Essay / George Philbrick / November 2017

Echoes of Charlie

george

The Girl in Blood.

The first time I heard of Charlie was when The Girl in Blood showed up on my front porch. Red ran down her face in streams. Faces bleed a lot when they’re cut. The moth-clumped porch light cast insect-filtered rays onto her face. Glass glittered in her skin. For a moment, it passed my mind that she had been a victim of a horrid serial killer, who was still lurking in the dark to barge his way into my house as soon as I opened the door.

I ignored the fear that electrified my hand to the doorknob, and let her in. I grabbed my mom from the armchair and the first aid kit from the bathroom. My mom called 911 and I waited in the corner of the room, holding the wicker basket filled with bandages and gauze.

The girl had been in a car crash. There is a sharp turn down a steep hill following my house, and she had gone up on two wheels on the side of the road, jumped a snow bank and gone flying into the side of a garage. She claimed to have been abiding speed limit signs, but my mom and the police officer that showed up later did not believe her. Crawling out of her shattered car into a garage teetering over with junk, she groped around for her phone to light her way out. The building she was in creaked and groaned like it was going to collapse, and junk was piled to the roof in odd heaps. Unable to find a light, she navigated the maze of sharp scrap metal and old tools by touch. She stepped out into the cold outdoors eventually.

An old—or poorly maintained—building slouched outside. She ran to the door and knocked. No response. She checked around and found an RV that looked like it hadn’t moved since it was towed here in the 80s. A light was on inside. Knock knock knock. No response again. After waiting around for a bit, the Girl in Blood gave up, and walked up the road to our house.

My mom sighed after hearing her story, and muttered under her breath.

“What was that?” the Girl in Blood asked.

“Charlie,” my Mom said with another sigh.

“Who?” I asked. She rose an eyebrow at me.

“He lives in that house. You know, the red one down the street with all the junk out front? That’s the house she’s talking about,” she said to me. “Your car must’ve just missed his RV.”

That was the first I heard of Charlie. It was amazing that I could live next to him for so many years and think that whole time that the house he lived in (well, next to. He actually lived in the RV) was completely abandoned. It’s ironic that the day marking his introduction to my life also marked the day he would start to go spiraling out of it.

The Girl in Blood was soon taken away by the EMTs and her own mother. I think she only needed stitches, if anything. She asked the police officer before she left if the crew that was to pull out her car could look for her phone in the wreckage. It was never found, swallowed permanently by the hoard of junk inside the garage. Even when the garage was torn down a year later by my father and the hoard sorted into valuable scrap, the phone remained lost.

The Past

Over the next few weeks I began to learn more about Charlie, as he drifted away from that red house with the junk and RV outside. Perhaps I should note that I have never met him. My story is my own. He only exists in it as echoes of himself. In stories I was told and in the pieces of junk I picked over in his disaster of a house is where he exists. I barely knew him, and yet his life seems to be one of the greatest tragedies I could imagine.

Charlie’s dad operated a junkyard behind their house when he was still alive. I know for sure it would have passed the “rigorous” environmental standards of the 40s, but nowadays a junkyard known for disposing of motor oil ten feet upslope of a marshland is somewhat frowned upon. This was one of the first echoes that was immediately visible from the outside of Charlie’s. An old car sat rusting to the side of the house and heaps of random scrap were visible everywhere.

I’ve been told by multiple people that Charlie had a mental disability of some kind. I wouldn’t be so inclined to believe something that seemed so much like a rumor if I hadn’t heard it from my own mother, a school psychologist who definitely knows her stuff well enough to separate an unfounded rumor from a founded one. I’d also be inclined to think differently if I hadn’t done a research project on hoarding and its roots in mental disability in high school.

Charlie was never really given much opportunity by his father. His dad was too poor and busy with his junkyard to pay for a psychologist of any kind to diagnose what Charlie suffered from, and special education wasn’t exactly a flourishing field in the late 50s. When—if, I should say, since I don’t actually know if he did—Charlie graduated from high school, he stayed with his father helping out on the junkyard. He never left the house where his father lived.

Then his father died.

A man who wasn’t exactly capable of caring for himself was forced to adopt complete autonomy over his father’s business and over his own life. He was completely and utterly alone. By the time I came around, the last vestiges of the junkyard were disappearing into the sands of time, and Charlie had moved out of his crumbling, garbage-choked house and into the RV that sagged in the lawn.

This was the saddest part for me to think about. Charlie was left all alone when his dad died. Even if he had a windfall of money from his father’s thin coffers, it couldn’t have lasted long. The problem is that once our society’s mentally disabled leave K-12 education, the support system they had just drops out from beneath them if they don’t have a parent to continue that support. In Charlie’s case, maybe it was never there. When his dad died, he had no one to contact, to reach out to for help. He never even had a driver’s license.

Kicking Down the Door

Thud. Thud. Thud. Crunch. Skylar’s foot went through the rotten wood door. The door itself didn’t budge. His foot just went through it. The roof of the previously indoor porch had collapsed, and the door had swollen with water. He had to kick it to get through. Skylar was a burly teen with tufts of curly ginger hair slicked up with hair gel. Standing in the doorway with his leg through Charlie’s door he looked quite comical. My brother Oliver stood next to me with his arms crossed. He was thin and lanky like me, but with messy black hair that was occasionally styled up.

At this point, Charlie was months long gone and my dad had bought the property for just over $3000 (after a lengthy dispute with the Rochester City Council over how he would clean it). I don’t know what curiosity drove me and Oliver to want to bring Skylar there. I don’t know what I wanted to find or what I could find.

The house itself seemed sad to me. It wheezed an empty, choking breath as Skylar pulled his leg out. I reached through the leg hole and used it to pull the door open. A waft of a terrible stench crossed our noses. It smelled musty like loam, but it also smelt sharp and sour like peaches. I wrinkled my nose.

The front room was covered in about of foot of trash. Black bags spilled their guts of Cheez-It boxes, Lays Chips bags, and empty jars across the floor. A filing cabinet stood in the middle of the room, drawers welded shut with rust. A smelly, sagging couch with compressed pads rotted away next to a table piled high with mail. The pile was almost as tall as I was. It was miraculous it hadn’t fallen over somehow already. I grabbed a couple letters from the top out of curiosity. They read something like this:

Mr. Charles [I can’t remember his last name],

This is the [some number over second] time we have contacted you. You have outstanding bills from [your visit to the ER, your Electricity Provider, etc.] on [insert date here]. This is your final chance to pay this bill before your information is given to a debt collection agency.

Sincerely,

[Some Organization]

Sad indeed. One could imagine him sitting here on this couch, watching old movies on a cracked television screen as the letters piled up before him, plunked there by the invisible hand of the US mail service, watching as the world which he couldn’t understand piled up right before him. How was he supposed to pay those bills? Where would he get money for that?

We wandered our way through the trash to the other side of the room. We passed through the door to the kitchen, where the trash wasn’t so much scattered as it was heaped to the height of two feet everywhere. Pressed by sick curiosity, we waded through the trash to the fridge. I would rank opening that fridge as one of the worst decisions I’ve made in my life. All of a sudden we were overwhelmed with a scent so powerful that it almost knocked us over. The door hadn’t completely shut, because the powerless fridge was chock full of food. The insides of the fridge boiled over; rot and mold and mildew had devoured the contents, turning it into a festering mass of decay. I felt vomit frothing in the back of my throat so I backed away.

I am unsure whether I should tell you what the inside of the bathroom was like or leave it to your imagination. Either one could be bad for your sanity. I think I’ll go with the former, simply because calling something indescribable is a lazy cop-out. Firstly, this room hadn’t had functioning plumbing for years, turning the toilet into what was essentially a porta potty, except without all the blue liquid to break down the shit and stop the smell. Secondly, Charlie had never cleaned it since the plumbing stopped. The stained toilet bowl was filled with a thick slop of shit and piss that looked to have to consistency of soil. I barely got passed the doorway before I lost my sense of smell entirely.

The last room we went into probably made me the saddest of all. The last echoes of Charlie resonated throughout the small trash-thronged bedroom. It was almost impossible to see the soggy mattress beneath the piles of cardboard and mildewy clothes. I looked down and found a oxidizing bikers ring. Not the real kind, but the kind you would buy in a roadside souvenir shop. Next to it was a pleather biking jacket, chewed with moth holes. A shattered framed piece of glass toted Charlie’s membership in some Marijuana group.

The saddest thing about the room was the porn. Boxes and boxes of VCR porn littered the room like colorful specs of fornicative dust. He had hundreds of them. We opened drawers and to our amazement there were more. What was stranger was they were all empty. Did he scavenge the empty boxes from the trash or had these been the only thing he took with him when he left the house forever? Or, like most things in the house, had they been swallowed by the sea of trash that seethed beneath our feet?

Unlivable

The local city government had been trying to get Charlie out of that house for years because the house was legally “unlivable,” but somehow he had always managed to avoid it.

When the Girl in Blood crashed into his garage, narrowly missing the room of the camper he had been sleeping in, it prompted a flurry of government-associated activity around his house. The fire department was working for days on a solution for how to get the Girl in Blood’s car out from the garage without it caving in on a member of their team.

This attracted a legion of building inspectors sent by the city council, resulting in a quick condemnation of the rickety old house and the slumping RV. The last thing I heard Charlie did was catch a cab ride into Rochester, NH, the city which had finally kicked him out. I lived in Barrington technically, even though we were neighbors.

My dad purchased the property where Charlie lived on auction and demolished it over the summer. I visited it before most of the demolition was completed. By the end of the summer, men with sledgehammers had torn the garage to its foundation and scooped the last echoes of Charlie from inside the house, leaving an empty shell.

As far as I know, he’s now homeless. I hope that maybe this will do something for him, that maybe a homeless shelter will be able to help him get back on his feet, but I doubt it. It seems our society has a very low capability for supporting those who can’t support themselves. We can help nurse them until college, but then we pull away the crutches to watch them fall on a broken leg. The leg shatters. They can’t get up. No one sees them. They just lie there, not knowing what to do, watching movies on cracked TVs in the dark as the solids of the real world congeal around them.

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