The homes atop Pine Crest, the highest road in the town, were baronial and of another age, even with the obvious modernizations, the central AC units secreted behind muscular rhododendron bushes, the security cameras bolted to the roof soffits and the automatic sprinkler heads and child-safe trampolines in the front yards.
Charlie happened upon the road that winter on one of her rambling weekend walks, a part of rehab with no structure other than putting on her Sauconys and getting out the door, a part that did make her sweat, but not from anxiety. What she first noticed about the homes, what was rare in other parts of the town, were the deep wraparound porches, some as spacious as barn dance floors, a reminder of sultry summer nights when families sat outside on Adirondack chairs, waiting for the refreshing hilltop breezes.
But this spring it was the trees more than the grand homes that brought her here. On Friday evenings, a work week behind her, she got into the habit of stopping at the Whole Foods across from the train station for an artisanal pizza and a quart of organic lemonade and then driving up to Pine Crest. She’d read on the web site of the local historical society that the wide road was an aboricultural avenue into history. At least two of the great trees, a sycamore and a white oak, aligned by nature with all the other trees in two towering colonnades between which the road had been rolled out, were standing tall during the Revolution. They grew into giants before the Dutch immigrants settled on the hilltop while clearing the lowland for farming. Other trees, more oaks of course as well as an ash and a holly—but, curiously, no pines— all achieving their apogees far above the chimney tops, were nearly as old.
Charlie would park the Altima on the eastern end of the road and stroll down to where it ended at the Quaker’s stone meeting house and then back, above her a continuous vault formed by the interlocking branches, like the entrance into Valhalla. She was so amazed that these ancient things were still sprouting baby leaves, their gnarly, twisted arms swaying in the breeze like a young mother’s arms cradling her newborn. She had lost interest in the modern world and liked to place her palms against the deeply creviced barks, close her eyes and purge her mind of the human race.
The Friday before, tiny blossoms of pink and white were beginning life at the branch tips. The following days were rainy and then warm, and the combination must have been like an injection of adrenaline straight into the trees’ woody hearts.
“Oh my god,” Charlie exhaled as she turned the Altima onto Pine Crest’s eastern terminus.
Her first thought was fireworks, all the fireworks at the town’s July extravaganza, exploded at the same time and then at the peak of their ascent, bending but not descending, stopping in space, every natural color a bright arrow of birth and promise. She didn’t think about parking and just let the Altima roll along slowly as she stretched over the steering wheel so she could gaze up in awe through the windshield.
Even looking where she shouldn’t, she saw it happen at the edge of her vision. A miniature person with a nimbus of candy-colored hair on a half-size blue bike with training wheels materialized without warning from in front of a car parked at the side of the road.
Charlie reacted instantaneously, putting every ounce of her one-hundred twenty-eight pounds on the foot brake. The Altima, a year old, paid-in-full and scrupulously maintained, stopped dead as if it had collided with an Army tank. But it had still gone inches too far. There was a thump as bike and rider dropped out of view.
Ninety years ago, decades after the hard rock mines in the hills northwest of Charlie’s town were depleted or when the companies saw there wasn’t enough metal left in the ground to justify the cost of labor, equipment and transportation, the state set aside forty-five thousand acres for a sprawling public park. Tables for weekend picnics were placed around lakes that had road access. Everywhere else was designated protected wild areas with primitive shelters along hiking trails etched through the hardwood forests and along the hillsides. Over time, as the town and the state stopped haranguing each other with ancient deeds and documents specific to where the town ended and the park began, it was decided that three thousand meters of the park’s southern border would in perpetuity abut the town’s northwestern limits. The compromise paved the way for a string of short, no-exit town roads, all ending in two granite stanchions joined by now-rusted steel chains and Vehicle Traffic Prohibited signs. On the other side, the wild land began.
When Charlie became aware, fully aware, not the occasional punctuations of awareness during her blackouts that lasted only a heartbeat before the darkness again swept her into its thick cloak, she found herself looking straight ahead at the bottom of one such dead end. The entangled foliage on the other side of the barrier was, like the great trees on Pine Crest, awake with spring, an abundance of small, tea green leaves yearning for the last elixir of the day’s light.
The thing about her blackouts that puzzled Charlie, and fascinated her too, the thing no one could explain or thought important enough to explain, not the school counselors early on or the therapists later or even her fellow travelers on the strange path she traveled, was the sensation of nothingness that greeted her when she returned to the woke world.
The way she tried to explain it, she was conscious, but, for a few attenuated minutes, a being without self-awareness, a blank page, a human of course, but one with a mind at zero. There was only her and whatever was right in front of her. It could be a few people she did not recognize, if she recognized them as people at all, milling on the sidewalk outside a bar, paying no attention to her. It could be a clerk in a market screaming at her to get out of the store now or she was calling the police. Or it could be the sky, night or day, if in her shadow world she’d gotten shoved to the ground by someone she’d spat at or otherwise drunkenly insulted or if she reclined that way because she wanted to.
This time it was different, bucolic, a curtain of soft green, silent and still, viewed through the windshield of a car. As with most other times, regardless of what was there in front of her, the emptiness that greeted her was blissful. There was no memory, no knowledge of personal disasters, no despair about a failed career, no regrets about lovers departed or abandoned. These moments, she once told a shrink, were like existence as a blade of grass or at most a mayfly, a mindless, living entity breathing air and soaking in light, conscious of nothing apart from itself. Life stripped of everything but life.
“Do you get it?” She so wanted people to understand. “Do you get how perfect that is? To be mindless?”
Her listeners nodded and said amazing and rarely had a clue what she was talking about.
The first time it happened was on a night in late August when her parents were on a dinner date, bullied out of the house by June, her older sister, who was about to depart for BU and had collected friends on the back deck. It was a gathering June told Charlie in explicit terms she was not invited to.
She sulked in front of the TV, her annoyance growing into anger, a physical heat that needed no fuel other than itself. She tried to shake free, turning up the volume on Survivor, a show she totally loved, but the story line kept slipping away from her. All that was left, the only way out that might work was to trick herself. She would find a distraction, something powerful that would subdue the rejection, something even painful itself. She knew it was perverse, but it had worked in the past, the evidence parallel pink tracks on her inner thighs and other concealed parts of her body. At fourteen, it was the only coping mechanism she had.
What happened next happened fast. She was at her parent’s liquor cabinet near the kitchen doorway, a small double-doored lowboy of distressed brown wood and antique strap hinges of black iron. She’d been here a few times before, stolen a sip or two, a bad girl flirtation, and giggled back to her room. This time, she unscrewed a bottle of Absolut Vodka, filled her mouth right there and swallowed. The liquid scratched its way into her stomach like a small hot twig. She swallowed another. At the foot of the stairs to the bedrooms, she swallowed a third. By the time she made it to the second floor, the bottle swinging at her side, she was bouncing off the wall. Before she made it to her room, the precursor of all the blackouts that would follow, the most dangerous and most seductive thrill of her future dependence, entered her life.
She couldn’t even guess what followed. There were clues, but they were cryptic. On the floor of her room, the new striped bowtie hot pants she was wearing, the pair she’d bought at Abercrombie & Fitch specifically for June’s party. Her mattress stripped of its coverings, which were stuffed under the bed. The empty Absolut bottle in the bathroom sink. None of it told her anything.
When she did rise to the surface, she was standing barefoot in her underwear on the cool grass of the front lawn. Bodies crisscrossed in front of her like dancers changing places; car doors opened and slammed shut. There was a voice, pleading, but having no effect on the departures. Headlights seared her embryonic vision. As one car followed the other into the night, Charlie became aware of the word June as if a secret whispered in a remote corner of her head, or perhaps she just pictured the four letters side by side, a code for her to decipher.
The figure who remained standing before her watched the red tail lights round a corner, leaving behind darkness and sudden silence. Turning, the figure bent forward, bare arms crossed against the night chill, looking at the ground. A gravelly, disgusted “Ahhhh.” Nearing Charlie, the figure stopped.
“Remember that I said you could visit me in Boston?” the figure said calmly. “Forget it. You can’t.”
The figure—this had to be June—continued to the house, then stopped again.
“You can’t visit me anywhere!”
Charlie may have sensed anger, but it was mostly outside her tiny dome of understanding, like a sleeping person awakened to a human scream the conscious mind never heard. She could not fathom the meaning of what the figure had said and certainly not what to do about it. Understanding and regret would come later. That information would not be delivered by June, who with unexpected magnanimity said nothing to their parents, but who could only laugh bitterly at Charlie’s claim that she had no recollection of what she had done in front of her friends behind the house. When she spoke to Charlie in the weeks that followed, on the few occasions they spoke at all, June made it clear that she would not waste a breath recounting Charlie’s performance. Instead Charlie was told about it by one of the boys who was there, who fondly retained the image of Charlie’s nakedness and who asked her out for a drive when he came across her the next summer working the front desk in the town library. Charlie permitted him some liberties with the real body provided he enlightened her about what had caused the fracture with her sister.
What Charlie did recall about that night—a diamond-hard recollection she held close for the revelation she believed it to be—was finding herself left alone on the grass, bending backward impossibly far as the Absolut inured her against physical pain, facing the starry expanse of the suburban sky as if for the first time and believing that it was all placed there just for her.
And so, sitting in the Altima, it was familiar in a way, a kind of muscle memory, Charlie’s body conveying twitches of information while her gobsmacked brain took in the end of the peaceful town road as if it was paradise itself.
After a while, a length time she could not have measured, her mental faculties began to reassemble, but slowly, one visualization, one abstract idea, one emotion at a time. It never happened in any particular order, although here it began, helpfully, at the beginning. “Charlie. I am Charlie Moore.” She pictured this Charlie Moore riding the train from the city and stopping to pick up her dinner, although she did not dare look around for her canvas shopping bag and risk not finding it.
As the euphoria petered out, doubt, mainly about the car, crept in. Parts were familiar, the HD display on the dash, the coffee-toned faux leather seats, the balled-up gum wrappers and lip gloss tubes in the center storage console. But the steering wheel, all those buttons and symbols. What did they have to do with steering? She sensed all this belonged to her, the pieces of her existence. Yet it was somehow wrong, as if she was looking at a photo from another time, a year ago or in a year to come or in a drawing a police artist rendered based on her description, more notable for what was missing than for what was there.
She had an idea, really less an idea than an impulse. She fumbled with the door panel at her side, found the handle and got herself outside. The walk around the front was frightening and also exciting in its newness. Seated now behind the steering wheel, not on the passenger side where she’d never been, she recovered more of who she was. With that, the image of the child on the bicycle dropping out of sight appeared. And then there was something else, something about herself. It was not as horrifying the Altima striking a kid, but it was big and as the seconds passed, it got bigger, exceeding the reach of her recovering acuity. And though she could not yet comprehend what it meant, she sensed, powerfully, that it was also very bad.
Charlie locked the Altima and on foot headed out of the dead-end. She recognized nothing, not the street, not the homes. There were three on either side on generous properties, each two acres or more. The homes were large but not old, not in the context of her town, postwar vintage, all with the same boxy design, small-scale variations of mill town warehouses, all needing work, roofing and new gutters and power washing to rid the sidings of decades of grime and neglect. Apparently, she’d driven herself to the other side of the tracks.
That she’d fled Pine Crest was clear. Why was not. Had she outdone herself at last with a hit and run and sped off to this secluded street to hide out? Or had there been a confrontation, maybe with the child’s parents? Did she turn a difficult situation into complete ruination? History had shown that her doppelganger was not adverse to trouble, but as far as she could tell it was mischief more than villainy. She’d never woken to find herself in jail or in a hospital with a cracked skull. A fragment of law-abiding instinct, it seemed, didn’t go blank with the rest of her.
Fully herself, she tried to remember more, but it was as futile now as it had always been, her memory a hollow ring endlessly chasing its own tail. All that came back to her was the moment of impact with the bike rider. The image was crystal clear, but that was no guarantee it happened. Over the years, she had other post-blackout memories she was certain had occurred; yet it was hard to know for sure. When she could work up the courage, she tried to investigate what she could not recall. The intentions were good, the results spotty. Strangers who may have been in the vicinity of her performances were hard to find. The few people she kept company with—never were they friends—were at least as drunk as she and any scant information they could offer was unreliable. At most, she heard about the humiliating highlights. What she learned from the boy at June’s party, recounted in intimate detail and with a separate agenda, was both a first and a rarity. Mystery, maddening and uncrackable, went hand in hand with her affliction.
At the first intersection, she opened her phone’s GPS map and saw that she was just over the town line in the neighboring village. She’d driven less than a half-mile from Pine Crest. Daylight was still plentiful. She would walk back and find out what she could about the little girl, face the consequences and see if she could help heal the harm. This was part of the Twelve Steps—admit your failures and make amends. She’d been doing that and dutifully as well as checking off all the other steps in the two years since the early Sunday morning she had stumbled out of a river view high rise and a one-night disaster with a professor in the math department where she worked. She sat on a bench in Riverside Park, looking at cargo barges floating serenely down the Hudson and letting an empty pint of Jack slip from her fingers. What happened next she couldn’t say until she returned to herself on the downtown platform of the subway station at 110th Street and Broadway, tilting dangerously over the downtown tracks. Two years and not a sip—or a blackout—since.
She’d been warned. Years ago, a therapist told her about non-alcoholic blackouts; the technical term was psychogenic. Given that she was highly susceptible to checking out when drunk, there was a risk it could happen when she was dry.
“Is there treatment?” she asked.
“Nothing medical that I know of.”
“What about decapitation?”
“That would be an end, not a solution,” the therapist said gravely.
Charlie was attempting humor while the therapist, she realized, was referring to suicide, something that had not crossed her mind until that moment. From then on, she never tried to be ironic during therapy. Google informed her that psychogenic blackouts meant losing consciousness for no reason other than that’s what your brain wants to do. It meant falling into a deep sleep-state; it was not having no memory of a period of full physical functionality. She concluded that she was not psychogenic and left it at that. Now the little more she read gathered out of the past like a bad credit history. People with recurring psychogenic symptoms can never hold a driver’s license; they can’t be trusted with jobs that others depend on or with making critical decisions on their own; they can’t operate machinery or handle sharp instruments; they can’t cross the street without being accompanied; they can’t even eat alone because they may pass out with half-swallowed food and choke to death; they can’t do anything, except sleep in a bed, without being watched over.
As she walked, the new Charlie, the psychogenic Charlie, thought it was a good time to think about killing herself. After the therapist planted the idea in her head, that option became a regular companion, not always front and center, but waiting in the wings to put in an appearance whenever she took a dive. It frightened her at first, watching her mind drifting routinely to death by her own hand, but somewhere she read that the freedom to take one’s life bore many a troubled soul through the darkest night. So she accepted it for what it accomplished, like the cutting years ago and the drinking and every one of her other acts of creeping self-destruction, pain to block the pain. It was her ace in the hole. She could do it tonight, drive to the highway and crash head-on into an overpass pier. She sketched out the details. Go home first and change out of her nice work clothes, a black and white checkered top she loved and tight black slacks. Remember to unlock the seat belt. Ninety miles an hour should do the trick. She felt bad for the Altima. Having a car she was proud of, a vehicle that reflected good character, was a something she got from her father. As far as current relationships, the Altima was all she had. It wasn’t the car’s fault that its owner was a lost cause. Maybe pills—she’d cached all that she needed many, many times over—would be better.
She worked her way up and down and around increasingly affluent roads and came back to Pine Crest. She looked up at the celestial canopy and whispered “Take me,” a plea to be raised by the tree goddesses and painlessly dissolved into sustenance, her essence to prolong their lives another century or more. At the other end she saw nothing, no police prowlers, no ambulance, no one. It was trickery of course. She knew better than to trust the illusion of good news. She always expected the worst, and when it didn’t happen, all she had to do was wait.
Hearing her proper name was like a strong hand seizing her collar from behind and yanking her to a hard stop. Good, she thought, she’d been discovered; there’d be no need wander house to house trying to uncover what had happened to the child on the bike and whatever other mess she left behind.
She turned to the voice to find an older man ten yards up a driveway holding a garden hose, spraying water on a perfectly rounded bush of small sturdy leaves.
“It’s John Evoldi, from the high school.”
His voice was reedy, his frame spindly inside a white tee shirt and cargo shorts that reached down almost to his ankles and a pair of faded huaraches, his hair a combover the mottled coloring of an old lemon. He in no way resembled the trim and fashionable history teacher who spoke in crisp, complete sentences and urged his students to take language classes in ancient Greek.
He cut off the spray and approached her in dragging steps. The house behind him had turrets on either side and four shorter gables in between. Like other houses on Pine Crest, it could have doubled for a Regency manor in a Jane Austen film adaptation.
“I would have recognized you anywhere,” he said.
“Same here,” Charlie lied.
But there was much she did retain. Junior year she’d joined the poster club, publicizing school plays, concerts, fundraising for underage mothers, safe sex and drug counseling. By then, computer graphics had almost entirely displaced the manual skills. But Charlie was stubbornly anachronistic, purchasing full-size framed canvases with her own money. Alone in her room, sometimes with two six-packs she paid off a homeless woman she got to know to buy for her, she drew through sleepless nights. Evoldi approached her about a poster she did for the science fair, a knockoff of a placard for Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian epic. The ninety-year-old expressionist image of a bald female robot staring ahead in front of a futuristic cityscape was already famous and much imitated. Charlie’s reimagining into a metal-pierced goth girl against the New York skyline was not itself original, but Evoldi said her execution was flawless. He went on and on about the depth of her drawing, almost three-dimensional, elevating the thin veneer of the original with an overpowering solidity. Charlie was unsure what he meant, but agreed to have the work displayed in the town’s art school where Evoldi, a dedicated creator of still-lifes, tutored part-time. The work went on to win first-place in a county art show.
“Do you live around here?”
He helped her with scholarship applications, and she scored a full one to Pratt, where Evoldi had taught and still had connections. He seemed to interpret that as his segue into managing her. His support was earnest and patient and infuriately intrusive. When she found herself thinking of his suggestions while she worked, she lost interest in what she was doing. After graduation, he reached out several times, but she’d moved to the city and never responded. Barely a year later, she dropped out of college and went to Sines, on the Portuguese coast, with another substance-dependent dropout. There she remained, never once touching a pencil or a brush until her student visa expired and the government kicked her out.
“I’m in my parents’ house,” said Charlie. “They moved to assisted living and I pay them rent. I come up here to look at the trees.”
“Oh, did you know they’re being tagged?”
“The dead wood?”
“The dead wood, the good wood, all the wood, right down to the roots.”
“They’re being cut down?”
“Not all of them, just the oldest.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“More than okay. These monsters are a homeowner’s nightmare. Do you know what happens to a house when ten tons of green wood falls on it? I’ve been begging the town for years to do something. The new council is finally paying attention.”
“Some of these trees were here before there was a United States. They’re still living. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“Oh dear, Charlotte. Are you a tree hugger?”
Charlie felt a loss of substance somewhere in her head, a sudden cold and empty space where she did her best to respect people she hotly disagreed with, more or less everyone she’d gotten to know on more than a nodding acquaintance. It was another life task she picked up in AA.
“Are you still painting still-lifes, Mr. Evoldi?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“I didn’t know a lot about art, but I knew enough to see that what you did were exact copies of the Impressionists, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne. Probably others I never heard about. You sold them, didn’t you? Is that how you got this place, peddling forgeries?”
Evoldi’s small brown eyes tightened under faint white eyebrows, and then he chuckled. “Of course, of course, the little viper with a paint brush. It’s coming back to me. Since you bring it up, Charlotte, let me explain the difference between us. I stuck with the art. You may not know, but I made inquiries about you. I was interested for all the right reasons whether you believe that or not. I learned you left Pratt before they expelled you for chronically showing up drunk for classes. Did you produce anything after that? Let me guess. If you did, you gave up before it was finished because it was trash. I’ve lived in the world of art for sixty years and seen so many like you. Precocious talent that hits a wall and then dries up like piss on a rock. What’s your field now, parking meter enforcement?”
“Hah! That’s a good one. I’m going to look into that.”
“Please do. Well, Charlotte, this has been nostalgic.”
“I agree. Hey, let’s meet again. This is still my favorite part of town.” She waved her arm expansively to the east. “Even with you here.”
“Yes, maybe I’ll come across you chained to a tree.”
“Or hanging from one.”
Above the Altima, the beginning of night was waiting for her. Charlie squatted down and examined the front end with her phone flashlight, first a quick scan and then again slowly, working sideways inch by inch. She found nothing, not a scratch, not a smudge of blue. She sat back against a stanchion, thought about how hungry she was and then searched again.
There was no path beyond the chain, and she used the light to find spaces to step through. Her flats provided no stability and her ankles bent and turned weirdly over roots and stones. Thin branches and brambles plucked and picked at her. She reached an opening with a patch of tall, wild grass, enough for her to lay down on her back. Through a portal of leaves shaped like a vegetable, a butternut squash perhaps, the sky clung to the final strands of the day. There she saw herself, kicking open the door of the Altima and lunging around to find the little girl, already standing and pulling the blue bike away from the front tire.
“Are you hurt?” she cried.
The child shook her head dismissively, straddled the seat and pumped hard down Pine Crest, unruly shocks of red hair bouncing off her shoulders.
Had this happened? Or was it a febrile invention of her compromised mind, perhaps a delusional response to her demented dialog with Evoldi? Would more return to her? The stars might help. She watched through her portal to the sky and waited for them to find her.
Bill Schillaci was born in New York City and attended New York University. His short stories have appeared in paper and online journals. He lives in Ridgewood NJ with his wife.