|Hank Matthews stood outside the church office watching as people processed by, shaking hands with the pastor. He held the not-so-prestigious position of church treasurer in charge of counting the weekly collection. Finished with the count, he waited on his wife, Eve to come out of the sanctuary. He smiled and greeted many in the congregation as they shuffled by. While he enjoyed doing God’s work, he also preferred to be behind the scenes and in complete anonymity.
Ms. Schwartz, a slight, white-haired lady of 82 years, stood patiently in line. Her eyes fell on Hank, and she toddled toward him. Hank watched her with great interest, as this was quite unusual for Ruth not to greet the pastor. She approached with a gleam in her eyes, like the wonderment of a child about to meet Santa.
“Hello, Hank.” Ruth stated in her usual elderly stutter. She had a slight speech impediment from a stroke a few years ago. Except for the stutter, she was not hard to understand.
“Hello, Ruth. How are you today?” He smiled down at her from his six-foot-three-inch frame.
“I have waited a long time for this day.” Her eyes sparkled with unmistakable joy.
“Oh, you have. Well, that is wonderful. What is the special occasion?” Hank’s curiosity piqued.
“A special gift, Hank. A very special gift.” She patted her purse and smiled. “You will know by the time this week is through. I thank you so much for all of your kindness. My family will never forget you.”
Hank stood there, stunned. “Well, I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such an honor, but if I can help you in any way…”
“You already have, my dear.” She held out her hand and touched Hank’s. She cradled it with her other hand underneath. “You already have.”
He felt the absolute warmth of the woman in front of him, and in pure befuddlement was speechless. He had no idea what prompted such an affectionate display. He stared into her shining eyes. Without conscious knowledge, he escorted her to her car, where her grandson, Rodney awaited. Rodney as usual, pulled up their '98 Caravan to the door, while Ruth stood in the greeting line after the service.
Hank smiled wide as he helped Ruth into the waiting vehicle. Rodney seemed relieved that he could just sit in the driver’s seat this time. He usually retained the chore of helping his grandmother in and out of vehicles, but he relaxed this day and let Hank handle the duty. Hank knew the family well, but only as a fellow church family. He churned over in his mind the words Ruth had spoken. He nodded to Rodney, and he returned the nod. Ruth’s eyes still sparkled, as she situated herself. Hank buckled her in and she reached up and caressed his cheek.
“You take care of yourself, Ruth. I know Rodney will help you. You have a wonderful family.”
“… and wonderful friends,” Ruth said in reply, staring at Hank in a most unusual way. Her eyes seemed to examine every feature of his face.
With those words, Hank slid the door closed and tapped the roof twice to let Rodney know she was loaded, buckled, and secure. Hank watched the van drive off, with about as much mystery as he’d known for a while.
Hank shook his head, and started back inside to meet up with his wife of twenty-seven years.
Hank worked as a deli attendant at a local grocery for the last 35 years. He knew all the store operations -- ordering, checkout, deli, stocking, accounting, scheduling, etc. The owner, Mr. Marzetti, trusted Hank with every aspect of the store, and regarded Hank as a part of his own family. Hank truly enjoyed his job, and always treated the customers with respect. Bigger grocery stores with lower prices had come to town, and hurt the local store, but Hank insisted that his customers were loyal and would see them through hard times.
Hank and Mr. Marzetti often discussed changes to the store, and Hank had an uncommon knack of making the right call on sale items, along with managing store hours to reap the best profit. This kept the few employees employed, and created a strong bond between them all which often displayed itself to the community. Hank would often hear people comment on the friendliness of Marzetti’s Foods. Hank prided himself on that.
This Saturday, Hank took his normal spot behind the deli counter, while his two front cashiers checked out customers. Hank took great care of his deli items, and often would venture into the old back store room to put out fresh stock and unbox items delivered during the day.
The store room was dimly lit by two pull chain lights. He was used to the large shadows that a person made moving about the room. Everything about the room was ancient. A large crack down one wall attested to the damage from a tornado only eight short years after the building was constructed. An old “Coca Cola” sign hung on the wall near the back door. Handmade shelving units built from thick rough-hewn lumber lined the rest of the room, except where the meat locker and stove rested. The meat locker even had an old-fashioned handle pull. They still stored their meats there.
“Hello, Mrs. Roberts. How are you today?” Hank grinned from behind the deli counter as he emerged from the back room.
“Hello, Hank,” she scanned the fresh meats, “I guess I’ll take the usual.”
“One pound of fresh honey ham sliced thin, and a half pound of cheddar coming right up.”
“Thank you, Hank.”
“You are quite welcome, ma’am.” Hank winked at her. Mrs. Roberts’ lips parted, showing her teeth.
Hank filled the order, as Mrs. Roberts’ grin became a full smile. She took the ham and cheddar and placed them in her cart, then strolled on about the store. Another satisfied customer, Hank thought.
The day wore on, and Hank had many such encounters, often calling his customers by name and anticipating their needs with a wink and a smile. The grocery was busy this day and he loved every moment. The day was tiring, but well worth the effort.
Hank once again wandered to the back store room late in the day. The room was not heated well, but Hank didn’t mind. Working kept him warm. He’d heard from several customers’ conversations that the snow was falling tumultuously. He decided to peek outside the back door to see. He peered out and was confronted by no less than three inches of accumulated snow. Wow. Really putting it down!
Knowing that the barrage of customers was likely over, with it being Saturday and with the coming of the snow, he decided to close up the deli counter. He packaged up the rest of the fresh meat into white papered bundles, and returned to the back room. Hank then opened a few cases of fresh produce to get them ready for Tommy to stock that evening. Tommy was a good kid. He always showed up on time, and worked from the moment he clocked in until the job was complete. Hank would often cut open the boxes to make Tommy’s job easier.
Then a peculiar thing happened. A tapping sound was barely audible over the cutting sound he was making on the boxes. At first, he ignored it. Old buildings often had quirky sounds -- creaks and groans. Hank was used to it. But this sound persisted. He looked around the dimly lit room.
“Odd,” Hank said aloud. He took a few steps toward the wall. “Where’s the crack?” The tornado-damaged wall appeared to be a normal brick wall. Mr. Marzetti must’ve patched it. They really did a good job. Hank felt the rough wall, running his fingers over where he believed the crack should have been. What’s…? <tap tap tap>. Then he realized it wasn’t so much a tap as it was, a knock?
He ranged over to the door where he could hear the faint tapping grow louder. He unlocked the back door with his old skeleton key, and carefully pulled the door open. Hank’s eyes were wide, trying to expect anything.
A small child, no more than seven years old, lay next to the door. Dressed in rags, she shivered and tapped on the door. She was startled at the door’s opening and big Hank towering over her. Her vacant eyes stared up at him. Frail and cold, she spoke just above a whisper, “Hello, sir. Could I come in to get warm?”
Hank’s eyes softened at the wretched urchin before him. Her thin frame and scant clothing showed that she was but a hint of a youngster, and possibly older than her appearance. Hank’s heart swelled with compassion.
“Certainly, young lady. Please come in from the cold. Warm yourself. I’ll even light the small wood stove here.” Hank pulled a few pieces of wood from the shelf by the meat locker, and carried them to the stove in the corner. The youngster limped in and slumped to the floor next to the stove. He rarely lit the stove, but it was the quickest way for the room to get warm. Warming by the registers in the store would not produce a lot of heat, which was what this poor girl needed.
He reached inside his coat to get some matches and light the stove, but to his amazement, a few hot coals brightened and glowed at the sudden onrush of air. Confused, he did not dwell on this turn of good fortune. Did Marzetti light this? One of the clerks? Tommy? He tossed in a few of the thinner wood pieces, and the fire alit anew. Soon the whole room would be warm.
“Now then. What is your name?” Hank inquired. The girl knelt and held her hands out toward the stove.
Hank spied an old butcher’s apron freshly cleaned, hanging on a nail by the meat locker and strode over and retrieved it. He wrapped the girl up. “Mm…mmm… Maggie.” She stammered between shivers. “My name is Maggie.”
“Well, hello Maggie. Why are you out here on such a cold night?” Hank squatted down so as to not look so intimidating.
“Call me Hank.”
“Yes, sir. Hank, sir. My mother sent me to town as I’m the oldest to get some food.”
“You’ve come to the right place then. This is a grocery. What did your mother tell you to get?”
“I … I…” Maggie looked away and stared at the small wood stove, “I don’t know. I don’t have any money. My daddy died and my mother stays home. She sews a little for money, and us kids go get firewood wherever we can find it.”
“I see.” Hank’s heart ached as it filled with sorrow. His eyes scanned the oak floorboards. Hank and Maggie stayed mannequin still, and in complete silence, for a few minutes. The occasional popping of the new wood in the stove served as the only sound.
“Well, let’s get you something to eat, Maggie.”
Maggie’s eyes brightened.
Hank walked over to the meat packages he’d placed by the meat locker door. He grabbed the five pound package of ham. Then he took a loaf of bread from the storage shelves and deftly made a sandwich for Maggie and offered it to her.
Maggie reached up and gently lifted it from his hand, “Thank you.” Her eyes stared up into Hank’s. She ate quickly, but quietly. Her fragile body greedily consumed the nourishment.
While she ate, Hank meandered about the room, thinking of Maggie and her family. His heart remained heavy, when he spotted an old blue tobacco card with a picture of a couple, smiling and dancing. He picked it up, wiped away a thin layer of dust, and struck upon an idea. He turned.
“Maggie, I’m going to give you this old tobacco card,” Hank retrieved a pen from his pocket and signed the back, ‘Hank’. “Every Thursday, just come to my deli counter and hand them this card. Even if I’m not working, they’ll give you one pound of fresh meat, but only once per week. Do you understand?”
Maggie nodded her head and smiled, “Yes, sir. You mean for free?”
“Hank. Call me Hank. Yes, Maggie. For free.” Hank smiled at her.
“Yes, sir, Hank. My mother will be so happy. My two younger brothers will have something to eat anyway." She jumped up from the floor and hugged Hank tightly around his neck. “Thank you, Hank. Thank you so much.” Hank could feel her bony frame against him.
“Here,” Hank repackaged, and handed the rest of the ham to her. “Take this back to your family.”
“Oh. This is too much. You will get into trouble.”
“No. No. I’ll be fine. Just take it.” Hank reassured her, and smiled again.
“Thank you again. Sssir… Oh, I mean, Hank. You are so kind.” Maggie's eyes had a sudden glow about them.
Hank nodded to her. “Keep the apron. It’s old anyway and I’m sure your mother can sew it into an undergarment.”
“Oh, I will.” Package in hand Maggie bolted toward the door, opened it, shot a glance back at Hank, and then disappeared into the cold snowy night.
Hank’s heart soared with a warmth that even the stove could not match. He took a piece of butcher paper and wrote a long note to Mr. Marzetti of a girl named Maggie, who would come in every Thursday, and to give her one pound of fresh meat and to deduct it from his paycheck on Fridays. With a flourish, he signed it simply “Hank”, and left it on the deli counter.
Tired, he glanced at his watch which read 8:43 pm. I’m usually home by 8:00. I’ll just slip out the back. Tommy can handle locking up the front. Hank lived two blocks away and walked to work every day. He placed the remaining meat into the locker, and exited out the back door. He heard the familiar click as he turned his skeleton key to lock the door.
The cold, silent night greeted him as the snow fell like a deluge upon the city. At least four inches, maybe five by the looks of things. A car sputtered along the street. Hank glanced over as he turned up his coat collars to cover his cheeks. He took a second look as he recognized the model T Ford. Wow. I haven’t seen one of those since I was a kid. Marvelously restored! The thing looks almost brand new. Who would have thought on a night like this I’d see one of those?
Hank watched it disappear down the deserted street, as he turned and opened the familiar gate in front of his home. He took four steps inside then realized… where is the squeaking racket from that gate? That monstrosity always groaned and squealed to his consternation. He heard a simple ‘click’ as it shut behind him. He stopped and peered back at the gate. He could have sworn the latch wasn't as rusty just moments before. He shrugged, and turned toward his house. Guess the weather agrees with something evidently, but it certainly isn't me! Brrrrrr.
The next morning was Sunday, and time for him and Eve to go to church. He felt very good about Maggie and she came to his mind frequently. He was certain Mr. Marzetti wouldn’t mind his note -- as long as everything, including the five pounds of ham and old apron, were paid for. He told no one, not even Eve. He even prayed that morning for Maggie and her family to be healthy and happy.
Hank arrived at church at the usual time of 8:00 am and started toward his usual Sunday School room. Just as he turned the corner, there in front of him was Ruth. She smiled sweetly.
“I hope you understand now,” she said.
“Understand?” said Hank puzzled.
“Your gift, Hank. Your special gift to me.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. What gift, Ruth?”
“Even after your kind gift, you still don’t understand. I must admit, I didn’t either until last Saturday. An angel of the Lord came to me in a dream and explained it all to me. You see Hank, my full given name is Margaret Ruth Hanson. When I was a little girl, everyone called me Maggie.”
Hank’s eyes widened in sudden recognition. “But that’s…” Hank looked afar off, “That’s impossible.” He shook his head in disbelief.
“I thought so too," Ruth pointed toward the ceiling, "He works in mysterious ways they say. The angel explained. God needed someone at that very moment in time. But he needed a person with your humble heart, who would have compassion on a little girl with no hope. You see you saved me and my family by writing the note that you did. It was during the Great Depression. Mr. Marzetti had no idea who Hank was, but when I came in that next Thursday he honored your request. He saw we were in desperate need, and every week after that he gave us one pound of fresh meat, sometimes more. After two years, he gave me that note and of course I still have the tobacco card. Unknown to you was that that Mr. Marzetti was the father of your boss now. You see, Hank, without your special gift I likely would have died that night.”
Ruth reached into her purse and there before his very eyes was an old blue tobacco card of a couple, smiling and dancing, and a scribbled note on butcher paper from 1936 to Mr. Marzetti about a girl named Maggie, with his signature at the bottom.
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