Charlie Goes It Alone
Charlie does the cash check-out job in the local frozen food market. He wears a beige apron and lives a beige life. He activates the belt, floats the bar codes over the tabletop scanner. He likes to play a game of counting in his head, adding what the total will be, listening carefully so that every item is accompanied with its own individual beep, while keeping his eyes off the screen. He prefers when customers pay in cash because cash cannot go wrong. He works up a serious sweat when there is a line and the card machine gives him grief.
He hoped to be the meat slicer before he was hired. They told him he didn’t have the experience. He kept his mouth closed behind the resume held up between him and Mrs. Needlebaker. He wasn’t sure if she was reading the words or just holding the thing up. Would she find at the bottom the bit about chainsaws, his natural tendency towards cutting and slicing?
Charlie makes wooden elves with his saw. He tops off the instrument full of fuel, then he runs it until empty. A tank a session, as many elves as he can make. His elves are jagged things, definitely not gnomes, and nothing like the cookie making elves they sell in the store. His elves have knobs for tails, their clothing is the woodgrain that runs up their bodies. They are not smiling, dancing creatures, they are introspective, sometimes even worried looking.
When she handed back the paper and said, “cashier will suit you,” he knew she had not taken into consideration his saw work. Perhaps he did not explain it well on paper. He studied the resume as he walked out of the store that day and realized he had not explained it at all. Under other, he simply wrote, Little Wooden Elf series: continuous. He didn’t explain his technique at all. How would she have known he was so well prepared for the meat slicer? How would she know that after the saw there was much work to be done?
Once the jagged little blocks are carved he whittles them down to more refined shapes. Some have pear bodies, with wide bellies, some are thin and stretched tall. When an elf is complete he walks deep into the woods and hides it where he feels may be a natural setting for it to live, if they were to live. He will search for the cave like knot of a large tree, or the underside of a wide fallen branch. His elves look beautiful standing in rich, dark soil. Once they are in position he takes their photograph, then he leaves them out in the wilderness, hoping they’ll befriend a fox or hedgehog.
Today marks Charlie’s eleventeenth week as a cashier. He has looked at himself in the mirror every morning for six days, saying aloud, you will ask to become a slicer or you will hand in your apron. Charlie arrives at work, through the side door near the loading dock. Tubbs is there, and Maryanne, both penciling in squares on the calendar. Charlie’s apron is hanging by the other aprons, a row of beige fabric on a cream-colored wall. On the opposite wall are the red aprons, the aprons the butchers wear.
Charlie nods at the row of red aprons, balls his hands into fists and walks to the office of Mrs. Needlebaker. She is on the phone when he approaches the glass. She holds up one long finger, to signal him to wait. He is going to lose momentum. He is worried that just this pause will ruin the whole ordeal. He notices a man in the chair opposite Mrs. Needlebaker as she hangs up the phone. She says something and extends her hand to the man wearing a khaki jacket over khaki pants.
The door swings open and out steps this man, followed by Mrs. Needlebaker. “Oh Charlie,” she says, “meet our new butcher, Samuel.” Charle is bewildered. Who is this Samuel? He does not understand it. Charlie crumples the paper in his hand, with the words he’d been reciting all week printed over it. He pounces on Samuel, screaming, about how he was meant to slice the meat.
Mrs. Needlebaker shrieks. Charlie topples over the khaki clad new hire, both falling onto a row of plastic chairs that explode out from under them, scattering across the hallway. Samuel, overcome by the young man’s strength, flails beneath his weight for help, then he socks Charlie right in the nose, blood spattering over Samuel and his khaki jacket. Two cleaners in white aprons pull Charlie off the poor fellow. Charlie yells, “I am a wood carver, I am a cutter!”
It is nearly sunset when he arrives home after the confrontation. The golden light of the warm afternoon sun beams through his bedroom window. He rests his jacket on a knob behind the door, and throws away the paperwork he was given upon his exit. He thinks maybe he will carve through the night when he notices a strange pattern across his floor.
His bonsai tree is cast in the yellow light. Dust particles twinkle as they float, weightless. Charlie follows the trail of tiny markings along the way to his front door. They continue over the slate rocks on the path that leads to the forest. He crouches low to the floor to inspect the marks. They are foot prints. His little wooden elf is gone.
When he began making wooden elves, many years ago, before he was even sure what to call the things, he’d cut a log into a chunky shape. From the shape he carved out his first creature. It had the hair and the body parts of a man, but it was miniature in size, with a knob for a tail, and an expressive little face. He thought of this creature as a friend. He whittled it often back then, refining its shape, until it was clear that it was an elf.
Though he considered the work finished he often took the creature down to rub or polish an area of its body. He kept this elf high on a shelf in his bedroom, where it could watch over his space with a clean view of his bonsai tree. The miniature tree was given to him many elves after the first by a woman in a marketplace selling sculpting tools. She had inquired after the type of work Charlie would do with the items he was purchasing. He told her he made creatures that he placed in the forest. “Spirits,” Charlie remembers the woman saying. “You make spirits to look after the trees. Trees are spirits too.” She traced her fingers over the pattern of the small tree’s branches.
Charlie thinks a great deal about the footprints that lead out of his home. He takes a photograph before the sun sets to capture the pattern over the concrete squares of his floor. He looks at the empty space under the light that even this morning shined on his little wooden elf. Then Charlie remembers something else the woman who gave him the tree said. She looked out over the market, and pointed out towards the trees, and spoke.
“You will tend to them, and they will tend to you. But, like all spirits do, when the road curves, they will leave you. And you too, will leave them. This is not an abandonment. This is acceptance, a spirit’s way of acknowledging one’s capacity for growth. Alone, you must focus, you must listen to your own breath. Then you will know it is time to move on.”