I was in college.
It was cold for San Antonio, November in Texas. The winds howled around my white Hyundai Excel. Deep bass pounded out of a new beat box in the trunk of my hatchback. I was late for work, stuck at the light.
To my left was a big grocery store chain. People scurried to their cars trying to escape the unfriendly winter winds, grocery carts full of brown bags. On my right was a small neighborhood. The homes were probably built in the 60’s, each street divided by an alley. I was closest to the grocery store, with three more lanes between me and the struggling neighborhood. Two lanes each way.
“Come on light, ” I said out loud, tapping the steering wheel absently.
Just then, out of the corner of my eye, an old man appeared. He was worn and weathered, pushing a grocery cart full of unbagged produce. I started to stare, wondering why in the world produce would be rumbling around haphazardly in his cart. As the man started to pass through one of the alley openings, his cart hit the edge of a curb. The cart swayed to the right, wheels spinning wildly as he lost control of his cargo.The cart hit the ground, bounced once, throwing produce all over the sidewalk and into the street.
An agitated car horn jolted my senses, reminded me that I was on the way to work. The light had turned green. I’m not sure why, but I felt compelled to maneuver over all three lanes and pull into one of the side streets. I parked my car about a block from the old man trying to retrieve his lost produce.
The car door felt heavy in my hand as I tried to open it, fighting the wind, eager to keep me locked inside. I gave it a good shove, then emerged triumphant. Each step on the grey sidewalk echoed, stung the afternoon air sharply. I could see the gentleman more clearly now. He was not wearing a coat or gloves. His leathery skin dark from years of hard work and sun. The stray produce obviously cast offs from the grocery store, bruised and half rotten. Suddenly a gust of wind pushed me from behind, knocking me to the ground. My cheeks flushed in anger as I pulled myself up, noticing a long tear on my new leather shoes.
“Aw shit!” I exclaimed, looking at my watch. Now I was really late. I contemplated turning around, getting back in my car and driving away. But as I watched this sweet man trying desperately to find all of his lost treasures, my heart ached. I continued to walk towards him. Quickly.
In a few short strides I found myself face to face with this stranger. He wasn’t much taller than me. His deep brown eyes searched my soul.
A slew of Spanish words fell from his crooked smile as he pointed to the curb, the cart and the fallen produce. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but there was no question of the frustration in his voice.
“It’s okay, ” I said calmly, “we’ll get it picked up in no time.” I went to work collecting his next meal. I noticed his thread bare shirt, tattered pants and broken shoes. He had to be freezing in this unseasonably cold weather. My coat was tightly buttoned. My hat securely settled.
I placed the last apple safely back in his cart and reached out my hand to say goodbye, but instead of a handshake, the stranger grasped my wrist and pulled me close to him. His warm, soft lips kissed my cheek gingerly. The heat stung, trickled down my neck, into my toes. I was stunned.
He should have been like ice in this weather, but instead, I was almost sweating from his heat. The stranger smiled slowly, gave me one last hug.
“Gracias, ” he whispered in my ear.
I walked slowly back to my car, trying to justify how he could be so warm on this frigid winter afternoon. I slid into the front seat, clasped the seat belt and looked back at the old man.
Only he was not there. There was no trace of him. No cart. No missed produce.
I started the car and circled the block looking for him, almost in a panic. There was no way that he could have walked away that fast, escaping my view, when I was only parked a block away from the incident.
It was like he was a ghost, vanishing into thin air.
I hurried to work in a trance. Tried to retrace every moment I had just spent with this old man. My boss could see that I was really shaken up and told me to take a moment before I clocked in to work. I immediately called my mom and told her everything that had just happened.
Until that moment, I had never believed it possible, but as my mom said these words to me…I knew she had to be right:
“Honey, it was no ghost that you saw…but an angel.”