Andes Mint #6: Phantom ice cream

When you think of Charlie, which you do every day, he appears to you smiling, sitting on a chair wearing dark pants, a white shirt with a faint stripe, dark shoes. The chair is simple, one step up from a folding chair, and it’s set on the linoleum floor of the dark pantry-like space in his old house, the same space that once held the commercial soft-serve ice cream machine he bought at an auction and installed for the use of himself and his family.

The house burned down many years ago. The ice cream machine was uninstalled shortly after Charlie got his triple bypass. The night your parents called to tell you he was in the hospital, you sat down and wrote him a letter that began, “Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

Charlie was your father’s best friend. He is inseparable from every moment of your growing up, and from your entire life until he died last year. When you think of him now he’s always in that chair, always smiling, always chuckling.

Hi Charlie.

Hi Al.

You hear his voice perfectly. It’s as if he’s in the room with you whenever you think of him. His voice, followed always by that easy chuckle. The man could get along with anyone in the world, and others counted on him to be the conduit through which they got along with others. This was a role he was born for and he fulfilled it unerringly.

He was a farmer for much of his life, an extension agent for the state for many years, a Walmart greeter for a few. Sitting here typing this, on this buckling white couch in your basement, where you’re trying to escape the heat, you try to think of even one person who didn’t love him. You can’t.

There he sits on that chair, smiling, that easy laugh, that mellow voice that has always sounded to you like a cello turned human.

Hi Charlie.

Hi Al.

In your mind you pull up a chair opposite him, there in that dark pantry where the soft ice cream machine is churning away. This is where you meet, now that he’s gone, in a disappeared pantry in a burned-down house: a place where he used to sit you down with a spoon and a big bowl of melting vanilla ice cream.

He’s talking to someone else at first, someone you can’t see, but after a while he glances over and meets your eye. He nods and smiles and you nod and smile back. There is the same deep, wordless understanding between the two of you that there always was.

What you know –and he knew you knew it– was that Charlie’s easy chuckle was his defense. It was how he got through, how he bought time so that his brain would have a few extra seconds to whisk through a thousand possibilities, figure out how to defuse, how to smooth over, how to make everyone in the conversation –especially those who were angry, quick to judge, quick to injury– feel listened to, seen, known.

If Charlie could have been cloned and installed in embassies around the world, there would be no war.

Now he is gone, but you still need his presence. So every day you draw up a chair opposite him. You smile. You listen to that easy laugh. Charlie steadied the lives of those who knew him. He smoothed things over among people he loved and people he barely knew. An invisible filament strung through his hands held so many things together.

In life, the two of you never spoke openly of what you knew about each other, which is how much effort that takes, not only to do it but to make it look effortless.

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