Charles Clowe was a good-looking boy. Ruffled black hair, eyes as gray as a funnel cloud. Bad teeth, though; them Clowes never did have a good set between them. But you forgot that when he fixed his eyes on you. He was a smooth talker just like his daddy. Honey on toast, he was. But there was something underneath, like he was laughing right at you, same time as he was beguiling you. Maybe it was just the way he was raised, thinking he was born a few steps higher on the staircase. He sure dressed better, with his pressed shirts and pleated pants. And wingtip shoes! Yes, a boy in wingtips! The rest of us comported ourselves in bibs and hand-me-down mud dogs, and he cocked around like he was assessing the worth of our souls.
His eyes, though, the way they shifted from light to dark. Irises clear as rainwater one minute and a standing brook the next. I guess there are better words to describe it, poetic words maybe, but his eyes pulled you in. When you were inside them, you might consider him an artist or a philosopher. But he wasn’t nothing like that. He was stark crazy. That’s as simple as I can say it.
I don’t know. It’s all the same repetition of effort to get to the bones of it, the same pecking away at how I felt about him. People liked Charles, men and women both – and women, certainly – but sometimes it felt they were liking him against their will. That was Charles as a boy.
Charles the man wasn’t the same after the Japanese paid a visit to our shipyards in ’41. He deepened and toughened. Any childhood left in him was finished. He slicked back his tumbleweed hair and parted it in the middle, and he grew a pencil-thin mustache that made him look a little like Clark Gable. He was more refined, somehow, like the war had polished him hard. His smile was shinier, his face more provoking.
You don’t have to be damaged in war to be damaged. Charles was damaged from the start. I don’t know why or how. He just was. Maybe there was a short circuit in his thinking, or maybe it was something more commonplace, like a failed romance or a reckless ego. With him, all you saw was the surface, a face scoured clean of all the underneath. He played a cultivated man in a town full of corn pickers.