The kitchen is cluttered with a collection of dishes and utensils gathered over a period of decades. For the most part it is clean, except in the crannies and corners where grease and soot from years of cooking have settled. The most notable aspect of the room is its size—not much larger than a walk-in closet. The three cabinets are stuffed with plates, cups, bowls, and pans—the kind that are accumulated one at a time. The sink is scarcely large enough to wash a large skillet, and the countertop has lost nearly all evidence of a polished wood finish.
Walls are covered with tan wallpaper ornamented with gold diamonds, or at least that is the best guess since most of it has faded with time. The linoleum floor was probably a prized upgrade when it was installed, but now it matches the rest of the well-lived in kitchen.
Along the wall opposite the sink is a wooden table, barely big enough for the two chairs at its side. In order to open the door all the way on the small refrigerator one of the chairs must be pushed aside. The table is piled with books and papers that are obviously well circulated and frequently read. Chief among them is a tattered book with a leather cover. At one time there was gold lettering on the front cover, and if you look closely you can still make out the words, “Holy Bible.”
Although there are two chairs, only one is ever used; the other has been unoccupied for nearly five years. The lone dweller of the small rustic cottage in upstate New York is a man named Guissipe, known as Gus by all his family and friends. Well, not family really. Gus has no family, not since his beloved Marie died. He might have a few cousins back in his homeland, but he wouldn’t have a clue how to make contact, or even if they exist.
Just three weeks after they were married, Gus and Marie immigrated to New York and never looked back. Not once did they return to Italy, and the letters stopped after a few years. They had always been on their own, just the two of them in a brand new world. But it was enough. They never had much, but they were both happy—very happy.
The first job Gus landed when they arrived in their new home was in a small print shop. He responded to a hand-written sign in the window seeking someone to clean the building at night. Although it didn’t seem like much of a job, it provided just enough to allow him and Marie to pay the rent and put enough food on the table to keep them alive. It doesn’t take much money for a young couple in love.
The job stuck, or perhaps it is better to say Gus stuck with the job. Forty years. He didn’t stay as the night janitor. He learned several jobs over the years—even working as a typesetter for the last decade.
Gus didn’t retire; he simply wore out. After Marie died his energy and drive drained from his body at a steady pace. Now he was nearing seventy years of age, alone, living in the same small house he had shared with Marie.
The worn chair in the kitchen is Gus’ favorite place; the place where he spends many of his waking hours. He works his way through the newspaper every day while drinking his morning coffee. It’s funny, but even the way he drinks coffee has changed since Marie died. His entire life he drank his coffee black; no sugar or cream, just straight out of the pot. However, when Marie died he started adding just a touch of sugar. He has thought about it often and finally came to the conclusion that he needed a little more sweetness in his life.
So, after morning coffee and the newspaper, Gus opens his Bible. For the past five years he has read it completely through two times each year—cover to cover, no skipping the difficult parts. Every day he sits in his chair reading, pausing every forty-five minutes or so to stretch, do a few chores, get a bite to eat, or something else, but always returning to the kitchen table.
His prayer life has been equal to his Bible reading. It seems that Gus is continually talking to God. Sometimes he mumbles the words loud enough to be heard, but not concise enough to be understood. His faith in God is strong. In fact, it is the only reason he has survived so long without Marie.
Gus knows the next significant event in his life is death. It’s not something he dreads—in fact, he looks forward to it. He sees it as the day he will be reunited with Marie, but most important, he will get to talk with God face-to-face. That is something worth anticipating. There are times, if you could sit across the table from Gus, you would think he and God have already started the conversation.
It is those conversations, often loud enough to be heard by others that have earned Gus the reputation as the “Crazy Man on 14th street.” All the families living in the neighborhood moved in after Gus and Marie were becoming senior citizens so they didn’t know anything about Gus as a young, vibrant man who cared deeply for his wife and neighbors. All they saw was a shrunken man stooped over with age, with unkempt hair and wrinkled clothes. It’s not surprising that when they heard him talking to God in his kitchen that their conclusion was that he was crazy.
Two doors down the street, to the south, reside a young couple who had befriended Gus. They moved in a little over two years ago. Like Gus and Marie, soon after they married they found themselves far away from family. That is probably what attracted Gus to them. He occasionally saw his own experience as he watched Tom and Virginia set up housekeeping.
It was not like they intentionally socialized or shared meals together, but several times on his way to the mailbox at the curb, Gus would find himself near enough to Tom or Virginia to strike up a conversation. Sometimes they even stood and talked for quite some time—long enough for Gus to learn a little of their story. He knew enough to know they struggled in several ways. In fact, they were frequently a subject of Gus’ conversations with God. One thing you can take to the bank; if Gus knows you have a need he will be praying for you.
The winter season arrived with an early storm and didn’t let up, burying the town and surrounding countryside with a generous helping of snow. You would always expect winters in upstate New York to be cold and snowy, but this year it was even more so. Now it was approaching the end of December and the rolling hills and city streets had been blanketed with the white stuff for more than two months. Even the sunny days were not warm enough to cause much melting.
Being alone in the world is difficult any day, but the days are especially hard during the Christmas season. Except for one year when Christmas occurred on a Sunday and he went to church, Gus has been alone every Christmas day since Marie died.
Although Gus considers himself a good friend of God, he’s not much of a church attender. He and Marie went occasionally over the years, mainly on holidays and special occasions. It’s not that Gus has a problem with the church; it’s just that he doesn’t have any need for it. Ritual is not interesting to him, but to be totally honest, some of the folks at church are also some of the meanest people in town. Gus is happy about his relationship with God so he has no plans for changing his church participation.
The long cold spell, the approach of the Christmas season, and the ever-present loneliness drove Gus even more inward this year. He was diligently searching for an assurance from God that he was still with him. Gus needed to hear from the Almighty.
And that is exactly what happened one evening as Gus sat in his usual chair, Bible open on the table, and the mumbling of prayer audible enough to be heard if someone else happened to be near the little house. Gus heard from God. Yes, he actually heard God speak. This was not some kind of impression or thought that God placed in Gus’ mind; it was truly the voice of God—speaking audibly to Gus.
It doesn’t matter if you or I believe it was truly the voice of God. All that matters is that Gus knew. I don’t know why we choose not to believe God can speak in an audible voice. Gus believes that he can and then he actually heard the words.
Before I tell you what God said to Gus, I must first tell you what he was seeking in prayer. As I mentioned, Christmas was just a few days away, an especially lonely time for Gus. He missed Marie more than ever before. He had no family, only one neighbor who knew him well enough to call him by name, and it had been so cold and damp outside that Gus only went outdoors to get the newspaper and the mail. He was standing on a precipice looking down, believing that his life was going downhill soon.
“What’s the point?” he continually asked himself; “Why doesn’t God do something—take me home, or give me some reason to live.”
What he needed, and what he asked for is to be able to see God—to actually see Him with his own two eyes. He had heard God’s voice many times before, but this time he needed to see God. To physically hold out his hand and touch something real. He sobbed and he prayed this prayer over and over. Until—he finally heard a word from God; actually the voice of God Himself.
God said, “Be downtown in the square by six on Christmas Eve if you want to see me.”
You can call it fantasy or craziness, but Gus accepted it on faith. The voice was clear and the directions precise. If he would be at the square on Christmas Eve, he would see God.
Once he heard from God, Gus was good for the moment. He was a little anxious about Christmas Eve, but he was confident he would see God in the city square. You can imagine how he spent the day preparing. Up early for breakfast, skip reading the newspaper and get right into the Bible. At lunch time, Gus actually pushed back the curtains on the front room windows and let the light come in for the first time all winter.
Even though he didn’t expect God to come home with him, Gus took the time to clean house. He dusted the furniture, fluffed the two pillows Marie always kept on the couch, and even stacked up all the old newspapers and put them out for the trash.
He chose his clothes carefully. He wanted to look nice, but he also wanted to be warm. Even though the sun was shining, snow still blanked the ground and the air was crisp. He knew it would be dark and cold by six-o’clock.
His plan was to walk out the front door at about five-forty, make the ten minute drive downtown in his Ford Fairlane, find an empty bench, and wait for God to appear. He didn’t know whether to expect God to simply walk up to the bench, or if He would drop down out of heaven and sit beside him, but Gus truly believed he was about to see God face to face.
He couldn’t wait, so at five-thirty, ten minutes earlier than planned, he put on his heavy wool coat, gloves, and stocking hat and walked out the door. His car was parked on the street in front of the house. Even though he hadn’t driven it in a few days, he wasn’t the least worried about it starting or being stuck in the snow.
Gus was about two steps away from the front door of his car when he heard someone call his name. Given the fact that he didn’t know many people in the neighborhood, it caught him by surprise. He turned to his right and saw Virginia walking quickly in his direction, shouting his name once again when he turned.
“Gus, I need your help,” she said.
“Virginia, what do need?”
“It’s Tom! He fell and I think his leg is broken. I need some help to get him to the doctor,” she replied.
Gus totally forgot about his appointment downtown as he turned to walk Virginia back to her house. As they hurriedly trotted down the sidewalk, she explained how Tom was using a step ladder to put up some last minute decorations when he slipped and fell sideways.
“He’s in a lot of pain,” she said as they entered the front door.
Tom was not a large man, but it seemed like he covered the entire living room floor as he was sprawled out on his back.
“Gus, am I glad to see you,” he said as Gus stood over him. “I can’t get up and Virginia isn’t strong enough to help.”
As he surveyed the situation, Gus knew what he needed to do. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his car keys and handed them to Virginia. “Virginia, go get my car and bring it as close to the front door as you can. I think you can jump the curb and get it close. I’ll help Tom get up and we’ll be out as quick as we can.”
Although Gus was not a large or strong man, he was able to help Tom to his feet and steady him as they walked. They hobbled out the front door just as Virginia pulled the car into the yard. With Virginia’s help Gus was able to get Tom into the backseat with his leg stretched out.
Gus took the keys from Virginia. As she locked up the house, he maneuvered the car out of the yard and onto the street. Virginia came and hopped in the front seat and off they went toward the hospital.
Since he had lived in this town all of his adult life, Gus knew the best way to get to the hospital. It was only a matter of minutes until they pulled into the driveway that curved around to the Emergency Room door. Virginia ran in to get some help as Gus walked around the car to assist Tom in getting out of the back seat.
Virginia returned with a nurse, orderly, and a wheelchair for Tom. They situated him in the chair before walking with them back into the hospital; Virginia reached over and gave Gus a big hug. “Thank you so much, Gus. I don’t know what we would have done without you. I hope we didn’t inconvenience you this evening.”
Her statement caused him to think about his six o’clock appointment for the first time since he had left the house. He quickly looked at his watch to see that it was already a few minutes past six. “You’re welcome, Virginia,” he said as he hurriedly got into his car and drove off.
He knew it would take a few minutes to get downtown and he was already late. He was confident that since God knew he was helping a neighbor he would be patient and wait for him—at least that is what he hoped.
Since it was Christmas Eve there was no traffic, and when he arrived downtown there were plenty of empty parking spaces. Gus chose the one closest to the city square and he quickly got out of his car. Walking toward the square, he saw someone sitting on one of the park benches in the middle. He knew that must be God waiting for him.
His pace quickened as he got closer. At his age, and with the snow on the ground, Gus didn’t want to run, but it was all he could do to hold back. He certainly didn’t want to end up in the hospital next to Tom.
As he neared the bench he slowed his pace so he could better focus his eyes. He wasn’t sure what he was seeing. It was a man, wearing a heavy coat and a stocking cap, slumped over like he was trying to keep warm.
“Why would God need to do that,” thought Gus to himself.
When he arrived at the bench, Gus sat down at the end opposite of the unidentified man. It didn’t take but a few seconds before Gus said, “Hi, I’m Gus.”
The man sat up straighter, looked at Gus, stuck out his right hand and said, “Hi, I’m Perry Walker. Glad to meet you.”
“Hey, Perry. Have you seen anyone else around here? asked Gus.
“Nope, it’s pretty quiet.”
“How long have you been here?
“Oh, I don’t know, probably twenty or thirty minutes.”
Gus was now confused, “And you’re sure you haven’t seen anyone or anything unusual?”
“No sir; like I said, it’s quiet.”
Gus sat back against the bench; his heart got heavier by the second. He had missed his chance. Why did he have to get interrupted? If he had only left the house a few minutes earlier everything would have been just right.
After a few minutes, Gus stood up and said, “Well, I guess I’ll go now. It looks like I missed my appointment.”
Perry, assuming Gus was speaking to him said, “I’m sorry; wish I could help.”
Gus stood next to the bench for several seconds before he said, “Say Perry, what are you doing out here all by yourself in this weather?”
“Oh, I just got off the bus and I don’t really have any place to go. I’m trying to figure out what to do for the night. Do you know of a church or someplace that could help?”
“I occasionally attend the church in my neighborhood, replied Gus. “I think they had an early Christmas Eve service so I’m sure no one is there now. You know, everyone wants to get home to family.”
“There are a couple of motels that might have room,” continued Gus.
“That’s ok,” said Perry, “I don’t have any money. I used my last few dollars for the bus ticket.”
“Why did you come here if you don’t know anyone?” asked Gus.
“I heard there is a printing company here that might be hiring some help,” answered Perry. “Printing is one thing I know, so I thought I might could get a job.”
Gus was taken by surprise at the coincidence, but he was finally able to say, “There is a printer here; a very good printer. I worked for them for forty years.”
“Wow, maybe you could tell me who to talk to about a job. That’s amazing.”
“Well, they’re not going to be hiring tonight or tomorrow. What are you going to do in the meantime?”
“I don’t know; I guess I’ll just make do somehow. At least there might be something good for me in the near future.”
“You can’t stay out here for a couple of days; it’s way too cold. You come with me and I’ll work something out,” replied Gus.
“Thanks Gus! I don’t know what to say.”
They walked the block and a half to Gus’ car in silence, neither one knowing what to say. Once they were situated in the car, conversation came more naturally. Gus wanted to know the man’s story.
Perry related how he had been in the Army for several years, recently returning home for a tour in Vietnam. He had a minor wound that forced him out of the army. While he was overseas his father had died so he came home to no family and no place to live. He had been scrounging for several weeks, trying to find his place. He was down to the final bit of money he had when he purchased the bus ticket. Now, here he was, no home, no job, and no money. A terrible place to be for a young man in his prime.
Gus drove home and pulled the Ford to a stop in front of his house. Perry carried his duffle bag, filled with all his worldly possessions, and followed Gus to the front door.
As they entered, Gus said, “It’s not much, but it has served me well for a long time.”
Perry was just grateful to get in out of the cold.
Gus helped Perry get situated in the second bedroom, showed him the bathroom, and then fixed him something to eat. Even though he hadn’t given it much thought lately, it was kind of nice to have someone sitting in the second chair at the kitchen table.
The two men talked late into the evening until Perry finally gave up first and said he needed to get some sleep. As soon as things quieted down, Gus remembered his appointment with God that he missed. He was overcome with disappointment. Either God showed up and didn’t wait for him, even though he was helping a neighbor, or Gus was a complete idiot. Imagine thinking he had actually heard God speak—how stupid can you be.
It was a restless night as Gus tried to reconcile what had happened. How did he misunderstand, or why did God disappoint him? He was up early the next morning; well before Perry. His morning coffee tasted especially good, but he held off breakfast until Perry was up. In the meantime he decided to resume his Bible reading.
He read a couple of Psalms from the Old Testament and several chapters of Proverbs before he turned to the book of Matthew in the New Testament. His reading schedule had him at the beginning of the twenty-fifth chapter and the conversation between Jesus and His disciples.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
As he read those words, Gus knew that God had spoken once again. God did not lead him astray. God did meet him last night—in the flesh. God was named Tom and he was named Perry.
Just before Perry came out of his room, Gus went into the front room and pushed open the curtains to let in the morning sun. It was time to make his world bright once again. It was Christmas day and God had given him a precious gift—the opportunity to see, and touch, and talk directly to God himself.
He and Perry had a lot to talk about that day. They also made a trip to the hospital and were able to bring Tom and Virginia home. It was the beginning of something new for Gus as he now realized that he could be with God frequently.