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Charlie’s Night


Harry Buschman

Charlie stood at the head of the stairs in his undershorts. By the feel of the old house he estimated the time. “Must be 2:30,” he said aloud, and as if to corroborate his decision, the grandfather clock on the landing below rang twice and then once.

“What am I doing up at this ungodly hour,” he asked himself. Then, in an attempt to answer the question, he descended the rest of the way.

He felt his way through the front hall and found himself in the living room. His mother’s living room, to be precise, until she died five years ago. It was his living room now. The threadbare carpet beneath his feet reminded him of the passage of time. Thousands of footfalls had worn it down. Although it was too dark to see, there were thousands of aunt’s and uncle’s asses permanently imprinted in the sagging sofa, thousands of fingers had yellowed the keys of the old upright piano and stained the wallpaper surrounding the light switches.

Day by day the old house was worn down by the Spivak family who lived there, and Charlie Spivak, standing in the center of his living room in his undershorts was the last of them. That was the thought that had wakened him and driven him downstairs.

He reminded himself that he could put the place up for sale ... but with the market the way it was, who would buy it? He felt his way across the room to the corner where he knew his mother’s favorite chair was. He eased himself into it, at the same time reasoning that the neighborhood was depressed, the house needed major repairs and the property taxes had driven all the neighbors away. Charlie couldn’t think of one good reason why he shouldn’t put a torch to it. With that thought in mind he rose from the chair and started for the kitchen where he remembered the straight wooden matches were still kept in a box on the wall next to the stove. But then he realized he was in his undershorts and all his worldly belongings were still upstairs in his bedroom.

Charlie Spivak was not an organized individual. He never had been. If he had, he would never be the sole survivor in this house on Lilac Drive in the town of Caucus, New York. He would have moved away years ago, got a fine job in the city like his brother did, or died like his parents did in the midst of the good times. He felt cheated – put upon – to be left with the residue of his family’s life.

He switched on the lamp next to the chair his father always read by. One or two pictures still clung to the living room wall. Stuffy, posed photos of his immigrant grandparents – a picture of his father in the AEF, his legs wrapped in puttees – wearing a determined frown as if he were told to make a face to frighten the Kaiser. He took them all down, looked at them carefully one by one and dropped them face down on the floor.

Now there was nothing, just lighter patches of wallpaper where the pictures had been. The people on the wall had been flesh and blood but the pictures had not; yet neither were more meaningful to him than the patches of discolored wallpaper. They were pictures of people he thought he knew once long ago, yet looking closer at their unchanging and expressionless faces he decided they were people he never got to know at all.

It was time to go. He turned out the light and climbed the stairs again. He passed the slowly ticking grandfather clock which was about to strike three. He passed his parent’s closed bedroom door and his brother’s empty room, now stripped of all furniture. Finally he came to his own bedroom at the back of the house. It had been used as a storeroom until his brother demanded a room of his own. So they put Charlie in this room along with other things his mother could not part with. The wire bird cage and the fish tank, a German helmet and her Tiffany lamp.

Charlie would not take these things with him. Two hard sided suitcases were all he needed – he was sure he could get everything he ever owned into two suitcases. When they were full he would take them downstairs and put them by the kitchen door. Then he would go back upstairs for the last time and get the oil lamp that stood on the little table on the stair landing ... how simple it would be. He would take the lamp down to the living room and up-end it on the frayed rug, light it and leave by the kitchen door. He would walk to the taxi stand on Main Street and get a cab to the railroad station. He would time it so that he would there in time to catch the seven-thirty commuter train to Albany – once in Albany no one could find him. He could spend the rest of his life in Albany without anyone knowing he was there.

But ... wouldn’t that be the same kind of life he led now? It seemed to Charlie his whole life had been spent without anyone knowing he was there.

Why walk away then? Why not stay and watch the old place burn to the ground – or better yet, why not go with it? It would make a lovely light; the pictures, the ratty old furniture, the threadbare rug ... and Charlie himself. Altogether. People would remember him. People would say, “Were you around the night old Charlie Spivak burned down his house with himself inside? Boy, what a night that was.”

Yes ... they’d remember him then.

©Harry Buschman 2008

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