My first day there and the 90 degrees outside changed the kitchen where I cook into hell. Then Charlie aggravates me even more, turning off the room’s only fan before he sits to eat. It becomes so hot I can’t wipe my sweat away fast enough to keep it from dripping.
I sit at the table across from him and watch Charlie munching ham, boiled potatoes, and from his garden a yellow tomato, which he slowly slices and salts.
The linoleum floor is sticky with his dribblings. Into them the refrigerator has oozed. Shiny streaks and pools result. “The ice box sweats in the summer,” Charlie explained earlier.
His clothing resembles the floor, food-splotched and streaked. A button on the chest of his red and blue checkered long sleeve shirt dangles on a thread. A shirt tail periodically flaps from his half-open fly.
He takes bread, then butter, and blurts, “Can’t afford this,” reminding me that his father had once reprimanded him in his childhood, “Charlie, that butter ain’t fer you. We can’t afford it. We sell our butter in town. Don’t never eat it again.”
I yell and repeat three times, “You can have all the butter you want now.”
He chuckles at something that happened 90-some years ago and shakes his head. “Don’t know about my sister Lucy.” After a two-minute delay he retells how his father bought a piano that only Lucy was allowed to touch. “I reckon she had a natural talent.”
I scream twice, “You mean she could play good?”
He says, “Oh, I don’t know.”
During dessert, a slice of apple pie (without ice cream) on a plate in front of him, he describes the time he was sent home from haying to bring back lunch. At the house his mother told him she didn’t have any food. He returned empty-handed to his brothers and father. They accused him of eating up their meal.
I say, “Were they joking with you?” I’ve never understood that story though I’ve heard it a half-dozen times.
Before I clean up our dishes, I make sure the air conditioner’s on in the television room, cooling it, preparing the air so I can comfortably watch the evening newscast. Ten minutes later, the kitchen cleaning done, I return to the room but find no relief from the heat. Charlie has had it off the whole time.
Yes, I know he chills easily, but I glare at him, sprawled on the couch, digesting as the evening darkness begins to engulf us. I try to think of a way to make a request that will establish a rule he will follow to guarantee me some comfort while I’m here, like “Will you please keep the air on?”
Before I can speak, he says, “My father was always busy.”
He means that Anton, a German immigrant, was a stern taskmaster who never played with Charlie, the third youngest of 17 children. Charlie had to drop out of the 5th grade and work full-time to help family finances until he left home at 16. Worked in carpentry. Retired at 75. Had his own first child at 46, then four more kids. I married his second youngest.
I help him into pajamas at 10. He says, “No, I don’t want no fan on. Goodnight.”
For the first time, I mop the bathroom floor he’s peed on, then apply Lysol. When I’m finished, the room still smells of urine.
In a bedroom upstairs, the portable air conditioner I brought with me and installed hums in the window, coolingly, drowning out the big-city sounds, but there’s nothing I can do about Charlie, who is glowing above me in the darkness like an ever-present enigma, keeping me awake, warning me about the way I’ll be in just a few more years, if I live that long.
The extremely hot weather broke while two large U-Haul truckloads were carried inside. I couldn’t guess which man went with the woman and child. All four men drove away, returning the truck I supposed, going inside for supper. By 7:30, back on the porch, I saw a man and the woman sitting barefoot on their new front steps drinking what looked like bottles of beer. I should have gone over then.
I was across the street two doors away, digesting, dozing off and on in the perfect breeze and thickening shadows, so I didn’t think of greeting them until a baby’s cry jolted me awake, cutting through the full night’s blackness from their still-open front door. That noise made me smile. Brought back memories. A long time since a baby had lived on the street, and it felt like the street itself was being reborn.
Impulse carried me to their house and open front door.
Inside: chaos. Boxes haphazardly stacked around a couch, two stuffed chairs, two matching lamps, two square wooden end tables and a coffee table. Farther inside somewhere, china, silverware and pans made a clashing melody. I reached for the buzzer.
“Tramp! Goddam you!” There was a slapping sound.
“Stop it, Roger. Please,” a woman’s voice.
I turned to leave and kicked some baby rattles up against the railing.
No more noise inside. They’d heard. Well, heck! I quickly thumbed the buzzer.
Large young fellow in denim shorts, still bare otherwise, holding a beer can, wound his way toward me through the room. “Yeah?” he asked, clearing the obstacles.
I thrust my right hand over the threshold. “Hello. I just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. I’m Carl Sinclair from across the street at 202. Watched you moving in today.”
He frowned instead of smiled but shook my hand.
“Who is it?” called the woman.
Turning his head enough so he wasn’t directly yelling in my face, he said, “The old guy we saw on the porch all day watching us.”
We released hands and stared at each other. The woman didn’t appear. He was apparently not going to offer their names.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Just fine,” the man said, and I suspected he squelched a nasty comment.
“Well, I hope you enjoy living here,” I said.
He nodded. We stared. I left.
It was 9:30. My house was dark. I sat back down on my porch, obscured by the night, and listened. There were no screams, no baby cries, no cursing. Their front door was closed.
Had tranquility returned? My forearms actually felt chilled, touching the wicker. Mr. and Mrs. Nobody, assuming they were married. The new generation. Wonderful. I’d keep my eyes open. My retired-police-chief eyes.