Irene, Iowa – Population 1,000

You never know who is watching you.  And why.  Enjoy Part 3


CHARLOTTE JOHNSON HAD JOINED a group that she had feared joining.  Uterine Cancer had pulled her into the club.  She wondered if she would wear the survivor sign internally or externally.  Just in her heart and mind, or on a tee-shirt.  She hoped she would be around to choose. 

Every day she reaffirmed to herself that her cancer surgery and treatment afterward would be a success.  Stage III Uterine Cancer made her commit to getting better and being better.  Not out of fear of dying.  Her fear was for her husband and kids.  They needed her around.  Forty-three was too young to die. 

What frightened her the most was whether she would be able to withstand the treatment.  First, it was the surgery.  Her uterus, both fallopian tubes, and ovaries would be removed.  From her questions and what she read, her Lymph nodes could be spared if they were cancer free.  With such an aggressive stage of cancer, she knew she was just hoping.  But it was all she had for now.  Working was the only thing that kept her from having a nervous breakdown and falling apart.   

Charlotte answered the phone at the receptionist’s desk as usual.  Her warm smile came through.  “The Button Factory.  This is Charlotte.  How may I help you?”  Work gave her the normalcy that she needed.  But the dreaded thoughts of the surgery and the treatments afterward kept her on edge. 

At times when she ate lunch, she caught herself vomiting from the stress of it all.  Everything was coming at her so fast.  Knowing what the surgery involved was one part.  But then there were the other treatments that confused her.  Would she have radiation treatments, chemotherapy, or hormonal therapy?  Or did the specialist say she would have a combination of the three?

Then there was the choice of external or internal radiation therapy.  She remembered being told something about beaming high dosages of radiation into her.  In a specific area.  It did not sound healthy.  Having radioactive tubes or beads placed inside her through her delicate area was not that pleasing either.  And with the beads or tubes in her, she had to stay in the hospital for a few days.  Missing her husband and babies.  But then the side effects were fewer than the other treatments.  But they all had side effects.  It was a matter of which treatment was right for her.   

Charlotte’s heart raced as she finished talking to a customer.  She hung up the phone and ran to the bathroom.  Inside a stall, she locked the door and dropped to her knees.  She panted with her head over the toilet.  Her breakfast spewed out of her as it sometimes did.  She stood up and listened.  No one had come in.

She hurried from the stall and rinsed her mouth and washed her face.  She stared at herself in the mirror.  Her doctor and her doctor’s assistant had told her they were with her at every step.  She did not know why she put so much pressure on herself.  But when she allowed herself to think about it, she knew why.

This was all her fault.  She was fat.  She did not take care of herself.  That is what did it.  That is how she got cancer.  Wine, bad food, why shouldn’t she be sick?  Sure she was eating healthier now.  But why did she have to wait until she was sick?  She saw herself as a fake.  Be pleasant to everyone.  Maybe they would overlook her imperfections.  In the end, it did not work so well.  What people thought about her was probably awful.

That was why Charlotte hid her diagnosis.  The last thing she needed was pity.  She did not want it, nor deserve it.  That was what she would get in a town like Irene, Iowa, with a population of one thousand.  So she kept her mouth shut and her feelings to herself.   

Charlotte came into the office carrying her lunch.  She needed to put it in the refrigerator.  Several of the drivers for the company were in the reception area.  They were looking at a giant jar about two feet high.  It was covered in brown wrapping paper.  It was on a table in the corner of the room. 

“Charlotte,” Scott Cole said.  He was one of the drivers.  He was tall and lean.  “You see this jar?”  She told him sure.  “If you guess how many jelly beans are in this thing, you get them all.  Take them home to your kids.  Write your guess down on a piece of paper.  Then put it in the box beside it.  See if you can win it.”  Scott winked at her as the drivers left.

Charlotte felt Scott was up to something.  He flirted with her sometimes.  To be funny, she thought.  She went to the break room and came back and sat down behind her desk. 

She felt she was getting better at work.  She did not cry in the bathroom as much.  Nor had she vomited from fear all week.  It was only Wednesday.  But it was better than most weeks.      

Lunchtime arrived.  Charlotte felt good.  Not great.  But good. 

Charlotte stood up and headed back to the break room to get her lunch.  Walter Portman, President of the company, came out of his office as she stood. 

“Charlotte, I’m sorry,” Walter said.  “I need you to do me a big favor.  Will you come work with me for a few minutes to take some notes at the loading dock.  We have a new program for the company.  I need a note-taker.  I’ll add the minutes back to your lunch break.”

“Absolutely,” Charlotte said. 

“Thank you,” he said.  “We’ll make it fast.”

Charlotte followed Walter through the double doors to the loading docks and stopped abruptly.  The area was packed with employees.  Scott Cole came in and stood behind them, carrying the giant jar.  Charlotte was unaware he was behind them until he walked around to the front of them.    

“Charlotte, on behalf of the company and your wonderful coworkers, this jar contains eight thousand dollars,” Walter said.  “We know you’re a private person.  And we don’t know anything.”  He emphasized that.  Charlotte swallowed and was speechless.  “But we know you’re a good and decent person.  This will take care of all of your out of pocket costs for your treatments.  You and Randy won’t have to worry about that.”

Charlotte wept as Scott sat the jar on a dollie to be taken to her car.  And if that was not emotional enough.  Each employee in the packed room hugged Charlotte.  This was Charlotte’s last week for a few weeks.  She was having surgery.  And she would need to recover.

The last person to hug Charlotte was Scott.  Charlotte was apprehensive about hugging Scott.  Her arms were tired of hugging.  But that was not the reason she did not want to hug Scott. 

A month ago, Scott had started telling her she was pretty.  They had worked together for five years.  She found that odd.  It was mostly playful.  But she began to see him differently.  Not dangerous.  Just weird.  Never aggressive.  Strange.  And here he was with both arms out.

Charlotte thought about it and said, “What the hell?”  She gave him a big hug. 

He hugged her tight.  Then he whispered in her ear.  “My wife went through the same thing,” he said.  “It’s good to have people around.  People you can depend on.  We’ll miss you while you’re recovering.  If you need anything, let us know.  Even a ride to and from the doctor, we’ve all agreed we’re here for you.”

“Thanks,” she said and held onto him a little while longer.

“I knew I’d find a way to get you,” he said, laughing.

“Shut up,” she said.  “You’re weird.”

“I know.”

Have a great weekend.

See you soon.

Stephen Wallace

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