Friday, December 22, 2006

Charlie

I've been meaning to write about Charlie. For decades.

Charlie is the reason I got my very first job in high school.
I'll never forget the advice he gave me:
"Don't drink cheap wine. It'll rot your gut."

Ah, Charlie.
Charlie was an alcoholic.

I met Charlie the day I applied for a job as a cashier in a supermarket one town over.
I was really nervous and showed up 45 minutes early for my interview. I knew it was way too early so I sat in my car in the parking lot for 20 minutes reviewing all the instructions I'd been given (eg. don't cross your arms or legs, it makes you look defensive; treat everyone like they are the person in charge of hiring you; make eye contact; sit up straight...)
... and then I just couldn't stand it anymore and went inside anyway.

After I told a cashier what I was there for, she told me to stand off to the side and wait.
Of course.
I was nearly half an hour early.

Just standing.
By the checkout lanes.
Waiting.
Watching the people come and go.

One of those people was a little old man.
Stooped over.
Dressed... um... shall we say, casually.
His one purchase was placed in a small, plain, brown bag which he lovingly cradled to his chest.

And we made eye contact.
Whoops.

What could I do? I did what I trained myself to do: treat him like he was gonna hire me.
So, I gave him a big smile.
His face simply lit up!

And then he came over.
And started to talk to me.

I don't know what struck me first about this man. The smell of alcohol radiating from his skin, the body odor seeping through his clothing, or the missing teeth.

But I was waiting for a job interview.
My very first job interview.
I had to stay.
I had to stay right here.

He talked and breathed on me, and at one point, I think he even reached out and patted my arm.
But, I listened patiently to the strange man, nodded politely, and answered his questions.
Praying someone would usher him along.
Please? Anyone?

No.
No one.
In fact, I'm sure at least one cashier glanced out of the corner of her eye at me pinned there. And doggonnit if she wasn't smirking.
Like it was funny that I got saddled with this guy that they all knew smelled funny. And talked funny. Telling me all about the store he hoped I'd get to work at. Because he bought all his wine there.

Finally!
Thankfully.
While the two of us stood there, the little man speaking earnestly, me smiling like a goon and bobbing my head up and down, a tall man in a dress shirt and tie walked up to us.
He greeted the little man first, introduced himself to me as the store owner, and asked if I was there for an interview.
Yes, yes I was.
This tall man excused us from the little man (so polite!), and lead me up a flight of stairs to the offices above.

As we walked, the owner asked, "So, how do you know Charlie?"
"Is that what his name is?" I replied. "I don't know him. He just came over and started talking to me."

And there it was.

The store owner had seen me being polite and patient with one of his customers.
One of his more unusual customers.
Not because I knew the guy.
And not because it was my job to be nice... yet.

But because it was the right thing to do.

Before we even reached his office, he had made up his mind.
I had gotten the job.

That job paid my way through college, and it bought me my first car.
It introduced me to my first steady boyfriend. And it gave me something to do after we broke up.

It was years before I had the "do you know why I hired you" conversation with the boss.
He told me how surprised he was to see someone speaking so easily to Charlie, especially someone to whom Charlie was a stranger. When he told me that was why he hired me, I felt very sad.
Because I never got to thank Charlie.

About a year after I had been hired, Charlie had died.
Liver failure.
Because the cheap wine had rotted his gut.

Just like he told me it would.

Ah, Charlie.
Thanks to you, I had four fantastic years at my first job.
If nothing else, I'm really glad I could make you smile.

8 comments:

cute one said...

All I have to say is....Beautifull Story :)

oddybobo said...

Wonderful story. To Charlie you were probably the first in a long time to talk to him like that. Brava!

Tink said...

Beautiful story. A reminder that even the smallest things can make a big difference in life.

Roses said...

Thank you, all. You're very kind.
And you have most of your own teeth.

jaj said...

A really beautiful story =)

Bitterroot said...

Sometimes it takes so little to be somebody's angel...

Thanks for the happy. :)

sticks said...

*rings bell* another angel gets her wings.

Richmond said...

Great Story. Just wonderful.