Charley’s Angles

27 Jun

Charley’s Angles

By L. Stewart Marsden

Part 1

Charley and me were twins. Not identical twins. Fraternal. But you would never know that in a million years. He and me was different in every way. I got the looks and the athletic body and all. What’d he get?

The brains.

Charley was smart as a whip. Beat you in chess blindfolded. Tell you the capital of every country in Indo – Indo – well, everywhere. Could talk his way in and out of trouble without you ever knowing what was going on.

Dad said we was so different he wondered did he need to check the woodpile. I never knew what he meant by that, but Mom would look at him with the awfullest sneer whenever he said it. And he said it a lot.

“It’s possible to have the children of two different fathers conceived at two different times and they be born at the same time,” Charley said once at breakfast over a bowl of Cheerios and bananas.

“I don’t see how,” said Mom, that look on her face again.

Charley looked at her and grinned back innocently, “Everyone doesn’t understand electricity, yet that doesn’t keep us from using it.”

Even I knew what he was doing, and had to bury my face in my napkin.

Once Charley said something like that when Mom had a pan of biscuits fresh from the oven. He learned never to tease her again when she was armed. The pan missed his head by inches.

But Charley was ugly. It was bad enough to be smart, but to have ugly piled on top of that was just about the cruelest thing God could have done him.

His face was skinny and his hair moppy. His ears looked like radar dishes stuck on. He was missing two teeth that never developed – from Mom’s side of the family (or the woodpile, Dad would say).

He was also sickly all the time. Allergic to just about everything, and caught anything that came along at school. Flu? He caught it every time. Measles? Mumps? Chicken Pox? Them, too. Even had rare diseases, like scarlet fever. He was a mess.

He was older than me by six minutes. That was one thing he had on me other than smarts. He was my older brother.

“Good thing we don’t practice primogeniture or you’d be stuck with nothing when Mom and Dad die.”

Well, first, I didn’t know what primo – primo – whatever – meant. And second, I thought it was terrible to think that Mom and Dad would ever die – much less talk about it.

In spite of everything we didn’t have in common, we loved the hell out of each other.

All through school Charley was the butt of bullying and teasing. He got tripped going up stairwells, and had his face pushed in more than one bowl of apple sauce at lunch. So I became his protector.

He only made things worse whenever he tried to use his smarts to keep him from getting beat up. Nobody understood half of what he said, and he said a lot. Big words. Words with more than two syllables.

“I suppose because of your inferior intellect you feel overwhelmed by mine, and must compensate by resorting to your instinctual and Neanderthal brutishness.”

WHAM!

And he was flat on the ground with several guys diving on top, swinging their fists.

I would come running up and clear the bodies off him, threatening sure death to the rats as they scrambled away in fear.

He would smile up at me, him flat on his back. “Thanks, Brother!” I’d pull him up and we’d go on our way, arms draped over each other’s shoulder, and I would give him my advice.

“You gotta quit talking like that, Charley!”

As we grew older, Charley played Ying to my Yang. I was a star running back on the football team. He was the team manager. I was the hot power forward on the basketball team, and he was the team statistician. I was the slugger who batted cleanup on the baseball team, and he was the bat boy and kept the inning by inning score chart.

If it hadn’t been for Charley, though, I’d never have made it through high school. He kept me eligible for sports by doing most of my homework. That kept my grade average up in spite of my test scores, which he couldn’t take, of course. He always said it was too bad we weren’t identical twins.

“I could take your tests, too, if teachers couldn’t tell us apart!”

I knew there would be advantages for Charley if we were identical; those he could only fantasize about: girls.

∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫

 

Part 2

 

“So what’s it like?” he asked me one night when I came back from a date.

“What’s what like?”

“You know. Being with a girl?”

“I don’t know! Like being with anybody, I guess. I never thought of it.”

“From what I hear, thinking has little to nothing to do with being with a girl.”

“Oh! You mean what’s sex like?”

“Yes!”

He sat up on his bed. He was all ears – which he was anyways. We shared a bedroom on the top floor. Our beds were separated by a table with a small lamp and wind-up clock on it.

I unbuttoned my shirt and threw it on the floor for Mom. Then turned my back to him and slipped my pants off and hopped quickly into my bed.

“You want to know what sex is like?”

“I do.”

“Well, one day you will know.”

“No I won’t. And you know that.”

“Yes you will! What? You gonna get some strange disease and die before you make it with a girl?”

I remember he sat there with the strangest look on his face. A sad smile and big eyes. Like our Golden Lab, Delbert. Like he knew something I didn’t – which was always the case.

“Sex. What’s it like?” And he waited, his head cocked to one side like Delbert when we were eating at the table and he begged for a taste. I could never resist feeding Delbert from the table either.

So I told him. I told him about Betty Sue – who was my first. How I slipped my hand under her blouse at the Center Theatre and she didn’t stop me. How she responded by putting her hand in my lap.

No!” Charley said in amazement, sitting up straighter.

How we awkwardly left the theater before the end of the movie and hurried up the dark aisle, all my buddies giving me the thumbs up and their dates grinning over big cups of Coca-Cola and boxes of popcorn. How we drove out to the lake. How I pulled a blanket from the back seat and kept the car radio on.

How Gary Puckett sang “Young Girl” just as Betty Sue slipped out of her blouse and unhooked her bra, displaying all her glory by the light of the waxing moon.

“Time for bed, Charley. Sweet dreams.”

Wow!” was all Charley could whisper.

I turned the light off.

The rustle of his bed sheets for several minutes told me Charley would indeed have sweet dreams – and more.

∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫

 

Part 3

 

“Say that again, Charley – slowly.”

I was distracted when he first said it, trying to reach a lone fry at the bottom of my bag of food from McDonald’s. Charley said it so casually just before he clamped down on his Big Mac as he sat in the passenger seat of my car.

“Leukemia,” he repeated, picking sesame seeds from between his teeth.

“What the hell is leukemia?”

“It’s a disease of the blood. The bone marrow, actually.”

“The what!?”

“It’s inside your bones. It’s where new blood cells are made.”

Rain splattered against the windshield of the car where we had parked. A sudden storm came out of nowhere with driving wind that shook trees and bushes around us. Customers made mad dashes out of McDonald’s to their cars, holding their shirts and jackets pulled over their heads in vain to keep dry.

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“I didn’t know for sure. And Mom made me promise not to.”

“Why the hell would she do that?”

“Well, finals. She said it would devastate you to the point you would blow it. If you don’t graduate, the football scholarship isn’t worth anything.”

“God!”

“No – it’s okay! Really! I completely agree with her. Look, it’s not her fault. No one’s fault. These things happen.”

“But why you? Why not me?”

“Why not me? Look, please don’t tell Mom I told you!?”

“Jeesh, Charley! I’m the only one in the family who doesn’t know this? Because of a lousy scholarship? How – did you catch this from somebody? Who else knows?”

“I didn’t catch it. And nobody else knows. Even Dad.”

“What!? Dad doesn’t know?”

“His heart. You can’t tell him either.”

“Yeah. Yeah that makes sense. So what happens?”

“I have some time. There are treatments we’re going to try. Doctor Slate told us to go to Duke. They’re on the cutting edge of most medical conditions.”

“How long have you known?”

“Two days.”

“That’s where you and mom were, when you went to Duke?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought that was to interview to go there. This is so – so crappy!”

“I know.”

“Are you gonna die?”

“Everyone’s going to die …”

“–You know what I mean!”

“Don’t know.”

I pounded the steering wheel in anger, and the tears came – suddenly, like the rain.

“Oh, Charley!”

“I know.”

“I wish I could do something! I mean, it should be me, not you! I’d do anything to help – you know that.”

“I know.”

The rain and wind continued to beat down around us. Curtains of water swept across the parking lot and the streets. The car began to shake with the storm.

“There is something you could do for me. But, nah – I shouldn’t ask –”

“No–no–no! There’s nothing you can never not ask me! I’ll do anything to help! Honest to God, I will!”

A flash of lightning startled us both, and thunder rolled off into the distance. Charley was reluctant, and had trouble telling me what was on his mind.

“Honest, Charley! Anything!”

Another distant rumble.

“Remember when you told me about you and Betty Sue at the lake?”

It was the furthest thing from my mind, but not hard to remember.

“Yeah?”

“And remember how you said one day I would know what sex was like and I told you I wouldn’t?”

“Uh, yeah.”

His look came back to my mind. That strange look on his face. The sad smile and big eyes. Like Delbert at the dinner table.

“I was right. I won’t ever know what sex is like.”

“You knew about this back then?”

“I didn’t know – I had a hunch. An instinct. I had been feeling exhausted lately.”

“You’re always exhausted …”

“Worse than usual. And I was bruising in strange places on my body, and didn’t remember being hit or bumping into anything. No bullies lately, thanks to you.”

“That’s leukemia?”

“That’s the lack of platelets.”

“What?”

“Simply, you bruise easily. And I was. So I looked up the symptoms in the school library, and I matched up with most of them. I told Mom, and that’s when we went to see Dr. Slate. A few tests, and …”

“So it’s for certain?”

“I can’t tell you that. Duke ran different tests to find out conclusively. But it doesn’t look good. I have to decide what to do. Do I go to Duke for treatment? Mom mentioned St. Judes. But, like I said – looks like I won’t ever know what sex is like.”

“That’s sad, Charley. Very sad. God, I hurt for you.”

“But, that’s where you could help me out.”

“Whaddaya mean by that?”

“Betty Sue.”

“What!?”

“So I don’t die without that experience! Like you said, very sad! And, like you also said, you would do anything for me, right?”

And it dawned on me what Charley wanted. I was so confused by the news of his disease! And it truly was sad that he could die without experiencing sex. And even if he didn’t die from it, who knows how it would effect his ability to – well – perform? And I could probably at least do something about that for him – if nothing else. It was a brother’s obligation, after all.

As if a sign of confirmation, the rain stopped as suddenly as it started. A shaft of sunlight pierced through the dark clouds and illumined the steeple on the First Main Street Baptist Church across the street.

It was the closest I ever came to having a real spiritual event, and was as if God himself had said through that shaft of light, “Go thou, and fetch Betty Sue for thy brother’s sake.”

“I’ll call her tonight,” I told Charley.

A big missing-tooth smile broke out over his thin face, and his large ears even seemed to wiggle in appreciation. I thought he was going to join me in a flood of tears.

“God bless you, Brother!” Charley said to me, gripping my shoulder with his trembling hand.

∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫

 

Part 4

Betty Sue was talented – in many ways. She played a mean trumpet in the band, and boy could she blow (if you know what I mean)! Not so bad in the classroom, either. She wasn’t exactly the girl you bring home to mother, but she was the experienced woman in our class.

She could drink any guy under the table, take the pot at poker every time, and smoke a cigarette and chew tobacco at the same time without turning green and puking.

I thought she looked like those posters of Rosey the Riveter from World War II.

I didn’t know what she would say when I called her about Charley, but I knew she had a big heart. She was a sucker for sappy stories, Golden Retriever, and little kids.

She didn’t disappoint me.

“Oh! God! Of course I will! When do you want me to come over? Tonight?”

That surprised me. It was ten o’clock when I called her. Of course, time was of the essence for Charley, and he nodded his head insistently when I replied, “Tonight? I don’t know …”

His ears, now burning red, flopped back and forth, his eyes wide open.

“Yeah, sure! Tonight’s fine. Say, midnight? That way Mom and Dad will be asleep. Can you climb trees? We’re on the second floor and there’s a big water oak beside the window. Not afraid, are you?”

“I’m not afraid of much. What’s your address?”

I gave it to her, and she made a kiss sound over the phone before she hung up.

Charley was beside himself with excitement and anticipation.

“Should I take a bath? Yes! I should take a bath!” And he stripped off his clothes on the way to the bathroom down the hallway. I walked in a few minutes later and lavender bubbles were creeping over the side of the tub as he completely sudsed himself. I laughed.

With a mound of bubbles peaked on top of his head, Charley stopped and nodded at me.

“I owe you big time. Thank you for doing this!”

“That’s what little brothers are for.” And we both laughed.

“I figure you don’t have protection,” I said as I squeezed my hand into my jeans and pulled a plastic packet from my front pocket. TROJAN was printed on the packet. I tossed it to him and he missed it, scrambling with his hands through the suds to pull it out of the water and look at it.

“Doesn’t using one of these take the sensation out of it?” he asked.

“Peggy Sue requires it. She doesn’t want little Charley’s running around pulling at her apron, right?”

“Remember when we were young and I found one of these in the woods behind Grampa’s house?”

I did remember. Neither of us knew what it was, but Charley opened it.

“Eeeyew! It’s all slimey!” he said at the time, holding the wound rubber up with two fingers. “It’s a balloon!”

We took the “balloon” to the city pool, and Charley unrolled it, and blew. He blew and he blew and he blew. It was off-white in color, and grew to an incredible size.

“Hey, Charlie! Where’d you get that?” asked one of the older kids, laughing.

“I found it at my Grampa’s.”

Everyone laughed.

Charley dried off as the tub drained, and combed his hair back. He brushed his teeth twice and rinsed with Listerine. Then he coated his underarms with Ban deodorant. He carefully popped the most obvious zits on his face, and squeezed out a few blackheads. He literally showered himself in Canoe, all the while staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, posing to the side and trying to look sexy. I could hardly keep from laughing.

“I suppose I’ll turn out the lights when Peggy Sue and I – you know.”

“Might be wise,” I grinned.

“Should I wear pajamas?”

“No. Underwear and a T-shirt.”

“Could I borrow a pair of your boxers?” He only wore tidy-whities.

“Long as you wash them.”

Back in our room Charley began to straighten up. He even made my bed, which I normally did myself at least once a month. He took down the Miss May fold out and stashed it in the bed table drawer.

“I don’t think Peggy Sue would mind the picture.”

“I mind. I don’t want her to think I’m that kind of guy.”

“What kind of guy?”

“You know –” and pumped his fist a couple of times. “You didn’t tell her I’m a virgin, did you?”

“Charley!? That’s the whole point of her agreeing to come over tonight!”

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, that’s okay.”

He was really nervous, and kept picking up the windup clock to check the time.

“You know what they say about a watched clock.”

“You’re right. Can I play your stereo? When she gets here? I’d like to play either your Johnny Mathis album or Dionne Warwick. Which do you think? Which will be best for the mood?”

I began to have second thoughts about this. I mean, Charley was a bit – I don’t know – over the top?

“Charley, relax! It isn’t like this is anything special for Peggy Sue! She’s not going to wear your ring or anything like that afterwards. It’s a one-time thing. You don’t have to impress her, or worry about what you look like, or how you smell, or your breath or anything! She’s coming here to bang you, man! That’s it. Nothing special for her.”

Charley slumped on his bed. I regretted the words almost as soon as I said them.

“Look – I didn’t mean it isn’t special. It is. For you, I know. And for Peggy Sue.”

“Right,” he said without feeling.

“Look, don’t play Mathis or Warwick.” I got up from my bed and went to my stack of albums and rifled through them quickly, pulling one out, which I handed to Charley.

“Your Led Zeppelin? For mood music?”

“Stairway to Heaven,” I replied. “Mood beyond mood.”

He looked at the label, flipped the album over and looked again for the song.

“It’s only eight minutes long!”

“Kiddo – that will be plenty of time, believe me.”

A tap on the window interrupted us. It was Peggy Sue, straddling the thick branch of the water oak that was closest to the window.

It was midnight.

 

∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫

 

Part 5

Peggy Sue had gone all-out for Charley, and I was so proud of her and glad for him. She wore a halter top tied in the front, and form-fitting satin pants. It was obvious she wore no bra, and I wondered if she had no panties as well.

Her long blonde hair was wavy – like she had rolled it. Later she told me she had. Plus she had taken a bath and powdered her body with Baby Powder, painted her nails and toenails. She smelled delicious, and I was a bit envious of the experience my brother was about to have.

Peggy Sue pecked me on the cheek with her deep red lips, and smiled. “You staying?”

“Oh, no! No, I’m leaving,” and she ushered me out of the room. Just before she closed the door I caught my final image of Charley as a virgin, sitting on the edge of his bed dressed in a white Hanes vee-neck T, and a pair of polkadot boxers that were way too big for him. The look on his face was priceless.

Peggy Sue closed the door quietly, so as not to wake my parents, who were long asleep in their room at the end of the hallway.

I turned and sauntered to the stairway, stopping halfway and pausing until I saw the bedroom light go out from under my bedroom door, and then heard “Stairway to Heaven.”

I was incredibly proud of myself, and grabbed a blanket and pillow from the downstairs closet, and curled up on the livingroom sofa for the night. Periodically I could hear footsteps crossing the floor upstairs, and “Stairway to Heaven” begin again.

Damn! I thought.

Six times the song played.

And on the seventh, all hell broke loose.

 

∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫

 

Part 6

Know how there are those times when you are listening to good music and you become “one” with it? How things around you kind of disappear, and how you swirl with the beat and the tune and you have no consciousness of anything around you? How, for example, the loudness of the music doesn’t register with you? Or you aren’t bothered by repeating that tune over and over and over again?

That’s what happened to Charley and Peggy Sue. Every time he got up to reset the stereo stylus to “Stairway to Heaven,” he also bumped up the volume a bit, and on the seventh time he played the song, the volume was full blast.

Neither one of them heard Mom complaining from her and Dad’s bedroom, “Turn the music down, please!”

Then, “TURN the music DOWN, please!”

“TURN THE MUSIC DOWN, PLEASE!!!”

“TURN THE GODDAM MUSIC DOWN – AND DO IT NOW!!!”

The couple, leg-locked and totally naked in Charley’s bed, were also totally lost in each other and the music. They never heard Mom’s vocal complaints. They didn’t hear Mom jump up out of her bed and stomp heavily down the hallway toward our bedroom. They were completely oblivious of anything else but the music and the moment.

Until Mom swung open the door, turned on the ceiling light and screamed at the top of her lungs,

“CHARLES FISHBURNE MILLER!? WHAT IN GAWD’S NAME IS GOING ON IN HERE?”

That scream awoke me from a very sensual dream that happened to star Peggy Sue, and it took me a few seconds to realize what was going on. Then I heard Peggy Sue and Charlie screaming, and Mom screaming, and Dad come out of his bedroom to join in the screaming.

Not exactly sure what to do, run or rescue, I chose to rescue, and bounded up the stairs to my bedroom.

Mom was in the middle of the bedroom flailing her arms at Charley and Peggy Sue, who were cowering behind the top bedsheet on his bed, and Dad was behind Mom, not sure where to look.

I walked in and Mom turned to me, possessed by a demon.

“WHAT IS YOUR PART IN THIS, YOUNG MAN?”

Not good. Her saying “YOUNG MAN” was not only high drama, but meant I was in deep doo-doo. But once again, as when Charley was being crushed and pummeled under a stack of bullies, I stepped in. Captain Rescue.

“It’s my fault, Mom. I set this up for Charley because of – well, (I looked quickly at Dad) – you know …”

“NO! I do NOT know! Because of what?”

I kept nodding my head toward Dad, not wanting to stress him with the revelation.

“You got a tick, Boy?” Dad said, his eyebrows arching close to his widow’s peak hairline.

“BECAUSE OF WHAT?” Mom demanded.

I looked over at Charley, who had closed his eyes and was slowly shaking his head.

“BECAUSE OF THE LEUKEMIA!” I exploded, tears bursting from my eyes. Peggy Sue also began to cry while Charley slowly crawled under the sheet.

“LEUKEMIA? WHAT LEUKEMIA?” Mom and Dad shouted in unison.

Then there was the pregnant pause.

My parents looked at me, and I and Peggy Sue looked at Charley, who was now bent over on his knees on the bed, covered by the sheet – except for his white behind, which was partially uncovered. That struck me hilarious in the moment, and while the seventh repetition of “Stairway to Heaven” ended and the scratch, scratch, scratch of the needle on blank vinyl began to repeat in the background, I started to laugh.

“Your ass is showing, Charley,” I said, a fit of laughter overwhelming me, so contagious eventually everyone in the room was bent over.

Somehow over the next few hours, after Charley and Peggy Sue had dressed themselves (she in the bathroom, and he under the covers), the truth unravelled. Only Mom and Dad were innocent. And, thank God, Dad didn’t keel over with a heart attack when he heard the word leukemia.

 

∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫

Epilogue

All of us survived the experience, although Dad did finally drop dead on his desk at work a few years later. Mom remarried when she was older. A nice guy. A vegan.

Peggy Sue graduated high school, worked her way through a local college, and ended up running an auto tire place and making very good money. She married and had six children – all girls. I wonder if they were anything like she was. One can only hope.

Me? I fractured my hip during my sophomore year of college in a game against State, and paid the rest of my way through college making pizzas at Dominos. I ended up selling insurance, and doing pretty good. I’ve got a daughter and two sons, and do the “dad thing” – ball games and proms and – well, you know.

Charley? Charley was like the ugly duckling who transformed into quite a handsome guy in his 30s. He went to Duke on scholarship, and ended up on Wall Street, where he cleaned up, financially-speaking. He lives on the Upper East Side with his wife and one son. I think his skill at coming up with angles benefitted him and kept him in such good stead that he came to the attention of one of the biggest money moguls in Manhattan: a guy named Bernie Madoff. He has done incredibly well, and keeps begging me to come to New York and work with him.

As yet, I haven’t done so. I don’t know, maybe I’m not smart enough – and maybe it’s dumb not to take him up on it. But after that experience with him and Peggy Sue? I’ll stay here and be content with what I got. Besides, a Southern Boy in New York City? Nah. I’ll leave that to Charley and his angles. He’s more suited to the big city.

By the way, have you looked at whether or not you have enough insurance, lately?

 

The End.

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