Midnight Under the Bridge

flagThere were seven of them on this night—five men and two women—who claimed the area around the underpass as their temporary home. The area was surrounded on all sides with a thick fusion of pine trees, needle palms, and wild azaleas, all of which helped to keep the cold wind from being as intrusive as it would have been without the presence of the native plants and trees.t was almost midnight on Friday, January 22, 2016. The temperature had recently dropped below freezing, but the small group of homeless people that lived beneath the underpass barely noticed. They had all endured colder winters than this one and, God-willing, they would live to endure many more. They were all just thankful that this particular winter was being spent in the warmer climate of Rome, GA instead of previous ones that had been spent farther north.

The old man, known to the group as “Skipper”, stood away from the others and stared at the large golden halo that seemed to miraculously float above the diner across the street. He had watched the building go up in a matter of days, but had not been there whenever the halo had been erected above the diner. A large, flashing marquee stood in the parking lot: THE HEAVENLY GRILLE CAFÉ, OPEN MONDAY – SATURDAY, 7 AM – 11 PM, GOD LOVES YOU & SO DO WE! He took a last drag of the cigarette he was smoking, flicked it, and grinded it firmly into the dirt. He shook his head in wonderment at the floating halo that lit up the entire parking lot and surrounding grounds. Not much surprised him these days, but, the halo certainly did.

Skipper looked down at the old wristwatch he had worn since he returned home from his final tour in Vietnam, back in April 1970. It was 11:45 PM when the young man, who worked at the diner, walked out of the front door carrying two large sacks. Skipper guessed the sacks would be filled with sandwiches, hot coffee, and whatever dessert that might have been served that day. “Right on time,” he muttered beneath his breath. He thought about leaving the group in order to avoid any conversation the young man might try to start with him again, but the temptation of a sandwich and hot cup of coffee left him teetering on the edge of indecision. He had to admit that whoever the cook was at the diner certainly knew his trade, because the food was the best he had tasted in more years than he could remember.

Three male members of this homeless clan climbed slowly from beneath their cardboard boxes; two senior women emerged from makeshift tents that had been pitched about 50 feet away from the men. Skipper and a young man in his thirties always slept out in the open, in their sleeping bags, at opposite ends from each other. Both men were loners and had no desire to mingle with their fellow, homeless comrades, or with each other.

Stella Sieber was 82 years old and had been homeless, by choice, for the past 27 years. She came from a small town in Michigan, and had been 55 years old when her abusive, alcoholic husband had died under—what the local police deemed—“mysterious” circumstances. Stella had been on the move ever since then, relocating herself farther south every few months. She was as much a loner as the old man they called Skipper, but she considered herself to be a lot more amiable than was he. “Ain’t it about time for that young fella to be bringing us something to eat?” she snarled at no one in particular.

Skipper turned to look at the mangy old woman who constantly grated on his last nerve. He turned back toward the café without proffering a response.

“Cat got your tongue, does he?” Stella crackled after spitting out a large clump of phlegm from her smoke-ridden lungs. She removed the remnant of a cigarette from her coat pocket and lit it up. She managed to get two tokes from the cigarette butt before the red ash burned her calloused thumb. She cursed under her breath and threw the butt on the ground behind her, not bothering to grind it out.

“You should be more careful, Stella,” the middle-aged black woman spoke softly as she moved to stand behind the older, white woman. “The last thing we need is a brush fire to draw attention to us. I like this place…I feel safe here…” Peggy Jensen dropped her head and kicked dirt on Stella’s cigarette butt.

“Aw, why don’t you just shut up, PJ; ain’t nobody talking to you. Go on back inside your tent,” Stella shouted. She didn’t like mealy-minded women who were afraid to speak up for themselves. She had been one of those women for 37 years, but “mysterious” circumstances had provided her the opportunity she so desperately desired, and she had finally escaped the matrimonial prison in which she had been ensconced.

PJ kicked at the dirt again and muttered under her breath, “But, I’m so hungry…” She was startled when she felt a firm hand squeeze her left shoulder. She jerked her head around sharply and saw the young man who had joined their group just a couple of weeks ago. PJ thought he was a handsome-enough white man—one that she might have fancied for herself in her younger years. She always had a preference for white men over those of her own race, and this personal preference had driven a solid wedge between her and other family members, who still lived in Selma, Alabama. She had walked away from all of them 5 years ago, but found herself wondering more and more if she shouldn’t have been more placating of their opinions.

The young white man, known to the group as Jason, looked down at PJ and shook his head. “She’s not worth it; don’t pay any attention to what she says.” His voice was a blended mixture of gruff deepness, yet soothingly mellow at the same time. He wore a black, knitted cap over his dark, short-shaven hair.

PJ caught a slight glimpse of strong, white teeth beneath his timid grin. That was the most she had ever heard him speak during the short time he had been there. She lowered her head and simply nodded.

Three men in their sixties ambled slowly and clumsily toward the small campfire at the center of their sheltered hideaway. They could easily have been mistaken for the Three Stooges—Larry, Curly, and Moe—as they comically bumped into one another due to their varying degrees of soberness. Larry was a former real estate broker who had lost everything during the housing bubble crash that ended in 2009; he was 62 years old and his real name was Norman Weissman. Curly was a bald-headed, former college football coach, whose wife had left him for one of his best tight ends; he was 60 years old and his real name was Joe Sanders. Moe was the unofficial leader of this comical trio, and was a retired pharmacist who had grown tired of the rat race, as well as the wife and kids that went along with it, and whom he thought wanted nothing from him except his money. He had left them all his money and walked away one night with just the clothes on his back; he was 67 years old and his real name was Bernard Cartwright.

None of these seven people, excluding Stella, were the stereotypical homeless persons depicted on television and in newspapers. They maintained their appearances as best as they possibly could, and worked odd jobs whenever they could be found. None of them had truly bonded with the others in the group, but they all felt a sense of limited safety and security within their temporary family.

Joe Sanders belched loudly and squinted his eyes. “Hey, look!” he said as he pointed in the direction of the Heavenly Grille Café. “Here comes our midnight snack.” He stumbled and grinned at Bernard, who caught him by the elbow. “Thanks, Moe,” he winked, acknowledging the group’s constant reference to them as the Three Stooges.

“Ahhh…think nothing of it, my good Curly!” Bernard winked back at him.

“I sure hope there’s some more of that buttermilk cake,” Norman yawned. “Guess a cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt any of us none, huh?”

The group began to spread out when the young man from the diner across the street stepped through the bushes and into the clearing that was their common area.

Doug was one of the three angels who operated the Heavenly Grille Café. Their assignment was to help as many people as they could, without interfering with destiny in any form or fashion. He grinned at all of them and made his way toward their campfire. He sat the bag that held seven large cups of strong, black coffee on the ground in front of him. Angels have a remarkable sense of hearing and he had listened in to all their conversations, both verbal and unspoken, on his way across the street. “Good evening, everyone,” his deep voice was unassuming and non-confrontational. “I hope you’re all hungry because Max had lots of grilled meatloaf sandwiches left over tonight. There are plenty of home fries, too, and buttermilk cake—enough for everyone to have seconds if they want. There is coffee in the other bag,” he offered as he began passing around the sandwiches and fries. “Do you mind if I sit with all of you for a little while?”

Nobody acknowledged his question.

PJ kept her eyes downward as she took the offered food. “Thank you very much,” she whispered shyly and walked over to get a coffee from the other bag.

Stella gave her a dirty look and deliberately bumped into PJ, causing her to spill some of the hot coffee. “Who said you could go first!” she hissed into PJs ear, low enough so nobody could hear.

Doug heard but decided not to say anything to Stella. “How are you tonight, Stella? You’re looking beautiful, as always.”

Stella grabbed the sandwich and fries from Doug’s fingers and looked up at him. “I don’t need your lying sweet talk, pretty boy. Just give me the food and leave me alone, why don’t you? I don’t need to hear any preachin’ from you either, and if that’s part of the deal, then you can just keep your food!”

Doug smiled back at the old woman. He knew about her “mysterious” secret, and hoped and prayed for her salvation and repentance before it was too late. He held out another piece of wrapped food. “Don’t forget your cake, Stella.”

Larry, Curly, and Moe moved as one toward Doug. “We’ll be glad to take her share if she doesn’t want it,” Norman, the former real estate broker, grinned. “I hope that coffee is decaf…we don’t need anything that will interfere with our beauty sleep, you know!”

Doug laughed at the good-natured man who he had grown to like so much since the café opened on New Year’s Day. He had never met anyone that was better suited to the homeless life than Norman Weissman. Norman had told him his story more than once—how he had been in the real estate business for 30 years and had made millions of dollars before numerous bad investments had sent his empire crumbling before his very eyes. His partner of 15 years had left him and taken whatever the bank had not pilfered. “Yes, Norman…I definitely have decaf for you!” Doug grinned.

Norman closed his eyes and sighed when he felt Doug’s firm hand upon his shoulder. The calmness and serenity that came over him every time Doug touched him was beyond anything he had ever before experienced. If Doug’s touch didn’t sober him up, the strong decaf coffee surely would.

Doug handed sandwiches and fries to Joe and Bernard. “Here you go, gentlemen. How was your day?”

Curly, AKA: Joe Sanders, shuffled from side to side, mimicking his favorite touchdown dance. “Couldn’t be better, Doug, my boy…couldn’t be better. Tomorrow is going to be a wonderful day; I can feel it in these old bones.” He winked at Doug and made his way to the coffee.

Bernard Cartwright pulled his knitted cap over his ears and smiled at Doug. “It’s a bit on the cool side tonight. We certainly do appreciate your kindness.”

Doug touched Bernard’s shoulder. “Would you like to pray, Bernard?” He knew that Bernard had been having second thoughts lately about having abandoned his family five years ago. He had been sensing a quiet need in Bernard since they first met three weeks ago.

Bernard stiffened under Doug’s touch. He did not feel the same calmness and serenity that Norman had felt. He shook his head. “No…thank you, no. I don’t deserve your prayers…” He took his food and joined his friends who sat cross-legged in front of the campfire. “If we sit like this for too long, fellas,” he joked, “We may never be able to get up again!”

Doug sighed as he watched Bernard join the two men and two women at the campfire. His assignment, as an angel, was never to interfere with destiny. He was simply there to offer an ear and a prayer to anyone who might want or need it. He felt that Bernard was at a crossroads of sorts; but he, also, knew that he had to be careful in the part he played in any decision Bernard might eventually make. He sighed again and looked around the area that was home to seven very different people; the only thing they had in common was that neither of them felt they could return to their real homes…to their real lives. He spotted the remaining two men, standing at opposite ends of the shelter site. They had more in common with each other than either of them realized, but Doug knew that it was up to them to discover what that might be.

Doug walked over to where Jason leaned against a tall pine tree. He glanced down and saw a sleeping bag neatly rolled up beneath it. “This is your bed?” Doug asked.

Jason stared at the man who appeared to be near his own age. He resisted the urge to converse, and simply nodded. He held out his hand for the offered sandwiches, fries, and cake. He raised his eyes and stared directly into Doug’s emerald-green ones. “Thanks,” he nodded again and walked toward the campfire for coffee.

Doug watched him leave and exhaled softly. “You’re welcome.” He looked into the bag at the remaining food. His eyes scanned the entire camp area, but he did not see the older man they called Skipper. He had been there just moments before, and Doug sensed that he was still close by. He strolled toward the opposite end of the camp and sat the bag down on top of another rolled-up sleeping bag. “This is for you, Skipper,” he spoke softly.

He looked toward the strange group of comrades who sat in front of the campfire, eating sandwiches and drinking coffee. Larry, Curly, and Moe were laughing and enjoying one another’s companionship. PJ smiled at their antics, but kept quiet and to herself; Stella scratched at old scabs on her scalp and grunted at how ridiculous she thought they all were, all the while, using her few remaining teeth to stuff the sandwiches and cake down her throat as fast as she could.

“I’ll be back in the morning!” Doug shouted to the group as he walked slowly through the dense brush and back toward the golden hue that glowed from the floating halo above the café.

The other two angels that operated the Heavenly Grille Café had listened in on Doug’s conversations with the homeless group across the street. Max, a former Gladiator, and owner of the café, was a huge black man with an even huger heart, filled with his love of God. His co-hort on earth was Bertie; everyone always remarked on her resemblance to the late actress, Shirley Booth, and the character—Hazel—that she played on television from 1961 to 1966. Bertie, also, had the reputation in Heaven as being the “Naughty Angel” due to her inability, from time to time, to control her foul language.

Bertie punched Max against his hard-as-rock shoulder. “Did you listen to them, Max? Did you? Whatever are we going to do with that bunch? Every single one of them could go back to their homes and their lives, if they wanted to; but, NOOOO…they would all rather stay outside in below-freezing weather and act like they don’t have a care in the world.”

Max grinned as he crossed the floor and opened the door for Doug.

“Thanks,” Doug said as he walked toward the counter where Bertie was already pouring him a cup of black coffee. “I don’t know either, Bertie. I’ve been over there every night, and every morning, for three weeks now, and I don’t feel like I’ve gotten any closer to any of them. Three of the men are pretty friendly, but careful not to express any real feelings; PJ is scared to death of being homeless, but too proud to return to her family; Stella is a time bomb set to explode at any moment; and, the other two men—the Veterans—they are extremely unapproachable and unresponsive. The older one only accepts the food every few days, but he never lets me see him do that. Those are the two that I worry the most about; they are lost souls searching for a reason…any reason…to go on living. I’m afraid they may be running low on inspiration for doing that.”

Max joined them at the counter and the three of them sat together for another 45 minutes talking, and praying, about the group of seven that God had sent for them to watch over.

Bertie finally stood up and straightened her apron and halo headband. She punched Max on the shoulder again and barked, “You know, big fella…when you said it was time for us to move the café again, I clearly remember you saying that our next move would be to Rome.”

Max grinned and nodded. “I did indeed, Bertie.” He flinched when Bertie punched him again.

“Well, Hells-Bells, why didn’t you tell me you meant Rome, GEORGIA! I’m pretty sure that I won’t be getting the opportunity to ever meet the Pope here!”

Three hours later, Bertie and Max had long gone their separate ways to the rooms they rented a few miles down the road. Doug lived in one of the two upstairs apartments above the café. Even though angels do not require sleep, the three of them often rested in prayer during the late- evening-to-early-morning hours.

Doug was in such prayer when the night was suddenly shattered with the sound of Stella’s piercing screams from across the road. He flung open his apartment door and flew down the stairs to the paved parking lot. He was across the road and standing in the center of the homeless camp ground in less than two minutes. His eyes quickly took in the scene before him. Stella was leaning against the concrete underpass wall, pulling at her hair with both hands and screaming as loud as her 82-year old, air-starved lungs would allow. PJ’s head poked out from her makeshift tent and she stared, dumbfounded, at the screaming Stella. Curly and Moe stumbled from beneath their cardboard boxes and crashed into each other. Jason and Skipper were nowhere to be found.

A small puddle of blood pooled at Stella’s feet, and Doug’s eyes travelled slowly from the puddle to the bloody splatters on the concrete wall, just above Stella’s head.

The Three Stooges were no more.

Norman Weissman lay dead at Stella’s feet. A piece of his favorite buttermilk cake was still clasped between his calloused fingers.

The remaining group of four gathered what belongings they could, scattered, and ran in different directions before Doug could stop them.