A story for the men and women who have served with me in the soup kitchen. A tribute to Dave.
Ethel parked her car behind the church in a small, poorly kept lot littered with the homeless. They stared at her unapologetically with their jaws hanging open and their eyes sagging. As she locked her car she could only hope that the dirty vagrants wouldn’t wander too close. The old woman shouldered her purse and held it tightly in her grip as she waddled slowly to the basement door. In her youth, Ethel used to be able to descend stairs fearlessly and with grace, but these days she had to clutch clumsily onto the cement walls for support.
From the outside, the church was an ostentatious arrangement of columns, domes, stained-glass windows and bell towers painted a holy white. Inside, however, Ethel made her way through a dingy maze of halls to the kitchen. She wrapped an apron around her Sunday best and looked out to the dimly lit dining hall. Someone was messing around on the piano, and a clumsy tune resembling “heart and soul” pounded noisily through her hearing aids. She sighed.
Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.
Ethel took her place at a serving station and silently prepared herself for the hordes of dirty men and women to soon be let into the church. They filtered in, one by one, and she forced smiles as they took cookies and plates of blueberry pie. Some nodded to her eagerly as she handed them food, while others scowled and hissed because they preferred cherry pie to blueberry. Ethel watched in disgust as one man swirled a finger, blackened from dirt, in his stew, while another used his silverware to clean out his nails.
Finally the tuneless piano ceased to clang and the pastor stood on a little platform to gather everyone’s attention. The ceiling was so low, his head nearly touched the florescent lights that showered him with a divine glow. “I would like to invite you all now to pray with me and celebrate God’s abounding grace.” Ethel watched the homeless pause and slowly turn their heads or cast their gazes to their half-eaten meals. “Let us bless this food and join together in prayer.”
Ethel closed her eyes and bowed her head, folding her hands over her serving knife. She wasn’t listening to the pastor’s slow, lyrical voice, but to her own inner plea that the demons might be cast from the people around her. However her prayer was immediately interrupted by a loud “Ma’am?”
Ethel’s head snapped up. “We’re praying,” she wanted to hiss, but instead asked in a hushed voice, “Would you like a cookie?”
The man standing in front of her was tall and gaunt, with long, stringy brown hair. He looked nervously from the tray of cookies to the blueberry pie. He wiped a dirty hand on his stained t-shirt. All he had on his plate was a mound of mashed potatoes. “Um,” he said thoughtfully. “No mam. Those look too hard. Are they hard?”
Ethel put down her serving knife and held up a cookie in her wrinkly, gloved hands. “They’re sugar cookies. Nice and soft,” she offered. The corners of her lips twitched from the effort of holding a smile. A long line had accumulated behind him.
“Oh, no. I think I’ll just take the pie, mam. See, I can’t eat anything too hard ‘cause my teeth are all sore.” He reached up and lifted a lip to reveal bright red gums, blackened teeth and holes where a few were missing. “See?”
“Oh,” was all that Ethel could bring herself to say. The pastor said “Amen.”
“Are these blackberry?” the man asked, pointing his finger a little too close to the pie for Ethel’s comfort.
“Blueberry,” she answered.
“Okay, mam. Blueberry’s fine. Is it okay if I take two?” The man already had one plate tucked at his elbow and was reaching for another. “I have a real sweet tooth.”
“That’s fine.” Ethel was already looking past the long-haired man to the next person in line. She hoped he would simply move on.
“Thanks,” he said as he was about to leave, and then seemed to think better of it. “This is a real kindness, mam. I really ‘preciate you coming here early before church an’ everything. You’re a real nice lady. That right?” He looked to the person behind him who nodded. The man nodded his head in turn so that his long, greasy hair swayed into his mashed potatoes. He grinned an ugly smile and walked off.
As Ethel began to dish out more plates of pie, she heard the crash of shattering ceramic. Ethel reached for her heart and looked out to see the tall, long-haired man crouched on the floor, blueberry pie spilled everywhere. The other homeless people looked on with solemn stares. The long-haired man had set the rest of his food on a table and began to scoop up his mess with his hands. “Oh shit,” he said sadly, hands purpled with blueberry filling. “I’ve made such a mess.”
Ethel sighed in exasperation and shuffled out of the kitchen, leaving the other hungry people to wait to be served. She grabbed a couple of wet towels and shoved one into the homeless man’s hands. “Why don’t you clean up after yourself?” she asked. She wanted to make it sound like a suggestion, but instead it came out demanding. The man stared at his purple hands, his head bowed so low that his hair hung almost to his waist.
“I pray every day, mam, but aint nobody wants me, clean or not.”
Ethel was silent as she patted her own wet towel in her clean, gloved hands. She looked around the room to see a number of homeless people staring at her with forlorn and rejected faces. Ethel sighed.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Ethel helped wipe the man’s dirty hands before stooping to clean the blueberry pie.