Charlie missed his coffee mornings with his buddies at the diner. Like most men who farmed and worked the land, he had neither the time nor the inclination to sit idly chatting with a bunch of old men. Leaning on the back of a truck, discussing crops and the weather for a few minutes was a pleasant respite from the daily chores. But to sit and talk in a diner, and to pay for your coffee. Well, that was unheard of. Until you reached a certain age when there were no more fields to plow and crops to tend to and, most importantly, no longer a loving wife at home to provide comfort and companionship and coffee.
Charlie couldn’t remember when he had first started meeting his friends at the diner or how easily he had slipped into the morning routine. There was something almost tribal about being in the company of other men of roughly the same age like a group of elders sitting around a fire sharing tobacco. Charlie would never think to use that word “tribal”, but he found some comfort in the exchange of shared ailments and grievances, and there was a communal sense of well-being, a satisfaction in talking about common likes and dislikes.
Charlie was neither a joiner nor a loner. Charlie was Charlie and he was enjoying his current absence from the group. It suited his independent nature to be able to come and go as he pleased without feeling too obligated or dependent on the group of coffee drinkers. He would never admit it, but he was also enjoying the change of pace and even the challenge of being in the company of a new person in his life. A young person, no matter how frustrating they might be with their new ways and opinions, quite often managed to change the perspective of life for all those around them. For Charlie, it was like looking at the world through a newly washed windshield, the colors were clear and crisp, new details, previously unseen or forgotten, suddenly became apparent. In a quiet moment, alone with Wilbur, Charlie might admit that he was now feeling alive rather than just living.
The wonder of it all was that the influence of the young on the old was a two-way street. Old Charlie, with his simple country ways, presented a new perspective to the young Lynn with her fast-talking, fast-living city lifestyle. Thus, the choreography of their new-born relationship evolved, step by step, as they learned to adjust to each other’s rhythms and movements. Although they continued to be careful around each other, the fear of stepping on each other’s toes gradually melted away as the next few days passed by without incident as Charlie and Lynn settled into a comfortable routine.
Lynn busied herself with her electronic gizmos inside and went for walks with and without Wilbur and Charlie. Her pace of doing things, walking and even talking slowed down. To Charlie she looked more relaxed, and he was happy to notice some color showing in her cheeks and Charlie continued to work on the rocking chair and Wilbur, for the most part, stuck with Charlie because he was outside most of the time.
The weather was perfect for working outdoors, sunny, not too hot with a light afternoon breeze. Charlie thought it ideal weather to fix those creaking, old back steps. He left to go and buy some boards in the town where the Wal-Mart was. He didn’t know where Lynn was, so he left, not thinking to leave a note. As he drove away in his old friend the truck, with its familiar squeaks and rattles and the way it pulled to the left when he braked, Charlie was feeling good. He had a purpose. A manly purpose.
In some men, the act of construction, of building, of creating something, no matter how simple, is almost instinctual, it is in their genes. Charlie was no different. There’s nothing like buying lumber to soothe a man’s soul, he thought. Charlie did some of his best thinking when driving alone in his truck or on a tractor. Driving along those familiar country roads, he had one of those moments of clarity, an “Aha moment” the preacher had once called it, when something that had been a puzzle suddenly made sense. Perhaps women have the same feeling when they’re out shopping. That was why Lynn was jumping all over the place when she came back from Wal-Mart. Clothes to Lynn were like lumber to me, he concluded.
Charlie was all ready to share his revelation with Lynn when he pulled into the yard but one look at her face as she came out to meet the truck told him something was wrong, and his revelation would have to remain unrevealed.
“Dammit,” said Charlie. “What’s happened?” He asked as he automatically looked for Wilbur whom he spotted over by the barn door. Oh, oh, this must be bad if Wilbur’s staying out of the way. Charlie thought.
“Where have you been? I was looking all over for you and couldn’t find you. I was worried sick.” Lynn was speaking so quickly Charlie could hardly keep up with her words.
“Why, what’s wrong?” Charlie was back in his state of perplexion.
“I went to get some boards to fix the steps,” Charlie explained. The truck was still running, and Charlie turned it off and got out while the truck did its usual dance of death as the engine finally shuddered to a stop. He looked at Lynn and was worried. Her arms were held stiffly by her sides with her fists clenched tightly, her face was white, anger was pouring out of her eyes. Or was it fear? Charlie couldn’t tell. He reached out to touch her shoulder to guide her back to the house, but she abruptly pulled away from him.
Wilbur, with that canine sixth sense, came up, adopting an almost submissive stance as he leaned into Lynn’s legs. She ignored him and Charlie became really concerned. “Lynn let’s go and sit down on the steps for a spell,” said Charlie and started to walk towards the house.
Eventually, Lynn followed him and sat down next to him but as far away as possible. Charlie didn’t know what to do. He was way out of his depth. Then he started talking. “We had this foal, once…”
Lynn cut him off. “I don’t want to hear one of your old folk tales about a damn foal or anything else.” She stood up but didn’t move away. “You didn’t leave a note,” she blurted out.
Charlie was lost, again. He’d never had to leave notes for Ellie, but then he reckoned they’d been together for so long and knew each other so well that notes were unnecessary. Thank goodness I don’t have to leave notes for Wilbur. He chuckled to himself at the thought, careful not to show it to Lynn,. To Lynn he said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t think about it. My mind was set on getting the lumber and fixing these here steps.” He fondled Wilbur’s head.
Lynn took a deep breath and sat back down, this time a little closer to Charlie. She took another deep breath and said, “I’m sorry Charlie, I just freaked out a little being left alone. It’s a long story.”
Now we’re getting close to the bedrock, thought Charlie who then said, “Let’s have a bite to eat and then I’d appreciate your help working on these steps.”
By supper time the two of them had finished their repair project. Wilbur, who didn’t like the sound of the saws, had slunk off somewhere to hide. While Charlie was putting away the rest of the tools, Lynn was standing looking at the steps with her hands on her hips. She was smiling, feeling that special pride of accomplishment. Although Charlie had done a lot of the work, she had helped. Charlie had been a good and patient teacher and surprisingly there had only been a few, “dammits” uttered the whole afternoon. Charlie had shown her how to be a good helper and when her confidence had grown, he’d taught how to use the saws. She was a willing student and secretly satisfied at how much she had enjoyed the physical work.
“You done good, Lynn,” Charlie said as he came to stand next to her.
Lynn was beaming as she said, “I can paint it tomorrow, if you like.”
“Best let those boards cure and dry first.” Said Charlie and they both went up the steps, without a creak to be heard.
Later that night, when they were both out on the porch having their evening “fix,” as Lynn called it, she settled back on the couch. There was a pleasant ache in her muscles, and she felt the peace that comes after a good day’s work. Charlie felt it too as he stared up at the ceiling. Not to be outdone, Wilbur lay at their feet, gently snoring, like a bridge between the two bodies.
Lynn started speaking, “When I was growing up, my mother used to disappear for hours on end. Sometimes for whole days at a time, she would just leave, with no one watching over me. At first, I was terrified, then just scared, then hurt. Next came the anger, until finally a part of me shut down altogether, but the anger never really went away. I learned to fend for myself, but it wasn’t easy. I don’t know why, but this morning when I couldn’t find you, I had a flashback to those days and I got really scared, then angry.”
“Hmm,” Charlie murmured. “That’s understandable. I won’t do it again. Are you alright now?”
“Yes, thank you,” replied Lynn. “Thank you for this afternoon, I really enjoyed it. Did you plan that on purpose?”
“Nope,” replied Charlie.
“What was that story about the foal?” Asked Lynn.
Charlie stood up and headed inside saying, “We never had a foal.”
“Dammit Charlie,” he heard Lynn say as he quickly disappeared through the door leaving Lynn with a rueful smile on her face and the growing racket of the tree frog choir off in the distance.
© John Longbottom 2021