Feeding Strangers

The women and children we serve the first Monday of every month at the shelter…
She is about 4 years old and energetic. She has a pink ribbon for a belt which is not succeeding in holding up her jeans. She lets me hold her baby doll who I am told cries sometimes although Don’ya doesn’t know why. We play with the kids before we serve dinner at the homeless shelter. When Mackenzie asks Don’ya if she has a nickname, she says Stupid and Ugly. Mackenzie is shocked but says, ‘How about Pretty Princess instead?’ Don’ya likes it.

T’reau demands “more sugar” as I bring out another pitcher of lemonade to the table. It’s never sweet enough for him. He walks around with his cell phone, the one that is much nicer than mine, and aggravates the smaller kids as he passes them. Why are my expectations of him higher than they are of any other teenage boy? I’m not there to have any expectations. I’m there to serve him, whether he is grateful or not for his lemonade or that I am there to make it.

Her pallet is set up in the corner of the unheated church gym. She breathes better in there. With an unlit cigarette bouncing on her bottom lip, she tells me about the pancreatic condition that causes her pain if she eats beef or smokes; about her baby and toddler, who live with her sister;  about the dangers of having little children at the shelter. Her eyes are blue glass, and it seems that would see so clearly.

I’m walking from person to person with a stack of brown lunch bags taking lunch orders for the women who will work and the children who will go to school in the morning. I don’t always remember the regulars’ names since I’m only at this shelter once a month. Turkey, ham, salami, or peanut butter and jelly? I ask a woman about my age. So many choices in life. Is it hard salami or cotto? she asks. I think hard…as in salami. I doubt they’d buy hard, it’s probably cotto, she decides. I’ll have peanut butter and jelly. What’s your name? I ask, wishing I remembered. Vicki. How do you spell it? Does it matter? she asks. Not because there is a chance there is also a Vickywitha-y or a Vickiewithan-ie but because ‘DOES IT MATTER?’ Yes, it matters, I say.

Rhonda R.
High heels, long zebra-striped skirt, sparkling jewelry. Member of the Baptist church passing out donated clothes? I wonder. No, she is looking for a new sweater for herself. After dinner, she is under her covers on her pallet next to Sheila, who is missing most of her teeth, and she is still wearing her zebra skirt and jewelry. She looks like a former model. I write Rhonda R. on the brown paper lunch bag. She is too elegant to order two peanut and jelly sandwiches.

Brianna, 7
She has spent the last hour playing math games with my younger daughter Megan while we make brown bag turkey, ham, pb&j lunches for the next day. Hesitantly, she ventures through the force field that seems to keep the kitchen off limits to all but the volunteers. “Hugs!” she exclaims, embracing all of us in turn and giggling if we lift her up. My girls write “superstar” on her palms in black permanent marker and decorate her fingertips with stars. When we start to leave, Brianna says, “Why do you have to leave? Please don’t leave.” We’ll be back next month is all we can tell her. She hugs us again.
‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ she says, as she follows me up the stairs. I’m going to check if the people smoking outside need a lunch for tomorrow. Once I asked a woman if she wanted cheese on her sandwich. ‘CHEESE? I’m sick of cheese.’ Another began, ‘A Big Mac, fries…’ then patted my arm and laughed at the joke I am pretty sure she’s tried on the other volunteers. I like her joy. Debra is thanking me for all we do. I just happen to be the recipient of the thanks because I’m nearby. I don’t come every Monday like the other lady from my church. ‘You show me the real meaning of Christianity,’ she says. Despite me, she sees Christ.

Tiny Tyrell gently touches my dangle-y earring with a small finger while I tie his little high top gym shoe. The earring has a small ball on the end made of brown and blue clay like a little earth, which Tyrell decides will fit just right inside my ear. I listen to the questions his brown eyes ask—who are you and where do you go when I go to sleep on the church floor—as the world whispers in my ear.

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