“Step right up folks, step right up, and prepare to be amazed!” the pitchman called. “Got the depression? The Blues? Feeling dissatisfied with your life? Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, today is your lucky day, because I happen to possess a singularly amazing, extraordinarily remarkable cure.”
Intrigued, Sarah slowed and turned in the direction of the voice. People brushed past her in every direction, hurrying up and down the sidewalk to their destinations. All around her the busy city kept up its frenetic pace: traffic screeching past, car horns honking, anxious pedestrians scurrying to and fro. Night was falling and the neon lights of the shops that lined the busy street were flickering on, advertising their wares.
Sarah shifted her briefcase and scanned the street. The voice appeared to be emanating from a side alley a short distance away. As she headed that direction, mentally reminding herself to take her antidepressant when she got home, the pitchman continued.
“Yes Ladies and Gentlemen, your life can change this very night. This very instant! Who’s ready for a change? You, Sir, are you ready for a change?”
Sarah reached the alley and turned, heading down it. The alley was vastly different from the main street; it was cramped and poorly lit, lined with dumpsters and dark shadows, but up ahead was a brightly festooned tent, lit by two bright lamps mounted on tripods on either side. A short, squat, comical looking man dressed in a white suit and top hat, and holding a white cane, stood on a small platform under the tent. Behind him were a few display tables, stacked with dark brown bottles bearing the label Dr. Nostrum’s Miraculous Elixir.
A small throng of mostly disinterested looking people stood gathered around the tent, perhaps for the warmth of the small heater that sat on the stage, blowing toasty warm air into the chill of the night. Sarah involuntarily wrapped her coat a little more tightly around her.
“Ah,” the pitchman said, noticing her approach. “You, fine lady, step right up, come on over here.” Sarah froze in embarrassment. A few people in the crowd turned to stare at her.
“Don’t be shy,” the pitchman said, flashing her a smile. “What ails you tonight, fine lady? Whatever it is, I can fix it, just step right up.”
Sarah was mortified, but she was saved from further attention as the pitchman went on. “Yes, that’s right folks. My elixir can cure a remarkable assortment of medical ailments, even the psychological ones, that’s right. Who is depressed? Step right up and say good-bye to depression. Step right up.” The pitchman scanned the crowd eagerly.
“I got depression,” a man spoke up. “But I ain’t got no money.” A nervous laughter rippled its way through the crowd. Sarah, anonymous once again, edged a little closer, curious.
“For you, my fine brother,” the pitchman said, “a free sample, just step right on up here.” The crowd tittered. Sarah strained to see. She’d been seeing her psychologist for two years now, but she felt as hopeless and helpless as ever.
The man made his way to the stage as the pitchman droned on. A scantily clad girl appeared from the shadows of the stage, bearing a bottle of the elixir and a large spoon. She smiled and posed, hip thrust out, and held the bottle up for the crowd to see.
“Yes folks,” the pitchman said, “I have traveled the world, offering this elixir to thousands, millions even. And tonight, right this very moment, you are all about to see a miracle before your very eyes.” He paused and the girl beckoned to the man from the crowd. She handed him the spoon while she unscrewed the cap on the top of the elixir bottle and then poured. Sarah was practically holding her breath.
“It’s all a ruse,” a low voice said behind her.
Startled, Sarah turned. There, standing behind her, was a man of indiscernible age. He was shoddy and shabby, unshaven, clothing ragged, and he had a vague odor of stink about him. Long, gray hair stuck out wildly in every direction from underneath the slightly soiled baseball cap that adorned his head. But his eyes were the brightest, clearest, blue she’d ever seen.
“I beg your pardon?” she said.
“It’s a sham,” the shabby man said. “That sample bottle, it’s filled with the very finest high-grade bourbon, and probably laced with some cocaine too. The rest of them bottles got cheap, watered-down whiskey; and I mean very watered down. But after this man’s testimonial the pitchman will charge a high price for them.”
“I don’t understand,” Sarah said politely, struggling to pay attention to what was going on on stage.
“You want a real cure for your depression?” the shabby man asked.
Sarah sucked in her breath. “Who told you that?” she hissed. No one knew about her depression, or her seeing a psychologist. She hadn’t even told her husband, or her best friend, Nikki. She took a small step backwards, even though the shabby man in no way seemed threatening.
“My cure’s free,” the shabby man said, “and it’s real.”
Thinking of all the date-rape videos, most featuring tampered beverages, that she’d been forced to watch back in prep school, she said, “Look, I’m not going to take anything you’ve got. I’m not into drugs.” She backed up another step and tried to focus on what was going on on the stage.
“Tomorrow,” the shabby man said, “these folks will have a hangover, and they’ll have a few less dollars than they have right now. But you can help them.”
“Huh?” she said distractedly, rising on to her tiptoes to see over the vertically-blessed person who’d just stepped in front of her. “How could I possibly help them?” She’d meant it to be rhetorical, but he answered anyway.
“Bring them a meal,” the shabby man said.
“What?” Now Sarah was incredulous. There must be at least 50 people here; and she was just one person. The shabby man must be off his rocker. “How? When?” she asked, making a face.
“Whenever you’re ready,” the shabby man said, chewing idly on a piece of straw. He gestured to the gathered throng and said, “They’ll still be here.”
Shrugging, Sarah turned back toward the stage and the theatrics that were going on there. Then, an old verse from Sunday School popped into her mind, unbidden: Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. She gasped and whirled around, but the shabby man had melted into the shadows and was nowhere to be seen.
Over the next several days, Sarah couldn’t shake the conversation, nor the man’s strange injunction, from her mind. She finally confided to her best friend, Nikki, one day over lunch.
“Of course we can do it!” Nikki said enthusiastically, assuming that Sarah wanted her help. “I can bake, so I’ll do brownies for dessert. My friend Andre works over at Chez Francois, I’ll get him to donate some baguettes, they have to throw them out after 24 hours, so they’d just be going into the dumpster anyway.”
“Yes!” Sarah exclaimed, suddenly seeing the possibilities. We can get people to chip in for cold cuts and cheese, and I can ask Mr. Henneby for some apples from his orchard!”
Soon, they had a complete plan formed and Sarah spent every free minute soliciting for donations and help. Three days later, on a Saturday morning, her and Nikki were setting up their own tent in the very same alley. She was actually skipping an appointment with her psychologist to serve lunch to the homeless, and she had never felt better in her life.
People came and went, delivering the items they had pledged, and soon everything was ready to go. Sarah flipped over the sign her and Nikki had made, advertising the meal, and soon people began to filter by. Some were wary at first, wondering what the catch was. It broke Sarah’s heart to see so many people downtrodden and broken, expecting to be taken advantage of yet again just to get a bite to eat. But she smiled and encouraged them. She talked to them. And to her surprise, she really liked many of them.
After a while the crowd waned; most of the food was gone.
“Well,” we’d better start cleaning up,” Nikki said brightly, smiling at Sarah. “We had a good day!”
“Yes, we did,” Sarah said, smiling back. She hadn’t felt this free and hopeful in a long time. She began rolling up the paper table cloths that lined the serving tables, and then she carried the bundle of them over to a nearby dumpster. As she was throwing them in, a voice spoke behind her.
Sarah recognized that voice and turned excitedly. The shabby man was standing there, chewing on a piece of straw. Sarah flung her arms around him and hugged him excitedly.
“We did it!” she exclaimed. “This has been the best day ever! Thank you so much!”
He smiled at her as he hugged her back, his clear, blue eyes beaming. Just then, Sarah’s cell phone rang. She pulled it out and glanced at the caller ID – it was her psychologist. She quickly hit the button to dismiss the call, and then, shoving the phone back into her pocket, turned back to the shabby man.
“What can I do next?” she asked, smiling.
©2013 Savannah Antrobus