click for homepage

                     The Barcelona Review

Author Bi 




Charity Greenwood sat reading Seventeen magazine, while her mother Faith steered the family car west on the Indiana toll road. Fat snowflakes slapped the windshield, and Faith said, “Oh, my,” or “God help me” whenever an eighteen-wheeler passed on the right in an angry tunnel of spray.
       Charity had recently completed Driver’s Ed at Mount Moriah High School, and after a few minutes she glanced up to say, “If you’re going to go fifty, use the slow lane.”
       “Yes, dear,” Faith said, tightening her grip on the wheel.
       They were headed to Chicago, where Charity had agreed to visit the art museum only after Faith had promised they would spend the night and shop for new clothes in the morning. The Greenwoods had recently come into money and, though Charity was cute enough to attract boys from her old neighborhood on Crawford Street—Billy Ragsdale with his moon-pie face, Isaac Hawkins who smelled like his grandpa’s feedstore—her sights were higher now.
       She yawned and rubbed her eyes. The November sky was gray as the inside of a galvanized bucket. Stubbly cornstalks poked above the snow. Her mother wore a tartan scarf and red beret—a getup, Charity assumed, she thought perfect for the day’s outing.
       “You’ll love the Monet exhibit,” Faith said. “I could never get your father to take me.” She shook her head sadly. “He could build a nightstand with the best of them, but he was the most incurious man I ever knew.”
       Charity’s father had died the year before, when a FedEx truck strayed over the centerline and met his mini-bus head on. In the months that followed, Faith Greenwood had coped with her loss by talking about it with anybody who would listen, while Charity had talked about it with no one at all. Even after Faith had sued the company for a million dollars, even after she and Charity had moved into a new house in Foxwood Hills, even after they’d bought the sparkling 1987 Ford Taurus they drove today, Charity never spoke of her father unless she had to.
       She returned to her Seventeen. The boys and girls on the page didn’t look anything like the young people on Crawford Street, where Charity’s father had run a handyman business out of the garage, and Charity—with her pretty face and curvy hips, her air of deserving every fish she landed—had run the show.
       Not so in Foxwood Hills. There the girls she waved at never waved back, and though ordinarily Charity knew what to do with rich bitches who disrespected her, she was rich herself now, and cornering a rival in the restroom and dumping a Pepsi-Cola down her front was no longer an option.
       For that matter, the boys didn’t wave back either.
       “Unless it was made out of oak or walnut,” Faith was saying “he couldn’t be bothered to—"
       Charity slapped her magazine shut. “Honest to god, Mother. Use the slow lane.”
       Faith sniffed. “If you’re going to be smart…” She breathed deeply and edged the Taurus to the right. Charity glanced over her shoulder at a bespectacled face a foot and a half away, a mouth opening and closing.
       “Turn signal!” she shouted.
       Her mother gasped, completing the change amid a chorus of honks. Charity twisted to watch the car they’d cut off. It hugged the Taurus’ bumper so closely she glimpsed the driver’s square head, a flash of spittle on his lips.
       She swallowed a giggle. Her mother had promised her a car of her own when she got her license, so she tried her best to behave.
       They took an exit for gas, then stopped at a diner. As they hurried through the snow to the entrance, a voice said, “Allow me,” and a man—Charity glimpsed a pink face, glasses smeared with flakes—loomed beside them to open the door.
       “Thank you, sir!” Faith said. She nodded at her daughter. “Just when I lose hope, a gentleman appears.” She dusted the snow from her beret as they found a booth. “We’re going to the art museum in Chicago,” she called to the man, taking off his coat nearby.
       Charity sagged in her seat. Her mother had always talked to strangers, though since her husband’s death she’d gotten worse. She complimented parents on their children’s beautiful manners. She stopped the car beside road crews and offered hard-hatted workers cold lemonade. She’d recently approached a man at the Fort Wayne mall to ask where his “delightful accent” came from, and when he told her Malaysia she invited him for tea at the food court.
       “Is that right?” the man said. “You picked a beautiful day for it.”
       Faith laughed, and then as surely as Monday follows Tuesday said, “We’re having some lunch. Would you care to join us?”
       “Mother, no,” Charity hissed, but then the booth shifted and the man was seated across from her, Faith beaming beside him.
       “Don’t mind if I do,” he said. He wore a short-sleeved plaid shirt and a string tie with a turquoise stone as its pendant. His arms were heavy and pink, and he had a pink-and-silver flattop, and though Charity didn’t look him squarely in the face, she knew his eyes were turquoise also.
       “The name’s Clarence Pitts,” he said. “With whom do I have the pleasure of dining?”
       “I’m Faith Greenwood,” Faith said, “and this is my daughter Charity.”
       The man pushed his glasses higher on his nose and whistled softly. “Faith and Charity. If I was a poet, I’d put those names in my poem.”
       He was an encyclopedia salesman, Pitts said, the last of a dying breed. “I drive the highways and byways of the great state of Indiana, trying to convince housewives of the wisdom of”—he chuckled, and Charity knew he’d used the joke 100 times—“well, wisdom.”
       “Just housewives?” Faith said brightly.
       “Yes, ma’am. It’s the woman who’s invested in the family’s schooling. The man exists to slay the wooly mammoth and”—Charity felt his gaze brush her—“procreate.”
       Faith said there was no use talking about it, he was exactly right. “My husband died last year, and the only thing he read on purpose was Beetle Bailey.”
       Pitts’ voice turned instantly grave. “I’m sorry to hear about your husband. What did you say he died of?”
       “She didn’t,” Charity said.
       “She didn’t say what he died of.” She glanced up long enough to confirm Pitts’ eyes matched the stone in his tie, then looked out the window beyond her mother’s head, where snow was piling on the sill.
       Faith reddened. “You must forgive my daughter. It embarrasses her when I talk to strangers.”
       Pitts waved a hand as if shooing a gnat. “It’s young folks, isn’t it? I couldn’t stomach my old momma until I saw her for the saint she was.”
       When adult talk bored her, Charity pinched her upper lip between thumb and forefinger and lifted it to display purplish gums. It was the ugliest look she could manage, and its target—a teacher, her mother, the librarian who shushed her and her Crawford Street friends—was generally shocked into speechlessness.
       “That’s a funny face you’re making, girl,” Pitts said. “If I had a camera I’d take a picture.”
       “You were asking,” Faith said quickly, “what my husband died of? He was returning from an appointment—he was a carpenter and electrician—when a Federal Express driver crossed the center line and killed them both.” She leaned close to Pitts and whispered. “The fire burned so hot it melted the asphalt.”
       “My goodness.”
       “It was a terrible shock,” Faith continued. “My husband wasn’t what you’d call a sophisticated man, but he could fix anything.” She sighed. “Now it’s just me and Charity in a big, ugly world.”
       “The world can be ugly for sure,” he replied, “but there’s beauty everywhere. You just have to know where to look.”
       A waitress appeared, and Faith ordered a feta cheese omelet and Charity a salad and Clarence Pitts the chicken steak special. After the woman left, Faith said, “I’m ashamed of myself, because you’re right again. There is beauty everywhere.”
       “Aren’t you going to a museum stacked to the ceiling with it?”
       “We are indeed.”
       Charity again felt Pitts’ eyes on her. “Case in point, ma’am,” he said, “you have a very pretty daughter, with an interest in art to boot. I bet her poor daddy was proud.”
       Faith coughed into her hand. “If I hadn’t bribed her with a shopping trip, she’d be home right now reading trashy magazines.” These days, she said, Charity was interested only in jewelry and makeup and what the young people in their new neighborhood were wearing. “The girls are all sticks, like they never saw a donut in their lives, while we Greenwood women…” She lifted her palms in cheerful surrender.
       “Stop right there.” Pitts was an art lover himself, he declared, and it was only in recent times people celebrated women who looked to be starving. “When you get to the museum, visit your Rubens and your Raphaels.” He bent low to peer into Charity’s face. “It’s a big wheel, is all I’m saying. Before you know it, full-figured gals like you will be back in style.”
       “That’s an interesting perspective, isn’t  it, dear?” Faith said, but Charity was trapped in Pitts’ blue gaze and didn’t respond.
       She was used to such stares from Billy Ragsdale and the like, but in her experience adult attention was indifferently paid and the instant she signaled she wanted nothing to do with it, just as indifferently withdrawn. “If you’re going to mope, we just won’t talk,” her mother would say, or “Get the stick outta your butt, girl,” her father would shout, and, just like that, she was excused from further conversation.
       “What do you want?” she said, in a voice as surly as she knew how.
       Pitts stared a beat longer, and she felt a shudder in her lower parts, like when he and Billy were making out on the sofa. “I know there’s a pretty smile in there somewhere,” he said, just as the food arrived.
       Later Charity picked at her salad while the others ate with enthusiasm. “I am proud of my daughter,” Faith offered between bites of her omelet. The girl was clever and quick like her father and, though she’d fallen into a gloom so deep after he died the doctors feared for her very survival, but she’d since rebounded like a champion.
       “A windfall from my husband’s death,” Faith continued, “was a legal settlement that changed our lives overnight. We’ve bought a new house and a new car, and as soon as Charity gets her driver’s license, she’ll have a car of her—”
       Charity slapped the tabletop so hard her salad bowl overturned. Other diners turned to gawk. “Mother,” she said, “stop blabbing our business.”
       Pitts looked both pained and amused. “She may be right, Mrs. Greenwood. There’s men on the road inclined to take advantage of women on their own.”
       Faith dabbed the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I wasn’t born yesterday,” she said. “I’m perfectly capable of deciding who I should and shouldn’t talk to.”
       He laughed aloud, then stooped again to peer into Charity’s face. “Don’t you hate how Momma always knows best?”

Pitts left the diner first, pushing away his plate and saying, “No rest for the wicked,” but later when Faith and Charity went to the snowy parking lot he rose like a startled bear from behind the Taurus.
       “I couldn’t let you ladies drive off with icy windows,” he called, lifting a scraper.
       Faith clapped her hands and said that gentlemen like Clarence Pitts were a rare treasure. He bowed and opened Charity’s door, murmuring words to her she didn’t catch.
       On the highway Charity read her magazine while her mother focused on driving. The snow had stopped, and sunlight pushed feebly through clouds. Weathered barns and houses dotted the landscape.
       After a while, Faith said, “I remember wishing to be free of your father until the day actually came. Then I wished I’d been sweeter.”
       “I’ll be sweet once you stop talking to everything that moves,” Charity said. “That man was creepy.”
       “Oh, piffle.” Faith gestured to an unseen listener beyond the windshield. “Sixteen years old, and she’s a faultless judge of character.”
       They drove on in silence. Traffic, so busy an hour before, had waned to nearly nothing. The sky thickened, and wet snowflakes again spattered the glass. Faith turned on the wipers, and their cadence and the purr of the tires lulled Charity into a doze.
       She dreamed of the girls from Foxwood Hills, who she never spoke of without scorn or thought of without envy. She dreamed of Billy Ragsdale, though soon Billy became Clarence Pitts instead, and then the boys and girls from Seventeen magazine were there also, and everyone was crammed into her father’s burning mini-bus and Pitts was laughing and grinding into her—
       She woke to Faith screaming “Oh, lord! Oh, lord!” and a whop-whop-whop sound like a helicopter’s rotors. The Taurus hit the shoulder, its rear end swinging wildly, then plunged into a ditch. Grasses brushed Charity’s window, so she saw their frothy heads. Then she was looking at the sky, where blackbirds wheeled. She gripped the edges of her seat as he car settled upright to its doors. The engine groaned and died. Snow tapped the roof.
       “I believe I’ve broken my arm,” someone said, and Charity looked vaguely to her left. Her mother was crumpled against the window and panting in and out, though in that instant her eyes sprang wide. “Oh, my darling girl. Oh, Charity, are you hurt?”
       Charity touched her scalp and saw blood on her fingertips. “I banged my head,” she said. She’d never been in an accident and, though dizzy from the blow, she was surprised by her calm. She wiped her fingers on her blue jeans. “I think that’s all.”
       “I don’t know what happened. I heard a noise and”—Faith gasped—“I think a bird hit the car. I saw something black in the mirror.”
       “For heaven’s sake, Mother,” Charity said. “A bird wouldn’t knock us off the road.”  She remembered the whop-whop-whop sound. “We had a flat tire. They had a film about them in Driver’s Ed.” She tried to open her door, but it was lodged fast. She peered toward the top of the ditch. She couldn’t see the road,but she felt certain the Taurus’ rooftop would be visible to a passerby. “Somebody will be along.”
       Faith began to sob. “I’m such a ninny.” She searched her head for the beret, but it was gone. “I should never have tried driving to Chicago. I should have done what Mother said and stayed in Mount Moriah where at least I—”
       “Get a grip. We’ll be fine.”
       Faith rested her cheek against the wheel. “‘Get a grip,’” she repeated. “That’s what your father used to say.” She laughed, then sobbed again.
       “Shhh, listen,” Charity said. Tires crunched on the shoulder above. Soon the top half of a car came into view. A door opened and closed, and the silhouette of a man emerged against the sky.
       “What is it?” Faith said. “What do you see?”
       The man stared down at them. “Help!” Charity shouted. “We had an accident!”
       He stared a second longer, then disappeared. A door opened again, and he reappeared with a flashlight, its beam filling the front seat with light.
       “Help us,” Faith cried out. “Please.”
       The man stepped over the lip, the light blinded Charity for a moment, and then Clarence Pitts was hunched on the bank, gazing at her through the windshield.
       “Charity Greenwood,” he said, his voice muffled by glass, “as I live and breathe.”
       Charity found she could lower her window. “We had a flat tire,” she said.
       “Is that right?” He called to Faith. “When that happens, Ma’am, pump the brakes and hold on tight. You were steering all over creation.”
       “It never happened before. My husband did all the driving and—"
       “Uh-huh.” He studied the car, then pointed the flashlight toward the road. “Let’s get you gals out of here.”
       “Oh, thank you, thank you,” Faith said.
       He shined the light on her. “I think you’re hurt, Mrs. Greenwood.”
       “I believe my arm is broken.”
       He yanked at the door, then shook his head. “I’m going to have to pull you through the window,” he said to Charity. “But we can’t do the same for a lady with a broken arm.” He gestured with his chin. “I have a CB radio in the car. We’ll get you settled and call the cavalry.”
       “I won’t go anywhere without my mother,” Charity said.
       “Your teeth are chattering, little sister. Be sensible.” He called again to Faith. “I’ll fetch you down a blanket, Ma’am, so you can wrap yourself while we wait.”
       “I won’t do it,” Charity said.
       Faith rested a hand on her daughter’s arm. “It’s the right thing, dear.”
       Pitts made a show of hugging himself. “It’s no use both of you sitting in the cold.”
       “I’ll be warm as toast,” Faith said.
       Charity began to cry. “Momma, I’m scared.”
       Faith laughed weakly. “Get a grip,” she said.
       Charity stared this way and that—at her mother’s face, at Clarence Pitts, toward the road above where his car waited. Its distant idling spoke of warmth and rescue.
       “Okay,” she said.
       “There’s my girl.” Pitts reached for her. “Put your arms around my neck.”
       “I’m not your—” Charity began, but then she was holding onto him as he wrestled her through the narrow opening. She grunted and cried because her whole body hurt and the bruise on her skull burned like fire and her knees raked the window frame. In a moment she was free, she and Pitts falling into an embrace on the slope. Freezing water soaked her sneakers. The air smelled like sludge from an eaves trough.
       “I’ll be right back, Momma,” Charity called, but the passenger window was beneath her, and when she craned to find her mother through the windshield, she saw only sky reflected there.
       She crawled ahead of Pitts toward the highway, and when she crested the rise, it was like going to the movies in the afternoon, when one spends hours in the darkness and is surprised, when the movie’s done, to find it still light outside.
       Pitts’ car was black and scabby with rust, its rear end jacked up like the boys did on Crawford Street. “Get in back and stretch out,” he said at her ear.
       Charity obeyed, opening the door and falling length wise onto the seat. The vinyl smelled pleasantly of cloves and licorice, like the tobacco her father had chewed in his workshop. She felt strangely on the verge of sleep.
       The driver’s door opened and closed, and there came the sound of tires on gravel and then the road humming beneath her.
       She sat up drunkenly. White embankments flashed by, the tires’ hum rose. “Where are we going?” she screamed.
       “It’s okay, little sister,” Pitts said. “There’s a state police post up the road.”
       “You said you had a radio.”
       “Yeah, I fibbed about that, else I wouldn’t have gotten you up the ditch.”
       “Stop! Take me to my mother!” She clawed at his head so his glasses flew off.
       “Damn.” He twisted and grabbed her face in a big right hand while steering with his left. “That shit stops now, girl,” he said, muscling her to the backseat floor. “It might work with your old lady, but it doesn’t work with Clarence Pitts.”
       “Stop it,” Charity cried through his fingers. “Momma! Momma!”
       “Simmer down.” He released her and fumbled in his lap for his glasses. “We’re going for help like I said.”
       “Turn around!” She got to her knees and grasped his collar in one hand and his string tie in another. He writhed and choked. The car slid to a stop on the side of the road.
       “All right, goddammit,” he said, breaking free. He jerked the transmission into park, then spun to lean over the seat. “Listen up, Charity Greenwood. Your old lady will be fine. Somebody’ll be along soon, and she can talk that poor bastard’s ear off.” He straightened his tie. “Jesus, girl.”
       The way he loomed above her brought to mind the diner, where she couldn’t resist his stare. She thought of the girls from Foxwood Hills, who got what they wanted from male teachers—a hall pass to the cafeteria, a C-plus changed to a B-minus—by making their voices small and whispery.
       “Will you take me back to my mother, please?” she said.
       He smiled at her changed tone. “Mind your manners and I might, but go crazy on me and you can forget it.”
       “I won’t go crazy. I promise.”
       “That’s better. Be good, and you’ll see Momma soon.”He turned and began to drive again.
       Charity was still on her knees, where her fingers found the ice scraper on the wet carpet. It had bristles on one end and a rigid plastic blade—three-cornered, like a backward arrow—on the other. She tucked it to her side and climbed into her seat.
       She studied the back of Pitts’ head and decided—with his silly tie and glasses, his square head and pink face—he looked like the stupidest teacher she’d ever had.
       “I don’t think you sell encyclopedias,” she said in the same whispery voice.
       He chuckled. “Not any more, I don’t. I’m what folks call between situations.” He shot a glance over his shoulder. “I bet you can’t guess what my last job was.”
       “You’re right, I can’t.”
       “Go ahead, guess.”
       “I don’t know. A policeman? A pilot?”
       “Ha-ha, I wish.” His voice had gone shy, and though Charity rarely considered what went on in other people’s hearts, she knew he was about to reveal something shameful, and by hearing it she would gain—for a moment, at least—the upper hand.
       “Tell me,” she said.
       “I was a prison librarian downstate in Westville,” he said, his voice shyer still. “I was hairless as a baby and big in the butt like you Greenwood gals.” He hunched his shoulders like a man in a cold wind. “I spent my days reading books and my nights fighting off the freaks.”
       The pavement rolled beneath them. The sky was dark, the road empty.
       “That sounds awful,” Charity said.
       “You think you got it bad—Daddy dead, Momma never shutting up. Try doing time like Clarence Pitts.”
       She put a hand on his seat back. “May I sit up front with you?”
       He glanced at her suspiciously. “Why?”
       “Because I can hardly hear what you’re saying, your car’s so loud.”
       “Uh-huh. And I’m the king of Troy.” He drove a minute longer, then slowed and parked on the shoulder. “I’d like that, little sister,” he said quietly. “I did some calculations just now, and it’s been maybe twenty years since I drove a car with a woman beside me.”
       “We could talk,” she said. “Mother and I never really talk.”
       “She treats you like a child.” He met her gaze in the mirror. “I wouldn’t, though.”
       “I know you wouldn’t.”
       “You’ll have a car of your own soon, and that makes you a woman, not a girl.”
       “Yes, sir.”
       He turned, his eyes glistening from an unseen light. “No monkey business?”
       She smiled. “No monkey business.”
       Snowflakes collected on the windshield and slid down the glass. The gust from a passing eighteen-wheeler shook the car.
       “Okay, then,” he said.
       She reached for the door handle, but he grabbed her arm. “Not so fast. Let Clarence come around.”
       He climbed from the driver’s seat and walked through the headlights. His coat was unbuttoned, and his shirt had come undone and hung over his belt. He opened her door. “Out the back and into the front,” he said. “Two seconds.”
       Charity stepped from the car as another tractor-trailer blew by. The draft rocked them both, and she lifted the scraper and slashed at Pitts’ face. His glasses spun away as he threw up his hands, and she slashed again where the stone in his tie met his throat. They were on a snowy strip above a ditch, and as he stepped backward, he toppled into its dark recesses.
       Charity turned and ran down the highway from where they’d come.
       She saw the headlights of cars going the same direction, in the lane beyond the median, and she crossed the road to hail them. But the median hid a ditch of its own, and she slipped and tumbled to the watery bottom. Icy reeds stabbed her face, but rather than lift herself free she burrowed into them. She heard shouts from above and knew it was Pitts roaring in pain and rage, and though Charity Greenwood had come to know a mix of emotions in the past six months—grief, loneliness, envy—she’d never before tasted fear. It filled her throat and scoured her insides, and she became an empty, nameless creature, intent only on hiding until danger passed.
       Then she thought of her mother, huddled in another ditch somewhere, and she climbed the bank and peered over its edge.
       Pitts’ car idled thirty yards away, exhaust curling through its taillights. A dark shape staggered  to and fro on the shoulder, and it was Pitts himself, holding his face in his hands like a drunk man weeping. He lifted his chin and stared about, and she knew from the way he held his head he was struggling to see through blood. He reached into the front seat and took out the flashlight. Flakes danced in its yellow beam as he searched the far side of the road.
       Then he laughed, and though she was freezing, the sound brought a shudder to Charity’s bones. “Momma said you were clever like your daddy,” he sang out. “I’d have done well to listen.”
       A car approached from the east, and Charity thought to run into the road and wave it down, but it occurred to her that, though someone like Faith might stop to help a soul in distress, most people were like her and would hurry on about their business.
       “You hurt me, little sister,” Pitts called when the way was clear again. He shined the light beneath his chin like a child playing Frankenstein. “Looky here, I think you put out an eye.”
       He had walked twenty paces from his car’s tail end, and now he turned and retraced his steps. The flashlight probed the ditch and the fields. “Charity Greeeeenwood,” he sang. He drew even with the car and walked beyond it. His skull glowed pinkly in the headlamps, then dulled as darkness swallowed him.
       She waited until he’d disappeared, until she saw only the beam sweeping back and forth, and then she crept onto the asphalt to the idling car. It was larger than the Taurus and the model she remembered from Driver’s Ed, but when she’d opened the door and settled herself, everything looked familiar. She yanked the transmission into gear and stepped on the gas.
       The car fishtailed onto the pavement. She saw the light swing toward her and Pitts running, one eye a bleeding ruin and the other wild and staring. He closed the gap in an instant and made for her door, but a fender caught him, and he disappeared with a shout. The beam chased her in the mirror for a moment, then stuttered and vanished.
        Charity sped west on the highway. It was empty and stretched into blackness and, though she knew that exit ramps provided opportunities for one to turn around, the way before her was seamless, unbroken as far as she could see. She could go only in the direction she was going, and nothing in Seventeen magazine or Driver’s Ed had prepared her for the circumstance.

© Bob Johnson 2023

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization