Charlie Dreams – by Wendelin Neudorf
I’m old. I’m old and I never saw it coming. Snuck up on me, it did; this gettin’ old business.
Irene looked down at the hands in her lap and saw, as if for the first time, the brown spots that speckled her loose skin. She rubbed her fingers over them – hard – as if to make them disappear. They didn’t. She only succeeded in irritating the dull ache in her knuckles.
Used to be so proud of my pretty hands. Serves me right for being vain.
She remembered the night Charlie had held those same hands up to his face, claiming there was nothing sweeter in all the world than her soft, smooth skin against his cheek.
That Charlie, he could spin words – spin them so quick that a girl could get caught up before she knew it. Yessiree, he was a talker all right. Talked his sweet talk every minute of the day.
Useless old coot. Spent more time jabberin’ than he did providin’. Never could get the man to hold a job for more’n a year until he was movin’ on to somethin’ else.
Irene turned toward the small table beside her and reached for the cheap plastic frame that held a black and white photo, slightly out of focus and yellow with age. She tried to smile at the laughing young couple with their arms around each other, but all she could manage was a lopsided grimace. Crazy kids, they were.
The air in the room moved just then. Was that a breath of the same spring breeze she’d felt on the day that picture was taken? She took a deep breath, coughed, and shook her head. Must have been the furnace kicking in.
You’re goin’ cuckoo, Renee, old girl. Better watch it or the kids’ll have you put away. You know they’re already thinkin’ about it and you don’t want to give ’em any more reason to hurry it along.
She traced the outline of the handsome face in the photo and could almost feel the whiskers on his chin. Those clear eyes stared back at her – eyes she knew were as blue as the prairie sky. And that hair – all black and wavy on his forehead and over the collar of his shirt like some kind of olden days hero. Charlie never did like haircuts and no amount of teasing would ever make him visit the barber until he was good and ready. She’d never told him, but she was sorry every time he got those curls sheared off.
“Run your little fingers through my hair again, Renee. Feels ‘bout as near to heaven as a man can get when you do that.”
Irene heard those words as plain as the nose on your face and she looked up, half expecting to see him come breezing through the door to sweep her up into his arms and twirl her around like he always did. She’d pretend to protest – kick and shriek a little, while the girls would jump up trying to save her. Then they’d all tumble down on the floor, laughing and hugging. Nothing ever mattered much to Charlie except his girls, he said.
“Come on, Renee! Come on and sit here with me and Lindy and Lucy so I can just look at you all, my pretty girls. No man ever had such a fine lookin’ family.”
“Not now, Charlie. I got supper cookin’ and I’m not havin’ those potatoes boil over like last time.”
Irene closed her eyes and could have sworn she felt Charlie’s hands on her waist and his warm lips on the back of her neck, teasing her while she stirred the stew. She knew if she just turned around, Charlie would kiss her silly. My, my, that man could kiss for sure. You could get lost and never come back from one of those kisses.
“Daddy’s smoochin’ with Mama again.”
“What’s smoochin’, Lindy?”
“It’s kissin’, Lucy. Look at ‘em now.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Nah. It’s like when Daddy tucks us in and smooches our faces all over.”
“I like that part.”
Irene opened her eyes and for a moment she couldn’t focus. The echoes of her girls’ voices lingered in the room and if their little heads had popped up from behind the sofa right then, she wouldn’t have been surprised.
Better not tell anyone you’re hearin’ things now. They’ll lock you up for sure.
She sighed and leaned against the high back of the rocking chair. The picture frame slipped out of her grasp and clattered to the floor, but she didn’t have the energy to bend over and pick it up. It wasn’t the first time it had happened and she supposed that was why the photo was now encased in plastic.
Irene let her body relax and sink deeper into the cushions that padded the old rocker. She knew it was early yet, but my, she was tired. It was familiar feeling. There had always been so much to do and sleep was a luxury. But the younger ones were doing the work now so maybe a little nap wouldn’t hurt.
“Hey Renee, girl. Whatcha thinkin’?”
Charlie’s voice came quietly, like it always did in the mornings when he woke up.
“I’m not thinkin’, I’m sleepin’.”
His strong arms gathered her close. “You’re not sleepin’ and you know it, honey-pie.”
“Well, I was before you started your whisperin’ in the middle of the night.”
He laughed. “It’s mornin’, honey-pie.”
“Feels like the middle of the night. I’m not done my dreamin’ yet.”
“Dreamin’ of me, are ya girl?”
She’d had plenty of Charlie dreams over the years but she never told him. Maybe because she had to be the level-headed one. Charlie never needed much of a reason to go off on some fanciful idea and she knew better than to fuel his imagination. It was all she could do sometimes to keep his feet on the ground.
“Charlie, they’re goin’ to cut off the electricity if we don’t pay that bill by Monday.”
“Charlie –“ She tried to keep the exasperation out of her voice.
“Don’t worry, I’ll pay it.”
“I’ll get some money.”
“How? You haven’t been workin’ since last month.”
“I said I’d get it, didn’t I?”
“I got some pennies hid in my sock drawer.” Lindy piped up.
Charlie looked down at the little girl and paused for a moment before he scooped her up and sat her on his shoulder. Irene thought she saw tears well up in his eyes.
“No need to use your pennies, Lindy-girl. We’re rich, you know. Richer than the Queen of Sheba.”
Lindy clapped her hands and giggled. “Who’s the Queen of Sheba, Daddy?”
“Well, how can it be that you never heard of her?”
“Charlie, don’t fill her head with notions.”
But Charlie ignored her and took the girls on his lap while he wove another one of his tall tales; the bills forgotten.
Irene had lost track of how many times she’d had to make do because there just wasn’t enough. And Charlie, it never seemed to bother him. As far as he was concerned, meals simply appeared on the table and clothes lasted forever. The man hasn’t got the sense of a mule, her mama always said. And maybe her mama had been right.
“No way your Pa is goin’ to let you marry that Charlie Stokes. I don’t know what’s got into you thinkin’ like that.”
“But I love him, Mama.”
“Love? Irene, you’re sixteen years old and you got no idea about love.”
“Girl, you got lots of years to be findin’ a man who’s better for you than Charlie Stokes.”
“But I don’t want no other man ‘cept Charlie.”
In the end, her folks gave in. She and Charlie were married in June, three days before her seventeenth birthday. It was the happiest day of her life.
“Mrs. Irene Stokes, you are the prettiest wife a man ever had.”
“Mrs. Irene Stokes – I like how that sounds.”
“That’s good, because you’re goin’ to be hearin’ it for a long, long time.”
“I love you, Charlie.”
“I more’n love you, honey-pie. There aren’t even words invented to say the feelin’ I got in my heart for you.”
He had a way about him, Charlie did. Everybody liked him, and even if they didn’t, Charlie could change that in a hurry. He made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. He’d look you right in the eye and smile, and no matter what you said, he’d listen like his life depended on it.
Irene opened her eyes. The room was dark and she panicked, knowing she had missed getting supper on for Charlie and the girls. How could it be that she had fallen asleep in her rocking chair, of all places? Why hadn’t they come to wake her?
She leaned forward and braced her hands on the arm rests of the chair. Time to get herself into the kitchen. Charlie would never let her hear the end of it if he knew she’d been napping at this hour of the day. But there were no voices coming from the other room, so it just might be that no one was home yet and her secret was safe. Thank the Lord for that.
Irene grew concerned as she tried to stand up, there in the dark. Her body refused to cooperate. What was the matter with her that every ounce of strength she’d ever had was gone? Something wasn’t right. She had always been as healthy as a horse, nursing everyone else through the ailments that never plagued her.
“Come on, Lucy, just a little bit of this cough medicine.”
“No, Mama, no! It’s terrible bad stuff.”
“So it is, but it’ll make you feel so much better.”
“I can’t do it, Mama. I just can’t.”
“Sure you can, honey. Be a brave girl and drink it all up so you can brag to your Daddy. Y’know he fussed somethin’ awful when he had to take it yesterday.”
“He sure did.”
“Okay, Mama, I’ll do it. But hold me, please?”
Irene slid back into her chair, fully awake and aware of her surroundings once again. She reached to turn on the lamp and her eyes were immediately drawn to a corkboard on the wall, filled with snapshots of her family. Birthday parties, first dates, graduations, weddings, babies. Smiling faces of those she loved.
“We sure got ourselves a family, honey-pie.”
“We sure do.”
“I think we’re ‘bout the richest Mama and Daddy around.”
“Richer than the Queen of Sheba?”
“Renee-girl, that Queen of Sheba’s got nothin’ on us.”
“I have to agree with that, Charlie.”
“I gotta say, honey-pie, I still love you with all I got in me.”
“I love you too, Charlie.”
Irene felt his big warm hand close over hers and he lifted it to his cheek. She smiled.