I didn’t know Washburn well, but we did see one another from time to time owing to the nature of our work, and I liked him. He was an interesting man. Easy to talk to, a good storyteller. Resourceful, as well, from what I recall. So it came as something of a surprise when I learned he’d gone missing in Haiti.
I was moving cardboard boxes into the new house when the phone rang with the news. I stopped working and answered it. The voice on the other end — it belonged to a colleague, Owen Briggs — told me there’d been an earthquake, and that Washburn had been lost somewhere inside the Hotel Ezequiel in Port au Prince.
None of this registered at first. That is, I didn’t understand what Briggs was trying to tell me. In the first place, nobody called Washburn “Charlie.” That was his name, but no one ever used it. Not even Washburn. Secondly, my old cat, Charlie, had disappeared into the woodwork through a hole in the wall the day before, and when Briggs said “Charlie was lost in the rubble,” my mind somehow conflated the two events.
I pressed the phone to my ear. “What are you talking about, Briggs? What do you mean, Haiti? He’s right here. In the house.”
Now it was Briggs who was confused. He slowed and rewound the story, unspooling it again in a way I’d understand. “Oh,” I said. “Charlie Washburn. Jesus. How? — okay, right. Yeah, thanks for letting me know. Yes. Stay in touch. Please.”
When the call ended I hung up and shouted to Trudy. She was upstairs, unpacking boxes in the bedroom. She came to the head of the staircase and looked over the banister.
“Owen Briggs called,” I said. “He says Charlie’s gone missing in Haiti.”
“Washburn,” I corrected myself. “Not our Charlie. Charlie Washburn.”
Her face darkened. “Where did Briggs hear that?”
“On the radio, I think. Or someone may have called him. I’m not sure. He said there was an earthquake.”
Trudy came down the stairs and walked past me into the den. She clicked on the news. We had no sofa or chairs yet, only a small TV. The furniture was still in the storage unit on the other side of town. We stood in front of the screen with our arms folded, watching rescue workers in thick yellow gloves rake the rubble with pickaxes, looking for survivors.
Footage of the devastation played in the background as the network cut to a correspondent in a photojournalist’s vest. He put a finger in his ear and lowered his head, listening then nodding to the voice coming through his earpiece from a news desk somewhere far away.
We stared at the image in silence. A moment passed and Trudy picked up the remote, pointing it at the TV and clicking it off. I thought she might say something, but she didn’t. She just stood there.
“Mike Evans is missing, too,” I said. “Briggs said they were on a shoot together. Collecting interview footage for a child-sponsorship video.”
She looked at me. For the first time in two days she didn’t seem angry. She glanced over her shoulder at the dark screen, and started back for the stairs.
I put my hand on her shoulder as she was leaving, but she shrugged it off.
One of the boxes in the living room contained a plastic radio I’d kept in my closet in the old house on the west side where Charlie-the-cat and I had lived before making the move here with Trudy. I took the radio out and tuned it to a local station. News about the earthquake flooded the airwaves. Everyone was talking about the dead and missing.
I listened, and as I did it occurred to me I’d never known anyone caught up in a natural disaster before. I’d known people who’d fallen on hard luck and died — some in war, some in car crashes and motorcycle accidents … one who’d been run over by a train and another who’d died skydiving.
I’d also known two suicides, a wife who’d O.D.ed on heroin, and others still who’d died of cancer, AIDS, pneumonia, heart attack …
In 1997, my friend Kevin McArdle splattered himself on a tree in Crested Butte while skiing out of bounds. In 2002, my sick, bedridden father willed himself into a coma from which he never awoke.
My sister Emily once said, “You know a lot of people who’ve died, don’t you?” after I’d mentioned that my old boss, Jerry Kruszynski — a hearty, outdoorsy type — had drowned in a canoe accident in a class IV rapids on the Arkansas on the Fourth of July.
My response was glib, callous now that I think about it, and certainly uncalled for. “Marketing,” I said with a clever smile. “It’s a dead-end job.”
I could have conjured up more names of people I’d known and lost, had I wanted. But the collection I’d already summoned was disturbing enough. Still, it served my point. Which is to say, the odds of dying in a natural disaster are long. Very long, indeed. So, no, I wasn’t worried about Washburn. I was sympathetic to his plight, yes — his hotel was in ruins, he was without food or fresh water. Sanitation was … well, the entire island was in a world of shit, so it stood to reason Washburn was, too — but I wasn’t concerned. Charlie Washburn was a cool customer. He knew what he’d gotten himself into, and there was no doubt in my mind he’d know how to get himself out. This wasn’t his first time in a third-world country. Nor would it be his last.
I spun the dial to a different station and came upon a different correspondent, this one talking about FEMA. I imagined Washburn hunkered in the dark, nodding to himself as the pickaxes picked and the dogs sniffed and the sledgehammers pounded away over his head. He might have been scared — what sensible person wouldn’t be? — but I had no reason to believe he’d unraveled or succumbed to panic. He was too well schooled for anything like that. Too accustomed to having things work in his favor. My guess was, he knew even as he sat there, shivering, waiting to be freed from the dust and rubble of that wretched place, that he was sitting on a gold mine. That he had what every writer in the world wanted: the makings of a perfect story, himself as the lead character.
That night, after we’d showered and settled onto the inflatable mattress we were using until the furniture arrived, I closed my eyes and said to Trudy, “Wait and see. He’ll drop by the office a month from now waving a contract over his head. He’ll have a movie deal on cable. Or an option for a documentary with a major network.”
Trudy listened in silence.
I told her I could see Washburn trapped in the hotel ruins, working the prospects in his head. Counting up the deals that would present themselves the moment he returned home. “He has too big a personality to be buried in the ruins of a fleabag hotel in a second-rate country on the other side of the world,” I said. “He’s too lucky to fall victim to something so ordinary.”
Trudy sighed. “Why do you have to be so cynical, David?”
“I’m not cynical,” I said. “I’m jealous.”
She let out a long defeated breath and reached to switch off the lamp on the floor. “David?”
“Please don’t make me think less of you.”
The words came as a surprise, and I rolled onto my side, stung, searching the dark for her face. “What are you talking about?”
“This isn’t about Charlie anymore,” she said, prodding the exposed nerve. “It’s about us now.”
“Us? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do. We’re up against something here, something hard, and we’re finding out who we are and we don’t like it. I think we’ve lost one another, David. I think we’re both wondering if we made a mistake, going into this thing.”
I scoffed, reminding her that it was me who suggested we sell our homes and buy this big old Victorian. Cast our fortunes together, was what I’d said. The only lapse in commitment I was aware of, I told her, was hers. If she’d shut the damned bathroom door as I’d asked, none of the rest would have happened.
She muttered something I didn’t hear. Slapped her pillow. “He’s alive,” she said in a small breath. “He’s in the rafters. I heard him up there this morning.”
The house was still under renovation. We’d moved in before it was finished, thinking it would help speed the work. It was an old house, big and in need of love, and among the countless projects demanding our attention was the hole in the bathroom wall where the plaster and lath had been pried away to allow the plumbers access to the rusting pipes. The hole was large, and I’d cautioned Trudy to keep the door closed when the bathroom wasn’t being used because Charlie — my Charlie, our Charlie — was already upset about the strange goings-on in his feline life, and I feared he’d use the ragged opening in the wall to try and escape.
Sure enough, I was right. Upset with the disruption of his routine, and further agitated by the cross-town drive that had landed him in an unfamiliar world of unfamiliar scents and sights, the old tom had streaked out of his carrier the moment I opened it and raced through the bathroom door I’d asked Trudy to keep shut. He disappeared into the woodwork, and neither of us had seen him since.
I paced the halls all night, whispering his name while Trudy lay on the air mattress in the bedroom, pretending to sleep. Neither of us was especially happy with the other, and in a moment I wished I could have taken back I stupidly accused her of being a saboteur, jealous of the cat’s affection. In return, she’d dismissed my crazed recriminations as the rantings of a cat person.
We were both in the wrong. Clearly. But that was beside the point. Charlie had gone missing in a dangerous place, and it felt as though, if he wasn’t already dead, there was a good chance he’d escaped into the outside world, and I’d never see him again.
What time was it in Haiti? I wondered. Ten o’clock? Eleven? I saw Washburn again in my mind’s eye, crouching in his dark little hole, calculating the moment of his rescue. Tugging on the elastic thread of time, trying to gain control over the random event that had cut him off from his home, his colleagues, his work.
At breakfast this morning, Trudy and I sat on boxes on the dining room floor eating Egg McMuffins. The sandwiches had gone cold during the long drive home, but we were hungry and we ate them anyway. We still weren’t speaking, but that was probably for the best. If not, we might have missed the news coming in over the radio.
Trudy put down her coffee cup and turned up the volume. A breaking report said Mike Evans, the man who’d been working as Washburn’s sound-man in Haiti, had been found alive in the wreckage of the hotel’s elevator shaft. Evans, the report went on to say, had been flown to Miami where he was recovering from his injuries.
Trudy looked at me without speaking. Evans had been within 20 feet of Washburn when the quake struck, and according to the broadcast, he’d seen Washburn standing in the lobby moments before the building collapsed. He told rescue workers that Washburn was carrying a blue backpack with food and water, and that he believed him to be alive.
Trudy folded her arms and edged closer to the radio. She was careful not to let her leg touch mine. We looked at one another, and an awkward moment passed between us where it seemed as if a conversation might break out. But before that moment could take shape, her eyes caught sight of something in the hall behind me, and she stiffened and let out a small breath. Shaking her head, she turned her eyes back to mine and let go a laugh so disdainful, so heavy with sarcasm her shoulders sagged under the weight of it. “Jesus, David,” she said. “You’re so — dumb.”
I turned and looked, and there in the doorway, covered in soot, sat Charlie — my Charlie, our Charlie — scowling with an audacity only a spoiled old cat could have mustered.
Trudy and I didn’t speak again until later that evening. But when we did, it was like old times, the friction between us gone, the clunkiness we’d endured for far too many days giving way to embarrassment, which in turn gave way to self-conscious laughter, and in the end opened us both to a long deep embrace that allowed no room for anything but forgiveness.
We locked Charlie in the bedroom with his food dish and litter box and drove across town to our favorite restaurant in Idyllwild. Three days of work and worry had taxed us in ways we’d never imagined, changed us in ways we would never admit to anyone but ourselves. But now — now, with the moving boxes emptied and Charlie at last safe from harm — we’d returned to our senses.
We switched on the radio as we drove. The stations were still talking about Mike Evans’s rescue from the elevator shaft.
Evans, the reporter said, owed his survival, in large part, to the smart phone he’d carried in the pocket of his vest. Its flashlight had been indispensible in helping orient him in the dark of the ruptured shaft, and its first aid app had taught him how to apply a tourniquet to his broken leg. The alarm feature, the reporter said, had kept Evans from drifting into shock from loss of blood. But little was said about Evans himself, or the work he’d been doing, and there was no mention at all of Washburn until the report closed on an ominous note: “The sand of Haiti’s beaches have been trickling through an hourglass,” the reporter said, “and time has all but run out for those who remain unfound.”
On the 8th of February, four weeks after the quake, I ran into Owen Briggs, whose first words to me were that he still believed Washburn to be alive. We were standing on the sidewalk across from Thomas Gray Park, near the equestrian statue in the city square. It was a cold morning with a sharp wet wind, yet it was the bittersweet hope in the tall man’s voice, and not the weather, that caused me to shiver.
The international rescue crews in Port au Prince had been called home, and the operation had been reclassified as a recovery. But Briggs remained convinced it was only a matter of time before Washburn turned up. “They unearthed his tripod, yesterday,” he said. “It was near the elevator shaft where Evans was trapped.” He paused as if this were proof the filmmaker had survived the catastrophe. Then, in the event I needed more convincing, he mentioned the blue backpack Washburn carried, reminding me that it was still unaccounted for.
We talked at length about prayer and the power of positive thinking. How a man could weather almost any tragedy, however earthshaking, if he had the courage to look beyond the limits of his imagination. I nodded as he spoke. It wasn’t all that long ago my old tom, Charlie, had been resurrected from the debris after I’d given him up for dead. So who was I to dismiss anyone else’s faith in the improbable? Pessimism had made a fool of me once, and I wasn’t about to let it do so again.
It was strange, yes, the fates of my two very different Charlies intersecting the way they had, when they had — one lost in the ruins of a poor Caribbean hotel, the other in the guts of a half-renovated house in Colorado — and, yes, it would have been reckless, terribly reckless, to pretend the dramatic similarities of their storylines bound them in some special way … or suggest that, because one tale found a happy ending the other deserved one as well. Yet, who did it hurt? What harm did it do, giving in to such easy temptation?
“It was me who recommended Washburn for the gig, you know?” Briggs said with a wan smile. “I told them he was it. The best videographer I knew. The perfect man for the job.”
“You told them the truth,” I said before he could confess anymore. “The job was tailor-made for him.”
“Yes,” Briggs agreed, reluctantly. “Maybe.”
He looked away, then back. His eyes had taken on a rheumy sheen. “It’s an odd word, isn’t it? Hope?” He tried to smile. “It sounds so — so weightless.”
I remembered the night I lay in the dark next to Trudy, full of dread. Wondering how we’d ever find our way back to one another after all we’d said and done, and how, in the midst of that miserable silence the answer mysteriously came clear —
He’s alive. I heard him up there …
I looked at the sky. A long white cloud drifted across the blue.
Featured image: MaxterDesign / Shutterstock
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Interesting, well told story. I couldn’t help but think of the horrendous Surfside condo collapse recently. I’m so glad in the story Charlie (the cat) turned up safe and sound. As for the human Charlie, I’m sure he’s gone but who’s to say the weightless cloud in the blue sky above wasn’t a sign he was okay in a new way?