THURSDAY: Charlotte’s Man


Copyright is held by the author.

“MALE LIONS often eat their young. That’s a fact a lot of people don’t know.”

“Did you read that in National Geographic?” asks Charlotte, glancing at the new issue on the coffee table.

I lean back in my recliner. I’ve had this chair for five years so it’s broken in perfectly. Most afternoons you’ll find me here taking a nap, but today I’m trying to resist.

“You know, I used to dream of going on safari and shooting a lion or rhino or elephant or something with one of those really big guns. Sleep in a tent, cook over a campfire in the Serengeti.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You hate bugs and can’t get through a day without a nap.”

“Now Charlotte, a man has to have a dream. I used to sit at my desk in the back office at the bank and imagine hiking though the bush in my khaki shirt and pants and one of those cool safari helmets. The native guide would scout ahead for game. The porters carrying our provisions would bring up the rear. Just one or two clouds hanging there in the blue sky, the sounds of insects humming, the smell of dry dust and sweat.”

” Are you planning to audition for a remake of Out of Africa?”

“Don’t you be ridiculous. But you know that part in the movie when you always cry — when Denys dies in that plane crash and they bury him high on a hill and then the lions come and sleep on his grave?”

“Yeh . . .”

“Well, when I watch that part I think what a way to spend eternity, much better than under a stone in the cemetery here in town next to the gas station and the strip mall.”

“Henry, if you want I’ll send your body to Africa when you die so the lions can sleep on you, too.”

“Isn’t it time for you to start cooking dinner?”

“Oh, gosh, you’re right.” The neighbours are coming over for Charlotte’s special pot roast. She hurries to the kitchen, the cuffs of her sweat pants bunching around her ankles.

Charlotte and I have been together 50 years. I fell for her the first time I saw her at the local soda shop. She was standing at the counter with three of her friends and giggling. She ordered a Brown Cow — chocolate milk, vanilla ice cream and soda water. I went right up to her and said, “That’s my favourite drink, too.”

She had dark hair tied in a pony tail that swayed back and forth across her shoulders when she walked and wore a pink cardigan with pearl buttons — put on backwards so those pretty little buttons ran down her spine. All the girls did that back then. Sweater really showed off her figure. The way she turned and smiled at me, raising her eyebrows that way she does, made me feel like I could jump up and tap dance on the counter in front of everyone.

I wasn’t bad looking back then. I actually had hair and was pretty slim, played baseball for the school team. The girls used to flirt with me between classes. A few kissed me behind the baseball diamond, too. Of course, that was before I met Charlotte.

Look at me now: no teeth, most of my hair has fallen out, my ears are floppy, and deep canyons seem to have dug themselves under my eyes. Course, she’s changed too. Put on some weight, wears lots of loose pants and tops, nothing sexy anymore. I miss those tight cardigans.

I wander down the hall into the kitchen, past the smiling faces of our grandchildren, my socks picking up lint from the new rug.

“Where’d you put the camera Kevin gave me for my birthday?” It’s a terrific camera, a telephoto lens and everything. The lens is so strong I can take photos of June across the street working in the garden in her short shorts like she was standing right in front of me. I wouldn’t, of course. She’d think I was spying or something. Boy, it’d be perfect for taking photos of wildebeests. I already have some great shots of the neighbour’s Pomeranian.

“It’s in the bedroom closet on the shelf. Be careful you don’t knock it down. It’s on top of those DVDs I ordered last year.”

Charlotte sees those ads for self-improvement courses in her magazines and orders all these things, but nothing ever changes as far as I can see. She just sits and listens to them. One rainy afternoon I watched a few with her. Didn’t see the point of them. She said I needed to focus more. I told her, “Thinking only gets you so far. Sometimes you have to take action. If you think too much, before long you can talk yourself out of things and then all you do is sit around.”

Charlotte doesn’t actually like things to change. Every time we go to Home Depot I look at those fancy gas barbecues, but she always says, “that charcoal one we’ve had for 10 years is fine, Henry.” And when the Smith’s across the street painted their house yellow — it had always been white as long as we could remember — she said, “Looks like a big pat of butter now.”

“You better change your shirt before dinner; you spilled egg yolk on the front pocket at breakfast.” I look down and see the stain. I’m turning into an old man.

It’s a good thing Charlotte and I have each other. We’ve had our ups and downs like most people, but I like to think it’s been mostly ups. She nags me a lot but I know she means well. When it gets too much I just tune her out for awhile.

Charlotte doesn’t like to travel. She always wants to be home in time to catch her favourite shows. The last time we went anywhere, five years ago, we’d gone to Wasaga Beach and rented a cottage for a long weekend. As usual it was too cold to swim and she complained about missing things at home. She likes to serve supper at 5:30 sharp every day so we’re all finished and cleaned up for our shows at 8. Our current favourite is Dancing with the Stars.

As I head to the bedroom, Charlotte yells, “Don’t forget to put your teeth in.” Like I could forget. OK, so once in awhile I get caught up in things and don’t get to it, but I never forget. I’m not that old.

I open the top button on my pants. These are my good black pants but they seem to be getting a bit tight. The doctor said I have to lose some weight. My heart isn’t what it used to be. Joe, our cross the street neighbour, was in great shape. He entered the seniors’ marathon event last year and did well — came in third. Too bad he dropped dead last month in the Canadian Tire parking lot.

I hear more instructions from the kitchen: “Smooth your hair down in back, too, hon.”

“Got it. It’s under control.” We have a nice bedroom. Rose-coloured walls, a king-size bed and matching mahogany furniture, a big TV, too. Charlotte and I used to watch the news before we went to sleep but now we fall asleep before it starts. Just as well. There isn’t any good news.

I think of my suitcase, feeling lonely there under the bed — the old brown Samsonite, worn at the corners, with the missing zipper pull. I used a twist tie to pull the zipper along the track when we took it to the beach. I tug the suitcase out — it gets stuck on the bed rail — and look at it a minute. The next thing, I’m throwing in some underwear and socks, a few t-shirts and my summer khakis. I grab my new camera bag and call out to Charlotte, still cooking in the kitchen. “I’m going out to run a quick errand. I’ll be back soon, love.”

“Don’t put the trash out until after dinner, Henry.”

The rain they were predicting starts slow, but picks up as I near the highway. I put the windshield wipers on high. I can hardly see the road. I hope I don’t miss the airport turnoff. Long-term parking is really expensive. Charlotte will have a fit. Her red umbrella catches my eye in the back seat. She says it’s good to be prepared. Grabbing it and my bag I head for the terminal. Thunder rolls in the distance. The umbrella blows inside out. I drop it in a puddle and start running like a hobbled zebra.

My shoes squish water on the terminal floor. Oh, well. They’ll dry. It’s hot in Africa.

  1. Gail,
    This is a perfectly, delightful story.
    I’ll settle anytime for great characters like Charlotte and Henry.
    Well done…!!

  2. Character always trumps plot. Good job.

  3. Thanks for your support and encouragement!

  4. I think they live next door. Haven’t seen Henry for awhile. Loved it.

  5. An excellent character sketch of Charlotte’s man does not save this story, which Gail delegates to the final two paragraphs. No plausible motive exists for the drastic step which he takes, and his life, in back story, does not provide the reader with so much as a glimpse of the Walter Mitty character’s decision.

    Character Trumps Plot? I think not. And if I agreed there would not be much of a dialogue. We need both plot and character, as well as a host of other essential elements, before a story takes shape. The public is often wrong, but it votes with its wallet, and a great plot will usually beat a great character study at the cashier.

    I enjoyed ‘Charlotte’s Man’, which I admit is a pretty useless critique, and I wish him and his missus well. I hope he remembers to pack enough ham and cheese sandwiches to last him through his journey.

  6. Michael,
    I can provide Henry’s motive in this entertaining tale:
    He’s henpecked. He never gets to travel. Dinner is in the afternoon and then, and only then, does he take the garbage out. And wait for it…his entertainment, and I’m pretty sure it’s not his choice is – “Dancing with the Stars”. And then into bed while the bugle blows.
    So he bolted. A dreamer..? Or a rather an acute case of “Late Life Crisis”. Stranger things have happened in real life. It was a delightful tale…!!!

  7. Michael: Of course character and plot are equal players on any literary stage, but a strong character resonates, feels alive, so much so that one expects to run into that character on the street, in a cafe, or in one’s home. Take the character of Tess. Take the plot of Tess. The first is memorable and the second is, at best, tenable. Achieving greatness in both is elusive, often so tantalizing out of reach. So, I believe Character trumps Plot. Oh, a great character can save a bad plot. Great plotting cannot save a dull, memorable, wooden, or even adequately rendered character.

  8. Well said, Frank.
    To prove this point — ask the guy/gal on the street if they’ve heard of: King Lear, Hamlet, Joan of Arc, The Mad Hatter, Oliver Twist, King Kong…..I’m confident they would know these characters ….but then ask them what the story line was.

  9. Passionate dialog – priceless.

  10. King Lear, Hamlet??? in the same breath as Henry??? A henpecked old man cliche. I don’t see the strong characters you all are trumpeting. These folks are cliche. The cute ending is uninspired and in hindsight, predictable and cliche. I rolled my eyes. Have fun with it but I wouldn’t use this story as an example to debate strong characters in fiction. IMO

  11. Nicosia
    I think you missed the point.

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