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She was on her way out of the church before I could get a very good look at her, but what I could see was that she was thin, had a brown ponytail, and was about my age. Now, kids don't usually come to church in the middle of the afternoon on a school day they're too busy running around town trying to put together enough sins to make going to church on Sunday worthwhile. So her just being there was enough to make me do a double take, but it was her shoes that made me want to go up to her and say, "Hi!"
She was wearing high-tops. Like mine, only older. And I was about to chase after her, only just then Father Mayhew comes through the side door and says, "Samantha, I want to see you. Right now! In my office!" and I could tell from the way his voice was booming through the church that something was wrong.
I followed him, all right. Straight back to his office. And when he sits down behind his desk and stares at me, I stand in front of it and ask, "What happened? What's wrong?"
He swivels in his chair for a minute while his fingers push back and forth against each other. Then he takes a deep breath and says, "As I'm sure you know, we religious take a vow of poverty. The Church provides us with food and shelter and a modest living allowance, but by and large, we own very little. Very few things that I have do I consider to be mine. Do you understand this, Samantha?"
This priest sitting behind the desk may have looked like Father Mayhew, but he sure didn't sound like him. I just gulped and said, "Yes, sir."
He takes another deep breath like he's counting to ten. "One of my few earthly treasures is my papal cross." He's quiet for a long time, pushing his fingers up and down. Then he says, "It was given to me by my father when I was ordained. He has since passed on, and it can never be replaced." He looks straight at me. "Samantha, I implore you give it back. There'll be no repercussions just, please, return it."
Now I think I know what cross he's talking about. Whenever Father Mayhew gives a service, he wears this ivory cross on a knotted rope of ivory beads. It's not a plain cross or one with Jesus on it like you're used to seeing. It's got one big cross bar with two smaller ones above it like the top of a powerline pole. So I ask, "Your ivory cross?"
His fingers freeze. "Please, lass, give it back."
"But Father Mayhew, I didn't steal your cross!"
"Samantha, please. It's very important to me."
"I don't have it!"
"Really, I don't!"
He shoots out of his chair. "Well if you insist on denying it, then perhaps it'd be best if you spent your time with Sister Josephine over at the soup kitchen." He comes from behind his desk, and you can tell from the way he's moving that he wants me out of there.
I say, "But..." but he refuses to listen, and the next thing you know I've been thrown out of church.
I stand on the walkway, staring at St. Mary's front door, not quite believing what's just happened. Why did he think I'd stolen his cross? Just because I'd broken some rules at school didn't make me a thief! But I could tell that this new Father Mayhew was not someone to argue with, so after a few minutes of standing around fuming, I headed over to the soup kitchen.
The soup kitchen doesn't serve soup. Not that I've ever seen, anyway. It mostly serves sandwiches or just pre-packaged food. I'd never actually been inside the Soup Kitchen, but I'd watched people waiting for it to open or eating on the benches outside.
Some strange people hang out at the soup kitchen. It's next to the Salvation Army, and right between them is this grassy area where people spend the day passing cigarettes around, checking out bandannas on other guys' dogs, or rocking strollers back and forth, trying to keep their babies from crying.
And whenever I walk by, I wonder how the people got there. Do they have homes? Do they sleep in the bushes? What do they do when it rains? Grams calls them bums and usually I do, too, and the ones who hang out in the grass all day asking you for money when you walk by, well, I think they are.
But then I'll see a really old man standing in line and wonder how he wound up at the soup kitchen. Did he start out sharing cigarettes and checking out bandannas? Or did he go out for a walk one day and forget how to get home.
I've thought about following them to see where they go at night, but according to Marissa and Dot, half of them really do have homes and the other half camp out under the Stowell Road overpass.
Anyhow, there I am, knocking on the front door of the soup kitchen while all the bums in town are checking me out. Finally, someone opens the door and says, "We're not open for another half-hour."
Well, it's Brother Phil, and if you knew Brother Phil, you'd know why I had to stick my foot in the door. Phil is kind of, well, dense. He's got a round face and a round belly, and a very round head. A very dense round head. Normally, you don't think about a person's head, but with Brother Phil you can't help it. He's mostly bald, only I don't think he's quite admitted that to himself yet. He plasters what hair he has left from one side of his head clear over the top to the other side. And since Brother Phil's got such a round head, no matter what he does, there's always a patch where his scalp shines through like a flashlight in a bat cave.
Brother Phil's not the kind of guy you try to explain things to. He doesn't listen real well. He has his own ideas about things, and getting him to change his mind is like opening a gate that's swelled shut in the rain.
So before Brother Phil can slam the door in my face, I stick my high-top in and say, "Father Mayhew sent me over."
He says, "Fine, but we won't be serving for another half-hour," while he's pushing on the door trying to figure out why it won't close.
"Brother Phil, he sent me over to help, not to eat!"
He just stares at me. Then one of his eyes twitches a few times and he asks, "You're here to help?"
I let myself in. "That's right."
Sitting at a table in the kitchen are Sister Josephine and Sister Mary Margaret, and they're hovering over a map. Sister Josephine looks up and then scrambles out of her chair. "What are you doing here?" she asks, like I've caught her having a swig of holy water.
Before I can answer, she turns to Brother Phil and says, "What's going on?"
"Mayhew sent her over. To help, I guess."
I just stand there like an idiot, wishing I was back scrubbing purple glass, when Sister Mary Margaret stands up and says, "Well that's wonderful! We can always use an extra hand." She points to the map and says, "Sister and I were just planning our vacation "
Brother Phil cuts in, saying, "I don't know why you have to plan it out. You go to Las Vegas every year. And you take the bus!"
Sister Josephine picks up her cane, kind of cocking it in case Brother Phil gets even farther out of line. "Last year, if you recall, the bus broke down and we had to wait five hours in the middle of the desert for someone to repair it. If we'd had a map, maybe we could've done something about it."
Brother Phil shakes his head. "Like what?"
Sister Mary Margaret shrugs and says, "Who knows, Philip...maybe hitchhike."
So I'm trying to picture the two of them on the side of the road with their thumbs out, when Mary Margaret folds the map up real neat and says, "Regardless, it's our little adventure and we're enjoying it." She turns to me. "What's your name again, dear?"
"Sammy. Sammy Keyes."
She smiles. "That's right. You come Sundays with your grandmother, don't you?"
I give her a little nod.
"Not every Sunday, though."
Well, that's a little unnerving, let me tell you. I mean lots of people go to St. Mary's on Sundays. How could she possibly notice if I'm not there?
Her eyes give me a quick reprimand. Then she smiles and says, "So, have you ever worked in a relief kitchen before?"
"It's not hard. You'll find most of the people are very nice. If any of them give you a lick of trouble, just point them out to one of us and we'll take care of it." She checks her watch and says, "It looks like we'd better set up. It's almost time."
So we wash up, and then Brother Phil starts hauling trays of sandwiches out of the refrigerator while the Sisters bring out cartons of punch and milk. When the food's all set up, Mary Margaret says, "Each person gets one sandwich, two cookies, a bag of chips, and something to drink. If they have children, insist on the milk."
Sister Josephine says, "And if they ask for more, tell them no. We're not here to feed their dogs, no matter what some of them think!" Then she says to Phil, "Let 'em in," and disappears.
The way the Soup Kitchen is set up to serve people is, there's a ramp to the door where they come in, there's a table where they pick up their plate of food, and there's a door with an EXIT sign where they go out.
When Brother Phil opens the door, the first person to come in is a woman pushing a baby in a stroller. I say, "Hi," to her and she mumbles, "Bueno." I put together a plate for her with an extra milk and say, "There you go," but she doesn't even look at me. She just takes the food and leaves.
I tried being friendly to the next couple of people who came in, but it seemed to make them uncomfortable, so I just started handing out food, asking, "Punch or milk?" and trying to keep the line moving. And before you know it I'm on autopilot, thinking about Father Mayhew and his cross, and what I can do to convince him that I didn't steal it.
Then this man with tattoos shows up. He's got blue snakes wrapping up his arms and clear around his neck, and he points to the sandwiches and says, "Let me have another."
I say, "Sorry. We're only supposed to give out one apiece," so he reaches over and takes one, then shows me all his rotten teeth like, Oh yeah? Well come and get it!
Phil yells, "Hey! Put it back!" but the guy just snarls, then spits on the floor and leaves.
That wound Brother Phil up, all right. I thought he was going to spring his little round body right over the food table and chase after him, but what he did instead was sputter around in circles for a minute, then holler, "Move back, move back! Quit crowding!" to the people coming in the door.
After that, I quit brooding about Father Mayhew and started paying more attention to what I was doing. And when this man comes through pushing a stroller with a blanket draped over it and whispers, "I'd like some food for my kid, too," something about it didn't seem quite right. Before I could stop myself, I'd reached over and pulled the blanket back. And what do I see? A jacket stuffed with clothes.
He yanks the blanket back and says, "Keep your hands off my stuff, you nosy brat!" Then he tries to cover up by saying, "I got a kid he's just asleep outside."
I say, "Right," and try to help the next person. But he doesn't leave. He stands there and says, "Hand it over!"
Out of nowhere pops Sister Mary Margaret. She says, "Young man, the police station is two blocks away. If I hear another peep out of you, I'm going to pick up the phone and call. I suggest you take your sandwich and enjoy what's left of the sunshine."
He looks at her like a puppy that's nipped his own tail, and then hurries out the door.
So there I am, passing out food, thinking about what's just happened, when all of a sudden I'm standing face to face with this girl. She's my size and her hair's back in a ponytail, just like mine, and she's not there with her mom or dad she's all by herself. And I'm standing there, holding out a plate to her, not quite wanting to let go of it when it hits me that she's the girl I saw at St. Mary's.
I look under the table and, sure enough, she's wearing high-tops. I smile at her and say, "Hi!" but all she does is look at me kind of suspiciously. Then she takes the food and leaves.
Now you have to understand it's not every day I say hi to someone like I want to be friends with them. I mean, I've got Marissa and Dot, and other than that I don't need any friends. People I know with lots of friends don't seem to have any real friends. It's like doubling the recipe when you've only got half the sugar you wind up with a lot of cupcakes, but they're not very sweet.
But there I was, being friendly to a perfect stranger, wishing she'd come back so I could talk to her and find out some important stuff like her name and where she gets her high-tops.
And what in the world she's doing, getting her dinner at the soup kitchen.