Visiting Hours A street beggar enlists supernatural assistance in his journey from rags to riches.

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Dec 16, 2018 No Comments ›› admin

By Lynn Woolley

Editors note: There’s no particular “story behind the story” here – just the idea that the love and support of those we cherish most can extend far longer than we might think. This story was written in one sitting on December 15, 2018.

“Do you believe in God?”

The old beggar caught me by surprise with the question. I took a moment to think before answering, “I suppose so. There must be some higher power.”

“That ain’t what I mean, Mr. Wilbanks,” he retorted. “I’m talking about God. The one who hears our prayers and knows the number of every hair on our heads.”

I’ll stop here to admit something. The city is big, and in the financial district where I worked, there were a lot of panhandlers. Usually, I simply passed them by on my way to lunch or to the office, but something about this one aroused my curiosity. There he was, sitting on a wooden box on the sidewalk with a hand-written sign that simply said: “Please Help.”

My name is John Wilbanks. I’m a financial adviser by trade, but of course, I wouldn’t deal with beggars on a day-to-day basis. My clients were typically worth millions – and came to me seeking to make more. I honestly can’t say what compelled me to stop. I’m certainly not a giving person, and offering advice – even free advice – to a homeless man would be futile. Nevertheless, we exchanged names and a handshake and I reached into my wallet for a twenty-dollar bill.

“God is good, Mr. Wilbanks,” said William “Willie” Jefferson.

I smiled and said with mild sarcasm, “Why do you suppose God has abandoned you, and left you on the street to beg?”

A quiet chuckle emerged from his yellowed teeth. “Oh, God hasn’t abandoned me at all!”

He must have seen the puzzled look on my face because he was anxious to state his case. By this time, we’d been conversing for perhaps ten minutes. From what I had learned in this brief visit, Willie Jefferson had never known his father, had been in a street gang when he was a youth, had been in the city jail more than once, and had no marketable skill that might earn him an honest living. With ample curiosity, I urged him on.

“You mean to tell me that God wants you on this sidewalk asking people for money?”

“It’s not just that,” he said earnestly. “He’s helping me with that. You walked by me a hundred times before and never stopped.”

He had me there. I’d never really noticed him before that day – or any of the street people. I’d never given a damn.

“Why suddenly, has God taken an interest in you, Willie?”

“Because, Mr. Wilbanks! Because he wants me to tell my story.”

That could have been the end of it. I could have told Willie Jefferson that I was a busy financial planner and I had to get right back to my office on the thirty-fourth floor. Instead, I reached for my cellphone and called Karen, my assistant, to tell her that something had come up. Thankfully, it was another hour before my next appointment. So I asked Willie if he might be interested in telling me his story over a hot meal and a cup of coffee.

At the Uptown Diner, we found a booth and ordered two plate lunches, and Willie began the story that he believed God wanted him to tell.

“Mr. Wilbanks,” he said, “God ain’t going to leave me out on that street for much longer. I know that!” He spoke with the conviction of a man who firmly believed that good times were just over the next hill.

“Some time ago, and I lose track of time — I ain’t got no watch — but I was in a situation. Nobody was putting any bills in my cup. I made signs offering to do any kind of job, even just for food and maybe a new shirt or something. I didn’t have nothing or nobody. To be honest, Mr. Wilbanks, I wanted to see my sweet momma. I wanted to ask her what to do.”

“Did you find her?” I asked. “Did she offer any help or advice?”

“Oh, she sure did,” said Willie. “She most certainly did.”

“Well, did you do as she suggested?”

“That’s what I’m doing right now, Mr. Wilbanks. I’m doing what my momma tole me God wants me to do.”

“I see,” I said. “And you think your mother talks directly to God?”

That’s when Willie Jefferson flashed the biggest smile I’d seen all day.

“She sure does. You see, Mr. Wilbanks, my momma passed away when I was just about twelve years old.”

I choked on a bite of chicken-fried streak. I said, “That’s quite a revelation, Willie. And what are you now – about 54?”

“Yessir. It’d been a long time since I’d seen her.”

For a few moments, Willie Jefferson stopped talking and sipped coffee. I saw him take a paper napkin to wipe away what I’m sure was a tear from each eye. And then, he continued.

“Have you ever done something, or seen something, and thought to yourself, ‘I need to tell my momma?’ Or maybe it ain’t your momma. It might be your wife or your son or daughter. For just a moment, you want to say something to them, but then you realize – they ain’t here. They’re passed on and they been gone a long time.”

He took a bite of his roast beef sandwich and chewed it while he thought about what to say next.

“The only person ever cared about me was Momma. She worked two jobs for us kids and she tried to steer me away from the gangs and the drugs. She would have done it, too. Except…”

He got misty again, and honestly, I felt his raw emotions tugging at my heart.

“I couldn’t do nothin’. I didn’t have nobody to turn to. So I asked God a whole bunch of questions. I asked Him if He took Momma to be with Him in Heaven. And if He did that, I asked Him how she was doing up there. And then, I begged God for a favor and I tried to make a deal. I tole God that if He would give me just five minutes with my momma – just five minutes – so I could tell her how much I miss her and ask her what I ought to do – then I would do anything she said.”

I took a sip of coffee, wondering where Willie was going with this story. Obviously, God doesn’t work that way, and even if you believe in that sort of stuff, prayers are not always answered in the way people hope for.

“Did God grant your wish?” I asked, mentally comparing God to some ancient genie in a bottle. But Willie Jefferson was determined to tell his story in his own time.

“He didn’t say nothin’ back to me if that’s what you mean. So I went on about my way and kept right on living in alleys and beggin’ for whatever I could get. It was never much. Rich folks in this part of town like to hang onto their money.”

“You live in this alley?” I asked, nodding in the general direction.

“Sometimes. Other times, I live in some other alley. But that’s all gonna change.”

I had to admire his confidence. He had lost his mother when he was a child, talked to God (apparently without any response), and was still down and out. I could not imagine where this tale of woe was going.

“Mr. Wilbanks, alleys are pretty much alike. Oh, there’s old-fashioned ones, and there’s modern ones when they build the big high-rises. But they still have back entrances, and big garbage bins that the trucks pick up to dump out the things the rich people throw away. We climb up in ‘em and take what we want, and use the paper to start trashcan fires in the winter. It’s all about survivin’ – pure and simple.”

Willie was almost done with his hot roast beef sandwich, but I sensed that his story was just now getting to the point – assuming it had one.

Photo: Lynn Woolley

“So I was in this alleyway one night as the sun was sinking low, and there wasn’t nobody else around. That was weird because there’s always somebody around, but not on this night. As I was checking out the dumpsters, I noticed a door I had never seen before. It kind of stood out somehow, if you know what I mean. It had a big latch on it, but I could see that it wasn’t locked. So I walked over to take a closer look.

“About that time, I saw a sign on the door that I had somehow missed before. The sign had just two words, Mr. Wilbanks. It was written in all capital letters and it said: ‘VISITING HOURS.’ And there was another sign right under that one. It was in smaller letters, and you know what it said?”

I indicated that I had no idea.

“It said: ‘Now Open.’”

“So did you open the door and go inside?”

“Oh, I sure did, Mr. Wilbanks! Something tole me that door was put there for me to walk through it. That door was not there the day before, and I had a feeling down in my gut that if I didn’t open that door and walk in, that I’d never see it again.”

I still hadn’t quite figured out what Willie’s game was. He could be playing me for more money, but he seemed quite happy with the twenty dollars and a hot roast beef sandwich. Besides, I wanted to know what was behind that door.

“God put that door there for me, Mr. Wilbanks. So sure enough, I went in. Now, when people talk about seeing God or Heaven, they always talk about a bright light. But I didn’t see no bright light. It was a bit dark and shabby like our old apartment house used to be. Fact of the matter is, I think that’s what it was. I wasn’t in that alley no more. I was home and I was a 12-year-old boy, and my momma was comin’ out of the kitchen and calling out my name. The old clock on the wall was showing five minutes before midnight. I didn’t have no time to waste. I grabbed ahold of Momma and I kissed her cheek and I told her how much I’d been wanting to see her. She tole me that was all well and good and she had missed me too. And then, she started tellin’ me all kinds of things…”

“About Heaven?”

“No, Mr. Wilbanks. There wasn’t no time for that. She tole me to stay right here where I am for just a few more weeks and that I would collect enough money to buy some new clothes. And then, I’d get a place to live – with a soft bed and a heater for the winter. She tole me I’d get those things for sure. She tole me not to lie, or cheat or steal because that was part of the bargain. And then, she said something real curious.”

“What was that, Willie?”

“She tole me to find whatever work I can and save all the money I can, and somebody would come along to help me use it wisely.”

“Well!” I retorted. “Did such a person come along?”

“Oh, I think so, Mr. Wilbanks.”

“What else did your mother say?”

“She tole me to keep my end of the bargain and things would be all right. But I had to leave the room when the clock struck midnight, because I was only allowed five minutes. So I hugged her real tight, and she tole me to watch for the door again and that it might turn up anywhere. I walked back out into the alley. The door was locked now, and the sign now read: ‘VISITING HOURS. Now Closed.’”

“That’s quite a story, Willie. So what happens now? Are you collecting more money as your mother promised?”

“Oh, Mr. Wilbanks, it’s been three weeks since I saw Momma. I’ve been careful to do exactly what she said. I won’t be on the street for very much longer.”

“Why is that, Willie?”

“Since I saw Momma, I’ve collected about $60,000.” He smiled real big.

I smiled too. “Willie,” I said, “I think you should stay right here as long as you’re bringing in big donations. But I don’t think your mother would object if you rented a modest apartment. Here, take my card, and call in a couple of weeks and let me know how you’re doing.”

He took the card, explaining that he had kept his earnings hidden very well, and I suggested he open a bank account. He went back to his post on the wooden box while I went to my appointment. Three months passed before I saw him again.

*

Willie Jefferson walked into my office in a business suit, clean-shaven and with ivory-white teeth. Honestly, he didn’t look like the same guy. It was Willie, though – same voice, same brogue, same grammar.

“Willie, it’s great to see you looking so good,” I said as I reached for his hand.

“Oh, Mr. Wilbanks,” he said, squeezing with both hands. “You won’t believe what has happened.”

He took a seat and began to relate the events that had taken place since our conversation at the Uptown Diner. It was so fantastic that I stared at him in disbelief – but Willie himself was the living proof. He had seen the magical door one more time, although not in the same alleyway. This time, his mother had instructed him on what to do with his collections.

“She tole me to find a place to stay, but don’t spend too much money on it. She had other ideas for my money. But she said it’s okay to fix myself up, so I bought some new clothes, and I saw a real good dentist – paid cash, too!”

“Willie, you look absolutely amazing. What else did your mother say?”

“She said go find a man that can help me put my money in a good place so it can make even more money. She said I ought to know who. So I looked in my pocket and there was your card.”

I just sat there shaking my head in disbelief. Willie was almost childlike in his faith. In his mind, that mysterious door with the sign that read “VISITING HOURS” was real and his dead mother was inside giving him advice. Willie was looking well and obviously had come into some good fortune – but still, his story was hard to swallow. So I asked the obvious question:

“Willie, how much money have you raised?”

“Mr. Wilbanks, I sat on my box just around the corner from my alley for three months, and people that used to pass me by kept putting money in my cup. I had to get a bucket, and then I did like you and Momma said, and got me a bank account.”

He leaned over toward me and pulled a piece of paper from his pocket.

“Momma said I should show you this.”

Willie handed me a statement from the Empire Bank & Trust that showed his balance, and it was an impressive number: $158,726.48.

I rubbed my eyes and read it again. I had Willie sign a consent form so that Karen could call the bank and confirm the amount. And they did.

“Willie, are you asking me to manage your money for you?” I asked.

“Ain’t nobody else come by and taken me to lunch and give me his card.”

And so Willie Jefferson, now flush with money, became my newest client. He took me on a tour of his new apartment, and showed me his new watch, and said he was even thinking about purchasing a car. Willie had left the street for good, and now he was going to earn money based on my financial advice. Truth to tell, somehow Willie seemed to have a knack for picking stocks, and we went with a portfolio based on his instincts and my expertise.

Willie’s wealth grew and grew. I saw less of him as the years rolled by. When he became a millionaire, he diversified and took on additional planners, accountants, and lawyers to manage his affairs. Within twenty years of our first meeting at the Uptown Diner, the William Jefferson Company owned a chain of fast food restaurants, more than a dozen bowling alleys, and was involved in a high-tech startup in Silicon Valley. Maybe it was just a hunch, but something told me that everything Willie touched was going to turn to gold. I don’t know if Willie believed in Karma, or just in giving back, but he also funded dozens of churches and children’s hospitals. I saw him on one of the business networks on cable TV, and his grammar was now impeccable.

My fortunes, on the other hand, had taken a different turn.

A few years back, my employer had been involved in scandal. To be sure, I had nothing to do with it, but I was one of the people sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission for defrauding clients and I went down with the ship. I served a six-month prison sentence, and was bankrupted by legal fees. My wife, who had become accustomed to the finer things in life, left me after the house was repossessed.

Don’t misunderstand; I never had to go to the street and beg as Willie had done back in the day. But his name kept rolling around in my head and I wondered if he would help me out as I had helped him. I made several unsuccessful attempts to contact him, but I never made it past his protective shield. Willie – William as he was now known – was a celebrity entrepreneur and his people did not want him to associate with people such as I.

I withdrew from society, working as a night watchman in a downtown warehouse district. I had lost all my friends, family and fortune and I was in great despair. Not long after, I saw an item on the news that William Jefferson, now in his eighties, had passed. It was a hard pill to swallow.

With tears flowing like raindrops, I got down on my knees in my meager apartment, and asked God why Willie Jefferson had to be taken.

“God,” I prayed, “I know that I never had Willie’s faith. I kept the money I made while Willie Jefferson was using his to help sick children. I know I’ve not been a perfect person, but God, I did not commit securities fraud. I’ve lost everything I ever worked for, and my last hope was Willie Jefferson. If Willie were here, he’d help me. God, if I could only have talked to him one last time.”

God said nothing. And so, I continued with what was left of my life, and the days and months went by.

One night, while making my rounds, I noticed a door in the back of a certain warehouse that seemed not to be secured. I patrolled a reasonably large area, but still, I should have been aware of this mysterious door – but I had never noticed it before. I called for backup, and then approached the door slowly making very sure that no intruders were in the compound. The steady beam of my flashlight added to the security lighting as I moved closer in.

And then I saw the sign. In all capital letters, it read: “VISITING HOURS.” Just below, it read: “Now Open.” I used my radio to cancel the call for backup. “There’s no problem here,” I said to the dispatcher.

I swung the door open. It was dark inside and difficult to see, but the room was vaguely reminiscent of the old Uptown Diner. By now, I had a pretty good idea who I was going to meet in there. I knew I had about 5 minutes before the sign would change to: “Now Closed.”

But for now, VISITING HOURS were open, and I hurried into the room to greet my old friend.

THE END

© 2018 by Lynn Woolley. All rights reserved.

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