As soon as there was a break in the line, I took a moment to grab a drink of water. I was already sweating, despite the frigid temperature outside, and my day here had just started. Combined with the heat from the kitchen ovens and service line, I was roasting. I wiped my face off with a towel and pondered opening up the back door to let some heat out. The directors had cranked up the heat inside the shelter since warm clothes and jackets were a rarity for most of the people who frequented the center. Something I had firsthand knowledge of.
Tamara called out, “Tyler, the line’s backing up.”
I gave the shelter manager a look of apology and returned back to my place at the hot food station. Quickly, I changed out an empty pan for a hotel pan full of green bean casserole and restocked the rolls. Working the line in the restaurant had become second nature to me, but I could remember a time when I’d been amazed at the volume of food the shelter cranked out. Before I started volunteering, when I was a scared, homeless teenage looking for my next meal and safe place to stay, I had always been in amazed at how many people needed food. Not just on holidays like today, but every day. Tray after tray, the staff scooped food onto plates to ensure the mostly smiling—sometimes grumpy—people who came to the shelter had at least one meal in their stomachs. Volunteering here had been one of the best decisions I’d made since I’d gotten back on feet after my parents kicked me out. It gave me the ability to help people and feel like I was making a difference in someone’s life.
“Mommy, I don’t like green beans.”
The small voice drew me out of my own thoughts and back on the line.
“But Sophie, these look delicious. They even have cheese on them like you like. Just try them. I’m sure you’ll like them.”
“I already know don’t like them.”
The older woman’s voice lowered as she kneeled next to her daughter. “Baby, we need to eat when we can, okay?”
The small girl, maybe four or five years-old with wavy blonde hair and big blue eyes, clutched the hand of the worn-looking woman in the ragged sweatshirt and jeans. When the green beans were placed on her tray, she made another face. “I still know I won’t like them.” She was quiet and sad as they moved to the next station in the line.
Before they got too far away, I leaned across the serving line and smiled trying to keep my voice soft and friendly. “I’ll tell you a little secret. I don’t like green beans either. How about you try a few bites to make sure whether you like them or not, but I’ll get you an extra roll just in case you don’t.” I looked up at her mom and smiled, adding, “If that’s okay with your Mom?”
Her mom nodded and gave me a wan smile as I snuck the extra roll onto Sophie’s plate. Sophie shot me a shy look and darted behind her Mom’s legs and held on.
“Soph, you have to let go so I can carry our food, okay?”
The little girl released her mom’s leg and they both disappeared down the line and into the crowded dining room area where the tables had been set with donated festive decorations. I took a break from the serving line to make a circuit of the dining area.
For the next few minutes, I made my way through the dining area picking up dirty trays and offering to get refills on drinks. This wasn’t the restaurant and I wasn’t getting paid for any of the work I was doing today, but it felt good to give back and help make at least one day less stressful for the diners. There were a fair number of homeless people here today, usually identified by the fact that their clothing never seemed to fit well and was always lacking in any kind of style or coordination. But there were also a depressingly high number of families present, as well. The number of parents with small kids showing up at the shelter for meals had been steadily growing over the past year, with a few of them coming in on a weekly basis.
I spotted Sophie and her mom at a table in the back corner of the room. As I moved closer, I noticed the green beans were still on her plate, but both rolls and the turkey were gone. She had her head on the table on top of her folded arms, wearing the same sad expression I’d seen when she came through the line.
Her mom looked up from her plate just as I reached their table, the dark rings under her eyes more prominent now that I wasn’t distracted keeping up with the flow of the line and the blazing heat from the ovens. I smiled at her before bending down to squat next to Sophie.
“Hey squirt. How were the rolls?”
Her eyes widened when she realized she was the squirt I was referring to. She looked to her mom to make sure she could talk to me, and once she got a small nod of approval, she looked back at me and shrugged. “They were good but the green beans were nasty.”
I failed miserably at holding back my snort just as mother gasped, “Sophie. That’s not polite. Today is a day to be thankful we have food on our plates, not to be picky about what the food is.”
Sophie’s big blue eyes conveyed just how much this Thanksgiving sucked for her and her mom, and honestly I couldn’t blame her for not liking the green beans. I’d hated them as a kid and still couldn’t stomach them as an adult. I leaned forward and whispered loud enough for her mom to hear me too. “I can’t stand green beans either. They’re the one part of Thanksgiving I could happily do without. Wanna know the one thing I look forward to every year, though?”
Sophie lifted her head from her arms and nodded her head slowly, whispering back, “What is it?”
I fought back a grin and forced the most serious expression onto my face, still whispering, “Pie.”
She nodded again, her eyes opening even wider. “Me too. My granny used to make the best pumpkin pie.”
“Well, I happen to know that there’s a slice of pumpkin pie with your name on it waiting right over there. Wanna go with me to pick it out?”
Sophie gasped in excitement, as if suddenly this Thanksgiving wasn’t sucking so bad after all and turned in her seat to face her mom. “Oh, Mommy. Can I? Can I go with…?”
She turned back to me and whispered loudly, “What’s your name?”
I lost the battle with my grin and laughed out loud. “Tyler.”
Sophie excitedly turned back around and almost shouted at her mom. “Can I go with Tyler to get some pie? Can I? Please?”
Her mom’s tired eyes crinkled a little at the corner as she nodded. “Sure, baby.”
As Sophie scrambled out her seat, her mom caught my eye and mouthed, “Thank you.” I nodded and then turned all my attention to the little girl next to me, smiling widely when she slipped her tiny hand into mine and began to drag me off toward the dessert station. My smile started to fade, however, when memories came surging back of another small hand that had, at one time, fit perfectly in mine.
Had my younger brother and sister ever asked my parents about me? Had he wondered where I disappeared to? Did he and Megan even miss me? Or had my parents told them about how much of a pervert I was, convincing both my siblings their lives were much better without me there to humiliate and disgrace them all?
“Tyler?” A small tug on my hand brought me back to the little girl standing next to me. “Which piece has my name on it?” She looked back at her mom and whispered again. “I can’t read yet, even though Mommy is trying really hard to teach me.”
Pushing the memories of my siblings aside, I made a point of searching the dessert table for the perfect slice. Almost hidden behind a section of apple pie slices was a large, perfectly cut slice of pumpkin pie. I let go of Sophie’s hand and reached over the table to pull it closer to us, took out a pen from the pocket of my apron and printed her name in the neatest scrawl I could manage.
When I held the pie out to her, her answering smile was radiant. “That’s my name!” She turned back toward the table where we had just come from and screamed across the dining room, “Mom! It has my name on it!”
I almost lost my balance when she tackle hugged my knees, then watched as she grabbed the plate and sped off to her mom to show off her very own piece of pie. I took one last look at Sophie, who was now curled up in her mom’s lap. They were in the middle of a shelter with people they didn’t know celebrating Thanksgiving, but at least they had each other. It was more than a lot of people had at this time of year.
With a sigh, I turned around and grabbed a cup of water from the drink station. Ethan and Jamie had each other, and although I counted myself lucky to have them as my friends, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still an outsider. They’d never made me feel that way, but the holidays had always been a time for family. Real family. Real family that didn’t hate you for who you loved.
I shook my head in an attempt to drive off the memories of a past I was no longer connected to. Today was a day to be grateful, and if making one little girl smile over a piece of pie was how I spent my Thanksgiving, I’d take it.