A Touch of Goodwill
By Michael Hawkins
From this distance, he looked aged beyond his prime. He stood hunched over, hands pushed deep into the pockets of his jeans. His thin red nylon jacket rippled in the cold December wind. He wore a white stocking cap peppered with holes, the same one he always wore. The clouds of his breath were as thick as cigarette smoke. I have seen this man every day for ten months, but I am always taken aback when I see him up close. As I moved to where he stood, his youthful features came into focus. A beard that refused to grow evenly covered smooth cheeks. His dark brown hair stuck out from under his stocking cap. He looked at me with pleading eyes, the eyes of a man whose dreams have betrayed him. From a distance, he looked like any other bum on the streets of Atlanta. Up close he was one of a kind.
I had never spoken to the man before. In fact, I've never initiated conversation with a vagrant in my life. My preconceptions of the homeless were instilled by my father at an early age. "It's not that they can't work, it's that they won't," he used to say, as if it were true of each and every one of them. "They ain't worth a second thought." While I had doubts that every homeless person was just too lazy to provide for himself, I had still never given one the time of day.
I walked alongside the alley, just a few feet from where the young man stood hunched over a smoldering trash barrel. I saw the flame that provided his warmth fizzle down to a puff of smoke. A cold rain began to fall, reducing his chances at comfort even more. His pleading eyes bore into me. I had never spoken to a homeless person, but at that moment, looking into his heartbroken eyes, I decided that it was time for the wall of silence to come down.
"Merry Christmas," I said to him.
His eyes lit up with joy, as if those two words were best ever spoken to him. "Merry Christmas to you, sir," he said warmly.
I smiled and turned to continue toward my apartment. I heard him call me from behind. "Sir, do you have any change to spare? I have not eaten in quite a while."
His voice was as remarkable as his appearance. He did not talk like others living on the street. His speech suggested good rearing, an educated upbringing. Nevertheless, I was not willing to part with my pocket change too easily. I turned and faced him. He eagerly awaited my reply.
"I might give you some money," I said. "But you're going to have to earn it."
The young vagrant looked puzzled. "Earn it? How so?"
"Tell me a story. Entertain me. If I like the story, I'll give you enough money for a good meal."
"I donít know any stories."
"Someone like you, out here on the streets day in and day out? I'll bet youíve seen all kinds. Surely you have at least one story you can tell me."
"Really, I can't think of one."
"A joke, then," I said. "Make me laugh."
"I'm no more a comedian than a storyteller. Sorry. I won't bother you any more. Have a Merry Christmas." With that, he started back toward his trash barrel in the dark alley.
The young man had done nothing to prove my father wrong about the homeless. Disappointed, I turned my back to the man and headed for home. Suddenly, he called to me again.
"Say, where are you headed?" The man was walking toward me again.
I continued walking toward my apartment but slowed to allow him to catch up. I told him I was going home.
"Christmas with the family?"
I swallowed hard. The man could not have possibly known that he had hit a nerve with that question. This would be my first Christmas alone. My wife Catherine had left me in February. She said I loved the bottle more than her, and there was not room in my life for both of them. I had been spending nine of the last ten months trying to prove her wrong. I resorted to binge drinking for the first few weeks after she left, as any good alcoholic would, but I had finally decided that I would have to overcome drinking to have any hope of winning her back. Christmas Eve marked my ninth full month of sobriety, but Catherine still would not give me another chance.
"I'm spending Christmas alone," I said. "Not that it's any of your business." I quickened my pace, hoping he would not try to keep up.
The man quickened his pace as well. "Christmas alone, huh? Mighty sad. I should know. I've spent many alone myself."
"I'm sure you have." I was growing weary of his persistence. I regretted wishing him a happy holiday in the first place.
"Say, I know what I could do for you, to earn that meal, I mean. Let me cook Christmas dinner for you." His eyes were sparkling with excitement. He was practically skipping beside me.
"What in the world are you talking about? You can cook?"
"Of course. I finished a degree in the culinary arts down in Charleston. When I started working, I spent too much time at the bar and not enough in the kitchen. That's how I wound up here."
I stopped in my tracks and looked at him. The rain started coming down harder. "See! There's a story! And you said you didnít know any." I reached into my pocket and passed him a handful of change. He took the change, stared at it a moment, then looked up at me with disappointed eyes. "You have a Merry Christmas," I said, hoping he would go away satisfied with the buck fifty or so in his possession. I started walking briskly toward home, which was now only two blocks away.
"I'd really like to cook you Christmas dinner," he called out behind me. "What have you got to lose? We're both alone this Christmas, so we might as well keep each other company. Besides, I have a feeling we have a lot in common, Derek."
I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around slowly. I did not recall any formal introductions during our conversation, so how did he know my name? I took a few steps toward him.
He must have seen confusion written all over my face. He held up my folded business card. "Derek Walker, CPA. It was in the handful of change you just gave me."
I stopped again and studied the young homeless man. "Well, as long as you know my name, I might as well know yours."
ďChris Goodwill. Pleased to meet you."
"You too, Chris." I cocked my head to one side, looked at him curiously. "I hate to disappoint you, but I donít have any food at home for Christmas dinner, unless you want to split a frozen pizza."
"There's a store two blocks down Peachtree," he said. "You buy, I cook. Sounds like a fair trade. I'll even kick in the change you just gave me."
I continued to study him and pondered his offer. Most people would think me a fool to take a man off the street into my home, especially my vagrant-phobic father. Any other night I would think it crazy as well. However, Christmas Eve was not just any night, and it was not one I wanted to spend all by myself. Given the choice, I would much rather be with Catherine, but I did not have that choice. It was the night before Christmas, I was alone, and as Chris said, I had nothing to lose.
We walked through the rain to the corner grocery off Peachtree, just a block and half from my apartment. I allowed Chris to pick out our feast. He selected a small turkey, sweet potatoes, and the ingredients for stuffing and green bean casserole. I paid for the groceries and the cashier locked the door behind us as we left, closing up until after the holiday.
We hardly spoke ten words to one another as Chris cooked our meal. I sat alone in the living room reading the paper while he prepared the food. It was nearly midnight by the time we sat down to eat. I took a bite of turkey and looked up at him, noticed he was staring at me expectantly. The food was exquisite, a far cry from the frozen pizza I planned to substitute for Christmas dinner. When Chris Goodwill said he could cook he was not exaggerating.
"This is excellent," I said through a mouthful of food.
Chris grinned triumphantly and took a bite for himself. His eyes rolled back into his head in ecstasy. There was no telling how long it had been since he tasted a home cooked meal.
"It is heavenly, if I do say so myself," Chris said.
We finished our meal in silence. When it's quiet at the table, you know the food is good. I have lived in Atlanta nearly my entire life and have eaten at practically every fine restaurant in town. There is no doubt that if it were not for his current lease in life, Chris Goodwill could have been working at any one of them. He truly had a talent. I cleaned my plate and went back for seconds.
When I was done eating, I watched him finish his meal. Without staring obviously, I studied his face and eyes in the light. He was definitely a young man, well disguised by poor grooming and tattered clothes. He couldn't be a day over thirty-five. His eyes sparkled with electricity, like he knew some great cosmic secret that was still a mystery to everyone else. Most homeless people are transparent. It only becomes obvious that they take up space when they make an advance toward you. Chris had an aura about him though, a presence few possessed. I had noticed it seeing him on the street, but it was even more evident in the familiarity of my apartment. It seemed brighter with him in it.
"How old are you, anyway? You look too young to be homeless."
"There is no minimum age homelessness. Besides, I'm older than you think." He did not seem willing to elaborate beyond that.
"You aren't the typical bum on the street, Chris. How did you get here?"
"I already told you, Derek. Too much drinkin', not enough thinkin'. It's every homeless man's sad story. Nothing new."
"I've lived in this city a long time, seen lots of homeless people through the years, and you're not run of the mill. Donít even try to say that you are."
"I'm more ordinary than you think."
"Sure, ordinary like me. Not ordinary like them. Why donít you try to get a job? I might be able to help you out. I've got friends in this town."
Chris smiled and got a far off look in his eye. "Thanks, maybe someday. Right now I'm where I belong."
"You definitely donít belong out there on the street. You've got something to offer."
"So do the rest of them, Derek, the people on the street. Almost every vagrant in this or any town once had a life. Be it drugs or drink or just bad luck, it was taken away, or they gave it away. I donít deserve a normal life any more than anyone else out there."
I was in no mood to ruin what was turning out to be an extremely tolerable Christmas by arguing street theology. Chris must have sensed that I wanted a change of subject. He looked around the room, took in the artwork on the walls and pictures on the living room tables. He focused on a picture of Catherine on the mantle for several moments.
"Why are you alone, Derek? What happened?"
He could not have picked a worse subject. I clearly would not be allowed to forget that this was my first Christmas without her, regardless of how hard I tried. I looked over my shoulder at the picture he had been looking at. It was a beautiful picture of my dear Catherine, showing off her wavy brown hair, high cheekbones, and full lips. The picture held a place of prominence on my mantle, a reminder of my goal to win her back. "Always write your goals down, and put them where you'll see them every day," my father used to say. I didnít need to write down that goal. Her picture was motivation enough.
For nearly a year, I had maintained a tough exterior, but my soul was tortured beyond repair. Every day at the office, I was an oak around my friends and coworkers, never outwardly showing weakness. Every night at home, I cried myself to sleep. Each day was an emotional roller coaster with no final turn in sight.
Catherine was the focal point of my life for ten years. During much of that time, she was the only thing that kept me going each day. She supported me through all of my bouts of self-loathing and doubt, constantly urging me to press on. Eventually my self-prescribed professional failure turned to depression and I turned to alcohol for solitude. I pushed her away. It was the greatest mistake of my life. Given the chance, I was willing to spend the rest of my life making it up to her.
I was silent for several moments, pondering whether or not to answer Chris's question. Why was I alone? So many reasons, all of them squarely on my shoulders.
"My wife left me," I said.
"I'm sorry. Do you still love her?"
"Pretty personal question there, Chris. Donít push it."
"Sorry. I figured as long as we're sharing Christmas dinner, might as well get to know one another a bit."
I looked at him across the table. He had an insatiable curiosity that left him prone to asking the worst possible questions. Still I found myself answering him despite my reservations.
"Yes, I love her very much. I sit here every night, praying for the phone to ring and her to be on the other line." I sat back in my chair and stared out the window at the dark Atlanta skyline. "Iím still waiting for that call to come."
"You're very patient," Chris said. "Is this your first Christmas alone?"
He crossed the line again, but I felt helpless to hold back. I had been waiting too long for a chance to vent my feelings. "Yes. I've been trying not to think about it. It's hard, you know, being with someone for ten years and then suddenly alone again. It's not even the loneliness. I betrayed her. She was willing to do anything for me, and I just cast her aside and dove headfirst into a bottle of vodka every night. I was too self-absorbed to give her the love she deserved. I live with that guilt every day." A tear welled up in my left eye and rolled down my cheek.
"It sounds like you're past that now, though. When was the last time you talked to her?"
"Not since she threw me out. I used to live in Marietta. She still lives in our house. I've tried calling her several times, but she never returns my calls. I quit trying about three months ago."
"Donít give up too easily," Chris said. He flashed me a reassuring smile. "She'll come around, you'll see."
"I wish I could believe that. I really let her down." I couldnít believe I was pouring my heart out to this stranger, but I guess he was technically no longer a stranger. Strangers donít usually share holiday meals.
"Donít be too hard on yourself, Derek. We all fall down in life, make mistakes. The people we love understand that. If she truly loves you, she'll give you another chance."
"Maybe you're right. I hope so." His wisdom was simplistic, but reassuring all the same.
"I should be going. If I donít get back to my alley soon, someone may stake out my territory."
"Look, it's cold and rainy out there. You're more than welcome to stay here. I have plenty of room."
He got up from the table. "Thank you, but you've been far too kind already. That was the best meal I've had in months, and I had the joy of fixing it myself."
"Are you sure? It's no trouble, really."
"I'm sure. Want me to take care of the dishes before I go?"
"No, I'll get them. Thank you for cooking. It truly was wonderful."
"Well thank you for having me."
I walked him to the door. He turned to me and extended his hand. I took it in a firm shake. "Feel free to come visit any time you want."
"Thanks. But somehow I donít think you'll be around here too much longer." With that, he turned and left. He did not look back as he headed down the dim hallway.
It was past one A.M. I stood at the sink finishing the dishes, staring out the window at the street below, wondering if I might spot Chris Goodwill settling in for the night. When the phone rang and I was so startled I nearly dropped a plate onto the floor. I looked at the caller ID and my spine turned cold. I shivered. I pressed the talk button and held the phone to my ear but could not utter a word. I was too overwhelmed by this lonely Christmas turned magical thanks to the sound of my sweet Catherineís voice.