The No-Thanks Thanksgiving

fall leaves

OU KNOW I can’t stand that smell.”

Roger Farris frowned at his wife’s back. She was bent over the tiny stove in their kitchenette, busy with a spatula and pan. Fried bologna again.

“Can’t stand what, dear?”

Her mild reply fueled Roger’s already foul mood.

“That stuff you’re fixing!” He raised his voice a few decibels. “You know I can’t stand fried bologna. So why do I have to eat it all the time?”

“They were having a sale at Publix. I thought it would be a good way to economize.”

“Now you’re throwing money in my face!”

Even as he said the words, Roger knew they weren’t entirely rational. He forged on, anyway. “Go ahead! Remind me I lost my job back home and can’t find one here.”

“I didn’t say that, Roger.” Kayla’s chin began to quiver. He had pushed it too far, as usual. “I only said I was trying to cut down on groceries.”

“You might as well admit the truth. This family is on the skids.”

He grabbed his jacket from the couch and yanked open the front door.

“Roger, don’t! Where are you going?” Kayla still held the pan and spatula.

Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Out! Eat the bologna yourself.”

Wednesday afternoon traffic was light as he stalked down Colfax Avenue toward the city center. Most of the office workers had already escaped downtown, getting an early start on the long Thanksgiving weekend. Roger zipped his jacket against the November chill and trudged on.

He crossed against the light at the foot of Colfax Avenue and made his way to a large park. A couple of teens tossed a Frisbee around, and a handful of tourists took turns having their picture made beside a statue of a cowboy on horseback. That was about it, except for an old man sitting alone on a bench. Roger headed toward him; maybe it would help to unload his troubles on someone.

The man didn’t look up until Roger sat down. He was about 70, Roger figured, with an average build and an average face. He wore dark glasses to cut the glare of the bright autumn sunshine. Not a bad idea. The reflection off the Rockies above the Denver skyline was enough to snowblind you.

“Hello,” the old man spoke first. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

What’s that?”

“I said, ‘Happy Thanksgiving.’”

“No thanks. I’m not really interested in it.”

Roger wished he could see behind his companion’s dark glasses. He would have enjoyed his reaction.

“I see.” The man didn’t seem as shocked as Roger thought. “Want to tell me about it?”

A listening ear. Just what Roger needed.

“There’s not much to tell. We’re broke. I can’t get a job. My wife makes minimum wage at a fast-food joint. And we eat bologna 17 times a week.”

The old man chuckled. It was a nice laugh—genuine, with no sarcasm in it.

“You’ve got a stronger stomach than I have. What kind of work do you do?”

“I worked for a newspaper in Illinois until they went out of business. I came here hoping to work for the Rocky Mountain News, but the job fell through.”

Roger could tell the old man was studying him behind his sunglasses. He could outstare an owl.

“Are you a churchgoing man?”

Roger hadn’t expected that. What did church have to do with being unemployed?

“Well, sure,” he said. “My wife and I went a few times before we moved out here.”

“Good. Then you may be familiar with something the apostle Paul wrote.”

Roger was vaguely aware Paul had been a major character in the Bible. Something about a bright light on the road to somewhere.

“What’s that?” Roger asked.

“Paul told us to be thankful in everything.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” Surely the old man didn’t believe that.

“That’s what Paul said. He told us to give thanks to God in everything.”

Roger replied, “Some advice! I suppose I should say a big thank-you for unemployment and a stack of unpaid bills. Maybe Paul was too saintly to worry about things like that.”

The old man grinned. “You might say Paul had his share of hard times. Besides, I don’t think he expected us to be thankful for specific bad things like losing a job. Seems to me he wanted us to have an over-all attitude of thanksgiving. Something to get us through the rough patches in life.”

“That’s easy to say and hard to do.” Roger was about ready to leave this religious fanatic. “What are you? A preacher or something?”

“No.” The old man was unruffled. “I’m a retired businessman. In fact, I never thought much about God and religion when I was younger. I went to church mainly to please my wife and to cultivate business contacts.”

He paused and rubbed his forehead above his sunglasses. His thoughts seemed far away.

“Then things got rearranged for me. I was driving too fast and clipped a power pole. My wife’s side of the car took the worst impact. All during the ambulance ride she kept saying, ‘Glen, I want to see you on the other side. Please be there.’ She crossed over two hours later.”

Roger was uncomfortable in the silent park. The Frisbee throwers and tourists were gone.

“I’m sorry,” he began. “I didn’t know—”

“Don’t worry about it,” the old man interrupted. “Maybe it took something like the wreck to get my eyes off making money and point them toward the Jesus my wife had always talked about. That was 1985. I’ve been learning more about Him ever since. He’s been helping me on my thankfulness, too.”

“You’ve had big troubles,” Roger couldn’t say why he was being obstinate, “but what works for you might not work for me. Church things don’t come easy to me. I haven’t really trusted Bible stories since I was a kid.”

The old man said nothing.

“Don’t you understand?” Roger was surprised to be pleading with a stranger. “I’m out of money, out of luck, and my marriage is coming apart at the seams.”

Still no reply.

“Don’t you see what I’m saying? Can’t you see my side of things?”

“No.” The old man slowly rose from the bench. “I can’t see it.”

He reached inside his coat pocket and deftly unfolded a collapsible cane. A white cane.

“In fact, I don’t see anything anymore. None since 1985.” He smiled sadly. “You might try the department stores. They hire a lot of help this time of year. Better yet, give God a serious try.”

The old man waved and began tap-tapping his way down the sidewalk. In minutes he was gone.

Roger felt colder than the snow on the mountain peaks. His thoughts stung.

What a crybaby I am. That old man has twice the courage I have. Or maybe it’s not just courage. Maybe there’s more to religion than Bible stories for kids.

He looked at the hands lying in his lap. Two good hands. And two good eyes to see them with. What was it the old man had said? Thank God no matter what? Well, he was still young. And healthy. He had Kayla. She would be more than willing to try church with him; he was sure of that.

Roger pulled himself up from the bench and turned toward home. He remembered a storefront church two blocks from the apartment. Maybe he’d swing by there and see when it was open. He’d better hurry, though. His fried bologna would be stone-cold by now.

From November, 2016

David Willingham wrote this story during his tenure as a Pathway Press editor.