A Story of a Lost Friend

Photo by Jose Murillo on Unsplash

This is not a photo of Charlie. Sadly, I have no picture of him. This man is the closest I could come to Charlie’s look and essence. The man in this photo and Charlie look enough alike to be cousins. I should have taken at least one picture of Charlie, and regret I never did.

It was December 2010; an unusually cold December for North Central Florida. The leaves from the trees in our front yard were piled like disheveled papers on a desk. We didn’t own a rake, and the teenager who mowed our lawn would not be back until spring, so the leaves blew in the frosty air, scattering and heaping but never leaving.

Charlie came to us on a cloudy, frigid day — the kind of day that makes Floridians uneasy. We can handle tropical storms, even hurricanes, but those Yankee-ish winter days are like a coffin at a wedding — out-of-place, frightening, and damn annoying.

Charlie was a tall, thin African-American man. I imagine he was at least 6' 4". Lanky was a good description for him. His age was impossible to determine — maybe 35, maybe 55.

He appeared on a rusty, crooked bike while carrying an equally rusty rake with a broken handle. He circled his bike around the street in front of our house, then slid into the driveway, dropping the bike in the leaf-strewn grass beside my car.

He wore a gray knitted wool cap and a thin jacket — too thin for such a chilly day. His pants were short, stopping at least an inch above his ankles. Once-white athletic shoes, now scuffed black, with no shoelaces and a hole above the right toe, covered his size 13 feet.

I watched him from the living room window, wondering who he was and why he was in my yard. I’d never seen him before and was a little leery when he rang the doorbell.

I called to my husband, “There’s a man I’ve never seen before at the door.”

Moments later Ben was by the window, peeking at the stranger. I stood beside him as he opened the door. The tall man smiled, exposing a mouth with several missing teeth. “My name is Charlie,” he said with a slight lisp, nodding his head as he spoke. “I do work around here for folks. Wonderin’ if you could help me out. I’m kinda short on cash. Can I do some work for you? Looks like your yard needs rakin’,” he said imploringly.

My husband asked him a few questions about what kind of work he did and where. He motioned down the street and mentioned a couple of neighbors we didn’t know.

“I do’s lots of things,” Charlie said with enthusiasm. “I rake and clean. I wash cars. Just about anything you need. I work hard, too.”

My husband doesn’t handle the house maintenance. Not only does he not do it but he doesn’t arrange for it to be done either. He cooks and does that very well, and now that he is retired, he takes care of most of the housework and does the laundry. In his view, house maintenance and repairs fall under the category of paying bills, and that is my area of responsibility. But, in the case of Charlie, a stranger to us, he wanted to check him out first. You see, my husband has a gift for reading people. He can be in someone’s presence for a few minutes and know what kind of person he is.

After silently studying Charlie’s face, my husband asked him to excuse us for a moment and closed the door. “He’s a good man. He’ll work hard. Hire him if you want,” he said as he walked away, leaving the rest to me.

I hired Charlie that day. He raked leaves in the nippy air until he no longer needed his threadbare jacket, discarding it over the hood of my car. The leaves were in neat piles around the yard when he asked me for some lawn bags. He filled those and put them by the curb. By the time he finished, he was sweating. I gave him a glass of cold water and asked how much I owed him. “Whatever you think it’s worth,” was his answer. I gave him $30.

“Maybe you’ll have work for me again?” he asked hopefully.

I smiled, taking the empty glass from his hand, “I’m sure I will.”

So began my six-year relationship with Charlie.

Without discussion or agreement, Charlie began showing up at our house every two weeks. On occasion, he would call ahead, but mostly he just rode his rickety bike into our yard on a Saturday or Sunday morning. I almost always had work for him. If I preferred to plan ahead, he would show up on whatever day I needed him.

Charlie raked and trimmed bushes in between visits from our lawn guy; he washed and vacuumed my car; cleaned the carport, front porch, and Florida room; watered plants; moved furniture; replaced our A/C filter (his height was an asset for that particular job), and washed windows.

During those years, my daughter and grandchildren lived with us. When Charlie showed up for the first time on that winter day, my grandson was 3 years old and my granddaughter, one. Over the next six years, they grew up seeing Charlie nearly every other weekend. As he trimmed the bushes in front of our living room window, they talked to him through the pane, giggling at the funny faces he’d make at them. He was always kind and patient with the children, tolerating their endless questions, and allowing them to help when the work wasn’t too hard. Charlie spent an hour one Saturday morning, teaching my grandson how to properly wash and vacuum a car — a lesson my grandson hasn’t forgotten. Watching him with the children, I wondered if he was a father.

I was curious where Charlie lived, figuring he might be one of the many homeless that camped out in the downtown area a little more than a mile from our house, but I was reluctant to pry into his living arrangements.

On a Saturday morning about a year later, Charlie turned his bike into our driveway followed by a woman on a bicycle nearly as dilapidated as his.

“This is my wife, Sherry,” Charlie told me, as a petite white woman with sandy blonde hair and a “lazy” left eye walked up and shook my hand. She wore faded jean shorts and a holey t-shirt. Her skin was weathered and lined — more from a hard life than from age. She didn’t smile.

“I hope you don’t mind if I sometimes come to help Charlie,” she said cautiously.

Her demeanor was withdrawn, not shy but tentative, as though she expected me to send her away. “You are more than welcome to come with Charlie,” I replied. Sherry nodded her appreciation.

Sometimes Sherry came with Charlie, sometimes not. She was never as friendly and open as he was, but she worked steadily, always doing a good job.

Occasionally, I’d be driving down the four-lane street near our home and see Charlie and Sherry on their bikes pedaling down the sidewalk or crossing in front of traffic, ignoring blaring horns and raised voices. A few times, my husband came across them at a convenience store where he sometimes stopped. On hot days, he bought them bottles of water or soda.

A year after I met Sherry, she showed up alone. “Charlie’s in jail,” she said apologetically. I didn’t ask why but she volunteered, “Not paying child support. He’s got a couple of kids.”

I couldn’t fathom how Charlie supported himself, much less two children. And, I still suspected Charlie and Sherry might be homeless.

Sherry worked in his place for weeks. Because of her petite size, she couldn’t do all he did, but she did her best. I figured Sherry was saving up money to get him out of jail, so I always gave her a little extra. One day, when she seemed depressed, I asked if she was okay.

“It’s hard without Charlie,” she admitted sadly, “I miss him but the money thing is hard, too. He could do more work and make more money than me. Landlord’s been patient though. I give her what I can. I’m grateful to have a place to sleep.”

Well, at least I knew they had some sort of home somewhere.

It was nearly Christmas, and the air was chilly. Sherry wore her usual uniform of jeans and a t-shirt. I saw goose-bumps on her arms. Even though Sherry was much smaller than me, I gave her some clothes I’d set aside for Goodwill. She gladly accepted the sweaters and jackets I offered, slipping on a yellow pullover sweater that reached nearly to her knees.

By February, Charlie was back, grinning and laughing when he saw me. “Sorry I been gone,” he said, giving me an awkward hug. “Hope Sherry did right by you. I know there’s some things she can’t do so I wanna get everything caught up.”

I smiled happily and said, “Sure is good to have you back, Charlie. We missed you.”

In between his work sessions at my house, Charlie often showed up with some hard luck story, always in the evening, asking for an “advance.” His stories usually involved the death or illness of a relative. His father died at least three times during the six years of our relationship!

I was sure Charlie had a substance abuse problem, and from the noticeable signs, I expected he was an alcoholic. No matter what his addiction, he never came to my house drunk or high. The evenings Charlie came asking for an “advance,” his hands would be trembling, his eyes avoiding mine as though I would condemn him for whatever weakness stripped him of his dignity, allowing him to ask for unearned pay. I gave him money, not judgment. Who am I to judge another’s demons?

One time, tired of the charade, I told him, “Charlie, you don’t have to tell me stories. Just ask for what you need.”

But, the next time and every time after, he still came with shaking hands and another story of someone’s death or unexpected hospitalization in another town.

Once, his story was true.

He missed a weekend when I expected him to show up. That was odd, but it had happened a few times over the years. Usually, he’d call and explain why he didn’t come, but this time he didn’t. When he came by on a Thursday evening two weeks later, he looked haggard, and his already thin body was thinner.

“Charlie, what happened to you?” I exclaimed, “Are you okay?”

He rubbed a hand over his whisker-stubbled face. “It ain’t me,” he said slowly, “It’s Sherry. She had a stroke. Been in the hospital for three weeks. Sorry I couldn’t come. Couldn’t call either cause I lost my phone. Guess it fell out of my pocket when I was ridin’ my bike to the hospital. Went back lookin’ for it but it was dark. Never found it.”

I was shocked. I figured that Sherry was several years younger than Charlie, but strokes don’t respect age.

For the first time, Charlie worked with no enthusiasm. The day before, my husband grilled, so when Charlie left, I gave him a plate of meat with several slices of bread and some potato salad, along with his regular pay and an extra $80 to put toward a new phone. He was wiping away tears when he walked to his bike.

Sherry went from the hospital to a rehab center. It would be three months before Charlie told me she was home, but I never saw her again.

Charlie looked worse and worse each time he came. He deteriorated from thin to gaunt. He moved slower, tired quickly, and sometimes forgot what he was doing.

“I ain’t gettin’ much sleep,” he said with a sigh. “Can’t work much either. Always gotta be tendin’ to Sherry. She can’t get outta the bed. Has to wear those adult diapers. Heck, those things cost a fortune! I was workin’ just to pay for diapers then someone told me to go see this social worker that might help. Problem was the office was clear across town. Couldn’t ride my bike that far. Takes three buses to go there and back and I had to go a lot of times. Made me be gone from Sherry too long — almost four hours every time with the bus rides and time fillin’ out papers to get help. I’d get back to a horrible mess from leaving her alone for so long. The people in the social services office yelled at me for missing some appointments but there was days Sherry be too bad, and I couldn’t leave on time. You know, she’d mess the bed and all that, and I’d have to clean her and the bed up before I could leave, but it’d be too late to get all the buses to get to the office on time. You’d think these people would understand, but they don’t. Just last week, after more than four months, they approved money for me to help pay for the diapers and maybe get someone to sit with Sherry so I can work more.”

That was the most Charlie’d ever said to me at one time.

Sherry’s condition worsened though, and within three months, she had another stroke and was back in the hospital. After being released, she moved to a nursing home where her doctors expected she’d live the remainder of her life.

Charlie cried the day he told me about Sherry’s transfer to the nursing home. “The only one that would take her,” he said, reaching for the box of tissues I offered, “was a home way out in the southwest part of town, out pass the bus routes. I rode there this week on my bike, but I can’t do that much. It’s a long ways.”

I offered to give him rides to see her, but he politely refused. “You already do a lot to help me, and you got your hands full with your grandkids and the long hours you work. I’ll figure it out, or maybe it’s just time to say good-bye to Sherry. She don’t even know me most days.”

Whenever Charlie came, I paid him extra and told him to use it to go see Sherry. He never said if he did.

Charlie came less and less. At first, he offered excuses. Then, the excuses stopped. I no longer expected him and was just happy when he showed up — not so much for the work he would do but because I wanted to know he was still surviving.

His appearance worsened. He was nothing but bones held together by ragged clothes. I worried about him and told him so, but he shrugged off my concern without explanation, saying, “I’m fine. I’m fine. Gettin’ by. Gettin’ by”

When he did show up, he worked slowly, often stopping to rest in one of our lawn chairs. I gave him cold water and fruit, and sometimes packed food for him to take home.

In 2016, my daughter enrolled in a medical program at a local college. For one semester, she was going to school full-time and working full-time. She couldn’t do both without my help with the kids. It became my responsibility to deliver the children to school and pick them up most days, as well as take them to martial arts classes Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings.

For the first time, my grandson was struggling with his classes. Most evenings, we worked on homework together for two or three hours. He’d fall into bed at 11 pm, and I would not get to sleep until midnight or later, tossing and turning until the alarm rang at 6:15 am. All of this was in addition to the 50 to 60 hours a week I was working. In the middle of the semester, my husband had emergency surgery, staying hospitalized for three days. My life became a stress-ridden blur. All my focus was on my husband’s health, my grandchildren, their schoolwork, and my business, leaving me no time to notice Charlie’s absence.

Each year, after Thanksgiving, Charlie took our Christmas tree down from the high storage shelf that none of us could reach. It was right before Thanksgiving, as I was thinking about decorating for Christmas that I realized I hadn’t seen Charlie in a long time. I thought back to the last day I remembered him working. All I could recall was that it was some time in the summer — maybe July or early August. Charlie had been MIA for at least four months, and I hadn’t noticed!

Riddled with guilt for my oversight, I tried all the phone numbers he’d given me over the years. Someone answered each of my calls, but none of them was Charlie, and all claimed they didn’t know him.

A few times a week for several months, I rode around the area where I used to spot Charlie and Sherry on their bikes, always hoping to see Charlie pedaling his raggedy bicycle, but I never did. My husband inquired at the convenience store where he saw them several times. Only one person there remembered Charlie but hadn’t seen him in months and had no idea where to find him.

It saddened me to realize I did not know Charlie’s last name, although I doubt knowing his full name would have helped my search much. The Charlies of the world, those who barely get by from day to day, tend to stay hidden.

Seven months later, we moved from that neighborhood. Until our last day in our old home, I kept looking in vain for Charlie, always hoping to see him pedaling into our driveway. Once, my husband thought he found Charlie at the end of our street, but it was a different guy.

I guess we’ll never know what became of Charlie. He crosses my mind often. My grandchildren mention him from time to time, remembering how they worked with him gathering leaves and washing the car, how he joked with them, and the lessons they learned from him. After they talk about him, we all sigh and sit quietly for a moment, realizing that Charlie was more than just the guy who did odd jobs for us, he was a friend. I regret that we realized that fact too late.

I also regret not getting to know him better, not asking his last name, not taking a photo of him. Oh, how I would love to have a picture of Charlie and my grandchildren washing the car or working in the yard! I may not have known much about him, but I do know this:

Charlie was good, decent man, and we miss him.

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