Charlie was my neighbor. Our parents played cards together on the weekends, as Charlie, and I lay sprawled out on my bedroom floor, playing Nintendo for hours on end. He knew all of the best combinations on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, and he had a signed Nolan Ryan baseball card that he got the summer before, when his dad took him to a Ranger’s game. When I think about that card, I think about the way Charlie told that story. He kept the card in his bright orange, nylon wallet, in a little plastic laminate case, and whenever a new kid moved on the block, or he wanted to impress one of the older boys we sometimes walked home with, he’d pull out the card and tell the story.
“The principle called me out of class just after lunch. I thought I really did it this time. Whatever it was, I was really in for it. She’d probably already called my old man. So when we walked down to the office and I saw him standing with his back to me talking to Mrs. Walker, I just knew it, man. I knew whatever it was I did, I was caught, and this time my old man wasn’t going to let me off easy.
I couldn’t believe it when my dad turned around and he was smiling! A big, cheesy, genuine grin that I’d only seen spread across his face a few times in my life. He had two Rangers tickets tucked into his shirt pocket. I couldn’t believe it!
He pulled me out of school on a Wednesday, man! Not even a Friday! I had a test that day too, in eighth period, but he didn’t care. He said every man needed to see Nolan Ryan pitch, at least once in their lifetime, and boy, was he right! My dad said it was the perfect day for baseball. Perfect weather: Sunny, but not too hot. He said if we’d come later in the season, the seats would burn our ass.
The stadium is huge, man! Ginormous! And they have the best hot dogs I’ve ever tasted! Our seats were right behind the dugout. I got to see all of ‘em: Palmeiro, Pettis, Buechele, Juan Gonzalez, man, ALL OF THE GREATS! And best of all: Nolan Ryan! When he took the mound the crowd went crazy!
It was the top of the ninth and the Rangers were up by three. With one out left, Roberto Alomar of the Blue Jays stepped up to the plate. Ryan found his mark on the mound. Everyone in the crowd was on their feet! He took a deep breath, brought up his left leg and fired off the first pitch. Man, can he sling ‘em! He’s as old as my pops and can still throw 90 miles per hour! NINETY! Just a real pleasure to watch. Really makes you love the game, ya know? …But where was I? Right! Ryan throws the first pitch off to Alomar. This is it. Just three more strikes and he’s done it again. Everyone is yelling. Everyone is on their feet. Just going nuts, man! Watching baseball history be made right before our eyes by one of the greats! Alomar swings and a miss! Strike one! The crowd gets even louder! Completely bonkers, man! Ryan doesn’t even hesitate; he just winds back up for the second pitch. He releases it and Alomar swings and tips it off. Strike two! This is it. Everyone in the stadium can feel it. There’s energy in the crowd. We all know Ryan is about to pitch another no-hitter and it’s pure magic- the energy of the place, the feel of it all-- just insane! Nolan steps back up on the mound. Rubs the ball in his mitt, adjusts his hat, and throws another one out there. This time it’s low. Real low. A ball. But the energy is still there, man. It never leaves. The crowd doesn’t flinch a bit! I watch Nolan’s shoulders rise and fall under his #34 jersey. A big breath. And another. He finds his mark. He launches one just outside the plate and Alomar swings but tips it off again. Another ball, this time high, outside. It’s now two and two. This is it. We can all feel it. Every baseball fan in Texas can feel it, and no one more than my old man and me, standing right there, right behind the dugout, with an unobstructed view. Nolan paces around the mound for a bit. Tosses the ball back to the catcher. He turns around and paces again, this time I swear our eyes met as he looked up into the stands. He casts off another pitch, Alomar meets it early and it’s another foul. This time the crowd is going absolutely nuts again. The energy is back and even stronger this time. There isn’t a guy in the stands that isn’t on his feet! Nolan winds up, brings up that left leg and throws one out to Alomar. Alomar swings and misses! Ryan did it! The crowd goes nuts! Strike three! He’s outta there! Ryan threw his seventh no-hitter and the team ran out onto the field to celebrate! It was the perfect moment! My dad picked me up and we hugged the guys sitting next to us. Glorious, man! Just a freakin’ glorious moment. The guys lifted Ryan up on their shoulders and carried him across the field.
Dad and I hung around and it felt like forever, man. Nolan Ryan did some interviews on the field and then walked over to the dugout to get his stuff. There were a lot of us waiting there--maybe fifty kids, all hanging over the fence, hoping to get an autograph from the Texas legend himself. He looked up and smiled and asked for my pen. He took my pen and card and signed his name. I couldn’t believe it! Here I was, on a school day, sitting in Arlington stadium after just seeing Nolan Ryan pitch his seventh no-hitter and now the guy was signing MY baseball card! It felt like a dream!
I’ve carried the card since. Right here, safe and sound in my wallet. Nolan freakin’ Ryan, man! Can you believe it?”
The day Charlie went missing he got in a huge fight with his mom over that card. He left his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans. He threw the jeans into the wash pile, forgetting to take out his wallet first. Normally his mom would check the pockets of his jeans and if she found lose change, his wallet, or anything of value, she’d return the items to his nightstand, not a word mentioned. That day was different though. The washing machine broke the day before and his mom took the dirty laundry to the Spincycle Washateria down on four corners. She was off her routine and in a hurry because Charlie’s dad insisted they eat dinner as a family, at 6p.m. sharp, every night. It was one of the cardinal rules of the Watkins’ household. Something they did religiously. That night Charlie’s mom rushed to the Washateria and washed and dried the family’s clothes without checking the pockets first. The plastic case holding Charlie’s beloved Nolan Ryan card melted in the dryer and destroyed the card. Charlie was devastated. He carried the card on him for an entire year only to lose it in some freak Washateria accident. He couldn’t take it. He said horrible things to his mom that night. I know, because he came over to my house afterward and told me. He said he hated her. That was the very last thing he told his mother.
The police assumed Charlie ran away. His parents did too at first. They thought maybe after he left my house he had headed over to Jesse’s. Jesse’s parents were divorced and he stayed at his dad’s during the summer. His dad worked nights though, so Jesse’s house was the hang out spot anytime we wanted to get into trouble, or get away from our parents for a while. Jesse smoked pot that he stole from his dad’s stash, and he smoked cigarettes when he wasn’t smoking pot. Our parents hated him. We didn’t like him much either. He was mean. Not the kind of funny-mean that most boys our age were, but really mean. He once lit his dog on fire and laughed as it rolled around on the ground trying to extinguish the flames. Jesse was three years older than us but still in middle school because he repeated the seventh grade. We hardly saw him though because he spent most days in in-school suspension with the rest of the bad kids. They didn’t even let them out for lunch. We hung out with Jesse because he had access to things we didn’t: privacy from parents and, also, most importantly, the lake. His dad’s place backed up to it. We built a wooden fort on the closest tree to the lake last October. Initially it was just something created out of boredom, but more recently we sometimes smoked pot with Jesse there, and Jesse claimed to bring girls up there on the weekends. Charlie’s parents didn’t know about the fort and I think everyone sort of thought for sure Jesse would call and say Charlie was hiding out there, but he didn’t. No one called. Two days passed and Charlie was still missing. As far as we all knew, I was the last person to speak to him.
The cops came by my house and interviewed me at our dining room table. I didn’t feel like talking. My ears were hurting (my mom said Swimmer’s ear was to blame) but my old man insisted. My dad sat me down before they arrived and told me to be honest and tell them everything I can remember about that night and the visit from Charlie. Except my dad called him Charles. All the adults did. Even at school. Even after on the first day of class every year Charlie told them he didn’t want to go by Charles, but instead to call him Charlie, or Chuck. “Chuck” didn’t stick, but all of us kids knew him as Charlie. He used to say Charles made him sound like some rich, British asshole.
Two police officers entered our house and sat down across from me at the table. My mom offered them both coffee and lemon poppy seed muffins she’d baked earlier that day. Officer Maldonado spoke first. She was petite and tidy. She had her shiny black hair pulled back tightly away from her face. She had a small mouth that barely parted as she talked. Everything about her seemed tense. Her words seemed like they were escaping her mouth when she spoke, like air escaping a bottle of soda as its opened. Her words rushed out quickly and her slight speech impediment made each word end in a hiss. She reached across the table and put her hand on my shoulder.
“Hi Jack. I’m Officer Maldonado and this is my partner, Officer Phillips. We just want to talk to you a bit. You’re not in trouble. You won’t be in trouble either, if you do know where Charles is, I just want to say that right away.”
“Jack, son, what we’re trying to do here is find your friend and bring him home safely,” Officer Phillips said with bits of muffin stuck to his pale, dry lips. He was the opposite of Officer Maldonado: the Yin to her Yang. He was short, with unkempt mousy-brown hair, a straw-haired mustache, and large gold-framed glasses. His body was shaped like a cartoon character from the funny pages. He was round in the middle, with skinny arms and legs, and big round head.
“His parents miss him. He could be hurt or he could just have run off, as boys do. But that’s our job, son. We need to find Charles and bring him home. Jack, can you tell us everything you remember about that night when Charles came to visit?”
Officer Maldonado took her hand off my shoulder and sipped her coffee. Officer Phillips tilted his head back and dropped a piece of muffin in his mouth, keeping eye contact with me, waiting for my response.
I took a breath.
“Charlie knocked on my door around six-thirty. He was angry and out of breath. He came in immediately and started ranting about how his mom ruined his life. He said she washed his Nolan Ryan baseball card. …You see, he had this Nolan Ryan baseball card he got signed by Nolan Ryan last year, after Nolan Ryan pitched his seventh no-hitter of the season against the Blue Jays. It was Charlie’s prize card. He kept it in a plastic case in his wallet and took it with him everywhere he went. The card was irreplaceable, and his mom ruined it because she washed and dried it at the Washateria. Charlie was ticked off. It was the maddest I have ever seen him. He just said that she washed it and she told him at dinner. Charlie had the card with him …what was left of it, anyway. It was all bent and melted. You couldn’t even tell it was a Nolan Ryan card, much less see the signature. Charlie was so angry he started crying as he was telling me. He got embarrassed though because he never cried. I have never seen him cry. …And, and then… he just left. He left just the way he came in: Out the front door, in a hurry. He didn’t say where he was going or anything at all. He just left. He was only here for maybe five minutes, tops. I swear it.”
I didn’t tell the cops that Charlie called his mom a bitch, or that he told me he told her that he hated her. At the time, I really thought that mattered. I didn’t want to rat him out more than I had to. They continued to ask me questions. They asked about our friends, and if Charlie had any enemies or kids that he didn’t get along with. They asked a lot about Jesse, but finally the officers finished their coffee and thanked me. They both said I was brave and then asked to talk to my parents for a bit outside. I peeked out of the blinds and watched them as they walked around the house using flashlights. After a few minutes they climbed back into their car and left.
After Charlie went missing, our parents all kept us tucked away. No one was saying someone took him. Not publicly, anyway. I watched as my parents, who usually left us alone while they were at work, shuffled to find a sitter for my sister and I. My dad bought me a new video game and insisted I play inside in the evenings, but outwardly, all of the parents, all of the community, acted as if Charlie had just ran away. We would run into another classmate’s parents at Winn-Dixie and their mom would say, “Charles will come home any minute now. He’s probably just afraid of the spanking waiting for him!” My mom would nod and smile in agreement, but at home it was obvious she was worried. We all were. We all had that feeling in the pits of our stomach that Charlie wasn’t coming home-- At least not alive.
Only two blocks away, in a drainage ditch that tunneled under our city and fed into a creek a few miles away from my middle school, Charlie’s body lay in two inches of stale murky water. His arms were under him, his face pressed against the cold concrete floor, his blonde crown protruding from the water in stark contrast to the muted browns and grays of the tunnel. He spent his last minutes alive on his knees, clutching his stomach, gasping for air, crawling in the sludge toward the small hope he had that he would make it out of there that day. The floor was hard on his bare knees and cold, even in the hot Texas summer. His green Nikes were now rust colored with blood. He screamed and his voice, trembling, echoed through the tunnel and returned to him, despondent.