When Charlie Crews found him, Ted Earley had been working at a car wash for over a year. Not many places hired ex-cons, particularly ex-cons infamous for their financial malfeasance, and Ted could not cook worth a damn, so working the line at a greasy spoon was pretty much out -- crappy diners being the other places parole officers lined up employment for their charges.
The car wash was essentially just like prison, except with a timecard instead of a cell door -- he was surrounded by domestic abusers, pedophiles, drug dealers, thieves, murderers, and he was fairly certain at least one serial killer, although as far as he was able to discern from a rigorous search of the Internet, no one had pinned more than the one murder on the guy who worked the 3 to 7 shift. If Ted had known back in his pre-prison days just how sketchy these places were, he never would have taken his cars to them.
When Charlie found him, Ted was also working on drinking and drugging himself into an early grave. Not on purpose, or at least, he hadn’t thought so at the time, but maybe accidentally on purpose. He’d been surprised by just how low he could sink after prison, after Charlie was no longer there to take care of him. It had been tough for Ted to believe he could sink any lower than a federal penitentiary, but there he was. What little money he’d squirreled away before they took everything from him he’d used on a lost week with a cheap hooker, nothing like the kind of high-rent girls who’d hung around him and his cronies back in the day. Ted hadn’t even left himself enough to buy a crappy car, and now he took public transportation.
Coke was his way out of his depression, while alcohol and weed helped him sleep after the blow. Every once in a while he splurged on heroin, but he was a little scared of that because he knew how easily he could become dependent, and even the car wash wouldn’t keep him on after something like that -- not to mention they’d probably find out he’d been skimming the tips pool to buy drugs. He might have been a mess, but Ted was still pretty skilled at cheating.
When Charlie found him, Ted was as close to wishing he was dead -- and maybe doing something about it -- as he’d been since the day he was sentenced. He’d had no expectation that things could get better, let alone that Charlie would find him and save his life a second time.
“I’ll take the gold wheel special,” a familiar-sounding voice said behind him, and Ted turned to see Charlie Crews taking off his sunglasses in a very dramatic fashion, smiling that weird, smug, zen smile that Ted remembered so well. He appeared healthy, which Ted had never seen before, and wore a bright blue T-shirt and jeans, an expensive watch on one wrist, and sneakers that betrayed their newness with blinding whiteness.
Ted threw down the wet rag he was using to detail some unworthy asshole’s Lexus SUV -- the very car he used to drive to work (as opposed to all his other cars for fun and business image) back in the day -- and said, “You’re a sight for sore eyes.” After drying his hands off on his chinos, he held one out to shake with Charlie, who opted for a manly hug instead. There was a scent of orange and spices on Charlie, nothing like the way he’d smelled before, with his constant prison-tinged sweat and grime and the perpetual tang of dried blood.
“Are they? Sore, I mean,” Charlie asked with genuine curiosity, peering intently into his eyes. Of course they would most likely be red and his pupils blown out, though he considered himself only half-high today. Still, it would annoy Charlie, who was above these vices, to see him this way. Charlie continued, “I’ve always wondered if people say that because their eyes are supposed to actually hurt, or they’re sore from looking for that person they want to see again. It’s a peculiar expression.”
These past couple years of living in a world without Charlie’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings, Ted had forgotten just how bizarre his friend could be. Not knowing how to respond, Ted said, “I just need to finish this car...” and picked up the rag again, waiting to see what Charlie would do. He had never really understood Charlie, never knew how to anticipate his reactions to things -- he might respond with a zen saying, parrot your words back to you, or darken with a simmering rage that chilled your blood. There had been a certain excitement in it, when they were in a cell together and there were no exterior threats. But out in the world, Ted couldn’t begin to guess at what he’d be like. How much did he really know about Charlie Crews? Prison didn’t allow you to tell the truth, no matter how close you grew.
Charlie walked over to a bench by a planter. Ted realized that his car must really be in the queue for a wash and detail. But of course he had a car -- there was an undisclosed settlement, probably huge, Ted had read in the paper a few months ago. Charlie was rich; a thought that, were he not mellowed out by the weed he’d smoked at lunch hour, would have made Ted feel covetous.
Working fast, Ted kept his attention on the job as much as he could. When he finished, he sat beside Charlie. “Wanna tell me what you’re doing here?” It came out sounding a little more confrontational than he had intended.
“Move and the way will open.”
Ted sighed, remembering the frustration that came with oblique Charlie conversations. “I came to find you, Ted. And hey, I did!” Charlie had been staring at the sun the whole time he’d waited, and still didn’t turn his face away from it. Ted understood that feeling, and he hadn’t even spent the years in solitary that Charlie had. There were a lot of subtle differences in him, besides the fact that his skin actually had a bit of color and his eyes weren’t surrounded by bruised, dark circles. He stood straighter, but there was a kind of tension in his body that wasn’t just about posture. Anxiety, maybe, or panic? As if it were all a joke and would be snatched right out of his hands at any given moment. Ted wasn’t entirely sure, it was so subtle. “I’m a cop again, Ted. I can find people. I can talk to parole officers.”
“So I’ve heard,” Ted said, the corner of his mouth pulling up. “As you can see, I’m succeeding really well with my reintegration into society.” He swept a majestic hand around the parking lot. “It’s like that Springsteen song: ‘I work down at the car wash, where all it ever does is rain.’”
“‘Don’t it feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train.’” Charlie used to sing in prison; he had a nice voice.
“‘She just said “Joe, I gotta go, we had it once, we ain’t got it anymore.”’”
Charlie nodded, then looked down at his shoes. “’I feel her kiss in the misty rain.’”
Ted ran his hand over his forehead. “Oh man, Charlie, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring that up. Dumb song to mention. I’m an idiot.”
“It’s OK, Ted. It’s still a good song.” Charlie scanned the parking lot, taking in the other guys working away at the cars with rags and sponges. “Everyone here’s a convict, or on work release.”
“Yeah...how did you know?”
“I can smell it. Even before prison, I could smell it. Places like this are the places you’ll usually find them. That sounds like a tautology, doesn’t it? Is that a tautology?”
“I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure what a tautology is.”
“Huh,” Charlie said. “I thought you were the smart one of the two of us.”
“Obviously not. I did what they put me in prison for.” He could see in the manager’s window his dickhead boss gesturing at him to get back to work. There was nothing like being bossed around by a kid young enough to technically be your grandchild. Ted pretended not to see him.
“Charlie, you still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.” It didn’t matter that they’d been friends -- and more than friends -- on the inside; there was nothing to connect them in the world. Charlie didn’t even need to acknowledge his existence, and there certainly had been no promises made.
“I have a lot of money, Ted. Did you know that? They gave me a lot of money.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. Lucky you.” He winced when he said it; what an asinine thing to say to a guy who’d barely survived prison when he had done nothing wrong. Charlie acted as if he hadn’t heard.
“I need someone to take care of it.”
“Charlie, you can’t hire a convicted embezzler and inside trader to handle your money. I don’t know if it’s even legal for me to handle someone’s finances now, even privately. But let’s say it’s just public finances I can’t deal with -- it’s just not really a good idea.” He rubbed his hands on his thighs, his palms sweating at the idea of playing in that world again.
Charlie closed his eyes. “The moon cannot be stolen.”
“Oookaaay,” Ted said. The elliptical conversations with Charlie always gave him a headache. “Is that one of your zen sayings or just a random observation about my capabilities as a criminal?”
“It’s from a zen koan, yes.”
“What is a koan, Charlie?” Ted asked with mild exasperation. “I don’t even really know.”
“It’s a teaching parable, or a dialog, or a question...this one’s a story: A zen master lived a very simple life in a hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, a thief came into his home, but realized there was nothing there to steal. The zen master found him, and said, ‘You’ve come a long way to visit me, and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.’ The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and snuck away. The master sat naked, watching the moon. ‘Poor fellow,’ he thought, ‘I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.’ I have faith that you will do the right thing, Ted. Because we’re friends.”
Charlie finally turned to face him full on when he said friend, staring at him in a way that made Ted’s skin flush. He remembered nights in a cell with Charlie and that look. Ways that they’d made each other feel, in a place where they shouldn’t have felt like that at all.
The door to the main building opened and Ted’s asshole supervisor, Steve, strode toward them. Ted was prepared to be appropriately obsequious and get back to work, but just as he rose, Charlie stood, drawing himself to his full height, with That Look. Steve the asshole motioned toward Ted, more of an accusatory point, but to Charlie it probably looked like a fist coming up, and that was all he needed. He didn’t say anything, just put his palm up as Steve’s hand smacked into it, held it there, pushing back.
“Let him go, Charlie, it’s OK.” Ted came alongside him and put his hand on Charlie’s arm. Charlie smiled, the same expression Ted remembered well from every entanglement in a laundry room or an exercise yard. But back then, Ted hadn’t tried to talk Charlie down.
“Who the hell are--” Steve began, before Charlie flipped his hand under, forcing him to bend to keep his wrist from breaking.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be,” Charlie said close to Steve’s ear. “Right now, I’m Charlie Crews, but I could become someone else if I choose to leave that behind.”
“Oh, here we go,” Ted moaned.
“What the fuck does that mean?” Steve snarled at Charlie.
“I could be a killer, or I could be a cop, or anything I want to be. He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.” Charlie let go of Steve’s hand and straightened his shirt. “It means Ted doesn’t work for you anymore.”
Like a switch had been flipped, Charlie smiled and walked toward his car, as Ted followed. “So, wait. You just got me fired so I’d come work with you?” The car gleamed wetly in the sunshine -- a sleek, slinky new Bentley coupe. Ted was covetous again.
“They can’t appreciate you like I do,” Charlie said cheerfully as he tossed his keys up, caught them in midair, and then got in the car. Ted slid into the passenger seat and stared straight ahead, resisting the urge to run his hands across the leather. He’d never been a big fan of change; it brought on a lot of unpleasantness while you adjusted to things being different. No, change was bad, generally. But maybe Charlie changing things up could just save his life.
Charlie’s settlement must have been substantial, because he was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel until he found a place of his own, and he’d already been there for a few weeks. Everywhere Ted looked throughout the bungalow, there were baskets of fruit. This did not surprise him, because they’d had many, many wistful conversations in prison about how much Charlie missed fresh fruit and vegetables -- but mostly fruit. When men spoke lustfully of melons, they referred to women’s breasts; when Charlie talked about melons with that kind of intense desire, he was speaking of actual cantaloupes.
Ted had asked him in the car why the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Charlie just shrugged and said that Constance had picked it out for him. He wondered what that must have been like, when Charlie’s lawyer had brought him the news that he was to be released, had her guide him back into the world after such an unspeakable banishment. The weight of that would have crushed lesser men. “It must have been really weird to come here after Pelican Bay.”
“It’s got two rooms,” Charlie said, and tossed one of the boxes they’d taken from Ted’s horrible, minuscule apartment onto a sofa. “I have a couple of houses I want you to look at with me -- I’d really appreciate your opinion from both an investment standpoint and from an aesthetic standpoint. You always seemed like you had a good aesthetic sense.”
“In prison. You could tell that about me in prison.” Ted looked out the window at the garden, beyond which would be the pool area. There would be beautiful women everywhere, tanning themselves into skin cancer, if memory served. A few years ago he was right at home out there; now he couldn’t imagine even hiding in a cabana like some gate crasher. But that was something he couldn’t really tell Charlie, because Charlie had a kind of confidence that even beatings, solitary confinement, and the rejection of everyone he loved couldn’t take away.
“It was the way you decorated the cell.” Charlie had that shit-eating grin Ted had missed so very much. It made Ted feel...at home. And that made no sense at all.
Ted turned back to him and sighed. “Charlie, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but after I left, you went into solitary. And it’s clear that changed you. I’m willing to listen if you want someone to talk to.”
Tilting his head, Charlie gave him a kind, generous smile. “Thank you, Ted. I might take you up on that.” He motioned to Ted’s meager belongings. “We need to get you some new clothes, don’t you think? And just general...stuff, I guess. Well, we both could use some more of that.”
“OK,” Ted said distractedly. He itched to get high, his skin crawling, nerve endings on fire, all the changes in such a small period of time overcoming his limited coping skills.
Still gazing at Ted’s stuff, Charlie asked gently, “Do you have any drugs in there? Or on you? Because I’m a cop again, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to know that you’re violating your parole and have to do something about it. Since you’re my friend.”
Ted let out a long, raggedy sigh. “I slipped, Charlie. Well, maybe slipped is too kind of a word. I basically skied down off that wagon as fast as I could. It’s been hard to face life outside. Or maybe just hard to face who I am in the world.”
“There are ways we can get past that.” There wasn’t a lot of conviction in Charlie’s voice, though. At least, Ted didn’t think he heard any, though whether he was projecting, he didn’t know. But he did notice that Charlie said we.
“I don’t think zen is the path for me, Charlie. I’m not sure what is, but that’s not the kind of thing I find any enlightenment in. I don’t know that I’m the kind of man who could find any enlightenment at all.”
“We’ll see,” Charlie said with a crooked smile. “There are many paths to enlightenment.”
“Are you hungry? I’m famished. We should get something to eat before we go look at houses and buy things. Isn’t it amazing that we’re going to look at houses and buy things? Hard to imagine that five years ago we couldn’t even dream about that.”
The idea of buying things, of using someone else’s money -- what was blood money in some ways -- gave Ted an unfortunate shiver of excitement. Or maybe it was just being here with Charlie, of planning things with him and seeing him outside the walls of Pelican Bay that was so exciting. He was afraid it would somehow end before it had even really begun, that this was some kind of fantasy Ted hadn’t known he’d had playing out in front of him and it would all go poof.
“Why on earth would you want to be a cop again, Charlie? Why would you want to go back to the people who put you in Pelican Bay, who abandoned you and tried to kill you?”
That mask of easygoing humor, of normalcy, slid from Charlie’s face and his eyes darkened. “Where better to find out what happened to me?” In an instant, it was gone, and he seemed happy again.
“I guess that’s true. Too bad I know the answer to what happened to me.”
“You paid your price, Ted,” Charlie said. “You made your penance, and it’s time to start living in the here and now again.”
That was probably the most cogent thought Ted had ever heard Charlie utter, uncluttered by his zen sayings and bewildering thought trains. But Ted was pretty sure Charlie wasn’t any more ready for the here and now than he was.
That night, after they’d returned with more clothes than two middle-aged men should rightfully own, Charlie had gone to the Polo Lounge while Ted went to bed with a book, something he hadn’t done since...he couldn’t even remember when precisely. It felt like a huge indulgence -- glass of good Scotch beside the bed, new Grisham thriller in his hand, and the TV droning in the background. Actually, it felt like having some kind of normal life.
He had drifted off when he heard the door open, and got up out of habit to see whether Charlie was OK -- as if all the years in between hadn’t happened and they were right back in a cell, looking out for each other. It took him a few confusing seconds to realize that there was a girl hanging on Charlie, with what looked like her tongue in his ear and his shirt mostly unbuttoned. “Excuse me,” Ted said and turned back to his room, but not before catching Charlie’s sheepish expression.
Part of Ted wanted to say, “Well done, kiddo,” and another mean, petty part wanted to chase the girl away with a well-timed remark about their history of prison sex. But maybe that’s really all it had been, just sex, and Charlie’s memories of needing or wanting that with Ted were being cleansed by a bevy of gorgeous young things. And good for Charlie, right? Ted asked himself. Why shouldn’t Charlie enjoy having them, after everything he’d lost, and not being able to pursue that lovely lawyer he was so clearly in love with? It was small of him to think that Charlie deserved any less.
It would take time before he was able to see this friendship in the new light they lived under. Ted had been rescued by Charlie once before, with the result being a unique friendship in a world that didn’t allow for them. This was just another type of rescue, and a new type of relationship. He only had to accept the change.
“I think I like this house best. We should make an offer, don’t you think?” They were standing in the great room of a huge McMansion high up in the hills, staring out at the sand-colored view of a late Southern California summer. One of Ted’s old acquaintances was a real estate agent who specialized in multimillion-dollar homes and still seemed OK with speaking to him, so they’d spent the past few days riding around in his Benz SUV, visiting houses that were bigger than Charlie had any need of. It was a taste of Ted’s old lifestyle that made his mouth water.
“Sure, if this is the one you like, you should have it. You deserve it.”
“I like the pool and that view. It’s expansive. That’s a good word for it, don’t you think? Expansive.” Charlie swept his arms wide for emphasis.
“It’s definitely that,” Ted agreed.
“Do you like it? I was thinking you could take the room over there,” he said, pointing to the east wing of the main floor.
“It’s a nice house. I mean, my style is a little more mid-century modern, I guess, but I like that patio and pool.” He thought about the room Charlie was considering, and then said, “Actually, what about that room above the garage?”
“That mother-in-law apartment? Sure, that could work.” There was a distant, almost regretful tone in Charlie’s voice. His forehead was creased, a look Ted knew all too well.
“I mean, you know, I would still eat and do the books and things here in the house,” Ted said, backpedaling. “I’ve kind of wanted to learn to cook ever since I got out, but it never seemed worthwhile when it was just me in a shithole apartment with a two-burner electric stove. If I had this kitchen, I could really take that on.”
Charlie’s face relaxed slowly, and Ted let out a breath, feeling better for making Charlie feel better. His parole officer had asked him if he thought working for Charlie, living with him and dealing with his money, was a good idea. The PO believed Ted to be in thrall to money and to the lifestyle that went along with having access to lots of it. As if that could be his only motivation for working with Charlie.
There really was no way to explain to someone out here in the world about a relationship forged in a prison. It didn’t matter that theirs had been physical at times, and that Charlie had saved Ted’s life. Because it wasn’t about that: it was about trust and loyalty, and emotions there weren’t words for. About knowing who someone was in their core, and what they had been in the past and would become in the future. Despite Charlie’s inscrutability and the darkness under his light, Ted understood who he was even if he couldn’t name it, what kind of man he had always been and always would be.
And even though Ted didn’t know himself very well, Charlie saw the possibilities in him, that much Ted did know. Charlie was the kind of guy who made you want to rise to those possibilities, the kind of guy who made you want to throw caution to the wind and just head out on the ride-along in that cool Bentley.
“You saved my life again, Charlie.” Ted turned to look at him, and Charlie’s pale blue eyes were soft and kind. “I’ll do my best to never let you down.” It was probably the baldest emotional declaration he’d ever made in his life. Too bad he’d never been able to do that with his own family, but maybe this would be good practice.
Then Charlie broke out in a huge, almost scary grin. “You’re my best friend, Ted. If I could give you that moon, I would.”
For the first time since he’d left prison, Ted saw a future in store for himself. “I don’t know that I’d take it. I think it’s fine just where it is.”