page contents

FICTION
A Minor Prophet
Paul Ewing

luca-bravo-270644.jpg

Not long after my dad dies, my mom asks me if I want any of his clothes.  Not thinking she means the t-shirts we made him with pictures of family members and jokes like pull my finger, or beans beans the musical fruit—which he wore in the pizza shop to the great delight of his customers, but thinking she means the sweaters, and the outdated dress shirts, and his old man jeans, I say no.  I want to tell her being stuck running his pizza shop the rest of my life is patrimony enough, but thankfully, I think better of it.    

A year, maybe fifteen months goes by, she gives them to the homeless shelter, and I don’t think about my dad’s clothes again, not even once.  I have more important things to worry about.  I have a wife and a two year old son, a dead dad and his pizza shop to run.  Although I keep putting it off, I need to decide what I’m going to do with that business.  My mom and sister say they’ll be okay if I close up and go back to teaching.  Mom tells me, “This isn’t the life your father wanted for you.”  My sister tells me, “I’m okay if you walk away.”  But I know they’re lying.  I know they’re not ready to let it go anymore than I am.  I know closing the pizza shop would be like watching Dad die all over again.  I know they’re glad the decision isn’t theirs, because I sure as hell wish it wasn’t mine. 

But I open up the shop each morning and make the fresh dough, taking comfort in my father’s routines, and I wait for things to work out on their own.  Which they sort of do when the Prophet walks by wearing that t-shirt with a picture of my son and my dad I made my father for his last Christmas. 

My dad and I didn’t set out to give all the homeless men nicknames, it just happened.  Our town is large enough to have homeless men, but small enough we see the same men over and over again during the course of the day.  We just wanted a way to refer to them that was both easy to remember and inoffensive. 

The frighteningly large black man who wears nothing but Philadelphia Eagles shirts, jackets, and hats, is Eagles Guy.  It’s a whole lot better than calling him, “that big scary black dude,” especially in front of customers.  The pear shaped man with the cartoonish crown of hair who wears sweaters rain or shine, winter or summer, is Sweater Guy.  The man who wears the bike helmet, even though he has no bike, and probably couldn’t have ridden one if he tried, is Helmet Guy.  You get the idea.  Some of the names are a little more complicated.  The man who looks like he could have been Fred’s boss on The Flintstones had things worked out differently for him, is Mr. Slate.  The man with the noticeable limp my dad assumed was exaggerated for the benefit of panhandling, is Walter Brennan.  I didn’t get the reference, but my dad didn’t understand what it meant for Helmet Guy to be on the spectrum.  Crazy was crazy to Dad.  I taught middle school English, literature mostly, before I took a leave of absence five years or so ago, when Dad’s cancer created a need for my assistance in the pizza shop where my sister and I spent our summers and after school hours when we were kids. 

Our naming the men reached its peak with the Prophet.  The gist of the joke is this dirty little man walking quickly around town, always with his head turned slightly to the right, mumbling and gesturing to himself as he goes, is actually talking to God. 

The Prophet is blessed, and the days I see him are my better days.  If I say hello and he nods back, I know his blessing has been bestowed upon me.  He walked by just hours before we found out my wife Jenny was pregnant with our son Jackson.  He walked by the morning we were told Dad’s cancer was in remission.  He walked by the morning I sat outside, sampling for the first time our signature new sandwich, inspiring me to name it the Sub Supreme. 

The Prophet is special.  Seeing him is as close as I’m ever going to get to having a religious experience.  Interacting with him is as close as I’m ever going to get to meeting God. 

I shouldn’t take seeing this weird little man passing the shop in a t-shirt with a picture of my dad and son on it, which is too large for him and hangs from his shoulders like a dress, as anything other than a coincidence, but I nonetheless take it as a sign from God.

The sign isn’t as cool as a burning bush, or a talking angel, or the likeness of Jesus in a slice of pizza even, but it needs to be respected just the same.  There were times I’ve been shown the light and ignored it.  Times I misread it.  Times when I didn’t even notice it.  But this time I’m going to take heed.  This time I’m going to embrace the sign, if not the man wearing it. 

For all of my thinking about the Prophet, I’ve never actually had a conversation with him.  Whenever he walks by and I’m outside, I say, “How’s it going?”  But the Prophet doesn’t respond.  I don’t take it personally.  I wouldn’t blow God off to talk to me either.   

I still haven’t been able to pull the trigger and close the shop, but I feel like I’m making progress.  “I’m getting closer,” I tell Jenny.  “There’s a guy I need to talk to before I make it final,” I say.  I’m careful not to tell her the guy in question is the Prophet.  She’s patient with me.  She doesn’t tell me what we both know.  She doesn’t say my waiting to talk to this man is simply my excuse to keep putting off making a decision. 

There’s some truth to that, but I really do need to hear what the Prophet has to say, and in my defense, I just haven’t seen him.  There’s no pattern to his pacing.  He isn’t a strict adherent to everything like Sweater Guy.  He doesn’t walk slowly like Walter Brennan.  He doesn’t shuffle past the front window fifteen minutes before the library opens every day like Helmet Guy.  So I need to be patient. 

My patience is rewarded one morning near the end of June.  Jenny, being a teacher—we met at the middle school, creating quite the fuss among the students—has her summers free.  She and Jackson come to the shop some mornings and hang out with me.  If they didn’t, I wouldn’t see them.  Even as an adult I helped my dad out some over the summers, but when Jenny and I talked about having kids, this was supposed to be the time of year we took them on fun trips.  I wasn’t supposed to be tethered to the pizza oven.  Jackson is barely three, so it doesn’t seem to matter all that much at the moment, but still, the two of them aren’t supposed to be standing on Queen Street watching me sweep the sidewalk. 

That being said, I’m glad Jenny is here, because not only are we going to see the Prophet, he’s wearing my dad’s t-shirt.  Whatever he has going on with God, it seems intense.  More animated than normal. 

When he gets two or three buildings away, he stops, looks around, and spits into the street.

Jackson has been sitting pretty quietly against the wall playing on Jenny’s phone, but as the Prophet gets closer, and finally when he spits into the street, Jackson becomes restless.  Jenny has to pick him up. 

I’ve already put the tables out, so there isn’t a lot room on the sidewalk.  I position myself so the Prophet will have to stop, and wait for me to move out of his way.  I have him trapped.  When he stops, I say, “Hey, that’s my son on your shirt.”  I point at Jackson in Jenny’s arms, and then I point back at the Prophet’s shirt.  “See?  That’s him with my dad.” 

The Prophet looks from his shirt to my son, stands facing me straight on, and says, “How’s it going?”  I move aside.  As he disappears around the corner, I smile the biggest smile I’ve smiled in weeks.  Months maybe.  Not only has the Prophet contacted me, he’s using my words.  He’s been listening.

“Tell me the man you’ve been waiting to hear from isn’t the Prophet,” Jenny says.  “Jesus Paul, I don’t want to be doing this next summer.  And if we’re going to have another baby.”  She stops speaking and leaves with Jackson.

But I know I’m on the right path, and after that morning, the Prophet walks by pretty much every day when I’m sweeping the sidewalk.  For the first week or so he looks at me and says, “How’s it going?”  By the end of July, Jenny seems to be back on board, and is bringing him his own cup of coffee.

By the end of August, when Jenny goes back to school and Jackson goes back to splitting his mornings between his grandmothers, and I’ve finally been given the wifely ultimatum to make a choice already, the Prophet has become my mascot, sitting on the steps watching me sweep.  He drinks his coffee, the two of us silently watching the cars go by, waiting.  In September he starts coming back in the late afternoon, and I start giving him a slice of pizza.

The regular customers, most of whom had been regular customers of my dad, ask, “Why do you let that guy in here?” If I could figure out how to make it not sound so crazy, I’d tell them this angry little man is my conduit to God.  That more than that, he is a pipeline to my dad.  Some of them recognize the Prophet is occasionally wearing my dad’s old shirts.  They say, “Hey, isn’t that you and your sister at Disney World?”  Or they say, “Didn’t your old man have a shirt like that?”  The recognition doesn’t lead to their understanding. 

The longer our relationship plays out, the less sure I am of the Prophet’s divinity.  Even with him stopping by twice a day, we never talk.  I have no idea what his name is.  No idea where he comes from.  No idea if he has people somewhere, or if he had them, and now doesn’t.  I have no idea how he became the man who sits in my dining room mumbling to himself in the late afternoon as I prepare for the dinner rush and the college kids who work part time closing up the shop at night.    

God has yet to get back to me, but to my way of thinking, God moves at His own pace.  When you created time and space, three months is nothing.  Four months is a blink.  Five months is a yawn.  Six months is a sneeze.

I know this horrible waiting is my test.  I’ve gone from eagerly anticipating the Prophet’s arrival, to barely tolerating his presence.  I try to keep him from bothering the other, actual paying customers.  Thankfully he doesn’t interact with them anymore than he does with me.  But still, he smells bad, and it seems most of his conversations with God are peppered with curses.  Like God is trying to convince him to sacrifice his son, and the Prophet doesn’t want to. 

Most days I think I’ll kick him out before I complete my test.  I’ll admit the sign was nothing more than a fluke of circumstance.  That it took hold because I didn’t want to give up my dad.  Because I wasn’t brave enough to sell off the business I’d known since I was a boy and go back to my life.  Most days I think I’ll banish the Prophet from the shop.  But then I think, it’s almost Christmas, and wouldn’t that be the perfect time for God to finally answer me.  So not only do I let the Prophet stay, I give him another slice of pizza. 

Thank you, he says, and goes back to arguing with God.  I’m pretty sure they’re fighting about me, and I like to think the Prophet has my back.  It’s nice to think all those slices pizza count for something.


Paul Ewing's stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Allegheny Review, Word Riot, Pennsylvania English, and Umbrella Factory Magazine. You can find his book here.