Charles decided to change his life. This is not an uncommon thing after a divorce. If his wife could leave him and run off to Argentina with her lesbian friend, he could … what? Do something. Yes, do something and he would.
The list of complaints was legion. She was tired of picking up after him, tired of cooking for him, tired of dealing with one deficiency after another. They didn’t have anything in common anymore she said. He had his hobby, building model boats, planes, and cars. She said she had nothing. She was tired of men. So, she ran off.
Charles sold the house, took early retirement at the company (a pension they were lucky to have he reminded her) and they divided everything equally. And that was it. He was free and alone.
Charles decided to change his life but he hadn’t quite decided how. He had a few friends but none he’d consider running off to Argentina with or to any place else either.
He took an apartment on a month to month and for a few weeks he focused on his models. He had quite a collection, some rare and difficult to build. But, after awhile he got bored.
Charles started to venture out. He went to a few bars and restaurants. He went to a professional baseball game. He went to museums and even a rock concert. None of this did much for him but he did meet some people who became casual friends.
Charles decided to explore nature. He hiked all the trails around his neighborhood. He visited parks. He couldn’t venture too far because he was on a tight budget. He took an interest in the wildlife, in the flora and fauna, but he never really bonded with nature.
He decided to advertise for a roommate. He thought it would be fun to have someone to converse with. He had an extra room and the income would help with the rent. Maybe he wasn’t particular enough but it didn’t work out. He got tired of picking up after the roommate who turned out to be a slob. He got tired of cooking (the roommate could not be trusted in the kitchen) and they really had nothing in common. The roommate watched TV all the time. They couldn’t agree on what to watch. Charles didn’t really like TV. Too much noise. One day he unhooked the TV and sold it at a pawn shop. The roommate freaked out. He left without paying the rent and Charles found himself back where he started.
It became apparent to Charles that he was running out of money. He hadn’t planned his budget well. He was not a great planner. Everything was getting more expensive and his income wasn’t keeping up. He decided to go back to work. After a number of dead ends he found a job in a store that sold the kind of models he liked to build.
He turned out to be a good salesman. The boss liked him. People who wanted to build models but didn’t have the expertise started coming to the store to get his help. He was delighted to be of service. The store was not very profitable and the boss was happy with the extra business Charles brought in.
Things were going well but Charles felt that something was missing. He was lonely. Coincidentally about this time Charles ex-wife Brenda called him. She too was lonely and wanted to come back. She wanted a reconciliation. He told her no. He didn’t even have to think about it.
In spite of his firm no, Brenda showed up on his doorstep two days later. An argument ensued. Brenda felt Charles owed her a chance to atone after so many years of marriage but Charles was adamant that he was no longer interested in her under any circumstances. The argument became violent. Brenda hit Charles in the face. He lost control and hit her back. The blow was harder than he meant it to be. Her head slammed against the wall and she collapsed. He rushed her to the hospital but she was pronounced dead on arrival.
Charles was beside himself. The police arrested him. He was charged with voluntary manslaughter. At the trial Charles showed no emotion. He said he became enraged when Brenda hit him and reacted spontaneously. He said he meant no harm and that he swung without even thinking.
He was convicted and sentenced to five years.
The only visitor Charles had while he was in prison was his boss from the toy and model store. His boss told him he’d need somewhere to go and something to do when he was back on the outside. He convinced Charles to buy into the store. Charles still had his share of the money from the house sale so, after thinking it over for a few days, he agreed.
When Charles got out of prison 2 years early for good behavior, he found out the boss had cheated him. He had sold the store and disappeared.
Charles still had a small bank account where the pension checks had been deposited. Unfortunately his old employer went bankrupt while he was in prison and he did not receive the notice in time to do anything about it. He didn’t know if there were any government guarantees that applied to him. Charles was broke or nearly broke and now he was homeless.
Charles wandered around for awhile. With no money for a deposit or rent, he slept in parks or on the street. Occasionally he would dip into his dwindling funds to rent a room for a night but this was a luxury he was soon unable to afford.
He tried to get a job, any job, but no one was interested in a man whose only real skill was building models and who had been in prison for killing his wife even if it was by accident.
At first, he didn’t drink or use drugs but after a while hopelessness and despair pushed him over the line. He learned how to cope with his new life, how to panhandle, how to avoid run ins with the cops, how to raid dumpsters, how to use what facilities existed for folks like him.
He got used to the life but he never got used to the shame—to the parents who told their kids to stay away from from him, to the verbal and physical abuse from the bullies and the cops, to his feelings of inadequacy.
His health began to suffer. He lost the sharpness of mind he used to have. Sometimes at night tucked into his sleeping bag laid out over a piece of cardboard he cried himself to sleep. He had no reason to live but somehow he lived.
One day at the park he saw a young boy who watched the other boys play with their toy boats. The boy didn’t have a boat of his own. Charles took what little money he had and bought the supplies to make a good boat, a boat that would float on the pond, a boat with a little motor, controls and everything.
The next day the boy was back. Charles approached the boy to give him the boat he’d built but the boy’s parents rushed up and told Charles to stay away from their son. Charles put the boat down, turned and walked away. He walked out of the park and continued for a few blocks until he reached one of the spots where he would sit during the day with a sign asking for spare change. He sat down and put out his sign.
Most people ignored him. A few dropped a coin or two into his cup. One smart-ass stopped and looked him in the eye cold.
“Change comes from within,” the man said. Then he walked away without giving any thought to what he said, any thought to how it made Charles feel. But Charles thought about it.
The man was right, thought Charles, but it’s too late for me. I am who I am.
Charles felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around expecting a to see a cop. It wasn’t a cop. It was the boy and his father from the park.
“Did you build that boat, mister?” asked the boy.
“Yes,” said Charles.
“It’s a really good boat,” said the boy. Could you teach me how to do it?”
“I used to build boats, planes and cars too. But I can’t do it anymore,” said Charles.
“You build this one,” said the boy.
“Yes, I did,” said Charles. “I’m happy you like it. You go on along now with your dad. I’ve got work to do.”
Charles turned away and held his sign up and put out his cup. The boy’s father put in a twenty dollar bill then left with his son.
Note: This story was inspired by the very fine book Homeless: A Day in the Life by Todd Murphy