Aiden Davies looked out his second-story window and saw yesterday’s snow retreating from the small quad that his dormitory bordered. That didn’t last long, he thought as he raised the window to let the cool February morning freshen his musty room. “It smells like my old soccer bag,” he said aloud to no one in particular. He pinched his nostrils together with one hand and with the other ineffectually pushed the stale air out of the room. His eyes traveled from the green islands emerging in the melting snow to the brick sidewalk, which looped like a pretzel across the quad – and was salted like one, too. A man he had never seen before on campus stood at the far end of the quad, looking up and squinting in the morning sun. The man surveyed each of the buildings enclosing the quad and then turned up the street, one hand shielding his eyes as he glanced at the other buildings on campus. Davies watched him walk into the library and then, promptly, forgot about him.
After lunch, Davies returned to his room to exchange his winter jacket for a lighter one. The day, it seemed, had botched its cue and started singing of spring a few measures early. After his morning class, Davies had walked past a pair of sunbathers in swimsuits and winter hats reading on the quad. He had thought it oddly incongruous – not the winter hats and swimsuits – but the tanning while reading John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a volume that Davies had used to prop his door open when he moved in last August. His second year of graduate school (which is what he called “seminary” to non-church people and to women he met) was on the downhill climb. In a month, he would attend his “Candidacy” meeting, a forty-five minute chat with eight members of a committee, which advised the bishop whether Davies should be ordained to the priesthood. After that, a few short months would see him become a senior for the third time in his life.
He pulled on the corduroy coat, grabbed his backpack, and snatched his sermon from the printer on his way out the door. As he walked to class, Davies spoke his sermon aloud to the trees and benches, delighted that he couldn’t see his breath. His disappointment that yesterday’s snow turned out to be a one hit wonder was forgotten in the sun-drenched promise of spring. After homiletics class, Davies left the academic building and began walking back to his dorm when a man came up to him from the direction of the library.
He wore a heavy winter coat, puffy with insulation and frayed at the cuffs. His gloves were cut off, allowing the tips of his fingers to poke through. He was shaped like a retired linebacker, tall, a slight limp in his right leg. But his arms, Davies thought, looked like they could remember their old strength if push came to shove. As the man approached, Davies recalled him from the morning and realized he had been on campus all day. The heavy winter coat on a cool, but not cold, day. The loitering on a seminary campus. This man’s homeless and he’s looking for a handout. Davies hated himself for making such a snap judgment, but he knew he was right all the same. “Hello there, sir,” Davies called out, his “sir” ringing false and he knew it and he smiled too widely to cover it up.
“God bless you, bless you, I know you could. I seen you from across the way and know you could. I read the Good Book and I know, I know the Lord helps the man to do whatever he set his mind to. I’m from down South Carolina, and I’m trying to get back home. God bless you, son, bless you, praise Jesus.” The man said it all in one breath, like a telemarketer trying to keep a customer from hanging up.
Davies held out his hand. “My friends call me Davies,” he said. My friends call me Davies? I never say that. “What’s you name, sir?” The “sir” came out more naturally this time, and Davies wondered if the man noticed the difference.
“Roy. Just Roy.” His linebacker hand found Davies’s and squeezed. “I believe what the Good Book say, yes I do. I been saved since I was eleven years old, praise Jesus.”
Davies suppressed another smile, wondering if Roy always gave his Christian resume before asking for help. Maybe he’s been to churches that only give handouts to born again Christians. What a depressing thought. “What brings you here, Roy?” Davies said, hoping that both asking the question and using the man’s name would help him care about the answer, but it didn’t. I’m going to be an awful priest.
“I’m trying to get back home, but my car’s got a flat and it’s up near St. John’s church and they said if I could get to them by three they’d help me out, but I need a ride up there and God bless you I been saved since I was eleven, praise Jesus.”
The part of Davies that wanted to quit seminary and become a staff writer for Law and Order wondered how Roy got to campus if his car was up near St. John’s, five miles and change away. He tried to push the incongruity out of his mind. You gonna tell me the truth, he wanted to say, but it came out, “I think I’ve got time to drive you up to St. John’s.”
“Bless you son, I know you could. The good Lord has a plan, don’t he, yes he do. Yes. He. Do. I just got to get to St. John’s church by three and they say they can pay for my tire, praise Jesus.”
“Okay, Roy, let’s go.” They turned a corner onto the salted pretzel sidewalk and headed for the parking lot. “One second,” Davies said, and he held up his backpack. “Let me drop this inside.” My friends call me Davies…do you have any friends? I think I’ve got time…which is obviously more precious than yours. Let me drop this inside…so you won’t steal it from me. Who the hell am I to say such things? Davies flung his backpack onto his bed and slammed the door behind him.
He pounded the steps back downstairs, letting his frustration absorb into the staircase. He passed an open door, stopped, and turned around. He popped his head into Mark Riley’s room. “What’s up, brother,” Mark said, swiveling around in his desk chair, Calvin’s Institutes and a highlighter in hand. He always called Davies “brother.”
“I’ve got this guy, Roy, outside who’s looking for a ride up to St. John’s. You got a few minutes to go with me? I’m just not…” Davies’s voice trailed off. Mark jumped up, put the highlighter in the book, and tossed it onto his bed. Grabbing a hooded sweatshirt off the back of his chair, he said “Sure thing.”
Davies and Mark Riley met Roy outside. “I got to get St. John’s church by three, the good Lord has a plan, yes he do.” Mark shook Roy’s hand. “Yes he do,” Mark echoed.
They piled into Davies’s car and Davies turned out of the parking lot, while Mark and Roy chatted, with a “praise Jesus” and a “the Good Book says” punctuating their conversation every few sentences. He does it so easily, Davies thought. I feel inconvenienced. Mark feels…joy.
They arrived at the St. John’s parking lot ten minutes later. No car with a flat tire. No cars at all. Davies looked at the dashboard clock. Two-fifteen. You gonna tell me the truth now, he wanted to say, but he said nothing instead. “They said three, they pay for my tire, the good Lord has a plan.” Roy didn’t seem to notice the lack of a car to put his new tire on.
Davies looked at him in the rearview mirror: “There’s no one here, Roy. What do you want to do?” A long pause. A siren from the main road. Mark drumming his fingers on his knee.
“I could use some food.”
He said it without a “God bless you” or a “praise Jesus.” Davies turned around and looked at Roy. The imposing retired linebacker was gone. His need had deflated him. The heavy winter coat with the frayed cuffs seemed the only weight on Roy’s frame. He looked straight ahead and rocked back and forth, his exposed fingertips pressed together. Davies stared at him for a long moment. I feel like a plantation owner. The thought made Davies want to vomit.
“There’s a Panera Bread right over there,” Mark said, pointing to the shopping center across the street. Davies put the car in gear and reached into his back pocket at the same time. A twenty and two ones. He passed the singles to Mark who added a few of his own. They dropped Roy off, and Mark pressed the bills into his hand. Roy squeezed the money, a new smile creasing his face. “The good Lord has a plan, praise Jesus.”
“Bless you, brother,” said Mark. Roy walked toward the restaurant. Davies pulled out of the parking space. He looked at Mark. Mark looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “He could’ve just asked us to buy him lunch,” said Davies.
Mark scowled. “You ever ask anyone to buy you lunch?”
At the traffic light, Davies looked back at the Panera. What the hell is wrong with me? It was Roy. Just Roy. He needed help. That didn’t make him another species. That didn’t make him less than human… It made him Jesus. “For I was hungry and you gave me food…” The Good Book say. Yes it do. Yes. It. Do.