An Act of Kindness- A short Story
An Act of Kindness
By Tony DeLorger © 2010
The coffee bubbled continuously in the percolator, but Jess, after glancing at it longingly, realised she’d have no time. Instead she begrudgingly switched it off, grabbed her coat and bag, then headed for the door. She glided down the stairwell with fleet-footed grace, trying to pull up one side of her stockings with one hand while holding onto her bag and the railing with the other. A half eaten Danish hung rather precariously out of the side of her mouth.
She wasn’t the most organised person in the world, nor the neatest for that matter, but getting to work on time was an imperative. There wasn’t much work around and having finally found a job after three months of pounding the pavement, she wasn’t about to lose it.
The cafe wasn’t far thankfully, but old Joe, the owner, wasn’t the most forgiving boss. In fact he was a fat, slovenly man, with the manners of a pig and a temperament that needed no antagonising. Being late, breaking a plate or giving the wrong change could mean instant dismissal, with rarely a second chance given. Within a market flooded with willing workers, Joe considered all employees to be expendable and he could pick and choose, berate and treat his staff as he wished.
Jess opened the cafe door; its small brass bell jingled noisily as it slowly closed behind her. Joe suddenly appeared from the kitchen and glared up at her, then glanced down at his watch sarcastically. She’d made it by only seconds, so Joe huffed and slipped back into the kitchen. Del handed Jess her apron from behind the counter and rolled her eyes with relief.
‘Thanks,’ Jess whispered. ‘Has he been in long?’
‘He came in to do the orders. Should be gone by 10.30,’ Del replied. Jess tied her apron quickly and went to clear some tables, the early morning breakfast crowd was slowly dissipating.
It was only a small cafe, but had a sound, regular patronage. People came for the excellent coffee and the large range of cakes and sweets that Joe’s wife made fresh daily. Regardless of his distasteful appearance, Joe ran a tight, clean kitchen and the cook, Henry, had long overlooked his boss’s demeanour and simply got on with the job. Over time the cafe had built up a reputation and apart from the constantly changing waiting staff, it was a great business.
Jess backed into the swinging doors and edged her way into the kitchen carrying a dozen dirty plates. Joe looked up from the door of the cold storage room and grimaced, his unshaven bloated face looking like a big hairy ball.
‘I need this storage locker cleaned out today. You can do it after the lunch crowd,’ he said sharply.
‘Yes sir,’ replied Jess, stacking the plates ready for the washer.
‘And this floor could do with another scrubbing.’
‘But sir I scrubbed it last...’
Joe looked up scathingly and Jess, momentarily forgetting herself, cowered and looked down. ‘Yes sir, after I do the cold store.’
Jess quickly returned to the counter and took some payments. ‘Thank you, come again,’ she’d say with a friendly smile.
Apart from her rather ruthless boss, Jess enjoyed her job. She had a bubbly personality and loved meeting people. The simple idea of service made her feel better about her life and it so often seemed that an appreciative smile from a stranger was far better than to be taken for granted by a live-in partner. Anyway the failures of her past were now to be forgotten and just the basic process of living was on the top of Jess’ list.
She wasn’t a pretty young woman, but not unattractive, with midbrown eyes, a small turned up nose and rather voluptuous full lips. But her appeal came from the kindness and sincerity in her eyes, something that made everyone feel safe around her and made them feel that this girl could be trusted. After only three months at the cafe, she knew many patrons by their first names and although Joe didn’t like her, or anyone else for that matter, even he could see that she was good for business.
The crowd had all but thinned to a trickle and both Jess and Del were wiping down the tables.
‘How was last night?’ asked Jess in a hushed tone.
‘Don’t ask. I’m beginning to think that every man I go out with is related to Joe.’
‘Can’t be that bad?’
Del stood up and folded her arms indignantly. ‘After the meal, which was mediocre at best, he informs me that he’s got to leave early. There’s a football game he just can’t miss. Didn’t think to invite me, just dropped me off at the kerb and headed home to his beloved TV set.’
‘We’re living parallel lives,’ spouted Jess with a grin. ‘Perhaps we should date each other.’
Del burst out laughing but soon muffled her outburst, turning it into a feigned cough as Joe poked his head around the kitchen door.
Eventually, Joe having finished his orders, left for the day and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Even the remaining patrons could feel the air clear and peace descended on the cafe. His departure was also well-timed because Bill, one of Jess’ special customers, had just walked in and plunked himself down in his usual seat.
She raced over to attend him. ‘So how’s Bill today?’ she said exuberantly. ‘The usual?’
Bill sported his standard toothless grin and Jess went to fetch his soup and crackers, plus a piping hot cup of coffee. Bill was a regular, came in the same time each day, before the lunchtime rush. For the want of a better word, Bill was a bum; his ragged clothes and a large plastic carry bag filled with bits and pieces, his only possessions.
Jess had met him in the street when she first started at the cafe and offered him a coffee. From that day on, old Bill would come to the cafe and Jess would buy him lunch to help out. He was penniless and appreciated her gift with such heartfelt gratitude, that she just couldn’t stop doing it. She knew nothing about the man, only that he needed help and she was able to give it.
As she returned to the kitchen to get Bill’s lunch Del stopped her in a quandary. ‘Why do you do this, every day. It’s not as if you’ve got the spare cash?’
‘There’s something about him, something more than a lost soul,’ explained Jess. ‘I just can’t explain it, but if I can ease his suffering with just a kind word and soup, then I’m going to do just that.’
As Jess put down the soup and crackers in front of Bill, he looked up and for the first time in three months said more than the usual few words of thanks.
‘You’ve never wanted to know anything about me. I find that rather odd,’ said Bill in a distinct, clear voice.
Jess, a little taken aback, pulled out a chair and sat down. ‘I didn’t think you wanted to talk,’ she replied.
Bill took a slurp of the soup and closed his eyes with the pleasure of it. ‘I didn’t at first. Now, maybe I think I owe you at least that.’
Jess looked into his dark eyes. He was not an unattractive man, in his late sixties she presumed and had a certain strength about him, well hidden under the unruly beard and built up grime on his face. ‘See that building opposite?’ he said, still immersed in the glorious soup.
‘You mean the Stock Exchange?’
‘I used to work there, many years ago.’
Jess tried to imagine what he did, janitor or cleaner perhaps. Bill looked up and smiled as if he had heard her thoughts, loud and clear.
‘I was a broker; pinstriped suit, luxury car, big house, the works,’ he followed. Jess sat there in shock, listening intently. ‘It was in the boom times, mideighties, we got rich, beyond our wildest dreams.’
‘Did you lose all your money in the crash?’ asked Jess, with concern.
‘It was much worse than that,’ he followed. ‘I lost my soul. Hmm! It’s funny, after all these years it seems like a dream, a part of my life that’s just numb, hardly there at all.’
Bill pushed his soup aside and leant forward over the table and looked squarely at Jess. ‘You see when the crash was imminent, we knew and chose to secure our own investments and sell up before helping our own clients. We simply ran out of time, were too late and most of them went under. I could have helped them but I didn’t. I was greedy; I made even more money out of people’s misery.’
Bill closed his eyes, trying to hold his emotions at bay. ‘You see, one of my clients was a guy called Jim Barret, I’d known him for years. He lost his house, his family, everything. He put a shotgun in his mouth and blew his brains out, because of what I didn’t do.’
Bill turned to Jess and frowned in obvious pain. ‘I’m the worst kind of failure,’ he said sadly.
Jess placed her hand over his. ‘We all make mistakes, Bill. Punishing yourself won’t change what happened. Many people’s lives changed because of the crash, but people fight on, get on with life.’
‘Everyone except Jim Barret,’ added Bill, rising to his feet. ‘Do you still want to serve me lunch, after hearing that?’
Jess stood up and smiled warmly. ‘Nothing’s changed, Bill.’
Bill smiled through a mass of entangled facial hair.
‘You are my light, the one bright light in my day. Thanks Jess,’ he said softly and quietly left the cafe.
Jess wiped a tear from her face and watched him walk down to the corner and then disappear into the street.
‘What was that all about? I didn’t even think he could talk,’ said Del, wiping her hands on her apron.
‘He can talk all right,’ replied Jess, a little off balance. ‘Come on let’s get back to work, the lunchtime rush is about to start.’
Jess went home that night a little preoccupied with Bill’s story. It all seemed so tragic and especially what he was doing to pay penance for what he believed to be his fault alone. ‘This is a good man,’ Jess thought, and she was glad to be able to help him, as little as she considered it to be.
The following day Joe was late leaving and as midday approached, Jess was terrified Bill would arrive and Joe would come face to face with him. That would mean her dismissal for sure. But midday came and went and no Bill. Joe left at ten past one and still no Bill. Suddenly Jesse was a bundle of nerves worrying about him. He’d never missed a lunch in over three months.
‘I hope nothing’s happened to him,’ she said to Del.
‘Jess, he’s a bum. Anything could happen to him.’
Jess couldn’t take it any more and at two thirty, after the lunchtime traffic had eased, she threw her apron on the counter and rushed out to try to find him.
‘But Jess, it’s a big city, you don’t know where he lives, anything about him,’ cried Del, as Jess left the cafe and dashed out into the street. Del shook her head, not understanding at all. ‘He’s just a bum,’ she thought.
Jess searched the city streets around the quay, in every lane and alley, behind every garbage bin, in every nook and cranny she looked for Bill. She asked the homeless and anyone local that may have know him, but not a soul knew or had seen a man of his description. It was as if he didn’t exist at all. After all he was a homeless bum, a lone lost face in the city streets, unnamed, unnoticed and not a soul to care about him, at least not until now.
As the darkness closed in on the city and the night-lights lit the streets like torches searching out dark corners, it seemed Jess had failed. Bill, wherever he was, was being swallowed up by the city he had grown to despise, that harbinger of corruption and greed.
She went home that night all despondent and for some strange reason, felt guilty that she wasn’t there when perhaps Bill needed her the most. But
what more could she do?
The following morning Jess went to work as always and as always Joe was in a foul, unapproachable mood. He spat orders and grievances all the way until his departure and Jess was happy to see the back of him.
It was about 10.45 when Jess started thinking about Bill, he was due in and she kept checking each time the front door opened. Alas, Bill didn’t turn up. Jess tried to forget about him and get on with her work, but as she hurled a garbage bag into the skiff in the lane behind the cafe, she got the shock of her life. There was Bill all hunched up against the wall on the opposite side of the lane, half covered by an old freight box.
‘My God, Bill!’ she squealed, rushing over to him and casting aside the box. Her hands were trembling as she parted the long grey hair from Bill’s face. He was cold, very cold.
‘Bill, please be all right?’ she said in a panic, but Bill didn’t stir. He looked peaceful lying there, his face without the usual strain and torment that normally accompanied it. Suddenly, Jess leaned back on her haunches, realising that Bill was gone. Closing her eyes she began to sob quietly, to mourn this lost soul who had so inexplicably touched her life.
Eventually the police were called and the body taken away, but Bill carried no identification
whatever. So to avoid the emotionless ‘John Doe’ burial, Jess decided to use all of her meagre savings to at least give him a dignified burial.
Three days after finding poor Bill, the funeral took place. It was a sunny day and Jess stood next to the presiding minister, looking vacantly into the grave at the plain wooden casket below. It wasn’t much but it was something. The minister eloquently spoke some well-chosen words, but none of them seemed to suit old Bill, his life having been so tortured. When the short service was over,
she stood alone on the edge of the dark pit and dropped a single red rose down on top of the coffin.
‘You were a good man Bill. Even if you can’t forgive yourself, I know God will.’
As Jess turned to leave, she saw a man standing next to his car watching her, no more than fifty feet away. When he realised she’d seen him he quickly got back in his shiny black car and drove off. ‘Perhaps someone did know Bill,’ she thought, but chose to ignore the event as meaningless.
Four days later, Jess had just finished an early shift at the cafe and was going out to lunch with an old school friend that had just arrived in town. She was about to enter her apartment building to change, when a strange man called her name from the bottom of the stairs. She turned around, just about to open the foyer door.
‘Excuse me, are you Jessica Louise Rowe?’ the man asked, in a cultured voice.
‘Yes. Who wants to know?’ she replied, a little uneasy.
‘Please Miss, I only need a moment of your time.’
Jess, slowly walked down the stairs and looked up suspiciously at this rather tall, dark stranger.
‘What’s this about?’ she asked.
‘My name is Brightman, Alexander Brightman from Locke Brightman and Torvey. I represent the late William Ryan,’ he began.
Jess was confused. ‘Bill?’ she said tentatively.
‘The man you buried yesterday. Yes. I need you to sign some papers Miss. You were mentioned in Mr. Ryan’s will.’
‘Will? But Bill was a bum, he had nothing but the clothes on his back,’ said Jess, not understanding at all.
‘Would it be presumptuous of me to ask if we can conduct our business in your apartment, perhaps?’
‘Yes, of course,’ replied Jess, in a quiet daze.
They went upstairs and Jess switched on the percolator then sat down on the sofa, offering Mr. Brightman the chair opposite.
‘You see two weeks ago Mr. Ryan paid me a visit at the office. He instructed me to drawer up a new will. Two days later he signed the papers and I’m now simply carrying out his requests.’
Jess looked up, still in shock. ‘But why didn’t you come to the funeral? Hell, I didn’t even know the man’s full name.’
‘I must apologise for that, but it was by Mr. Ryan’s request,’ he followed.
‘I don’t understand,’ replied Jess, bamboozled.
Mr. Brightman smiled knowingly and began to explain.
‘You see Mr. Ryan made two requests. One, that he should be buried by whoever found him, and secondly that you be beneficiary to all of his worldly possessions.’
‘I know it must be hard for you to understand Miss
Rowe, but Mr. Ryan chose to live as he did. He had his reasons.’
‘But he had no possessions, I know that,’ replied Jess.
‘No house, no car, no clothing or anything to speak of in that regard. But Mr. Ryan did have some accounts. I simply need your signature to be able to release them to you,’ he explained, handing her several documents on a clipboard. Jess took it and skimmed over the legal jargon, then, unable to find anything even close to any personal obligation she signed it and handed it back.
‘So what did Bill have, an old savings account, loose change in a jar, what?’ she asked flippantly.
Mr. Brightman leaned back in the armchair and looked up making some quick mental calculations.
‘Hmm! After we take out our fees and based on the current rate of exchange, and estimating the market...well.’
‘It can’t be that difficult?’ Jess quipped, with a giggle.
‘My dear Miss Rowe, you are the sole beneficiary of the late Mr. Ryan’s estate. To my estimation it is currently worth at least $1,600,000.00. You are a wealthy woman, Miss.