Catherine Thomas


Catherine Thomas was born and raised in Wales and now lives in Syracuse, NY. She holds an MA in English from the University of Rochester and has benefited from workshops held at the Syracuse Downtown Writer’s Center. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as The Denver Quarterly, Fourteen Hills, and The Broome Review.

There Are Rules, Secret Little Rules

Sometimes if you ask for dried beans, you also get turkey necks and then you can make a soup but only if you ask for the beans, otherwise they won’t tell you about the meat, then later somebody will come back and ask them for turkey necks and they’ll say, “Only with the dried beans,” and then that same somebody will go, “You never told me the beans come with the turkey necks,” but that’s the thing, there are rules, secret little rules known only to the pantry ladies, like the calculations for who gets how much of what, which supposedly have to do with how many portions are listed on the food labels but how is it that one week I end up with three cartons of milk and the next only two, and how is it that when the fresh tomatoes were handed out I didn’t get one, even though half of them were split down the middle and weeping and the woman who always asks for substitutions was so disgusted with hers she gave it back without even trying to exchange it for anything? I’ve been watching them for months now and I’m beginning to suspect that the pantry ladies make the rules up as they go.

The food I’m collecting isn’t for me, it’s for my friend Glen, and I have to keep track of all the different rules and stay in line with them because I want to be sure he gets everything he can. Glen used to come here for his own food, then I came with him and now, since his amputation, I collect it for him. Glen is a diabetic and he’s not my boyfriend. He’s my very good neighbor and friend but he’s not my boyfriend. That was the first thing the pantry ladies asked when I started picking his food up from them, “Is he your boyfriend? Are you living together?” and I hadn’t even asked for any food for me. They wanted to catch me out but they couldn’t because all I did was bring a note from Glen saying it was okay for me to pick up his food and I don’t need food for myself because I’m on disability due to a certain psychiatric diagnosis that’s between me and my doctors and I have a part-time job and I don’t eat very much so I can get by without their help. As for me and Glen, well they are completely wrong and they had no business asking me my private business, which is we’ve been living in the same apartment building for nearly fifteen years and that’s all. Glen did ask me on a date once and I said no and we never talked about it again and I know he thinks it’s because he’s sixty-one and I’m forty-four and because he’s missing half of his left leg, but it’s not, it’s because I don’t want a boyfriend, I don’t want anyone. If I did, though, it would definitely be Glen because he’s quiet, he lives quietly and he lets me be.

No matter how early I get to the pantry, I’m never first, which is all right, yes, really I don’t mind, because the system for deciding who is first is more or less fair. There’s a sign-in sheet. However, when I get down to the waiting room this time, there is no sign-in sheet, not on the table, not in anybody’s hand. The man behind me also needs it, the scrawny, acne-scarred black man with the elastic-bottomed sweatpants and the liquor on his breath, and when he sees it’s not there, he yells, “Ladies, we require the sign-in sheet.” Naturally they hand it to him, the last down the stairs but the loudest. So I’m seventeenth on the list instead of sixteenth, but of course I don’t argue. Besides, most of the names have already been crossed off.

I would wait if they weren’t all crossed off. I would wait if there were thirty four people ahead of me because how could I go back to Glen who is missing half his leg and has to get around in a wheelchair and tell him I couldn’t be bothered to wait for his food when he never asks me for anything and he says every week that he’s sorry to trouble me and he could go by himself and give me a break some week just say the word Sandy? Of course I couldn’t. So I wait.

The place I wait is the food pantry in the basement of Gethsemene Episcopal Church. The pantry waiting room is a drafty hallway between the main pantry and the stockroom and it has a worn out green carpet and damp stains on the walls. The three fold-up metal chairs lined up in front of the used clothing rail are always taken by the time I get there and the rest of us have to stand. We stand and we wait and we listen, or we don’t listen. It’s our turn and we’re supposed to be listening for our food choices and instead we’re yelling across the room at one of the guys who just came in, we being the old lady with the soft white hair and the cataracts sitting at the wrinkled-men’s-shirts end of the clothing rail.

“Where’s Jimmy these days?”

“He’s in the hospital. Upstate.”

“Mrs. Brady? Macaroni and cheese or plain macaroni?”

“Kidney disease. How’s Uncle Ken?”

“Just as miserable as ever. You got clam chowder? I’ll take that. Kidney disease. That’s terrible.”

I never have conversations with people because it annoys the ladies and it holds everyone else up and when the ladies get annoyed they tend to forget things, not the important things but the little extra things like cookies and hot chocolate or tea and when you ask for something, even politely, they’ll suddenly have a rule for why you can’t have it so it’s best not to get into conversations with other people, even when it’s not your turn since it could be your turn any minute despite your keeping track, because the person ahead of you might get sick of waiting and leave or just plain disappear or be disqualified suddenly due to coming here twice already this month when the rule is you can’t, you can only get food once in a month because it’s supposed to be emergency food.

It is emergency food and it isn’t, just like it is five days' worth of food and it isn’t, it’s more like three. Mostly I see the same people every month and so they are technically having an emergency every month, usually the last week of the month when they’ve run out of money and they’re waiting for, say, their next disability check. Glen always is and it’s not because he wastes money on lottery tickets and scratch off cards or alcohol or cigarettes like everyone always says about poor people; he doesn’t do any of that stuff, not that I would blame him if he did because God knows we all need something to get us through this life, like with me it’s cleaning products, but no, Glen doesn’t waste money on himself, he sends it to his daughter Mel who has a lot of mental problems and can’t manage her money.

Glen is not selfish, which is another reason I would be with him if I could be with anyone, which I can’t, due to my own psychiatric problems, which do not involve me being wasteful with money. The opposite is true in fact; I am very very careful with money. I’m very careful with everything, which is my problem according to my social worker, my doctors and also sometimes Glen except that Glen doesn’t make me feel bad about being careful the way my social worker and my doctors do and that is another reason I would be with him if I could.

“Hello? Excuse me?”

The loudmouth who stole my spot this morning is standing in front of the trestle table stretching out his back and balancing on his toes so he can look down on the pantry ladies as he yells at them.

“Where’s the list? I need to look at the list.” I’m not scared yet because he’s not yelling at me and anyway, I already know what I’ll do if he starts yelling at me, what I’ll do if he starts to say anything bad to me is I’ll just point to my headphones and pretend I can’t hear him. My headphones aren’t attached to anything but I feel safer when I wear them. When I twirl the wire leading from my headphones deep into my jacket pocket around and around and around the fingers of my right hand, I know nobody can reach me because I’m gone, I’m smiling and I’m pointing to my headphones and I’m out of trouble’s reach, so sorry I can’t hear you, so sorry.

“Ladies, could we hurry it along, please?” the loudmouth says. There’s a small shower of sparks coming off him. “Ladies,” he says again, “we have appointments elsewhere, places to be.”

I don’t have an elsewhere appointment until next Tuesday afternoon at one o’clock, when I have to start steaming clothes again at the Boulevard, at the Boulevard Salvation Army, and today is Friday. I work two afternoons a week, always Tuesday and always Thursday, and I get paid fifty cents more per hour than the New York State minimum wage because I’m extremely thorough and yes, it’s true I see the good stuff before it goes out on the racks and I can put dibs on it if I want but this is only fair. Last week I found an Extra-Large Eddie Bauer shirt that was fleece and lined with quilting and still had the original sales tag on and I put it by for Glen and with my staff discount it was only seventy-five cents so I got it to thank him for the dream catcher he made for me in his art therapy class.

The pantry ladies ignore the loudmouth. Mae and Lynnelle are discussing their last sorority reunion, Alma is pulling our cards using the sign-in sheet and Ann is counting out teabags into sandwich bags. They are all volunteers, all retired from well-paying jobs, and they all think we should get down on our knees in gratitude for them being here. Ann is white like me; Alma, Mae and Lynelle are black. Anyway, nobody is listening to the loudmouth, which is not deliberate or if it is it’s not obvious; they’re just busy, each one thinking the other is taking care of the next client in line and nobody seeing the sparks come off of his head. Oh Lord, watch out ladies, I warn them silently.

“The ‘Js’ disappeared,” says Alma.

“How many times have we been meeting there and they run out of chicken?” Lynelle says to Mae.

“My carrots were ice cold.”

“Mae, did you take the ‘Js’ out?” Alma asks.

“Stone cold.”

“Oh, no, here they are. Somebody stuck them in with the ‘Is’.

“As much as we pay them. . .”

“Mr. Jones, when were you here last?”

“It’s been a while, Miss.”

“Months or years?”

“More like years.” Mr. Jones is a very old black gentleman dressed in a wool jacket and pants and holding a felt fedora to his chest. Alma explains to him that she can’t find his card and he’ll have to fill out his paperwork again but he just smiles, showing her the four teeth he has left in this world, and right there I can tell he will be getting a lot of optional extras.

Optional extras depend on pity or nerve or luck. The pantry ladies will pity you if you are frail and very humble and polite or if you are worn down and have too many children, also if you are foreign and very humble and frail, otherwise you have to be nervy or hope for the best. Nerve is pointing to anything you can see past the trestle table that looks good, like a jug of iced tea or washing detergent, and not caring if one of the ladies snaps at you, tells you it’s for a large family only, then closes the door so you can’t look any more. I have to depend on luck because I have no nerve and no children and I’m mostly healthy and have all of my teeth and I’m too afraid of talking to most people to manage being humble.

Glen would probably make out way better than me on the optional extras because of his missing-half-a-leg issue but he can’t stand to be pitied, which is another reason I come here instead of him although I’d never tell him that. What I do tell him is that my doctors want me to get out and meet people and stay busy instead of locking myself in my apartment night and day scouring the baseboards with an end-tuft toothbrush.

“Who’s next?” the loudmouth shouts. The old man, Mr. Jones, has gone back to his seat to start filling out his new paperwork. “Which one of you is next?” The loudmouth motions to Alma. “Could we have the sign-in sheet, ma’am?”

Alma’s looking through her index cards for the next person on the list and she puts her manicured hand up to quiet him.

“Oh no, oh no,” he says under his breath, “not that, uh-uh. Like you better than me?” He turns on his heel, stomps up the stairs to the church lobby then comes back down again, stopping at the table. Sparks are coming off of his feet now and his clenched fists. Still Alma is going through the cards.

“Who’s next, Alma?” Lynelle asks. Lynelle is the pantry boss.

“Elissa Torres.”

“Ladies, I asked a question.”

“How many in her family?

“Just her.”

“Elissa Torres?” Lynelle calls.

Elissa Torres puts her hand up then sort of ducks behind it. Her left hand is bandaged, badly, like she did it herself and when the loudmouth thumps the table, she flinches and holds it tight to her waist. Lynelle storms up to the loudmouth, arm fat wobbling like the 49 cent jello she gives us at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Sir, I don’t have time to be handing you back the sign-in sheet every two minutes so you can check where you are on the list. We’ll see you in turn. Now could you please let Miss Torres come forward so we can take her order because the quicker we do hers, the quicker we can all get out of here, okay?”

“No.” The loudmouth folds his arms and squints at Lynelle.

“Excuse me?”

“I ain’t movin’ unless you tell me where I am on the list.”

“What’s your name?”

“Hah,” he says. “Sweet, Raymond.”

“Well, Mr. Raymond, I just explained why I don’t have time for all that. We’re using it right now and when we’re done with it, we’ll put it right back on the table there.”

One, two, three . . . Ann’s mouth stops counting out tea bags and she lets the last two drop right to the floor in front of her. Elissa Torres looks over at me asking me with her eyes if I can see what she can see and I nod yes I can, I can see the sparks, but I have to look away when her expression changes because I can’t help her any more than I can help me. All I can do is put on my invisible shield and this is what she should do too, she should try to be invisible and not look at the sparks. That’s what Amy always says to do, Amy my social worker who also has a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She says, “Sandy, try not to look at them. Put on your invisibility shield until they go away, like in Star Trek.” Glen says Amy is a fruit loop.

“What is wrong with you woman?” Raymond Sweet says to Lynelle. “Are you ignorant? Are you stupid?”

“Who’re you calling stupid? You’re the ignorant one. You think I’m going to hand out food to you while you stand there and insult me, you’re the fool. I should call the police and tell them you’ve been threatening me. I’ve got witnesses.”

I am one of the witnesses but how will I explain to the police what happened to this man while he was being yelled at by Lynelle, the boss of the food pantry? How will I explain how he turned the color of hot coals and grew so high his head hit the ceiling and so huge that all he’d have to do to send all of us flying is give one tiny puff? How will I explain that the walls closed in and the exit door slammed and the ceiling started to crack all the way from Raymond Sweet’s head to the four corners of the room and all of us in the waiting room, me and the girl with the bad hand and the old man with hardly any teeth, we all shrank down to church mouse size and started to quiver? I guess I won’t. I guess I’ll probably keep my mouth shut and I won’t tell Amy and I also won’t tell Glen or he’ll finally realize that I am the fruit loop, not her, and that’s why I can’t be with anyone, not even someone quiet and kind like him.

Alma moves toward Lynelle, puts her arm around her shoulders, while the girl with the bad hand gets up suddenly and rushes upstairs.

“Don’t you go, honey,” Lynelle calls. “You don’t need to leave. You stay and keep your place.” But she’s gone.

I watch Raymond Sweet shrink back down to normal size and color. The smile on his face says, I’m going to win this, but I can still see sparks zipping off of his head and I close my eyes for a second and try to breathe slow, wondering if he has a knife. It’s doubtful. He’s the kind of man who if he had a knife, he’d have to pawn it. He swallows and his Adam’s apple shivers up his long neck.

“I believe I was next after her,” he says. “Isn’t that right? Any of you want to argue with that?”

Nobody wants to argue with that except Lynelle.

“Sir, you need to leave,” she says, stabbing at the table with her finger. “Nowhere in the rules does it say I have to put up with being insulted and yelled at so you need to leave.”

Mr. Jones looks over in my direction and shakes his head. People like Lynelle don’t ever back down. Why is that? Like it would have hurt her just to tell him where he was on the list and shut him up so we could all have some peace but no, she had to drag us all down with her. What does the man have to lose, being yelled at like a first-grader by a woman hardly older than he is, down here with the rest of us in the bottom of this raggedy old church? All he has is his voice and his sparks and his fists. I smile back at Mr. Jones because he’s old and friendly and not scary even though he practices poor dental hygiene. I smile and I roll my eyes real quick to tell him I agree with him and to secretly thank him for not saying anything to me but I don’t do it quickly enough because something bad happens. Raymond Sweet sees me. I glance back to check on him and there he is staring at me and now I have to do something to make him look away without saying anything to me and I can’t pretend I haven’t been paying attention, can’t pretend there’s music in my headphones because he knows I’ve seen everything and worse, he knows I have an opinion about it because of the eye-rolling and smiling at old Mr. Jones, so I do what I do when I can’t think of anything else, which is I pretend to sneeze. I pretend to sneeze three times. Each time I sneeze, Mr. Jones and Raymond Sweet and Lynelle and Alma say bless you and each and every time they say bless you, I whisper thank you. It works. It always works. I don’t know why it always works but it does.

“All right, ladies,” Raymond Sweet says. “I’ll just sit down here and wait my turn. I’m sorry if I offended you, my dear.”

Alma steps forward and almost pushes Lynelle out of her way. “That’s okay, sir. All we’re asking for is a little patience. Now I think you were right behind Mr. Jones, weren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am, I believe you’re right.”

ThankyouAlmaThankyouAlmaThankyouAlmaThankyouAlmaThankyouRaymond Sweeteven. This, nobody hears but God so I thank him as well.

“Mr. Jones, are you ready with your form?” The old man goes up to Alma at the desk and in a low voice says to her, “I got time to wait. Why don’t you see to him first?”

She nods and whispers, “Thank you.” Yes, thank you too Mr. Jones.

“Sir, why don’t you come forward? Mr. Jones doesn’t have all his paperwork in order yet.”

“Yes ma’am.”

It doesn’t take her two minutes to write down his order and give him his food, but I notice that she only gives him the cheap plastic bags that always break, not the usual sturdy paper bags inside the superior quality plastic bags and I think, Oh Alma, I’m beginning to warm up to you.

“You put the turkey necks in?”

“Uh huh,” says Alma.

“Good girl.”

Alma gives him a long hard stare.

“Thank you, ladies,” he says as he leaves. “Have a blessed day.”

When he’s gone, Alma calls Mr. Jones forward and laughs as she thanks him but her eyes are wet.

“If he was here another minute,” she says, “I would have wrung his turkey neck, I swear.”

“Oh, that knucklehead, honey, wouldn’t be worth your time.” The old man grins.

Alma puts her hand to one side of her mouth and whispers, “Half the time he’s in here drunk. Isn’t that right, Lynelle?”

“Well, let’s get started, Mr. Jones,” Alma says. “What kind of meat do you want?”


“Way to go, Sand, got the good bags,” Glen says when I drop off his food.

These aren’t just the heavy paper sacks inside the good plastic; these are the cloth reusables they sell at the store for ninety-nine cents and up.

“Yep,” I tell him, “and that’s not all. You should see what’s in them. I got a whole roasting chicken, and dressing and cornbread mix, and gravy, I got cookies and pudding mix and mayo, and turkey necks for your beans and even detergent and I didn’t have to ask for any of it.”

“You hold the place up at gunpoint?”

I shake my head and laugh. I don’t tell him about all the trouble with Raymond Sweet because I don’t want him to feel guiltier than he already does about me going to get his food.

“Let’s see what you got,” I tell him and I plonk myself down on his sofa and start sorting through it. “I’ll put it up for you in a minute. I just want to make sure you got everything.”

“Three bags instead of two,” he says, “I think we’re good.”

I keep going anyway because what I really want is for him to see how much I got for him. It was hard this time, much harder than usual and even though I can’t tell him what I had to go through, I can still show him what I achieved.

Juice. Family-Size, Brand-name Fruit Punch. I wave it in the air, which isn’t easy since it’s extra heavy but the surprise on Glen’s face is worth it. Usually he gets an aluminum can of orange or apple but Lynelle was waiting on me. I dread having Lynelle waiting on me, even when she’s in a pleasant mood and here she was taking my order five minutes after yelling at that loudmouth trouble-maker Raymond Sweet. When she called out Glen’s name (nobody there ever has asked me what my name is) I almost ran out of the place like the lady with the banged up arm.

“You got your note, honey?” she asked.

I passed it to her and she wandered off to file it and for at least five minutes she didn’t come back. Instead she got into a conversation with Alma. This was not all right but after standing near the table waiting for the first minute I realized that it could end up being all right because when Lynelle took my note she was still mad about Raymond Sweet and she was mad at Alma too, I guess, for not backing her up and so maybe if Alma could work things out with Lynelle, she’d come back to take my order and not be mad anymore and that could only be a good thing, for me and Glen. So, instead of worrying over it not being all right to be kept waiting, I watched the two of them as closely as I could, watched Alma put her hand on Lynelle’s arm, watched the two of them get into their working-things-out huddle, watched Alma put her arms out for a hug and Lynelle get all stiff and straight, watched Alma hug her anyway, watched Lynelle’s shoulders sag at last.

“I’m not going to put up with that nonsense,” Lynelle said. “I’d rather get shot and you know it, Alma. I don’t care.”

“I know it.” Alma said. “But you need to be careful.”

Lynelle said something I couldn’t hear and Alma laughed and Lynelle did too and then I knew that it was definitely all right that I’d been kept waiting for over five minutes on top of all the trouble and waiting I’d already suffered. It was all right except that almost immediately after they laughed, something not all right happened and that was, Lynelle came up to me and asked me, again, if I had a note for Glen. I felt the floor shudder beneath me and the tips of my fingers sting from the heat of the sparks shooting out from them.

“I just . . . I . . . gave it to you,” I whispered.

“That’s right, you did,” Lynelle said. “Now where did I put it?” Off she went to search for the note. I was the only one left and I was certain, as I stood there trembling still, that the ladies would decide they wanted to close up early, that it wasn’t worth the trouble of waiting on me, so I shut my eyes tight tight and breathed as deeply as I could and tried with my mind to make Lynelle see where she’d left the note.

“Here it is,” she said after nearly another minute. “Now let me get the order sheet.”

I opened my eyes and the floor dropped beneath me a fraction so I lost my balance, had to hold on to the table but the table was so light I nearly pushed it over.

“You all right, honey?” Lynelle said, laughing at me, coming at me with the sheet, filling up the doorway between the pantry and the waiting room. The sparks from my eyes got her straight in the heart but she didn’t collapse or explode, she only shrank back down to normal size.

“Let’s see,” she said. “What type of juice? Orange, Apple, grapefruit. . . hold on. . . how about some fruit punch?”

That is the one good thing about being in the waiting room close to the end of opening hours, the ladies want to get rid of all the stuff they should have given out earlier but refused to give out earlier because of whatever rules they were following then. That’s how I got all that extra stuff for Glen. Not because I was patient, not because I was polite and quiet. I got it because of good timing and because Lynelle made up with Alma and her mood took a turn for the better. I got it because of stupid luck.

“Sandy?” Glen says. I’m still sorting through my haul.

“Hang on,” I tell him. Something’s not all right. “I thought they put coffee in here.”

“Are you okay?” No, I am not okay. I am not, I am not, I am not okay.

“Damn it! She said they had bags of coffee and she was going to put one in for you to have with the cookies.”

I start tossing stuff out of the bag, the boxed macaroni, the powdered milk, the cans of pork and beans and carrots and ravioli and still there’s no sign of the coffee and there’s not even the usual baggy of tea, so why would she say that? Why would Lynelle promise a thing like coffee if she wasn’t going to put it in? Why would she make me imagine it sitting snug in the good shopping bag waiting to be taken and measured out so carefully into one of the paper filters left over from the last time Glen had coffee at home, which was over a year ago, and brewing just two cups of it so as not to waste any, and sitting down on the sofa next to Glen’s recliner with the smell of it filling our nostrils, filling the whole apartment which normally smells of stale cat litter, cradling the hot mugs in our hands and letting the steam waft up our noses and make them run and taking that first sip and then chasing it with a bite of cookie, of fudge cookie that wasn’t even past it’s use-by date? Why? All the times I’ve seen them open packs of cookies for themselves and take stuff for themselves that was supposed to be for us and I’ve never complained. All the times I’ve seen them give extra stuff to the people they like, stuff they didn’t even have to use up, stuff like detergent and sanitary pads and special frozen vegetables instead of cans and



“What are you doing?”

I look around me and see everything spilled out over the floor and Glen’s cat Tip is staring at me and Glen’s staring at me and somehow I’ve gotten from the sofa to the floor on my knees and there’s pieces of fudge cookie broken up all around me on the carpet.

“I’ll fix it later,” I tell him, pulling myself up from the floor, and I can feel myself smiling at him because I know that I can fix it and I will fix it and I go right over to him and kiss him on the cheek which I’ve never done before and it feels all right, even though he hasn’t shaved in days, not romantic but just right, and then I tell him I’ll be back.

I’m running now, running down the stairs, fourth floor, third floor, second, first, and out and down to the front gate and out and down the hill to the first corner and across the road, almost getting hit by a motorcyclist but not, got to make it before noon, so up the next block to the church, blessedly open, and down the stairs and I can already smell the damp and now I’m in the waiting room but there’s no trestle table and the door’s closed and the light’s off but I can hear voices, they’re still there I know it and I knock, I don’t care, I knock and knock with the side of my fist and I’m breathing so hard I can hardly talk when Lynelle opens the door.

“We’re closed,” she says and then, “Oh, it’s you again.”

I tell her, “You forgot my coffee, Glen’s coffee.”

“Who’s Glen?” she says.

“My friend Glen, the one I collect for.”

“Oh, yes, I remember him. He’s blind, isn’t he?”

“No, Ma’am,” I say, “He’s an amputee.”

“Well, you’re lucky you caught us,” she says. I can see old Mae puttering around behind her but there’s no sign of the other two. “Two more minutes and we’d have locked up. What’d you say I forgot?”

“Coffee,” I tell her, “And cookies. You said you’d give him a bag of coffee and some cookies but when I dropped off his food I couldn’t find them and I went through his stuff twice.”

“Oh God,” she says and disappears behind the pantry door and I’m beginning to worry that she’ll remember she already gave me cookies when she reappears with a shiny white bag in her hand and a box under her arm.

“Sorry you had to make the extra trip, honey,” she says, setting both on the table in front of me.

I grab them before she changes her mind not feeling a shred of guilt about lying. I told Glen I’d fix it and it includes the cookies I broke all over his carpet. But I can’t leave yet. I’ve spotted something on the shelf behind Lynelle, something I want for myself.

I stand up straight, clear my throat and point. “Ma’am,” I say. “Is that furniture polish?”

She turns to follow my gaze. “Where?”

“The bottom shelf there, at the front.”

A spark hits the brown bottle and turns it gold.

“Oh, I see. Yes, it’s polish.” She looks at it for a moment then she turns back to me.

“You want it?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say.

As she bends to retrieve it from the shelf, she looks positively tiny. I reach out to take the polish from her, and for a fraction of a second, my hand is the hand of a giant.

What preoccupies me as a writer is the deep human need for social connection, our sense of obligation to those outside our family, our longing to feel comfortable in the world when we seldom do and our obsessive need to feel that we contribute something positive to the universe. I came to this story out of an interest in the idea of kindness. The food pantry is ripe territory for exploring relationships of giving and receiving, and kindness is more complicated than we expect.