We are all hungry, but for what?
Washington Post Magazine
“Spies always make the worst soup,” Darryl mutters. “You’re obviously a spy.”
Until now, I’ve been the shelter’s helium balloon. I’ve floated above it all, a yellow smiley face stamped on a Mylar disc. Now I stand accused of espionage and, worse, lousy soup-making. I drift to the floor.
No other volunteer experience has prepared me for this one, not the Earth Day cleanups or candy striping at the children’s hospital or the food bank distribution of cornflakes and diapers. All three ventures unfolded the same way: the assisted bubbling over with thanks. This one’s different.
I turn from the stove, where I’ve been ladling bowls of carrots, pasta and broth. It’s days before Thanksgiving. Soon, an avalanche of donations will swallow the kitchen. Canned vegetables will stack every inch of floor. Dozens of perishable pies oozing fruit from their slightly damaged boxes will crowd counters. We’ll scurry to decide what to do with frozen turkeys dumped on our doorstep minutes before dinner. But for now, I pass off watery soup and day-old baguettes as lunch.
I start to explain to Darryl that a crate of fresh carrots arrived last night. That’s why they’re firm not soft, but he is unconvinced. “Look, Miss, they ain’t firm; they’re hard. Typical CIA.”
I don’t intend to react, but I do. I chuckle. Then a smirk seeps across my face. I, the “spy” of the badly cooked carrots, am thinking, “Look, buddy, you’re the hungry one; be grateful.”
My accuser is not just homeless, he’s a veteran, which evokes indulgence for his moods and paranoia. Sometimes, he’s lucid bordering on bookish. Other times, he’s cranky and incoherent. Like most of the 20 men who line up for lunch, Darryl appears older than he is. Lines hug his mouth as though decades ago he laughed at everything, even bad jokes, but now he’s paused to regret.
He stares at us, the five Saturday servers — the volunteers. It’s as though he has our number, and any minute now he’ll say, “I know why I’m here, but why are you?”
He empties his bowl of the uneaten carrot chunks, then heads to the bathroom, a room that always smells of slapdash cleaning and the pine tree deodorizers hung in gypsy cabs. When Darryl rushes out, he nods without words, his trademark goodbye. The bar of soap has disappeared, as have the paper towels, the brown industrial kind.
Fran, the elderly head volunteer, hustles to the bathroom after each man departs and sprays disinfectant to a mushroom cloud. Her voice wafts out with the fumes.
“See. That’s why I never buy the good stuff,” she shouts. “They always steal it!”
Fran barks at the men, whom we call “guests.” As she sets the table and folds their napkins, she tells them where to sit. “Lose the profanity! Take just one roll!”
Still, Fran is the only one willing to walk the blocks to our local bakery and to haggle for day-old loaves. She loads them up in her rattling cart. Friday nights she makes bread pudding, at least two pans, often three.
The other volunteers shake their heads at Fran. They whisper behind her back. “She really hates Darryl,” one of them blurts. “Why does she bother coming if is she hates them all so much?”
No one asks why anyone else comes. Service lures with the heady scent of sacrifice — sacrifice allegedly free of motive. For this reason, I don’t say I’m an insomniac, grappling with a faith I no longer fully believe in and seeking an antidote to both ailments. No one points to the college student who serves food as restitution for a drunken driving incident, or the teacher who whispers to me as we chop wilted celery, “You think I’ll ever find a nice guy here? . . . Oh, God, I’m getting so old.” Though some set the tables and ladle the soup, we are all hungry.
When the men leave, we wash their plates. We sit on the floor drinking leftover coffee. A few eat the government-issued cheese that smells of plastic couch covers. Just as we lower the kitchen lights, banging erupts from the front door. The knocks come hard and fast, with barely a moment to slip back the locks.
“I forgot my knapsack,” he mumbles
He snatches the bag from the vestibule and turns away. Paper towels peek from the pocket of his cloth coat.
“Hey, Darryl,” I say. “See you on Thanksgiving, man.”
“Yeah, I guess. You making that cake?”
“Your chocolate cake, you making it?”
“Yeah, sure — maybe,” I say.
“Good, it’s better than those carrots.”
I ease the door back. He doesn’t bubble over; I don’t float. For that, I am grateful. I suspect he is, too.
Sunday October 26, 2008
Stalking the stalker
By Wanda Fleming
Washington Post Magazine
POSTED AT 1 A.M., the e-mail simply states: “I found your Web site. I want to buy your sweetest soap and move it up your thighs. I want my mouth washed out. What scent do you suggest?”
My heart stops.
I have two consuming vocations: handcrafting scented soap and writing. I work on both in a Batcave-like room dubbed The Studio. Cement makes up the floor. Drafts rattle the 100-year-old jalousie windows. But the ambiance is well worth the rent.
Only three people are allowed in this space. The stalker slips in anyway. He finds me through the words I write.
On my retail Web site, my soap cannot simply lather. It fluffs in fat creamy bubbles and soothes with the richness of olive oil. These words are plucked by Internet search engines that bring buyers but also oddballs seeking lasciviousness. They type a string of ordinary words whose meaning turns lewd only in composite, like silky and creamy and girls. They arrive hopeful and leave disappointed after the first page reveals soap. But not my stalker. He stays for hours, poring over each page.
“Who’s the freak?” my husband asks, pointing his coffee mug at the message.
I immediately dismantle the blog linked to my Web page. I pull down the photos of my children digging for blue glass on the beach and whirling sparklers in the back yard. Then panic turns to vigilante prying.
Who would write such a thing, and to a woman miles away, married with children?
I know his name already. Bizarrely, he signs his obscene note, as though I might become his pen pal. He doesn’t know this, but like most business Web sites, mine tracks every visitor. It discloses when he arrives, what pages he views and how long he lingers. It doesn’t divulge names but often reveals the location, be it Austin or Stockholm. Sometimes, it pinpoints with disturbing exactitude. This is the case with my stalker.
With his town and name in hand, I immediately crawl the search engines. There are about 100 men in the United States with his name. Only five spell it the way he does.
Only one resides in this small town, a place whose chamber of commerce Web site boasts 1950s friendliness and low crime rates. In one photo, blond children run though leaf piles. In another, an elderly couple sits on a bench licking vanilla ice cream cones. The major realty agency suggests a three-bedroom ranch house costs $157,000. It lists six open houses this weekend.
My stalker’s name appears on a city agency government roster. He is a high-level manager and has won performance awards for leadership and peer training. A photo shows him flanked by colleagues as he accepts a Lucite plaque. He is gangly with pink-rimmed eyes and thinning hair the color of preserved salmon.
According to his church’s Web site, he also sings in a choral society. He recently attended his high school reunion, where he and his wife danced to Frank Sinatra.
My mind races with the brimming dossier. I contemplate writing him back. I’ll tell him I’m an FBI agent with black belt expertise! I’ll tell him that I know where he lives and what his spouse’s name is. I’ll say: “Leave me alone, creep; I know your wife plays bridge! I see from your neighborhood community center that she’s quite the card shark!”
Whatever his peccadilloes, my stalker looks oddly happy as he swings his wife around the high school gym floor. Round and round they go, beaming like children on a Disney teacup ride.
I delete his message.
That night in the shower, the water cascades down my back. I close my eyes as the scent of soap wafts beyond the curtain.
“What happened today?” my husband asks between the slosh and spittle of his toothpaste.
“Not much,” I call out, rinsing the lather from my shoulders. “I found that guy, is all.”
Sunday, August 10, 2008