Everyone else had left our Prince Avenue office. Looking out the window, I saw that the icy downpour had ebbed to a drizzle. I grabbed my coat, my briefcase and an umbrella. When I stepped outside, the chill drilled right through my overcoat, my clothes and my skin—straight to the bone.
Shivering inside the car, I flipped the toggle switch to heat the driver’s seat. While waiting for the engine to warm, I muttered, “What miserable weather.” Once out of the parking lot, I changed directions. Usually, I turned right. But that time, I wheeled left.
Waiting at the traffic light, I glanced up the hill. In the dark spot between the streetlights, I saw a shadow trudging up the steep sidewalk. Watching the slow-moving hulk, I rolled the heater’s thermostat higher. The red light flicked to green, and I started home.
At the next corner—on impulse—I turned right. And then two more rights. That’s when I saw the shadow, again. As the figure crept forward, I could see a stocking hat pulled over his ears. In an hour, the rain dripping from his salt-and-pepper beard would be icicles. I recognized the ebony Grizzly Adams-like figure, but I didn’t know his name.
Pulling alongside of him, I called out, “Are you hungry?” After a moment of studying me, a “yup” rumbled through his deep-bass vocal cords. “Me, too,” I said. “Let’s have supper over there. I’ll meet you at the Huddle House.” By the time I had parked, he was walking up.
I stuck out my hand and introduced
myself. “I’ve seen you in the
neighborhood for years,” I explained, “but I don’t know your name.” “Tommy,” he said. As we chatted, he gradually shifted his eyes to
look into mine. “Do you know Steamboat?” I asked. “Yup,” he said. Holding up two side-by-side
fingers, he said, “Boat and me are just like this.” Holding up two side-by-side
fingers, I said, “Good. Boat and me are just like this.” Steamboat did odd jobs in our office complex.
When we settled into our booth, I asked Tommy what he had had for breakfast. He shook his head. How about lunch? He shook his head, again. In between bites of a T-bone steak, two fried eggs, hashbrowns, grits, four pieces of toast and a glass of iced tea, Tommy told me his story. He had lived on the street for 17 years. His blanket and a few belongings were stowed in plastic trash bags in the bushes on a nearby vacant lot.
Tommy could tell I was distressed. He paused and flashed a gap-toothed grin, “I always look up, never down.” Glancing toward the Huddle House’s ceiling, his charcoal irises sparkled in a pair of bloodshot seas. “Do you know what’s tomorrow?” I asked. With an even bigger grin, he wiped the grits from his moustache and said, “Christmas.”
“How cold is it going to be tonight?” I asked. “Supposed to be in the 20s,” Tommy said. I urged him to sleep in the homeless shelter. He answered, “Already tried. Full.” “Well, Tommy,” I said, “I don’t think the motel over there is full.”
Pulling away from the Days Inn, 14 years ago, I cut off my car’s heater and slid the windows down. Covered with chill bumps, I drove home, reflecting on my chance encounter. Tommy is gone, but I don’t want to ever forget that I have a roof over my head and a warm bed.
Not just on Christmas Eve, but every night.