I’ll never forget the homeless man in Saint Christopher’s Church. That was back in my altar server days, when I was about eight or nine. No, eight, because I hadn’t had my first Holy Communion yet. We were doing a Communion class that day, where Father Paul explained to us how the Communion worked and what the prayers meant.
I guess earlier that day this man had asked for a place to rest and maybe to sleep for the night; he was only there the once. Father Paul let him sit in the chapel while we had our communion class in another room.
But, of course, I ended up sneaking in there. I remember the prettiest girl in the class, who was already a diva at eight years old, daring me to go talk to the stranger, in her plaid uniform dress and mischievous grin. But, if it hadn’t been that, it would have been another thing; I was always ending up in the wrong places as a kid, wandering off and getting misplaced by the adults.
I tiptoed into the chapel quietly. The man was lying full-length along the front pew, eyes closed, completely filthy and smelling of old sweat, with shoes full of holes and a ragged beard. I stood about ten feet away and watched him, half-frightened, half-intrigued, until he opened his eyes and looked at me.
After a moment, I asked, in a small voice, “Are you praying? Sir?”
He chuckled, a sound that seemed too rough for this little church, for my clean, Catholic-school life.
“Praying? No, boy, I’m not Catholic.”
He sat up and studied me.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Matthew,” I said.
“Well, Matt, you mind if I tell you a story? It’s not the kinda thing you hear in church, but maybe it should be.”
This man was the first person to call me Matt, although, when I left Catholic school, I became Matt for the rest of my life.
“Okay,” I said, sitting on the steps up to the altar, resting my elbows on my knees.
“Have you ever heard that there’s a train to Hell? A big train that carries the souls of the dead way down underground?”
I nodded. “But not in church,” I said. “In a book.”
“Well, it’s not actually a train,” he said, “It’s a limousine. A real fancy limo which drives up to the curb where you’re standing and asks you to jump in. One day, I was standing on a curb, because something bad had happened and I didn’t know where else to go, and this really nice limo pulled right up to me. I climbed in.”
My eyes got wide.
“Inside,” he continued, “there were all kinds of really important people. They had designer suits and designer bags, and underwear that cost a thousand dollars a pair. All the best food, video games, you name it. And sitting right up front driving was the Devil.”
“Did he have horns?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I couldn’t see them at first. I was too busy with all the other stuff. I really wanted one of those designer suits, so I went right up to the Devil and asked how I could get one. And he said I could have all the stuff in the limo. Except I had to go with him to wherever we were going.”
“You went all the way to Hell?” I asked.
“Almost,” he said, “but the more time I spent in that fancy limo, the more I saw that those people were actually jerks. None of them were friends with each other, or with me. Even though they were all there, I was more alone than ever. I realized that I still wasn’t happy.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, I still had the same problems I had before I got on the limo. Nothing I did there could change them. You ever tried alcohol, Matt?”
I shook my head.
“Good. Don’t. So finally, I asked the Devil if I could get off the limo, and he roared at me, and that’s when I saw his horns and fangs: long, sharp and terrible. They all told me I had to stay there until the end. They said that, if I got out, I would be lost, and no one out there would help me find my way back, not after I had gone almost all the way to Hell. I didn’t deserve a second chance, the Devil said. They wouldn’t open the door for me, so I broke a window and crawled out through the broken glass while they screamed. I was way underground, in a cold, dark cave. I went up and up for so long, until my muscles hardly worked, and finally I reached the surface. I came out like this,” he gestured to himself, “with nothing but rags. But, listen, it was worth it, just to get out of there and see the sunlight.”
I had so many questions, but Father Paul found me then and dragged me away, and I never saw the man again. Father Paul later explained that he had gotten into a program called Second Chance, which gave homeless people a place to live if they followed certain rules.
I’ll never forget the homeless man in Saint Christopher’s Church. I remembered his story when I started feeling jealous of the boys in high school with their expensive sports cars, and when, one night years later in Las Vegas, I almost paid for pleasure that was the opposite of what I truly wanted. I remember him most often when I take time to hand money to the homeless or listen to the confessions of friends in difficult situations, because condemning others for their mistakes is the Devil’s trademark.
And maybe when my own son is old enough, I’ll say to him: “You ever heard of the train to Hell? Well, it’s not a train, it’s a limo.”
Janie brunson writes fiction somewhere between studying English and Sociology, working as an essay-writing tutor, and, occasionally, sleeping. She loves chocolate and broadway musicals, and will soon be starting law school. Her fiction has appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly, The Colored Lens, and Youth Imagination Magazine.