I am an observer. I am not a participator. Chuck O’Malley is the participator. I think that was the root of the collision.
“That’s right, sir!” a well-fed smile informed me. “Just straight-up coffee and lattés.”
“So you don’t serve frappuccinos? Of any kind?”
“No, sir.” The cashier leaned into me, her eyes twinkling as if she could be telling me the location of some secret treasure. “But I can get the latté iced for you, if you want.”
I rolled my eyes and moodily produced my wallet. It was embarrassingly tattered. Needed to be replaced. I made a mental note. “Fine. How much is that?”
“The bow in your hair,” I snapped sarcastically. The corners of the cashier’s mouth suddenly flipped quite the opposite direction, and her sausage-like fingers shot up and fumbled with the frighteningly pink ribbon they found there. I sighed. “No, the iced latté.”
The smile was back. “Three twenty-five, sir.”
I had moved to Milton two days ago. It was named after the author, of course. I couldn’t have approved of the decision more, for to me, the town was truly a Paradise Lost. Four years of university education for a cramped apartment in a spot I had only been able to find on one map (and that was in the visitors’ center).
Oh, yes, I’d found a way to pay off my student loans. The blog paid for those. But living in New York? Aye, there’s the rub. So, I had moved to Milton. I had settled in my apartment, and I had bought a latté.
I trudged away from the counter and found a comfortable spot near the window, far from humanity. I opened my laptop and allowed the blue glow of the screen to wash over my face. I scanned the words that greeted me there.
That was me— or rather, my blog. I had christened it as such, hoping there would be enough Collins’ at university to disguise my identity as Henry Collins, the guy who never scored a touchdown but scored a million followers and ten sponsors instead.
I began to type.
“Hiya.” It was a curious figure who interrupted the flawless, rhythmic tapping of my fingertips against the keys. I had been in perfect flow, relaying the recent stupidity of my cashier and artistically declaring my opinion on the declining employee standards of 21st century America. “Chuck O’Malley, at your service.” A large, expectant hand was suspended right in front of my nose, blocking my view of the words I was typing. It was hairy— very hairy; a wart-speckled lump of rough, weathered skin, smelling of mustard and smoke. There was no avoiding it. I met his gaze.
I almost felt sorry for him. The contrast between our two expressions could not have been more apparent. His smile was almost as big as his hand. I knew mine was nonexistent. His face reminded me of a bulldog’s, wrinkled and dimpled and splotched in almost every area possible, likely out of the pure exertion of maintaining such enthusiasm for existence. I expected mine looked more like a Chihuahua’s.
“Henry. Good name. New around here, aren’t you?”
I silently prayed a disinterested grunt would suffice to move him away.
“You know,” he announced, pulling up a chair and plopping himself down across from me, “I once saved the life of a man named Henry.”
With all the subtlety I could muster, I attempted to catch the eye of a sympathetic employee. The cashier was thoroughly engrossed in picking a new song for the shop’s playlist. I made a mental note to report this once I was comfortably separated from the situation.
“Yup. See, I was walking down a bridge one night— dark and horrid old place to begin with, only one working lamp on the thing, and even that was flickering.”
I sipped my latté. It tasted like smoke and mustard.
“Well, I see a blur I knew wasn’t usually there. Now, I’ll be the first to tell you I have the eyesight of a blind possum, but I says to myself, ‘That blur sure as hell looks just like the shape of a man!’ So I walk a little further. And, by God, it was a man. He was standing on the rail of the bridge, shakin’ and quiverin’, like one of them vibrating toys the ladies use. You’re a smart looking man, so you know that can only mean one thing.” He was still smiling, displaying each yellow tooth with ardent pride. This struck me as odd, considering the gravity of the account.
“So I start walking over to him. But Henry, I swear to you, the minute I put my foot down, the bastard jumps! Now I’m not the type to give up an’ call it quits just like that, no sir. I run down the side of that bridge, ripping my shirt and belt off and probably lookin’ like a chased chicken, and I plunge right into that icy cold water. You ever sat on a glacier, Henry?”
I shook my head.
“Well, lemme tell you, my ass was half frozen sitting on them glaciers in Alaska, but it was full frozen that night.”
Chuck continued to expound upon his adventure with an intriguing combination of verbal dramatics and charades. He showed me the stroke he used to reach the drowning citizen, held up my arm to visually express the depth of the water, and even roped an unassuming chair into the business by trapping it under his bulging arm to represent the position of the man as he was dragged to shore.
I did not know whether to be profoundly impressed or excusably repelled. It was a fascinating spectacle, this man, with his mid-air freestyle and unapologetic clichés. His eyes were almost glass-like; the faded kind you find by the sea. They sparkled under the haze of his age as the story intensified, a mixture of youth and decay I had scarcely seen in any other human being.
As the narrative came to a close, I found myself not quite as relieved as I had previously anticipated, but, rather, invigorated— launched into a new direction. Our conversation dwindled, I made my excuses with as much tact as possible, and we said our goodbyes.
The curiosity was that, after receiving a large amount of success in school, my blog had recently begun to decline due to internet trolls. These unidentified critics had taken upon themselves the duty of reminding me in the comments of every post that not everyone was interested in complaint articles— that the rest of the world wanted good news; a hero to root for, a champion. I had not found many of these in my experience, nor was I a fiction writer, therefore I had thoroughly disregarded these comments… and the sponsor notes… and the rapidly declining number of followers. But Chuck was a champion— a real-life, down-to-earth hero. His story could be the post I needed— perhaps the one that would get me back to New York.
I saved my draft and returned to the charming cashier. She had taken to blowing bubbles nearly as large as her face with her pink gum, loudly smacking it between attempts.
“Do you know that guy?” I whispered, producing a blue notebook and a ballpoint pen from my pocket. Carefully hiding it under the counter, I scribbled out a brief overview of Chuck’s story while awaiting her response (she had been mid-bubble).
“Of course I know him.” She finally chomped. “That’s Chuck. He comes here all day, every day.”
“Does he?” I mused, hardly interested in his daily schedule. “And do you know anything about this rescue he performed? The suicide incident? You did see him perform it for me, didn’t you?”
“Oh, I saw him. He does carry on.”
“I see you’re a cynic, too. But really, you don’t believe him?”
Her round, pale hand was pointing to another customer who had been sitting alone in the opposite corner of the shop. I say “had been” because he was quite the opposite of alone just now. Chuck was positioned directly across from him, standing on a chair, yelling down at some unseen damsel supposedly trapped in a cavern below. He then proceeded to jump off the chair, retrieve a stray cup lying on the ground, lasso the top of the chair with a mimed rope and hoist himself up onto it again. Then, with a flourish, he plunked the plastic cup back down on the table and triumphantly declared, “And that’s how I rescued her!” The man in the opposite corner sighed and warily returned to his reading.
“Are you saying he tells these stories to everyone who walks in?” I gawked. Being a man of the world, I considered myself the least likely person to underestimate the extent of human flaw, but this was a phenomenon I could never have anticipated.
The cashier nodded mournfully. “Different story every time. Always some sort of rescue, like he’s the town hero. I expect he’ll be wanting us to make him mayor before long.”
“Well, it’s certainly bad from a business standpoint,” I grunted, stuffing my notebook and pen back into my pocket in a decidedly deflated manner. “He has to be deterring customers. I know I won’t be coming back. Why don’t you kick him out?”
“Boss’ rules. I keep tryin’ to tell her, but she always says we can’t turn out Chuck. Sometimes I wonder if she’s taken a fancy to him.”
“Not likely,” I muttered, wrinkling my nose at having just caught a stray whiff of smoke and mustard.
I published my cashier post that night. The usual comments, naturally ensued. I was steadfastly determined not to return to Miss B’s Coffee House, mainly to press the point that inaction would inevitably deter customers, but somehow the idea of Chuck would not escape my mind. He was useless as an article subject (the one thing worse than the absence of a hero is a fake hero), yet nevertheless the mere fact of his existence and the questions that he raised relentlessly taunted my brain. Why did he spend every day of his life at a coffee shop from dawn to dusk? Was there any truth to his unfathomable tales? And, most irritating of all, what was his motive?
It was either these questions or the incessant banging of my upstairs neighbors that kept me awake and sweating in my bed that night.
About five o’clock the next evening, I found myself returned to precisely the same table in Miss B’s Coffee House. Apparently, in a battle between a stubborn boycott and the ties of curiosity, curiosity will, inevitably prevail.
I regretted it the moment I sat down.
“Henry!” He announced my presence with a boisterous cry and a charismatic embrace. “You still carrying that computer around? What are you, some kind of spy?”
“Almost.” I smiled feebly. “I’m a blogger.” The twinkle in his eye had suddenly been snuffed out and replaced by a look of stunned confusion. “I write articles and post them online.” Still no signs of comprehension. “On the computer.”
In a flash of revelation, the glint was restored. I secretly welcomed its return. “Well, why didn’t you say so?” he mirthfully snorted. “Now, Henry, I’ve got just the story for your next little computer article. See, a few years ago I found a nice looking young lady, probably no more than sixteen years old, caught up in a nail right in the middle of a railroad track…”
A miniature woman— no more than five feet, and furnished with a pristine, black bun deliberately knotted atop her dainty head— had emerged from the back of the store and was speaking to the young cashier in a firm, adamant voice.
“Miss B?” I called out, hardly knowing why. I rose from my seat and left Chuck to carry the teenager-on-a-train-track story to his next victim. She did not acknowledge my presence until just before retreating into the back room.
I knew it had been her. Something about that fastidious bun had screamed the name to me. “Henry Collins.” I offered my hand and most trustworthy smile. She shook the hand, but seemed skeptical of the rest. “I just had a few questions about Chuck.” I lowered my voice (even though there was no question of him hearing, as his own voice was loud enough to engulf every conversation in the room, regardless of volume). “I thought you might be the woman to tell me. First, why does he stay here all day, and—”
“Mr. O’Malley does as he pleases, and we’re happy to host him, Mr. Collins. I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.”
The response was so cryptic, so rehearsed, that it automatically made me stiff. I forced myself into a somewhat casual stance and repositioned my credible expression.
“I don’t think you understand. I’m a blogger. I write articles on the computer.”
“I know what a blogger is.”
“Then you know what kind of business a story like this could attract,” I continued, refusing to be flustered by this miniature woman and her laconic replies. “Obviously, I can’t make you any promises, but if you could assure me even one of his stories is true, this could be ‘Miss B’s Coffee House, Home of the Famous Chuck O’Malley’ before long.”
“There’s nothing that needs be famous about Mr. O’Malley or my coffee shop,” she replied, coolly as ever.
In my excitement, I had come so close to her face I could see the silver hairs mingled within that unshakable, stubborn bun. I sighed. “Alright, I understand. But would you at least tell me why you just let him hang around like this? I’m sure you’re aware of the implications for your customers.”
“The way I see it, there are some things you just don’t mess with.”
I opened my mouth to object, but was cut off by the pigtailed cashier: “You should ask him about Winifred.” Miss B fired an icy glare in her direction. It was the most expression I had seen on her face until now. That’s how I knew it was something worthwhile.
“Watch this,” the cashier giggled. “This”, seemed to delight her almost as much as the prospect of an iced latté the day before. I observed dutifully. “Hey, Chuck,” she yelled. “Tell Mr. Henry about Winifred.”
The glint in his eye was snuffed out entirely. He returned the chair he had been holding to its place upon the floor— slowly, as if it were a small child who may fall if set loose too quickly. The milky haze about his eyes seemed thicker, and for a moment you could hardly see the blue lying hidden inside. He sat down.
“They make the beautiful obscene,” he whispered.
It was the strangest sentence to hear hissing through Chuck’s lips. Admittedly, just minutes before, I would not have supposed he knew how to say it. He turned to face the window at the same time, meditatively inspecting the fog and the damp that clung to the glass, and I knew he was not speaking to the cashier, or the boss, or me. He was saying it to himself. We were invisible.
The customer sitting opposite him seemed relieved. He huffed and picked up a newspaper. The cashier was, obviously, irrepressibly contented with herself.
Miss B, on the other hand, wore a reverence on her withered face that made it almost melt, like a chilled stick of butter laid out in the sun. “People don’t talk like that unless they seen a little piece of hell, Mr. Collins,” she murmured. “Things like that… well, it ain’t my place touch them.”
They make the beautiful obscene.
The words haunted me for the next twenty-four hours. I could not write, could not breathe, could not think without seeing them— visualizing them in my mind’s eye, typed out over and over, rendering new meaning at each repetition, and pacing. Pacing for uncounted hours. Something within me wanted to own them, to feel them, to devour them in the same way one desires a lover. They were the keys to the mind— no, the soul— of Chuck O’Malley. But they were like smoke. They could not be held. And why I cared, I may never be able to tell.
I wanted to type them the way I’d envisioned. I wanted to see them on my blog and methodically tie some profound truth to each solitary syllable. But the more I tried to uncover their secrets, the deeper they hid, the more obscure and unfathomable they became and the more they teased and agitated my intelligence.
My upstairs neighbors were battering my ceiling with admirable vigor that day. At times I heard raised voices, or perhaps only one voice— a shriek, or a small dog. It was a comical coincidence, the jabs of the outside world mingled with the interminable frustration of the mind. It sent my brow into an insufferable headache.
Nevertheless, I realized (admittedly a bit late) that I was not entirely alone in my perusal of Chuck’s words. Winifred could explain them to me. Her story would, in itself, unlock their meaning and, I suspected, spur the revival of Anonymously Collins. Therefore, Chuck was, essentially, my newest hit post in human form. My only obstacle would be something the cashier had said just before my departure. Chuck refused to say anything else at the mention of Winifred’s name. I quickly plotted to surmount this with a few tricks left over from journalism school and thought nothing more of it.
I reentered Miss B’s coffee shop that afternoon with quite a scheme concocted and a title for the post already in mind. The Beautiful Obscene, it was christened, and I paraded it within my own fantasies as adoringly as a mother parades her newly baptized infant. However, the moment I walked through the metal door, resounding the ever-cheerful bell so artfully attached to it, I was welcomed in a decidedly hostile manner by the foreboding Miss B. Her lips were pursed almost as tight as her bun.
“He ain’t here, Mr. Collins.”
“Who?” I chuckled as if I didn’t know.
“Ah, no matter.”
I forced myself to peruse the faded menu etched in chalk just above her head. There was shamefully little material there to occupy the silence growing steadily denser between us. The words tumbled suddenly out of my mouth, pushed by anxiety.
“This is unusual for him, right? I was told he came all day, every day.”
“Usually does, but once in awhile, he don’t show. He’ll be back tomorrow.”
It was worded as an encouragement, but by her expression I could tell she would rather I not return tomorrow, or frankly, any day after that. I made my exit after stiffly ordering the cheapest drink available.
It was as if God himself had decided to hammer every square foot of my ceiling. The pounding and throbbing of my neighbors’ floor had begun to sync with the agonizing pulse of my aching head.
By some sick twist of fate, Chuck O’Malley had not repelled me. I had repelled him. More importantly, I had repelled his story.
I could hear what the woman was shrieking now (no, it was not a small dog): “Get out! Get out, you pervert! I hate you!” Over and over.
I did not have the motivation to call the police. They would sort it all out or file for divorce, eventually. I was mentally exhausted and the safe patter of hot shower water felt warm and tranquilizing to my skin. Her shrieks were muffled, now, by the white roar of the water. I let them be.
But they persisted as I stumbled onto the tile floor— a clean, dripping mess. Having no capacity for further disturbance that evening, I shoved my dirty clothing back on in the moody excess of martyrdom and trudged out of the apartment, into the icy night air. I thought of Chuck’s analogy, the one about sitting on a glacier, and I would have probably chuckled a bit to myself if not for the annoyance rising steadily within me. I plotted the most effective way to inform my neighbors of their insupportable behavior and its effects on my head.
I entered the main building (mine was the only apartment facing outside) and turned to the door I knew to be placed directly above my living room— apartment 201. The commotion had ceased, if only for a moment. Instead, a man’s voice came muffled through the wooden door. I’d never noticed a man’s voice there before. It was soft and gravelly and broken, yet there was something strikingly familiar in its tone I could not place.
“Come on, sweetcakes,” it said. “I just wanted to spend a day with you.”
I snorted to myself at this vain attempt to save an obviously hopeless relationship. Then, raising my hand, I beat at the rusted door knocker.
The door swung open so suddenly, that with a blink, I had missed it. Chuck O’Malley was standing in front of me, his eyes sagging with weariness and that haze like the Milky Way so thick that not even a star could penetrate it. All emotion was stripped from his face, leaving only a man— an elderly, splotched, smelling man, uncombed, half-dressed, and tired. My calculated words vanished instantaneously from my mouth.
Chuck opened the door just far enough to fit himself through the space. That was when I saw her.
It was the kind of sight that can strangle a man without touching his body.
She was shriveled, hunched and as ragged as the pale, sickly, ripped wallpaper surrounding her. Her wild, gray hair was matted and twisted into every entanglement imaginable. I thought I saw a piece of it dangling out of her left hand. She was barefoot. Her feet and hands resembled cobwebs of mangled bones and protruding, blue veins. Her yellow nightdress looked as though a young woman may have worn it in the fifties, but now, it was a thing too used for this world. Her face was so deflated that her cheeks resembled nothing but shadowed caverns and her eyes were so wild and wide, that they were more white than brown.
But the rich, chestnut brown they held was beautiful— beautiful like warm brownies on a snowy afternoon; truly, stunningly beautiful.
“Stay here, Winnie. Henry’s a friend of mine. We’re gonna have a little talk. I’ll be back before you know it.”
My chest couldn’t decide whether to swell or collapse.
“I hope you never come back,” Winifred hissed as Chuck stepped out. She spat on the floor, wringing her hands and glowering at me with a bloody, white lip.
The door closed.
Chuck stared into me with wide, pleading eyes.
“She was the prettiest girl in high school,” he choked.
I nodded as if I knew.
We stood in the hall for half an hour. Chuck spoke with murmured words, avoiding my gaze and shuffling in circles. He shifted between telling me and himself, sometimes drifting so close that at times I could count the white hairs on his thick, wrinkled arm and then drifting so far that I strained to hear him. As he talked, I noticed a plain, golden band reflecting the little light in the room off of one of his fingers. I had never noticed it there before.
Chuck’s wife had been raped two months after their wedding. She was walking home from her work, he was at his. It was a tragedy he never could have prevented. Even so, “I didn’t save her,” were the words he whispered twice after telling me.
She didn’t tell him for three years. She hid the trauma within herself and allowed her mind to grow weaker and weaker under its weight. Then, in Chuck’s words, she snapped. Perhaps her brain had been damaged somehow by her attacker. Perhaps it was simply too much to take in. Whatever it was, it made her hate Chuck. Some days she had threatened to throw herself out of windows or onto a knife if he did not agree to leave the house. His parents advised him to leave her to the institutions. He wouldn’t. Instead, he had moved to Milton. He had settled in an apartment, and he had gone to Miss B’s.
I sat in my apartment at the wake of the day. The comfort of the place seemed subdued by the blue shadows and restless quiet that gripped the air. There was a chill making the hairs on my arms stand erect, like stiff and resolute soldiers, but I did not have the energy— no, the interest— to warm them. My hair was restlessly tussled. My eyes bagged so that I looked more like Chuck than ever. I had not looked in a mirror for the last twelve hours, but I had been staring at my face reflected in the computer screen for the last two.
I had to write. There are some things that cannot be processed but through tapping of keys. But how to summarize it? Could, or rather, should, it be summarized at all? The world had made Chuck’s wife a monster, but it did not end there. Witnessing her descent had brought out a kind of obscenity in Chuck, too. It had caused him to deny his reality.
I could not write about Chuck. No, his story seemed untouchable to me now— it was too tender, too raw, too real for the page. I would write about the concept— the one he couldn’t stop repeating, the one responsible for distorting his life forever. I gently tapped out the title I had tenderly composed such a little, yet such a long, time ago.
The Beautiful Obscene
One golden beam reached its silent arm to brush the tip of my computer screen. It brought warmth to my arms as I stretched them out to type. I played with the keys, and then I began to write.