The Man of Goodwill
Ever since Ellie and I divorced last year, I spend Saturday mornings at Goodwill. I could afford most everything in there and I liked used stuff. I never bought new shoes. No need to. Used ones fit better, cost less, and forced styles I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen. All the furniture in my apartment came from there too, but I hadn’t found a good dresser until now. The one I spotted in the center of the cluttered showroom looked promising.
Ellie hated Goodwill. She’d rather pay three times as much for something shiny, even if it was poor quality. Didn’t matter to her — she’d throw it out in a year anyway, just like she’d done with me. I might not have had any money, but still had decent taste.
Time makes high-quality stuff better. Things with some age on them are weightier and solid, real instead of veneer. Ellie has a veneer. Shiny and pretty on the surface, but underneath lacking substance. That’s not the kind of thing that ages well. Will eventually peel up. I smiled. Her shine would wear off eventually; then everyone would see what was underneath.
But the dresser I spotted didn’t have a veneer. With a wine-colored finish and all nine drawers intact, it sat like a dignified piece among a pond of leaf-patterned sofas, flimsy tables, and dirty marshmallow-puff recliners. I tugged open each drawer with a creak, releasing musty smells earned by decades of service, mixed with the aroma of oil soap, but the middle drawer held tight. Locked? It was the only one with a keyhole. The thing didn’t have a price tag on it.
An older gentlemen in a blue vest ambled up to me. “How much for this piece?” I asked, rubbing the top with my hand.
“Too expensive for you,” he answered, his white mustache flaring. The blue vest hung over his slumped shoulders like a burden. His slouched frame stood in stark contrast to his smirk.
“I don’t see a price on it,” I argued. Ellie’s eye roll flashed across my mind and I could feel her despising me. Never could say the right thing with her, to her, for her.
The old man drew a scrap of paper from his pocket and unhinged the pencil from behind his ear. He scribbled a note. I expected him to write ‘SOLD’ and place it on the chest. To my surprise, he folded the note and handed it to me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
He gave a smile that reached his eyes. “This piece is too unique to go where you want to take it, but it’s strong enough to hold everything you bring to it.”
Something about the way he said it felt accusatory. I tried to hold my cool. Crazy people didn’t bother me, but arrogant people I despised. Still, wouldn’t look good for me to wallop an old fella on his head. Someone probably pulled him off the street years ago, helped him sober up, and gave him a job here. Didn’t want to mess that up. Too much drink or too many drugs can break some things in your brain, and this guy was obviously a cracked pot.
My mind drifted back to when I first met Ellie. Met her two decades ago at Mina’s — a bar on 5th. Both of us were drunk, but something pulled us together that night, and kept us tight for years. Until she changed. Wonder who wounded her? Both her parents were dead by the time we met. I had never once thought about what her life was like as a kid.
“You won’t have to worry about that. It’ll hold that too,” the old codger said. He slipped his pencil back behind his ear.
“The past.” He smoothed a wrinkled hand over the top of the dresser and patted the finish. “Strong wood. Solid. Won’t splinter. It’ll hold all that and more.”
“Oh yeah?” I played along.
“Yep. Just write down what you want it to hold on that paper and bring it in.”
“That’s all, eh?”
“That’s all. Just bring in the paper and I’ll lock it away.”
“Just that easy, huh?”
“That’s right,” he said, smiling.
I laughed aloud. This was getting ridiculous. Probably nobody cared about this guy enough to challenge him, but out of respect, I would. “Now why would I do that?”
He sniffed a laugh and patted me on the shoulder. “If you don’t know, then it’s useless to you.” He walked away.
“Crazy old man,” I muttered. He glanced back, shot me a look, and winked.
The week from Hell found my apartment. Think it saw me online, invited itself over, crawled into my bed, ate my eggs, and then came to work with me.
“Charlie, we’re letting you go,” the boss said. I looked at him for a moment. Wasn’t like him to joke, but it was funny since I was one of the best plumbers on the team. I laughed. He didn’t.
“Are you serious?”
“You’re a good worker, but we gotta cut back.”
“What the f — ”
“I’m sorry. Really am. Blame all those apps — Craig’s this, Angie’s that… whatever. Keeps people from hiring real plumbers.”
“So that’s it? You’re just firing me?”
“Wouldn’t mind hiring you back when the business comes back.”
“Screw this.” I shot up and shoved the chair against the wall.
“Come on, Charlie. Don’t leave like that. If you want me to call you up, show some respect. I got a business to run, ya know. Got plenty of folks that want to work who have good attitudes.”
I swung by the ABC on the way home and picked up a bottle of Popov. Resisted opening it up in the car but came home, poured a shot and listened to a voicemail from Ellie. Said she was sick and needed the kids to stay at my place this week. Her Facebook told a different story. She didn’t realize she’d never logged out of the computer. I saw every photo, every message. Another jaunt with her next boy toy. Looked like Florida. Maybe the Keys. With all the child support I was paying, could’ve been Cancun.
Last thing the kids wanted was to stay at my place for a week. Stevie was fine to ‘do his time’ and sleep on the sofa. At seventeen, he’d be done with school in less than a year and never look back. But Ainsley was a different story. Sleeping on my bed while I took the air mattress in the living room was a personal offense to her. Disgusting, nasty, or loser, coupled with a string of expletives, were always the first things out of her mouth when she came over. I couldn’t blame her, since I let her mom squeeze every last cent out of me through the divorce. Glad all that child support went to pay for phones, earrings, xboxes, and Juuls.
“Pizza bites for dinner,” I announced to the two teenagers trapped in my apartment.
“Gross,” Ainsley said. Felt like more of a commentary on my inadequate attempts at fatherhood, rather than a criticism of dinner. Stevie didn’t care. It was doubtful my words penetrated his headphones, much less his ears.
“Fine. Fend for yourself. If you order something, you’re paying. I’m going for a walk around the lake.” She rolled her eyes, huffed, and slammed the bedroom door. I left.
The late gray afternoon pushed a shrill breeze up my shirtsleeves. I’d left my jacket inside, but no way I was walking back in there to get it. I learned a long time ago if you walk long enough, the cold eventually bothers other people and leaves you alone.
I shoved my hands in my jean pockets and felt something. I pulled out a crumbled note. It read:
Resentments will happen; it’s not all your fault.
But feelings can’t shrivel til seasoned with salt.
Revenge, you’ll lay down, and learn to forgive,
Then anger will die, and death you’ll outlive.
“Crazy old bastard,” I mumbled. I took a seat at a park bench, watched the geese scatter their droppings over the pre-winter grass, and contemplated the note. A chewed ink pen lay on the concrete pad. I snatched it up and started writing.
I resent her for being shallow. Was that a resentment? I wasn’t sure, but I let the rest flow.
I resent her for leaving me. For caring about money more than me. I resent her for taking the kids. I resent her for pretending to love me and not sticking with it…
On and on I went, some of the things I wrote I realized were more my fault than hers. But it wasn’t just her, it was my boss, my parents, my brother, the kids, even God.
I lost track of how long I’d been out there until it was almost too dark to see. The emotion wore off, the wind picked up, and I was getting chilled. I checked my watch. 8pm. Goodwill didn’t close til 9. I trotted back to the apartment and hopped in the car.
Pulled into the parking lot at 8:23pm and charged into the store. “Where’s the old man?” I blared at the woman behind the counter. She gave me a skeptical look before shrugging her shoulders. Peering past the recliners, I recognized his slumped frame draped with the blue vest.
“Sir!” I shouted, running toward him. “Excuse me, sir?” He turned around, and it occurred to me I didn’t know his name. He wasn’t wearing a nametag. “I’m sorry — I don’t remember your name.”
He smiled. “Because I didn’t tell you,” he said.
“My name’s Charlie.”
“Interesting. Not true of you.” He pulled on his mustache. “Not yet.”
“Do you know what it means?”
“Charlie means, free man.”
“Okay,” I said, glancing around the store. Was I really worried about what other people might think of me talking to this wacko? “And your name is?”
“Just call me the man of Goodwill.” I thought it best to not tell him that was second choice to ‘crazy old bastard’.
“You brought something to put in the dresser?” he asked. The piece was still there. No price tag. No purchase note.
I hesitated. Now that I was at the moment, a ball of shame welled up in my chest when I thought about how stupid all of this was. “I… I was hoping you could just let me buy that piece.”
“Already told you, you can’t afford it.”
“What the heck, man?” I scolded him. This was getting irritating. “Is this some kind of mind game or weird joke?” He waved a hand and turned around.
“Wait,” I said, “I’m sorry… I just read your note. Your poem.”
“Yes, um, sir.”
“And you wrote down something to store?”
“A few things, actually.”
He turned back to face me and held out an open hand. “Understand, anything you store in here will no longer be yours to carry. It won’t ever be used against you.”
I handed him the mangled paper full of resentments. He didn’t read it. He simply closed his fist around it, retrieved a key from his pocket, unlocked the middle drawer, and placed the crumpled paper inside before locking it again. He retrieved his pencil and a new scrap of paper, scribbled something on it and handed it to me.
“What if someone buys this piece? What if they see what I wrote?” I asked. “There’s some personal stuff on there.”
“I told you, it’s no longer yours to carry.” With that, he turned and left.
The next day, Ellie called. “I’m feeling better now,” she said. “The kids can come home.”
“Hang on.” I shouldered the phone, stumbled to the computer, and pulled up her Facebook. No trace of that guy. Pictures were gone.
“Must’ve been a loser,” I mumbled.
I cleared my throat. “Sorry, nothing. Just watching TV. What’d you say?”
“I said I’m better now. You can bring the kids back.” She paused. “I know you hate having them anyway.”
Half a dozen thoughts ran through my mind. How she lied, how she talked bad about me in front of them, violated our court agreement, and left me in poverty — painting me to look like the loser she claimed I was. “Look, I…” A fire sat on the back of my tongue, but something invisible held it. “I don’t hate having them. But I think they hate being here.” Too long a silence lingered on the other end of the line. “Ellie?” I heard a sniffle. “Ellie, what’s wrong?”
“Charlie, I can’t take care of them alone. I n…eed y…need your help.”
Walls crumbled under just an ounce of her humility. Some strange emotion grew in my gut — probably what hope feels like. Feels like fresh air after you’ve almost drowned. “How can I?” I said. Didn’t sound right, so I added, “…help?”
She sniffled again, then laughed, and for a moment I prepared myself for her mockery. It didn’t come.
“Maybe I should come over?”
“Maybe we should discuss over dinner instead?” I suggested. She agreed.
I didn’t have enough money to pay my bills when I had a job, much less now. Certainly not enough to take Ellie to a dinner she was used to. I scoured the house, looking for things to sell. Found some old airplane models, unused picture frames, an end table I was tired of, a corded phone, and some ratty blue jeans. I threw it all in the trunk and drove to Goodwill. Walked up to the counter with the heap in my arms. “I’d like to know how much I can get for all this,” I said.
“Excuse me?” the lady asked with a confused face. I looked around for the old man. No sight of him. “We don’t buy stuff. But you can donate it if you want. Every donation is tax deductible.”
“Right,” I said. “I knew that.”
Dinner with Ellie was like leaping naked into a hot spring on a cold winter day — terrifying and exhilarating all at once. She picked our old burger joint off of 2nd Avenue. Guess she was feeling nostalgic. She looked tired and worn, but in a lovely kind of way. Authenticity was attractive on her; not a look I’d really seen on her before.
She paid for dinner. I said I had it, but she snatched the check away from me. My money anyway, I thought, but didn’t say it. ‘Some things are for thinking and some things are for speaking,’ my old man used to say. Besides, it didn’t seem to fit with the whole resentment-forgiveness thing I was learning.
“You’ve paid more than your fair share,” she said. There was a kindness in her voice I’d never heard before. God, I wanted to scoop her up and take her to bed. Had to remember she wasn’t my wife anymore. Maybe never would be again. But there’s something compelling about a woman acknowledging how difficult your life is — not to mention when she owns the fact she’s been a part of that difficulty.
She apologized for some things I held against her and some I never knew. No mention of boyfriends, but “shutting you out” and “lies” pretty much covered it in my opinion.
“Thanks,” I said. She looked at the table and took a sip of her drink as if waiting for something. I wasn’t sure what. After a moment, she looked up.
“Is that it?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
She rolled her eyes, and a pit opened in my stomach. “God, Charlie! I come here, pay for dinner, and own my crap in front of you — and you just sit there?” Her voice was getting louder. I caught a couple of glances from nicer-dressed folks at the table across the aisle. “Unbelievable.” She snatched up her purse and shuttled out of the booth.
“Ellie, wait.” I chased her out. She finally stopped by the car. “I’m not sure what to say.”
“Figure it out, Charlie. It’s a two-way street ya know.” She slammed the car door and sped off.
Alarm buzzed at 6:30am and I slammed my fist on it. Still hadn’t changed it, even though I didn’t have anywhere to be. Tried going back to sleep, but no luck. Fitful dreams of what turns life might take with Ellie and dreams of the old man at Goodwill spying into my secrets kept me from rest. I turned over twice but crawled out of bed at 6:47.
A cockroach scurried off the kitchen table, fleeing from the crumbs of last night’s dessert. I opened the fridge. Out of eggs. Out of bread. Out of milk. I pulled out the leftover onion rings I’d brought home. Not bad cold. Reheated the coffee in the percolator.
The paper subscription had run out, and I’d had to cancel the sat dish, but a cell phone has all the news you’d want. If only it would show me real jobs instead of headhunters. Tried that Craig’s list thing but couldn’t find jobs on there. Needed something. Then an idea popped into my head. Dismissed it. Then it came back and wouldn't go away. Write down ‘need a job’ on the paper and put it in the dresser. Then I remembered Goodwill man’s note. Went and found my jeans — the only good pair — pulled it out of the pocket and read:
Some sins loom large, others ordinary.
But harms you have done are too big to carry.
Make restoration honest, not under-handed.
Forgiveness is asked, never demanded.
Halfway to the Goodwill I realized I hadn’t brushed my teeth. When I arrived the parking lot was empty. I pulled on the door, but it was locked. Opens at 9am, the sign said.
I went back to the car and waited. Nothing to do at home anyway. Then remembered I hadn’t written anything on the paper. Found a pencil in the glove box. The idea was so ridiculous I hadn’t thought to remember, but to desperate men come desperate measures. Never written out a list of bad things I’d done, but figured somebody knew most of them anyway.
‘Just write down what you want it to hold on that paper and bring it in,’ the old man had said. So I went on. Harms I’d done.
Called her names — never to her face — always behind her back, but twice in front of the kids. Went to one of those online dating sites before we were divorced. Flirted with the new secretary at work. More than that, dreamed about leaving Ellie for her and even planned to exchange numbers til she started dating that new kid.
My gut sank. God, I was just as bad as Ellie. Probably worse if I’d been as good looking or had as much opportunity. Continued listing things that had been buried in the dark. Mom and Dad, the kids, slacking on the job… On and on I went til I saw the cars stream into the lot and someone unlock the front door of the store. I dashed in.
Found the old man in his usual spot. “Back so soon?” he asked.
“Got another list. Maybe it just gave me courage, but my ex called and we had dinner. She even paid.”
“Sounds lovely,” he said.
“Didn’t end well.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Not your fault,” I said. He offered a kind smile. I held out the piece of paper. Then folded it in half so he wouldn’t see all the words, but then saw I’d written on the back too.
He must have noticed my surveying the room. “What are you afraid of?” he asked. “Don’t you remember the way it works?”
“Anything I store in there will no longer be mine. Can’t be used against me.”
“Won’t,” he corrected. I nodded in agreement. “But there’s one more thing.”
He paused and looked me over. “Since it won’t ever be used against you, you can’t use it against anyone else. Do you understand?”
“I don’t need to — ”
“Do you understand?” he clipped me off with a forceful voice.
“This note proves the first one true,” he said, snatching the piece of paper from my hand and locking it away in the dresser.
Got home and waited by the phone. Not sure what I was expecting. Maybe for my boss to call, or Ellie to call and apologize. Didn’t happen. I ended the night with three shots of Popov. At least remembered to turn the alarm off.
The next morning, my head felt like a brick. Tripped on the way to the toilet and nearly shattered my teeth on the floor. Got myself going, sat outside and smoked a cigarette. Tried to convince myself cigarettes were fine for breakfast. Heard that’s what everyone in Paris does.
I ran water through old percolator grounds and got a hot cup of brown water. Took one sip and then chucked the mug into the parking lot. Why hadn’t Ellie called? What was her deal? Who did she think she was, stringing me along like that — making me think we were getting back together, tell me all those things about it being her fault, to then just to yell at me and leave?
Then my brick head started working again. Ellie did her part. Owned her stuff. Was my turn now. The old man’s words rang in my ears. This note proves the first one true. Ellie probably already knew everything anyway. She was smart like that. What she didn’t know, she suspected. I picked up the phone and called her. Rang five times. Voicemail. Called again. Immediate voicemail. Was she ignoring me? Called a third time, but hung up before it rang.
I needed to clear my head. Walked down to the cafe and got a real cup of coffee. And some toast. And eggs. Then bacon. Then biscuits and gravy.
Came home and fell asleep. The world spun. What was I doing? Had I gone mad, lost my mind? Woke up at 2:11pm and sat on the bed trying to count the seconds of each minute in my head and match the changing numbers.
It started raining. I felt trapped, small, and confused. A soft little voice told me I was just afraid. It sounded like the old man. The voice was right. I was afraid. Got a piece of paper and started writing. Wrote all the fears I could think of.
Afraid of losing Ellie. Then I realized, had already lost her and survived. Afraid of people thinking I’m a loser. Realized that was already true, but still kept going. Afraid of being poor. Had done that one too and somehow survived. Afraid of mom and dad thinking I’m a failure. They’d known that longer than I had. Afraid of telling people the truth. That one got me. “Time to check that off.”
Picked up the phone and called my old boss. He took the call. “It’s me, Charlie.”
“Hey Charlie — I’m sorry but I don’t have any work right now.”
“It’s okay. Not why I’m calling.” Silence. “Just wanted to say, you were right to let me go. I was an ass when you told me I was fired. I’m sorry. Also, I wasn’t that great of a worker. You said I was, but you didn’t see some of the stuff I did. I flirted with that secretary. You know, the good-looking one? Also, took longer on jobs than I should. Talked to customers, helped them ‘understand plumbing’ when I really just needed to fix the issue and move on to the next one. Also, one time… no… two times said I was sick when I just wanted to stay home. And, there was another day where I — ”
“I get it, Charlie. Tell you what. There is a job over in Woodhill Estates. Haven’t given it to anyone yet, but it’s a reno job. It’s yours if you want it.” Didn’t know what to say. Stunned. “Charlie?”
“Yeah. Yes sir. I’ll take it. Thank you! I’ll swing by to get my gear.”
“That’ll be fine, Charlie. No punching in. Just keep track of your hours on site and we’ll bill the client at the end.”
“Yes sir.” Hung up phone. What just happened? Hired back? And Woodhill Estates? That neighborhood is extravagant.
On the way to the job, I called Ellie. 4pm. She answered. “Hello?”
“What do you want, Charlie?”
I tried to remember the list. “I called you a bi — ”
“Don’t say it,” she interrupted. “But keep going.”
“Not to your face, but twice in front of the kids. And once behind your back.”
“Also, I was pissed at you before the divorce was final. Flirted with a secretary at work. Also looked at an online dating site before we were divorced.”
More silence. Then sniffles.
“There’s more…” I went on, telling her everything I could. Got easier as I went along. My chest felt lighter. My face was hot.
After finishing up the job for the day, made more calls on the way home: Mom and dad, both kids, and even called my brother. Apologizing made me miss him.
I grabbed a burger on the way home. I’d slept earlier that day, but was exhausted. That night, I slept better than I had in my entire life.
The next morning, I took my paper full of fears to the store, and let the old man lock it away.
Six months later, got an idea. I couldn’t wait to see what the old man would do. Life had changed for the better. I had changed for the better. Decided I was going to keep going. Wrote out a list of promises on a nice, big sheet of paper. Didn’t crumple it this time, folded it nicely and put in a sealed envelope. New job was going great. All the plumbing in the house needed to be replaced, so I’d made more money in three months than in the last year. Ellie and I were ‘courting’ as she called it. Not sure what that meant, but had a nice ring to it. Was seeing the kids three times a week, and they smiled at me. Even gave hugs.
I had made a big fat list of promises — would ask Ellie to marry me and be a better husband this time around. Would give a portion of every paycheck to the local shelter. Old man might like that one, since he probably came off the streets. Promised would take Stevie to a pro game and Ainsley to the Daddy Daughter Dance. Couldn’t wait to take the list of promises to the dresser. Realized there wasn’t any magic behind it, I’d worked hard and would keep working hard. I’d be able to keep any and all promises I’d made. I’d marry Ellie again and get back full time in the kids’ lives. Future felt bright for the first time in a long time.
I walked to the store, but the old man wasn’t there. Went back the next day, but still no sign of him. I asked the lady at the counter if she could tell me his schedule, but she didn’t seem to know who I was talking about. “The old man!” I shouted. “The guy that’s always in the furniture section. Says weird stuff. Has the key to that dresser?” Nothing seemed to ring a bell with her.
I went back three days in a row. Finally, on the third day, Sunday, he was back. I yanked the note from my pocket and began to unfold it, but he cusped his hands over mine. “No need for that,” he said. “Everything’s already been stored.”
“But what I have now is important. I have some promises to keep. Things I want to do.”
“Yes,” he answered, calm as could be. “But those can’t go in the dresser. No room for that.”
“Thought it could hold anything?”
“It can,” he sniffed a laugh. “But those things don’t go in, they only come out.” Had no idea what he meant, but I knew I couldn’t argue with the crazy old man.
“But what if I mess up in the future?”
“You most certainly will,” he said with a smile. “But that’s the beauty of it. You see, you don’t have to write down every single thing. You may think you wrote down everything, but you didn’t even come close. You can’t. It’d be impossible for you to remember everything. Some, you’re not even aware of. You just needed to be desperate enough to do it.”
We locked eyes, and for a moment, time stood still. Then, he took off his vest and put it on me, brushing an invisible strand of dust off my shoulder. “Looks good on you,” he said. “Yes, fits you nicely.”
“What are you doing?” I asked. I noticed the vest wasn’t an official employee vest. Had he made it?
“You said you wanted the piece,” he answered. “Now you can afford it.”
“Told you, it would cost you everything. All your resentments. All your sins. And all your fears.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It has taken everything you had. So now, its all been paid for.” The man looked strangely different. Somehow stronger — younger maybe, or renewed. “Now, it’s your turn to do for someone else what’s been done for you.” He turned to walk away, but I grabbed his arm. It felt firm, and it alarmed me. Felt like I’d just crossed some sacred line.
“Wait,” I said. “Please. You never told me your name. I can’t let you go without knowing your name.”
“Same as yours,” he answered. “Didn’t even need to change the name tag.” I glanced down at it. Freeman. Suddenly my fingers clasped together, and I looked up. The old man had vanished. I glanced around the store. No one seemed to notice his disappearance.
Shoppers milled about, looking for things to fill whatever gaps brought them in. I spotted a young man smoothing his hand over the dresser. I pulled the vest taut over my shoulders, straightened the name tag, and walked toward him.
“How much for this piece?” he asked.
“This piece?” I said with a smile. “You can’t afford it…”
That’s the day I became the man I was meant to be: The man of goodwill.
Mr. Taylor spends his days cultivating children, herding cats, loving an amazing woman, and leading a recovery ministry in the Upstate of South Carolina. He enjoys writing poetry, fantasy, sci-fi, and other short fiction. You can find him on goodreads and @itsjimnotjames on Twitter. If you enjoyed this story, perhaps you should join his Monthly Reader’s Club and read all his stories free.