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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Gotta Watch Out for Our Own

by Paula Gail Benson

            Celeste had just taken her place on a back pew when she saw him standing at the front entrance of the church, in the doorway clearly visible to the seated congregation and used mainly for handicapped access. He wasn’t handicapped or disabled in the common use of those terms, but he was obviously disadvantaged. Black and gray flecked stubble covered his chin and cheeks. He had dark, grease-streaked hair, the exact color unclear due to the slick texture that reflected the overhead lights. His dull, vinyl jacket had cracks, and his dingy shirt and trousers showed spots from substances dropped on them that had not been cleaned off.

            The whites of his eyes were large, emphasizing tiny pupils that darted back and forth. He shifted from side to side on the balls of his feet, like a tennis player poised to follow the direction of the ball. The motion, along with his expectant manner, suggested he either had too much or too little of a substance in his system.

            Celeste knew that most of the congregation, including the disabled, found the front entrance too open to the congregation’s view. This man did not seem to mind people watching him, but used the vantage point for his own purposes. Celeste had seen him do it before.

            He always arrived for the early service while the organ music played and before the minister made announcements. Fewer people. More spread out. Easier to isolate and descend upon his victim. He always selected a woman alone or an older couple he sensed to be approachable or vulnerable to his plea. Then, he came down the side aisle and scooted into the pew beside his target. For a moment or so, he kept to himself. Quiet. Looking ahead, as if listening to the organ, or checking the hymns listed on the boards on either side of the sanctuary, or meditating.

            Then, he would lean toward the person. Close enough so he could whisper.
“Do you think you could help me out?”

            The words came out eager, yet raspy. He was asking a Christian for compassion.

            “It’s my daughter’s birthday,” he continued. That’s what Celeste overheard when he selected the couple a few rows in front of her. Other members told her he always said he needed something for his family. Never just for himself. “I need to buy gas and a present, so I can go see her,” he’d explained. “Could you lend me twenty bucks?”

            Each time he appeared, Celeste felt the congregation’s unease as he moved toward his mark. People tried to avoid him, but that didn’t deter him. He seemed to have a sort of radar that led him to his target, as if he were acting by some inspired plan.

            Which made the situation worse. Celeste had heard plenty of discussion among the congregation about it. When he sat down on the pew beside a worshiper to make his pitch, he wasn’t just a derelict that could be passed by on the street, but one of God’s poor unfortunates here in God’s own house. To turn him down during service, with the eyes of the congregation and the Lord watching, made a person feel downright hypocritical. How do you reject the needy in a place that’s supposed to welcome, encourage, and support all?

            Yet, at the same time, was it fair to let this savvy homeless person intimidate people coming to worship? Asking for money in the church, where he knew people would feel guilty for not giving?

            Today, his eyes focused on Celeste. She trembled as he walked toward her. And, her trembling made her angry. Already, she had sacrificed. She no longer attended the later service for fear of running into her ex-husband and his new trophy wife, Marcella. Celeste now came to the lesser attended early service, and it had become her refuge for solitude and reflection, where she cultivated hope.

            Now, this unkempt man in torn clothing smelling faintly of urine had taken that from her.

            “Ma’am,” he began.

            She looked straight into his wavering eyes, not sure if she were more angry at herself or at him. Her direct gaze made him pause; his chin quivered and forehead wrinkled.

            “Ma’am,” he repeated, only this time more softly, almost in apology.

            From behind, Celeste felt a large figure leaning over the top of the pew. Mrs. Phipps, a church council member, had noticed what was happening and intruded.

            “You’ve been warned about this before,” Mrs. Phipps scolded the man. “Please stay for our service, but don’t ask for handouts here. That’s not how we operate. We donate to the shelter and other service agencies. You can get help from them. But, don’t disturb folks trying to talk with God. You don’t want us calling the law on you, do you?”

            He shook his head and backed out of the pew, murmuring, “No, ma’am. No, ma’am.”          But, just as he reached the aisle, he looked back at Celeste. For a moment, he was perfectly still. Then, he left.

            Celeste watched as he scurried back out the entrance. The service was destroyed for her now.

            She tried to evade any after service sympathy by heading into the assembly room for coffee and a donut. She had just relaxed a bit, taking her time to sip the hot beverage and chew slowly, when she noticed Mrs. Phipps in a corner with her ex and Marcella, who clung to his arm and wore a chic new Talbot’s amethyst-hued column dress. Marcella glanced in Celeste’s direction with an exaggerated pout of pity. No doubt, Mrs. Phipps was telling them about the homeless man encounter.

            Mrs. Phipps followed Marcella’s look. Always one to play both sides of the fence, Mrs. Phipps quickly excused herself and moved to join Celeste.

            “So good to have you coming to early service,” she said, patting Celeste’s hand that held the donut. “By the way, when are you coming back to circle meetings?”

            Celeste did her best to answer civilly, but didn’t stay for Sunday School. She couldn’t  finish the donut, even though she truly wanted to.

            Be grateful, she told herself as she walked to her car, took out the key from her purse and slid into the sanctuary of the driver’s seat. Sighing, she sunk into the comfort of the seat and checked the fuel gauge. Two thirds full. Encouraging.

            All right, she decided. That encounter was uncomfortable, but in the long run it will be beneficial. That’s your excuse for not coming to church. You’ll never have to admit that you can no longer afford to give an offering.

            She felt a pang in her chest for blaming it on a homeless person, but she had been looking a long time for a reason to stop attending church without her absence being noticed.

            Throughout that day, the homeless man’s face kept intruding upon her thoughts. The way he looked at her from the end of that pew. How he had begun to make his pitch, then stopped, even before Mrs. Phipps interrupted him. As if he saw something in Celeste, something she thought she kept well hidden from everyone.

            Celeste served meals at the homeless shelter for the holidays, as had been her custom since the divorce. She didn’t want her two daughters, both married and with families of their own, to feel any obligations or divided loyalties about inviting her to dinner. And, being at the shelter gave her an excuse for why she couldn’t host a family event herself. Besides, they knew she had been downsizing. When they expressed regret, she reminded them it wasn’t the home they grew up in without their father. And they seemed pleased when she entrusted each of them with her prized possessions to be passed to future generations.

            The girls told Celeste about Marcella, a tall, well proportioned redhead just a few years older than her step-daughters. They swore to Celeste that they avoided any connection except to be polite. Celeste accepted their reassurances, but knew her daughters had always been daddy’s girls, modeled after him as if poured into the same mold.

            She knew also that they blamed her for wanting a more reserved lifestyle than her ex chose to live. She freely admitted it took two to make a divorce, same as it did a marriage. She hoped her girls saw that example and learned from it. She told them, at a certain point, letting go was easier than holding on.

             Marcella was the last person Celeste expected to see at the shelter on Thanksgiving. She overheard Marcella telling one of the workers that her husband had joined the law firm team running the 5K Turkey Trot.

            Of course. Being health conscious had become his primary preoccupation since marrying Marcella. Celeste would have thought he got enough activity in the bedroom.

            Thankfully, the shelter director asked Marcella to walk along the tables refilling drinks and passing out rolls. That kept her away from the buffet line where Celeste served heaps of dressing and mashed potatoes on the plastic plates. The lines of people were steady. After standing over the hot containers for more than an hour, Celeste’s eyes blurred and her head felt woozy. She blinked to be able to see, and realized the homeless man from the church was holding his plate out to her. Today, his looked at her with a calm, steady gaze.

            “I appreciate your kindness,” he said.

            She smiled, wondering if he recognized her. “We have to look out for one another,” she replied.

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “Happy Thanksgiving.”

            Nodding, he continued down the line.

            After she worked a full shift, Celeste fixed a small plate for herself and took it to a staff office, saying she needed a few moments away from the heat and crowd. She sat down at a metal desk, pushing aside the papers covering the blotter to make room for her plate, and said a brief blessing. Slowly, she savored each morsel, closing her eyes to shut out all but enjoyment of the meal.

            “You’ll steal from anyone, won’t you? Even the shelter.”

            Opening her eyes, Celeste saw Marcella at the door. Her Ann Taylor suit looked too small for her curves. The blouse bunched up from the waist of the skirt. The whole outfit was wrinkled and smudged. Celeste wondered if it irritated Marcella that Celeste could have worn the suit in a smaller size?

            “I know what you’ve been doing and I won’t let you blackmail my husband,” Marcella said.

            Celeste squinted. “Blackmail? What are you talking about?”

            “Don’t even try to talk your way out of this.” Marcella stalked over and shoved an envelope into Celeste’s hands. “He told me to give this to you. I hope I never have to see you again.” She turned and left.

            Celeste sat dumbfounded by the attack, stroking the embossed return address on the envelope. Finally, the fog cleared from her brain. She realized she was holding letterhead from her ex’s law firm. Slowly, she opened the flap and pulled out a letter. Again, it was on the firm’s stationery, but a hand written note.

            Meet me tonight at 10 in the parking lot behind the firm. We’ll settle things there.

            Her ex’s indecipherable signature ended the note.

            What did it mean? For years, Celeste had struggled along without the alimony he owed her. It would have cost too much to go back to court to enforce the order, even if she could find a lawyer willing to oppose him.

            Could he be willing to pay her what was due? A surge of joy ran through her body at that thought. She was delinquent on the monthly fee for the storage unit. It held all she could salvage after the foreclosure on the house. Maybe she could pay off what she owed, then pay some in advance. And take a whole load of her clothes to the laundromat. Perhaps she could even spend a night in the Motel 6 and get a shower . . .

             Arriving early, Celeste turned off her ignition. The parking lot behind her ex’s law office was empty and lit by a single street light. The area around the edge of the building was hidden in shadows, and it would be illuminated with the building’s lights on.

            If it hadn’t been for the possibility of discovery, Celeste might have thought about parking here to spend the night. It was hard to find a clear open spot where you could feel protected.

            She watched as the back door to the firm opened. She almost didn’t recognize the stick figure of a man who stepped out.

            Her ex had lost a tremendous amount of weight, and his now almost bald head shone when he flicked on the porch light. Putting his hand to cover his eyes, he looked out over the lot, then called out, “Celeste? Is that you?”

            Putting her keys in her pocket, she opened the car door, then locked it behind her. She walked slowly toward the porch. After a few steps, she thought she heard a sound behind her, as if her car door had opened and closed. She turned to look back at it, but saw nothing amiss.

            “You might as well know,” her ex said. “ I can’t afford to pay you more than I am.”

            She turned back to face him. His words made no sense. He was paying her nothing now.

            But, he wouldn’t stop talking. “I agreed to meet you because Marcella said you might be approachable and we could work things out.”

            What was he talking about? Marcella? He agreed to meet her?

            Celeste said, “I came because Marcella gave me your note.”

            Another voice intruded. “Both of you are such stupid people.”

            They turned to see Marcella approaching them from the side of the building holding a gun.

            “Marcella?” her ex asked.

            “Don’t talk to me,” Marcella said, each word thrown down like a gauntlet. “You have no idea what it’s like, growing up with nothing. Seeing what people can acquire. Wanting just a little bit for yourself. I knew you were unhappy with your family, so I thought I could make it work out for the both of us. But, you kept pouring money into Celeste.”

            “I had to, baby,” he pleaded with her. “I’m under a court order.”

            “You were just too afraid to stand up to her,” Marcella replied. “Well, I wasn’t. You wrote those checks out to Mrs. Truesdale. I’m Mrs. Truesdale, too.”

            His forehead wrinkled. “What are you saying?”

            “I stole the checks you were sending to her when you put them out in the mail. I cashed them, and took the money for myself. And, yes, I’m the Mrs. Truesdale who’s been blackmailing you for more money. ”

            He looked back at Celeste. “You haven’t been getting your alimony?”

            “No,” Marcella answered for her. “And, she’s too penniless and gutless to do anything about it.” She turned to Celeste. “People talk about you like you’re some kind of saint, but you’re a fraud. How does it feel, living out of your car? Having to find public places to take your bath and wash your hair? Using the shelter refrigerator to store your yogurt, hoping the shelter staff doesn’t consider it community property?”

            Celeste wanted only one answer. “Why are you so angry?”

            “Because I’m tired of two people being in the way of my income source. So I figured out a way to bring you together. Tonight, you’re going to confront each other in this parking lot, and neither of you will walk away. A murder suicide. As grieving widow, I’ll be consoled by the money.”

            From behind her in the darkness, a figure tackled Marcella, bringing her hard to the ground and causing the weapon to discharge. Marcella, immobilized beneath her attacker, swore and cried. Having hit the porch floor when Marcella went down, her ex was raising his head to survey the situation. For a moment, Celeste was too frightened to move. Then, she saw the person who must have taken refuge under the clothes in the back seat of her car, then come to their rescue.
            The homeless man from her church looked up at Celeste. He said, “Gotta watch out for our own.”


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

great story, Paula, with a nice twist at the end. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thanks, Margaret! Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, too!

Kait said...

WOW - Wonderful. Never saw it coming. Happy Thanksgiving.

KM Rockwood said...

I loved the story! Shows us that the down-trodden are real people, and can make significant contributions! I hope she ended up getting some of the money she was owed.

Gloria Alden said...

What a wonderful story, Paula. Like KM said, it does show they're real people.
I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thank you, Kait, Kathleen, and Gloria. Hope you are all having a wonderful holiday!

Warren Bull said...

Great story. It had me guessing throughout.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thanks so much, Warren.

E. B. Davis said...

Oh Paula--what a wonderful story. I was captivated by it the entire time. Figuring out she was actually homeless came slowly. Loved it.