All my life I kept telling myself that I should do volunteer work but I never got around to it until I was almost forty. I met someone who said exactly what I needed to hear to get up off my ass and help out. I signed up to be a driver for Meals-On-Wheels. And I liked it. Giving back to the community, being a friend to some nice people.
About a year after I started doing this, a new house was added to the end of my route. I took the van out to the address I was given and saw that it was a very nice Victorian style home upstate. Lots of property, beautiful home, but not very well maintained. I knocked on the door and it was opened by a very frail, elderly woman named Daphne Harrison.
Daphne’s body was frail, but her mind was still sharp at ninety-two years old and there was something playful, almost childlike about her. Her piercing blue eyes could no longer see, but they were still entrancing. I got the distinct impression that, in her youth, Daphne had been very beautiful. Glancing at a few photos on the mantle confirmed my suspicions. I was used to lingering in these people’s homes after dropping off their meals—many of the people on my route had signed up for the program for companionship just as much as for nutrition—and was fully prepared to nod and smile politely for a few minutes before heading for home.
But then I saw the painting.
A portrait, maybe sixteen by twenty or so, in a simple wooden frame. The man depicted was standing in a grassy field. He was not conspicuously handsome, but there was something immediately likeable about his face. His short, brown hair stuck up at odd angles and he had a crooked, endearing smile. He was wearing a dark gray suit with an extremely ugly Hawaiian shirt under the jacket. His shoes, just visible over the blades of grass among which he was standing, were blue and, though it wasn’t clear in the painting, I knew they were suede dancing shoes, just like the kind Elvis wore.
“Did you paint this?” I asked, pointing at the canvas. In an instant, I remembered that Daphne would have been unable to see what I was pointing at even if she hadn’t had her back turned to me and I felt a little sheepish.
But even without looking, she said, “Yes, I did. When I was twenty-one. A school project.” This was not quite the answer I had expected and Daphne, perhaps, sensed this because she turned around and faced me with her unseeing eyes. “Have you seen him before?”
“I…I thought…no,” I said, hastily. “It reminded me of someone, but…well, it couldn’t possibly be the person I was thinking of. I saw him last year and…well, no offense, but you weren’t twenty-one last year.”
“No I was not,” she chuckled. “In the center of the mantel,” she continued, seemingly apropos of nothing, “is my wedding photo. But there’s another picture hidden behind it. Take a look.”
Not quite sure what I was doing, I followed Daphne’s instructions. Sure enough, a much smaller framed photo was wedged between the large wedding portrait and the brick fireplace. This picture depicted a child’s birthday party. I saw kids playing, adults trying to pretend they weren’t bored out of their skulls, and in the center of it all, a little girl who was, undoubtedly, Daphne as a child who had just turned ten.
Then, in the background, just barely visible, almost like one of those Bigfoot photos from terrible newspapers, I saw him. I looked back at the painting. I searched my own memory, as if trying to convince myself that I was remembering his face wrong. But, no. There was no mistake. They weren’t brothers, or a father and son, they weren’t just similar in appearance. It was, without question, the same man.
“How is this possible?” I asked. “He looks exactly the same in this picture. Does he just not age?”
“No, he does not,” said Daphne. “Which is the great tragedy of his life. He never changes, but the rest of the world does. All of us age and wither and die and all he can do is watch us. That’s why he keeps his distance. Why he stays away. Not because he doesn’t love us...” (Her voice caught in her throat; she might have been close to tears) “…but because he loves us too much.”
“Who is he?”
“You ought to know,” she said, smiling up at me. “You’re one of his nephews.”
Photographs lie, (Daphne told me). That picture of my sixth birthday party makes it look like everyone is happy and enjoying themselves. But behind the plastered smiles and feigned friendliness, the real story is not as pleasant. My mother and father never liked each other. Not for one minute. My mother became pregnant and my father did what he thought was his obligation and married her. But I cannot remember a single moment when either one of them showed any affection or even fondness toward the other.
I believe they stayed together because of me, though I suspect it would have been better for me to be away from all that animosity.
My sixth birthday was a disaster. Mother insisted on a party, but my father was not interested in spending a lot of money on something I’d never remember. Little did he know something would happen to me that day to make sure I remembered it for the rest of my life. After two solid hours of yelling and fighting and cruelty and anger, I couldn’t take it anymore and I ran away. Our backyard opened up onto a sort of forest and my father told me time and again not to go near it. He used to threaten me with violence if he ever found out that I was playing in those woods. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to get away from all of that.
I slid through the gap in the fence and I ran as fast as I could as far as I could before I finally tripped over a tree root and fell forward. I cried. I cried and cried and cried. I was covered in mud, my dress was torn, I was alone in the forest and I was miserable. I cried for every night I’d gone to sleep to the sounds of my parents screaming at each other. For each indifferent word from my father’s lips and each lie my mother told me to justify it.
In that moment, there was nothing in the whole wide world except me and my sorrow.
And that’s when Uncle Charlie found me.
“Are you okay?”
A kind, grownup voice broke through my sobs. He helped me get to my feet and, pulling a towel from his long gray coat, tried to clean me up. I didn’t know who he was, and I was told not to talk to strangers, but somehow he didn’t feel like a stranger. He has that gift. He engenders such immediate trust in everyone he meets.
“You’re not hurt are you?” he asked. He seemed genuinely concerned.
“No, sir,” I said, remembering my manners.
“No need to call me that. I’m Uncle Charlie.”
“Uncle Charlie?” Not only was I pretty sure I didn’t have an uncle Charlie, but this guy did not look anything like anyone from my family.
“That’s what people call me,” he said. “Now tell me what’s the matter.”
“I’m running away.”
“No, I got that. From the running and stuff. I even know what you’re running away from. A birthday party.” For a minute I thought he was psychic or something, then he reminded me that I was still wearing that stupid pointy hat. “Yours?” he asked.
“How old are you?”
“Six? That’s a great age. So I hear. But why are you running away from your own party?”
“Cuz everyone’s mad. Mom is mad at Dad, Dad is mad at me. I got upset…and I ran away.”
“I see,” said Uncle Charlie. “Well, I don’t blame you. Sounds awful. But you know…now that you’re here, maybe you can help me. See, I’m tracking a dragon and he’s somewhere around here but—”
“A dragon?” I said, suddenly very excited.
“Yeah. Here, I’ll show you.” He held out his hand for me to take. I did, without hesitation. He led me down a steep hill to an open area and pointed to some animal prints in the soft earth.
“See? Dragon tracks.”
“Those aren’t dragon tracks,” she said. “Those are dog tracks.”
“What? What are you talking about? Those are clearly dragon tracks.”
“They look like dog tracks to me.”
“Okay, well, there’s one way to settle this. We’ll just have to follow them and see where they lead us. Then we’ll see whether it’s a dog or a dragon.”
I agreed and we followed the tracks. “We have to be real quiet,” he said. “Or else the dragon.”
“Whatever! Will hear us coming. Now shhhh!!!”
The tracks led us to a small cave and we heard an animal scuffling around inside. “Okay, keep close. I’m going to draw it out with my patented dragon call.” Before I could protest, he made the most ludicrous sound I had ever heard. Like a snake hissing while trying to gargle the alphabet. Not surprisingly, it had no effect. “Okay, have it your way.” And he said, “Here boy! Here boy!”
This garnered immediate results. A beautiful golden retriever came loping up to us. He was very friendly and affectionate.
“I knew it! It is a dragon! Stay back!”
“What are you talking about? That’s a dog!”
“Are you blind? Of course it’s a dragon. See how it’s covered in fur and walks on four legs and pants and goes ‘woof’ and…is it not dragons who do that?”
“No, it’s dogs!”
“Oh…oh I see. All this time I thought that was a dragon. So, what’s the big scaly thing with wings that breathes fire?”
“That’s a dragon!”
“OH! Now I get it. That makes a lot more sense.”
“He’s beautiful. I wonder whose he is?”
“Well, he’s yours now.”
“If you want him, of course. His previous owners...well, let's just say they've gone away and they can't take care of him anymore. But he seems to like you, so maybe he should be your dragon...dog! Sorry, dog."
My parents weren't too happy that I'd run off, or that I'd brought home a pet. But, both of them seemed to think that it would be a good idea for me to have a friend. It may have been the first and last time they ever agreed on anything. They were a little perplexed by my insistence in naming the dog "Dragon," but he was my best friend for a long time. And even when things were really bad, he was there for me. When my mom got really sick and never recovered. When my dad finally gave up and left and I went to live with my Aunt Ruth who made no secret of the fact that she thought I was a burden, I always had Dragon.
And, even though I didn't always know it, I always had Uncle Charlie.
"So you saw him again?"
"Many times. In a way, I think it was worth all the sadness to know Uncle Charlie. And looking back, I wouldn't change a thing."
"When did you see him next?"
"When I was nine. But I think we'd better save that story for the next time you come to see me. You are gonna come back to see me, aren't you?"
TO BE CONTINUED