Authors: Virgin (as Mary Elizabeth Murphy) (v2.1)
The Gothic, granite-block bulk of St. Joseph's
Church sits amid the brick tenements like a down-on-her-luck dowager who's held
on to her finer clothes from the old days but hasn't the will or the means to
keep them in good repair. Her twin spires are alternately caked black with city
grime and streaked white with the droppings of the pigeons who find perches on
the spires' remaining crockets. The colors of the large central rose window
over the double doors are barely discernible through the grime. She's flanked
on her left by the rectory and on her right by the Convent of the Blessed
From his room in the rectory Father Dan saw
the hungry homeless lining up next to the worn stone steps in front of St.
Joe's, waiting to get into the Loaves and Fishes for lunch. He dearly would
have loved to sit here and read the translation of the scroll Hal had given
him, but duty called.
He left the wooden box on his bed
and hurried down to the rectory basement. From there it was a quick trip
through the dank, narrow tunnel that ran beneath the alley between the church
and the rectory to the basement of St. Joe's. As he approached the door at the
far end, the smell of fresh bread and hot soup drew him forward.
The tunnel ended in the kitchen area of Loaves
and Fishes. He stepped inside. Heat thickened the air. All the ovens were
going—donated by a retired baker—heating loaves of Carrie's special bread:
multiple grains mixed with high-protein flour, enriched with eggs and gluten. A
meal in itself. Add a bowl of Carrie's soup and you had a feast.
Dan sniffed the air as he headed for the huge
stove and the cluster of aproned volunteers stirring the brimming pots.
"Smells great. What's the
soup du jour?"
"Split pea?" Dan said. "I
A slim brunette at the center of the cluster
turned and gave him a withering, scornful stare.
"Don't you be starting that again,"
she said, pointing a dripping spoon at him.
"Oh, that's right," he said. "I
forgot. This is a
The volunteers glanced over their shoulders
This argument had become a litany, recited
almost daily. "Hush up or we'll be making a beef stew of
Now they were laughing aloud.
The brunette tried to hold her scowl but finally a smile broke through and its
brilliance lit the room.
"Good morning, Sister," Dan said.
"Good morning, Father," she said.
Sister Carolyn Ferris fixed him a moment with
her wide, guileless blue eyes. Her normally pale cheeks were flushed from the
heat of the stove. The rising steam had curled her straight dark hair, cut in a
bob, into loose ringlets around her face. She was in her late twenties dressed
in the shapeless, oversized work shirt and baggy pants she favored when working
at the shelter. Her lips were on the thin side, and her teeth probably could
have done with a little orthodontic work in her teens, but she'd joined the
convent at fourteen so they remained
The way her smile lit up her face erased all memory of those minor
As often as he'd seen it, Dan never tired of
that smile. He'd enjoyed it in all its permutations, and sometimes he'd catch a
hint of sadness there, a deeply hidden hurt that clouded her eyes in unguarded
moments. But only for a moment.
Sister Carrie was the sun and the Lower East
Side her world; she shone on it daily.
But for all her gentle, giving girlish
exterior, she was tough inside. Especially when it came to her beliefs, whether
religious or dietary. No meat was served at the shelter—"We won't be
killing one of God's creatures to feed another, at least not as long as I'm in
the kitchen"-— which was just as well because the food dollars stretched
considerably further with the Sister Carrie menu.
And Dan, who'd always been pretty
much of a beer-and-a-burger man himself, had to admit that he'd got out of the
meat habit under her tutelage and no longer missed it. At least not too much.
"Sorry I'm late," he said.
"What needs to be done?"
"Our guests should be getting low on
bread by now."
She always called them "our guests,"
and Dan never failed to be charmed by it.
"Consider it done."
She smiled that smile and turned back to the
stove. Shaking off the lingering aftereffect, Dan gathered up half a dozen
loaves and carried them out to the shelter area.
A different mix of odors greeted him in the
Big Room. Split-pea and fresh-baked bread aromas layered the air, spiced with
the sting of cigarette smoke and the pungency of unwashed bodies swathed in
Dan squeezed past Hilda Larsen's doubly ample
middle-aged rump and dumped the loaves on one of the long tables lined up
against the inner wall as the serving area.
"Good afternoon, Father," she said,
smiling as she stirred the soup with her long, curved ladle.
"Hello, Hilda. You look ravishing as
"Oh, Father Dan," she said,
Thank God for volunteers like Hilda, Dan
thought as he picked up the bread knife and began cutting the loaves into
A small army of good-hearted folks donated
enough hours here at the shelter to qualify as part-time employees. Most of
them were women with working husbands and empty nests who'd transferred the
nurturing drive from their now grown and independent children to the habitué’s
of Loaves and Fishes. Dan realized that the kitchen filled a void in their
lives and that they probably got as much as they gave, but that didn't make him
any less appreciative. Loaves and Fishes would never have got off the ground
"Could youse hand me wunna dose,
Dan looked up. A thin, bearded man in his
forties with red-rimmed eyes and a withered right arm held a bowl of soup in
his good hand. His breath stank of cheap wine.
"Sure thing, Lefty."
Dan perched a good thick slice on the edge of
"Tanks a lot, Fadda. Yer a prince."
Looked as if Lefty had got into the Mad Dog
early today. Dan watched him weave toward one of the tables, praying he
wouldn't drop the bowl. He didn't.
"Hey, Pilot," said the next man in
Rider in his suede jacket. At least it had
been suede in the sixties; now the small sections visible through the decades
of accumulated grime were as smooth and shiny as dressed leather. Probably an
expensive jacket in its day, with short fringes on the pockets and a long
fringe on each sleeve; only a couple of sleeve fringes left now, gone with the
lining and the original buttons. But no way would Rider give up that coat. He'd
tell anyone who'd listen about the days he'd worn it back and forth cross
country on his Harley, tripping on acid the whole way. But Rider had taken a
few too many trips. His Harley was long gone and most of his mind along with
"How's it going, Rider?" Dan said,
dropping a heavy slice on his tray.
Rider always called him Pilot. Because Rider
slurred his words as much as anyone else, Dan had asked him once if that was
Pilot with an
Rider hadn't the vaguest idea
what Dan was talking about.
"Good, Pilot. Got a new lead on my
Harley. Should have it back by the end of the week."
"Yep. Then it's so long."
Rider's quest for his last bike, stolen
sometime during the early eighties, lent a trace structure to his otherwise
aimless day-to-day existence. Rider was the shelter's Galahad.
The rest of the regulars filed by with a few
newer faces sprinkled in; a couple of those new faces might become regulars,
the rest would drift on. The locals, the never-miss-a-meal regulars were all
there, some in their twenties, some in their sixties, most of indeterminate age
somewhere between. Some called themselves John and Jim and Marta and Thelma,
but many had street names: Stoney, Indian, Preacher, Pilgrim, Lefty, Dandy,
Poppy, Bigfoot, One-Thumb George, and the inimitable Dirty Harry.
They all got one bowl of soup and one thick
slice of Sister Carrie's famous bread. After they finished they could have
seconds if there was anything left over after everyone had firsts. Off to his
left, Dan heard scuffling and a shout as the seconds line formed.
"Oh, Father," Hilda said, leaning
over the counter to look. "I think it's Dandy and Indian again."
"I'll take care of it."
Dan ducked under the table and got to the
trouble spot just as Dandy was picking himself up off the floor and crouching
to charge Indian. Dan grabbed him by the back of his jacket collar.
"Whoa, Dandy! Hang on a sec."
Dandy whirled, snarling. The fire in his eyes
cooled immediately when he saw who he faced. He shrugged to settle his jacket
back on his shoulders and straightened his tie. Dandy had earned his name from
his taste in fourth-hand attire. He always managed to pick the brightest colors
from the donated clothing. His latest get-up consisted of an orange shirt, a
green-and-white striped tie, a plaid sports jacket, and lime-green golf pants.
All frayed, all dirty, but worn with the air of someone who considered his life
a fashion statement.
"Lucky for Indian you came along."
"He pushed me out of my place in
Dan glanced at Indian, who faced straight
ahead, ignoring the two of them. Dan knew he'd get nothing out of Indian, who
wasn't Indian at all—unless that kinky hair and ebony skin were
Indian. Indian never spoke, never
smiled, never frowned. Apparently someone had called him a cigar-store Indian
years ago and the name had stuck.
"You were cutting into the line, weren't
"Dandy." Dan knew Dandy didn't like
to wait in line, especially with those he considered his sartorial inferiors.
"This wouldn't be the first time."
"I didn't cut. I axed. I axed him if he
minded if I got ahead of him. He didn't say no so I—"
Dan jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
"End of the line, Dandy."