“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to—”
Eli punched the scan button of the car radio dial with a little more force than necessary before curling his fingers back around the steering wheel. Static mingled with the broken sounds of passing Christmas tunes, news radio, and twangy country ballads.
From the backseat, Joshua sighed. Eli glanced at him through the rearview mirror.
“What’re you thinking about, buddy?”
“Mom.” Joshua’s eyes listlessly roved over the passing scenery. “She loved Christmas music.”
A knot lodged in Eli’s throat as he forced himself to focus on the slick road. How long before this ache would ease? Ally had been gone less than a year and yet it seemed as if time had frozen the moment breath left her body. Everything since had been a blur…a black, pain-filled haze.
People laughed, worked, went to school, graduated, carried on about their lives as if nothing had changed. Eli’s jaw clamped. Couldn’t they see?
Everything good had been ripped away, leaving a hollow ache inside.
He’d thought the move would have lessened the pain for both him and Joshua, yet so far it had only served to make the loneliness grow.
Eli braved another glance in the rearview mirror. No eight-year old boy should grow up without his mother.
“Is that the house?”
Joshua pointed to a two-story brick colonial sitting off the road just ahead.
“No, buddy.” Eli forced a smile. “You and I would never need something that big. But the realtor said you’ll love the neighborhood we’re headed to. Lots of friendly kids, a community pool and walking trails. The house she found is one level but it’s perfect. Lots of windows, light, and a great yard to play ball in. I’ve seen the pictures.”
Perfectly empty without Ally.
Stop it, Eli. His son needed him. Ally was gone and Joshua was here. He best focus on what he could control while—-
“Dad! Look out!”
Eli blinked and jerked the steering wheel to the left, narrowing missing the man who had stepped off the curb and into the congested street. A thump banged against the right front tire. Eli’s heart crawled into his throat. Had he hit the stranger? He blinked to see through the furious windshield wipers. He craned his neck, quickly looking back. No sign of the man.
“Is he okay?”
Joshua’s timid squeak gnawed at his already raw nerves.
“I don’t know, son. Hang on.”
Looking for an open shoulder, Eli maneuvered the car off the road. He twisted around to look at Joshua. “Stay here.”
“No! What if someone tries to steal the car and I’m in here? Take me with you.”
Eli winced. His son had been clingy ever since Ally’s death. He normally wouldn’t mind but he had no idea what they would discover back at the street corner.
“Alright, but if I tell you to look away, I need you to obey me immediately.”
They crawled out of the car and hunkered deeper into their coats. Icy cold rain pelted their faces and hands. Eli’s clothes quickly grew damp. When the rain shifted to icy crystals, he stopped and pulled Joshua’s hood tighter around his head, tugging him close as they walked down the road to the street corner.
A figure sat huddled underneath the street sign.
Eli approached slowly.
“Hey, you there! You okay, mister?”
Pale blue eyes peeped out from beneath a ratty blanket trying to cover a dirty coat. Stringy gray hair stuck out like gray tufts beneath a knit cap.
“What’s that you say?”
The man’s voice sounded gravelly, like wet pebbles bouncing around in a sack.
“Are you alright?”
“Just cold.” He shrugged ever so slightly. “Someone was kind enough to buy me a cup of hot coffee but as I was trying to cross the road, I got dizzy and spilled it. Clumsy of me.”
Eli sighed with relief. The coffee. That must have been the slight thump he and Joshua had heard. He eyed the stranger. Why had he been dizzy? Working off the latest fix?
Joshua stepped closer before Eli had a chance to stop him. “Why are you dizzy?”
The stranger huddled deeper. “Been awhile since I ate.”
Joshua looked up into Eli’s face with a pleading look. Eli groaned. He knew that look. It was the same one he tried whenever a lost dog showed up on their doorstep.
Come on, Dad. We have to do something. Please?
And the truth was, this man couldn’t stay in the weather. Not today. Evening would soon be approaching and the freezing rain would likely turn to straight ice.
Eli cleared his throat. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Angeles, my son and I would like to buy you something warm to eat and drink. Get you in out of this weather.”
His pale blue eyes blinked large. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll come and get warmed up.”
Angeles pushed himself up a bit stiffly and shuffled towards the car, hugging the ratty blanket to him like it was his only possession in the world. The thought gave Eli pause. Perhaps it was.
They climbed inside the Camry and Eli turned on the engine, letting the heat blow on high as he prayed Joshua would not mention the distinct odor Angeles carried with him. As they rolled back onto the road, Eli was surprised to discover his son didn’t even notice, far too busy chatting with his new friend.
“I like your name. It’s pretty cool. I’m sorry your coffee got all spilled.”
The older man smiled, his teeth resembling yellowed piano keys, even as his eyes danced. “Ain’t the first time. I’m thankful for you and your father’s kindness.”
“I’m eight. How old are you?”
“That’s really old.”
Angeles threw back his head and laughed.
“Do you have to go to school when you’re sixty-nine?”
“No, but sometimes I wish I were still in school.” He sighed. “Seems like life was a good sight easier back then.”
Joshua frowned. “My dad says a person always wants to be wherever they aren’t, and usually wants to be whatever they aren’t.”
Angeles nodded. “That seems to be human nature, yes.”
“What did you want to be?”
“When I was your age?” He smiled. “I wanted to be an engineer. Build bridges and railroads. Maybe even an architect.”
Eli watched them sporadically from the rearview mirror. Joshua blinked. “And were you?”
Angeles’ smile dimmed. “No. I wanted to, but my wife…,” he swallowed, “she passed away and I started drinking. Drinking a lot.” Angeles turned and stared out the window. “Never could seem to get my life together after that.”
Joshua studied him. “My mom died last year.”
Angeles glanced back, his mouth turning down at the corners. “I’m sorry, Joshua. Truly.”
Joshua’s face brightened. “Say! What if my mom and your wife are meeting each other up in heaven right now?”
Eli swiped at the moisture collecting under his nose before tapping the right turn signal.
The sooner this meal was over, the better.
After filling Angeles’ too-lean stomach with a hot meal from Denny’s, Eli ushered him and his talkative son back into the car. Should he offer him a room at a hotel? He and Joshua were supposed to meet his realtor tomorrow and would be doing the same.
Before Eli could offer, Angeles spoke up. “If you’d like, I can give you directions to my place.”
Joshua bounced up and down. “Can we, Dad? Can we see Angeles’ place?”
Confusion flooded Eli’s mind. This vagabond had somewhere to live?
“I’ll be happy to take him wherever he needs to go. Tonight is far too cold and wet for anyone to be walking.”
After a few quick directions, Eli drove them away from the busy part of town. Litter increased. Abandoned businesses and sagging roofs marred the scenery.
“Turn down this road. After two miles or so, my place is on the right.”
Eli’s unease increased when the paved road morphed into a tree-lined, gravel lane. After another mile, he slowed when ramshackle huts and several acres of thick canvas tents appeared.
“There it is.”
Joshua’s eyes lit up. “You live here? It’s like the circus.”
Angeles chuckled. “Only not nearly as much fun. It’s a homeless camp, Joshua.”
“What’s a homeless camp?”
“It’s a place for people to live who don’t have homes. Churches in the area help us with food, let us know about job openings and try to help us get back on our feet.” Angeles’ gaze met Eli’s through the rearview mirror. “Would you like to meet some of my friends?”
Eli swallowed. How could he refuse without seeming rude? “Of course.”
Joshua flew out of the car, slamming the door behind him. He tugged Angeles’ hand as the older man led him towards the open campfires burning brightly, even against the cold drizzle dampening the air.
Eli shoved his hands in his pockets, smiling politely as he was introduced to man after man, listening to their stories of hardship and loss, gain and trials. As the day slipped away to evening, he found himself listening, truly listening and something strange happened. Empathy morphed into connection. He soon forgot they were homeless and just thought of them as new friends.
As a man with a shaved crewcut was teaching Joshua how to play crazy eights with a deck of cards in his lean-to, a feminine voice called out, “Dinner!”
Eli turned to see a pretty mother and her young daughter carrying in large Tupperware containers filled with soup to the camp. Several plastic bags filled with plastic spoons, paper bowls and saltine crackers hung from their arms. Eli rushed to help.
“Here, let me.”
“Thank you.” The mother pushed a strand of blonde hair away from her brow with a smile. “My name is Rebecca and this is my daughter Amy. You new to the camp?”
Eli jerked back at the insinuation. “Me? No, no. My son Joshua and I gave Angeles a ride home.” He turned to watch Joshua laughing with the men. The cold had turned his cheeks cherry red but Eli hadn’t seen him so happy since Ally was alive.
Rebecca smiled as they moved towards the center of camp. “Kind of you. Angeles is a sweetheart. Most of the men here are.”
Eli grunted as he shifted the load in his arms to the worn table nestled inside the biggest lean-to. The blazing fire just outside kept the three-sided building toasty warm. “That’s what I’m learning.”
After they served the men, Eli and Joshua offered reluctant goodbyes and drove away, tires shifting over the gravel-lined driveway.
“Well, that was an adventure, eh? And tomorrow…our new house!”
Joshua sighed glumly. “I don’t want to go to a new house. I want to live at the homeless camp.”
“Those guys need us, Dad.”
“I get it. I enjoyed spending time with them too.”
Joshua leaned forward. “Frank was telling me there is a neighborhood just a mile or so from the camp. The houses aren’t fancy but I don’t care.”
Eli sighed. “As your father, I need to consider your future, your safety…all the things your mom would have wanted for you. A nice home, a good neighborhood, the best schools. I just don’t see how—.”
A small sob escaped Joshua’s chest. Eli pulled off the road and put the car in park before craning around the seat to stare at his son…Ally’s child.
“Do you know what Mom told me in the hospital before she died? She said, ‘Remember always to love God and love people. Nothing else matters in life.’” He looked up with glassy eyes. “Don’t you see, Dad? This is what Mom would want. This is the reason we moved. This is why we’re here. To make a difference in Angeles’ life. In Frank’s life. For all these guys. This is part of loving God. This is part of loving Mom.”
“But to live among such poor people. It’s not what I wanted for you.”
Joshua slipped into the front seat and wrapped his arms around Eli’s neck, squeezing hard. “Someone has to do it. They need us.”
Something in the hard shell encasing Eli’s heart cracked. With a sob, he wrapped his son in his embrace and wept.
Twenty years later
Eli smiled at the familiar penmanship smudging the upper left corner of the letter he pulled from the mailbox. As he strolled back to the house, he gently tore the envelope, and pulled the letter free, drinking in the contents like a parched man.
Everyone here still makes fun of me for sending you hand-written letters but I can’t help it. I remember how much mom liked getting them and the eight-year old in me won’t let the tradition go.
Remember the land deal I told you about the last time we talked on the phone? Well, I’m happy to report yours truly now owns five acres of land in Seattle. We closed on the deal Monday. The homeless situation up here continues to grow worse, but with such an epidemic, the ministry possibilities are endless. Josie and I are busier than ever organizing soup kitchens, shelters, and now, praise God, a worship center especially designed to minister to the needs of this group of people. Six men gave their lives to Jesus just last month alone.
You and Mom helped make this ministry what it is. Thanks for being the hands and feet of Jesus. Josie and I are looking forward to being home for Christmas. Give Rebecca and Amy my love.
Warm hands slipped around his waist as he folded the letter and tucked it inside his shirt pocket.
Eli smiled and patted Rebecca’s hands. “Another letter from Joshua.”
“What’s he up to?”
He slipped his arm around his wife’s shoulders and kissed the top of her head.
“He’s doing what we taught him to do. Love God. Love people.”
How shocking to think God could have kept His Son in the splendor of Heaven, but instead chose to send Him as Savior to a world of broken, needy people. He lived among the empty, the enemy, the hurting, the messy and the unloved to transform us into brother, friend, filled, clean and fellow heir.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” ~John 3:16