Angels Unawares

Extending kindness to strangers
. . . whoever they happen to be


By Jim Dodson

Mr. Pettigrew is about my age, maybe a little younger, his hair turning gray. His truck was old, his trailer older — so old the dumping mechanism was rusted shut. We had to unload the firewood by hand.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “I’ll stack it for you.”

I told him not to worry, I was happy to stack it myself. Up in Maine, after all, where I lived for many years, they say firewood heats you twice — once when you cut and stack it, again when you burn it. 

“You from Maine?” he asked

“Nope.  Just lived there for 20 years. I’m from here. How about you?”

“Surry County. I’ve got 30 acres up there, or used to.”

A large chocolate Lab hopped out of his truck and lumbered toward us.

“That’s Fred. I better put him back in the truck or else he might wander into the street. He’s about the last thing I got these days. Sure hate to lose him.”

My dog Mulligan charged toward Fred but soon both their tails were wagging. She’s a tough old lady and Fred was smart enough not to give her any guff.

The afternoon was a sharply cold one between Christmas and New Year’s. The kids had all gone back to their busy lives, and I was in my annual post-Christmas funk made deeper by a  psychic hangover from a year that only Ebenezer Scrooge could love, a humdinger of relentlessly bad news — killer floods and record hurricanes, devastating wildfires, mass shootings, rising seas,  melting icecaps, Russian meddling,  a world on the brink of nuclear war, a Congress divided against itself, a president who thinks he’s a game show host.

Being a rare fan of winter — too many years in Maine to blame — I wasn’t bothered that an Arctic deep freeze was on its way, just that I was out of decent firewood. Before Christmas I’d seen a hand-lettered sign advertising seasoned firewood by a small farmhouse out in the country, so I phoned. Sixty bucks a load sounded reasonable. He brought it that afternoon.

As we worked, I asked how Mr. Pettigrew’s Christmas had been.

He shrugged. “Not so good. But at least I’m alive.”

He explained that he’d recently been diagnosed with kidney disease and had nearly died from cirrhosis of the liver just one year ago. He faced further testing in the New Year. 

“This time last year I was in the hospital, sure I was about to die. So I signed over everything to my daughter,” he said. “I signed over everything I owned — even my land up in Surry County — because I wanted her to at least have something to remember me by.”

When he survived, she refused to transfer his property back to him. In fact, she evicted him from his own house.

“That’s a tough break,” I sympathized.  “What keeps you going?”

“One foot in front of the other,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve got a little disability to live off of and a place for Fred and me to stay. I’m able to do odd jobs and sell some wood off a piece of land I still own. I’m pretty grateful for that.”

After a pause, chucking a piece of wood on the pile, he added, “Better enjoy this life now, I reckon. Never know when it’ll just go.”

I simply nodded.

A week before Christmas my good friend Chris passed away while sitting on his front porch reading the morning paper on an uncommonly warm December morning. Chris was only 54. Dogs were his best friends, too.

Mr. Pettigrew looked about the same age as Chris.

“You retired?” he asked me, snapping me out of my sudden wintry thoughts.

“Nope. Just plain tired,” I joked, casually adding that I would turn 65 on the second day of February “if the Good Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise,” as both Johnny Cash and my late Grandmother Taylor liked to say.

“You don’t look anywhere near that old,” said Mr. Pettigrew.

“I don’t feel anywhere near that old,” I said. “Just certain parts do.”

Mr. Pettigrew laughed. It was a genuine laugh. I wondered if I could laugh like that if I had kidney disease and my daughter had taken everything I owned.

We finished up and he thanked me for buying his wood.

It was beautiful wood, well-seasoned red oak with some maple mixed in.

I gave Mr.Pettigrew an extra twenty, petted Fred on the head and wished them both well in 2018, marveling at his grace under fire. 

He gave me his card and said, “If you need an extra hand with anything, you know where to find me.”

I watched him drive off, grateful for having met Mr. Pettigrew.

The next afternoon, an even colder one, another pickup truck pulled up in front of the house.

An older man came to my door. His hair was white.

He was well-spoken and polite. “I’m hoping, sir, if you could possibly help me . . .”

Sometimes I wonder if the angels have a target on my back. When I was 9 and my brother 11, our father walked us through Lower Manhattan’s Bowery one freezing Saturday morning during a Christmas visit to see the homeless men sleeping on the frozen sidewalks. This was before homeless shelters were commonplace. My mother thought we’d just gone out for fresh bagels.

We saw men with blue legs huddled beneath newspapers and cardboard boxes on sidewalk grates — and wound up buying a couple dozen warm bagels and distributing them. My brother and I eventually took to calling our old man Opti the Mystic because souls in need always seemed to find him — and take something away from his cornball belief that a small act of kindness can make all the difference in someone’s life.

Since that day, either a curse or a blessing, probably a little of both, they seem to find me, too — people like Mr. Pettigrew and the gentleman at my door whose name I never asked.

Friends gently chide me for giving any homeless person who asks whatever I have in my pocket. There are places these lost souls can go, they say. The poor are always with us, the Good Book reminds. Besides, they’ll just drink or smoke up whatever you give them. Not to mention that this world is full of scam artists, hucksters and thieves.

Maybe they are right. But to this day, I’ve never regretted reaching into my pocket when someone has the courage to ask.

As Opti might say, perhaps what you do even in the smallest way for another living creature, human or otherwise, you actually do for yourself in a way that only the universe may bother to take note of. 

The man at my door, at any rate, had a painful story about losing his job in Washington, D.C., and driving down to stay with his son in Carolina, hoping to find a new job. He hadn’t called ahead and his son was out of town.

“The shelters are all full and I found a place that costs $60 a night. I’ve only got $20. Last night I had to sleep in my truck and the police told me not to do that again.”

He apologized and, turning away, began to cry. I’ve seen enough tears in this world to know they were as genuine as Mr. Pettigrew’s laugh. Both held notes of sorrow.

I gave him what I had in my pocket. It came to $41.

He accepted the money, wiped his eyes and offered me a weathered hand.

“Thank you, sir. When I get a job, I will repay you. That I promise.”

I told him that would not be necessary and asked him to wait a moment while I fetched another ten bucks from my loose change jar and gave him that, too. “Supper money,” I said, thinking of my late Papa — imagining him as one of those target-hunting angels standing beside me whispering Scripture in my ear. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some of us may entertain angels unaware.

“Just curious,” I said to the man at my door. “How’d you pick my house?”

He smiled. “I’m really not sure. Your house just looked like a kind house.”

My wife got home after dark. I had an excellent fire going and poured her a glass of wine.

She asked me how my day had gone. She always worries about my post-Christmas funk.

I told her the funk was gone. I was eager to face a new year with genuine optimism, in part because that I’d met a couple older gentlemen who helped remind me how grateful I am to be turning 65 with a good roof over my head and a little loose change in my jar. An early birthday gift to me, I joked.

“Who were they?”

“Have no idea. Just a couple elderly angels.”

The next day, the second gentleman returned with a big smile on his face.

“I just got a job at Lowe’s,” he declared. “I wanted to let you know. I will return that money.”

I congratulated him and said that would not be necessary, though I still forgot to ask his name.  OH

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at

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