Multi-story buildings split the skyline on the block two streets over from my apartment. Foryears, commerce and the flats of those who manned the counters rubbed shoulders on the block.One by one, the occupants died and the forward looking next generation moved in. All theremainders of another time, the dry cleaners, the dusty book shops, the pharmacies, surrenderedto new construction. Men in hard hats drove bull dozers fitted with scoops to remove the debrisof generations past. Architects, little boys who used to build tree houses, directed contractors tochange the landscape. Fats rolls of drawings in cylindrical cases spelled the end for everythingbut a small building with a bow front window near the far end of the block.
Being new to the city, I did a bit of exploring and found Charlie the second week. Roamingaround the neighborhood, I rounded a corner and saw what I thought was an empty lot ahead.Thinking it odd someone had not pounced on a piece of prime real estate, I walked that way.Though it was mid-afternoon, the tall buildings rained shadows over me.
Thinking about it later, I realized how rare that afternoon had been. In a city of several millionpeople, I had the block all to myself. Sun beams defied the deepening shadow glittering thesidewalk as I toward the end of the corner.
Stopping in front of a small shop dwarfed by giants of steel and glass, I read Charles LongmireProprietor in faint gold letters on the smudged bow-front window. Not daring to hope, I turnedthe handle on the door and pushed it open. Shades of Alice, I thought, smiling with pleasure asthe tinkle of the bell activated by the opening door sounded.
First glance showed a man of about seventy-five behind a counter. Medium height with a twoday old beard, grizzled hair needing a trim and glasses perched on his nose. Not the pretention ofa pince-nez but an honest to God pair of glasses settled on the bridge of his nose for comfort andutility. A newspaper covered the counter in front of him. Nodding, he said, “Haven’t seen youbefore. New to the neighborhood?” Nodding yes, I circled the store to see the usual, magazines,sundries, soft drinks, a few loaves of bread, toiletries, no cosmetics, uh, oh, wrong there, in afar corner there were about ten lipsticks from the Heddy Lamarr era. Mentally, I reran a few oldlate night movies and came up with glistening full lips thick with crimson color. Except for thatanomaly and the echoing tinkle of the bell, my mind filed Charles Longmire’s away as nice butusual.
Time would make me change that file designation many times. Charles Longmire Proprietor,Charlie to those he allowed, became my friend and I found myself scrambling for spare minutesto share with him.
Charlie had lived a long time and would be the first to tell you he was old, old, old but hisinterest in all past and present be it the Mayans or advances in technology or medicine madeconversation with him like rubbing Aladdin’s lamp. His knowledge was the Open Sesame to thesponge of my mind.
Charlie’s candy jars were his pride and joy. He told me when he first opened the shop, theneighborhood people’s patronage kept him in business but his candy jars made friendships.Charlie’s became the place to pick up sweets for the girl you hoped to kiss, to get back in yourbrother’s good graces, or the non-verbal “I love you” for your mama.
The candy jars stood on sway-backed wooden shelves behind Charlie’s touch screen cashregister. Malted Milk balls, peppermint kisses, salt water taffy from Atlantic City, sour balls, aseemingly endless selection. Always on December first, two new jars appeared filled with redand green jelly beans. Never could decide if the candies were new each year or if Charlie pulledthe old ones out of storage. Didn’t matter; the tradition did.
More snow than usual fell that December. My reluctance to go out in the penetrating dampnessand my job kept me from Charlie’s. On the morning of December twenty-first, I tumbled out ofbed and into the kitchen. The action of the timer wreathed me in the aromatics of Andean coffeeand soothed my awakening with the pure sounds of Adeste Fidelis.
Sirens splintered the air as emergency vehicles raced by. The sound took me to the window.As they turned the corner and the wails began to diminish, I grabbed a coat and ran toward theebbing sound. Four police cars parked at odd angles filled the space in front of Charlie’s. Thedoor stood open and a faint tinkle floated on the cold, crisp air. I started toward the door, thenstopped, and cleaned a place on the bow-front window. Peering into the shop was like lookinginto one of those panoramic Easter eggs. No sound, just the scene.
One crumpled seventy-five year old man, medium height, grizzled hair needing a trim, two-dayold beard, glasses askew on his nose, an ear piece broken.
Charlie had fallen against the worn sway backed shelves when the perpetrator shot him.Scattered jelly beans decorated Charlie’s slowly congealing blood. When the killer fled,he dropped a few green bills near Charlie’s lifeless left hand. Red and green: the colors ofChristmas, the colors of Charlie’s death.
Charlie always told me not to put too much stock in those Mayan predictions and he was right.The world did not end on December twenty-first, but those Mayans were onto somethingbecause mine did.