable? I mean can I ride a bike there? If I get one? Could I ride a bike to my job?” I know, if I get one.
Christa shifts back into her comfortable teacher mode, “Well, that would depend. If you get a job in WestHend, you could definitely bike or walk. And if you work close, like in Plaza Midwood or around there, you could probably do it. Lots of people bike around there.” Christa frowns and looks back at her phone, “I almost can’t believe this.” She reads, “Eclectic but comfortable furnished bedroom with private bath in older large house. Shared kitchen, living space and all common spaces. Walk to the center of of the village and all that entails. Must pass muster with owner. $300 per month, utilities included.
“Wow! Sounds amazing! What do you think?”
I think I need a place to live and I can afford $300. For a couple of months anyway. But damn, I need to find a job fast. At least if I want to keep on eating. I wonder what ‘eclectic’ means? Hopefully not some old perv or weirdo. Or worst of all, a cat lady.
“It sounds good, but I don’t…”
Christa cuts me off. “It sounds great! Here’s what we do. Give ‘em a call and go out and see it. Since you’re Kayla’s friend, you can crash with me for a few nights. My boyfriend’s out of town for work till Friday and I’ve got a futon you can use. Take me to work in the morning and you can use my car. If you don’t mind getting up around 5:30. What do you say?”
What I say, in my head, is thank you whoever is up there in the sky looking out for us peons. Especially this peon. Thank you for second and third chances and whatever number this is for me. I will not have a beer until I’m out of her house. And I will get up at 5:30 a.m, so help me God. Amen.
But what I say out loud is, “That works for me. And thanks. Thanks a lot. You didn’t have to do all of this for me.”
Christa smiles broadly. Damn, she has nice teeth. “Well, Kayla is a very special woman. As you know. So any friend of Kayla’s is… you know.” Christa raises her frothy drink cup and we do a fake cheer. Onward and upward.
Two days later, I drive Christa’s cute little pink VW beetle (complete with the adorable flower where everybody can see it) out of the downtown area and up West Henderson Street. I’m a little slow, but I just got it — WestHend. Minutes later, I’m in a wasteland of abandoned warehouses, trucking companies, junk yards and tiny crumbling shanty houses. Like an area of the old South that got frozen in time. That time being just after the depression.
But up a few more blocks, things start to change. As I crest a hill and drive under a cool underpass, painted floor to ceiling with an abstract mural which seems to mash up a war scene with the age of Aquarius, everything changes. The hill crests in a couple hundred feet and I see something new. At least it’s something new for this little old country girl. And I like what I see!
It’s a cool little village of tiny, restored houses that appears to be frozen in time. And so much art! Some of the houses are painted funky colors. And the old factories have been converted into apartments. At various points in the street, people hang out on their tiny third floor terraces chatting down to their neighbors walking by on the street below. Neighbors who appear to be wearing clothes out of…before my time. Neighbors who are riding funky, old fashioned dilapidated bikes. Bikes that have been repainted rainbow colors. One bike rolls by with a little puppy in the basket, her tongue hanging out to one side. And there’s a tiny bakery. A little boy waiting in line tugs at his mother’s hand and sniffs the air. She smiles, bends down and whispers something in the boy’s ear. He bursts into laughter, which spreads to the mom and a couple of other people around them in line.
A couple of blocks ahead, there is a small community garden. A group of people work in the garden. An older man with a beret rests on his hoe. He seems to be telling a story to a younger couple dressed in overalls, who stare up at him. A little girl chases a group of other girls around the garden spraying them by holding her finger over the end of a snaking hose. They all squeal when one of the girls gets doused in the behind. And nobody tells them to ‘stop that’. Even though it’s just before noon, a few people sit at a sidewalk cafe. They chat and drink dark beers — in the middle of the day! In just five or six blocks, I’ve spotted more galleries than I can count. Some selling art. Others offer ceramics, crafts, sculpture and homemade clothes.
And miracle of miracles. Not one single chain store. Not one. No McDonalds. No Starbucks. No Chipotle. No Target. No Subway. Just old fashioned shops. And people hanging out on the streets. So different from back home.
I drive on a few blocks and come to the only stop light. What appears to be the center of the neighborhood. To the right, half a block over, is an old music venue with a wild psychedelic mural splashed around two sides of the expansive exterior. Three guys wait in line at the box office. The marquee displays the name of a band I’ve heard on Spotify. Damn!
Across the street to the left is a small fountain. A few people sit in folding chairs at the fountain’s edge. A small boy pushes a boat across the fountain until he can’t reach it. Takes me back to visions of Charlie and me running through the woods to the small pond where we used to fish. A dark-haired woman in a brightly colored Mexican peasant dress sits on the other side. When the boy’s boat nears her, she gently taps the boat and it starts back toward the child. He waves to the lady across the fountain and she waves back.
Opposite the fountain is a large fire ring with a few charred logs smoking in the center. Two cute young guys and a woman with rasta hair sit on the edge of the ring tapping rhythmically on their drums. They seem to be oblivious to the hive of activity swirling around them.
I’ve never had a dog before. But I feel like shouting to the world: Toto, I have a feeling that we’re not in Kansas anymore!
As I sit at the stop light, warmth spreads over me and I find myself grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Like my smile is all that’s left of me. Happiness spreads over my body like a long, warm hug. Happiness that I haven’t felt since…since when? Since that new girl came to town and she and I got in a fight and she told me some things about myself. Things I didn’t want to hear, but maybe needed to hear. And. I was released from my anger. Released. For a year. A couple of years.
The light turns green and I sit there a few seconds; but nobody honks behind me. I check the rear view mirror and the guy behind me, on a rusty old bike, gives me a wave. I roll up the street and start my search. Fumbling around on the passenger seat, grab my paper and scan for the address: 13 Berber Lane.
Just a couple blocks past the main intersection, I see it. Just across from the railroad tracks. But this can’t be right. Looming ahead of me, one house from the corner of the bustling street, is a house that is so out of character for this neighborhood, it looks like it was dropped here by a tornado. I’ve got the wizard on my mind. The house is huge — three stories. And it’s orange, bright orange. I mean bright, bright orange, with purple trim and chocolate finishes on the wedding-cake-looking doodads sticking out here and there. The place looks like the pictures I’ve seen of San Francisco on TV. Of those cool old rainbow-looking houses all lined up, with the hills and the skyline in the background.
I pull up in front and park. Step out to the sidewalk and look around. Place seems empty. Nobody out on the porch. An enormous wrap-around porch with comfy looking wicker chairs, covered with flowery overstuffed cushions. Peering up the side of the mansion, past the rounded first floor window, I can barely make out the metal framework at the top. A running horse weather vane above a tiny railed catwalk of sorts. My high school English teacher, Mr. Chenoweth, called that a ‘widow’s walk’. Never thought I’d be remembering anything that guy said. A movement, ever so slight, draws my vision down from the roof. Someone is staring at me from behind the lace curtains covering the second floor window. A man, I think, but I can’t be sure. He seems to nod once, almost like a king acknowledging a peasant. Then he disappears.
I’m a little freaked out now. But hell, I gotta live somewhere. And fast. I take the steps two at a time, walk across the glossy wooden porch that shines like glass, head for the oak door with a full size pane of thick glass and ring the doorbell. And wait.
In the distortion of the door glass, I see what the people on the inside will see: a blond girl in her early 20s. A little taller than most; kind of average height and weight, I guess. I’ve been called ‘pretty’ back in Indiana. But maybe people think all high school cheerleaders are pretty. My clothes were considered stylish back home. Birthday presents Mom bought from Forever 21 in Indianapolis. I’m imagining the idea of somebody who’s forever 21 and it gives me a chill. Literal goosebumps on my arms. I shake it off.
After a really long time, there is movement behind the inner curtained door and a man appears. The first thing I notice is he’s not smiling. The second thing I notice is that mustache. Thick and trimmed and hard to ignore, like a villain in an old western movie, ready to tie a girl to the train tracks. The last thing, and it’s hard to miss, are his clothes. His top is a lavender colored Izod. With the alligator and all. Had no idea they still made those things, much less that people still wore them. Except at that fancy golf course in Sheffield, back in Indiana. His matching belt and shoes look to be three things to my untrained eye: leather, Italian and expensive. I think his pants are linen, yellow linen, so crisp and fresh they appear to have been delivered from a fancy dry cleaner just five minutes ago.
The man is tall. A head taller than me. He looks me over. A long time. From head to toe. Then does another of those quick nods like he did from the upstairs window.
“I’m Mr. Tom,” he says, in a deep voice that would fit perfectly on any radio announcer. “And you must be?” I freeze and just look up into into his chiseled face. High cheekbones, nose like a Roman statue, short, jet-black hair, thinning, but perfectly combed to one side. Not a hair out of place. His polo shirt collar turned up like I’ve seen in the pictures from Mom’s day. I must be staring like some country rube, because he repeats, sounding a bit annoyed this time: “And you must be?”
“I’m Maddie,” I stammer. “Maddie Bell and I…”
“Miss Madison,” he states grandly. “We’ve been expecting you.” The gentleman steps aside, pushing the interior door open widely and gestures with a flourish for me to enter.
I shuffle in, shoulders hunched, thinking of a nursery rhyme Mom used to tell Charlie and me. Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.