Post Road Magazine #7

Since It's You by Peter Brown

I might have married Charlemagne, if he weren't so black. If he weren't as old as my own dead father would have been. I was waiting tables at the Circle Hill seven days a week for two years already–at 23 it was my whole life–and I had depended too much on him. He had more authority than anyone I knew, and I relied more on him for some things than anyone else, like the way he wrapped himself in a big white apron after he fired up his grill in the morning and never took it off till quitting time. This way we all knew that when the apron came off, it was time to lock up. We all were careful to respect the manager, a nervous college kid named Raymond, but Charlemagne knew when it was time. When that apron came off, nothing Raymond nor any of the others said mattered: the kitchen and dining room were clean and it was time to go.

He was a head taller than Raymond, two heads taller than me. He was slender as a shortstop but not so limber anymore–sometimes on Sunday mornings when he came in, the kitchen was cold and he limped about in his apron till he warmed up. He kept to himself that first hour in a manner I never understood. I watched him as I came and went from the dining room, how he ignored us as the grill heated up; he stared at the headlines for a long time before he licked his thumb and began moving his fingers through his newspapers. Sometimes a queasy desire arose in me, from somewhere near my stomach–sometimes his hands and head seemed all wrong to me, all a touch too big for his slender frame, and for that I wanted him and despised him too, because I wanted him perfect. His hair was pure white around his ears, almost fake in its beauty, since the rest of his hair was like his skin, blacker than the night behind the stars.

After the breakfast rush, he was more at ease. His manner changed. It was rare that he laughed, but when he laughed you could hear it clear out in the dining room. He was less predictable. Two of the girls truly hated him–Alex and especially Annie. Every time we stepped out for a smoke, they rode the same miserable little carousel of talk, going round and round on the same vicious wheel. First Annie aimed her cigarette at Charlemagne's Cadillac and carried on about how he went off by himself during his breaks and paraded those three big chamois rags (with his jacket over that filthy apron!) and Windexed the chrome and hubcaps and polished the golden letters of El Dorado scripted on the trunk like it was a christened yacht.

“Just because Charlemagne's black and has a better car than you,” said Cheryl.

“Nope, it ain't that,” said Annie. “I don't care about that.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I do not.” One day during all this, there was a nervous silence, and then Annie stared at me a long time before she reported a rumor that Charlemagne had a wife and three little girls in Haiti and that although he sent money for the first few years, he stopped after he got the loan for that car.

“That can't be so,” I said.

“Oh, yes it can.”

That was when I stomped my cigarette and went back in. I avoided him, but after lunch he was pleasant to me, he smiled at me and on towards dinner he even looked at me as if puzzled by something, and shook his head in a way that embarrassed and pleased me. He treated me like a child–I knew that when he pretended to disapprove it was his way of pointing to something else. He was the most intelligent person I knew, the way he stacked the papers in English and French next to the grill and read them from a distance while he worked, flipping the pages between orders. As he read he was always railing, whispering against us, the USA, that is, for something horribly cynical or unforgivably naive we were doing some place in the world I never heard of. Once when I ran by, he put this big spatula over his head as if it were a flyswatter and something small and alive was circling my face.

“You Americans,” he whispered to me. “You have the Fly of Death sitting on your nose but you cannot see it because it is too close.” Then he put his face close and wiggled his big fingers at me. “You see? Why won't you chase it away?” He bit his lip and waved the spatula over his head like he was winding up to smash the fly. When I tried to look at my nose and crossed my eyes, he laughed so loud Raymond ran back into the kitchen and told him the customers were wondering. Later Charlemagne winked at me; my nose felt funny for the rest of the day, like something tiny and ticklish kept landing on it; twice I ran to the bathroom and looked in the mirror.

Charlemagne was right, though, and I knew what he meant. Sometimes you don't even see what you see. Once when I was a little girl riding my bicycle on a Saturday afternoon and from all directions the sirens wailed louder than I'd have imagined any noise could be, a lazy tornado-shaped column of black smoke rose from the center of the next block, my block, where my house was. I had only that morning learned to ride and was flying down the sidewalks too fast and off the curbs. Mrs. Spinelli waved a dishrag from her porch and called me into her house. Everyone was suddenly running out onto the avenue toward my street. After they were all gone, a few minutes later, I watched Charlie Wilson through Mr. Spinelli's picture window, the one black kid who came around our neighborhood and who was always accused of stealing bicycles. He acted tough and I hated him, but now as I watched him run toward my house, his face was a gray color I'd never seen and his eyes were frightened. As stupid as it seems now, thinking back, I felt sorry for him.

But that was twenty years ago. Another example was how my ex-boyfriend Jimmy came home drunk after work every night for two years, whistling and repeating the crazy things that went on at the Pussy Cat Club and I never minded, since at least then he would talk to me and not be mad. I laughed at his stories about the dancers and the bouncers, and I listened, but there was always something more he wanted from me, something he could never ask for, something I never knew how to give. Then he hadn't gone to work in months before I noticed–as obvious as it was. I couldn't see he paid no bills, never changed his clothes, or how bad things had become until the night he came in more shit-faced than ever and for no reason went for me with a hammer and chased me screaming around the kitchen table and out into the living room and around the sofa back into the kitchen until a neighbor called the cops and they came and dragged his ass away.

He came around the restaurant one time after that and despite the fit he put on out by the register, Raymond was afraid to throw him out. Jimmy was shouting I owed him money and he wanted it right goddamn now and some of the customers had even left but Raymond, with a wave of his hand to Rachel, said no, don't call the cops. He didn't want cops coming here all the time. Everybody stay calm, said Raymond, and he put his hands in front of him and waved them, going around Jimmy in a circle, as if that would calm him. I went back into the kitchen, but I heard Raymond apologize to Jimmy and say this really had nothing to do with him or this restaurant and suggested he go around back and I would meet him there in the lot to figure it out. Of course I refused and then Raymond came in pleading with me to please go get rid of him.

Throughout this episode Charlemagne sat on the Lo-Melt pretending to read or getting up to flip a hamburger. Raymond pleaded and I shook my head and we went around and around until Charlemagne stood up and took down a pair of bread knives from the wall and pushed between Raymond and me and out the back door, giving it a slam. All the girls crowded around the door and I couldn't see, but I could hear him letting loose some high-volume voodoo (that's what Annie said it was), and that was far worse than police.

After that I moved into a little three-bedroom place with Annie and Cheryl above the post office in Wittstown and began to work seven days. Every day when Charlemagne came in to get ready for lunch he ignored me for a while and I ignored him too and then after he had his coffee and an order of cinnamon toast he came along and asked me why I was in such a bad mood. This quickly became our little ritual.

“I'm in a good mood,” I said. “What in the hell's the matter with you?”

“I feel wonderful,” he would answer and frown at me in a way that gave me a terrible pleasure. I was a little afraid of him now–Jimmy had never reappeared–and if you ask me, that only complicated and sweetened the excitement of Charlemagne. You find a way of trusting people (I always do at least) and in a place like Raymond's, by and large, the people who come and go are good. The customers pay their bills, they give a reasonable tip, they don't make much mess.

One day a couple came in that seemed as worthy of faith as anyone alive. They were the outdoorsy type, sunny and serious, dressed in big boots and wool pants and Patagonias, as if maybe they had just come in from rock climbing, though the he carried the baby in its car seat and put his finger over his lips and whispered to me for a booth where the two of them and the car seat could sit. She stood behind him, smiling at me as she finished looping her ponytail into a knot.

“You bet,” I said. “Right this way.”

Once they settled in, he carried their jackets over to the hooks and she leaned over that car seat and cooed into it, like she had just opened the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The baby was unusually well-behaved though, judging from what little I had seen of her: she was absolutely quiet. Alex, the only one of us who has kids, says she never loves hers like when they're asleep.

When the hubby came back he studied the menu, turning it over and over, reopening the flaps in search of something that I guess simply wasn't there. She wanted a hamburger and fries and he settled at last for a bowl of oatmeal and a fruit salad from the breakfast page.

“Coffees?” I said.

She said yes and he said no. I took more interest in them than most clients, at first because I saw them pull into the front and there was something sad about their old blue Volvo and then, when they came in, they looked so handsome and healthy I envied them. The father had the nervous authority you see in newly minted doctors and lawyers, people that have gone through some impossible exam and come out not wise and wealthy but on the straight road to wisdom and wealth. They may not know much about their professions just yet, but they sure as hell know more than the rest of us about everything. She looked nicer, like she had a sense of humor and the grace that comes from knowing you'll soon enough be rich and respectable even if your current Volvo has 130K on it and a hubcap gone.

He asked me if I had any green tea, and I said I wasn't a thousand per- cent sure but doubted it and he asked for OJ. The next time I came back they were holding hands across the table and the baby was as quiet as before. I gave her coffee and him juice and hesitated before I asked if I could have a peek at the child. The mother looked a little concerned, only a little though, like she didn't want her to wake up, but the dad said, “Without a doubt,” and turned the blanket away.

“Oh!” I said and wanted to cry or scream or run. I wanted to call Raymond, but something stopped me. I was embarrassed, thinking something was horribly wrong, that the baby had some deformity or worse, and I not knowing what to say, I only said, “So precious!” I couldn't see what it was that seemed so familiar and so misarranged. Its nose was a little high and the lips as thin and stretched as one of those little red rubber bands, the eyes as if pasted shut with Elmer's glue and first I thought she must be some kind of newbie! But she was stiff as old snow, there was nothing good-looking about her.

“What d'you call her?” I said.

“Roxanne,” said the husband and they both looked hopefully at the child.

“How old?” I said.

“Two months,” they both smiled, both staring again into the car seat. I watched the father and saw what I hadn't seen before: he was the kind you dread. He moved his beautiful brown eyes too anxiously around the table and the big room, then back to the car seat and I expected him at any moment to make some gesture with his finger, a signal that I was now to go place the order. I always remembered or imagined my own dad had been something different, someone who performed somersaults in the snow and played the ukulele and insisted on pistachio ice cream for breakfast or, when Mom wasn't along, that a friendly pretty waitress should sit down with us.

At the wake, with his casket open and his head like a stone in the silk and his hands over his heart, I couldn't see who he had been, what I should have known about him, or that they both, mom and dad, were truly gone. They had sent me out in summer with my bicycle and money for me and my friends for when the Good Humor Man came around. They liked to have a drink or two and a little private time together on a Saturday afternoon, but when I got back I always found them in bed having a nap.

I knew this was different, I understood they were dead, that the smoke had killed them quickly while they were asleep, not the flames and so on and so forth, as everyone in the world explained to me, as if it needed explanation fifty-thousand times over, but what I couldn't see at the time and what no one explained to me was that they were gone from me forever. They were permanently absent, like Brian McGuiness, who drowned in Readington Pond the spring before, and the next day at lavatory time the custodian came and removed his desk from the classroom.

I wasn't so stupid I figured they would bring the coffins into my bedroom at Aunt Ruthie's, although when Daddy's coffin went down into the hole it was abruptly too clear they wouldn't, that there were so many feet of dirt and rocks and eventually even many miles of country road between me and him. Somehow I didn't even care so much, not till Mom was lowered down. Until then I hadn't seen what it was. Until then it had been kind of fine to be at Ruthie's because she let me have chocolate milk three meals a day.

Back in the kitchen Charlemagne was dipping a basket of fries. I said, “Charlemagne, you come out front a minute because I want you to have a look at this new baby.”

He shook his head. He had two hamburgers and a grilled cheese working on the grill.

“I don't like to see no new baby,” he said. “You go out there and go crazy over the baby all you want, but I just stay here and short-order until it's time to go and then I go, you see?”

“No, I don't mean I want you to come and just ogle the baby, but there's something worrying me about it, about the baby,” I said, whispering because I didn't want the other girls involved. “I just need a confirmation because I'm getting confused and upset and want you to come see for yourself.”

“No,” he said and gave a very annoying little laugh.

“Charlemagne,” I said. “Please? For me.”

At last he turned and could see how worried I was. He said nothing and wiped his hands on his apron and looked into the vat and tossed the fries one time all very slowly as if to say, “Alright, I'll come along, but I will do it not a split second before I am good and ready.” When he was done with his orders he even sat down and opened the French paper and only folded it when I came back in the kitchen and led him out to have a look.

“I hope you don't mind,” I said, and sparkled cheerfully at the young lawyer or whatever he was. “I was telling my friend about your baby and he just had to come see!”

Charlemagne and the dad eyeballed each other with all the collegiality of a cat and a crow, neither of them believing what I just said and neither of them believing the other believed it. The mother of course whispered, “Harris, it's fine. She won't wake up.”

She was right. The dad removed the cover and the baby did not wake up. Charlemagne stopped. I felt his whole body and his long legs just stop where he stood. Maybe his heart stopped, too–his breathing stopped and he even stopped talking. I wanted to touch Charlemagne, his arm or his shoulder, but I was afraid. Then he said, “Ooof, that is somethin'. That is really somethin'.” He looked at me, then he looked at the father. “That is something. Thank you very much for the honor of that, and I must get back to my kitchen. Thank you, thank you very much.”

Back in the kitchen he put his thumb and his index finger together, very close to the point of my nose and said, “What in hell was that? Are you nuts out of your mind? Are you playing some games with me? What in the devil was that?”

I had no clue. I had cajoled him into coming out into the dining room against his will, I said, because I wanted his opinion. I was upset by the whole thing, but now I was more upset. I wanted him to explain to me what it was.

“I don't know,” I said. He was so angry at me, and I was so confused I thought I might cry. I fought it though, and I didn't cry, which meant now I was angry, too. I was also afraid–I didn't know what was happening or what to say.

“What was it?” I said. “What was it with that child?”

I was used to Charlemagne's anger, how all the hatred in the world was sometimes focused through the sites of his newspapers at me, of all people, as if I were to blame, but I was as unaccustomed as him to his not knowing. His face had changed in a way that made him look old and gentle, almost–potentially–generous. I hardly recognized him.

“I think,” he said, “maybe you must call the police.” He stood up and went over to face the grill.

“You come with me,” I said.

“No,” he said. He looked at me sideways.

“I don't know what to tell them,” I said.

“I don't know!” he said.

“I'm not going to call them, not by myself,” I said and sat down on his bucket and crossed my arms.

“Then you forget it then,” he said. “Forget it. You put up the order?”

“What order?”

He stood and wiped his big hands on the apron and stared at me.

“Do you have a wife and children back in Haiti?” I said.

He ignored the question. He was scared. Alex and Cheryl crossed between us, both of them giving us filthy looks.

“You put the order up, right now,” he said.

“I don't care one little bit about the order. No order is going up until you come with me to call the police.”

“What about Raymond?”

“Raymond who?”

“Raymond the manager!” he shouted.

A minute later we were out by the men's room where the phone was. I called information. I asked for the police. She said, “This an emergency?”

“No,” I said. “I don't think so. I'm not sure.” I whispered to Charlemagne. “Is this an emergency?” He didn't answer, as if he couldn't understand the question. His eyes focused too intensely on my nose again. Had that fly returned?

The dispatcher hesitated. “You don't think so?”

“Something strange with this baby in the restaurant here where I work,” I said. “The baby looks like it might be in serious trouble.”

“Please hold on,” she said. “Please, do not hang up.”

The phone clicked a few times and a different woman said, “Clinton County Police. This call is recorded. Is this an emergency?”

“No,” I said. “I don't think so. I think maybe the emergency is already over.”

“Why did you call 911?”

“I didn't call 911.”

“What?”

“I didn't call 911.”

“This is 911. Is this an emergency?”

“No,” I said. “I don't think so.”

She answered with silence.

“There is a baby in the restaurant,” I said. “I don't know. She looks–wrong.”

“Wrong. Wrong?”

“I don't know,” I said. “She's with her mother and father. There is something really sick about it.”

“The baby is sick?”

“Uh, yes. No. Maybe. Maybe worse.”

“Please remain on the phone. Street address?”

“Circle Hill Diner,” I said. I looked at Charlemagne. “What is the address here?” I whispered to him. He made another face.

“I don't know the street address,” I said into the phone.

“Next to Donny Donuts?”

“Exactly.”

I gave her my name and the phone number and we waited. Charlemagne and I hid in the dark hallway like two beaten children. I couldn't think too well and began to ramble, as I do when I'm upset. Fear had invaded Charlemagne's eyes. I wanted to soothe him, so I talked and talked.

“We must be telling Raymond,” he interrupted. “You go tell Raymond the police coming.”

“She told me to stay by the phone. You go tell him.”

“Like this?” he said and opened his hands, indicating his dirty apron.

“So take the apron off,” I said.

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” he said.

“You were out on the floor a minute ago like that. That's what started all this.”

“No, no, no,” he said. “No more tonight. You want me to lose my job!”

“Okay,” I said. “Take the phone. I'll go tell him.”

He wagged the finger at me again. “I don't talk to no police.”

“Why?” I said. “Why do I always fall for useless men?”

“Eh?”

“Charlemagne,” I said. “Where did you get such a fabulous name?”

“My mother,” he frowned. He turned and surveyed the dark hall and what he could see of the dining room. “She give it to me.”

“You have children?” I said.

His eyes went rapidly left and right. He gave no answer, but he showed no shame. What Annie said were lies.

“Why do I always fall in love with useless men?” I repeated.

He acted like I had changed the subject. His eyes were serious when he said, “I don't know, love buggy. You in love?”

I was distracted by the phone making another clicking noise. He touched my shoulder and said again, “You in love?”

It wasn't exactly the case. The game somehow didn't fit the board, like playing checkers with a chess set. I looked at him and he looked at me and I only half-lied. “Amazingly enough,” I said.

He whispered, “You got a date? You going to make some butter tonight, eh?” He made a gesture then with his knees, a kind of swooning motion that might have been taken as lewd. Fred Astaire or Frank Sinatra got away with such things, too.

“No,” I said. “Probably not. Look, go tell Raymond.”

“Who you in love with?”

“Forget it,” I said. “Look, we have this–this thing out there in the dining room. I have the police on the phone–”

“No, no, no,” he said. “You tell me.” His willingness to cooperate was at its end. I began to lose nerve, to feel guilty. How many tables were out there waiting for service? Where was Raymond? Who was covering? How could I have been away so long?

“I cannot tell you,” I said. “Especially you.”

“Why?” he said. “Since when you don't tell me something? You always tell me too much. Now you cannot tell me an interesting thing. Why not?”

“Since it's you.” I said and put the phone down on the shelf.

“Eh?”

“Since it's you,” I said and tried to run but he got hold of my arm.


The girls and I sat in a booth for a long time. Raymond made two pots of coffee and kept filling our cups. He brought down a pecan pie and a gallon of vanilla ice cream and plates and forks and napkins for everybody.

Cheryl said, “He didn't even look surprised, I mean the father didn't.”

“Yeah,” said Annie. “But then he kind of did, like, who me? When the cops told him to stand up. Like, who are you talking to, me?”

“Yeah,” said Alex. “But he was such a little mouse.”

“Who was a mouse?”

“The father, if you want to call it a father.”

“Can you imagine? Like, not even noticing even?”

“Jesus! I don't think I can eat.”

“How long do you think it was like that, I mean, like that–”

They all looked at me. “How do I know?” I said.

“You're the one who saw,” said Cheryl, her eyes distorted, accusing through her bifocals.

“What do I know?” I said. By now I was upset. “I don't work at the morgue, do I? You think I see this all the time. Maybe an hour? Two hours? A day?”

“Naw! No way.”

“I never see nothing. Nothing at all,” said Alex.

“I didn't even know what I was seeing,” I said. “It was Charlemagne that knew.”

“Where is that prick?” said Annie. She turned and surveyed the empty room. I said nothing, though I had seen him put up his apron and go out the back right after the police interviewed him. They talked to him for most of an hour. With me they spent five minutes.

“Did you see that fireman?” said Cheryl. “The one with the hat? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Next time my oven catches fire I'm gonna call his ass in. And tell him to bring his hose.”

“What about the mother? Wouldn't you think she might have noticed?”

“What do you think?” said Annie. “Did they somehow not know? Were they pretending or something? Were they like in the grip of some bizarre kind of evil or were they like psychologically all fucked up?”

“Sometimes if something is too difficult, your mind just makes it invisible,” Alex said. “Like, someone once said–I forget where I heard this–imagine how an elephant looks to a flea.”

“This was two fleas. A mama and a papa flea,” said Annie.

“They were cracked,” said Rachel.

“That's the thing of it, isn't it? It was both of them. The two of them.”

“Maybe they were on LSD. Charles Manson was on LSD.”

“Didn't they put the father in handcuffs?”

“The two of them!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“No, they did not,” said Annie. She looked to me.

But I didn't know, I told them, and I told them the truth, which was that I didn't know anything. Then I almost told them how worried I was about Charlemagne, that I hoped he was all right. I wouldn't say I hoped he'd come back. I just said I didn't know. I hadn't noticed handcuffs on them. I hadn't seen.

We were quiet a minute, but I had to say something. They were all facing me a long time, then they faced me again when I said, “It was somehow as if that was me in there, in that car seat. I swear to God.”

Then they all looked at me. Annie almost said something but Alex stopped her, touching her under the table. I started running on then, like I do sometimes when I've said too much and then can't stop. The thing is I was sure all this was my fault, I said, somehow I believed just by being there at that moment I caused–somehow even arranged the whole godforsaken thing. How else could you explain it?

The girls stared at me in horror, so I went on to tell them I was in love with Charlemagne. I told them about the call we made together and how afterwards when I told him how I felt for him, he made a strange, frightening face, like I had just cheated him out of a hundred bucks–like I had offered something he had always wanted but could never have.

“Maybe it's true,” I said with emphasis, looking all around me, “the thing Annie says about him.”

I told them about the phone call, when I was alone with Charlemagne in back and after he got his hand on my wrist all I could see past him was the length of the dark hallway and a crowded table in the dining room. How he put his face then, close to mine, and made a stirring motion around my nose with that big black-and-pink finger. It hurt to look, so close like that, and I found it hard to breathe, as if that finger had lodged between my ribs and my lungs; I turned my eyes away, I said, and remembered how every winter since my house burned, after things had seriously begun to freeze, when the air was so cold it made you cough, I went down Route 212 in the mornings before school to Readington Pond where Brian McGuiness died and rode my bicycle out in expanding circles onto the ice. I continued doing this even through my last year of high school. I stood up on my pedals as I went out, my feet going down and down in the slippery weightlessness until the pond began to crack and slope away under my tires.

The girls were all wide-eyed. I knew I should shut my mouth. But I also knew I had been caught in a moment that had too many implications, like the first loser who happens upon an autowreck on a back road.

Charlemagne had whispered something more, but I couldn't understand him. When they arrived, the cops used their lights but not their sirens–the blue-and-whites were flashing in the suddenly shiny, spectacular night. There had been a perfect silence, thank God, in the back by the phone, and Charlemagne holding me in the electric darkness, both his big soft hands too tight around my wrist •

Peter Brown is at work on his first novel, The Dwarf of Teheran, and a collection of stories called Since It's You. His work has appeared in Salamander, where he is currently editor-at-large, and in the new renaissance. He is also a visual artist. Some of his drawings can be viewed through his public directory at Harvard University.

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