Three years ago I was making a living as a realtor. The market was on fire. Even a newcomer like me could move houses. All I had to do was pull up to the curb in my car, pose in the yard by the For Sale sign and await my clients. Other potential buyers would usually be leaving as my folks arrived. I simply waited for the bidding war to begin. It got so easy for those few months that I stopped dressing for success in high heels and a suit. One day towards the end I stood on the sidewalk in jogging pants and a T-shirt. More unsavory, my T-shirt was still wet with perspiration. I was pinching it away from my throat, shaking it out to dry, when Charlotte rode up on her bicycle, followed by another woman and then a man. I took pity on Charlotte. I helped her through the closing, cutting down on my commission because this was her first house, it was shaving her dry, and she’d gotten a loan she really shouldn’t have qualified for. She was very pretty, very royalty even on a bicycle with a handbell. Then there was the matter of Charlotte’s ex who wasn’t quite an ex. After the fight he put up over dowager’s rights, I’m sure I ended up losing money.
I was out of the real estate business. I had left the game right before the fall with what appeared to be foresight on my part. In actuality it was my short attention span. Another failed relationship plummeted me like the market. When I looked up, I was managing a fitness chain. Now I was encouraged to dress in sweats. I didn’t. I was a very tall woman. I looked like a basketball coach. One Saturday during a membership drive Bea Suffolk called me at the club. How she knew where I was working I didn’t know, but Bea Suffolk was a digger. She had been the agent for the owners who had sold their house to Charlotte. I said—the words a complete shock to me—“This is about Charlotte, isn’t it? She’s dead.”
“I wish,” Bea said.
I agreed to meet Bea for Sunday lunch. I was five minutes early but Bea was already there with a glass of wine. She was always early, always prepared. She was a digger.
I was shocked when I saw her.
Bea believed realtors should have a signature style. They had a specific territory; why not a specific style? Her signature was suits that were almost too tight. She was single, a career woman, and stayed looking much younger than her age by utilizing various self-improvement programs during those ample hours stolen from mothers and married women. The suit jackets she wore were usually fastened by a single oversized brocaded button. They gripped her waist before flaring out. They ended short, never covering her rear end. She was always pushing her single button, then tugging on the jackets’ ruffled hems.
In the three years since I’d last seen her, she had aged an additional fifteen.
“You can say it,” she said after I greeted her and sat down.
“Say what?” She almost smiled, sipped on her wine. Before my glass arrived, I heard about her South American parasite, leishmaniasis, her failing health, her failure. Her failure, she shrugged. Failure. She had not bothered to color her hair; the too brassy hue (also a signature) had faded to dullness and was rooted in a wide furrow of white.
Now for her confession. I grabbed the wine from the waiter’s tray and took a healthy swallow. She had been Charlotte’s sugar mommy. Charlotte had betrayed her. Charlotte was out there somewhere.
She could see from my face I hadn’t known.
“I thought you might have guessed,” she said.
“Too busy softening up the almost ex-husband in that house mess.”
“Too busy losing my commission.”
“I’m 68 years old,” Bea told me. “And I’m pretty sure I’m dying.”
When I didn’t respond, Bea snapped her fingernail hard against my wine glass. “Hey. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“I didn’t know you were gay,” I said.
Here’s what I think about Charlotte and it’s not much because I didn’t know her very well. Charlotte always struck me as misplaced in time. She got her way, yes, because she was
pretty, but also because she appealed to an atavistic chivalry that charged through even the blood of females. And so I, for one, surrendered my commission. Barely knowing her, I spent two evenings drinking with her legal husband who kept wondering out loud about dykes and asking me to explain it to him. I did. He signed. Another thing about being misplaced in time: Charlotte sauntered as if she were an empress, shedding layers of clothes. They dropped to the palace floor or to the humble earth. Of course others would pick them up. Who wouldn’t rescue something clean from the mud?
Bea told me this story about them. It was hard to believe. She was in love. Charlotte said she was in love. However, Charlotte had never bothered to learn the name of Bea’s cat or the name of her schnauzer or the name of her labradoodle. In fact, Bea said, she hadn’t even learned her name. Whose name? I asked. My name, Bea said. What? My name, Bea said. My name. Bea. My name.
I drove to the house that three years earlier I had sold to Charlotte. I was surprised not to see a For Sale sign in its yard. I went up to the porch, peeked as best I could through the edges of the bay window. I followed the windows around the house. Edge by edge a picture of the downstairs accordioned together. The house was empty of people, as was typical during a work
day, but it also keened its emptiness. There was furniture, unsheeted, arranged for conversation, but the pieces gaped vacantly at each other like lost souls.
Next door a woman sat on her front porch. She was old, too heavy, white hair afright. A cane leaned against the porch railing. Atop the railing lay a cordless phone. I asked her who lived here. She didn’t answer. Does anyone live here? Foreclosure? I suggested. I mentioned Charlotte’s name. Her mouth zipped right up.
The fitness center I was managing offered something different from the other run-of-the-mill treadmill factories: horseback riding. We had a stable at another location out in the countryside. It was a disaster waiting to happen, this stable, especially now that the outerbelt was constructing new exits. More people meant more danger. The liability insurance, the future pending lawsuits, just the horses themselves and their hay. I knew I’d have to leave soon. I woke up one Tuesday and turned 37 and had to endure a surprise birthday party by my co-workers, held in the barn. I left early, my excuse the family-n-friends soirée awaiting me. I went alone to a pub many of my neighbors frequented. I could relax. My neighbors waved but they didn’t know me well enough to wish me happy birthday.
I wasn’t the digger that Bea was, so she called me on the phone and delivered the information. I found Charlotte in front of a Catholic elementary school. Children in plaid
uniforms getting on the buses. Children in plaid uniforms getting into soccer mom vans. Charlotte didn’t look any different. She was wearing a tight skirt patterned in swirling seahorses and talking to a teacher. She turned to leave with a big smile, still finishing her sentence. She walked her slightly duck walk empress walk to the car. The two girls she was holding onto pulled up like stubborn cattle. Charlotte dropped their hands easily, shedding them from herself as if from a mink stole, and carried on alone, not looking back. The girls scampered after her and jumped into the backseat. She bent over and leaned in to check their seatbelts. When she stood up I was right beside her. She seemed very happy to see me again, and she responded instantly to the name Bea Suffolk. The girls were in their seatbelts; the key was in the ignition ready to be turned. I spoke quickly.
“Bea is dying and would like to see you.”
“OK,” Charlotte agreed.
“Do you want to do it now?”
“OK,” Charlotte said.
I sat outside with the two girls while Charlotte went in alone. The girls were around seven or eight; they weren’t twins but it was difficult to tell which one was older. I’d gone in first to let Bea know. Bea came out of the kitchen and settled into the bed she had moved downstairs. I plumped the pillows behind her head. Her hair had been newly colored. She looked good though appropriately withered.
I told the girls I liked their school outfits and they said “thank you very much” with a disarming sweetness. The wind had arrived in gusts. We watched a street sign begin to lurch. The clouds in the sky picked up speed. My mind left the cute girls. I thought about friends I’d
lost touch with, friends I’d fought with, friends I saw in store aisles and made idle promises to. I thought about the two people I’d loved so deeply. I placed them each one on a separate cloud. The wind took them quickly.
“Sometimes clouds look like things or people or animals,” I said.
“I know,” one of the girls said.
“I agree,” piped up the other.
“My cloud looks like a magic carpet. What does your cloud look like?”
“My cloud looks like piano lessons,” the one girl said.
“I agree,” the other piped up.
“You must be the younger sister,” I said to the agreeing girl.
Both girls giggled and snugged their shoulders into their neck.
Charlotte opened the front door and stepped out with a broad cleansing sigh. “That is so sad,” she said. “That is so, so sad.”
“Are you sad, Charlotte Mommy?” the very adorable agreeing girl asked.
“Yes I am. I am so so sad.”
The girls and I waited for Charlotte to go on. We stayed quiet. We looked up with expectant faces. We waited for it to be revealed. Charlotte turned to me. I knew right then, the look on her face, she didn’t know my name. She asked if I could lead her back to the thru-way, she’d lost her bearings following me. So many streets. So many turns. She didn’t know where in the world she was.