This story is by Elizabeth Jones and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Owen closed the front door a bit harder than was necessary, on accident. The sound of the door closing reverberated through the empty townhouse.
At loose ends, with nothing in particular he had to do that minute—that day—that month—he seated himself on the sofa, looking at the lonely, cozy room.
Gail had gone out of her way to make sure it was cozy when they downsized just a few months before. Owen retired and they purchased this small townhouse, convenient to everything in that suburb’s downtown. Except—she hadn’t expected to die so soon after choosing the colors of the fresh coats of paint and the brand-new washer and drier.
Owen’s exhalation of breath got caught on the way out in a half-sigh, half-sob. He missed Gail far more than he would have guessed, like half of him had been suddenly chopped off.
Coming home with her favorite apricot sweet roll, four weeks ago. Finding her motionless, head down on the kitchen table, crossword puzzle half-done. The EMTs who arrived said there was nothing they could do. That mental picture still vividly filled his mind.
His cell phone rang, splitting the air with the unexpected jangling sound.
“Dad, I’m glad you picked up,” his daughter said in her no-nonsense manner.
“Hello to you, too, Tina.”
“Pastor Roberta called me. She said she hadn’t been able to get through to you for days.”
Owen heard the long-distance concern in his daughter’s voice. “Okay. I’ll get in touch with her.” Except, he wouldn’t hurry any.
He was still in a fog of grief and despair. He had noticed the pastor’s name on his cell phone several times, and just did not pick up the phone. Calls from his daughter Tina and his son Keith were the only calls he bothered to answer. Sometimes.
He finally talked to Pastor Roberta. For some unknown reason he could not fathom, Owen was intrigued by the idea of helping in the clothes closet. He wouldn’t need to talk to anyone. He could sort the gently used clothes as they came in. “All right. I’ll try that.”
Friday morning came, and Owen started in at the clothes closet. He worked with a will, if quietly, and was much appreciated by the other volunteers from the church.
After several weeks of sorting clothes and shoes, Owen decided to attend the clothes closet distribution on Saturday morning. A couple came up to him at the long table where he sat (ostensibly to answer questions).
“Excuse me, sir. Do you have any blue jeans in tall sizes?” A lanky man with extra thick glasses stood next to a diminutive woman with a brace on one leg and well-worn forearm crutches.
Intrigued by the oddly matched couple, Owen stood up and brought them to the pants section. “I sorted these pairs of jeans, yesterday. The sizes are all marked. I’m not sure whether any of them will work for you, but feel free to check.”
As he left the couple—the odd couple, as he thought of them—Owen saw the woman acting as the man’s eyes, reading the sizes on the pants. He observed the couple check out several other items of clothing, then gather three items (including a pair of jeans Owen had sorted) a brightly colored sweater, and a pair of gently used gym shoes. Brought them to the two ladies sitting at the check-out table near the door.
After the oddly assorted couple left, Owen wandered over to his co-volunteers. “What an interesting couple.”
“Oh, yes!” nodded Patsy, a woman about Owen’s age. “They come in every few weeks. I think it’s wonderful, helping each other get around the way they do.”
As October changed to November, Owen surreptitiously found out a bit more about the couple from the ever-so-helpful Patsy.
“Oh, yes! From what I understand, he was homeless for years, until out of control diabetes caused his eyesight to go. And, I don’t know her story. I tried to find out, but they keep to themselves.”
Thanksgiving approached, and the Saturday before was a special day. The clothes closet had not only its regular assortment of wearables, but there were two additional tables with a large assortment of cans of fruit and vegetables, plus boxes of pasta, cereal, and crackers.
The guests at the clothes closet tracked in the slush falling from the sky. Finally, a half hour before closing—at eleven thirty—Owen watched the odd couple walk in. The short woman made a bee-line for the food table. Not much food remained.
Owen saw her tall companion take his time walking over, with a pronounced limp. The man’s legs and backside were wet, with a dirt-stained streak down one side. The limping side.
Owen noticed several boxes of pasta forgotten under the table. On impulse, Owen came forward, next to the woman as she chose the few cans of vegetables that remained. “Here,” he bent down, and came up with a box in both hands. Triumphant. “If you’d like these, that is,” he added, almost apologetic.
The woman seemed surprised, and then smiled. A genuine smile, crinkling the crow’s feet at her eyes. “Thanks.” Owen found himself smiling back, his smile creaky from disuse.
Her tall companion frowned, and then bent over to whisper to her. Owen couldn’t help but hear. Because of the tumble he taken on the way to the clothes closet, the man wouldn’t be able to carry much. She looked suddenly distressed, as if she had just realized that, too.
On impulse, Owen offered the odd couple a ride home, with all the groceries on the table. Patsy and the other volunteers gladly packed up several bags. Owen found himself with the lanky man in the car’s passenger seat, the woman in the back.
They crossed the border separating the suburb from Chicago. A half block from the Elevated line was where the couple directed him. An old, tired apartment building. Owen had seen the signs of gentrification on the surrounding blocks, but not in this shabby building. He helped them bring the groceries up to the second floor.
They entered a glorified studio apartment with a separate kitchenette, plus mismatched furniture, and not much of it. Three cheerful pink geraniums sat near the bay window, drawing his eye.
The woman got suddenly shy as she took Owen’s hand. “How can I—we thank you?”
Owen waved his hand, said it was nothing, and meant it. They finally exchanged names, and Owen was properly introduced to Julie and Hector. On impulse again, Owen gave them his cell phone number. As he left the apartment he invited them to call, and meant it.
Pastor Roberta invited Owen to her house on Thanksgiving Day, as she had several other people who were alone that day. But, Owen declined. He was shy. He could relate to his new friend Julie—suddenly shy. It was something they both shared.
His children Tina and Keith both lived out of state. Tina worked Thanksgiving at the hospital—overtime, as usual—and Keith celebrated the holiday with his new wife’s family in Buffalo.
Owen reflected. He thought about the odd couple as he sat at the restaurant for a solitary meal. He had never talked extensively before with people on the edge, on the poverty line. Amazing—they were just like him. Except, he had much more stuff. Lots of extraneous clutter that weighed him down.
He returned to the clothes closet the following Friday to sort the various clothing, energized with a new sense of—of what? He wasn’t sure, but energized he was.
Online, he researched clothes closets, food pantries, and other helping activities, using those research skills that had served him well his whole life, as an accountant. He called Pastor Roberta, to set up a meeting with her about additional outreach to the needy.
(She was glad Owen was showing signs of interest in outside things.)
He saw Julie and Hector the first week of December, at the clothes closet. Surprising himself, he went right up and greeted them, shaking their hands.
(Surprising the other volunteers, too.)
A few days later, Julie called his cell phone. She shyly asked whether there would be another food distribution before Christmas.
That gave Owen another idea. He approached Pastor Roberta. Told her his vision for Christmas Day. The volunteers at the closet thought it was a superb idea, too.
Flyers posted, news spread. A sign outside of the church advertised Christmas dinner for anyone who was lonely. Unexpectedly, Owen found himself looking forward to Christmas.
The day dawned, clear and bright. Dinner was set for 2:00. Donated turkeys, mashed potatoes, green beans, pumpkin pie—Owen pitched right in.
After dinner and after caroling in the church basement, Hector gruffly said to Owen, “Thanks for seeing us like humans, instead of seeing poverty.”
Julie wrapped a hand-crocheted striped scarf around Owen’s neck. “Thanks for a wonderful Christmas, my friend.”