I approached Charlie for the first time just after Ostara, near the beginning of April. He was one of the six teaching faculty, and I knew I'd have him for the required Introduction to Ecology course--the class had actually met once already, but he'd missed it, I think he'd had a bad cold or something. I'd also seen him on three other occasions: once when he lead a workshop on tracking, back when there was snow everywhere; once when he lead a nature walk on early signs of spring; and more recently, when he lead the school Ostar egg hunt. That hunt was a trip--I'll tell you about it some other time, but I'll give you a hint; it did not involve dyed hen's eggs.
But I'd never actually spoken to the man, except to ask a question in one of the workshops or talks, until the day I saw him planting flowers in the foundation beds around the Mansion.
Charlie was both a professor and the school's lead groundskeeper. I'd gotten a job in housekeeping, since I was anxious to be hired and that was the first position that presented itself, but I'd envied the people who worked with Charlie, because they got to work outside. I'd done some landscaping and gardening as a teenager, and I missed it. So when I came upon him working alone and realized I had time on my hands, asking him if I could help was almost as automatic as breathing.
"I don't know, can you?" he growled at me, hardly looking up. Not answering questions straight was a habit of all of the faculty, and most of the senior students, no doubt cultivated in order to protect the admissions process. Each had their own way of doing it. Greg, the meditation teacher, would just look at you calmly and wait for you to rephrase yourself. Some teachers liked to talk in mysterious riddles, especially with new students. Charlie preferred to be a smart-ass, and growling was his preferred method of talking to strangers. If you weren't willing to deal with his growls, then obviously you didn't want to talk to him badly enough. But I didn't think he was giving me a hard time for saying "can" instead of "may." He really was asking me a question.
"I don't know," I told him, "because I don't know what you want done or how you want it done. All standards are local, and I don't know yours. But I used to work for a gardener, and if you tell me what to do I will do it." He smiled, briefly.
"Which of these plants do you know?" He asked, growling again and gesturing at the garden.
"Only the roses, junipers, and the hydrangeas, and not to species," I told him. "It looks like you plant with natives, not the ornamentals I used before." That won me an approving grunt. He asked me a few more questions, and then set me to cleaning the beds ahead of his planting.
We didn't talk much, except when he gave me instructions or warned me away from the juniper where the wasps were starting a nest. When I asked if he was going to leave the nest there, he told me that "we sting worse than they do. You allergic?"
"To bee stings, no. To people stings? Yeah, kind of." That made him laugh.
"You and me both," he told me. And we kept working. The day was sunny and warmish, and the dirt and the plants felts good on my hands. Charlie had taken his shoes off, and I followed his lead. The grass and leaf mulch felt good on my toes.
Towards the end of the afternoon he introduced me to the plants, pointing out one or two details from each that would help me identify them, and a few words about why each was in the garden where it was. I've never met anyone else so efficient at explaining such things, or anyone anywhere near as good at guessing which details would best stick in a student's mind.
"We'll see how many of those you remember," he told me, which seemed like a good sign. I'd already decided I would try to work with him again, and if he growled at me that was just too bad.
But that was not the only time that week I spoke with him.
As first-year students (or, in school parlance, "yearlings,") we were required to do a lot of things besides take classes--there was meditation in the mornings, group therapy Wednesdays, dinner with our dorm-mates on Fridays, and so forth. One requirement was that we attend at least five meetings each of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, preferably within a three-month span. I'd intended to get as many of them out of the way as possible before classes started up, but I hadn't gotten my act together, and at first most of the meetings I found out about turned out to be a good distance away. There were meetings of various 12-step programs on campus, but they were all closed--you had to actually think you had the problem to go.
Finally, I borrowed a bike and got myself to an open AA meeting at a church in town, about two miles from campus--and Charlie was there, looking odd dressed in street clothes. He nodded to acknowledge me, once, and then we ignored each other. I didn't really know what I was supposed to do, there were so many layers of privacy--and curiosity--involved.
The meeting itself was interesting, and a little surprising. I don't know what I'd expected--I'd seen TV shows and movies with scenes set in AA meetings, so I knew to expect the ritualized introductions (Hi, I'm So-and So, and I am an alcoholic), and I knew not to tell anybody who I'd seen there--and I guessed that it wasn't my place to say what Charlie did for a living, either. But I hadn't expected how normal everyone would look, or how happy and friendly a lot of them would look. I guess I'd expected a lot of shame and grief, and I saw that at some of the other meetings I went to later, but that first meeting was kind of light-hearted. We laughed a lot. The meeting closed with the Lord's Prayer, and everyone milled around for a while, finishing their coffee.
I stood around watching. I'm not normally shy, but I felt very out of place and I didn't know what I was supposed to do. Charlie came up to me, and I half expected him to greet me, or give me some word of approval or encouragement, but all he said was "I'm telling my story at the speaker's meeting on Thursday at the Episcopal church, if you want to satisfy your curiosity, but don't satisfy anyone else's." And he turned to go.
I was hurt, at first, that he would think he had to tell me not to gossip about him--though surely I couldn't be the only student who knew? But then something in me softened towards him, and I followed him and caught his arm.
"Do you actually want me to go to that meeting?" I asked him.
"You can go to any meeting you like," he replied, but I persisted.
"No, I asked you a direct question. That's the rule, isn't it? You can be as evasive as you like, but if I ask you the right question, you've got to answer me." He could have told me he wasn't at work and so didn't have to do anything, but to my surprise, he sighed, and for the first time I saw him completely drop his mask.
"Daniel," he told me, "if you're an alcoholic, or if you think you might be, I'll tell you anything if it will help save your life--or mine. I have no secrets in these rooms. But otherwise--no, I don't want you to know." I let go of his arm and he turned and left.
We had spoken in half whispers, so no one had heard us, but we had been seen talking. I guess a lot of people knew him. An older man with long, lanky hair came up to me after Charlie left and told me that if Charlie was my sponsor I was in good hands. I explained that I wasn't actually a member.
"I mean, I'm open-minded about it, but I really don't think I drink too much," I said.
"Keep comin' back," the man told me, and turned away. Apparently, a lot of newcomers say that they don't have a problem, and a lot of them are wrong. A trio of women, all older than me, maybe about my mother's age, approached me and invited me to lunch. I explained again that I wasn't a member, but they said that was ok, so I accepted. We went to a little cafe tucked into an alley a few doors down. I mostly listened as they talked about their children and their husbands and an upcoming AA convention they were helping to organize, but we had a good time. The oldest of them told me she hoped I came back because the program needed more handsome young guys like me. I think she was joking, but it made me smile.
In the end, I decided not to go to the Thursday night speaker's meeting at the Episcopal church. Though Charlie eventually told me most of his story, I never did ask him for it. And though I'm sure, now, that almost everyone on campus knew that Charlie was a member of the "Drunk's Club," as he usually called it, and everyone knew he did not drink, I have never once told anyone anything about his personal life without his express permission.