I’m a sucker for a flashy redhead. Cherry has bucket seats, four on the floor, dual exhaust, and moves when you ask her to. She’s getting old, driven just about every day for over twenty years. I know how she feels, so I pamper her.
Charlene is a pretty redhead too. The red hair is recent but the rest of her, painted lips, big breasts, big hands, they’ve been the same since I’ve known her. Charlene works hard. She moves when she’s damn good and ready. Sometimes she lets me pamper her. Sometimes she pampers me.
We’re lying on the bed with the moss green sheets in the Jungle Room of the Pines Motel. The desk clerk didn’t blink when we checked in. Two women spending the night together doesn’t interest him as much as a rerun of McHale’s Navy. There are life-sized cheetahs on the wallpaper, chasing each other around the room. Charlene has been calling me Tarzan all night. When I remember I call her Jane, but that’s my mother’s name, life is confusing enough, so I forget.
Charlene hasn’t decided if she’s my girlfriend or not yet. She’s got a lot on her mind. She works as a waitress three nights a week and goes to Community College days. She hasn’t declared a major yet. Charlene’s almost forty. She’s at an undecided stage of her life. Not that she’s a wishy-washy type of person. She just makes her own decisions in her own time.
We’re rolling around in bed and I say, “Charlene, whose girl are you?” Like you might say in the ear of the woman you are lying on top of, while she’s got a hand full of you. Most women would say, “Yours Baby,” if not from passion at least from habit or politeness.
Not Charlene. She says, “I don’t know honey, it’s too soon to tell.” She goes right on moving her hips and groaning. I try to be cool, but it hurts my feelings. I’ve got to wonder what all this fucking is about. I been around the block a few times and there’s been more than one woman I’ve been undecided about myself, but we’ve been doing this every Tuesday and Friday night for months now. It’s not too soon for me to tell. Charlene wants a better life, she’s just not sure I’m going to be in it. I suppose I should be happy that she’s being honest with me, but I feel like this is some kind of test drive. What can I do? I’m crazy about her. She’s got the wheel.
There’s another problem with this arrangement. I’m getting tired of this motel. It was exciting at first, but it’s getting old. We’ve been in the Jungle Room nine times. There’s a trapeze in here, a trampoline too. You only need a two-foot bounce, straight up to reach the trapeze, then it’s a pretty limp swing. It’s like sex; sometimes the idea of it is more exciting than the actual ride. Charlene’s got plenty of extras. We don’t have to be wasting our hard-earned money on all this equipment.
We’re here because I live with my mother. My mother is old. Shit, I’m old. My mother would like Charlene. Charlene is a lady, respectful, unless she’s mad. My mother would like Charlene but I guess I better find out if Charlene’s my girlfriend before I bring her home. It doesn’t break my mother’s heart that I’m this way anymore, but she wants to see me in a steady relationship before she dies. I’m trying.
We can’t go to Charlene’s place because her husband is there. That’s how we met, through her husband. I’d say husband is the wrong word. That’s what Charlene calls him. They lived together for a few years, like husband and wife. Now they just live together.
His name is Dave. I ran into him one day when he was waiting for Charlene outside of K-Mart. I pulled into the parking space next to him. Cherry was shining red, still wet from the car wash.
“Nice car,” he says.
“Thanks,” I say.
“’69?” he asks.
I nodded yes, got out and locked Cherry up, planning to have a quick one at the bar across the street. He tried to start up his car. His engine wouldn’t turn over. It was July, getting hot. Dave thought it was overheated, but I could tell it was the battery.
“Want a jump?” I asked, unlocking Cherry’s trunk and grabbing the cables. Before he gets his jump we start talking cars. He loves Mustangs. Cherry’s a Mustang. He couldn’t get over her paint job or her interior. Wanted to buy her. I could see by the way he took care of his Impala he wouldn’t maintain her. Besides, I wouldn’t sell Cherry.
We decided we needed a beer more than the Impala needed a jump so we walked over to the bar. He left a note for Charlene. It was a small note written on the back of a book of matches. It said, “Next door,” with an arrow pointing across the street. He stuck it under the windshield wiper.
The note was too short and the beer was too long. About an hour later Charlene walked through the side door of the bar pissed off and pushing a shopping cart full of K-Mart. She pushed the cart right over to our table and started unloading.
“Your shirts,” she said and plunked six flannels in front of Dave. “Three for twenty dollars.”
“Your toilet paper,” she plunked down 30 rolls one at a time. “Ten bucks.”
Then she piled a few cans of mixed nuts, some cleaning stuff and a TV Guide next to him on the bench, pricing as she went. She slid into the booth on my side and hoisted the real prize onto the table, “And one battery $39.77 on sale,” she said. “For one shit head.”
Then she turned to me and said, “At least my husband chose a good looking woman to leave me alone for, with a ton of his stuff, in the boiling sun.”
She was stretching her points. It was hot but not boiling. Nobody has ever called me a good looking woman and like I say, to my mind, Dave is not really her husband. She was right to be pissed though. We should have waited for her.
So it’s six months later and here I am lying next to Charlene in the Jungle Room again. She sits up in bed and says, “Baby, I’ve made up my mind.”
I say, “Huh?” My voice wasn’t what you’d call gentle. It was five o’clock in the morning. We had a nice night, but we didn’t get here till midnight and when you’re in a sixty dollar room with a trampoline you tend to bounce around on it whether it’s still a kick or not. So I was tired.
She says, “We belong together.”
I say, “Ya, we do,” and roll over, hoping she’ll do the same.
She shakes my shoulder, says “Come on, wake up honey. I want to go to confession.”
I figure she means this literally since we’re not in the room with the altar and candles. I have mixed feelings. The “Baby we belong together,” part feels good. The confession part feels like trouble.
“What do you need to confess?” I ask.
“Us,” she says.
I’m surprised to hear this, since, the very first time we met in that bar Charlene explained to me that the Bible doesn’t have a thing to say about women sleeping together. At first I thought it was just her way of flirting and pissing Dave off. I suppose it was all of that but she also meant it sincerely, as a point of faith. I’m not religious myself, but I’ve got an Aunt on my father’s side that’s a stone butch and she’s a nun in good standing. Like Charlene says, the Church doesn’t care as long as you don’t go around bragging about it.
I say, “Honey, go to sleep. There’s no sin in sex. Jesus loves you. I love you.”
She says, “Don’t be conceited. It’s not just you. I’ve got a husband.”
This husband stuff again. Charlene is honest, but she’s prone to dramatics. It gets on my nerves. I say, “Come off it Charlene. You didn’t have a church ceremony and you’ve got no license, so you don’t have a husband.”
She says, “God knows we were married.”
I say, “For Christ’s sake.” Which wasn’t nice because she really is upset and wants to do right religiously. I roll over. Charlene listens to all my problems, takes a real interest. I should do the same. I just wish she would wait until nine o’clock like she usually does. I sit up in bed meaning to apologize, but that kind of thing comes to me slow. Before I say a thing she’s hooking her bra around her waist and hoisting it up over her breasts in a huff and before I can pull up my pants she’s out the door. I trip over the trampoline and peek through the mauve curtains. Charlene’s leaning on Cherry and searching through my jacket pocket, which she grabbed on her way out. She finds Cherry’s keys and off they go, together, my car for sure and my girlfriend, maybe.
These old cars have big gas tanks and Cherry’s is full. They could be gone a long time. They won’t find a priest awake at five o’clock in the morning. The saints in heaven are still asleep. For the next couple of hours I join them.
Now I’m waiting and waiting. It’s after ten. I’m getting nervous. After eleven you have to pay for a full extra night. Cherry’s got my wallet. It’s under her front seat. I hope Charlene doesn’t know it. I nod off in the chair by the bed, and thank you Jesus, Charlene and Cherry screech in.
I meet her at the door and say, “You okay baby?” Which is the right thing to say.
She says, “Like you care.” But I can tell she softened up. I glance beyond her, see Cherry parked in her spot. Charlene sits on the bed and takes off her flats. She rubs her feet.
“Where have you been?”
“You bought me breakfast,” she says, and hands me my wallet. “Then I talked to Father John.”
“Confession doesn’t start till twelve,” I say.
“That’s why I went to the rectory, my dear.”
I move a little closer since she said, ‘My dear.’ “He heard confession in his living room?” I ask. I don’t think that’s kosher.
“No, at the breakfast table. He had to. I told him I was having a crisis of faith. It’s his job after all.”
“So are you absolved?”
“Well, I told him about my husband and he said the same as you, no church, no sacrament, no husband. He said my sin was having sex with a man I wasn’t married to, but not as big a sin as if we were married and I was having sex with a different man or if I wasn’t having sex at all but did get married in the church and got divorced.”
“Shit. What did he think when you told him about us?”
“Who cares what he thinks? None of it’s any of his business. I just wanted this thing with Dave ended formally. God likes things to be ended formally. It’s Father John’s job to get messages through to Him.”
Charlene looks incredible, her face glowing, like she slept ten hours and really has talked to God.
“So did your message get through?”
“Well, sure, I’ve been gone five hours. Of course I spent a couple hours at Denny’s and the K-Mart.”
“What did you get at K-Mart?” I don’t see a K-Mart bag, but I notice she’s wearing something different under her coat.
She takes the coat off and smiles. Leopard skin leotards, some new perfume I can’t name. They sell all kinds of things at K-Mart. We’re going to end up paying for an extra night. It’s Okay, we’ve never been alone in the daytime.
I say, “Charlene, now that you don’t have a husband, maybe we can get a place of our own.”
“Redheads”, The Persistent Desire , edited by Joan Nestle, Alyson Publications, Inc.,1992.
“Redheads”, Women in the Window , edited by Pamela Pratt, Starbooks Press, August 1993.