The Church of Chance Encounter

by Richard Kempa

In a park in downtown San Francisco, a boy is standing on a milk crate. Around him, the city swirls: buses belching exhaust, taxis jolting and shrilling, businessmen and women powerwalking, bicycle couriers threading their mad weave. From his heels to his shoulders he stands perfectly straight. Black pants and a purple T-shirt droop from his skinny frame. His head, however, is bent sharply down. He’s peering at a heavy hardbound book that he cradles with his left hand to his waist. Lisa and I have come here to eat lunch, and the only bench not being used is right in front of him. Bummer, I think, but he doesn’t seem to notice our arrival. His eyes are following his forefinger upon the page as he works to shape his mouth around each word. Twenty feet away, we have to strain to hear him:

“You must gather… all the wealth… in the public square… and set fire to… the town and all… its goods…”

He might be fifteen, sixteen at most, we decide. But his reading level’s half his age. We wonder why he’s not in school.

“Think of how tired he must get, standing here like that,” Lisa whispers, and I chuckle.

“Serves him right. He ought to be doing this in his living room.”

“Maybe this is his living room,” she says.

On the bench to his right, a huddled shape begins to move, flip-flops, becomes a body with a face, a flash of teeth and two small wells of white. They’re empty at first, then slowly come to life as they focus on the boy.

“You must eat… nothing that is… detes—… detestable. These are the… animals you may… eat: ox…”

The man sits up, leans forward, plants his palms on the torn knees of his jeans.

“Gazelle… roebuck…”

“Hey kid. Yo. Hey you,” the man rasps. He coughs and spits.

The boy eyes him, loses his place, gropes with his finger to find it. “Ibex… antelope… oryx…”

“Listen here, kid. You tellin me I can eat a roebuck? What the hell’s a roebuck? You talkin about Sears Roebuck?”

Lisa lets out a shriek, then claps her hand over her mouth. The man looks over our way and grins; he struggles to his feet, swaggers over to the boy.

We can hear the boy’s breaths between words. A syllable catches in his throat; his voice comes back half an octave higher: “You may eat any… animal that has a… divided and… clo- cloven hoof.” The man grabs hold of his elbow.

“What you readin, kid?”

“Deuteronomy,” he squeaks.

“Deuteronomy!” The man yells. He looks over to us, but we’re pretending not to notice now, we’re examining our lunch. “Why you readin Deuteronomy?”

“It’s just where I am. I’m reading the whole thing.”

The man pulls him closer and says into his face, “You talkin about food. I ain’t got nothing to eat. You got anything for me to eat?”

He shakes his head, “Uh-uh.” But then a thought comes to him: “You know the Bible says…”

The man shakes the kid by the elbow until he topples off the crate. “The Bible says you gotta feed me.” He’s yelling now. “The book in your hand says feed me.”

“All right,” the boy says. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” He pulls a crumpled bus transfer from his pants, uses it as a bookmark and places the book on the crate. Then he kneels before a plastic sack, takes out a bruised banana and a lumpy sandwich, and lays them next to the book.

“Aw, come on, no,” the man says. “You know I can’t eat that. That’s… detestable.” He looks our way and grins. I’m grinning too, I can’t help it. The kid is staring sadly at his lunch.

“Tell you what.” The man is leaning into him again. “Just give me a dollar. Give me a buck and I’ll give you something too.”

A smile like a sunrise breaks across the boy’s face. He’s figured something out. “That’s a good idea! I’ll give you more than a dollar, and you don’t have to give me anything.” He digs a wadded bill out of one pocket, a couple of coins and a bill from another, hands them over.

“Whoa. That’s cool, that’s enough,” the man says.

“No wait, I got some more somewhere.”

“Here kid, here, take this.” The man opens his palm on a skinny little joint. “It’ll help you read. Go on, take it, I gotta go.” The boy picks up the joint and sniffs it, looks at the back of the man hustling away.

“No, wait! Hey wait!” Now it’s the man’s turn to stop. “Wait. You got a match?”

The man throws back his head and laughs. “Yeah, why not? Right here in the plaza. Safest place in the city.” He comes back, fires up the joint and they get smoking, they smoke it down to nothing and the man starts moving off again, but again the kid calls out:

“Wait. I want to thank you. I want to hug you.” He runs up and, standing on his toes, throws his arms around the other’s neck. The man rolls his eyes towards us and grimaces. (We’re smiling now.) But when the boy doesn’t let go, when he lays his head on the other’s shoulder, the man gives in, folds his arms around him, closes his own eyes, and for a long moment they are like this before he says “OK kid, OK,” eases him away, and leaves.

Alone now, the boy wanders over to the crate, picks up the book. It opens, and a gust of wind sweeps the transfer to the sky. He watches it. Then he lets the book slap shut and puts it down. His eyes come to rest on us. Suddenly, he points a finger at us and in a fierce and joyous voice, yells out, “You, sitting over there. You have seen all this. Now do you believe?”

Lisa groans. “Holy shit. Now we’re in for it.”

But I leap up, point right back at him and shout, “Yes I do. I do believe!”

The boy throws his head back, lifts both of his arms skyward and with a look of pure bliss, cries out over and over, “Thank you! Thank you!”

Lisa is gaping at me; either I’m joking or I’m crazy, she’s thinking, but I’m neither. There are things I believe: That this boy here with his eyes closed, his pockets empty and his bus transfer gone is better off than he was before, for he has both given and received. That the man who visited him was not just an addict and a thief but an angel too, who did good work here. But most of all and more than ever I believe in the Church of the Chance Encounter, its services held always and everywhere, in the hallways, the town squares, the bathrooms, the elevators, wherever the arcs that describe our lives cross paths. We become each other’s ministers, we find and lose ourselves, intimate strangers making peace together.