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“Well, I got faith in you, Charlie. You’ll land on your feet, with seven lives left. It’s darkest before the dawn. Things are about to take a turn for the better, I can feel it. Chin up, Charlie.” She hung up.
On his way back to the hotel, Charlie got jumped. He recognized the two men as local thugs who had been hanging around when he had staked out the phone booth. The larger man held a knife to his throat while the short guy went through his pockets. He took Charlie’s money and threw his wallet in the gutter, then pulled the leather jacket off Charlie’s back. As the men backed away from Charlie, the big man pointing the knife at him, Charlie chuckled nervously and thanked them.
The little man walked back up to Charlie. “What was that?” he asked. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Charlie said.
“Thank you? Thank you for what? What you thanking me for? For this?” Charlie saw a blur of knuckles, then felt a crunching pain in his nose and mouth. He slumped down onto his knees and held his hands over his face. “Now you can thank me,” the man said. “Well? You gonna thank me? Are you?” Charlie shook his head, still holding his hands over his face. His mouth began to fill with blood, but he kept it shut. He heard the men walk away, then got up and retrieved his wallet. His upper lip was bleeding down his chin and onto his shirtfront. He bent over a metal sewer grate and spat out a mouthful of blood. There was a light clinking sound. A quick sweep with his tongue informed him that a front tooth had been knocked out.
Late that summer, there was a quiet knock on Charlie’s door. He never had visitors, and figured some lost or lonely drunk was wandering the halls, so he didn’t answer. But the knocking persisted, then a voice: “Dad, are you there?” He opened the door slowly, half expecting a phantom or demon — the kind that mimics the voice of a loved one — to fly down his throat.
Joelle was taller than he remembered. Her eyes were older, and she looked tired and terribly sad. She’d let her hair grow in and dyed it jet black, which made her skin seem even paler. She walked into the room and looked around, but Charlie could tell she wasn’t really taking in what she saw. She turned to face him, then averted her eyes, looking at his chest as she spoke. “I tried to find you, for months. But you were nowhere, and I gave up. Later I was going out with this guy, a private detective, and one night I told him about you. He says I bet I could find him. But we broke up and I figured that was that. Then last Friday I get a text from him that says ‘alias ralph booth, hotel pontito.’”
She paused, as if waiting for a response. Looking at the young woman before him, Charlie was overcome with a gentle awe, a sense of the miraculous at who she was and how she’d found him. He felt his mind searching half-heartedly for words, but found none.
Joelle resumed speaking, now in a kind of plaintive singsong, as though reciting phrases she had said to herself many times, though maybe not all at once. “I know I’m not a good person, and I’m not a good daughter. I’ve been busy with my life and took you for granted. I’m basically selfish, so I shouldn’t expect much from you, or anybody else. I know Mom loves me, but that’s just because she’s a mom, it’s nothing personal. Guys never stick around for long, so I figure I don’t have much to offer. I perceive these things. And I understand maybe I don’t deserve you for a dad — I never really did anything to earn your love. But did I do things that were so bad that I should be shut out forever?” She paused again, but only for a moment. “I want to know. I’ll go away if you tell me to, if I’m that bad. But you have to tell me what I did, and then tell me to go away and never come back.”
“It’s not you. It’s them.”
“Who’s them. Who are you talking about?”
“Mr. Vitek. He wanted to hurt you, to cripple you. They can do that. They did it to your grandma. I had to protect you. I really did.”
“Have you been using drugs, Dad?”
“I don’t think so. No.”
“Can we sit down a minute?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m sorry, please have a chair. I got some food, and some soda or beer.”
“A beer would be good.”
He grabbed two bottles from the little refrigerator under the window and twisted off the tops. As he approached Joelle, he suddenly became self-conscious of the way he was walking. He had, since the mugging, developed a particular, idiosyncratic stride, a self-deprecating, slightly pigeon-toed hobble meant to communicate his subservience to local street predators; he realized that it had become second nature. He sat on the bed, his knees almost touching Joelle’s, looked down at his beer, and smiled. Joelle looked around nervously.
“Some cop’s been asking about you, Dad. Detective Milero. He comes by my place at odd hours. He stares at my tits and asks me where you went. I give him a beer and tell him I haven’t seen you. He sticks around — maybe he wants to see if you’ll call or show up. He asks questions about my love life. One time he told me I’m as beautiful as my grandmother — now there’s a slick line.” She guzzled some beer.
“You have gotten beautiful,” Charlie said, realizing that as a talker he was out of practice — his words weren’t saying quite what he meant.
“He always touches me — usually when he’s leaving. He pats me on the back and smiles this creepy smile. Then he lets his hand slide down over my ass. Ruins my appetite for hours.”
“You seem wise and sad. I hope I don’t make you sad.”
“Daddy, you disappeared. Gramma disappeared. It’s not good when people you love disappear. You figure nobody on this earth wants to be near you. You figure that everything you thought to be true was ignorance, just plain empty air.” She finished the bottle. “I had to find you.”
“I’m glad you found me,” he said.
Joelle visited nearly every week. She worked as a pharmacy assistant in a Walgreen’s near the Federal Building, and it was an easy walk from there to Charlie’s hotel. She brought him supplies, and told him stories of her workday, and of the men she went out with on the weekend. She gave him an iPod that she had filled with music, including many of his favorite R&B songs of the 40s and 50s.
She had a falling out with her mother, and got herself a little studio apartment downtown. She visited Charlie more often. She fell in love with a software salesman from Seattle, a man who, like so many others she’d found herself with, didn’t seem to care for her as much as she did for him. Charlie didn’t see much of her for a while. Then she came by on a Saturday afternoon to say goodbye — she was moving to Seattle. She sent Charlie a Hallmark card every couple months, always enclosing a five hundred dollar money order.
One evening the following spring, Charlie went down to the hotel lobby to check his mail. There was a letter, addressed — in typescript — to Ralph Booth. He figured it was from Joelle, though she only sent him cards and would not have typed in the address on an envelope. The letter was postmarked New Orleans. He opened it and recognized his mother’s handwriting.
Boy was it hard to get a hold of your address. Only somebody with the wherewithal of a Mr. Vitek could track you down. Many things have happened since we last spoke. I live with Lars, who is Mr. Vitek’s chauffeur. I think we’re in Florida. Mr. Vitek owns the apartment building in which we live, and it has a swimming pool. Lars bought me flippers to swim with, because he says human feet with their tiny toes aren’t adequate for kicking through water. While I am on the subject of body parts, I should tell you that I have a set of dentures that would make a beaver grin. I ate corn right off the cob Sunday afternoon.
Charlie, Mr. Vitek tells me that you have been through some hard times. You know what, your age is a hard time of life to go through, period. I remember like it was yesterday. Just keep in mind, it is like having back pain, you think it will never end but things do get better. Believe me Charlie, things do get better. Look at me, living proof. I have had some pretty bad days in the past year or two, and now I am happy as a frog. I am even down to a pack a day, thanks to Lars.
So Charlie I send my love to you, and to Joelle too. I hope your lives are a joy, and that your health is good because good health is the foundation for good living. And maybe someday you can come out here to visit us. Lars and I have a schnauzer and many plants!
Your Loving Mother,