From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Saving Grace

It was cold out, and I needed new shoes. That’s really how it all started. I had moved far away from home to take a new job, but I still didn’t have enough vacation days to return for Thanksgiving. I thought if I spent a lot of time outside walking, it might make me feel less lonely and depressed.

There was a rundown shopping center close to where I worked. It had a no-name grocery store, a dollar store, one of those places that cashes checks, a pet shop and a discount shoe store all lined up in a row. I went there after work on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

The day was cold and gray, and I was feeling three shades of blue. I had nothing but time to kill before I returned to my lonely one-bedroom apartment. I walked over to the grocery store for a hot cup of coffee to cheer me up.

“How ya doing, brother?” came a booming voice as I approached the rundown store. A huge man in a too-tight coat embraced my hand in a grip that could have easily swallowed me up to my elbows.

“No sir, I’m not selling a single solitary thing,” he insisted. “I’m just spreading the good word about ‘Harvest House,’ a simple little place me and nine other down-on-our-luck gentleman like to call . . . home.”

As he let go of my hand, I felt an inexpensive, folded pamphlet remain in my palm. “Would you care to make a donation and help our holiday be a little more thankful?”

I looked up at his warm, green eyes and broad, bright smile. Something about his gentle, though booming, voice kindled something deep inside of me. His weathered coat and face made me appreciate the life I led, and I reached quickly for my wallet.

There was change in my pocket for coffee, and I could always charge the shoes and a couple of pizzas over the long weekend ahead, so I gave him what little money I had. His eyes lit up as I dropped two fives and a single dollar bill into a grimy jar full of dull pennies and bright quarters.

“Now that’s what I’m talking ’bout,” he shouted as he clapped me on the back and sent me sprawling into the warm grocery store. “Happy Thanksgiving, brother.”

As I waited for the listless teenager behind the deli counter to brew up a fresh pot of “gourmet” coffee, I perused the cheaply printed brochure.

There was a picture of Harvest House on the cover. It looked barely big enough to hold the gentle giant outside, let alone nine other weary, downtrodden men.

I read of the morning scripture classes those men enjoyed. Of their daily work program and how they pooled the money they made for such necessities as toothpaste and milk. Their curfew was 8:00 P.M. and lights-out was at ten—every night.

I don’t know why that flimsy brochure calmed me. Yet it was strangely comforting. A cup of coffee in the morning and hard, honest work during the day. A roof over your head and a comforting Bible passage to start your day.

By the time I paid for my steaming cup of “Mocha Java,” I was so warm inside I didn’t even need it.

“Now this is too much,” shouted the friendly giant as I handed him the steaming Styrofoam cup. “I can’t accept this.” Sneaking a peek back at him a few steps away, I saw him taking his first tentative sip.

Inside the shoe store, they were already playing Christmas carols. I found a stack of decent walking shoes marked “Clearance” and on sale for $9.99 each. I tried on a pair in my size and looked at the ridiculous blue racing stripes in the ankle-high mirror bolted to the floor.

How comfortable they were. How firm and solid on my tired feet. If they felt like that to me, I thought, how much more comforting and welcome would they be on a pair of feet just starting out a new life?

I quickly said a short prayer that my credit card company had already processed my last payment. Then I tried a quick calculation of what size the mountainous man outside the grocery store might wear.

“Do you have these in a size fourteen? Extra-wide?”

I had just enough quarters in my car ashtray for a drive-thru, Thanksgiving Eve dinner at Taco Bell. As it sat there in the back seat among the towering boxes full of ten brand-new pairs of shoes, the fast-food smells made my empty stomach rumble while I slowly made my way to the address on the Harvest House brochure.

Stopping at a dimly lit gas station for directions, I took a pit stop in the restroom first. Then the old man behind the counter proceeded to spend nearly ten minutes recounting the history of the street I was on and ten minutes more drawing me a map that resembled nothing less than Bluebeard’s guide to lost treasure.

By the time I got back out to my car, it was so dark out that I didn’t even notice the shattered glass of my rear window until it crunched beneath the soles of my brand new shoes. Whoever had so stealthily broken it had also taken every single pair of shoes I’d bought on my maxed-out credit card. They even stole my spicy soft tacos.

I thought of the men at Harvest House and their ratty, old shoes and wondered what I would tell them when I finally got there. I needn’t have worried . . .

“There he is,” said the mountainous man when I knocked on their flimsy front door, thankfully remembering me from earlier in the afternoon. “Mr. Big Spender. What a nice surprise and just in time for dinner.”

Before I could explain my miserable failure, his oak-solid arm had whisked me into a warm, inviting dining room full of smiling faces and hands clasped in preparation for saying grace.

“We’ve got a visitor,” the big man said, as the room full of men waited for me to speak.

But I couldn’t. I grunted something that might have sounded like “shoes,” but it was quickly lost in the silent stream of tears that leaked from my lonely, tired eyes. How could I tell them about their shoes and what I thought they might have meant to them? How could I tell them it would be another month before I could save up the money to buy them new ones? How could I tell them that I didn’t even have enough money for dinner that night or anyone to share it with even if I had?

In a few moments, ten pairs of gentle arms surrounded me. They patted my back and said reassuring things like, “We know, man . . .” and “We’ve all been there, son . . .” I sniffled and tried to explain, but they wouldn’t hear of it.

Instead they welcomed me to their table as if they’d been expecting me. There was only one catch. “The new guy has to say grace.”

“Dear God,” I began softly as I tried to cover my new shoes beneath their humble table, “thank you not only for the food we are about to eat, but also for the new friends we are about to share it with. . . .”

Rusty Fischer

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