Joy to the World, a Christmas Parable by Charlie Wear

The young man gazed through the window of Bill’s Bagels. As he looked through the steam-bordered window, his mouth watered at the sight of the fresh bagels. Twinkling holiday lights formed rainbow reflections that mesmerized his street-weary eyes.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had tasted anything fresh, having made the trash-can cuisine of the city’s restaurant row his main fare over the last several weeks.

It was hard to tell his age. As he stood in the shadows he watched the holiday shoppers going in and out of Bill’s brightly-lit shop carrying out brimming-bags of bagels. The warm air from inside the shop would burst into the cold night air, providing a welcome break from the chill. It had been so long since he had felt truly “warm.” Life on the streets is cold.

Home was a distant dream. Mom was only a memory. The pain of his last beating at the hands of his mom’s boyfriend was still a dull ache on his cheeks and ribs. He’d never made it to the emergency room to have his bruised and battered body examined. He ran out of the house that night and hitchhiked and walked the hundred miles into the big city.

It was only a few weeks since that final night of terror, yet it seemed like it had been forever since he had tasted a home-cooked meal or felt the warmth of the sheets of his own bed. Shadow-filled alleys and cardboard boxes had been his “shelter” for what seemed like an eternity measured only by the harsh looks and hungry nights on the city streets. Sometimes he just walked from all-night business to all-night business, going inside until someone threw him out once more into the cold, enjoying for those moments an oasis of warmth from the ever-increasing cold of the bitter winter. Newspaper headlines told of the dropping “record-low” temperatures, and the beginning of a sick-feeling in his chest told him that his numbness would soon be invaded by pain and fever.

And so he stood, gazing through the brightly-bedecked window. Bill Smathers looked down from his living room window and saw the young man in the reflection of the street light off the store-front pane. He liked to try and guess the age of the young men and women who inhabited the city streets and came out of the shadows in their night-time wanderings. Many of these children sold their bodies for enough money to buy a bagel and a cup of coffee. They would stealthily enter his shop in the early hours of the morning, waking his all-night clerk for a moment, hoping for a moment of courteous treatment and standing in the front-room of his shop as long as possible before returning to the inhospitable streets of the city.

He wondered to himself, “Is this the one?” as he looked down from his over-the-shop apartment. Once upon a time, in Bill’s distant past he had hitchhiked and walked to the city. Lost and alone he had wandered the streets until the kindness of a stranger had changed his life. His angel had been named Minerva. A social worker for city services she had seen him gazing into a restaurant window one Christmas eve 25 years ago. She had reached out in kindness and turned his life around.

For fifteen years now, in memory of Minerva, he had made it a holiday tradition to pick out one of the teen-age denizens of the night to befriend with a meal, a warm bed and hope for the future.

Bill made his way down the stairs to the front door of his shop and gently walked into the cold night air. “Hey,” he growled in a low-pitched voice, “What are you doing standing over there in the shadows, why don’t you come on in here?” He gestured with his outstretched arm for the young man to enter the foyer of the bakery. Tentatively, cowering ever-so-slightly, the young man stepped gingerly into the shop. He avoided the force field of Bill’s presence as he moved into the warmth of the bagel-fragranced room.

And then, the young man’s mouth-watering fantasies were fulfilled. Bill, in his warmly-gruff manner, plied him with bagels and questions: “What’s your name?”; “Where do you live?”; “What are you doing here in the city?”; “How old are you?” If Bill hadn’t been so gruff, the young man would have thought he was one of those men who approached him in the early hours of the morning with seductive words and offers of money for a few moments with him. He hadn’t given in to the lure of the money…….yet. But hunger and cold were weighing on his mind and he knew it was only a matter of time. Gulping down what seemed like mountains of bagels and sipping the warm coffee, filled with real cream and sugar, he couldn’t help but pour out his life, in one-word bursts between hurried bites. “Jesse;”; “Here ‘n there;” “Not much”; “16.” And then when it seemed that his stomach would burst, he began to breathe a little more deeply and he asked Bill, “Why are you being so nice to me?”

Bill told him the story of Minerva, that good Christian woman who had taken him in that Christmas eve so many years ago. How she had eventually given him a regular bed to sleep in and had helped him get a job in a bakery. How she had guided him through night school and helped him get the loan for his first street cart. How she had walked him into church every week and prayed for him every night. For ten years Minerva had been his guardian angel, until the cancer had claimed her. And how every year now, in the spirit of the season, and in memory of Minerva, he chose one young man or young woman for a meal of bagels and coffee on Christmas eve.

“Say, Jesse, would you mind helping me out tonight?” Bill asked. “What do I have to do?” Jesse said, a wary tone coloring his words. “I need someone to be my night watchman tonight,” Bill growled with just the hint of a smile on his lips. “Through that door is a storeroom with a cot. I need someone to sleep in there and if my night-clerk calls them, to help,” Bill paused, “Do you think you could handle that?” Warm tears filled Jesse’s eyes as the thought of a night’s sleep in a warm place flashed through his imagination. “Sure, I’ll do it.”

Bill Smathers showed Jesse to the room, pointed out the towels and soap, clean clothes and shower, and paused at the door. “Feel free to use that shower and put on those old clothes before you start your shift,” Bill said, “And Jesse, remember Minerva.”

A huge smile cracked the facade of Bill’s face as he made his way up the stairs to his living room. He sat down at his piano and began to plunk out a familiar tune. In the room below, as Jesse stepped from the first warm shower since he came to the city, he heard a rumbly, low voice singing the familiar words from what seemed like a long time ago, “Joy to the world……..”

[this parable was first published on Next-Wave in Dec. 1999]

Charlie Wear is publisher of Next-Wave. He lives with his wife Loretta and son Benjamin in Southern California where he works as a lawyer.

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