A Happy, Holiday, Happenstance
By Tom Gnagey © 2013
“Leave me alone, old man.”
“You’re shivering, kid.”
“So? Ain’t you ever shivered in a snow storm?”
The old man ignored the question, which had clearly been framed by the twelve-year-old ragamuffin to get the stranger out of his hair.
“You live here in this alley, kid?”
“You put your nose into everybody’s business or just kids who ain’t hurtin’ nobody?”
“I’m not your enemy, you know?”
“And how am I supposed to know that, old man?”
The old man grew silent sensing both the wisdom and sadness in the kid’s question. He looked away, surveying the alley in which they found themselves – the boy sitting, back against a dumpster and the man hovering above him. The rear of two dozen, old, six-story, brick buildings squared off against each other across the ancient, cobblestone pavement as if in an, as yet to be resolved, century old standoff. They were, begrudgingly, it seemed, adorned with rusting fire escapes looking somehow ashamed of themselves and the disagreeable scene over which they presided – scattered trash, rats, puddles. Most of the old, grime-covered, long-bare, wood-frame windows had never experienced a direct ray of sunshine – narrow and tall as the alley was. It was nearly dark in there that day as late afternoon approached.
The old man arranged the collar of his long, dark coat tightly around his neck and took a seat, sliding his back down the dumpster which, sometime before, had become the kid’s backrest. The man opened the tattered suitcase he had been carrying and removed a dark blue, knee length, kid-sized, wool coat – probably a bit large for that winter but perhaps a good fit for the next. He laid it across the boy’s extended legs and closed the suitcase, setting it aside. The kid’s jeans were ripped and soiled and damp from the filthy, clammy surroundings.
“You some kind of do-gooder?” the kid asked, inching away slightly and giving the old man’s face a prolonged once-over for the first time. He pushed the bill of his ball cap back to allow an unimpeded view.
“I just pick stuff up sometimes and spread it around, but would it matter if I was – a do-gooder?”
The kid moved his legs as if the unexpected question had made him uncomfortable. He shrugged his scrawny, narrow shoulders, covered as they were by a flimsy, tan, fall jacket, its collar buttoned tightly across his chin and pulled high against the back of his neck.
“I suppose you’d help out somebody who seemed to be in need if you could, right, kid?”
There was another quick glance over at the old man. The boy’s almost nod and rippled shoulder suggested something akin to confirmation. For whatever reason, it seemed to give him leave to slip into the heavy garment. He quickly arranged it beneath him and buttoned it top to bottom. He managed another nod. It meant, ‘thank you,’ words for some reason the kid couldn’t or wouldn’t bring himself to say. Perhaps he sensed such a response might make him uncomfortably beholding to the stranger. Who knew what a street kid might have experienced.
“So, back to my original question – you live here in this back street?”
“If you gotta ask, you’re dumber than most old men I’ve met.”
The old man tempered a smile. The lad had an intelligent way about him – evasive and cautious, but intelligent. Maybe street smarts. Maybe something more.
“A point well taken. Sorry. I didn’t mean my question as any sort of put down.”
There was a third glance – that time more studied and held for several moments as his eyes darted from chin to cheeks to nose to eyes and back again. The kid was thinking, but nothing graced his tongue to proclaim it publicly. The old man was patient. He reached into his coat pocket and removed a small, oval parcel wrapped in foil. He sat it in his lap but said nothing. Clearly, it had caught the kid’s attention and moved him to comment without his usual, thoughtful, caution.
“Smells like chicken – KFC maybe – from up on Jackson.”
It had been an educated statement more than a question or guess.
“Good nose,” the old man said reaching down and pealing back the covering.
He slid his hands under the foil and lifted it in the kid’s direction.
“I share – if that’s not a put down or meddling.”
There may have been the slightest break of a quick smile along one side of the kid’s mouth. He reached out and took the wing.
The old man acted uncomfortable, keeping his hands in place.
“Wings are my favorite. Would you mind taking the breast instead?”
The exchange was made, although the boy looked puzzled.
“I don’t get you, old man.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nobody in God’s whole universe prefers wings to breasts.”
It was the old man’s turn to shrug and ignore the comment. The kid thought he might have caught a brief twinkle in his eyes and allowed a legitimate smile about it – if only for a few seconds. Halfway through the still warm, still juicy, piece of extra crispy, the kid proffered a question.
“So, you live on the street, Old Man?”
The kid had skillfully turned the tables, and his smirk suggested he knew it.
“Touché!” the old man offered. “You know the term – touché.”
“Just ‘cause I’m sittin’ in a alley shiverin’ don’t mean I’m stupid, old man.”
“It seems I am unable to say anything that meets with your approval, young man. Let me try again. What if I was living on the street?”
“I might know a place – a shelter that just had a opening – a druggie died in his sleep last night.”
“Oh, my! How terrible. I’m sorry.”
“No need to tell me you’re sorry. I didn’t know the guy. Just tellin’ you what’s what. I know how hard it is to get into a place outta the cold come winter.”
“I wouldn’t feel right taking the place if you need it.”
“Who said I need it? Anyway, a kid showin’ up askin’ for it would just stir up a whole hive of Social Welfare workers swarmin’ all over him. No thanks to that!”
“I might be interested, then. Who runs the place?”
“Persnickety, are you?”
“Persnickety? That’s a word out of my generation.
“I know other old men. But, to answer your question, it’s run by Reverend Jimmy – in his thirties – from the church on Fifteenth and Adams.”
“Unitarian, I believe.”
“You know stuff.”
“I certainly hope so. I’ve been walking this earth for seventy years.”
“It wasn’t meant to be a put down – as somebody I recently met might say.”
That time the smile was clearly directed into the old man’s face. It was returned in kind.
“So, you want me to introduce you. I’ll vouch for you. You seem to be harmless and I see no evidence of drugs or booze – eyes clear and breath fresh. The city’s coming into a real cold spell during the next few weeks. Saw it on the weather channel – in the window at the TV repair shop down on Fifteenth.”
“Your ‘vouch’ carries weight there, does it?”
The kid rolled his eyes at the old man as if to say, ‘Here we go again. Do you also carry seventy years’ worth of dumb questions with you?’
Words were not working very well for the old man, so he struggled to his feet and gave the kid a hand up. He noticed he had no supplies – not even a gunny sack. He had it stashed some place safe, no doubt. He was clearly a savvy youngster.
They were soon headed down Adams while the boy finished his chicken. The old man had known lots of boys that age, and nary a one of them had ever been unwilling to eat. The shelter occupied an abandoned store front. The hand painted sign over the door read, ‘Happiness Lives Within’. The kid took note that the old man nodded his approval upon reading it.
Inside the entry hall:
“Reverend Jimmy. This is my new friend. Goes by O. M.”
The old gentleman was at a loss for only a moment – O. M. for Old Man. It brought a smile and he placed his hand on the kid’s shoulder.
“O. M.’s a good guy. If you got work, he could sure use it. He’ll do right by you – no drugs, no booze, and a generous outlook on life.”
A look passed between the two men, sealed by a mutual nod.
Reverend Jimmy offered his hand. The old man gladly accepted it.
“We actually have an open bed as of a few hours ago. No waiting list here – strictly first come, first served. If the kid vouches for you, you’re in. Follow the rules for a week and I think there may be a job if you’re interested.”
During their conversation, the boy had slipped away. Upon realizing it, the old man lowered his voice, bent close to Reverend Jimmy, and confessed his story.
“In reality, I was out and about this evening looking for a lad in need of food, supplies and shelter. I’m a retired social worker – a beast the boy seems to believe he has reason to fear and hate. I was hoping by accompanying him here, I could arrange a place for him. Is that a possibility?”
As he finished his say, he looked up and down the long entryway, clearly wondering what had happened to the boy. Reverend Jimmy noted his puzzlement and offered an extended chuckle. The old man met chuckle with a cocked head and heavy brow.
“Had you not been playing a part, O M, this would have been a fortunate evening in your life. The kid – officially, Jeffery Allen Wentworth the fourth – is always very careful about who he selects to bring us. You must have demonstrated some clearly sincere and compassionate gesture toward him. That’s how he works. Been doing it every week since his runaway, older brother died alone in an alley about six months ago. Several dozen have passed through our door due to the boy’s efforts – usually decades your junior, you will understand.
He urged the old man toward the front window and pulled back the drape. Outside, the gently swirling snow was picking up. The kid was ducking into the back of the longest limousine O. M. had ever seen. The dark blue, knee length, wool coat hung on a parking meter. Clearly it would need to find a new young occupant – and, it would.
Unintended by either, two good Samaritans – one young, one old – had just renewed each other’s faith in the goodness of man and the power of love. What a happy, holiday happenstance!