let’s do some word association, shall we?
what words pop into your mind when you hear ‘ryan’? if you said sophisticated, upper class city magazine, then you would have been the literally only person in this world to make that connection.
well, that connection, in fact, has been made. several months ago, i was approached by the fine people at little rock soirée about writing a piece called a day in little rock that is written each month by a local author. after i got done writing my pieces for vanity fair, the new yorker and esquire and after they lavished me with embrassingly extravagant gifts, i finally said yes. actually, this piece is typically written by fairly well-accomplished and multi-published authors, so i was flattered to be asked.
so, i immediately knew the story i could tell and the following piece was birthed.
hope you enjoy.
The city is full of strangers. Well, maybe not strangers, but people waiting to cross paths. To engage. To enter the other.
So it was with Charlie. A Jesus-like figure. Not the triumphant Jesus, but the frail, broken Jesus. Scruff beard, gaunt, but with a focused look about him—like a man on a mission.
Beyond the occasional sputtering car or the screechy pack of girls chasing the lone neighborhood boy, our little midtown community was still, waiting for its break from normalcy. From my front porch, I observed this strange figure, this break from normalcy, who—sweeping his wiry broom through the nearly-clean sidewalk in front of our home—looked like the type my wife warned about: “You keep talking to people like that and I’m gonna find you dead one day.”
Like a low man’s scepter, he hoisted his broom in the air pointing toward our house, “It’s Charlie. Like the Peanuts kid. I used to jam here.”
“The name’s Charlie. Yeah, this house, you live there? (Never ceasing for a response.) We used to sit up ‘til we couldn’t sit up no more, just jammin’. There’s soul in them walls. And probably a couple tears. And maybe a couple spilled beers,” he concluded.
I baited his most-assuredly tall tale, sure to only grow taller.
“Sounds like quite the time you had. Did you used to live here?”
“No, no, no. I ain’t got no place. Not since the band broke up down in New Orleans. Nah, I used to come jam here. Hell, we coulda been somethin’, but we just liked to jam and have a couple of beers. Phil played the guitar, and I played that old piano he had. Phil’s brother, Mark, would slap his leg or beat on whatever the hell we had layin’ around just so we had somethin’ to keep the beat. I ain’t never stepped back in that house since maybe ‘88. I’ll tell you, that old piano could play, and I knew how to play it. I ain’t never forgot that old thing.”
Little did my new friend know, but that old, dusty piano of Phil’s still sat in our living room, just waiting to be reunited with its supposed long-lost homeless messiah named Charlie. So, I couldn’t help but to—like Satan testing Jesus in the wilderness—invite him in so I could shake the proverbial finger, showing Charlie just how tangled his tale was woven.
Abandoning his dutiful quest on the sidewalk, Charlie skipped behind me, up the steps and through the doors. We rounded the corner and faced the piano. I turned, “Here she is. Is this what you remember?”
In that moment, Charlie changed from a dirtied storyteller into a beaming prodigal, newly reunited with his father. Without saying a word, the worldly Jesus-man opened the hinged piano cover and began to play.
With tears in his eyes, his broken and calloused fingers glided over the keys, playing the most sweet and palpable bluesy riffs, as if Ray Charles himself had inhabited the diminutive body and hands of this new friend.
That day, in my own home, I was the stranger, quietly observing two old friends renewing their bond.
I simply sat. And listened. And believed.
Charlie was a stranger, in a city full of strangers. On that day, though, Charlie and I crossed paths. Jesus-like. Not the broken, frail Jesus, but the triumphant Jesus. Like a man on a mission.