I'm here, I'm gone,
I'm in love, I'm alone
I'm good as gold
And I'm bad to the bone
America - The Staves
Charlie comes out for the funeral and then, three months later, moves out to California permanently. She tells her aunt that it isn’t because Fritz has died, that it’s not because the family is sending her out to watch over Brenda, but because she just really likes California.
“I just need a change,” Charlie says. “This is about me.”
Brenda doesn’t care about the reason, she’s just relieved and says, “Okay.” Brenda offers to fly out and drive back with her, but Charlie has a whole route planned out with stops to see friends along the way, and Brenda has done her fair share of road trips anyway, so she’s fine. Charlie is twenty-three now, perfectly able to make a trip like that alone.
She still adds Charlie to her Find Friends app and checks in on her progress now and then. There she is in Nashville, and then Oklahoma City, two days later, in Santa Fe. When she gets to Phoenix, she calls and says, “Wow, I really hate Arizona.”
“Yeah,” Brenda says, “Most people do.”
Charlie says she’ll arrive in LA tomorrow, they talk about what time she should leave to miss traffic and then Brenda hangs up and looks at her house in dismay. She’s been here only a month and a half but it looks like she could have moved in yesterday. She moved out of the duplex as soon as she could, not wanting anything to do with it after Fritz died and used the money from his life insurance to buy a two bedroom bungalow in her old neighborhood. She thought maybe she could start her life over again, make it more like when she’d first moved to LA. Just undo the last eight years.
But Fritz had been the more domestic one, better at unpacking and putting together furniture and buying matching towels. She’d only gotten cozy in her first bungalow because she’d bought it furnished.
She’d kept the couch and the kitchen table and chairs, but had gotten rid of everything in the guest room (where her mother died) and most of the furniture in her bedroom, too. She’d never liked the bed that Fritz had picked out, so now she has a boxspring on the floor with a mattress on top and boxes and boxes of clothes and linens. The kitchen is the most functional, by necessity.
She’d meant to get things more ready for Charlie but the time had just slipped away from her. The days just bleed out and away.
She’d taken a month of bereavement leave from the District Attorney’s office and then had decided, kind of on a whim, just not to go back. Part of her restart on her life. She wants to be the old Brenda, a different Brenda. Before she’d gotten married, before Philip Stroh, before Peter Goldman, before…
Maybe not before Captain Raydor.
She closes her eyes, shakes her head. She’s just not going to think about any of that anymore.
It’s too much work to fix the house in one night, so she decides she’ll just do one or two boxes. The guest room is small, but it’s got a nice view of the yard and a decently sized closet for a house build in the 1930s. The room is half filled with boxes and a few odds and ends. The end table that doesn’t fit in the living room anymore, the leaf that goes into the dining table (that she’d forgotten about when she sold the table; what does one do with an orphaned leaf?), the desk and desk chair.
She surveys the mess, chooses a small box only to find that it’s full of books. She has original built-ins in the living room, but they need painting so is it really worth it to unpack it at all? She pushes the box aside for the one behind it, slightly larger.
When she pries the flaps apart, it’s full of towels and bedsheets. She doesn’t have room in the linen closet to put them away and half these sheets are for the bed she’s gotten rid of so… she huffs, pushes the hair away from her forehead with frustration.
Nothing ever seems to work like it’s supposed to anymore.
So she gives up. Turns off the light, tells herself she’ll tackle it in the morning. Takes a sleeve of ritz crackers and a tub of cheese spread to bed with her.
It takes Charlie three weeks to get a job bartending. She’d gone out to get a serving job, and if her mama or daddy asks, serving is what Brenda is supposed to tell them. Brenda doesn’t care if Charlie bartends, exactly. She knows the money is better, but she also doesn’t want her out of state niece working in a dive bar. People get murdered around seedy bars. Brenda would know.
But Charlie tells her it’s at the Irish Pub, Casey’s, and Brenda knows that place.
“That’s a cop bar,” she says.
“Is it?” Charlie asks, not quite meeting her eye.
In fact it is. It’s walkable from the PAB, not that anyone walks anywhere in this town, but it’s about as close to the PAB’s parking garage as headquarters is, and the part of the force that isn’t African-American or Hispanic is overwhelmingly Irish Catholic. Brenda has had more than her fair share of glasses of wine there, though it’s not her style, exactly. Provenza liked it well enough, and Andy before he quit drinking. That used to be his watering hole, she’d heard.
“What could go wrong in a bar full of cops?” Charlie asks when Brenda only stares her down.
“Maybe I’ll get a job there too,” Brenda says. She’s joking, but it comes out sour. She has time to figure out what she wants to do, but not an endless supply of it. She keeps waiting for something to fall into her lap. For someone to come rescue her.
Charlie looks at her, hands on her hips.
“Let’s go to Target,” she says, in lieu of a scolding.
Brenda nods. Retail therapy always helps.
She lets Charlie drive her, though they take Brenda’s car. Brenda has two, now. The little hybrid she’d bought a year into working for the D.A.s office and Fritz’s big black SUV that so far has sat in her one car garage untouched. It’s newer than Charlie’s Ford Fusion, though not as gas efficient.
They’re sitting at a stop light when Brenda says, “Hey, do you want Uncle Fritz’s car?”
Charlie glances over at her, alarmed. “What?”
“It’s a 2015,” she says. “Real good condition. It’s just sitting there.”
“I mean,” Charlie says. “I have a car.”
“You could sell it,” Brenda says. “I could sell Fritz’s car too, I guess, but it seems like we should keep the thing with less miles.” She rubs her face. “I don’t know anythin’ about cars, really, besides that.”
“Um,” Charlie says. “Maybe. I’ll think about it.”
Charlie had handled the guest room easily. The boxes and the furniture that had seemed insurmountable to Brenda, Charlie had cleared out or sorted within her first week. She’d gone to Ikea and bought a bed, three bookcases, a nightstand. Now the living room actually has all her books in it, organized by color.
“For the ‘gram,” Charlie had said. They'd worry about paint later. Charlie had also managed to put some of the furniture out into the living room that Brenda just couldn’t make work somehow. In less than a month Charlie has managed to make the house seem lived in and on purpose.
Brenda pushes the red cart, lagging behind her niece a little. Charlie has a list on her phone but tosses random things in the cart too. A candle that smells like a pina colada, a pink mug that says Hello Gorgeous in a curly, rose gold font. A set of three wooden cutting boards.
“The old place had ‘em built in,” Brenda says defensively, though Charlie hadn’t said anything about it one way or the other. She also buys a pack of 25 black velvet hangers and plastic laundry basket.
Brenda has just been taking off her clothes in the teeny tiny laundry room and using the actual washing machine as her hamper. Charlie might think it’s pathetic, but she thinks it’s efficient.
They go through the clothes section last, on the way to the registers. Charlie buys three pairs of the exact same black jeans and like ten black tank tops.
“Jesus, who died?” Brenda blurts before she can think about it.
Then she feels stupid and sad.
Charlie had worn a dress to Fritz’s funeral anyway, and it was a dark, dark green. She remembers it because it was so pretty. A tiny bit of color in an otherwise very gray day. She remembers the green dress, she remembers the yellow flowers on the casket, she remembers red hair and that the lid came off one of her lipsticks and stained the lining of her purse and she’d had to throw that purse away. Then she’d started throwing other things away and then she’d decided just to move.
“It’s for the bar,” Charlie mumbles. “Let’s go.”
Back in the car, Brenda calls for a pizza and then when she hangs up, says, “How’d you even know about that pub?”
“How does anyone know about anything?” Charlie asks.
“Is that supposed to be rhetorical?” Brenda snaps.
“It means the internet,” Charlie says. “If it bugs you so much, I don’t have to work there.”
“It doesn’t bug me,” Brenda says. “I just momentarily forgot that this is the world’s tiniest town.”
Charlie just rolls her eyes.
Brenda eats pizza standing in the kitchen, Charlie is talking to her mama on her phone in her room but there’s not a lot of secrets in this house. The insulation isn’t great and Charlie’s door is open anyway.
“I don’t know, I haven’t started yet,” Charlie is saying. Brenda can hear her opening another box - more clothes, probably.
“It’s fine,” Charlie says now. “The house is really cute, and we’re getting all settled.”
“Yeah,” Charlie says. “I mean, super depressed but wouldn’t you be?”
Brenda dunks her crust into the container of ranch and it drips it down her shirt on the way to her mouth.
“She just isn’t doing anything, I think if I can get her doing something, like anything at all, she’ll feel better. I don’t know, I haven’t been here that long yet.”
Brenda realizes vaguely that Charlie is probably talking about her. Is she depressed? She looks down at the ranch on her shirt, the dirty kitchen, the half empty pizza box sitting on the empty pizza box from two days ago.
She’s just lazy. She’s always been lazy, and now Fritz ain’t here to snap her out of it, that’s all.
Fritz ain’t here because someone got into the PAB and shot him. And now he’s dead.
And that’s all and she ain’t depressed and she’s doing fine and she can just start her life over. Here she is, fifty-one. A mess, just like she was at forty, just like she was at thirty-three, just like she was at seventeen.
She wipes her face with the back of her hand, wipes her hands on the hem of her shirt and then takes it off to dump into the washing machine.
Falls asleep in her bra and sweatpants, the fan in her bedroom squeaking as it spins.
Charlie is home during the day a lot, though often she’s sleeping. Often, Brenda is too, though. She tries to make herself leave the house at least once a day, though sometimes all she can manage is a walk around the block or to drive a few blocks away to the CVS to buy shampoo or razor blades or chocolate. At least the chocolate. The check out people there are starting to recognize her.
She’s coming back into the house with a bag of snickers minis and an avocado face mask when she sees Charlie, watching the coffee pot brew in a pair of cotton shorts and a gray tank top, her hair in a messy bun on top of her head.
“Hey sugar,” Brenda says, pushing up her sunglasses.
“Morning,” Charlie says.
“It’s one-thirty, but okay,” Brenda says. Charlie just yawns. Pulls a mug out of the top rack of the dishwasher. “How was work?”
“Kinda slow,” Charlie says. “They still have me on the taps.” She’s the newest, so mostly she pours beer and wine and buses tables. She’ll have to work her way up to getting a cocktail shift. “You could come see it, you know.”
“I’ve seen it,” Brenda reminds her.
“Not with me behind the bar, though,” Charlie says. “I’ve come to see you at work before.”
“You were sixteen!”
“Still,” Charlie says. “You could come tonight. It’s Thursday, so it won’t be too crazy.”
“Honey,” she says, suddenly tired and desperate to get out of doing anything ever again that isn’t eating snacks in soft pants.
“Drinks on the house,” Charlie says. “We have that label you like. The Markham Vineyards one? From Napa?” The coffee machine beeps and Charlie turns to fix her cup, pouring a little almond milk into it and stirring in a yellow packet of sweetener. Takes a sip and says, “Oh my god, that’s amazing.”
“I guess I could stop by,” Brenda says. “What time your shift start?”
“4:30,” Charlie says.
“Good,” Brenda says, biting at the ragged skin around her thumbnail. “Before the shift turnover. Maybe I won’t see anyone who knows me.”
“Would that be so bad?” Charlie asks, wrapping both her hands around the mug. She’s wearing dark green nail polish, so dark it’s nearly black. It’s chipped on both thumbnails. When Brenda’s nail polish chips, it looks awful. On Charlie, it looks effortlessly cool.
“I just don’t need it right now,” Brenda says.
“I mean, it seems like you could use… and wouldn’t those people understand specifically… about uncle Fritz?”
“About Fritz?” Brenda says. “Sure. But I’m not one of them anymore so…” She shakes her head. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
Charlie drops it. Drinks her coffee, changes into workout clothes and goes for a run around the neighborhood. Comes back and showers and gets ready for work. She wears all black - usually skinny jeans and a black tank top or t-shirt. Today she has a black v-neck, the soft fabric so thin that Brenda can see the criss-cross straps of her sports bra through the material.
Brenda used to be that young, once. That pretty and skinny and soft.
Of course, when Brenda was that age, she was in grad school, in the middle of being recruited to the CIA. Waiting to pass her background checks. They would ultimately put her on a list, tell her to finish her degree and then try again. It had devastated her at the time, even though the extra language courses had been beneficial and had ended up fast tracking her.
Looking back, now, she wishes they would have just told her no all together. Life could have been different. No CIA, no Atlanta PD, no LAPD. No Fritz. No heartbreak.
Charlie sits on the floor of her bedroom at the base of her floor length mirror. She’s surrounded by makeup and Brenda sits on the edge of her bed and watches her buff foundation over her already perfect skin, then concealer, then powder and bronzer and blush. She makes winged eyeliner look easy, but Brenda knows it isn’t. She doesn’t bother to tell Charlie all that makeup isn’t necessary because she used to hate old people telling her that sort of thing.
“What are you going to wear?” Charlie asks, searching through the makeup at her knee until she finds a fat pink tube of mascara.
“I dunno,” Brenda says.
“You’re going to shower?” Charlie asks.
“I guess,” Brenda says.
“And real clothes?”
“Okay, hint received,” Brenda says.
“I just think it’ll do you some good to leave this house,” Charlie says. “Talk to someone who isn’t me.”
“You never said anything about talkin’ to strangers,” Brenda says and she means it as a joke but it doesn’t quite come out that way.
“You’ll be fine,” Charlie says. “Okay, I gotta go. I will see you there.”
She leans over, pecks her aunt on the cheek. Grabs her hoodie and her back and heads for the door. Calls, “Don’t forget to brush your hair,” as she leaves.
Brenda does shower, but loses track of the time and it’s nearly five by the time she snaps out of it and gets her hair washed. She still manages to lie in her bed, wrapped in her towel for another fifteen minutes before groaning and putting on underwear. She manages jeans, though they feel weird, and her soft pink sweater. She doesn’t dry her hair, just runs some mousse through it and lets it dry up into waves.
She doesn’t put on any makeup, she just can’t bring herself to do more than rub some moisturizer into her face. Her car is filthy inside, so she decides instead to take Fritz’s SUV. It also still has the PAB parking pass in it, so she can park in the garage.
It still smells like him, a little, on the inside of the car but she decides to just drive through her tears. She’s determined to do just one thing right and that one thing is to not let Charlie down. Not to promise her something and then just let it fall through.
But when she arrives, there is no hiding her red, swollen eyes. She wipes her cheeks with her sleeve, her nose with the bare back of her hand. Looks in the mirror and then decides she can’t care about any of it.
She hasn’t been in this bar since before she left the force, so it’s been years but everything looks exactly the same. It’s not very full, but there are two people behind the bar. Neither of them are Charlie.
She goes to the far end of the bar, where her back will mostly be against a wall. One of the bartenders comes over to her and says, “Can I get you something?”
“Glass of merlot, whatever the house is will be fine,” she says. He looks at her, tilts his head.
“Are you Charlie’s aunt?” he asks.
She snaps her head up, looks at him. He’s tall, handsome, young.
“Yeah,” she says.
He grins, a row of perfectly white teeth. “I’ll tell her you’re here.”
“How’d you know?” Brenda asks.
“You look like her,” he says. “Merlot coming up.”
Charlie comes out before the wine gets to her. She smiles at Brenda, a real smile, one that reaches her whole face. But when she gets closer, the smile falters.
“You’re here,” Charlie says. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Brenda says.
“I was in the back cutting lemons and limes,” Charlie says. She holds up her hands. “Burns a little.”
“Place looks the same,” Brenda says.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes,” Brenda says. “I swear. Just tired.”
“Do you want some food? The kitchen just opened. There’s happy hour stuff.”
“I dunno,” Brenda says. She feels suddenly exhausted, like not only is she not gonna survive more time here, but she may not make it home in one piece.
The other bartender comes back, sets a glass of wine in front of her.
“Thank you, Mike,” Charlie says softly. Brenda sips it and it’s good, definitely not the house wine.
“Maybe some nachos,” Brenda says.
Charlie nods. “I can make that happen.”
Brenda, alone once more, fishes around for her phone before realizing she left it in the center console of the SUV. Her purse offers not much by way of entertainment. It’s full of wrappers, crumpled receipts. She used to be the kind of person who at last carried around a paperback with her, even if it was a trashy novel of no literary merit, but she hasn’t been that kind of person since long before moving to LA. Maybe she should get a library card. Read something again. Hide out in someone else's problems for a while.
The bar is starting to fill up now that it’s getting on quitting time. No one who comes in is in uniform, but she can tell which ones are cops and even vaguely recognizes a few of them, though is hard pressed to come up with any names. No one she knows. By the time her nachos come, a huge plate hot and heaping with chips and cheese and beans and sour cream and pico de gallo, the place is more full than empty. The stool next to her is still empty and the one after that, too, but then the rest of the bar, the actual bar top, is occupied.
The cute bartender, Mike, brings her a refill without her having to ask.
She feels better after she eats something, more herself, less on edge. The wine helps to dull things, too. And she doesn’t want to say that Charlie was right, exactly, but it feels nice to be out of her house and to have gone somewhere other than the drug store or the Ralphs.
Charlie stops by again, brings her a little plastic ramekin of maraschino cherries. “Having fun?”
Things have gotten loud now. There’s a digital jukebox installed on one of the walls, the one by the bathrooms, and people have been feeding it for awhile. A girl sings, baby, take me to the feeling… and Brenda has to read lips as much as anything else to understand what is happening around her.
“Good food,” Brenda says of the nachos. Nothing very Irish about nachos, but it is Los Angeles, after all. “Maybe it was good to get out.”
“Make any friends?” Charlie asks, glancing past Brenda to the door.
“Too old for all that,” Brenda says. “How about my bill?” Still, she pops a sweet, syrupy cherry into her mouth. It helps sooth the tingle from the jalapenos that had been hidden in the heart of her entrée.
“Oh please,” Charlie says. “No charge.” She waves her hand in the air as if to illustrate that her aunt is being ridiculous. Then she looks at the door again.
This time Brenda twists to look at the entrance as well, but no one is there.
“I’ll get you a box,” Charlie offers.
“I don’t need it,” Brenda says.
“You have half a plate left,” Charlie says. “You can take that home.”
“I may not want it later.”
“So I’ll eat it,” Charlie says. “Stay right there. Don’t move.”
Brenda gets a weird, familiar ping. It has to claw its way up through the fog, through whatever has settled over her. A heavy weave of apathy and sorrow. At first she just realizes something isn’t right. It takes her a few minutes to work out that it’s because Charlie is lying.
She’s not sure about what - Brenda can see her getting the box across the room but her body language is definitely not right and she keeps looking at the door and at the computer where they ring in orders. Probably the clock.
When Charlie comes back with the box, a flimsy beige cardboard thing that is obviously made of recycled material, she slides it across the bar. She looks past Brenda once again and then, just like that, her whole body language shifts into relief.
Brenda turns, twists fast and hard on her stool and feels the twinge in her spine, but she’s gotta see what Charlie’s been hiding, what she is relieved to see now.
Not a what, but a who.
Brenda feels her chest constrict, feels heat crawl up the back of her neck and turns to look at at her niece. Her voice comes out as a furious whisper.
“Charlene, what did you do?”
Charlie looks immediately upset and unsettled. Shakes her head, says, “It’s… it’s a cop bar.”
Brenda wants to hide her face, wants to slink off the stool and slither out a back door. But there’s not time for any of it, because it’s too late.
Brenda hasn’t seen Sharon Raydor since the funeral, and before that, even longer. Since she left the force, probably. Brenda remembers the day of the funeral through a haze, but she remembers Sharon clear enough. Sharon in full uniform is hard to forget. Brenda remembers Sharon’s hand on her arm, just above her elbow. Telling her that she was sorry for her loss, for the loss of the force. And then Andy Flynn leading her away.
The Sharon Raydor walking toward her now is not in her LAPD uniform, but it’s a uniform all the same. Black pencil skirt and a pale peach silk blouse. Black high heels, sleek hair and thick lashes behind the lens of her glasses. Her purse on her shoulder.
She stops a few feet away, looks at Charlie and back to Brenda.
“You didn’t tell her I was coming?”
This is addressed directly to Charlie.
“I thought… I… she wasn’t going to…”
Someone calls her from across the bar. She nods at them.
“Sorry,” she says, and dashes away.
“Well,” Sharon says, looking at her. “How are you doing?”
“I…” Brenda feels the panic washing over her. “I have to go.”
She grabs her coat, head for the door.
“Wait a minute,” Sharon says, but Brenda ignores her, pushes through the door and out into the chilled night air. By the time she gets back to the SUV, she’s panting, feeling a little light headed.
Inside still smells like Fritz and she starts to cry again.