by Mary Alice Hostetter
She remembered that day as the day the bum came, but that was not all of it. Bums came often, begging for a bite to eat, or asking if they could spread their blankets in the hayloft to spend the night out of the weather. Even the bum that came that day, “the humpback,” they called him, was not an infrequent visitor. But that day was the day he became her bum.
Annie was out in the tomato patch with her mother and two brothers. They had started picking tomatoes early in the day, and had hoped to get finished by noon. It had taken longer than they thought, so they’d taken a break to come inside for lunch. Now they were back out in the field, with a few rows still to pick.
Annie was ten, the youngest in her family. No matter what the weather, but especially when it was hot, picking tomatoes for hour after hour was not something she enjoyed. She hated the green stains she’d get on her hands and arms. She could not even lift the heavy baskets after they were more than half full. She liked to eat tomatoes and didn’t mind picking a few for lunch or supper, but dozens of baskets. It never ended.
After returning to the field after lunch, they started picking tomatoes again; Annie only occasionally adding a few tomatoes to her mother’s basket.
Annie was bent over, looking at a butterfly on the tomato leaf, when her mother said, “Annie, could you run in and get us some ice water. I forgot to bring the thermos out after lunch.”
“Yeah. Make yourself useful,” her brother said. “I think you’ve probably picked about three tomatoes since we came out.”
Annie walked toward the gate in the fence at the end of the tomato patch. As she started down the path toward the house, she thought she saw a shimmery figure at the end of the lane. She wasn’t sure, but maybe it was the humpback bum. He had a strange, loping way of walking.
She cut through the orchard to go into the house through the back door, hoping to get the water and be back out before he got there. If it was the bum, and no one answered the door, he’d go on to the neighbor’s farm. She went through the orchard, even though she hated going that way in bare feet. It was hard to see where the apples or peaches had fallen in the grass, and there were often bees. She tried to hurry and be careful at the same time.
She held the back screen door so it wouldn’t slam when she went into the kitchen. She started the water running into the thermos while she went to the freezer for ice cubes. When she pulled out the ice cube tray, water spilled everywhere.
She was getting the mop to clean up the water, when she saw the bum coming in the front walk and onto the porch. Even though it was August, he wore layers of clothes, and, over everything, an unbuttoned overcoat, the pockets bulging. She and her brothers sometimes guessed what bums might have in their pockets. Her brothers said it was probably guns. She said maybe it was kittens, but she didn’t really think so. She just wanted to think of something that seemed like the opposite of guns. They dared each other to find out, but no one ever had.
The bum knocked on the screen door. Since she was sure he could see her, there was no use pretending she wasn’t there.
She went to the screen door, but didn’t open it.
“Excuse me, miss,” he said, “but could you spare a bite to eat?”
“We finished lunch,” Annie said, “but I can get you something.”
“I’ll just wait over here on the porch,” he said.
She knew she was going to be late getting back out with the water, and her brothers would tease her about being slow, but she had never seen her mother turn away anyone who asked for food. And Annie remembered the Bible verse they had memorized in Sunday School the week before. “I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Her Sunday School teacher had told them you don’t know how Jesus might appear, and she asked them to look for ways he might come to them. Annie hoped her teacher would ask for a report next Sunday on what each of them had done to help one of “the least of these.” If the water hadn’t spilled, she’d be back out in the field by now and missed the bum. She was almost glad it happened.
She took the skillet from the cupboard. She could have made a couple of bologna sandwiches. It would have been quicker, but cooking something seemed kinder. Jesus would deserve at least a couple fried egg sandwiches, and they always had plenty of eggs. She put the skillet on the stove and turned on the burner, then put a lump of butter in the pan. Her mother always said you should get the pan and butter hot before you put the eggs in.
She cracked the eggs carefully, beat them with a fork, and poured them in the pan. She took out “the bum plate,” a chipped one at the bottom of the stack. Maybe she should use a good plate if she was supposed to treat the bum like Jesus, but she’d already put the bread on the chipped one. When the eggs were fried, she put them on the bread and added catsup. Then she cut the sandwiches on the diagonal and arranged them like a fan on the edge of the plate. The two sandwiches didn’t look like a whole meal, so she added pickles, leftover cole slaw and a couple oatmeal cookies. She put applesauce in a little dish on the side and filled a quart jar with water. She placed all of it on a tray and took it out to the bum on the porch.
“Here you go,” she said, as if she made lunch for bums every day.
“Thank you,” he said, without lifting his head.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
She finished mopping the floor where the water had spilled and added ice cubes to the water in the thermos. She washed the skillet and spatula and put them away. She didn’t want to go back to the field before the bum finished his lunch.
In a few minutes she heard the tray scrape on the porch as he picked it up. He brought it to the door, and she took it from him. All the food was gone.
“Thank you,” he said. “That tasted good. Do you mind if I take a rest down in the shade?” He motioned toward the oak tree in the front yard.
“Fine,” she said. “Let me get you more water in case you get thirsty?”
She refilled the jar and handed it to him. He thanked her again and walked through the yard to the tree and lay down, overcoat and all.
When she was sure he was settled, she ran out to the field, the ice water splashing in the thermos.
Her mother and brothers were still picking tomatoes. Baskets filled with tomatoes dotted the field.
“You’re slower than molasses in January,” her brother said.
Annie did not respond. She didn’t want to tell him about taking care of “one of the least of these,” as if it was Jesus. She knew he would tease her.
“Thought you’d forgotten us,” her mother said.
“It took me a while, because someone put the thawed ice cube tray on top,” she said, “and it spilled all over, so I had to mop it up.”
Her mother and brothers came over to the shade for water.
“I think we’re rounding it up here,” her mother said. “Just have one end to pick and then load them. Annie, you can’t lift the baskets, so you may as well go back in. You could peel some potatoes for supper.”
Annie was happy for the excuse to go back to the house. This time she did not go through the orchard. The warm dust felt good on her bare feet. When she got close to the house she saw the bum. He had taken off his overcoat and was still lying in the shade under the tree. He looked like he was asleep, his head resting on his pack. She went inside, careful not to slam the door.
She started peeling potatoes, glancing out from time to time to see if the bum was still there. She hadn’t really thought much about bums before. They had always been something to make fun of. She had never thought much about why they were bums, where they came from, where they went, why they didn’t have homes to go to. If he woke up, maybe she’d ask him. It must get lonely being a bum, with no one to talk to.
She glanced out the window. The bum looked like he was sound asleep down by the tree. His overcoat was lying a few feet away from him. He rolled over on his side, his face turned away from the house. She finished peeling the last potato and put it in the water with the rest.
Looking at his overcoat, she had an idea. It was almost like Nancy Drew had whispered it in her ear. She didn’t stop to clean the potato peels from the sink, just hurried out the back door and around the side of the house. This was her chance. She didn’t have time to think about it. This was her chance to show her brothers.
She walked toward him. She could hear him snoring. She stopped and looked at him, just for a moment, almost afraid to breathe, before she picked up his coat and carried it back to the corner of the house. From there, she could see him, if he woke up.
She’d already thought about what she’d do if he woke up and saw his coat was gone. She’d come up with that idea so fast, Nancy Drew would have been proud of her. If he started looking around for his coat, she would carry it down to him and say she’d found it around the back of the house. She’d say she was sorry, but their new dog must have dragged it away. Even Nancy Drew could understand that there was a difference between lying and being clever. And Annie could look the bum right in the eye and say that their dog dragged things. Just the week before Mutt had dragged her father’s good white shirt that had fallen off the clothes line all the way across the garden.
Annie sat on the grass with the coat spread in front of her. Up close, it was even more worn and dirty than it had looked. She didn’t want to touch it, but had to. She took a deep breath and straightened it out. There were more pockets than she had imagined. She felt them from the outside before she reached her hand in, just in case there was something dangerous in there. The red hankies she pulled out of the top pocket were so dirty that the part that was supposed to be white was gray. She shoved them back in. In another picket she found a crumpled pack of cigarettes and matches. In one of the big pockets was a pack of new gray socks. In the other big pocket she found food—wrapped candy, a brown bag with cookies, now mostly crumbs. There was also a little worn Bible. In the bottom of the pocket was a knife, nothing very dangerous-looking, just a pocket knife.
She glanced again at the bum, still sleeping, and reached into the last pocket. She pulled out a black plastic folder, a little bigger than a wallet. Inside she found yellowed newspaper clippings. She carefully unfolded the first one. The headline said, “City Man Charged in Kidnapping and Murder of Pittsburgh Youth.” Under the headline was a picture of a man being led away in handcuffs by two police officers. He was looking down, so she couldn’t see his face very well. What she did notice, and the thing that scared her, was the way he was bent over. He wasn’t bent as much as the bum, but still. She looked at the faded picture and tried to imagine the bum without whiskers, tried to see if the bum looked anything like the man in the picture. It could be the same person.
Annie read the newspaper story as quickly as she could. Robert Mason had kidnapped a nine-year-old boy as he was walking home from playing baseball with his friends. The boy’s father had paid $50,000, but his son was never returned. Later they found the body buried not far from the park where he had been playing baseball.
The second clipping with the continued page was tucked behind the first one. That one had a picture of a man who looked like he was crying. Underneath it said, “Leaving the court house, the inconsolable father of the victim, his only child. A wealthy Pittsburgh banker, Nathan Scott II lost his wife last year.”
The man in the picture was tall and dressed up in a suit and tie. If he didn’t look so upset, he might have been handsome. She looked at the picture carefully, trying to find something familiar in the long face and sad eyes. He could look a little like the bum, but how could she tell? She looked at each of the pictures again, folded them carefully and put everything back in the coat pocket. She stood up and shook the coat to make sure everything was securely back in the pockets before she carried it back to where she had found it. The bum did not stir.
She ran back to the house, stopping at the washbowl in the corner of the kitchen to scrub her hands with soap. She went up to her bedroom, where she could watch the bum from the window. If he started coming toward the house, she could go down the back stairs and run out to the field. He rolled over, and she could see his face more clearly now. She looked at him, trying to remember the pictures. Did the bum look like the murderer or the grieving father? Maybe neither. The date on the newspaper was eight years ago. Either of the men could look different now. She had been so sure it was the bum when she saw the first picture, but it could be the father. The dirty bum lying there certainly did not look like a Nathan Scott II, wealthy banker. But, if it was Robert Mason, kidnapper and murderer, shouldn’t he be in jail? Did he escape? And why would either of them be carrying around old newspaper clippings? She knew Nancy Drew would figure it out.
Maybe Nathan Scott II was “a broken man,” just like Silas Baxter, one of their neighbors. That’s what her mother always said about him, that he was a “broken man” after his wife Helen and only daughter were killed in the wreck up by The Creamery, hit by the man who didn’t stop at the stop sign.
She was thinking about whether she should have treated the bum like Jesus if he really was Robert Mason, when she heard the truck coming down the back lane from the field. Her mother came inside, and her brothers went on to take the tomatoes to the cannery.
“Smells like you’ve been cooking,” her mother said.
“Yeah, I made lunch for the bum. Egg sandwiches.”
“Which bum was it?”
“The humpbacked one. He’s still out front, sleeping under the tree.”
“I didn’t even notice him,” her mother said.
Annie looked out. He was gone.
“I guess he left.”
She saw him walking down the lane. He was wearing his coat again, loping along, bent over. She thought of telling her mother about the bum’s pockets, but how could she? It wasn’t like she had stolen anything from him. What would she have wanted? Crumbled cookies? Dirty hankies? A rusted pocketknife? It didn’t matter. Her mother would still think it was wrong. But what if the humpback was an escaped prisoner? She knew Nancy Drew wouldn’t need to get her mother involved. But shouldn’t she tell someone?
Her mother started making supper. Annie gathered up the potato peels she had left in the sink and took them out to the trash pile. When she was coming back by the corner of the house, she saw something on the edge of the walkway. A button. It must have come off when she shook the bum’s coat. She picked it up and put it in her pocket.
Later, when she was getting ready for bed, she put the button in her treasure box. In the box were letters from her pen pal in Germany, a silver dollar from her grandmother, the sea shell her best friend had brought her from the beach.
The following Sunday, Annie and her family got ready to go to church. Her father’s white shirt, the one Mutt had dragged through the garden, was clean, and the green stains on her mother’s and brothers’ hands from picking tomatoes were gone too. Everyone got into the car to go to church and Sunday school.
When Annie got to the door of her Sunday School room, Rhoda, her teacher, was waiting by the door to greet each of the girls in the class.
“Before we start today’s lesson,” Rhoda said, “would anyone like to share what they did for one of the least of these this week?”
Joyce raised her hand. “I went to visit my grandmother, and helped her move furniture she couldn’t move by herself.”
“That was nice of you,” Rhoda said.
“I was at the grocery store,” Mary Jane said, “and helped a woman with a bunch of little kids carry groceries to her car.”
“That was thoughtful,” Rhoda said.
Suzanne talked about helping her little brother reach the milk on the top shelf of the refrigerator. When it was Annie’s turn, she remembered thinking about this moment when she was frying eggs for the bum, thinking about how she’d have something to say when the teacher asked about helping the least of these. She knew that her story would be the best of all, but she didn’t want to tell it. The part about making lunch for the bum hardly seemed important now. All of it felt like it had to be her secret—the food, the pockets, the newspaper clippings.
“Annie, do you have anything to share,” Rhoda said.
“Well, I helped my mother pick tomatoes.”
“That’s a good thing to do,” Rhoda said.
Annie knew her story was lame and that her mother didn’t count as one of the least of these. If she told about the bum, she’d want to tell the whole story, and she couldn’t. Who would understand?
Rhoda went on to that day’s lesson about the miracle of loaves and fishes, but Annie hardly paid attention.
The clock on the wall showed that it was almost time for class to end. Rhoda asked if there were any questions.
“I have a question,” Annie said, “If Jesus comes to us in different ways, would he ever come as someone who’d done something bad? What should you do then?”
“I think Jesus would want us to look for the good in that person,” Rhoda said.
“But what if he was a murderer or someone like that?” Annie asked.
The other girls looked at Annie.
“I don’t think that’s likely to happen,” Rhoda said, smiling.
“I’m serious,” Annie said.
“I think it’s best if we look for how we can help people we come in contact with, not imaginary people,” Rhoda said.
The buzzer sounded, and class was over. The other girls pushed back their chairs and stood up. Annie sat there, looking at the teacher, who had just leaned forward to get up from her chair.
“But that could be a test Jesus might give us, couldn’t it?” Annie said.
“I’ll see you all next week,” Rhoda said.
Mary Alice Hostetter grew up the tenth of twelve children in a Mennonite farm family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. After a career in education and human services, she is recently devoting more time to her lifetime passion for writing. Her publications include the New York Times (Modern Love), Gettysburg Review, Prime Number, storySouth, and Appalachian Heritage. One of her stories was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A longtime member of the IWWG, she has attended their summer conference for most of the past thirty years. She is seeking a publisher for her memoir and is currently revising a middle grade novel.