Josh Ransom sat on a bright-yellow chair in Philadelphia's Dilworth Park, surrounded by sounds of the season: the burble of shoppers hunting bargains at the holiday market, the squeals of children skipping about the winter garden maze, and the blaring pop tunes that pushed skaters around the rink at the park's north end.
He paid those no mind, his attention fixed on a doorway 50 yards away across 15th Street: the entrance to his former workplace.
He stared at a spot just to the right of the revolving doors, trying to will a particular person into coming around the corner of the building and plopping down on that spot.
Josh knew this man's face and usual garb, but not his name, let alone any details of his life journey.
"Charlie Parker" was what Josh nicknamed the man he sought. Three weeks ago, Josh was fired from a job he loved, a job he'd done for three years inside that building - and Charlie Parker had foretold the falling ax.
"Presume not," the grizzled vagrant on the sidewalk had told Josh out of the blue. "The sword swings where it will, and no armor will avail."
Later that day, Josh learned firsthand about the swinging sword of the cost-cutter and the vanished armor of a promise denied.
Amid the shame, grief, and indignation of being fired, the mystery had become an obsession:
Why had the homeless man said those words as Josh had sauntered up, happy and heedless, that ill-fated day?
How had he known? What did it mean that he knew?
If he could only find Charlie Parker, the mystery of his firing would unfold into a meaning he could grasp. And then he could begin to move on.
So, just a few ticks of the calendar short of Christmas, for a fifth straight day, Josh was devoting his morning to this compulsive search, hours he could otherwise have spent seeking a job, finding presents for his family, reading Tolstoy, whatever.
He'd set up shop on the yellow chair at 8:30 a.m., fresh off the train from Mount Airy. He calculated, on mere instinct, that his vigil in this spot could safely end each day at 10.
When 10 came and went, no Charlie in sight, Josh set out roaming Center City, looking for Charlie amid sidewalks crowded with shoppers tugging bags of gifts, red-cheeked cops brooding over the Eagles' latest loss, and barkers hawking rides on double-decker tour buses.
He never had to go far to come across a new homeless person - curled on a steam grate, propped wearily against a wall, begging for change at a busy corner. Each time, he looked the person in the face, hunting for Charlie's angular features in vain.
"Spare a dollar at the holidays, sir, to feed a hungry soul?"
"Uh, what, uh, yeah . . ." Stunned to be addressed by a man he'd been staring at for the last five seconds, Josh fumbled in his parka and gave him a dollar. A part of his brain urged: Ask if he knows Charlie Parker. Then the logical remnant of his mind volleyed back, annoyed: Ask him what? That's not your man's real name.
This back and forth between Street Josh (the one compulsively roaming Center City) and Steady Josh (the one who would soon take the train back home, to fold laundry and help the kids with homework) had become a staple of his days. Steady Josh sometimes felt as though he were perched in a theater balcony, chewing his lip as he watched another side of himself thrash about the stage in the grip of a stubborn mania.
Am I crazy? Is this what crazy people do, watch themselves do crazy things as though they were the most logical, necessary activities in the world?
Up in the balcony, Steady Josh knew that Charlie Parker's words had not been a coded missive from the universe, that finding him would solve nothing.
But Street Josh couldn't drop the hope that salvation lay somewhere in the rheumy eyes and parched lips of a bony, bent old man clad in threadbare herringbone tweed.
After two hours of wandering, Steady Josh had an announcement to make to the rest of him:
"It's getting freaking cold out here; let's stop in that coffee bar for a latte."
Stirring some Splenda into the brew, Steady Josh debated his loopier half.
OK, so maybe Charlie Parker is the key, but not in the way you think. It's not who he is or what he knows, but how you treated him. Ever think of that? That maybe you're being punished for a reason?
Josh had been raised Catholic, trained by Jesuits at Georgetown. He'd fled the church of his birth in his 20s, settling comfortably, but with no real commitment, into Christie's Lutheran tradition.
But raised Catholic, some things stick. Like the idea that everything counts, every word, every deed, every eye roll, snide remark, or unreturned email, every kind gesture or stretch donation to a good cause, all of it, every last stinking moment of a life, gets toted up on that big board in the sky. It gets etched into your permanent record, with final grades issued at the apocalypse.
And, Steady Josh argued grimly, your performance with Charlie Parker sure didn't put any bonus points on the board. To begin with, "Charlie Parker"? You never bothered to ask the man his name? And, you dummy, you vacillated by daily whim whether to acknowledge the guy as a human being, a fellow journeying soul. One day, you're all, "Look at me, I'm relating to the homeless guy." Then, next day, "Don't look at me, I'm so important and busy."
Maybe you deserved to get fired, you arrogant, preening jerk.
Josh took a sip of latte, noticed that Street Josh had fallen silent. Enjoying the quiet, he pondered a conundrum he'd never really solved despite years of reporting stories about homelessness.
What should I have done? What should I be doing right now for those poor souls I've been staring as though they were roadside attractions? Give them money? But what if that's naïve, if it just feeds their bad habits, or sets them up to be robbed? But just walking by, as though they're invisible, that can't be right either.
Suddenly, it dawned on him.
You doofus, you've been on the wrong Christmas quest. Your job isn't to find that one Charlie Parker. It's to figure out how to treat all the Charlie Parkers you've seen on the streets of Philly these last few days. Somehow, some way, that's going to tell you what to do next with your life.
Josh took out his iPhone, went to Contacts, swiped and pressed.
A voice answered: "Hello, Peter's House."
"Hi, Sister Martha, please. Tell her Josh Ransom is on the line."