The Heart Shaped PendantbyNigel Debonnaire©
I did my Saturday breakfast dishes looking out at Charlene's house. It was a stately one story, two bedroom home built in the Twenties: sturdy, enduring and charming in ways that no house since can manage. My painted lady is its twin; we were lucky to get houses this beautiful next to each other. Now she was gone.
Charlene and I both taught creative writing: she was tenured at small college while I taught ten years at the university across our medium sized college town before becoming a full time author. We met at a poetry reading session at a coffeehouse over twenty five years ago: the delicacy and grace of her imagery caught me from the beginning while she admired my unpredictable metaphors. Both of us were hardcore hermits living in our dens who liked to get out once or twice a week, and we became great friends and neighbors for five years, then, lovers for twenty. That day I was 48 and the car accident took her two weeks earlier at 73.
Mallory, her only granddaughter, slipped across the back yard and into my back door. Without looking I pulled the largest mug from my rack and filled it with freshly brewed coffee. She had strawberry blond hair like her mother and grandmother: five six and self conscious about her slightly pudgy form and freckles; the image of Charlene as a young woman. She wore a blue print dress on this unusually warm mid September day and flip flops. I've known her all her life. Her parents' divorce had been incredibly messy: her father had nearly no time for her and her mother was preoccupied by many things more important than her daughter; Charlene was always happy to take Mallory from infancy on. Mal went regularly with Charlene and I for Saturday excursions to the lake, to museums, to poetry readings, whatever. When she developed a coffee addiction to similar to mine at the age of fifteen, she was in my kitchen almost every Saturday morning; her grandmother didn't indulge. She had her grandmother's talent for poetry as well: she was published in student journals already and showed great promise as author in our professional estimation. As an avuncular soul, I love seeing the counter-cultural baton being passed to a new generation.
"Hi, Charlie, how's it going?"
"Fine, Mal. Well-- not so fine, I guess. I miss her so much." A tear crept into my otherwise arid eye. "She's in a more aesthetically pleasing place now, I'm sure; listening to Keats and Shelley read their poetry in person."
"No, I'm sure that she's with Bacon, Shakespeare and Milton," she said softly, "she was too good a person to end up where those reprobates are."
"Reprobates?" I chuckled. "You're a rare nineteen year old to use that word. We've been a bad influence on you. What brings you over here this morning?"
Mal nodded to her grandmother's house. "The vultures are circling. Grandmama left a fairly detailed list of what went to whom in her will with no trading allowed, but they're trying to trade anyway and badgering her lawyer about it. He looked like a death camp survivor when I left. Mother gave me her 'get the hell out of here' look and so here I am. Had to grab one more cup of your stellar coffee." She took a sip.
"Mal, you can come over here anytime; we can keep our Saturday morning routine if you want. You're old enough that you don't have to follow your mother's orders any more; you're a woman now. I'll help you go apartment hunting sometime, if you want. I just sent the final draft of my latest book to the publisher yesterday and I have some unstructured time coming until it goes to press."
She leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek. "I may take you up on that." She sat back and we sipped our coffee, reading the morning paper.
A door slammed repeatedly nearby; Mal jumped to her feet and looked out the kitchen window. "O no, the flock of vultures is headed this way, with their carcass in tow. Better pop back across before they see me."
"Take the cup." She slipped out the door and timed her passage back so she could be unseen. There was a polite knocking at my front door almost immediately.
I wandered to the front of the house in my sweatshirt and jeans, opened the door and invited the crowd in. It was the other adult members of Charlene's family: Dora her daughter; Jessica, Lucille and Andrea, her sisters, and Andrea's daughter Morgan. They were all facets of the same jewel: the strawberry blonde hair mellowing to grey, medium height, medium build, delicate face structure and porcelain complexions were similar to Charlene's and all but Andrea and Morgan had Charlene's clear blue eyes. Jessica and Lucille were born eight and ten years after Charlene, Andrea another five years later. Dora was fifty and Morgan her only cousin was a bombshell in her late twenties. All were semi-casual: even for a day of dusty rearrangement, their blouses and jeans were neat and clean, their jewelry glittering, their hair and makeup appropriate for a formal dinner. I gestured them to seat themselves and asked the lawyer how I could help them.
He began formally, "According to the late Charlene Thompson's will, you've been asked to award a very special piece of her estate to one of her living female relatives. The piece in question is this necklace and pendant." I recognized it immediately: a golden necklace that held a golden heart shaped pendant. There was room for a small picture inside, but I'd never seen it open. I had seen her wear it on many occasions; I had seen her wearing nothing but it the last time I saw her alive.
"The will specifies that you are the person to award the pendant to one of her living female relatives. There is a competition that you are asked to judge: whoever wins the competition, gets the pendant. Would you be willing to help the family to dispose of this piece of jewelry?"
"What's the competition?"
"I can't tell you until you say yes."
How could she do this to me? I didn't care who got what: I've studiously avoided all such conflicts in my own family over the years. I shook my head and looked at the floor. It took me several sad moments before I could whimper: "I would have done anything for Charlene in life; I would have happily died that crash instead of her. Of course, I will do anything I can to help her family." I had never been close to her family except Mal, and Charlene hadn't been close to mine; however, either of us would have helped each other's relatives in need.
"Thank you, Mr. Fredrickson. I'm sure that the family will appreciate your services. " The women were already looking upset and glowering as they had entered my door; the glowers darkened and deepened at my response to this, which confused me. "The heart shaped pendant and all that goes with it is bequeathed to the living female relative who best performs a task for the same judge, Mr. Charles Fredrickson, over the span of one week. The task specified is the performance of oral sex."
I was in the midst of sipping my coffee as he got to that part; it spewed forcefully from my mouth and my nose as I almost drowned. My favorite coffee cup shattered as it hit the floor. Morgan and the lawyer dove to throw old newspapers on the spill, mopping up the hot liquid quickly before it could spread too far on my hardwood floor and get into one of the antique throw rugs. I sputtered and looked around at them incredulously, to which they responded with searching looks. I looked at the paragraph: it was there in her notarized and witnessed will, dated not three months ago. I looked at the women again, and they seemed to relax a bit at my dismay. Perhaps they thought I set this up, but my genuine reaction and near death by coffee inhalation must have convinced them otherwise. I read the details and reported: "It says that you are to come by, one at a time, one per day during the week to demonstrate your skill and I have Saturday free to consider the winner." The hand holding the will dropped to my side. "Oh my God, Charlene."
"Do you need assistance in setting up a timetable for this week?" said the lawyer.
"Yes, I'd--I'd--I'd like that. Why don't---you set that up? For some odd reason, I can't seem to think very clearly right now."
There were sheepish looks around the room; Morgan had a gleam in her eye. Dora became combative and said, "I don't think we ought to go through with this. Mother was insane to set up this competition. I'm her daughter; the pendant should be mine."
Jessica turned on her: "Look little lady, you've given your dear mother very little time, attention or respect since you left the nest and you've done nothing but make demands of her the few times you did bother to get in touch. She practically raised your daughter for you. You've made your fortune by being a cold, calculating, relentless bitch, and I for one am glad that she didn't give it to you. As far as I'm concerned, if you're going to have this pendant my grandmother wore, you're going to have to earn it."
Dora fumed silently, stifled for the moment. Andrea began to look frantic. Lucille was disgusted. "That crazy bimbo," she said snidely, "Our sister was always the 'free spirit', wasn't she? She was so arrogant, that one, so proud of her talents, always flaunting some superior skill or gift or award at us. Claimed that she was the best at giving head the world had ever known and insisted on teaching us all her little secrets when we were teenagers, now matter how disgusting we found it, so we'd all get good boyfriends. I can believe that she'd put us through this degradation just to get the pendant, and make us service her boy toy who we've tolerated over the years for her sake. She must have felt that we should have treated him better and now she wants us to make it up to him like this. God, what arrogance!"
I turned to the lawyer: "What happens if this doesn't? How do we get around this?"
The lawyer was calm and collected in the midst of this chaos. "If none of them will perform oral sex on you, Mr. Fredrickson, then the pedant is to be donated to the County Historical Society." The eyes ready to kill me now turned ready to kill the lawyer.
I looked around at them. "This may be the best solution, ladies; it would look nice in a
museum and many could appreciate it," I said, shrugging my shoulders. My suggestion was greeted with a hubbub of indignation and incredulity. The older women trumpeted pride and confidence at one another; none wanted to back down in front of the others and all wanted the pendant. Morgan gave me a calm, sultry look, arching one eyebrow high above the other in invitation. I slipped into the kitchen and stayed there until I heard them leave.
Charlene had a weird sense of humor; it was something I loved dearly about her. She could be so sweet and so crazy at the same time. What she was up to here was a mystery to me; she never mentioned anything concrete about what she wanted to me to do when she died. I never wanted any of her property. We both knew we wouldn't last forever, but I like to live in the present and not worry much about tomorrow, so I was never eager to discuss what would happen when one of us died. She always on me for that, saying that I needed to have the same kind of vision for my own life that I have for the characters in my books.
We were hardly aesthetically built lovers: she weighed was hippy, bumpy, wrinkly, and her nipples would hover about two inches above her waist if unrestrained. I doubt if she haunted the dreams any of her students, except as an evil genius. I look like Santa as a young man; my 'forked radish', as Shakespeare called it, is a little below average. None of my students during my ten year teaching career wanted to get "extra credit" from me in my office with the door closed; no groupies ever waited for me at the back door after book signings or gave me their room number at conventions. Yet, our physical passion always transcended our outward realities. As we told each other the stories of our younger years, she bragged about her expert ability at oral sex during a night of inebriated boasting, and I dared her to prove it. She did, and our twenty years of mutual passion began; its absence was already sending pangs of emptiness through me. How could I get through this week with her family performing for me?
Monday afternoon at 1:00 there was a knock at my back door. Middle sister and third of four Lucille stood there in a low cut burgundy dress that Charlene had always looked so lovely in. Nice cleavage ran in their family, although Lucille had yet to sag as much as Charlene did. Lucille was also about twenty pounds lighter at the same height than Charlene was. Lucille came in and sat at the table with her purse in her hand.
"Charlene was always known as a slut when she was in high school. My mother was horrified at the rumors that circulated about her, but Charlene always got away with it. She knew the right thing to say or she covered herself so well that mother wasn't able to punish her for her little escapades. My sisters and I had a hard time convincing boys that we weren't like her, even though we looked alike.
"She seemed to settle down all right once she became a wife and mother, once she got a teaching job and a career as an author. But I see now nothing really changed. She's having a joke on us, she is, a sick, sick joke."
I put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry to hear that. She was always a dear person to me, and I don't know why she's doing this. There was always a method to her madness, but this takes the cake; I don't understand what she's up to. Don't know how I can make amends."
She looked up at me. "You could give me the pendant."
"I'd don't think I can do that. I'm not a wild, promiscuous guy; she could have told you. I've always had faith in Charlene and faith in her judgement; every time I didn't trust her judgement I've regretted it. She wants me to do it, so I guess I have to. "
"That's easy for you to say. You get some cheap thrills and an easy story to sell."
"No, it's not. It's really not. For the past twenty years the only woman's touch I've ever needed or wanted was hers and I'm not eager to replace that yet or maybe ever. I don't think I could ever tell or sell this story; who would believe me anyway?"
"Well, what did you get in the will? How many of those items that would have been on her list have disappeared from her house before we got there?"
"I got nothing; I wanted nothing. I told her I wanted nothing from her estate. You can search my entire house right now and if there's anything here you think is hers, you can take it with you right now. The only thing I would like to have is the sight of her dear baggy face in front of me again. You remind me of her ten years ago: that similarity gives me a fond remembrance and a little warmth in her absence." There were a few moments of silence.
Lucille beckoned me over and undid my belt. "You do deserve a little respect for your devotion to her," she said. She pulled me out of my pants and started gently caressing my forked radish. It took me a little time, but I responded as she traced delicate lines up and down with one hand, while tracing circles just lower with her other. Breathing heavily and hotly on me at close range sent chills through me: Charlene must have taught her something in spite of her ambivalence. Furtive wet licks of electricity jolted through me and winked quicker and quicker into a steady current. Five minutes of this and I was ready for a discharge. I lost my senses for an endless moment, and recovered to see my electric discharge lying wetly and whitely on the blue and green linoleum. She continued with her soft hands until I finished and then put me back, buckling my belt. Intoxicated, I cupped her cheeks and looked tenderly into her eyes for several seconds. It had been a long dry spell and I was sincerely grateful to her. There was a the hint of a hard edge to her eyes that finally softened in response, looking away shyly and then back with tears creeping in. I released her and she left. "Her husband must be a lucky man," I said to myself as I wiped up the floor
On an uncharacteristically steamy Tuesday, her next oldest sister Jessica was at my back door at 1:00. She took me up on an offer of coffee, with cream and sugar, and we chatted about the weather and other light topics for a while. Her weight was between Charlene's and Lucille's; she was wearing a floral blouse that was half unbuttoned and pants that displayed her family's wide hips. Jessica then talked about some of the little pains of growing old, as Charlene used to do. She talked about pain in her hands and asked: "Charlene didn't talk much about having any problems with her hands, did she?"
"She was on medication for arthritis for the past two years. The prospect of losing the use of her hands to use the computer keyboard or the pencil always frightened her. In some ways, it's good that she went to Paradise before that happened, but we would have worked something out so she could still write. She said she was always going to create even if she became a quadriplegic."
"My sister was adaptable if nothing else. I remember when I was small I having trouble learning to tie my shoes. My mother and father had given up on me, said I'd have to go through life barefoot. Charlene spent three days working with me and finally I was able to tie my own shoes. I know it's small thing, but that's how she always was with me and with everyone who needed her help. She was a marvelous teacher, wasn't she?"
"The reception they had for her retirement was massive. The Student Union reception hall was overflowing, and the guests were some of the elite in literature today, as well as teachers, architects and musicians. Teaching was her passion."
Jessica looked deep into my eyes. "Charlene loved you more than anything. You were the perfect companion for her. You didn't get in each other's way and when she needed someone, you were there. She was always talking about you; your books and poems, your kindness. I appreciate what you did for her."
"That's very gracious of you, Jessica. I appreciate it. The feeling was very, very mutual, I assure you."
She laid her hand on my thigh; I responded to her touch as I had responded to Charlene's. Delicate fingers like Charlene's ticked and explored my forked radish, massaging my memory as my pants became uncomfortable. Undoing the belt, Jessica pulled me to my feet, took me out of my pants and traced her index finger solemnly and carefully up and down the underside of my radish as she devoured me with her eyes. She refilled her coffee, took a sip and held it in her mouth before taking me. The feeling was almost indescribable: hot and wet and sweet and hungry. I almost fell in the floor that first full contact and after a few moments I lowered myself to the floor in order not to fall over and hurt myself.
I was transported to that day eleven years ago when I brought Charlene breakfast in bed on her birthday. She was always aghast at how she looked waking up, not wanting me to see her that time of day, but I put on a waiter's outfit and provided a full spread elegantly served: bacon, eggs and French Toast, her favorite. Her second pot of Earl Grey tea was used to thank me as Jessica was then. The game started with me standing directly beside the bed while she was lying with the tray in her lap, sipping from the cup and pausing before she turned to take me. I couldn't stand it for very long that day either, and soon I was lying beside her as she bent over me with her teacup until I provided her dessert.
Two cups of coffee took me to the peak of Caffeine Ecstasy, and I lay there entranced on the floor as Jessica spit her mouth contents into the sink and washed her coffee cup before leaving. Her husband had surely died a happy man, I thought.