A somewhat longer short story, but I hope you find it worth the effort and read. It does have “rough language,” but such language I find necessary to depict the reality of the people involved. Either way, I hope you enjoy it and gain something from it. Merry Christmas everyone.
He awoke to the sound of someone shuffling in the alley.
“Lisa? Lisa, is that you?”
He heard the pattering of four paws scurry away at his voice. He looked up to see the dog turn around and look back at him. He smiled and held out a morsel of his dinner. The dog slowly approached, apprehensive and untrusting of this old man.
“Come here boy, it’s alright.” he said softly. “Come on, that’s it.”
He slowly ran his fingers through the dogs fur as it ate out of his hand. He felt a sore on its back leg, possibly from a fight or a sadistic neighborhood kid. After scrummaging through his belongings, he pulled out the almost empty bottle of hydrogen peroxide, poured some onto a cotton swab, and then slowly and gently put it on the sore. The dog backed up a bit, startled by the coldness of the liquid, but ultimately trusted the man who had given him food. The dog licked the man’s hand as the man worked with his other hand to clean the wound. Satisfied that he had done what he could, the man lay down and the dog scurried away.
As the city came alive, the old man arose from his morning prayers and then walked through the snow to his usual corner. There he sat, cup in hand, holding his sign.
GOD BLESS YOU IF YOU CAN
It was a curious sign, one that caused people to give a double take. Most assumed that he was drunk when he wrote the sign and went on their way. Others, obliged by some sense of decency would drop a dollar or two into his cup. His usual reply of “God bless you” was greeted with a nod, or the occasional offer to pray for the poor old man. He never turned down prayer. Every so often someone would yell at him to get a job or refuse to acknowledge his existence, but through the experience of begging he’d discovered that people were, for the most part, decent.
Around noon, he pulled his lunch from a paper bag he had handy. He walked around the corner to the convenience shop to pick up a soda. He picked out his favorite one, brought it to the counter, and put the money out to pay. The owner grabbed the money and gently pushed it back towards the old man.
“You no pay. Never.” he said in his broken English.
“Mr. Kim, I can’t take it for free.”
“No!” he said emphatically. He shook his head as tears welled up. “You save daughter. You holy man. You no pay.”
The old man lowered his eyes, feeling a sting of hypocrisy in the praise he received. He sheepishly took his soda and walked out, thanking the owner. He walked back to his corner, cleared some of the snow that had accumulated, and sat back down on his mat. He gave a blessing over his food, ate his lunch, drank his soda, and then continued to beg for money.
The sun began to set and he realized he had collected enough for the day. He packed up his things and walked to the local park. There, amongst the drug consumers and drug dealers, he maneuvered his way as best he could to a quiet spot. He noticed one of the area street girls, Sandy, collapse near the sidewalk. Everyone moved away, no one wanting to be near what would certainly be a deadly overdose. He quickly shuffled over to her, dropping his possessions in the process.
“Sandy, Sandy?” he said as he got next to her. She kept convulsing, vomit spewing from her mouth.
“I told that stupid bitch not to shoot it. Told her to snort it.” said one of her coworkers. “I told her this shit was stronger than before.”
The old man ignored the commentary and put both his hands on the woman. He held her hair back and then put his hand on her forehead. His dirty hands left a smudge and he could feel the heat radiating from her. He picked up some snow and rubbed it on her forehead. He then made the sign of the cross over her.
“O Lord our God, the Physician of our souls and bodies, look down upon Thy servant Sandy and cure her of all infirmities of the flesh, in the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, with Whom Thou art blessed, together with Thy Most Holy, Gracious, and Life-giving Spirit, always, now and forever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Her convulsions subsided, but she remained on her knees, bent over and her head on the ground, crying from fear and shame.
“O Merciful Lord, visit and heal Thy sick servant, Sandy, now lying on the bed of sickness and sorely afflicted, as Thou, O Savior, didst once raise Peter’s wife’s mother and the man sick of the palsy who was carried on his bed: for Thou alone hast borne the sickness and afflictions of our race, and with Thee nothing is impossible, for Thou art all-merciful.”
He made another sign of the cross and began to move his hands through her hair. She rose to her knees and wrapped her arms around him and wept, shaking from the fear.
“I felt it, I felt the darkness. I was so afraid. So unprepared.” she said through her sobs.
“We all feel the darkness daughter. But light has come unto you again.”
The crowd stood around, staring at this old man, ragged, but respected. Many had heard of him before, but believed him to be a legend. Others had seen him before and gazed upon him in reverence. Sandy finally calmed down and others brought water to her. The old man touched her where the needle had entered her body and she felt an icy cold sting.
“Go home to your parents.”
“I…I can’t. They ain’t gonna love me for what I’ve done.”
He rose to his feet, grabbing her hands and helping her stand up as well.
“I tell you the truth, your mother, Sarah, prays for you right now. At this moment, your father, Michael, he has taken a different road home today in blind hope that he will run into you. Your little sister Rebecca misses you greatly. Your family loves you and wants nothing more than to see you again.”
“How do you…but I can’t.” she said, sobbing again. “What if…what if I can’t give up the drugs? What if they found out about what I’ve done? How can they love me?”
The old man gently cupped her face with his hands. He kissed her forehead and she immediately felt calm run throughout her body.
“Tonight, you’ve been healed from a disease. Others must fight for years, but you have been blessed. Salvation awaits you at home. I promise you, if you return home tonight you will find salvation from the darkness you felt. Tonight you will dine with your family, and they will rejoice because their daughter has returned to them. This meal, this simple store bought meal, will taste better for all of you, better than any Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving feast.” he said, smiling at her. “But you must go now, for if you wait any longer you will miss your father. He’s a block away, praying to God to find you. Go now my child, go!”
With that he kissed her forehead again and ushered her along. She walked away, wanting to thank the old man, but realizing there was truth in his words and she did not want to be late.
The old man walked to where he dropped his belongings. Everything was there, but someone had put everything back in order. Long ago, when he first came to the park, someone stole his belongings everyday. It did not bother him as he believed he held no possessions. As time went on and people began to know him, however, everyone let him be. Even the most hardened criminals chose to avoid him, if for no other reason than fear that he could curse them. He picked up his belongings and walked to a private area in the park, enjoying the darkness of the park.
He knelt down near the frozen pond and began his evening prayers.
“In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to thee, our God, glory to thee. O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy upon us.”
He repeated the last line three times, crossing himself each time. As usual, upon completing the third line, he could not finish his prayer because of the burden and his weeping.
“Lord God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” he repeated. For thirty minutes he repeated that one phrase, crossing himself each time, never feeling the burden lift.
“Lord God, please take this burden away from me.” he finally pleaded, moving away from the prayers passed down by the saints and instead turning to his own impromptu prayer, a prayer of a sinner. “Please, it is like a rock crushing my chest, everyday. I know you have forgiven me, but forgive me again and help me to forgive. Let me just die. Let me fall asleep in you.”
He then went back to repeating his phrase, asking God to have mercy upon him, a sinner.
He saw her again, her bright blond hair shimmering against the summer sun. They had visited the beach, a young couple of just two years. He had taken his holy orders just a year before. It’d been a rough year for him, his first year as a priest and handling a new wife. But she was strong, possibly stronger than him, and even in their darkest times she found a way to make him laugh.
“Let’s go to the beach!”
“Yeah, let’s go to the beach!” she said, smiling at him.
She had a way of coaxing him. He frowned at the suggestion, knowing that it’d be difficult to get away on a weekend since he had responsibilities at the parish. They’d have to get a guest priest to come in, he’d have to make sure it was within their budget for him to take a mini-vacation, he didn’t even like the beach. But the kiss she gave him, the passion he felt, removed all doubts. He’d find a way.
“Lisa?” he was startled awake. “Are you there? Am I finally there?”
He looked around and realized it was just two addicts walking by, who were just as startled by his outburst. It was getting late and he had places to be. He wiped his face, removing the traces of the dried tears.
He made his way to Jimmy’s Diner, gently knocked on the back door, and waited. After about a minute, Jim stood there and embraced the old man. He kissed the man’s hands, which only brought further shame to the old man.
“I got your dinner ready for you, just how you wanted it prepared. And I got your lunch ready too for tomorrow. And here’s the other stuff too.”
“Thank you Jim.”
Just as with the convenience store, though he tried to pay, Jim wouldn’t allow it.
He walked towards the area of the neighborhood that held row houses. At a few of the homes he left envelopes full of cash. He knew what each family needed to get them through the day, the week, or the month. He left them exactly what they needed. He was always happy when he saw kids emerge with new school clothes, or see the few families left go out to eat, knowing it was the contribution he made. He never saw it as his own generosity, but as a tool that God used to bless those who had nothing.
He took the food deeper into the neighborhood and was cautious. He carefully cracked open back doors to some homes, knowing the parent or, on rare occasions, parents were asleep, unconscious in their drug or alcohol induced coma. The children in these homes would quietly make their way to the back door when they heard him, giving him a hug and taking the food he gave them. He knew that for some this was the only meal they would have that day. He always made sure to include a bit of chocolate as well.
He began the walk back to the alley where he slept. It was next to a dry cleaner, one that thankfully ran twenty-four hours a day. The steam produced kept the alley incredibly warm and so he chose to sleep there. As he walked back, the cold bit into his legs and feet. The quiet winter air was pierced by the sounds of two men shouting. He turned the corner and walked through his alley, coming out the other side. Two rival gangs, about to come to blows over the corner.
He hurriedly walked up, seeing that two rival members were lifting their shirts, threatening to go for their guns. Both gangs noticed the old man shuffle and hobble over to them.
“Young men, please, there’s no need for this!” he pleaded. “It’s almost Christmas, all of you have moms or family, right? Why do this before Christmas?”
Most of the older members hung their heads in shame, knowing the rumors of this older man. One of the youngest members, however, walked over to the old man and swung his fist, knocking him to the ground. The old man felt dazed, not exactly sure what had happened.
“Stupid puta!” the young boy yelled. The old man guessed him to be around twelve or thirteen. The young boy stood over the old man, ready to reign down more blows, until his own gang grabbed him and pulled him back.
“Is you stupid or something?” the eldest one chided. “Don’t you know that he’s santo?”
The old man recognized his defender, Miguel Domingo Rodriguez. His father held quite the reputation in the neighborhood, known as El Verdugo de Guadalajara (The Butcher of Guadalajara). Miguel grew up in a life where he was expected to become an enforcer like his father, even though his father died in a shootout with police when Miguel was just five. The old man, at the time, thought he could rescue Miguel from the cycle of violence, bringing him food, helping him achieve an education, and getting him into programs to keep him off the streets. The pull was too much and Miguel ended up another victim of a system that no longer cared. The old man’s heart broke when he saw Miguel standing there, realizing that he was becoming his father.
Miguel helped him up. “I’m sorry, padre, he didn’t know any better. We’ll stop fighting tonight, you’re right.”
The old man looked around and realized he knew kids on both gangs. His heart felt weighed down by sadness and he felt depressed.
“Please, Miguel,” he said. “It’s not too late for you. It’s not too late for any of you. Light will always consume darkness.”
The boys all remained silent, feeling the truth of his words sink in. As they all stood here in the quiet the rival gang finally decided to move along, as did Miguel’s, leaving the old man alone. He hobbled back to his alley and lay down to sleep again.
He saw her, her bright blue eyes staring back at him.
“I bet you won’t do it because you’re chicken!” she said.
He didn’t respond, just standing on the ledge of the cliff.
“Come on!” she egged him on. “Don’t be such a coward!”
“What if our parents find out?” he asked.
Even though he was ten and she was eight, she still found a way to push him to his limits. Their families became quick friends after her family moved next door earlier that summer. Her name was Yvonne Anne McCrary, but she hated every part of that name. When she introduced herself to him, she said her name was Lisa. For the rest of their lives, that’s all he knew her by.
“Why, are you going to tell on me?” she asked, a threat in her voice. Then she grabbed his hand. “We’ll do it together, okay? On three. One, two….”
He awoke to a rough nudge in his side and a light shining in his eyes.
“C’mon, get up.” the police officer demanded. “You got any ID on you? You can’t sleep here, it’s a crime.”
“Officer, I’m so sorry, I didn’t…”
“Did I say you could speak to me? Shut up.”
The officer began to look around and through the old man’s belongings.
“Hey, Johnson, I don’t think they came down this way.” came a voice from around the corner. “Typical rookie mistake, I tell you, you’re seeing things!”
The old man noticed another officer turn the corner, put his flashlight on him, and then stop.
“Holy shit Johnson, what the hell are you doing? Stop it, right now!”
“Father, are you okay?” the other officer asked.
“I’m fine, your partner is just doing his job.”
“He’s being an assho…a jerk, I mean. Sorry father.”
“What? What the fu…”
“Johnson!” the officer yelled, not wanting profanity in front of the priest. “This guy’s good, he can sleep here.”
The younger officer looked even more confused, not knowing if he should follow what the elder officer said or not.
The rookie looked at the old man, wanting to claim his prize of an arrest, but listened to the veteran and walked back to the car.
As Johnson walked back to the patrol car, the older officer came over to the old man. He pulled out his wallet and gave him $60.
“Now, I know it won’t do me a bit of good to say this, but you spend it on you, no one else.”
“You know I can’t accept your money if that’s the condition you place on it.”
“Heh.” the officer snorted. “Yeah, I know, but I at least gotta’ try. Here, take the money and spend it as you see fit. And father, thank you so much for what you did for me back then. I just…”
“It was God, not me.”
“Right, but thank you.”
“God bless you.”
With that, the officer shook the old man’s hand and walked back to his patrol car, allowing the old man to go back to sleep.
The old man walked towards the hospital, a favorite stopping point for him some days. His side was a bit sore from where the police officer had kicked him the night before. He walked into the corporate coffee shop where he was quickly kicked out; they never allowed vagrants to grace their doors. He stopped by a street vendor and picked up two cups of coffee. Much better anyway, he thought to himself. As he walked along he saw a homeless teenager waking up to the cold day. He said a prayer over the boy and gave him the coffee to help with fight the cold weather.
As he approached the hospital, he saw a man smoking a cigarette. He was a rough looking individual, large hands with the signs of manual labor, an unshaven face and unkempt hair; the old man recognized him as a construction worker. The rough features were softened by the fear in the man’s face. The old man approached him calmly.
“Would you like some coffee? It’s black, no cream, no sugar. You look like a man who would prefer it that way.” he said with a smile.
The worker nodded in approval and grabbed the coffee. He took a slow sip and then another drag from his cigarette.
“What has you so worried, so disconcerted?”
“My wife,” he said. “She’s up in the hospital getting chemo.”
He looked at his cigarette and back at the old man and let out a laugh.
“Shit, she’s fighting cancer and I’m here smoking.”
“What kind of cancer?” the old man asked.
Both men fell silent and whatever lightness was there from the man’s irony dissipated. As they stared at the ground, the husband threw his half smoked cigarette onto the ground and ground it out.
“She doesn’t deserve this.” he finally said.
“Do any of us deserve the maladies that come upon us?” the old man asked.
“Yeah, some of us do, at least some of us deserve it more than others. All the shit I’ve put her through, I just don’t get it. It should be me.”
“Well, it would be quite difficult for you to acquire ovarian cancer, would it not?” the old man said, trying to lighten him up. It worked and the man cracked a smile.
“I cheated on her. A lot. Hit her a few times too. It was all when we were younger. It was the drinking that caused it, but I kept at it. I swore I’d change after we had our son, but I didn’t. Kept drinking, whorin’ around, even after the birth of our daughter. I didn’t even hide the cheatin’ after the birth of our daughter. It’s like I wanted her to leave. But she stood by me, said she refused to give up on me ‘cause God ain’t give up on me. I don’t know what it was, but I went on a binge one weekend, nearly drank myself into a coma, and I saw her and my kids, growing up without me. They was happier, they was better off. I realized I wanted to be a part of that family. So I found religion, got into a program, followed the steps, and sobered up. That was ten years ago.”
“Well it sounds like it’s been very good for you.”
“Yeah, it has been. I saved up, took her on a few vacations, did what I could to make amends. But…” his voice cracked, struggling to keep his composure. “Why would such a godly, sweet woman have to endure this? Why not me? I deserve it far more than her.”
“Life is like that sometimes, but there’s one thing about suffering that no one ever thinks about.”
“That even in suffering, we still exist, and certainly that’s better than not existing.”
“Heh.” He took another sip from his coffee. “My daughter was supposed to get married a few months from today, but she moved it up after we found out her mother had cancer. So I guess I see what you’re saying. My wife still got to see her daughter married off, got to enjoy life. But I don’t get the suffering. Why do the innocent suffer? Why can’t God just heal everyone like he did in the Bible?”
“They still died. Everyone who was healed, everyone who had sight restored, even those raised from the dead, still died later on. It’s the natural order of a fallen world, the natural order of unnatural things.”
“For an old homeless man, you sure do have some deep shit to say.” the man laughed.
“Well, I did used to be a priest.”
“Oh…oh…I’m sorry for cursing father.”
“It’s not the worst thing that I’ve ever heard.” he said with a smile. “Within a month your wife will fall asleep in the Lord. She will suffer only a bit longer, and then she will suffer no more. What a blessed union she will have! You see, we mourn death because we miss the person, and this is okay, even Jesus mourned Lazarus. But the dead do not mourn. They only know rejoicing, they only know joy, they only know healing. This she will know. But you, you must reconcile with your children, for you will join her shortly. They have forgiven you, but you have not forgiven yourself.”
The man looked stunned. “I…I don’t know what to say.”
“Say nothing. Go now, be with your wife. Enjoy the time you have with her. She is in love with you, more now than she ever has been, and she will need you in the coming weeks. How blessed you are.”
“Blessed? How am I blessed?”
“You get to give her true love.” the old man said. “You’ve taken her on vacations, given her diamonds, given her cards, and yes, all of this has shown your love for her. But before she passes, you will have kissed her bald head, even when she doesn’t feel beautiful. You will give her a bath and clean her up when she is too weak to do so. You will feed her, help her drink, and carry her around your house to where she needs to go. You will serve her in every way, and nothing you do will ever be paid back by her. That, that is true love. The love story should never end when the couple kisses and realize they love each other, it should end after a lifetime of service to each other; gifts and kissing are merely manifestations of love, but service, helping your wife in her greatest time of need, well, that is love itself. The pure product! Now go to her, she needs you.”
The man shook the old man’s hand and then walked around the corner to the hospital entrance. The old man stood there with regret, thinking of his own past and pain. Did he really mean all that he said? Did he really believe it? How come he had yet to forgive himself? He put such thoughts out of his mind and walked into the emergency room entrance. One of the nurses recognized him immediately and had him take a seat.
“Sorry father, he’s incredibly busy today, so it might be a bit before he sees you.”
“It’s okay dear, I have time.”
The old man sat in the waiting room, grabbing the eye of a few onlookers. He recognized another gentleman in there who sometimes shared the corner with him, begging. He smiled at him and his co-worker gave a big, toothless grin back. He was a mute, so they never really communicated, but he still felt a bond with him. He was the only human he ever confided in, that he ever told all his struggles and doubts to. Every time, the toothless man would cry with the old man, put his arm around him, and hold him until the pain subsided. The old man figured him to be his best friend.
“Herman Young?” a nurse called out. The toothless man stood up and shuffled over to her, smiling at the old man the entire way. He then picked up a magazine and attempted to read, but with his head down he began to drift off to sleep.
“You need to get some rest before we leave.” she said to him.
He looked up from his book and rubbed his eyes. She laid on her side, facing him as he read. Her tanned skin glimmered in the little light from the lamp. He looked over her naked body and put the book down. He ran his hand along her side, enjoying her silky skin, and finally put his hand over her belly. She giggled, saying it tickled. He leaned over and kissed her.
“I can’t believe there’s a human inside you, our human!”
“A human?” she laughed. “You mean a baby.”
“Well a baby is a human.”
“Yeah, but you don’t need to be such a philosopher about it. It’s okay to step out of the ivory tower.”
He chuckled, knowing she was right. She had always kept him grounded, she kept him centered and attached to this earth.
“What would I do without you?” he asked her.
“Go crazy.” she smiled. “You’d be that unkempt homeless guy on the street without me. But instead you’re going to be a daddy, and a properly groomed one at that!”
He laughed and put himself over her, kissing her passionately.
“Oh, and look who has stamina! We really ought to go to bed, you need your rest before our drive back tomorrow.” she said.
“I’ll rest when I’m dead. Tonight we have fun.”
She kissed him back and they celebrated her pregnancy once again. As he revisited the scene, he saw headlights and then felt someone grabbing his shoulder.
“Father, father,” the nurse was saying, “He’s ready to see you now.”
The old man came to his senses and ran his fingers through his messy, balding hair. The nurse took his height, weight, blood pressure, heart beat, and all the other standard tests. He found himself in the waiting room, sitting on the observation table. He heard a knock on the door and Dr. Jabara walked through. The doctor embraced his old friend and kissed his hands.
“Father bless.” he said to the old man.
“You know you don’t have to do that Saeed.”
“Custom is custom, is it not?”
“Well I’m not exactly a priest anymore, now am I?”
“True, you never were really good at it.” Saeed laughed. “You are still a priest to me. You were my priest at one point.”
“Well I’m not sure that counts for much.”
“Careful now, I do have to examine you.” he said mischievously. “So what’s the problem?”
The old man explained how he had been kicked and was bruised. He also spoke of a cough that was reoccurring to him. Saeed looked him over, walked to the hospital pharmacy and picked up a few prescriptions, and gave them to the old man. Saeed then had him bathe and put a wrap around his body to help with the bruising on the wound.
“Father, my friend, why do you stay homeless? You are a man of God and could return. Why do you live amongst the godless?”
“You have it all wrong Saeed.” he said. “I am not a man of God and so I place myself around these people, for God is with them.”
“And how do you know God is with them?”
“Because no one else is.”
Saeed nodded with respect. “One more question then.”
“I’ve heard…stories. I do not know if I believe them, but I have heard that you can heal people. I doubt these stories, because you are here. If you could heal, you would heal yourself, would you not?”
“Saeed, must we go down this road again?” he groaned.
“Yes, yes we must. I have watched children die in surgery, but drunk drivers walk away with a few scratches. If you can heal, why are you not here, delivering justice to those who suffer?” he asked sternly, but respectfully.
“I heal no one. I am merely a conduit for whatever God chooses to do.” he said. “All healing, whether mystical or through medicine, comes from God. Sometimes he chooses to heal someone mystically, through supernatural means, other times he chooses to use science and modern medicine. I am the instrument, and no instrument ever asks why the conductor uses different instruments at different times. Look at you, you own a private practice. You have become rich off helping the wealthy. But you are still here some nights and weekends, volunteering your time and expertise to help those who give nothing to you. You and I are both used by God to heal, just in different ways.”
“You have answered my question with beauty, but I am not sure I am satisfied with your answer.”
“Well,” the old man said with a grin. “It’s all you’re going to get because it’s all I got.”
Saeed laughed and again embraced his friend.
“Be safe on your travels.”
He handed the old man some food and released him. As he always promised to do, Saeed paid the hospital bill.
The old man walked out of the hospital and realized that the snow was in a semi-melt from the bright sun, and though he could still see his breath, he felt warm. He walked over to the park to sit and enjoy what he considered to be a beautiful day outside. He arrived at his favorite bench and began to watch the park and take in the sights and sounds. A couple running together, in sync, paying no attention to anyone else. A loose leaf that had mocked Autumn and winter, scarcely attached to the branch. The snow glistening against the bright sun, reflecting the light back and making the world seem slightly brighter. He closed his eyes to soak it all in, in this cathedral of nature. He then stood up, eyes closed, and began to walk forward, enjoying the warmth of the sun amongst the cold air.
He was soon on his side, someone having run into him and knocked him over.
“Are you okay?” the man asked.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry, I should have known better.”
“Yeah, you should have dumb ass. The hell were you thinking walking in front of me while I was running?”
The old man looked up, annoyed at the rudeness of the man who felt he couldn’t run around him, but through him. He saw a young man, in his thirties, wearing what he guessed was top dollar clothing, even for running.
“Are you crazy?” the young man asked.
“Who isn’t?” he said. He smiled and tried to defuse the situation.
“Well, normal people aren’t. You know, those of us who work for a living.”
“And what is it that you do at your job that makes you so normal?”
“I’m in sales.” he huffed.
“So you persuade people to spend money on stuff that they don’t need. That would be deception, which is certainly not normal, at least I hope not.” he smiled.
“You know,” the young man said in anger. “At least I have a job. And don’t feed me this self-righteous bullshit about helping the poor and homeless. I’ve volunteered at homeless shelters. Half of you are bat-shit insane anyway, there’s no helping you. So next time, just stay out of my way.”
“Are we on the streets because we’re mentally ill, or are we mentally ill because we’re on the streets?”
The retort was lost as the young man put his earphones back in and started running away. The old man said a prayer for the salesman, hoping that he would eventually see his error and also gain a calmer heart. He sat back down on his bench and close his eyes, again trying to focus on the beauty around him.
He found himself looking over at her, her head against the window. They had finally left their trip and didn’t sleep at all the night before. He looked down at her belly, realizing that their child was within her. I’m the happiest man alive, he thought to himself.
He turned the radio down so it wouldn’t disturb his wife and kept his eyes on the road. The night seemed a bit darker than usual, and looking out his window he could make out the stars. He watched as road sign after road sign continued past him in a hypnotic rhythm. His eyes began to feel heavy, but he knew he could keep them open.
He heard the honking and awoke to see two bright lights shining at him. He didn’t know if he should veer left or right, but out of instinct turned the wheel hard to his left in the hopes to avoid the oncoming car. His car spun out of control, he could see the car getting closer, his wife awake and staring at him, mouth open but no scream, and behind her, through her window, the headlights grew larger. In an instance they collided with her door and everything became dark again.
He awoke to a jolt. Herman was shaking him, a concerned look upon his face. He grabbed Herman tightly and buried his head in his friend’s chest, crying from the pain. He sat there, holding onto his friend, for a while, with Herman patting his head and rocking him. Herman was a great friend. After the old man gained composure, Herman gave him a look, Are you okay he said with his eyes.
“I’m sorry my friend, I dreamed about Lisa again, about…about that night.”
Herman’s eyes were red from tearing up over his friend’s pain. His look of concern remained on his face. He pulled out some cardboard and a marker. Even though he was illiterate, he knew how to write some basic messages.
“U need 2 4give u” he wrote.
“How can I?” he responded. “I turned left. Why? Why in the world would I turn left? Had I swerved right, we would have gone off the road, probably damaged the car, but she would have been okay. Our child…” he held back his sobs again. “I killed them Herman. I killed them because I panicked. Because I fell asleep. They’d be alive today if…if…”
Herman put his arm around the old man as he began to cry again. Finally, after the moment had passed, Herman began to write again.
“R u god?”
The old man shook his head.
“R u luv?”
He shook his head again.
“god luvs u & 4gives u. u r not moor than god.”
The old man wiped his tears away and realized that the words were true, but he had a hard time accepting them. He sat there with his friend for a while, thinking through everything, wondering if Lisa ever forgave him for letting her die that night. He knew it was a stupid question, he knew that if God could forgive him, he could certainly forgive himself. But the existential reality of pain prevented him from feeling the reality of forgiveness.
“Herman, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had. Thank you.”
Herman gave him a big hug and they went on their way.
The old man shuffled back to where he stayed, to the warmth of the alley. He noticed the sun was already starting to set, unaware that he had spent so much time in the park. He walked to the alley as the lights began to turn on around the city, preparing for the evening. There sat his sign, “God Bless You if You Can.” Someone once asked him if he meant that God would only bless those who could bless themselves, to which he smiled and shook his head. “God can only bless those who can recognize the blessing, those who are so desperate that they can see it as nothing else,” he responded.
He heard a scuffle again at the other side of the alley and decided to go investigate it. As he walked through the alley again, he saw Miguel surrounded by three boys around his age, knives drawn.
“Boys! Boys! Stop right now!” he pleaded.
They all turned and looked at him, not knowing what to do.
“Father, leave!” Miguel yelled.
The old man ignored Miguel’s words and walked over and stood between the three boys and Miguel. They kept their knives drawn, ready to strike.
“Boys, you don’t want to do this. You don’t want to take someone’s life.”
“Move holy man, this isn’t your business.” one of them said.
“It’s not worth it.” he continued. “If you kill a man, you kill a part of your soul. You take everything he is and end it. You take him from his family. Please, let’s calm down and walk away from this.”
“Padre, vamanos!” Miguel yelled.
“You don’t want to be here holy man, leave!” the young boy yelled.
“No!” he yelled back. “I refuse! Stop right now…”
The power of his voice left him at the end of his sentence. He felt a force bury its way into his stomach. He felt it again in his lungs, and again, and then in his side. He put his hands to his body and pulled them away, seeing the blood. The young boy looked at him, fear in his eyes at what he had just done. He dropped the knife as the old man fell to his knees.
“I forgive you.” he whispered.
“C’mon, let’s go, let’s go. Now!” his friends yelled.
They grabbed him, but the young man was still in shock at having stabbed the holy man. They drug him backwards and eventually he turned and ran with them. The old man fell onto his back, feeling light headed from the rapid loss of blood. Miguel called an ambulance, directing them to where they were. He put his hands on the old man, trying to stop the bleeding per the operator’s instructions. The old man just stared at him and smiled. He put his bloodied hand on the boy’s face, cupping it in affection.
“No padre, they’re going to get here. You’re going to be okay.” he said, crying. “Por favor, María, madre de Dios…”
“Miguel…” he said. He trailed off before he could finish his sentence.
He felt warmth come upon his cold body and rolled his head over. Walking toward him was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen; golden blond hair, bright blue eyes, and a smile.
“Lisa…” he said, a tear dropping from his eye.
“Padre! Padre stay with me!” Miguel pleaded.
He could hear the ambulance sirens getting closer. He looked back to the young man and made the sign of the cross on his forehead.
“God will always love you,” he said, becoming weak. “Love him back. Turn from this…”
He couldn’t finish his sentence. He smiled at the boy and let his arm slowly fall down as he rolled his head back towards his wife. She came closer and knelt down next to him, putting her head on his forehead. How warm, he thought. She played with his matted hair, laughing to herself, as though to tell him “I told you so.” He smiled, realizing she was right. She reached over and took his hand, stood up, and brought him to his feet with her. He began to walk with her, hand in hand, away from everything. He turned back and saw Miguel sobbing over his body, he saw the paramedics rush in and push Miguel out of the way, attempting to deliver CPR. He felt the shocks in his chest as they attempted to start his heart again. He saw Miguel curled up against the alley wall, confused. He then looked towards the entrance of the alley and saw Herman staring at his body, but no emotion. Herman then turned and looked at the old man and his wife and gave a toothless smile. He waved at the old man and the old man waved back. The mute man then walked over to Miguel and held him, comforting the boy as he watched the holy man pass.
The old man, who was now no longer old, but looked and felt quite young, turned and looked at his wife again. She gave him a kiss, grabbed his hand tighter, and they walked away together into the eternal light.