I didn’t know the Charleses all that well when Mr. Charles told me that Mrs. Charles had killed him. In fact, I had to tell him that was funny because he didn’t look dead, but I didn’t say it that way. What I said was, “You look pretty good for a dead guy.” He said, “Thanks, that’s nice of you to say.”
Charlsie was all right, I guessed, even if my wife Margaret complained about him and his wife. “Cold fish,” she said. “They can’t be bothered,” she said. “I haven’t seen her since the day I went over there and introduced myself,” she said. “He doesn’t even know your name.”
That much was true. I’m called Ronald, and I told him that when we first met. I said Ronald and he heard Roland. What are you going to do?
About being too detached, I don’t know. What’s the alternative, being too attached? That can’t be good. I look around the neighborhood, up and down the block and I see all the vehicles parked every which way, three sometimes in a driveway built for one. Everybody’s got a car, an SUV, a pickup. Some of these things are monsters, as big as tractors. On the weekends, when the other vehicles come to visit and their drivers are hanging out of the windows, honking their horns and saluting each other, it looks like the road to Baghdad. So I don’t know about attachments. Charlsie reads books, drives a Corolla and has a cat. But maybe my wife is talking about his attitude and not material things.
He’s an odd duck, a strange bird, there’s no doubt about that, but I’d rather chat with him than most of the loafers on this block. None of them would have done what Charlsie did last fall when a gust of wind dropped a rotting limb from one of my big maples into his backyard. Neither of us was home when it happened, but at some point, I noticed that the thing had snapped off. I only had to look down to see that it landed on his pristine grass. I went to his house, several times, to tell him I’d take care of it, but the Charleses were never home. This went on for maybe a week and a half. Then I left a note apologizing for the mess and asking them to call me so that we could arrange a time for me to come over and clean it up.
The next Sunday, after Margaret and I returned from picking apples, I found bundles of kindling and fireplace length logs stacked in neat piles at my back door. There was a note tacked to the top.
“Thanks for the offer, I especially liked that it was in writing,” it said, and it was signed, “your neighbor, W. Charles.”
“See?” I told Margaret.
“Yes, I see,” said Margaret, “but you do notice that he waited until we weren’t home to do this?”
“Give them time,” I said and went on to tell her that none of the other neighbors, except maybe Nate, my neighbor on the other side of me, would have done such a thing, not without complaining, anyway.
Look, I am just saying that Charlsie is okay even if he is a little off. Like how he told me about his wife leaving him. One evening just a few weeks ago, I noticed him fiddling with something on his back deck. Cleaning bird shit off the umbrella above his picnic table, maybe. He held a spray bottle in one hand and a sponge in the other. He stood on a chair, squirting and wiping. Then he’d give the umbrella a little twirl and hit another spot. That was his method. Charlsie is a busy fellow, always moving around his place, herding his cat inside, raking leaves, planting something or other, pulling weeds. He even knows the names of weeds.
I often think I could use a dose of energy like his since I hate doing just about all that stuff. Anyway, I could see him from my back deck, where Margaret had banished me to smoke my cigar. That’s all right. It’s better out here on the deck, more peaceful, especially at dusk, when the CD changer drops Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue into the player and I take a deep drag on my smoke.
Well, with me being out there and he being out there, I called over the fence we put up to separate his cat from my dog.
“How’s it going, buddy?” I called.
“I’ve been better, Roland,” he said as a breeze passed through the maples, rattling down a shower of those twirly things. Are they seeds? I dunno. A lot of them landed on Charlsie’s sparkling picnic table and umbrella. He stepped down from the chair, collapsed into it, folded his arms on the glassy surface of the table and buried his head there. I thought he might be in trouble.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
He said nothing. I waited, counting out the beats of time that passed between us without a peep from him. Fifteen seconds, twenty, “Did you hear me, neighbor?” Thirty seconds, maybe a minute. A minute can be such a long time. I dropped the butt of my cigar in an ash can and called to him, “I’m coming over.”
That was when Charlsie raised his head off the table and said, “Hold on, Roland. You needn’t bother.”
“What is it, then?” I said. “Are you all right?”
“Sure, sure,” he said. “I just need a favor. May I ask you for a favor?”
Okay, I admit it. I was relieved that I didn’t have to get into any heavy kind of situation with the guy. Charlsie asked me if I would watch his place for a few days. That was all. Just keep my eye on it.
“I’m going away,” he said. “Hiking in Connecticut. Maybe four days. I don’t know. Five days or so.”
Okay, I get it, I thought, you don’t know how long you’ll need me, but I didn’t say that because I felt I owed him and well, it just wouldn’t be neighborly.
“That’s okay, man,” I said. “I can do it, whatever you need.”
He nodded. “My daughter will be by to feed the cat.”
I didn’t want to pry, but I couldn’t remember that last time I’d seen Mrs. Charles about the place.
“Going by yourself?”
Charlsie said, “Normally no, I wouldn’t, but Mrs. Charles has flown the coop.”
That’s how he put it. Mrs. Charles had up and flown away, on account of what I don’t know. Maybe he would tell and maybe he wouldn’t.
He didn’t, except to say, “She’s killed me, you know. Even though she won’t admit it.”
And that was when I said, “You look pretty good for a dead guy.”
I think he laughed. I heard a chuckle maybe, but Jesus to Christ I have rolled that moment over in my mind many times since. All the things I could have said, things of a more consoling nature. I could have asked him if he wanted to talk about it. I could have said, “That’s too bad,” or “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “That’s a damn shame.” I could have offered him a drink or some of Margaret’s lobster bisque.
“That’s nice of you to say,” he said and added, “I’ll be away in the morning.”
It was probably a week before I start looking out my window or from the back deck for the return of my neighbor. During that time the weather turned ugly. It rained endlessly and temperatures at night were sinking into the low forties, forcing us to turn the heat back up and listen to the clunking chorus of radiator pipes all over again.
There was a stiff wind blowing from the northeast most of the time, and Charlsie’s grass became a carpet of twirly things. Mine too, but here and there I could see violets popping through, and the daffodils didn’t seem to mind any of it. Still I thought my neighbor would be upset when he saw how unkempt his yard had become in his absence. I even thought about cleaning it up, but the foul weather just wouldn’t quit.
Close to a week after he left, I told Margaret what Charlsie said about Mrs. Charles and about the joke I made instead of saying or doing anything helpful or important. Margaret’s reaction just about bowled me over.
“That poor man,” she said.
And I said, “I thought you didn’t like him.”
“Well, I don’t really know him,” she said.
To myself I thought, That was your point, wasn’t it? Charlsie just couldn’t be bothered with getting to know us.
She mentioned the way he handled the maple situation, and described it as a “sweet gesture,” and I thought if and when I figure out the logic of a woman’s mind, I want to be presented with a major award. I am not a greedy man. I will take any trinket, medal, statuette, perhaps a small amount of cash, and I will deserve it.
I tried to think of a way to tell her I had to leave for awhile. I had business to take care of at the music store I run.
“Honey, are you okay?” I asked. “Because you know, I gotta go.”
I told her how Kip, my new manager, didn’t yet know what to do with the day’s sales receipts or money. That was when Margaret put a hand on her hip ___ a sure sign that she meant business ___ and said, “Not tonight, Ronnie. Tell the kid to throw the receipts and the money in the safe and you’ll work it out tomorrow.”
“Í can do that.”
Then she popped the cork on a bottle of Pinot and put on a Nina Simone CD.
We were sitting up in bed, in our underwear. The pillows were propped against the headboard and we were drinking wine. The room felt damp and there was a little chill. Margaret sat with her knees pulled up under her chin and a comforter covered both of us to our elbows
“People used to sleep sitting up, in the old days,” I said.
“The old days?” she laughed.
“I mean, in the days before they invented jazz music.”
“Why did they do that?”
“I think it was because they had chest problems and such like, and they were afraid they might choke to death if they slept on their backs.”
“Phew, Ronnie! You really know how to get a girl going. Give me more. Maybe you should tell me about jousting sticks or the history of pickles.”
“I don’t want to talk,” I said, and then her jokes sunk in. “Oh, you don’t want to talk either.”
I slid my hands over her knees, up her thighs and onto the band of her panties. She relaxed her knees and I slipped her panties off. I climbed on top of her then, and we kissed everywhere with our mouths running hither and yon. I lose myself in the kissing sometimes because we both get very excited. We took an extraordinarily long time to climax.
I lie, I didn’t take me very long at all. I sweated like a ship fitter and Margaret climbed on top of me eventually because I’ve gained some weight and she complains that I crush her.
“Maybe you should try working out,” she said.
“This is a workout.” I said.
Resting our heads against the pillows, we listened to the rain and I tried to overcome the drowsiness that always accompanies sex. Nina Simone sang, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” as Margaret pressed herself against me and I rubbed her bare stomach. I was not thinking about Kip’s training schedule or Charlsie hiking in the rain. I was thinking about how thin Margaret looked when she had clothes on, and how voluptuous she looked when she didn’t, and what a neat trick that was.
“What do you think Warren Charles meant when he said his wife killed him?” Margaret asked.
“Warren?” I said. “That’s Charlsie’s name, Warren?”
Margaret shook her head, “Jesus, Ronnie,” she said.
“Well, he doesn’t know my name.”
“I’m serious, Ronnie Morris,” Margaret continued, “What do you think he meant?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart,” I said. “I don’t know what he meant particularly. I can only tell you the way he said it.”
“Well, when he said it, he believed it, and what I think he believed was that Mrs. Charles was not coming back. So whatever he had with Mrs. Charles was not coming back either. It’s gone, you know?”
Margaret said, “Do you remember what his face looked like?”
“Yeah, I do. It looked ruined, like his world had gone to blazes.”
Margaret laid her head on my chest, “And what do you think he’s doing out there in the woods, right now?”
“I don’t know if he is in the woods. Maybe he’s warming himself by the fire in a nice little B&B somewhere, flirting with a pretty girl. Maybe he’s crying into his beer. I don’t know.”
“But you do want to know, I want to know.”
“This is what I know,” I said. “I’ve thought about him every day he’s been gone. Because, you know, there was a moment when I maybe could have helped him.”
She was silent for a very long time while I listened to the rain tapping on the roof and the sound of her breathing. My eyes felt very tired and I began to drift off. I felt Margaret’s fingers on my face, tripping across my eyebrows and down the slopes of my nose and cheeks.
“You have a sturdy face, Ronnie. Strong, have I ever told you that?”
She had told me ___ many times, but I was pleased to hear it again. “No, I don’t think so,” I said.