Traffic in the small Mississippi town evaporated as worker bees all headed to their professional hives. The bells in the steeple on St. Saint’s church rang nine times. Rush-hour was over. It was a gray Monday morning as another workweek began.
On the corner of Main and Lucky Streets sat a small restaurant. Lucky Street Diner was now nearly deserted, with empty dishes and plates providing the only clues of the hectic morning breakfast rush. A tall, lanky, middle-aged man named Nick busily bused the tables, preparing them for the upcoming lunch crowd. The restaurant business was like that. There were moments of sheer terror with long spans of boredom. Nick carefully wiped each tabletop. His mind was on his work, but he heart was somewhere else.
Nick hadn’t always been a busboy. The Great Recession had crushed his dreams as easily as a bus would an aluminum can. He had been downsized and then downtrodden. Now he was just down. But he was thankful for work. Jimmy Dukakis, the owner of the diner, had graciously hired him nearly a year ago. Nick knew that work in any form was both a blessing and an opportunity. But still…
Nick wasn’t Catholic, but he couldn’t help but believe that he was in some kind of career purgatory. As he wiped toast crumbs into his hand, he wondered how he would ever get out.
Jimmy hobbled out of the kitchen and walked over to his busboy. “I’M GOING TO THE BANK!” Jimmy was mostly deaf from his Army service in Vietnam. A Viet Cong shell had gone off too close to his head in 1968, puncturing an ear drum and leaving him with annoying ringing sound. ”WATCH THE SHOP! I’LL BE BACK IN A MINUTE!”
Nick yelled back, “OK!” The two men did this drill every Monday morning. Nick watched Jimmy hobble to the bank as he carried the dirty dishes back to the kitchen.
A light rain began to fall, making the gray morning seem even bleaker. Jimmy watched a homeless man walk past the diner– it was all about perspective he thought. At least he had a job. But he knew he wasn’t living his dreams. He just knew he was wasting his life.
The warm suds and water washed scraps of food into the sink. He placed each dish carefully into the washer and slight felt a sense of satisfaction. At least he could see the fruits of his efforts. He looked at the pile of plates and began to attack it one fork at a time.
RING RING RING. The small bell over the door tinkled. Nick knew it wasn’t Jimmy. Jimmy never made a quiet entrance anywhere.
” ‘ello?” a voice called out. It was Frank, the longtime town Sheriff. ” ‘ello? What does it take for a cop to get a donut?”
Nick burst through the doors and said, “Good morning Frank! All you have to do is ask. And you did. Would you like your usual?”
“Am I that easy to read?”
In the past year, Frank had come in every morning Nick had worked. And every time he came in, he ordered one cup of coffee and one glazed donut.”
“What is it about you cops and donuts?”
Frank reached for his gun. “Watch it boy.”
Both laughed. Frank was one of the good guys. He had kept the small Mississippi town practically crime free for nearly 20 years.
Nick served the donut and filled the sheriff’s cup. ”Frank, I can tell by your accent you aren’t from Mississippi. Where did you come from and why in the heck did you end up here?”
Frank took a big bit and washed it down with his morning caffeine fix. He looked up Nick and said, “I served here when I was with the FBI. I liked it back then. I knew I’d like it now.”
“You served in the Federal Bureau of Investigation?” Nick asked incredulously.
“Why does that surprise you?” Frank asked with mock indignation. “My god-like physice throw you off?” He laughed at himself. That was something Frank was good at.
While he was jolly and kind, Frank O’Mara could really knock heads when the time came to it. Criminals knew it and usually took the by-pass around town. His reputation was that widespread.
Nick wiped the counter off and asked, “Tell, me, who was the worst criminal you’ve ever encountered?”
Frank paused for a moment, put his big finger on his lips and said, “Easy. I remember the case of the three thieves. They were by far the most sinister criminals ever.”
Nick was completely engrossed now. ”Tell me more about them.”
Nick took another drink of coffee and said, “Only if you refresh my cup.”
After the cup was filled back up the brim, Frank began to talk. ”I encountered them early in my career. I was fresh out of the FBI Academy and was, frankly, a pretty big screw up. I didn’t take anything seriously and was wasting my talents. My supervisor had no faith in me and would assign me to small, meaningless cases. My career was dead in its tracks. I was one more mess up from being thrown out of the Bureau. I’m surprised I didn’t end up writing parking tickets in Nome, Alaska.”
Nick couldn’t believe Frank was ever a screw up. “You’re kidding me.”
“Oh no. I lacked focus. I procrastinated. I wasted the gift that I had been given. I was wasting my life.”
Nick was slightly confused. “Then were you assigned to a case where you encountered these three thieves? What where their names.”
The Sheriff continued, “One night, I was in a warehouse on the docks of Brooklyn, and was ambushed by some boys from the mob. I had not been paying attention and they snuck up on me. I took four gunshots. The last thing I remembered was the searing pain as the bullets tore through my flesh.”
“Was it the three thieves?” Nick asked excitedly.
“I woke up a week later in the hospital. I nearly had bled out — in fact at one point, I saw the ‘light.” It was so peaceful. While I was there, my great grandfather approached me. He had been a soldier in the Civil War and later a New York City cop. He put his arm out and took my hand. And then without his mouth moving, he began to speak.”
“What did he say, Frank?” By now, Nick was completely engrossed in the story.
The Sheriff said, “Beware of the three thieves.”
“No.” Nick said. “So who were they?”
“Coulda, Woulda, and Shoulda.”
“What?” Nick pulled away from the counter slightly confused.
The Sheriff continued. “My great grandfather continued, Beware of the three thieves Coulda, Shoulda and Woulda. I coulda done that. I shoulda done that. I woulda done that.”
Nick was really confused now. “OK, you’re losing me. How are they thieves.”
The Sheriff smiled. “My great grandfather continued, ‘Don’t allow your inaction be a thief. Don’t allow your procrastination steal your dreams. Take action. Use your gifts daily and often. Life is precious. You have much work to do on Earth. Arrest and prosecute Coulda, Shoulda and Woulda. Incarcerate the three thieves and make the most of your life. Have no regrets.”
Nick said, “What happened next?”
“I woke up. Both literally and figuratively.” Frank said. “I opened my eyes and got to work. I became the servant who used all my talents. Everyone in the Bureau noticed the change in me. My promotions were rapid and my career became legendary. In 1985, I won the FBI’s Medal of Valor. The old me would have never been able to stop the gunman at the school like that. I took another bullet that day. Ended up seeing my great grandfather again. He put is arm around me and told me great job. I had finally put the three thieves away for good.”
Nick paused, “You nearly died twice?”
The Sheriff smiled, “If I hadn’t nearly died, I would have never learned how to live. Son, we’re made to take action. To work. To change things for the better. I know you are a fine busboy, but this isn’t where you belong. You have too much talent to be wasting it here with Jimmy. Now, I love Jimmy — except when he yells at me. But you need to start using you talent. NOW. Arrest Coulda, Woulda and Shoulda. Don’t allow the three thieves to steal your life from you.”
Nick looked at the old cop with tears in his eyes. ”Thank you.”
“No problem, boy. Now give me some more coffee. And while you’re at it, how about another donut. You know how we cops love donuts.”
Both men laughed as Jimmy walked back in the door. “WHAT’S SO FUNNY? DID I MISS SOMETHING.”
Nick got out of purgatory that day. And went on a lifelong pursuit of the three thieves. The Sheriff continued to live his dream. And Jimmy found him a new busboy.