A Long Process of Locating The Heart
George Saunders’s blurb in the back of Best American Stories 2013, accompanying The Semplica-Girl Diaries, explains that his story’s central idea first came to him in a dream. He then struggled with the process of writing the story for twelve years. This struck a chord with me concerning my own story, The Last Time We Saw Charlie. I’m usually too squeamish to exhume the facts buried in the unmarked grave of my fiction, yet here I feel compelled to do so, because Charlie was a real person who has now been dead for over forty years. He still sometimes makes appearances in my dreams.
My high school suffered a slow rolling “suicide epidemic,” for which we possessed no context and few coping skills. The real Charlie was a geeky redhead kid who the popular boys liked to bully. In our Physical Education class, I would pick Charlie for my team to afford him a little protection. I fought one of the few fistfights of my life defending Charlie in the locker room. The year after that, Charlie declared himself gay and suffered greatly for it. One day, he went to the biology teacher and asked her about the location of the human heart. A few days later, he blew his own heart out with a shotgun. He was sixteen, but would have come into a large trust fund had he made it to his early twenties, for whatever that was worth. Apparently not enough. The year following, our Homecoming Queen drank most of a fifth of vodka and ate a bottle of pills, dying after three days in a coma. She’s the one everyone remembers — it’s hard to top that level of melodrama. I attended college in another state and stayed, leaving the war zone of high school behind. Or so I thought.
All of this bears little resemblance to the short story that came out of it. Surely I’ve gotten it all wrong. Perhaps.
Well over twenty years ago, I felt driven to write bad stories about Charlie, sticking closer to the facts. None of it made for good fiction, teen suicide and high school bullying already shopworn clichés. The baggage of what happened remained too heavy to carry with my underdeveloped writing muscles. Yet the story refused to stay in the drawer, even after many failed attempts. Every few years I’d take a whack at it and put it away again, frustrated.
About two years ago, with the story almost forgotten, a dream revealed the image of Charlie very much alive, buzzing football players with a remote control airplane. I knew when I awoke that he required a new narrative arc, one where he survived. The dream had the impact of a defibrillator.
This version started as a six line micro fiction, expanded to a piece of flash, and continued unspooling. Maybe it was Charlie’s predilection for appearing in my dreams that assigned him the role of remote control puppet master on a grander scale. The writing went comparatively fast.
This may sound like therapy instead of literature, but a blurry line exists between the two. When a path to the core of a story opens up, I take it and don’t ask too many questions.
And yet the finished product may still be inadequate. I wonder if, after publication, Charlie will visit my dreams again. Too soon to tell.
Robert P. Kaye’s stories have appeared in Pear Noir!, Ellipsis, Per Contra, The Los Angeles Review and elsewhere, with details available at www.RobertPKaye.com. His chapbook Typewriter for a Superior Alphabet is published by Alice Blue Press. He juggles and throws knives in the far upper left corner of the USA.
The Last Time We Saw Charlie
It began with the phrase “loser fag,” a lit match tossed into homophobic gasoline, intoned in the locker room in a moment when backs were turned. My words ricocheted off cinderblock walls frosted with many coats of paint, the point of origin muddied in cavernous acoustics. I caught a look of revulsion from Lance, leader of the jocks and veteran oppressor of geeks and nerds, who seemed to realize that something bad now had to happen. I felt sympathy for him, knowing he didn’t stand a chance against Charlie, because the game was anything but fair.
“You looking at my ass?” Damon shoved Charlie, who gave a little nod in my direction, a cue to fire up the video camera built into my backpack. I raised my eyebrows to remind Charlie that he remained stark naked, a little puff of dark hair above his pathetic little member, a boy in the company of proto-men. He looked at the backpack as if to telekinetically hit RECORD. I pressed the remote trigger, the camera whirred to life and I held my breath.
Things escalated along the planned trajectory, the jocks still pissed off at Charlie’s portrayal of the worst PE volleyball player ever, whiffing every spike and lob, obstructing their desperate attempts to dig out returns. The football types took losing seriously, even though they were only present for their gratuitous 4.0 “coaching assistant” grades from Coach Gideon, who remained ensconced in his office reading the sports pages.
“Fucking loser faggot,” Damon said. “Get the fuck out of the locker room and stop drooling over Lance’s fucking unit.”
I saw the thin edge of Charlie’s mouth curl to a smirk, tempted to point out the unintended comedy of the phrase ‘fucking unit.’
“I’m not gay,” he said. “So what if I was?”
“So what if you was?” Damon added percussion with a punch to Charlie’s bicep and a smack to the back of the head, diverting him from any temptation to correct grammar.
With Lance neglecting his role as enforcer of the pecking order the mob hung back and all our careful preparation stood on the verge of fizzling. Our little documentary project required escalating conflict. The pacing had bogged down, jocks-picking-on-nerds a shopworn cliché. I wondered if Lance sensed the advent of the moment where brawn ceased to matter more than brain.
“Give him a swirly,” I said, repeating my attempt at ventriloquism from the periphery.
“Good idea,” Damon said, perhaps sensing an opportunity to become the alpha dog. He dragged Charlie to the bathroom, followed by the mob.
A study of the raw footage shows Damon’s right hand forking the occipital of Charlie’s cranium, attempting to stuff him down the drain hole of the toilet while depressing the flush handle, thus creating a rising torrent in the porcelain bowl. Lance’s look of concern flashes past in the jerky pan of the boys rubbernecking around stall walls as the water rises.
An eternity passes.
“Stop, you fucking animals,” I yell, sans the thrown voice. “He’s drowning.”
The tape fills with camera shake, then an extended shot of the urinals with the backpack parked against the wall. The audio collapses into a jumble of grunts and profanity. No frames show Lance dragging his minions off a limp and silent Charlie, although he did. Or me administering CPR, stopping short of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, conscious of where Charlie’s face had been and the accusations of homosexuality. The camera once again goes mobile, directed at the action. An ambulance arrives, there’s some conversation and a closing shot of Charlie riding a gurney into the back of the ambulance. The flashing lights and siren go on and the vehicle slow-bucks over speed bumps and exits the parking lot.
This sequence marks the beginning of my lifelong obsession with film. I’ve seen the tape so many times that I can play it in my mind frame-by-frame, in slow motion or reverse, the images vivid as the instant light violated the camera lens. A high school memory more enduring than any recording media, analog or digital.
That Friday night our little cadre of personal computer aficionados and math/science geeks watched in awe from the stands as the largest radio controlled model airplane any of us had ever built executed an airstrike on second down and three. The twin-engine bomber swooped low to buzz the line of scrimmage, scattering helmets and cheerleaders.
“It’s a bomb!” someone yelled as the plane banked for a second pass. The crowd stampeded the exits while streamers reading FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING FASCISTS! confettied heads and shoulders. Lance, the quarterback, drilled the football skyward, the plane dodging unharmed over the scoreboard, where a video image sputtered to life showing semi-naked boys in a locker room engaged in an argument blossoming to violence.
The exodus on the field slowed to watch Charlie face down in the toilet, his fish-white body writhing to break free. They stood silent as the ambulance doors closed, dissolving to a close-up of Coach Gideon talking to the EMTs about the good of the team and not ruining the chances for a district championship, maybe even State, the words broadcast through the stadium PA.
I wasn’t satisfied with the edit. Hacking the interface to the scoreboard was a bigger problem than we anticipated. Lenny and I had to spend most of the previous night on our backs with flashlights in our teeth, patching electronics and testing remote controls instead of parsing moral implications. But then Charlie’s ride to the emergency room had been explained to the school nurse as a nasty slip in the showers.
As the scoreboard went dark, Coach Gideon and the security guard yanked Charlie from beneath the bleachers, RC controller clutched in his hands, a legend newly minted. We wept for our blighted childhoods and cheered his name as they dragged him away: Char-lee! Char-lee! Char-lee! The first football cheer any of us had ever uttered.
I don’t think any of us supposed that would be the last time we’d see Charlie.
“Nothing’s gonna change,” Andy said, awaiting the start of the emergency school assembly.
“Roger that,” Lenny said.
I wasn’t so sure, but said nothing.
We agreed that the probability of them expelling Charlie, the school’s best shot at National Merit glory, asymptotically approached zero with the extenuating video factored in. Lance and Damon and the other jocks weren’t in the audience to pelt us with spit wads, but there were plenty of dirty looks from the rest of the student body, who probably suspected Charlie had help, despite his declaration to the authorities that he’d planned and executed the operation alone. We were accustomed to being pariahs and expected to remain so.
The lights went down. The now familiar image of a naked Charlie materialized on the screen with some crude blurring, censorship I resented. Damon punched and smacked and the backpack distorted the word “faggot” into something visceral.
Projected on the large screen, subtle details emerged for those with sharp eyes. Just after they grabbed him, Charlie looked over with a smirk that said ‘look how easy this is,’ typically displayed as he stepped to the board to solve the stumper math problems from Mr. McNulty that even Andy found incomprehensible. A glimpse of Lance in the corner of the screen showed him looking miserable. These nuances flickered by, undetectable without special knowledge or freeze frame.
I squirmed in my seat, wondering if anybody picked up the obvious proximity of the person egging on the mob to the camera microphone, but the murmuring in the audience washed out the bad audio. The film ran its course and the lights went up.
“What Charlie did at the game was wrong,” Principal Grosswell said, standing on tiptoe to reach the microphone mounted too high on the podium, courtesy of yours truly. “I cannot condone his actions, but I understand the motivation. Terrorism is never the answer, even in the face of tyranny.” Principal Grosswell experienced difficulty continuing, evidently a nerd himself in high school. “This school’s tradition of fear will not stand.”
“Sure it will,” Lenny said.
Coach Gideon was placed on administrative leave, Damon expelled and Lance and the other jocks suspended for a month. The next four football games were disasters. The plan was an unqualified success—at least the parts of it we were privy to.
Charlie did not appear at our usual haunts or online. He’d gone dark. There were rumors he’d suffered brain damage.
A week later, Andy, Lenny and I received an email from Charlie. “Welcome to Phase II” was all it said.
On the following Monday, we discovered cameras installed at the backs of several classrooms, servos whirring as they panned and focused. They weren’t there for surveillance. Charlie had made certain demands, supported by Principle Grosswell. The School Board did the cost/benefit analysis against the threat of a lawsuit and blinked. The cameras were there to enable Charlie to attend school on his own terms. Remotely.
Messages began to flow. My audiovisual squad, Andy’s Mathletes and Lenny’s chess club became Charlie’s eyes and ears. I brought him what homework couldn’t be faxed or emailed. His mother, a thin nervous woman who taught physics at the university, never admitted me past the foyer. “As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “Charlie is homeschooled and he will no longer be subjected to combat with animals.”
Charlie was elected student body president in absentia. Andy became Vice President, Lenny Treasurer and I was Class Secretary. Sports teams were opened to all, regardless of gender or ability, positions and playing time randomly assigned. Lance never got another chance to play quarterback and chess became a legitimate substitute for PE. Andy devised an algorithm weighing IQ, GPA and SAT scores to select the Homecoming Court, which proved considerably less photogenic than previous years.
One morning in early spring I arrived before school to prep a physics experiment, fulfilling my duties as Mr. Elfstrom’s lab assistant. I hustled down the covered corridor from the bike racks to the science wing, birds cheeping like mad in the shrubs.
I looked up. Lance stood at the other end of the walkway in his letterman’s jacket, the medals pinned to the big school letter “A” glinting in the morning light. We’d always said that the “A” stood for Asshole.
The birds went silent.
My fight-or-flight reflexes caused me to shuck the backpack loaded with about thirty pounds of books, which hit flat against the cement, the boom reflecting off buildings and amplified in all directions. Birds exploded out of the shrubs like shrapnel.
“Hey, man, it’s alright,” Lance said. “I know you’re his friend. I should have stopped it. Tell him I’m sorry.”
He wasn’t going to pound me to a pulp for ruining his life. It struck me that he really didn’t know what happened.
I had the urge to proclaim my role as cameraman and co-conspirator, the guilt heavier than my backpack, but at that moment it began to rain like a monsoon. No more than a coincidence, but poignant as hell, the sort of thing too obvious to put in a movie. Lance turned to leave.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll tell him.”
I wrote a long, detailed email to Charlie underscoring my belief that Lance regretted everything, maintaining that he’d suffered enough. I argued that we should come clean about what happened in the locker room. We’d made our point, documented the indignities, righted the wrongs.
There was no reply.
At graduation I worked like a mad bastard to set up the audio link for Charlie’s valedictory address, positioning cameras so he could scan the crowd. More cameras were in the gym for the senior dance, the “Wonders of the Future” theme chosen by Charlie. A blown up copy of his junior yearbook picture stood on an easel next to the empty podium, that know-it-all smile on his thin lips.
“We stand poised on the cusp of a golden age of machines.” His disembodied voice patched through the PA sounded more shrill and juvenile than I remembered, the word “cusp” susurrated by his lisp. “In the next twenty years we’ll see the confluence of networks, nanotech, genomics and predictive analysis enabled by the exponentially expanding power of computing. The day will come when all machines will interconnect to do our bidding, anticipating our desires. The day will come when information will form a virtual private atmosphere that accompanies us throughout our lives and beyond.”
I wondered what choice we had. The speech contained nothing about the Event in the Locker Room that changed everything. While the audience applauded, Andy, Lenny and I looked at each other, perhaps all of us relieved to have survived high school.
Charlie attended MIT. His triumph over bullying gave him an irresistible essay to match flawless SAT scores and a better than perfect GPA. They allowed the experiment in remote education to continue, curious perhaps about the opportunities for online education. Lance went to community college for a few quarters then dropped out. September 11, 2001 bore an eerie similarity to the football game bombing. Damon joined the Marines and died in Fallujah, the Silver Star awarded posthumously.
Charlie’s genius for robotics quietly revolutionized one industry after another. Pharmacists became customer service interfaces. Warehouses no longer required lighting since few humans ventured inside them. Charlie’s corporate sponsorship and remote rovers enabled NASA to explore Mars. He’d taken his logical place in a world run from a distance by grown up boys with good reason to trust machines more than people.
After a period of wandering, Lance came back to town and found work as a handyman. Lenny, Andy and I all hired him from time to time to build a fence, install a skylight, or construct a bigger garage. For a while he lived in my guesthouse. He always washed the dishes, unasked and was good with the kids. He read spy novels in his spare time and I remember asking him why.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I always thought maybe I’d join the CIA or something, but now they have drones and read your email.” He shrugged and the conversation lapsed, as so many did.
By then it seemed impossible to tell him what we’d done. My directing career took off and I was away a lot. I used to worry that he’d seduce my wife, then my girlfriend, then my second wife but something in me said maybe I deserved this.
The media announced Charlie’s engagement to a woman named Ng, his collaborator in an asteroid mining project. None among us were invited to the wedding, due to our refusal to divulge Lance’s whereabouts, which Charlie surely knew anyway. Charlie and Ng had triplets, but she continued to reside in Shanghai with the children. The media speculated whether the couple had ever met in person, if they’d actually had sex and whether their arrangement represented love or some sort of genetic experiment.
Andy, Lenny and I were seated together at the memorial service in the state of the art auditorium at Charlie’s corporate headquarters. I’d been shooting on location in Thailand when I heard about his death. Pancreatic cancer, they said. The iconic photograph of him from our junior yearbook with the “look how easy this is” smirk occupied the screen designed for massive press events.
“I can’t believe nobody ever got another picture of him,” Andy said.
“There was one floating around a few years ago,” Lenny said. “It looked like he hadn’t changed much.”
“What happened to it?” I asked.
“Expunged,” Andy said. “Like it never existed.”
The lights dimmed and Charlie’s picture faded into a video of robots prowling Mars, robots in factories, cute dog and cat-like robots interacting with bald kids in cancer wards. It flashed back to his early life, his mother and the house he grew up in, symphonic music dissolving to a pop tune from of the era. Images appeared of Mr. McNulty at the chalkboard and I realized this could only have been captured from the camera at the back of the classroom. There were quick cutaways of Andy, Lenny and me rigging the gear for graduation under a voiceover of Charlie’s valedictory address explaining how the future would unfold, his voice processed to be less shrill, more adult, the faint lisp erased.
There were several seconds of sixteen-year-old me talking stridently into the camera, perhaps arguing Lance’s case. For an instant, a piece of paper appeared in close-up, as if Charlie and I were discussing its contents. The title was “Phase III.”
“Did you see that?” I said.
Andy and Lenny looked at me. Strangers in the audience admonished my outburst with their stares. “Fuck off,” I said. “That was us.”
High school moved on to MIT, early robotic prototypes and tributes from celebrities and leaders of industry lauding Charlie’s many achievements and good works. No mention of workers displaced by machines or what happened in the locker room.
“I think you’re imagining the Phase III thing,” Andy said during the third round at the bar after the service, or whatever it was. “Even he –.”
He didn’t complete the thought.
“Whatever,” Lenny said. “It’s over. Maybe you’ve made one too many conspiracy movies. You should try a romantic comedy. You look like hell, man.”
I got up and left. I got a DUI that night driving home and maybe shouldn’t have gotten out of the car and tried to fight the cop. Some embarrassing footage ended up on YouTube.
A popular thread on the Internet held that Charlie had achieved the singularity, uploaded his consciousness into the cloud, no longer requiring conventional support mechanisms. The online version of the video released after the memorial omitted the little scene with the Phase III title and me. I inspected the digital file backwards and forwards for discontinuities, clues and hidden messages but found nothing.
The twenty-year reunion was held in the gym, the same building where we’d played volleyball that day. Lenny, Andy and I sat at a table together with their wives. By then we were a university dean, a CEO and a movie director, each still trying to obliterate our status as outsiders by reciting stock prices, golf handicaps and box office take. Everyone effused over my early films, avoiding the fact that the last three were studio-driven tripe, the romantic comedy an execrable embarrassment.
The conversation at the table hovered around our children, who struggled with average intelligence, learning disabilities and math phobias—typical regression toward the mean. Even though we barely knew our children as people, we hesitated to send them into the coliseum of fear that is high school. It didn’t matter that much for me because my kids lived with their mothers and I hardly saw them.
Blown up portraits of the dead rested on easels along one side of the room – the iconic one of Charlie as a junior stood in the center beside Damon in his bemedaled dress uniform. There were pictures of others I didn’t remember who had committed suicide or crashed motorcycles; a surprising body count for such a small school.
Lance approached the table. He looked older, his hair graying, still fit and movie star handsome. The wives sat up a little straighter and looked at each other in a funny way.
“Do you think he’ll ever come out?” Lenny’s wife said to Andy’s.
Fuck me if I could ever remember either one of their names. I was already pretty hammered before I got there.
“No,” Andy’s wife said. “Not to the boys anyway.”
It had never occurred to me that Lance was gay.
“Hey guys,” Lance said.
Everyone stopped speaking and I thought of the birds in the bushes beside the high school corridor just before it rained. For years I’d felt that we’d switched roles, exchanged scripts, lived our lives in a parallel universe where we’d become the bullies.
“It was all a setup,” I said. “The locker room. Charlie planned the whole thing. I shot the video. We built the plane a month before the football game. We had a fucking script.”
Andy and Lenny looked at me like I was insane, maybe expecting Lance to come across the table and drag me to the locker room to drown me in a toilet. Which seemed appropriate. Even desirable.
“You were a terrible ventriloquist,” Lance said. “The thing is, he was right, as usual. We were idiots and jerks. We were the losers.”
And then he smiled.
“We were children,” I said, hollowed out by the relief that I didn’t have to stand trial for the war crimes of my youth—at least not in public. “It wasn’t fair.”
“Is it ever?” Lance shrugged.
I heard the whir of a servo overhead, and looked up. The cameras installed for the Wonders of the Future had been upgraded. The nearest pointed directly at us and I was sure someone was watching.
When I looked down, Lance had already walked away.
Robert P. Kaye’s stories have appeared in Pear Noir!, Ellipsis, Per Contra, The Los Angeles Review and elsewhere, with details available at robertpkaye.com. His chapbook Typewriter for a Superior Alphabet is published by Alice Blue Press. He juggles and throws knives in the far upper left corner of the USA.