Thursday, March 20, 2014


How can a person be so great at something and oblivious to his own talent?

This is the story of Charlie King.
“[The girls] swim out and then turn onto their backs and drift, never knowing, never considering that they are perhaps simply clay pigeons for the cosmic shotgun, fuel for the fire, grist for the universal mill.”
– “Six Girls without Pants”, Charlie King 

When my short story, "Demon Dancing" came out, I must have read it in print a half dozen times, fingering my name, a vertical watermark on the margin of each page. I read it so often, I caught several spelling errors that the student editor overlooked. In the line “My ears tune-in at the middle of her sob story,” I’d accidentally typed, “tone” instead of “tune.” Throughout the entire story, I’d spelled doughnuts, “donuts”, and wondered if I’d revealed myself to the world—or the eighty people who owned copies of the journal—as an amateur by using a trendy spelling of the word. Towards the end, when the reader discovers that the parole officer is a figment of my main character's imagination (an unbelievably cliche ending), I had, oops, spelled “nod” with two ds.  I shrugged off my mistakes, after all it was Shannon Hale who once said, “Writers are terrible spellers,” and I relished in my success. I’d submitted two stories in the past to no avail. But now, I had conquered my whale—though in hindsight, a college literary magazine is really more of a tilapia, right? 

The accepted submissions in Touchstones were also pitted against each other in a competition in the categories of prose, poetry, and art & photography, winners ranking first and second place, and the overall, coveted: Best in Issue. “Demon Dancing” didn't place. Once I’d exhausted my own genius story, read so often as to have a crease in the spine, so the magazine flipped open to it, I read the winners’ stories and poems, and the ones with interesting titles, like “Inside Rembrandt” and “Scheduling Bathroom Sex on Campus”. The art varied from a photograph of a Dollar General mop tied up with string to a Picasso-style pencil sketch of King Lear. The bane of my existence and the crowning jewel of Touchstones was the work of one, Charlie King, whose story, “Six Girls without Pants” reigned supreme and was, without a doubt, king of the issue. In the back of the journal, judges gushed about King's hilarious dialogue, "cool" imagery, and skillful mockery of vampire poetry. Truth written, truth read. I wanted the same EXACT review of my own work. I wanted to write about girls reading poetry on a Trans Am and thinking about suicide. Hell, I wanted to be one of the girls reading poetry, platonically spooning on a stolen car. A great author can transport the reader into a scene, and Charlie King had done it. He wrote about the water on their legs, and I felt it lap at my calves. He described their dresses floating around their waists “like egg whites on the dark water”, and I could flip them with a spatula. He molded a character with a nose and boob job who sees, nay, seeks misogyny in a poem about a baby Dracula, and suddenly I was that girl, my back story stenciled on the walls of my memories—maybe I’d been forced to get the surgery because of a gross stepfather, or worse an unsatisfied mother. A mother who views a child as a canvas, not a painting. A mother who “wants the best”. 

As I did my own, I read and reread King’s story, until it felt like part of my history. Then, I found King's bio, which simply stated, “Charlie is a student at UVSC.” Our bios were submitted with our stories. The submission sheet encouraged writers to include where we lived, our majors, inspirations, and life at home. Most of the bios answered these humorously. “Sam likes cats.” “Blake poses as an arsonist in his free time.” “Now that Kamri has earned her MrS Degree, she will no longer be attending UVSC.” (The sad truth is that many women in the Mormon culture drop out of college when they get married. I remember battling with the decision as a newly engaged twenty-year-old. "I guess I'll drop out and get a full-time job to support my husband's schooling," I told a friend once. "Why?" she asked. "Why not finish your degree? Why do you HAVE to put your dreams on hold while he pursues an education? Can't you both go to college?" I was dumbfounded. It was the first time IN MY LIFE that I considered what I might want out of life beyond being a wife and, eventually, mother. Before, I'd planned only to attend school up until the moment I got the ring.) But back to the bios: there were a few who didn't submit anything and were given the bio line, "______is a student at UVSC.” This made Charlie King more mysterious and alluring to me. He kicked my ass at writing, and my initial reaction was, unfortunately, one part respect, two parts envy. I had to meet him. If not to bask his in glory, then to be able to look at him and lamely think, He may be able to write beautifully, but his face doesn’t…write…beautifully. I’m afraid I'm not very clever when envious. 

Once every semester, at the release of the magazine, the staff at Touchstones hosts a party cordoned off with collapsible carpeted walls and a table full of catered cookies and cocktail napkins. In front of the audience's round tables is a podium for authors to read their work. They only invite twenty or so contributors to read while guests pick at their macadamia nut cookies and try to ignore the egg roll scents wafted from the Teriyaki Stix around the corner. That spring, I knew Charlie would be there. He had to be. He was the golden boy of the issue! Some writers even mentioned him in their bios as someone who had inspired their work. A college student inspiring other college students! Who ever heard of such a thing? 

On the night of the issue’s debut, I ceremoniously, arrogantly, gave my mother a signed copy of the issue. When it was my turn at the podium, the air conditioner was set too cold and the audience sparse. Still, I read, bold, proud. I got a cordial applause, mostly from my family and husband, and sat down to scan the program for the next in line. It dawned on me. King's name was absent. He did not read. As far as I knew he didn’t even attend the party. I pretended that it was because he couldn’t get anyone to cover his shift at the Gap. But that was the snark talking. King really had inspired me and, despite my resentment, he became my John Galt. 

Who is Charlie King? 

Ten years later, not even the world of facebook could narrow it down for me. How many Charlie Kings existed in the world? I continued writing and never came up with anything as intimate and controlled as his work, though I did go on to publish three more stories in college journals, and I won second place in a local literary arts festival for "Souvenirs", a story about the devil leaving little creatures in the minds of women. (I never let Mom read that one. I didn't think she’d be amused at the imagery of the devil kissing and getting a rise out of a housewife.) 

And then, in November, I found him. By luck, I noticed that a pal from back in middle school had a Charlie King listed on her friend list. (It's a small world in the LDS church.) I reached out to him, hoping I didn't come across too stalker-y, and we engaged in a mild dialogue founded on our love of writing. He sent me some poems, I sent him links to poems on my blog, which he complimented and--here's the crazy part--dubbed himself an amateur in comparison. What! The Charlie King, this pillar of authorial genius, executor of eloquence, slayer of symbolism, blind to his own daemon?! After I pointed out every bit of poetry that I loved, lines so smooth you could sip them through a straw, do you know what he said, 

"Who are you, Rena Lesue-Smithey?"

One day, just you wait, he's going to be the Neil Gaiman to my Tori Amos. ('Cept, he's more of a playwright and I'm not a musician or a ginger. But you know what I mean.)

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