by Tim Coats
Illustrations by Walt Phillips
"Oh, did you hear about John Belushi?"
"Oh, yeah. That's a real downer."
It was at this point that Charlie began to pay attention. He had been on the streetcar for about ten minutes, and had finished the first page of the morning paper, including the John Belushi story. The two voices behind him had continued in a constant drone since he got on. They belonged to girls, perhaps twelve, one smaller than the other. That was all that was certain from his initial glance.
There was something else: the smaller one had kept an eye on him as he walked down the aisle. Since she was speaking to the other at the time, he thought that she was simply one of those people, children or otherwise, who cannot keep their full attention on what they are doing, even when they are talking.
"Did you ever see the movie Blow Up?" the smaller girl asked.
"See it. A real must, even though it was made back in the 30's. Exactly what's happening today. And the camera work is fantastic. You'd think it was done by, oh what's his name, the Englishman?"
"Oh, yes. Let me see. Uh, Winston...oh, what's his last name?"
"No, silly. I know who you mean, but this is someone else. Anthimini comes to mind. Why can I never remember that man's name?"
Charlie still held the paper in front of him, but he was no longer reading. Aside from one young fellow seated across the aisle, he and the girls were alone in the rear of the streetcar.
He toyed momentarily with the possibility that these were not the young girls he had thought. Even if his quick impression was correct, the one was certainly large enough to be a woman. The other--well, very small women do exist.
He remembered the time a few years earlier when, over a casual cup of coffee in a cafeteria, a friend had him convinced that a flashy blond sitting nearby was a female impersonator. The friend extended the point to include others in the place.
"What exactly is it," the friend had asked, "that makes you think they are what they seem. Clever people can assume characteristics of young or old, man or woman. And besides, I know about this place."
Charlie was not only capable of seeing such possibilities, but he actually began to see merit in changing identities. It was shortly after that that he shaved off his beard. It was as though he was beginning a whole new existence.
How much richer life becomes! Here were these two women, Charlie now thought to himself, rejecting their routine middle-class existence with a Saturday excursion as children.
The day became actually brighter outside, it seemed. People walking the streets grew in dimension, right in front of his eyes. My God, why not? Charlie suddenly saw the world as rich far beyond anything he had conceived before. We're all interchangeable, he thought. When we recognize that we live our lives in roles, then we can easily change them for others.
He glanced at the boy across the aisle. Did he know what was going on? Or better, was he doing it himself? Charlie had to admit, the answer was no. The boy's longish hair, unshaven peachfuzz, and well-worn clothing, his aloneness, could only indicate rebelliousness. He wanted to be himself, whatever that was.
Charlie thought of the girls behind him and experienced a chill. After a moment of hesitation, he thought, "The hell with it," turned, and looked behind him. The small girl was staring directly back. Only her face, from nose up, was visible over the seat in front. The other girl, a full head taller, was looking out the window. They both wore eye-shadow and lipstick. Charlie and the small girl held the gaze for several seconds. Then her head turned toward the other, and he became aware that she was still talking. The whole time she was looking at him she had been talking. She was obviously the aggressor of the two. Her eyes darted back to Charlie, and he turned toward the front. His heart was thumpity thumping as though he had just climbed to the top of a hill. He felt as though he had stolen something from a friend's house, and the friend had seen him. He glanced at the boy, who was paying no attention, and then out the window. The girls might think him simply another critical adult. That would be fine.
The voices drifted slowly back to his ears. He waited to hear something about himself. The larger girl was talking in a stronger, more confident voice.
"It's hard to believe the kind of thing I used to like, all that Cowboy and Indian stuff. Billy still loves it. I don't know if he'll ever grow up."
"Oh, that Billy," said the small one. "I could never understand what you see in the little fascist."
"Well, it's a little hard, you know, to avoid someone who lives next door and whose parents are friends of your own parents."
"And that father of his. Do you know who he voted for in the last election?"
"I forget now."
"Reagan! That's who. Ronny-boy Reagan."
"I understand. You don't have to keep repeating it."
"I know. I'm getting carried away. But the sound of that man's name simply infuriates me, Helen."
Charlie was astounded. People in the front of the streetcar were looking back. The girls were almost shouting. The boy across the aisle was incredibly blasé, his eyes transfixed on the moving world out the window. Charlie was also looking out his window, but his mind was racing. Was he finally grasping the significance of 'the generation gap'? Were these girls typical? Or were they, at least the small one, the types who got involved with grown men?
Accept this much he told himself: they were indeed young girls, between ten and twelve, the small one might have been nine. Their voices were the giveaway. The small one spoke slowly, precisely, with a James Mason flair. The other couldn't keep her words from running together, though she was trying her best. No, the cleverest adult could not imitate a child imitating an adult.
"You do get carried away, Madeleine."
"Really, I don't usually. You do it to me. I don't know quite why. Perhaps because we communicate so well. I'm alone but for you, my dear."
Correction. Katherine Hepburn could play the role, Charlie thought.
"We should get off the stop after this."
"No, silly, this is our stop. Unless, of course, you want to do a little extra walking."
Charlie got off with the girls. The small one dropped her purse and bent down demurely to pick it up. The movement was perfectly designed to reveal little more than miniskirt exposure. A playboy bunny dip.
As they walked to the edge of the island the small girl, ahead of him, turned. "Excuse me. I couldn't help noticing. You are the spitting image of my teacher last year in the fifth grade. Except, of course, he had a beard and long hair. You didn't, by any chance, have a beard at one time?"
"Did I?" he asked rhetorically. A cold chill raced up and down his spine, over and over, nonstop. He was lucky to be able to talk. He hoped he wouldn't faint. He hadn't taught the fifth grade for three years. Or was it only two. She wasn't old enough for that. She didn't look familiar.
"No, it's not possible," she said. "I can be so silly at times. Well, we can't stand here all day. Would you care to walk with us a bit?"
"Madeleine!" her friend Helen said. "He has things to do!"
"Well, why don't you let him answer for himself?" Madeleine said slowly, enticingly, her mouth widening into a dramatic, tentative smile. Bits of what looked like chocolate edged her lips.
"He doesn't in the least want to spend his time with us," Helen said.
"Shush!" Madeleine said, turning on her ferociously.
"Don't you 'shush' me!" said Helen, stumbling slightly over the words.
"Oh, you--you spoil everything!" said Madeleine. She swung her purse, which was like a little doll's purse, ringed with tiny yellow beads, at Helen's face. Charlie saw the purse connect with the other's full cheek, causing it to contort as boxers' faces are shown contorting when pictures are taken just as they are punched.
"You vixen!" Madeleine screamed.
Charlie noticed people on the street stopping and looking. Helen's eyes blazed. She reached her arm back full length and brought it around in a wide arc with the hand open. Madeleine waited for the slap, which knocked her back into Charlie.
"Now that's enough!" he shouted.
They both stiffened and looked at him, Madeleine with big, loving, pleading eyes. Then she seemed caught up in an idea: her lips tried out various smiles before she said, "I am certainly sorry you had to see this. I hope it didn't give you the wrong impression. I can assure you we're not always this way."
Her eyes were begging Charlie. What does a person do in a case like this? he asked himself.
"Well, I'd better be going," he said.
"Believe me, sir, I don't blame you for a minute," said Madeleine. "I'd be surprised if you reacted in any other way. I'm Madeleine Forrester, by the way, and this is Helen Dozier."
"You'll make somebody a fine wife someday," he said before leaving.
Madeleine looked at him with pride and admiration as he walked away. As Charlie rounded the corner she was still there with the same expression on her face.
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