Once upon a time, there was the darkest, deepest blue. A blue like no other blue. A bottomless blue. An if only, a heartbreak blue. Charlie couldn’t see his father’s eyes but thought of their color that snowy day when he entered the house, hung his woolen coat on the hook, and walked heavy-footed to the kitchen. Charlie sat at the curtain, kept his eyes on the street. His mother’s voice drifted from the kitchen, where she stirred nothing soup - water with some bones and an odd potato or whatever of nothing was left in their pantry. Through the window, Charlie identified another boy, around his own age, walking hand in hand with a woman. Their backs bent, they pushed into the steady snowfall.
Charlie's parents’ murmured, while on the street the boy and the woman moved away from their belongings heaped on the sidewalk. Quickly, they faded into the night shadows. Charlie’s father assured him their family would never suffer the same fate.
“We’ve got the coal business. Everyone will always need coal.” He snapped his newspaper in projected confidence.
Charlie’s father exited the kitchen, hands in pockets. His mother still wore her apron as she ran up the stairs, hand over her mouth. Charlie avoided his father’s bottomless blue eyes.
A hand fell on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, son, the bank is taking the house. We’ve got to leave here.”
“What about-?” Charlie began, but his father had turned.
In his bedroom, Charlie studied his belongings. He pushed his stone collection into a canvas bag. He valued these, blanks slates holding promises, treasures no one could take.
Once upon a time there was a pale, sickly green, the color of pea soup. Depression pea soup, without the hambone. Mushy rough stuff, the food of Charlie’s sour aunt’s house.
The aunt did not like housing her brother’s family. She opened the door, pointed to narrow stairs leading to darkness, returned to her ailing husband.
Charlie’s mother stayed most days in her attic bed.
Charlie and his father spent their days roaming, collecting, fishing under the bridge behind the woolens factory.
Charlie found a sparkly ring in the mud by the river.
“Junk,” his father said, squinting at it in the sunlight.
Charlie rinsed it in river water. He imagined presenting it to his mother. She would rise up from her bed, enter the kitchen, make nothing soup.
Once upon a time there was bright yellow. Charlie cleaned classrooms, swept hallways after school for a dollar a week. When he finished, he pushed the wide doors open and found Marion waiting in the fresh air. Charlie pulled a dandelion from the grass.
“How could something so pretty be a weed?” he asked. Marion tucked it behind her ear. Her honey hair hung forward.
They held hands, walked all the way to the park. They collected sticks and stones. Marion liked to stay away from home as long as possible. She and Charlie killed time like no one else. They wandered and climbed and poked and lolled and waded and swung and slept.
That day, they found a seashell in the dirt.
“How’d this poor guy end up here?” Charlie imagined a seashell lost without the sea, coughing up dry dirt, yearning for water.
Eventually, Marion too faded into the shadows.
In the dying light of the bar his father tended, men sat hunched over drinks they couldn’t afford. Charlie’s mother was dead - a relief, because one New Year’s Eve long ago, her father fell drunk down cellar stairs to his death. She despised drinking.
“I’m going to join the Navy,” Charlie said to his father’s bent head. He washed a glass in a tub of grey water.
“At least you’ll have three square meals and a clean bed,” he said, still washing the glass.
Charlie admired the bottles lined up behind the bar, all different colors and label designs. They winked, bowed, danced around the bar. The Kahlua bottle removed one drunk’s hat, bolted out the door.
Charlie followed. He could already picture the waves, the blazing sun setting on the horizon.
Once upon a time there were purples and pinks and above them, warm wiggling light.
Charlie received room and board in the rectory for cleaning the church and caring for its grounds. Fr. Kervin offered the job at Charlie’s father’s funeral.
“Your dad would want you to be looked after,” he’d said. They weren’t Catholic, but Father Kervin enjoyed his whiskey and received his daily blessings, as he and Charlie’s father joked, at the bar.
Charlie loved the colored candles arranged in a ring, the echoey spaces of the church, the mosaic of a woman in blue with golden highlights above the altar. Sometimes he sat in a pew and rearranged the pieces in his mind, creating Marion’s face, his mother’s, his father’s. Charlie wandered the aisles, slept in the confessionals, knelt on the kneelers, read the hymnals. Old ladies wearing veils and muttering prayers eyed him, whispered about him at the exits. Charlie stood on tiptoes dusting the statue of Christ. It wobbled and fell, shattering into thousands, maybe millions of pieces. Charlie could hear voices reacting in shock or annoyance or anger. He studied the mess stretched across the floor, new shapes formed before his eyes.
Once upon a time, there was an endless rainbow containing every color under the sun. Charlie reached through fences, into garbage cans, waded fingers through grass. He found every shard of glass brilliant, worthy. He wished he could collect every speck. He pushed his cart through the city streets. At night when he sat down to rest, he categorized each fragment of glass. Charlie spread out a blanket in an overgrown lot, put like colors together.
In the morning a tiny and tanned young woman passed. Two children hung on her as she lugged cans of paint. Charlie stood to help. They reached a building with a half-finished mural - an explosion of colors-one flower bursting into another-on its side. The woman took out her brushes, her children chased each other in the abandoned space.
“Looks like you got a project of your own,” she said.
“Well-I-“ he started to say.
“Tell ya what. I’ll save you a spot. You go ahead and put it up here on my wall.”
Charlie planned and prepared, adhered his glass in meticulous patterns. He started with dark blue, then greens, then purples and pinks. He returned with new glass each day.
“Beautiful Charlie, beautiful,” the painter said.
One day, trucks blocked the space. A great swinging pendulum came and smashed into the painting, the wall, the building.
Charlie stood stunned.
“That’s what people think of art, of us, Charlie!” the painter said.
In the silence that followed, Charlie went to the rubble and began picking up the pieces. He placed them tenderly in his bag.
Once upon a time there was a clear, dark sky speckled with smatterings of light. Charlie’s sight had faded. He sat by a window in the veterans’ nursing home, the breeze on his face, the sunlight. He told himself that blue is sadness and green is resentment and purple is God and rainbow is creativity. He pledged to always remember color, but couldn’t imagine forgetting.
“Would you like to do a puzzle, Charlie?” the new activities lady asked, dumping something onto the table. He picked up a piece, ran a finger along its edge. She told him about caring for her parents, how when they died she had no one to take care of, so she came to work at the home.
“That’s right, Charlie, that’ll get us going,” she said.
Charlie searched for the right pieces. Before long, he had a pile.
Once upon a time, there was light blue, white - sky blue, feather white. Charlie had been asleep for days, dreaming of his new white wings flapping across the sky. He hovered above the sea, darted up and down on the wind. Charlie inhaled the clean colors, lost himself in them. He peered through the rolling water below his gliding body, dove down to the glittering fish, all the treasures, just under the surface.