Although he had heard the judgmental charge before, Mark winced as the shiny sports car grumbled around the corner and sped down the street. The muggy afternoon pressed heavily on the hand-written cardboard sign—his strength waned, and he let his arm fall to his side, fingers still clutching the tattered brown square. Passing vehicles caused the flimsy sign to flap against his knee.
“I had a job,” he whispered.
The traffic light above him glowed yellow, then red. A wave of air pushed up by braking cars and trucks ruffled the hairs of Mark’s scruffy chin. Heat rising off the hood of the nearest car drifted over him, threatening to choke every ounce of energy from his body. The driver avoided making eye contact, pretending to look at something in the rear-view mirror.
Mark let his gaze drift across the sea of idling vehicles and found disinterested expressions behind every steering wheel. The familiarity of the sight made no impression on him. Stepping back to get some relief from the hot asphalt at the edge of the curb, he stood on a worn patch of grass bordering the sidewalk, his heels thanking him for softer ground.
When the light turned green and the cars went their various ways, exhaust fumes cleared from his sinuses only to be replaced by the scent of his own body. It had been several days since he had been able to use a truck stop shower. Hopefully tonight, he thought.
Mark’s stomach rumbled. Food first, shower second. He shoved his free hand into a pocket and fingered the two bills. A five and a one, he recalled. Sighing, he lifted his cardboard message higher.
A fresh batch of vehicles had filled the temporary parking lot—models, makes, sizes, and colors all different than before, but the general scene more of the same. Three cars back and next to the sidewalk, a middle-aged man with a bulging belly squeezed out of his seat, stepped onto the concrete, and glared over his shoulder at the woman riding with him. Bent down to peer out the windshield, she impatiently waved him forward. Approaching Mark, he snarled, “Best not buy any booze wit’ it.”
Without even looking at the money, Mark managed to say, “Thank you,” then stuffed the bills into his pocket. It felt like a couple of ones. The man lumbered back to his car and slammed the door just as the light turned.
Job? Booze? It’s because of booze that I don’t have a job! Angry, Mark barely turned his head as the sedan left. He closed his eyes, refusing to remember. But the memories wouldn’t leave. In his mind’s eye he could see his office and the massive cherry-wood desk where he would always sit. He remembered the stacks of folders, the brass lamp, and the expensive fountain pen he had gotten as a gift in celebration of his MBA.
He remembered sobbing at that desk. That is where he had gotten the news: The driver fled from the scene, and the car he was driving—stolen. Alcohol was found on the floorboard. Julie and his precious little Madison—gone. The responding firefighters did all they could.
Holding a picture of his family, Mark cried many times at that desk in following days. Prescribed medication didn’t help. Although he took time off, whenever he returned to the office he sat in a stupor for hours at a time. At first the company was sympathetic, but days dragged into weeks. They finally let him go. Five months later, he lost everything.
Anger burned hot in Mark’s chest as he thought about the alcohol which ruined his life. He had been a casual drinker himself before the accident. Never. Never again.
Fighting off images of his wife, he returned to his self-imposed task and tried to endure. Honking. Noxious fumes mixing in the humid September air. Uncounted vehicles carrying indifferent people. Although he didn’t have a watch, Mark guessed it must be nearing the end of rush hour. If he wanted to get dinner and make it down to the shelter before dark, he would have to leave soon.
Uncharacteristically hot for the time of year, the day had been miserable. But clouds were gathering, and he could feel a front moving in which would cool things off. That would mean cold, wet nights. Sleeping on the ground would not be pleasant.
Debating if he should leave right then, he looked up to see another car door open. It was a small green compact, fairly new, but an inexpensive model. A woman in the passenger seat looked on with interest as the driver stepped out of the vehicle. He walked towards Mark, a kind expression on his face. The man made eye contact every step of the way. With only a smile, the man pressed a bill into Mark’s hand, squeezing it firmly. Then he turned away.
Startled by the compassionate gesture, Mark blurted out a phrase he had heard other homeless people say, “God bless you!” The words fell from his lips awkwardly, but as he heard them, he believed the message. Yes, God has blessed that man, Mark thought. As the car pulled away, Mark waved.
He looked down at the money. It was a ten. He looked up again, but the car was gone. Reflecting on the brief meeting, he marveled at the contrast between the last three encounters he had experienced. Then he realized—the money didn’t matter. The kindness of one person had made his day. But I am still grateful for the gift! Now he would get dinner and a shower.
Almost giddy at the prospect of it, he folded up his worn-out sign, shoved it into his dusty back pocket, and crossed the street. As he walked, thunder sounded in the distance. A breeze kicked up, and tiny droplets started to speckle the sidewalk. But Mark didn’t care. His goal now in sight, he hastened into the fast food restaurant, breathing in the inviting smells of a hot meal.
Thankfully, the restaurant had only one other patron ordering. And most of the seats were empty. He pulled all of his cash from his pocket, making sure the cashier saw he had the money to pay. To avoid offending the other patron, Mark kept his distance. When he ordered, he stood back against the rail. Once his tray had been filled, he found a table near the back and faced the window.
Every bite of his sandwich was heaven. Having a front-row seat to see the weather developing made it all the more enjoyable. Mark loved the rain. By the time his tray held nothing but wrappers, huge drops pelted the ground outside. He sipped on his drink, content to watch the storm. After a fifteen-minute downpour, the rain changed from a fierce deluge to a gentle soaking. It appeared by the looks of the sky that the rain would continue for a while. Knowing he would have to walk without an umbrella, Mark lingered at the table.
A young mother nearly stumbled through the entrance as she shepherded her boy out of the rain. She tapped her hair with an open hand to dislodge the droplets clinging to the top of her corn-rows, while keeping her other hand on the boy’s shoulder. Before they could even approach the counter, a cashier called to her. Mark watched them, grateful he had missed the drenching.
“May I help you?”
“Mommy, can I get fries?” the boy said, his voice plaintive.
The woman ignored the boy and started to fumble through her purse. Mark took another sip of his drink. The boy wandered over to the counter, just shorter than he, and gripped the edge with both hands, his chin resting on the surface.
“Mommy, can I get fries?” he said, eyes still glued to the colorful placards above him.
The straw in Mark’s cup rattled with a slurping noise. He stood and stepped across the aisle over to the soda machine, filling his cup partway with ice. Positioned on a service island, the machine allowed him to easily observe the boy and his mother without bringing attention to himself.
“Aiden,” the woman said firmly. “Come back here an’ let go of that counter.”
Reluctantly, Aiden shuffled back to his mother.
For the first time, Mark noticed what the woman was wearing. She had a silky mauve blouse, a black leather purse, and a wide copper bracelet. Earrings and makeup testified that she had either just come from work, or she had dressed up for this occasion. Her son now tugged at a corner of her blouse, just below a small stain. Mark could hear the coins jingling in her purse as she dug with one hand and transferred her findings to the other.
Single mom. May not even have a job. Mark caught himself. Suddenly embarrassed that he had passed the instant judgment, he looked down. His thumb was dirty. So were his fingers. Pressing the dispenser, he filled his cup to the top. The jangle of money still reached his ears. He popped the lid back into place on his drink, and stepped back to his seat.
Mark didn’t mean to stare. But he couldn’t help it. The woman was now counting coins which easily fit into her small hand. Her lips pressed together, she breathed in. She smiled down at the boy.
“Just a hamburger this time,” she said, her back straight and head high.
“Mommy,” Aiden said softly. “It’s my birt’day.”
A gut wrenching spasm went through Mark. He envisioned Madison. There would be no more birthdays. His eyes misted.
Without a second thought, Mark stood, leaving his tray and garbage on the table. He shoved his hand into his pocket and found coins. There were bills too. Folding it all together, he tromped over to the woman.
Startled, she took a step back, a hand on her boy.
Mark held her eyes for only a moment, then looked down at his dirty hand. He held the money forward. “For some fries.”
She looked at the money, then at him. A tear trickled down her cheek.
“Thank you, sir,” she said.
He gave a nod. The boy’s eyes were wide, fearful.
Mark stepped around them and hurried for the door, not looking back. Once outside, he lifted his eyes towards heaven, rain spilling down his face.