Soup's On

Wanda E. Fleming writes about secrets, dilemmas and sudden changes of fortune.
Wanda E. Fleming writes about secrets, dilemmas and sudden changes of fortune. (Lily Gasperetti)
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By by Wanda E. Fleming
Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Spies always make the worst soup," Darryl mutters. "You're obviously a spy."

Until now, I've been the shelter's helium balloon. I've floated above it all, a yellow smiley face stamped on a Mylar disc. Now I stand accused of espionage and, worse, lousy soup-making. I drift to the floor.

No other volunteer experience has prepared me for this one, not the Earth Day cleanups or candy striping at the children's hospital or the food bank distribution of cornflakes and diapers. All three ventures unfolded the same way: the assisted bubbling over with thanks. This one's different.

I turn from the stove, where I've been ladling bowls of carrots, pasta and broth. It's days before Thanksgiving. Soon, an avalanche of donations will swallow the kitchen. Canned vegetables will stack every inch of floor. Dozens of perishable pies oozing fruit from their slightly damaged boxes will crowd counters. We'll scurry to decide what to do with frozen turkeys dumped on our doorstep minutes before dinner. But for now, I pass off watery soup and day-old baguettes as lunch.

I start to explain to Darryl that a crate of fresh carrots arrived last night. That's why they're firm not soft, but he is unconvinced. "Look, Miss, they ain't firm; they're hard. Typical CIA."

I don't intend to react, but I do. I chuckle. Then a smirk seeps across my face. I, the "spy" of the badly cooked carrots, am thinking, "Look, buddy, you're the hungry one; be grateful."

My accuser is not just homeless, he's a veteran, which evokes indulgence for his moods and paranoia. Sometimes, he's lucid bordering on bookish. Other times, he's cranky and incoherent. Like most of the 20 men who line up for lunch, Darryl appears older than he is. Lines hug his mouth as though decades ago he laughed at everything, even bad jokes, but now he's paused to regret.

He stares at us, the five Saturday servers -- the volunteers. It's as though he has our number, and any minute now he'll say, "I know why I'm here, but why are you?"

He empties his bowl of the uneaten carrot chunks, then heads to the bathroom, a room that always smells of slapdash cleaning and the pine tree deodorizers hung in gypsy cabs. When Darryl rushes out, he nods without words, his trademark goodbye. The bar of soap has disappeared, as have the paper towels, the brown industrial kind.

Fran, the elderly head volunteer, hustles to the bathroom after each man departs and sprays disinfectant to a mushroom cloud. Her voice wafts out with the fumes.

"See. That's why I never buy the good stuff," she shouts. "They always steal it!"

Fran barks at the men, whom we call "guests." As she sets the table and folds their napkins, she tells them where to sit. "Lose the profanity! Take just one roll!"

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