Gold, Frankincense, and Murder (Excerpt)
Food pantries are lousy places to meet men.
I slammed another dusty can of sauerkraut into the rough wood shelving to punctuate that thought, enjoying the reverberation through the brick storefront. Don’t get me wrong. That’s not why I volunteered. My days of pining after some testosterone-charged he-god passed a decade or so ago when all my friends married and started having kids. I’d officially become “Aunt Donna,” and I was pretty okay with that.
Most of the time.
I had my friends, my students, and my cat. Only my friends were all busy chauffeuring their kids to basketball practice and dance recitals, my students at the high school drove me up the wall, and my black cat was one of those independent sorts, content stalking birds from the window. He rubbed against my leg twice a day when I filled his food dish, and that was pretty much the extent of my physical contact with other living things.
The bell over the door announced our first client of the morning. Linda Bartz blew in with a flurry of snow and stomped her boots into the mat. Linda was a rather matronly African-American woman, not obese exactly, but hippy and big bosomed. Underneath her long red coat, her figure could be perceived as fat. Then again, warm winter outerwear was a great equalizer. Everyone looked a little plump these days.
I handed her two paper grocery bags.
“One is fine.” She shook open the sack in one fluid motion. “I’m getting my paycheck on Wednesday, and the first thing I’m going to do is get me some food that don’t come in cans.”
One bag was our normal limit, but Linda was the sole provider for three bulky teenage boys. When I’d started at the food pantry, Sandy clued me in. Linda’s husband used to gamble away most of the family’s budget. When a bus coming back from the casinos in Niagara Falls flipped over almost a decade ago, he had been one of seven passengers killed. Sandy suspected the family might be better off. It didn’t seem to work that way, so everybody at Saint Mark’s looked the other way. Linda always got two bags.
“What? No more sauerkraut and lima bean casseroles?” I asked. “I tried that recipe you gave me.”
“How’d you like it?”
“I’ve got to hand it to you. It was almost edible.”
“That’s what my Johnny says. But I’ve kind of developed a taste for it. Still, I’m looking forward to fresh veggies for a change.”
“How do you like the new job?”
“It’s awful hard on the feet, but I think I’m going to like the pay. I just gotta get me some shoes that don’t come from the thrift store. Maybe some of them fancy orthotics. But whoever heard of waiting a whole month for your first check?”
“Crazy.” I watched Linda bag her chosen items with geometric perfection. I’d have to remember that the next time one of my students asked how geometry related to real life. “I’ll miss having you around.”
“Maybe I’ll come and do some volunteering of my own. It looks like you could use more help.”
“That’d be great. Just talk to Sandy. She arranges the schedule.”
“Gotcha.” She tugged on her gloves. “Now I think I’m going window shopping for them shoes.”
I went back to stocking the shelves with a vengeance, unloading a case of Spam in record speed. “Get out of the house. Volunteer somewhere. Meet people,” my mother said when she called from her Palm Beach condo. It seemed logical. And the Saint Mark’s Community Food Pantry was nearby and familiar. Mom and I stocked our shelves with mac and cheese and peanut butter from their supplies during much leaner times. Besides, there were worse ways to pass a snowy December afternoon in Buffalo than spending a couple of hours giving back. When I met Neal the first day, I thought maybe Mom had been on to something.
I whacked the final can of Spam into the shelving and brushed my hands on my jean skirt. Being hauled out of my warm bed to cover the morning shift in addition to my normal afternoons didn’t make me happy, especially since it meant Neal hadn’t bothered to show up. Again. Last Saturday I’d worried about him. The second week of doing his job and mine transformed my worry to annoyance. And the tinny Christmas music droning from the portable radio did little to get me into the holiday spirit. "Let It Snow." Yeah, right. That little ditty was obviously written by someone who lived surrounded by palm trees, not snowdrifts tall enough to alter flight patterns.