A lone figure ambled slowly down the road. He carried a ragged bag over his shoulder which slumped as if the weight were unbearable. His shoes scuffed the pavement with each dragging step. I heard it from my position midway upon the short street where I lived. One other thing was completely different about him, probably the first thing most in this neighborhood would notice, he was a black man. His face was wrinkled with the years. An old slouch hat sat upon hoary hair that followed the line of his chin and lip in a matted beard.
We ignored him as we played cowboys and Indians in the front yard.
“Bang! Bang!” my friend shouted with his pistols aimed down the road. Our youth was displayed in the enthusiasm of our game. The old creosote pole planted on the road side of the ditch was the perfect hiding place for my buddy.
The bush in the yard was my cover. I knelt behind it peeking around the side with my gun in front of me. His gun was aimed down the street at the stranger meandering in our direction.
Our driveway was merely a patch of dry sandy earth devoid of grass or weeds. The tire tracks were easily seen in the path leading to the road from the side of the house. The stranger was near the top of the drive where pavement broke down into dirt and weeds.
“How you bwahs?” he said as he turned to walk into my yard.
“Who are you mister?” I asked backing up toward the porch.
“I juss a wayfairin’ travelah, yungun,” he said looking straight at me. His dark eyes rimmed with wet, near tears. His sack slid from his shoulder. He let it fall easily to the ground holding the rope to which it was tied.
“Whadda you want from us?”
He looked at me, a deep sadness in his eyes, lifting slowly with the smile inching across his face. The moment was shattered when my friend reached around the pole and shouted, “Bang, bang!”
He stopped still when the stranger’s eyes settle on him.
“You chillun wun wanna shoot a ole man, would ya?’ he asked turning back to me.
“No sir. We were just playing cowboys and Indians. They’re just cap guns. Cain’t hurt nobody.” I holstered my six-shooter. My buddy came over and stood next to me.
“You never said what you come into the yard for,” I said taking another step back.
“Well, yungun, I got a powful hungah and thirst. Been walkin’ this here road fo’ long time. Yassuh, long time. An’ ain’t had no vittals fo’ long time neethah. So I’s wundin’ if maybe you might hab some change on ya.” He fiddled with the rope in his hand. His smile had a loneliness about it that even I could see. I might not have understood it but it was something I could sense.
“We’re jus’ kids, mister. We ain’t got no money. Our ‘llowances been spent since Saturday. So, no sir, we don’t.’
“How about a sandwich?” my buddy asked me. “You got stuff for a sandwich, ain’t you?”
“Yeah. How ‘bout a sandwich mister? I can fix you a sandwich,” I said with eagerness.
“Young man, that would be so good. Yes, please, an' a cup o’ watah to please.” His smile eked out of the sadness range for a fraction of a second.
“I can do that,” I said and turned to the house. “Come on, buddy. You get the water while I make him a sandwich.”
The screen door slammed as we scurried into the kitchen. My friend reached for a glass in the cupboard. While I grabbed two pieces of bread from the bag he filled the glass with tap water.
“You take that out to him while I make the sandwich.” My order was in the air when he stopped.
“I don’t want to give him this. My mom told me not to speak to strangers.”
“Mine did too but that man is hungry. He needs our help. For some reason I think it’s OK. He just wants something to eat and drink. He looks like he’s been walking forever. He’s waiting out in the drive. I’ll finish this up. You go ahead.”
He took the glass out to the husk of a man in the drive while I slathered mayonnaise on a slice of bread. I pulled three or four slices of lunch meat out of the package and slapped it on the mayo side. It looked too dry so I put a layer of mayo on the second piece. Then I remembered there was lettuce in the crisper. I grabbed a few leaves and piled them on top of the lunch meat. I sprinkled salt and pepper on the mayo’ed slice and put it on the meat and lettuce. I picked it up and ran outside. The screen door slammed as I held the sandwich in front of me.
The stranger smiled and slowly reached for the food. His smile was like sunshine for a moment making me smile as well.
“Thank you, yungun. An’ God Bless you two chirrun.”
Half the sandwich entered his mouth. He chomped and chewed while we watched. Dust covered his shoes and pants to the shin. His shirt was a ragged affair devoid of color if it ever had any. He wore a jacket with seams frayed at the shoulders. The cuffs were two inches shy of his palms. It used to be a dark material but weather and wear had reduced it to a threadbare patch of matted earth and leaves. It was as if he slept in the same clothes at night.
He finished the sandwich in three bites chasing it with the remainder of the water in the glass. Pulling his arm across his mouth left a trail of crumbs and wetness giving evidence of how his clothes became such a mess.
“Do you want another one?” I asked.
He looked at me slowly and deliberately. His gaze held me until he looked to the sky for a brief second.
“My boy, you have given me above and beyond. I am grateful to both of you. Now I can begin my journey once more.” With those words he lifted his bundle and slung it over his shoulder. He turned to the road looking back where he had been and then forward to where he was going. Before moving he looked at us once more.
“You chirrun be careful now. God bless you f’ yo’ kiness to a ole man.” The bag once more seemed to weigh down on his shoulder as he bent to accommodate it. The first step had a spring to it but the second took on the shuffling gate I had seen when first spying him down the road.
“Bye mister!” We yelled to him. A smiling glance met out shouts.
“Bang! Bang!” shouted my buddy, his cap gun drawn and waving in my direction.
My hand flew to mine. With a quick draw Billy the Kid would admire I was shooting back.
“Bang! Bang!” I yelled running to his last hiding place, the creosote post. I stood straight to utilize the best advantage behind such a slim pole. For a second I peeked down the road. It was empty. It was empty in the other direction as well. The stranger was gone. Completely gone.
“Yeah,” came the answer.
“Where’d the man go?” I asked him.
He stepped out from behind the porch.
“He’s right down the road there,” he said.
“Nu uh. He ain’t there.” He came to my hiding pole.
Staring down the road he said, “He only just left. He should be just up the street there.”
“Think he cut across somebody’s yard?”
“No. There ain’t no way to get through the yards. Nobody’d let him pass anyway.” We both walked up the road a piece to see if he was anywhere around.
“He might have stopped at somebody’s house for a handout.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
We continued to walk along the path taken by the stranger. He was nowhere to be seen.
“I gotta go on home,” said my buddy. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“OK. See you then.”
I walked back to the house thinking over the last hour or so. I had never seen a stranger in this subdivision before. Not to mention he was not a white man either.
My folks got home a couple of hours later.
“Hello, Rickey,” called my mother as she walked through the door.
“Hi, mom. I’m in here watching Woody Woodpecker.”
“How was your day?” she asked as she passed me to go to the kitchen.
“It was alright,” I answered.
A moment later my mother poked her head around the corner.
“Would you come into the kitchen for a moment?” she asked.
That tone always brought on wariness in children my age. Not that it was followed by harsh punishment or anything but it always alerted the senses to be careful in answers that might be forth coming.
She was standing at the counter when I came through the doorway. Her toe was tapping the floor. I must have messed up somewhere, I thought.
“What’s all this?” she was pointing at the open mayo jar, the open bag of bread and the bits of lettuce on the floor and sink.
“Oh, I made a sandwich for the man.”
“What man?” she asked. A new look of concern came upon her face.
“The man that as walking down the road.”
“There was a man walking down the road that you made a sandwich for?”
“Yes ma’am.” Having answered I turned to go.
“Whoa, wait a minute young man. What man was this?”
“He was an old man who looked like he was on his last leg, momma. He asked for money but we didn’t have any so we made him a sandwich.”
“How often does that happen?” she asked. “Do strangers often come up here to the house while we are gone?”
“No ma’am. He was the first one I’ve ever seen.” Once again I turned to go. Once again she spoke.
“He asked for money?”
“Yes ma’am. But my allowance was gone since Saturday. I didn’t have any money so we asked if he wanted a sandwich. He said yeah, so I made him one.”
“Did you bring him inside?” A frown settled on her face as she continued to ask questions.
“No ma’am. He didn’t want in. He waited in the drive while I fixed it and my buddy took him a glass of water.”
“So you fixed him a sandwich and a glass of water while he stayed in the yard?”
“Rickey, it sounds like you did the right thing but it could have been dangerous. You know I’ve told you never to speak to strangers.”
“Maybe next time you should call your grandmother or somebody if a stranger walks into the yard like that. Will you do that for me, please?”
“Yes ma’am. I will.”
She smiled with relief then said, “Now clean this counter off so I can begin dinner.” She kissed the top of my head as I put the lid on the mayo jar.
Later that night when it was time for bed she came to tuck me in.
She pulled the sheet and blanket over me. Leaning over me she brushed her lips across my forehead. Then she sat for a second on my bed.
“Rickey, please remember what your daddy and I have told you about strangers.”
“Yes, ma’am. Don’t speak to strangers.”
“That’s right. Today you and your friend should probably have run inside and locked the door until he was gone.”
“If I hadda he’d still be hungry and thirsty.”
She looked at me with a kindness only seen in a mother’s eyes.
“Yes, I guess you’re right,in this instance. Ok,” she said rising. “You get a good night’s sleep and we’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yes?” She stopped at the door placing her hand on the frame and turning to me with her beautiful smile.
“Doesn’t the Bible say something about being kind to strangers because they might be angels?”
She looked at me then smiled again, “Yes, dear. It does.”
“Do you think he might have been an angel?”
“God says we won’t know so we should treat them with kindness. You did just that, dear. You and your friend treated him with kindness the best you could. That warmed God’s heart whether that was an angel or not.” She kissed her hand and blew it toward me. “Good night, my love. Sleep tight.”
When she turned out the light and left the room I lay thinking. My buddy and I fed an angel today.