By Jesse Edwardson
The homeless shelter was crowded. Leon Robinson waits in line for a meal. He is a patient man. He isn't griping like some of the people in line ahead and behind him. He just stands quietly, with his stocking cap rolled up inside of his dark and wrinkled hands, and waits for the line to move forward.
Leon watches people to pass the time, so he looks around the room. So many children, he thinks. Too many children. It’s so sad. They should be tucked in their beds, in a warm house. He sees many single moms, looking lonely and desperate. He also sees several men here. Men like him, black and past their prime, and men unlike him. These men are scrawny strung out junkies and wannabe gang bangers. Everyone here needs something. Some of those here need everything. Leon only needs a meal and a warm place to sleep.
The line takes a step forward.
The front door of the shelter swings open and lets in the frozen December wind. A family of four is coming in. They look lost and half starved. The father shuts the door again as quickly as he can manage. He turns and faces the room and gathers his family together in his long arms. They huddle for a few minutes until a shelter worker approaches them with a warm smile and four Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate. They exchanged a few words and the volunteer leads them to a crowded school lunch table. The mother and children sit down on the narrow bench while the father remains standing. He looks as if he is guarding them. In a way, he is.
“Hey old man, get to steppin” some crack-head startles Leon out of his reverie. The line had taken a couple of steps forward.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. Sorry,” Leon replies. He can remember a time when young people respected their elders. Days long forgotten it would seem. Leon could remind this youngster about respect, but he has learned the hard way that it’s not worth it. Two stab wounds in his belly has taught Leon to bite his tongue.
Leon finally reaches the counter. He picks up a tray and waits to be served.
“Well, hello Mr. Robinson, and Merry Christmas!”
“Hello Sylvia. Thank you. And Happy Hanukkah!” Leon smiles at the short, round lady behind the counter. Leon and Sylvia have known each other for a long time. Leon has been homeless for years and has always come to the Forty-Seventh Street Shelter. Sylvia has been a volunteer here for as long as Leon can remember.
Sylvia came to America with her husband, Karl Steinman, in the winter of 1939. The rise of the Nazis in their homeland caused them to flee Europe. They found a good life in America and through all of their years together they have tried to give back to the community at every opportunity.
“Thank you,” said Sylvia. “What will it be tonight, ham or turkey?”
“A little of both if you can spare it, please,” Leon replies. He doesn’t like to ask for too much but it has been days since his last real meal.
“Of course dear.” Sylvia places a slice of ham and a slice of turkey on a plate and hands it across the counter to Leon. He smiles appreciatively.
“Thank you so much Sylvia, I am much obliged.”
“Oh, don’t mention it. There is plenty here for everyone to have seconds, maybe thirds.” Sylvia returns Leon’s smile.
“Well then, thank you for your kindness and your warm smile,” Leon says with a wink.
Sylvia blushes. Leon moves down the counter and fills his tray with corn, stuffing, cranberry sauce, milk, and a slice of pumpkin pie. The shelter must have raised a lot of money to be able to put out a spread like this, Leon thinks. He is glad for it.
With his tray full, Leon turns to face the room and searches for a seat. The shelter was so full, and far too full for Christmas eve. He spots a seat next to the family he saw come in earlier and walks over and sits down. The father has taken a seat too. He must have decided to relax a little.
Leon nods to the man and his wife and says “Hello.” He also smiles and greets the children. The parents are apprehensive and nervous. It was obvious that they have never spent a holiday in a homeless shelter. Leon feels sorry for them, he knows how it is.
Once upon a time, Leon had decent job running a punch press. He and his wife Vivian, and their daughter Lisa, lived in an old run-down apartment building on the south-side. Life was pretty good, they didn’t have a lot but they had enough. Leon worked on the third shift, ten p.m. to six a.m. He hated working nights. Their neighborhood was dangerous.
One night, Leon was called into the office by his boss. A neighbor had called because there had been a fire on Leon’s floor. The fire department was still putting out the flames and the building had been evacuated but no one had seen Vivian or Lisa come out. Leon ran home as fast as his feet could take him.
As it turned out, the fire had started in the apartment adjacent to Leon’s. Some fool had fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand. The fire killed him and two other neighbors along with Vivian and Lisa. Lisa was only six years old. They both died in their sleep from smoke inhalation. Leon’s heart was broken.
Vivian was several years younger than Leon and they had tried for many years to have children. They were finally blessed with Lisa one month before Leon’s forty-first birthday. She was the apple of his eye. His pain is still strong, especially on holidays, but it always makes Leon happy when he sees a whole family. He is thankful for this family's blessings.
The boy of the family stared at Leon as he ate his dinner. Leon pretended not to notice at first but then he caught his eye and smiled and gave him a wink. The boy blushed and looked away. Leon chuckled.
“What is your name young man?” Leon asked the boy.
“Michael,” he answered.
“Well I’m pleased to meet you Michael, I’m Leon.” Leon put out his hand. Michael took it and gave Leon a firm handshake. Just like his grand-dad had taught him to.
“Hello, Mr. Leon.” said Michael.
This made Leon laugh again. “You can just call me Leon, son.”
“Okay, Leon.” The boy smiled. Leon reminded Michael of his grand-dad.
“Why are you here, Leon?” Michael asked.
“Michael, that is none of your business!” his father scolded. “I’m sorry Sir. He really has better manners than that.”
“That is quite alright. Children love to know things and asking questions is the best way to get to know things,” Leon said to Michael’s father.
“Well Michael, I’m here because I don’t have a house to live in. Just like most of these folks here,” Leon says as he motions to the rest of the room. “I once had a good job and a beautiful wife and daughter, but now all I’ve got is my grandpa’s harmonica and the clothes on my back. Oh, and my health. I can’t forget about that,” Leon said. And to make his point, Leon stabbed a thick piece of turkey and popped it into his mouth. Michael giggled.
“Wow,” Michael said. “It’s kinda like us. Dad lost his job and the landlord kicked us out of our apartment.”
“Michael I’m sure Mr.... I’m sorry what is your name?” Michael’s mother asked not unkindly but a little embarrassed.
“Leon Robinson, ma’am. You can just call me Leon.”
“Thank you Leon,” she says. “Michael, I’m sure Leon doesn’t want to hear about us. Now please drink your cocoa.”
“It’s quite alright ma’am. I really don’t mind. It’s nice talking to your little man here,” Leon said. “I’m very sorry that you were evicted. Times are tough.”
Michael's mother looked down at her lap while Leon spoke. He could see how all of their struggles were wearing her out.
“You know what?” Leon continues. “You have found the best shelter in the city. They’ve got comfy beds upstairs, good food, and a nice little chapel right through that door over there if you’re so inclined. They take good care of people here.”
Michael’s mom looks up and gives Leon a weak smile.
“Don’t worry honey, we’ll be back on our feet in no time,” Michael’s father whispers into her ear as he kisses her cheek. “I’ll go get us some food,” He says as he takes his daughter’s hand and leads her to the food line.
“You are a very kind man Mr. Robinson,” she says to Leon.
“Well, thank you ma’am. You have a very nice family, I’m glad to have met you,” Leon says sincerely.
“Where is your wife and daughter, Leon?” Michael pipes in.
Leon’s smile falters a little. “Well Michael, they're in heaven.”
“Oh,” Michael says sadly.
“Mr. Robinson, I am so sorry,” Michael’s mom says and reaches across the table and touches Leon's arm.
“Thank you ma’am, it was quite some time ago. And I do miss them something awful. I’m just thankful that they went together. That way, my little Lisa had a hand to hold as she entered the Kingdom of God,” Leon smiled with a tear shining in the corner of his eye.
“Oh my, they went together?” she asks.
“Yeah, some fool tried to burn our building down and the smoke got to them in their sleep. So they went to heaven together, mother and daughter. They meant the world to me, Vivian was the love of my life and Lisa was the life of my love. I miss them terribly, but I’ll see them again someday,”
“That is so sad,” Michael says.
Suddenly an announcement came across the loud speakers. “Attention, attention everyone. I would like to let everyone know that our beds have all been filled. Those of you with children will be accommodated. All single adults, we regret to inform you that you will need to find shelter elsewhere for the evening . Please feel free to try the Fifty Second Street Shelter, five blocks east of here. They sometimes have spare beds when we do not. We apologize for this inconvenience. Merry Christmas to you all and may God bless. Thank you.” Click.
“Well, I guess that means me,” Leon says as he stands up. He had finished his dinner.
“Where are you going Leon?” Michael asks.
“I’m gonna have to go to that other shelter and find a bed tonight. There’s no room for me here.”
“But, I don’t want you to go,” Michael says, pouting.
“Don’t worry young man. I’ll be alright,” Leon tells Michael. He turns to his mom and says, “It was wonderful meeting you and your family ma’am. You all have a good night, and don’t worry, you’ll get back on your feet soon.”
“Thank you Leon, and you be safe tonight. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you too.”
“Merry Christmas Leon,” Michael says while holding out his hand to the old man.
“Merry Christmas Michael,” he replies as they shake hands again.
“I want you to have this,” Michael says, handing a small toy to Leon.
“Well, what’s this?” Leon says while turning the toy around in his large hands.
“It’s one of my army men, I want you to have it,” the boy smiled proudly.
“Well, how nice of you Michael. Say, I've got something for you too.” Leon reaches into his pocket and brings something out. “Here, I want you to have this,” Leon hands Michael his harmonica. “You play that when you feel bad and it will make you feel good again.”
“Wow, a real harmonica!” Michael says with wonder.
Michael’s mother watches this exchange while tears run freely down her cheeks.
“Thanks Leon!” Michael says.
“And thank you Michael.”
Michael got up and ran around the long table to give the old black man a bear hug. Leon returned the hug gladly. They both had tears in their eyes.
Leon straightens up when Michael lets go of him and runs around the table again to rejoin his mom. He wipes the tears from his face and buttons up his coat. “I plan on coming back here tomorrow for the church service, so maybe I’ll see you then,” he says to Michael and his mom.
“Sure thing,” she says, smiling.
“Ok, good night now,” Leon says.
“Good night Leon,” Michael and his mom say at the same time.
“Thanks again Leon, for everything,” Michael calls to the old man as he turns to leave.
Leon pauses, turns back around to face them, smiles and gives them a little bow. Michael giggles.
Leon walks to the front door of the shelter with a smile on his face. He pulls the door open and steps out into the frozen night.
The wind bites deeply. It is the coldest Christmas Eve in recent memory.
Leon makes the five-block journey to the Fifty Second Street Shelter. No room for him here either. The lady he meets just inside the door sincerely felt badly for turning him out. Leon feels no resentment toward her though. He understands quite well that space is limited and the children come first.
He leaves the shelter and heads toward his favorite alley. Having a favorite alley seemed odd at first, but this alley is behind an appliance store and Leon knows that he can find a good cardboard box to sleep in tonight. This alley is also quiet and far from where the gangbangers hang out.
“Oh lord, it is COLD this evening!” Leon speaks out loud to himself. He pulls his stocking cap down a little tighter over his ears. He doesn't have any gloves, but he has a good coat and he keeps his hands deep in the pockets. He holds Michael’s army man tightly in his left hand.
On his way to the alley, Leon passes a liquor store. Leon doesn't drink often, he never did, but he thinks that a little something sounds good. He turns around on the sidewalk and steps into the warm store.
Just inside the door Leon stops to shake off the chill and remove his cap.
“Good evening,” says an old Asian woman behind the counter. Her face and tone of voice are expressionless.
“Good evening ma’am,” Leon replies.
The old woman eyes Leon suspiciously. She assumes that he is just some bum trying to stay warm and plans to loiter in her store without buying anything. Or worse still, that he may be planning to hold her up. Either way she has her hand under the counter, ready to grab her pistol.
Leon walks down one of the two aisles running the length of the store. He looks at some bottles of wine and can not believe some of the prices. One bottle cost more money than Leon had seen in the past six months.
“Hoo, Lawdy!” he says under his breath. He reaches the end of the aisle and finds something he can afford. It will cost him nearly half of the money he is carrying, but tonight is special. It is Christmas Eve. He takes the bottle to the counter and sets it down.
The old woman relaxes a little but keeps her hand near the gun while she rings up Leon’s purchase.
“Three, forty-nine,” she says without any enthusiasm.
“And worth every penny,” Leon replies with a chuckle as he hands her four very wrinkled one dollar bills. The old woman doesn’t even make the smallest of grins.
Leon takes his change and puts it into his pocket. He pulls his cap back onto his head, slips the bottle into his coat and under his arm.
“Well, Merry Christmas,” he says as he turns toward the door. The old woman makes no reply.
Leon steps back out into the biting wind and the old woman resumes reading her tabloid.
After a couple of blocks, Leon reaches the alley. He tries to keep a box hidden behind a dumpster so that he will have one when he needs it. The box he has hidden is gone. He looks inside the dumpsters for another box and can't find one anywhere.
“I guess I’ll just have to hunker down between these two bins for the night,” he says to himself.
Trying to be thankful for what he does have, Leon throws a bag of garbage down against the wall so that he had something soft to lean on. Then he sits down between the dumpsters and tries to bundle himself up the best he can. It is going to be a long night.
Leon pulls his wallet from his pocket and opens the pictures that he carries there. He sits, staring at the photos of his wife and daughter. A tear leaks from his eye and freezes to his cheek.
“I miss you two so much,” he says with a choked voice. His finger traces the face of Lisa. It was her first grade school picture. He remembers all the fuss she and Vivian went through that morning trying to get her hair just right. The dress was the easy part that morning. It was her favorite dress, she always felt so pretty when she wore it.
“Oh baby-girl, you are so beautiful,” he speaks to the picture. “You were so proud of that dress, your Princess Dress,” another tear freezes to his cheek.
He sets his wallet down in his lap with the pictures still open and pulls the bottle of wine from his coat and twists off the cap.
“Merry Christmas, my lovely ladies!” he toasts and put the bottle to his lips. He drinks deeply and when he tips the bottle back down he takes a long, shuddering breath.
He looks out into the alley and notices just how quiet the night is. He wipes the frozen tears from his face and feels just how alone he is. Alone and lonely. Leon is not the kind of man who ever feels sorry for himself, but every once in a while the feeling sneaks up behind him and tugs at his coat tails.
He looks down at the pictures in his wallet again. He allows one or two more tears to fall before he returns the wallet to his pocket.
He sat there between the dumpsters, sipping his wine, celebrating Christmas and freezing. The air was so cold that his wine began to slush up.
“Just as well,” he says, setting the bottle down. He pulls his knees up to his chest and leans against the bag of garbage. Trying his best to get comfortable, Leon Robinson settles in for the night.
“Now why did I give that young man my harp?” Leon asks himself. “ A little music would be nice right now. But, oh how his face lit up when I handed it to him. It's right that he has it now, he will get so much joy from it.”
Leon pulls his collar tighter to his face, closes his eyes and begins to sing.
“This little light of mine I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it...” In the middle of the last line, Leon drifts off.
In his sleep, a small voice fills his ears. It's singing, “let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
The voice finishes the song and then gently coos. “Daddy… Daddy. Wake up,”
It’s a voice that Leon thinks he recognizes, but it can't be right. Leon opens his eyes and sees the face of Lisa, his baby girl, just poking in between the dumpsters.
“Lisa?” Leon says in disbelief. “Is this a dream?”
“No Daddy, it’s no dream silly. I’ve come for you.” Lisa smiles.
“But you can’t be here baby girl. You’re supposed to be in heaven, with Momma,” Leon says while warm wet tears begin to roll freely down his cheeks.
“I was, and Daddy it’s so beautiful there. Come on, stand up,” she says as she takes her father’s hand and helps him to his feet.
Leon stands up and realizes that he is no longer cold. The tears stay wet on his face and his daughter Lisa, is holding his hand. He can feel warmth and life in her small hand.
“Come on, come on,” Lisa gently pulls her daddy’s hand and leads him along the alley toward the street. Leon takes a glance over his shoulder to the spot where he was sitting on the cold ground. He sees himself, hunched in the shadows between the dumpsters. His knees are drawn up tightly against his chest and his arms are wrapped around his bony legs. His head is resting against the wall behind him and his face is looking toward the sky. He is smiling.
Leon turns his gaze back to his daughter and asks, “Oh baby girl, where are you taking me?”
Lisa turns her smiling face up to her father and says, “To see Momma.”
Leon stares at her, amazed by what she has said. Then something catches his eye and he looks up toward the street. Leon watches the end of the alley and the street beyond disappear in a great flood of light. In the light he can see the silhouette of a woman, she is waiting. Leon recognizes the shape of his wife at once.
“Merry Christmas Daddy,” Lisa says as she leads her father into the light. His wide wonder-filled eyes return to Lisa's upturned face as a deep peace enters his heart.
Leon Robinson enters Heaven while holding his daughter’s hand.
This is a rewrite of the story LEON that I have posted in the past. I think that this is a better version. There aren’t many changes from the original, mostly small tweaks. I did add some things in order to “flesh it out” a little. I hope you like it, I still get a little misty when I read it LOL.