Chargo – Adam Johnson
October 5, 2023
If anything may be said of Emile Francoise, it is that he was an agreeable sort of fellow. It isn’t that Emile possessed any benevolent or even likeable qualities, only that he was quiet for the greater part of most days. He didn’t talk much, and was regarded as thoughtful in consequence. He was silent in coffee lines and on the train, at work and everywhere else. He never whistled. No one knew he couldn’t. Emile’s boss considered him a great talent at submitting to authority, because he misapprehended Emile’s simplicity. You see, Emile was naturally adroit at wrinkling his forehead and making that pursed lipped half-grin that is the hallmark of the unacquainted passerby. He thought critically about very little except his heart exploding, and was at his liveliest when watching people from his apartment window. For seventeen years, Emile had eroded the green paint on his office chair by sitting in it and staring forward. He enjoyed the dual corporate perquisites of killing oneself at a mean career and receiving a beggarly wage from a faceless giant: what his father had called a “calling.” Emile had a desk and a lamp, a regular break for lunch, a closet full of mint green short-sleeve dress shirts, and an odd palpitation in his chest that would come on infrequently and seemed to foreshadow heart failure. Emile was intensely fearful of death, and at the age of 41, had every reason, in his opinion, to be so. He had lived too long already, it seemed. The prospect of turning to bed haunted Emile nightly, where he was bedeviled to despair. He had high blood pressure, so said his physician. His physician was a learned man. His physician had degrees.
Emile Francoise was a student of habit. Many humans are so, but Emile had an uncanny penchant for repeating his days down to the very minute of his morning shoelaces. As such a creature, Emile was very boring. It is not a slight on Emile’s personality, only a simple relation of his routine existence. He occupied a one-bedroom apartment in a three-story brownstone, and spent his evenings watching the passersby in the streets below. He shaved regularly, and made an effort to eat enough fiber and greens, &c.
Emile had never been loved and had never loved anyone apart from his parents, who were both deceased. This isn’t to imply that Emile was unhappy. On the contrary, when he wasn’t preoccupied with fears of cardiac arrest, or being hit by a bus, or murdered in the night during a home invasion, or catching a fatal bug, or tripping on the walk and cracking his skull, Emile was far from disconsolate. He lacked that quality owned by the melancholy to permit of any meaningful reflection on life, and he began each day anew as the days came on. He enjoyed his labors and their fruits, and was entirely content with his frozen dinners and network television, and the occasional glimpse down a woman’s blouse from his perch. He wasn’t lonely, only because he knew of no alternative to his bromidic bachelor haunts beneath a tidied white ceiling. He had many friends in the streets below his window – strangers to anyone else, but to Emile friends and family, each with their personalities and traits. Some kind of freak.
But oh, permit me, dear reader, to address you directly. My name is Emile. I began my story in the third person: detached, disinterested. You don’t like third person any more than moi. May I admire you? May I name you? I hate “dear reader” terribly, and after all, we’ve been friends since the moment you learned of my incapacity for whistling. I consider that the turning point from acquaintanceship to friendship, do you not? Let me, my friend, dear reader, address you as Chargo. It’s fine. I’m attached to the name dreadfully. All three of my children are named Chargo. They’re not born yet, but neither are they dead. There is hope, you see. There is hope for old Emile. I’ll die any day: my heart hurts excessively. All of my teeth are named Chargo, save for the canines: nos. 6, 11, 22, and 27. My dentist bade me remember them.
Chargo, I’ve written this for you. It concerns me, and thus, is interesting to me because of that fact. If no one else is willing to write about me, then it falls to my shoulders. I am exceedingly boring Chargo. You see, I like society as much as I am ill-fit to call it home. I watch it longingly. I watch the families from my window: the little urchins clinging to their mothers’ dresses and begging for ice cream cones. Fathers, big strong men with big strong jobs leading their families from the car to the ice cream parlor and back again. Big men with fine hair and clean teeth: unnamed teeth probably. I watch them go in hungry and smiling. I take pictures of them with a camera I bought for that purpose. I have all kinds of family portraits on my wall, Chargo. You really must see them. I’ve spent all my money on film and frames. They surround me so. But you won’t see them Chargo. I’ll die any moment. Someone must murder me. I’m not tired of life Chargo, but I must leave it. That’s the opinion of my murderer, Chargo. And you see, that opinion is superior to mine. My will is weak, as is my mind. I have hardly an opinion on anything, and I fear that even my opinion is worth more than my existence.
But you don’t care about philosophy, Chargo. Bless you for your disposition. You’d rather I relate something interesting, I gather that. You haven’t spoken a word to me, but I can hear you across time and distance. I’ve spent an entire year editing this, Chargo. I acquired a dictionary from the library, and have obsessed over it and you. My life is darksome, but only because I assume yours is so full of zest and happiness. I am not jealous of you, Chargo. Perhaps I am jealous of you. You probably have a family, Chargo. Perhaps I have a photograph of you and yours. I like to think I do. I have a great collection. But I told you that already. I have a wonderful memory. I didn’t tell you that.
I’ve never committed any crimes, Chargo. I am a law-abiding citizen. Can you say as much? I hope you can. I hope you have peace in your heart. I once came very close to a crime, but didn’t see it through. It was ridiculous of me at the time. I might have been imprisoned for life had I acted on what I thought was instinct. But I won’t belabor you with details, Chargo. The devil is in the details and the devil was in me on that day. Do you believe in the devil, Chargo? I do.
My days, Chargo, are probably similar to yours. You rise in the morning don’t you? Of course you do, Chargo. I stand at my window in the morning and watch all the people on their way to work and school. It’s a habit, Chargo, and I told you I am a man of habits. Chargo, if you try to deny me my habits, why Chargo, I’ll leave you. But I’m sorry Chargo, I didn’t mean it. Do not judge me harshly on first impression. I’m not sick, Chargo, but interested in people from an academic standpoint. You don’t understand. Nobody does. They’re only photographs.
I heard footsteps beyond my door just now, Chargo. It’s late, and there’s never a tenant in this building awake in the witching hour. Oh Chargo, it’s my murderer come for me. It’s predestined. Oh how fearful I am of the final act! The picking of the lock, the burst of the door. The sticking of the knife, the strangulation, the pierce of a gunshot or the antics of a bludgeoning to death of me. Let it not be so!
The noise subsided, Chargo. It was Ms. Trathe, come home from a night with friends, probably. She had too much wine: that is why she stumbled by my door. It must be. She often drinks wine. Do you Chargo? I have never tried alcohol. That is, until tonight.
I wish I had a constitution to go mad. If I were mad, I’d have an excuse for being wayward. Chargo, my life is very plain. It’s fine that way, but betimes I wish it were different. I wish that I could look forward to turning fifty, beginning karate lessons and studying Italian. But I won’t, Chargo. It will only get worse for me. My heart is destined to stop. But I can make the best of it. Some people have it worse than me. Perhaps you do, Chargo. Do you like your name? I like mine. I think I’ll have a T.V. dinner. It is midnight, but I am hungry.
I knew a man once, Chargo. A man by the name of Rafael. He was my boss until today, Chargo. You see, he strangled me today. That is why I am trying alcohol. I’m fine, Chargo, it was merely a short struggle. He strangled me just long enough to induce me to give notice. He had strangled me before. He is a brute, and I am quiet. I looked in the mirror just now: his thumb prints no longer appear on my throat. The imprints made me feel sardonic. I found that word in the dictionary, Chargo. Do you know it? Of course you do, Chargo. You’re intelligent. At least, I imagine you to be so. I like to imagine that you are an academic, Chargo: sitting there in that little coffee shop or under that tree, or in that basement apartment for pennies a month, sitting there surrounded by paperbacks in your consignment garments and sipping vodka, the water pipes of the tenants above you running along your ceiling. They’re loud tenants, like my neighbors. You don’t like the taste of vodka any more than I imagine I would. But you like to think you do, and especially if anyone is watching. Think of me watching, Chargo. I watch a lot of people, and am accustomed not to make you feel uncomfortable beneath my simple stare: the art of the leer. But Chargo, I’m justifying myself where I need not. Staring is perfectly legal. I should tell you a little about myself, as I’ve meant to do from the beginning. I’m a fool, but that doesn’t tell you much. Have you ever tried beer, Chargo? I don’t like the taste of it. The man at the store sold me a box of six of them. I wanted seven, as I like the number, but he told me I could purchase either six or twelve. Twelve is a large number. Chargo, I am boring you. I am a perfect wretch. This beer is disgusting. But I’ll have another. I paid for it. Plus tax.
What stands out from my childhood Chargo, is a shadowy recollection of confusion. I never was in the right or wrong, although my parents led me to believe I was both on many occasion. They worried about my sense of self, and engaged me to many activities. I was extremely untalented in the sciences. They did their best to keep me busy, and with no other children to tend to, they were able to give me much attention. I liked attention, Chargo. I don’t receive much now, but a grown man can’t complain of it. Besides, I have my camera. And the people come to the parlor and visit me each day. It is very kind of them: to patronize a budding Rapunzel like me. Some days I long for blonde hair. I’d even glue it to my scalp if it looked authentic. I’d eat the dust under my bed if it meant I’d sprout blonde locks: long yellow curls that could reach to the street from my windowsill. No one could overlook me then, Chargo. I’d tie ribbons in them for you. Would you like me in ribbons? Would you like me then, Chargo? I’d do anything for you.
When I was a boy, my parents took me on a vacation. There was only one vacation in my childhood. It was a road trip, Chargo. We traveled by the highways to Yosemite National Park in California. California was nice, but nothing like my native Cleveland. My mother and father rented a camper. Chargo, I believe this beer is causing me to babble. May I just think of you for a moment in silence? Thank you, Chargo. You’re a kind stranger.
The road trip was fine at first, but outside of Ohio, I began to fear for my safety. The world is a big place, Chargo, as you might know. Every state has its own creeps and errant savages, and first navigating the Midwest, we crossed paths with many. My father took on a black eye during a gas station mugging. Chargo, you’re too kind to credit him as the victim. No, Chargo, he had run out of gas money and punched out a man’s wife for her purse. It was the only evidence of violence I had ever observed in him. My mother was upset, but soothed him. I’ve never been violent. I’m too wretched to throw a punch, and too afraid of dying in a fight. It doesn’t take much, Chargo, for your brain to swell to death. Some of the time I’m fearful my brain is bleeding. It doesn’t take much at all, Chargo, for a life to be extinguished. We’re such a fragile species, Chargo. I’m afraid to cut an apple, so close to my wrists.
The inside of the camper was a stale and humid bit of architecture. I felt trapped between the wood paneling, and cried excessively to be free. A road trip is a prison for a small child. I was caged, Chargo, in the Gulag Winnebago. Ha ha ha! Chargo, a reference! Do you love me now? I might be falling in love with you. You might find it hard in your heart to love a stranger, Chargo. It comes easy to me. I love every person who frequents the parlor. I’ve named over ninety of the families and watched some of the children grow. I have whole albums – but Chargo, why do you convince me to tell secrets so soon? You are sly, Chargo, and I’ve never tried alcohol until this evening. It is late, Chargo, but there’s no job awaiting me in the morning. I haven’t a mind for sleep just yet. I’d rather my heart stop here than in bed. Perhaps that way I could fall out of the fenestration. I’m cute. This third beer is not as putrid as the first. I think I’d like to cut off part of my face.
I was told, Chargo, that my mother was impregnated with me in her undergraduate days. She and my father were studying French history. My parents were very intelligent students, Chargo. They named me after a book by Rousseau: a book that was banned in Paris and burned in public. My parents, bless their souls, gave me a locket with an inscription from the book: “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Do you like it, Chargo? I thought you would. I’d love to tie my hands in ribbons and present myself to you, Chargo. I’ll dye my hair. But I’m digressing, Chargo. It’s only fair of me to speak frankly. I’m a lonely wretch. I didn’t admit it before. I want to drink wine with you, Chargo. I’ll even invite Ms. Trathe. She likes wine, Chargo, and can teach us how to drink it. I’d love to see your face in wine. We could look out at the ice cream parlor together, the sun’s rays waning against the buildings, shadows creeping along the parked motorcars, the bump and bustle of merchants and shop-goers. I love to think of us together in this apartment. You’re no stranger to alcohol. Whether you drink it still or once did before sobriety, you know what it can do to a man. What can it do, Chargo? I’ve never seen a man drunk before, and I’m afraid of what I’ll do. I’m afraid I’ll alienate you, Chargo. I’ll miss you so. I’ll grow desperate without you. I’ll be a wretch. Nothing will change. I must speak directly with you.
Place your hand over your heart, Chargo. Cease reading and try it. Do you believe that organ can pump forever? We both know what happens when it quits! You’re dead then, Chargo. Oh! What pain it brings me to think of you in a casket, Chargo! I wouldn’t be the reason you’re in it, Chargo. I would never harm you physically. I would never do that, Chargo. I’m incapable of violence. I once almost engaged in it, but discovered I lacked a certain intensity necessary for hardened evil. I’m a happy little drudge, Chargo: an innocent drudge, guilty of nothing but the sins of a recluse. I found the word “recluse” when I was in the R’s of the dictionary, Chargo. That was shortly before I discovered “sardonic.” I am a pathetic, vile, glum little man of middle age. But I am gentle, Chargo. I am gentle with everyone. If you’d have me, Chargo, why I’d be gentle with you too. I’d love you like Helen, Chargo. Ha! Another reference for Emile. I am stupid, very stupid, but I am not vain. I have all of my toenails in bottles in case you don’t believe me. It makes sense, Chargo, you just may not understand it yet. You will some day, my love. Chargo, I am forward. I am sorry.
I have two raw eggs for breakfast every morning. But I’m boring. Chargo, I would bore you. You must travel, and talk, and enjoy cuisine. You must have Paris and Milan. They’re not for me, Chargo. You deserve art and poetry, dancing, and love-making. I’m a stranger to them all, Chargo. I’d like to make love some day, Chargo. Were it you I would die happy. You are a saint, Chargo. I’d really like to show you my family portraits. You’d love me then. I think I am happy.
I followed my boss once, Chargo. He had struck me in the ribs with his fist, and I was curious to know what a man would have for dinner after striking another man with such conviction. He had a splendid home: not as nice as this apartment, but much bigger and more comfortable. It was dark outside, and I watched my boss and his wife at their supper table from a tree. I took off all my clothes, because it made sense at the time to do so. He ate a steak. On other nights, he had different food. I began to track my boss’s eating habits from a catalpa tree. It was interesting at first, but I became upset at not having any photographs of the scenes. A camera flash would have revealed me, Chargo. Oh, for just one photograph of my boss with a spoon in his hand. I’d swim an ocean for another glimpse of his wife’s hair. But they erected a fence, Chargo, and put a light on the yard. I had forgotten some clothes at the base of the tree, and I could no longer spend my evenings there. It was a depressing period of my life, Chargo, in the weeks that followed that fence. I stopped shaving. But then I started again. That’s how shaving works, even if you shave every morning. In this much I am correct. I am irrefutable for once.
I like to think about things on occasion. Chargo, do you think of things? You must. Most people, I imagine, think of things from time to time. Some of the time I’m lost in thoughts on things. I once had a scrape on my forehead, and would think about it when in the mirror I would notice it. It was not hard to think about it, Chargo, because it was right in front of me. That’s why most people think of things. But oh, Chargo, I can only think of you right now. And where are you? I haven’t any idea, and would like your address.
How boring I am! Chargo, I’m sitting here naked in contemplation. I haven’t a job to go to in the morning, and this alcohol is something I might like. I feel very powerful, Chargo. Yet I miss the people at the ice cream parlor so. I’d give up this power to see their faces and handshakes, their laughter and embraces. Surely, Chargo, I am guilty of the oldest kind of love. Do not be cross with me, Chargo. I love many people. I love you most, and my heart is very full. It’s going to fail me tonight. Of that much I am certain.
I’ll let you in on a secret, Chargo. The pedestrians that visit the ice cream parlor do not know of me. I have blinds that cover the windows, and when I peak through them, I have a view of the entire street. The people and I are such a short distance apart, but with the cover of the draperies, it’s an infinite expanse. Nobody knows of me, and I can stand without dress with my face against the blinds. When I do it’s as though I’m floating. It’s the only comfortable way to watch people. I have to tell you Chargo, because I won’t keep a secret from the one I love. I don’t know you, but it’s not necessary between us to become acquainted before falling in love. We’ve known each other for centuries, Chargo. We are who we are. It’s an ancient love story, and our foundation is unshakable. Lust’s passion, Chargo, must be served. Your image tyrannizes over me, my dear, dear Chargo.
Do you wear makeup, Chargo? I do at times, but only in my apartment. I’ve never left my apartment in women’s clothing. I have a few dresses. I have a whole makeup kit. You might find me stunning in rouge, Chargo. You might. You can’t say that you wouldn’t absolutely. We could dance in this apartment, surrounded by a hundred family portraitures. Do you wash yourself in the shower or the bath? This beer has a hold on me. There is only one bottle left. I once took a shower for a full day. It was my thirty-third birthday. The water was warm at first, but cold for a very long time. I don’t pay for water here. I do pay my rent. I’m an excellent tenant.
I am miserable, Chargo. Or I am happy. I will be what you want me to be, Chargo. I’ll shave my entire body for you. I will do it tonight. It will keep my mind off heart attack. Once this beer is finished, I’ll get the razor. I’m afraid of sharp edges. Why must knives be as large as they make them? Nothing quite frightens me like a knife set on a countertop. If I had one, it would haunt me from the kitchen at night: the prospect of a burglar seizing one and setting it against me. Oh Chargo, I’m so fearful of death. Why must it happen to me so soon, with such a sudden rush and unyielding finality? Why must I die, Chargo? Why must we all? Tell me, please. Oh please do tell me. Chargo, I do not mean to frighten you. Forgive a scared man. My life is all I know.
I have never been awake at this hour outside of my bed, Chargo. The night is less frightful away from the silence of my bed-sheets. On most nights I’m lying awake at this hour, listening to the sounds of the building, waiting for a homicide. Every night is more terrifying than the last. But not this night, Chargo. Tonight I’ve created you. I have, Chargo. You exist only because of me. You must be more thankful for your essence. I’ve given you life, Chargo. Please do not forsake me with a shrug. I am worthy of more than a shrug, and deserving of everything you have to offer. You will offer it to me, will you not? I love you so. Chargo, we’re destined for greatness, so long as I live on. I won’t forever. But neither will anyone else: not even the little cherubs licking their cones across the street from me. Oh but my love, you are deserving of so much more. I have nothing to give you but banal trifles, a mundane existence and a sub-clerk’s bank account. I’d give you it all, Chargo, if only you would kill me with a kiss. I must retire, Chargo, to my bedroom, with hopes that I will either die or find you in the morning next to me. I’m a hopeless, disgusting outcast, Chargo. There are six empty bottles against the door that will alert me if an intruder enters.