Maggie and Mr. Charles by Martha Worcester
Maggie and Mr. Charles
Maggie left home and walked out to the edge of town. The sun was hot on her shoulders her face face was damp. She felt the sweat on her forehead when she brushed her red curls out of her eyes. She hated the way the sun made her freckles stand out. Her mother’s voice still rang in her ears, telling her how to behave, the best route to walk to the boarding home, on and on and on. Maggie quit listening long before her mother finished. She knew where the boarding home was. She’d seen it out the school bus window as she rode back and forth to junior high school.
When Mrs. Murphy called yesterday and asked if she could work there weekdays, Maggie had almost dropped the phone receiver. “Yes, yes!” she’d said before Mrs. Murphy got to the second sentence. A bit of babysitting and ironing for neighbors was all she’d been paid to do past summers. She was glad Mrs. Murphy didn’t ask her more questions on the phone, only said. “Well then, come to work tomorrow around noon. You can help with lunch. Then you’ll need to be here eight to four Mondays through Fridays. No weekends.”
“Does she know I’m only 14? Who told her my name was Margaret?” she asked herself.
The gate in the white picket fence stood open, its hinges so rusty she couldn’t make it close. Tops of the fence slats were worn through to a dull gray. A cracked uneven sidewalk led across the middle of the spacious yard leading up to the house. Dandelions bloomed in abundance with patches of grass tucked in between. She liked the bright yellow tops, and the way they changed into a puffy lace she could blow off and watch float away.
She looked up at the three-story tall house and tilted her head back to view its eaves and gables off the third floor. She almost lost her balance when she her sneaker toes caught on tuffs of grass sticking up between the sidewalk cracks. She looked around hopping no one else had seen her trip, then watched her fee more carefully as she walked.
Round metal tables and chairs were strewn across the lawn, a few already occupied by men eating lunch. She noticed one table had a plate of food on it, but no chairs. As she approached the house, she could see its peeling paint. It reminded her of helping her Dad scrape off old paint from their house and picket fence and apply fresh new paint. Her nose crinkled as she recalled the sharp smells of new paint. Maybe she’d get to help make the old house and fence look like new again as a part of her job. Mrs. Murphy hadn’t explained much on the phone, just said she needed help.
Maggie climbed the steps, walked across the open porch and reached up to knock. The door swung open before her knuckles made contact. She looked up at the gray-haired woman staring down at her through the screen door. She must have been watching me come up, she thought.
“You’re small, Margaret. Guess you’ll have to do. Can’t get anybody who wants to work here.”
Mrs. Murphy pointed toward a man in a chair near the front steps. “That’s Mr. Charles. I want you to help him to the table over there.” She pointed to the table with no chairs Maggie had noticed before.
“He can’t see, Margaret, so make sure he doesn’t fall.”
Mrs. Murphy shut the inner door before Maggie could ask what to do after she got Mr. Charles to the table. She shrugged, turned, saw Mr. Charles start to rise from his chair and called to him as she walked quickly down the stairs.
“Hi Mr. Charles, I’m Margaret. I’m going to help you get over to the table for your lunch.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I heard. I got ears.”
She reached out and grabbed his arm to help him stand straighter.
“Take your hands off me!” he yelled. “You’ll knock me over.”
Startled, she dropped her hand, stepped back. He sank back into the chair. She wasn’t sure what to do next.
“Sorry, it’s my first day,” she said. “Tell me how I can help you get over to the table.”
“Stand over here on the right side by my chair. Now put your left hand across your waist. Let me find the crook of your arm.”
He waved his right hand around in the air. Maggie took his thin skeletal-like hand and placed it on the back of her left upper arm just above the crook. His hand surprisingly gripped hard. She struggled to remain stable as he pulled himself up. When standing, his upper body bent slightly forward so he stood shorter than she’d expected.
She handed him his cane, then moved forward slowly. He walked by her side and slightly behind moving his cane back and forth across the bumpy lawn. When they got to the table, his body brushed against it and he dropped his cane on the ground to free his hand and grab the table’s edge. His bony fingers tightened around her arm pinching her skin. His body weight almost pulled her over. She planted her feet and stood firm, glad he couldn’t see her wince. He slowly unwound his fingers from her arm, so both hands now rested on the table as he leaned forward to support himself. She picked up his cane and hung it over the edge of the table.
“Just give me a minute, Margaret to get my balance. Where’s the chair?”
“There isn’t one at this table, Mr. Charles. I have to find one.”
“I can stand here by myself. Go find a chair. Get one for yourself too and sit down and talk to me while I eat.”
Margaret dragged a chair over from a nearby table and brought it up to the back of his legs. “Push it in a little further. Then I’ll be close enough.” She pushed the chair forward as he lowered himself into it, found a chair for herself, and sat down across from him. She felt awkward now. Couldn’t think up anything to say. She was relieved when he started to speak.
“Call me Charlie, Margaret, that’s what everyone calls me here. Behind my back they call me the grouch. They think cause I can’t see, I can’t hear either. I don’t mind. It makes ‘em leave me be.”
“Okay. You can call me Maggie. I told you Margaret because Mom said I should use my formal name so Mrs. Murphy would think I was older. But I like Maggie.”
“Well if you call me Charlie, I’ll call you Maggie.” She remembered hearing her mother say, “Now you be respectful.” Maggie knew that meant no calling adults by their first names.
Charlie began feeling around the edges of his plate and touching the food.
“Are you going to eat with your fingers, Mr. Charles, I mean Charlie?”
Charlie laughed, “No. Just trying to find the food on my plate. Sometimes I can tell what it is by touching it. I’m not sure about everything. Here’s what you do, Maggie. Pretend the plate is a clock, tell me what each food is by where it is on the clock.”
“Beans at two o’clock, piece of chicken at 6 o’clock, potato at 9 o’clock,” Maggie said.
Charlie found his fork and spoon and began eating.
“You are so clever, Mr. Charles, I mean Charlie. I would never have thought of the clock thing.” He smiled. “Well, Maggie. I’m glad you know how to stand still. That Francis who worked here last summer wiggled so much I fell over twice and had to tell old Murphy to keep her away from me. I was lucky I didn’t break a leg.”
The silence stretched out, she was again unsure what more to say. She heard her mother’s voice in her head. “Now don’t go asking too many questions. Just do your work.” Her mom knew she liked to chatter. Charlie interrupted her thoughts.
“ Maggie, you still there?”
“You got so quiet, thought you’d gone off somewhere. Let me tell you bout this place. I’ll give you the scoop, so you’ll be of some use around here.”
Maggie giggled. Charlie’s loud gruff explosive laugh startled her. Men at tables nearby looked over at them. She could feel her face redden. Charlie seemed to sense it and lowered his voice. He said, “Mrs. Murphy isn’t much for words, but she’ll treat you fair.” He told her about what Mrs. Murphy would ask her to do and about the other men who lived there. When he asked about her family. Maggie told him how her older brother called her freckles and what a pest her younger sister was. She told him her Mom worked in the town fruit plant. “I think Mom must have told Mrs. Murphy about me wanting to be a nurse or something. How else would she have known my name? I think my Mom knows she doesn’t have enough money to send me to nursing school, so I am glad to get to work here. Dad works out of town, so I don’t see him much,” she said.
“How come you live here, Charlie?.” He told her “ I lost my wife, almost ten years back. My vision got worse after she died. Now all I see is blackness. I couldn’t keep up our old house and wanted to get away from the memories. Old Murphy came over to my place one day. Told me a friend of hers told her I might be interested in living here. Didn’t like the idea at first but – best decision I ever made. It might look run down here to you, but it makes me feel right at home. My old place was falling apart too, but now it’s not mine to worry about.” Maggie didn’t want the conversation to end, but Charlie had finished eating and pushed his chair back.
“Maggie, this is going to be a great summer!” She knew he couldn’t see her smile, so she said. “For me too, Charlie. Thanks for giving me the scoop.”
The summer slipped by. Maggie helped with laundry and getting the meals and Mrs. Murphy gave her lots of time to be with the men. “Go keep them out of my hair,” she’d say. On Maggie’s last day at summer’s end, Mrs. Murphy told her “Don’t know what I’ll do without you.” Maggie asked if she could work a few hours a week during the school year, but Mrs. Murphy said. “No, that wouldn’t do. Maybe next summer.”
She saw Charlie sitting in his usual spot by the porch as she came down the steps and went over to say goodbye. “It was a good summer, just like you said it would be Charlie.” She touched the back of his long fingers. He turned his hand over to hold her hand and squeezed it. “Now Maggie, you come back next summer.”
Maggie walked through the rusty gate, looked back once over her shoulder, Charlie waved at her and she waved back. She headed toward home kicking rocks off the toes of her sneakers as she went.”
There was no next summer. Maggie’s mother said they had to move at the end of the school year. Her father had found a better job in another town. Maggie walked over to the old house the day before they were to leave hoping she’d find Charlie to say goodbye. She was startled to see the old house with boards on all the windows. When Maggie got home, she asked her Mom if she knew what happened to the boarding home, but her Mom said she’d heard nothing about it.
As the family drove by the boarding home on their way out of town, Maggie glanced out the window. Thoughts surfaced in her mind. ‘Why didn’t I notice the house being boarded up when the school bus passed by? Why didn’t I visit Charlie after last summer? Wish I could have said goodbye. Guess I thought ‘d be working there again for this summer for sure.’
There was too much chatter in the car about the place they were moving to for Maggie to stay inside her head. She joined in with her sister and brother peppering their Mom and Dad with questions about where they were going, what the house would be like, and the trip ahead.
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
Now 80 years of age, Margaret stood in her kitchen finishing the breakfast dishes at the sink when her cell phone rang. Margaret had dropped her younger name Maggie, when her family moved long ago. She’d told her Mom she thought Margaret made her feel like a grown up. She dried her hands on the dish towel. Probably another one of those scam calls, she thought, but the number looked familiar. She touched the phone’s green circle and said Hello. It was a woman she’d met at the senior center where Margaret volunteered.
“It’s Janine, Margaret, I need you to help me out, hope you can.” Janine was talking fast.
“You know, I’ve been the group leader of the Low Vision Group at the Senior Center. It meets tomorrow at 11. Anyway, my daughter had an accident. I have to fly out tomorrow to be with her, take care of my grandson. I know it’s last minute, but I hate to cancel it. Could you do it? I thought of you because you told me you used to be a geriatric nurse.”
Janine stopped talking. Waited for an answer.
“Margaret, Margaret, are you there? Are you there?”
“Yes, Janine, I’m here. Had to think a minute. Yes… yes I’ll I do it.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you so much, Margaret. I didn’t know where to turn. The staff sets up the room and gets everyone seated. All you gotta do is keep ‘em talking. Gotta go, gotta get packed.”
When Margaret entered the room where the group met, she counted ten men and women already seated, five on each side of the long rectangular table. Three walkers were propped against the far wall. Two chairs were still empty. A man with a cane was headed toward one. Margaret headed for the remaining chair, sat down and waited for the man with the cane to be seated. She took a deep breath. She told them her name and explained why Janine was not there and then a bit about herself.
“ I was a geriatric nurse before I retired. Always liked being with old people. Now I’m old myself, and I still like old people,” she said.
She heard a couple chuckles and relaxed. She hadn’t led a group in years, wasn’t sure how it would go. She continued.
“To get to know you, it would help me if you’d each tell me how well you see, and then why you’re here today. Who’d like to begin?”
The man with the cane, said. “I see nothing, no light even, just blackness. Been that way the last three years.”
A woman, named Gloria said, “I only see blurred forms, odd shapes. Sometimes things seem to disappear, then reappear. It is really strange.”
Only three in the group said they saw well enough to read, but glasses didn’t help. Each of them described a different type of magnifier that worked for them. No two peoples’ vision were the same. Of the three who saw nothing, one said it was all black, another said she saw light but no forms, and a third said “The light and dark vary. It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day it is. My doctor can’t tell me why it does that.”
The room was quiet after everyone finished. She felt it had gone pretty well and saw there was still fifteen minutes left to fill. She was thinking about what to say next, when the man across the table who’d said he only saw blackness asked, “Well, how about you? Are you blind?”
“No, I can see well,” Margaret said. “Have to put glasses on to see the fine print. Don’t need them otherwise.” She recalled Janine was almost blind and felt the group was likely disappointed to hear she had good sight.
She paused… and it seemed Charlie was in the empty chair next to her. She smiled. “But let me tell you about someone who taught me a lot about being blind.” And she told them about the long-ago summer. Her heart walked her back to sitting across the table from Charlie. She felt 14 years old again. She told them about how he’d taught her to take his arm and help him find his food. The group laughed when she told them how startled she was when Mr. Charles yelled at her when she pulled on his arm. Her voice tapered off as she finished telling them how sad she was to see the house boarded up.
Then the man who’d shared how he’d become blind in just the past year, told the group about the struggle it had been to find his way around. “Yeah, I always gotta be tellin people what it’s like to be blind. They haven’t got a clue!” Gloria added, “Yeah, guess they need to learn it from us.” There was laughter all around the table and Margaret noticed heads nodding in agreement.
Margaret looked at the time on her cell phone. “Well, time to go,” she said. “Janine told me they have to clear this room out at noon sharp for the next group.” Chairs scraped the floor, and members of the group with some vision helped those who had none. The man with the cane, who’d come in last was also the last to leave. He was feeling round the chair for his cane. Margaret found it for him. As soon as she put it in his hand, he waved her aside.
“I can manage now, Margaret. That’s all you have to do.”
She stepped back out of his way and went to make sure the door was open wide enough for him to pass through. The room now empty, Margaret slowly closed the door behind her as she left, and whispered into the air. “Thank you, Charlie.”