I met an old smoke today. A Lucky Strike, unfiltered, roll your own kind of born in the 30’s man. A child of the Depression who was taught-
“there ain’t no one lookin’ out fer you but you so you best get at it”.
I met him as he watched what little he had in this world go up in flames from a heater that got kicked over in the old motor home he didn’t have a license to drive, but that he and his dog Pup, and his blind cat called home. I sat behind him in the ranch truck as The Gardener and I took him to get some free clothes. I was taken by the softness of his voice. Didn’t match the leathery face, and hard hands under the puffy coat someone had given him as he stood shivering in the January bitterness wondering if his cat had got out.
I watched him out of the corner of my eye as we filtered through donation clothes searching for a pair of someone else’s brother’s, father’s pants that just might fit a 32, or was it a 34?
“It’s alright ma’am…I can always wear a belt”.
I studied the way his hands were ashamed to take what he hadn’t paid for, but how they trembled with the need. It was over the box of underwear that I felt the intensity of tending to another’s soul. Here in the pile of bleached fruit of the looms, the fruit of the Spirit was manifesting. Love, joy, peace, patience, perseverance, kindness, gentleness, meekness,self-control….. We exchanged an awkward smile as he nodded that the pair I was holding up might fit, and we moved on to socks.
It was the Gardener’s shout of delight at his great “find” that broke the ice and bonded our hearts like only a perfectly formed and fitted cowboy hat can do.
“It even has a feather!”
The Gardener placed the cowboy hat on Old Smoke’s head and we wondered in amazement at the fit. As if the weathered brim and the bend in the back were shaped by his own hands.
“Yep, that is a nice hat.”
The Gardener nodded and somehow, Old Smoke stood just a little taller, and his shoulders squared just a little more, and the old cowboy boots he was wearing seemed to somehow make him walk just a little straighter out the door.
The Gardener sat with him outside the grocery store and talked fishing and the best lures for bass on the river, as I went in to fill my cart with things I knew my Dad would have loved to eat if he was waiting for hope, in a hotel, without his dog. I choked back the tears as I passed over the cans of mixed nuts we always bought Dad to munch on during T.V. time. I smiled as I remembered how one of those nuts broke Dad’s front tooth on his dentures. Mom was so mad, it cost so much to fix that silly tooth. I put the can back and settled for popcorn and chocolate chip cookies. Old Smoke only wanted bologna and bread, and “could I have one of those raspberry teas? I don’t need much maam”. I ached with the need to feed and care for a stranger’s soul as I would my own.
Do I love him as as I love myself? Do I Love him as I love the clean, and beautiful ones I sit on the pew with each Sunday? Do I love him as I love the children I have bathed, and soothed, and fed and raised. Do I love him as I would the lover of my soul whose inconvenient knocking upon my barred heart’s door at midnight leaves me with the smell of myrrh and dew? I felt my heart break for him and for myself as I scanned the aisles for good things to eat from a microwave. I felt the holy moment of wonder as this juncture of time and need and God came to me in the shape of a “least of these” with hazel eyes, and a soft slow drawl.
I climbed into the back seat of the ranch truck with my bags of goodies and felt the compass of my heart spin due north as grief washed over me. I missed my Dad. I had walked into the empty spaces during my aisle browsing. Spaces that my Dad and I had filled together in hours of conversation, old movies and peanuts. For a moment I felt the heavy weight of his absence threaten to capsize me as I slowly put away the cookies and the popcorn, and bologna and bread in the hotel refrigerator. I hugged Old Smoke as I left, brushing away his noble attempt to pay.
“What can I do to thank you folks?”
“Nothing,” I whispered as I hugged his old frame. “Thank you, for letting us help”.
The Gardener and The Preacher went to visit this evening and tell the bad news of no room in the Inn for someone who might smoke and fall asleep and burn the establishment to the ground. They couldn’t quite form the words in their mouths so they hugged him instead and told him they would see him in the morning. Both knowing something must be done, and space must be made for this grace to continue. The Gardener lingered as they stood to leave,
“You need some smokes?”
“Yeah,” came the slow thankful drawl, “I am out, don’t need nothin’ fancy, just get me the old kind, generic…no filter…”