Doing Penance

Doing Penance

By Wayne Scheer.

Woodrow eased himself off the Fourteenth Street bus and hobbled towards Jimmy’s 24-Hour Diner. The early morning air still had a chill in it, and he pulled up the collar on his oversized khaki jacket. He knew if he got to the restaurant before the morning crowd, Mr. Jimmy would have a hot cup of coffee and a warm honey biscuit wrapped in tin foil waiting for him around back.

“Good way to start the day,” he muttered, imagining he was talking to the new kid they let in the shelter last night, the one called Mama’s Boy. “I got me a sweet deal with Mr. Jimmy,” he advised Mama’s Boy as if he were walking next to him. “He give me food in the morning and let me use his bathroom, if I don’t mess with his customers.”

After Woodrow used the toilet, one of the kitchen staff brought a to-go coffee and a foil-wrapped package out to the loading dock. Woodrow sipped the still-steaming black coffee and unwrapped the foil with the anticipation of a child tearing into a Christmas present. Sometimes, he’d find a few strips of crispy bacon or a sausage with his biscuit. This morning a slice of well-salted ham awaited him.

“Oo-wee,” he sang. His body tingled as he bit into the meat. He would have done a little dance, but he knew he had to save his energy for the day’s work. “My dancing days be like yesterdays,” he explained to Mama’s Boy. “They ain’t never coming back.”

He wiped the crumbs from his face with the back of his hand and smiled. “Mr. Jimmy a good man.” He spoke softly, so only Mama’s Boy would hear. “You find a friend like that, you respect him. You hear me?”

After finishing his breakfast, he threw the foil and cup into the green dumpster and, without saying a word to anyone, marched down Fourteenth Street until he could no longer see Jimmy’s. “Well, boy, time I got to work. Now you just stand back and watch how it’s done.”

Woodrow walked up to a well-dressed man carrying a briefcase. “Beautiful morning, sir. You got any spare change so I can get me some breakfast?”

The man reached into his pocket and handed him a couple of quarters before hurrying on.

“Thank you very kindly,” Woodrow shouted back. He turned. “See? With a man in a hurry you get right to the point. But always find the time to be polite. Never know when you gonna get return business, know what I’m talking about?”

The next few people turned Woodrow down, avoiding eye contact. “That’s all right. I figure if I collect on one person in ten, I be doing fine by time night come. The important thing be to stay calm. You slip and lose your temper, you no good to no one.”

Just then, one of his regulars approached him with a crisp dollar bill. “Always good to see you, Woodrow,” the middle-aged woman said.

“Yes, Ma’am. And bless you.”

He turned his head to speak to Mama’s Boy. “See how being polite pays? That’s what I telling you.”

Woodrow felt his mind drift while continuing to approach people. He stopped thinking about Mama’s Boy and let his thoughts wander to Woody, Jr. He must be nearing thirty-five. Probably got a whole mess of kids by now. Sure would like to see them.

For years, he imagined meeting Woody in the street. They’d recognize each other instantly and hug like no time had passed. Woodrow wiped his eyes and approached a woman carrying a cane. She raised it slightly as he neared. He nodded, flashed his smile, and walked on.

“You got to know when to back off,” he whispered. “No good come from scaring folk, especially women. No good a’tall.”

He thought of Mama’s Boy at the shelter last night. The kid looked so skinny you could almost see through him. He twitched and shook, like he was either drugged out or so scared he feared someone might steal his pants right off him.

“Seen that happen,” he said aloud. “They stole the pants right offa some white boy while he sleep on his cot at the shelter.” He shook his head. “Ya got to sleep with one eye open, boy. That for sure”

He remembered trying to warn Mama’s Boy to get a cot near him, as far as he could from the one they call Mojo Man. But the boy laughed. “You want me sleeping near you, Gramps? I ain’t that way.”

The boy left with Mojo, didn’t even stay the night. Probably out cattin’ around and gettin’ high.

“You got to work smart if you want to survive, boy.” He recalled saying those exact words to his son once. Woody, Jr. didn’t listen either.

Woodrow hobbled after a young couple walking hand in hand. He spoke to the man. “You a lucky one. I had me a good woman once. Now she with Jesus.” He lowered his eyes.

The young man tried to look away, but his girlfriend whispered, “Give the poor man some money, baby. I feel bad for him.”

Woodrow accepted a handful of change, offered thanks, and turned to Mama’s Boy. “You see what I mean by smart? Never talk direct to the lady if she with a man. You don’t want to seem threatening.”

The afternoon sun warmed the air. Woodrow wanted to take off his jacket, but he didn’t have any place to put it. Besides, he feared he smelled bad being out in the sun all day. He hoped the jacket might cover the odor.

He approached a bearded man in jeans. “Excuse me, but I wonder if you could help me out this fine afternoon?”

Reaching into his pocket, the man gave Woodrow a quarter.

Woodrow looked into the man’s face and smiled. “Now I offer you a chance to feel good about yourself. Surely that’s worth more’n two bits?” He laughed, as did the man, who took out his wallet and handed him a couple of singles.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about.”

He conjured up Mama’s Boy once again. “You got to size ’em up, you see? Some folks need what I call follow through. You can see it in they eyes. But be careful. You got to know when to lay back.”

Self-control, he thought. It took him a lifetime to learn it.

As the day progressed, Woodrow tried flattery–“That sure is a beautiful child you got there, Ma’am;”–patriotism–“I served my country in Vietnam,” and the direct approach–“I need just two more dollars for lunch.” When he guessed it was about two o’clock, he stopped at Krispy Kreme, where his friend, Alice, always let him have doughnuts from the morning if he bought coffee. She knew he liked the jelly-filled ones. After he ate two, he joined her out back for her break and bummed a cigarette. One smoke a day is all he allowed himself. “Too expensive a habit,” he told Alice. “You should quit.”

“You’d have to buy your own, then.”

He smiled

“What are you saving your money for?” she asked Woodrow.

“I got plans,” he said.

After finishing his smoke, he excused himself and used the bathroom, washing his hands and face thoroughly. Taking a pack of gum from his pocket, he split a piece in half and popped it into his mouth, chewed rapidly, and spit it into the garbage before saying good-bye to Alice and returning to the streets.

“It’s important to smell good,” he advised Mama’s Boy. “If you smell like a ashtray, folks won’t go near enough to you to give you they money.”

He approached a few people before receiving a handful of change. One person who refused him, lectured him about getting a job.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Woodrow continued explaining his philosophy to Mama’s Boy as if nothing had happened. “No booze when you working. Folks smell alcohol, the money stop.”

Woodrow tried recalling how long it had been since he’d gone to an AA meeting. Didn’t seem worth it any more. For over a year, he had gone three times a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and church on Sunday. That was after Sissy had left him and took Woody. He even got a lawyer to try to let him spend time with the boy. But she could never forgive him. She wanted nothing at all to do with him. He didn’t fault her.

It wasn’t the booze or the drugs that caused his craziness, no sir. It was him that beat her so bad she spent near a week in the hospital. The boy stayed with her mother. He tried speaking to Woody, but Sissy’s mother would hang up on him. When he called Sissy at the hospital, she’d do the same.

She couldn’t forgive him, and he couldn’t forget.

As bad as she hurt, she had refused to press charges. But when she got out of the hospital, she took Woody and moved in with her family. She didn’t care how many meetings he went to or how much he apologized. Probably the smartest move she ever made.

He sent her money for more than a year, but he had used his savings for the lawyer and then he lost his job when they closed the plant. He spent most of the next two decades in an alcoholic haze, sobering up in jails and shelters and rehab facilities before returning to the streets.

That was before he made his plans. Now alcohol had no hold on him. And he worked sun up to sundown, like a righteous man.

When the streetlights blinked on, Woodrow felt his pockets full. He’d keep what little he needed for bus fare and supper at the church, and give half of the rest to Pastor Jerome as a donation. The remainder would go into a savings account with both the pastor and Woodrow’s names on it, so neither could withdraw the money without the other signing for it. Woodrow had already made out his will, leaving his savings to Sissy and Woody. The pastor promised he would find them when the time came.

It was starting to get dark, and the chill had returned. “That’ll do,” he told Mama’s Boy. “You don’t want to be on the streets when the crazies come out.”

Woodrow walked slowly towards the bus stop, feeling alone for the first time all day. Although the street was crowded with people, he approached no one. He wondered if he’d see Mama’s Boy at the shelter. Maybe tonight he could talk some sense into him.


WAYNE SCHEER has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. He’s published numerous stories, poems and essays in print and online, including Revealing Moments,  a collection of flash stories. His short story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting” has been made into a short film.  Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife.

Photo by Uhuru1701.

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