Thursday, July 21, 2005

Charlie the Hook - short story

His real name, we knew, was Charles Wilhelm Chedsey, but all of us in the bar called him Charlie the Hook. He showed up faithfully every afternoon except Sundays; had for as long as any of us could remember. While you couldn't set your watch by him you could be certain that he'd be there between six and seven o'clock. He'd drink scotch and sodas until ten or eleven when he'd switch to wine spritzers to sober up. He'd been doing that for years. You could tell he was drunk when the "hook" came out. Charlie would wrap his huge left arm around the neck of anyone he could catch and they'd be trapped, listening to him carry on about whatever it was he had on his mind at the moment. Most often it had to do with children. Charlie loved children. He'd ask about your children and then he'd drag out the worn pictures he carried of his own two. It came to be a joke in the place, the bartender and the waitresses would warn each other, "Watch out for the hook." They knew enough to avoid him, but even so, once in a while, one of them would forget. Of course Charlie never hurt anyone, he didn't even get fresh with the waitresses, he just wanted to talk. He seemed to genuinely like everybody. Everyone liked Charlie in spite of the hook.
It was a good thing he liked everyone because Charlie was big. He must have been six feet five without his shoes; probably weighed around two fifty. He seemed even bigger because he was so rugged looking. He wasn't really homely, just rough looking with an unruly mop of sandy colored hair, a nose that bent off to one side where he had been stepped on playing football, and ears that stuck out a trifle more than the ordinary. One of them had a little nick out of the edge barely large enough to be noticeable. He had broad shoulders and large arms with enormous hands that dwarfed any ordinary bar glass. Although he dressed expensively he always looked rumpled. But he always looked comfortable, like he belonged there, slouched over the bar, toying with his glass, talking with whomever.
No one was certain what Charlie did for a living. The majority believed he wrote for a long-running but very pedestrian television show. A customer once insisted he was a producer. One of the waitresses swore he was an agent. I think the owner, Antonio, knew what he did but didn't want to spoil the mystery. Whatever he did, he had money, and he was generous with it, buying drinks, tipping, and, although it was not well known, occasionally helping someone out with a much needed loan he didn't always get back. Charlie was a constant. You could depend on him. I don't know why someone didn't just ask him what he did but no one did. In fact, people didn't seem to ask Charlie personal questions of any kind, which was not so odd as it might seem given the way he operated the hook. No one knew where he lived, how old he was, or even which direction he came and went. Of course you could guess he was between forty and fifty, you assumed he was divorced because he spent too much time alone there in the bar, and he must have a car because it was a roadside place you couldn't easily walk to. Everyone just accepted Charlie in the same way they accepted the opening and closing times, the steak and lobster menu, and the giant baked potatoes in foil that came with the place.
Everyone, that is, except Alma. Alma was the oldest waitress in the place and also had worked there the longest. For whatever reason Alma didn't like Charlie. He was aware of it and she was the only one who had never experienced the hook. Alma's basic position on Charlie was that he was a drunk. She was right, of course, but as it didn't seem to interfere with his making a living or hurt anyone else, I guess most of us didn't think of it that way. She also thought there must be something else wrong with him.
"Why else," she argued, "does he spend all his free time in bars? That's just not normal. There must be something bothering him, some kind of trouble, something on his conscience maybe."
People agreed she might have a point but as Charlie was so seemingly well adjusted and friendly they soon forgot about it.
"Why doesn't he have any friends?" Alma demanded to know. "What kind of person has to come to a bar every night to find someone to talk with? There's something really funny about him."
Alma's suspicions might have been taken more seriously if Alma herself had been more popular. She certainly didn't go out of her way to get along. We all thought she'd been there too long. Antonio, we knew, thought she was too old for the job but, knowing she had two children in school, had not been able to bring himself to let her go. She did look out of place among the other waitresses, all twenty years her junior, with her peroxided hair in an unfashionable bouffant and her eyebrows plucked and repainted in a most unlikely place. The contrast wasn't helped by the skimpy costumes the waitresses wore which made Alma look rather like grandma trying to pass for Little Red Riding Hood. She still had a passable figure but the cellulose arms and legs betrayed her even in the darkness of the roadhouse. When Charlie politely inquired about her children, which he sometimes did, she was barely civil. We agreed she must be taking out on Charlie the animosity she felt toward the husband who had abandoned her. She didn't seem to have any more friends than Charlie.
Antonio's wasn't what you'd think of as a neighborhood bar; it stood isolated on a major highway midway between two large suburbs. Nonetheless it had a regular bar clientele which was quite distinct from the transient restaurant trade. Charlie was only one of many customers who came regularly to drink and talk in the dim atmosphere of the original but no longer appropriate Mexican decor. I guess what set the place apart from other bars for the regulars, in addition to the oversized comfort of the place, was Antonio. You could find him there with the same people virtually any afternoon. The place operated as a message center where some of them received mail and telephone calls, several kept running tabs they paid faithfully but irregularly, Antonio cashed their checks, and it was not uncommon for him to screen their calls and even provide an occasional alibi provided, of course, it was for purely domestic reasons. For many of them, like Charlie, it was very nearly a second home.
Although Charlie was considered a member of this quasi-group we all knew far less about him than he did about us. When he got you with the hook you rarely escaped before Charlie knew who you were, your marital status, how many children and how old, what you did for a living, and all the other mundane details that help to locate individuals in the social scheme of things but don't actually let you get to know them. He kept you so busy answering questions you didn't have much chance to learn about him. If you did ask him a direct question about himself he cleverly managed to obfuscate and was quickly back on the offensive. He obviously preferred it that way; it wasn't until he disappeared from our little society that we understood why.
The patrons of Antonio's bar came in time to know each other by their first names. They shared drinks and conversation, discussed sporting events and movies, and even politics in season, but they never became emotionally involved. Oh, they'd chip in if someone had a run of bad luck, and they'd express their regrets when someone had an illness or a death they heard about, they'd even listen sympathetically when someone blew up about his wife or their boss, but that was it. The most upset I ever saw them was over Charlie.
It all started one afternoon with the dog. Antonio had this miniature dachshund he took everywhere. It was a nice little dog, quiet and well behaved, and it almost never barked or made any noise. But one day when Charlie arrived something was troubling him. He nervously played with his change and looked around like he might jump up and leave at any moment. He was more rumpled than usual, even a little bit dirty, but it was when he made no attempt at conversation that we knew he was seriously upset. We just left him alone. When Charlie bent down to pet the dog, which ordinarily responded to him enthusiastically, it cringed and began to whine in a most abject manner, then retreated to a corner where it sat, continuing to whine. The dachshund made an awful sound, the pitiful kind of whine you might expect if it had been run over by a car or beaten. But it hadn't. The dog had been perfectly fine before Charlie arrived. It wasn't long before everyone in the place was disturbed. Most everyone tried to pet the poor creature or play with it but it stopped only as long as you were paying direct attention to it. As soon as you stopped the dog started staring at Charlie and whining again. Even Antonio had no luck trying to get it to stop. Of course everyone began looking at Charlie. You couldn't help it with the sad eyed little dog fixated on him with its incessant whining. Charlie pretended to ignore it but after a while it became impossible. Everyone's attention was centered on the dog and Charlie. Conversation came to a standstill, the silence punctuated only by the whining and Charlie fiddling with his change.
Alma had witnessed the entire scene. It was she who, with a disgusted look at Charlie, finally interrupted the hypnotic scene. She picked up the dog, carried it into the kitchen and demanded the cook give him a bone. In a short time conversation resumed but as it did so, Charlie left abruptly saying goodbye to no one.
"I wonder what's with him?" Alma said.
Antonio simply shrugged his shoulders.
"There's something really creepy about that guy," she went on. "I've always thought so. I wouldn't trust him with my garbage."
Naturally we all wondered what was wrong with Charlie. And we certainly remarked upon the strange behavior of the dog. But people have bad days and dogs are peculiar creatures so after a short time we all forgot about it in the pursuit of our own, to us, more pressing issues.
We all noticed when Charlie didn't show up the next afternoon. It was the first time he had missed in as long as any of us, including Antonio and Alma, could remember. But we still didn't think too much about it until he missed again the following day.
"What do you suppose happened to him?" Alma asked. "I bet he's in some kind of trouble."
It's funny how people can so irrationally have it in for someone. We all knew Alma didn't like Charlie. We also knew she had no reason whatsoever, at least no reason that had anything to do with Charlie. He'd always been decent to her, to everyone.
"I always knew there was something fishy about him,' she remarked to anyone who would listen. "Now I know it."
She didn't know any more about it than the rest of us -- until the next day when we all found out. As we arrived on our idiosyncratic schedules we were greeted by the news clipping Antonio had scotch-taped to a wooden pillar just inside the door:
"Los Angeles. Charles W. Chedsey has been arrested on charges of child molestation. A police spokesman said he had been positively identified by two boys he is reported to have picked up outside a private school near Chatsworth. It is also reported that Mr. Chedsey had a long history of child offenses and has twice served jail terms. He is said to have been under psychiatric care until recently."
Needless to say this created a sensation in Antonio's bar. Everyone had shown Charlie pictures of their children, told him where they had attended school, as well as where they lived. It was the topic of conversation for several days. People began to remember how Charlie had acted strangely, how they thought it odd at the time, how there was something weird about the way he never talked about himself, how bizarre his drinking was, and how he always tried to be friends with everyone.
"There's something funny about a man who wants to be friends with everyone," Alma declared, just before Antonio let her go.

1 comment:

Watch 'n Wait said...

Well hell!!! You sure packed that story full...and did it superbly, I must say. Reeled me in instantly. Tough ending. But that's humanity all right. Basically trusting. Except for Alma, of course, and she ends up fired, probably because she was right about Charlie. But geez! It's now your bounden duty to write me a happy ending story!