From: Easter Stories
Looks like I’m always getting into trouble for something. Seems like maybe I get into more trouble than all the rest of the boys in Bigelow put together. Funny thing is, I try so hard not to, and the harder I try the worse it gets. Just can’t make it out. Lucky for me Dad seems to understand this kind of thing pretty well; seems like maybe he wasn’t exactly a cherub when he was a boy.
I’m sitting with Ben Chapman on the school bus, heading down Highway 15. Last day of school before Easter holidays. Can’t hardly wait to put away the books; spring is ready to burst out all over and school’s no place to be when that happens, as any boy knows.
We’re just coming into town past the monastery and Mrs. Acres is driving like a madman as usual, flattening me against the window every time she takes a left turn. On the right turns I pretty near send Ben flying into the aisle, but he’s a fast learner and hangs on for dear life.
We swing onto Main Street, a couple blocks from school, where there’s this little park with a fountain and a wishing pool and a few benches. Mrs. Acres straightens out onto Main and Ben squashes me up against the window again. I poke him in the ribs and we laugh together.
Suddenly I look out again, back behind us now, at the pool we just went by. I’m drying the steam off the window with my shirt cuff and trying to get a better look. Under one of the benches there’s something I didn’t notice before, something that looks a lot like a pair of shoes. I stand up and wipe the window fast to get one last look, and then it’s gone. I sit down, my mind spinning.
Ben, I say, and my voice is suddenly dry. I saw some guy lying under the bench back there. Newspaper covering him over, just his feet sticking out.
Oh yeah? says Ben. Lemme see. He leans across me to get a look.
Too late, I tell him. Out of sight.
Ben sits down again. Probably just some homeless guy up from the city. That’s where they usually hang out, you know, in the parks and stuff.
I sink back into my seat, but my mind is going in circles. Why in the world would some guy sleep under a park bench? Why doesn’t he go home? Well, maybe he doesn’t have one. How come his relatives don’t look after him then, take care of him? Maybe he doesn’t have relatives, or if he does, maybe they don’t care about him. It goes round and round in my head; every way I turn it, I can’t figure it out.
All through the school day I’m haunted by that pair of shoes, just can’t get it out of my mind. In history class Mrs. Pender is helping Christopher Columbus plan his cargo on the Santa Maria back in 1592. Don’t forget his shoes, I’m thinking. In math class we’re calculating average income per capita and I’m thinking of some guy with zero income. Can’t shake the image of those shoes. Can’t concentrate on schoolwork. Imagine, some guy spending Easter under a park bench!
And then I get this crazy idea. Mom’s going to blow her stack. Dad? Well, like I said, he’s got a way of snoring through an earthquake; probably won’t bother him in the least. Dad always says he and Mom are not cut from the same cloth; still, they love each other and I guess that’s what counts.
Bell rings after eighth period. I grab my backpack, but this time I don’t take the usual ride with Mrs. Acres. I take the side door. Heading off up Darley Avenue the second-guessing begins. Maybe I should talk to Dad first and visit the guy tomorrow. No, can’t do that, tomorrow’s Good Friday. Maybe he’d be gone by then anyway.
It’s only two blocks to the fountain, but I get nervous as I approach the park. What if he’s mean, or worse still, dangerous? Will there be other people around? What if he doesn’t want to talk?
I can see the spray from the fountain and other people walking by on the sidewalk, so I press on. At last I can see the area with the benches. On the far side there’s some guy sitting, just sitting there. He looks up as I approach.
Hi, boy. His long hair is tied back in a ponytail and his bushy beard is a tangle of white and black strands, mostly white it looks like. His eyes are wild and haunting, but I can’t look away. It’s like I can see miles through him. He coughs a couple times.
Hello, I say, and stand there awkwardly. Then my tongue kicks into high gear. This morning I was riding the school bus past here and I saw someone sleeping under the bench. It bothered me, couldn’t get it out of my mind all through school. So I thought…maybe after school…. My thought kind of trails off into nowhere. Truth is, it never was really clear in my mind what I was coming here for.
He doesn’t answer. Just sits and looks at me, seems to be thinking this over.
So I ask him right out. Were you sleeping under that bench?
Yep, he says slowly. I was sleeping under that bench. So it bothered you, huh? How come?
I’m not sure, I tell him. Just seems like everybody should have a home, I guess.
This seems to please him some; his muscles relax a bit and he doesn’t seem quite so suspicious. Yep, he says, I’ve been around a bit. I guess I haven’t seen the inside of a house for quite awhile. But don’t worry about it, boy, I get along. He coughs again, then shifts a little on the hard bench, sort of gathering himself together.
I’m quiet, thinking this over. I’m bothered all the more by what he says. Just doesn’t make sense. He looks thin to me, so I ask him, Do you get enough to eat?
Now he’s quiet and this faraway look comes into those eyes again. He squints and looks hard at me. Hunger’s a relative thing, boy. Take yourself for example. If you’re used to eating at five and you don’t get home to dinner till nine tonight, you’ll think yourself starving, right? Then there are the folk in third-world countries who think having a bowl of rice twice a day is a feast. It’s all relative, you see.
I can’t stop staring at this guy. I’m more used to three-piece suits and ties, meticulously trimmed mustaches, and matching cufflinks.
Homelessness has been going on for centuries, he says to me. Even back in Bible times. Jesus himself was a homeless man, no place to rest his head, it says.
That’s a new thought to me. Most of what I’ve heard in church has Jesus sitting on a throne at the right hand of God, King of Kings and all that. But it makes sense what the guy says. Jesus was a wanderer, poor and despised.
Before I can ask another question he beats me to the punch.
What day is it tomorrow, do you know?
It’s Good Friday, I tell him.
Ah, yes, Good Friday. And what was so good about it, my boy?
Now that he puts it like that, it’s a good question. It stumps me for a minute, and before I can respond he answers his own question.
Tough question, huh? Well, I’ll tell you what was good about it. Men turned away from God and from his ways for thousands of years, scorned his prophets and put them to death. But all was not lost, right? God had an ace up his sleeve. When all else fails, he figured, he’d send down his Son.
“So he sends Jesus to the Earth, Christmas, you know. What a great event that was for the whole universe, a tremendous outpouring of love from the Father! And yet the people didn’t recognize him. Rather, they were threatened and disturbed by him. So the only way left was for the Son to take on the suffering of the world. Without his suffering, Easter, the victory of life over death, of light over darkness, of Good over Evil, would have been impossible. That’s why it’s called Good Friday.
He pauses for a moment as a tall regal woman walks quickly past, closely followed by a well-groomed poodle on a leash. Disgust darkens her features as she glances our way; it oozes out of her and washes over the two of us like a cold damp mist. Her glance is aimed at my friend but it hurts me as well. My friend waits until she is well out of earshot.
Yes, homelessness and suffering, they’re two sides of the same knife. There are different kinds of suffering, you know. Some suffering is senseless and cruel and pointless, suffering that seems to have no purpose. This is the hardest to bear. Some suffering is redemptive, because we understand its meaning. Men can suffer incredible tragedy and pain if they can only understand the meaning behind it.
He pauses as a city bus roars by, mute faces staring blankly out of the dirty windows.
The Bible says that men learn obedience through the school of suffering. Someone who has experienced suffering himself can often give comfort to another who suffers, because they have gone through the valley of darkness themselves. They are able to comfort and encourage, to weep, to laugh, and to sing together with the suffering soul.
I sit down next to him. Never heard anything like this in church.
I know about this, my boy. He glances over his shoulder. Look here. Out of the folds of his overcoat he brings a small wooden cigar box. He unhooks the clasp and opens the lid gently, almost reverently. There’s this scarlet satin cloth inside and he lifts a fold to expose a photograph, faded but clear. It’s a boy about my age. He’s got this Pittsburgh Pirates cap on and he’s pounding his fist into his glove, face beaming with excitement. It’s a beautiful photo. I look at it long and then look up at the man, and I can see the boy grown old and worn and tired. There are tears forming in the corners of his eyes, and as I watch they gather and swell and brim over and trickle down into the matted beard and disappear. I can hear the honk of a car horn behind me and the shouts of children down the street, but here in the park it is absolutely quiet.
One afternoon at the park I’m hitting him fly balls, he says at last in a whisper. I take this picture, set the camera down, and hit a long fly ball. It slices into the street. He goes after it, totally forgetting where he is, his whole attention focused on the ball. I scream at him but he doesn’t hear. A pickup hits him and keeps right on going. I sit in the street with his head in my lap until the ambulance comes. He looks at me through suffering eyes and whispers, “But Dad, you hit it.” “But Dad you hit it.” Over and over and over. It cuts deep into my heart, like a condemnation of my soul. I never have a chance to ask his forgiveness; he’s gone before he reaches the hospital.
Another pause. His mother, God bless her, never survived his coming. He was all I had in this world. So I take to the road, searching for a reason for this terrible accident, an answer, a meaning, anything. Haven’t found it yet, the redemptive part I mean, the purpose, the meaning. Then he’s crying, softly but painfully, and the weeping is mixed with coughing.
I can feel the pain, the terrible suffering that pours out of the man. I don’t know what to do or say, so I do what comes naturally. I reach out and take his hand and bury my face in his coat. I cry for his suffering, for the suffering of the world. I can feel his arms close around me and I can feel the sobs come deep. They shake his whole body for a minute and then subside slowly, like the tide going out. I can feel the hurt draining away, and I understand how pain and suffering are lightened when shared with another.
He closes the lid of the box, puts it away, and swings his sleeve across his eyes. I’m still looking, boy, he says.
It’s only then I realize how late it is. I want you to come and spend Easter with us, I tell him. I’m going to tell my Dad and Mom and tomorrow we’ll be down to pick you up. We have plenty of room. OK?
I look deeply into his eyes, then turn and walk off.
Next morning, after the Good Friday service, my Dad and I arrive at the park to pick him up. There’s a couple of police cars there and yellow tape enclosing the area around the fountain; the whole place is cordoned off.
What’s going on? my Dad asks one of the officers, a bug burly fellow with a crew cut and neatly pressed uniform.
Not much, sir. Just a homeless fellow from the city, died in the night, apparently of starvation. Clear the area, please.
I think Easter will always be associated with suffering in my mind. Actually, maybe that’s its true meaning, after all.
I won’t forget him, my friend at the fountain.