“They look like little dolls of yarn,” Paul said. We were gathered along the length of the office windows staring down at the man we named Charlie. “The arms are up in the air, angled out like a ‘Y,’” Paul explained. He’s observing Charlie through binoculars typically used for spotting great blue herons wading in the shallows of the river our office building looms above. But now our attention is reserved for the man spending each workday along the river’s edge. “He’s stitching something on the doll.” Once we learned what he was making, the speculation about Charlie only grew.
No one recalls the exact day Charlie showed up. Consensus puts it at the end of April. Our company had just returned, at least most of it, from quarantine. There weren’t as many of us as before. The building, a five-story graphite-tinted cube of nondescript corporate banality, holds a few other companies that haven’t returned at all. We’re on the top floor facing the river. The view of the water twisting into distant trees, fleeing the businesses and thrumming freeway, is an escape from the antiseptic commercialism of our office park. This year’s osprey nestlings squealing for food downstream a few hundred yards proves life’s persistence in this strange time of upheavals.
Our curious interloper Charlie arrives shortly after us each morning equipped with a backpack and a black bucket carried by a handle. He hasn’t missed a day all summer. He follows the path behind the building, negotiates the rocks, and perches along the water. On hot days he sheds his worn boots, peels off his socks, and allows the flowing water to massage his feet. They must be tired feet because wherever he’s coming from must be far. He looks harmless, but who knows? We watch him make dolls while we work behind the smoky glass. He’s become another co-worker.
Instead of speaking to him, we invented histories for Charlie like we invented his name. Maybe the pandemic stole his job. Or he’s on the run from his family. Perhaps he’s a spy and really we are the ones under surveillance. Could be Charlie’s a famous artist and the dolls will feature in some installation none of us non-patrons of the arts will ever hear about. Or he’s an eccentric billionaire waiting for someone to show him kindness before showering that good Samaritan with millions. If we knew Charlie was a war vet and this project of his by the river brings him peace, would we speak to him? The fear is that he’s homeless. This discovery would ruin our fun.
We didn’t see Charlie arrive on the September day that proved to be his last among us. There was a pleasant chill to start what would become a hot summer day, perhaps the final one of the year. Fresh dew sparkled on the small patch of grass at the building’s entrance and the blue above was unending. The first of Charlie’s dolls fell past my window moments after I sat down. It was 8:46. I glanced at the calendar. The mystery of Charlie’s dolls disappeared when the next one drifted down. And then another. The dolls kept tumbling, arms above their heads, twisting and turning, over and over. We watched and remembered. The dolls kept falling. They landed in the water and floated away. We climbed the back staircase to find the roof door propped open. Charlie stood at the edge, his black bucket at his feet.
Charlie, a stranger, our entertainment for months, a person we didn’t care to meet, reached into the bucket and gently removed a doll. He read the stitched name aloud, then cast it out into space to free-fall to the river below, to be found somewhere by someone, or nowhere by no one.
I’ve seen figures falling like Charlie’s dolls before, serenely acrobatic, against the backdrop of steel and glass and the most hateful smoke. Over and over, the small figures fell on my television, each one tumbling into oblivion. That Tuesday morning began with the same infinite blue sky, all the more sinister in hindsight. A day like this one, proof anything can happen.
It takes quite a while to cast two-thousand nine-hundred seventy-seven small dolls of yarn from the roof of an office building. His memorial completed, Charlie picked up his bucket and walked past us, down the steps, and away to wherever it is a guy like Charlie goes next.
Bill Wilkinson writes fiction from his home in Meadville, Pennsylvania, USA.