I nearly stumbled over the kid in the dark before I saw him.
His wheelchair was parked as usual on the tired strip of carpet grass that separated his mother’s trailer from the one Doc Shull and I lived in, but it wasn’t exactly where I’d learned to expect it when I rolled in at night from the fishing boats. Usually it was nearer the west end of the strip where Joey could look across the crushed-shell square of the Twin Palms trailer court and the palmetto flats to the Tampa highway beyond. But this time it was pushed back into the shadows away from the court lights.
The boy wasn’t watching the flats tonight, as he usually did. Instead he was lying back in his chair with his face turned to the sky, staring upward with such absorbed intensity that he didn’t even know I was there until I spoke.
“Anything wrong, Joey?” I asked.
He said, “No, Roy,” without taking his eyes off the sky.
For a minute I had the prickly feeling you get when you are watching a movie and find that you know just what is going to happen next. You’re puzzled and a little spooked until you realize that the reason you can predict the action so exactly is because you’ve seen the same thing happen somewhere else a long time ago. I forgot the feeling when I remembered why the kid wasn’t watching the palmetto flats. But I couldn’t help wondering why he’d turned to watching the sky instead.
“What’re you looking for up there, Joey?” I asked.
He didn’t move and from the tone of his voice I got the impression that he only half heard me.
“I’m moving some stars,” he said softly.
I gave it up and went on to my own trailer without asking any more fool questions. How can you talk to a kid like that?
Doc Shull wasn’t in, but for once I didn’t worry about him. I was trying to remember just what it was about my stumbling over Joey’s wheelchair that had given me that screwy double-exposure feeling of familiarity. I got a can of beer out of the ice-box because I think better with something cold in my hand, and by the time I had finished the beer I had my answer.
The business I’d gone through with Joey outside was familiar because it had happened before, about six weeks back when Doc and I first parked our trailer at the Twin Palms court. I’d nearly stumbled over Joey that time too, but he wasn’t moving stars then. He was just staring ahead of him, waiting.
He’d been sitting in his wheelchair at the west end of the carpet-grass strip, staring out over the palmetto flats toward the highway. He was practically holding his breath, as if he was waiting for somebody special to show up, so absorbed in his watching that he didn’t know I was there until I spoke. He reminded me a little of a ventriloquist’s dummy with his skinny, knob-kneed body, thin face and round, still eyes. Only there wasn’t anything comical about him the way there is about a dummy. Maybe that’s why I spoke, because he looked so deadly serious.
“Anything wrong, kid?” I asked.
He didn’t jump or look up. His voice placed him as a cracker, either south Georgian or native Floridian.
“I’m waiting for Charlie to come home,” he said, keeping his eyes on the highway.
Probably I’d have asked who Charlie was but just then the trailer door opened behind him and his mother took over.
I couldn’t see her too well because the lights were off inside the trailer. But I could tell from the way she filled up the doorway that she was big. I could make out the white blur of a cigarette in her mouth, and when she struck a match to light it--on her thumb-nail, like a man--I saw that she was fairly young and not bad-looking in a tough, sullen sort of way. The wind was blowing in my direction and it told me she’d had a drink recently, gin, by the smell of it.
“This is none of your business, mister,” she said. Her voice was Southern like the boy’s but with all the softness ground out of it from living on the Florida coast where you hear a hundred different accents every day. “Let the boy alone.”
She was right about it being none of my business. I went on into the trailer I shared with Doc Shull and left the two of them waiting for Charlie together.
Our trailer was dark inside, which meant first that Doc had probably gone out looking for a drink as soon as I left that morning to pick up a job, and second that he’d probably got too tight to find his way back. But I was wrong on at least one count, because when I switched on the light and dumped the packages I’d brought on the sink cabinet I saw Doc asleep in his bunk.
He’d had a drink, though. I could smell it on him when I shook him awake, and it smelled like gin.
Doc sat up and blinked against the light, a thin, elderly little man with bright blue eyes, a clipped brown mustache and scanty brown hair tousled and wild from sleep. He was stripped to his shorts against the heat, but at some time during the day he had bathed and shaved. He had even washed and ironed a shirt; it hung on a nail over his bunk with a crumpled pack of cigarettes in the pocket.
“Crawl out and cook supper, Rip,” I said, holding him to his end of our working agreement. “I’ve made a day and I’m hungry.”
Doc got up and stepped into his pants. He padded barefoot across the linoleum and poked at the packages on the sink cabinet.
“Snapper steak again,” he complained. “Roy, I’m sick of fish!”
“You don’t catch sirloins with a hand-line,” I told him. And because I’d never been able to stay sore at him for long I added, “But we got beer. Where’s the opener?”
“I’m sick of beer, too,” Doc said. “I need a real drink.”
I sniffed the air, making a business of it. “You’ve had one already. Where?”
He grinned at me then with the wise-to-himself-and-the-world grin that lit up his face like turning on a light inside and made him different from anybody else on earth.
“The largess of Providence,” he said, “is bestowed impartially upon sot and Samaritan. I helped the little fellow next door to the bathroom this afternoon while his mother was away at work, and my selflessness had its just reward.”
Sometimes it’s hard to tell when Doc is kidding. He’s an educated man--used to teach at some Northern college, he said once, and I never doubted it--and talks like one when he wants to. But Doc’s no bum, though he’s a semi-alcoholic and lets me support him like an invalid uncle, and he’s keen enough to read my mind like a racing form.
“No, I didn’t batter down the cupboard and help myself,” he said. “The lady--her name is Mrs. Ethel Pond--gave me the drink. Why else do you suppose I’d launder a shirt?”
That was like Doc. He hadn’t touched her bottle though his insides were probably snarled up like barbed wire for the want of it. He’d shaved and pressed a shirt instead so he’d look decent enough to rate a shot of gin she’d offer him as a reward. It wasn’t such a doubtful gamble at that, because Doc has a way with him when he bothers to use it; maybe that’s why he bums around with me after the commercial fishing and migratory crop work, because he’s used that charm too often in the wrong places.
“Good enough,” I said and punctured a can of beer apiece for us while Doc put the snapper steaks to cook.
He told me more about our neighbors while we killed the beer. The Ponds were permanent residents. The kid--his name was Joey and he was ten--was a polio case who hadn’t walked for over a year, and his mother was a waitress at a roadside joint named the Sea Shell Diner. There wasn’t any Mr. Pond. I guessed there never had been, which would explain why Ethel acted so tough and sullen.
We were halfway through supper when I remembered something the kid had said.
“Who’s Charlie?” I asked.
Doc frowned at his plate. “The kid had a dog named Charlie, a big shaggy mutt with only one eye and no love for anybody but the boy. The dog isn’t coming home. He was run down by a car on the highway while Joey was hospitalized with polio.”
“Tough,” I said, thinking of the kid sitting out there all day in his wheelchair, straining his eyes across the palmetto flats. “You mean he’s been waiting a year?”
Doc nodded, seemed to lose interest in the Ponds, so I let the subject drop. We sat around after supper and polished off the rest of the beer. When we turned in around midnight I figured we wouldn’t be staying long at the Twin Palms trailer court. It wasn’t a very comfortable place.
I was wrong there. It wasn’t comfortable, but we stayed.
I couldn’t have said at first why we stuck, and if Doc could he didn’t volunteer. Neither of us talked about it. We just went on living the way we were used to living, a few weeks here and a few there, all over the States.
We’d hit the Florida west coast too late for the citrus season, so I went in for the fishing instead. I worked the fishing boats all the way from Tampa down to Fort Myers, not signing on with any of the commercial companies because I like to move quick when I get restless. I picked the independent deep-water snapper runs mostly, because the percentage is good there if you’ve got a strong back and tough hands.
Snapper fishing isn’t the sport it seems to the one-day tourists who flock along because the fee is cheap. You fish from a wide-beamed old scow, usually, with hand-lines instead of regular tackle, and you use multiple hooks that go down to the bottom where the big red ones are. There’s no real thrill to it, as the one-day anglers find out quickly. A snapper puts up no more fight than a catfish and the biggest job is to haul out his dead weight once you’ve got him surfaced.
Usually a pro like me sells his catch to the boat’s owner or to some clumsy sport who wants his picture shot with a big one, and there’s nearly always a jackpot--from a pool made up at the beginning of every run--for the man landing the biggest fish of the day. There’s a knack to hooking the big ones, and when the jackpots were running good I only worked a day or so a week and spent the rest of the time lying around the trailer playing cribbage and drinking beer with Doc Shull.
Usually it was the life of Riley, but somehow it wasn’t enough in this place. We’d get about half-oiled and work up a promising argument about what was wrong with the world. Then, just when we’d got life looking its screwball funniest with our arguments one or the other of us would look out the window and see Joey Pond in his wheelchair, waiting for a one-eyed dog named Charlie to come trotting home across the palmetto flats. He was always there, day or night, until his mother came home from work and rolled him inside.
It wasn’t right or natural for a kid to wait like that for anything and it worried me. I even offered once to buy the kid another mutt but Ethel Pond told me quick to mind my own business. Doc explained that the kid didn’t want another mutt because he had what Doc called a psychological block.
“Charlie was more than just a dog to him,” Doc said. “He was a sort of symbol because he offered the kid two things that no one else in the world could--security and independence. With Charlie keeping him company he felt secure, and he was independent of the kids who could run and play because he had Charlie to play with. If he took another dog now he’d be giving up more than Charlie. He’d be giving up everything that Charlie had meant to him, then there wouldn’t be any point in living.”
I could see it when Doc put it that way. The dog had spent more time with Joey than Ethel had, and the kid felt as safe with him as he’d have been with a platoon of Marines. And Charlie, being a one-man dog, had depended on Joey for the affection he wouldn’t take from anybody else. The dog needed Joey and Joey needed him. Together, they’d been a natural.
At first I thought it was funny that Joey never complained or cried when Charlie didn’t come home, but Doc explained that it was all a part of this psychological block business. If Joey cried he’d be admitting that Charlie was lost. So he waited and watched, secure in his belief that Charlie would return.
The Ponds got used to Doc and me being around, but they never got what you’d call intimate. Joey would laugh at some of the droll things Doc said, but his eyes always went back to the palmetto flats and the highway, looking for Charlie. And he never let anything interfere with his routine.
That routine started every morning when old man Cloehessey, the postman, pedaled his bicycle out from Twin Palms to leave a handful of mail for the trailer-court tenants. Cloehessey would always make it a point to ride back by way of the Pond trailer and Joey would stop him and ask if he’s seen anything of a one-eyed dog on his route that day.
Old Cloehessey would lean on his bike and take off his sun helmet and mop his bald scalp, scowling while he pretended to think.
Then he’d say, “Not today, Joey,” or, “Thought so yesterday, but this fellow had two eyes on him. ‘Twasn’t Charlie.”
Then he’d pedal away, shaking his head. Later on the handyman would come around to swap sanitary tanks under the trailers and Joey would ask him the same question. Once a month the power company sent out a man to read the electric meters and he was part of Joey’s routine too.
It was hard on Ethel. Sometimes the kid would dream at night that Charlie had come home and was scratching at the trailer ramp to be let in, and he’d wake Ethel and beg her to go out and see. When that happened Doc and I could hear Ethel talking to him, low and steady, until all hours of the morning, and when he finally went back to sleep we’d hear her open the cupboard and take out the gin bottle.
But there came a night that was more than Ethel could take, a night that changed Joey’s routine and a lot more with it. It left a mark you’ve seen yourself--everybody has that’s got eyes to see--though you never knew what made it. Nobody ever knew that but Joey and Ethel Pond and Doc and me.
Doc and I were turning in around midnight that night when the kid sang out next door. We heard Ethel get up and go to him, and we got up too and opened a beer because we knew neither of us would sleep any more till she got Joey quiet again. But this night was different. Ethel hadn’t talked to the kid long when he yelled, “Charlie! Charlie!“ and after that we heard both of them bawling.
A little later Ethel came out into the moonlight and shut the trailer door behind her. She looked rumpled and beaten, her hair straggling damply on her shoulders and her eyes puffed and red from crying. The gin she’d had hadn’t helped any either.
She stood for a while without moving, then she looked up at the sky and said something I’m not likely to forget.
“Why couldn’t You give the kid a break?” she said, not railing or anything but loud enough for us to hear. “You, up there--what’s another lousy one-eyed mutt to You?”
Doc and I looked at each other in the half-dark of our own trailer. “She’s done it, Roy,” Doc said.
I knew what he meant and wished I didn’t. Ethel had finally told the kid that Charlie wasn’t coming back, not ever.
That’s why I was worried about Joey when I came home the next evening and found him watching the sky instead of the palmetto flats. It meant he’d given up waiting for Charlie. And the quiet way the kid spoke of moving the stars around worried me more, because it sounded outright crazy.
Not that you could blame him for going off his head. It was tough enough to be pinned to a wheelchair without being able to wiggle so much as a toe. But to lose his dog in the bargain...