It’s 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 Charlie’s. 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.