FOUR - Charlie Brown

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Be a cartoon heart

Light a fire; a fire; a spark

Light a fire; a flame in my heart


     I was five when our house burned down. I don't remember feeling the heat, or even seeing any flames. I just remember how, when it was all over, I took a step where our kitchen floor used to be and it all gave way beneath me. "Charlie! Charlie, be careful!" I remember the feeling of my dad's hands as he grabbed me and pulled me back; how he set me down on a lawn that was grey with ash, and pushed my hair away from my face. I remember how dusty he was—it mattered because he was always meticulously clean—but there he was with a dirty face and one shiny trail where a tear leaked down and fell off his chin. I knew then he was broken. That was where we began to lose our happy.

     The fire wasn't anybodies fault. Things happen, they said. Mom just knew it was his cigarette. "You always fall asleep with one in that chair!" But it wasn't a cigarette at all because the Fire Chief told us it originated in the garage. Faulty wiring, they thought. Mom didn't listen. She found strange solace in having someone to blame. "You could have killed Charlotte," she would say, over and over, just like she played her favourite record. "A hundred times fresh, you know. Like a bridge over troubled waters—these words carry me, Char." I learned the power of music before I understood it.

     The fire melted all the records, of course. Mom cried new tears when she pulled them out from under a big chunk of ceiling; a black, shiny glob of 70's classics. But Simon and Garfunkel—that had been in the bedroom, though no one could remember why—and, but for the cover, it was untouched. I watched my mother lift it from the dresser while smoke still dribbled up from debris on the floor. She wiped it with the hem of her shirt like it was precious—the very same way my father had wiped my face. "Seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go..." she sang along as if it was her anthem. "Singers know things the rest of us forget," she told me.

     We lived in a 1982 Prowler after that; extension chords running into the back of Nana and Poppa Flynn's row house in Yonkers. We could wave to New Jersey from the window over the sink. It was the kind of town where nobody cared to get to know us as long as we didn't step on their lawn. (Except the neighbour lady, but mom and I didn't know about her until it was too late.)

     Mom kept a little record player on the ledge behind the kitchenette bench-seat. It hung over the edge and I often bumped my head but the music made it worth it. She popped that S&G album cover up against the panelled wall beside it and liked to touch Paul Simon's scarf, even though the bottom third of it was forever singed. "He looks a bit like your dad, don't you think?" she'd say.

     "Dad's got more handsome on him," I'd reply.

     "Yeah, he does. He's got a face like a song, doesn't he?" She was always romantic, even when—no, especially when—the music was sad.

     "Dance with me, Charlie," my father would say and I'd cling to his neck and wonder why he smelled like a stranger's perfume.

     "Why do you call me Charlie?"

     "Poppa's name is Charlie," he'd tell me, but it was never enough to satisfy me.

     I wanted to be Garfunkel. I didn't want to be Charlie or Charlotte. I wanted to be a mysterious blond gazing out at the world with earnest dreams; but, even at six years old I was convinced I was nothing more than ordinary. No one ever invited me to play. My father and the tin drum mom found at the Salvation Army Thrift Store were my dearest friends. Dad would swing me in his big arms while he danced in the grass, singing Charlie Don't Surf. He thought he should have been a Beach Boy and he sang loudly, embodying their wide-eyed innocence and finger snapping even when he sang The Clash. He had the kind of rich voice that bought swoons from the lady next door (who spent way too much time in her garden, ignoring her own children). Those times were okay. Those times were nearly happy, but that's because I didn't know what neighbour lady and Daddy were doing while I dug to China in the sandbox.

     Feigned happiness or not, an ugly trailer was always in our peripheral and even our truest laughter was always a little bit smoky. There were many things we lost in the fire; our joy was the most tragic.

________________

     I tightened the borrowed scarf around my neck and reached into the front pocket of my duffle bag, pulling out a grey velvet jewelry box. I let my finger run over the surface, pushing against the grain so a line appeared in the creamy fabric. When I opened it, a sigh fell from me—the kind of weak gasp I imagine an oyster might make when a pirate forces his way to a pearl. A piece of charcoal rested on the forever-stained satin inlay. I lifted it out, turning it in my fingers, inspecting it like a gem. It had been a gift from my father. He pressed it into my hand after the fire—pulled from beneath the remains of our living room, down where oxygen hadn't touched it—and told me as long as I had it, I'd be rich in what matters. "Coal is just a diamond that hasn't learned to shine. You can do anything, Char. Your dreams are shadows right now, but someday they'll light up the world. Keep this close. It will help you to remember you have to try hard. There are no silver platters. You earn your audience. No one will see you glitter without a little effort. Never stop trying, no matter your goal. This is just your beginning. You'll always be my little Charcoal Charlie."

     I didn't really understand. How could I? I was only five at the time.

     It wasn't until I was in ninth grade science class that I realized charcoal and coal weren't the same thing. The only things you got from charcoal were dirty fingers. But I kept it. I kept it even though I lost him. And every time I cracked that box, a little piece of me buried deep within myself felt a cool wave of disappointment that the piece of coal was still just a piece of coal.

     Someday I'll be a diamond. Someday I'll even glow in the dark.

     ________________

     "Bad girl last Christmas?"

     I startled from my thoughts, confused for a moment until I focused on the fedora-topped banjo man beside me in the audition line. I snapped the box shut. "It was from my dad," I said, noticing new people lined up behind us, each with their instrument case, wearing the earnest look of every starving artist who thinks this just might be their Next Big Thing.

     "Weird gift."

     I shrugged. "Motivation," I said.

     "What-do-ya-mean?"

     "Everyone's a baby diamond."

     He raised an eyebrow and blew out a breath. "You read that on a billboard?"

     "What song are you singing?" I asked, desperate to have him out of my personal bubble.

     "Some Soggy Bottom Boys."

     "Nice," I said. Lame choice. Too obvious.

     "I'm a man of constant sorrow," he said, lifting up his banjo case. "You?"

     I smiled but I didn't want to tell him.

     "Come on," he said. "What's the harm? Sing me a little bit."

     I licked my lips and tasted the freshness of the air. I felt the final smog of my smoke-filled memories flit from the top of my head like a shucked shadow. "Who by fire," I sang. Slowly. Richly. "Who by water..."

     "Who's that?" he interrupted. "Dylan?"

     I felt sorry for him then. Imposter. "Cohen."

     "Huh. Kind of obscure."

     "Obscure?"

     "Isn't he Canadian?"

     "So."

     He shrugged and pushed his fedora back on his head a little, his lips turned up cocky. "I mean, I've got George Clooney with me."

     Standing beside this man and his arrogance made me miss my dad. I thought about calling him. Getting his blessing. Asking for his good luck wishes. Putting myself right back in the middle of all the highs, all the lows.

     "Clooney's got my back," Fedora said.

     "I've got scarecrow dreams," I threw back at him and I suddenly understood how to introduce Leonard to Chris Martin, making my audition song into the hero I always wished my father could be.

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