Friday 3rd August 2012

by Megan Beth Koester

In the eyes of science, Charles and I are the same. In the eyes of anything but science, we are not. Three days a week we enter a dilapidated building on the campus of the VA Hospital, piss in cups, and undergo smoking cessation therapy with a well-meaning but heavy-handed hippie named Stephanie. For science. Three days a week, Stephanie shows up wearing clogs and Capri pants – the repetition makes her seem almost like a cartoon character, albeit a shitty one. Every day she regales us with a new anecdote about her autistic son, the implication being that we care. Now, Charles is not the kind of man that would allow a woman, any woman, to put words in his mouth. Nonetheless, I think I can confidently speak for the both of us when I say we do not care.

Stephanie’s auburn hair and fit physique belie her age; her inexplicably ragged face insults it. The photos she shows us of her as a young woman, looking beautiful at parties with a cigarette in her hand (because SHE USED TO SMOKE! SHE’S JUST LIKE US!) make me pity her – the parties are over. Her leisure time now consists of explaining to school administrators that, y’know, even though her son may not seem sorry for shitting his pants out of spite, he actually is…it’s the autism that makes him appear remorseless, not sociopathology.

Every day, without fail, Stephanie is late. And every day, without fail, Charles is early. Apparently the bus he takes across town to get here is the only punctual bus that has ever existed. Charles and I sit in the dank vestibule, staring at anything but each other. He sighs. He sighs a lot. He clears his throat. He’s preparing to speak. Fuck. I have nowhere to go; I’ve already pissed in the cup. We make eye contact. He dives into one of his trademark screeds.

“Young people these days are just getting stupider. And the parents are letting it happen! THEY’RE DEFENDING THEM! When I was teaching, there was this kid in my class, this teenager, who couldn’t read! A damn teenager! He couldn’t read! And the kid – whose ethnicity shall remain nameless –”

I cut him off mid-sentence. “I appreciate your restraint,” I say tersely. He stares at me for a beat, absorbs nothing, and continues, occasionally punching the tabletop in front of him for emphasis. I zone out, as per usual. Stephanie shows up, apologizing profusely. As per usual.

She flashes a disingenuous smile. “How you guys doin’ today?” she asks. “Fine,” I respond, like a decent human being. Charles sighs. “Terrible,” he says. “Oh, Charles, I’m sorry to hear that,” she replies. “What’s wrong?” “I don’t have any money!” Charles declares, throwing his flabby arms into the air like an infant. Charles throws his arms in the air almost as much as he sighs. He also enjoys putting his head in his hands, as long as someone’s looking at him when he does so. “A man works for a living for 40 years, goes to Westpoint – which was very hard – and look what he gets! NOTHING!” He puts his head in his hands. “I don’t have a job! No one wants to hire me! And I have no friends! All I do is sit at home, smoke cigarettes and play computer games on the laptop!” Stephanie turns the charm back on. She smiles. “Well, Charles, you know what? We’re here to make your life better! Once you kick the smokes, you can move out to the Philippines and start enjoying your retirement!” Charles sighs. “I CAN’T MOVE TO THE PHILIPPINES BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY!”

Charles has had three heart attacks. According to him, he’s made (and lost) a fortune. He once told Stephanie and I that, “Eight years ago, I was living the American Dream. Had three houses. A million dollars in assets. ‘Then my EX WIFE DECIDED TO RUIN EVERYTHING!” It was at this point in the story, when the tabletop punching became particularly violent, that Stephanie and I first made genuine eye contact. For a moment, we bonded over our mutual fear of and contempt for Charles. The moment passed; we never bonded again.

Charles’ dream is to move to the Philippines and “fish everyday.” This is why he wants to quit smoking cigarettes. This is why he doesn’t want to have another heart attack. This is why he doesn’t want to die. “And it’d be real nice to find a little woman out there for me, too, if you know what I mean,” he’ll say to Stephanie while winking. The only person who wants Charles to live, however, is Charles. The fact that he continues to keep on keeping on, despite the fact that he “DOESN’T HAVE ANY MONEY” and “DOESN’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS” and “HIS KIDS WON’T SPEAK TO ME! SHE TURNED ‘EM AGAINST ME!” is bewildering. Given what I know about him, he’s staying alive solely to make everyone around him feel uncomfortable.

Approximately three times a day, Charles will remind us that “HE DOESN’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS!” On one such day, Stephanie decides to solve the problem. “You know what, Charles? Let’s get you some friends! Some nice, non-smoking buddies!” Charles looks at her incredulously. “How am I gonna do that, huh? All I do is sit at home, smoke cigarettes and play computer games on the laptop! I DON’T DO ANYTHING!”

“Well,” Stephanie begins, “do you like board games?” Once again, Charles looks at her incredulously. “What does it matter if I like board games? I’VE GOT NO ONE TO PLAY ‘EM WITH! I’VE GOT NO FRIENDS!”

Stephanie continues. “But…do you like board games?” she asks. “Of course I like board games!” he responds. “Well,” Stephanie says, “why don’t you put a sign up on the bulletin board in your apartment building seeing if anyone wants a board game buddy?” Charles looks at her as if she just suggested he go fuck himself. “The apartment manager won’t LET ANYONE PUT ANYTHING ON THE BULLETIN BOARD!” he responds. “Ok…well, why don’t you put a sign up on your door?” she asks. Charles shakes his head. “Nowadays, people think you’re a creep if you wanna know the people who live around you. I don’t know any of my neighbors. None of ‘em speak English anyway. NO ONE’S GONNA COME TO MY DOOR!”

This time, Stephanie the one who sighs. “Well, why don’t you put an ad up on Craigslist?” Charles throws his hands up. “I can’t put an ad up on CRAIGSLIST! YOU PUT AN AD UP ON CRAIGSLIST, ALL OF A SUDDEN YOU GET PEOPLE TRYIN’ TO SPAM SCAM YOU, GIVIN’ YOU VIRUSES ON YOUR COMPUTER!” He speaks with the authority of someone who has genuinely been “spam scammed” via Craigslist. I fantasize about shaking the hand of the spam scammer in question.

I show up one day and Charles isn’t there. I piss in my cup, sit down, and wait for Stephanie. She rushes in, her glasses askew. She looks worried. “Charles is in the hospital,” she says. I feign concern. “Oh, wow,” I respond. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I don’t know,” she sighs. “They won’t tell me. I hope he’s all right.” An uneventful session occurs and we part ways. The next day, a new man is sitting in Charles’ chair. He’s wearing a bluetooth headset and track pants. His gaze, which darts wildly around the room, resembles that of a caged animal. We’re introduced; I immediately forget his name. He is our new Charles. He is, however, the antithesis of Charles. Charles 2.0 isn’t a big talker. He never sighs. He has friends. He’s trying to quit smoking for the same reason he quit drinking – so his daughter will stop crying. His girlfriend drinks half a bottle of wine every night, but it “isn’t a big deal” because he hides the car keys when she does so. He tells me he sells pot, but that he “don’t smoke the supply.” He asks that I not tell Stephanie. I willingly oblige. Charles would hate Charles 2.0. I like him.

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