Fiction: Soup Duty

James Bates

- James Bates

Granny set a steaming plate of pancakes in front of me and said, "Jack, I need your help later this morning. We've got to go to the church."
No way, I thought, my mouth watering as I drowned the pancakes in maple syrup. "What about painting the house?" I dug in and started eating while looking at my grandfather. I was twelve years old and painting my grandparents’ house was going to be my job for the foreseeable future. "He pointed a finger at me and said, "That can wait. For now, you do what your grandma says."
I looked at Granny. She was a solidly built woman with a energetic manner and a cheerful disposition who ran the house in a non-sense manner. Even my grandfather gave into her will and he was the chief of police in the little town where I'd be spending the summer.
I finished breakfast without another word and certainly not a complaint. Granny was her own force to be reckoned and her mind was made up. We went. 
I suppose what I expected was a few old ladies drinking coffee while idly dumping the occasional can of soup into a sauce pan and giving it a halfhearted stir. Well, I was wrong. Big time. 
Fairmont was the county seat for the farming communities in Martin county but small enough so we could walk to the church. Granny and I went in through the backdoor and down the stairs into the refreshingly cool basement where my senses were immediately assaulted by the mouth watering scent of cooking: chicken frying, bread baking and an underlying aroma of something delicious, which turned out to be the soup I was going to help prepare. 
"This is Jack, my grandson," Granny said, introducing me to a stern looking woman built like a fireplug and dressed in a red flowered muumuu. 
"Jack," she nodded at me perfunctorily while thrusting a twelve-inch knife in my direction. I actually jumped back a step which made her laugh. "Don't have to worry, my boy. We're all friends here." She looked at Granny and said, "I'll get him started." She led me over to a cutting table. "Here you go, young man. You and Deloris are on carrot duty."
"Hi," Deloris nodded in greeting, chopping away a mile a minute and not missing a beat. She was rail thin woman dressed in bib overalls and a white tee-shirt. A faded blue bandana kept her long grey streaked hair out of her eyes and she had a cigarette tucked behind her ear. She smelled like patchouli oil. 
She stopped chopping long enough to hand me a carrot from a pile on the table and said, "Here, let me get you started."
She showed me how to hold the carrot with my fingers bent to lessen the chance of cutting them. Then I went to work. 
The kitchen was a bee-hive of activity with the twenty or so ladies in constant motion, making the total seem much higher. Soup was being made, bread baked, chicken roasted and salads prepared. Even though I didn't mind chopping carrots, a couple of ladies were in charge of making cookies and I watched them enviously. There was constant talk and laughter and the occasional song was spontaneously sung. "If I Had A Hammer" was the most popular.
Just after noon, a stack of trays appeared and we started dishing up the meal. Each tray received a bowl of soup, a plate with chicken and mashed potatoes, a salad, a piece of bread and a cookie. We carried the trays through swinging doors to a huge room filled with tables where people waited patiently and quietly, mostly women and their children, along with a few older men. I'd never seen anything like it.
I spent the next hour taking food out to the dining area and removing the trays when the plates were clean, which didn't take long. Most everyone thanked me. One young family had a five or six year old boy who took a shine to me and showed me his red yoyo.
"Here, Mister," he said, handing it to me.
I smiled at him. He seemed like a nice kid and I sat down. "Hi. What's your name?"
He looked at his mother. She nodded and said, "Go ahead. Tell the nice young man."
My ears burned red at the compliment. "My name's Eddie," he said. 
I shook his hand. "Hi, Eddie. I'm Jack. Nice to me you."
"Can you work a yoyo?" he asked.
"I can. Do you want me to show you how?”
"That's be great," he said, frowning. "I'm having some trouble."
I showed him how to make the yoyo stall at the end of the string and how to walk the dog. "Here, you try." I gave it back to him and after about ten minutes he got the hang of it. It was pretty fun.
Later on, we were cleaning up the kitchen when Granny found me and said, "We do this every Thursday."
"Really?" I couldn't believe it. "That's a lot of work," I said,
"It's not so bad," she said, helping me stack some trays off to the side. "It's good for the community."
After what I'd seen that day, I could agree that she had a point.
That night Grandpa asked how it went. A week ago, I was back home in the city working on becoming a juvenile delinquent before being sent by my mom to spend the summer with my grandparents. Now I had just done something I'd never done before; I'd made soup and served it to some needy people and made them happy. 
"It went great," I told him.
Granny asked, "You want to go back next week?"
I smiled and said, "I wouldn't miss it for the world."
And we did, every week until I went home in August. It was the best summer I ever had.

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