“Peaches, sir?” I ask, holding a slotted metal spoon over the vat of canned fruit.
He doesn’t talk, just nods a quick yes. The plastic tray shakes in his hand. I spoon the fruit into a square partition, careful not to drip the juice onto the chicken breast and green beans. We make eye contact only once, his grey-blue eyes piercing mine before they dart away. A ragged brown blanket is stuffed under one arm.
The boys and I are serving dinner at Matt Talbot, the local kitchen and outreach center in town. Rowan is responsible for dispensing small packets of sour cream for the baked potatoes placed in the corners of their trays. He offers one packet, but is allowed to hand out two if the people ask for more.
Noah stands at the end of the stainless-steel counter, plastic gloves wrinkled and baggy on his small hands. He places one cookie on each tray, encouraging the little kids to point to which sweet looks best. The pre-schoolers hoist themselves up by their elbows on the counter, leaning in for a better look. They always choose the cookies with the purple and green frosting.
Noah looks to me when the teenager in the neon pink sweatshirt requests two. I shake my head no, murmuring an apology. The line is long, wending past the gas fireplace to the back of the large room. These last few nights the temperature has plummeted below freezing, and the same is expected tonight. The teenager pauses for a second, holding my gaze with narrowed eyes. She’s angry, I can tell, and I feel guilty.
When everyone’s been served many come through the line again. They are handed a different plate, smaller, to distinguish that they’re on seconds. The man with the brown blanket and the skittering blue eyes sits alone at the end of a long table nearest the food. He comes through the line three times until finally he is the only one left in the dining room, still hunched over his plastic plate, the blanket draped over his shoulders. I watch him as I dip my sponge into the bucket of disinfectant and glide it over the gleaming countertop. I bring a pan to the dish washer in the back room, and when I return to the serving area, the man is gone.
The parking lot is dark and the street deserted as the boys and I pile into the mini-van. I crank the heat and make the right turn onto 27th Street, accelerating toward home. And that’s when I see him once more. The brown blanket is pulled tight around his body as he walks into the darkness.