Chesaleen (bless her heart)


The morning Chesaleen died she bought two silver bottles of black hair rinse, which is why when they found her late that night, straddle-slipped on the rain-wet cement steps, they assumed she bled the black blood of a terrible sin. Truthfully, her heart quit on the second step and there was no blood at all, black or otherwise, but that was neither here nor there. The sin was an old one and not a secret, and the sight was more interesting for the way she pointed up with one fat finger propped against the rusted stair rail, pointing in penitence or accusation and laying like a billowy squid in a puddle of her own ink.

Back before the town elders became Christians paying their wives back for assorted wrongs by going to church, they cooked corn whisky out behind Chesaleen’s barn. She was a sweet thing then, with dead parents and a little money and eyebrows arched up like a movie star. Chesalean knew how to play cards and drink one-handed corn. She had a thirsty wink for the men young and old, single and otherwise. Boys always began coon-hunting, but ended up midnight at Chesaleen’s where she was always wide-awake waiting with a cigarette clenched tight in her smile and one eye squinting for the smoke. She wasn’t even a Methodist.

On the way to church, Mama used to make me cover my eyes when we passed her house and Daddy would cough some. There she’d be, between my widening fingers rising out of her own weeds like a toss-headed witch. Chesaleen scared the hell out of me, just like she was supposed to.

“Good girls go to church,” Mama mumbled straight at my cupped hands, “Bad girls go to hell and burn forever til their blood runs black.” She’d look at Daddy and he’d start fiddling with the gas pedal and that was that.

Chesaleen just waived her housecoat a bit at us and we left her swallowed up in road dust.

There’s a story goes that once Chesaleen showed up uninvited to the Saturday quilting at the high school gym and brought a chocolate cream pie. She wore white rolled-up shorts and spiky shoes with her toes showing. She set that pie down on the table with her red fingertips, mustered up a big lipstick smile, and waited. Well, those good women never quit rocking the needles. They never did anything else either, and when Chesaleen left bawling Mrs. Humnoke went right over to the table, scooped up that pie, and threw it in the stove-fire.

“Smell that pie burn,” my Mama said through the quilt frame, straight down at me underneath it. Women and needles rocking in and out above my head and that sweet, burning chocolate.

Two weeks later Chesaleen showed up again, this time with a pretty lemon pie in her plain fingers and a buttoned-up cotton dress down to her knees. Still, the needles kept rocking and the women set their mouths hard against her. She just smiled pretty and spun around to the door. A few minutes later, it was Mrs. Brashear broke the quiet.

“I think she’s trying,” Mrs. Brashear was blonde and not a little pregnant and had soft spots now and again. She rolled out of her chair, waddled over to the table, and sliced herself a piece of that lemon pie before she screamed and fainted. Women leaping to catch the blonde bride failed before she hit the gym floor planks like a felled pine.

Well, that pie was full of maggots, crawling in all that lemon and meringue like seed pearls. I never told Mama that from under the quilt frame I could see Chesaleen wasn’t wearing any underwear. They were busy enough what with maggots and Mrs. Brashear half-dead from the fall.

When Freddy Brashear was born the next day he had a strawberry mark on his chin and everybody knew it was because his mama had eaten Chesaleen’s maggots.

(I’m not yet sure what to do with this piece. I play with it, find new directions, discard them – you know the drill. Chesaleen’s just a character I can’t leave alone. Maybe I’ll write a little bit more of her over Christmas break. Maybe.)

5 thoughts on “Chesaleen (bless her heart)

  1. You simply must write more about Chesaleen. If you don’t, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself. Have you thought about going in and developing the quilting bee scenes? I like the child narrator, but I’d like to see Chesaleen through others’ perspectives. I’d also like to hear Chesaleen’s voice. You’ve got so much good stuff to work with here.I also like that in your previous post’s photo, the debutante in the pink car is smoking a cigarette.

  2. I’ve thought about a hundred different ways to tell Chesaleen. One I like right now is to tell story after story from different narrators so that all we know of her is gossip and conjecture. Or what you think is gossip and conjecture. She won’t exist for the reader except through everyone else’s stories, until the end. Who knows. I may change my mind. I know what her secret is, though. That’s in stone.

  3. Hey! Of all the posts I read in the first three days I spent skimming your site on and off, this is the one I remember the most. I love it, I love it, I love it. I came to read it again, and then googled to see if there was more. To my joy, you won a novel writing competition about Chesaleen. Did you get published, and if so where can I get a copy? She's living and breathing, and I need to know more NOW.

  4. Wow, thank you so much, Goodmood! The thing I “won' wasn't a contest, but the National Novel Writing Month challenge. I typed over 50,000 words of Chesaleen in a month last year. As I write this, I'm in super-deep rewrite mode to get her finished. As soon as I do, I'll ship her out and about and let you know what happens. Wish me luck, gal, and stay on me until I get it prettied-up!

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