Two hearty meals later, with some hard work in between, and a satisfaction of watching Mr. Patrick count out the greenbacks she had earned, Jesse was in a good mood. Her cynical nature had retreated within and her cautious good nature had opened its curtains, just a bit, to see if there was going to be sunshine. She was tired but not too sore. The daily fight to gain some ground had met its quota today. She rode quietly in the truck for the 25 minutes back into town, savoring the feeling of accomplishment. There was even the full plastic container of leftovers Mr. P had given her.
“Under no circumstance should you ever shove my horrible cooking into your pockets. It will reek to high heaven. Your clothes will ruin. I’ll get that plastic thing back from you tomorrow. Just one less thing I have to wash tonight.” He practically thanked her to take it.
Dropping her off at the designated pickup spot, she got out and walked around to his window. She reached in and shook his hand.
“Thanks for the job, and the food. I’ll be here tomorrow, ready to work.”
“That’s all I ask. It was nice to meet you, Jesse.”
She nodded and stepped back. His pickup chugging down the street determinedly, as he drove off. The money felt heavy in her pocket. After weeks of earning just dribs and drabs, she felt the wave relief that comes from having a fall back plan. She mentally started a list of things she needed to spend the funds on. The first thing on her list was a gas station. Moving to her car she shifted the container into her left hand to get her keys out. Second stop, would have to be the food outreach inside the Methodist Church cafeteria on Broad Street. Her wayward young pair would be getting a meal there and she wanted to add a little more to that single serving they were only able to offer thru the once weekly service.
“Where are we staying tonight, Jesse?” Emily asked with her mouth full of food.
“You’re not supposed to talk with your mouth full. Eat, swallow, and then ask.” She tried not to smile when Emily quickly chewed the food and swallowed. Her little nose crinkled as she chewed hard.
“Mrs. Downs said she heard Christian Halls was providing cots tonight. That’s near Martin Luther Academy. Danny went to school there once.”
Jesse shut her open jaw without reply. That was probably the first real piece of information she knew about the two children. Her brain was just a bit too tired to really grasp the concept and figure out what that meant but she stored it right away in the important-about children folder in her head.
“Maybe they got some extra blankets. It’s been real cold in the morning.” Emily offered, right before taking a huge bite of her bread with bacon mess. She seemed to be smearing apple butter on everything including her face and hands.
Jesse sighed and pulled out a clean but thin hanky from her back pocket. She dipped it in the cup of water that came with the meal and took Emily’s left hand in her own to clean it up.
“Did Mrs. Downs say when that shelter would be open? “ Jesse lifted the hand to wipe off the sleeve from underneath.
Danny shot out his wrist that held a beat up old watch and Jesse looked at it carefully.
“Eight?” She asked him. He pointed at the number 8 on the dial and smiling shook his head no.
Danny pointed to the nine and nodded quickly.
“Good job, Danny.”
The three of them got up from the table and move to the door. Stepping out into the cold night air was an eye opener. It was full on winter in Jesse’s mind, once she realized both kids had begun shivering.
“Let’s get in the car and drive over to Good Will. I bet they got some coats there waiting on us to find them.”
The kids jumped in the back seat with a little more energy than normal. After buckling up their seat belts, they high-fived with each other, anticipating getting the coats. Jesse smiled and just hoped they didn’t have to hit two or more stores before they found some warmer jackets. She worried they may not have something in Danny’s size. Emily would probably fit in something even a bit larger than she was. But, Danny was growing and his adolescent size was shared by too many.
Two bright winter coats later, both boy and girl were happy. They expressed it by smiling a lot since the adventure of shopping seemed to exhausted them from much of anything else. They tried on quite a few jackets and Jesse also found a spider man shirt and pajama pants that Danny could use. As well as, a warmer cotton pajama outfit that sported pink images of fairies on it for Emily. She was ecstatic after one look.
They blissfully wore their jackets during the one hour waiting in a line outside of Christian Halls a before the doors opened. They managed to get two cots together. Jesse was tremendous grateful she would not have to find an alternate sleeping arrangement. Christian Hall volunteers came thru the line and selected the children as priority. The two kids were much smaller than the cot issued and would share the space. When they checked into the hall, Jesse gave her and the children’s names, providing her last name for all three. The lady taking the information never even twitched. Her cynical side surfaced immediately as she realized people only see what they want to see. She delved into the premise that maybe it would be too much trouble to deal with if the truth of the matter. If the kids were not hers then social services would or should be involved. And how much hassle would that cause the shelter and the shelter volunteers, and possibly the social services people, and the foster program people. But ultimately she knew the accusations would never be spoken, because nobody in their right mind would actually care for children other than their own, right?
Tonight Danny and Emily were a little older than most of the others. Emily immediately made a few friends and after spending twenty minutes with a wash rag, a sample bar of soap, and a toothbrush, she changed into her new pajamas and quickly sat with two other little girls, giggling a lot. Danny also spent some time in the men’s room seemingly washing his face and hands. Jesse checked him over and wiped a smidge of toothpaste from the corner of his mouth. His eyes lit up as she handed him a comic book she had snagged from a stack of reading material the Church provided. In his new pajamas with spider man print, he sat on his bed flipping thru the pages, absently clicking a ball point pen open and closed. She had no idea where he found it but he seemed to be happy with it.
Jesse changed into a T-shirt and sweats. With a mistrusting glance around the now crowded room, she noted the little clicks that had begun to form. Over in one area was a prayer group murmuring their faith. Another area held women and some mothers still nursing. They all watched around the room to catch sight of various children as they talked in low tired tones to each other. Another area a group of five or six elderly folks were socializing like they were neighbors at a street block party. They rarely bitched and moaned having realized long ago that it was wasted energy. But, they had enough vigor to deal out a round of cards, or compare holey clothing, and maybe discuss the food from various soup kitchens or food pantries in and around the area. Jesse felt mostly compatible with this last group. Primarily, in the grand scheme of things, she was never a faith filled person in any religion, she didn’t really feel like a mother, and she felt helpless to change things happening around her but still had her health and a fairly solid attitude that life would keep coming. She couldn’t just drop out of it for a while and she couldn’t leave those two children to battle it alone. She would just keep going, she comprehended.
A nearby elderly woman found an outlet and plugged in a small transistor radio. The strains of classical music floated across the room into her twirling thoughts. The tinkling sound of a piano and a violin duet weaved back and forth in a deep discussion of dominance. The volume was lowered when the lights were dimmed around the room. Jesse found herself soothed by the musical piece. Her savage mental beast faded back into the dark recesses. Emily wandered over and climbed onto the cot, opposite to Danny’s sleeping end. They both pulled the large blanket up over themselves, end to end. Danny yawned and Emily traced one of the fairies on her pajama top. She was blinking slowly.
Jesse sat down on her cot next to them. She leaned over and brushed Dannys hair back.
“Nite.” He half whispered. Jesse smiled and kissed his forehead.
She leaned over Emily and kissed her forehead too.
Emily smiled the sweetest smile and whispered ‘nite Jesse’.
Jesse finally lay flat on her cot and stared up at the ceiling. It was the same situation every time. She never could fall asleep in a noise filled area. The crowded room held over thirty beds; full of people, who, although were beginning to settle, were none the less still talking, moving, and generally occupying her space. The dimmed lights were still lighting the room sufficiently to move around.
Jesse recalled the one time she was stuck in an airport for three days and how she felt like death warmed over from lack of sleep when she eventually returned home. Here she was stuck with the noises, unfamiliar smells, and scratchy bedding that made her wish she was still in her car. But the heat was cycling on and she knew tomorrow would be biting cold. Beginning some isometric exercises, she tightened one part of her body, then another. This was a poor attempt to get her mind to still its random thoughts, but it was going to be a battle.
Reaching down into her gym bag, a small wind up clock was perched on the edge of her bed. She definitely had somewhere to be in the morning.
“Yeah!” She whispered with satisfaction. The unusual feeling of the pull of a smile grace her features for the first time in a long while. She felt the heaviness of her limbs from the physical work she performed. Eventually, sleep would come. And, maybe it would be calm and inviting, instead of uneasy and restless.
SEND FEEDBACK TO JLNICKYMASTER@YAHOO.COM