You can never really know a city; round every corner: a different face. They don’t allow you the comforting accuracy of predictability. But towns, towns are as friends. They share with you the light, they bare their teeth and scars, they let you pry and question, they command your attention. Like here, this place, this land christened Holy Faith. A halfway house for the broken: people, dreams, voices, hearts. “It’s where they come to be healed,” a tramp had sneered at me, his breath reeking of alcohol, his teeth of decay, and I stumbled backwards trying to regain my footing on the icy sidewalk, realizing that I had come there to do the same with a life that I could no longer recognize as my own.
The first time I met Charlie was at Aztec Café, probably the only place in the country where you can ask for a caffè sospeso and they’ll know what you mean. The place was busy and I thought to take my bagel and leave, but then I saw Blunt on the patio. Blunt was Charlie’s guide dog, a gorgeous golden retriever with eyes the colour of honey. I crouched next to Blunt and rubbed his muzzle. “He loves it when you do that,” Charlie said. I jumped at the sound of his voice, not expecting him to have noticed me let alone know what I had been doing. He laughed—a deep-throated belly laugh—then pointed across the table—”Sit down!” he barked. “Not many folks round here that would know what a caffè sospeso is, though back in the day we’d be more likely to say pagato. What’s your story?”
Charlie had stories. Every Sunday afternoon, we’d walk the streets of downtown Santa Fe together. I’d read him things that I thought he’d find especially endearing or amusing, like the little plaque in the pavement outside Nicholas Potter’s used book store saying ‘Please curb your dog’. What he loved most though were the things that children left behind at cafés, like in the Green Palace Teahouse. “Walk all the way down to the counter, and look to the left, where the Specials board is,” he directed. My eyes fell on a kiddy drawing of a girl, an umbrella and the words:
It rained today.
It’s only rain.
There was another one at the Burrito Café on Washington Avenue, right next to the library. On a pillar hung with thank you cards and obscure testimonials, was one that had him belly-laughing for three minutes straight:
Dear Burrito Café,
Thank you for the food.
I did not eat your food
but it looked good.
In all these wanderings, I grew to understand that there had been a time when Charlie had been able to see, with his eyes. I never asked about what had happened. Charlie was never anything less than candid about his life, and it’s not that I was embarrassed—there simply never seemed to be the need for it. I suspected he had been involved in the war, that he was a veteran, that he had a drinking problem, that he’d been a foster kid—don’t ask me how I knew. He told me once about how he’d met a guy, “a Wayne Dyer type who was into multi-dimensional healing.” This man said he could manifest things, and told Charlie “some cockamamie story about black soil and mangoes and Thailand and Swiss Army knives” in support of his supernatural power. When Charlie tried to get him to manifest a pretzel, this fellow declined, saying that he could only manifest things for himself. Charlie snorted at this last part, biscotti crumbs riding the wave of his breath that Blunt absently licked up from the floor as we lingered over coffee at Louie’s.
Charlie often had questions that he’d pose with all the gravity of Zen koans, like: Why is it called shortbread? and What do firefighters do when they’re not fighting fires? Whenever we ordered French toast at Pasqual’s, he insisted on calling it pain perdu—in reference to lost or wasted bread. Occasionally, when the crowds had thinned, we would visit the Loretto Chapel—home to the Miraculous Staircase. The spiral staircase, with two 360 degree turns and no visible signs of support was supposedly built by a mysterious carpenter who appeared one day with donkey and toolbox, spent months cloistered in the Chapel constructing the wooden spiral, then vanished as strangely as he had arrived: unpaid, unthanked, unseen. Some believed it to be St. Joseph himself, the patron saint of carpenters, who had built the legendary staircase. “Codswallop and balderdash!” Charlie bellowed at the young docent halfway through her spiel. I think he had always wanted to say that.
“Truth is,” he breathed heavily, as Blunt and I escorted him out and back up towards the Plaza, “the staircase was built by a Francois-Jean Rochas—they called him Frenchy—a shady member of Les Compagnon,” he was gripping my arm, almost whispering now. Les Compagnon, he went on to explain, are an initiatory guild of craftsmen sworn to secrecy and celibacy rumoured to have connections to the Benedictine and Templar orders. After he built the staircase, Frenchy bought up some ranch land in Dog Canyon (now Alamogordo) and lived the life of a recluse, tending cattle and fruit. They found him, eventually, dead in his Dog Canyon cabin shortly before Christmas one year, a bullet in his chest. “Called it suicide, but ’round here, we know better. Plain cold-blooded murder, it was.”
It would be years later—long after I had found love, healed my heart, and left Santa Fe—that I would hear again about my old friend Charlie. He had died on a cold winter’s night, shortly before Christmas one year. They found him, dead, in his small room on Old Santa Fe Trail, a bullet in his chest, Blunt by his side. Victim of a robbery, the obituary said. But I knew better.