Charlie

    Marge wakes early as she has for decades. She lies alone in her double bed and stares at the white ceiling. She is motionless but for her slow breathing and eyes blinking. After a time, she rolls to her side and swings her legs over the edge of the bed. She pushes herself into a sitting position. Finding her slippers, she slides them on. The floor is cold. She stands and pulls her worn blue housecoat from the end of the bed. She puts it on and pulls the belt tight.

    Shuffling to the window, Marge pulls open the inner panel drape. The cold orange light of a winter’s daybreak tints the room behind her. The bedroom is small with a single window. Two dressers and two nightstands are the only other furniture. They make the room feel smaller than it is. A small closet is near the door.

    Marge looks out the window, squinting only a little. “Looks like there’s been no snow overnight Charlie.” The house is silent.

    Marge turns away from the window and ambles down the hall to the kitchen on the other side of the house. A grey morning light comes through the window above the sink, too weak to illuminate the room. She flicks on the overhead light and fills a kettle from the sink tap. She puts it on an element and turns on the stove.

    Cupboards frame the window and sink and extend along the short wall. The fridge and stove take up most of the other long wall, leaving just enough room for a small, clean breakfast table.

    A number of family pictures hang on the wall above the table. The snapshots of family history are arranged on a gentle slant across the wall, frozen in time. One has a faded photo of Marge and her husband. Another photo is of the family, an infant daughter sitting on Marge’s lap. Other pictures are of the family members. On the right is a montage of the daughter as a child.

    While the kettle heats, Marge fixes the rest of breakfast. Half a honeydew melon is retrieved from the fridge and cut into wedges. Toast is made in the ancient toaster that fills the room with the smell of hundreds of breakfasts.

    When the kettle boils, she fixes her cup of coffee. The aroma mixes with toasted breadcrumbs. Breakfast is served quietly at the table. She sits facing the pictures on the wall.

    Looking up at the pictures, she breaks the silence. “Charlie, how come is never seems to get easier?” She has some melon and continues, “It’s been 6 months since you left. I thought it was supposed to get easier with time. But it doesn’t” She looks down at her plate then back up to the pictures. “Everything is empty without you here. The table. This house. The kitchen.”

    She picks up another slice of melon from the plate. She pauses then puts it back down, holding it with her fingers just off the surface of the plate. “You took so much from me when you left. I feel like part of me is missing. Sometimes, I feel empty without you. I feel hollow.”

    The pictures stare back at her, beaming smiles on all the faces.

    She finishes breakfast without further comment. She clears the table and hand washes the dishes. With the wet dishcloth, she wipes the table clean.

    Once the kitchen is tidy, she walks back to the bedroom. From her dresser, she pulls out some clothes for working around the house. She changes, exchanging the slippers for warm socks. She opens the closet and puts away the housecoat. Her clothes are hanging on the left, men’s pants and shirts on the right.

    Before closing the closet, she runs her hand along the clothes. A few bare hangers are at one end, and they jangle gently from the swaying of the assembled wardrobe. Turning around, she steps to the nearest dresser. Two watches, a small, framed photo, some charge and stack of folded handkerchiefs are on top of the dresser. She picks up one of the watches. The battery is nearly dead and the second hand bounces back and forth between two moments in time. Before leaving, she wipes the dust off the photograph and places it back in place.

    She starts her morning chores. She roams the house, opening the drapes to let in the winter sun. She tends to her plants, watering all and pruning the ones that need it.

    The laundry is next. The wooden stairs creak as she descends to the basement. The laundry room is on the right, storage rooms to the left and at the end of a short hall is a workshop.

    She loads the washing machine and starts the cycle. She looks in the dryer for any clothes to iron or fold, but it is empty. “There’s just not as much work to do as there once was,” she tells the walls.

    She circles around to look for more to do, but finds nothing. But she does see the door to the workshop. It’s been closed since Charlie left. She walks down the short hall and pauses in front of the door. She looks at the doorknob and tentatively puts her hand on it, unsure if she should continue.

    She turns the knob and slowly pushes open the door. It’s exactly as it was 6 months ago. The sent of wood and oil and paint and stain greats her. The smell is just as she remembers it, and for a moment she imagines him hunched over the counter top, just under the window, tool in hand.

    Snow has blown up against the outside of the window and it leaves the room dark and shadowy. She reaches into the room and flicks on the light. She leans into the room before stepping over the threshold. Tools are on hooks along the walls. Others are scattered on the counter. A stool stands at the far end. It was just as it was the last time Charlie pushed it away as he stood.

    She walks over to the counter. Its surface is marred with hammer blows and scratches. Paint stains the wood in patches. Even the tools that lay scattered carry a patina of human hands. An old paintbrush sits in a dry bowl, the bristles hardened into shape.

    She sees a cobweb hanging from the overhead light, dust highlighting the strand. She searches her pockets for a tissue and wipes it away. She circles the room, looking at the tools and posters, an old calendar, small cans of paint in a cabinet.

    She sits down on the stool and looks over the workbench. A wall shelf sits ready to be painted. At one end is an unfinished model of a sailing schooner. Everything is covered with a highlight of dust.

    She picks up a red-handled wood chisel from the workbench. She turns it over in her hand. It has nicks and scratches from use. She imagines him holding it, running over raw wood at the start of one of his projects.

    “Is this all there is? Is this all I have from you now, Charlie?” She wraps her hand around the chisel’s handle, holding like she had seen him hold it. “Empty rooms and dust?” She sighs and is lost in her thoughts for a moment. She glances around the room again, not focusing on anything in particular.

    “Jenny will be here soon to pick me up,” she finishes. “I’ll have to go start to get ready.”

    A buzz from the other room indicates the end of the washing cycle. Marge places the awl back on the bench. As she leaves the room, she closes the door gently as if closing the bedroom door on a sleeping child.

    In the laundry room, the wet clothes are moved into the dryer. She pushes the start button and heads upstairs to her bedroom again.

    She opens the closet and takes a pair of dark blue pants off the hanger and places them flat on the bed. She finds a heavier white blouse with a blazer on a hanger, which she also lays on the bed with the pants. She changes quickly, then moves to the bathroom to check her hair and put on makeup.

    She’s almost ready when the doorbell rings. She runs out to unlock and open the door. A young woman in sunglasses is there, a red toque hiding most of her blonde hair. “Jenny, come in, come in. Oh, how cold out is it out?”

    Jenny enters and closes the door behind her, stamping some snow from her boots. “Hi Mom. It’s not too bad, it’s just the wind makes it seem cold. It’s nice and sunny though.”

    “I just need a few more minutes to finish up. Can I get you anything?”

    “No. I’m fine, thanks.”

    “Ok, I’ll be right back.” Marge heads back to finish up in the bathroom mirror. In the kitchen, she retrieves a bouquet of cut flowers, wrapped in red foil plastic, from the fridge.

     In the entrance hall, she hands the bouquet to Jenny and puts on her boats, a heavy blue winter coat, a pair of black insulated gloves and a pair of sunglasses. Once bundled up, they head to the car, Marge locking the house behind her.

    The drive to the outskirts of town takes 10 minutes. The two women don’t talk much in the car.

    They turn off through an open gate in a black iron fence. Over the entrance arches a gold painted sign, ‘Edgewood Cemetery’. A ploughed road circles through the cemetery. Near a snow-covered tree, they stop the car and get out.

    Marge looks around, trying to identify the Charlie’s stone. The wind tugs at her coat. The various monuments stick up through the snow. They look like black and grey teeth, the tops frosted with snow. A thin ice crust has formed on the clean snow, and it scrunches under their boats. The sun is bright, reflected off the ice.

    Jenny points to her left and says, “That’s it over there, mom.”

    They walk over to the grave marker. A snowdrift cups one side of the stone and wraps around to the back. They are silent as they stand. Jenny drops her head and closes her eyes.

    Marge steps closer and cleans away the snowdrift with her gloved hand and brushes the snow off the top.

    Jenny steps closer too, and puts her arm around Marge’s waist. “How are you doing, mom?”

    Marge looks at her, then down at the snow. “It seems so barren here. Nothing to see but snow and…,” she points to the gravestone. She begins to cry.

   “It’s different than when we came before the snow fell. You could feel more connected or something. Like you could see the ground and somehow it meant something. Now it just feels like there’s nothing.”

    Jenny wraps her other arm around her mother and hugs her while they both cry. Marge breaks the embrace and digs for tissue in her coat pocket.

   Marge removes her sunglasses and wipes her eyes. “Is this all a life amounts to? Stones in a cemetery?”

    Jenny thinks for a moment. “No. I think it’s about us coming here. What’s left is how we feel about someone who’s gone. We care enough to come out here in the middle of winter.”

    They stand in silence looking down, lost in their own thoughts. After a pause, Marge sets down the bouquet at the base of the gravestone. “Good bye Charlie,” and they walk back to the car together. Marge stares out the door window at the snow as they drive out, watching the red bouquet for as long as she can.

 

Copyright 2005 Richard Muise

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