Most mornings Joe woke up, disgusted by what happened to his life. He adjusted his cold, sore body from flat on the cot to sitting. These days he didn't even bother taking off his coat and boots before sleeping. It was too cold in the garage for undressing.
With his teeth he pulled at his gloves, pulling his hand into the frigid air. He scratched at his rust colored beard as he opened wide for a yawn. He felt the cold stab into the nerve of a tooth. He wondered how much longer before he lost that tooth. Maybe he would get that job in Texas. Maybe it would have insurance. Maybe he'd be able to save up enough for dentures to fill in where his now vacated teeth once were.
Reaching into his backpack he pulled out a large, well used Bible.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
Those who seek the LORD will praise Him --
May your hearts live forever.
From within the pages of the Scriptures fell a picture. Cracked and faded, the image of his wife smiling, eyes full of love for him. When she loved him. It seemed like so long ago since she held his hand or flashed affection through her eyes. So long ago.
"It's over." Her voice announced into his head, reverberating off the memories of all that was good in their lives. "It's over." Tainting the hues of joy. "It's over." Breaking the hope of their vows. "It's over. And there's no discussion."
He'd moved out. Rented an apartment. Kept paying on the house, the cars, the credit cards. He threw his life into work, trying to busy his mind to blot out "It's over."
"There's someone else." She'd told him over the phone. "He's living here at the house. Don't come over."
It was the only time he was glad they'd never had kids. It would have been the worst on them.
His bank account was emptied. A couple thousand dollars missing. The bank showed him his wife's signature. The credit cards were over charged. Creditors called his apartment, his cell phone, his work.
"Where's our money?" They'd ask.
"I don't know." Was his only answer.
"Joe, come into my office." His boss beckoned one afternoon, just before quitting time. "We're gonna have to let you go. I'm sorry. It's over."
No job. No money. No family. Only God. And these days He'd been quieter than Joe would have liked.
He moved out of his apartment and into a tent. The hot, humid evenings were best under the open sky than anywhere else Joe could think of. There were a bunch of them living in an abandoned lot behind the park. Either the police didn't know or didn't care that they were back there. They kept things clean and behaved well.
But then the chill set in. The rescue mission was full most nights. Desperation set in. And then the snow. He had to do something. But all he had was $2.26 in his pocket.
"Homeless: Please Help." He wrote on a cardboard box with a marker he borrowed from the attendant at the gas station.
Homeless. This man, once loved and respected and valued, now homeless. He didn't want this word to declare who he was or who he was becoming. But the hunger in his belly reminded him that the sign spoke true. He was, indeed, without a home and in need.
His feet moved reluctantly to a spot under a tree. It was by a busy access road that lead to a grocery store, fast food joint and gas station. He felt the remnants of pride and dignity trickle down his throat, resting in the pit of his gut. He would stand there and hold his sign.
"What makes you think you're better than anybody else?" He asked himself.
He held the sign. At first he kept it inches from his body as if to say "This isn't really me". Then the first cars passed. A woman in a fancy car glared at him as she went by. A family in a van drove near, pretending not to see him. A little girl in another car pointed, her mother pushed her hand down.
A large, ancient vehicle rattled next to him. A man passed a few dollars through the cracked window.
"Here you go, brother." The man said. "We poor gotta stick together."
"My name is Joe." Was all he could mutter through his tight throat.
"Hey there, Joe. I'm Ed." The man smiled. "God bless you, brother Joe."
"I'm a Christian man. I've never had to do this before. It's just...it's just..."
"Joe." The man's voice calmed him. "You don't gotta say a word. I get it, brother."
The rattling car jolted away.
Joe met many people that day and the next and the next. Some understood, waited to listen to his story. They shared a cup of coffee, a bag of groceries, a few dollars. He talked to them about Jesus. Many times he was hearing their sad stories.
Many people drove past. That didn't bother Joe. What hurt were the snarls, the people who rolled down their windows to bark at him. Harsh words that thudded against his soul. The worst one was on the third day.
Snowflakes clustered together on that day. The roads were slick from the slush and ice hidden beneath. Joe was thankful the the steaming coffee in his hand as he sipped the warmth into his body. He closed his eyes, relishing the rich aroma, thanking God for His mercies.
Something cold splashed into his face followed by another and another. Sloppy snowballs were hitting him from several sides. One with a chunk of ice inside tipped the coffee cup and splashed the liquid on Joe's beard and coat.
"Get a job!" A boy yelled, adding sharp words in his cracking voice.
Joe looked at the boy, hurt speaking through his eyes.
Another boy hurled a snowball at his head. Yet another chucked one at his back. And their words shredded his emotions.
Joe stood a good foot taller than the boys, yet he felt powerless against them. He just stood and took this punishment. "Jesus suffered more." He reminded himself. "I can take this."
The snowballs were becoming harder as the boys added more ice. Then they just threw ice chunks. One thudded against his face. Warm blood rushed to the cut and spilled on his cheek.
"Hey!" A voice called out. "You leave him alone!"
It was a voice of confidence and authority. Joe tried to see who it was, but his eyes were clouded by tears and slushy snow.
"Whatever, lady." One boy snorted. "This isn't any of your business."
"Of course it is." She answered. "Just sit on the curb."
"Why should we?" Another boy.
"Because I'm calling the police."
"Right." The first boy. "Like we're really going to sit and wait for the cops."
"They'd arrest this slob for panhandling." A different boy.
"Slob?" The woman's voice didn't waver. "Do you really think that by calling him a 'slob' you can give yourself permission to mistreat him?"
"Whatever." The speaker's voice cracked.
"He is a human being." Her voice sounded like singing. "Look at him. Look at his eyes. He is real. He was made in God's image just like you."
There was a pause. "What's your name?" She asked.
"My name's Joe."
They sat on the curb. The woman sent one of the boys into the fast food restaurant to get a coffee and food for Joe. The boys listened to Joe's story. Then they listened to Jesus' story and, although they already knew it, heard with different ears. After a little while the boys went back to the classes they were skipping. The woman handed Joe some money and began to walk away.
"What's your name?" Joe asked after her.
"Bea." She answered with a meek voice. Not the authority nor confidence of earlier.
"Thank you, Bea." He put one hand into the air in a still wave. "God bless you."