The door swung open, nobody paid any attention. All eyes were glued to the television and the tenth rerun of A Christmas Story. It was Christmas night and the bar was crowded enough to put a smile on my face. Until that night, I had never worked the holiday, and being my first year at the helm, I penciled my name on the work schedule. I was pleasantly surprised both at the amount of business and the relaxed mood. I didn’t know what to expect, whatever I was expecting wasn’t the softball of a night I was enjoying. Heck, I was so naïve about Montana culture, that three years after moving here, I thought all bars were closed like in my home town. A more cynical explanation was given that by 4:00 PM Christmas afternoon most people were sick of their families and needed an escape.
Cold air swooshed through the open door and accompanied him as he walked towards the bar. His hair was wild and dirty, his face haggard and rife with stubble. Above worn boots were ragged jeans, a ripped flannel and a down vest; he wore nothing else to combat the cold winter air. In his hand was a paper bag, which he set on the bar with a thump.
“What can I get ya?” I asked.
“Do you know a Blankety Blank?”
“Nope, never heard of her,” I answered.
Cold air radiated from his frown. “How ’bout you?” he asked the patrons closest to him.
“Nope,” was the resounding answer.
The air seemed to escape his lungs. His head suddenly seemed too heavy for his neck. When he looked back up, sadness swam across the deep pools that were his eyes. “I rode the bus to Missoula, and I walked the rest of the way. I wanted to give her this, but I dropped it and busted it.” He slid a wolf figurine from the bag. It was a dusty ceramic that looked like it hunted the back shelves of Goodwill, quietly earning a living preying on ceramic dear and elk, until snatched from its den and dropped on some roadside. The damage wasn’t horrible, a front leg had been amputated, but the bum managed to save the dismembered leg.
A crowd started to gather.
“Do you got anything to fix it?” he asked. His voice was quiet, but his gaze shouted. His eyes pierced my recently developing bullshit detector and I had the feeling this wasn’t some ordinary run-of-the-mill drifter.
“Nope,” I said before turning to the crowd. “Anyone got any epoxy at home? Any glue?”
Most either ignored me or rumbled no. Someone said yeah, let me run home and check. While we waited the bum asked, “Got a beer? Don’t got no money, but I could use one.”
On a normal night, or if I didn’t have that feeling, I would have been on the verge of saying something like I’m not a soup kitchen for drifters, but I didn’t and instead I quietly poured him a pint of draft. Maybe it was simply Christmas spirit.
Others around him again asked the lady’s name. He repeated it, everybody shrugged. He gave the address, it was a legitimate address in town. Time passed, people returned to their crowd or watching the movie. The bum sat quietly, sipping his beer and watching those around him. From behind a cloak of ramshackle desperation a calmness emerged. It bathed him, it gave him presence; a serene disposition. He waited patiently speaking very little until the door opened again and our local hero walked in with epoxy. The crowd again gathered and a committee of ceramic veterinarians went about reattaching the wolf’s amputated leg. The bum simply watched.
When the operation was finished he moved for the wolf.
“Whoa, it’s gotta set,” the lead veterinarian said.
“It’s gettin’ late, she’s probably in bed already,” the Bum said, his calmness slipping a tad.
“Have another beer,” I said. He didn’t refuse. As he drank he didn’t have much to say. It was obvious he didn’t relish being the center of attention. People flittered away from him and went
about doing their things. Soon he was just another loner sitting at the edge of the bar. At some point while doing what I do, he slipped out the door unnoticed. Only his empty mug sat at the end of the bar.
“That wasn’t an ordinary drifter,” I said.
“Phffft. Don’t count on it,” one person said.
“You got a lot to learn,” another commented.
“Smelled horrible,” another complained.
And so on and on the comments reigned. Maybe it was my idealism, for I hadn’t yet earned my doctorate in cynicism; I had yet been exposed to the general wretchedness of humankind. That night, I felt like there was something more than met the eye. The simple events of that Christmas night still give me hope in humankind. Every Christmas since, I’ve wondered about the Jesus Bum and thank him for the lesson.