As he settled near me on the park bench, I caught his scent: whisky, unbrushed teeth and unwashed clothes. Dirty nails poked through the frayed fingers of his wool gloves. At first he just sat there, happy for the company, enjoying the muffled sound of foghorns in the distance and the rhythmic music of waves hitting the seawall below. “Snow’s coming,” Charlie said, more to himself then me. He freed a bottle from his jacket pocket, opened it and drank. Except for knowing it wasn’t good for him, I didn’t mind his drinking. Charlie was my friend.
He asked what I was reading. It was part of our ritual. I pulled the book from my schoolbag. I thought it was just a girls’ book, but he’d read it too. That was Charlie. Was there anything he hadn’t read? I wondered. He quizzed me, another part of our ritual. “What does Johnny’s singing represent? Why was reading and writing important to Francie?” Charlie would go on and on like that with a cascade of questions about every book.
“Now you want to be a writer,” Charlie said one day, in affirmation not question. It was huge that I could talk with Charlie about my big dream, something I would never dare share with my parents. My mom and dad said they wanted “stable” careers for their kids. I was sure that writing wasn’t stable and that stable meant boring. Writing seemed to hold the promise of freeform and full of surprises. Besides, there’s nothing better than a good story.
Whenever I was with Charlie I lost track of time but as the chill in the air deepened and the sky began to go dark, I realized it was getting late. It was Friday and my mom thought I was at the library, which closed at four-thirty on Fridays. “Don’t worry your mom and dad,” Charlie said, suggesting that I leave for home. As I left the park I turned to look back at him. He was watching me. He smiled and I smiled and waved. A wash of sadness passed through me. I shrugged it off to the cold air whispering of transitions. Summer over. Fall passing through. Winter on its way.
Our apartment back then made me think of railroads. The rooms were laid out in sequence on the left of a long hallway. My parents’ room came first and the bathroom next. These were followed by the bedroom I shared with my older sister, Serena, and Mighty Manfred, our ancient Yorkie. Then came my mom’s alchemical kitchen and finally our living room, which had windows on two sides, left and back. At night the living room doubled as my kid brother’s bedroom. With the addition of folding card-tables and chairs, it morphed into a dining room when we had company.
During the day my dad sold appliances and two nights a week he went to college on his GI loan. When it wasn’t a school night, he was home for dinner and encouraged us to talk about our day. With Joey it was all science and math and with Serena it was religion. For me it was English. My dad knew I was reading and getting ready to write a report on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. He asked me almost the same questions that Charlie had. Every year Dad would read all the books on my required reading list. If it happened that he’d already read them, he’d read them again “to refresh my memory,” he’d say. He would grill me on the fine points. He was relentless.
For my mom’s part, she turned budget-wise groceries into food good enough to tempt even my minimalist appetite. All that summer and fall, I’d been stealing from her stash of leftover dinner rolls, tortilla Espanola, fruit and whatnot to take to Charlie. He loved the way my mom made potato salad with a lemony dressing and minced red onions and celery, bits of red and green peppers and oily black olives. “Nothing trite about that salad,” Charlie would say. He smiled over the small Tupperware bowls filled with left-over gazpacho, one of mom’s summer staples to this day.
Monday came round again and after school I waited at our bench for Charlie. He never arrived. He didn’t show on Tuesday either, nor Wednesday or Thursday. I held my breath for Friday. No use. Days and weeks passed. A month. Two months. Midterms. By Thanksgiving I was tortured with worry. I struggled to get up the courage to tell my dad everything and ask him to help me find Charlie. Despite my anxiety, I kept loosing that battle.
The year Charlie disappeared was the same year a blizzard hit our region in mid-November. Thanksgiving, always celebrated at our place, arrived on the wing-tip of a too-early winter. That year my Aunt Tessa brought her new boyfriend for us to meet. His name was Brian James O’Connor, a musician. The guests came dragging in the crisp and cold out-of-doors. It sat on their hats, coats and boots and mingled with the steam hissing from the radiators and the warm scented air from my mom’s kitchen. Warm and cold met in a silent crash that turned into fog on our windows.
Aunt Tessa brought her not-world-famous-but-it-should-be New York cheesecake, “guaranteed to win her a husband,” my dad said. Nana arrived with her monster wooden salad bowl full of vegetables, cheeses, salami, olives and seasoned croutons made from her own homemade bread. Gramp came with his signature ear-to-ear grin and two bottles of Spanish wine, one white and one rosé.
Dad and Joey had already retrieved the tables and chairs from our basement storage locker. I’d pressed the folds out of Mom’s white damask and Serena decorated the tables, which we pushed together in the middle of the living room. Serena had a gift for styling things and had gone early to the park to dig branches and pine cones and other nature gifts out of the snow for a centerpiece. She popped my mom’s little blue votive candles in it here and there. It looked more like Christmas peace than Thanksgiving gratitude, but that was okay.
Joey was crazy about “horsey doovers” and there were lots to munch on as we visited and waited for dinner. I thought of Charlie. I was worried and wished I knew where he was. I’d bring him some of my mom’s turkey and a piece of my Aunt Tessa’s cheesecake.
Finally Mom and Aunt Tessa brought on the big feast. Dad carved the turkey. Nana dressed the salad. Gramp opened the wine. We prepared to go from nibbling hors d’oeuvres to eating in earnest. We were passing the platter of turkey and bowls of mashed potatoes and yams when Aunt Tessa said to my dad, “Diego, didn’t Charlie Aldofierio go to Eisenhower High with you?”
“Yes! He did. Haven’t heard from him in a couple of years though. He disappeared after Daisy and the kid died in that accident. Poor guy. I should make an effort to track him down.”
“You didn’t see his obituary then. It was in last Sunday’s paper. He died the night the storm hit. They found him huddled in the doorway of Baracini’s.”
Something was buzzing.
It started in my ears. It spread to my brain and filled my eyes and all the room.
It took my breath away.
Suddenly, the world was spinning and just as suddenly there was nothing.
The apartment was almost silent. It still smelled like Thanksgiving but it didn’t feel like it. Mom had her arms around me in bed and Dr. Kowalski was sitting on the edge and holding my hand. He looked down at me with a frown. “How are you feeling, little girl?” I looked at him, confused. Then I remembered about Charlie. I started to cry.
I barely noted the looks that passed between my parents. “Yuilia,” my dad said, “Sweetheart, how did you know Charlie?” I told them. I told them how I met Charlie at the park one day last spring when he asked me what I was reading. I told them how we talked four or five times a week and became best friends. I confessed to wanting to write and apologized for disappointing them. It all came out in a jumble of tears and hick-ups and nose blowing. I even confessed to stealing food for Charlie. I heard my mother sigh. She knew about the missing food and puzzled over my apparent need to steal and sneak. She wasn’t mad that I took food to Charlie. In fact, it seemed my parents were glad that I did.
At some point, Aunt Tessa came in with a hot cup of tea. My dad just sat there, his brow furrowed with worry. I think Dr. Kowalski gave me something to sleep. When I woke up again, Serena was fussing with my cover and Daddy was sitting in a chair by the bed. I stayed inside for the rest of the holiday. I didn’t go to church on Sunday and missed the first two-or-three days back to school.
The family hovered. My mom fed me chicken soup with bitter greens and potatoes and lots of onions. My dad talked to me about Charlie and his wife and about the little girl who would be just a few years older than me. Serena read me the rest of Tree. Joey sat at the end of my bed and shared his books and toys, even his much-loved fire truck. Except for food and walks, Mighty Manfred lay glued to my side. His eyes filled with worry and woe.
My dad did a little digging and connecting and found that no memorial service was organized for Charlie. All that was left of his family was his father, Charlie senior. With Mr. Adelfiero’s permission, Dad and the others who’d graduated with Charlie organized a memorial that was held at Charlie senior’s house. Another storm hit on the day the memorial was scheduled. It didn’t keep anyone away. They arrived, school friends, war-time comrades in arms, neighbors and people from church. They arrived in singles and in groups, from a few blocks away and from out-of-state.
Mom, Nana and Aunt Tessa had organized a potluck and Aunt Tessa’s new boyfriend, Brian, volunteered himself and friends to provide chamber music. Raymond MacLaine, also a fellow graduate and by then a Jesuit priest, officiated. One-by-one people shared their memories of Charlie and his wife and child.
Finally, at the end, it was Charlie senior’s turn and mine. Charlie’s dad couldn’t talk for his pain. I took his hand in mine the way I thought Charlie would like me to. I told everyone what a friend Charlie was, how he gave heart to my dreams even though, as I now knew, his own heart was broken.
That was a long, long time ago. Charlie the elder is gone now. So is my dad, my grandparents and my Aunt Tessa who did marry Brian. My mom lives with me and still feeds me from her budget-wise kitchen. Serena is a nana several times over and Joey, a math teacher at Eisenhower High, is getting ready to retire. Several more pups have stolen our hearts since Mighty Manfred’s days. And, as you may already know, I am the author of twelve mystery novels and countless short stories. I teach writing classes at adult ed too. You won’t find me on any best-seller list but I have built a life and made a living around stories just as I dreamed of doing. When I look back across the years of the slowly flowering ambitions I first shared with Charlie Adulfiero, I know he was more than a friend. He was the patron saint of a skinny little girl with a passion for stories.
This is a fiction and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is coincidence.
© 2017, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved