My friend passed away about a year ago. He was actually a good friend of my younger brother, for over 30 years, so he was really only a friend of mine by association (at first), but as we all got older, and my brother moved away, Charlie became an outright friend of mine as well. His given name was Cyril, but most people called him either Charlie or Chuck. I almost always referred to him as Cyril, but I affectionately pronounced it like Cereal (as in Lucky Charms) which he didn’t seem to mind one bit. Sadly enough I’m sure he had been called worse things throughout his lifetime since he was a large child, and he grew to be an even larger adult. The six foot-something Charlie, weighing in at upwards of 400lbs., was an easy target for unkind words, but those of us who actually knew him would commonly describe him as a “big teddy bear.” The clean-cut “big man” would do anything for anyone at any time because that’s just who he was. I wonder if he purposefully bore no tattoos or piercings and was always clean-shaven because he didn’t want to further add to his already intimidating stature.
I spent many summer vacations hanging out with my brother, who was six years younger than me, and his friends which of course included Chuck. We’d play Monopoly in our basement all morning long. We would then head upstairs to play Atari in the afternoon but only if my mother wasn’t watching her soap operas since we only had the one television set. We’d usually spend the rest of the day outside playing basketball, whiffle ball, or some other sport. I guess I didn’t have many friends of my own, or maybe I just liked being the influential leader of the “gang.” Cyril persisted throughout the years, and up until the day he died, that I was the cause of his chewing tobacco addiction by one time forcing him to take a dip from my can of Copenhagen. I guess I possibly could have been the culprit behind Charlie’s love affair with snuff, but more likely he was the one who begged me for a pinch of the substance. He was probably just trying to be cool like me. I know I began chewing tobacco partly because I played baseball but mostly because I wanted to be like my Grandpa McCleary who partook of the nasty stuff.
I do freely admit to one time suggesting Cyril try eating a few different products meant only for our canine friends, but don’t worry because I did offer him some money if he could successfully complete the challenge. What kind of guy do you think I am anyway? I think at first I offered him a whole dollar if he could eat an entire strip of rawhide, but after several minutes of trying and trying he was only able to consume about a fifth of the hard substance. He even tried soaking it in water for awhile, but we soon found out those things are almost impossible to digest if you are not a dog. I told him not to fret because I was still willing to pay him that glorious buck if he could devour seven Milk-Bone dog biscuits in one sitting. Charlie ate one, and then another, but the pace he had set for himself was excruciating slow for all of us. I was kind enough to allow him, at his request, to drench the remaining dog biscuits in catsup (we couldn’t afford ketchup), so he could disguise the flavor some. He continued laboring over the task at hand, for about an hour, but ultimately gave up after consuming a little less than five of the mandatory seven “tasty treats.” Although he did not meet the requirements of the challenge I did decide to give Chuck fifty cents out of the goodness of my heart.
In the mid-1990’s I owned a compact disc shop, and Cyril was one of my best customers. The only problem was his motto at the time was, “retail is for suckers,” so he rarely brought in enough money to cover the entire cost of his purchase. It was only on the rare occasion he was in a hurry that I knew for sure I’d receive the full amount due since he wouldn’t have the time for our traditional debate. Charlie typically would plunk down onto the counter an assortment of paper money and coins in an attempt to pay for the merchandise he had selected. He customarily was always within a dollar of the amount due but rarely to the plus side of what was owed. We’d then spend the next half hour negotiating an acceptable amount of tender while “shooting the breeze” in between time. Many times he’d have to place a special order since he had an unusual taste in music, so I learned to give Chuck the “special friend’s rate” by marking up the price of his cd’s by a dollar, so I could recoup some of my earlier losses.
Cyril normally would use the opportunity as my customer to offer me a dip from his can of Copenhagen. He tried non-stop over the years to lure me back in, after I had quit chewing, by offering me a pinch of tobacco every single time our paths would cross. I always humored him by accepting the can while gripping it between my right thumb and middle finger. I would then tightly pack the tobacco inside of the can to one side by using the timeless tapping method, with it’s familiar relaxing sound (only chewers worth a spit know about), before finally removing the lid and taking a gigantic whiff of the delicious substance. I would never go any further than that to Charlie’s dissatisfaction. When my Grandpa McCleary eventually quit chewing I remember finding myself somewhat disappointed in him because I was still addicted to the stuff, so I can imagine Chuck probably felt a little betrayed himself when I finally kicked the habit but left him hanging.
Cyril and I played racquetball practically every week for quite some time before I moved away to Arizona. He was unbelievably nimble, especially for a big guy, and did not hesitate in using his size to his advantage. He’d strategically place himself directly between myself and the wall whenever I was attempting to return a shot. I nearly won every match we played, and he almost always left the court with at least one welt on his backside which he’d half-kiddingly accuse me of doing on purpose. I suppose he wasn’t totally wrong with that assessment. Charlie was certainly able to unleash a slew of four-letter words, faster than Ralphie from A Christmas Story could blurt out, “I want an official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle,” during our time on the court, but he always looked forward to our rematch the following week.
After moving to the Southwest from Iowa, I kept in touch with Chuck through Christmas cards, but it wasn’t the same. I also sent him a congratulatory note when finding out he had bravely decided to open his own business. He had been a longtime, loyal employee of an appliance store in town, but the store closed shortly after the Maytag Corporation left the state. Charlie had literally been the “Maytag Repairman” of Newton, for many years, and opted in continuing that role and providing the town with the much needed service all on his own. Watching the “big man” bend, squat, lift, and fit into the tiniest of spaces while repairing appliances was a sight to behold. He provided excellent service to his customers and was the most personable repairman you could ever meet.
I believe the last time I saw Cyril was during one of our annual Christmas visits back to Newton. My wife, son, and I met him at our favorite Chinese buffet restaurant for lunch. The establishment undoubtedly lost a fortune by allowing Chuck and I through their doors that day. After we had finally finished gorging ourselves, and were cracking open our fortune cookies, Charlie informed us he had already paid for our meal. Not wanting to take advantage of his generous nature I secretly purchased a gift certificate, for his future use, and hid it in his coat pocket when he wasn’t looking. We were all heading towards the exit when we heard some sort of commotion going on amongst the employees, and I was shocked to learn that the ruckus being made was directed right at us. It turns out our lunch companion had only paid for himself. I guess he wanted to find out how close my family could come to either receiving a free meal or doing some jail time. Chuck thought the precarious situation was hilarious (he was kind of strange that way) and continued laughing the entire time while settling the bill with the confused and angry staff behind the counter.
Shortly after we got outside Charlie found the stashed gift inside his pocket while reaching for his winter gloves. He seemed a bit overwhelmed with the gesture and maybe realized I had appreciated his friendship, during the past 30 years, as much as he had appreciated mine. When we said our goodbyes that day I didn’t know at the time I would never see Cyril again. It was the first time I can remember ever hugging my friend, and he truly was a “big teddy bear.”