CHARLES, Who Lived Through Wars
An Illustrated Short Story
©2016 B Sparhawk
His name wasn’t Charles but it was how he introduced himself to me and it was all I ever called him. I didn’t care, I liked secrets. I’d go so far as to say I admired secrets though Charles shared few. He sometimes slipped up, well it wasn’t a slip, a man like that doesn’t make mistakes, he’d refer to himself with a variation on Charles that was an endearment in another language. He spoke, what was it he said? Seven, I think so. Yes, fluent in seven languages. Several dialects, Bantu naturally. And he was aces at telling jokes and knew a thousand, and Irish was his best accent. Did he ever tell you the one about the twins in the bar in Dublin, the brothers? How about the nuns and the cobblestones. Really, no kidding, Scots, too, very fine imitation Scots.
We spoke French to each other, well mostly English of course. He did a native’s job with both and I did a fair job with French from living in Paris, I had my one year high school vocabulary in German, and about sixteen words of Russian and oh God but we laughed and laughed falling off the table falling over backwards right off a chair laughing and having such a good time. You know honestly I fell on the ground more than once in bust at the seam hysterics with Charles, I really did, on the ground, pounding the dust with my fists.
He was older than me by a few years but looked so much older than his age because of war wounds making it damn hard for him to walk, more every year, worst at uphill. He was handsome blue eyed blond German stock~~ South African~~ and he was hiding out in Carmel from enemies of a war few in America might recollect, the civil war in Rhodesia, the cruel, violent, dangerous, costly of man and treasure Rhodesian war. The old enemies were still living and still looking for Charles. His eyes would red up. Here was this tough fighting man and the war fought was a part of him, he’d been deep in about as far as anyone could go, the memories made him cry because it was war of incredible meaning to Africans. It was his country, he had been born in Johannesburg, and grown up in it, and loved it.
He told me in that war, racing flat out on the desert sand between camps, three of them in a jeep, and they knew they were being pursued. Him and another soldier and a woman too, all of them Intel. It was dusk, almost dark, where the hell was the road. They hit a mine. The jeep blew sky high. Charles got thrown twenty-five metres off. The other guy was dead on the ground in two pieces. The woman was alive crumpled in a heap, bent half over trying to lift her head, calling to him. Come here, come now now……. now she said. Charles pulled himself over, then to standing next to the upturned vehicle, vaguely aware he’d got hit, that his back was full of shrapnel, shock does that with pain, then seeing his bleached desert khakis go dark, as he stood looking, like a goddamn red tide coming in over him and that registered…oh…yes I see….because his blood was pumping out of him, fast. They could hear vehicles coming up behind them. The enemy rounded the closest hill. He had staggered to the woman. She said, ……shoot me, for the Christ’s sake shoot me now, you know what they’ll do with me, you know what they’ll do, you……. And so he did. When he told me he cried. His faced moved only a little but his eyes poured out like waterfalls. I think he loved her but he didn’t say. I bet in a war with the constant state of crisis of unseen death lurking beside you, of course you fall in love in a damn second, of course you do. And the human heart responds to courage in people we know. So there on the desert alone, the sole survivor, wounded, in the hands of the horrific enemy, Charles managed to live. He got beat up, kicked and interrogated and would not talk. He told me he lay there with his arms wrapped around his chest trying to protect his heart, a boot against the back of his head pushing his face into cinder and metal and soft beige sand while they discussed (in an African dialect he knew well) what to do with him. Rifles locked and loaded. He told me he was glad for the hurt helping him fight drifting. He felt so wanting to drift. He was getting the most beautiful pictures imaginable behind his eyes, as if someone had made him a movie just for him of everything he loved and he was aware of beginning to smile for it…… We are warned against that, he said to me. Stay conscious, stay alert, force yourself…... He was dragged to a hospital where a lieutenant identified him and after that he was treated with care. They put blood back in him, three litres (half the six, said Charles, of what his Jaguar took.) He got his rosy cheeks back. He was valuable, an asset. He could be exchanged. He didn’t say anything more about it to me.
“The climate here in Carmel, in Big Sur, Monterey, Marina, it’s the same, you have a Mediterranean climate on the central coast, there are only seven places in the world with this climate, like Capetown. You need to see Africa. But this, look at that sky, look at that ocean. What a place, I love it. Come on,” he said, “get in the car, I’m taking you for lunch. Deetjens.” I looked down starting at my workboot-covered toes and sagging blue socks; the white linen Bermuda shorts needing a stitch and a wash, and then my billowy pale yellow shirt that had red paint on one elbow and green alfalfa smudge on the collar from feeding the horses and getting a muzzley thank you nudge. “Don’t be a fool,” he said, following my inspecting eyes. “You’re perfect.” Bless him, Charlie cut a lot of slack for tan, leggy blonds.
When I broke my leg it was Charles who picked me up at the Monterey hospital after the third day, slapped a blue pack of Gauloises in my hand, laughing at our French soldier joke, and had already lit the first one in his mouth like Casablanca, leaned over and I let him roll it between my lips, me sitting next to him in the front seat; he piped Edith Piaf up and her Vie en Rose and off we went over the reeking air of camel dung tobacco, regretting nothing. He used two fingers to pull his silver flask out of the door pocket and toss it into my lap; his broad, cheering, blue eyed smiling tan face beyond it. Benedictine, our favorite brandy. Sacred, made by the monks. Let the good times roll. We knew each other. At least, I knew as much as he allowed of him and he knew me, and what kind of rare joy that is in a life. Shit.
Those were the early days when being with Charles was feeling, as he allowed, perfect. He changed in his last years and by then you couldn’t stand being with the man for constantly dodging rockets he’d shoot off at you aiming to kill, but most of the time I spent with him was just great, to near the end. Pain made him bitter. Memories, lost loves, abandonment by an entire nation made Charles bitter. Being hunted. Running for cover. A pricey divorce, not seeing his children again, only knowing they’d reached 3 and 7 and 9, followed by forever’s silence. Then America’s endless surgeries on his back when the Stanford doctors dug around for the shrapnel alongside his spine, and his ribcage, and inside his leg muscles. Later they tried treating his thyroid for the cancer but the radiation didn’t work or they got it wrong in the first place, or both. For almost a year he practically lived at Stanford. He had to give up Camels and he had to give up cognac, and he started wearing a scarf around the multiple scars on his neck. But worst of all he stopped telling jokes.
I knew him nearly two decades here and he made life worth living, he did. Charles. We were never lovers. I was still too screwed up from my son’s death, my life started all over again moving from New York to Big Sur. I told him that: Unh uhn Charlie baby, no way, in case you haven’t noticed I can’t see straight and I’m lucky to thread words together into a sentence just now. And you, sweetie pie, are way too dangerous, but I’ll visit all you want and hang out all you want and do silly serious anything together between dawn and sunrise you’re always welcome to my barn. Charles said okay. But after that he never let up teasing me about other women or flirting outrageously with any bon bon crossing our path. Which really got annoying.
He’d drive the ten miles out from the coast to see me. I had a studio at Holman Ranch in the big red barn on the hill. Carmel Valley –just past the village.
400 beautiful acres around me and 150 horses in the pastures. Dorothy was still alive and owned the place then, she had let me turn the tack room and the first two stalls into an apartment, and we put in a bathroom at the very end. Geez that was great. Skylights, concrete floors, I made a studio and kitchen, we built a four foot open shower out of river rock and the sink was a fabulous bird bath I had piped with copper tubing and red outdoor garden faucets, and filled the bottom with grout and colored glass bits. Geez that was sure great. The bathroom ceiling was marcelled transparent fiberglass sheets and I jammed every square inch with plants. The two donkeys, the mule Corozon, the goat Rambo, and a couple of sheep whose names I never knew got tucked in for the night in the paddock next to me and the last three stalls. Everything crashed off my walls when they butted heads. Charles showed up with lumber for bookshelves poking up out of his top-down front seat. Sometimes he brought a working hot plate, electric kettle, boom box, a stunning chair from a Pebble Beach dumpster. Dorothy raised my rent $200 a month. She said because the bathroom got added but I think she was jealous.
I was working, you know. Five days a week in Carmel at the marvelous Little Swiss Cafe, off Dolores, favorite for locals, best food on earth, open breakfast and lunch that’s it. Stevie the surfer and his incredible Dad, Hank the Dutchman, and Forever Carol of course. Charles came in for early lunch, split pea soup usually, sometimes oatmeal. I’d see him at the door and run up and simultaneously our hands clasped and our cheeks slid together and off we’d go in a tango up the aisle. The customers looked away or clapped, depending. How did that start anyway? I have no idea. Then we’d speak French and he’d eat and leave and I was off by three-thirty and a lot of days during the week he’d drive his beaten up convertible up the hill and park in front of my barn door. The name of my studio was his idea, by the way, that was Charles being brilliant and right on the money: The Hawks Perch. Yup. A gift of a name from Charles. I’ll never call it different.
He was a painter too, he just took it up as a kind of innocent empty-headed disguise that would add to his incognito and give him an edge with the ladies. He was a good painter though, original, scenes of the Africa landscape. Life Is A Dance Studio he called himself. And oh but he had an eye for the girls. The older he got the younger the girls got. Everybody pretty much adored him. He really had that nailed, the charming-adorable thing. What was not to love.
Charles had this fascinating photographic memory and an impeccable ear. Well what do you call that, total recall of anything you hear, has it got a name? The son of a bitch never forgot a single word you said or where you said it or what the weather was like or the time of day or the song on the radio when you said it. You ever know anybody like that? It was amazing, kind of like watching a magic show to be with him and see those rabbits pulled out of a hat. It could really get annoying too, I mean you wanted the average dish for everyday, a little leeway with a memory, something commonplace, didn’t you? I thought so. But it was fascinating. He was in espionage of course, an intelligence officer. So bright a guy, and a scholar, and a linguist, and he, to hear him tell, could run circles around ten country’s spies at the same time in the same room and even Henry the K. if he happened to be in town talking about what kind of weapons who had where and tease with what the fuck was on the plane. That’s what he said. I believed him.
Wherever Charles lived, nobody ever knew. I mean nobody. We used to ask each other, ones who knew him: You ever been to Charles’ place? Charles ever show you where he lived? No. No. NO. No.
Tucked up away somewhere in some craggy den. I think he wore clothes til they got too dirty then threw them out and bought some more. He did that with phones. He used them a few weeks and threw them away.
I think he had millions in all kinds of currency and precious metal socked away in twenty places in forty countries on ten hilltops in empty cans buried three feet under a rock he’d marked in chalk with X. Charles knew every bank on the coast and the name of every manager and president. He conducted a lot of business. Out of a briefcase. Or his army vest pockets. Or cargo shorts pockets or from shoe boxes side by side in the trunk of his car. He had drops. Places where messages were left and exchanged, and using a couple of different names, mail boxes and message centers, that kind of thing. I know that for a fact because he took me along to one once, it was kind of not on purpose but I was in the car and he needed to find out something. A little post box place off the beaten path by the wharf, dark and narrow, a bright eyed guy alone behind a counter, like a bar in a way. How cool is that. So Charles.
He instructed, this man who knew how to survive combat. “Check the fluids. No, I mean it! It’s not some goddamn joke. Get out of the car. Goddamn lift the hood and check the fluids! You don’t ever take off in a vehicle without checking the fluids. It takes a minute. It saves your life.” I was lazy, it used to burn him up, so I learned, now I do it unfailingly.
The last time I saw Charles he was moving half an inch at a time leaning on a walker, coming out of the River Inn in Big Sur after lunch with Abby. She’d been in charge of the stables at Holman Ranch. Her husband and Charles had been close, too. She was driving him around now when he needed it. He was nasty, angry, furious. Abby couldn’t put up with him long, nobody could. But he was sweet that ten minutes he came and went inside my gallery in Big Sur he didn’t know I had opened. I was selling my paintings and drawings. He only looked at one painting, a portrait I’d done of Van Gogh. “That’s world class,” he said. I smiled. It had been a couple of years since I’d seen him. He was sweet, he was the old Charles. He told us a joke in a thick brogue that took him five minutes to land on the punch line, and it was damn funny enough that we were laughing til we cried. Like the old days. Then they left.
I saw Abby a couple of years later. She came to the gallery I opened in mid-Valley and wanted me to make another cloth rug for her, this time with her Siamese cat.
The first one was a leaping kind of Navajo horse deal and fifteen years later, well it got more beautiful every year. That’s the truth. She said Charles was living in a hospice in Carmel and could no longer walk. Then a guy from the village stopped in maybe a year after Abby, and he was on his way visit Charles, and it was rough he said, seeing him like that. Did I want to send a message. Did I want to go along to see him. Come with me, he said.
Tell him I said hello and I love him, I said. Tell him that for me. Please.
I pictured him, you know I did in part from the descriptions and part imagining, the warrior curled up with his back to the world in a small dark room devoid of class or luxury or worldliness, curled against the light, and not all the pain killers on the peninsula enough to ease the hurt so he just took it and shut up though sometimes a growl came out, his eyelids pinched tight against those brilliant blue eyes pinched tighter on the face no longer tan, hair not sunbleached white blond and thick, and the beaten up body all that was left to live in, it all made him a little less gorgeous. I couldn’t have cared less about that part, who cares, the Charles inside is what I cared about but man oh man he was hard to reach before and now forget it. And I was older too by twenty years, and he hated to see a woman whose skin was no longer a girl’s smooth, who looked older than 25. Jesus Christ. I’m sorry old buddy. I can’t even comfort you, can I. What the bloody freaking hell did you go and arrange for your departure from the world. Nobody admitted entry, nobody home.
Then he died, which I knew when a friend handed me his obituary, torn out from The Carmel Pine Cone. And it was a sanitized white wash of the briefest thing written either by somebody who never knew him or had copied down a dictated version out of the mouth of the mystery man himself.
Charles had lived at least a year with his back against intrusion, hardly able to move, feeling fired on by strangers for their touching him, strangers who could not imagine his journey, strangers who tended to his pills and fluids and did his washings up, strangers with never an idea what secret brave history moved inside the man on the bed who stayed true to the cause, who refused to talk. Charles, the soldier who lived through wars.