“I’m supposed to write a story about mercy,” Delaney said, “and I have no idea what to write.”
“That’s funny,” I replied, “because when you said “mercy”, a story popped instantly into my head. Maybe if I tell you about it, it will help you find your own mercy story.”
So, a long, long time ago, stores used to offer in-house charging services. My mom could send me down to the local pharmacy for whatever she needed, and I could tell the clerk to charge it to my mom’s account, and home I’d go with whatever she’d asked for, with no need to carry cash. I’m sure it was very convenient and kind of small-town lovely, if you think about it. My dad’s business was doing the billing for these drug stores, and he was very busy from about the 23rd of each month till around the 4th of the next. He had several routes he’d drive in different directions, picking up and dropping off the work.
Way back then, there weren’t many Kentucky Fried Chickens in my corner of the world, but, oh, how I loved that fried chicken! I still do, actually, but seldom indulge. Anyway, on one of my dad’s routes, there was a KFC, and he’d have his lunch there and bring me home a thigh piece, my favorite. He’d leave it on the counter for me for after school, because, of course, chicken is just gross after it’s been refrigerated.
One summer, I drove along with him on his run to keep him company. We stopped for lunch at the KFC, and there was a homeless old man sitting on the sidewalk, eating lunch, too, out of a box someone else had given him. I remember walking by him, feeling sad and uncertain and uncomfortable, but my dad ignored him. We went inside and had our lunch, that homeless man always in view just outside the window.
On the way out, my dad gave him a $20 bill, folded small and barely noticeable in his hand. The man took the money and grabbed my dad’s hand. He pressed his greasy lips to my dad’s skin, and a little piece of chicken stuck in his whiskers passed unnoticed between them. “God bless you, sir!” the man said, his watery blue eyes filling with tears. “What is your name so that I can pray for you?”
My dad smiled down at him. “Ken,” he said simply.
“Ken what?” the man pressed.
“Just Ken,” my dad said.
“God bless you, Ken!” the old man said, kissing the hand over and over until my dad gently pulled away.
We climbed into our car and pulled out of the lot, me trying not to stare at that little piece of chicken stuck to the back of his hand. Finally, he noticed, and flicked it off out the window. He never said a word about what he’d just done, and I never did, either, till many years later. But I never forgot.
See, it seemed like something completely out of character for my dad. He was more likely to rail against the moochers and welfare culture than to preach mercy and charity and compassion, but when he was faced with an obvious need, with broken humanity, he quietly did what small thing he could in that moment. It was one of those profound events in my life which forever changed my mind and my heart, and it was one of the most Christian acts I’ve ever witnessed. (He did not profess any particular creed, and was actually hostile toward religion, so I have no idea what his interior faith might have been.)
I try to explain to the children sometimes why I give food or money to some people and walk past others. You can tell, somehow, the ones who are genuine, and I’ve had Davey pass our packed lunch and the (small) contents of my wallet out the window to a homeless man, much to his chagrin. But there it is. I have that small example always before me, and so I help when I can.
My dad passed away
And my story didn’t help Delaney after all, but that’s okay. I still like to tell it once in a while.