Erik pressed the button, and rain splatted into the car as the passenger window descended. He leaned his head out the window and yelled, “TWOS! Get a job, loser.”
The words startled Mandy out of her reverie. Her knees hit the steering wheel and her hands thumped the horn. Turning to her son, she saw the man on the corner as he turned and shuffled away.
“Erik John Miller. What’s possessed you? Get in here and close the window.”
“Chill, Mom. It’s just some loser homeless dude. Guy should be ashamed of himself.”
“No, Erik, you should be ashamed of yourself. What does TWOS stand for?”
Erik sank low in the leather seat, crossed his arms over his chest, and mumbled.
“Speak up, young man.”
“Total waste of skin. That’s what that guy is, just a total waste of skin.”
The light turned green. Mandy’s heart pounded. Her hands shook as she gripped the wheel and took her foot off the brake. She turned wide onto the side street and jerked the car into a parking space. She counted in slow breaths, one, two, three…
“Erik, I’m ashamed of you. This isn’t the way you were raised. You don’t know anything about that man or why he’s in the situation he’s in. And calling someone a total waste of skin is awful. Where did you learn that? Never mind. It doesn’t matter. You will never use that phrase again. Understood?”
Erik stuffed his ear buds into his ears. “Yeah. Whatever.”
Mandy reached over and yanked the cord of the ear buds, pulling them from her son’s ears.
“Ouch. Nice Mom.”
She put the car in gear and did a u-turn.
“Where ya going? I’m gonna be late for practice.”
“You aren’t going to practice. Not today, not tomorrow. No more baseball for you. We’re going over there and you are going to apologize to that man. And Saturday, you and I will be volunteering at the First Baptist Soup Kitchen.”
Erik’s mouth dropped open. “No. Mom, that’s not fair. I didn’t mean—”
“Doesn’t matter what you meant. This is what happens.”
Approaching the corner where the homeless man stood, she slid the car to a stop against the curb and opened her door. “Come on.”
Erik didn’t move. Mandy walked around the car and yanked the door open. “Now.”
Mandy grabbed her son’s elbow, pulled him out of the car, and pointed him in the man’s direction. Rank body odor assaulted her nostrils as they approached the homeless man. He looked up and his eyes met hers through the long hair that hung in lank, wet chunks over the left side of his face. Filthy jeans hung on his hips. Those eyes. Why did they seem so familiar?
Being this close, Mandy’s heart rate amped up a bit. Anything could happen. What was she thinking, putting herself and Erik in possible danger? But the memory of Erik’s taunts steeled her resolve.
“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you. But my son has something he would like to say.” She pushed Erik forward.
“I’m sorry.” Traffic from the intersection muffled the words.
“Erik, speak up. Introduce yourself and tell him what you have to say.”
“My name is Erik John Miller. I’m sorry—”
The man shot a look at Mandy and then Erik. His eyebrows raised and he walked a few steps away.
“Wait, mister, I have to finish.” Erik moved toward him.
Stopping, the homeless man didn’t turn around.
“My name is Erik John Miller and I’m sorry I yelled at you.” Erik picked at the edge of his hoodie. Rain ran through his hair and onto his cheeks.
“Whatever. I need to go.” Grabbing his bag and picking up his sign, the beggar turned to leave.
Mandy watched the homeless man, her mind reeling. Fighting the urge to jump in her car and drive away, she stepped forward. “I’m Mandy Miller. My son was not raised to yell at homeless people like he did. What’s your name?”
Mandy pulled back, a shiver danced down her spine. “Paul. What’s your last name, Paul?”
Erik’s stare bored through Mandy, but she ignored him.
“No last name.” Paul turned to Erik. “How old are you?”
“I’m 11. Just had a birthday last month.”
A ghost of an emotion flitted across Paul’s face. “I really should go, ma’am. You’ve taught your son the lesson you set out to, so you can leave me alone.”
Erik shot his mother a questioning look, but she shook her head. She strode toward her car. “Let’s go Erik.”
“Mom, I don’t understand. Why did you ask him for his last name?” Erik skipped a little, coming alongside Mandy.
“It’s nothing Erik. Get in the car.”
Saturday morning, Mandy and Erik walked into the church building that housed the soup kitchen. Ron Burg greeted her. “Mandy, so good to see you outside of Sunday service. What brings you in today?”
She gave Ron a hug. “Erik is here to volunteer.”
Ron shook Erik’s hand. “Come right in, we can always use the extra help.”
A whoosh of air flowed into the building as the door opened. The homeless man from the corner the day before entered the building. Seeing Mandy and Erik, he turned and grabbed the door handle, but before he could leave, Ron stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Good to see ya, Miller. It’s been a while since you’ve been in.”
“Wait, your name is Miller also?” Erik eyed Paul. “You didn’t tell us that the other day.”
Ron grinned. “Yeah, man, this is Paul Miller. Good guy. Fought in Iraq.”
Mandy gasped and sagged against the wall. “Paul?”
Erik went to her side. “Mom, are you okay. What’s happening?”
Paul looked at the floor.
Ron watched the whole scene with confusion written over his face. After a moment, he went to help Mandy. “Come sit down.” He led Mandy into an office off the lobby and helped her into a seat. “Are you okay? I think Mike Howard is here tonight. I’ll go find him.”
Mandy shook her head. “No, I don’t need a doctor.” She turned to Paul. “It is you. What? How?”
“Mom, it is who? What’s going on?”
“Erik, this is your father, Paul Miller.”
Erik paled and scowled. “My dad ain’t no homeless loser. He’s a hero. You told me yourself.”
A long period of silence stretched between them.
Ron broke the quiet. “Son, Paul is a hero. He was injured saving two men after an IED exploded while they were on patrol.”
Tears ran down Mandy’s face.
Squirming, Ron spoke. “I’m going to leave you folks alone here. Stay as long as you like. It sounds like there might be some things you all need to talk about. Erik, when you’re ready to get started with volunteering, come find me.” He left the room and pulled the door closed.
“This is crazy. Will somebody please tell me what’s goin’ on?” Erik plopped down into one of the chairs in the room. “Mom?”
Ignoring her son, Mandy stood and went to Paul. “What happened to you?”
“I should have died over there. There was no reason for me to come back after the war.”
“No reason? What about me?” Mandy’s voice peaked as she dropped back into a chair.
“I wasn’t worth anything when I came back. You deserved better than the broken man I am. It’s better this way.”
“Better? That divorce just about killed me. And then there was Erik. Somebody had to be there for him.”
“I didn’t know about Erik. You never told me.”
“Paul, I didn’t know until after you were gone. Even so, you never listened to anything I had to say back then.”
Erik jumped out of his chair. “Hey, I’m still here. I don’t understand any of this. How can this guy be my dad? My dad is dead. Do you hear me? He’s dead to me.” Yanking the door open, Erik ran from the room and out the front door of the church.
“Erik, wait.” Mandy followed her son. In the church parking lot, she scanned the area and found him sitting under a tree in the churchyard. Her feet drug over the asphalt as she crossed the lot. Thoughts crashed around in her head. None of this made sense. How could Paul be right here and her not know? What would she tell Erik? He’d longed for his father for years.
She dropped to the grass next to Erik. He whisked tears from his face.
“Erik, I know this is confusing. And, I don’t really know what to say to help.”
Pulling grass out strand by strand, Erik stacked the pieces in a little pile in front of him.
Mandy put her arm around her son’s shoulder and pulled him close. Holding him to her, she whispered into his hair. “Talk to me Erik.”
Tears wet her blouse. Wiping his hand across his nose, Erik pulled away and peered at his mother. “He can’t be my dad. My dad can’t be homeless. Why did he leave?”
“Erik, honey, I didn’t even know I was pregnant when he left. Things were so hard when he came back. He wasn’t the same man I married and he didn’t want to be with me anymore.”
“But me, Mom. He didn’t want to be with me.”
“That’s not true. He didn’t know about you.”
“I dreamed about someday meeting him, but I never thought it would be like this.” Erik buried his face in her shoulder and sobbed.
Mandy rubbed his back and let him cry. Tears streamed down her face. Paul stood outside the church door watching them. Anger surged through her veins. How could he do this them? No, if she hadn’t made Erik apologize, they would have never met him.
Time slipped by as Mandy held her son and watched her ex-husband. He never moved from his spot. Silently her thoughts waged war in her brain. Take Erik and never look back. No, he needs this chance to get to know his dad. No, take him. There were no easy answers.
Erik’s sobs subsided and he pushed back from her. He stood and lifted the edge of his shirt to dry his face.
“Erik, we can go. We don’t have to go back over there.”
She heard a new strength resonating in his voice as he said, “He’s not a total waste of skin. He’s my dad. I have a chance to get to know him, I should at least try.”
Amazed at this man-child who’d just yesterday been a little boy yelling out of car windows, Mandy watched as her son crossed the parking lot to meet his father for the first time.