This story is by Dave Cenker and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The late model sports coupe accelerated down the road. Morris rented the higher tiered vehicle as a way to celebrate their recent real estate transaction. Kristi sat in the passenger seat, hiding behind her designer sunglasses. With the windows down, the cool breeze was more refreshing now that a hefty commission was pending deposit into their joint account.
The traffic light transitioned from yellow to red. As Morris applied the brakes and approached a full stop, Kristi rolled up her window.
“Too much wind?” asked Morris.
“Too much of something, that’s for sure.” The annoyance in Kristi’s tone confused Morris. There was nothing that could derail his good mood. What could possibly be eating Kristi?
The homely gentleman with a five o’clock shadow several days overdue for a shave glared through the windshield at every vehicle. Hobbling down the median, the cardboard from an old packing box had a message scrawled upon it in sloppy block letters. Homeless. Anything helps.
Morris tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as the gentleman sidled alongside their car. Kristi stared forward with her eyes locked on the traffic light as if there was a secret message to decode inside it.
Morris glanced at the gentleman and nodded subtly. He didn’t make a beeline to their window. He simply returned a nod and gazed through the windshield for some indication that a donation might be forthcoming.
Morris looked over toward Kristi, “Everyone has a story. We’re one unfortunate incident and one failed deal from being in that position, you know.”
“Nope. Don’t buy it.” She remained fixated on the light, pursing her lips in frustration at Morris’ challenge to her principles.
“How can you be sure you understand how it is for everyone else on the planet?” The amiable and celebratory atmosphere had evaporated between the two partners who were now divided on societal issues.
“They just take the money and head to the nearest liquor store to buy their next six-pack.”
“Some, maybe. I don’t disagree with you. But, it’s not fair to carte Blanche throw everyone into that category.”
“Yeah, show me otherwise. Until then, your beliefs are misguided to me.”
It’s all the nudging Morris needed. Their company’s success grew organically thanks to a mutual competitive spirit. Morris would push Kristi and Kristi would do the same to Morris.
“Fine. Watch this.” Morris rolled down the passenger window.
“What are you doing?!?”
“Excuse me, sir?” Morris motioned to the man now hobbling with a sense of urgency toward Kristi’s window. Morris dug a five dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to the gentleman. Kristi leaned toward the center console, repulsed by the man’s disheveled appearance.
“Bless you,” said the man in a gruff voice. The pungency of his body odor proved that bathing hadn’t been an occurrence in his recent past. He grinned, revealing crooked and yellowed teeth that seemed to confirm a bad habit in the form of tobacco. He backed away from the window, tucked the makeshift sign into his jacket and proceeded to cross the street.
Morris lacked confidence about the validity of his challenge despite the positive vibe and gut feeling when exchanging that brief nod with the homeless gentleman. Kristi’s smug grin indicated she knew this is what would happen all along.
“Over there, the parking lot.” She pointed to the gas station as the light turned green. Morris pulled into the lot and watched across the street. On one corner was a fast food joint. On the other, a small convenience store.
Morris whispered under his breath, hoping that this gentleman would make the right choice and prove his point. Bypassing the opportunity for a cheap meal, he made his way into the convenience store.
“Told you so,” Kristi gloated.
“That doesn’t mean anything yet.” The words were filled with false hope as Morris suspected he would be proven misguided. It was still possible, however, for the man to come out of the store with a bag of chips or a cheese danish.
Morris sighed with resignation as the man exited the store a few minutes later carrying a paper bag containing a bottle. Unscrewing the lid, he took a few gulps before tucking the bag into his jacket alongside the sign.
“Let’s just go,” Morris sighed as he started the car.
“No, not yet. This pisses me off. People taking advantage of hard-working members of society to fuel their damaging vices.” Kristi opened the door and marched across the parking lot, eyes locked on the gentleman across the street.
“Hey!” She was more intent on giving this man a piece of her mind than getting hit by oncoming traffic, nearly getting obliterated by an SUV that had a green light.
“Geez,” muttered Morris, darting from the car and following Kristi to prevent her from doing anything more stupid than she’d already done. “Kristi!” She wasn’t listening.
“Who do you think you are?” She laid into the gentleman who seemed genuinely shocked to be confronted by this woman who’d not even glanced in her direction a few moments ago. A seething anger radiated from her eyes as she spoke.
“Stealing money from an honest man? For what? Another drink? Another buzz that you can’t possibly live without?”
The gentleman remained calm. He’d been in this situation before, defending his vices. He pulled the bottle from his jacket, trying to alleviate this woman’s hostility.
“Want some?” He handed her the brown bag.
“You have some nerve, you know. You are a pitiful excuse for a human being. First, you rip-off my partner and now you try to bribe me into thinking it’s all okay. Screw you.”
Kristi spat at the man while simultaneously swiping her right hand to knock the bag from the man’s grasp. It went flying through the air toward the sidewalk.
Morris watched the events unfurl before his eyes, the confrontation between his partner and the homeless gentleman as the blue police lights pulled into the parking lot.
Morris converged at the scene as the officer approached, hoping to diffuse this volatile situation as it became evident that there had been a mistake.
The brown liquid covering the sidewalk was not beer. It was chocolate milk. Kristi realized this as the officer arrived between them with an imposing stature.
“Is this gentleman bothering you, ma’am?”
She felt beyond guilty—for spitting at him, swiping at him, but mostly for throwing him under the bus with every other vagrant that she’d come across. It was this officer’s comment that made it even worse. The first person to blame was always the desperate homeless man, when in fact, she was the one accosting him and not the other way around.
“No officer,” Kristi replied. “I was just helping this gentleman who dropped his drink.”
“Are you sure?” replied the officer, not certain that Kristi was divulging the entire truth.
“No, I’m sure. Thank you.”
The officer departed while Kristi bent over to pick up the shards of glass that had been scattered over the sidewalk.
“I’m so sorry,” she offered without looking up. She was too embarrassed to even look at him. “I’ll buy you another one right away.”
“No worries,” said the gentleman. “I don’t really like them anyway.”
Kristi paused from cleaning the mess and looked up in his direction with a confused gaze.
“What do you mean? Why’d you buy it then?”
The gentleman reached into his jacket and pulled out a tiny dinosaur toy from his pocket.
“Had to buy the milk to get this free toy. I saw my granddaughter eye it when she was in here the other day. She don’t know I exist. Her daddy keeps it from her. But, I figured that shouldn’t stop me from doing somethin’ nice for her, you know.”
With this homely but kind gentleman towering over her as she was cleaning the sidewalk, Kristi felt smaller than she already was. Without hesitation, she dug a hand into her pocket, retrieved her wallet, and withdrew the only bill she had in it, her lucky fifty that had been there when she sealed her first deal.
She kept it wrapped in her palm while she rose to her feet.
“What is your name?”
“Irving is my name, ma’am.”
“Irving, my name is Kristi and I’m so very sorry for …” She wasn’t sure how to put her own repulsive actions into words. “I’m just so sorry. Please forgive me.”
She took his hand, tucked the fifty dollar bill inside it and curled his fingers around it so that he couldn’t see what was there. “Buy your granddaughter a proper toy, and yourself a meal and some clothes.”
“Let’s go,” urged Kristi, grabbing Morris’ arm and pulling him back toward their car. She walked with purpose, without any hesitation or guessing as to how her generous donation would be spent. It had been her lucky charm, and Kristi couldn’t have felt any luckier to bestow that charm on a more deserving human being.