Charlie Judd

Author: Andrew Coburn

A child conniving with a madman.

The sky is warm and white, sudsy with clouds. No more rain. The rain came last night and soaked the canvas chairs, which is why I’m perched on the porch rail while down below, having crept past bordering shrubs, Charlie Judd is slinking through the grass–a fifty-year-old slip of a fellow, brittle and birdlike, created, it would seem, out of chewed chicken bones. He stares up at me, shamed to tears because of the daily dirty mission his wife Leah has sent him on. This is a small town, things like this happen, so let me point out that this is two months before Charlie murders his wife in the second degree. And let me add that I’m actually sitting a good deal higher than the porch rail and can see these things.
Suddenly but not unexpectedly, Charlie’s eyes fly up. “No rain, that’s plain–hey, Sonny.”
The name’s mine, so I put up with it. With spryness, with queer hops, he mounts the steps. I wave him away from a damp deck chair he wouldn’t have sat in, anyway.
The idea is to learn as much as possible from me, without my grandmother knowing, about what has been going on. What was the ruckus last evening. Did my father slap my mother or did she slap him . . . And did my grandmother butt in? This sort of thing. According to rumor, my grandmother and Leah Judd had once been like blood sisters.
Now it’s a toss-up as to which one, behind the other’s back, is more vicious.
“Charlie,” I say, trying, never succeeding, to be gentle, “let me save us both time. The whole business last night was a misunderstanding, nothing worth carrying back.”
I may have embarrassed him, or he may not be listening. Leah’s pantry window juts out above the shrubs, and I know she’s at the window because I saw the curtains move. To save Charlie grief, I say quickly, “It was mostly my grandmother’s fault because she kept hounding my father about my mother working.”
This is juicy, and Charlie looks at me gratefully. It’s dangerous to make small talk with Charlie because Leah, from her window, will think I’ve told him more than I have and will pound hell out of him later if she thinks he has forgotten anything. She is tall and skinny, made out of a single hard bone, and she has a long horse face that snorts.
From The Newsletter, our weekly paper, she clips out marriage and birth announcements, a splendid cross-index that gives out instant evidence against those girls who were premature with their affection. To my mind this is pretty filthy of Leah, and I think she’s sick . . . but we all have our ways, and that’s Leah’s.
“Show me your tattoo, Charlie.”
He hikes his sleeve high and displays an arm that could pass for a stick of kindling. Tattooed on the spotted skin of his biceps is U.S. NAVY wreathed in roses. At least I think they’re roses. The whole business looks rather waterlogged. I’ve neglected to mention that Charlie always wears blue . . . ordinary workmen’s clothes to resurrect his navy days . . . thirty years ago . . . great times . . . although he never stepped foot on a ship . . . never even got out of boot camp, according to Leah.
“Beautiful, Charlie. Roll it down.”
We chuckle together, as if I’m supposed to know about certain fast times he had during liberties he hasn’t told me about because of my age and all. I’m twelve and know everything, which is the reason my attention is driven across the street. Sitting on her steps, legs ajar, is Shirley Teller. For nickels and dimes (for pennies if they add up) she shows her privates. Charlie has had his share of peeks.
His ear is cocked as if for danger. We both can hear my grandmother moving about inside, probably brewing tea for herself. If she knew Charlie was on the porch she’d come out and speak to him, which would annoy Leah and gradually infuriate her.
“Charlie, do you have a nickel?”
“Not on me.”
If someone, Charlie for instance, told me that Leah’s frail cousin Edith
(Leah being ten years dead), would clip out the marriage intention of Shirley and me, I’d call him crazy. But this is exactly what will happen . . . Different story having more significance later.
Charlie runs his hands over the dust-like hair on his head and smiles at me. Sometimes we have marvelous moments of understanding. It’s as if he has pushed away all the cobwebs and hears me say, “It’s all right, Charlie. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Putt-putt-putt. It comes from up the street and grows louder. In a second or so the plump blue body of Ben Boitt will bolt by on a police motorcycle. Every kid in town waves to Ben, myself included. It’s expected. He’s already too fat for the bike, which is partly the reason they’ll make him Chief.
“Hey, Ben!” My arm shoots up like a flag and flaps like one. Charlie waves too, not as vigorously since it’s not expected. He has more admiration for Ben’s blue than for Ben’s bike and no admiration for Ben himself. Last fall, while Leah was spending six days and nights with sick cousin Edith, Charlie dressed himself in a black suit and purple shirt with a wide white tie and popped a soiled fedora on his head. I don’t know where in God’s name he picked up the outfit but he looked like a real out-of-town gangster type, the sort seen in Saturday matinees at the Ioka. He hung around outside Kurtz’s Diner, across from the bank, as if casing it. Ben watched him like a nervous cat and finally, on the fourth or fifth evening, with a drawn .38-caliber revolver, he snuck up on Charlie and yelled, “Freeze!” Charlie whirled around with his finger on the trigger of a shiny cap pistol purchased at the dime store. Both men fired, and both missed, Charlie figuratively. The story never made The Newsletter, probably because Ben threatened the editor, and by some miracle the story never got to back to Leah, who’d have had Charlie committed.
Across the street Lorian MacAllister approaches Shirley Teller. A full inch taller than I, he has a pasty face under coal-black hair combed in a big wet wave. Industrious to a fault, he mows lawns, hauls rubbish, delivers magazines, and runs all sorts of errands. He is holding a super-size redeemable soda bottle by the neck. With rage I watch Shirley accept it and disappear with him behind shrubs.
Charlie senses my rage but not the reason for it. He doesn’t know that Lorian MacAllister, developing into a shyster real estate agent, will sell Shirley and me a seven-room Cape Cod for our growing family. Charlie moves a little closer to me. His shirt reeks of an iron. The sun, previously lolling behind billowy clouds, tears loose and strikes Charlie, scattering him. To my horror, with only particles of him visible, he seems two-thirds fictitious.
Quick raps from Leah’s pantry window come as a relief. Charlie returns in full form and deciphers Leah’s twisty mouth movements behind the glass. “She means you too, Sonny.” He prances down the steps and with an oblique tilt, as if stumbling,
crosses, the lawn.
The Judd house is quiet as a tomb. No radio or television playing. Leah won”t allow either in the house, a waste of time and electricity. Besides, she doesn’t want Charlie exciting himself over TV commercials using sex to sell products. Her big horse face snorts down at me.
“Sit down, Sonny. Judd, get the boy a glass of water.”
Charlie returns with one of her good glasses and receives a cuff on the head. He retreats and returns with a jelly jar, which he hands to her and she passes to me. While I drink lukewarm water she pulls Charlie to one side so that he can parrot what I have told him about the ruckus. Shamefacedly in chirping whispers, he does so.
“Well, what about it?” Leah says, wheeling around. “Your mother gonna still work or not?”
“It’s undecided,” I reply.
“If your father can’t make enough, it’s no business of your grandmother’s. She
see you come over here?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Who buys the groceries, your grandmother or your father?”
“My father brings them home. I imagine he pays for them.”
“But you don’t know for sure. What we do know is your grandmother doesn’t have any money of her own. I mean, that’s a solid fact, isn’t it, Sonny?”
I rise to my grandmother’s defense. “She gives me nickels when I ask for them.”
She hits Charlie with a horsy look, and fear comes into his small blue eyes. “You just sit there a minute,” she says to me and vanishes.
“Don’t you worry,” my eyes try to tell Charlie. “I’ll take care of you.”
“I think you’re old enough to know about this,” Leah says, bustling back with a bulging scrapbook with flaky edges. With a moistened finger she flips apart dry thick pages. Her crooked nail points to a yellowish newspaper clipping bearing the name of my father and the maiden name of my mother; the nail scrapes an inch to the right to another clipping. There it is, in black and yellow, with a penciled calculation by Leah. Either I was a five-month baby weighing nearly nine pounds or someone was up to tricks.
“Look your mother in the eyes now, if you can,” Leah says.
Charlie makes a little chirping noise.
“What’s ailing you?” Leah says and slaps his mouth hard enough to hurt him. Then she disappears with the scrapbook under her arm.
“She wasn’t always like that,” Charlie says, checking his lips for bleeding. “She was pretty once.”
I nod.
“She oughtn’t to have shown you that.” he says.
“She oughtn’t to have slapped you,” I say.
“I oughtn’t to have let her.”
“Maybe next time you ought to stop her,” I say quite softly, and Charlie and I have another one of those marvelous moments of understanding.
“She won’t do it again,” he says.
We exchange a secret smile before she comes back, a log-long shadow that Charlie has already cut down.
My grandmother is setting the supper table for when my mother and father come home from work. I’m in the bathroom combing my hair first one way, then another; there’s not much you can do with a cowlick bad as mine. Then I remember something and rush out to the porch, climb onto the rail, and wait. You can tell summer is mellowing because the big green tree near the Judds” house is dropping yellow leaves. But the sun’s still strong, for there are bald spots on the grass, noticeable where the tree can’t throw shade. I wait. I’m not trying to excuse myself, but I can well imagine the filthy fun Leah would have had with Shirley and me. Shirley is on her steps. She’ll be off them soon enough. I wait. Then it comes: a God-awful bloody scream.
Mostly kids gather in the street, then neighbors, people in cars, finally Ben Boitt.
My grandmother is stationed in the yard, frantic with curiosity, ordering me to go over to see what has happened. I don’t budge. Finally she goes herself because now the scene is loaded: state cops, an ambulance, a Newsletter reporter with a camera. White-faced, his wet wave collapsing, Lorian MacAllister charges into my yard.
“Guess what! Charlie Judd murdered his wife.”
“I know. Hacked her to pieces.”
Popeyed, then glaring with hate, Lorian says, “How do you know? They haven’t said how yet.”
I could bite my tongue. I don’t want him to know how high I’m sitting. Unless people believe they have been divinely created, they become depressed and feel that something of their reality has been taken away. “I’m guessing,” I say, which, in a different way, is more effective than I had hoped. Lorian will go throughout life suspecting I had something to do with Leah’s killing.
Lorian snaps his head around. The crowd, standing in a stiff frieze, watches state cops, followed by Ben Boitt, march Charlie from the house to a marked car. He is wearing a nearly new flat cap and freshly ironed blues. They must have made him change. Before climbing into the car, he searches the crowd with a soft trusting look. Then the tiniest flicker of panic touches his face. He should’ve looked over here, toward the porch.
The grass in the Judds” yard, which hasn’t been cut in a week, is long enough for the wind to push and shove. People still drive by to look at the Judds” house, and some stop and get out of their cars to peer through the pantry window. My grandmother has gotten over her shock and what she claims was a heart attack. My father has been extra nice to her, letting my mother stay out of work to care for her. Lorian MacAllister has put the bug in Shirley’s ear that I know more than I let on. As a result she has been spending more time on my steps than on her own.
The biggest question in the county prosecutor’s mind is whether Charlie is loony or not. Everyone, with the exception of Ben Boitt, wants to make it as easy as possible for him. But he’s being difficult. He wants no lawyer, only me. They explain he can’t have a kid defending him in a court of law. Come autumn, they agree on second-degree murder . . . something about provocation and no premeditation. They convict him.
The sky is warm and white, sudsy with clouds. Amazing how the years whiz by, and you don’t even notice because you’re busy doing this and that. Shirley seldom watches afternoon television like a lot of moms do. Because I write for a couple of those soap operas, she can’t take them seriously, and she might have a point. The sponsors are squawking that my stuff has become too far out, more weird than arty, and sometimes well beyond the pale. The producer tells me to control myself. I travel into the city to see him and try to convince him that a writer has no real control over a story, only over some of words. He laughs in my face and secretly, a little sickishly, I laugh in his. Had I any control there certainly would not be an Edith taking Leah’s place and doing such a dirty job around town on Shirley and me.
I have two thriving boys and a little daughter with a ponytail and skinned knees. As anybody can guess, she’s the apple of my eye. And I have a beautiful wife. As a kid Shirley was pert; now she’s beautiful. Ask anyone. Whatever remarks the neighbors make I don’t hear. I have a nice Cape Cod, with a good rate on the mortgage. And if I lose my job, I can always get something at the Newsletter. I’m pretty tight with the editor.
Right now the town is excited. Charlie is home. He has already been to see me. He is sugar-haired now, with mean little blue eyes like a pervert’s. I can only speculate what happened to him in prison.
“I’ve been in the brig, Sonny.” Those were his first words, quick little chirps.
“I know, Charlie. I was happy to hear about your release.”
A hint of ferocity enters his makeup. “You oughtn’t to have let them take me away.”
“I know, Charlie.”
“You ought to have done something, Sonny.”
My voice sags. “I know.”
Then, with those tiny perverted eyes, Charlie examines framed photographs of my children. The eldest boy has a wave in front and is a bit heavy in the face. The younger one has a cowlick that sticks out in back and, rather than making him look ridiculous, gives him the majestic air of a blue jay. Charley soon focuses on my little daughter, who has mostly Shirley’s looks and only faint traces of mine. I have to admit she was my favorite the moment she was born.
“She’s a real honey,” Charlie says. Then he leaves.
He has settled himself in a furnished room near the Ioka, where he never misses a Saturday matinee. He takes his meals at Kurtz’s Diner, after which he takes long walks, especially after supper. He and Chief Boitt have become close friends, and most people in town stop to chat with him or at least wave a sympathetic greeting. They don’t know that Charlie has revenge in his heart and is after my daughter.