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A Story You Wouldn't Believe

Willie sat on a week's old newspaper on the corner of Michigan and Adams, across from the Art Institute in downtown Chicago. It was a high traffic area, with rush hour in the mornings and afternoons, and a steady stream of shoppers along Michigan Ave and tourists going in and out of the museum. His seniority on the streets, almost 30 years, earned him this prime piece of real estate, and he wasn't going to squander the opportunity. With some creativity and a little luck, Willie knew he could bring in a decent haul.

He placed a large McDonalds cup he found in a trash bin at his feet, and leaned against a light pole.

"Good mornin,' Chicago," he started, as people walked by him from both directions. "Have a blessed day."

His clothes, which were a size too big, were the last pants and shirt in the bin at the shelter where he had been staying. He didn't mind the loose fit, it was when the clothes were too tight that he had a problem. 

"Do you know what today is?" he asked to no one in particular.

"What's today?" a curious woman with greying hair responded.

Seeing he had her, he sat back, and smiled, "it's my birthday!"

It wasn't his birthday, but one thing he learned early on was that if people thought it was his birthday they were much friendlier, and in turn, more generous. It was his favorite story out of all of them because there was something hardwired in humanity to treat people a little better on their birthdays. Technically, it could have been Willie's birthday, he never knew his actual birthday, because he was abandoned by his mother when he was an infant, and none of his many foster parents had bothered to track the information down.

"Happy birthday..." the woman obliged. She felt around in her pocket for coins, trying to find the least valuable ones.

"You know what I really want for my birthday?" Willie asked.

She braced herself, figuring he was going to want a few dollars from her purse.

"For more kindness in the world."

This was worse than if he had asked for money. The woman, now on the hook, squirmed, trying to monetize kindness.

"Oh what the hell," she opened her wallet and pulled out a $5 dollar bill and dropped it in the cup.

"You have made this world a much kinder place. For that I am truly grateful."

"You're welcome. Have a happy birthday!"

After the woman left, Willie put on a cheap pair of sunglasses he found on the train on the way in.

"Can someone tell me the time? Anyone? What time do you have, sir?"

"Who, me?" A man in skinny jeans and a Wilco T-shirt stopped, looked at his Apple watch, then said, "quarter till."

"Quarter till, what?"

The man looked at his wrist again. "Ten."

"Is it ten, already? I'm gonna be late."

"Late for what?" the young man found himself asking.

"Late for my date with Beyoncé!" Willie laughed, revealing a few missing teeth. "You know what, I'm going to make her wait for me this time."

The young man smiled, then pulled a handful of change out of his pocket and emptied it into the cup.

"Sorry, this is all I got."

"Just remember, smiles don't cost you anything, but they can make a huge difference in someone's day."

"I will, thanks."

Willie stood himself up for the next one. His knees cracked, and his butt was numb from sitting on the unforgiving sidewalk all morning.

"Does anyone want to hear a story you wouldn't believe? Boy, do I have a story to tell. Not any story, mind you. A whopper of a story. You, ma'am, would you like to hear my story? Sir, how about you? Does anyone want to hear a story?"

He went on like this for a few minutes until a tourist couple holding bags from luxury stores on Michigan Avenue took the bait.

"What's your story?" they asked him.

Willie looked the couple up and down, then thought for a moment.

"There was this couple from out of town. Where are you from?"

"Dayton, Ohio."

"What a coincidence! That's where this couple was from. Well, they had a good life, no they had a great life. They had a house, cars, and kids. Do you have any kids?"

"Yes, two," the woman said.

"This couple had two kids as well. But things weren't as perfect as they let on. Stress from work creeped in. The business and busyness of everyday life took a toll."

Willie could tell his story was landing so he kept going.

"They decided to take a trip to Chicago, to get away, and let loose a little bit. They went shopping and bought a lot of things." Willie looked down at their bags again. "A whole lot of things. But you know what they found after buying all those things?"

"What?" they both answered at the same time.

"They still felt empty. You know why?"

They shook their heads.

"Because its people that are important, not things. It's human connections with people that brings life the most fulfillment. You know what happened to that couple?"

"No, please tell us," the woman replied with tears welling up in her eyes.

"They learned the lesson. They returned home changed. They paid more attention to people, to their kids, and to each other. And my favorite part of the story is, they lived happily ever after."

The couple exchanged a look, then the man reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty.

"That story was about us, wasn't it?" he asked.

"I can neither confirm nor deny it," Willie said, with his hands up in the air.

The man put the bill in the cup. "Best $20 I spent all day."

"My man."

The couple walked down the street arm in arm, their shopping bags dangling at their side.

Willie repeated his stories throughout the day with varying results. Some people gave money and some people gave smiles or ignored him completely. The birthday bit was the most effective, but Willie liked switching things up, otherwise he got bored.

At the end of the day, when the cup was full and Willie's body was sore and achy, he left his spot and made his way back to the shelter.

A police officer Willie knew by name asked him how he did.

"My best day yet," Willie answered, as he always did.

Willie saw a woman sitting on the street with a sign that read, "I'm having a bad day," and a cup, only hers was not even half full.

"When's your birthday, darling?" he asked.

"Willie, you know it ain't until September."

"Well, here's an early birthday present." He pulled out a $5 bill from his cup and put it in hers. 

"You're too kind, Willie."

"No such thing."

Willie used a couple dollars to catch the train. A homeless teen was sleeping across two seats. He removed the $20 bill the Dayton couple gave him and slipped it in the boy's pocket.

Willie got off the train and walked four blocks to the street the shelter was on. He heard some footsteps behind him. Willie turned and said, "does anyone want to hear a story?"

Three men jumped Willie from behind. One hit him with a baseball bat in the back of the head, while the others punched him and kicked him as he lay defenseless on the ground. Willie covered his head with his hands, leaving his ribs exposed. He felt one of his ribs crack.

"Brothers, please stop," was all he could utter. They stopped, grabbed his money and ran off.

Willie laid there for a couple hours without moving, the pain was unbearable. A few cars passed by, but no one stopped, thinking he was strung out on drugs and needing to sleep it off.

Eventually, Willie crawled down the sidewalk to the shelter, his head and hands bleeding badly. The staff helped him inside and bandaged his wounds.

After a few days of bedrest, Willie was back on Michigan and Adams, sitting on an old newspaper with a different fast food cup at his feet.

"Do you know what today is?" he asked the first person that passed by.

"No, what?" a tourist asked.

"It's my birthday.”

Shawn Casselberry sees the world through stories. He's written fiction and nonfiction books, including a recent novel "The Hemingway Bible" and "Strange Fire," a collection of dark fiction stories. This story is from his forthcoming short story collection called "The Image of God." Additionally, he's the co-founder/editor for Story Sanctum and lives in the Chicagoland area dreaming up new worlds. You can check out more of his writing at:

Image created by Krin Van Tatenhove via Midjourney.

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