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The ride to work that October morning seemed especially bumpy. The bus was one of the older ones, and the brakes made a loud ear-piercing screech at every stop. There was a different driver also, who didn’t seem to mind the noise and the lurching. The other riders, as well, seemed oblivious to the annoyances. Most of them familiar faces, they either hid behind their newspapers or stared at the floor or out the windows as if in some kind of stupor.
Manuelita had taken this route for almost two years now, and she had followed the same routine almost every day. She would get up at 4 and go about the business of preparation. By 5, she would be going out the door, and she would walk to the Church of Saint Anthony, three blocks away. It would be locked at that time of the morning, but Sister Miriam was always there to greet her with a smile and let her in.
Sister Miriam would stand there when she had the time and would watch Manuelita walk slowly all the way up the aisle, as if she was some young bride on her way to a new life. And the old nun would wish silently that someone would find her, this young beautiful woman with the endearing smile and the sad eyes.
Manuelita had good reason for the sadness in her eyes. She was all alone in the world. Her parents, who had both been immigrants from Mexico, were both departed now. She’d had a brother, but he had enrolled in the military, in hopes of bettering his life. And he had ended up losing it in the never-ending hostilities overseas. There hadn’t even been a body to look at and to say goodbye to.
The grief and despair of that loss took her mother. When she went, her father had not been far behind. He lasted long enough to see her through her high-school graduation, but the years of hard labor and the losses in his life had finally taken their toll. Now, she prayed for them every day, with never a thought for herself.
She would light a candle, and then she would kneel and pray. Sometimes, she would gaze at the crucifix, and if one could see her face, they would see wonder and rapture in her eyes. But she knew that wasn’t really Jesus up there.
She understood that all the icons were just representations that were there to remind and inspire. By looking at the image of Jesus in his moment of agony, she would feel empathy and cleansing. And then, in the Blessed Mother and the other saints, she would see the goodwill and acceptance in their outstretched hands.
The bus went by the little diner where she worked, and she pulled the cord for the bell. It hit what must’ve been a very large pothole, making her bounce up off the seat, and it slowed up as it approached her stop at the end of the block, screeching all the way. A thought of uncertainty came up in her mind, but it was vague and it faded away.
As she started down the steps of the bus, she turned and smiled at the driver. “Have a good day!” she said pleasantly. He looked at her with disdain, his brow twisted into a frown, and he grunted.
Then, as she stepped onto the sidewalk, she noticed someone lying on the bench inside the shelter. The old bus rattled off, leaving a dark cloud of exhaust and the stench of diesel fumes in its wake. The chill of autumn was in the air, and there was just a hint of daylight.
She peeked into the booth quietly. She was concerned that the person might be hurt. She could see now that it was just a wino wrapped up in an old army coat. From what she could make out, he was filthy and unkempt. And the booth reeked of foul smells... stale alcohol and cigarette smoke, urine, vomit, and a very pungent body odor. She gathered her jacket up over her chest, found the handkerchief in her purse, and held it over her mouth and nose.
He was lying with his face to the wall, so she couldn’t tell about his condition, but she heard him snort a couple of times. Then he passed gas audibly. He turned over clumsily and almost rolled off the bench, which made her gasp out loud. He opened his eyes lazily, noticed her there, and grinned at her. “Hey, chulita, un poco de cambio?” (Hey, little, pretty one, a little change?)
She fished in her purse and found a couple of quarters, but in the moment it took to reach them out to him, he had closed his eyes and started snoring again. As she backed away and out of the booth, she wondered how one man could have made that much of a mess by himself. Then she made the sign of the cross and proceeded on her way.
As she walked over to the diner, she took the key ring out of her purse and selected the key she needed. The owner had learned to trust her and to take advantage of her integrity. She always arrived first and got the coffee going. She would start up the steam table and the grill, and would take care of any other little preparations she could think of.
Before she opened the door, that unfinished thought from before came back, and now she remembered what it was. She turned around and looked at the street, and she walked out into the lane and looked back in the direction from which the bus had approached.
There were no potholes, and she had known that. She had never known there to be any potholes along this street as long as she had ridden on it, except for a few minor ones that had all been repaired. And she had never seen any winos in this neighborhood, either. She went inside and got to work.
Sofia, the cook, came in just as she was finishing up with the napkin holders. After a warm greeting, Sofia remarked, “Ugh, did you see that wino at the bus-stop? What a way to start the day, huh?”
“Oh, was he still out there? He really made a mess, didn’t he?”
Before Sofia could answer, Mrs. Meiers, the owner, came in from the back entrance; she was there for the breakfast rush. “Morning, girls; kinda nippy out, huh?”
And then, a silence fell over all, and they turned to see the wino slowly walking by, hunched over and braced against the cold of the morning. Mrs. Meiers made a face, “Where in the world did he come from? I don’t think I’ve ever…”
Manuelita interrupted, “He was sleeping in the bus shelter.” And then she quickly turned to Sofia, “Could you make a couple of taquitos for him real quick? I’ll pay for them.”
Sofia nodded. “Sure, honey; just give me a couple of minutes.” She and Mrs. Meiers exchanged little smirks and both quietly shook their heads, and she got to work.
Manuelita ran out and called him, “Señor!” (Sir!) There were a couple of benches in front of the diner, where people often sat and ate when the weather was nice, and she motioned for him to sit. “En un ratito le traigo un desayuno.” (In a little while, I will bring you some breakfast.)
He smiled and nodded, and he sat down with a countenance of humility, even removing his hat. The door opened, and Mrs. Meiers stuck her head out. “Have him come inside, child,” she said with a tone of resignation. “He might as well warm up a little.”
“Are you sure?” She wanted to point out that he smelled bad, but she didn’t know if he understood English.
“It isn’t good for business either way, so yes, he might as well sit inside and be comfortable.”
Manuelita reached her hand out to him, and with a slight air of formality, she spoke to him, “La dueña ha dicho que usted puede entrar.” (The owner has said that you can come in.) And she helped him to stand, she helped him inside, and she found a place for him to sit. The first customers came in.
Manuelita turned from the booth and saw Mrs. Meiers approaching with his food and coffee. She lost no time then in going to the new customers, but in that moment of walking past her, she could not help but notice the wrinkled nose and the look of regret on her boss’s face. And then she realized that he was actually stinking up the place.
The customers were regulars. She brought them coffee right away, and as she waited for their order, she glanced over at the wino. He was really enjoying his food, savoring every mouthful. He looked up as he took a sip of coffee, smiled and winked at her. And she smiled back.
The two young men she was waiting on, because they were familiar with the place and with her, were able to raise the question with looks and gestures. She leaned in close and explained quietly and apologetically about the smell, and how they were just trying to show some kindness to a homeless tramp. More customers came in, and then a couple more. The morning rush had begun.
They were all regulars. Some were students, on their way to the nearby college, and others were singles, on their way to their jobs. Manuelita and Mrs. Meiers had done this long enough now that they would get into a rhythm of sorts. They both enjoyed the pace and seemed to dance around each other as they catered to the needs and wants of the customers. This day, a peculiar thing began to happen.
The customers all reacted visibly, with frowns and wrinkled noses, as they came in. Inevitably, they all had to be informed discreetly about the smell in the restaurant. And while everyone else had a tendency to eat hurriedly, the old wino appeared to be relishing his food and taking his time about it. Manuelita assumed that he was simply reluctant to go back out in the chill, but the sun was out now, and it was starting to look like a beautiful day.
She noticed the first customers getting ready to leave, so she went over to the till. One of them walked over to the wino, said something to him, and handed him some money. This warmed her heart, and she responded with warmness towards them when they came up to pay for their meal ... but then, she always had.
Things had finally slowed down. Mrs. Meiers would do a little bookwork in her office now and then leave until about 11:30, when she would return to help with the lunch crowd. Manuelita and Sofia could wash the dishes, tidy up, and prepare for that rather quickly.
She was now aware that as each table emptied, someone would go over, talk to the wino, and give him a little money. She felt an appreciation and a gratification that almost brought tears to her eyes, but she would have to deal with that later. Right now, there was work to be done. Between tending the till, there were dishes to bus and tables to wipe down.
The tips were all collected in a jar. Manuelita and Sofia would split them equally, as had been agreed, and Mrs. Meiers was happy to let them have it all. When Sofia had learned that Manuelita had been giving part of her tips to charity, she sighed and shook her head and then asked her to just take ten percent off the top for the cause.
From behind the till, Manuelita watched as the wino finally gulped a last drink of coffee, stood up slowly and stiffly, gathered his coat and hat, and headed for the restroom. She tightened her jaw and tried not to think about it. Sofia had come out to help now. As usual, she was whistling some peppy and familiar tune, and Manuelita smiled to herself and hummed along.
It fell on Sofia to clean up the booth where the wino had been sitting. “Wow” she uttered, “I expected much worse over here. There isn’t a single crumb on this table. Even the plate and cup look like they haven’t been used.” And when she picked up the plate, she almost dropped it, “Oh, my God! Mannie, come look at this!”
Manuelita walked over curiously and looked at the table. The wino had left a stack of bills under the plate, what appeared to be a very hefty stack. And then, she realized that she had never seen him leave. She shuddered as she also realized that he might still be in the restroom, and she glanced at the clock on the wall.
The restrooms had been built in a way that faced them away from the eating area. Manuelita approached the men’s room apprehensively and knocked on the door. “Señor? Está bien? Señor, por favor, necesito que me responda.” (Sir? Are you alright? Sir, I need you to answer.) She opened the door and called again softly, “Señor?” (Sir?)
Then she heard a noise outside and noticed that the little window was wide open, and the screen had been removed. It was one of those half windows placed up high, so that people outside couldn’t look in.
A shadow seemed to pass by, like the shadow of a cloud. She stepped inside and looked out the window, up at the sky. And she froze in terror, as a veil of electricity spread across her back and neck. She clearly saw a large greyish figure with iridescent wings flying away. She gasped out loud, and she felt her knees yielding, but she reached out and held on to the wall of the stall. She heard the figure laugh, loud and booming... the whole town must have heard. Or had it just been thunder? The figure was gone.
Pale and shaken, she wandered back into the eating area. Mrs. Meiers and Sofia watched in wonder as she sat down blindly, right where the wino had been sitting, and she burst into tears. Mrs. Meiers lost no time in sitting down beside her and putting her arms around her, but it took several minutes before Manuelita could compose herself enough to relate what she had just seen.
The three women all sat there in silence for some time. Mrs. Meiers continued to hold on to Manuelita and rocked her gently. And she tried to make sense of it all. Sofia sat in the opposite bench, her heart reaching out like her arm across the table, as Manuelita held her hand like a lifeline.
With her other hand, Sofia had spread out the bills into small stacks. “There’s exactly $3,000 there,” she said with a blank look on her face. “I just don’t see how that’s possible.”
That afternoon, the bus ride home went smoothly. As she stepped off the bus, her usual driver smiled at her and made a familiar clicking sound out the side of his mouth. “See ya in the morning, sweetie” he said. And she smiled back.
She had gotten off two blocks before her stop, as she sometimes did. She walked down the cross street to the church, and found Sister Miriam on her knees in the garden out back. The old nun looked quite different in the big apron, knee-pads, work boots on her feet and gloves on her hands. She stood up with some effort when she saw Manuelita.
“Hello, dear; what a pleasant surprise!” she said, taking off her gloves and walking over to meet her. There was something very different about the young woman, something in her eyes. “Is everything alright?”
Manuelita handed the nun a thickly stuffed envelope. “I have a story to tell you, Sister,” she said, with a gleam in her eyes. Maybe you should get Father Joseph to join us.”
This story is based on a true incident. That incident, as it was related to me, was of a much darker and demonic nature. As I considered the writing of the story, out of respect for the people involved, I could not bring myself to retelling what really happened. There are still some things in this world, I believe, better left buried and undisturbed.