They could practically be heard arguing throughout the whole diner, but they were oblivious to their small audience of onlookers in the heat of their conflict. Tori stood there with her hands on her hips as her husband, Hank, made himself clear that he was upset. He was sitting up at the counter on one of the barstools eating his chili. On the other side, Tori poured herself a much needed cup of coffee.
“You’re a waitress, not Mother Theresa! A mother with two hungry mouths!” he bellowed out to her. “That’s less money that goes into our pockets! What the hell were you thinking, Tor?”
“Was only helping a poor guy out!” she shot back. “He looked hungry and—big deal—so I bought him something to eat! So forget it, Hank, cuz I’m not sorry!” She remained defiant in her stance, unapologetic in her Good Samaritan role. Her boss never allowed her to give free food away, so the food was on her. It was a hot dog and fries, one time, some bacon and eggs, another. She got the man bagels, donuts, toast, oatmeal—whatever she could supply with his usual cup of coffee he ordered. It was obvious from the word go that he had little in his pocket, and he could barely put a tip on the table—usually a nickel or a dime, sometimes a few pennies. He wore the same shabby tee shirt, flannel shirt and bummy jeans. And those pitiful shoes—with his dingy white socks poking through at the big toe of his right foot—that was pitiful. So what if she had two young children? Nobody was going into the poor house because she bought a poor guy a few meals.
“Well, stop buying him food! No more!” Hank commanded. Tori gave him her best you’re not the boss of me look as he put his spoon down and walked over to the booth towhere the man with unkempt, silvery hair, and an untrimmed beard, sat. That was his usual spot, and that was Tori’s booth to cover.
The man just stared at him, not seemingly startled by the younger man who boldly confronted him. “Hey, look!” Hank said, lowly, yet sharply, “Straight up and no *******. Get a job. Get a life. Just quit taking advantage of my wife. Got it?”
It didn’t seem like the intimidation was working. The man just stared at Hank, his deep, soulful, brown eyes could penetrate right through him, and Hank wanted to shift his gaze away. He didn’t though, for that wouldn’t have given him the menacing upper hand. “Well!” he demanded, fidgety and frustrated, “What’s your problem?” The response was simply the same silent stare and Hank blurted out through clenched teeth, “Don’t take nothing no more from my wife!”
Unexpectedly, the man placed his hand upon Hank’s and said, “My son, don’t be angry. Sin no more. I give you my blessing, and go now in peace”. Hank quickly pulled his hand away, his face burning with embarrassment. A few guys at table nearby snickered at the sight of the pair.
“The guy’s nuts!” Hank got up and moved back to the counter. “What does he think? He’s Jesus or something?”
“Hank, quit stirring up drama or you gotta leave! You’re gonna drive out business!” Al chimed in. Al was in the kitchen helping the cooks in the back to get out orders. Now if anyone had a right to kick Hank out it was him. He owned the place.
Hank, still enraged, pointed his finger at Tory and promised, “We’ll talk later!” He quickly stormed out. Tory was not to be dictated to, feeling vindicated for her kind actions.
Well, everyone thought the man who tried to bless Hank was harmless, off kilter, maybe, but harmless. He didn’t seem to cause any trouble, and he minded his own business—only spoke until spoken to, and it was always with grace. Was there something special about him? It was only Tori and fellow waitress, Bonnie, who put more stock into this than anyone else would.
“And what if he is God?” Bonnie asked.
Al scoffed, trying to keep the conversation at a low minimum. “You sound just as loony as he is”
“Well? And what if he was?” Tori backed up Bonnie. “Or maybe even an angel! You know they can come in many disguises! Maybe God is trying to test us to see if we really give a ****. Did you ever think of that?”
Al shook his head. He couldn’t believe he was having this conversation. “Test us?” he asked back as if Tori had no sense at all. “You’ve watched too many TV shows!” He raised his hands up in a grand fashion of showmanship, knife in hand,” Or maybe I’m not the owner of Al’s Diner, but I’m really God myself”, he mocked. “So, as God, my dear little children, I command you back to work! Come on, now! Chop, chop!” He started to shoo everyone away. “How you think we are going to feed the masses, huh? With loaves and fishes? Customers! Customers! Get those orders moving!”
The smells and sizzling sound of hamburgers on the grill were enticing to the senses. Tori and Bonnie went back to busily retrieving orders, and Al went to chopping some tomatoes, but soon he was playfully tapped on the shoulder. It was Amber, another waitress who never seemed privy to the conversation. “You remember this song?” she asked him, singing the tune in an off-key way, “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us….”
“Just a stranger on a bus, trying to make his way home…” Tori sung along, cheerfully moving about, adding a pretty, more melodious tone to the song.
“Exactly”, Bonnie exclaimed, enthusiastically. “Like God’s gone undercover!”
Al rolled his eyes, for he thought he made himself clear he was done with this talk. But he couldn’t help but get a kick out his quirky waitresses. “Sure I know that tune—a few decades back—blonde chick—what’s her name?” he asked, smirking.
“Joan Osborne”, Bonnie proudly stated. “Cool song, too. Makes you think a bit…at least for me.”
“And so why not ask him who he is?” Joey asked. “He’s got a name.”
It was like everyone forgot Joey was in the room though he was busily busing tables and sweeping floors. Tory, Bonnie and Al stopped what they were doing and intently looked at the teen. He seemed to ask a sincere question. Al burst out laughing. “Now someone’s talking sense, and chalk it up to the kid with good wits. Yeah, Joey, these ladies just want to exist in fantasy land. Go, Team Al!”
Joey shook his head and said, soberly, “Not taking anyone’s side. I just think he’s got a name and he’s got a story behind him…and it isn’t what you think, Tori…or even you, Al.”
Al waved his hand to dismiss the whole thing. “Yeah, his name is probably Ralph, or something. Even then, I bet Tory would believe he is the Almighty right there in the flesh!”
“I would!” Tory shot back. She looked at Joey and answered, “Maybe you do think I’m as bad as Al does, but you’re too polite to admit it…but…yeah…I did ask him his name.”
“And, so?” Al asked, pretending with wide eyes to be full wonder, like he was clinging to every word, anxiously. “What’s his name?”
He was simply finding humor at her expense, and Tori wished she never said a thing. She reluctantly replied, “I am what I am.”
What?” Bonnie asked. “What does that mean?”
Al replied, “I am what I am! Well, that sure don’t mean Popeye, sweetie!” With a comical, gravelly voice, he did his best Popeye imitation, “I yam what I yam and that’s all I am!”, squinting up one of his eyes he teased Tori, “Got that Olive Oyl?”
Bonnie and Joey laughed along at the sight of him, and Al added, “Look! I may be practically an atheist, but I’m not ignorant to the bible. That’s just what God said to Moses when he asked the same question!”
Tory defended the poor man that she so proudly helped. “So what if he does think he is God? He’s not doing anyone any harm, is he?” Al completely ignored her, so Tory to turned to Joey, and asked again, “What harm is there in it?”
Joey slightly smiled at Tory, trying to remain respectful to her beliefs, and said, “Truth be told, I don’t know much about God. I’m not a churchy person. He pointed over at the poor man in the booth and said, “I just know if God existed, it’s not him.”
Tori was saddened by Joey’s words. It was not that because he didn’t believe her ideas were feasible—that maybe God was testing them—but that he didn’t even know if God existed. The youth nowadays—who did they have to look up to? Who guided them? The internet? Their cell phones? So many people seemed to have walked away from their faith or had none at all. And Al reminded Tori so much of her own dad. She grew up in a home without religion. Her mom had a vague notion of God, but her dad was a huge skeptic that had the same mocking spirit that Al had. Neither her father or Al were bad guys, but there were no miracles in their worldview. There was nothing divine, and everything was so ordinary and practical.
But Tori always felt awestruck by the world, nature and the animals, a curious minded child. She was the one who had that childlike faith—even now as a grown woman—and she yearned to know God, personally, not just know about Him. She just had to believe that this world and the universe were not all just for nothing, not at all a happenstance, not a just a brief journey on this earth and then that was it. It was after searching and yearning that Tori went to her friend’s church, and soon became a Catholic. She might have been alone in her family in this endeavor, but it gave her life more meaning.
Tori would look at the figure of Jesus upon the crucifixion and oddly was comforted by the sight of him that might bring others revulsion or doubt—the nails piercing his hands and feet, the thorn of crowns, the blood, the tragic sight of his lifeless body so cruelly tacked up upon the cross. She raised her own two children to know God, and Hank’s lukewarm feelings did not match hers. He wasn’t much help in that department at all. But she knew by looking through the bible that true life was about helping other people, that God loved the poor and the downcast. To find your life, you had to lose your life. To feel exalted, you had to humble yourself. To give your life, to save someone else’s—well, that was the greatest gift you could give. That means you gave it all. She might not have been the smartest person in the world, but she didn’t need to be bible scholar to figure such things out.
Well, it would be a while before Tori would see her special customer again. But one day she ran back into the kitchen and told Al, excitedly, “His name is Bill!”
Al shot her a strange look, and then he got the connection. “Oh, so that’s God name?” he said jokingly.
Tori pulled him by the arm and took him out front, summoning Bonnie and Joey over, too. Bill was sitting in the same booth he often did, but there at the counter stool sat a petite, sixty-something-year-old woman whom everyone was about to meet. “Al, Bonnie, Joey, this is Bill’s sister, Mary”, Tori introduced her. “She shared with me about Bill’s story, and I think you should know, too.” She looked like Bill, but had black dyed hair and was better put together. There was a warm and gentle way about her that intrigued Tori. And she sat there to shield her brother by keeping him out of the conversation, for she didn't want to upset her brother by mentioning something that might cause him pain.
Actually, they all were intrigued by her story. Mary had told them that Bill once had a family, a wife and two sons. He couldn’t keep a steady job, though, and he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. His wife divorced him years ago and moved out of state with their two boys. His sons never tried to contact him, and he hasn’t seem ever since. For quite a while, Bill lived on his own, but he didn’t take good care of himself. He was living more poorly than ever—not eating right or caring for himself, erratically taking his medication, and so it wasn’t a surprise that he lived a deluded life. “He does strange stuff like that, think he is God”, Mary admitted to Tori. “He’s been made fun of a lot for acting that way, and it’s my job to watch over him and see that he is safe. So now I help take care of him, and he lives with me. Bill’s always been too proud to accept my help, but the doctor says being with me will help to give him a better life”. Mary was a widow, and she didn’t have much money herself, but she did what she could to protect her brother.
Al looked embarrassed, knowing now the truth about Bill and realizing he was making fun when he should have known better. Mary gave Tori a huge hug. “And thank you”, she said to Tory, “for looking out for my brother, too.” Everyone, even Al, was deeply touched by their embrace.
“You know that Tori is a saint”, Bonnie bragged on her behalf to reiterate the same sentiment. “There should be more people like her.”
Tori remained humble and disagreed, “No, I’m just doing what we should all do in this world. If anything, it teaches me that we should all see God in every opportunity.”
Al whispered into Tori’s ear and told her, “You want to give him something to eat again, well now don't bother paying for it. It's on me”. She smiled at him like was ready to give him a big hug, and he added, “Don’t think this makes me all buying all this God stuff—or anything”.
“And why not?” she asked.
He replied with his own question, the ultimate question that people have been asking for ages. "Why would any god allow a man to suffer like that? Just look at him! How could that happen and you still think there is some guy in the sky that's all warm and fuzzy, like some invisible Teddy bear?"
"Oh, you mean so how can God be loving, fair and merciful?", she snapped back, hurt that Al would make faith sound so childish and idiotic. Tori thought a moment, and simply replied, "I could ask the same question. Is life fair? Is it just wishful thinking? Actually, all my life I've wondered such things. The difference between us though is I don't know all the answer any better than you...but I still believe."
Al waved his hand away at her, "Whatever..."
"Wait!", Tori commanded him as he walked away. Al stopped and turned to face her like he was more than through with this conversation. She said, "Maybe if us mere mortals did our job on earth of helping others, it would better a whole nother story. You'd probably have a different point of view, Al."
She didn't expect Al to have some bolt of enlightenment when it came to God, but before he went back to the kitchen he left her with words she wished he didn’t say. “All those people way back then…all those prophets and saints…supposing they were around today. You think they'd they stand up to today's world? I don't. Wouldn’t they on meds, too? I'd say we wouldn't see them any differently than we'd see Bill.” Blindsided, she never did know how to follow up with all that. Al just knew how to rain on her nice parade.
Joey never said anything about that day, but when Bill came in again, Tori surely took special notice of them sitting together for a while. When she passed by the table, Joey was watching Bill walk around, and she quickly noticed the new black and green athletic shoes on his feet. Even on him, they looked sharp.
”They fit alright?” Joey asked. Bill nodded, and shook the boy’s hand. He never said anything about it, but his silly, old grin—along with a few missing teeth—was priceless. He truly was happy to get those shoes. The old ones, with the hole in the toes, remained on the floor to be pitched out.
Tori had to ask Joey, “You bought those for him? That’s so sweet of you!”
Joey smiled. “I just never could stand those beat up, old shoes”, he replied. “They are a good brand, but didn’t put me back that much. I’m not making a big deal about it, though. I’m not even going to tell anyone I did it. Only telling you, because you asked.”
“Makes you feel good, doesn’t it? Like it really makes a difference”.
“Yeah, it does. It’s like buying God a pair of shoes.”
Did he just say it was buying God a pair of shoes? How odd to hear that from Joey, but how that statement impacted her, and Tori would never forget that. She gave Joey a peck on the cheek and a hug. He was like a little brother to him. She didn’t feel old enough to be a mother figure, but she felt some kind of sisterly feeling for him.
Joey went on to explain, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about Bill, lately. He lost his job, his family—he lost everything. No, he’s not God, but I was thinking…though I don’t know that much about religion or God, I thought that if you do