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To remember charlie by, p.2
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       To Remember Charlie By, p.2

           Roger D. Aycock
 
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the boy. Thedog isn't coming home. He was run down by a car on the highway whileJoey was hospitalized with polio."

  "Tough," I said, thinking of the kid sitting out there all day in hiswheelchair, straining his eyes across the palmetto flats. "You meanhe's been waiting a _year_?"

  Doc nodded, seemed to lose interest in the Ponds, so I let the subjectdrop. We sat around after supper and polished off the rest of thebeer. When we turned in around midnight I figured we wouldn't bestaying long at the Twin Palms trailer court. It wasn't a verycomfortable place.

  I was wrong there. It wasn't comfortable, but we stayed.

  I couldn't have said at first why we stuck, and if Doc could he didn'tvolunteer. Neither of us talked about it. We just went on living theway we were used to living, a few weeks here and a few there, allover the States.

  We'd hit the Florida west coast too late for the citrus season, so Iwent in for the fishing instead. I worked the fishing boats all theway from Tampa down to Fort Myers, not signing on with any of thecommercial companies because I like to move quick when I get restless.I picked the independent deep-water snapper runs mostly, because thepercentage is good there if you've got a strong back and tough hands.

  Snapper fishing isn't the sport it seems to the one-day tourists whoflock along because the fee is cheap. You fish from a wide-beamed oldscow, usually, with hand-lines instead of regular tackle, and you usemultiple hooks that go down to the bottom where the big red ones are.There's no real thrill to it, as the one-day anglers find out quickly.A snapper puts up no more fight than a catfish and the biggest job isto haul out his dead weight once you've got him surfaced.

  Usually a pro like me sells his catch to the boat's owner or to someclumsy sport who wants his picture shot with a big one, and there'snearly always a jackpot--from a pool made up at the beginning of everyrun--for the man landing the biggest fish of the day. There's a knackto hooking the big ones, and when the jackpots were running good Ionly worked a day or so a week and spent the rest of the time lyingaround the trailer playing cribbage and drinking beer with Doc Shull.

  Usually it was the life of Riley, but somehow it wasn't enough in thisplace. We'd get about half-oiled and work up a promising argumentabout what was wrong with the world. Then, just when we'd got lifelooking its screwball funniest with our arguments one or the other ofus would look out the window and see Joey Pond in his wheelchair,waiting for a one-eyed dog named Charlie to come trotting home acrossthe palmetto flats. He was always there, day or night, until hismother came home from work and rolled him inside.

  It wasn't right or natural for a kid to wait like that for anythingand it worried me. I even offered once to buy the kid another mutt butEthel Pond told me quick to mind my own business. Doc explained thatthe kid didn't want another mutt because he had what Doc called apsychological block.

  "Charlie was more than just a dog to him," Doc said. "He was a sort ofsymbol because he offered the kid two things that no one else in theworld could--security and independence. With Charlie keeping himcompany he felt secure, and he was independent of the kids who couldrun and play because he had Charlie to play with. If he took anotherdog now he'd be giving up more than Charlie. He'd be giving upeverything that Charlie had meant to him, then there wouldn't be anypoint in living."

  I could see it when Doc put it that way. The dog had spent more timewith Joey than Ethel had, and the kid felt as safe with him as he'dhave been with a platoon of Marines. And Charlie, being a one-man dog,had depended on Joey for the affection he wouldn't take from anybodyelse. The dog needed Joey and Joey needed him. Together, they'd been anatural.

  At first I thought it was funny that Joey never complained or criedwhen Charlie didn't come home, but Doc explained that it was all apart of this psychological block business. If Joey cried he'd beadmitting that Charlie was lost. So he waited and watched, secure inhis belief that Charlie would return.

  The Ponds got used to Doc and me being around, but they never got whatyou'd call intimate. Joey would laugh at some of the droll things Docsaid, but his eyes always went back to the palmetto flats and thehighway, looking for Charlie. And he never let anything interfere withhis routine.

  That routine started every morning when old man Cloehessey, thepostman, pedaled his bicycle out from Twin Palms to leave a handful ofmail for the trailer-court tenants. Cloehessey would always make it apoint to ride back by way of the Pond trailer and Joey would stop himand ask if he's seen anything of a one-eyed dog on his route that day.

  Old Cloehessey would lean on his bike and take off his sun helmet andmop his bald scalp, scowling while he pretended to think.

  Then he'd say, "Not today, Joey," or, "Thought so yesterday, but thisfellow had two eyes on him. 'Twasn't Charlie."

  Then he'd pedal away, shaking his head. Later on the handyman wouldcome around to swap sanitary tanks under the trailers and Joey wouldask him the same question. Once a month the power company sent out aman to read the electric meters and he was part of Joey's routine too.

  It was hard on Ethel. Sometimes the kid would dream at night thatCharlie had come home and was scratching at the trailer ramp to be letin, and he'd wake Ethel and beg her to go out and see. When thathappened Doc and I could hear Ethel talking to him, low and steady,until all hours of the morning, and when he finally went back to sleepwe'd hear her open the cupboard and take out the gin bottle.

  But there came a night that was more than Ethel could take, a nightthat changed Joey's routine and a lot more with it. It left a markyou've seen yourself--everybody has that's got eyes to see--thoughyou never knew what made it. Nobody ever knew that but Joey and EthelPond and Doc and me.

  Doc and I were turning in around midnight that night when the kid sangout next door. We heard Ethel get up and go to him, and we got up tooand opened a beer because we knew neither of us would sleep any moretill she got Joey quiet again. But this night was different. Ethelhadn't talked to the kid long when he yelled, "Charlie! _Charlie!_"and after that we heard both of them bawling.

  A little later Ethel came out into the moonlight and shut the trailerdoor behind her. She looked rumpled and beaten, her hair stragglingdamply on her shoulders and her eyes puffed and red from crying. Thegin she'd had hadn't helped any either.

  She stood for a while without moving, then she looked up at the skyand said something I'm not likely to forget.

  "Why couldn't You give the kid a break?" she said, not railing oranything but loud enough for us to hear. "You, up there--what'sanother lousy one-eyed mutt to You?"

  Doc and I looked at each other in the half-dark of our own trailer."She's done it, Roy," Doc said.

  I knew what he meant and wished I didn't. Ethel had finally told thekid that Charlie wasn't coming back, not ever.

  That's why I was worried about Joey when I came home the next eveningand found him watching the sky instead of the palmetto flats. It meanthe'd given up waiting for Charlie. And the quiet way the kid spoke ofmoving the stars around worried me more, because it sounded outrightcrazy.

  Not that you could blame him for going off his head. It was toughenough to be pinned to a wheelchair without being able to wiggle somuch as a toe. But to lose his dog in the bargain....

  I was on my third beer when Doc Shull rolled in with a big packageunder his arm. Doc was stone sober, which surprised me, and he was hotand tired from a shopping trip to Tampa, which surprised me more. Itwas when he ripped the paper off his package, though, that I thoughthe'd lost his mind.

  "Books for Joey," Doc said. "Ethel and I agreed this morning that theboy needs another interest to occupy his time now, and since he can'tgo to school I'm going to teach him here."

  He went on to explain that Ethel hadn't had the heart the nightbefore, desperate as she was, to tell the kid the whole truth. She'dtold him instead, quoting an imaginary customer at the Sea ShellDiner, that a tourist car with Michigan license plates had pickedCharlie up on the highway and taken him away. It was a good enoughstory. Joey still didn't know that Charlie was dead, but his wait
ingwas over because no dog could be expected to find his way home fromMichigan.

  "We've got to give the boy another interest," Doc said, putting awaythe books and puncturing another beer can. "Joey has a remarkabletalent for concentration--most handicapped children have--that couldbe the end of him if it isn't diverted into safe channels."

  I thought the kid had cracked up already and said so.

  "Moving _stars_?" Doc said when I told him. "Good Lord, Roy--"

  * * * * *

  Ethel Pond knocked just then, interrupting him. She came in and had abeer with us and talked to Doc about his plan for educating Joey athome. But she
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