Daniel visited Charlie every other weekend. I asked Daniel many times if I could tag along, but he always found a reason why I couldn’t.
Sandy was the one who ultimately invited me to go with Daniel to Charlie’s.
“Why don’t you take Michael along with you? It will more fun if it’s not just you and your dad.” I heard Sandy ask from the other room where Daniel was getting dressed to leave. “I’ll call Mike’s mom.”
She never waited for Daniel’s approval.
“Hey Mike,” Sandy yelled down the hall. “Want to go bowling with Dan and his dad? If it’s alright with your mom?”
“Yeah, that sounds good to me,” My curiosity superseded my desire to be a good friend and not go where I wasn’t wanted.
Sandy called and got permission for me to stay. Daniel wasn’t thrilled about the idea.
“Listen Mike,” he sat on the bed and looked down to where I was seated on the floor, “my dad’s house might be a little different than you expect.”
I didn’t understand what he meant.
“There’s not much to do. No video games.”
“I’m sure we will find something to get into.” I smiled.
“Ok boys,” Sandy shouted down the hall way. “It’s fine with Mike’s mom. Let’s go.”
Sandy sped over the mountain to Charlie’s house. The road ran parallel to a creek that feeds the Potomac. On both sides, tall hardwood trees sprinkle leaves and nuts from a dense canopy. Light only reaches the asphalt in narrow beams. Twigs crunched under the car tires and the SUV listed to the left and right as Sandy avoided pot holes.
The canopy gave way to empty fields and rows of houses. Charlie’s house was different than all the others. It was much older than the development in which it was nestled.
The house itself was unkempt. Yellow paint peeled from the wood siding, exposing older blue paint beneath. Several shingles were missing from the roof, and the massive yard was beset on all sides by tall weeds. A mowed patch ran between two larger areas, one near the mailbox, and another surrounding the house. A red El Camino sat in the driveway. Charlie sat just inside the doorway of the detached garage.
He was sitting in a frayed and lopsided canvas lawn chair. There was a small, wicker end table next to him with a beer and a half filled ashtray. Charlie’s right hand rested on his lap and held a dying cigarette. Faint wisps of smoke dangled upward where they were stopped from rising further by the bill of his trucker’s cap. His left shirt sleeve was folded carefully and pinned against the shoulder. His eyes were obscured by tinted glasses, and the breast pocket of his shirt was full to bursting with cigarettes, lighters, and chewing gum.
Sandy walked us to the garage door, “Mike, this is Charlie.”
Charlie took a drag from his cigarette and snuffed it in the ashtray before offering me his hand. “It’s nice to meet you son.”
His grip was crushing. Tired, dark eyes peeked out above his sunglasses.
“Now you boys go inside, I need to talk to Daniel’s father,” Sandy waved us out of the garage.
The front door creaked when we opened it. The house was decorated with NASCAR merchandise. A portrait of Dale Earnhardt hung next to the television. Barroom beer mirrors were scattered around the kitchen. The couch was wooden and upholstered with deer print fabric. A trashcan next to the recliner was filled with empty beer cans. The place smelled of cigarette smoke, and half filled ashtrays lay scattered about.
The place wasn’t messy in a way I’d ever seen before. Everything was exactly in its place. The cigarettes were in an ashtray. The beer cans were in the garbage. But the house clung to an aura of neglect.
Daniel embarrassment was evident, “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.”
I shook off my initial misgiving, “Nah, I don’t want to miss bowling. And besides, your dad lives on this cool property with all this property. There’s gotta be something we can do here that we can’t do at your mom’s, right?”
“Well,” Daniel thought for a moment, “I have an idea.”
Daniel and I dropped our stuff and went back out the door. Sandy waved bye and got in her car. We were left with Charlie.
“Well, Mike, it’s good to finally meet my son’s best friend.” Charlie shot Daniel a resentful glance. “Want to take a tour of the place?”
“Can we show him the car dad?”
“Yeah, why not.” Charlie struggled out of the chair. His balance was uneven. “I’m not getting along like I used to boys. You just never get used to having a peg leg.” Charlie reached down and knocked below his right knee. A hollow sound rang in reply. “Daniel ever tell you his old man was so broken up? Missing one arm and one leg.”
“He did mention the arm once.”
“Yep. Motorcycle wreck got ’em both,” Charlie continued on.
“Wow. That must’ve been a pretty nasty accident.”
“Accidents.” Charlie corrected. “Lost the leg the first time, but I got back on the horse as soon as I could, figuratively speaking. Another wreck took the arm. I’d probably still be riding if I could figure out how to make it work with one arm.” Charlie chuckled. “Well, I guess Daniel wants to show you the car.”
“It’s a” Daniel started.
“Shhh. Don’t spoil it son. Let a little suspense build.” Charlie staggered along the length of the covered car, stooping every so often to loosen the drawstrings that held the cover tight. I didn’t know anything about cars, but I was excited just the same.
Charlie completed his circuit, and in one swift motion the cover slid forward and revealed the most beautiful car I’d ever seen in person. It was light blue with white accents down the side. The front looked like a face with two sets of round eyes and shiny chrome teeth. The rag top was sun faded and beginning to fray, but the rest of the exterior was pristine.
“Wh, what is it?” I asked.
“It’s a ’59 Vette, son. What do you think?” Charlie stood staggered on his good leg with his hand on his hip.
“It’s beautiful. I can’t believe it’s that old.”
“Well, hey now. ’59 wasn’t that long ago.”
“Did you buy it new?” I asked.
“Christ, no. How old do you think I am.”
“Well, I mean, I just thought because you said…”
“Awe, calm down Mike, I’m just fuckin’ around with you.”
“Oh.” I laughed nervously and kicked at the ground. “It looks like it’s in good shape.”
“Yeah, it’s all there, we just need to put it back together. The inside I mean.” Daniel chimed in.
I walked forward and peaked through the passenger window. Through the dust I could see cracked leather seats and an uncarpeted floor. The steering wheel and gear shift were both missing.
“Um, where’s the steering wheel?” I asked.
“It’s around here somewhere.” Charlie turned left and right before shrugging his shoulders.
“Does it run?” I wanted to know.
“Sure does.” Charlie answered.
“Can I hear it?”
“Not today Mike, I’d have to take the battery out of the El Camino. Too much work for a one armed man,” Charlie winked and smiled, but there was an edge of agitation in his voice.
“Dad says the car will be mine once I get my license.” Daniel ran his hand along the front fender’s sharp lines.
“That’s right, son.” Charlie reached across himself to pat Daniel on the arm.
“How long have you all been working on it?”
“Oh, here and there for a while,” Charlie answered.
“Now, what do you boys want to do before we go bowling?” Charlie spoke the last half of his sentence with his back to us. He walked to a refrigerator tucked away in the corner. It was full to bursting with white and red Budweiser cans. To the right, tucked near the doorway where we stood was a steel barrel, overflowing with crushed empties. Above the barrel was a yellowed Playboy calendar dated 1979. The model was bent over a pickup truck, nude.
“Think we could shoot guns?” Daniel asked.
Charlie thought for a moment before shrugging his shoulders, “Yeah, why not.”
We left the car uncovered and went back to the house. Charlie started toward the stairs in the back of the house, “I’ll go up and get the nine millimeter.” Charlie grunted and pulled himself up the stairs. He wasn’t long in returning with a shiny chrome pistol. “Now, careful. It’s loaded,” he handed it over to me. It was cold and heavy.
“Mike knows how to handle a gun,” Daniel vouched for me.
“As soon as you think you know what you’re doing, that’s when you’re wrong. Accidents come outta confidence boys. Remember that.”
I kept the pistol pointed at the ground. Daniel disappeared back another hallway and emerged with a deer rifle.
“Alright Dan, there’s some old paint cans down in the basement, go get ’em and sprinkle ’em out in the yard.”
Daniel scurried away, and I followed Charlie out on to the white, wrap around porch. The house was cut into the side of a hill, and a green field extended out to one side with a tiny patch of oak just beyond.
“Grab that stool over there for me Mike. Set the pistol on the railing.”
I did as Charlie asked and I watched Daniel scatter the paint cans throughout the yard at various distances. “I call the farthest one,” He yelled up before disappearing under the porch.
“Not if I get it first,” Charlie replied.
“I get first shot. I’m a guest,” I laughed.
Charlie groaned as he sat, “Yeah, well, it’s my house, my gun.” He laughed, “but I guess I can let you take a crack at it.”
Daniel emerged from the house and joined us.
“You won’t hit it with the pistol,” Charlie thrust the rifle at me.
I worked the bolt and checked for a loaded shell. I rested the rifle on the railing and adjusted the scope.
“You left handed?” Charlie noticed.
“No, left eyed. Don’t do anything but shoot left handed.”
“Hmmm” Charlie grunted, “Be harder for you to hit anything then with that scope. But, I guess if the scope is on, then it’s on.”
I took a deep breath and held it for a moment, focusing on the can furthest from the house. When I let the breath out, I squeezed the trigger. The can didn’t move. The ground just beyond stirred.
“Just a little too high,” Dan noted.
I handed the rifle to Charlie.
“Hey, it’s my turn,” Daniel whined.
“Oh, let the old man take a crack.” Charlie rested the rifle on the railing and wedged the butt between his cheek and shoulder. He worked the bolt and dropped his hand to the trigger. I watched the end of the barrel. It swung back and forth. Charlie’s eyes were opening wide and then drifting closed.
He only waited a moment before pulling the trigger. The can stayed at rest. “Damn.” Charlie worked the bolt and lined up another shot. The barrel waved. Charlie pulled the trigger. The can didn’t move. “Son of a bitch.” Charlie loaded another shell. His face turned red. “Fucking can.” The gun fired, and the can was still.
“Dad,” Daniel plead, “stop. Charlie worked the bolt. The barrel danced and jittered. Charlie squeezed the trigger. The firing pin clicked. The gun was empty.
“Fuck.” Charlie stood up. He thrust the rifle at Daniel. “More rounds are downstairs. You know where they are. I’m going to go sit in the garage.” Charlie staggered off.
“Do you still want to shoot guns?” Daniel’s shoulders sagged holding the rifle.
“I figure we should at least hit one of the cans before we quit, don’t you think?”
Daniel ran inside to get ammo. We spent the better part of the afternoon shooting around the cans. When we finished, we could barely hear each other over the ringing in our ears.
“We didn’t even hit them once did we?”
“I didn’t see any paint go flying. Cans didn’t move.”
“Well, it’s probably time to go bowling, anyway.” Daniel took the pistol and rifle back inside. I walked around the porch toward the garage. Charlie was slumped in his chair.
I stepped around him and looked again at Charlie, the car, the calendar, and the beer. Daniel must’ve known the Corvette would never be restored. I realized it after a few minutes. Daniel had years to figure it out. The calendar was decades old, well used, covered in oily finger prints, and yellowed by the sun. Charlie passed out in a lawn chair and a fifty-five gallon drum full of empty beer cans, was why Daniel had never invited me to his dad’s house.