Mr. Charity

Pin it


Mr. Charity by Brian Pera  

In his house. Thanksgiving. With my bud, mi amigo Carlos, because he said, “My house is your
house.” Mr. Charity. Said it so many times I got a picture of it in my head, like it was something I

seen with my own eyes, always been that way and wouldn’t change.


In his house so perfect, so done up you wonder how he ever sat down without feeling like he was
wrecking something. With the light carpet so soft under the shoes, the curtains hanging just so,
the couch matching the dining room chairs matching the wallpaper. Where the pictures on the walls
never knocked or slipped out of place. Where I’d always been comfortable, mostly — as comfortable as
you can expect, considering even though it might be my house like he says I didn’t actually ever
live there, couldn’t live there.


But he said it was my house, so I brought Carlos, because Carlos didn’t have nowhere else to
go, Thanksgiving Day or any other. We was both of us together out there and I figured if I got a
house I’d share the wealth. I figured Mr. Charity would understand. Figured he’d think the more
the merrier. Or that’s what I wanted to think, what I would’ve thought if it’d truly been my house
like he said.


But from the second he saw Carlos, Mr. Charity was distracted. Pulls me aside, into the kitchen —
perfect-stacked dishes, basket of fruit, spotless countertops — asks me what do I think I’m doing,
bringing a stranger into his house, and how come I didn’t let him know beforehand. Maybe, he says,
he didn’t know me like he thought.


I told him, I made a decision. Here was Carlos without nowhere to go, and here it’s the holidays,
and to leave him alone like that back there — I just didn’t feel good about it. That’s not
something a guy like me does. “You should have used better judgment,” whispers Mr. Charity like

he’d rather say it a little louder. “You should have realized how inappropriate it would be. You
should have thought what it would look like, the two of you walking up to the house.”


And he sits there during dinner, this thing he’s laid all out, I mean every kind of food you can
imagine — just like in the movies, just like on TV, and it didn’t look any more like the real thing
until you got it right up under your nose on a fork. And Carlos doesn’t know how he’s being stared
at, but I do; I know Mr. Charity. Or anyway I know what he’d just been telling me in the kitchen,
so what am I supposed to think of the fact he’s making such friendly small talk with Carlos — you’d
never think he wanted him out on his ass. Asking him where his folks come from — what a laugh —
how long he’s been in the city, what he wants to do with his life. Stuff Carlos must’ve been
laughing at ’cause guys we been with didn’t usually ask that kind of thing. We could come from thin
air, as far as they’s concerned.


But Mr. Charity’d always been different — interested, sincere. Mr. Charity, who’d told me from the
beginning, since the first time I met him, what he’d like to do for me. Giving me money, saying he
just wanted to watch my little eyes pop open and that’s why he’d buy the things he done. Took me
places, fed and clothed me. Asked me what I wanted and I learned how to get what I needed by making
up the right answers. And thought maybe we were friends. I thought maybe even with all this other
crap going on that’d gone on with all the others, maybe Mr. Charity still knew his feelings didn’t he?
Maybe he still knew how he felt, and so did I. No matter all this other stuff, Mr. Charity meant
it when he said my home is your home, any friend of yours is a friend of mine.


Then Carlos got up from the table to go to the bathroom, and after cocking his ear to make sure no
one could hear, Mr. Charity leans across the table to me.


“I think he’s on something.”


And I says so what, Carlos is a friend of mine, nowhere to go on Thanksgiving and lots to put out of
his mind — so what if he is. What’s it matter anyway? “Well it matters,” he says, “because now,
for instance, Carlos’s gone off into the house, supposedly to the bathroom but how do we know that?
How do we know he’s not somewhere else, everywhere else — how do we know?”


“But Carlos is my friend,” I say. “He wouldn’t do that. We got codes of ethics or whatever. If a
friend’s a friend you take his word for it, you don’t second guess.”


“But you just said yourself he’s high.”

And I’m tore up, because I never heard Mr. Charity say these kinds of things before. Confused,

pissed off, because he said my house is your house and, even though I knew he didn’t mean I had a
right to live there, I guess even so I still thought it meant something. Didn’t know what to say,
so I’m looking around the dining room there, at the wallpaper I never noticed before — stripes up
and down like bars and vines twisting around them like maybe they grew when I had my head turned —
the way he’s got the table set with the certain kind of tablecloth, the candles that seem to drip
but never fall on the cloth, just everything, like a picture of my parents in a dining room from way
back when, a picture I seen and lost a long time ago but sticks in my head like I was there, like we
all were. Mr. Charity’s dining room was like that picture, because now I looked closer I seen it
was like a room I never been in before.


“It’s just that this kid, this boy could be anybody. How do I know who he is?”


“Right,” I tell him. “You’re right. You just have my word to go on.”


And Carlos comes back, and I say, “My turn, I got to go to the bathroom.” Which point Mr. Charity

give me a look like he don’t want to be left alone with Carlos. I give him a look back like he
should make up his mind — did he want to keep an eye on him or not?


Up the stairs I gone and into the bedroom where I’d spent I can’t tell you how many hours, just a
few at a time and then drive back to the city before it got too late because like Mr. Charity said,
“These are just the lives we lead” — me there and him here and what can you do about the things
that keep friends apart but cluck cluck and sigh? The bedroom where he dressed me in the clothes he
bought and made me stand in front of the mirror to show him how they looked, the both of us looking
in the mirror like it was the only way to see each other. “Oh I’m so pleased, Kenny,” he’d say, “so
pleased it looks so good on you.” And he’d hug me to him, ask could he take my picture. Without no
clothes on? I’d ask because that’s what he usually wanted but no, he’d say no, not this time — “I
want us to remember how you look in the outfit.”


And it don’t matter I traded most of that stuff in after a couple times I wore it in front of him.
Don’t matter I traded in everything but the cash. It wasn’t none of that stuff made Mr. Charity
happy anyway. It was just the look on my face is what he said. The look, knowing he was helping
me, giving me things I needed, could use. Once he got the look on film I guess that was enough.


In the bedroom where he was always studying my face and I thought for sure that’s proof — if
anybody needs proof that’s it. The fact I could always feel him looking at me, even when I wasn’t
looking at him I could feel it like heat from the sun on your skin. Like training the light through
a magnifying glass to burn things. But it felt good, I told myself, that heat; told myself it only
seemed like any other look because I’d never had anything different. I been misled, and now I
didn’t recognize good will and honest intentions when they looked me in the eye. It was okay to let
these make me feel good.


In the bedroom where he said he thought the world of me, wasn’t nothing he wouldn’t do for me,
what’s his was mine, even though he was always sending me back to the city in a cab at the end of

the night because he had his neighbors to think about, a reputation, family — this, all this that
was his life. And me too, I got mine. And these things couldn’t change, but that wasn’t so bad,
because nothing could change the fact of our friendship either.


And, in the bedroom, I knew where to go. When you’s friends with somebody you know where they hide
their secrets, you know where you shouldn’t tread. I knew about the suitcase on the top shelf of
his closet, knew how he looked nervous every time I was trying on his clothes, not the ones he
bought me but the hand-me-downs. Suits mostly. “These would cost you several grand,” he’d say as he
pulled them out, careful not to keep the door open too long, so careful with his eyes trying not to
look up there at the suitcase that of course it only took once or twice before I figured out there
was something — some kind of bomb — in there. And I was supposed to be thankful for them
suits because how would I ever afford something like that on my own? These suits I got no use for,
but I didn’t tell him that because you don’t say that to a friend, you wouldn’t say you could use
the money more than the threads, if helping you’s what they got in mind.


I knew where the suitcase was but not what was in it, so I stretched on my tippy-toes and pulled it
down. Brought it to the bed — nice fancy velvet spread he was always so careful to fold up three
ways and move over to the chair every time we needed the bed to work on our friendship. Suitcase
covered with dust and I thought as I heaved it over there how if you was being considerate of
somebody you wouldn’t get that all over something like velvet. Then I snapped open the locks,
flipped up the lid to a musty smell worse then anything where Carlos and me come from.


And seen the instant camera, some film. A mess of pictures — black-and-whites of boys. I
recognized a lot of them, and thought how funny that was. Here we’d been coming to the same house,
and I never knew. Course that was to protect Mr. Charity, because he had a life to protect. He’d
always done so much for me, seemed to like me so much, I was his special whatever. I wouldn’t never

do a thing to get him in a spot, I kept his name to myself; didn’t even mention I was visiting
anybody at all when I caught the cab to come see him.


The other boys, the ones I didn’t recognize, must’ve been out-of-towners — them trips Mr. Charity
was always taking. “I know it looks like I’m made of money, but I do have to earn a living,” he’d
say. “You don’t think these nice things come for free.” They was most of them in hotel rooms I
never seen, sitting on the edge of the bed in nothing but their shoes and socks, got that look on
their face says they’s checked out for the flash, ’cause as soon as the camera was taken away that
moment in time would be too — gone forever like they was never really there. Nobody but them in
the pictures, not even a shadow shooting in from the side; looked like they been caught all alone by
nobody in particular.


Some of the shots was taken in his house, right in this room. Some of me, but no more of me than
anybody else. These was the guys I mostly recognized — some of them me and Carlos squatted with
across town. They’s taken over by the closet trying on clothes, got their arms hung out from the
sides like the things fell on them without they seen what was coming, that suitcase up in the corner
of every one. A few of them in front of the mirror, the glass all taken up with white-hot flash.


I got all the shots of me I could find, dug right to the bottom looking, ’cause they was thrown in
there haphazard with all the rest. Got them together in their own pile on the bed, the sides of
them curling up so they wouldn’t hardly stay put, and when I got every last one I snapped the

suitcase shut again and took it back to the closet, shoved it into its hiding place so it looked
like a secret again. Then I ripped them pictures of me in half, and them halves in halves, and sat
there thinking where I could put them, because I didn’t want them in my pockets, but I didn’t want
them where Mr. Charity could have them either. Sat there stumping my brain trying to figure it out
— thought about flushing them down the toilet, burning them, taking them down to the garbage
disposal. Until I realized I could just leave them, ripped like that, in the middle of the bed, and
that’d be fine. Mr. Charity might have them, might even be able to tape them back together. But he
couldn’t never look at them the same way again, he couldn’t look at them at all without thinking
about how I tore them up.


I gone down the stairs as slow as I could, to give myself time to think, even though I’d already
made up my mind. There was just Carlos to think about, so maybe that’s what I was doing, trying to
come up with a way to pose it to him. And towards the bottom I heard Mr. Charity, that voice he used
when he wanted you to understand certain things — like the two of you was best friends, like he’d
look out for you, got your best interest at heart. He’s whispering how nice Carlos looks in what he
got on, which was a big laugh, ’cause Carlos got on a shirt I give him to wear for the occasion, a
shirt I got from Mr. Charity. A big laugh ’cause I never heard Mr. Charity talk to nobody else, and
here he’s talking to the somebody else in my shirt and don’t even know it.


Going on about how Carlos must work out, or was he just naturally gifted to look that way. Said
Carlos was a fine-looking young man who probably got all the young guys after him, probably had a

lot of fun for himself. All them stupid things he always said like every other guy we been with —
had this way of asking you questions and answering them for you before you got half the chance. He
always said those stupid things, I told myself; they was always stupid.


And then I come into the room fast-like, and seen how Mr. Charity leaned away from the table, just a
little, in a way you wouldn’t barely notice if you was considerate enough not to notice them kinds
of things. He says they was just talking, him and Carlos, and he give me that same flash of worried
look he give when Carlos left the room before, like he’s got looks he can use again and again for
different things, like they don’t mean nothing else but what he says they do at the time. “We were
just having a friendly conversation,” he says.

“Yeah well Carlos is a nice guy, else I wouldn’t of brought him. I wouldn’t bring just anybody


And before I can even take my seat, Mr. Charity’s shot up out of his. Starts collecting the dishes,
stacking them just so — takes the silverware off, stacks size on top of size, then larger up to
smaller, silverware on top. And Carlos says, “Let me help you with that,” but before Mr. Charity
can even put his hand out like he always done to say, Stay where you are, or Cheese, I said, “No,
let him, Carlos; he likes doing things for people. The look on your face is thanks enough.” And Mr.
Charity give me this funny smile that wasn’t really much of one, like somehow I broke his trust by
stating the obvious.


He leaves the room shook up a little, I can tell by the dishes rattling, swings through the door
between the dining room and the kitchen. When I seen it swing back into place I sat down next to


“I don’t want to wreck what you got going down, if you think you got something with him.”


“Yeah,” says Carlos, “he’s been in here practically offering me the world.”

“Well, you can if you want. I don’t mind. We ain’t really friends or nothing. I barely know him.”


“No disrespect,” he says. “The man gives me the creeps. Gets up in your face asking questions like
he’s hypnotizing you. Says he understands and he can relate, and all that. A first class weirdo.”


So I told Carlos what I had started thinking, every part of the plan I was forming in my head. Told
him he could help me if he wanted, otherwise he could leave now and I’d do it alone.


“But what if he turns us in, or whatever?”


“Look,” I says, “maybe I don’t know him from Adam when it comes right down to it, but I know what he
told me. He’s got a reputation to think about. Only thing holding us back’s common courtesy.”

Brian Pera and