Excerpt from
Charley’s Choice

The End

The last conversations I had with Charley Parkhurst were slow and torturous for her. At the end of almost every sentence, she would take a sip of water or Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, the snake oil remedy she’d bought, but never once did she complain of the pain she must have felt.
     I remember well the day Frank Woodward walked up the path to our house asking that my son go to town to fetch Mr. O’Neill, the undertaker. It was Sunday, December 28, 1879, six weeks after I finally convinced Charley to see Dr. Plum, a cancer specialist in town, about her sore throat.
     “It’s done,” Frank said, gently closing the door behind him. The lines on the old man’s face had deepened since I saw him last, and, to my mind, his skin had the look of ashes under the grate. The pouches under his eyes were a mottled brown almost matching the color of his sherry-hazel eyes. “Charley breathed his last a half hour ago.” A long pause punctuated his delivery of the sad news. He transferred his weight from one foot to the other while rolling his hat between his work-roughened hands.
     “It would have been kinder of the Lord to have let Charley pass before the worst set in,” I said.
     “Yep, he was a good man. A good friend to me for the past twenty years.” Frank stood in the doorway blinking back tears, his Adam’s apple bobbing with every convulsive swallow he took to marshal his usual reserve. “Guess I should head back and wait for O’Neill to come.”
     “Charley wanted me to be with you when the time came, so I’ll be along shortly.”
     “Yes, ma’am.” Frank bowed his head to put his hat on. I held the door wide while he shuffled off the porch and down the front path.
     Well, Charley’s secret would be out now, soon as the undertaker examined her. Poor Frank was headed for a bit of a shock.
     Charley never told Frank her secret because as she said, “Frank hates women. Some female broke his heart when he was young, and he’s never forgiven her, or any other woman. Don’t think he even liked his Ma much. Frank’s an old bach’ and likes thinking we’re alike. Wouldn’t hurt the old bird for nothing, he’s been a big help to me these past few years taking care of my stock whilst I was away. I’m looking to him to see me through till the cancer wins out.”
     I had guessed Charley’s true gender shortly after we met, and when I verified the fact by asking her, she made me swear not to bandy it about till after she was gone.
     In the end, it was O’Neill that told Frank.
     I stayed inside to prepare the body, but I heard every word.
     “He was a what?!” Frank bellowed.
     “Charley was a woman.”
     “I would’ve knowed.”
     “She bound her breasts, Frank. By the looks of it, she gave birth at some point in her life, too.”
     “Concarn it all. Don’t that beat hell. All these years, I thought I had a friend and the damn bitch was laughing at me.”
     “Now, Frank, Charley wasn’t like that.”
     “Made a horse’s ass out of me, she did, front of the whole town.”
     “Doubt many knew. I imagine there’ll be quite a few surprised neighbors hereabouts.”
     When I stepped out onto the porch a while later, Frank sat rocking back and forth crazy fast like a youngster would, his anger-clouded face flashed me a look to kill. “You’re laughing at me, too, and don’t tell me you ain’t.”
     “I would never do that Frank,” I said. “Charley was my friend, and I promised not to tell a soul.”
     “You knew?”
     “Yes, I guessed some time ago.”
     “Son of a bitch!”
     “After I knew, I asked whether I could write down her stories,” I said, handing him the leather bound journal of Charley’s life. “Thought maybe you’d like to read what she was about all these years. But, before you get started with that, let’s open Charley’s trunk. She told me some weeks ago, when she knew she was going to die of the cancer, that she wanted me to open the trunk with you. She didn’t say what was in it, but I’m hoping her suit’s in there, so we can put her to rest in it. I have her all washed, but I want to dress her before she stiffens.”
     Frank brought out the small trunk and dusted it off with his handkerchief, his face still showing traces of resentment, but not the consuming anger of a few minutes earlier. We looked at each other, and I could see in his eyes a spark of curiosity that met the excitement I felt at the prospect of delving into who knew what kinds of telltale treasures of such an interesting life.
     First thing to meet our eyes were two envelopes, one addressed to Frank, and the other to me. We tore them open and read in silence. To this day, I don’t know what Frank’s contained, but my letter thanked me for all I had done for her over the years, which certainly wasn’t much considering how independent she had always been. And another sheet of paper contained Charley’s will, leaving a sum total of $600.00 to twelve-year old, Georgie Harmon. It stated that the money was in the care of the merchant Otto A. Stoesser, Sr. in Watsonville, and would be handed over upon the delivery of the letter.
     Charley’s generosity brought tears to my eyes. Blinking them away, I put the letter aside and delved further into the trunk. The next items were what I’d been looking for, Charley’s going-to-court suit, the one she had bought in Providence. She’d had several lawsuits over the past few years between herself and Frederick A. Hihn and had always dressed for the occasion. As I removed the neatly folded suit, a large swath of red caught my eye. I put the suit aside and withdrew Charley’s red dress. She never mentioned that she had kept it all those years. And beneath that lay a baby’s shoe. Mattie’s. I put both in Charley’s casket just before Mr. O’Neill nailed it shut.
     My heart felt like a boulder lodged in my chest. Feelings of emptiness and regret washed over me. Along with Frank, I’d lost a good friend. One I’d known only a few years, yet, I was glad I had the privilege of knowing her. As I thought of her loss, and my loss of her friendship, I could no longer hold back my tears. Like she said, “I went after what I wanted, and I don’t regret doing what I done.”
     I hope I can say the same when my life is over.

(Taken from the prolog, The End, and the afterword, After the End, of Charley’s Choice.)

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