When I got the news I was in Paris, sitting in the silver rain outside Notre Dame. We were filming a street performer dressed in flowing red robes and on stilts. Sort of like you, Charles: a giant from another world — out of place, intimidating perhaps, but as lyrical as a strange bird. This French tower of crimson ad-libbed, shouting at the extras, tourists and barely interested Parisians: “You think you know, but you don’t! The world is here, all around, but you’re hurrying back into your dungeons, your caves… What do you know about life? About what awaits you when it’s over and there’s only the dark to blame!” It began to rain harder. Someone yelled “cut” and then a mad scramble to cover up the actors and camera gear. On the Seine below a party boat full of Italian teenagers shrieked and flashed their cameras.
I looked at my phone again: Charles Davis was dead. My seven-foot black brother. The only person I ever knew more afraid of the dark than I. A great dancer. The loudest finger-snapper ever to roam the earth. An unstoppable inside force in the paint when he felt like playing basketball, which was not very often. Charles was only fifty years old. He passed in a downtown San Francisco apartment. A tremendous surge of guilt and sadness swept over me. Through the rain church towers bells began to chime. If Charles were there he would have smiled at this polite irony, and said in his inimitable world-weary manner, “Ain’t that a trip.”
Yeah, Charles, it’s a trip. What else can I say? I’m thousands of miles away from home and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I should have stayed in touch more, but you had your life and I had mine and, like summer clouds, we drifted apart. Call it life, physics, destiny. Does it matter?
Stuck in traffic en route to our St. Germain hotel, our driver points to a stately apartment with roses flowering beneath the window: “That’s Catherine Deneuve’s apartment.” I thought of the actress’s radiant performance in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” swirling on the pastel sets, making the world fall in love with her, with France, with rain, with love itself. Then I remembered the film’s famous ending scene, when Deneuve stops to refuel her car in a snow storm and discovers her old lover owns the gas station. There is a friendly if slightly awkward reunion, with talk of children and the onslaught of time. When Deneuve drives off through the snow, the soft winter whiteness is contrasted to the Hopperesque glow of the lonely filling station beside a lonely road, and the tail lights fading away. It’s heartbreaking and as romantic as Sacré Coeur twinkling up on that hill and so I tried to smile but only got choked up a little thinking about you, Charles, and Boonville and the ranch and the gym and you coming home and performing the latest cheer that Palma Holcomb taught you and it’s been years and years, and I don’t remember people I met last week, but I remember those silly songs and dances. “Hey crowd… Yeah! Hey crowd… Yeah! Introduce yourself… right on!” (Who says I didn’t learn anything in high school?)
Random Memory #1: Charles has lost his shoes again. Size 14 Nikes. My dad is livid because the bus leaves for Point Arena at four and now someone has to drive to Fitzgerald’s in Ukiah to buy Charles new shoes. That’s a 50-mile roundtrip, and is the second pair of game sneakers he’s lost only three weeks into the season. Charles is saying, “Bruce, it’s not my fault!” Bruce, who is also my father, shouts, “When I find these shoes, Glomp, I’m going to shove them so far up your ass that I’ll use the laces to tie your big mouth shut!” A teary-eyed Charles screams that he hates basketball and wants to quit. Bruce says that no seven-footer living under his command is going to bake brownies with Carolyn Hiatt instead of playing basketball. Charles screams that he only bakes cookies with Carolyn Hiatt. Wagging a paternal finger, Bruce says that Deputy Squires has pictures of Charles baking brownies, turkeys and fish sticks with Carolyn Hiatt. Genuinely puzzled, Charles says, “For real? No, he doesn’t!” Bruce says, “For reals, chump.” “Let me see the pictures, if you’re so slick,” Charles demands. “The judge has them.” “What judge?” “The cookie judge, Bobo!”
Occasionally these types of minor conflicts escalate to Bruce throwing rocks at Charles down the driveway, through Langley’s orchard, and out onto Highway 128. Sometimes Charles retaliates by threatening to pee in Bruce’s petunias when no one is looking, like on Easter or Christmas Eve, or when Bruce is “acting like big redneck and drinking Coors and playing softball with all the other rednecks… Because you are a honky bitch, Bruce!” It is this kind of random comeback that usually makes Bruce giggle with glee.
Random Memory #2: Charles has a funny way of walking due to flat feet. So Bruce calls him “Glomp,” “Stomp,” “Chief Flat Foot,” and “Chief Stomps The Ground,” and “Gimp.” But mostly he calls him “Bobo.” One time before a basketball game in Potter Valley a kid calls out, “Hey Bobo, how’s the weather up there?” Shocked that his nickname has traveled to a foreign tribe, Charles picks up the kid and hangs him upside down for five minutes.
Random Memory #3: Bruce walks into the room and sees Charles spread over the couch like a praying mantis. “Hi Bobo, are you going to bake some cookies with Palma today?” “Don’t call me Bobo, Bruce,” Charles replies. “Bobo Bobo Bobo, cookie cookie cookie.” “Bruce, you’re a jerk!” “Bobo, you’re a Bobo.” “Bruce, can I go to the movies with Sid and Bryan this weekend?” “Uh, no Bobo.” “Why not, Bruuuce?” “Okay, get fifty rebounds against Middletown, and you can go.” “That’s impossible, Bruuuce!” “Bobo, I don’t make the rules.” “Then where’d you come up with the fifty rebounds, Bruuuce?” “I read it in a book.” “What book? That’s BS!” “The book on How To Train Bobos to Rebound Better.” “Bruuuce, that’s cold, Bruuuce…”
Besides being seven feet tall, Charles is a remarkable physical specimen. He has bulging biceps despite never lifting a weight in his life. He can spin on an iron bar like an acrobat. He can cartwheel, do 50 reverse pull-ups in a row, and touch the top of the backboard with a running start. Despite his impressive natural athleticism, Charles doesn’t really like to play basketball, or anything else. He endures it because Bruce makes him. And because he’s pretty good — when he wants to be.
Random Memory #5: Charles has beautiful penmanship. After AV he was recruited to play basketball at Northwest Junior College in Mississippi, along with Don Summit and another Mendoland legend, Chris Dale from Leggett. Charles would send me long handwritten letters detailing his days, basketball games, and his homesickness. He had gorgeous looping writing, though instead of periods he used slashes, so his entire missives would look like poetry.
Random Memory #6: Charles sends a picture of himself handing onto a street sign in Mexico City. He is playing semi-pro hoops in a Mexican league during the summer. He says beer is so cheap that you can return the empty bottles and almost get a free case. I don’t believe him, until I go to Playa Del Carmen myself years later.
Random Memory #7: Charles is playing football against Covelo. Gene Waggoner has him lined up at defensive end, and on the first play Charles picks up the opposing tackle and just holds up off the ground like a rag doll/child/sack of sorghum until the whistle blows. The Covelo fans and coaches scream for a penalty. Gene shouts at Charles to throw the guy out of the way next time and try to grab the quarterback. Charles shrugs, disinterested.
Random Memory #8: I am thirteen or fourteen. Charles has driven me to a baseball game in Santa Rosa, where Jerry Tolman and I are playing with some Cloverdale kids in a tournament. As Jerry and I put on our new uniforms I hear a loud and unmistakable voice: “Mmm, mmm, why do you guys always have the finest cheerleaders? What’s your secret? What is up with your groovy chicks?” I cringe as Charles cackles to one of the Cloverdale moms, who laughs with him. Everyone knows Charles. Everyone loves Charles because he makes them laugh. He spends the whole game sitting in the car with his long legs stretched out, listening to his Walkman and occasionally singing, “Mmm-mmm.” Afterwards he asks no questions about the game, offers no insights or observations. We stop at Coddingtown and use the five bucks for dinner on a couple of .45 singles by ELO and The Commodores.
Random Memory #9: Charles loves to talk about the Cloverdale cheerleaders. He says, “They were fine!” He also has kind words for the Mendocino cheerleaders and one specific crop of Kelseyville girls who waved poms-poms at the Redwood Classic. He was a connoisseur of cheerleaders, and appreciated a good-looking pep squad who could also dance, thrust, shake and provoke. Ridiculous half-time disco routines are a plus.
Random Memory #10: Charles doesn’t step outside unless his clothes are perfectly ironed. He is a neat freak. On numerous occasions he demands I take off my own shirt so he can iron it. Carefully.
Random Memory #11: G.P. Price and I are the managers on the powerhouse basketball teams where the seven-foot Charles is a rebounding machine. Those squads also star the devastating Don Summit, long range sniper Terry Hughbanks, phenomenal jock John Stevenson, the towering Randy Yates, Howard Mayberry, Chris Martin, etc. Local hoops legend Gene Waggoner as coach brings a certain razzle dazzle to the program. Unfortunately, our fierce rivals are an equally strong Mendocino team, coached by my dad and uncle Ken’s friend, Jim Mastin. Mendo boasts future NFL lineman Dan Doubiago, the tough and cool Mark Moulder, Kevin Young, a kid named Satterfield, and several other superior high school athletes. It is down to Mendo and us for the NWL title. And while we are very good, Mendo is a fraction better: a loose ball there, an intercepted pass there. Yet again. Mendocino is a tough, physical, confrontational team that hits the boards, boxes out, cuts off the baseline, makes their free throws, plays tough man-to-man defense from end line to end line, and hustles like a bunch of prisoners breaking out of a Bolivian prison. Mastin is a fabulous coach and his kids are disciplined and gung-ho. Like something out of Hoosiers.
Watching these battles, experiencing the pageantry of band-box gyms overflowing with everyone I know shouting and the smell of stale popcorn and fresh wax on the court, is a thrill. I never want anything so badly as for Charles to beat Mendocino in basketball. It never happens, though once in Boonville, during a tense game, Charles takes an in-bounds pass and with one balletic move swoops up and dunks over the unrivaled Dan Doubiago. It is a glimpse of perfection, of strength and grace and purpose. The crowd erupts. I tingle all over, proud to know you, Charles. Ecstatic to see you do something so beautiful, unexpected, delirious, and joyful. The crowd roared. The cheerleaders screamed. And then it was over.
See you soon, Charles. For once you caught the early bus. I’ll catch up with you later. With your shoes.