It took months before I could believe it. The man across the street had died.
I should have figured it out the first morning Charlie didn’t come walking down his driveway at the stroke of ten, wearing a trench coat and pulling a little suitcase on wheels. Thinking about it now, it seems he also wore a cabby hat. If he hadn’t, I’d remember his hair, whether it was gone or grey. But I don’t so there must have been a hat. And it had to have been a cabby hat because it wasn’t a knit cap or a fedora. A cabby hat and his trench coat buttoned up to the neck, unless it was summer and then he wore a bright red sport coat.
Charlie was a very mean guy. So much so that I would wait until he’d returned from his morning walk with his little suitcase on wheels before I ventured out to take my dogs walking. I didn’t want to risk meeting him on the street. He’d stop and stare like he was about to pull out a pistol. Sometimes he’d yell at me. I never thought he was crazy. I just thought he was mean, a man who would pick up a kid’s soccer ball that had rolled on his lawn and stab it with a pair of garden shears.
For several days, I thought I’d missed Charlie’s morning roll-out. I don’t sit at my desk by the window every single morning so it was possible to miss some days. But then there was a For Sale sign in front of his house and carpenters came to rebuild the front porch. A few years ago, Charlie had taken out the steps himself, leaving the porch floor four feet off the ground with no steps. I took it to mean that he was done with the pretense that he might welcome visitors. I hate you, the stair-less porch said, leave me alone.
I watched his people go in and out, his son and his son’s wife. They came with a lot of purpose, in and out of the house, up and down the porch stairs. I should ask them what happened to Charlie, I thought. They’re over there right now. I should just go ask them. “Hi, I live across the street and I was just wondering what happened to Charlie. Is he all right?”
But I knew if I went across the street and stood on Charlie’s lawn, something I would never dare do before, it would be just seconds before I would want to tell them that he was a very mean man. “Your father was very mean,” I’d want to say and then I’d want to try to describe what it was about Charlie that made him so mean. I’d want to recount all the times he stared and yelled, the times he swore at me and waved his arms like I was a rabid dog about to attack, the times my son ran back across the street with his soccer ball clenched to his chest. “Charlie was going to take my ball!”
But what did they have to do with all that? Would I be telling them something they didn’t already know? Wasn’t it likely Charlie had been mean to them, too? Did I expect them to apologize, to feel sorry for me? Why deliver such a package of unhappiness? Wouldn’t that make me mean like Charlie?
So the work on Charlie’s house goes on. Different trucks come and go everyday. The For Sale sign is down so I guess new people own the house. Today, a dump truck filled to the brim with dirt dumped its load in the street and a little bulldozer took load after load up the driveway to Charlie’s backyard. I don’t know what they’re doing back there but maybe when it gets to be summer and we see the new folks in their yard, I’ll wander over and ask. By then, I’ll know that Charlie’s really gone.