The wind whirled flakes of fallen snow around the corner of Temple Square. Brother Arnold’s message still stirred in the corners of Faye’s thoughts: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these …” She pulled up the collar of her new, red suede coat, caressing it with her cheek. It didn’t prevent the wind from finding new pathways up the sleeves and under the hem. She shivered and hurried down the sidewalk, hugging the buildings closely to avoid the wind. The fresh odor of pine and spice spilled from the candy and furniture store doorways, blending in the street to form a sea of Christmas smells.
As she breathed in the aromas, she glanced at her watch. 9:25. It was getting late. Shivering again she thrust her hands inside her pockets and balanced her purse against her hip. As she gazed at a glittering array of diamonds in a jewelry store window, she came within inches of crashing into an old man who was huddled against the building. She tripped to avoid a collision and dropped her handbag. As she stooped to retrieve the purse, he stooped with her, grabbing it with bare, crooked fingers. The light from the streetlamp reflected eerily from the old man’s eyes like two flames in the dark. He smiled, and the glow revealed a broken tooth. Faye jerked back and covered her mouth.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Din’t mean ta scar ya so. Wouldja like ta buy a bright Christmas pencil?” he rasped in a scratchy voice, handing her the purse. She fumbled in her pocket and found a quarter she had put there for her little brother, Ronny. “Thank ya,” he said “and Meery Christmas.” He bowed low, extending an imaginary hat with his hand.
She stopped at the corner only a few yards away to await her bus, rested a hand on her pounding chest, and took a deep breath. Squeezing closely to the wall, she found herself engulfed in the shadow of a cafe marquee. Magnetically the old man pulled her eyes back to him. He crouched there in the doorway of the candy store in an oversized, earth-brown coat and scuffed logger boots. A black felt hat was pulled over his ears and held in place with a scarf tied under his chin. He shuffled back and forth against the building holding his metal box filled with pencils. The bare, gnarled hands alternately shifted the box and slipped inside his coat for warmth.
Faye had seen an old man like him many times as a child. He had stopped regularly at their door at Christmas and in the summer, each year appearing more wrinkled and more stooped in the shoulders. Her father dragged out old suits and shoes while her mother prepared sandwiches for him. Faye remembered shivering from fear in the corner behind the great folds of drapes, aghast at his long, spiney whiskers and the layers of flesh that hung loosely about his face.
Faye shivered now in the cold as she watched the people rush past the old man as store closing times approached. Many times his hand reached out, “Wouldja like ta buy …” and fell limply to his side.
A woman approached with her hair wound around her head in a beehive of braids and curls. She paused, and then grasping her bundles tightly, circled around the man huddled in the doorway, and hurried down the street.
The old man shuffled faster as he blew into the empty hand. Two gentlemen with briefcases hurried by. One in a double-breasted tweed coat spoke aloud to the other, gesturing in the air with his hand. “Be realistic, Walt. If I could anticipate a drop in the market,” he reached mechanically into his pocket, “I’d make us all a fast buck.” He flipped a silver coin, which sailed through the air and landed with a clink into the metal box and bounced out onto the ground near the scuffed logger boots. The gentleman’s stride never broke as the old man reached for a pencil and waved it noiselessly in the air. The briefcases shrunk in the distance. The old man turned, mumbling, and spat on the ground. He stared down at the coin for an instant and then stooped and picked it up. He grew smaller as he slumped into the doorway. The metal box scratched the cement as he placed it beside him, and he rubbed his gnarled hands together blowing warm breath into them. Faye looked down at her own gloved hands, straight and soft under the warm pigskin.
Her bus rolled up to the corner, and the doors slid open inviting her to return to the warmth of home. She started toward the bus, paused, and stared back over her shoulder at the old man. Brother Arnold’s voice echoed in her memory with a new clarity, “Inasmuch as ye do it …” She looked down at her watch. There would be another bus. She turned and marched down the street, disappearing into the dime store.
She chose some large leather gloves lined with fur and had them carefully gift wrapped with a gold bow on top.
Reappearing on the street, she couldn’t see the old man. Her eyes widened as they searched the sidewalk and finally caught sight of a dark figure at the crosswalk. She ran.
“Sir! Wait, sir!”
He looked over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised.
“Yes, sir, you. I have something for you,” and she handed him the package. His lips parted as he glanced down at the package and back up at Faye. His shaggy brows knitted together as he gazed at her through moistened eyes. He rummaged in his metal box until he found two bright, gold pencils and handed them to her. They searched each other’s faces as he stretched forth a tremulous hand and lightly touched her arm. For an instant the rough, earth-brown coat rested gently on the soft, red suede. Faye lowered her eyes. She suddenly pulled back her arm, turned and hurried toward the bus stop. She leaned her weight against the wind without shivering.