The following is a two chapter excerpt from Earth As It Is, a novel by Jan Maher, posted with the permission of the author. Ordering information is included at the end.
HEAVEN, INDIANA, 1964
Helen Breck knew something was wrong. Just knew it. Charlene Bader never missed an appointment with a customer. Not in the nearly nineteen years her shop had been open. The women of Heaven counted on Charlene’s Beauty Shop like they counted on social hour at church. She was more dependable than their dependable husbands, more faithful than the US mail. But then, even the US mail had been delayed since Saturday by the awful wave of snow and ice storms that had hit. For six nights and five days Heaven had frozen over. It was beautiful in its way, like a crystal palace in a fairy tale, but treacherous.
Of course, Charlene would have canceled any appointments she had at the beginning of the week when no one could walk or drive safely. The ice and bitter cold made for a deadly combination that anyone with sense would surely know better than to challenge. But now the temperature was climbing, snow was melting, streets and sidewalks were passable, and phones were mostly back in service. No, something was definitely wrong.
Helen knocked once on the beauty shop door, twice, waited a minute, then a third time before picking her way back through the sidewalk ice patches to her car. She sat for a moment trying to take deep breaths, tapping her gloved fingers on the steering wheel. She had come to rely on her monthly visit to Charlene as the one time she could speak her mind more or less freely without fear of hearing her words boomerang back on her through the gossip mill. Today, she’d hoped to discuss a new investment opportunity with the hairdresser. No one else in Heaven, including Helen’s husband Lester, even knew she had investments. The strangeness of Charlene’s shop being locked up tight made her chest tighten. Settle down, she told herself. Maybe … but try as she might, she could not for the life of her think of a way to end that sentence positively. She put the car in gear and drove the two blocks to Clara’s Kitchen where she borrowed the phone. It was an effort to dial with numb shaky hands, but she managed. There was no answer either at Charlene’s home or at her shop. Helen’s next call was to Harry Hess down at the police station.
Harry tried at first to calm her fears with reason, then thought better of it. Helen was, as everyone knew, a little around the bend. Had been ever since the death of her daughter Melinda a decade earlier. No, it wouldn’t do to perturb Helen Breck. Harry swung by Clara’s Kitchen in his patrol car and, together, he and Helen drove back up the street to Charlene’s Beauty Shop. It remained closed. They drove on to Charlene’s house.
Harry noted that the short walkway from the street to the porch was still quite icy, though there was crusty snow piled on both sides, a sure sign that Charlene had at least tried to keep up with the weather that had dumped white stuff on the town and surrounding area for almost a week.
They made their way carefully. He held Helen’s elbow and could feel her nervous tension right through the sleeve of the heavy wool coat she wore. It made him nervous, too.
Having safely gained the porch, Harry rang the doorbell, then knocked. After waiting a respectable time for a response and hearing none, he tested the door. It opened easily, but this in itself was not a concern. No one in Heaven locked doors.
Seeing an empty living room and kitchen, he headed down the short hallway to check the bedroom.
Helen’s scream brought him back. Rushing to the sound, he found her pale, shaking, standing in the bathroom over the crumpled form of Charlene Bader, who lay face down on the floor by a full tub of water, clad in a baby-blue terrycloth bathrobe.
Harry dropped to his knees and rolled her over. He held a hand to her mouth and another to her neck, feeling for signs of life. Charlene’s skin was rough and cold. He felt no breath, no pulse.
Helen shrieked again, and her scream could have been his own. Charlene’s bathrobe had fallen open. Charlene was undeniably dead. And Charlene Bader was undeniably a man.
DALLAS, TEXAS, 1933
Charlie Bader was alone in his house for the first time since his wedding night. He’d taken such great care these past five months to avoid just this circumstance, but now here he was.
At his office, surrounded by metal drills and enameled pans, sterile hard surfaces and sharp-tipped picks, he could suppress his urges; there was nothing to feed them. Today, though, his last patient had canceled so Charlie was free to lock up and leave early. He might have walked over to Sorgerstrom’s to accompany his wife Anne home when she was finished working for the day, but it was too early for that. He had a full hour and a half with nothing to do. So now he was alone, standing in their bedroom.
His mind went in two directions at once. Anne, beautiful Anne, the love of his life. After all these months, Charlie still couldn’t believe his luck: that she’d allowed him to court her, to propose, to marry her, to share her bed.
The halo of honey-blonde hair that framed her face was what he’d first noticed, that day a year ago when he’d accepted his landlady Mrs. Hesher’s invitation to attend Sunday services at Christ of Calvary Church. Next, it was her golden voice. Her sweet soprano lifting above the others to sing of laying one’s burdens at the feet of the Lord gladdened his heart. And when she’d made it a point to smile at his invalid sister Hannah, sat down to chat with the girl in the wheelchair, asked her questions and listened patiently as she struggled to push through her Parkinson’s to answer them, Charlie was entirely smitten. Anne was a righteous Christian, warm, caring, and beautiful. Quite simply, he adored her.
At this moment, however, as he stood in the bedroom of their small house, it was Anne’s nightgown that won the battle in his mind. This was the burden Charlie Bader was unable to lay down: his need for softness.
He’d discovered that, too, in church, as a child sandwiched in the pew between his father’s scratchy wool suit and his mother’s Sunday best. At five, he’d begun hiding in the closet where her dress and the faux fox fur she wore in cooler months spent the workweek. There, he could sit on the old steamer trunk, wrap the fox collar around his neck, rest against the cool fabric of the dress, and try to decide which he loved to feel the most. Was it the luxurious strip of fur, or the silkiness of the skirt? Or perhaps the satin lining on the belly of the fox collar?
He’d struggled with this desperately secret and damnable habit all through his childhood, through his move from Kirbyville to Dallas to attend dental school, right up to his honeymoon; but he’d sworn to stop it once he was married, and for five months, he’d succeeded. The scarves he’d bought for Hannah but borrowed while she slept stayed put in her dresser drawer unless she requested one. The cashmere sweater he’d gifted her with lay untouched unless she decided to wear it.
Anne, unwittingly, had made matters more difficult for Charlie by taking over care of Hannah’s hair. Before the marriage, it was Charlie who combed it, worked the tangles out, braided and twisted it into the latest styles for his sister to admire in the mirror. After the wedding, Charlie’s only opportunity to run his fingers through Hannah’s thick tresses was the one evening a week Anne attended the missionary study group at church and Charlie was the one who brushed the braids out and helped her into bed.
Then Hannah’s disease worsened, and they’d had to put her in a nursing home. Now, the only softness he had access to was Anne’s nightgown and matching robe. When he embraced her, he embraced her robe as well. When they were intimate with one another, he was glad her sense of propriety prompted her to keep the nightgown on. He made love to them both: Anne and her gown.
Every day except Sunday, his angel wife worked for Mr. Sorgerstrom at the five and dime. And every day she worked, she got off when the store closed at six o’clock, then walked twenty minutes to get home. Charlie checked the clock. He had just over an hour. He opened the closet door and reached in to run his fingers along the cool, satiny folds of his wife’s robe.
How could he have known that this afternoon, as he stood caressing the sateen, Mr. Sorgerstrom had told Anne to go early? That she’d done a bit of shopping, and would soon be home? She’d have been there already except that, on an impulse, she’d stopped on the way to say hello to her husband’s old landlady, Mrs. Hesher.
Mrs. Hesher, the weathered widow who had first introduced them in church, had taken a special interest in them as two orphans of the great influenza epidemic, and considered herself personally responsible for their happiness. While Charlie was stripping off his shirt and pants, Mrs. Hesher was plying Anne with tea and cookies. While Charlie was slipping into the silky gown, Anne was updating Mrs. Hesher on Hannah’s move to the nursing home (the doctors say most folks who get the Parkinson’s after having sleepy sickness are a lot older; it’s so sad, but she needs a level of care we just can’t provide any longer) and Charlie’s dental practice (doing better than most, thanks to a patient with simply dreadful teeth but excellent luck who struck oil on his land). While Charlie was regarding himself in the mirror, pushing his pectorals into small breast shapes, his wife was inquiring about Mrs. Hesher’s son, who, shell-shocked and fragile, had finally come out of two decades of hiding in his room and gotten on with the WPA to help a muralist. While Anne was asking Mrs. Hesher the secret to making a hearty, lump-free sauce so she could surprise Charlie with biscuits and gravy for supper that night, Charlie was sitting at Anne’s dressing table, reminiscing about his mother’s dress and fox fur. He couldn’t know that Mrs. Hesher was dabbing a bit of cologne behind Anne’s ears, counseling her with a wink and a twinkle in her eye to woo her husband with the scent. He couldn’t know she was sending Anne on her way home at that very moment.
Because it was still well before six o’clock, he allowed himself to tend to his nails. It was one thing he’d found he could do that no one seemed to notice.
* * *
“What …” Anne stood in the bedroom doorway, unable to comprehend the scene she’d stumbled onto. All the happy thoughts of how to delight her husband with sweet smells and favorite dishes vanished in the split second it took her to register what she saw there. Her Charlie Bader, the handsome, up-and-coming dentist, her husband wearing the peach-colored sateen dressing gown that had been the centerpiece of her bridal trousseau.
Charlie jumped up, frantic, from the dressing table, whirled away from her, stripped the robe off, yanked his pants on, and only then dared turn to face her.
“I’m sorry … I …”
Anne stared, stammering. Her Charlie? “What are you … why … what does … how could …?”
“I’m sorry.” Charlie’s hands fluttered, trying to give him something to hide behind. “I wanted to tell you. I was afraid you’d … you wouldn’t understand.”
Anne found her voice. It erupted, burned her throat, poured out of her. “Wouldn’t understand what? You in my … Charlie, how could you? How could you court me and marry me and … and … and touch me when all along you knew you were …”
“But I’m not …”
“I am not blind, Charlie Bader! I just saw you. I saw you …” She couldn’t bear to give name to the spectacle. Her gown. Him wearing her gown. “You have lied to me. You have lied your way into my life, into my heart, into my bed. I was pure for you, but you have touched my body with your perverted hands and … and …” She flew into frenetic action, grabbing her clothes, her suitcase from the back of the closet, wrenching open the drawers of her bureau and feeding the clothes into the open maw of the luggage.
“Please, Anne, please don’t. What are you doing? Where are you going?”
“That is not one bit of your business!” She yanked her blouses and skirts off the closet rod and folded them, yes folded them. She would have order. She would make something fit. She would make. Things. Fit.
“Please don’t leave.” He choked on the words. “I can’t live without you. Anne, I’ll move out till you’ll have me back. I’ll sleep at the office. Just stay, please stay.” Even as he offered this desperate bargain, he felt a pit-of-stomach despair knowing it was hopeless.
She slammed the case shut. “I’ll need a day to arrange travel. I will not stay under the same roof with you. I’m going into the kitchen till you leave. Let me know when you’re on the way out,” she hissed at him, then burst into sobs and ran from the room.
Charlie found her there, hands on the edge of the stove, holding herself up. “I’m going now,” he spoke to the back of her head. “I know I have no right to ask you anything, but please, don’t tell anyone. It will ruin me.”
She refused to turn, to look at him. “Don’t worry,” she said bitterly. “What do you think people would say about me if they knew I didn’t have the sense to recognize a pansy boy? I don’t need anyone feeling sorry for me.”
“It’s not what you think. It really isn’t. I’m not one of those … I don’t … It’s you I love.”
“Will you let me explain?”
“I do love you. With all my heart. It’s not what you think. It’s …”
“Get out, please. Now.” Though he could not see her face he knew her chin jutted out and he knew from her voice she was crying through her harsh words. That was the last he saw of her. The points of her shoulder blades, the stiffness of her neck, the rigid way she held her arms against the stovetop edge.
Charlie hoped against hope that she’d reconsider. His heart leapt, when he awakened the next morning in his dental chair, at the sight of a note slid under his office door. He rushed to read it, but it only said that he could come back to the house now because she was gone, and not to come after her. She was headed to New Boston, where there was a missionary group that trained people for service in French West Africa. If her husband’s soul was irretrievably lost, at least maybe she could save a few savages. He stood for a few moments holding the note, staring at it. Yes, his soul was lost. Gone forever with his beautiful bride. In its place, a hollowing and hopeless thing growing. He tore the note into tiny pieces, took them home to the backyard, and buried them.
* * *
Hannah spoke so softly it was difficult to hear what she asked. Charlie knelt by his sister’s wheelchair and cupped his hand to his ear.
“What did you say?”
“Where is Anne?”
“She’s gone away for a while.”
Hannah’s eyes looked like they wanted to say something, but her mouth refused to push any more sound out.
“She asked me to tell you hello for her.”
Charlie could feel Hannah staring at him, even as he looked away, avoiding direct eye contact. Oh, he hated this dissembling. He’d never lied to his sister before. She was so fond of Anne, what could he tell her? That he was sorry, but she’d found him wearing her lingerie and left him? That now that she’d found out about this unnatural thing he felt compelled to do, they’d never, neither one of them, see her again?
Maybe someday he could figure out a way to explain. Tell Hannah how it had always been this way, even before she was born. That he’d just get urges and have to do something about it. Maybe she could understand. It was never something he intended to do, not really. More like an itch that would start as a tickle and grow until — every now and then — it just had to be scratched.
Maybe someday Hannah would forgive him for causing the only person in her life she loved besides him to vanish from her pitifully limited world. She asked for so little. As her disease closed in on her, she bore it with stubborn grace. But everyone could tell she was delighted beyond measure when Anne and Charlie visited her. And though Charlie was the one she performed somersaults for when she was three and splashed in the creek with when she was seven, the one who nursed her through her long illnesses and indulged her insistence that he move them to Dallas to become one of Texas’s first certified dentists, Anne was the person who brought the world of womanhood to her. The one who made her feel fashionable. The one who shared sisterly secrets with her. The one who could make her feel almost normal. It was Anne who could bring a smile to her face that cut through the disease-imposed mask.
Hannah was trying to talk again. Again, Charlie cupped his hand to his ear and leaned in to hear. “Charlie.”
“Will she come to see me next week?”
“I don’t know, Hannah. I don’t think so. But it’s not your fault. It’s my fault.”
“What did you do?”
“I disappointed her.”
“I’ll tell you someday. I promise. Don’t blame Anne.”
“You didn’t … break your vows?”
“No, Hannah. I love Anne too much. I kept the commandents.” He attempted a grin, hoping this deliberate use of her childhood mispronunciation would amuse and distract her, but instead he had to swallow hard to stifle grief.
He waited a long time, but Hannah’s energy for speaking was gone. She lapsed into silence. Only her hands moved, rhythmically rolling against her thighs. Her face was impassive, save a tear that trickled down her left cheek. Finally, Charlie spoke again.
“Hannah, there’s something else I need to tell you. I’m going to move on up to Chicago. Dallas would be too far away for me to visit you more than a couple of times a year, so I’ve found a place for you to stay in Indianapolis. They have other folks there like you, with the Parkinson’s, so they’ll know how to care for you better. I’ll take you up next week, and I’ll come to see you just as often as I can. I’ll come every weekend if I can.” He paused again, wrestling emotion to maintain his composure.
Hannah stared at the wall.
“I need a fresh start. I need to start over again. I need to go where no one knows me. No one.”
“Do braids for me. The kind you used to do right after Mama died.”
“Of course.” Charlie moved behind her chair and pulled his fingers through her thick blonde hair. He could feel his sister relax as he worked the tangles out, and fashioned two French braids. It comforted him, too.
They sat for another twenty minutes or so, Charlie watching Hannah, Hannah watching the wall. Then the nurse came to get her ready for an afternoon nap.
From Earth As It Is, by Jan Maher, published by Break Away Books