I started working at the Delta Queen with the idea of one day buying it from Mr. Oates. I thought I could make some kind of life out of that. Not exactly a dream come true, but not exactly bad for an ex-con, either. And then she came along and made me feel like my dreams were very, very small.

Charlene was the most beautiful girl in the world. She was also one of the richest girls in Campbell, CA. The beautiful part I could tell at first sight, but I didn’t find out about the rich part until a few weeks later. Her parents wanted her to try out some “real work,” I guess, in the summer between high school and college.

I didn’t speak a word to her for the first week, so she had to take the lead.

“Hey, Gil! You like to swim?”

After I got over the shock of being addressed by a genuine angel, I responded that I liked swimming okay. She threw a bucket of soapy water right in my face.

“Swim in this!”

If she had been a man, I would have punched her square in the jaw. But the sudsy t-shirt clinging to her made it very obvious that she was no man. Instead, I just stood there like a man in a trance. That was Charlene all over. Mischievous and going right over the line. No one dared call her on it because of who she was–or who her parents were, rather. A few minutes later I asked her to go aloft and find the turn signal fluid. By the time she figured out she was on a snipe hunt, she was in love with me.

Her folks may have wanted her to spend some time doing “real work,” but they weren’t too keen on their little girl slumming it up with an ex-con who worked at a carwash. They probably expected her to grow out of it when she went to college. Maybe she tried. I’m sure she dated a few boys at school, but I made damn sure she found a man when she came home for breaks. I also made sure I was more successful each time she saw me.

Mr. Oates sold me the Delta Queen, and I opened another location within a year. By the time Charlene graduated, I owned five carwashes outright and was working with her father’s lawyer to franchise the whole concept up-and-down the West Coast.

She said she was happy for me, but I could tell something was wrong. There was some part of her she was holding back. Going into business with her old man changed me forever in her eyes. I wasn’t the man she thought I was. I guess she was right. She kept finding reasons to get out of town, until one day, she slipped away for good.

I keep busy these days. Busy is good. Keeps me from thinking too much. I keep feeling like she’s going to sneak up behind me one of these days with a bucket of suds.

But that’s never going to happen. She’s up San Francisco these days, still looking for the turn signal fluid.


Genre: romance
Random Nouns: failure, swim


This is the fourth story in my Random Roadside series. In this series, I pick a random image from John Margolies’ Roadside America photography collection at the Library of Congress and use it as the setting for a story. I allow a computer program to randomly select the genre I will write in and two nouns, which I must work into the story.

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