By Denise S. Robbins
In the center of Middletown, in a little yellow house with falling gutters and a wildly weedy garden, Old Charles sat on his front porch every day, waiting for the water to fall.
“Won’t you come off that porch, Old Charles?” his next-door neighbor Sally called to him one morning. “Come over for some sweet cake?”
“Trying to kill me with sugar? Thanks, but no thanks, toots.”
Old Charles was in his early thirties, but he had been called ‘Old Charles’ ever since he popped out of the womb with a single sprout of grey hair over his forehead, after which his parents could not call him ‘Charlie’ or ‘Chonkles’ or ‘Chucklepop,’ as they had intended before he and his grey sprout oinked into existence. The grey remained even as the rest of his black hair sprouted up behind and beside and around but never in front of it, even as his parents—now dead—combed it back and colored it with a sharpie.
Old Charles loved his grey swoop and took to his name immediately. In elementary school, he liked to grumble about the ‘young whippersnappers,’ which applied to anyone who was not a day younger than him. In middle school, he watched Little House on the Prairie and listened to talk radio. In high school, he only ate soft foods like oatmeal and mashed yams. In college, he studied Latin and Sanskrit, ‘languages almost as old as I am.’
“Won’t you come off that porch?” said Sweet old Aunt Tee on the phone that afternoon. “Come by and have a cuppa tea with Tee?”
“I’ll probably die tomorrow, Aunt Tee. Might as well sit here today.”
There was a rain gutter that hung over the front entryway, rusted brown over white, that had fallen and bent inwards. All day long, it dripped onto his front porch, right in front of his feet where he sat on his rocking chair. When it rained hard, the gutter collected all water and debris it could and rushed to the front, where a beautiful, lumpy waterfall would pour onto the porch plywood. Old Charles would sort through the debris and find all kinds of treasures from heaven: a baseball, bird bones, a set of teeth, a heart-shaped rock.
“Won’t you come off that porch?” the neighborhood dog barked from the sidewalk. “Go get yourself a job?”
“I have a job, Mr. Giggles. It’s sitting here on this porch.”
Old Charles loved the dry seasons. When there was a drought—when the grass would turn scratchy and brown and the thistle weeds in his yard would shrivel up as if hiding, pokey and wrinkly, and the squirrels would stop harassing him and conserve energy in the shade of an elderberry bush (Old Charles’ favorite, of course)—a scarce amount of water would somehow find its way to and down the rain gutter, falling in slow, suspenseful globs. In such a drought, Old Charles would sometimes stand underneath the gutter and let the globs fall onto his forehead, where they would burst, wonderfully, into his eyebrows and hair sprout.
“Won’t you come off that porch?” the ghost of Old Charles’ mother said later that night. “Go on, just go on inside and get some rest.”
Old Charles said nothing.
His parents died when he was twenty-two. They left him the little yellow house with the rain gutter that was only beginning to fall down. That’s when he began sitting on the porch, to keep watch.
Back then, the gutter was clean and white. Over the years, Old Charles watched the rust grow as the gutter sank low. The rust started at the mouth of the gutter, tinging the edge in a few spots of brown-red, then filled in to meet itself, then percolated further up the gutter, hunching forward roughly, pulling up the white gutter metal in chunks, then began to appear in unattached sprouts, making the gutter look like the white and red trunk of a dogwood tree. It was always changing. Some days the sun turned the rust into gold.
“Won’t you come off that porch?” said the stars in the sky. The voice woke Old Charles from dreaming in his rocking chair. He looked around and saw no one, then went back to sleep.
The next morning, it rained, hard. It rained so hard the rain bounced back up from the ground as if sprouting from beneath the plywood. It rained and a mass of red dogwood leaves were carried through the rain gutter and thrown to the ground and beaten down underneath the waterfall. White flakes of metal tore off the gutter and joined the leaves in a growing pile of soggy detritus. The rust and the water smelled of metal and air. The rust had its own kind of life. It had its own kind of death.
The rain slowed.
The rain slowed and the water moved into itself and came to rest on the red leaves and white metal bits. The detritus pile tingled with drips. When a breeze came through, it shivered and sighed.
Old Charles shivered. He sighed. He breathed. He lived.