Hope did not care to know the man-but in seeing his strengths, she saw her weaknesses.
| Hope worked for a small family-owned business in a tiny town. The pay wasn’t great, but it was the best Hope could do. She had grown up motherless and was now a hard-working single woman determined to make only what she needed to get by. She had been at her new job for only two weeks when she noticed something unusual.
Every day, a man in ragged clothing would bring in his lunch sack and sit down at his desk. He had a routine. He would take the large jacket with holes in it that kept him warm all winter, put it on the back of his seat, sit down, and begin typing furiously. He never talked to anyone, it seemed, until lunchtime. Then he would ask someone, maybe even several people, for lunch money. His excuse would be that he forgot his at home. Each day, the conversation was almost the same as the previous one.
“May I please borrow some money for lunch?” he would ask. “I promise I will pay you back.”
Most of the time, Hope’s co-workers would just walk away without replying, not trusting the man who forgot his lunch money every day. Hope couldn’t say she blamed them.
Other times, they would confuse him just to get him out of their hair. Hope felt sorry for him, but she wasn’t inclined to do anything about it. As far as she was concerned, it wasn’t her problem.
Sometimes, though, he would ask someone, who either pitied him or was crazy, to loan him five bucks. Then he would take his lunch bag, the money, and go walking. He’d return at the end of the hour empty-handed. When he was gone, Hope’s co-workers would discuss the odd man. No one seemed to know his name. Who was he? Why did he forget his money every day? Where did he live? Did he have a family?
Though they talked, Hope realized none of them really cared; they didn’t know him, so he wasn’t important and it really didn’t matter what his name was. Hope was surprised to realize that she felt the same way. She had never thought of herself as judgmental, but Hope was afraid to talk to him because he was poor, and mainly because she was new and she didn't want her co-workers to think lowly of her. So she never said a word to him.
At the end of her four weeks, Hope was gathering her papers and getting ready to go out to eat when she turned and found the old man standing behind her.
“Excuse me, miss,” he began, “but if you wouldn’t mind, I need some money for lunch.”
Hope tried not to sigh as she thought about what she would do. She doubted he’d pay her back, but she thought about how mean it would be to rudely walk away. After all, he was standing right in front of her. And she was sure it had been quite awhile since he’d had something for lunch.
“Please, ma’am, I promise I’ll repay you,” he begged, seeing the doubt on her face.
Hope reached into her purse. Today she would play the Good Samaritan. She took a five dollar bill from her purse and carefully handed it to him. She knew he realized she was afraid to touch him, but that didn’t bother her. She had helped him out, hadn’t she? But now she was done. She would have nothing more to do with the man.
“Thank you, miss, thank you much. God bless you,” he said, bowing his head and limping away.
“You’re welcome,” Hope mumbled. The man turned at the end of the stairs. “Your name, miss?” He asked.
“Hope,” she reluctantly replied. “Hope Brenowski.” He nodded and left. Hope found herself wishing she was rid of the man, that he’d never speak to her again. But that was not to be so.
The next day, and every day after that for a week, Hope found herself having little conversations with the man, always out of her co-workers’ sight, and always ending with, “I’ll pay you back, miss, I promise.” Hope had long ago given up hope on getting her five dollars back, which was okay. She could live without it. But as he was still going around asking for lunch money, promising everyone else that same thing, Hope was a bit amused.
The following Monday, he asked her for a ride home. Hope bit her lip. “Please, miss, I walk home every day. The weather is getting colder, and I have a worn coat and almost no shoes,” was his plea.
Hope had never felt more pity for anyone than she had for the man standing in front of her. She took in his feet and his coat, silently making the decision to once again act as the Good Samaritan. “Okay,” she said finally. “Wait out by the tan Buick. My license plate is W34 6577. I’ll be out in a minute.”
The man left to go to her car. Hope gathered up her work papers and hurried outside. She just wanted to get the man home and out of her new car. He was standing by the Buick, looking at it wistfully. His finger was tracing the chrome handle. She unlocked the doors and watched as he carefully climbed in.
“Where do you - where would you like to be dropped off?” Hope asked, starting her car.
“Just drive on this road for about fifteen minutes. My house is the third driveway to the right.” The man said no more, and Hope asked no more. She drove silently.
“I’d like you to stop here, miss,” he said quietly. Hope stopped, and the man climbed out of the car. “Please follow me, miss,” he said.
Hope looked at him warily. She wasn’t sure that would be a good idea. “Please, I must show you something.” Hope stepped out of her car and stood in the driveway cautiously. She looked up the long, winding driveway. There were circular stones lining each side of the gravel road for as far as she could see. At the end of the road, there was a towering mansion.
“Is this where you work at night?” Hope asked out of curiosity.
The man looked at her and chuckled. “This is where I live.”
“It’s a homeless shelter?” Hope asked, bewildered.
“Follow me,” he replied, ignoring her question and walking up the driveway. He stopped when he came to the first stone. There was a name and a date.
“Laura Mayberry. Nineteen sixty-nine. I was wandering the streets that winter without a coat. She stopped and gave me hers.” He walked on to the next stone. “Martin Belsworth. 1969, that same year. I was working at a diner when I got the news my mother died. He took my twelve-hour shift and gave me the pay and the tips because he knew I needed the money.” He walked a little farther, skipping some stones. “Amy Moore. She was a little girl with cancer. I met her on the street one day when she was walking with her family. She dropped a quarter for candy in my can, even though her mama yelled at her for it.” The old man wiped a tear from his eye and looked straight at Hope.
Hope was beginning to paint a very different picture of the poor man. They walked the entire driveway, stopping occasionally to read a certain favorite stone of his. They came to a stop at the door of the old mansion. Hope noticed that the bricks were engraved with names and dates, too. “But why?” was all she could say.
He paused before answering. “As you can see, I am not poor. But I go on pretending, traveling from place to place, though this is my real home. Every name you see here is a real person who has done something to help me. Every single one. There are over a thousand stones, probably. A thousand good people, a thousand good deeds.” The man scratched his head. “Here, I was seeing how many people would be willing to help someone without the promise of the reward. Only you, miss. Every day I took my lunch to the park, gave it to anyone who looked like they could use a lunch, and then gave the five dollars to a charity.”
Hope was listening intently. She felt so guilty. The man continued.
“Most people have no idea how it feels to really be hungry. How it feels to really be cold, so cold you can’t see. How it feels to not have a home or a family. I do. I can relate to anybody lesser than me. I’ve learned a lot about people . . .
" Well, you’ve seen it. This is my living.” He traced a name in the brick. “When someone is kind enough to hear my story, I know I’ve done my job, and it’s time to move on.”
The man entered his house and shut the door behind him, leaving Hope standing there in awe. She turned around and slowly walked back down the driveway. As she was climbing into her car, the last stone caught her eye. Hope Brenowski, 1998. Her award awaits her in heaven. Hope’s eyes clouded over and she began crying silently.
Hope had many regrets about that day later. First and foremost, she felt she could tell no one her truly magnificent story. No one at work deserved to hear. And other than the man, she had no friends. She also wished she could have gotten to know him better. She wished she wouldn’t have judged him so harshly, she wished she would have realized what a big mistake she had made before it was too late. And three, Hope had no idea what the man’s name was. Throughout the rest of her life, though new stones appeared daily, she never saw Mr. Stepping Stones again.