Charles was a big kid now. Twenty something. Outgrowing successive wheelchairs. Club footed, with God-given neural and cognitive impairments, he was a savant with a clean and bothered soul. Father long gone to Timbuktu. Mother unfit. Now, in these formative years, he is in the “care” of the godparents. Whom God would never have chosen.
My wife said to me “You go and see Charles. You help him.” I’m on a three-hundred-mile business trip, and his given address is another hundred from there, but I go. We used to be friends with his mother, until she fell apart and left him to his fate. I’ve not seen him for twelve years. It’s in a sad town, made more sad by a dirty spring. He lives up three flights in a pockmarked apartment building with rusted iron fire escapes in the back.
As I pull up to park, there’s an old man in his undershirt, leaning on the railing of his iron balcony. He takes the last puff of his smoke and flicks the butt in my direction. With the tilt of his head and the slow point of his finger, he draws my attention to a curious scene in the far corner of the lot: It’s night over there, and a crappy-looking house trailer sits leaning to one side. It’s missing a wheel, and chunks of wood and board have been shoved under the axle. A rusty red pickup pulls up in a fast hurry, and an old guy and his grandson get out. They quickly roll up a replacement tire and begin jacking up the trailer. The tire is too big and touches the wheel well, but they bolt it on anyway. Grandpa grabs an axe from his truck and chops away at the plastic around it. And off they go, farting black smoke into the afternoon glow.
I walk around to the front entrance. In the terrazzo lobby, there’s a block of mail slots. I find what I’m looking for: “A. Merrick- 313”. The elevator has a piece of paper taped to its door: OUT OF ORDURE. It looks like it’s been there a while, showing fingerprints and the legend “Fix the fucking thing!” I thinkWhat the hell, he’s in a wheelchair. How the hell do they get him up and down the stairs?
I make it to the door, smelling various culinary delights on the way up. The peephole is missing its peeper, and through it I see an iris with a somewhat enlarged pupil. “Who are ya, eh?” says someone in the voice of Marge Simpson.I’m Mack. You don’t know me, but we were friends with Charlie’s mother. Does he still live here?The door opens, and there stands the spitting image of Margaret Atwood in a sweat- stained sun dress. “Yah, yer right, I don’t know ya. And it’s Charles to you. Whaddya want?”
Just to see him a minute. It’s been a few years. “Hey Charlie! You got a visitor!” “And, by the way”, she says to me, “I am Charlie’s fucking mother now”.
In a floral chair in the living room’s corner sits a nicotined man with shiny pants and a fedora. “Day to you” he says. Then I hear a squeaking and a creaking as Charlie wheels himself out of a side room. The boy has become the young man. His eyes still pierce, belying his slow and diffident manner. I read years of regret in his gaze. Anger and helplessness. On a blanket in his lap is a bowl of soapy water and an antique double-edged razor. Chicken pox of toilet paper dot his face. His chair has two different wheels: an original one, and a bicycle tire crudely attached to the other side. They almost match in height. Almost. Then I notice that these bastards have plenty of smokes and some unopened forty ouncers of Johnny Walker black sitting on their mantlepiece.
Charlie looks at me quickly, then puts his head down. “Mister. Mister Mack. I know.” Charlie. I’m happy to see you.I take his hand in both of mine.Do you remember Julie, my wife? You always called her Auntie. She asked me to come and see you. I think she cares about you a lot, Charlie.(The Clan, sitting on their behinds, make wry smiles. There’s a snort of derisive laughter). ”I like Auntie. I like Auntie. Where’s Auntie?” She couldn’t come today, Charlie, but she sent this little box for you.He opens it to find, wrapped in wax paper, hard toffee, broken into shards. He loved that when he was little, so much so that he had pulled out one of his fillings during a lengthy chew. Now, he makes a crinkly smile and I see a flicker of joy within his eyes. First thing he does is pass me a chunk. I can see a few pairs of eyes following his motions, and I think I know who will get the toffee when I leave. I pass the piece back to him, eyeing his protectors.You know what? Julie says you must keep every piece for your own self. She says there are fifty-two pieces here, one for each Sunday morning for a whole year. Okay?(She said no such thing). The nicotine man gets up and opens the Johnny Walker.
“Hey, Chollie, what about a trade? One shot of the good stuff, and everybody gets a piece of yer candy? Show the nice man what you did last time you drank some Johnny W. C’mon Chollie!”
Charlie’s jaw quivers. His eyes show anger, but also a resolve to take the challenge. He motions to me to put away the blanket and the shaving stuff, then puts his ham fists on the arms of his wheelchair. With a great effort, he pushes himself up, quickly grabs the bannister, and brings himself to a standing position. He’s shaking, and his one knee wobbles. I fear for his safety, and stand up to help support him, when Margaret Atwood says “No! Leave him! It’s his pride. Right, Charlie? Come on, show the man what ya can do. Come to Mama!” He turns, nervously lets go of the bannister, and makes to walk towards her. His jaw works, and now his head shakes as if from palsy. He puts his two hands out in front of him and pushes one foot forward, then brings it back uncertainly. The knee wobbles again, and I move towards him. She again yells “No, don’t!”, but before I can grab him, Charlie falls backwards. He hits the top of the stairs at about waist level and tumbles all the way down. Fourteen steps. I screamyou bitch,and there’s silence as I run down to him.
Mister shiny pants and his hillbilly neighbor stumble down to help me, one still carrying a bottle of beer. Charlie has a dislocated shoulder and large lump on his head, but he’s conscious. He holds one hand in an odd position, and I see that his wrist is broken. He doesn’t cry out. Nothing at all. Just has a beseeching look, and his nose is dripping onto the floor.
The rest of them file down the stairs. I saycall the goddamn ambulance.They all look scared. Shiny pants sets down his beer and disappears into the streets. The others go back up to the landing and I hear a hushed conversation.
It’s been ten years now since Julie said she wanted to take care of Charlie.
She had a true instinct for rescuing injured or helpless things, be it a stray cat, someone’s discarded houseplant, or a handicapped mother and son abandoned by the father and trying to survive on a pension. “She’s no good, his mother, you know that Mack. And it won’t be long before she dumps him on somebody.” I had replied that he had godparents and that was the end of it. We had no legal authority to take him in.
My motives, however, were impure. Factually I was correct, but in my heart, I had dreaded the responsibility, the disruption of our household, and, most of all, the division of Julie’s attentions. After all, she had taken in this guy named Mack, all those years ago, and had made him her life’s project. This angel deserved so much more than she ever got from me.
On this brown Monday morning, I sit in Charlie’s hospital room. He’s sleeping, in a morphine snore. He’s in pinstriped flannel pajamas, exactly like the ones I wore in a polaroid taken when I was eight. A cast on his arm. A swollen red hand. Stitches on his forehead (more swelling), and adhesive tape on his nose, which was broken as well.
A nurse comes in, smiles, and picks up his chart from a clipboard on the end of his bed. “You must be Mack? Charlie’s spoken about you. You know, this kid is pretty surprising. You’ll see.” She tells me that he had had a concussion and was being kept under observation for a day or two. And then, in confidence, that she knew his “family”, including the godparents, who apparently were leaving town. They had seen the writing on the wall, and knew that, even if they could avoid charges of neglect, their monthly cheques for Charlie’s “care” would dry up pretty quickly. Goodbye Johnny Walker. Charlie would become a ward of the state.
It’s Tuesday morning, and I take the clacking elevator up to his room. Nurse McDonald is there, all smiles, as Charlie sits on the edge of his bed. “Show him!” she says to him. He smiles a wan smile and stands up, more steadily than I have ever seen him. “Go on”.
There’s that peg leg gait with his club foot, but he makes it to the end of the room and back, without touching anything. Red faced, he sits once more, with exaggerated grace, on the edge of his bed. Unbelieving, I get up to hug him, and just then the phone rings in the room. It’s Julie. She’s been on the bus for the last five hours and will meet me at the station.
Miss McDonald, full of pride, says she’ll check in with us later. After a good chat with Charlie, I tell him I’m going to get a coffee and something to eat. In the downstairs café, I sit alone and think about how our lives will change, both ours and his. There’s something within me that’s too rigid, stolid, unyielding. A shield of sorts that spurns all attempts at closeness. Unworthy of a man who thinks he is otherwise a good man. In a peculiar state of mind, I nod, as if in answer to an impatient questioner. I rise and go back to the room.
Charlie’s out, presumably doing some escorted physio somewhere in the hallway. I sit and wait for a couple of minutes, and then I figure I’ll go to the nurses’ station to see what’s up. There’s just an orderly there, and he explains that they’ve had an emergency and he’s just minding the store for a few minutes. I ask him about Charlie, and he says he’s probably in the bathroom, did I check? I get back to the room, and I see that my long overcoat, my hat, and my gloves are gone. No Charlie. I check the bathrooms and run to the desk. The poor guy is upset and runs down the hall to raise the alarm.
Every spring, this little town holds a flower parade, full of wishful thinking to ward off winter’s brownness. This is what I see, in my frantic driving about. The hospital is abuzz, and there are a couple of cruisers searching the streets. They avoid infiltrating the parade for safety reasons, and circle around the empty avenues. I am due to meet Julie in an hour. I don’t know what the hell to do, so I go back to my motel room to collect my things. Still in a panic, I drive back to the hospital. The baton twirlers and bagpipers are rounding their last corner, when I spy something a little out of place. Someone limping along in a black overcoat, with a fedora pulled down to shield his eyes.
Six inches of pin striped pajamas and a pair of tan slippers show beneath the coat. You would think they would have been a dead giveaway.
I screech to a stop, mount the curb, and run up to him. He’s laughing and clapping his hands, even with that cast on. He stops and hugs me. I turn red, and tell him he’s gotta come with me ’cause we’re meeting his Auntie.
We’re twenty minutes late, and Julie’s there waiting. Charlie’s still in my coat and hat and his slippers, but I get him out of the car anyway. He doesn’t recognize her right away. After all, my lady has gotten pretty grey from her cares. He clings to me, but I drop his hand. I give him the littlest of pushes. Over to the one who cares.
The one who mends.