Blind Charles sat up and crossed his legs with some difficulty. His thighs were fat. Really fat, in fact, and his coveralls didn't fit too well in the legs – they were a little too short for him, and they were certainly too tight, or at least tighter than I would have wanted them.
“Denny,” he said, “they're awfully blue. You remember the old brick school down near the edge of town?”
“Well, Denny, you know I used to live right near there when I was growing up, right?”
“Sure I do, Charles.”
“It was a long time ago, Denny, or at least it seems like a long time ago. We were just kids. I suppose everyone is just a kid at least once in their life and when you are, there just some things you can't help doing. You know, like having zits and popping them in front of a mirror – I think 'most everyone does that at some point. Hell, I think the only girl I ever dated probably decided to never see me again after I kind of absentmindedly picked at a zit when we were out on a date. I squeezed at it without even really thinking and she said 'Charles, please don't do that,' and I never did in her presence again, but not because I kept myself from doing it but because she never went out with me again. Never mind the fact that the zit was on my back and we were in a restaurant.”
I tried to imagine this and stopped. Blind Charles continued.
“But zits are just something you go through when you're a kid, right? So are things like bad breath because you don't know that it's bad and you ain't learned about keeping yourself clean and no one has told you that maybe you need to chew a stick of gum or have a mint after you eat that bag of Funyons at lunch time. Life just ain't fair. So it seemed no worse when I saw Mahler and Pennick and those other kids that used to hang around together, and they were all hanging around on a summer night – all hanging around the playground at that old brick school down near the edge of town. They were lighting off firecrackers – I could hear them going off. I was sitting in my room reading a book, but I had the windows open because it was hot out, and I could hear the firecrackers and the laughing and every now and then someone cussing and then the laughing would get louder.”
“Well,” he continued, “it was sounding so fun decided to put down my book and go see what was going on. It wasn't that late yet, and it was summer, so it was still light out and my mom didn't mind that I was gong out of the house. I told her I was going to the playground and she just told me to be careful and to be back before it got dark. I wandered over to see who was there, even though I already knew.”
Blind Charles paused for a moment, and we both just took in the skies and the fields. A big old bank of clouds moved in front of the sun, making a big shadow. Everything got a little darker, and it even got a little cooler, it seemed. I looked at my forearms and saw that goosebumps were rising up, so I ran my hands across them quickly. It was strange to feel goosebumps on such a warm summer day, but stranger was to look at Charles and his blue cotton shirt – the color of the blue changed as the cloud moved in front of the sun. It started out as bright blue as the skies themselves, but as the cloud moved the shirt looked darker and darker, and with it the blood smears. They looked for a moment almost black, but I think it was just my eyes. The shirt got to look like a dark gray or a blue that had been painted on a building in a place where they burned a lot of coal or some such thing, and it didn't match the skies anymore, even though the skies had been the exact same color just a moment ago. I looked even more intently at Charles and his blue eyes, which also had been the same color as the skies. Now it appeared as though their color didn't matter at all. His eyes just looked sadder, and they almost looked a little older than they had been. By the time Charles began talking again, the clouds had moved along and were going on their merry little way, and the shadows no longer cursed the blue of his shirt and his eyes.
“Pennick had a whole box full of firecrackers that his uncle had brought from somewhere that he was vacationing, and they were all having a great time putting those firecrackers into empty tin cans, blasting apart glass bottles and digging little holes in the lawn of the school yard and seeing how much turf they could blow up in a single blast. I started watching even though they were none too polite to me and called me blind and four-eyes and all the usual shit I used to get called as a kid. Still do, sometimes. Did you know that, Denny?”
“Know what, Charles?”
“That people call me names. They always have. They call me all sorts of things, mostly to do with my eyes.”
“We all get called names, Charles. It ain't nothing, really.” I think I must have turned pretty red as I was saying this, because I had always called him Blind Charles and sometimes even worse. Charles was right, though, that folks had always called him names and it was mostly to do with his eyes.
“Well, after Mahler and Pennick and the others had blown up most of the stuff they could find laying around, one of the other kids goes looking around near the edge of the playground and pretty soon shouts out that he's found something pretty cool. We all ran over and there was a big black crow, all dead and looking kind of nasty. Mahler poked it with a long stick and proclaimed it really dead. We all figured that, anyway, though. Well, Pennick pulls out a big old firecracker and says they should blow its head off and how cool that would be. Everyone laughs and agrees, and then they turn to me. 'Hey four-eyes,' he said, 'you get to set the charge on the prisoner.' He pointed to the crow and then handed me the firecracker. I told him I didn't want to and that somebody else could have the honor. He asked me if I was some kind of a pussy and was there something wrong with me. The others started to laugh and I felt funny inside, so I said I'd do it. He handed me the firecracker and a cigarette lighter and they all ran a little ways away. To take cover.”
Blind Charles looked even puffier around the eyes as he told this tale, and his voice sounded kind of dry and creaky. If I would have had some water I would have offered him a drink, but I didn't and so I just let him continue.
“I was scared, Denny. I never liked touching dead things – still don't. But the last thing I really wanted to look like was a pussy – a scaredy-cat. So I kind of pried open the crow's beak with one hand and then jammed the firecracker in as far as I could with the other. I pushed on it a little more so that just the wick was sticking out. I felt like my fingers that had touched the crow were somehow unclean and that I was going to get a disease, but I didn't want to show I was afraid in front of the others so even though I really wanted to smell my fingers and then wipe them on the cool grass, I just kept at my work. It took me several tries to get the cigarette lighter going, seeing as how I didn't have a lot of experience using one of them. Finally the fuse lit and it sparked and sizzled while I held the crow's head in my other hand. I heard the other kids yelling to drop the crow and run, and I could hear others laughing at me, but I just stood there, transfixed and looking at that crow with the firecracker in its mouth.”
“That's awful, Charles,” I said.
“Yeah, but Denny, when the firecracker went off, it was even worse yet. I thought my fingers had been blown off, and I got crow brains or some shit all on me – on my shirt and even some on my face. Whatever it was smelled just awful, and I remember still standing there and crying – screaming, actually, and I could hear my mom shouting after me from our yard, as she must have heard my scream and knowed it was me. She ran up to me and was shouting at the other kids, and saying how she was going to call their parents and the police and how they should all just go home and stop getting into trouble and disturbing the peace. And she put her arm around me and I remember stopping my crying just long enough to look down at the crow and seeing some sort of hideous, mangled bird head, and a the blown-off, ragged little stump of a beak still in place on what was left of the crow's head, just looking at me like it was accusing me of something worse than killing him.”
After he said that we both just sat there in silence and watched another cloud move in front of the sun.