By Linda Loveland Reid
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Read My Short Story
The Coming of Charlotta
I write to capture a feeling on paper. Writing about something makes the experience richer, or somehow, documents the event. Fiction is not real life, but real life made up—the emotions are still there, the lessons still learned.Perhaps every novel contains biographical elements. We suffer the slings and arrows of life, collect insights and forebodings from childhood, fall in love, marry, often divorce, have children, work, and play. All of which becomes a bundle of notions, ideals, contradictions, sorrows, and knowledge which feed into how slanted or open we view the world. I believe, in some way, that these momentous events, even when not consciously remembered, affect our character.
First Prize Winner of
Redwood Writers 2008 Writing Contest:
The Coming of Charlotta
It is an hour before suppertime, before the event. The wind has picked up and I’m sure the napkins I so carefully arranged will blow off the table and along the porch. I listen for the shutters to bang against the window frames but, unfortunately, this is not possible because Thomas took them down two months ago, an annual April event, to repair and paint for summer. This means our New England gentrified farmhouse, which I’d desperately wanted spruced for Charlotta’s arrival, looks like a giant gray packing crate. Maybe the wind will die down, maybe I’ll quit rubbing my hands together for the umpteenth time, maybe cows will fly. Indeed, there is something in this first meeting with Charlotta that conjures up melodrama.
Our get-together will be short. I suggested we turn down the covers in our guesthouse, that she might spend the night. However, she informed us that her travel itinerary had been completely “deranged,” and that she hoped we could spare her perhaps an hour before she would have to speed off. An hour? After ten years of wondering? Upset, yes, but in truth, I was more than a little relieved. To assuage my inappropriate reaction and proverbial guilt, I insisted she at least have supper with us. She seemed to like that idea.
What to prepare for Charlotta? She is Swedish and always in my image, very European. I’d not the slightest notion what Swedes eat, so I queried Thomas who cleverly suggested herring, eels, and sprats. I suggested, since it was now June, he paint the shutters and hang them. My only Swedish experience comes straight out of a Bergman film, with ominous ice-capped everything and black and white noir emotions. I could match the dark emotions, sure enough. Then somewhere in my mind came the thought for an old family stand-by, an unusual cod meal. Codfish bedded in boiled potatoes and beets, topped with bits of fried salt pork “au jus.” Not exactly a summer meal, but it would represent basic New England roots settled down deep.
Now the day has arrived and I am anxious. Why hadn’t I prepared a more elegant meal? Charlotta is a world traveler, sophisticated. This we heard through Al Martin, the attorney who handled interests that Charlotta and my father held jointly. It seems she has moved around a lot since Father’s death. Occasionally we’d receive a card from her—brief, suggesting someday we must meet. I felt the sentiments were mostly obligatory, the cards not something I felt necessary to save. Nor did I feel compelled to answer. The time for us to have met, for me to have known she existed, was before Father’s death. A note telling of their marriage would have been nice, maybe a picture—something. As a child, and later as an adult, I waited for the extended hand that never came. He had not even met Billy, his grandchild.
Among Father’s effects, which Al Martin shipped to us in two boxes, was a photo of Father and Charlotta sitting on the steps of a small villa, taken many years ago, some place in the Caribbean. He looked relaxed, tan and proud. She looked young, blond and healthy.
Charlotta had not been with Father when he died, but was “taking the waters” in a European spa. All of my life I had been only occasionally in-touch with him. His death presented odd feelings for me, not the devastation one expects, but more like an acquaintance that I could now feel guilty about—about something—there’s always guilt.
As the only child, I received all the loot from the estate. The “take” consisted of various memorabilia and a carefully wrapped, small blue porcelain jar—the remains of my father—his ashes, along with a form authorizing approval by the Boston Port Authority.
A little after five Thomas spots Charlotta’s taxi approaching the narrow road that leads to our house. He grumbles into the kitchen saying he supposes he’ll have to drive her down to Logan International to catch her plane to Sweden, or wherever. “What nerve. That’s an hour and a half each way.” “We’ll just play it by ear,” I reply, popping corn muffins into the oven.
Our allotted hour isn’t going to be much time. I look askance at the already prepared potatoes and fried salt pork. All I will need to do is heat things up. I hurriedly wipe my hands on my apron before pulling it from over my head and tossing it through the laundry-room door to the top of the washing machine.
From the veranda Thomas and I watch as the taxi driver scurries around to hold open the door, then helps a slim figure, conservatively dressed in a linen coat, slip slowly out of the cab. She stands for a moment looking at her surroundings. A brisk spring wind tugs at her blue and white silk headscarf. I find myself brushing back my hair, smoothing down my skirt. I had planned something tailored for her arrival, but have fussed too much in the kitchen and with setting the table. My cotton dress will have to do.
Charlotta stands next to the taxi for a long moment exchanging words with the driver. Is she deciding whether to stay or leave? My pulse shoots up as I watch her indecision, quickly dredging up the unease this visit has taken on me ever since her note arrived last Wednesday:
Will be in your area on Saturday. Would love to come by and meet you. Yours, Charlotta.
Lord, how many minutes, I wonder, have I lost since Wednesday. I’d be dusting and then just stop still, lost in memory, aimlessly roving over the past, trying to sort out my thoughts. How apprehensively I have anticipated her arrival. Now, I’m thinking, after paying dreaded dues, damn it, she’d better not get into that cab and drive off!
Finally, Charlotta begins to make her way slowly up the driveway. It seems as if she is having a slight difficulty in walking. Thomas hurries down from the veranda to greet her.
I am frozen.
Pulling her scarf off, almost like tipping a hat in greeting, she gracefully slips her hand through Thomas’s arm. Even with many years obviously added to the smiling blonde enchantress, in that long ago picture, she still looks like Miss Sweden. Okay, a mature “basic Talbot” Miss Sweden, but nonetheless, it is clear my imaginings have not been far from the mark. Charlotta is stunning. Her hair, clothes and makeup are as simple as the supper I’ve prepared, but with an elegance those vegetables will never know.
Thomas and Charlotta traverse the drive and slowly ascend the stairs.
My heart pumps wildly as her hand, light as a bird’s feather, meets mine. Her smile seems almost to apologize for her beauty. Born of experience and confidence, her face carries few signs or lines of time. We exchange appropriate niceties. I’m surprised to catch a glimpse of nervousness under her controlled, kind demeanor. She takes Thomas’s arm again and we three proceed, a parade of quiet emotions, to the table I have painstakingly arranged for our porch-side meal.
“What a lovely home and how charming to dine outside,” Charlotta says, “I hope you didn’t go to too much trouble.” Again, she emphasizes that she is sorry her stay with us can only be for an hour. “The taxi driver has agreed to wait.”
I ask myself, as I buzz around the kitchen, why someone would travel from God knows where, not to mention the expense, for such a short visit? I mean, we’ve spent the last three days preparing, worrying, and she isn’t even going to see the inside of the house. I hear Thomas trying to make conversation, their talk centering on what she would like to drink. He dashes in the kitchen to rummage around our liquor cache. I ask him if he has anything to report. He replies that he does not. Does he know what is wrong with her walking? He does not know, but has noticed that her hand trembles slightly. I ask him if it is wise to offer her alcohol. He says he will make her something weak and disappears back out to Charlotta with two glasses of sweet vermouth on the rocks.
As I transfer various elements of the dinner into family-style serving bowls, my feelings run the gambit, refusing to be calmed. Charlotta is kind. You can tell this about a person by their touch, by the way their eyes meet yours. I don’t want to like Charlotta. I don’t want to anything Charlotta. I just need this meeting to be over. My eyes start to well up. For heaven’s sake, I pray, just get me through this hour.
My Father and I were not close. This happens. I finally quit playing make-believe twenty-five years ago, when, again, he missed a big event: my graduation from Simmons. Why pretend I counseled myself. I’d had a good mother and that would have to do. Father traveled—a lot. He was in Europe when Mama died. He had his own life. I often thought it might have been easier if he had left permanently. But he kept in touch only enough so I could always hope, so I could pretend to my friends: My Father… this or that.
He retired about the same time I married Thomas, and too boot, had just been widowed from a second marriage. One which was understood to be sad and rather short, but of which, of course, I knew nothing. I went through some daughterly moments, whereby I wondered in conversation with Thomas if my father—newly widowed, retired, no place to go—should be invited to live with us. As fate would have it, it turned out Father hated New England, or more honestly put, loved his independence. Thomas and I happily waved him off to fly with the snowbirds, or parrots, or whatever resides in exotic climates. This was good and convenient for my marriage.
I would not have begrudged him this marriage with Charlotta. However, I needn’t have worried, because, as usual, I was not asked to welcome or disapprove his new partner. In fact, I was not informed of Charlotta at all, until she popped up in the final effects that we received from Al Martin. In this I felt—feel—robbed. Was I so unnecessary that it never occurred to him that I be included, to know about a part of his life that had given him great happiness? And, we soon learned, apparently it wasn’t even a marriage. They were having such a good time, I suppose, they didn’t have time to get married. How avant-garde.
My Father was always more modern than I—more daring. I’ve always believed that one marries, not so much for fun, but to get on with life. Sometimes, in my case, you get both.
Out there, sitting on the porch with my husband, is a part of my father who will—just like old times—disappear in a flash—leaving me as much on the perimeter of his life as ever.
I hate standing here cooking this stupid meal.
We three sit down to the table, Thomas seating Charlotta so she can enjoy the gorgeous view over our long lawns, a summer-green that rolls down to the forest’s edge and beyond, toward the distant Berkshires. The air is perfect and alive with the electric sounds of crickets. I can see the driver leaning against his taxi, smoking a cigarette, sharing the same view. I feel uncomfortable that we are eating while he stands, waiting.
Supper conversation centers on Charlotta. Where she is living… the Bahamas. Where she’s traveled…all over. What she does…works with disadvantaged children.
Works? That is unexpected. Works as a volunteer? For pay? Time is overshadowing every second, too few minutes to understand a lifetime.
The first course is my special pumpkin soup served with a glob of fresh sour cream and sprinkle of nutmeg. Charlotta says it is delicious, a “first” for her. I feel good about this. Charlotta surely has experienced fabulous haut cuisine in any number of countries. As she talks, the spoon trembles unsteadily in her hand. Perhaps she’s nervous, but then, her conversation seems quite assured. Perhaps she’s tired from the long drive. I worry she might be embarrassed by her obvious trembling. I regret the soup; chide myself for wasting our few precious minutes with soup-anxiety. I whisk the bowl away as soon as she’s finished her last spoonful.
In the kitchen I let out a “phew!” just as Thomas comes in with the other two bowls. He asks me if I saw her hands. I say yes.
Thomas returns to the table with the cornbread. He asks Charlotta if she would like to have another vermouth. She says no, she’s fine with what she has. I then bring in my stubborn New England supper. First, the codfish, then the boiled potatoes and beets, a tureen of fried salt- pork, and finally, worst of all, a pitcher of salt pork fat. Slowly I began to assemble my own plate, explaining how to mix the ingredients. “Mash the potatoes and beets into a stained reddish glob, then, mix in the codfish to create what is universally called a ‘disgusting mess,’” I smile, “Next, sprinkle pieces of fried pork over all, and finally, the most egregious part, pour on the hot salt-pork fat.” I laugh. “Sorry, it looks so awful. This obligatory apology is as much a part of the meal as the rest of the ingredients.”
We talk of the weather. I volunteer that Billy is away at graduate school. But, I feel myself drifting, lost in thoughts of what I most want to talk about, topics politely avoided: What was Charlotta’s relationship with Father like? Why had she come to see us? Did he ever think of me? Already there is only a half-hour remaining.
Charlotta is gracious and with appropriate interest she follows my ramblings about Billy, our weather, the hydrangeas in bloom, with the usual “uh-huh’s” in response. I am aware of my rattling on, but don’t know how to stop, my hand with a death-grip on my napkin. I look at Thomas and follow his eyes to Charlotta. She is softly weeping.
The taxi driver comes up the steps to tell Charlotta that it is time to leave if she is to catch her plane. She wipes her eyes and glances up at us apologetically, “I wish my visit could be longer.” When she moves to get up from her chair, Thomas sees her difficulty and slides the chair out. I grab her handbag and follow along in silence, not knowing what to say or do. When we reach the bottom of the stairs and cross the drive to the taxi, Charlotta stops. She leans slightly against the open door.
“Is everything is all right?” I ask.
She takes another moment to compose herself and then with a faint smile says, “Once, only once, your father fixed that same meal for me.”
I smile. “Was his as disgusting looking as mine?”
“It was worse!”
We burst out laughing.
Charlotta reaches out and takes my hand in hers. “Your father asked a promise of me, to come see you.” He had asked this of her, she explained, if only once before she died. “He wanted me to assure you how much love he always felt and how deep was his remorse to have been so selfish not to write,” Charlotta said, still holding my hand, talking quickly now, as someone who bursting with words, needing to say it all before courage fails. “How he regretted, not returning to tell you that he cared so much,” she said. Then looking down for a moment, she raised her eyes to mine, “I too regret my own complicity, that having found for the first time in my life someone who loved me, I’d wanted to keep him to myself, not wanting to share, for fear of losing him. I am sorry, so sorry,” she finishes, her hand gripping mine for steadiness, for what? Forgivness?
I am wordless. My God, he had cared. My father loved me. Suddenly words began to spill out, so much emotion…but not at all what I would have expected. Words rush together: I always knew Father loved me but that he didn’t know how…that he had sent a number of cards…that being a father was hard for him…that my life is full and good…that I could have gone to see him…that I’m comfortable with me… that I am lucky because I have Thomas and a beautiful son. That it is okay. That I am okay.
The driver starts the taxi and I still hear myself trying to defend my life over the sound of the motor, trying to get the last explanations out. Then, I stop. “Wait, please,” I say to Charlotta, my eyes asking the driver. I dash back up to the house. When I return, Charlotta is sitting in the back seat of the taxi. The door is open and I slide in beside her. I give her a long hug, gently on her frail body and then slip out of the taxi. They drive away. My hand moves to my mouth, holding in a sob. I watch Charlotta disappear down the driveway, into the distance. Thomas puts his arm around my waist and I wipe my eyes. We stand together gazing until the taxi is out of sight. I smile softly.
On the seat beside Charlotta is the small, blue porcelain jar, and papers approved by the Boston Port Authority.