Rants & Essays

Flowers for Charlie

By Jean M. Hendrickson

We were a disparate crowd who took the bus each day that summer 33 years ago in El Paso, Texas. Half-awake for the early morning commute, we hunkered down inside our collars, a somber, uncommunative bunch.

Among us was a little gray slip of a man who rode every day to the senior center. Stooped and sad, he climbed the bus steps with difficulty and sat alone behind the driver. No one took much notice of him.

Then one morning in July, he greeted the driver and smiled nearsightedly toward the back of the bus before taking his seat. The driver responded with a noncommittal nod. The rest of us stayed quiet.

The next day the old man entered the bus with a bounce in his step. He smiled and called out, "And a beautiful morning to all of you!" Startled, a few of us looked and grumbled "Good morning."

The following weeks found us more alert. Our friend took to wearing a vintage suit and a wide, outdated tie. His sparse hair was carefully combed. He greeted us cheerfully each day, and we started nodding and speaking to one another as well.

One morning he carried a bunch of wildflowers, already wilting from the hot sun. The driver smiled and said, "Got yourself a girlfriend, Charlie?" Whether "Charlie" was his name or not we never knew, but he nodded shyly and said yes.

The other riders, mostly crusty construction types, whistled and clapped. Charlie bowed, dipping his bouquet with a little flourish, and took his seat.

Each morning thereafter, Charlie carried a flower. Some of the regulars began bringing blossoms to add to his bouquet, shoving them at him with an affectionate, yet embarrassed, "Here." Everyone smiled. The men started talking and joking, sharing sections of the newspaper.

Summer wore on toward fall. Then one morning Charlie was not at his usual stop. When he was not there a second and a third day, we speculated that he was sick or, more hopefully, that he was on vacation.

That Friday as we approached the senior center, one of the regulars told the driver to wait. We all held our breath as he went to the door.

Yes, they said, they knew the man he was talking about. Mr. Day, for that was his name, was fine, but had not come to the center that week. A special friend of his had died over the weekend. He was expected to return on Monday. How quiet we were during that ride to work.

Monday, our Charlie was waiting at his stop, a little more stooped, a little grayer and without his tie. He seemed to have shrunk back into himself. The bus was silent as a cathedral. Though no one discussed it, each of us tough construction workers whose lives he had touched that summer sat teary-eyed, holding a bouquet of wildflowers.