Alan Lindsay & Dennis Anfuso
“I’ll have another pint of the house ale.” Charlie slid his empty glass across the well-worn varnish of the bar.
As he crossed back to his table, he snuck another glance in her direction—the woman with the short red hair. She was still watching him, following him with her eyes. She’d been doing it for a while. He’d tried to convince himself that she wasn’t really interested in him as he sat at his table sketching the room. Maybe it was someone behind him, or something out the window. He tried to pretend she still wasn’t. Sure, she was pretty. But her undisguised gaze his way every few seconds made him uncomfortable, as though his shirt was inside out or his head must be on crooked or something. Why else would she be doing it? The obvious explanation—that someone as attractive as she was would be interested in him—that was hardly likely. Random women did not scope out Charles Emerson in pubs. And he’d been in a lot of them. (This was one of his favorites. It was called The World’s End; it was in Camden, the best part of London. It was built on the site of the home of an ancient witch named Old Mother Red Cap, which may have been why he was drawn to it.)
He looked up again as he sat down, vaguely, so she wouldn’t know he was looking at her. She was still doing it, watching him. Perhaps ogling would be the right word. She really was unnecessarily pretty, wavy haired with large eyes in a close-fitting patterned top. She reminded him a little of Cinderella. But even if he was interested in catching her eye, she was with two friends—and that was enough to put him off. Speaking to women was hard enough when he had an introduction, and doing it with an audience—that just wasn’t going to happen. Years of rejection and the sounds of snickering as he walked away made him gun shy. He could set up at a show and chat away about art for hours with anyone looking at his work, but selling himself was a different story.
He put down his ale and picked up his pen. Not a minute later the woman was standing beside his table, not saying a word, taking a hard look at the scene he was drawing. Charlie could smell her perfume. He smiled nervously and tried not to fidget as he continued to draw. When he reached for his ale, she said, “Nice work.”
Small talk was another of Charlie’s underdeveloped skills, but she was attractive, so he glanced up and acted startled. “Thanks. This is not my usual stuff, but I am trying to keep sort of a journal of my comings and goings while I’m here.”
“Yank, then?” she smiled. “Or are you Canadian? It’s hard to know the difference with your accents.”
“But we don’t have the accents, you do,” Charlie grinned.
“Definitely a Yank,” she laughed a little. She sat down without his asking and took a sip of his ale. Her numerous bracelets jingled. “Well, at least it’s not lager.”
“If I wanted piss I’d have stayed in America.”
She laughed again. “So you came all the way across the pond for an ale?”
“Wouldn’t you?” he chuckled. “But since I’m here anyway, I thought maybe I’d do some sketching and a little painting.”
“Of English pubs?” She brushed his hand as she turned his sketch so she could get a good look.
“Not pubs, specifically. I’m here more for the countryside.”
“Oh, I see.” She gave him a look like a mother gives a child daring him to misbehave. “You mean like we did in primary school? Going to press leaves too?” Harsh words, but her smile was infectious.
“I brought my sketchbook along, if you’re interested.”
“Busman’s holiday, I suppose.”
Charlie didn’t follow.
“I work in a gallery. I spend my time reviewing people’s portfolios.”
“Oh, well, then don’t bother. It’s not important, I thought you might like to see my stuff.”
“Oh, no, I’ll have a look. I don’t mind. That’s why I came over, actually. I saw you sketching. And it wasn’t like you were showing off. You were completely oblivious to the whole room.”
“Well, I saw you.” He waited, but she didn’t seem to register the remark.
“I look at so many dull landscapes and twee still lifes. This’ll be refreshing.”
Charlie opened his portfolio and placed it on the table, careful to avoid his ale. She flipped rather quickly through several paintings that he was especially pleased with before muttering, “Or maybe not so refreshing.”
“Excuse me?” Charlie’s eyebrows flew high on his head.
“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting children’s drawings.”
Charlie slammed the portfolio shut and almost spilled his drink. “My art is not for children.”
“Not for adults, that’s for sure,” she said.
“Thanks for stopping by uninvited. Sorry you can’t stay.” He took a large gulp of his ale, dropped the glass down with a bang and stood up.
“Don’t be so touchy. I’m sure you could do good work if you weren’t drawing dragons and castles. You’ve clearly been to school.”
He stared straight at her, prepared to tell her off in a way that would embarrass her in front of the whole room. But the profound indifference of the look she was casting disarmed him.
“Look, your pub sketch, that’s got merit. But this stuff,” she waved at the portfolio, “it’s just not art, I’m sorry. You’ve got to grow up.”
Charlie stalked out of pub, muttering. He needed to grow up, did he? Really? Well, maybe he did. Maybe he needed to get to a place where he didn’t hold back telling a person off just because she was beautiful.
Anyone seeing the gangly young man with his shock of orange hair sticking up in all the wrong places and muttering things to himself might be excused for thinking he was crazy. People moved away from him as he queued for the bus.
You were right. I loved Stratford-Upon-Avon—all the phony Shakespeare stuff. One guy was actually selling Shakespeare’s actual skull (alas, poor Yorick!)—but the great part was that it cost £10—two for £18. ROTFLMAO!!!! He may be the most honest man in all England!
I didn’t have much luck in London. But as you predicted, I was really drawn to Camden Town. I met so many off-the-wall artists doing such great stuff—nothing like mine. I admit I didn’t get as much work done as I hoped, but I have so many sketches, I plan to sequester myself at OzHouse for months and do nothing but draw and paint and figure this out. This trip was absolutely what I needed. I really think so. Yeah, maybe I thought I was going just to collect material, but sometimes you’ve got to get more confused if you’re going to grow—right? I’m confident it’s just a matter of working through it. And I think maybe I’m starting to see where I should be going. Just got to find my subject. Anyway, I think I made the first step by figuring out where I was going wrong.
Not much room in this card, so I will end, and tell you all the sordid details (though not as sordid as I’d hoped!) when I see you.
I trust you got the message I left on the machine. My flight arrives in Boston at 5:30—but why am I telling you that in a letter that will surely arrive after I do? If my cell works (or “mobile” as the Brits say) I’ll call from Logan, but I hope you will be there when I arrive because the trip to OzHouse will take almost three hours and I will be plenty jet lagged already.
See you soon,
“I noticed you never talk about it,” Gary said as he pulled onto the highway.
“Well I guess I do think it must be weird, living in that house all these years knowing that thing is there.” Charlie placed his fingertips lightly upon the plastic lid on his coffee cup—still too hot to drink. “Do you ever talk about it?”
Gary shrugged. “Among ourselves? No. Not really. I mean, sure, Doug seemed interested at first, but since we couldn’t use it, well, I guess as time moved on we all just put it behind us and it sort of stopped feeling real. But then it didn’t mean as much to us as it did to you.”
Charlie exhaled audibly and raised and lowered his cup without taking a sip.
“Personally,” Gary went on, “I’d let you use it if I could. It’s all boarded up of course.”
“Don’t worry, Gary, really. It’s not going to be a problem.”
But Gary kept talking, “But after last time, you know, what choice do we have? We promised not to use it.”
“Promised? Promised who? Glinda the Oz-Nazi? Doesn’t matter. Really, I’m not interested.” He paused. “But if I were, I don’t think that promise would really weigh on my conscience.”
“Oz-Nazi?” Gary made a face. “That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?”
“Okay, perhaps, perhaps a little, but still… Ouch.” Charlie put his hand to his mouth as he lowered his coffee—scalding, bitter, bottom-of-the-pot. “Not that it matters. Like I said, I’m really not going to give you any trouble about the door. Last thing on my mind right now.”
“Are you sure?” Gary glanced at the highway signs.
“God, yes. Not a kid any more, Gary. I wouldn’t go back there now even if I could.”
“Because if, like you said, you didn’t get what you needed in England, I just thought….”
“No. Fairyland, it would be the worst place in the world for me right now.”
“What about seeing your old flame?”
“You know, Cinderella?”
Charlie laughed. “Did you know she’s actually not even Cinderella in the oldest Grimm versions? She’s got a different name—Ashen-something. And it’s her mother instead of her fairy godmother and she’s like a tree spirit or something. I forget. I’m surprised she even answered to ‘Cinderella’ when I saw her. She seemed to know just what I was talking about.”
“Oh, I’m not surprised. Truth is, no matter what you’ve seen, those tales were already mixed up before the Grimm boys ever got their hands on them.” Gary looked over at Charlie, slouched in the seat. “Okay. So if we’re good about the secret room, we don’t need to talk about it anymore. I can tell them I did as promised.”
Gary took a deep breath and reached for the radio. But he took his hand away without turning it on. “So what’s this about finding your subject? I thought that was the one thing you were always sure about.”
“As I said, time to grow up.”
“Folk tales are not children’s tales. You know that.”
“That’s easier to say than believe. And easier to believe than to convince anyone of.”
“Do you know how often the devil shows up in those old tales?” Doug gestured at Charlie’s reflection on the windshield.
“Yes, I do. There’s some real creepy stuff there, not child friendly at all. I studied all of that. But that’s not how people see it. And what if just no one’s interested?”
“Then you make them interested. That’s what artists do.”
Charlie stared out the window as the miles of dark trees raced by. Driving down this highway, Charlie almost always felt as though he was threading his way through an endless evergreen forest. He knew of course that he and Gary weren’t really doing that. There were houses and neighborhoods just on the other side of the trees. But it was a pretty convincing illusion.
“Do you ever wonder what became of Buddy? I looked at a bunch of copies of Rumpelstiltskin in the Bodleian, and it wasn’t changed at all. I sort of expected it to mention a small boy in the tale now. That would have seemed right to me.”
“We always knew we didn’t change the texts when we went into the stories.”
“Yeah, but I was still hoping. Like I wonder sometimes if we did a good thing leaving him there. Is he really better off than he would have been if he had returned with us?”
Gary thought about this. It had never felt to him like a decision he’d made, more like something that had just happened. He wasn’t tempted to second guess it. Besides, in his memory Charlie had been all in favor of Buddy staying behind in fairyland. “Well, in the end, it’s just not worth worrying about, Chuck. The door took Buddy where Buddy wanted to go.”
“Unless it just took him where it took him. I don’t think we really understand how that all works.”
“I suppose that’s possible. But it’s a question we’ll never get an answer to. No one, not even me, has been in the room in ten years. We did a lot of damage last time. And a promise, even to an Oz-Nazi, is a promise.”
Charlie dropped his bitter cup into the cup holder and reclined the seat a few degrees. He had a lot more to say about all of this. But that would require an involved discussion, and he could feel the jet lag pulling him down into sleep. He didn’t want to talk about anything.
But Gary kept plying him with questions. “Seriously, what is this thing that led you to this sudden doubting of your subject matter?”
“It’s just… The fairytales, they’re not working for me anymore. Time to move on. I need to find out what I should be doing next. I’m just going to get in that studio and paint like a maniac till I find it.” He closed his eyes. “Anyway, that’s the plan. So, what’s new back at the old OzHouse?” Maybe if he could steer the conversation to something easier, Gary would do the talking and he could doze off. “Have you got a good crop of kids?”
Gary rubbed his bald head. “In fact we have four kids staying with us right now. First we’ve had in a while—pretty much since the last leadership changed at DCYF. I don’t think that’s a coincidence either. Place seems downright empty most of the time. Two are siblings from Lebanon, and the other two arrived on the same day from up near Berlin. Quiet kids, one doesn’t seem to know how to speak. Hasn’t said a word since he arrived.”
“Beth must love that.”
“Actually Beth’s in Spain.”
“Yeah? With Doug and her parents? That must be interesting, I mean for Doug. The way they talk about him.”
“Doug didn’t go.” Gary stared at the road. “Well, Beth wanted to see her parents. Yeah, I know, that’s odd. But they are her parents and they’re not getting any younger. And if she’s ever going to have a relationship with them...” Gary was trying to make it sound normal, but Charlie still thought it funny for Beth to go without Doug. He’d never remembered one of them going anywhere without the other.
Charlie pushed back into the head rest, and closed his eyes again. It was a signal to Gary that he was done talking. But Gary ignored it. He wanted to know what happened to the extra money Charlie had asked him to wire. He tried to sound casual.
“The exchange rate ate up a lot of it,” Charlie explained. “And good ale ain’t cheap.”
They laughed. Gary kept his eye out for the exit.
“I’m only asking because, you know, Gwen was willing to help, but she wasn’t thrilled when the price kept going up.”
“Really?” Charlie always found it odd when wealthy people were tight with pocket change.
“You know, with the stock market and all, money’s not quite as—well let’s just say ‘available’ as it used to be.”
Gary turned his head long enough to see the baffled expression written across Charlie’s face.
“Nothing to worry about,” Gary laughed, though perhaps not as convincingly as he had intended. “We all go through ups and downs. Doug’s work isn’t selling much these days. He hasn’t placed a story in a while. I haven’t got as many illustration jobs myself as I used to. Bad economy. It’ll pass,” he chuckled.
When they finally pulled into the long gravel driveway of OzHouse, all was dark. No moon, no stars. The bulb in the floodlight must have burned out and no lights were on in the front rooms. When Gary turned off the engine, the whole house disappeared into the kind of muddy darkness you hardly ever see in the electric world. Charlie poured his tepid, undrunk coffee on the grass.
“Gwen must have gone to bed,” said Gary. He sounded surprised.
They groped their way to the door.
Gwen had not gone to bed. As they walked in the door, they heard kitchen cabinets banging and ceramic mugs clink, not in the small kitchen by the front door but in the large central kitchen they hardly ever used these days. She’d timed their arrival—which made Charlie smile, it was so like her, and so like home. She had a fresh pot of coffee brewed and ready. It was one of the quirks of the Robbinses to drink coffee at bedtime. Charlie should have expected it. He himself had fallen into the habit years ago. He tossed the airport cup into the trash and took a mug of the real thing.
“I’m not going to ask too many questions tonight,” Gwen said as they hung up their jackets and Charlie dropped his luggage on the hall floor. “But I will want to see your photos and your artwork and hear all the stories tomorrow.”
“Fair enough,” said Charlie. Taking a sip form his mug of perfect joe and grabbing his carry-on, he headed up to his room. “It is empty isn’t it?”
“That’s your room,” Gary quickly cut in.
Charlie dragged himself up the steps and muttered about the many ways people would die if they woke him in the morning.
“He’s home,” Gary smiled.
“But for how long?”