Wine With Charlie by Brandon Zenner

Being a loner was something Charlie prided himself on. Men his age, he thought, should thrive being alone, should look forward to quiet nights and mornings spent sleeping in.

Lately, however, Charlie’s solemnity was taking an unexpected turn.
Wine With Charlie
Wine With Charlie by Brandon Zenner
It started three days ago, when he was walking home from the corner store—despite his daughter’s constant protests over him walking alone. Charlie felt that if the law declared he could no longer drive, that his eyesight—even with his glasses—wasn’t what it used to be, he would never give in to having someone cart him around in a taxicab. He was fine walking to the store. Fine indeed. And he didn’t need that daughter of his telling him any different. When was it, exactly, that she started telling me what to do? When did that girl decide she was older than me? It wasn’t that long ago that he was changing her diapers, and walking her to school. At least to him it seemed like only yesterday. The nerve of her! Three days ago, when Charlie was leaving the corner store with his small bag of groceries in one hand and his mahogany cane in the other, some kid—some punk with a thin lipped grin—started yapping his lips at him. “Hey, Charles, my man!” Who the hell . . . The kid put his hand out to shake; only his arm was wide, so it was more of a hand slap than a proper shake . . . something Charlie did not appreciate. “Yes?” Charlie asked. “What do you want?” “Hey look,” the kid shouted to a group of delinquents standing around the corner of the store. “It’s Charles, guys. Take a look.” A young girl with blonde hair, skinny as a rail, came to the boy’s side. “Hi, Charlie!” she shouted, over pronouncing each word, as if he were senile. I’m not deaf. The kids, all about sixteen years old and hiding around the corner of the store to smoke cigarettes, looked his way. “Charles!” they said, in happy tones. Punks. “My name is Charlie, not Charles. Now, if you would please excuse me!” “No doubt, Charlie. No doubt.” The boy was smiling, like . . . admiration, maybe? Or something else. Charlie wasn’t interested to find out. Maybe they knew his granddaughter, Madeline, although she was maybe ten years older than them. Charlie moved on, albeit slowly, feeling the uneven pavement with his cane. He’d noticed the boy’s pants were wide and long, and draped down over his feet. The cuffs of his jeans were torn and muddy from where the boy had been stepping on them. Charlie didn’t agree with the way most men dressed these days, let alone young boys. He believed that men—real men—should dress the way men were supposed to dress, and not succumb to silly tee-shirts and torn jeans. There was nothing wrong with a button down shirt, creased pants, and clean shoes—not sneakers. Shoes. That’s the way real men dressed. They should have some class, some dignity. That’s the way Charlie was raised, and his father before him. But he knew his generation was growing smaller by the day, and his way of life was becoming a minority. Charlie shook his head. Stupid kids, he thought. How the hell did they know my name? The same thing happened the next day, when he was out for his afternoon walk, only it was a different set of kids this time. They were maybe twenty years old, maybe older. He soured his face at them, angry that they tore him away from listening to the birds. “Ha!” one kid said, not seeming to be take him seriously. “You’re cool as shit, old man.” How about I wallop you with this cane? How cool would that be? “How do you know me?” Charlie demanded, pointing his cane at the kids. “You’re famous, man, a local celebrity!” “What’s that?” The kids shook their heads, walking away. “Nothing, man,” they said. And now, today, on his way home from the grocery store, the same kid with the torn jeans was loafing about, smoking again. The boy waved and smiled. “It’s Charles, guys!” Charlie didn’t reply. Just ignore them, Charlie, ignore them. These kids think it’s funny to play jokes on old folks . . . the nerve! Charlie was walking up the steps of his porch as he heard his phone ringing inside. There was no way he would get there in time. Madeline bought him a cell phone once, but when Charlie found out that the stupid thing was made for the elderly, with extra large buttons and no features whatsoever, Charlie put it in a drawer and never looked at it again. Madeline asked him a week later, “Poppa, where’s the phone I bought you? I’ve been calling you all day.” “I lost it, Maddie. And what’s wrong with the phone I’ve got?” She wasn’t about to argue with him, or explain that she’d signed a contract for the phone. Her poppa liked things the way they were, and he wasn’t about to change his ways now. She would just have to continue calling his landline—the same landline, the same number, he’d had since before she was born. The walk home had warmed Charlie up, and when he got inside he loosened the buttons of his shirt and dropped his suspenders to sway at his knees. He listened to the message Maddie had just left for him. “Hi, Poppa! Just calling to check in.” Her voice sounded tense. “Just wondering what’s new. Anything new?” Prodding, even. He’d call her back, later. His shirt was nearly off when he looked at the clock and saw it was almost three in the afternoon. I’m late! Quickly, he buttoned his shirt back up, and slid the suspenders over his shoulders. He grabbed the bottle of wine he had just bought at the store, and made his way to the back porch. Outside, he yawned and stretched, making audible groans. He sat in the chair closest to the neighbor’s fence, where Vera had just come outside to tend to her rose bushes and tomato plants. She looked up at him, her eyes hazy with sweat. “Hi Charlie,” she said, waving her gloved hand. Charlie feigned surprise. “Vera! Tending to the garden I see.” Vera tended to her garden at two o’clock, every day. And Charlie joined her a half hour later, every day. Except those days when it rained. Those days were the worst. He would look out the blinds from time to time, checking to see if the sky was going to brake, or if Vera had decided to brave the rain and go outside—which she never did, and he was probably better off that she didn’t, because Charlie would follow her outside, rain or shine, and could easily get sick. Vera gave him a knowing smile. “What kind of wine did you bring today?” “Oh this?” He pretended to read the label, adjusting his glasses. The lettering was far to small for him to see. “Just a little something I picked up. You have a glass with you?” Vera nodded. She’d brought a water glass for that very reason, her late afternoon glass of wine with Charlie. Slowly, she stood on unsteady legs, and waited for the dizziness to pass. Age and years were taking their toll. After a moment she got her glass, dumped the water, and walked over to the low fence that divided their properties. Charlie met her, and poured the wine. It was the highlight of his day—every day; the small amount of time he spent talking to Vera, his neighbor for almost five years. She lived alone, only moving into the small house after her husband passed away. Her husband, Charlie reminded himself, would have been about his own age. He tried not to dwell on that thought. “How was your day, Charlie?” Vera was wearing an old silver necklace, with a brooch. He smiled, and told her about his walk into town, which was about the only thing he had to offer in recent events. It was fine, however, because Vera liked listening to him, and if the sound of the birds was the only thing they had to talk about, then it was all the conversation they would ever need. But they talked about so much more than just birds: they talked about music, about Beethoven and Franz Schubert, food and wine, traveling, their children; they talked about the world. On this particular day, Charlie decided to tell her about his recent uncalled for fame. “It’s strange, Vera. These kids know my name. They called me Charles, like they’ve known me my entire life.” “It’s because of the video, Charlie.” She smiled, then instantly frowned, wishing she could take back her words. “What video?” She gulped. He hasn’t seen it. Oh, Vera, what have you done? Oh course he doesn’t know about the video, he doesn’t have a computer. Christ, he doesn’t even have a cell phone. It was Vera’s son who had shown her the video. She did own a computer, but going online wasn’t something she often did. At least, she wasn’t on the sites that her son showed her: “Charlie . . . it’s nothing, really.” She sipped her glass of wine and felt her cheeks turn red. “A video? What video?” “It’s . . .” She took another sip. “Talk to your granddaughter, Charlie. I have to go. It’s too hot to garden today.” She looked at the sky, shielding her eyes from the sun. “It’s too hot.” “Vera, wait . . .” Madeline’s voice . . . it did sound strange on the message. “Thank you for the wine, Charlie.” Vera turned and walked away, leaving Charlie standing by the fence. What just happened? . . . Madeline! He suddenly felt like a parent again, like he had just caught his granddaughter red-handed, doing something wrong. Only he didn’t know what. He dumped his glass of wine, and made his way to the door. He’d left his cane inside, on the table, and now wished he’d brought it along. The ground was lumpy and uneven. But he made it to the railing on the porch, and to his backdoor, and then inside, where he took the phone off the cradle. He pushed the button that speed-dialed Madeline, and sat in his chair, not sure if he should be angry or not. The phone rang a few times, and then she picked up. “Hello?” “Maddie, it’s me.” “Poppy!” Her voice sounded happy—too happy. “Listen, Maddie, what’s this about a video?” Get right to the point, Charlie. Remind her that you’re still her grandfather, and not some old man that she can boss around. “Oh, uh . . . hold on a second. I can barely hear you.” “Now wait just—” He could hear the ruffle of movement, along with the constant roar of traffic. Why she wanted to live in the city was beyond him. After a moment she came back to the phone. “Hello? Can you hear me?” “Yes, I can hear you.” I’m not deaf. “Madeline, what’s this about some video?” She hesitated. “Did you see it?” “No, I didn’t see it. If I had, I wouldn’t be asking you about it, now would I?” “It’s . . .” He heard her take a deep breath, and could visualize the look of exasperation on her face. “I’m so sorry, Poppy. I didn’t mean for it to get out . . . it’s . . .” “Maddie . . .” He heard her sigh. “Remember last month, when I came to stay with you for a week?” Of course he remembered. “Of course I remember.” “I had that project to do for school?” Is that the video Vera was talking about? He had no idea what her school project was about. All she’d told him was that she had to make some artsy video for a photography class. She took a few pictures of him doing mostly nothing: walking around, listening to records, reading the paper . . . a waste of time. “I don’t know how it happened,” she went on. “I emailed the video to a friend, someone from class, and somehow . . . I don’t know, it just . . . went viral.” He was about to ask what the hell she was talking about, but she continued, “The video went online. My friend—who’s an idiot—put it on YouTube.” “What’s this video about?” And what the hell is YouTube? he thought, although he had a pretty good idea. “Listen, are you home?” She then remembered that, of course, he was home. She was talking to him on his landline. “I mean, are you going to be home? For a while?” “I’m not going anywhere.” “I’ll be right over.” She sighed again. “I’ll bring my laptop.” An hour later Maddie was at the door. She walked in after knocking, which was a nice change of pace from having to get up from the couch. He took one look at her, and if he was angry—although he still wasn’t sure if he should be—the look on her face made his heart melt. My little Maddie. Then he reminded himself, She’s not so little. She leaned over his chair to hug him, and then sat down. “Poppy, I’m so sorry. I never would have emailed it to my friend if I knew he was going to put it online.” “So, everyone can see this?” “Umm . . . yes. It’s getting a lot of hits.” Charlie didn’t care what hits meant. “Play it, Maddie.” She opened her laptop, spent a minute typing something on the keyboard, and then put the computer on his lap. A swirling circle came on the screen, and then it started. First, a song played in the background that he didn’t recognize. Then, instantly, the screen filled up with images. Old images. An old movie. “Maddie, what’s—” “Just watch.” It was an old home video. The images were grainy, but he could clearly see that it was Christmas, and his granddaughter, Maddie, was maybe six years old. She was in her pajamas, tearing into wrapping paper with childish abandon. The look on her face was pure joy; a magical joy that only children on Christmas morning get to experience, and only the parents and grandparents of those children get to cherish. He remembered the video, of course, because he filmed it himself, although he hadn’t seen it in years. Then the screen panned up, and he saw her. Alice . . . His wife. He didn’t speak, but choked back a lump in his throat. How did Maddie get ahold of this? She must have gone through the closet in his room. Which meant . . . she’d seen his collection . . . she’d seen the boxes of clothing, and all of Alice’s belongings that he couldn’t part with: her perfume, her dresses, her shoes—everything. Charlie felt Maddie’s uncomfortable presence on the couch next to him. It’s not like they never spoke about her, Maddie’s grandmother. He wasn’t the type to completely shut down, and not let the girl grieve. But those things in the closet, those reminders of Alice . . . they were his . . . and they were private. The video changed. It was a few years later. The three of them were out for a walk. He was again shooting the video, but for a moment he swung the camera around, and all three of them—Maddie, with her baby teeth falling out, and gaps in her mouth—were all smiling at the camera and waving. The videos went on, only a few minutes, going from clip to clip. There was a video of him chopping wood in the backyard, taking a break to stop and wave at the camera when he realized he was being filmed; another of him and Alice standing outside, older now, watching Maddie and her boyfriend—whoever he was—posing in their prom night outfits. Maddie’s parents must have filmed that one. Then there was a pause in the recording. A blank period. Charlie knew why. It was around that time that Alice passed away. Then the screen came back to life. It was a video of him, walking down the street alone, older now. Much older. He didn’t know he was being filmed. And then there were more clips, mostly taken when he hadn’t noticed. One was on a rainy day, and he was looking out the blinds with a longing expression on his face; looking for . . . Vera . . . oh Christ, she’s seen this . . . The next clip was shot from far away, with him at the fence talking to Vera. They were laughing, smiling, and drinking wine. This went on for some time. Various clips, going from one to another with a melodious soundtrack in the background. Then the screen went black and it finished. They were silent. “Poppy?” Charlie thought about choosing his words carefully, but none came at all. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you. I’m so sorry. It was just . . . a stupid school assignment.” “Why did you make it the way that you did?” “It was for the class. We had to make a personal video, involving growth and change.” “But why include me?” “Because the video is about you. It’s supposed to show the constant flow of life, and how it’s always changing, for better or worse. That was the assignment. I feel so stupid now . . . it’s not even good.” He shook his head. “I don’t understand. But I never said it wasn’t good. It is good; you did a good job. It’s . . . artsy.” “It’s a happy video, if you look at it that way. It ends with you and Vera from next door.” “Why include Vera?” “Because you like her, Poppy. I know—” “That’s nonsense! You have no right, no right . . .” She’s seen the video. Vera’s seen me peering out the blinds. “Maddie,” his voice calmed. “I’m not mad, but . . . I need some time.” “Poppy,” she hugged him. “It’s okay to like her, you know. No one is going to be mad at you.” “Maddie, you and I are not going to have this conversation. I’m tired now, please.” “Okay, Poppy. Okay.” She packed away her computer, and kissed her grandfather on the cheek. “I’ll call you later, okay? I’m sorry.” “Okay, sweetie. I’m not mad at you.” At the door she stopped, and turned. “She likes you too, you know. It’s not like she does any actual gardening when she’s out there.” “What?” “Vera, Poppy. She likes you.” Then Maddie left. The next day Charlie put his pants on, buttoned his shirt, and pulled the suspenders over his shoulders. He put on his shoes, grabbed his cane, and walked to the door for his morning walk. His hand paused on the handle. No. Not today. He didn’t feel like going for a walk. Charlie played some records, and tried to read a book. But he couldn’t concentrate. He felt exposed, found out. Everyone knew his emotions, his personal life; and for a man who prided himself on being a loner, having his private life out in the open for everyone to see wasn’t something he found comforting. At two thirty he was drawn to the blinds. He couldn’t help it. Vera was out there, her hands in the dirt. He watched her for a long time. After a while she looked up at his porch. She looked at his door, as he looked at her. Then, sadly, she put her hands back to the earth. His heart ached to go outside—but how could he? She’d seen the video. She had seen him at the blinds, longing for her, wishing to be outside with her, even in the rain—he didn’t care. How embarrassing. Charlie watched her hands pick at the weeds on the ground, but . . . she wasn’t really doing anything at all, just like Maddie had told him. He’d never noticed. She looked at his porch again, and then slowly got to her feet. After she caught her balance, she removed her gardening gloves, and ambled towards her house. She likes you, he heard Maddie’s voice in his head. She likes you too, you know. Vera was opening the screen-door when she heard a sound behind her. “Hello there, Vera.” She turned. “Charlie!” He was standing by the fence, holding a bottle of wine. “Charlie, I’m—” “It’s okay,” he said. “I saw the video. Would you like to sit on the porch with me and have a glass of wine?” It was the first time he’d ever asked her to come over. It was the first time they weren’t pretending to accidentally cross paths. She wasn’t pretending to pick at the weeds, and he wasn’t pretending to walk outside unknowingly. She wanted to tell him that she’d been doing the same thing; sitting at the blinds on those rainy days, wondering if maybe he was going to walk outside. And she would tell him, today, over a glass of wine. Vera nodded. “I would like that very much.” She had a glass in her hand, and she dumped the water on the ground. “Leave it there,” Charlie said. He lifted his other hand and he was holding two stemmed wine glasses. Vera smiled and blushed, and she walked to the gate, and they sat on his porch sipping wine. “That’s a pretty necklace, by the way. The one you wore yesterday.” “Thank you, Charlie. It was my mother’s.” A week later, Charlie was leaving the market, with a small bag of groceries in his hand. “Hey, Charles!” He recognized the voice of the punk kid. “Hey, Cindy, it’s the guy from that video again.” The young blonde girl turned to see him. It was only the boy and girl this time, the other hoodlums were off somewhere, probably smoking cigarettes behind a different store, or setting the world on fire. “Hey, it is. Hi Charles!” Charlie scowled at them, and walked on. He stopped a few feet away and paused. He exhaled a deep breath, and then turned back around. “Hey kid, come here,” he said. The boy walked over, dragging the tail of his battered jeans behind. “Hold this.” He shoved his bag of groceries in the kid’s arms. “Uh, sure . . . why—” “Be careful with it.” His daily bottle of wine was inside. “Stay there.” Charlie went into the grocery store, and five minutes later he came out carrying a bouquet of flowers. Cheap flowers from a grocery store, but still . . . “Give me my bag.” He took his groceries from the boy, and flopped the bouquet of flowers in the kid’s arms. “What’s this?” “Give it to the girl,” he motioned to the skinny blonde girl. “Don’t be a dummy. Girls like flowers, and when you like a girl, you give her flowers. You treat women right, you hear? And you do like the girl, right?” “I-I . . . umm . . .” The kid’s face went red, which Charlie thoroughly enjoyed watching. The girl looked embarrassed too, but she was smiling uncontrollably. “I, uh . . . thanks, Charles,” the kid said, staring dumbly at the flowers in his arms. When the boy looked up at the girl, he saw that she was smiling, and that made him smile too. “My name is Charlie, not Charles,” he said, walking off. “Dumb ass.” “Yes, sir.” A moment later, the kid yelled, “You’re cool as shit, Charlie!” Charlie didn’t look back, but waved his cane as if to say enough already. “Cool as shit isn’t a nice way of giving someone a compliment,” he yelled back. “And get yourself a new pair of pants. You look dumb as shit.” The kids were silence for a moment, and then started laughing. When Charlie was far enough away he smiled, and even let out a laugh himself. Maybe Maddie was right: change wasn’t so bad after all.


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