Thursday, July 4, 2013
Charlie plopped his seven-year old frame on the side of the bed to tie his shoes. The bows weren’t as even as when mom tied them, but the baby kept her busy now. He gave each pant leg a tug at the bottom. Mom said he was between sizes right now, but Charlie had never owned a pair of pants that reached the top of his shoes. He didn’t mind the color—earthworms, mud, and the stuff grasshoppers spit in your hand were all brown. On the way to straightening up he ran his fingers across the ridges. Charlie had no idea what corduroy was, but the older boys at school did and it seemed they didn’t like it much. The third graders in Mrs. Keen’s class didn’t like anything Charlie wore, or the way he looked for that matter. He used to enjoy spending time shopping at the thrift shops with his mother until the boys told him that only hobos and queers shopped at places like that. Some days he had to count to ten twice to avoid punching them in the nose for the things they said and the way it made him feel, but Charlie wasn’t a fighter and besides there was no one to teach him.
Charlie ambled down the steps, dragging his fingers against the wall as he went. He withdrew his hand quickly when he remembered that grubby fingerprints made mom crazy. Sometimes she sat him on her knee and spoke softly about little boys having trouble remembering, but when she had dark circles around her eyes she screamed his full name loud enough to make the neighbor’s dogs bark. Charles Allen Whitaker was the same name as his dad’s. Charlie didn’t want to be anything like his father. He did want to meet him someday just to see if he looked as much like him as mom said. When he turned sixteen, that’s when he’d visit. By then he would have forgotten most of the anger over his father’s leaving.
The television played to an empty living room. Saturday morning cartoons weren’t the same without mom sitting by his side on the couch, both eating Life cereal and slurping the milk from the bowl. Charlie didn’t know exactly why, but walked out of his way to kick his baby sister’s toy across the room. He tried not to think too hard about Ashley because it made him feel things he shouldn’t. Sometimes the yucky feelings went away if he thought about tickling her belly and the silly giggles she made, or the way her tiny hands felt on his face, and how good her skin smelled after a bath. Charlie wasn’t at all certain how he felt about Ashley having a different daddy than him—just plain weird he guessed.
Charlie walked across the kitchen and curled his arm around his mother’s leg.
“Can we have cereal for breakfast?”
When she looked down at him Charlie notices the black circles and knew the answer wasn’t going to be what he wanted to hear.
“I’d love to have cereal with you this morning, but I’m making bottles for your sister right now. Then the grass needs mowed and I have a million other things to get done today.”
“It’s OK, mom. I understand.”
The dejected tone of his voice meant a million things, but not one of them understanding.
“Tell you what…there’s a couple dollars in change on the counter. Why don’t you run to the gas station and buy yourself a doughnut?”
His eyes lit up instantly, “A cream-filled one?” He asked.
She patted the top of his curly, blonde head.
“Yes, Charlie, whatever kind you want.”
Charlie grabbed the money and barely opened the screen door wide enough to clear. In fact, it shut on the back of his shoe and he tumbled headlong down the steps. He did two complete summersaults and landed on his feet, but the rough concrete took a bite out of his forehead and one of his knees.
A neighbor working outside heard the commotion and rushed across the street. As the gentlemen rounded the corner he did not find exactly what he expected.
Charlie brushed his knees and used his shirt-tail to dab the corner of his eyes. He bent over and began collecting the change.
“Son-of-a-biscuit-bitin’ door. That stupid, stinkin’, change-stealin’, somethin’ or another!”
The neighbor choked back a giggle. Charlie had no idea anyone had seen or heard anything.
“Hey there, Sparky, looks like you took a spill. You OK?”
Charlie lifted his head to acknowledge the presence of the intruder, greeting him with eye-brows narrowed, and a scowl serious enough to wrinkle his nose.
“My name ain’t Sparky, and I’ll be fine as soon as I find my last quarter.”
The gentlemen stooped to help but didn’t see any sign of the missing money. He moved toward the edge of the grass. When the boy wasn’t looking he slipped his hand in his pocket and pretended to lift something from the lawn and took it over to him.
“I know your name’s not Sparky, I apologize. It’s just kind of a general term. Anyhow I’m Mark and here’s your quarter, Charlie.”
He snatched the coin from his hand.
“How do you know my name? You some kinda creeper or somethin’?
By this time Charlie’s mother was standing at the door watching.
The neighbor moved to the door and whispered to her through the screen.
“Good morning, Lisa. If you don’t have plans for him today I’d like to spend the afternoon with Charlie. Thought we might go fishing.”
The offer brought a smile to Lisa’s face.
“I think it’s definitely time for that. Hey Charlie, would you want to spend the afternoon with Mark? He might take you fishing.”
Charlie looked across the street at the black and silver bass boat. Ever since it appeared he’d been captivated by it, especially when the sun danced and moved across the surface. He turned back to his mother with an expression that indicated she was feeding him to the wolves.
“I don’t know this guy. Remember what you taught me about strangers.”
Charlie gave Mark a good head-to-toe scrutinizing before voicing a final assessment.
“Looks kind of creepy, if you ask me.”
His mother frowned.
“Charlie stop being angry. I do know Mark and he’s a great guy.”
A heavy sigh nearly folded the boy in half. He kicked at the driveway knowing what his mother expected, but not wanting to give in.
“Whatever—you’ll be busy anyway.”
Mark knelt to take a closer look at the scrapes.
“Let’s get those wounds cleaned up. I have a first-aid kit in the boat. We’ll get you taken care of and be on the lake before the pleasure-boat rush.”
Charlie asserted himself.
“It’s not your job to take care of me.”
Mark made eye contact with Lisa and winked.
“Charlie and I will be just fine.”
The duo walked across the street and Mark lifted Charlie and sat him on the deck of the boat. He opened the kit and removed a bottle.
“This is peroxide…it’s gonna chase the germs out but will sting a little.”
Mark figured a little diversionary tactic wouldn’t hurt.
“What you said a minute ago is true, Charlie. It’s not my job to take of care of you, but sometimes you do things for people if you have the ability to do so.”
Charlie looked perplexed.
“Even for strangers?”
Mark placed a bandage over his knee. Rubbing the corners he looked Charlie in the eye.
“Yes, for people we don’t even know sometimes.”
Charlie picked up the metal case and looked at his reflection, turning his head from side to side.
“You think I got big ears?” He asked.
Mark leaned in close so that the reflections of their faces were side by side.
“Nah, they’re no bigger than mine.”
“Yeah but you’re a grown up.”
Mark lifted him over the rail and placed him on the drive.
“Yeah, but I grew into my ears though. When I was a kid the other boys used to tease me. They called me Dumbo and all kinds of mean things.”
Charlie raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
“They did. Did you want to punch ‘em in the face?”
“Sure they made fun of me, and yeah I wanted to hurt them at first—until I figured it all out.”
Charlie had made a connection with Mark. He followed him like a puppy to the driver’s side of the truck, hopped over the console, and settled into the passenger seat.
“What do you mean until you figured it out?”
“Well, I mean I was angry and hurt. No kid wants to be made fun of, but my daddy told me it’s the meanest kids that are hurting the most. Making others feel badly is the only way they know how to feel better about themselves. After that I just felt sorry for them and didn’t want to hurt them anymore than they were already hurting on the inside. Do you understand?”
Mark watched the boy’s expression turn gloomy. He supposed he’d failed at bridging the gap in explaining something in seven-year-old terms.
“Kinda. I just wish I had a dad to tell me those kinds of things—but I don’t. He left me.”
Mark pulled into the gas station to fuel up. Charlie peered up over the dash and his eyes brightened when he saw where they were.
“Can I get a doughnut? I have my own money.”
“Of course you can, son, but your money’s no good with me. How about I buy us both one?”
Charlie shrugged his miniature shoulders and grinned.
The weather could not have been better suited for fishing. It was warm, but not too warm, and with the overcast skies Mark couldn’t wait to get a spinner-bait right along the edge of the rip-rap. He fastened the buckles and cinched the straps on Charlie’s life vest. Mark threw the boat into reverse and they moved away from the dock.
“You ever been fishing in a boat before, Charlie?”
Although it was a pretty simple question, Mark waited for a response long enough that the words were forming on his lips to ask again when the answer came back as another question.
“How come you don’t take your own boy fishing?”
Mark smiled at remembering how a young boy’s mind works and the sheer number of question.
“That’s a very difficult question. The circumstances are complicated and I’m not sure you would understand completely.”
Charlie opened one of the hatches. He stuck his head in and after a few moments seemed satisfied. He closed the lid and fastened it shut. Mark prepared a rod with a bobber and small plastic tub jig hoping for a late crappie or bluegill bite. After several failed attempts to cast Charlie became frustrated.
“Here Charlie, let’s try this.
Mark placed his hands over Charlie’s and the bobber sailed out into the choppy water.
Charlie turned to him and smiled. He stared hard at Mark, before lobbing another question.
“So you like my mom don’t you? I mean, why else would you take me fishing?”
Mark finished his retrieve and Charlie to wind in his line. He stowed the gear in the rod box. After closing the hatch Mark went to the casting deck, sat down Indian-style, and motioned for Charlie to join him. Charlie came but sat down some distance away. It was crystal clear he had no interest in fishing at this time. He was struggling with how to react to the uneasiness of a new-friendship. He fiddled with his shoe laces and picked at the carpet flicking the fuzz into the breeze.
“It’s a great day to be alive isn’t Charlie?”
The boy nodded in affirmation, but his full attention was obviously focused on a boat cruising up the opposite shoreline.
“You’ve asked some very good questions today, and I’m going to do my best to answer them. I need you to scoot closer and do your best to pay attention.”
Charlie closed the distance.
“I never answered your question about liking your mother and you feeling that I must or I wouldn’t be spending time with you. First, I’m spending time with you because I think you’re a great little guy and I’d like to get to know you better. I do care about your mother, and I know that must feel strange to hear. How does that make you feel, Charlie?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders and then giggled.
“My dad probably wouldn’t like it.”
Mark nodded, “I understand completely why you would think that. What if I told you that I knew your dad very well? What would you want to ask about him?”
There was not a moment’s hesitation.
“Does he look like me at all?”
Mark nodded. “Very much so, Charlie, and so far from getting to know you I think your personality is much like his. You talked earlier about wishing he was here to tell you those kind of things, but he left you. You know that he didn’t choose to leave you, right?”
Charlie shrugged and opened up a little.
“Yeah, Mom told me that he got in trouble with the law. Sometimes I wonder if she’s just trying to protect my feelings—mom’s do that you know.”
“That’s because she loves you so much that she never wants you to hurt, but what she’s telling you is true. Young people sometimes make poor choices. They get mixed up with bad people and do stupid things. Sometimes they hurt people, not on purpose, but because of silly choices. Charlie, you must remember even small choices have lasting consequences, and almost always reach further and deeper into the future than we intend.”
Mark’s words trailed off into silence and he stared off into the distance. Wet, shiny eyes gave way to the first tear that wandered down his cheek. The frequency between drops became less and less until they formed a steady stream.
Charlie turned away started playing with the carpet fuzz again, but the confusion and frustration boiled into words.
“Why are you saying bad things about my daddy? I don’t like you very much. I want you to take me home.”
Mark composed himself. He reached for Charlie’s shoulder’s and squared him.
“Charlie, I’m telling you the truth, and the truth is not always easy to say or hear, but you’re old enough hear it now. You’re mom and I talked and decided that it’s time for you to know who I am.”
Charlie did as instructed, stepping beyond the first set of steel doors waiting at the next. The chamber between the two was empty and cold, a doorway to nothingness. Something died inside when the clank of the steel bolts slid into place. The sound spoke of permanence and isolation and as much as air symbolizes life, little of either existed here. Charlie thought he would suffocate before the officer signaled for the opening of the second set of doors. The doors slid apart but Charlie’s feet were frozen. The officer’s firm grip on his arm prompted his steps.
“This is it, big boy, cell block B in all its glory. Notice the lines—don’t want the crazies reaching through the bars.”
Charlie stared through the glass and imagined an existence there—if you could call it that.
“You understand I’m doing this as a huge favor—visitors aren’t allowed here.”
The guard’s boots fell heavy against the tile as he moved down the hallway, Charlie’s barely made a sound. He supposed intimidation was a major component in this line of work, and this gentleman studied hard.
“Here you go, Son, have a seat and they’ll bring him out in a minute.”
The man the officer ushered to the window was only a shell, what remains after his insides are scooped out. He observed a vague resemblance, but nothing he wanted to wrap his mind around right now. Charlie spoke more into the glass than the man on the other side.
“Hey” was all that came out when he opened his mouth. He intended more.
His father studied him for a moment.
“Stand up, please. I want to see the man you’ve grown into.”
The hair on the back of Charlie’s neck stood on end. What right did he have to demand anything from a son he didn’t know? Charlie swallowed hard and found his feet.
His dad shook his head from side to side and smiled for the first time in years.
“Charlie, I would like to say I’m proud of you, but that would indicate that I some positive influence on the results. You should be proud.”
Charlie settled back in the chair and their eyes met directly for the very first time.
“How’s your mom doin’?”
“Abandoned and lonely most days…just like me, but we’re used to it.”
His father’s eyes went to the floor and scanned from side to side before returning with a fire beneath them.
“Look, Charlie, if you came to punish me you arrived twenty-two years too late…that’s eight thousand and thirty brutal days and nights racking my brain trying to find a way to right wrongs. Broken as it is life’s a one-way street…there ain’t no replay button.”
His father’s words rang true, but Charlie’s mind raced with thoughts and images of missed ballgames and birthdays, trips to the lake, his first date, and billion other blow opportunities. Charlie stood up again.
“This whole thing was a bad idea—raking open the wounds again. I think I should leave now.”
His dad smiled as if he recognized the fire in his boy.
“You have all the power here Charlie, but just in case this is your only visit I need to tell the story. Believe me when I say spilling your guts twenty-four, seven to a concrete wall ain’t the answer either. I know you don’t owe me, but five minutes is all I’m asking. Your choice entirely.”
Charlie battled against natural inclinations and raw emotion, turning to walk more than once. He drew a deep breath and melted back into the chair.
“OK…five minutes no more.”
“Fair enough, son. I’d be lyin’ if I told you I hadn’t rehearsed this a million times, but practicing life don’t work either. I was three years younger than you are now, July 16th, 1982. I went to a birthday party for a friend alone. Your mom stayed home because you were only two weeks old. I was born a hellion and your momma had ideas of savin’ me. Didn’t expect her to, but didn’t stop her from tryin’ either. This many years later it’s still hard for me to say, but I don’t remember putting the keys in the ignition or my truck crossing the center-line. I only recall flashes and slivers of the ugly hours that followed; the crunching of metal, a woman and a young boy lying in the middle road, drowning in pools of their own blood. I remember her body being mangled, but she never stopped calling his name and crawling around to lay her hands on that boy one last time.”
The recollection became too much. He choked and sputtered until the words stopped altogether. All Charlie knew to do was shake his head from side to side.
“They died, Charlie, both of them. The only piece that keeps me sane is knowing they went to be with the Lord. So here I sit, paying a penance that can never be paid. You’re mom never looked at me the same…figure that when she gave up on me. She came for a couple of weeks out of obligation, but it was too much; I asked her to stop coming. Six months or so later they told me I had a visitor waiting. Thought he might have been someone from the past, but all of those ‘party friends’ evaporated like a dirty puddle exposed to the light. The man asked me how I was doing. If I was healing—told me he was worried about my soul. I knew then he was with some local church trying to win a wayward soul over to God. I was starved for conversation with anyone. We talked a lot and laughed some too. When he got ready to go he put his hand against the glass and asked me to do the same. He prayed for me and about the accident…that I knew in my heart that God had forgiven me and that I also knew he too had found forgiveness after meeting the man that had taken his wife and boy too soon.”
Both Charlie and his father were moved to tears—the kind that wash the old away.
“That ain’t natural. A man that can forgive like that has Jesus living in him. I knew that precise moment Mark was the man I wanted to raise my boy. He promised me he would and today I see what a fine job he’s done.”
Charlie felt a familiar hand on his shoulder and turned.
“Your mom said you were coming down so I wanted to make sure you were OK.”
Charlie put his hand around Mark’s waist and gave his father a thumbs-up.
Mark pressed his palm against the glass, Charlie placed his hand beside, and his father’s met from the other side.
His dad leaned to the microphone.
“You’re a man of your word and live what you believe. I brought hell right to your doorstep and Mark, you rose above it. And if that wasn’t enough you raised my son to be twice the man I ever hoped to be. Here’s to promises. God bless you, my brother.”