One Travel with Charlie

Charlamagne Zawacki of course did not like her name. It made people smile, while their brows knit in an effort to understand what they were hearing. Early on, she began calling herself Charlie Z. In this fashion, her social and business intercourse was, she perceived, facilitated.

When Charlie turned 40, she decided to change her legal name. Hiring a lawyer, a woman who took Charlie’s needs with studied seriousness, she selected her new official label. The problem was that she needed something consistent with her informal moniker. “Charlie was not much of a problem, it could lead back to Charlene, Clarice, Candace, Cheri, Sherri, lots of choices. The “Z” was more of an issue, until her lawyer suggested just using it as a floating middle initial. In this fashion, the unimaginative but neutral Sherri Z. Smith was born one day in a dusty court room in the downtown, with no one in attendance at the birth except for Charlie, her lawyer, an indifferent judge and a more indifferent bailiff.

The Zawacki family came from the vague middle of Europe some time just before 1900, and drifted quietly into the plains outside of Kansas City, where the dirt looked and felt familiar and the oats grew much like they did back home. Over time, the children drifted away into other names, other geographies, other jobs. When Charlie Z came to the City, a nineteen year old with typing and Gregg shorthand and a commercial high school diploma, and a broad open face pale as corn silk under corn silks of wispy hair, she left behind at home her early-widowed mother (who was born a “Smith” of all things, but was dragged down name-wise into Zawacki-dom by the convention of marriage) renting out her 160 acres for others to farm, a dyslectic younger brother with no identifiable skills, and a flower-rimmed plot near the copse of trees with small stones for her dad and, alas, for her sister who died of some fever no one ever figured out.

Charlie was at a low point when the invitation came. Her third live-in, a forty-something lawyer with an aversion of permanency, had just cleared out his side of the closet. The roof leaking in her condo building had just resulted in a $20,000 assessment that her static salary at the agency would not easily cover, and lately her mild-colored skin was getting some grey shadows around the fine lines sneaking out of the corners of her eyes, linking her less-sharp blue orbs with a growingly frizzy bowl of dried-out hair. Stepping from the shower, she had just that weekend wondered about those hollow pocky pits developing on her upper thighs and buttocks.

Mom was planning a modest reunion. Weren’t that many Zawackis to invite. Mom and Louis, Charlie’s brother, were resident at the farm, where he was in charge of one of the folding beach chairs on the wooden porch looking out to the trees and grave-stones. Mom’s sister, not really a Zawacki at all but a must-invite nonetheless, had promised to come with her husband the near-failed salesman; any body will do for these reunions. Her dad had a brother who with his wife was now deceased, but there were four cousins, two being men in their sixties, one now sporting the last name “Zane.” The two women also, one a Hunter and the other unfortunately a Smedley by marriage, each coming with spouse but not children, all of whom were long gone to distant coast cities. All were expected, or so they said. Would Charlamagne please attend? “Haven’t seen you in almost a year, darling…” the note wheedled.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

You can drive on the 80 in just about a straight shot from the City to the farm, but it’s almost 800 miles and Charlie’s nine-year-old Toyota is not confidence-inspiring. The inspector barely let her front tires qualify in March. Harry Zane could pick her up on the way through, but Milly Zane never shut up about Charlie not getting married, and besides Charlie did not relish the captivity of not having her own car. “Why work if it doesn’t leave time for a mate; you know you don’t have all that much time left, not that you aren’t a handsome woman, I am not saying otherwise, but if you want kids let’s face it that horse probably is well out of the barn by now and trotting off down the road and you are not as they say getting any younger and we women we just wake up one day and we’ve lost whatever it is, the allure and….”

Charlie charged four cheap tires and bought a quart of WD 30 that she herself poured down the pipe; the Toyota would have to serve. One good thing about the farm, you could pack light, the back pack would have worked fine but Charlie Z did not want to hear the Zawakis agreeing that Charlie was still a hippy runaway even at 45 or was it 46 by now; she dug out an old suitcase and packed its stuffy interior with a big robe she did not need so her few necessities would not be shifting and curling up in the open spaces of the valise. Then the day before she was to leave, her car inexplicably died.

Charlie jammed the small Samsonite into the rack over her bus seat. Her row-mate thankfully was a taciturn thirty-something, and after a nod he buried himself in a Harry Potter paperback. Half-way back in the bus, close but not too close to the closet toilet with its over-bright reading light, as if someone would hunker down in there and do their business buried in People or We. As for Charlie, she had picked up a Vogue at the bus terminal, not that she ever read Vogue, but it would be a good item to leave in a conspicuous place when she unpacked in the farmhouse. Sometimes the best defense was, well…

Valentin Legure meanwhile was concentrating on pressing his right leg tight to his body so as to not accidentally encounter the leg of the blond woman who had the seat near the window. Around 10 she had begun to snore regularly and very gently, sort of in a charming way to tell the truth. Her magazine had splayed open in her lap and, on one of the long easy turns the bus made as it puffed down the interstate the magazine slid off her lap and then disappeared slowly under the seat in front. There was no way Valentin could reach over for it without finding himself in an awkward and unexplainable posture.

Valentin had been on page 262 for a couple of hours, not that he knew the precise page number nor the contents of text in front of him because he was unable to read. It just kept people away from him, he had found, and stopped conversations which invariably got too complicated for him to follow, usually almost from the very beginning. It had, for example, completely squelched any talk between him and his row-mate, although now that she was asleep he was lonely for the illusion of shared time and space and would have liked to venture a couple of neutral topics with her, testing whether he could tamp down his fear and embarrassment. She was pretty, and as soon as the thought came to Valentin he jammed it right back down into his head, rammed it down as far as he could go to hide it because those kinds of thoughts never did work out for Valentin.

Zach Goode had been hired by the Intercontinental Bus Lines to trouble shoot the routes and there had been a few petty thefts and one harassment in the last few months on the line between the City and Prairie Junction. Zach had his eye on the big kid sitting next to the sleeping blonde for maybe fifty miles or more. He was holding a book and looking at it intently, but never seemed to turn a page. He hadn’t done anything unusual or improper actually, but Zach viewed himself as a trained professional, with his associate’s degree in criminal justice although none of his courses actually had anything to do with detective work; he was, after all, trained in “justice” and thus charged with a responsibility to be observant in the protection of the public riders.

When the bus pulled into Arrow for lunch and a pit stop, Zach noticed that this guy stood up and let the blonde out first and then came out of the bus last, letting other passengers shuffle past him. Odd that the guy picked up his small duffel from the overhead; Arrow was not a destination, just a diner in the middle of a wheat field; that was wheat, Zach thought, without really knowing and he made a mental note to look up what wheat actually looked like as that kind of information might someday prove useful.

The blonde sat down at the end of the counter with her magazine; the guy sat right behind her at a small table, with a perfect view of her backside shifting on the red Naugahyde counter seat, sort of like Zach thought someone who was stalking a person might position oneself. Zach himself stood leaning against a drink machine sipping a tonic. Life being pretty dull for Zach, never in his 14 months having discovered anything to report, he began to feel that this was going to be his first “case.”

The blonde stood up, took her magazine, came to the soda machine and dropped four quarters for a can of Pepsi. As she straightened out from picking it out of the slot, her eyes caught Zach’s.

“Thirsty?” It came out of Zach reflexively, naturally.

“Yes, actually. Too much salt on the fries or something.”

A brief silence.

“I’m Zach. Zach Goode.” Lower: “I work for the bus line. I was watching the guy in the next seat.” Excitement flooding into his voice now. “Has he, like, said anything to you – a about –uh – anything?”

The blonde glanced over the room, saw Valentin’s back and stared. “Don’t stare,” said Zach, with an urgency hardly required, particularly since Valentin was facing the other way and you could have danced naked behind him without being noticed.

“Oh. Yes. I mean no. No, I think he said hello when I sat down but he had a book and I fell asleep for most of the ride up to now.” She bit her lip briefly. “Why? Do you know him?”

“Not sure,” Zach lied, trapped in his own imagined intrigue. “What’s your name?” Dumb question, he knew it the moment it came out.

The blonde squinted. “Why do you need to know my name,” she asked, suddenly suspicious.

Zach was saved by Valentin standing up. “He’s getting up. Look, just go back to your seat and don’t worry, I’ll be watching,” he hissed.

She took a step away and whispered quickly over her shoulder: “Charlie. My name is Charlie Z.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

The sun stood paper-thin with its lower rim on the horizon, orange through the light haze of dustiness, casting long shadows from the corn rows as its light skimmed the top of the tassels. The air was still hot, and as always dry, here on the plains as they began to tilt lightly but inexorably up to the blue-black sky. The air was almost visibly congealed into tiny balls of palpable but translucent matter; things could be seen through it almost perfectly and yet, somehow muted in tone and sharpness. Charlie Z knew that moment at sunset. She had moved half a continent just to get away from its empty sameness. Her head lolled between the seat-back and a gentle forehead touch on the warm window. Next to her Valentin, silent for a couple of hours now, stared at page 262 until he could remember the shape, but not the meaning, of all the symbols on the paper.

A few rows behind, in an aisle seat, Zach flipped through his car magazine while keeping an eye on the blonde and the creep. That guy really was a retard; clearly he hadn’t read a word, Zach thought; the spine of his paperback was now so flattened and open to the same place that when he let it sit on his lap for a moment the pages no long tried to flip shut.

In a couple of hours the bus would arrive at the end of the line, pulling into the yard next to the railroad station where the trains no long stopped, the long-legged green bugs pasted to the front window with their fragile wings and legs sticking out askew into the wind. The stickiness of their bodies would make it hard to hose them off and someone would have to scrape the glass as if clearing off frost on a winter morning. The plains had an endless supply of insects, but the big green ones, they were the easiest candidates to get glued to the window at dusk.

Zack was thinking he would have to make his move soon, but did not know what that was. Charlie Z was wondering why she was on the bus, sorry that her mother was meeting her, now she couldn’t change her mind and just go back to the City.

Valentin was trying to think of something to say. He reached into his pants pocket and checked for the edge of the envelope that contained the letter from the director to the grain operator in Prairie City who had agreed to take Valentin and train him to work in the storage silos as part of an experimental program. Valentin knew that someone would meet him at the bus and he was to give the letter to that person. He couldn’t recall if it was supposed to be a man or a woman, but to his mind that sort of thing had a way of getting worked out one way or the other. Valentin had had a few jobs before but he was happy he was going far away to work at something new that wasn’t indoors. He did not like assembling plastic key chains all day, that much he knew. The envelope was there but touching it did not give him any ideas for a conversation. It was getting dark and he knew the trip would end soon, the man from the half-way house had told him that he would arrive just after it got dark and it was getting dark, he knew that.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

Lydia Zawacki made sure Louis had a lemonade out on the porch before she got into the Ford 150. The truck hiccupped to life, a quick shudder running through the fenders and making them crinkle audibly where the rust had worn almost through. The motor was good but the bodies never seemed to last.

It was about a year, Lydia thought. Long time not to see Charlamagne. She did not exactly miss seeing Charlie, but she liked Charlie well enough and she knew she was supposed to be excited to see her. The whole reunion was beginning to look daunting now that people were starting to come; first Charlie, then Lydia’s sister the following day and so forth until all the bedrooms would be full and all the blankets in the house deployed, even the ones with the moth holes that smelled of moth balls anyway; the head-achy odor seemed to fill the rooms on the third floor, and there wasn’t much a breeze to blow away either the heat or smell. Maybe people should have booked a room in the hotel in town; but then again, how can you have family pay for a room when you have the old farmhouse with all those bedrooms just sitting there.

The corn was coming okay this year; the Johnstons, who leased the fields, would do well and be able to pay the second half of the rent; wasn’t always the case, Lydia was at the mercy of the rain and the insects the same as the farmers themselves, truth be told. The slightly oily smell of the insecticide drifted into the car through the partly opened window, mixed with the more fundamental smells of manure and grassiness that Lydia had long ago learned not to recognize or at least identify; it was how air smelled, wasn’t it?

There weren’t any real hills out there, but the land did roll a bit and the Ford slowed and labored a little over a small hillock. Lydia sighed; no money to spend on a new car, though this one was almost through its second rotation around its odometer. This was the second Ford since Bernhard Zawacki had been put in the ground out past the back porch, but it was what—maybe 12 years old, and its predecessor was just as old when it broke the axel, so how long was Bernhard in the ground now? It was a question, an idle question; what little ache there was had long since subsided; his passing now was a marker on Lydia’s path, not an independent sorrow.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

The bus stopped. Charlie hugged her mother and walked behind her towards the pick-up. Valentin stood on the macadam looking lost until a man in overalls approached, glanced at Valentin’s proffered letter, and started walking him towards the center of town. Zach picked up Valentin’s accidentally dropped book and quickly riffed the pages looking for clues to fall out, and then looked up balefully at Valentin’s receding back. Lydia turned West towards the farm, Charlie on the bench seat next to her; Charlie closed her eyes and let the smell of growing grain mixed with the hot dry wind envelope her through the dusty side window.           

It smelled unfortunately like home.