The email message from Patti Keegan said she couldn’t remember if she had told us when she saw us on Saturday that Charlie had died. Could I find some photos for the memorial on Thursday? I grab at the sides of my hair, pressing into my temples, mashing the no-notice irritation and sudden sadness together. Charlie? Dead? That cannot be.
Outside my window a ferry slips into the dock. A flash of Charlie hanging over the railing, my brain pulling him back to life, a memorable photo shoot playing in my head. I had wrestled him away from the edge, joking that the leather jacket he was wearing was too valuable to lose, him insisting that jumping into Puget Sound in Armani would make a great ad.
I swipe at a tear and toss another sweater over my layers and head down to the garage level of our condo building, key open our storage unit and pry the lid off the top box labeled ’70s and ’80s. The first of twenty some-odd portfolio sized albums from our four decades in high-end fashion greets me. Merry moments string across the pages in a march through halcyon times.
Still images couldn’t deny Charlie in motion—rail thin to sometimes cheeky, clean shaven to a mustache phase—in all his grace evident. Charlie, Eastern Washington born, a regular on the runways of Paris and Milan, did anything but walk. He sauntered, swaggered, sashayed, showing less-experienced models how-it’s-done.
When paired with a female model, Charlie would halt at the top of the T, as if stunned by his partner’s beauty, cock his head, a wry smile crawling across his face. His arm would unfurl, palm up, his fingertips drawing his partner into his circle of magic. Down the runway they would float, sometimes in a calypso swing, other times, a princely promenade. The spark in Charlie’s eyes lit by everyone else’s on him.
Charlie craved the spotlight, a craving fueled by being one of seven siblings who competed for a working mother’s attention. But the spotlight had side effects and black boys who liked boys, sometimes shunned by the small communities in which they grew, often sought relief from a variety of prejudices. An easy reach, drugs, prevalent in the big-city revelry of the time.
Solace harder to find, Charlie and his demons wandered the worldwide alleyways of addiction. His strutting days diminished with age he arrived back in Seattle in tandem with the new century. Patti led him to her church and gave him a job. His easy smile returned.
At the end of our 30th Anniversary gala, Charlie pulled me onto the runway, following the traditional model parade. He twirled me, once, twice, dipping me with a flourish before letting me go to drink in the applause. I never questioned the safety of his arms.
Our shop’s annual Ladies Night Out featured male models circulating, sometimes stripping to the waist for female shoppers noodling on fit for their fellas, an accepted holiday hedonism, exploitive in retrospect. I had rounded the corner to the men’s fitting rooms, proffering a trouser Charlie’s way. Our eyes locked. One of his fists tightened, concealing. His other reached for the pant.
I never said anything to Patti.
A last chance run-in on the street begat a hug as robust as remembered but his smile frayed at the edges like our relationship. We had sold the store. Charlie expressed a gratefulness for our work together. His wistfulness stuck with me for days.
The garage chill invades my layers. A car enters. The headlight beam sweeps across the open album. A particularly artful photo catches my eye. A turned head disallows a positive identification but the outstretched tuxedo-clad arm confirms. I extract it from the page.
They found Charlie, alone in his bed, his eyes closed. I try to imagine them so. Those eyes that held so much mischief and joy. Those eyes that loved the camera. Those eyes that intuited the next move, worked an audience. Those eyes held an entire galaxy.
I close mine, certain that when the light came for him, Charlie basked in it. I see his shoulders rolling back, a smile slipping out, his head cocking to the left. And then, he reaches out—palm up, fingertips outstretched—and grasps the real magic, the peace he so deserved.
Kay Smith-Blum, a recovering retailer, living in Seattle, was named Woman Business Owner (NWWA) of 2013. Smith-Blum has written two novels of historical fiction, now out for agent review. Her short stories can be found at now or in the future at Fiction Southeast, The Stray Branch, CommuterLit.com, Fiction Attic Press and Minerva Rising Press. Her humorous essays (nominated for Best of the Net) are published at Pif Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, The Furious Gazelle, Quail Bell Magazine, Bewildering Stories and Down in the Dirt Magazine (2020 Anthology). www.kaysmith-blum.com / Twitter @kaysmithblum / Instagram @discerningKSB / Linkedin/Facebook Kay Smith-Blum