“Charles” by Shirley Jackson
Card picked: 6♥
From: The Lottery, and other stories
I don’t know whether I’ve read this story before or whether I’ve simply heard about this story before. “Charles” might be the most famous of Shirley Jackson’s domestic tales.
The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave goodbye to me.
Laurie returns from kindergarten with tales of Charles, a kid who enjoys one-upping himself in terms of misbehavior over the next three weeks. Laurie relates these tales with glee, and his parents are alternately appalled and amused by the shenanigans. “Being a Charles” even becomes part of the family’s lexicon. Indeed, Laurie has been influenced by this other boy, becoming a little more independent and insolent.
Laurie’s mother misses the first PTA meeting and it’s three weeks into the school year before she has the opportunity to potentially meet Charles’ mother. By the time that the meeting ends, no mother has stood up to apologize for her son’s behavior. Laurie’s mom approaches the teacher and chit-chats about Laurie and about Charles, who must be a handful. The teacher tells her that Laurie seems to have be having a hard time adjusting. And, by the way, there is no Charles in the class…
Jackson leaves us with this ambiguity: is Laurie doing all the things he reports, or are his stories fibs to make his new behaviors look tame? The teacher doesn’t come out and say “Your kid’s a nightmare.” And after Laurie’s mother has been somewhat judgmental about Charles’ absent mother, what might the other mother’s think about her, who missed the first PTA meeting?