The snow was still falling softly when Sal, a local beggar of Glenhaven started making his daily rounds in the City Park. Most local homeless concentrated their efforts on searching the garbage cans for edible rubbish, or, even better, empty aluminum soda or beer cans that they could turn in for money. The most enterprising of them, the “rubber tramps,” used shopping carts stolen from the parking lot of the Rainbow Foods a few blocks away to carry their scavenged goods until they could be used, traded, or sold for a few dollars.
As Sal was grouped with the homeless, no better was expected of his conduct; people assumed that he was doing the same as his fellows: looking for money, food, soda cans or other detritus so that he could buy liquor which he would guzzle until he was stupidly drunk and a public menace. The big secret which Sal, a brown-skinned, dark-haired, tall and interestingly dressed man might tell you, was that the “homeless gig” was only a cover. He wasn’t homeless; he was merely away from home, if Heaven could be called a home. He wasn’t alcoholic, drug-addicted, mentally ill, poor, or any of the other stereotypes attributed to his fellows in the park, on the streets, or under the bridges in Glenhaven.
Sal was an angel.
“Get away from my shop, you drunken no ‘count bum!” one of the fine, broadminded citizens of Glenhaven had shouted at him recently. The man was Mr. Brewster, the proprietor of the Butter Roll Bakery, and he had scowled at him while brandishing a broom as if he intended to sweep the large man right off of the sidewalk and away from the store.
Sal was sitting on a grate in the sidewalk trying to warm his behind, hoping that the heat might work its way to his extremities. He had had a very long night—not carousing in other homeless camps near the banks of the river, but saving a teenage girl who was bent on jumping from the Main Street Bridge into the river. Sunrise had found him cold and tired, but it had not erased his sense of humor. He looked at Mr. Brewster and laughed.
“You’ll need a bigger broom than that to sweep me away, Mr. Bakery Man.” His voice when he spoke was deep and warm toned with a hint of a Spanish accent. His chuckle was pleasant to the ear although it seemed not to affect Mr. Brewster, whose scowl only deepened.
“I’ve told you no ‘count bums that this is not a rest and recreation area. Go somewhere else. I don’t you need you or your friends in front of my store scaring away my customers!”
The smile left Sal’s face as he stood, although traces of warmth lingered in his dark brown eyes. He immediately missed the heat of the grate. “I am no bum,” he said articulately, “and I am certainly not “no ‘count.”
Brewster’s eyes rounded as Sal’s body unfolded completely, revealing all six feet, five inches of height. Sal could tell from his expression that he might have rethought his decision to try and drive him away if he’d known how big he was. He continued to wield the broom, though not nearly as boldly as before. His fingers were clasped tightly about the handle, and his arm was shaking. The rest of his upper body was trembling as well, shivering like the leaves of an aspen tree in a breeze, and his eyes had the wide open stare of a deer who couldn’t manage to tear their eyes away from the headlights of an oncoming car. “Now l-look, I don’t want any trouble,” he stammered.
“Relax, buddy,” Sal said kindly. “I guess it just goes to show that you should never yell at a man who’s sitting down. Wait until they stand up before you let them have it.” Sal brought his large body close to the shopkeeper’s. “That way,” he added in a conspiratorial whisper, “there are no nasty surprises.” He smiled coyly at Brewster and winked, as if they were two friends sharing a secret. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he went on, failing to notice how Mr. Brewster paled at the mention of hurt. “It’s against my mandate.”
“Your mandate?” Brewster’s eyes narrowed in suspicion at the incongruence between the speaker and what he was saying. When was the last time a homeless man had spoken to him of ‘his mandate’? Then again, when was the last time he had spoken more than a few words to one of the denizens of the city streets? He let his eyes move over the man before him, really seeing him for the first time, sheepishly realizing that he never looked at the homeless more than he had to. Had he looked at the man properly he would have discovered this large and frightening man was an alarming marvel of fashion. Starting at Sal’s feet, the heavy Sorel boots with knotted laces seemed commonplace enough. Even the pants, which looked like what must be a very large pair of soot colored sweat pants, were innocuous. Sal’s army surplus parka was obviously a drab olive green, but it was in much worse repair than his boots, which had intact felt liners; the seams that secured the pockets were in the process of being ripped out and a rent in the side of the coat leaked occasional clouds of downy feathers.
From there the homeless man’s ensemble grew more colorful and strange. A red and white striped scarf with insignia from the local college and cadged from a Salvation Army clothing drive was knotted about his neck, making a striking contrast with Sal’s pitch black beard. He had two hats. One hat was a handmade crocheted yellow and orange cap with ear flaps that bracketed his tan cheeks and covered his ears as well as his bushy black hair. However, it was the men’s baseball-type cap that he wore over the top of the other that filled Brewster with speechless astonishment. How had he missed it before? Like the jacket, it was a greenish brown color and it appeared to have the head of a fish, possibly a walleye, poking out of the front above the bill. The tail of the fish likewise protruded from the back.
Brewster stared an extra moment at the bizarre fish hat, feeling strangely uncomfortable about the way the eyes on either side of the fish’s head seemed to be goggling at him. Sal smiled at him again, lines raying from the outer corners of his eyes. “It’s not real, you know,” he said, touching his topmost hat. “The fish,” he added quickly, as if there was any doubt about what he meant.
“Right.” Brewster moved his eyes from the fish hat and back to Sal’s face, lowering his broom as he did so. The smell of baking wafted out the door, carrying with it the smell of fresh bread. He knew that he should close the door in this indigent man’s face and hope he would take the hint, but something stopped him. Somehow this large man who had been warming himself on the exhaust vent, who was wearing a hat with a fish head sticking out of it (but not a real fish), and had said that he wouldn’t harm him because it was against “his mandate” had snagged his attention. “So, what’s your mandate?”
For a moment Sal’s face was suffused with a flush of pleasure. “No one’s ever asked me that before,” he remarked softly.
“What does that mean? Do you really have a ‘mandate’ or is that just something that you say?”
Sal smiled a bemused smile. “No, I’m telling you the truth. I really do have one. It’s just that people don’t usually stay with me that long, pay attention.”
Brewster lowered his gaze for a moment, feeling a bit sheepish again and also a little pleased that he had persisted when most others didn’t. He lifted his eyes to the big man timidly, aware of the turn the conversation had taken and the fact that he was now in uncharted waters. “What’s your mandate?” he asked again.
“My mandate is to protect and preserve human life, to help those who are in need, and to do as my Father commands me.”
“Those are some pretty lofty goals for someone who lives on the street.”
Sal gave Brewster a look that could only be described as intense, as if he was willing the man to comprehend the mystery of his life. “I don’t need a home to be kind to others. In the Book of Luke Christ says, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath nowhere to lay his head.’ Christ was able to do His Father’s work while he journeyed from place to place. As for me, I require very little,” he said honestly, his right hand palm down on his chest. “Just a warm seat every once in a while, a bit to eat every now and then, a place to sleep for a few hours and I am happy.”
Brewster appeared to listen to Sal thoughtfully. In a way he respected what Sal had said. He was a Christian, baptized into the Catholic Church and raised in the faith to adulthood. He still attended Mass every Sunday and he was well acquainted with the notion of service to others. However, he was also a practical man who didn’t see the value of someone living on the street and sponging off the bounty of the community. “That’s all very nice, commendable even. But you should be working at a job. You know, working for pay and living in an apartment, not sleeping in shelters or on sidewalks and eating at soup kitchens.”
“I told you I have a mandate—and those places you mentioned, Senor? That’s where my work is.”
“You can work at a job and still be kind to people,” Brewster argued, color rising into his cheeks. Since he had the man’s attention and he seemed to be rational, he was going to be a good Christian and try to reform him. “Your “mandate” is admirable, but you should get a job, earn some money, and find a place to live that isn’t outside.”
Salvador sighed. He had lost him, after all. Still, he wanted to try, try to make him see the truth. From what he had seen during their conversation the baker showed some promise. Be careful, a voice whispered in his ear. “Senor,” he said patiently, “I already have a job.”
Brewster looked at him incredulously. “A job as what? A street prophet? A beggar helping other beggars to be beggars?”
Sal squinted at him, thinking. “Yes,” he said, mostly to himself, “’beggar’ is a good word for me. I have to beg all the time for mercy from people, from the police, from God. Mr. Brewster, look at me and listen to me when I tell you what my job is. I’m not really supposed to tell others, but they don’t usually believe me anyway.”
Brewster looked down at the sidewalk, shaking his head. Whatever this man had to say, he really wasn’t interested in hearing it. Suddenly, his head popped up. His eyes were wide. “Wait! How do you know my name?”
Sal smiled a tired smile. “I know a great many things, Mr. Brewster. Now, please look at me while I tell you what I am.”
“You must have heard one of your cronies talking about me,” Brewster muttered uncomfortably as he faced Sal once more. I can’t believe I’m doing this. “All right, now tell me what your ‘job’ is which is so much better than a real job.”
“Look into my eyes, please,” Sal instructed quietly.
Brewster did as he was told. For the second—or was it the third? the fourth?—time that morning he was surprised. Sal’s unlined face was as innocent as a child’s, but his eyes were like ancient windows on a wealth of knowledge, as if he had watched the progress of Man from the creation of the world and had been disappointed. Brewster gasped as the trappings of the world fell away and he saw the man as he really was, without scarf, crocheted ear flaps, jet black beard, or fish hat. He gasped as Sal’s lips moved and his voice echoed inside his head. “I am an angel, one of many soldiers of God on this Earth. Be honored that you have been allowed to see beyond my glamour to perceive me as I really am.”
It took effort, but Brewster broke the lock Sal had had on his gaze. He shook his head forcefully, like a child shaking an etch-a-sketch, trying to clear his thoughts away. “You’re an angel?” he nearly shouted. “You’re crazy, is what you are. Get off my sidewalk, you no-good bum, before I call the police and have them drag you away by force!”
Sal shook his head slowly, looking disappointed. Once again he was bearded, his scarf, crocheted cap, and fish hat in full evidence. “You’re being defensive, Joseph Brewster. I had hoped for better.”
Brewster’s cheeks were red, whether from anger or shame, Sal couldn’t tell. “Get out!” he shouted, pointing his finger toward the street.
“Look at me, Brewster. Look at me.”
Unable to stop himself, Brewster looked at him one more time. Once again, he was unprepared for what he saw. Sal pulled down the lower lid of his left eye, exposing an unearthly, inhuman light of liquid gold, the angelic ichor that lay beneath his skin. Brewster gasped as his face paled to the color of bread dough. His eyes rolled back into his head as his body went as limp as a dishrag.
Sal was so shocked that he forgot to catch him.
The angel looked at Brewster for a moment, sprawled as he was in the doorway of the bakery, his feet inside and the rest of him on the sidewalk. Just for a moment, until he remembered that he looked like a big, scary, homeless man and any passerby who might see him standing over the baker laid out on the sidewalk would think he had had something to do with it. Well, that was partly true, he thought, as he gingerly lifted the limp body of the baker and tried to fold him convincingly into one of the chairs in his shop. Once more he shook his head, this time at his own behavior. For one thing, when was he going to remember that humans can fall forward when they faint? Of course, they could also fall backward or sideways; it all depended on how they were standing. He had seen enough humans faint by now; he should remember. For another thing, why didn’t he catch him? “I was shocked,” he argued with himself. “Yes, yes, I was shocked,” he answered himself, “but my reflexes are quicker than that, quicker than any human’s.” His next thought shocked him as much as Brewster’s faint did—had he let the man fall on purpose? If he had—well, that was terrible.
“There, that should do it,” Sal muttered to himself. He took a step back, admiring his work. Body positioned on the chair, arms on the table in front of him, Mr. Brewster now looked as if he were merely taking a brief rest while opening for business. Granted, his head was down, but perhaps people might think he was drowsy. “Oh,” the angel murmured, “I’d better take care of that.” Pulling a clean cloth from a ripped jacket pocket, he plied it nimbly with one large, long-fingered hand as he wiped the traces of a nosebleed from the unconscious man’s upper lip. “I’m sorry,” he whispered in his ear, “I thought—”
A feeling tickled his senses, running right through and breaking his train of thought. An ineffable “something” had happened, causing a shift of power to brush up against him with a touch as soft as the feathers leaking from his coat. “Wake up!” he directed Brewster before disappearing.
In a moment he had discovered the source of the change. His breaths were like white puffs of smoke as he stood before the bench in the City Park and his thin brown hands burned with cold as he moved snow off the humped form lying there. He bent down close to the girl, witnessed the symptoms of illness and the faint flicker of life.
“Dios, child, what happened to you?” he whispered.
Miraculously, the girl’s eyes opened as if in answer to his question. They were a startlingly vivid blue as they met and held Sal’s gaze. Her pale lips opened. Sal leaned in closely to hear her whispered words: “I’m sorry, Jack.”