Sunday, September 6, 2009

Peace of Advice

Jack finally tracked Beth down in the kitchens, her hair hidden beneath a hairnet, her hands clad in oversized plastic gloves, helping Hannah make cloverleaf rolls.

“Hey,” Jack said.

The girl looked up, eyes bright as she smiled. “Hey!”

“Have you been doing this all day?” he asked, looking at the tall rack of trays ready to go in the oven.

“Not all day. We made pies earlier. But now they say we’re going to need more rolls.”

“Well, Mrs. Clemmons says it’s time for a break,” Jack said. “And it’s about dinner time so…”

Beth looked over at Hannah, who waved her away with a plastic-gloved hand. “Go. Eat before you fall over. And don’t forget your pills.”

Her smile dimmed a little. She peeled off the gloves and apron, and once they reached the kitchen doors, she tugged off the hairnet.

Empty but for the students setting up tables, chairs, and setting places, the main hall seemed open and empty. The clattering of the work echoed from the tall ceiling, bouncing off the far corners of the room.

The first few people came in shortly after lunch. Mrs. Clemmons wouldn’t think to have them wait outside in the cold, and welcomed them in. Some took the offered remnants of the lunch deli trays, while others simply came in to sit in the warmth. Beth was amazed when several of the men and women appeared in the kitchens, hair up in nets, plastic aprons wrapped around worn clothing. One older man chopped vegetables with a steady, familiar motion. A woman in a coat with holes in the elbows worked at a pile of dough with a rolling pin.

“We take all the help we can get,” Mrs. Clemmons had said. “And some of our visitors are far too proud to just take a meal without giving something back.”

The sun long set, the main hall was full to bursting. Nearly every seat was taken. People lined the walls, plates in hand. Jack and Beth joined the line along the far wall.

On the stage behind them, a group of a dozen carolers from the high school could barely be heard above the dull roar of hundreds enjoying a hot meal and the company.

The other students and adults serving kept the line moving, and it didn’t take as long as Beth would have thought to get through the line, plate laden with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, vegetables.

They made their way along the wall to two open seats along the back corner. They sat across from a grizzled old man who glanced up as they sat, nodded, then went back to his plate.

Charlotte came by just then, pushing a cart laden with cups and pitchers. She placed two large cups in front of them, filled with something clear and fizzy. Then she put another cup in front of Beth, and filled it with water.

She did it all wordlessly, winked at Jack, and moved on to the next row of tables.

Beth’s shoulders slumped as Jack pulled a plastic pill bottle from his pocket. It was labeled “PM.” He twisted the lid off, and held the bottle out to Beth, who only reluctantly put out her hand. Jack tapped the first pill into it.

“I don’t like these. They make me all jumpy.”

“You’ve been jumpy all week. What’s a few more hours?” Jack tapped the next pill into her hand after she washed the first down.

“This one gives me a headache.”

“Don’t worry. There’s a pain reliever in here, too, somewhere.”

Beth narrowed her eyes at Jack as he grinned, and washed down the next pill. And the next. And the ones after that.

“I don’t need that one,” Beth said, poking the long yellow pill. “I feel just fine.”

“Mom put it in the bottle, so you take it.”

“Like pulling teeth, isn’t it, my boy?” the old man asked, from across the table.

Jack nodded. The old man smiled.

“Reminds me of when I would go round and round with the wife, trying to get her to take her medicines. That was probably more years ago then you’ve even been alive. Young lady? A word of advice?”

Beth looked up at the man, and he settled faded gray eyes on hers, leaning forward slightly.

“If you won’t take them for yourself, then take them for him.” The old man pointed his fork at Jack. “Sometimes the best medicine is putting the minds of the ones you love at ease.”

“The— we’re not….” Beth stammered, blushing.

“He wouldn’t be feeding you that pharmacy if he didn’t care,” the old man said.

Beth glanced over at Jack, but he had his eyes carefully on his plate, concentrating on cutting a slice of turkey.

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