"The Emperor of the Universe" - Intro
Hair Trigger 33 (2011)
Happy Grandparents Day. Appreciate! Haps someday I may have an opportunity to tell you a story or two about my grandparents. Provided any ambition they could have been top-notch circus clowns. Without hesitation I do soddenly swear I am proud to call you my friend. Keep putting one foot in front of the other—and occasionally put one up somebodys ass.
This is the inscription at the opening of my copy of Jeannette Walls’s memoir, The Glass Castle. It’s written not by Ms. Walls. (If she is known as Chas in certain circles it’s completely by coincidence.) It’s written by Charley Jones, first my father’s friend, then, later, my friend too. He gave this book to me on my twenty-seventh birthday, September 10, 2006, which that year happened to fall on the first Sunday after Labor Day, which in America since 1978 is Grandparents Day. I keep it on my shelf with books signed by Russell Banks, Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, and other mentors who’ve helped me along the writer’s path.
* * *
Charley wrote—mostly kind letters to his friends.
* * *
In the last few years of his life, Charley didn’t drive much—hardly ever. He had asked me a few days previous if I could take him to the bank. I agreed.
I parked in their parking lot and we walked across part of it, to the double-glass door entrance. As we stepped up the three smooth concrete steps, so did an older lady. Charley walked ahead of me and the lady looked up and smiled with that “Who should go first?” awkwardness.
“Watch it or I’ll check ya like a hockey player,” he said as he grabbed the door and held it open for her. He was smiling facetiously through his short gray beard, his T-shirt tucked into his jeans, accentuating the thinness of his waist, and he had his slip-on brown loafers on. She laughed and said:
“I’ll have to be careful.”
“No, I think I’m the one who’d need to be careful,” he said as he waved his left hand and presented the way into the building for the lady.
I laughed, surprised that she got the humor right away. He was still holding the door for me. I realized this after a moment and went in. I stood in line with him, waiting for a teller to free up.
Charley always took full advantage of his excursions into public. He loved to make scenes. He loved to create laughter. He viewed every venture into society as an opportunity to educate people on the absurdity of life by being absurd himself.
“Now what the hell is this?” he asked me loudly, so all the tellers could hear, everyone being helped could hear, and all in the lobby could hear. He was pointing to a banner that hung across the base of the desk-like barrier that separated the bankers from the bankees. “Act now for low interest rates! Inquire today!” he read. “I think I will.”
“Ah come on, Charley. Let’s not get too crazy,” I think I said.
“Fuck it,” he soothed. “I’m the Emperor . . . of the . . . fucking . . . Universe.” He paused between each word.
A teller opened up and I stepped up with him. This was a young guy, young twenties like myself at the time. He was scrawny, with dark parted hair, glasses, a sleeveless sweater, and a bow tie. He looked like banking was in his blood and he was getting his feet wet as a teller, fulfilling his destiny from the ground up. Did he realize how wet his feet would get that morning?
The first thing Charley had to do was deposit some money into one of his accounts, and he jabbered at this kid the whole time he tapped away at his keyboard. He fired nonsensical question after nonsensical question at him.
“Has all your currency been inspected?”
“How current is your currency?”
“You understand I don’t want currants, right?”
“Do you understand me?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t tell you I had a peach impediment.”
The kid kept his eyes glued to his computer screen, the blue glow reflecting off his glasses, and he answered each of the questions with a quick uh-huhor uh-uh, careful not to use any words to further provoke him. A wise strategy, I must say, for someone who had just met Charley. The kid was no match that day, though. Charley was too wound up.
The kid finished the deposits and asked if there was anything else he needed taken care of. Of course there was. He wanted to withdraw fifty dollars from another account. Easy enough. The kid immediately went back to his computer screen. Charley told him which account and then, as the kid was popping open his register to get the money, Charley said he wanted the money in ten two-dollar bills, twenty Susan B. Anthony coins, and ten Sacajaweas. I knew he was doing this to extend his time for antics and I backed away from the desk to a nearby wood-paneled pillar. The kid, with deftness, headed to the back where these less-common denominations were kept.
He came back a couple of minutes later with the bills and coins. In the meantime, Charley had continued to be loud. The lady who had entered before us was sitting on a sofa behind us with another older lady—they were laughing heartily at him and exchanging comments with each other. The kid got right to counting out the money but, before he had a chance to finish, Charley said: “I’m inquiring about the low interest rate.”
The kid kept his eyes down. I’m not sure if he responded verbally or not.
“I want to know what you’d like me to act like to get the low interest rate.”
No reply. Eyes down.
“How about some Brando, On the Waterfront?”
Nothing from the kid. Everyone’s eyes were on Charley now. He stepped back from the desk, got down on one knee—which I realize now was no easy task for him—and started shouting, with his fist in the air, looking wildly at the ceiling, at the top of his lungs:
“I coulda been a contender! I coulda been a contender!”
* * *
Charley fought. He was always a fighter. He fought his way from being the Crown Prince of Armourdale to the Emperor of the Universe. He fought as a kid, an adolescent, a teen, a twenty-something, an adult, up till his two deaths. He told me about teeth knocked out, broken noses, broken hands, broken limbs—sometimes others’, sometimes his. He kicked quite a few asses and got his kicked occasionally too. He prided himself on his ability to fight. It gave him confidence to know that if a situation needed to revert to the ultimate decider, he could handle himself.