Strange eyes pierced the smoke filled room. Alice challenged his stare with one of her own, then winked. She didn’t smile. He looked away.
Some honky-tonk tune played on the jukebox. Quietly. Another patron sat at a table near the wall, cupping a drink; his eyes gazing into his own thoughts
“We close at three on Sunday morning,” she added. The stranger said nothing. “State law, ya’ know. Can’t serve liquor after three.” She paused. “It’s quarter ‘til.”
Alice finished mopping the bar with her terry cloth; then headed his direction.
“So what’ll ya have, Stranger?” She dislodged the pencil from behind her ear and held it to her pad.
“Coffee.” His distant tone was familiar to Alice.
“Black?” she asked, poking the pencil back in place.
The man looked at the barmaid; his eyes hollow; distant. Alice impatiently tapped her toe awaiting an answer.
“Yeah, black coffee. That’s all I want. Just coffee.”
“Ok, coffee it is.” She spun on her heel and trotted back to the bar. No tip from this guy, she thought.
“Hey, Mack,” she called. “You got any money?”
A gloved hand reached in a tattered, dirty over coat and retrieved some change; a dime and a quarter. He held his hand open on the table.
He inhaled the aroma of fresh brewed coffee as Alice returned. It was pleasing.
“That all you got?” she asked. “Coffee cost a dollar twenty-five, ya know. But ya get free refills. For a while.”
Embarrassment frowned from beneath the ruffled beard. One hand reached beneath his big brown hat, his fingers combing strands of disheveled hair.
“That’s all right, Mack,” she said. “So where you gonna stay tonight?”
Black coffee filled a porcelain cup.
“Dunno,” he whispered.
“Tell ya what,” she stopped chewing her gum. “There’s a room in back. You’ll just have to be out before nine tomorra.”
Their eyes met. “Ok?” She asked.
Three o’clock came. Alice flicked off the Budweiser sign. The guy by the wall instinctively stood and shuffled toward the door.
“Time to go, Mack. Ya wanna see the room?” She grabbed her purse, clinching a key chain.
On his way to the door, the patron stopped briefly by the stranger’s side. He dropped a dollar on the table, but said nothing; just offered a sympathetic pat on the back.
The widow’s mite, the stranger thought. His eyes followed the donor to the door and watched as he pulled his coat tight and ducked his head into the night air.
“No," he answered. “I’ll be ok.”
Alice was surprised at the clarity of his voice. And the five-dollar tip.
Sunday morning dawned at First Baptist Church. Tolling bells scattered pigeons into a warm breeze. Shiny cars pulled into the lot. Well-dressed men smiled greetings and offered firm handshakes. Women chattered amongst themselves and a host of Bible toting children darted to their classes.
The pastor stood at the door, his warm words and friendly smile welcomed churchgoers as they filed into the vestibule.
None noticed the man sitting in the grass, leaning against the mighty oak. His tattered coat and big brown hat seemed out of place as the sun seasoned the atmosphere with the glow of spring.
None, that is, except one deacon. While the sounds of "Bring the Wandering Ones to Jesus" permeated the air, the deacon dialed 911.
Momentarily a cruiser pulled to the curb. The deacon offered a smug smile of satisfaction.
The officer sauntered around his car until he towered over the stranger sitting in the grass.
“You got ID, Bud?” he demanded.
The stranger was ready. He handed the cop his driver’s license, replete with a photo a smiling face, shaved; well groomed.
“Well, Mr., uh, Simpston,” the officer said, “seems you’re trespassing. You’ll have to leave. Now. Or I’ll haul you in for vagrancy.”
The man stood to his feet and smiled broadly.
“Oh, no,” he said, “I’m not trespassing. I’m an evangelist.”
The officer cocked his head and replied with a curious expression.
“Itinerate preacher,” the man explained. “This church scheduled me to preach a week-long revival.”
He dropped his coat to the ground. The officer was surprised to see a pressed three-piece suit. The evangelist pulled a silk tie from his right pocket while handing the officer his big brown hat.
“My sermon starts in a few minutes,” he added. “Would you care to come in? I guarantee. What I have to say will be very interesting.”
(Originally published as THE MAN IN THE BIG BROWN HAT.)