Charlie is gone now. “Some place where it’s warmer,” he said. “And it don’t rain so much. A little town I know.”
Charlie is not his real name.
I met Charlie last fall on one of my daily walks downtown. He was holding court at his usual spot, pontificating to two other homeless men.
He was wearing three big rings, including one bearing a skull and crossbones; a Harley jacket that no longer zipped; and pointy-toed cowboy boots that may or may not have been real alligator.
Charlie viewed me warily, and the conversation became halting and unnatural.
“Stop by tomorrow,” he said, “and we can talk.” I stopped by the next day and two or three times each week for the next couple of months.
Charlie was a natural storyteller and image-maker, and he had plenty of stories about growing up in the foothills of Northwest North Carolina and Southwest Virginia. “Me and my cousin used to run them mountain roads,” he said.
That would be the cousin he said drank liquor “the way you pour gasoline down a snake hole.”
He referred to my wife as the “little lady” and called me “young man,” partly to disguise the fact that a series of strokes had seriously compromised his short-term memory.
“If somebody was to put a gun upside my head and said they was gonna pull the trigger if I didn’t tell them your name, I’d say, ‘You might as well go ahead and shoot, ’cause ain’t no way I’m gonna remember.’”
“I got a dry spot in my brain the size of an eyeball,” he explained. Now there is an image that will stick with you.
He had been married once a long time ago and had nothing positive to say about women. Or African Americans, except for a family he had once been close to.
Charlie’s presence was not menacing, his appearance notwithstanding. But there were undertones of hostility in his voice and occasionally hints of violence.
I figured it was just street-level bravado until one day he told me about the time he spent in jail courtesy of another county.
“What was the charge?”
“Assault with intent to kill,” he said matter of factly.
“Who did you intend to kill?”
“A deputy sheriff. He was out of range of my sawed-off, double-barrel shotgun, or I’d have got him.”
The case was dismissed, and the deputy sheriff was told to stay away from Charlie. At least, that’s how Charlie said the story ended.
Getting a glimpse of Charlie’s darker side made all the more stunning what happened the day before Christmas.
“A big black car drove up,” Charlie told me. “And a little boy got out and walked around the back of the car and come up and give me a Christmas card. He told me, ‘Merry Christmas.’ Then they drove off.”
“He was just a kid,” Charlie said, his face beaming. “Maybe 6 years old.”
I wondered how long it had been since someone had given Charlie a Christmas card.
Then he turned, as if he had just remembered something, and began rummaging through the plastic bag that contained all his worldly possessions until he found a blanket, brand new, still rolled up in plastic wrapping.
“Here,” he said.
“I can’t take this,” I said. “You’re on the street. It’s cold out here.”
“It’s my Christmas present,” Charlie said. “I got a sleeping bag and one of them pieces of aluminum foil you can sleep on that a cop gave me. Give the blanket to the little lady. Tell her I said, ‘Merry Christmas.’”
Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” It’s also a lot easier. This transaction was supposed to go in the opposite direction. Accepting a blanket from a homeless man on one of the coldest nights of the year was turning the gifts of the magi upside down.
But giving the blanket to me seemed to mean a lot to Charlie. So, I accepted his gift and thanked him, not profusely, for that would have embarrassed us both.
The blanket’s in the corner of my study, still plastic-wrapped. A memento, I suppose.
Charlie’s gone. To a little town that he knows where it’s warmer and doesn’t rain so much. In search of a new life, which I fear will look a lot like his old life.
The weather forecast for that warm and dry little town: low tonight 31 degrees with a 15% chance of rain.
Richard Groves is a former minister and educator.
This transaction was supposed to go in the opposite direction. Accepting a blanket from a homeless man on one of the coldest nights of the year was turning the gifts of the magi upside down.