Eddie Kidney lived in a Jiffy John in downtown Buffalo. Kidney was not his real surname, of course, but it seemed to fit so that is what we called him. Besides, Eddie liked having a last name and smiled when anyone referred to him as Mr. Kidney.
Eddie’s girlfriend was called April, after the month she and Eddie met. They ate dinner together every night at the soup kitchen near Eddie’s Jiffy John. Eddie and April always arrived and departed separately, so it was unclear how far their romance had progressed, but their affection for each other was obvious. Eddie doted on April. He set her place before they sat down and returned their trays when they had finished eating. We even heard the occasional “please” and “thank you” pass between them, a foreign dialect at the Open Door Café, the soup kitchen where they met.
Jim Shea and I had watched the courtship between Eddie and April from the beginning. We did not actively encourage it because Open Door rules prohibited special relationships among patrons, at least on the premises. Jealousy led to fights. Still, we were rooting for them. We liked what Eddie and April meant to each other and felt they deserved a break in their otherwise untethered lives.
Lump was not a fan of the blossoming romance. He was a tall, thin black man with eyes like oiled olives and a permanent knot on his forehead that diverted attention from the scars on his chin. He ran the soup kitchen with the intensity of an angry nun, alert for any infraction and eager to dole out swift justice, usually a shove out the door. No banishment lasted more than a couple of hours; just long enough for the penitent to sober up and promise to do better. Sincerity was not mandatory. Getting a meal was. Lump kept a sharp eye on Eddie and April, alert for any surreptitious touching or whispering, and was unlikely to make exceptions based on sentimentality.
Jim and I spent three nights every week at the Open Door as part of our pastoral training. We were Catholic seminarians and our choice had been either to rub elbows with the mostly ex-cons and low rent prostitutes at the soup kitchen or to work at a local parish. We chose the Open Door because it was not associated with any religious group. Admittedly, our vocations were a little vague. Neither of us was a regular at daily mass and we doubted spending time with the Altar Society would clarify things. Trying to figure out what made Lump tick or how Eddie and April discovered tenderness in their hard world seemed more to the point.
The crowd at the Open Door usually hovered around a hundred regulars, depending on the weather. Buffalo winters drove the number up, warm summer nights thinned it out. The menu did not vary. It consisted of pasta covered in melted Velveeta along with canned peas or carrots and loaves of Wonder Bread. Quantity and predictability were more important than variety or nutrition. There was a “loaves and fishes” aspect to the nightly feeding that only cheap carbohydrates could manage. The vegetables just checked a box.
Thanksgiving dinner was the only exception to the Open Door’s fixed menu. Christmas had been an exception, too, but a suburban pastor wearing tasseled loafers ruined that privilege when he insisted on a long blessing before serving food that smelled appetizing rather than just ready. He started off on the wrong track by calling everyone brothers and sisters. The crowd erupted in hoots and jeers, “…that boy’s momma sure been busy,” and derailed altogether when the word “virgin” prompted several of the ladies to offer him Christmas discounts. The pastor left and did not return to collect his congregation’s serving dishes.
As the only surviving holiday at the Open Door, Thanksgiving drew a larger than usual crowd and the kitchen needed reinforcements. Fingers, his left hand had only three of them, normally produced enough gooey dinner for everyone without help. He was a former inmate and cook at the state penitentiary at Attica, New York, and had been hired by Lump as a favor he never explained to Shea or me. Thanksgiving was the only time Fingers was allowed to handle knives and finding volunteers to work with him was a challenge.
This year, Eddie jumped at the chance to get involved and arrived at the soup kitchen early. He was showered and shaved and wore clean clothes with no buttons missing. Nobody mentioned his transformation, but we assumed it had something to do with April. Their relationship was still going strong and next steps seemed inevitable. As Eddie disappeared into the basement, Shea and I listened for trouble but heard only the sounds normally associated with kitchen work, at least for now.
It was snowing when Lump unlocked the front door. A scrum of people plugged the entrance but eventually sorted themselves out and the common room quickly filled. The smell of unwashed bodies and damp, dirty wool discouraged holiday cheer, although there was considerably less friction in the air than usual. A football game played on the television caged to the wall and bags of potato chips circulated without provoking conflict. Dip was not allowed at the Open Door because last Thanksgiving, the chives were not what they appeared to be and Lump refused to lift the ban until the culprits were named.
April arrived about ten minutes after opening and mirrored Eddie’s makeover. She wore black jeans and a pink cardigan over a white shirt. Her hair, freed of the usual rubber bands, curved prettily around her face. The only obvious marks of the street were her hands, where split nails, raw knuckles and the shadow of permanent grime betrayed her hopeful disguise. Still, April was smiling and talkative when she walked through the door and asked if Eddie had already arrived.
Lump threw a quick scowl in April’s direction, but Shea met her with a broad smile and a cheery, “You bet! He’s downstairs with Fingers making something special!” April beamed in return. It was hard not to be either attracted to or repelled by Shea. He was a loud, Boston Irish former Coast Guard rescue swimmer who had added at least two hundred pounds to his five-feet-eight-inches since leaving the service and felt happily entitled to any space he occupied. The Open Door had immediately granted him its unguarded affection.
I took April’s question and Shea’s response as cues to monitor progress in the kitchen. The stairs were narrow and steep and turned sharply to the left. Another left at the bottom opened onto a cramped work area with a dripping sink and a scarred refrigerator. Plywood counters held boxes of donated food, including a dozen cooked turkeys from the fire station across the street. Fingers stood near the oven making Wonder Bread stuffing while Eddie peeled potatoes over a trash can. Two large pots were steaming on the stove.
“Everything okay?” I asked. It was an offensively useless question given the surroundings and I regretted it as soon as it was out. Fingers shrugged without turning to look at me and Eddie chirped, “Going great!” I grabbed a few more bags of potato chips and went back upstairs.
Thirty minutes later, the crowd was getting restless. The game on television was slow and nobody cared about the teams, anyway. Conversations got sharper and Lump had started patrolling the room, inserting himself where tempers flared. Shea was not fond of the basement stairs, nor they of him, and so asked me to do a time check. I nodded and headed toward the kitchen.
Rounding the corner into the work area, I saw Eddie standing on the counter, his fly open, urinating into the mashed potatoes heating on the stove. His face showed intense concentration, an incongruous effort to direct his aim precisely at its target without collateral splash. Fingers was encouraging Eddie, saying, “That’s it, that’s it.” I still am not sure what words came out of my mouth, but both Eddie and Fingers looked at me and smiled. Eddie said, “Fingers’ special recipe! He let me do it.” Fingers stirred the potatoes. “Be there in a minute,” was all he said.
I stared silently for a moment while Eddie put the finishing touches on the side dish and then turned for the stairs. I did not ask if there were other surprise ingredients in the food because the answer would not have mattered. We had at least one hundred hungry, agitated clients upstairs who were more comfortable expressing disappointment physically than verbally. They had been waiting for more than an hour since coming in out of the cold. I could not imagine what the next few minutes were going to be like. Worse, I could.
Lump took the news with surprising calm, except for a quiet, “Shit. Told Fingers to quit that.” Shea and I had been eating Fingers’ dinners three nights a week for more than two years. We looked at each other with growing revulsion. Lump saw our reaction and snapped, “Yeah, but you ain’t never got sick, neither. Bring it on up. We ain’t got time.”
Neither Shea nor I was prepared to argue with Lump, especially within earshot of an increasingly edgy crowd. I just said, “Man,” and walked to the stairs. Shea began setting up the serving tables and Lump moved to the center of the room and shouted for attention. It was a nightly ritual. Lump announced dinner was coming and established a no-nonsense order of service. The eldest clients went first, then the ladies, then the men. I never saw anyone test Lump’s system. He was not the biggest man in the room, but he was the law and apparently had proved it.
Fingers and Eddie had transferred the carved turkey, potatoes and overcooked vegetables onto foil serving trays. Still-wrapped loaves of Wonder Bread were lined up on the counter where Eddie had been standing a few minutes before. I said, “Let’s go,” and we began hauling Thanksgiving dinner up the stairs. Lump took up his station behind the serving tables to make sure nobody took more than their fair share and let out a loud, “Okay.” The crowd surged but Lump’s precedence held, with older men and women going first and the rest following in impressively disciplined order.
Eddie had found April near the back of the crowd and moved with her toward the food. Eddie seemed to do most of the talking while April smiled and occasionally nodded. They picked up their trays and moved down the food line. When they got to the potatoes, Eddie placed his hand on April’s and reached instead for the peas and carrots. April smiled again and I heard her say, “Thank you, Eddie.” It was not clear to me if he had told April about his special contribution, but it seemed likely.
Lump and Fingers were the last two in line and resumed a shrouded conversation as they scooped turkey and vegetables onto their trays and stepped to the potatoes. Lump went first. He sank the serving spoon deep into the starchy mass and heaved a mound onto his tray next to the turkey. Reaching for the gravy, Lump looked at Shea and me with a “so what?” expression on his face and waited for Fingers to fill his tray. They ate together in Lump’s cubicle.
April volunteered to help Eddie with the clean-up. She carried a tub filled with dirty utensils down the stairs and I followed with an armload of mostly empty trays. April placed her cargo on the counter near the sink where Fingers was washing pots and pans. She slid next to him and said, quietly, “Fuck you, asshole,” before turning back toward the stairs and smiling warmly at Eddie. He stopped filling a trash bag and smiled back with unabashed pleasure.
I went back upstairs and helped Shea put the serving tables and chairs away and then swept the room. Lump was at his desk bent over paperwork. He did not look up as Shea and I said good night but offered a solid, “Next time,” as we walked out the door. We got in the car, sat looking at each other for a moment, and exhaled simultaneously. Neither of us was inclined to try rationalizing what had gone on with April and Eddie or Lump and Fingers. “Strange” did not begin to cover it, but neither did simply “disgusting.” The only thing we knew for certain was that we would skip mass again tomorrow.
David M Robinson