Be My Carlotta
Charlene moved a quarter turn away deflecting C.J.’s verbal barrage but couldn’t ignore the pity in the eyes of witnesses in the room. Sympathies always turned to Charlene who absorbed C.J.’s barbs aimed most times and without cause at her. He often wondered aloud to Charlene why people continued to invite him anywhere. Host Brian Keen took C. J. by the arm and led him toward the door. “Come on laureate, it’s time to get some air.” C. J. went without a fight but with a drunken sneer raised his whisky tumbler toward the rest of the party, “Nobody edits me God Damn it.”
Keen led Emery onto an open porch that was glowing orange in a sunset dying behind a stand of large oak trees. He deposited C.J. on a lounge chair and left him to sleep it off. Later, like all the other times when Charlene drove them home C. J. drunkenly apologized and like all the other times she forgave him. She understood that it was a temporary reprieve and that his regret would last only until the next gathering of friends and hangers-on.
Because Charles Jackson Emery had two best selling novels to his name and collections of poems and short stories, people in the small village in Maine referred to him as “Laureate”. When he wasn’t writing C.J. spent wasted hours at the village pub drinking alone while bartender Barney Emmons took the brunt of Emery’s surliness and endured his outlandish stories of a past littered with the damaged lives of two ex-wives and five children who no longer acknowledged him.
C.J. and Charlene lived in a small cottage on a bluff overlooking a rocky inlet north of the village that claimed some sort of historic link to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a statue of the poet stood watch over the village square. Emery wrote in his office most early mornings when first sun sent spears of light through large French doors that overlooked a shaded patio. The air was always thick with the scent of brine and each day before he started work he opened the doors to let the smell of the ocean fill the space.
Charlene met C.J. at a writer’s conference on Cape Cod, he was leading a workshop on the art of fiction and Charlene was a student of literature at Boston College working on her graduate thesis on the plays of Eugene O’Neill. Emery offered to help her organize her paper and they spent afternoons discussing O’Neill and the tragedy of his life and how O’Neill’s creative output was kept alive with the help of his last wife Carlotta Monterey. It was Carlotta who guided O’Neill’s weakening hands in the last months of his life. When O’Neill penned “Long Days Journey Into Night” his hands were so unsteady and painful that he wrote in a fashion barely decipherable. He put down his illegible scrawl page after excruciating page and turned his writing over to Carlotta who would begin the equally excruciating task of transcribing his minuscule cursive by scouring the manuscript with a magnifying glass. Together they finished what many considered O’Neill’s greatest achievement.
Charlene often wondered what it must have been like to share in the triumph of one the world’s great playwrights. She was never allowed to read Emery’s stories and he never shared his work with her or asked for her opinion. However, he did send drafts of his pieces to a former mistress for critiquing. Charlene watched from a distance as the creativity flowed.
The scope of Emery’s latest effort was stretching him to the limits of his creativity. It was a huge undertaking, a historical novel requiring more research than anything he had attempted before and the rigors of it were taking a toll. He was having trouble concentrating on the actual writing of it, he was drinking more and had developed tremors. He cursed his inability to write faster because his brain was outpacing his ability to put it down and complained bitterly to Charlene as if she might be the cause, but as usual she just happened to be nearby.
One morning Charlene found C.J. sitting on the stairway to his office, still in his pajamas. He had been up all night and stared through Charlene without emotion, wringing his hands as if to wipe them clean. “They don’t work anymore Char.”
“What don’t work?”
Emery held up his hands.
“Your hands don’t work?”
“Have you been working all night?”
C.J. didn’t answer and continued to wring his hands.
Charlene decided to go into Emery’s office, something she rarely did. The workspace was in shambles. Papers and books were strewn around the room and half empty vodka bottles and coffee cups were overturned in the midst of the mess. His computer keyboard was upside down on the floor and the computer was on. She picked up the keyboard and put it on his desk and sat in his chair. On the computer screen was a page from the novel. There were lines of text interrupted by gibberish, extraneous characters and typographical errors. Completed pages that had been printed were laying on the desk and they all contained babble. Some lines had nothing but the letter “Z”. Others began with lucid sentences but deteriorated into garbage. It was evident there was more to Emery’s problem than just tremors.
Charlene went back to C.J. and led him to their bedroom and called the doctor. After looking Emery over the only answer the doctor could give was the one Charlene already understood; C.J. was an alcoholic and his drinking was short-circuiting his motor skills; so much so that he couldn’t scribble with a pencil or type. His inability to write was driving him to mental instability, that’s the way the doctor put it. Charlene understood it to mean that C.J. was going mad.
“He wants to see you,” said the doctor, “but I’ve given him something so he may not be that lucid.”
Charlene returned to the bedroom and opened the door a crack to look in on C.J.
“I need your help Char.”
The words hit Charlene like a load of bricks. He had never asked for anything before, and certainly not for her help.
“With your help I can finish the book. I’m too close to quit now, but I can’t do it by myself.”
The great C.J. Emery was broken and needed Charlene to fix him. She was tempted to say no.
“What do you need me to do?”
“I’ll dictate, you type.”
She didn’t like the sound of it. The arrangement had the resonance of servitude. In order for Charlene to become his Carlotta love would have to be involved in the collaboration. What O’Neill and Carlotta shared did not exist in this house, too much hostility lived here.
Charlene thought for a moment then paused at the door. “That’s fine but there will be rules.” As she left C.J. called after her, “Rules?”
Over dinner that evening they laid down the guidelines for the working relationship. There weren’t many, mainly that the collaboration be civil and that C.J. would curb his drinking. He balked at that part, claiming that if he didn’t drink he could do the work himself. He apparently failed to see the irony in that but agreed.
The plan worked fairly well for the first couple of months. Emery recorded his manuscript and Charlene, working in the evenings in a small alcove off the kitchen, wearing earphones, transcribed everything Emery sent. She would leave the completed pages outside his office and Emery would give her new pages and revisions at the end of his working day which normally ended at one in the afternoon. Over strong objections from Charlene and Emery’s promise that beer would be the only drink, he would leave the house to visit the pub.
Being Emery’s Carlotta proved to be a tenuous contract and civility started to unravel when Emery began leaving scathing passages deriding Charlene’s transcriptions, accusing her of doctoring his writing. Long tirades on the recordings began to preface all of his work accusing her of doctoring his copy, changing the thrust of his intentions. “God damn it Charlene,” he would say, “how many times do I have to say it, nobody edits me.” Then he would go into a long litany on his past achievements as though she had never heard them before. It mattered little to C.J. that Charlene denied doctoring anything. She confessed only to cleaning up the numerous grammatical errors that dotted his transcription but hid from C.J. the fact that much of what he was recording made no sense. In truth she had been cleaning up broad stretches of his prose; arranging and rearranging wide swaths of copy. Historical facts were corrected, slanders were erased and rambling tirades were polished and masked. In his deteriorating condition it was evident that C.J. couldn’t tell the difference and was slipping deeper into insanity.
On Christmas Eve light flurries of snow pelted the windows. Charlene began transcribing and was greeted with the usual screed about tampering with Emery’s writing but she was now numb to his tirades and her thoughts turned to Carlotta. What joy she must have felt, sharing in the inspiration that came through the minute scribblings of the great O’Neill. What must it have been like anticipating what the next page would hold? As Charlene watched the snow fall she recalled a passage in one of O’Neill’s plays that read, “There’s a lot to be said for autumn. That’s got beauty too. And winter...if you’re together.” Yes, thought Charlene, if you’re together.
She was shocked out of her reverie when a cascade of paper erupted from the top of the stairs and she looked up to see C.J. glowering down at her.
“You rang master?”
C.J. took a step down the stair, “I’m warning you for the last time Charlene, if you fuck with my writing again I’ll kill you”
Charlene put down the headphones and turned off the recorder, “Don’t make idle threats sweetie. I’m not doctoring your manuscript, I’m saving it.”
“You, saving my book? That would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.”
Charlene grabbed a sheaf of manuscript, “Do you want laughable? Listen to this little tidbit in your chapter ten covering the growth of the industrial age, I quote, ‘time was when the chime of bluebells tolled their silent peals and mythic kings sealed their sacred deals.’ Who the hell do you think are, Chaucer?”
“I didn’t write that. It’s more of your manipulation.”
Charlene shuffled more pages, “I couldn’t write this shit. How about this one where you have President Eisenhower closing out a speech with ‘Lah lee lo tee dum, Lah lee lo tee dum.’ If I didn’t clean up your manuscript it would read like a Goddamn children’s fable.”
Emery took two more steps down the stairs, “Stop messing with my writing Charlene or daddy will come downstairs and spank.”
Charlene left the table and went to the bar, picked up two bottles of Scotch, went to the door, opened it and with the storm blowing into the living room, threw a bottle into the snow. “You finish it if you can you son-of-a-bitch. I’ll have you committed C.J. and you can finish it in a rubber room, lah lee lo tee dum.”
C.J. jumped the last four steps in one stride and charged Charlene who was wielding another bottle like a club and threatened Emery as he approached her. He easily disarmed her and they fell to the couch with C.J.s hands tight around Charlene’s throat. Gasping for air she struggled under C.J.’s weight. Emery’s hands began to shake and soon lost their grip on Charlene’s neck. He let go of her and stumble back looking at his trembling hands. “I…I…chimes of bluebells tolled…their, their…as lovely as a lea…lah lee lo tee dum”
Emery looked at Charlene who was trying to catch her breath then he ran out into the storm still babbling.
Charlene ran to the door but in the blowing snow couldn’t see where C.J. had gone. She closed the door and surveyed the living room that looked like a bomb had gone off. She went upstairs to Emery’s office. The French doors were wide open and the flurries had blown snow and papers throughout the room. On the desktop there was a sheaf of hand scribbled hieroglyphics and she sat at the desk and made a futile attempt at decoding the garbage. At this point it was clear that C.J.’s brain was completely addled and any attempt at writing anything was futile.
Waiting for Emery’s return Charlene stayed up sifting through the insane prattle. She read over her notes on his final recording and scoured the cryptic hieroglyphics searching for any clues that would give a hint of where he might have gone, physically and mentally. She finally went to bed at 2:00.
Early on Christmas morning the bartender at “The Tankard” called Charlene asking her to come to the village and retrieve C.J. When she arrived at the square a crowd was forming at the base of Longfellow’s statue. She assumed it was a holiday gathering of some sort. In fact at nine in the morning on Christmas Day Charlene and fifty villagers watched as C.J. completed his decent into his private anguish. His madness crested in a naked display at the foot of Longfellow’s statue where he sat nude with his legs crossed Indian style, disconsolate and weeping while the village park brass ensemble played “Silent Night.”
Causes Jerry Blair Supports
National SPCA, National Parks, Lindsay Wildlife Museum