This week’s Tuesday Tale:
Charlie dropped the hammer back into his belt. He wiped the sweat from his brow. Virginia was hot for this time of year, hotter than he thought it should be. Things should have cooled off by now; his shirt was soaked, and Charlie reminded himself that he could have worked up this kind of sweat in Alaska.
Charlie leaned against the side of the work truck and poured a drink of gatorade from the cooler. The bridge was almost complete, but even Paul Bunyan had to take a water break, at least, that’s what Charlie told himself. His dad had raised him on Paul Bunyan stories and Charlie often reflected that those tales had steered him towards this profession.
Charlie McClain was a landscape architect. His chosen field had not always been so narrow, but he was pleased with the direction his career had taken. He moved into big cities like Richmond, Virginia and created Africa — African jungles for zoos to be precise. He knew what these exhibits should look like to please the crowd from his schooling, but more importantly he knew what they should feel like for the animals from his own experience on the African plains.
Later that evening, Charlie McClain settled in once more at the hotel restaurant. He knew there was better, cheaper food just a short walk away, but he always liked the feel of a hotel and rarely left one once he got back from a long day’s work. Hotels were home. They were more home than the tiny apartment he subleased from his brother. He was never there long enough to change the sheets, but it was a good address for credit card bills.
He ordered the burger he ordered two nights ago. Charlie remembered the diet that his dad said Paul Bunyan had to sustain, and sometimes he thought he came close to those records after an exhausting day on a project site. Today was one of those days, so he ordered a side of steak and a baked potato to compliment his meal. He did not notice the waitress’ look when he finished both before she came back to refill his Coke.
He stayed at the table for a while. He enjoyed watching the other guests mingle around him. The place was full of businessmen, but there was one lady who caught his interest. She wore a midnight blue dress and beige fur coat. Her attire suggested she should be elsewhere, but she sat three tables down from him looking bored.
Charlie shifted in his seat. She looked like his wife Elaine. He still thought of her as his wife, but they divorced ten years ago. Charlie had stopped counting after a decade; it was just too painful to tally. He still wondered why it happened. The divorce had been so abrupt. He could have fought her, refused to give it to her, but she looked so happy with him – the other man – the man she had an affair with for the last two years of their marriage. Charlie had not seen it coming. He thought she was happy.
Charlie had not been with a woman since Elaine, but that’s not what he would have admitted to his crew. He was not spiteful or bitter like other divorced men he knew; he was empty, like his bed. Every once in a while, he would sit in a hotel and he would see her, the image of Elaine, but when the woman turned her head, Charlie would realize that her nose was different, or sometimes it was the shape of her lips that disqualified her.
He studied the one in the midnight dress while she ate and he tried not to remember Elaine. She was ravishing — tall, slender in the waist, but full figured. She was an ideal now and nothing could compare to his Elaine. She was still his Elaine. Part of her would always belong to him no matter who she was now. He loved her, and that love sustained his connection.
The woman in the dress finished and left. Charlie could not find a flaw about the woman. That night, like so many other nights, he dreamed she was home again.
Charlie arrived at the exhibit early. His crew would not arrive for another hour, but that’s the way he liked to start a day. They always had a productive day when he had an hour to get his plans in place.
“I see you’re early again.” The head director of the zoo greeted him with a smile and handed him a fresh cup of coffee. She had gotten in the habit of this, and his crew had not failed to notice. The director was obviously partial to him.
“Will we be ready for the press this afternoon?”
“Good.” She stretched her hand out to the construction in front of them. “This is a brilliant.”
The bridge spanned over the exhibit, allowing, for the first time, visitors to walk over the zoo instead of around it. The project had been six months in construction and would be completed next week. It was his best work.
“No children on the bridge just yet though.”
“No children.” The director repeated.
Charlie never had such cooperation from directors. He finished his coffee and excused himself.
The bridge was completed enough for them to film the press release which announced the project’s completion in a week’s time. People gathered around the exhibit and the zoo keepers let out the animals beneath. The zoo director insisted Charlie be interviewed so he stood at the end of the bridge with a microphone in his face.
“How does it feel to build such a unique project?”
Charlie did not like cameras or public speaking, but he smiled widely. He had done many things he did not want to do in his life. He made a reply and thanked the zoo for the opportunity.
Charlie stood at the end of the bridge and looked up into the crowd of people gathered. The afternoon sun shone down on him and blurred out the people’s faces, but still he saw her, his Elaine. She was wearing that midnight dress and beige fur; he wondered how she could stand it as he wiped sweat off his forehead.
“What inspired this elaborate design, Mr. McClain?”
The reporter reeled in Charlie’s attention as Elaine slipped back in the crowd. He wondered why she was here.
A freudian slip.
“Your wife? How is that?”
Charlie searched the crowd, but Elaine had disappeared. “She loves the zoo and she always wanted to be closer to the animals.”
“Well, you have accomplished that, haven’t you?”
As the reporter carried on in front of the camera,Charlie walked back to his truck. Charlie was glad none of his crew said anything about his comment, but maybe they had not heard what he said.
Charlie only ordered the hamburger tonight. The day had ended and their project was scheduled to finish on time. The director was pleased. Charlie stretched out his legs beneath the small table and gulped down his Coke. The waitress was different than the night before. She was prompt to refill his glass. If Charlie had noticed he would have tipped her more, but he was watching for Elaine.
Charlie leaned forward in his chair as he contemplated calling it a night. The woman in the midnight dress did not appear and Charlie wondered if he would be able to sleep.
“Good morning, Charlie.”
Charlie accepted the coffee graciously.
“Did you see the interview on TV last night?”
The director was not as flirtatious morning. Charlie thought it was because he would be leaving soon.
“Don’t watch the news.”
“Oh. Well, someone should tell you that you made quite the impression. I’m sure your wife was thrilled to be mentioned on the news.”
“I’m not married.”
“But you said-”
“I’m divorced. Some people never leave you though.”
The director looked down at her hand that held her coffee and studied the impression of her wedding ring. She had removed the band every morning for the last six months, but the pale, indented skin would not let her forget her husband at home.
Thanks for reading! Would you give it a thumbs up? -Abby