Be forewarned, this is not a stroke story. In fact there's only one brief kiss. Thanks for taking the time to read this. I hope you enjoy.
I knew what was coming when I got called into the owner's office that afternoon. I had been working at the small job shop as a machinist for 3 years and I knew business was slowing down. In fact, I had already started reading the want ads but there wasn't much out there. Three others had been called into the office earlier that day and been given the bad news. I figured I was next in line and I was.
"This is the worst thing about this job," began Jack Rogers. It wasn't exactly easy for me either. I really liked the guy. He was actually a decent human being, unlike some of those other ass holes I had worked for. I mean he paid reasonable wages, had good benefits and never talked down to anyone. Even better, he realized that I knew what I was doing, so he basically left me alone to do my job.
Anyway, he began by telling me what I already knew. Business was bad and there wasn't enough work to keep everyone busy. People were being let go and I was one of them. He hated to do it, but then, he did something unexpected. He took a picture on his desk, turned it around to me and showed it to me.
"This is my adopted son, Charlie. Three years ago my wife and I took him home. The agency that placed him with us said he was found sitting in a field somewhere in Vermont not too far from here. Nobody knows how he got there or who he really is. He is just such a sweet, wonderful kid, but it seems he is mentally and physically retarded. We think he must be at least ten years old but it's as if his biological clock stopped the day he turned five."
I wondered where this was going.
"He spends most of his time drawing plans for what he says is a space ship and he keeps asking us to build it for him. Frankly, it sure as hell doesn't look like one to me, but my wife has been after me and I don't have the time. We will pay you your usual hourly rate to take a look at it and see what you think, that is if you're interested."
"Sounds like a plan to me."
"I want an estimate before you actually build anything and I should forewarn you that I had someone else start it and he did a half assed job. Charlie became quite furious with him for not following his instructions. I want you to either take it seriously or not take it at all."
I figured why not? I had nothing to lose and it wasn't as if I really needed the money anyway. There was a lot Jack didn't know about me, but that's getting a head of the story anyway. The point was, I liked Jack and I was a bit curious about this kid for some reason. If worst came to worst, I could just beg off and be done with it.
I nodded and he and I shook hands and he gave me directions to his house in the country. I told him I would be there bright and early Monday morning and went back to the shop to get my tools and clean up my stuff. I sure as hell didn't have to be told not to tell anyone that I was going to be building a space ship for the owner's kid.
Eight o'clock in the morning, I was there at the house. It wasn't all that big but they did have a good-sized barn and a couple of horses.
Jack's wife Mary was your typical slightly overweight, busy stay at home mother. "Charlie is playing in the den. I told him you would be coming over to look at his drawings," she explained. "He is such a wonderful child," she said leading me down the stairs.
He looked and acted like your typical five-year-old did, or what I thought a five-year-old would be like. Me, I didn't have kids and didn't want them so I really didn't know for sure mind you. He had a short attention span, but he was polite, easy going, and there was something about him that I just liked.
He was just playing there quietly with a big Irish setter looking over him. The dog, Daisy was her name, kind of looked up at me when I entered, but when Charlie was told who I was, his eyes seemed to light up and he said something I couldn't understand to the dog and she gave me her approval.
"Let me take a look at your drawings," I began as we found a place to lay them out and study them. Boy, did he have drawings, dozens of them actually. He had so many, he didn't even know what they all were.
Right away, something caught my eye about them. They were so detailed it was almost incredible. The second thing that caught my eye was that all of the numbers and letters were in another language. Now, I'm hardly an expert but I knew it certainly wasn't in English or any other so called "western" script.
"Charlie," I asked him as I tried to figure it all out, "what is this?" I asked pointing to some figures on a drawing.
"How big," he replied.
That was a start. "Is it inches or feet or meters?"
"No," was all he said.
"And what is this?" I asked point to other figures.
"What it is," he replied, "stuff, you know."
"Not sure that I do," I replied.
He looked so forlorn, like a dog who really wanted to like you and all you had to do was pet him.
"I'll keep working on it," I replied. That seemed to cheer him up.
I found the key a few minutes later. At first, I just couldn't believe it. I almost wasn't sure what it was. It had been so long since I had even seen one, I had almost forgotten what it looked like. He had drawn the periodic table of elements. It's basic chemistry really and I hadn't seen one since high school, hadn't any use for one really. So, how was a five-year-old able to draw one and what was the language?
I took a break and found Mary in the kitchen. "How are you two doing?" she asked politely.
"Do you have an encyclopedia?" I asked "or Internet around here?"
"No, we don't have an encyclopedia and yes, we do have Internet, like everyone else."
"Does Charlie use it?"
"Of course not."
"Any chemistry books around here?"
"None at all. Why do you ask?"
"Then how can he have drawn this?" I asked explaining to her what it was. "It's not even in English or any other language that I know of. I don't have a real one to compare it to so I'm not sure how accurate it is, but I've got a really scary feeling that it may be dead on."
"One way to find out," she said and took me into their den where the computer was kept. A few minutes later, I had a print out of the table.
"He's calculated the atomic weights to six places," I replied. "This chart only shows five. How could he have known?"
"You're scaring me," she said nervously.
"I'll bet this is the key to all of his drawings. I can translate all of his numbers from this and probably most of the alphabet. Then I can copy everything into cad files on my laptop," I said, glad that I had brought it with me.
"You're serious about this, aren't you?"
"Jack told me to either do it right or not at all. Said something about another guy you hired who got Charlie mad."
"Yes," she smiled. "The only time I've ever seen Charlie really upset. We had a carpenter work on the barn and I thought it would be nice if he could build Charlie his space ship. Charlie wasn't happy at all."
"Probably didn't understand the drawings at all."
"No, it seems he didn't."
"Does Charlie watch much television?" I asked. "Is he a Star Trek fan?"
"No, he doesn't watch much at all. I really try and discourage it as much as possible. Has no interest in science fiction if that's what you mean. He does seem to like the History Channel and Discovery, the educational stuff, which I guess is good. At least he doesn't watch the soaps."
I knew there was a reason I liked the kid. I smiled and laughed.
I got my laptop computer, found Charlie and plugged it in and began translating the drawings as best I could into cad files and making some sense of them. The numbers from the chart allowed me to translate the numeric data but I still didn't have a clue about how big anything was. I mean, was I dealing in something like an inch or a yard?
I was stuck but then it was lunchtime. I brought a sandwich and it turned out Charlie also liked peanut butter and jelly. I had a donut and he had a chocolate chip cookie with his as we sat out on the patio and ate. He was quite content to be with me and seemed very much at ease. We joked for a little bit and played a game out in the sun tossing something around as Daisy ran around playing with us. The dog was seemed utterly devoted to Charlie and he in turn, seemed to be very protective of her.
In the kitchen, I asked Mary about them.
"Yes, he talks to her. It's almost as if she understands him."
"She's getting on, isn't she?" I asked.
"She has arthritis in her legs. Some days, I can look in her eyes and almost see the pain. I am so scared because I know in a couple of years, she won't be with us any more and I just don't think Charlie will be able to understand. I had to take her to the vet a couple of months after we got Charlie, and she always hated to go there, but this time I brought Charlie along and I tried to explain it to him, that it was just for a check up, and he said something to her and she just went along and was a really good about it. Charlie is now in charge of giving her her medicine. I've never seen a dog take pills so agreeably. It's almost as if she understands him."
I was beginning to wonder if perhaps she didn't.
"Not that it's any of my business, but have the doctors figured out what Charlie's problem is?"
"I'm afraid not. They just don't have a clue. None of them have ever seen anything like it. It's as if his body and mind just stopped when he turned five."
I stood there in the kitchen, looking out of the window at Daisy and Charlie playing and then turned around and found one of my answers. They had three other children and in the kitchen, they had a wall with the heights marked as they each grew.
"Can you write down how tall you are, Charlie?" I asked him once we were inside.
I had a piece of paper and he carefully put down three figures. I translated them and finally had my reference point. Whatever those numbers were, it translated into thirty-two inches. With that as my start, the software automatically made the calculations for all of the other measurements.
I actually became so intent on the drawings that I didn't even notice the time. Before I knew it, it was dinnertime and Mary asked me to stay and talk to Jack. It was an offer I couldn't refuse, especially because Charlie found out and wanted me to stay too. Then, there was the fact that I wasn't married and had no real reason not to.
It was after dinner when I got around to asking Jack about the periodic table of elements.
"I have no idea how he knew that," he said. "I never took chemistry myself. Majored in business and took the company over from my father," he explained. "Could he be one of those idiot savants?"
"I can't even begin to answer that one. It just seems so odd that everything he's done is so precise, so methodical."
"But it's in crayon!"
"It's all he's had to work with. It's all kids ever use."
"But what are you saying?" he asked me. "Do you think this thing will fly? Is that what you're saying?"
"I just don't know right now. I might have a better idea in a day or two once I get a handle on the details."
In a strange way, I did know even then but I couldn't admit it to anyone. I knew it would fly. It shouldn't have. It looked nothing like a space ship. Instead, it looked more like a big birdcage, for that is what it really resembled.
The ship was about twenty-four feet tall, nine feet in diameter with a conical top. The walls were actually made out of tubing which was filled, as I later discovered, with inert gases. The tubes were about an inch in diameter and spaced about two inches apart.
The tubes all curved up to the top where they came together in a point. The outer shell itself also rotated.
There was a round platform inside with a couple of seats and some odd controls. The platform did not turn but was stationary. Access was through a small doorway in the shell. Underneath the platform were four round discs that were wired into the controls. Each disc had a specific composition but it made absolute no sense to me at all. Yet, somehow, I sensed it would work.
The drawings consumed about three full days of my time. It took that long to get every detail correct. Then came the fun part. I had to source all the material and try and estimate how much it would cost to build it. It was not fun at all.
The problem was that Charlie was very specific about the materials to be used. The tubing in particular was something it turns out that had never been made before.
"It's possible," said one engineer I spoke to, "but why?"
"I'm working for an inventor," I tried to explain. I couldn't tell the truth, that it was for a kid's space ship.
In the end, I found a supplier who would not charge too much above the normal price. Luckily, I needed enough of it that it was worthwhile for them to make it.
"So, how much is this going to set me back?" asked Jack one evening over dinner.
"Fifty thousand, give or take," I explained. "Mostly for the tubing, but then there's some other parts I have to fabricate and some electrical stuff." I didn't tell him how much I would be contributing either. There was some equipment I would have to beg, borrow or buy and I guess that was going to come out of my own very deep pockets. I figured this was the price I was going to have to pay for agreeing to this in the first place.
"That's an awful lot of money," he sighed.
"You said you wanted it done right."
There was a pause as he thought about it for a few moments.
"This thing can't possibly work, can it? I mean, really, it can't possibly fly?"
"Not a chance," I assured him. He had been asking me for the past week, wanting to know for certain that nothing would happen. Rather than tell the truth, I had taken to lying. I was becoming convinced that it would somehow work. Charlie was making a believer out of me, but I didn't quite know what I was being asked to believe in.
Charlie had convinced me that there was something more to him. I would ask him for help, and if I put it correctly, I would sometimes get very detailed answers. For example, I asked him about the material for the tubes. I had figured out the formula and written it in English and it meant nothing to him. When I copied it back to his language and asked him, "can I change this?" he seemed to understand exactly what I was talking about and told me no, that it couldn't be altered. Another instance, he went and made another drawing that made some changes. How could he be so precise? His revision fit exactly into the other drawings, even though he didn't even look at them.
It wasn't all work with him either. He took to playing with me for a short while after lunch every day. If the weather was nice, and it usually was, we would go outside. Sometimes we would explore the old barn. He seemed quite fascinated by the two horses out there and he kept wanting to try and talk to them. He didn't seem to understand that they did not understand a word that he said.
Daisy was always there, trying to keep up with him, barking at anything out of the ordinary and in general, acting like your typical dog, completely devoted to Charlie.
Jack gave me the go-ahead on the project the next day, much to my own surprise. It was going to be a very expensive toy for Charlie and I wasn't quite sure that they could afford it. I didn't ask the details but instead just concentrated on the task at hand.
I took over the barn. That was the only place to build this space ship of Charlie's. The tubing would take eight weeks to make, about what I thought considering how special it was. In the mean time, I had jigs to make and other odds and ends. My trouble was, I certainly didn't have eight weeks of work.
I debated on what to do until the tubing arrived. I just couldn't justify charging them for time spent doing nothing and I wasn't sure it made much sense hanging around when there were so many places I could go if I wanted to, or if I was still wanted there.
There was so much that Jack and Mary didn't know about me and I guess there was still a lot that I didn't know about myself for that matter. I mean, Jack was so proud of his MBA from the local State University. What would he have said if I told him I had one from Harvard, at the precocious age of twenty-one? What would he have said if I had told him that my trust fund alone was worth more than his entire company and that, if I had chosen to do so, could have just sat back for the rest of my life and done absolutely nothing?
Jack thought of me as John Ennis, machinist, tool and die maker, machine operator. My family thought of me as the black sheep, the one who had the Big Nervous Break Down at the age of twenty-eight. John Ennis, heir apparent to the investment banking firm of Ennis and Company, barons of Wall Street, with houses in Aspen, the South of France and the Hamptons on Long Island.
My great-great grandfather had started the company. He was one of the very few Irish bankers in the city. It was rumored that he was not so much smarter than everyone else, but more ruthless. By the time I was born, there were three generations in the business and I would be part of the fourth and I actually made a decent start at it too. One day, however, all the pressure, all the stress, all the tiny threads of my life as "John Robert Ennis IV" came undone. I didn't go berserk. I didn't tell my father where to go. I didn't shoot anyone. My body just froze in terror.
I was hospitalized for a month. The doctors were clueless, but I knew what was wrong. My father was appalled. My mother was shaken. I would not go back to the bank, ever again. I would do what I wanted for the very first time in my life. I wanted to make things.
I managed to con my way into an apprenticeship program for tool and die makers. I was given a machine to run and parts to make and I found great comfort in having something to show for my work at the end of the day, even if it wasn't my own but belonged to someone else. I liked being able to say that "I made that" at the end of the day, if only part of it. I stole from no one. I cheated none. It was honest, if hard, labor and it had suited me perfectly for the fifteen years since then.
My mother was less appalled now than she was then. I was still something of a black sheep in her eyes. Still a bit of a failure in my father's. He and I had reconciled some years ago but he was still unhappy about my life. I was the only blue collar worker in three generations. My two sisters and two brothers, all younger than I, had gone into the business, even if only part time. Mostly, they didn't understand either except Emily, younger than I by thirteen months.
"I saw the pressure you were under," she told me once. "I just couldn't imagine how you coped with it at all. You had to be so perfect."
"Not sure how I survived either. I guess I really didn't, did I?"
"Perhaps you did. I mean you didn't go off and kill anyone, did you? It could have been worse and now you seem quite happy and you're leading a decent life."
That I was.
"But you're not married yet. Such a shame."
Her words were echoed by Jack's wife Mary at a weekend get together I was invited to at their house. I had taken a week off with nothing to do and lied to Jack about working part time. I had become good about lying to people over the years and I often wondered when it would catch up to me, but it hadn't yet. Anyway, Jack told me that Charlie missed me and they were having a few friends over on that sunny June afternoon for a small cook out and Charlie insisted that I show up. I liked the little kid so I did, leaving my Porsche at home and arriving in my pick up truck.
I wasn't sure if it was Jack and Mary who set me up or Charlie himself, but when I arrived, I found him playing a game with, in Mary's words, "his favorite aunt," who was her older sister. Charlie saw me and immediately I was dragged into the game with her. She was actually a nice enough woman, not unpleasant to look at, just a couple of years younger than myself. Her teenaged children played with Jack and Mary's other three older children while I tried, with some difficulty, to not seem too out of place once the game ended.