Good Times (Ch. 2)
The mid- Florida day had been hot, even in the shade of that old orange grove:
We were sitting on the tool shed steps, carefully peeling two mottled little oranges.
“Man! They sure do have thin skin,” I said.
“Yeah!” Charlie agreed.
“They look like hell.” I scratched at the splotches of black scale that nearly covered the tennis-ball-size fruit, revealing the yellowish-orange skin. I started peeling with fingers, then resorted to a knife.
“Timi says they’re great…”
“Well, hell, let’s try one!” I said, breaking out a few sections with my pocketknife and handing one to Charlie. I looked skeptically at the small piece of dripping fruit.
“Wow, exquisite,” Charlie sighed, closing his eyes in exaggerated ecstasy. I popped the orange in my mouth and discovered he was right. This was a great little orange! We looked at each other and started laughing, amazed at the unexpected sweetness of the sorry-looking little fruit. “Such unexpected delights growing right here in Timi’s back yard! Nobody sprays them, nobody picks them…”
“And nobody’d buy ‘em ‘cause they look so bad!” I interrupted.
“Just like us!” Charlie hooted with laughter, a wide grin on his face as he peeled and popped another section of orange into his mouth. I slapped him on the shoulder in protest of the comment, but we both laughed ‘til tears were running down our cheeks and we were choking on the oranges.
When we stopped laughing, Charlie tilted his head and looked at me wryly. “Shit, we don’t need Brian’s house. What more could we ask? Sittin’ in this cool grove eating epicurean oranges, a roof over our heads – almost!” He sputtered another laugh as he waved expansively at the tiny tool shed behind us where his bed and belongings were crammed.
I laughed, “Yeah, it’s great. I’m used to sleeping in the van, so I’m just happy to have a place to park in the shade and hang out.”
We ate the rest of the few oranges in silence. I thought about the odd sequence of events that had led to this moment of shared hilarity in an old orange grove. My job, Bryan’s house, Charlie’s run-in with a cop, two evictions, and here we are, living in a tool shed.
Things had been happening quickly ever since I got to Florida a couple of months ago, I thought. Just came down to visit my brother for a week or two but I decided I liked it – especially after I met Ramona – so I got a job. Then things had gotten a little weird between my brother and his wife so I started looking for independent living space. Only looking for three days when I met Brian Bonham, who needed another housemate since his had gone off to Gainesville and never came back, and the rent was due. So I moved in on a Friday.
Saturday night, Charlie got back from Gainesville – with a story.
I’d been lying on the bed in his old room reading when he came in the doorway and stopped abruptly. I looked up to see a short figure in worn jungle fatigues, faded purple tie-dyed tee-shirt, and beat old tennis shoes, with thin shoulder-length brown hair and smudge of a fine, soft mustache. He had several days stubble and a look of surprise on his pale, round face.
“Well hi!, who are you?” The surprised look vanished quickly, replaced by an odd smile, as if he thought this was maybe some kind of joke.
“Ah, hey! I’m John. Who are you?”
“I think I live here!” he sputtered, with a little laugh – almost a giggle, as if he were going along with the joke in case there was one. “Isn’t this my room? I think I’m Charlie and I think I live here… I used to live here!”
I jumped up in embarrassment. “Charlie! You’re Charlie? You’re back! Shit! I mean, Cool! Brian was real worried about what had happened to you, but… I just moved in yesterday. He, ah… he thought you weren’t coming back, I guess.”
“Well, shit, here I am!” Charlie laughed. “Surprise, surprise!”
“Yeah, ah… what we have here is a situation!” I was reaching. “I’m sorry, man. But hey, no problem, I can…” I was glad Charlie was smiling. I didn’t quite know what to say. I’d already given Brian my share of the rent, and I was pretty sure he’d paid the landlord, who was breathing down his neck, or so he said.
“No sweat GI, we can work it out. There’s plenty of room in the place. I could sleep on the porch. No problem, I could sleep in the bathtub, don’t worry about it. Hey, I just got out of jail, anything’s better than that hell-hole.”
“Jail! No shit, man! What happened? So that’s why you didn’t make it back for a while.”
“Yeah. Fucking pigs wouldn’t even let me call, and my father’s asshole lawyer wouldn’t get me out of jail ‘till after the hearing.” He said ‘father’ and ‘fucking’ with the same contemptuous aspiration of the initial letter. “Now I’m on fucking probation.” He laughed dryly, as if it were no big deal.
We found a few Budweisers in the refrigerator, and when I produced a fresh pack of Camels, Charlie’s gratitude was staggering. As he sat smoking and sipping beer, I studied him. Something about him was intriguing, though I couldn’t say what exactly it was. Maybe his cool indifference to it all: police, jail, court, probation, my presence in his room. And the counter-point of his enthusiasm for the beer and cigarettes. I noted that his fatigues still had the drawstring cuffs. All mine were cut off and pegged; like everyone else in my squadron, I had expected to never actually be in the jungle.
When Brian came breezing in later, fancy shirttails flying after a long night waiting tables, he nearly fell back out of the door at the sight of Charlie. He welcomed him with an enthusiasm exaggerated by embarrassment, and tried to apologize for giving away his room, for giving up on him. “What happened to you, man?”
“Hey, I was just out on the town and next thing I knew this pig was in my face, took me to jail, now I’m on probation in the wonderful state of Florida.” He smiled sweetly, hand in the air in mock desperation.
“Probation! What did you do, shoot somebody?”
“No, man!” Charlie made a derisive sound through his lips. “They said I was drunk, ran a red light, you know the drill.” He turned to walk away.
“Wait a minute!” Brian insisted. “They don’t put you on probation for running a red light.”
“Oh yeah. They said I pulled a gun on the cop.” He said it like he had forgotten. Like an afterthought. I didn’t think so.
“Cool!” I said. I was trying to be. “I hope it was that smart-aleck that snatched me around and gave me a ticket over a busted a tail-light.” They both ignored me.
“Well, did you?” Brian was serious now.
“Shit! I don’t know!” Charlie laughed, a bit nervously though. “I don’t know what I did. I was so drunk I don’t even remember the red light. I remember cussin’ and hollerin’ a whole lot… yeah, I probably did, but shit! I wasn’t going to shoot the fucker! I was just a little drunk.” He tilted his head way back and laughed again. Then he grinned at Brian. “You know me, I wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
“Yeah, I know, Charlie, you’re a real sweet guy.” Brian sounded like he’d been through this before. “You just drink too fucking much.” He laughed ironically and shook his head. “Only fucker you’re gonna hurt is you!”
Charlie blew another dismissive fart through his lips and laughed. “I’m just having fun! Nobody likes to have fun any more!”
“Ain’t it the truth!” I agreed. “People are just too damn serious all the time.”
“You better not have too much more fun if you’re on probation,” Brian said. He waggled a forefinger and stared somberly at Charlie. History here I don’t know, clearly! I thought.
“Shit, Bry, you know that doesn’t worry old good time Charlie! I gots to have my fun!” He grinned, and I laughed, shaking my head at his clowning.
Brian was not amused. He lit a cigarette and sat back, turning dark eyes on the floor. “Yeah, I know. Well.”
“Gimme a cigarette, buddy.” Charlie pleaded. When Brian shook him out a Marlboro™, he complained. “Don’t you have any good cigarettes?”
Brian ignored him. “What happened to the Peugeot?”
“Shit. They took it. I don’t know, maybe my father got it back.” Charlie shrugged and shook his head. He lit his Marlboro and they went into the front room together. I hung out in the kitchen, wondering.
Later that evening, I pulled my stuff out of the room and got set up on the couch in the Florida room. Charlie was still drinking beer and watching TV when I went to sleep, but he was sleeping in his room when I left for work at 11:00 the next morning.
Sweating through the heavy downtown traffic, I thought about the changes of the past few weeks…. I feel good about the new situation, despite the weird stuff. I like Charlie. Seems like we might have some times together, I thought with a grin, remembering the story of the arrest. Wonder what the rest of his story is – can’t quite figure him out. Odd set of contrasts: cool and indifferent, yet enthusiastic over little things. Sophisticated yet innocent. Seems highly intelligent but looks like hell. Elegant manners, dresses like a bum. Not a Southerner, I can tell that; no recognizable accent, but you never know in Florida – people from all over. Mostly a Yankee colony anyway. Driving into the lot at Champagne Color, I realized that none of the people I’d met in the three weeks working there were Southerners.
I thought about the whole thing off and on all shift at the photo processing plant. Loading the print developing machine in the dim red light, I imagined the Gainesville arrest over and over, each version a little wilder and funnier. I could see Charlie swinging the gun up, weaving around, squinting at the officer, talking tough, breaking into giggles. He was lucky he didn’t get shot.
Then it got busy, the big rolls from the printers stacking up out in the little hallway, so I had to get the second machine running. Pretty soon I had six lines going, and it was starting to get hairy, no time to daydream, just running from line to line splicing on a new roll when one ran out. As fast as I got one replaced, another ran out.
It was hectic for a few hours, but I enjoyed the work, slipping around in the cool dark rooms, silent but for the gurgling of the chemicals in the tanks as the rolls of prints snaked through, over and under the steel rollers that guided them through each tank, developing, stopping, then fixing the images and washing the prints. Outside the darkrooms the prints wound around a huge, heated drum of polished chromed steel to dry, face down for glossy, up for matte. Toward the end of the shift, when the work slowed down again, I could sit and watch the bright endless stream of photos, imagining the lives behind them.
I began to wonder again about Charlie, who he was and where he had been. A disturbing thought hit me then: Ramona will be afraid of him, probably will not like him at all. So why do I like him? He is a little scary. But there’s just something intriguing about him. Something mysterious maybe, and a depth of experience. Tilts his head and closes one eye when he takes a drag, like Bogart. Something that makes him seem like he understands the shit I’ve been through, understand things other people haven’t even wondered about. Maybe it’s just that mystery. I like mystery.
How can I introduce Charlie to Ramona, though? Some way she won’t get weird? Ah, fuck it. It’ll just start another argument. God, why do I think I’m in love with her, anyway? Maybe it’s just her name. My favorite Dylan song. Sometimes it seems like she doesn’t understand anything. She and Rosemary came down here from some sooty old mill town in Massachusetts – I can never remember that town’s name… always reminds me of cheese, though – hoping to get jobs when Disney World opened, like half of America, so now she’s working in a stupid department store downtown and Rosemary takes care of the apartment and thinks she’s her mother. They think everything in Florida is ‘wonderful’ – except for the police and black people! The damn nuns scared them to death about those two particular aspects of Southern society. So now Ramona comes home every day just sure she’s been followed by one or the other. She’s afraid of everything, including reefer, sex, and the pill. Good old Catholic education.
Driving home on the deserted, almost-cool midnight streets, I decided not to call her. Just let her wonder. She knows I’ve moved, she’ll think I just don’t have a phone or something.
The house was dark when I got home. I went in quietly, and found Charlie and Brian staring through a blue haze at Brian’s old TV. “Hey guys!” I said. Johnny Carson was just beginning his monologue. They looked up and said, “Hi” together. Carson droned on through the smoke. I stood staring at the TV for a moment, then went in to get a beer from the kitchen. When I came back out and sat down, the silence had grown thicker.
I lit a cigarette and sighed. I was hoping for conversation, but no one spoke. My curiosity about Charlie was growing, but the silence was intimidating. I finished my beer and said goodnight.
I started reading, but fell asleep quickly. I had been reading R.D. Laing’s Knots for a while, but I could never stay with it for long, despite my interest in the tangle of relationships it depicted.
There were no blinds or curtains on the Florida room windows, so the bright sun woke me early. The house was silent and it was starting to get hot already. I ate some stale toaster tarts I found in a cabinet and read an old newspaper lying in the kitchen. Then I sat in the living room drinking instant coffee and smoking and looking out the picture window at the lushness. I liked this spot. It was an interesting window, wrapping around the corner of the house with no post to obstruct the view. The overgrown yard, crowded with tropical plants, made the humid air itself seem green. There was something about the scene that made me feel strange, though for a while I couldn’t figure out was it was. Then I realized it was the banana tree. It looks just like the ones in Thailand. This place looks like the yard outside our hootch! When it started raining around noon, I drifted into a full-scale reverie of steamy afternoons hanging out around the hootch where I had lived on the base in NKP – Nakhon Phanom. It was not even a year I’d been back, but it seemed so long ago. Now the banana tree brought it all back.
I was staring out the window, lost in memory, when Charlie came in, sleepily walked up to the window. “Nice view, huh.” I said.
“If you like green.”
“Reminds me of Thailand. I was just standing here thinking about the banana trees outside my hootch at NKP.”
“Yeah, well, I saw a few banana trees myself. I try not to think about them.”
“Oh yeah? Were you in the war?” I perked right up. This was a real opening.
“You could say – I definitely don’t think about that.” Charlie turned quickly and walked into the kitchen. I didn’t follow, but when I heard Brian come in, I went in looking for more coffee. Charlie was pouring steaming water through a small filter full of ground coffee.
“That’s a neat way to make coffee,” I said, watching intently.
“Oh yes,” Charlie replied brightly. “Ol’ Melita certainly had a good idea.” He laughed and shook his head. “I don’t know how anyone drinks that instant shit.”
I could feel the flush in my neck and cheeks. “What’s the difference? It’s all coffee!”
“Oh, I don’t know. Why don’t you try some of this and see.” Charlie showed me how to grind the beans and put them in the little paper filter, then pour the water – just at little at first to wet the grounds, then filling the filter slowly.
When it had dripped through, I began to sip. “Huh! Pretty tasty! I think I may never drink Maxxum again.” I smiled at Charlie. He just smiled and sipped his coffee. Bryan was reading a day-old Miami Herald.
“Anything happening around here today?” I asked. “It’s my day off.”
“Not too much on a Monday,” Brian replied.
“We could drive around and visit some old buddies that are probably wondering what happened to Chuckie,” Charlie said with a bright smile. “Somebody should be around.”
“Yeah,” Brian said wryly. “Rollins boys have lots of days off.”
“Now Brian, I bet Bob and Timi are working hard on that boat. Harder than that sissy restaurant you work in.”
Brian snorted and looked peeved. “Maybe so. But building a sailboat is not exactly a job.”
Charlie gave Brian a bland look, then smiled and said sweetly, “Well, you 4Fs with doctors for uncles got all the nice jobs while us men were off murdering gooks in Nixon’s dirty little war.”
My mouth dropped open in amazement. Brian glared at him, slammed his cup down on the kitchen table and walked out. Charlie gave a sadistic little laugh. “He’s just mad because his ex-girlfriend is living with a Rollins student.”
Bob and Timi were working hard on the sailboat. But they were more than happy to break for a few beers when we dropped by that afternoon. The break dragged on into evening. A few more people showed up with a few more beers and some good bud and it was a Monday night party. Someone brought out a guitar and before long I was singing “Ramona, come closer, shut softly your watery eyes…” It was a fine evening.
On the way home, Charlie, in a rare and expansive mood, said, “I love that song, “Ramona.”
“Yeah, me too.” I didn’t want to get effusive here and drive him back into his shell, but I went on. “I guess it’s about my favorite Dylan song. Most people never heard it. I guess it’ll get hot now that the Burrito Brothers recorded it.”
After a moment, Charlie said, “Naaaah!” We laughed.
The next day, Charlie was sitting in the living room smoking strong-smelling cigarettes and writing in a notebook when I walked through on my way to the bathroom. (One of the down-sides of living in the Florida room!) When I came back through I ventured a question: “What you writing?”
“Not much,” Charlie said without looking at me. He closed the notebook as I walked over.
“Looks like a serious collection.”
“Just junk. A few poems. Maybe I’ll send one to Lawrence one of these days. Probably not.”
“Oh yeah, Coney Island of the Mind guy.”
“Yeah, City Lights Bookstore.”
“You know him?”
“Not really. I met him once.”
“Cool.” My curiosity got the better of the circumspection I had come to realize that interaction with Charlie demanded. “Where you from, anyway?”
“Me? I’m from nowhere!” Charlie laughed. I waited, hoping for more. “My father,” he spit out the word again, “works at State. We lived all over.” He gave me an impatient glance, shifted in his chair and opened the notebook slowly.
I took the hint and moved on toward the Florida room, thinking. So that’s where he gets the urbane mannerisms. Probably lived in Europe or somewhere. I sat on my couch-bed and stared out at the bright green day. Tuesday. Shit, I go on night shift today. Nothing to do ‘til eleven. My old enemy returns.
After a few more minutes contemplating the boring prospects of the day, I went out to the van and brought in my mattress, plopping it in the corner. I puttered around the room, putting things away, rearranging my junk, avoiding thoughts, staving off depression. I lay down on the mattress and tried to sleep, but it was too hot already. When I heard Charlie go into the kitchen, I followed him.
“So, Charlie, got any more good-time buddies you need to visit? I start the 11-to-7 tonight and I’m already bored as a pine tree fulla bark beetles.”
“Sure!” he answered, smiling widely. “I bet we can find somebody who’ll let us in if we have a few beers with us.”
We had knocked on the doors of three different houses, me carrying the case of Hamms Charlie had suggested I buy, but it was mid-afternoon before we found anybody home – the Carmichaels. A wiry guy in saw-dusty bib overalls and a long blonde ponytail opened the door and hooted, “Chuckey! You’re back! Where you been, man?!”
“I’ve been off dancing quadrilles with the goodly Gainesville gendarmes,” Charlie laughed, as they walked into the cool, dark house. In the kitchen, I introduced myself, pulled out a six-pack and slid the rest of the case into the refrigerator. Two other guys, brothers I guessed from their appearance, came into the kitchen, the beers went around, and the stories began.
The three residents of the house sat on the couch, arms folded and dusty work boots propped up on the heavy coffee table, grinning as Charlie told his tale. They shook their heads and elbowed each other, and all of them howled when he got to the part about the gun. They questioned him in detail about the legal consequences, congratulated him on the hilarity of his exploits, and commiserated with him over the loss of his car, apparently a classic Peugeot.
It got quiet for a few seconds, then one of them, the tallest, said, “Those hick cops don’t know who they’re messing with, do they Charlie!”
Everyone except me laughed, but Charlie looked vaguely uncomfortable. I noted it was the first time I’d seen him look at all ill at ease. The tall guy pressed on. “Guess you’ve blown your shot at going with the CIA now, huh?” he said teasingly.
“Shut up, Carmichael,” Charlie shot back, smile leaden.
“Sorry man, I’m just kidding!”
“Sure, just drop it.”
One of the other Carmichaels, the youngest-looking one, got up. “Anybody need beers?”
“You guys have any whiskey, Brody?” Charlie asked him, grinning slyly.
“No whiskey, Chuckey, not on Tuesday nights, anyway,” the tall one laughed. Brody had stopped, looking at his brother, who gave him a quick frown and head shake.
Charlie laughed. “Bring me another beer, Brody!”
Following a moment of uncomfortable silence, the conversation shifted to friends and recent events in the neighborhood, and soon the room felt lighter. I moved to a nearby window to catch a breeze and examined the heavy casements and foot-thick walls. The adobe construction explained why the house was so cool and quiet. Drifting back into the conversation, I learned the brothers worked in the family business: custom waterskis.
They were not up for partying – “You guys are working too hard these days!” Charlie chided – so we took what was left of our case and left.
“So you went to college with those guys?” I ventured, as we headed out for greener party pastures.
“You could say that. You could say I was a student at Rollins, and we partied a lot together in the general vicinity of the college, yeah.” He didn’t seem to want to talk about that either, and I was sure he would avoid any questions about the CIA quip.
No one answered the door at the other houses we stopped at, so we stopped in a smoke shop for Players and then drove on, cruising the myriad lakes and parks in the area. When we passed a little bar, Charlie shouted excitedly for me to stop.
“What is it man?”
“That’s a great bar!” he effused. “You’ll love it. It’s like Bogart and Hemmingway met here and decided to open a joint.”
“The Tropicana? Real original name…” I was skeptical, but he was insistent and enthusiastic. I pulled to the curb and we walked back up the street to the little bar with a turquoise neon palm tree above its tiny awning. It was narrow and dark, with a bar on one side and a row of cheap tables down the other. A large window unit roared in the back, blasting almost-cool air, and two ceiling fans stirred it slowly. Oh well, at least it’s cool and sorta quiet, I thought.
They sat at the bar and ordered gin and tonics.
“Bogart and Hemmingway, huh?” I asked.
“Sure, man. Can’t you see it? This was probably a barber shop and they were here getting a trim and decided the place was so cool it would make a great bar, and…”
“Look, Charlie, I bet this place was a frigging orange grove ‘til about 1965.”
“Well shit, man, you have to use your imagination!”
“Yeah, I’m trying.” The bartender set the glasses in front of us and Charlie picked his up eagerly as I fished for my billfold.
“God, I love the sound of ice tinkling in glasses!” Charlie’s eyes closed as he sipped the drink.
I took a drink and shook my head in mild amusement. The AC shut off and the ceiling fans droned.
By the time we got home, it was nearly time for me to go to work and I was feeling seriously tipsy. It would be a long night. Charlie sat down to watch TV and I went out into the dense green of the little yard. The late evening humidity was oppressive. I was sitting on the ground leaning against the big palm tree by the door when Brian pulled up.
“How’s tricks?” I asked as Brian headed for the steps.
Brian looked over in surprise. “Not so hot.” He walked toward me slowly. “Wish I could find a real job. Working for tips bites. The people that come in this place, I swear they won’t tip you if you don’t insult them.”
The whining was getting a little old already, but I went along. “Weird! Why’s that?”
“Ah, all these stupid climbers! It makes them feel like they’re in a real high-class place if the waiters are haughty.” He sat down heavily beside me. “I like living in a nice place and all, but I swear, sometimes I think I’ll just go back to being a starving musician.” He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out forcefully.
“This is a nice place, Winter Park.” I said. “Kinda sucks you in to this easy-living mode. I guess that’s why all these rich people live here.”
“Yeah, Winter Park sucks alright!” Brian laughed. We sat looking out at the lights reflecting in the little lake past moss-draped live oaks. “It’s nice, though.” He sighed. “Where’s Charlie?”
“Watching TV.” I paused as a question formed in my mind, hesitated, then decided to press on. “So Brian. Why is he so frickin’ weird about talking about the war and stuff? Every time I mention it, he just blows me off, walks away.”
Brian looked at me sharply for a fraction of a second, then recovered and said calmly, “Yes, he’s sensitive alright. Did you tell him you were there too?”
“Yeah, I mentioned it, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about it at all.”
“I really shouldn’t talk about it either. I mean, it’s none of my business… but… you know, he just had a real hard time.”
“No shit!” I sputtered. “So did I. It wasn’t a fucking Sunday drive. You know, it might help if I could get him to talk about it. And maybe I could if I knew why he’s so uptight about it.” I knew it was mostly just morbid curiosity on my part, but in my alcoholic haze, I thought the humanitarian appeal might work on Brian.
He just looked uncomfortable. “Maybe so. Look, I’ll just tell you this. He was on a six-man intelligence team or some such shit. They parachuted into nasty places like Laos, and did whatever they did ‘til helicopters pulled them back out after a few days.”
“Huh.” I said. “So something specific happen to him?”
“I don’t know for sure. I’m not sure anybody knows. He says they went in five times, he was the only one left of the original team – maybe the captain or whatever abandoned one of them, something like that – so the sixth time he’s to go in, he says fuck this, I ain’t goin’! You can hardly blame him, but the Army didn’t understand, I guess.”
“Yeah, I guess! Shit! He’s lucky they didn’t shoot him. Intell. Huh. So that’s why the Carmichaels were kidding him about the CIA.”
“They were? Those bastards!” Brian shook his head, but he was smiling. “Yeah, his old man’s some kind of high muckety-muck in the State Department, trying to groom Charlie for some kind of spook job.”
“He says ‘father’ like it’s an obscenity,” I observed.
Brian laughed and got up, shaking his head as he started up the steps. He turned to me abruptly. “I didn’t tell you any of this!”
Over the next two weeks, I met lots of Charlie’s “good time buddies,” and they talked about almost everything. Not the war. Whenever I brought it up, Charlie ignored me, laughed and walked away, or deflected the comment with sarcasm or a joke. Increasingly, it was sarcasm. I pretty much dropped the subject from my conversation, but every now and then it just came up. I thought about it a lot.
It was late one night on a day-shift week and we were both pretty drunk as we fell into chairs in the Winter Park living room. “Turn on the TV!” Charlie murmured.
“Shit, Charlie! Forget the fucking TV!” I was in no mood for late night. I was tired and getting depressed. I’d hardly seen Ramona lately and when I did she was surly and complaining. All I do is work, drink, and watch TV, I thought, annoyed.
But Charlie grabbed the remote, turned on the TV and began flipping through channels. After several minutes, my brain was screaming.
“God, Charlie! Forget it! Nothing’s on! Can’t you live without the goddamn TV? What’d you do in the war without TV?” I froze, knowing it was the wrong thing to say.
Charlie turned around, the selector on a null channel. The sound of static filled the room as he stared icily at me. “Can’t you live without taking about that damn war? Forget it! It’s over. I don’t want to hear about it!” He glared at me for a second, then his anger faded and he laughed as he turned back to the channel selector. “Where’s Johnny? I want to hear Johnny! Where’s Johnny? Whe-e-er-re’s Johnny!” He was hysterical at his McMahon imitation.
“Try seven,” I said, resigned to another evening of TV. Charlie set the channel to seven and stood watching the inane commercial, his hand on the selector until Carson finally appeared.
“Here’s Johnny!” He sighed, smiling as he sat on the couch and propped up his feet. “Sweet release!”
The next day, Brian had given us the news: the landlord had sold the house and we all had to move out within a week.
About two days after we moved into the tool shed, about the same time the rats got into the rice and the mid-afternoon temperature broke 100, the sweet wonder of the little oranges wore off, and Charles and I were no longer so sure of the virtues of our grove paradise. It had seemed to me a happy solution to my dilemma when Charlie offered to share the grove with me, and I had been glad of the opportunity to hang out with him, despite the negatives.
So he’s a little odd. So am I, I had thought. And he’s certainly the most interesting character I’ve met since I got back. He’s right about all this war shit, too. I just need to relax and forget about it. Hell, it is over, or might as well be. It’s over for us, for sure. Why can’t I just get over it like he has?
So we had been camping out in the orange grove for the past two weeks. But now, working the night shift again, trying to sleep in the van during the heat of the day was proving impossible, even with the “Miracle Space Blanket” – which proved to be no more than a very thin piece of aluminized vinyl – strung up as an awning over the door.
We were sitting in the doorway to the shed eating sesame rice and drinking green tea.
“Hot ain’t it.” I loved to quote Brother Dave on evenings like this.
Charlie said nothing. I was used to being ignored. He wasn’t big on small talk. I just talked anyway. “You ever get in a fight, man? I mean, like since grammar school? A real fight?” I looked into my teacup intently, wondering whether he’d just ignore me or make a joke, avoiding the question.
He snickered slightly. “I pushed a guy into a fountain once, for spilling my drink, and he tried to beat me up.”
“Did he actually hit you?”
“No, I don’t think so. Carmichael grabbed him after he pushed me. That discouraged him quite a bit.”
“I bet. Why do you think people fight so much? I was just thinking about this guy down in Louisiana that attacked me. I mean, all I did was toss an empty beer can in the back of this guy’s pickup truck and he wanted to kill somebody.”
Charlie laughed and shoveled rice into his mouth with the chopsticks.
“Me and this guy I roomed with when I was stationed in Louisiana – this was right before I got out last summer – we were down in this little south Louisiana town…”
“That was your first mistake.” Charlie wiped at stray grains of rice around his mouth.
“No, listen. This was some strange Cajun celebration, the festival of the little pigs, ‘Chanson des chutes’ or something like that. It was truly strange: they had all these young pigs skewered to big wire grates, like spits, turning over hot coals in the middle of town. A brick barbeque pit a block long, hundreds of these little pigs, whole, cooking. And the streets were blocked off and bands everywhere and everybody was drunk, people dancing in the streets… It was one hell of a party!”
“Shit, let’s go!”
“We were pretty drunk, you know, and we were heading out to the car to go back to Alexandria and I finished my beer just as this truck with all these cans in the back drove by, so I just tossed mine in with the rest and we walked on down the street. We had walked like half a block when we hear this roaring, and here comes this pickup, backing down the street like 40 miles and hour or something, crazy, so we stop and look, not knowing what the hell is going on. Well, the truck gets to us and screeches to a stop and this big, tall redneck jumps out and runs over to my buddy and knocks him down on the ground and then starts to kick at him. When I get over the shock, I run over screaming at him and just as I get to him he turns around and kicks me in the stomach and I go stumbling back against a car, him coming after me like a dog!
“So I’m so stunned I just stand there like an idiot while he takes a big swing at me, which luckily I dodge, otherwise I’m dead meat. But he knocks my sunglasses flying out into the street. Then he runs over to my glasses and stomps on them with these big shitkicker boots ‘til they’re just a glaze on the asphalt. When he stops, he doesn’t even look back at me, he just runs back to his pickup and zooms away. It wasn’t until he was leaving that I even figured out it was the same truck. Weird, huh?”
“Well, shit, Jack! You know how these boys are about their pickup trucks. You just don’t go messin’ with a man’s truck!”
“Yeah, I guess I learned it if I didn’t know. It really scared me, though. He could have killed me if he had wanted to, ‘cause I was just stupid, my reactions were all stupid.”
Charlie just shook his head. Then he looked at the steps and said very quietly, “You have to be ready to die when you walk out the door.”
I sat in silence for a moment, stunned at the remark. Then I plunged on.
“It also really makes me think about what’s going on in this country, man. I mean, I live through a year and ten days in the fucking war and get back here and almost die in some freaking festival of little freaking pigs!” I was verging on hysterical. I took a deep breath and dropped my voice back down. “It’s just too much. People are going nuts. Ready to fight and beat people up, kill each other over nothing. That’s what really bothers me about the war, man, not all that political shit. It’s what’s happening to the people here.”
Charlie looked up at me, serious for once. “Well, maybe we should just get out of this fucking country.”
I wasn’t sure how to take the comment, but I was on a roll. “I’m ready! I sure don’t know what else to do. I just feel so pissed off about things sometimes that I don’t really want to be part of it at all.”
“Well, I’m ready to get out of Florida. Fuck this probation. We could head on up to Vancouver and see what’s going on there. I’ve got a map to this community in Oregon where some people I know live. It’s pretty close to Canada.”
“Are you serious?”
“Shit yes. Let’s hit the road.” Charlie smiled at me, eyes narrowed, head tilted. “Florida is just getting too crowded for me.”
That night, I went by my brother’s house to say goodbye. My throat was so tight I couldn’t speak as we embraced. I shook the tears away, clearing my throat and forcing a laugh. Finally I spoke. “Hope it all works out, brother!”
“It will – one way or the other,” Stewart said. He smiled. “Take care of yourself, brother!”
The next morning as we were packing, I remembered I’d left my camera case at Stewart’s house, so we stopped by again to pick it up. On the way out, I found a letter addressed to me propped up on the kitchen table. I grabbed it and headed out to the van, glancing at the return address. Connie Johnson, but with a California address, San Mateo. CJ. Strange. I hadn’t known she’d left Arizona. Of course, we hadn’t kept in touch very well since I got back to Georgia. I hadn’t been in any one place long enough to get letters much.
And I guess I didn’t write, either.
I stuffed the letter in my pocket unopened, and our trip began.