“As a house painter, he’s the next best thing to Michaelangelo” Frank persuaded me. “You know, the Sistine Chapel and all that.” By the way he was searching my eyes for doubt and the slight hesitation he had before he started his sentence with bravado, I knew there should be doubt, and there were questions that begged for answers, and for stories to tell.
He barreled on, “He’s had drug and alcohol problems but he’s fine now. He works for us, paints the hotel rooms at this hotel, paints the other hotel rooms and sometimes he goes out and does people’s houses. He’s really good.”
Now it was July 2nd. The tenant was out of my rental suite and I could begin cleaning it up for sale.
I sat, alert, watching all sides of my vehicle, through the rear view mirror, the side mirrors and then, craning my neck from side to side. The parking lot of the East Side hotel was no place for a middle class bourgeois lady to be hanging out, waiting. The wait seemed forever as I observed a tottering, thin young woman, deeply bronzed by the outdoor sun, stagger across the lot about a hundred feet away by the sidewalk on Abbott Street. She was carrying a big parcel tied with string that caused her to limp. Or maybe it was the five inch heels that seemed to operate separate from the body that was wearing them.
Up against the chain link fence by the stairwell to the parking, a huddled mass of rags moved beside a sleeping bag and a homeless man emerged then sunk back into his stupor. What on earth was I doing here! Why did I let myself get persuaded into these things!
I had gotten distracted in my concentration on the perilous high heels and nearly jumped out of my skin when a toothless face came leering right up to the driver’s window, lips close to the thin space between the top of the car window and the door frame. “Are you Frank’s wife?” he said. “I’m Charlie, the painter.”
His hair stood out in straight black clumps underneath his baseball cap somewhat like a scarecrow and his dark eyes seemed to have no pupils. The eyes didn’t coordinate, so he looked as if one was made of glass, but it moved in its own direction. He looked drugged. He wore a red plaid logger’s shirt, a bright royal blue T-shirt and a pair of too-large jeans that he hitched in a nervous manner as he awaited my answer.
“Oh, God no!” I thought. “What has Frank done to me now!”
“Yes. I’m Mrs. Frank”, I said with all the calm I could muster. I made a quick look around me and saw Frank only five feet away. It must be alright. Frank would not have me harmed. Despite the fact that we had had a falling out just three days before which ended in Frank asking me for a divorce, he had promised to help me with finding a painter. Before he left me after our quarrel, he had said, “I keep my promises. I’ll still set you up with your painter. I won’t cause you any trouble.”
It was only seconds between the time Charlie had introduced himself and Frank was at my car door. I unlocked the four doors with the automatic switch and Charlie began to get in on the passenger’s side as I was getting out driver’s side. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do this. He stopped mid-motion and scissored back up again, out of the car.
As he did so, I looked at Frank searchingly, whispering “You are sure this is alright, are you?”
In a loud voice, he said. “Charlie is an excellent painter. You will see. Everything is fine.”
I swivelled to see Charlie, “I thought we could just talk about what has been said so far. Frank, what have you told Charlie he needs to do? How much am I paying him and how? Does Charlie know what he is supposed to do?” I was desperately trying to get a feel for this situation and trying to buy time.
“You pick up Charlie and take him to the apartment. Show him what needs to be done. Charlie will tell you how much and what kind of paint you need. You drive him to the paint store. You pay for it. Take Charlie back out to the apartment and you can leave him there and go do something else. He gets fifteen dollars and hour. He’s worth it. Then you pick him up at the end of the day and bring him back here. Give him twenty dollars for his lunch and cigarettes each day and no more. You pay him at the end of the work, not a cent before. Do you understand me?”
“Is that OK with you, Charlie?” I asked.
He nodded. “ ‘sOK with me,” he said. His eyes were open wide, somewhat like those of a deer caught in headlights, not knowing whether he should flee or stay. I felt the same and hoped it didn’t show.
“Alright, let’s go,” I said. Charlie got back in the car. I had made my decision. I had only three days to get the apartment painted before I would be engaged in a work assignment. I was under the gun. I had to get it done now. Where could I find another painter in this hot job market? Impossible! I’d have to take my chances. I wondered if Charlie had heard the resignation in my voice.
Whatever he could get done until something went awry would be that much gained. Worse came to the worst, I could finish off my self. I prefer the picture kind of painting, but I’ve done lots of the other kind myself. It’s just that I’m getting too old for this.
“Buy Charlie a coffee on the way” Frank directed as we left him and drove away.
I started up a conversation to put Charlie at his ease while I mentally took stock of this person sitting beside me. I could have sworn I had seen Charlie standing over another native, mid day, just outside the liquor store on Alberni street, beside where I worked about eight years ago. The other one was lying in a stupor, his pants down, his rear end exposed for everyone to see, and this one, Charlie, standing beside him, hopping from foot to foot, concerned for his mate, not knowing what to do. It was the eyes that I remembered, and the hair.
And here was this man in my car. I struggled with my prejudices, tried to be fair and open minded. He was clean, at least. Clean, crisp T-shirt. Paint spattered shoes. The loggers jacket was clean, had holes in it and a button missing. His baseball hat was really a painter’s cap. “Of course,” I thought, “to keep the paint out of his hair.”
I was calculating our best route to Burnaby where my apartment was and where we could stop for a coffee, all the while wondering what others would think of the lady with the Lexus bringing in this street person for coffee.
Once, at one of the downtown coffee houses, when I tried to buy a beggar a cup of coffee, the owner came out from behind the counter and drove the beggar off. He gave me a lecture that I’d never forget. What would I do or say if that happened? I’d made my choice to hire him. I’d defend that choice, I thought, with an ounce of hesitation. “This is my painter. Leave him alone?” I might say.
“He’s a nice man, your Frank”, Charlie said, and I pulled my thoughts together. We had been talking, but I hadn’t been paying attention.
“Yes, he is.” I replied quite assertively.” But Frank just asked me for a divorce so I don’t really want to talk about him.” I had to nip that in the bud. It was bad enough that I had a third level conversation going on in my mind every minute that it wasn’t engaged elsewhere, trying to sort out what had happened with me and Frank three days ago.
“Well, you’re too good for him. I can see that now. Never you mind. He’s just angry. He’ll be back,” he started to console me.
Chopin’s Etudes were playing on the car disc player and switched automatically to some jazz music as we drove. He jiggled a bit and asked nervously, “Can we go back to that last music? I like the classical music.” My estimation went up a notch and I poked the disc button until we returned to Chopin. He grinned with a childlike pleasure and settled in to listen. He poked a finger at the car radio controls and said, “That just sounds like moving water! It’s amazing, isn’t it? I go to concerts sometimes. I really like classical music.”
I noted that Charlie was a good listener and he could add good bits to the conversation. I used big words, almost as if testing him, and he understood them, used them himself. He knew enough to edit all the swear words out. He was being respectful of me.
He told me about his family, a sister that was a doctor – a psychologist – and a brother who was a store owner. They had both done very well. It was just him who had fallen. The black sheep.
He explained that he had a daughter and a son, and when I probed, he said he saw them frequently. The girl was working in a government job and the boy had been to University and was now working in the Communications industry.
I told him about my nephews, and about having cared for my aging mother until she died in this early spring. I said it was really pretty grim, how she died, so I wouldn’t bore him with the details.
He said, “No, No, I’d like to hear the details. My mother is ninety three and she won’t last long now. I want to go back to Winnipeg to see her with the money that I get from this job. I’m going to go next week”
So I told him some stories about Mom in her residence. And I told him about my job being careful not to tell him where I worked, just that I had managed property for years and years; and that I had taught school before that.
He acknowledged everything I said and complimented me where he thought I had been kind or generous or capable. I opened up and said more than I should have. I could hear my mother saying, “Never tell anyone anything about yourself. It will only cause you difficulty. And I could hear her shock that I would be talking about her to this man who looked like a black-haired scarecrow”
When finally we found a Starbucks location where we could easily stop to pick up a decent coffee, we had become quite comfortable in our conversation. I parked and we both went in. We ordered our coffees and I watched the server, a young fresh looking girl of about twenty. She didn’t lift an eyebrow, nor did her assistant. We took our coffees, fixed them and went on our way.
At the apartment, Charlie became a director.
“Write this down,” he commanded, and I took out my notebook and wrote. “You need four cans of semi gloss latex, two of kitchen and bath, three gallons of ceiling paint in oil, one quart of the dark brown for the balcony railing, a small container of urethane clear for the fireplace woodwork, turpentine or paint thinner for the oil paints, caulking for the bathtub and for around the sinks, glue for the baseboards, and some Spackle for the wall preparation.”
As we inspected the premises to see what needed to be done, he proposed more work than I had anticipated, but his judgment was good and I accepted his ideas. He could also repair the balcony railing that had rotted, he said. That was a plus. I wouldn’t need to call another workman for the carpentry work. He said he would kill the mold around the bathtub and caulk it again. He suggested a coating on the balcony floor that would make it all look fresh.
As we walked through, I noticed that the nervous hitching of his jeans was in fact a necessity. His pants slipped dangerously down the crack in his back and then he’d hitch them up again. I laughed quietly to myself, thinking of how he had not abandoned his drunken friend many years ago, where many might have.
We were walking through the mega hardware store later that afternoon looking for what we needed. I was getting embarrassed. I had tolerance for his undisciplined eyes and for his shaggy appearance, but not for falling clothes. “Charlie,” I said, “you’ll have to keep those pants up.”
“I’ll have to wear a belt tomorrow,” he said, without discomfort. “I forgot my belt.” I wondered if he even had one or if I would need to supply one as part of payment.
We collected our painting supplies from a store where he had access to a thirty percent discount and passed it along to me. He phoned and asked permission to use it for this job and he got it. I found his behavior towards his sometime employers respectful in a gentle kind of way.
I worked with him all the afternoon on prep work, filling holes with Spackle, sanding, taking light switch plates off and electrical plug covers. I soaked these plastic cover plates in TSP at his request and found that all the previous spots of paint overspill came off easily. He showed me how to cut in the edges, to sand and refill the patching, to do long strokes on the balcony railing. He was a patient and kind teacher.
Later in the afternoon, I took him to MacDonald’s for lunch. As we approached the driveway, he said, “Do you want to just drive through. We don’t have to go in.”
I wondered. Was he trying to say I might not want to sit with him? I was getting rather fond of him, his gentle aspirations, his nostalgic descriptions of his family and his chirruping positive attitude.
“Nope,” I said firmly. “We are going in. We’ve worked pretty hard all morning and afternoon and we deserve a break.” His face relaxed and he smiled like a child.
He chose a healthy meal and ate the whole thing with relish. He was hungry. No sooner than he finished, though, he said it was time to go, as if I was being a lazy employee dragging my feet. “Who’s working for whom?” I thought.
We had put in a ten hour day by the time I got him back to his hotel. He was carrying a list of all the things he should bring the next day – an electric sander, his circular saw, a square, a carpenter’s pencil for the balcony; some turpentine which we had forgotten to purchase, more rags, his caulking gun.
Frank was there when we got back. “Everything alright?” he asked.
“Just fine” I said.
“Give him his lunch and cigarette money?”
And he turned on his heels and left.
“Oh, it’s like that, is it?” I thought.
In the morning, I saw Frank in the distance. He didn’t come near the car. Charlie was on time, waiting with his bundle of tools and rags. Frank approached him some distance away from me and then Frank turned and went away.
Charlie got in the car and said, “Frank didn’t say good morning to you.”
I picked up my cell phone and dialed his.
“So, you aren’t saying good morning to me any more?”
“I’m working” he said and hung up.
Charlie overheard the conversation. “He can be pretty mean sometimes,” he said to me. “You don’t need him.”
“Oh, I’ve hurt him. I didn’t mean to, but it couldn’t be helped” I said. “I can’t do what he is asking me to do. He’s been very good to me; helped me a lot. But when he gets angry, he gets in a rage. This time I don’t know if he will get over it. Really he is mad at himself because he imagined how things could be and we never talked about it. He’s done all kinds of things for me with expectations that I would change and I can’t. So now he’s beating himself up. His hopes have been dashed.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” he said rather meekly, and I said it was alright, not to worry. Our conversation changed comfortably to other things.
First thing he did at the apartment was to saw away the portion of the balcony that had rotted. As he did so, he exposed a nest of carpenter ants.
“Look!” he called me over, excitedly.
The ants were scrambling at the disturbance and exposure to the air. The ant emergency team scrambled into action, picking up the white egg casings and scurried off with them. Charlie pointed to a larger ant and said “The Queen” as if he had been announcing the Queen of England, and we watched her nervously observing her emergency team.
Charlie flung the rotted wood into the garden below and started to measure up the space to calculate the amount of wood he needed. The show was over. Later in the afternoon, all the ants had gone elsewhere, probably out looking for their queen.
I only saw two others and each was carrying another ant in its mandibles. Were these the last ones? Sauve qui peut! Women and children first, then the men, then mobility impaired, handicapped or sick bay ants waiting until the last?
How do they communicate? I wondered. Had they already worked out muster stations? Did the queen emit some kind of sound that would rally her troops around her, even though her nest was thrown quite far away and all had been exposed, damaged and disrupted? Was this like a human’s earthquake response? An ant’s version of fire drill finally put to good purpose?
We continued on with our tasks. He fixed the railing, I watched him measure without having a ruler. He used another length of wood and a pencil mark. He mitered the first corner where the balcony railing jig jagged, and it fit perfectly. But when he measured the second one, he cut it square and I lifted my eyebrows at that.
He saw my expression and made an excuse that he was saving time and therefore money for me. He could do it the other way, but it would also take more wood. “I have it. I could do it again, but …”
His voice trailed off. It was at once a statement and a question. He was looking for the answer in my face.
I was in too much of a hurry. I needed this work to be done. I compromised and said, “Never mind, just leave it. It was true. No one was going to notice it once it was caulked, sanded and painted.
About one o’clock, I asked him if he liked pizza. He did, so I went out to get one. We had lost too much time the day before by the coming and going, and I wasn’t being very productive. I wanted to keep him going. I had deadlines.
When I came back, we had a bite, then he announced that I could finish painting the railing. I’m savvy enough to know that one needs a primer coat and we didn’t have an official one.
“Just use the melamine latex as an undercoat. It’s tough and has a good binder,” he advised. It was bright pure orange yellow and I hoped that nobody would notice the work in progress with its blatant colour. We really weren’t supposed to be doing repairs to the structure, but I hadn’t been able to get the Strata Council to even look at the problem in ten months. The place had to look good for potential buyers. I couldn’t leave this blight on the balcony. Besides, I knew what was required for decent repairs. They’d be that much further ahead. By the time we had finished, they wouldn’t even know where the repair had been made.
By end of day, I had given the balcony railing a second coat. It looked really skookum. I’d also been tasked varnishing the woodwork on the fireplace which Charlie had sanded until it looked brand new. He set me to cutting in the corners and the edges on the kitchen and bathroom. It was another ten hour day and we were tired at the end of it.
On the way home, I mentioned to Charlie that I had an obligation the next morning to travel out to my new home with my brother-in-law. He had come to Burnaby to help me move some of my things out to my new home in the Fraser Valley and I would pick Charlie up at 12:30. I also reminded him that on Thursday, I’d have to pick him up early and take him out to the apartment because I had major dental work being done. I couldn’t change it. If it weren’t me picking him up, it would be my brother in law.
I’d mentioned this to him before and he had reacted in a way that I thought slightly curious. He had said, ”I’m so glad that you said that. I, too, have a medical appointment and I didn’t know how to tell you.” It had sounded stilted. I wondered at the convenience of his answer. Did he really have one? But it didn’t really matter, I supposed.
So on Wednesday, I drove with my sister and brother-in-law out to my new home with a load of plants from their garden and whatever goods we could pack in around them. My brother-in-law would come out to put up shelving for me in the basement on his own, the next day. We took a nice tour through the house; I got approval from them both that it was a good purchase; and we headed back home, not tarrying, so that I could pick up Charlie at the appointed hour.
We were at the Kensington off-ramp when my cell phone rang. To my surprise, it was Charlie. He must have asked Frank for my number.
“Would you mind if I took the remainder of the day off?” he asked. What was I to do?
“You know I’m off for the dental appointment tomorrow,” I said, somewhat annoyed.
“It’s really very important.” he said, holding his ground.
“Can we finish tomorrow? I asked.
“I’m pretty sure” he answered. “If not, I’ll come on Saturday and stay until it’s done.
‘Well, OK” I said, grudgingly. It left me time to spend with my visitors.
“But you have to phone me so that I can tell you when I’m picking you up. I need to make arrangements because of the dentist. You have my number. Call me at six and I’ll tell you what time I’m coming. It has to be early,” I said before he hung up.
In the evening I ate dinner with the family. Charlie did not call. I stewed about how little progress I had made. Although I had told them something about my venture into the Downtown Eastside for a painter, I hadn’t told all. I was worried that Charlie would take off and get drunk or get drugs. I couldn’t judge. I inferred from Frank’s caution about giving him money that he could be unreliable. What if Charlie had told friends that he had this big painting job and he would have money by the end of the week. Would they loan him money? Would he get drunk and not come back? I couldn’t afford to wait on this painting job.
I decided to go back out to the apartment to do more painting. Some progress, any progress was essential to my emotional well being. Ron, my nephew, had listened to all my worrying and offered to come out with me. He had often made pin money in his high school days by helping people paint their apartments and homes. He was a wonderful help, but he’d already put in a ten hour work day at his masonry job. We did an hour’s worth and went back home.
Thursday was a write off. I still had not heard from Charlie and so I simply didn’t go. I saw a friend from work over coffee for a half hour before I went to the dentist and once the dental work was over, I came home and crashed. I’d been pushing too hard. I needed the rest. Besides, Heather was there, and I needed to spend a bit of time with her. But I continued to worry.
Sometime in early evening, Frank called. The call was cold and business-like.
“How is Charlie working out?”
“Fine, except he was supposed to call me about the time I was supposed to collect him, and he didn’t, so I didn’t pick him up. I’ve got to get that painting done.” I stated in a voice that was somewhat indicative of my growing panic.
“Is the work alright? It’s taking overly long”
“Charlie suggested extra work and he was right. I got him to do the ceilings, and he fixed the woodwork on the balcony for me. He’s working hard – when he’s there”, I said.
“Well, he’s standing here waiting to speak to you. If I hadn’t dialed, he wouldn’t have phoned, is my guess,” said Frank.
The phone passed to Charlie without a goodbye to Frank. I was grateful. I wondered if Frank was thawing. He’d been civil. It was too hard to tell.
On Friday, I got a call from Charlie asking if I could pick him up at nine thirty instead. I sighed and said yes. Frank came on the phone. “Charlie is working on the desk. It’s legitimate. And don’t pay him more than twenty in cash per day or you won’t see him back.” He hung up without a good bye. I picked up Charlie at nine thirty.
On the way out to the apartment, Charlie confessed that he’d had to watch the front desk all night. Sometimes there were fights in the hotel or people coming in to shoot up. There had to be someone to keep them out. It had been his turn last night, and he earned a little towards his rent.
“Do you get to snooze at all?” I asked.
“No you have to stay alert the whole time. There are TV cameras, but you’ve got to be awake if someone rough comes in. It’s not a good place at night.
Around six he asked to go home.
“We have to finish, Charlie. Are you finished?”
“No but I can’t paint anymore today. I’m getting tired. I’ll come tomorrow. You just name the time. Whatever time it takes, I’ll finish it, but tomorrow.”
This was July, just after the holiday weekend. The days were the longest days of the year. Sun set after 9 p.m. The sky was fiery orange when we went home. I nevertheless insisted that he finish painting. I was afraid that I couldn’t get him back again. He was painting the last two bedrooms in the gloom, since the bedrooms had no overhead lights and there was only the ambient light on the east side of the building.
I drove him home, chatting to keep myself awake. He apologized but he reiterated how tired he was. “I’ve been up for over thirty six hours,” he explained as he then started to calculate that he’d been up at eight the day before and then had worked all night; I’d picked him up at nine thirty. What kind of slave driver was I, anyway? He’d told me in the morning about his night work. By evening, I had forgotten. He had certainly put in a full day and he had worked hard all the time I was there. Poor guy.
I began to feel guilty.
As we drove the ten miles through city streets still throbbing from the summer heat, the sun washing everything in an impossible orange glow, he said, “I have to come back tomorrow I haven’t done the bathroom yet.”
I was so tired I couldn’t take it in. It wasn’t finished!
I dropped him at his lodgings and made my own way home. Dusk was settling into the streets. I wished that I had my camera handy to photograph it, but it wasn’t at hand. I began to fall asleep at the wheel. Twice when I stopped at a red light, I jerked awake and realized I’d dozed off. That was bad. Very bad. I shook my head vigourously from side to side. I had to get home.
In the morning, I realized that I hadn’t set a time with Charlie. I said to Heather, I’m going to pick him up anyway. We’ve got to finish this.
“But how are you going to find him?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll ask for him at the front desk, I guess, and see if I can get him. I have to show the apartment to the Realtor on Monday. It absolutely has to be done.
It was early Sunday morning. The yellow glow was coming from the east now, moving through a morning smog or sea mist. I parked the car in front of the hotel in the loading zone. I was nervous to leave the car.
I entered the lobby, a filthy depressing claustrophobic hole on the other side of two old but relatively solid bar-type doors, the kind that had windows at eye level and then had wrought iron bars across them. There was a swarthy looking man with grizzled grey covering his head and his face with a short stubble of hair., beard and mustache.
He looked askance at me. Even in my old painting clothes, I looked too rich to be in this hotel. Anyone but the druggies, the winos and the permanent denizens of the Downtown Eastside looked too rich. I felt like a sitting duck.
“I’m looking for Charlie, the painter.” By this time I knew his last name and that seemed to make a difference to this impassive blob of a front deskman.
“He’s doing a painting job for me. I’m supposed to pick him up this morning. Can you phone his room?”
“He’s in 117, “he said laconically. “You can go up, knock on his door.”
I looked at the two swinging doors at the landing in front of me, about four steps up from the lobby entrance. There were two doors. One said “Employees only” and the other “Hotel guests only” in bright red, badly hand painted letters. They might as well have been marked “Hell “ and “Worser Hell”.
I looked a at the dirt and the raw plywood walls that had been repaired many times over with an added layer of plywood nailed on to hid a hole kicked into the wall. Nothing had been painted. Ever.
The desk man, gave a nod to head that was more like a jerk, as if he could point with his head.
I went up the four steps and gingerly touched the handle, and pulled. The steps on the other side of the “Guests” door were covered with a treaded ancient linoleum. Every groove was caked with dirt. It seemed as if everything was contaminated. The air was dead, unmoving. I put one foot before the other, climbing this antechamber to hell. And found 117 the third door to the right. I knocked.
“Charlie, it’s me, Kay.
“Are you there?”
The door handle twisted. His black eye aligned with the crack in the door.
“I’ll be there in five minutes” he said. “You go outside. Ill get dressed in no time. Wait for me on the sidewalk. Don’t stay in here.” It was a warning.
I retraced my path and walked out past the desk man without saying a word. I went to the car and got in, locked all the doors and rolled down the window two inches on the driver’s side. It was going to be another hot day. There were only two cars parked on whole block, both sides. Mine was one of them.
I watched as a thin woman stumbled along the deserted street carrying a Holt Renfrew bag. Her five inch heels were not helping her. She stopped near a metal pipe railing covered with chicken wire fencing and leaned over it as if to retch. Coming from the other direction was a man with a swagger. He wasn’t on drugs. He was too physically with it, too rounded and healthy looking. A pimp?
I saw Charlie come out of the hotel with a doughnut in his hand, chewing on it, carrying the few things that he thought he needed to finish the painting with. He didn’t see me and walked in the wrong direction. I got out of the car, staying on the traffic side of the road called and waved at him.
He reached the corner, turned, looking puzzled in a three hundred and sixty degree search for where I might be then he saw me.
On his way back to my car, he stopped beside the wretched girl and spoke with her. As he got into the car he said, “That poor girl. She was very unhappy. She was crying. I don’t know what the matter was, but she was sure upset.”
He was seriously concerned and compassionate.
I drove away from the curb and he said rather quickly, “Could you please take me to pick up my medication? It’s only two blocks away.” He sounded doubtful and charming at the same time.
Medication, I thought. What kind of medication? What kind of place is open this early in the morning to dispense medication on a Sunday, yet? I reluctantly consented. He navigated. “Turn here. Go down one block. Park anywhere here.”
It was a street I had never been on even though I was quite familiar with the Vancouver streets. The shops were small and neglected. Every one of them had cheap metal bars protecting the plate glass windows and the entry doors. There were multiple locks going up the door jamb. Men were hanging about, all of them with odd walks, long scraggly hair, unkempt clothing that had likely been slept in not only last night, but maybe for a month or more.”
Charlie leapt from the car, promising to be only a minute or so. I saw him stop at the doorway and take a white packet from the man sitting there. I looked at the sign above the door and the one across the transom above the plate glass window. It said “Pharmacy” in badly drawn hand lettering. I watched as he approached the counter and waited there.
What on earth was I doing here? How stupid was this, sitting in a Lexus in the poorest part of town, the most crime ridden? What had Charlie bought at the front door? Was he still on drugs? What if he had bought drugs? What would I do? When did my foolishness draw a limit on this, where angels feared to tread? My adrenaline was pumping big time, my heart was pounding a retreat if my body wasn’t.
It was a one way street and I was parked on the left side of it, the driver’s window closest to the curb just beside the entrance. The window was still down about two inches and the heat was accumulating in the car. I dared not open it further. One of the denizens came up to my window, a tall man who stooped and walked with a drug addict’s crazy gait, his hair long and white down his back and his beard caught up with an elastic at his chin.
“Nice car, lady, “ he said loudly as he walked past, giving a thumbs up sign and a brilliant smile.
I was still waiting, adrenaline still racing, as a woman missing several front teeth brought her face up to the window opening, saying, “Spare change?” as she leered a grinny tooth at me. I had seen her coming and simply waved my index finger back and forth at her. She kept straight on her way. She was used to rejection on this topic and loped away without much hesitation in her
When Charlie got back in the car the first thing he said was, “That man at the door? He sells cigarettes separately, three at a time He makes a little bit of money at it and it’s a convenience for us.” He opened his fist and showed me the three cigarettes.
“It’s a methadone clinic. They won’t give us the medicine to administer ourselves. We have to go in on specific days and get our doses. I used to use heroin, but it finally got to me. I tried to quit on my own, but I couldn’t, so I’ve been doing this and it’s working. The dose I’m on is so small now. I’m just about finished the treatment.” He held up his hand, thumb and index finger almost touching, in that gesture that indicated “really, really small”.
Of course I worried about his dose of methadone upsetting his day. Then figured if he had not had it, it might have been worse. He was chirrupy as usual and he chattered on his way out to the apartment.
“You didn’t need to be worried out there,” he said out of the blue. Obviously, he’d been thinking about how I might feel about sitting in the car, sticking out like a sore thumb.
“You were safe with me. They all know me. They wouldn’t hurt you.”
I laughed inwardly. He was barely five foot six, walked with a limp or an awkward gait, at least; was skinny as could be. My protector!
On the other hand, I’d seen him roll paint on the ceiling above his head, and all along the wall in long continuous strokes, hour after hour, at a pace that would have made you and me drop. H ecould do it and never even registered a sign of fatigue. He must have a vice grip, if you shook his hand, and a mightily strong arm.
We drove out to the apartment, picking up a coffee on the way. He was desperate for a smoke and the car lighter didn’t work. We stopped at Shoppers Drug Mart to pick up matches. I waited rather impatiently in the car.
When he came back out finally, he was chortling over the bill.
“See this!” he laughed. He’d been given a receipt for three cents. Despite having been “finished” the night before, we worked until two. We packed up the deserted pieces of ant-riddled wood rot into large green garbage bags along with the short pieces of left over lumber. I swept the balcony floor and picked up the debris. He painted the balcony floor. It looked absolutely fabulous. The difference was like night and day. He checked the trim, painted the bathroom when we arrived and a second coat before we left. He checked his previous day’s work that he’d done in the gloom of evening without being able to see what he was doing. They were just fine.
We packed up all the empty paint pots in another green plastic bag. We cleaned the tools, this time very thoroughly. We divided out two piles of tools – his and hers.
Just before we left, I said, “I’d better pay you here. It wouldn’t do to pay you at MacDonald’s nor in the car in front of your hotel. We counted up the hours and he was content. I’d added in all the driving time, the lunch hours, the going to get materials time. He was happy like a child. He stuffed the banknotes in his pocket and said with a bit of glee, “ Now I’m taking you out for lunch!”
When we had finally locked the apartment door and all the materials and tools were tucked in the trunk of the car, we headed back to MacDonald’s. I wasn’t too hungry and had a tall orange juice and an ice cream cone. He wasn’t either. He asked for a sandwich and wrapped most of it up to take with him. For his dinner, he said.
That might have been that, had it not been for the wallet.
My Realtor friend and I met the next day to see the transformation that had been accomplished by this week long painting marathon. She was thrilled.
She had brought along a few items to help show the apartment – a large candle which she perched on the woodwork above the fireplace. She had a few fancy soaps that she left in a dish by the bathroom vanity sink. She had towels for the towel holders, a pair of oven mitts for the kitchen counter. It was as she was checking out the cleanliness of the drawers that she found a wallet.
It was a thin black wallet and seemed to have nothing in it. I peered in the compartments to see what it contained. There was Charlie’s interim driver’s license, a yellow folded piece of paper. A nickel, a quarter and a penny were tucked into to a secret compartment. Given the part of town he came from, perhaps he wasn’t a stickler for rules, but he ought not to drive without his permit. I couldn’t mail it to him. I didn’t think I could leave it with the desk man; I wouldn’t trust him to give it to Charlie. I phoned Frank and asked him what to do.
The conversation was more than brief. “Give it to the Wine and Beer store people. Don’t give it to the man at the hotel reception. Good bye.”
I had had it, to the gills, going down to that scruffy part of town. I didn’t feel safe. I was having dinner with my six foot four nephew that night and asked him to accompany me down to give this wallet back to Charlie. My nephew is a lumbering big guy, but he wouldn’t and couldn’t hurt a fly. His protection was in presence only.
The day had been hot, thirty degrees Celsius, at least. It was late day and the sun was already at the horizon. A warm yellow haze had enveloped the city in a pleasant kind of glare. It would be a perfect night for walking on the beach. I didn’t know if I would find Charlie still. Once again, I asked myself why I bothered. But Charlie had been perfectly respectful, charming even, and I’d pushed him hard to get the work done. It would be disrespectful of me, not to return the wallet to him.
One of the leit motif’s of our conversation had been going back to see his mother in Winnipeg. He said she was ninety-three and he hoped to use the money he had just earned to visit her next week.
He said he would take the bus.
“Oh Charlie,” I sympathized with him, “it’s such a long way. Why don’t you fly? It’ll cost you about the same.”
“No.” he said. He was going to go by bus. It was what he was most familiar with. He liked the bus and the people on it. I wondered if he had ever flown or if making the arrangements and going to the airport were too difficult for him, logistically.
Nephew and I arrived at the hotel and parked the car. It was quite fortuitous. There was Charlie coming out of the hotel with a friend.
“Charlie! I said, and my face lit up with a smile. He couldn’t help but know I was glad to see him. He had a bag in his hand that looked like a fancy shopping bag and my eyes gravitated to it involuntarily and back to Charlie’s face. In that nanosecond I had registered that it was full of bottles of hard liquor.
He’d followed my eyes and back. He looked slightly guilty, enough that he launched into an explanation.
“It’s for a friend. He can’t get out of his room because he’s broken his foot,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter, Charlie. How are you? This is my nephew who I told you about. He’s going back to school to get his Masters degree.”
“I’ve heard great things about you from your aunt” replied Charlie as he shot out his hand to shake Hugh’s.
“I’ve heard great things about you from her, too,” said Hugh. I laughed inwardly and kept smiling.
Here we were in the grubbiest area of Downtown Vancouver surrounded by the scruffiest lot of people and we were behaving as if we were in a corporate office. It seemed absurd.
Hugh was smiling too, but I could tell he was nervous. I don’t think he had ever met someone who had been a street person. He was out of his element and feeling it.
I handed the wallet to Charlie.
“I wondered what I’d done with it,” he said. I never thought I’d see it again.
“I though you might need your license.” I replied.
“Well, have a good night. We have to get back,” I said, and we carried on, returning to the car that was sitting only a few feet away from us.
Two weeks later, I saw Frank. I had to pick up some stuff I’d left at his place and return a few things to him. On the night we had seen Charlie, I had forgotten to bring his caulking gun that he’d left behind for me. I’m mechanically challenged. I never figured out how to use it, or my hands were too weak to operate it. It still had the full tube of caulking in it.
Frank went down to the hotel often as part of his work. I asked him to give the caulking gun back to Charlie.
“To Charlie?” he said somewhat disdainfully. He’s been drunk stupid every night since you paid him. He’s not missing it.
And that was the last that I saw of Frank and the last I saw of Charlie.