A black Tesla was parked outside. She had joked with him at the coffee shop about her intense curiosity for Teslas. She wanted to know what it would be like to sit inside of one. He sipped his white chocolate mocha she had just made for him, stuck a twenty in her tip jar, and promised that he’d help her find out. She didn’t take him too seriously like all the other girls did. He was always driven around in a different car every time she saw him, which was nearly every day. He would come to the shop around eleven, long after most other people had gotten their starts. He would stand at the counter, yawn in that exaggerated way of his, and lazily people watch for half an hour or so from one of the shop’s window seats. Then his car would arrive, his driver would open the door, and he’d be gone. She wondered if he had a license. She was constantly imagining reasons for Charles’ strange and decadent lifestyle.
Her roommate Jayeee was screaming from her bedroom, having seen the Tesla out the window,
“Is that him? Jesus, Mel, hurry up and get out there!”
The driver of the Tesla came around the side of the car to let the passenger out. Charles C. Charlus stepped out just as the rain became aggressive. The driver had anticipated the change in weather, and so, popped an umbrella up and over Charles’ head, saving him from getting wet. He saw her sitting on the couch in the window, but he rang the doorbell anyway. Jaycee, still not coming out of her room, dropped a piece of classic wisdom for Mel,
“Order the most expensive thing on the menu!”
Mel was charmed, but not charmed enough to forgo all her suspicions. Charles C. Charlus in his thick southern drawl which stood out dramatically from other central Californians said,
“Thank you for opening the door darlin’. Are you ready for a night of magic?”
She fought the urge to cringe. His teeth were crooked, the front ones twisting over each other in a surrealist kind of puzzle. It was Mel’s impression that he had no insecurities about them, he was constantly smiling. He took her hand in his painfully thin one and led her to the car. The driver, a man of at least six foot eight, wearing white sneakers that to Mel somehow screamed German tourist, looked neither at the pair in the back seat, nor at anything else in particular. He was both present and not present. Charles promised that after dinner, Mel could sit in the front seat and play around with “the controls”. The driver made a small scoff, the first sign of life he’d expressed.
“Lars, come on, let her sit up front after, will ya? I’ll bring you out some food. You like caviar.”
Lars grunted, low, like a warning. Mel said nothing for a while, gazing out the window at the passing signs. She glanced at Charles' outfit, taking note of his shiny cufflinks. She pulled on the hem of her skirt, trying to find the small hole along the bottom to make sure and keep it tucked under her thigh. On that fifteen minute drive to the restaurant, Charles told her various little tidbits about different businesses they passed by.
“I bought a first edition of The Great Gatsby from that book store, it was incredible they had it, really was. Set me back about a thousand dollars. See that movie theater right there under the pass? You can rent it out, like the whole entire thing. I’ve done that a few times, those are some nice people. That ramen shop has some of the best sake I’ve ever tasted. Have you ever been?”
Mel had never even tasted sake, she told him as much. He pretended to be mind blown, and insisted that they go some day. But they had reservations at Le Blanc Note and couldn’t possibly ignore that fact. Outside the restaurant, Lars refused the valet service. He let Charles and Mel out before shooing away the attendant. With a small nod, he beckoned Charles to speak in private. Charles patted Mel on the shoulder and she waited patiently while on the other side of the parking lot, Lars and Charles appeared to be having a quiet, but deadly serious disagreement. Lars was not wearing a watch, but kept pointing to his wrist over and over again.
Mel’s stomach made a terrible noise, an eruption practically, but there was nothing in it to be erupted. It was a rule Jaycee and she had made up that when invited on a date, one must never eat beforehand. It was getting two for one. Not only were they getting a free meal, they were saving two to ten dollars off the cost of groceries by forgoing other meals beforehand. And, like Lucille Ball in her early New York days, Mel had brought with her a large purse which she planned to slip bread rolls into when no one was looking. She and Jaycee would have breakfast covered as well.
She had accepted the invitation for the date out of pure curiosity. But she wondered if she made a mistake as the flapping exchange between the two men went on and on. Finally, she saw Lars walk back to the car. Charles C. Charlus didn’t look upset, but he hurried Mel into the restaurant. The hostess raised an eyebrow when she caught sight of Charles, but was nice to Mel and complimented her hairstyle. This made Mel stand up a little straighter.
The restaurant was dimly lit, perfect for food thievery. Only a little fake flame in the middle of every table and a droll looking overhead chandelier lit up the main dining room. They were sat by a window overlooking the garbage cans, and the backs of the chairs were made of a sharp metal, that she did not want to lean too hard up against out of fear the metal would leave a lasting imprint on her back. The hostess smirked, not smiled, as she walked away from the worst table in the restaurant. Mel wondered if he had a history with this hostess. He looked out the window, she caught sight of the dark circles under his eyes. He couldn’t be more than twenty six, but those circles spoke of something deeper than day to day stress or insomnia.
There was a bread basket placed on the table, but no menus were given. Instead, the man who had provided the basket, asked Charles to step into the kitchen with him. The man did not even acknowledge Mel’s presence. With a sheepish shrug, Charles got out of his chair and followed the man to the kitchen. As soon as the doors were closed, Mel looked around before sliding two rolls into her bag. She rearranged the basket, and satisfied with her work, took another roll and started to butter it. Before she took a single bite, Charles was back at the table, looking sweaty. He touched her shoulder lightly and said,
“We have to go.”
His cuff links were missing. His hair was disheveled, like someone had mussed it up violently. She stared at him for a moment. Now, too annoyed to care about appearances, she made a show of shoving a third roll into her bag. She picked up the roll she had buttered, and ate it on the way out of the restaurant. She took pleasure noticing that an old, wispy haired man at the bar was very obviously scandalized by this.
The Tesla pulled around the side of the building at an unnecessarily reckless pace. Instead of the door opening, the trunk door rose. Without saying a word, Charles C. Charlus stepped to the trunk and grabbed a large duffel bag and a backpack. Mel jumped back from him as he turned around,
“Are you a drug dealer?” she hissed.
The Tesla sped off in a flash. Charles looked at the sky. He puzzled over it for a few moments. He looked back at her.
Before he could say anything else, Mel started walking away quickly without looking back. She knew she’d heard and seen enough. Charles made a loud whistle which was of such an odd pitch she turned around out of instinct. His duffel bag and backpack were fully unzipped and he dumped everything out. She watched as things fell. The contents made it look like Charles had packed for a vacation. She started walking back towards him when she saw that a white dress shirt had started to blow across the parking lot. She caught up to it, and grabbed it, and handed it back to him. That was the moment she realized he was crying. Big, wet, ugly tears of someone who was taken by a wave of sharp emotion. She saw a stuffed blue penguin at his feet. It was worn and tired, like someone had loved it a very long time. She picked it up and stuck her finger in a small hole near its beak. She moved her finger around and found nothing but fluff. Charles looked at her after wiping his face and snatched the penguin out of her hands.
“What are you doing to J.J.?”
He clung to it, hugging it to his chest. With no hope of being able to afford a car ride all the way home, and knowing the next bus probably wouldn’t come for at least another half hour, Mel sat down on the curb and put her head between her hands. Charles packed the rest of his personal belongings into his bags slowly. Then he sat on the curb next to her. He had nowhere to go, she could sense it. She didn’t really want to know, but she asked him anyway, what was going on, and who he was. She got a fitting story.
An average college student from Mobile who was viciously spurned by his long term girlfriend. She had just graduated and then disappeared only a week after the ceremony. A one word note on his bedside table. She had gone to Brussels. She had taken a job as a teacher there. He found that out from her mother. He somehow knew he would never see her again. He felt she was the love of his life. His heartbreak and anger mutated quickly into a desire for self destruction. He took out a loan, the largest one a predatory private lender would give, dropped out of school, and moved to a place where he could blow his money in peace. He told the story like he was explaining the outline of a depressing novel. Across the street she saw bus number 36 pulled up. Without saying anything, they both ran to catch it, and got on in the nick of time.
“That was the worst year of Fitzgerald’s life. 1936. Everyone agrees. He never recovered.”
Charles looked at the bus floor and scuffed his shoe against a thick piece of gum which had hardened over time to the consistency of a stone.
“He made his choices.”
Mel could offer only those few words in response. But it was enough. Charles C. Charlus thought long and hard. He got off at her stop with her. She had a three block walk home from there. He extended his hand. She shook it. For the first time, she felt something other than inquisitive disgust or pity for Charles. She felt a kindling of a pleasant friendship.
He reached in his bag, and pulled out a book. The Great Gatsby, a first edition. He handed it to her. Mel, not wanting to spoil the moment, accepted the book, and watched Charles silently walk off down the sidewalk in the opposite direction of where she would be heading. She saw him pull out his phone. Just before he rounded the corner, she heard his first words to the other party.
“Mom, I want to come home.”