The beggar only sat on the corner of Baker and Delaney for one single day, but people never really stopped talking about it.
Nobody exactly knew where he came from, which was rather strange, in a town as small as Ruthermere.
He was just there one morning, huddled in an old grey blanket. He sat with his back against the northern fence of the old Delaney Public Park. He wore a grimy old army coat, and his hair was the colour of dirty suds, and the skin of his hands, neatly folded on his lap, was like some kind of dried-out leather. He had no legs, just pitiful stumps wrapped in pieces of washed-out linen.
Men, going to work in the early dregs of dawn, saw him huddled there and passed by shaking their heads. They earned little enough to feed their own families, without going around handing it to strangers.
The first man to talk to him was John Ross, the owner of Ross’s Supermarket just across the road. He came out, wearing his white apron, and strode across the street with a scowl on his face. The scowl lessened marginally when he noticed the man’s legs.
“Hey, you!” he said. “What do you want? Food? You hungry?”
The man lifted his head, and smiled kindly at him.
He had green eyes. John Ross noticed that, even though he was not a man to notice such things. Maybe he noticed because they were so different from any other beggar’s eyes. There were no desperation, no raging hunger tearing at his brain, although he was thin enough. There was only a pleasant kind of calmness.
“No, sir,” the beggar said. He had a polite Southern drawl. “I’m just sitting down here, for a bit. I am never hungry.”
John Ross scoffed.
“It’s alright if you stay on your side of the road,” he said briskly. “Just don’t come hanging round on my pavement.”
“Not a problem, sir. I’m staying right here.”
Ross went back to his shop, his spine tingling uncomfortably. No beggar had the right to look as peaceful as that man did.
As the sun came up and the street filled with people, a few stopped a moment by his side. Some tried to pass him money, but he didn’t accept it. Instead, he just smiled his kind smile at the person offering to him.
“I don’t need no money, just a moment of your time,” he would say. “Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life. Are you going to the Father through Him, ma’am?”
Some people smiled politely, some almost swore at him. And some of them would go away, suddenly feeling very hungry. Hungry for that peace in the man’s eyes.
Many people passed him that day, many of them hearing his simple message.
At noon a crowd of people had gathered around him, a couple of small children sitting down close to him.
And John Ross, going out onto the piece of pavement in front of his shop, could hear that the beggar was reciting the first chapter of the book of John.
He had a remarkably clear voice that carried over the growl of cars passing in the street and sent another chill down John Ross’s spine.
Ross went back into his shop, wiped his hands and went to his telephone.
“Did you hear about the guy on Delaney?” he asked when the person on the other side of the line picked up.
“I did,” a gravelly voice said.
“I don’t know what the hell he thinks he’s doing,” Ross said. “But I don’t like it.”
“He’s just a crazy guy rambling about the Good Book,” the voice said. “Not a problem.”
“That guy’s a lot of things, but he’s not crazy. There’s fifty people listening to him.”
“Still not a problem.”
“Maybe you don’t realise what’s gonna happen if this town suddenly decides to get all religious. Our business will be ruined.”
“He getting to you, Ross?”
“I’m just telling you, that’s what happened in Haverlyn, man. Town suddenly had a revival and kicked our guys out. I mean, even the sheriff’s been out there listening to that guy.”
The gravelly voice sighed.
“Have it your way,” he said. “Clean it up.”
“Good. I’ll let the boys take care of him tonight.”
Darkness brought a strange sort of quietness over the streets of Ruthermere. Families locked their doors, shops closed up their windows. Even the six policemen, patrolling the dark streets, stayed inside their cruisers.
At night Ruthermere belonged to the Ribs and their clients and suppliers, and no man in his right mind hung around where they were doing business.
On Delaney Street, the man without legs huddled his blanket closer around his shoulders and sat back against the iron fence.
It was a good days work, he thought.
Across from him the light was still shining in Ross’s Supermarket. Ross himself was moving around, getting ready for the next morning. Every so often he glanced across the street.
You’re making it obvious, partner, the man without legs thought.
In the park behind him the wind rustled through the old trees. He could smell wet grass.
Then the crunch of boots on pavement.
A cluster of maybe five guys, walking fast. They were coming right towards him.
The lights in the supermarket had gone out. The street was absolutely quiet, except for the footsteps closing in.
They made a tight little circle around him, the street lights turning them into giants.
A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee, the not-beggar thought.
The leader of the pack was a young man, only a boy really, with slicked-back hair and a fancy coat. He stood with his feet planted wide, his hands spread like claws beside his muscled thighs.
To the man on the ground the other four guys looked pretty much identical. Sweat-soaked t-shirts, tattoos, heavy boots and faces spread in malicious grins.
“Oh, lookie! A sitting duck.”
It was the boy talking, and his friends seemed to think that he was hilarious.
“Watcha doin’ here, duckie?” he asked, stepping closer and stooping in an exaggerated way.
“I am sitting, as you so swiftly and cunningly observed, sir,” the man said. He smiled at the boy, his kind smile. “Have you all got a minute, gentlemen? Because I would like to tell you that Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the…”
He never got the chance to finish the sentence, because the boy jumped forward, grabbed him by his coat and slammed him in to the rails.
“Shut up!” he screamed into his face. “Shut up, you fool! What are you trying to do to us, huh? Why are you sitting here and babbling on and on about Jesus Christ?”
The man looked into the angry young face before him. He was winded from the blow, and his chest hurt and his legs hurt and when he realized that the numb coldness against his throat was the round barrel of a gun his head was suddenly spinning. Lord, he prayed, please help me. Please help me reach this boy.
“Why, son,” he said softly. “You all are starving, don’t you see? This town is slowly withering and dying because none of you don’t eat and drink the Bread and Water of Life. I used to be you, son, I used to be the big guy going around selling drugs and shooting people. I used to have empty eyes, like yours. I used to starve. But then I learned that a Man had died for me, two thousand years ago on the cross, that He gave His blood to cover up my many, many sins. By His wounds, my stone cold heart and my empty eyes were healed, so that I could live.”
They still talk about the nameless beggar that sat on the corner of Baker and Delaney. Nobody knew where he came from, and nobody knew where he went after that fateful day.
But they talk even more about Angus Riordan, the slick-haired leader of the Ribs, how he and sheriff Bronson cleaned up the Ribs, shut down the drug business and put away John Ross and Toby Friend, the mayor with the gravelly voice, for good.
And most of all, even when they had long forgotten the beggar who was not hungry and Angus and sheriff Bronson, they still talked about Jesus Christ, who is the Way and the Truth and the Light.