This is a short story that I wrote for Fundamentals of Character at Ringling this semester. Hope you like it. Parameters were 3,000-4,000 words. Let me know your thoughts!
Spirits of the dead live on in imagination, music, creativity, and humor.
And the written word.
Charlie was always on, like the small radio that played from the kitchen table. The radio, though, was more easily tuned. His grandmother called from the stove.
Ba-drump, ba-drump, ba-drump. Charlie galloped down the stairs in the familiar cadence, his steps like sharp stick strikes on a tight snare drum. The radio sang high with trumpets and trombones.
He wriggled around the living room, shuffling torn spiral-bound notebook pages in his small eight-year-old hands. He paused upon inspiration, making hurried scratches on his messy script with a pencil that doubled as a makeshift microphone. His trusty tape recorder was slung across his body with a chewed-up belt. The dark metal hunk bounced on his hip with his spasmodic, amusing movements. He muttered attempted versions of radio show introductions until he smiled with satisfaction.
Granpa scanned Charlie without moving his head. “We’ll be right there, Shirley.”
Charlie squirmed over the ottoman, around the couch, around the chair. Granpa pretended to watch the five o’clock news.
Finally, Charlie sat on the stool next to Granpa’s favorite recliner and pressed the stubborn red button on his recorder. Before Charlie could arrange his notes and speak, Granpa leaned close to Charlie. “Do you know Mr. Scravuzzo?” with a slight chuckle.
“What?” Charlie squealed just above the tape recorder.
“Do you know Mr. Scravuzzo?” Granpa asked again with one very arched eyebrow, as thick as his occasional Italian accent.
Charlie was near hysterics. “No! Who is Mr. Scraboozoo?” Charlie was trying, but failing, to summon all the determination of a dime-store-novel detective. His stifling of titters resulted in sputters of spit from his pursed lips.
“He shit on the floor.”
Charlie collapsed onto the living room rug, laughing without sound and convulsing until his abdominal muscles seized. He never understood the meaning of this oft-repeated joke, but the flagrant use of profanity was exotic and hilarious. He buried his face and gasps of laughter for fear of inviting the attention of his always-busy Gramma.
After a few moments, Charlie spread his arms out and indulged in the familiar braids of the well-worn rug. “Granpa.” He soothed himself with that whispered word. The word cracked off his tongue like fresh bubbles from a soda pop. His notebook pages crumpled on the floor beneath him, the detective story he was about to share forgotten for a moment.
Charlie knew that his grandfather was not his biological parent. Charlie knew that his own parents were gone. The only father he had ever known was Gaetano Gianfranco Guerrieri–his dad’s dad. He peeked up as he felt the recliner footrest pushed down by his grandfather’s legs.
Granpa slowly limped to the TV set and turned the power dial to “Off.” He turned, grabbed his cigarettes from the TV tray, and headed to the small metal kitchen table near his pot-stirring wife. Charlie followed, pushing his papers into a deep jean pocket. He tucked his microphone behind his ear. The aroma of simmering sauce was calling all hopeful diners.
Gramma chopped Charlie’s clean, white plate with her messy, red spatula. “Washa you handsa!” Shirley was neither Italian nor did she have an accent, but after living with Gaetano for over thirty years, she had fun bellowing commands in a horrible imitation of him.
Charlie didn’t look at Gramma. He simply pouted into his sauce-splotched plate. “You washa the hands or I washa the hands.” Charlie knew what that meant. Gramma would grab his ear, lead him upstairs to the bathroom, and use only hot water and too much soap.
“Okay.” Charlie stomped up the stairs to pretend to wash his hands.
As Charlie loudly reached the top, he paused and lingered near the bathroom door. He picked at the dry skin and dirt on his index finger with his thumbnail.
“I don’t hear any water!” Gramma shouted from the kitchen.
“Fine!” Charlie relented and quickly rinsed his hands under the cold water of the sink. He scrambled down the stairs. Ba-drump, ba-drump, ba-drump. Back at the table, he sat on his hands. Gramma stood still at the stove; she lifted lids, checked sauces, turned spoons.
“Show me.” She didn’t turn.
“Fine!” Charlie raced back upstairs and used soap this time. His feet barely touched each step on the way down. He nearly stumbled on the third step disturbing his usually perfect stair drum march. Ba-drump, ba-drump, ba-dump, dump-dump.
“Grazie!” Gramma sang. “Mangia!” She had already filled Charlie’s plate with linguini, sausage, meatballs, and sweet, smooth succo. The table was full with a bowl of grated Parmesan, a basket of torn stirato, napkins, silverware, extra sauce, and that small radio.
The radio played: a 1939 RCA Victor Tabletop Bakelite in Avocado with illuminated dial. It was the fourth diner. Usually tuned to the Big Band station, it was soft and low while they ate.
Charlie took the radio, dinners, his grandparents, and most things for granted. He did not consider familiar objects; inconsequential items did not have lives of their own. These substances did not exist if Charlie was in another room. Things, bodies, spirits lived in his imagination. Life borne on those scraps of paper tucked in his jeans or in his constant, shifting thoughts of possibility and humor. He stuffed his emotions down deep in those pockets; love poured out into silly scripts. Drawing a grin on Granpa’s lips was his sole desire and goal.
Charlie ate quickly. He mindlessly hummed to the swing song playing next to his elbow. Charlie thought only about his script: if Granpa would like it, if there was any action to add, how to say the things he wanted to say to make his grandfather crow.
Detective Scravuzzo? Would that make him laugh?
Gaetano and Shirley were still finishing their plates when Charlie asked to be excused. “Washa you handsa!” Charlie spoke in perfect unison with his grandmother.
“Don’t be smart,” she called after Charlie as he drummed up the stairs, back to his room. Inside, he carefully tip-toed through the galaxy of Star Wars action figures, working model of the Millennium Falcon, and Darth Vader’s bodacious-black Tie Fighter. Charlie sat down in the vacancy he had used to set up this space scenario. He gave the Tie Fighter a squeeze on its tail just to hear the laser fire a short blast at the ol’ Falcon.
He pulled his faceted sheets from his jeans. With some resistance, he finally freed the pages, a small Matchbox car that had belonged to his father, and other bits of metal. The car, some jacks, a few paperclips jangled to the floor. He unfolded the paper wad and savored the rereading of his dashed-off detective story from earlier. He fetched the pencil from his ear and scribbled a few more notes.
He would try to show Granpa tomorrow. Saturday was always a good day for their own program of pretend–Charlie Radio.
He recognized the fanfare floating up the stairs. It was his grandparents’ favorite radio repeat. He grabbed Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, crept quietly to the stairs, and sat down on the top step. He remained very quiet and listened intently to the radio show his family enjoyed.
After several harp flourishes, the crescendo of the brass, an announcer calls, “Welcome to Magical May Mystery Theatre. Every week we recall a chilling tale from yesteryear. Let us turn to the wonderful works of Sir Stanley Bunion Boyle. This week is Hemlock Jones and the Case of the Missing Miss.”
The narrator, “It is a brisk fall evening in London. At 411 Butcher Block, the flickering gas lamps illuminate the slightly fogged, second-story window. We peer in to see our veteran detective, Hemlock Jones, relaxing by the fire. He is cranking the handle of his newly-purchased gramophone. After laying the needle, a gentle etude emerges from the decorative horn. Jones reclines on a wingback settee, his feet crossed upon a well-worn pillow. Jones enjoys his elaborate pipe. His trusted companion, Nurse Watterston, seated to Jones’ immediate right, is pouring three cups of tea. An anxious man sits opposite of Jones and the nurse in an upright parlor chair. He pleads with the pair.”
“You must help me find my daughter, Mister Jones! I humbly rely upon your unequaled skills.”
“Certainly, Lord Ghaddi! All in due time, old chap. First, Nurse, a cuppa for the journey.”
Nurse Watterston asks, “Where was your daughter last seen, my lord?”
“Lahdi was at home with my wife, Lady Maia. Her mother sent her upstairs to play while she arranged the house to receive Lahdi’s music teacher.”
Nurse, “And then she was just gone?”
Ghaddi, “Beg pardon?”
The nurse explains, “Vanished.”
“Oh. Yes. Quite.”
Jones explodes, “No matter! We shall pinpoint your precious progeny and restore the House of Lord Omar Ghaddi! Nurse, two lumps and away! Hither and thither in the ether!”
The narrator, “The trio gulped down their tea and dashed out into the street. Hemlock Jones used his best disguise to hail a hansom cab at that late hour. He lowered his head, pulled his overcoat away from his trouser hem and rolled his checkered pant past his knee. He revealed a rather racy, lacy white stocking. Immediately, a hansom cab driver diverted his apparatus to the curb and halted abruptly. Hemlock sprang to the carriage step and shouted to the cabbie.”
Jones, “Thank you, Driver! To Paddington! Make haste!”
The narrator, “The driver looked quite disappointed.”
The driver with a cockney accent, “With those gas-pipes, I thought you was a lady.”
“Nevermind! Drive on, my hansom man.”
A horse whinnies. Horse hooves clop. The sound of carriage wheels hiss through puddles.
The narrator, “The gentlemen and nurse nestled inside the vessel, drawn by horse on their terse, cursed course. The perplexed party hustled and bustled to address the mess and wrestle with the troubling, tussled puzzle. Phew.”
The harp chimes. The announcer calls, “We shall return to Hemlock Jones after these important messages.”
Commercials. Commercials are so boring. I bet Nurse Watterston looks like my mother. Big, friendly cheeks and soft eyes. Light hair and pink lips.
Charlie laid down on the top step. He took off one of his no-name sneakers and laid it behind his head. He flew Luke Skywalker back and forth, twirling the figure with his nimble fingers. He toyed with the fading light from the lone stairwell window.
He dreamed of adventures with Jones and Watterston.
I’ll be Hemlock. Mom could be Nurse Watterston. Dad could play any character.
Lord Omar Ghaddi would have a snowy beard and large glasses, but just behind those spectacles, at the very top, he would recognize those brows. The entire Guerrieri family had those thick, arched expression-makers. Even the women.
Is that Granpa?
But. Just below the fake-white, bushy mustache would be Frank’s charismatic smile. When Charlie detected his disguised father, Frank’s face wouldn’t change except for a small, twinkling wink.
Charlie’s eyes relaxed. His lips made sound effects for Luke. Pfff-shew. He remembered a novel, comforting tune.
“In me you see a man alone, behind the wall he’s learned to call his home…”
Charlie’s arms became heavy and he yawned.
“…walking in the rain, expecting love again.”
He imagined the thin white line that moved behind the numbers on the dial of the radio. The line turned into a rocket. The rocket launched. The exhaust swirled into curled hair.
“…learning to live with memories of midnights that fell apart at dawn.”
He closed his eyes. Bits of light flashed at the sides of his mind. The stars warped and stretched.
“A man who knows love is seldom what it seems, just other people’s dreams.”
Charlie drifted away before the radio program finished.
Charlie could only hear the hiss and hush of the radio off-air. The light was gone from the stairwell. He felt around for the hand railing to his right. He touched the cool wall by his bedroom door. It was damp. Now he heard the bathroom sink drip echoing through the hall. He couldn’t move very much for fear of falling.
“Hemlock?” A friendly female voice called to Charlie. “Hemlock, is that you?”
Charlie’s mother, dressed in a long, white gown, floated up the stairs, out of the darkness of the living room. She reached out for Charlie.
She didn’t reply. Charlie felt another presence by his shoulder, pressing into his sleeve.
“Hi, son.” Charlie felt a voice on his neck, a small fire in his ear. Charlie turned to see an old man–top hat with silk trim, spectacles pinched to a round nose, a wiry pushbroom mustache feathering into cheek-tickling chops. “Where have you been, Charlie?”
Charlie’s embarrassment and confusion crackled like pops of static between stations. “I was lost.”
His mother consoled him. “We’ve been so worried, Charlie. We’ve been looking everywhere.”
Charlie brightened. “I’ve been here the whole time. I was waiting for you. I can play now.”
“Sorry, Charlie Radio. It’s bedtime. We can play tomorrow, Sweets. I would love that.” His mother combed his hair off his forehead with her fingers.
“No! Please, don’t leave me. Please. You just got here. I’m here now.”
Charlie’s mother drifted down the steps. “Goodnight, Charlie.”
Charlie turned to his father, an attempt to keep him, to make him stay. “Lord Ghaddi, did you find your little girl?”
“Goodnight, Charlie.” His father winked. He shifted his weight to stand.
The static returned. Charlie’s eyes blurred with tears. He howled.
“Don’t leave me! Please! Please!”
“Charlie,” Granpa whispered. A little louder, “Charlie.”
Gramma gently rubbed Charlie’s arm and called, “Charlie Cheeks.”
Charlie roused; he wasn’t fully conscious. “Hm?”
“Time for bed, Puddin’.” Gramma steadied Charlie under his arm as he rose and turned slowly, aiming for his bedroom door.
Charlie swiped his face with his sleeve. His lashes clumped together. The tears were real at least.
Granpa picked up Luke and Leia from the step and placed them carefully on Charlie’s homework desk. He turned Charlie’s blankets down and fluffed his pillow. “Night, Charlie.”
Charlie woke. The sunshine streamed through his sheer, white curtains. The white panels reminded him of his mother’s midnight gown. He could hear soft voices downstairs. The radio was strangely silent. He slid down the stairs to listen. He stopped on the fourth stair; the third stair squeaks.
“He was listening, Gae.” Gramma was exasperated.
“We don’t know that,” Granpa reasoned.
“Gae, he was listening to the show. I just wonder how many times he’s done that.” Gramma was nervous.
Granpa dismissed her concern. “Let’s not say anything. He probably didn’t even understand.”
“I always thought we should tell him. This is nonsense. I let you ignore this for years. I can’t even say my own boy’s name in my house because you feel guilty.” Shirley trembled. Her eyes flickered and shone with mourning. “He’s mine, too.” Now with pride, “He’s still mine.”
A silent moment passed, like a prayer. Neither knew what to say. The wood step groaned when Charlie shifted.
“Charlie.” Gramma knew he was listening from the stair. “Charlie, come down.”
Charlie lost his cadence as he crept to the edge of the rug. “Am I in trouble?”
“No, Sweets. No.” Gramma stretched her arm and offered her curled palm. “Come here, Charlie.”
Charlie sat beside her on the scratchy tweed sofa. “Why are you mad at Granpa?”
“She’s not mad. We’re sad.”
“Is it my parents?”
“Yes. Were you listening to the show last night?” Gramma asked.
Charlie nodded. “It’s one of my favorites. It’s Sherlock Holmes, right? Sort of.”
Gramma sighed. “Yes. It’s a recording.”
Charlie agreed. “I know it’s not like a TV show. It’s really old.”
“We listen to it when we miss your dad,” she explained. “That’s your dad. And mom.”
Charlie wasn’t certain. “Frank? And Dianne?” Charlie guessed at what she meant.
“Yes. They recorded that just before their accident.” Gramma crossed to the credenza. She cupped her hand and whisked her fingers to summon Charlie.
She lifted the lid, like a hinged upright piano top, and showed Charlie a large device. Brown strips of tape lay loosely pooled around a metal spool. The reels reminded him of his own recorder, but bigger. The holes in the reel made him think of surprised giant panda faces. It looked like a film projector on its side.
“You mean it’s not the radio?”
“I’m so sorry, Charlie.” Granpa shuddered and his breathing changed. He sat forward in his recliner. “It’s my fault.”
Charlie ran to his grandfather and sat beside him on the stool. His small hand patted Granpa’s back. Gaetano broke. He was shaking. “I told them to go have fun.”
“Fun is what you do, Granpa.” Charlie kept patting.
Gaetano stood and grabbed his cigarettes. He coughed and sniffed. He wiped his eyes with his collar as he headed for the stairs.
Charlie sat beside his grandmother; she had returned to the rough couch. He laid his messy hair and muddled thoughts on her lap. Gramma tamed his tangled fringe with her careful fingers.
Granpa wasn’t driving the car. I don’t understand. Gramma told me to go play with Jimmy and I scraped my chin. But she definitely told me it was my fault. I don’t get it.
Charlie knew that his parents had died in a car accident together. Gramma had told him when he was five.
“Why don’t I have parents?” Charlie had asked after spending an afternoon at Jimmy’s.
Gramma’s answer had been short, but reassuring. “They had a bad accident, but we’re your parents now.” Her smile, at that moment, paired with a bowl of ice cream seemed more than adequate.
Charlie’s questions changed that morning. Why don’t we talk about them?
Charlie did what all children do, he grew. Granpa did what all humans must, he died. Gaetano passed during Charlie’s senior year of high school.
When Gaetano died, Charlie didn’t remember that dream, the radio show, or his offering of cold comfort. Almost ten years later, though, the vision drifted in on the billows of his first morning cigarette.
The old tabletop RCA, now permanently silent, sat on Charlie’s shelves, high above his writing desk. It rested next to the sleek Tie Fighter. Both had survived two moves and a pawn shop.
Granpa. The word no longer popped. It welled and bubbled like a tear–slow and full. What’s it like to lose your child? What’s it like to feel guilt for your child’s death?
Charlie plugged in his comfortable padded headphones.
I didn’t even know my parents. They were just pictures in an album, a fairy tale of sweethearts. How could I miss someone I never met? How can I grieve people I didn’t know?
I was never lonely or sad.
Granpa was sad and that worried me.
My friend, Jimmy? His loss was huge.
Granpa–his loss was the worst I’ve known.
My parents? They were…clouds without rain.
Listening to–Pink Floyd. Dark Side? No–Wish You Were Here.
Charlie stared at the open document on his laptop. He pressed his index finger against the edge of the desk, hoping to make his already-popped knuckle crack again.
I want to write a story. But–what?
Pop. The joint gave into pressure.
Nothing seemed worthy. His fingers cramped at the thought of typing anything. He cradled and pulled his jaw to one side, performing at-home chiropractic services. His eyes found the radio.
Avocado. Radio. Charlie Radio. What if…?
His fingers began whisking over the keys like Gramma pinching pepper into a pot. A story whistled on the stove.
In 1939, while the world was falling apart, I was put together.
My illuminated dial dimmed. I can’t play tunes any more. My mind forgot the music. My voice is silent. My faded avocado body has scratches and scars. No one thinks I can hear, but I can. I still remember.
I watch over Charlie. I listen for his voice. I listen for his laughter, stories, dreams, and pain. I listen for his thoughts tapped out on the keys. I listen for his words.
My life began the summer Gaetano Guerrieri walked into the small appliance shop at the end of 15th and Main. He was dressed in an olive-green uniform, holding hands with Shirley. Shirley pointed to me. The shop owner placed me back in my box, wrapped me in thick brown paper and delicately handed me to Gaetano.
“Grazie,” he said.
We strolled along 15th…