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HeavenFresh Start
By Steve Uppendahl

I'm a very blessed person. I actually enjoy my job a great deal, even though most people wouldn't want it. I'm a waitress at Caffeine High, and no, I'm not an actress or director. I have no scripts to sell. I don't have an agent. I'm a waitress, period, and I love it.

Being happy with my job makes me a generally happy person. The reason for this is simple. I'm a people-person. I love to watch people and listen to them. I enjoy hearing their stories, their jokes; seeing first dates, business lunches, job interviews, and every other situation that walks through the door and sits at my tables. I've seen seven wedding proposals, countless break-ups, four women go into labor, and one child conceived in the ladies' room.

Despite all I've witnessed, I'm still surprised by the human race and what we are capable of. Case in point, our most recent bi-weekly staff meeting.

"Let's go, people. Find a seat quickly and quietly." Larry's baritone voice boomed through the tiny diner.

Not good. Larry only goes back to his teacher roots when there's seriously bad news. There were only two other occasions when Larry had spoken to us in such a manner. The first involved us finding out his wife, and Caffeeine High co-owner, Cybil, has breast cancer. The other was when a new employee was arrested for selling drugs behind our dumpster.

The long-term employees knew something was up and sat down immediately, nervously looking each other over. Larry looked terrible, even more so than normal. Larry is a large man, carrying at least 270 pounds with a thick, short build and long cheeks hanging below his jaw. But he's also a Godly man, with his heart on his sleeve. and his big brown eyes cry at least twice a week. We love him.

Larry covered his face with his left hand while he grasped the counter with his right. Cybil strode through the double doors from the kitchen and began to rub her husband's back. The gesture seemed to work. He wiped his face with his hand and looked at his alarmed staff.

"Unless business picks up, and I mean fast and heavy, we're going to have to shut the place down within the next two months."

Before we can properly expound our outrage and disbelief, Cybil cut in. She was wearing her custom blue-checked bandanna, pirate style, over her smooth head. Her voice was soft, but clear. "We know how you feel, even more so. This place is our baby. But we feel we have to be honest. We're saying that things are not going well, and honestly, they don't seem like they're going to improve."

Larry gained more composure, but his brown eyes remain wide and scared. "We're telling you this now in case you want to start looking for new jobs. We understand about bills and groceries and families. Please tell us if you need references, advice, anything." He bowed his head and spoke to the counter. "We are so sorry. For all of you."

We spent the rest of the week stunned, working in a fog. The joy of my job is muted, my head whirling, trying to figure out a way to help, to keep things the same. I prayed to God like never before. I speak with my priest, making prayer requests daily, and start buying a lottery ticket on the way home from work. I knew things were bleak, but I never allow myself to be consumed by darkness. It just isn't in me. Besides, God had never failed me.

Despite that knowledge and my faith, I'm human, and humans have doubts. My only true pleasure was our number one customer. Too bad he never pays us.

I saw him before he even crossed the street. I smiled and looked at my watch-9:02, right on time. Same camouflage jacket, stained jeans, and ragged old school Converse sneakers. Same smile and outlook on life. Johnny, coming for his daily "fresh start."

By the time I serve three local and loyal customers, Johnny had made it across the street and through our doors. It's easy to tell how many locals are in the establishment by their reaction to Johnny when he charges through the door.

"Mornin' all! I'm ready for my daily fresh, Katie."

"It's on the way, Johnny," I answered, pointing a thumb over my shoulder to Larry. Every single day for the past six years, Johnny D, a cute form of John Doe, comes in for coffee three times a day-nine A.M., one in the afternoon, and just before we close our doors at ten P.M.

Johnny smiled directly into the faces of those he didn't know and waited for them to react. Regardless of whether he's told to buzz off, asked 'Can I help you?' or simply given money, Johnny's response to these people is always the same. "Aren't you an interesting and wonderful specimen? Don't forget, God is watching and he's counting on you."

Johnny then gave a huge smile, two thumbs up, grabbed his coffee (no cream, three sugars) from the counter and pointed a hello to Larry.

It was during this time, when Johnny appeared to be reading his paper, that I finally asked him, "Johnny, what exactly is God counting on us to do?"

I could see his beaming smile reflected in the window in front of him. He turned to me and said, "To take advantage of what we have. To pay our debts. To make the most of our fresh starts. To help others, and to do all that for His will and not our own."

Johnny smiled up to his green eyes, tossed his stringy, blonde hair out of his face, and turned back to his comic page. In a moment, he started his other daily routine-reading us each and every frame, from each and every comic, with his patented snorting laugh.

Within ten minutes, even the most patient of patrons had left our establishment, shaking their heads and often glaring at Johnny, then at us for allowing him to be so disruptive. Only the regulars are able to tune him out and return to their own routines.

During Johnny's 10:15 bathroom break, our newest employee, Mark, asked the same question we all had within our first month on the job. Mark was a bit more direct than we were, but then again, now we all would have to start reading the classifieds for job openings.

"Why do you guys let him do that? Did it ever occur to you that he's killing our rush hour business every day? Maybe if you got rid of him, you wouldn't have to close this place. He doesn't even pay for anything."

Larry glanced at the clock, saw that he had four minutes until Johnny would come back for his third and last refill. Sighing, he gave his standard answer. "Johnny is still a child of God, just like you and me. He gives us the gift of laughter each day, and that is worth much more than a cup of coffee. Johnny also shows us what we could be, if we were so lucky."

Puzzled, Mark asked, "What? Insane?"

"Don't do that," Larry replied sternly. "Johnny is pure, honest, and hides nothing. He only wants good for people, no matter how they treat him. Again, being inspired like that is worth the cost of the coffee and paper. Understand?"

He doesn't, but lets it go because Johnny came back grinning from ear to ear. Then he made a stunning announcement.

"My time is done here, folks. I'll be movin' on. Larry, Cybil, Katie, Lacey, Skip, Mark, I want to thank you kindly for your constant hospitality and inspiration-as well as my fresh starts to my many days. Here's my first and last tip. Good luck to all of you."

Johnny stuffed an envelope in the tip jar and strutted out the door and across the street.

I was about to run after him, for no other reason than to ask why, when I was distracted by the sound of breath being sucked in, followed by a heavy thud.

Shockingly, Cybil had fainted. Even more shocking, Larry was struck silent. He kept moving his lips soundlessly, brown eyes bulging. As my fellow co-workers helped Cybil up, I picked up a fallen letter.

"Dear Friends,

As I said, I'm movin' on, and as you know I believe in settling my debts. You are now paid in full. Good luck and God bless. Thanks again for so many fresh starts.

Yours truly,

John E. Dougherty"

"I don't-"

Larry shoved a check in my hand. I felt my eyes widen.

"Come on, Larry. He doesn't have this kind of money. He's homeless. He's-"

A memory stirred. John E. Dougherty….

"Not the John Dougherty; the guy who won the lottery and donated it to charity?"

"Not all of it, apparently."

"So, he's giving us-"

"A fresh start."
Steve Uppendahl is a middle school English teacher and basketball coach. He has a wonderful wife, Trina, and two beautiful girls who are the light of his life. Steve writes as much as possible, mainly short stories, and is eternally grateful to FaithWriters. If you would like to write to Steve, you can do so through the Letters page of this magazine.