To Thaw a Heart – A Short Story
The tires crunched over an ice-packed road. The overnight rain and now freezing temperatures made the morning commute precarious at best. Carrie tightened her grip on the steering wheel and adjusted her position so that she could focus on avoiding the hidden pockets on black ice. Glancing at the dashboard she realized that if she kept travelling at this snail’s pace she would, most certainly, find herself late to work. Great, she thought, as if this morning wasn’t bad enough already.
There are some days when you wake up feeling refreshed and able to conquer the world. Food tastes richer, routines run smoothly, and all the lights are green.
Today was not that.
Today was anything but that.
Her alarm didn’t go off which meant she overslept and was scrambling to get ready. Too late she discovered the cream had spoiled, ruining her coffee. With no time to remake it, Carrie had to settle for a glass of water and a stale blueberry muffin leftover from her mother’s visit several days earlier.
Nola, Carrie’s eleven-year-old daughter, woke with an attitude that could make even the most hardened criminal shake in his boots. Unfortunately, that was becoming more frequent these days and Carrie was at a loss for how to handle it anymore. As a single mom she felt completely alone and ill-equipped to navigate these parenting battles. More often than not she just chose the path of least resistance, which usually meant that Nola got her way and Carrie was left feeling battered and defeated.
To top it off, being late again would almost ensure that she would be placed on probation. She could not afford putting her job at risk. This income wasn’t much, but they needed it to survive. Ever since her husband had bailed on them she had done everything she could to make ends meet, but most months they just barely scraped by. Her position at the city’s call centre wasn’t glamorous, but however meager her paycheck, she simply could not take the chance of losing it.
In spite of the treacherous terrain, she gently pressed down the gas pedal and held her breath as she picked up speed. The call centre was only ten minutes away, but it seemed like an eternity as her body tensed with focus.
The cold wind beat against his thin jacket, its icy fingers creeping in through the holes worn at the elbows. He pulled it tighter against his body and stomped his feet to keep warm. A gust blew over the cardboard sign that was propped up next to him. He bent to stand it back up. Scrawled across it were the words “Anything Helps.”
For almost a year this had been his corner and he was grateful to have laid claim to such a consistent and high traffic area. The strip mall had been becoming increasingly desolate over the years as businesses moved to more desirable locations. He figured the whole place would have closed down entirely if the call centre hadn’t moved in a few years back.
The squeal of tires brought the man to attention and he watched, helpless, as a small car skidded across the parking lot. It seemed to have hit a patch of black ice hidden beneath the snow. Its tires spun out in vain, frantically searching for ground that would provide traction. The man squinted to see the driver as the car spun across the parking lot in a perfect pirouette, colliding hard with a concrete parking post and leaving a sizable dent in the back car door.
A familiar young lady emerged from the vehicle. Thankfully, she didn’t look hurt, not physically anyway, but as she assessed the damage to the back door her body began to shake and she buried her face in her hands. After a moment, she stood tall, wiped her face with the back of a mitten and began hurriedly heading toward the main doors of the call centre.
The man was moved with sympathy for the woman. More than once he had watched as she rushed into the building minutes before nine, eyes to the ground, her shoulders slumped with the weight of the world. Fishing around in his jacket pocket he retrieved a clean, yet crumpled tissue. As the woman rushed by him, he extended the tissue to her as an offering of kindness. She didn’t notice, or perhaps she pretended not to as she averted her gaze.
He tucked the tissue back into his pocket and once more pulled his jacket tight around him, this time to steel himself against the sharp blast of rejection.
She had noticed him, of course.
He was always there, blending into the background as if the building architects had intended him to be part of the original design. In spite of the kindness in his eyes, Carrie chose to ignore him rather than engage. The truth was that he made her nervous.
He was a disheveled man with rumpled and worn clothing. Dirty, shaggy grey hair hung almost to his shoulders and his wrinkled skin looked rough and weathered. His body hunched forward, perhaps deformed from injury or perhaps laden with the burdens of an unkind world. Most days a foul smell of liquor and body odor lingered in the air about him forcing passersby to give him a wide berth.
This particular morning, however, Carrie kept her distance as much out of embarrassment as unease. Her car was damaged, she was an emotional mess, and now she was late. Again.
She went straight to her cubicle, keeping her head down and doing her best to be invisible so as not to be reprimanded. Most days, that was not an issue. She had long since accepted the truth that her existence went generally unnoticed. Unless of course she messed up, which seemed to be happening more frequently. Taking a deep breath, she stuffed her morning’s troubles into a tiny corner of her heart and attempted to focus on the work at hand.
Time crept slowly forward as she went about her mundane routines until she felt her cell phone buzz just before noon. Checking the caller ID, her stomach flip-flopped. Nola’s school. A call in the middle of the day was rarely good news.
Nola was sick.
She checked the clock. There would be just enough time on her lunch break to pick Nola up and drop her at her mom’s before jetting back to work. I do not need this right now, she thought.
Promptly at twelve, Carrie grabbed her coat and purse, hastily making a dash to the parking lot, praying that her car would still run smoothly in spite of the damage and that she would be able to return without incident.
Long strides took her quickly across the parking lot, but only a few feet from the car, she froze, panic rising in her chest.
The man from the corner was breaking into her car.
Carrie hung for a moment in the land of indecision. It seemed dangerous to confront a criminal in the act, yet she couldn’t just stand by and let it happen. Plus, she needed her car.
“Hey! You! Get away from my car. I’m going to call the police, so you’d better back away slowly.” Unfortunately, the tremble in her voice caused her words to sound more like a request than a threat.
The man looked up, startled. He was crouched on his knees by the damaged side of the car, but at the confrontation raised his hands in surrender and proceeded to back away.
“Look ma’am. I don’t mean any harm.” His voice was gentle and disarming.
As he moved away Carrie noticed that his break-in tools strewn haphazardly across the snow consisted of a busted up bucket filled with water and a dirty plunger. In spite of herself, she was curious.
“What on earth are you trying to do?” she questioned.
The man lowered his arms and sheepishly focused on the ground in front of him. Then, taking a deep breath, he rubbed the back of his neck and spoke with gentle candor.
“If I may, ma’am, you seem to be drowning in a world of problems. I thought I could offer a simple kindness.”
Carrie felt her defenses rising. How dare he. She spat the words at him. “What could you possibly know of my problems? And more importantly, what could you possibly have to offer me? More damage to my car?”
“Well, I suppose I don’t really know. But I do know you have been rushing in to work with a scowl on your face every day for the last two weeks. I know that you always eat your lunch alone, and I know that, as of this morning, you have this new dent here.”
Carrie swallowed hard. He wasn’t wrong, but she was still at a loss as to what exactly he was trying to do. As she carried on an inner battle about how to respond, the man seemed to take her silence as confirmation of his claim and continued with an explanation.
“You see, it may be hard to believe given my current state, but I’m a trained mechanic. Owned and ran an auto body shop for years. So I scavenged up some tools and was trying to pull this here dent out for you. Seemed as though it might help to turn at least one thing around for you.”
The words hung in the air between them as if frozen by the wind.
It made no sense.
If all that were true, how did he end up here? What was he trying to gain by helping her?
He must have read the disbelief on her face as she gazed at the shadow of a man standing before her.
“I know,” he offered. “I’m far from the man I used to be. Crooked employees, bankruptcy, and a poor reliance on the wrong kind of spirits has led me down an unfortunate path. Everyone’s story has peaks and valleys. I just happen to be in a valley at the moment.”
Conviction gripped Carrie’s heart. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she had long written the man off as worthless, a drain on the system. Now here he was, the only person to see her and offer any sort of support. “I’m sorry. I’ve been terribly unkind to you.”
He brushed away her shame with a wave of his hand and offered her a kind, crooked smile.
“We are all just doing the best we can. Sometimes the world will deal you some bad cards, and there’s not one thing you can do about it, but…keep your eyes open. See people. Watch for ways to show kindness to someone else. The simplest way to lift your burden is by lifting someone else’s.”
As he bent to finish the work he’d started she pondered his words. Carrie didn’t deserve the grace that he offered, but it sparked something in her heart.
Sure enough within a couple minutes he was able to pull out a significant portion of the dent. It wasn’t perfect, but it looked much better that it had. He gathered up his makeshift tools and opened the car door for her.
Carrie stepped by him to enter her car and, before she could talk herself out of it, wrapped her arms around the man and pulled him into a gentle hug. He patted her back and gave a chuckle.
“See. You’re getting the hang of it already.”
As she turned her car toward the school, Carrie realized that nothing had changed. All of her problems remained. Yet, somehow, everything had changed because, for the first time in a long time, she had hope.