On a particularly warm and sunny day in Oregon, Charles, a homeless man in his late forties was sitting beneath his bridge daydreaming about his life; at least the part that led up to that one afternoon. He has long dusty, gray-brown hair and beard. He wore an old, worn out green coat, jeans and tattered brown leather boots. As he looked up into the sky, a bird flew overhead as if placed there apart from the rest of the world and he was taken instantly into déjà vu.
Charles is by no means a religious man, but what many would call a spiritual believer; a dreamer with a couple of screws loose to the rest of us. He is constantly burdened by strange feelings and insightful ideas, but seldom knows what he could do with them. He refers to it as a gift, though many times it proves to be anything but. Only a spare few have been fortunate enough to have had it shared with them.
The memory of a very similar day twenty some years ago was awakened in full clarity. Around this time he first realized he was different than the vast majority of folks in that day and age, or this age for that matter. He was living in the Seattle area then after a discharge from the army. Any discharge from the war was a blessing, but the reasons are the same reasons why it’s hard now to find and keep a job and to function in the society that he was never really a part of to begin with.
If you were to ask the other members of his platoon, you’d hear nothing about insanity. A little quiet and a little “gone” perhaps, but who wasn’t in those days. As far as they were concerned, he was no better or worse off than any of them or the other unfortunate draftees forced to carry a riffle. No one could explain, however, why he left it behind and disappeared into the jungle. His Lieutenant had found him in the arms of a Vietnamese farmer one cloudless afternoon in a swampy field near a local village and after firing a lethal shot into the man’s head, saw Charles’ eyes rolled back and twitching slightly.
The next time anyone heard from him was two days later from his hospital bed. He wasn’t wounded except for a dislocated shoulder from the fall and a splitting headache, but had no idea where he was or how he got there. All he remembered was the long look into the old farmer’s eyes, as if in a dream, and a slow-motion bird soaring through the sky. How was he to tell the nurse, let alone his Lieutenant, what had happened to him? A train whistle off in the distance brought him back to the present day and that cloudless afternoon in Vietnam slowly faded from his mind.
Charles has been often homeless ever since and never again saw the friends he had lost to that meaningless massacre of man. Living in poverty, although almost unbearable at times, has proven to be a very fortunate alternative over the years. He found, after the first few, that by accepting his situation and only asking for help when his life depended on it, that life itself seemed to provide enough of the necessities. He found odd jobs, moved from town to town and managed to keep from starving. He also managed to avoid staying in the same place for too long. During the better part of these drifting years, he lived awhile near the town of Pleasant Hill, Oregon and the property of an old retired couple, Roy and Virginia Jensen, who didn’t mind allowing him to pick over their garden. For this he offered to do all of the gardening and maintenance work they found toiling in their old age anyhow.
Roy was sort of an eccentric rare breed with a silver, wiry mustache and circular glasses. Rare in the way that, for his age, he was very empathetic and thus attuned to the mindset of the younger generation of the last 15 years. He carried no preconceived outlook toward life and accepted things the way they were presented. So the vast difference in lifestyles between the young vagabond and the retired gardener mattered little and they became trusting friends to the point of him giving Charles a place to stay. An old shed in the backyard was cleaned out and turned into small, but comfortable living quarters. This was far more than he ever expected and was most grateful to have a safe, dry place to sleep. Many nights he would lie awake thinking about this sudden turn of events often questioning himself, and more so, his position in life. It had been almost six years since his discharge from the Army and although mostly content with the situation, something still troubled him.
During the day, many hours were spent sitting alongside a small creek that ran through the hills nearby. There, it seemed, the mysteries of life unfolded in the way of subtle riddles from the sound of the water. Light- green moss covering the rocks and tree limbs hung like a fuzzy green spider web that, along with the lush ferns and ever-lingering moisture, provided the sweet aroma that made the easy decision to never want to leave Oregon again. Nothing mattered there as long as the river ran and existence continued. One afternoon, Roy seemed to appear out of the forest and sat silently beside Charles. This was unusually strange because until that day, the two had never seen each other outside the yard, let alone speak for more than a few minutes. Roy was as friendly as a man could be, but kept conversation to the trivial minimum.
“Ya stare at that stream long enough and you’re liable to grow moss too.” he’d say and let out a long wheeze. Charles looked back through a squint that seemed to be enough of a reply for the old man. “What is it that you’re trying to escape from son?” Roy asked with concern. “What I mean is…” Charles abruptly cut in in defense.
“I’m not hiding or running from anything, I’m just waiting and listening, that’s all.”
“For what?” Roy prodded again. This time there was no answer. Charles just stared into the water as if looking through to the other side of the Earth.
“You ever get that feeling like there was something you were supposed to do with your life but you never really did it?” Charles asked. He spoke quietly and sounded almost innocent like a child around an admired adult.
“Well sure, once in a while, but after raising four children I guess I just felt that my job finished. T’was nothing else I’as supposed to do.” Roy answered with a hint of uncertainty.
“Yeah, I suppose not.” Charles just sighed and threw a rock into the creek as Roy began to walk away. After a few steps he stopped and turned around.
“Ya know, one of these days you’ll figure it all out, son.” Roy said. “But it’s not a matter of when or how old you are, what really matters is whether or not you plan on doing anything about it when you do.” He then quietly headed back to the house. Charles watched him till he was gone, astounded by the old man’s remark then just smiled to himself out of the corner of his mouth and looked up at the sky through a hole in the trees wondering how many other tricks Roy had up his sleeve. He stayed there until it started getting dark and finally got up, tossed one last stone into the water and retired to the shed for the night.
A rock thrown into a flowing stream seems to have no effect like the ripples on a pond, but just gathers with the rest and becomes part of the whole river. That was the way Roy viewed his life, but Charles couldn’t help but feel that his role was different.
Time went on in much the same way for the next few years. In the spring of 1981, Charles left Roy and Virginia and continued wandering. He found a job at an auto shop upstate near Portland working as a handy man. As it turned out, he knew one of the mechanics from back in his younger years and rented his basement for a hundred a month. The military was really the only thing the two of them had in common, but they kept to themselves and got along. Getting along was good enough for Charles. Good enough to hold a job, to pay for his groceries, and to have his own room with a roof and window. Good enough to blend right in.
It didn’t take long, however, for “those thoughts” to resurface again and again almost every night. The kind of thinking a man does in prison when he can’t find sleep. There was still more. There had to be more than living life in a continuous, repetitive cycle of days without surprise fading into nights without hope. For weeks he sat silently in his room after work gazing at the window with unfocused eyes. He thought about a time when he was still in high school and the last winter spent at home before the draft. The time seemed to be passing slowly by outside of him like a four month long daydream. It was never realized until then that that long winter was the last of many things. Most of all it was the last time he really felt free. Free from both the past and the future; like anything could have happened and it wouldn’t have mattered for there was hope in him for something. He fell into a deep sleep that night and upon waking, felt noticeably different.
Charles had now been at Lee’s Automotive Service for nearly a year keeping pace with the humdrum flow of urban society and it was time to take his life back. So the next day he told the boys at the garage that he wasn’t coming back, that it wasn’t anything against the job or them, but that he had something he had to do. It took the better part of a day and a few thumbed rides to get back to Pleasant Hill to say his thank yous and goodbyes to Roy and Virginia. A lot of things can change in a year’s time, but Charles didn’t expect the kind of change that he found when he got to that old white house out in the woods.
There was a For Sale sign out in front and nobody inside. Roy and Virginia were gone. The year before, Charles took off in such an abrupt hurry that not much was said on the sentimental side and neither he nor Roy ever really knew how much one had meant to the other. Roy had passed away in the winter of 1982, not too long after Charles had left. He was 87 years old. Virginia then put the house up for sale to live in a resident care facility in Florence near the ocean. After speaking with a few of the neighbors, he found out where she was living and dropped in to visit. She wasn’t the same woman he’d known for all that time, but her spirits brightened upon seeing him again.
“There’s something I ought to tell you about Roy,” she said softly. “Please, sit down over here.” He said nothing, pulled a chair over to the side of the bed with a confused and worried look and waited for her reply. “Before Roy died he looked at me with a smile, told me not to be afraid and to give the box under the bed to you. I haven’t opened it yet and I was hoping that maybe you could explain it.” Charles got up and walked to the corner where she was looking, picked up an old shoe box and brought it back to the chair.
“I don’t know what to say, I mean, Roy never mentioned anything to me about it.” Charles replied. He took off the rubber band that held the cover on and opened it. Inside there was a note from Roy, his wristwatch, and five thousand dollars in cash. His eyes lit up with surprise as he read the note to himself.
“Time is on your side as long as you never stop. Thank you for helping me along the way. Always a friend somewhere, Roy.”
“I always knew that Roy was fond of you but my goodness, I never thought he’d give you his old watch.” Virginia spoke in the tone of voice that led him to believe that she didn’t fully understand. The gears were turning fast inside Charles’ head and it showed on his face. He grabbed the box back from her, paused for a second, then gave the old widow a kiss on the forehead and darted out the door. Just five minutes down the street he thumbed down a passing car on the way to Eugene and hopped in. The driver was a woman who looked to be in her middle thirties and as beautiful as the clear blue sky over their heads.
“You look like life has kicked you out on the street.” She said with a faint smile. “Do you have any place to go? I mean no offense, but you smell like you haven’t bathed in months.”
“No, I’m not exactly sure where I’m going but today is a particularly good day and it doesn’t really matter.”
“Well, I know this might sound a little “up front”, but if you’d like to clean up at my place you’re more than welcome. I live just outside of town, you know.”
“That sounds great ma’am, I sure appreciate your kindness.”
“Oh, by the way, my name is Melanie.”
“I’m sorry, I got so much on my mind that I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Charles. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” The two talked non-stop all the way to her house. He explained to her his situation with being homeless, about the army and about his stay with the Jensen’s. By the time they arrived at her driveway, the hour-long ride seemed to pass in ten minutes.
“There’s the bathroom and the towels are on the top shelf. If you need anything else don’t be afraid to ask.”
“Thank you, but that should do just fine. I sure appreciate it.” Thirty-five minutes later and no more hot water, he looked like a new man.
“It must be hard living that kind of life.” she said. “This is the first time that I’ve been totally on my own in my entire life. My father was a photographer and used to own the shop that I work at before he died, so things have always been kind of easy for me. I couldn’t imagine not having a roof over my head every night.”
“It sounds a lot worse than it is and I guess some days really are, but you deal with it one day at a time. I decided after the war was over that I didn’t want to have anything to do with the kind of world that could create such a thing, so I more or less chose this path. It’s kind of funny that way. Most of the time I’m happy and content knowing that every new day is my own and the only rules I have to follow are the ones that God sets for everything. Other days I pray for death to take me away from the pain of loneliness and hunger. So I guess I don’t see it to be much different in retrospect to a life of committing to the monotony and routine of unsatisfying jobs, taxes, and divorce. Either way, if you don’t know who you are, it’s hard to live a happy and full life.”
“Yeah…” she said while looking at the floor not knowing how else to reply. “Umm, hey listen, if you want to stay for dinner…I’m no chef but Terry used to tell me I made the best couscous casserole in the entire Northwest! Besides, your clothes are still in the dryer. Looks like you’re stuck here for a while anyway.” The corner of Charles’ mouth turned up in a relieved half-smile. He stood for a full five seconds in disbelief at the way things were turning out.
“Alright, you twisted my arm.” He said with the smile growing wider. “I mean, I’d love to.” So with that the two of them continued unfolding their lives to each other across the table and it became more and more evident that she didn’t want Charles to leave. He, however, picked up on her vibe and thought it wise to let a good night’s sleep help him make up his mind.
“Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate your hospitality, but I’d better get going. You don’t have to worry about me tonight,” he assured her, “there’s a cheap motel nearby and I, well, I’ll see you around.” He started walking away toward the road and stopped when he heard Melanie say his name.
“Hey Charles,” she called from the front step. With her elbows locked and hands in her pockets, she felt awkward and a bit nervous. “I never knew what you would look like, but always knew I’d know when I found you.” He froze in place on the sidewalk not fully believing what he had just heard. Staring at the ground, he smiled with the side of his face and turned around. They said goodbye and after the door closed she stood with her back against it as her smile slowly faded into a sigh.
Neither of them slept more than an hour that night. In that hour, Charles had a dream that seemed to span for years and woke up without a doubt in his mind that Melanie was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Within a week he was hired as her assistant at the photo lab and was sharing her address shortly after.
“You know I honestly never thought I’d ever go back to ‘normal’ living no matter what happened.” Charles told her while at work one day. “I mean, man! I’ve got a bank account and a real driver’s license, a full-time job and priorities; the whole bit. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express how thankful I am to you for all this, Mel.”
“You don’t have to,” she said. “I know you mean it even if it was never said again. I’m just glad that you showed up. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to run this place all by myself for much longer.” They both laughed at her obvious sarcasm. Amidst the laughter Charles thought to himself about the recent past. One of those split-second flashback thoughts where he realized that he’d been happy for long enough a time to forget completely about his troubled soul. As fast as he remembered it, he decided that it wasn’t worth thinking about for longer than a few seconds and it was gone. After they locked up and got in her car, Charles insisted that he take the wheel.
“I’ve got a surprise for you, but you’ve got to let me drive.” He said with as straight of a face as was possible at that moment.
“Alright, but just as long as you don’t blindfold me, I’ll get sick and ruin it.” She said, only half joking.
“No, that’s fine, I wouldn’t want you to miss the view.” he said with a grin as they pulled away. He made his way onto the highway and headed into the mountains. After about an hour he parked the car at a scenic area and they got out. “This is an old spot where my friends and I used to go to ahh…’hang out…’ when we were in high school. Just a short hike and we’ll be there.” he said as they began walking cautiously up the trail.
“God, it’s been too long since I’ve been to the Cascades. After Terry left me I haven’t felt like doing that much alone, plus with work and everything I’ve hardly been out of town in almost a year…hard to believe.” She explained while stopping to catch her breath.
“Come on, we’re almost there. You’ll have plenty of time to rest when we get to the top.” Charles took her hand and helped her up the hill. “Okay, now you have to close your eyes for a few minutes. Don’t worry, I got you.” He led her into a clearing and the sound of rushing water made it that much harder for her stay in blind suspense. “Alright, you can open your eyes now.” Charles moved his hands to her shoulders and the sight of the sunset over the falls brought a tear to her eyes within seconds. The view was spectacular.
“Melanie, I love you and I want to be with you until we’re both too old to make it back up here. Will you marry me?” After five seconds of hesitation, he became uneasy. And then she answered him.
“Yes! Of course! Charles, I’ve been in love with you since the first night you came to my house.” She looked at the ring and kissed him just as the sun dipped beneath the line of clouds bringing a beam of light to the top of the hill. No more words were said. The two of them just stared at the horizon as the sky turned from orange to purple then walked back to the car before it was too dark to see the trail.
They were married six months later at the same place and were seldom apart for the next three years. During that time they both continued working at the studio and living comfortably together in Eugene. Being comfortable, however, doesn’t always mean being happy. Monotony came silently as it usually does and created a space between them. As much as they loved each other, the exciting uniqueness of their partnership became another memory. It seemed that both of them knew there was something missing and yet neither could figure out how to solve the problem. She had never really been alone and he had hardly known the importance of communion and solid communication, especially for long enough of time to make the difference. And so they carried on like that, led by a hope somewhere that everything might change someday.
That day came one evening on a day that Charles had taken off of work to be alone in the mountains. Once he had some time to get his head cleared, he thought, it would be easier to return fresh and with a solution. It was a cloudy, misty forecast and late in the afternoon the mist turned to rain. After a long and peaceful day of thinking and hiking, he was startled by a sudden feeling of dread and decided to come down and drive back to the city. When pulling into the driveway of their house he noticed that Melanie’s car was gone. Normally she’d be home by now, being eight o’clock at night on a Thursday. The wave of dread intensified when he walked in the door toward the blinking light on the telephone. The police had called four times in the last hour. When it rang again he answered it and sunk to the floor as if in slow-motion. On her way home from work, Melanie was hit on the driver’s side by a truck running a stop sign. She died within minutes of the collision having suffered tremendous head injury.
Sometime in the early nineties, a few years after that tragic accident, Charles was sitting by a creek that ran under a small bridge out in the country and was daydreaming. After all those years, the strange gift he seemed to have possessed as a young man had subsided to nearly a mere fluke. It just didn’t matter as much anymore. The desire to find an answer and a purpose for his life led him along a path he had never expected twenty-five years earlier. After being homeless for so long, he had a house, a beautiful wife, a good job and enough money between the two of them to do almost anything he wanted to do. He was “free.” The only thing wrong with that kind of “freedom” is that it is in many ways a contradiction. For people like Charles, it was a trap. A trap that brought him up and let him down in the same place he began.
In the middle of his daydream, a young boy from a neighboring house was wandering around the fields and noticed him under the bridge. He scared him out of his trance and the boy asked him who he was.
“I’m Charles. What’s your name?”
“Alex.” the boy said, showing no signs of bashfulness. “What are you doing under here?”
“I’m just thinking about something very special that I used to have.”
“Like what?” Alex knew he shouldn’t talk to strangers, but could not hide his intrigue.
“Well, it’s hard to say exactly, but you know what, you look like the kind of kid who could put it to good use.” Charles told the boy while that same small grin appeared at the corner of his mouth. Alex’s young and somehow ancient eyes lit up with pure curiosity as he took a step closer.
“Please show me Mister, I promise to keep it a secret.”
“Okay, come over here and give me your hands.”