I didn’t like Charles when I first met him but then, like magic or divine intervention, I couldn’t help but love him. He had a beard that I thought made him look like a caveman. But then it grew on me, as if it was actually growing on me to the point where I stroked my chin when I was considering something like I saw him do many times in restaurants looking at menus. He was a tree climber by profession, maintaining the integrity of the trees by pruning and such, which I first thought was a joke and he was being elusive. Then, when he was serious, I wrote him off as unambitious, climbing the ladder but the wrong one. It was over a few months where I was disappointed if I couldn’t get a whiff of pine from his flannel shirts.
He chipped away at me like I was a sculpture inside a block of marble. We met in a singles bar. I convinced enough people, and even myself for a while, that I was just there to drink and that it was the closest bar to my apartment. I had to walk thirteen blocks out of my way to go there. But the word was that this was the best place to meet other single people in our little town of too-young’s and too-old’s, where I was trying to meet my just-right.
Vodka soda was my safe drink; I didn’t venture into the world of tequila with this crowd. That was where the trouble came in.
“I think we should get out of here. You and me. Right now.” This was the first thing he said to me. Hairy arm rested on the bar next to me, head cocked.
“Oh, I don’t see that happening. Hate to break it to you but we’re second cousins,” I patted him on the shoulder.
“Oh, I don’t see how that’s possible. I’ve already slept with all my cousins,” he fought back. I tried not to laugh and give into him right then and there. I gave him my spiel of just wanting a drink to wind down from work.
“I don’t believe you,” he smiled. I saw him thinking what kind of girl I was, the one that comes to meet men at a bar but refuses to meet the men at the bar, and what that meant for us. “But I’ll respect your space.” The man, whose name I still didn’t know, walked away still looking at me.
He was there every time I was. Throwing darts with his friends, chatting up the bartender. He got red wine every time but asked to put two glassfuls in a pint glass. When he talked to me, his teeth were stained red and his tongue looked like he’d been chewing blood. This man that smelled like dirt and had an unruly beard bought me drinks and sat next to me without saying anything. He’d write notes for me on the cocktail napkins.
“I think we should get out of here. The two of us. How about it?” His hairy arm, his hairy face cocked to the side. He took my silence and threw it out the window.
“This is gonna happen so why not now, that’s all I’m saying. Tonight. I talked to the stars and they said we end up together. Your mom already loves me. Our dog is barking, keeping all our neighbors up, in our backyard. The Hanukkah cards came out great—you looked enchanting.”
Without saying a word, I left money next to my unfinished drink and took the man’s hand as he followed me out the door.
“There’s something you should know: my mother’s dead,” I said.
“There’s something you should know: my name’s Charles,” he said, offering his other hand that I wasn’t already holding. “No one calls me Charlie and I broke up with someone when they called me Chaz.”
“Rachel. Just Rachel.”
He took the hand he was shaking, let go of the one that was leading him, and then led me. I thought he was taking me to his apartment, the other end of “we should get out of here.” But, Charles steered me into an ice cream shop. A place that tried to look as much like an old-fashioned parlor but some wires must have gotten crossed as they had a barber’s pole outside by the door. I got my mint chip and he got his mint chip and we sat on the patio chairs on the sidewalk.
“Do you know why those old barber’s poles are red, white, and blue?” I asked him as light first date conversation. The vodka soda from before making me more talkative.
“I guess this ends with me being an idiot for thinking patriotism?” he asked, licking his spoon.
“Yes, I’d guess you could say that. Back in the day, barbers didn’t just cut hair. People would also come to them for all their bloodletting needs. The bandages they used to wipe away the blood would be washed and then wrapped around a pole to dry. So the pole, like you see here, is an homage to the antiquated practice of bloodletting. The red symbolizes the blood and the white symbolizes the bandages.”
“And the blue?”
“The veins,” I said looking at him. “Or it was added as an homage to the flag. Whichever one you believe, I guess.”
He’s a tree climber, I’m a graphic designer who freelances. His family is from New Jersey, my family’s from New York. We’re both New orphans in this old, small town. He’s a Gemini, I’m a Sagittarius.
Charles walked me back to the door of my apartment complex. I didn’t invite him up and he didn’t insist because we knew we would see each other again outside of the walls of the singles bar. We were part of each other’s lives now. My number was in his phone and I imagined that weight in his pocket to be a million pounds.
“I love you but don’t say anything. I’ll walk away now.” And he wasn’t joking anymore and I wasn’t not believing him anymore. I wasn’t scared by those words as anybody else should have been as this man walked away backward still smiling at me. I didn’t know his last name.
Eight months later, it would be my last name too. He was ready at two months but I made him wait another six. We bought a one-story house that Charles promised had more than just one story to tell. On the first of January, we popped champagne to the new year and to our new old house as we sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor. Before moving all our furniture in, we timed how long it would take to meet in the middle with me on the North side and him on the South. It took seven and a half seconds walking normally.
Cecil showed up the second week after moving in. We joked that not only did we share a name together, a house, a marriage, we now had a ghost. Our families asked about kids but we simply said we already had one, you just couldn’t see it. But we named him Cecil, after Charles’ dead grandfather, because we thought he was looking after us. The house would warm up before we could grab a blanket and my keys would be by the door before I could forget them in the kitchen.
I don’t know what we did to upset Cecil, however, or if he was perhaps still mad about the move. Charles and I guessed that he was the last resident. Our realtor told us that the last people that lived here were a nice family that relocated to the midwest to be closer to the wife’s job but we were starting to believe that she could have been lying to us.
For Valentine’s Day, Charles wanted to recreate our first date as well as our second. We were acting in our own little play at the small bar we had that connected the living room to the kitchen. I sipped on my vodka soda, squeezed into the dress that grew a bit small in these last few months, when he sidled up next to me. Before he could start, I moved his head to the side so everything looked perfect. Cecil could’ve been watching us on the last night we met. We had ice cream from the freezer. Our second date needed a set change, a costume change, and we were in our bedroom in our underwear. We had taken tequila shots, licking salt and sucking on limes.
He was kissing me and whispering in my ear how smart I was, just like the first time. The bed began to shake. Then the floor began to shake. And the pictures in their frames on the wall. Charles was already on top of me but he changed his body so he was now on top of me to protect me. I clutched on to him. It felt like the earth was shaking our bodies separately but we tried so hard to get the rhythms synchronized. Then it stopped. We hurriedly got dressed but, it was so hurried, that I ran out with his jeans and flannel shirt and he was in my dress. I got a little pang in my chest when I saw that it looked better on him. Some mugs had shattered and some books lay open on the floor. But then Charles turned the corner and plates were shattered and plants were tipped over. Running out of the house, the fabric of the dress running behind him, Charles went to see about the neighbors.
“Nobody is out there. And it looks like nobody else got hit,” he said, walking back in.
“The family across from us, they’re eating dinner. Like nothing happened.”
Not that I didn’t trust him but I didn’t really believe him. I went out and saw the same thing he did. The Hudson’s across from us were eating their dinner while watching TV, talking to each other during the commercial breaks.
Silently, I swept up the broken shards and Charles reorganized the books. We didn’t sleep together that night. We didn’t even sleep.
For weeks after that, the two of us were on edge. Cecil went back to petty pranks. Closing doors that were open and opening doors that were closed. Creaking floorboards in the middle of the night. Rearranging our furniture while we were at work. Before bed, we’d hear knocking or the fireplace coming on and we’d just turn to each other.
“Oh, Cecil,” the other would respond.
We pretended that it was a joke, that we weren’t scared, because what would happen if we were scared. What would he do if he knew? But, we didn’t say it out loud but we both thought, what if he already knew. What if he could smell it?
The two of us got really good at reading body language. We were afraid of speaking in our own house just in case Cecil could hear us. Cecil becoming our third roommate that we didn’t want to disturb. So we communicated through gestures mainly. Shrugged shoulders, pointed fingers, a roll of the eyes.
Cecil started following us so we knew then that he wasn’t confined to just those walls. Charles was near the top of a western hemlock, spraying for pests, when the tree began to shake. The tree was too big, too sturdy, to be shaken like it did with his buddies at the bottom. They were taking a cigarette break anyway. Charles clutched on to the trunk like how I clutched on to him on Valentine’s Day. Cecil had a thing with shaking. After that, we started saying that Cecil died in an earthquake. Charles was fine but didn’t go to work for a while. That day, after climbing back down, he chose to ignore the carving in the base of the tree that had an X through a heart. The letters C + R were carved in the middle.
In the mornings, we would find new pictures on the ground. The glass shattered and the frame broken in pieces. The first was my dad. The second was Charles’ parents. My dad called that day saying not to worry but he was in the hospital with a touch of pneumonia but wanted to know, just to be sure, if it was me or my sister that wanted the grandfather clock. Charles’ parents called the next day saying not to worry but their condo went up in flames with them inside.
Death of a family member is number five on the list of top ten most stressful life events. Divorce is number two.
It seemed to be the night that everyone had had enough. Cecil locked all of the doors and closed all of the windows. Charles and I armed ourselves with knives and scissors.
Both of us were up against the closed front door and we watched as a sheeted figure walked out from the hallway. Eye holes were cut but no eyes could be seen. The sheet was long enough to cover feet if there were any. I stood up and pushed Charles back down as he tried to stand with me. He furrowed his brow. I shook my head. Now, it was just me and the ghost. Face-to-face like a standoff in the Wild West. Only I didn’t have a gun, I thought as I clutched my kitchen knife, and I didn’t know what Cecil could have under that sheet. The sheet, by the way, that was ripped from our bed. Ivory with a scalloped edge.
I walked up to it, one foot at a time like I was walking to the beat of the wedding march again. We were eye to eye. My brown eyes to its black. Gripping my knife, I grabbed the scalloped edge with both hands and threw it off to surprise it and myself. Through the cloud of ivory, I couldn’t see but my husband screamed. I finally looked and immediately wondered why I had ripped the sheet from a mirror. I was looking back at myself but I wasn’t myself. The self that I knew to be mine screamed along with Charles and, the self I knew not to be mine, looked back with dead eyes. But the dead eyes lulled me, enough so I forget everything and the ghost could grab the knife from my hand that I was surprised was still holding it. It pushed past me, knocking my body to the floor, and charged towards Charles. He had not stopped screaming.
And he continued screaming when it took the blade to his throat. It was garbled like he was underwater, but then I screamed for him. He was gone as fast as it seemed that he was here. The ghost dropped the knife. And, as if in one motion, donned the ivory sheet, opened the door that shoved Charles’ dead and bloody body to the side, and was out of the house in a flash.
Charles’ eyes were still open which is not something they tell you will happen. I clutched to his limp body like I was so used to doing. I raised his hand to caress my cheek like he was so used to doing. I was crying harder than it would take to fill an ocean.
“Hey, how about you and me get out of here? Just us too. Is that how you said it? Right now. We should get out of here.” I drank from all the straws that I was grasping.
Death of a spouse is number one on the list of most stressful life events.