The old man was tired, hungry and lonely. He slowly made his way through the crowded mall. The frantically moving crowds made him think of ants that had just been stirred with a stick. Everyone he saw was heavily laden with packages and bags. Mothers’ anxiously glanced around for their children, making sure they hadn’t been swept away by the vast sloshing waves of people.
The old man moved awkwardly through the waves on legs that were now weakened with age. He was embarrassed by his unkempt appearance. He was unshaven, his hair unruly, and his clothes were old and threadbare. His old suit coat didn’t offer much comfort in the cold December wind. Except for a 3 x 5 picture of his wife it was all he had left from another life and he couldn’t part with it even if someone were to offer him something better. He was thankful when he finally came to a bench, and he gently took a seat on the opposite end from a man and a young boy. He breathed a long, tired sigh and then smiled at them and nodded.
“Christmas has been my favorite time of the year since as long as I can remember. It’s been a few years since I’ve had somebody to share it with, but even now it’s my favorite time.”
The young boy gave him a quick disdainful glare. “What makes you think we care? We didn’t invite you to sit on our bench and we sure don’t want to hear about the boring life story of a bum. I’m busy showing my dad all of the gifts I want from Santa this year.”
The old man glanced at the floor then gazed out through the crowd.
“Sorry. I was just trying to make friendly conversation.”
The boy snorted a quick laugh. “Well, go tell it to somebody who cares. Let’s go dad. I’m ready to go to the next store and show you what else I want Santa to bring me.”
The man stood quickly and began gathering up packages. He handed two dollars to the old man. “Here, take this and don’t drink it up all in one place.”
The old man timidly took the money and put it in his coat pocket.
“I won’t. Thank you kindly. Merry Christmas to you.”
The boy gave the old man another disdainful glare. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to say that? It’s rude. You could offend somebody. You’re supposed to say Happy Holidays.”
The father and his son moved a few feet away before making an effort to become part of the mangle of people.
“I’m proud of you dad. That was a nice thing you did.”
As they moved away the man put his arm around his son’s shoulder and pulled him closer. “Thank you, son. Don’t ever let it be said that your old man don’t go out of his way to help the poor. It’s just the right thing to do. I hope you’ve learned a valuable lesson today.”
The old man leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees. He lowered his head and closed his eyes, absorbing the Christmas music that filtered through the vast corridor of the mall. He recognized the tune of Silent Night above the buzzing of the crowd and it gave him a warm feeling. It had been his wife’s favorite Christmas song and the memory turned his warm feeling back to deep empty loneliness. This would be his seventh Christmas without her. After sixty-two years together he missed her painfully. He had thought time would heal his pain, little by little, but each year had become emptier and more painful.
They hadn’t been able to have children, so now he was alone. He had a few friends or maybe they were just people he knew. It didn’t really matter. They couldn’t fill the emptiness he felt and they couldn’t heal the overwhelming longing that now even after seven years was beginning to strangle him somewhere down deep inside. They had their own struggles to deal with; but help for them was just around the corner. Help for him was a lifetime gone.
He had been too engrossed in his thoughts to notice the couple sitting at the other end of the bench. Wrapped packages and bags were scattered at their feet and on the bench beside him.
The woman looked at him and smiled. “Merry Christmas.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Merry Christmas to you.”
The woman rummaged in her purse for a moment and offered the old man twenty dollars.
“Please do me a favor and take this. You can probably find a better use for it than I can.”
He timidly took the twenty and put it in his coat pocket. “Bless you, ma’am. I’ll put it to good use.”
The woman’s husband rolled his eyes. “Yeah, like that’s going to happen. I can just imagine all the good uses that twenty dollars is going toward and like he’s got the ability to bless somebody. I think that’s way above his pay grade.”
The woman gave her husband a strong stare. “Hush! I gave it to him. He can use it any way he wants to.”
He looked at his wife then focused on the old man. Fine! You just use it however you see fit, sport. Then move along and go find another bleeding heart to take advantage of.”
The woman gave her husband another strong stare.
Her husband swept his hand over the packages and bags. “They don’t give all of this stuff away for free. I didn’t work for forty-five years just to give my pension away to everybody looking for a handout. He should’ve had the forethought to go to work for a good company when he was young same as I did. He could’ve had a good pension and get paid benefits now same as I do. I chose to be a productive citizen. He chose to be a drain on society.”
He paused long enough to take a good look at the old man. “I’m sorry, sport, but that’s just the way I feel about it. This is why I hate to see Christmas come and I’m glad to see it go. We buy gifts for the kids and toys for the grandkids. Christmas is nothing more than a money trap. It’s a season when every store in this mall and across this city has planned to separate fools from their money. And they’re not the only ones. Every year my wife gives a thousand dollars to the Grace Center around the corner. And now, she gives you twenty dollars. I call that double dipping because I’m quite sure you’ll be at the shelter before the end of the day. Money trap! For bleeding hearts and fools.”
The woman gave the old man an apologetic look then started gathering her packages and bags.
“Don’t pay any attention to my husband. He’s a blow hard.”
The old man looked up at the woman and smiled. “Thank you again. I will put the money to good use.”
He watched the woman and her husband disappear into the crowd. A much younger woman and her daughter immediately replaced them. The woman took her cell phone from her purse and placed it to her ear. The young girl tugged at her mother’s arm.
“Mom, can we please go to another bench? We’re sitting beside a poor person.”
The woman glanced at the old man. “In a minute Charity. I’m on the phone.”
The young girl pouted her lips and sat back hard against the back of the bench with her arms folded.
“I don’t know why you had to choose a bench with a poor person on it. People are looking at us. They’re going to think that we’re poor.”
The young woman pulled her phone away from her face and turned to her daughter. “Charity, I assure you nobody is going to think that we’re poor. Believe me, people can tell by looking at us that we come from money.”
The girl cut her eyes at the old man. “Why are you sitting here anyway? Why don’t you go sit with the other poor people…outside!”
The young woman pulled her phone from her face and turned to her daughter again. “Charity! Don’t be rude! If you want the poor, unfortunate man to sit somewhere else…say please.”
The girl’s face reddened and her jaw tightened. She stared blindly into the crowd. “I won’t! I won’t say please to a rude, poor man who doesn’t know his place. I’m ready to go, Rhonda! Now!”
The young woman quickly ended her phone conversation and stood, taking her daughter by the hand. She looked down at the old man.
“My daughter and I just wanted to sit for a moment in peace. My daughter asked you to go sit somewhere else but you kept hanging around hoping we would give you money. We are careful to give our money to people who will use it wisely. My husband donates a hundred thousand dollars to the John and Ruth Grace Center each year to help fund the shelter around the corner. He does it because we’re compassionate about the poor. The shelter is there for people such as yourself, so you can be with your own kind. That’s where you should be now, instead of hanging around here taking advantage of the kindness of others. You’re fortunate I didn’t call security and have you removed. Take my advice and go to the shelter.”
He watched the young woman and her daughter mix into the crowd; then they became lost in the sea of people.
The old man sat quiet for a long while. He observed the people as they passed by. Some stared, others glanced and quickly looked the other way. Everyone was in a hurry. Some seeming to have a destination, others just being moved along by the crowd. Gift bags hanging from arms and arms cradling packages. Everyone he noticed seemed to be frazzled or maybe even burdened. They seemed desperate to achieve a certain goal by a certain time as though their lives depended on it. He noticed no pleasure in their expressions. He saw fear. Fear that they might not achieve the goal. Fear that someone else might achieve the goal ahead of them. Fear that an item they desperately wanted would be sold out before they got there. So they moved in an excited, fearful hurry, gently shouldering into each other, trying to move ahead of the ones in front of them, struggling with their packages and bags to achieve the goal.
He saw the young woman and the boy before they reached the bench. She plopped down and began letting gift bags fall to the floor. She looked over at him and brushed a stand of her hair from her face. She breathed a heavy sigh and slumped her shoulders.
“This is crazy, isn’t it? It’s a mess. I say every year I’m not going to go through this again, but I do. What choice do we have? I mean, this is what Christmas is all about.”
The young boy moved around in front of the old man and grinned showing a row of missing teeth. “Merry Holidays.”
The old man chuckled softly. “And Merry Christmas to you, young man.”
“Thank you, thur,” he lisped, “We’re buying gifts today tho we can thelebrate Thanta Claus’s birthday.”
The old man cut his eyes at the woman. She leaned closer to him to voice a loud whisper. “We don’t want him to get caught up in the whole religious thing, if you know what I mean. It’s time the world wises up. I mean believing in fables and such things. It’s ridiculous. We certainly don’t want to be teaching our children such foolishness, do we? I mean, facts are facts and where there are not facts…well, I’m just saying.”
Before he could speak the woman glanced at her watch and quickly jumped up. “Oh God, look at the time. We’ve got to be going.”
She quickly thrust a twenty in the breast pocket of his coat.
“Oh, and just in case you didn’t know. I mean you could be new around here. There’s a shelter around the corner. The John and Ruth Grace Center. You’ll see it on the building. Happy Holidays.”
She took her son by his hand and briskly started walking away. As she was trying to time the flow of the crowd, she turned back to the old man, mimicking hysterics.
“It’s crazy, I know, it’s crazy. It’s a mess!”
He watched the woman and her young son until they were out of sight. He grinned. He thought he heard her scream out “It’s a mess!” again, but he wasn’t sure. His hearing wasn’t as good as it once was. There had been no need for the woman to tell him about the shelter. There was no need for her or any of the others to tell him that the shelter was there. He already knew about it. It was a nice place. There would be food there and a warm bed. He could get better clothes there. It was a place where one could get help for a new start in life. It was a nice place, a good place, but it wasn’t a place for him. The shelter was there for others not for him.
He pulled one side of his coat open and gently took the 3 x 5 photo of his wife from the inside pocket. He gazed at her eyes and smiled. He could never forget her beautiful brown eyes. It had been a long seven years but he still remembered everything about her.
“I’m lonely. So very lonely. I’m at the mall. The decorations here are beautiful and the music…you remember how I always loved the Christmas songs, but it all saddens me now. Not having you with me has filled me with a loneliness I’ve never known, but sitting here today has filled my heart with a great sorrow. The Lord isn’t here and I’m sorry for that.”
“That’s a picture of your wife, I suspect.”
He looked up, startled at the young man standing before him.
“How long has it been?”
“That’s a long time. I could tell as I was walking toward you that you miss her terribly.”
The old man nodded.
The young man stood casually with his hands in his pockets. He looked at the old man with kind but searching eyes. “Would you allow me to go with you to the food court and buy you something to eat?”
The old man shook his head. “No thanks.”
“Aren’t you hungry?”
The old man gave him a slight nod. “Yes, but not for food.”
The young man smiled and looked away, staring into the crowd for a few long seconds.
“Well, believe it or not I understand. I have it too. A hunger to feed the hungry… but not with food. With something even more life giving than food.”
The old man smiled and gave the young man another very slight nod. “You have a kind manner about you. Don’t lose it. When you feed the hungry be gentle. If you strike at a nail too hard with a hammer you’ll usually miss and mash your thumb.”
The young man grinned. “It’s good advice. I’ll remember it. It’s ironic. I stopped at your bench hoping that I could somehow be a blessing to you but as it turns out I feel like the one receiving the blessing.”
The old man shook his head. “It goes both ways. When you walked up I was complaining about not seeing the Lord here, then he showed up… in you. Thank you.”
The young man peered into the old man’s eyes for what seemed like an eternity. “Merry Christmas.” Then he was gone in the crowd.
The old man stood outside the shelter. Though it wasn’t far from the mall his walk to get here had been a long one. He slowly made his way on weak legs to the office entrance and stepped inside. There was a woman at the desk across the room and a small glassed in office behind her. The woman immediately stood and met him in front of her desk.
“Welcome to the John and Ruth Grace Center.”
The man in the small office behind her stood and stepped around his desk to the doorway and stopped there. The old man timidly pulled two wadded twenties and two wadded ones from his coat pocket and awkwardly tried to iron them flat on the desk with his hands.
“I want to make a donation,” he said quietly. “Forty-two dollars.”
The woman glanced at the man standing in the doorway then back at the old man.
“Sir…uh…thank you, but we wouldn’t expect you to make a donation. We’re here to serve you.”
His manner was timid as he went back to trying to iron the bills flat with his hands again.
“Thank you, ma’am, but the shelter is here for others. It’s not for me.”
She looked at the man standing in the doorway and very slightly shrugged her shoulders. He didn’t move from the doorway but when he spoke to the old man it was quite and gentle.
“Welcome. How are you?”
The old man lowered his eyes. “Lonely, very lonely.”
The man smiled and nodded. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee? We can talk about it. Just talk, between two old friends.”
The old man shook his head. “Thank you, but I know you’re busy. I’ll let you get back to work. Merry Christmas.”
He watched the old man slowly make his way out and start across the street. The woman looked at him dumbfounded.
“Do you know him?”
The man leaned against the doorjamb, looked down at the floor and nodded.
“Since I was just a boy. He and my father were lifelong friends. That’s John Grace.”
“What? Him? Forgive me, but…I’m just shocked.”
“He and his wife served as missionaries around the world for many years. When they returned home he started a small business that became very successful. After Ruth died he sold the business and their home and used the money to start this center. He said it was more urgent to help others than to help himself. He appointed me to this job. His only instruction was for me to never allow the center to become a bureaucracy.
“Oh my! I thought… well, when he walked in…I just thought he was homeless.”
The man looked distantly through the large front glass windows for a long moment before he spoke again.
“He is…by choice. He said he has a wealthy Father who has promised him an inheritance. He will be wealthy soon enough.”
It had taken him a long time to finally get back to the stand of trees across the parking lot of the mall. His sleeping bag was neatly rolled up at the base of a large pine. Except for the threadbare clothes he wore and the photograph of Ruth, it was his only other possession. In his legs was an almost unbearable ache. In his heart an unbearable loneliness. He dropped heavily to his hands and knees.
“Oh Lord, thank you for all you have done for me. I’m grateful. We have walked together for many years, but now I’m old and tired and lonely. Oh Lord, give me rest.”
He crawled slowly to the sleeping bag and unrolled it. He covered himself and slept. As the sun fell below the horizon the old man, John Grace, passed away.
About the author: Kent Breazeale, author of southern literature, lives in Falkner, Mississippi with his wife, deb, and adopted dogs, Harley and Ubu. You can find Kent’s novels at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, including another moving short story, The Chosen One. His first novel, The Mind of Payne is available in digital and paperback. Kent’s second novel, The Willmakers, will be out January 2014. You can find the author online at www.kentbreazeale.com, Facebook and Twitter.
Photo courtesty of Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography, Boise, ID