Hampton Roads Writers Her work has appeared in Highlights for Children and Vox Poetica., Image by "> Dead Charlie's Closet by Susan Okaty; cover story short fiction Hampton Roads Writers Her work has appeared in Highlights for Children and Vox Poetica." />
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April 15, 2024

Dead Charlie's Closet

By Susan Okaty

The summer of my tenth birthday, our town of Little Hope had but one hearse, and when Grandma Vena died, or escaped, as my mother said, it happened to be in the shop for a brake job. So my father loaded Grandma Vena in his Chevy Suburban and sped off to the cemetery in a cloud of dust. A short time later, on a slab of concrete in the middle of Happy Acres, I stood under the Texas sun with my mother and a couple dozen other mourners like fish in a skillet. The only thing that kept the burial service from beginning was the absence of my father and the guest of honor.

"Mama, where's Grandma Vena?" I whispered. She didn't respond, but a little muscle in her cheek started twitching.


"Heard you the first time," she said. "Eula Mae should have known better'n to trust Vena with that crazy brother of hers. If I know Russell, he couldn't pass up that two-for-one sale at Busby's Flea Market."

Russell was my father. Mama never said "your father" because she didn't consider him much of one. Looking back, I guess she was right, but he was the only one I had. It was apparent that somewhere along the way to Happy Acres he got sidetracked. Mama said sidetracking was a way of life for my father. That's how come they got divorced; Daddy got sidetracked with a woman named Lawanna.

A cloud of dust emanating from the entrance to Happy Acres signaled the arrival of Grandma Vena. When my father stopped in front of us and hopped out, Aunt Eula Mae was on him like a tick on a pup's ear.

"Russell, where on earth have you been with Mama? You know she never could stand the heat."

"Lawanna was hungr -- she's got low blood sugar, you know -- and we went right by a Hasty Tasty," he said. Sure enough, Lawanna sat inside the truck, eating fried chicken.

"Russell, honey, where'd you put them little wet wipes? I hope you didn't forget them again," Lawanna said, her voice so sugar-coated you could retch. And then she flashed a huge diamond ring at my mother.

I felt the air thin from my mother's sudden and exaggerated intake of breath. "God a'mighty, Lawanna, wherever did you get such a rock?"

"It's been in my family for generations," Lawanna said. "For ever and ever." She beamed from ear to ear.

"Well, how can that be?" Mama said. "You Oklahoma people can't trace your kin as far back as yesterday."

"How dare you!" Lawanna screeched. "You going to let her talk to me like that, Russell?"

"Come on now, girls. This is the day I'm burying my mother. Don't spoil it for me."

"You never stand up to her, Russell. Never, never, never." Lawanna pouted. "Why, she's just jealous, that's all."

My mother grabbed my hand, squeezing my fingers numb, and dragged me up the hill to the burial site. The pallbearers unloaded Grandma Vena's coffin and placed it on a platform in front of Pastor Schlagle of the Little Hope Evangelical Church. A yellow sunflowered flag, which I recognized as a corner of Grandma Vena's dress, flapped from the side of the casket. Spurting profuse apologies, Mr. Tucker, the mortician, had to return to the mortuary for the coffin key. After a twenty-minute delay, the burial service finally began. Aunt Eula Mae looked particularly pale, though with considerable fanning from the Missionary Women of Little Hope, she did manage to stay on her feet through the service.

Once the funeral was safely behind us, my mother's concerns turned to the disposition of Grandma Vena's estate, specifically the college fund Grandpa Charlie had started for me the day I was born. My birth had heralded an episode of rare financial generosity from my grandparents. They had never eaten out in a restaurant, had never gone on vacation, and had never bought new things if what they had was "serviceable." That included presents. Over the years Grandpa Charlie had given me things like the first fishing net he ever owned (I repaired it with dental floss), his waders for when we fished in Sutter's Stream (only one foot had a small hole in it, but if you taped a plastic bag over it, hardly any water leaked in), and one bowling shoe (his dog Rip ate the other one, and I tried for years to convince Mr. Wang at the bowling alley to let me rent just one shoe).

After Grandpa Charlie died, Grandma Vena had kept up the tradition of raiding my grandfather's closet to find a present for my birthday or Christmas. Every time she brought one over, my mother would say behind her back, "Another gift from the Dead Charlie closet." But I could tell it was hard for Grandma Vena to part with anything in that closet. Till the day she died, three years after Grandpa Charlie, she continued to talk about him like she'd just had a conversation with him. And I believe she had.

The one extravagance my grandfather had indulged in was my college fund, and even my mother had to admit he was far from stingy when he came to that. After Grandpa Charlie died, Grandma Vena continued to put money away for me. Now, with both of my grandparents gone, my mother didn't feel safe leaving my money in the hands of my father and wanted it under her control as quickly as possible. Mama finally caught up with my father one Sunday morning in the church parking lot.

"Russell, I want Clay's money," she said.

"What money would that be, Raynell?" he asked straight-faced.

"You know perfectly well what money. It has nothing to do with you. It was between Charlie and Clay," my mother said. "A cashier's check for $6,000 will be fine."

"Well, I'm dreading to tell you this," my father said, glancing at Lawanna. She gave him a sweet smile and nodded for him to continue. "But there ain't no money. I done something foolish with it." The color drained from my mother's face. "Though," he added quickly, "I done it with good intentions. I hope you can forgive me for I had Clay's best interest to heart." He spoke as if reading a prepared statement. Lawanna smiled approvingly.

I expected my mother to scream and yell the way she usually did when my father made her mad. Instead, her shoulders sagged, and when she spoke, her voice was a little croak.

"No money?" Her face was blank. "No money?" she said again. The silence was broken only by my father's heavy breathing. Then, suddenly, cognizance took hold.

"NO MONEY!" My mother was on the verge. "How can that be, Russell? Tell me how several thousand dollars just happened to disappear like that. You better tell me now, because in a minute you're not going to be able to tell anybody anything!"

"It didn't disappear. What I meant is I invested it. I invested it," my father repeated, all the while looking to Lawanna for a bail-out.

"And what on earth is there in Little Hope to invest in? 'Cause I'd like you to tell me, Russell. I'd like you to tell all of us what there is to invest in 'cause we must have missed something all these years." Mama was talking like lightning now, her nails digging into my shoulders.

"In a word," my father said,"... chinchillas." There was a pause while my mother let this sink in.

"You didn't actually give that moron Clay's money?" my mother asked. The moron was Wayne Tribbet, my father's best friend, and no two people could have been more compatible, according to my mother. Everyone in town knew of Wayne's get-rich-quick schemes. At the top of the list was owning a chinchilla ranch. He had seen an ad in a magazine about how to get started, and he was always looking for ways to raise some capital for the enterprise.

"But, Raynell, Wayne made it sound like a sure thing. Like I said, I thought it would make Clay a heap of money," my father said weakly.

"Well, if it was such a sure thing, then where's Clay's money?" my mother wanted to know.

"I'm afraid them little critters ain't gonna make no money for anybody," my father said. "Oh? And why is that, Russell?" Mama asked. "Where are those 'little critters'?"

"In a word ... dead." My father shook his head. "How was Wayne and me to know that this hot Texas sun would prove too much for their delicate constitutions? We tried to hose them down, but they just took a chill and up-ended, their little feet sticking in the air. It like to break our hearts."

I think my mother wanted to break something herself right then, but people were beginning to stare. She made a feeble attempt to control her voice.

"You really expect me to believe this?"

"You have my word on it," my father said.

"Well, there you have it," my mother said to nobody in particular. "I guess you'd better start saving your money then, because Clay's going to have his college fund one way or another."

"Don't you worry, Raynell. I'll think of something. I always do, don't I?"

"Yes, Russell, I can honestly say you always think of something." My mother shook her head and dragged me off to our car. Neither of us spoke nearly all the way home. We were a block from our trailer park when my mother became so agitated she could hardly keep the car on the road.

"Lawanna's ring!" she shrieked. Chinchillas, my eye!"

From that moment on, my mother was consumed with plans for retrieving the money. In the end she chose to outsmart my father because it was the easiest way. Mama decided to enlist the help of none other than my father's best friend, only Wayne wouldn't be aware he'd been enlisted. Lucky for her, Mama said, my father picked a friend with uncanny intelligence.

As my tenth birthday approached, Mama invited me to come and choose a present at Griffey's One-Stop Emporium where she worked. As we were leaving the store, Wayne met up with us.

"Well, Wayne. How pleasant to see you," my mother began.

Wayne was easily confused by guile. "Hey, Raynell. What have you been up to?"

"Just trying to make a living, Wayne. Same as everyone else. But I think I'm onto the opportunity of a lifetime. I just need to come up with some capital."

This got Wayne's interest. "What have you found that I haven't?"

"Well ..." my mother hesitated for effect, "I'm not sure I should tell you because it's going to make me a ton of money."

This was all Wayne needed. "You can tell me, Raynell. I won't tell a soul. Maybe I could help you in some way. That's my strong suit, you know -- financial investment." He was right about that. He was adept at sinking his money into every scheme that came along. He was equally adept at financial disaster. When Mother stared at him with her head cocked to one side as if she were truly deciding on whether or not to let him in on the secret, Wayne began shaking with agitation. "Raynell, you need me and my expertise. You just said you had no capital. Maybe together we can think of a way."

"Well, Wayne, I guess I could use your help. But I'm trusting you to keep silent because this is really big."

"Well?" Wayne waited.

Mother looked furtively up and down the street before whispering her proclamation. "Emus."

Wayne gasped. "I've heard of that, Raynell. Emu ranching is the newest thing in Texas. Yes, Ma'am, I've heard of that. What have you found out?"

"A fella came into the store yesterday wanting to buy some fencing and wanted me to recommend some. I told him I needed to know what it was for before I could recommend any. That's when he told me about the emu ranching."

"Where do we come in, Raynell?" Wayne said reverently.

"Well, this guy isn't from these parts, and he doesn't want to stay here and oversee everything. He asked if I knew of anyone who would want to make a small investment and manage the place for a share of the profits."

"Makes sense to me, Raynell. What does he consider a small investment?"

Mother studied her nails as she replied, "Six thousand dollars."

Wayne whistled softly. "That's a heap of money. I ain't got that kind of money, Raynell. What are we going to do?"

"Well, if you don't have the money, Wayne, I guess there isn't any 'we'."

"But, Raynell, together we can think of a way to get some money. Besides, you wouldn't be able to manage that emu ranch all by yourself."

Mother looked down at me and hesitated. "Clay is a mite small to be of too much help. I don't know, Wayne."

"Oh, please, please, please, Raynell. You need me."

"Okay, Wayne, I guess I don't have much choice. That man said he needed to act on this right away. Any ideas on how to come up with some money?" Wayne looked at Mama for a hint, and Mama was quick to oblige. "Do you have anything of value you could sell?" she asked.

"Such as?" Wayne countered.

"Well, do you have any jewelry you could part with? Jewelry seems to sell pretty well."

"Just got my high school ring, but I could never part with that. I worked too hard for it," Wayne said.

"Well, do you know anybody who has any jewelry they may sell for a share of the profits? That man said the last emu ranch he opened started earning big money for the managers the first week it was in production."

Wayne stood as if in a trance, going through the short catalogue of his brain. Mama gave me the "this isn't going to be easy when you're working with a moron" look. "Might you have a good friend who has some expensive piece of jewelry?" Mama coaxed. "Or perhaps his wife might have some?"

Somewhere, in the deep, dark recesses of Wayne's mind, a light went on. "Why, Raynell. There 'tis, staring us right in the face and we didn't even see it. Lawanna has a big diamond. Did you forget? Now, don't we feel dumb! I can go ask Russell if he'd be willing to sell the diamond for this enterprise of ours. He could buy Lawanna a bunch of rings with the money we could make," Wayne said excitedly.

"Wait, a minute, Wayne," Mama said. "If you go telling Russell that I'm involved, he won't have anything to do with it. You know he'd think I was just trying to get Clay's money back. The truth is, Clay's money would be a drop in the bucket compared to what we can make."

"Well, then, I won't tell him you're involved. I'll tell him I talked to that gentleman myself."

After Mama agreed and the bait was set, there was nothing to do but wait for the nibble. It was just at that time that my tenth birthday came around. That afternoon I ran into Lawanna as she was leaving Fred's Fine Shoes with a brand new pair of red high-heeled sandals on her feet. "Well, hey, Clay. Today's your big day, isn't it, Sugar?" she asked. "How about coming home with me and choosing something from your grandpa's closet?" I told her that would be fine and climbed into the front seat of her old yellow Studebaker. Her white shorts advertised her tan and made a nice contrast with her new red sandals. She had freshly painted fingernails, and the car smelled faintly of baby oil and acetone. It was while I was staring at her long red fingernails that I noticed the ring was missing.

"Where's your ring, Lawanna?" I asked.

"Russell took it to the appraiser's this morning," she sighed. "He said something that valuable should be insured without further delay. I wish he had done that before he gave it to me because I feel so naked without it." She held up her left hand and studied it. "Don't look quite right, does it?"

As we pulled into the driveway, Lawanna was annoyed to see my father's car was there. "Business, huh," she muttered. Then she turned to me and smiled. "Come on, Sugar, let's go and see what Grandpa Charlie has for his favorite grandson."

Before the screen door had slammed behind us, Lawanna was laying into my father who was standing in the front hall with his back to us. "I thought you said you couldn't come shopping with me because you had business," Lawanna said, the edge to her voice sharp enough to cut steel.

My father whipped around so fast I thought he was going to spin clear in a circle. "Why, Lawanna, what are you doing home so early, Darlin'?"

"It's Clay's birthday," Lawanna said emphatically, as if that pronouncement explained everything.

"Oh, of course. Time for another trip to Grandpa Charlie's closet, huh, Clay?" Russell tried to sound casual, but the slight quaver in his voice belied his nonchalance.

Just then, Wayne strolled through the swinging door from the kitchen, munching on a brisket sandwich. He saw Lawanna while he was in the middle of swallowing, and the coughing fit that ensued nearly made him expire on the spot. My father began thumping him on the back.

"I wish to God it was you standing there choking," Lawanna said to my father, "cause I'd take great pleasure in slapping you around. I'm so sick of seeing Wayne here."

"Cripes, Lawanna. Wayne's dying over here. Show some mercy." But Lawanna wouldn't let up.

"Russell, if I had wanted children when I married you, I would have said so. Wayne's here so much I feel like I'm running a foster care." Wayne was bent double and wheezing. "Russell, I think you like being with Wayne more'n you like being with me." Lawanna's lower lip stuck out so far, a bird could've perched on it.

"Now, honey, don't say that. I'll get rid of Wayne right now and show you how much I want to be with you." My father took a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to Wayne, whispering something as he gave it to him.

"You heard me, Wayne," my father said. "Now git." My father put his arms around Lawanna and me and herded us down the hallway and into the kitchen. He poured iced tea for us and asked Lawanna what she wanted to do that afternoon. His composure was studied and faultless, save for the betrayal of a single row of sweat beads on his upper lip. Lawanna was warming up to him again.

"We could drive up to Bovina," she said, the syrup beginning to drip from her voice again. No further elucidation was needed than that single word. Bovina was billed as the home of the world's largest flea market, an honor nonpareil, as far as Lawanna was concerned.

My father's nod did not carry the same forcefulness as his words. "Aw right, Babe, you got it. Let me just make sure Wayne's gone, and we'll hop in the car."

"Clay needs to pick out his present first." Lawanna turned to me. "Clay, when you go out in the hall, make sure Wayne's not still there, okay? And be sure to pick out something real special."

Wayne was nowhere in sight when I pushed through the swinging door. Grandpa Charlie's closet of treasures, located under the stairs, was poorly illuminated by a single naked 40-watt bulb, but I had been in that closet so many times and Grandpa Charlie had been so organized, I could have found any item even if I had been blindfolded. I knew immediately what I wanted: the hand-carved onyx chess set Grandpa had bought in Mexico on his and Grandma's honeymoon trip to Nuevo Laredo. I got the mahogany piano stool Grandpa had salvaged from the old frame church he and Grandma had attended, and I stood on it to reach the chess set which should have been on the shelf above the picture albums. But in its appointed place was an empty space. I groped around the shelf until I had determined that nothing resembling the heavy wooden box was there. I got down off the stool and rummaged through the old coats, trying to clear a swath to the back of the closet. It was there I found Wayne sitting on the floor, holding the chess set.

"Hey, Wayne. Whatcha doing sitting in the closet?" I asked. His face was redder than a turkey's wattle, and I realized he was using all his might to stifle a cough. "I came to get this chess set," I told him. "It's for my birthday. Grandpa told me he was going to give it to me when I turned ten." I don't know why I kept talking to him because it was obvious he couldn't answer. When he made no attempt to offer the chess set to me, I picked it up off of his lap and started to leave. Wayne grabbed the box back and shook his head furiously. As he did so, he was consumed by another spasm that riddled his body with a series of shudders while he tried to muffle any sound.

"Hurry, Clay. Lawanna and I want to get to Bovina before supper," my father hollered as he came into the hall. I grabbed the box and backed out of the closet.

"Did you find what you was looking for, Sugar?" Lawanna asked.

I nodded. For a fleeting moment I thought about mentioning Wayne's strange behavior in the closet. But, as Lawanna seemed content again and Wayne's behavior wasn't all that strange for Wayne, I decided not to touch it.

My father slipped me five dollars and said, "Happy birthday, son." It was one of the few times each year he actually called me son. Then he ushered me out the door and locked up as he and Lawanna got in his car and headed for the great merchandise bonanza. I went home to inspect my treasure.

In my room, I placed the checkered, wooden box on my bed and lifted the lid. All the pieces were individually wrapped in yellowed tissue paper, just as Grandpa Charlie had left them the last time we played, but on top of the rooks was the handkerchief my father had given Wayne. I picked up the thin, white cloth and out fell the sparkling diamond ring that usually adorned Lawanna's finger.

I heard my mother come in the house. I pondered what would be the best way to hit her with my discovery. I walked into the living room with the chess set and placed it on top of the television set. She had just sat down and was propping her feet up.

"Have a hard day?" I asked as nonchalantly as my pounding heart would allow. Before she could answer, someone knocked on the back door.

"Answer that for me, will ya', Sweetie? Your Mama's wore out."

I unhooked the screen and my father and Wayne walked in delicately as if they were avoiding eggshells.

"Sorry to bother you, Raynell, but I come for that item Clay was keeping for me," my father said humbly.

"What item, Russell? What's he talking about, Clay?" Mama asked without getting up.

"I don't know, Mama. I went by Grandpa Charlie's house to pick out my birthday present today. I took the chess set," I said.

"Oh, that was fine, Clay," my father said. "That chess set was a fine choice. But Wayne here put something in it on accident, and that's what I come for. You know what I'm talking about?" my father asked.

I nodded and went to the top of the TV where I had placed the wooden box. I lifted the lid and carefully pulled out my father's handkerchief. My father smiled broadly as I handed it to him.

"Thanks, Clay, for taking care of it for me." My father cautiously unfolded the white cotton square. His face paled. "Where is it, Clay?" he demanded.

"What do you mean, Dad? Everything else is what Grandpa Charlie left me."

"There was something in this handkerchief, and you know it, Clay. Now give it here." My father's voice was rising steadily. Gone was any pretense of gentility.

"Calm down, Russell, and tell me what this is all about," my mother intervened.

"I put an old family heirloom in this handkerchief and gave it to Wayne to put it away for safe keeping, and he inadvertently put it in Charlie's chess set," my father explained, looking perilously at Wayne.

"Well, you told me to take it and hide," Wayne insisted.

"For the millionth time, I said, 'Take it outside.' If you'd a' listened carefully, we wouldn't be standing here right now."

"What kind of an heirloom?" my mother asked.

"Just an old piece of jewelry," my father said.

"For goodness sake, describe it to me Russell. How else can I help you find it? Maybe it fell out of the handkerchief," my mother said.

My father looked intensely at me. "Clay, are you sure you didn't find anything in the handkerchief or in the box?"

"Only what Grandpa left for me," I answered.

My father had no choice but to come clean; well, as clean as he dared. "Actually, it was Lawanna's ring, Raynell. I was taking it to get it cleaned."

"But Lawanna told me you took her ring to be appraised this morning, Dad," I said.

"Well, Russell. You want to tell me what this is all about?" My mother pushed herself out of her recliner and stood face to face with my father. "It seems that somebody isn't being entirely truthful, and I know you know who I believe."

"What I meant to say was that I was about to take Lawanna's ring to be appraised ..." my father began.

"But Lawanna said you had already taken the ring this morning," I interrupted. "She was very clear on that."

"Just what are you trying to pull, Russell?"

"I'm telling you, Raynell, Wayne put it in Charlie's chess set," my father insisted.

"So are you saying your son's a liar?" Mama was livid.

My father studied me intently. Then he turned on Wayne. "Are you saying my boy's a liar?" he demanded.

"I swear, Russell, I put the ring in that there wooden box. Maybe it slipped out of the hanky and is somewhere in the closet. It was mighty dark in there."

"Or maybe it slipped out of the hanky and into your pocket?"

Wayne gasped. "Russell, I swear I did no such thing! How can you even think that? You're my best friend in the world." Wayne was holding onto my father's arm for dear life. My father shrugged him off.

"Maybe so, but maybe money runs deeper than friendship, huh, Wayne?" My father looked like he was about to ask me one more time about the ring, but Mama put an end to it.

"How about I just pick up the phone and call Lawanna? I'm sure she could set things straight." Mama picked up the receiver. "What do you say, Russell? Want to explain to Lawanna how her ring can be in two places at the same time?"

My father seemed to shrink a tad. He pushed Wayne out the door and down the steps. "You better hope to God that ring is somewhere in that closet," I heard him say. They argued all the way to the car and down the driveway.

"I swear I don't know which one of them is the looniest," Mama said as she watched them drive away. She turned to me. "Now, Clay, suppose you tell me what this is all about."

"I was trying to tell you that Grandpa Charlie left me considerably more than the chess set," I replied. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the ring.

Mama seemed to inhale all the air in the room. She held it so long, I thought she was going to faint. But then she started laughing and hooting and hollering all around the room and didn't stop until she was spent. When her gasping abated, she studied me with admiration.

"Clay, I can't believe how you managed to keep a straight face through all that, but I'm mighty proud of you, son." Mama shook her head and chuckled. "Done in by his own stupidity. Like I said, Russell sure can pick his friends. I'd like to see how he's going to explain this one to Lawanna. Oh, to be a fly on the wall ..."

I wish I could have been excited about the outcome as Mama was. That ring was purchased with the money Grandpa Charlie had saved for me, money that was rightfully mine. Charlie could have spent it on anything he wanted. He could have fixed up his house or done some traveling, but he chose to invest it in me. I think he had given up on my father a long time ago because he saw what a waste my father was making of his life, and if it's anything Charlie couldn't tolerate, it was waste. What bothered me was that my father thought I was a thief. I didn't know how to resolve my feelings, but the next day, my father obliged me by helping me see things the way they really were.

"Hey, Clay. How's my favorite son?" my father asked over the phone.

"Fine," I answered tentatively. I didn't like the way he spat the word son.

"I'm sorry if I upset you yesterday. Of course you wouldn't have done anything as hateful as stealing that ring from your daddy." I felt a knot building in the pit of my stomach. "I just called to let you know that I'm clearing out all these here things in Charlie's closet and am going to haul them off to the flea market. Maybe I can make some money to help replace the money I lost on that ring. Certainly was careless of Wayne to misplace it like that. Don't you agree?"

"Please, Daddy," I gasped. "Couldn't I just keep some of Charlie's things?"

I knew what my father's answer would be as soon as I asked the question.

"Sorry, kiddo, but I need the money."

"Just a few things, Daddy?" I was pleading. "Just a few?"

"No can do, sport."

"What if I was to save my allowance and buy some of the things? Or I could see if Mr. Griffey could use me at the Emporium..."

"I wish I could help you out, Clay, I really do. But I need that money right away. Of course, maybe your mama might be able to think of a solution. Go ask her."

I didn't need to ask her. I knew what price my father was asking. I also knew that he didn't know whose grandson he was dealing with. I would not negate the faith Charlie placed in me nor the promise he had seen in me.

"This is just between you and me, Dad. And, now that I consider it, those things in Charlie's closet really do belong to you and I have no right to them anymore. So, if you want or need to sell them, you go right ahead." There was a long pause.

"Clay, help me out here, boy ..." He didn't quite know where to go from there. I could feel the defeat in his voice as he heard the strength in mine.

"Dad, I'm done here. You're going to have to figure things out on your own."

"Darned if you don't sound just like your grandpa, Clay," my fathered said.

"Thank you, Dad," I returned, even though I knew he had not meant it as a compliment. It was the best thing he had said to me in recent memory, and, being ten, most of my memories were fairly recent. I hung up on that note. What more was there to say?

"Who was that on the phone, Clay," Mama asked when I came back into the kitchen. When I told her it was Dad, she naturally jumped to conclusions, which were very nearly the truth. What did he say to you? Did he threaten you Clay? Did he scare you and tell you he was calling the police? Because if he did ..."

"No, Mama. Nothing like that. He didn't even mention that he knew I had the ring." I related the conversation I'd had with my father.

"Clay, there's nothing but junk in that closet anyway. It's worthless. I know it's a heart tug, honey, but you can't give in to Russell. Your future's in that ring."

"I know, Mama. I used to think my life was in that closet, but it wasn't what Charlie left in the closet that was important. It's what he left in me." And all of a sudden it became so clear. Everything in that closet was a testament to all the growing up I'd done with Charlie. My future had already been shaped by the things Charlie had taught me, like patience and courage and resourcefulness. I wondered why Charlie hadn't been able to give those things to my father. In fact, the more I studied on it, the more I realized that my father's life was part of that closet, too. He was like another curio out of the closet. Maybe that's why I never could hate my father. He was another item that Charlie had treasured in some way, no matter how defective.

Russell was good to his word, for once in his life, and had Wayne haul everything off to a resale shop. Wayne, being Wayne, picked Griffey's One-Stop Emporium. Russell wouldn't have thought kindly of that decision, had he known ahead of time. Mr. Griffey took one look at the lot, pronounced it pretty worthless, and gave Wayne $30 in cash for the whole truckload. Russell hadn't expected to get much for any of the items; he just wanted to make a point with me, one he had actually made long ago but I had only just come to understand. Since Mama worked at Griffey's, she had me come in and pick out any of the items I wanted. Mr. Griffey said I could have them for next to nothing. He was just glad to get rid of them. One of the items I chose was Grandpa Charlie's stamp collection. I went to the library and looked up the stamps and found out they were pretty valuable. Mama and I got in touch with a collector who paid us $2500 for them. Mama made sure she let that piece of news get back to Russell via the rumor mill, i.e. Wayne. You couldn't wipe that smile off Mama's face for a month.

My father and I didn't see each other much after that. Without Charlie's closet, there didn't seem to be any reason my father could think of to invite me over. As for Lawanna, she left my father for Fred of Fred's Fine Shoes. I guess a diamond could only go so far. My father was initially heartsick, but truth be, he found he did prefer Wayne's company to Lawanna's. Long after I graduated, Wayne and my father were still exploring ways to make their fortune. It was a shame that my father missed out on the greatest fortune he could ever have hoped for, the real gift from the Dead Charlie Closet -- the legacy of love.

Article © Susan Okaty. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-05-10
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