Rags was the town outcast, yet he held a secret no one knew.
Charlie wasn't much to look at, in fact most people didn’t look at him at all. He was one of those people that are always around, yet always ignored. No one really knew Charlie’s age, not even Charlie. Still, there was something about the man that caused people to care about him. It may have been his cheerful greeting to everyone, accented by his broad smile of discolored, missing, and broken teeth. Perhaps it was his demeanor, or his non-judging attitude. Certainly it was not the way he dressed, for he wore clothes that were either found in trash bins or given to him. It could not have been his hygiene for Charlie often went several days without bathing, and usually had a distinct smell of fish and other odors about him, . Yet there was something about him that caused people to be interested in his well being.
He loved to talk about fishing, and his brother's great wealth. Given the opportunity Charlie would talk endlessly about his brother and his father's great riches, explaining to anyone who would listen that his brother would be coming for him soon. Charlie joyfully invited those who would listen to be ready to go with him when his brother came, assuring them all would be welcome. At one time an attorney had attempted to find the brother, or father Charlie talked so much about, only to discover he had no family. He had been an only child, his mother and father were dead, there were no relatives to be found. No one would ever come for Charlie.
Rumor had it that Charlie had been too near an exploding shell in the Korean Conflict and it had affected his mental capacities. The rumor was reinforced by his tireless praise of his non-existent brother and his father's wealth. However, he was considered harmless and a part of the local color of our little town. In 1960 people like Charlie were tagged with nicknames and Charlie’s was “Rags.” He was an icon I suppose, at least for our little place in the world, the symbol of what we did not want to become. Everyone had their own way of looking out for Rags, and no one would consider, or tolerate, physical harm to him.
It was not readily admitted, but I believe everyone loved Charlie, taking care that he never lacked for cigarettes, food, or other necessities. People had a way of inconspicuously dropping money or cigarettes into Charlie’s pocket when they thought no one was looking. Restaurant owners often allowed Charlie to eat in a back room or occasionally at the counter and `forget' to charge him, at times reminding him he had forgotten his change as a pretense for giving him money. Charlie, had nothing of value, unless one counted the “bait” box he always carried. That box was the most prized possession Rags owned, and he rarely allowed it out of his hands. Even the teenagers liked Charlie, and when we called him “Rags” it was usually when he could not hear us. The few times we slipped up, he just gave us his ragged smile and went cheerfully on his way, telling us his rags would be gone when his brother came for him.
Charlie had no job that anyone was aware of, he existed on a small medical pension he received from the Army, supplemented by the fish he caught and sold. The fish purchased from Charlie were usually thrown out, it was just another way of taking care of Rags. Perhaps we felt guilty, perhaps we felt we owed him something, or maybe we just didn’t want to admit our own lack of real compassion. Most of us, including our local church leaders, were ashamed to be seen fraternizing with Charlie.
Teenagers can often be very courageous when two or more are together, such was the case the day a group of us went to visit “Rags” at his house. Thinking back, I really don’t know why I went, I'm not sure any of us knew. Perhaps we were trying to be adventurous, or possibly it was just teenage curiosity. We found him there in his one room shanty, located on the banks of the small creek that ran through the edge of town, and like everything else about “Rags”, it smelled of fish. When he saw us, “Rags” invited us in, his face displaying his surprise and pleasure at having visitors. Not daring to show our reluctance, or how scared we really were, we went inside. He had only a small stove, a cot, a table and one chair. An old kerosene lamp sat on the table and a few clothes were hung neatly on pegs along the wall, the floor was also neatly swept. The neatness caught us by surprise because Charlie was always in rags giving no hint of neatness.
As we talked with him, Charlie offered to share his evening meal with us, but explained that he could only feed one of us at a time for he only had one plate, one cup, one knife and one fork. Needless to say, none of us were hungry enough to eat with “Rags”, and we declined. Then “Rags” began to talk, almost unintelligibly at times, still we listened as he told us of his life and how he loved to fish, and how he fished every day. He told us his best fishing was done when he was uptown bumming cigarettes from people. Then, giving each other a knowing glance, we urged him on. We had gotten past most of our nervousness, and we were about to get an earful of Charlie’s stories.
"I thinks `bout gittin' washer," he told us. "but hain't got no `lectricy. Ain't gittin' none, so I warsh in da creek. I thinks `bout new clothes, don' matter cuz nobody here keers `bout ol' Rags. I got dis brother, he keers `bout ol' Rags. He gonna kum git me one- a ‘ese days. Told me to fish `til he kum, he did. I fishes, don' ketch much, I keeps on fishin'. Take bath in crick, put ol' clothes on smell bad. Warsh clothes in crick, smell like crick, Rags smell like crick. Maybe ketch more fish if I smelled better. I likes to fish onna square, but man chase me off. Good fishin' place. Hain't got much, but I kin fish."
Holding back our laughter we urged him on, asking him to tell us more about his non-existent brother. As for fishing on the public square, there was no water within a mile of the downtown area, not even a pool. “Rags” was off into his own little world of fantasy, fueled by our pretended interest. He smiled his ragged smile, and his face lit up as he told us of his father and all the riches he had, assuring us again that his brother would be coming for him very soon. He told us of the wonderful things his father would give him when his brother came to get him. He added that his brother would also welcome us if we wanted to come with him, saying his father loved us too.
We listened until we could no longer restrain ourselves and we laughed out loud. Not stifled laughter, but uncontrolled laughter that could not be contained. We gained control of ourselves in time to see “Rags” tucking his small "bait box" under his arm and pulling on his old battered hat.
"I go fishin' now." he said simply and walked out never once looking back.
We were abashed. Charlie, “Rags”, had shared his home, humble as it was, shared his heart with us, and we laughed at him. The guilt, however, was only a short lived moment in our lives, for we were young and there were more important things to do than to be concerned about “Rags”. We had a good laugh at his expense, we had gone where most had feared to go, and we had new stories to tell our friends about Charlie.
The passing days soon turned into weeks, then months and all too soon the summer turned into fall then fall into winter, which promised to be a hard one.
That Christmas, some of the people in our little town got together and donated enough coal for `Rags' to heat his little shanty during the winter. Perhaps it made them feel better, or they thought it a good way to take care of him. I think it most thought it would keep him in his shanty for he had become more and more of a pest with his stories of his brother and his father. People just wanted a rest from Charlie and his constant talk of his brother’s return. He became more adamant about fishing, but no one could remember seeing him with a fishing pole.
People began leaving a bag or two of groceries at his door once a week. Always being sure to top them off with two cartons of cigarettes to support his habit. Once more attempting to ease their conscience and to keep him at home for a while. It must have worked, because no one saw “Rags” for two or three weeks, except for a few reports that he was often seen out late at night. Even then no one paid much attention, for it was assumed he was stealing coal. This thought was supported by the fact that his coal pile was growing smaller every day. The townspeople attributed this to poor handling of resources on his part, or that someone was taking the coal as a prank. No one really worried about him, it was only “Rags”, and if it were a prank, the coal would be returned as it was needed.
Then in the last week of January, something odd happened, “Rags” showed up at the bank and asked to see the president. Most were surprised by how quickly the banker complied, believing he was only trying to get “Rags” out of sight. It was only after “Rags” died that what he did at the bank was revealed. It was written in a journal, no one knew Charlie kept, I think most of us thought he was completely illiterate.
Those who saw him that day said he was not very talkative, the only thing they remember him saying was that his fishing days were over, and his brother would be coming for him very soon.
That night the temperature dipped to ten degrees below zero, which was unusual for our part of the country. It was also the night “Rags” died. He was found two days later. Sitting at his table in the only chair he owned, with his left hand wrapped around a tin cup filled with frozen coffee. His “bait box” sat open before him with its contents placed on the table. There was one worn and tattered book, a small notebook, and the stub of a pencil. The pencil lay where it had fallen from his frozen fingers as “Rags” had made one last entry into his journal.
"Widder Reynolds, she got hard times," he wrote. " She got them three yunguns, nuthin to et an she need hep. Tol da banker feller today to take my money to her so she kin feed them yunguns'. Took last of coal to her place tonight, so they be warm. I set drinkin muh coffee cold, nuthin to heat it wiff. I think my brother be kumin fer me this night. I go home to see father. I bin readin whut he said and I think he kum fer me real soon. That be him at de door? I tired now, I ...." The words stopped there, but the book lay open in from of him with the promise Charlie spoke of underlined and the page worn thin from the many times the finger of a man called “Rags” had traced the words. It brought a whole new meaning to his talk of fishing and of his brother. Truly his brother had come for him. The book lay there as silent testimony to his brother's promise and wealth.
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my father's house there are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going." (John 14:1-4).
“Rags”, Charlie, was right about his Brother and Father, The Son and the Father will welcome us all. As I have recalled this story, I am getting the strongest desire to go fishing. How about you?