The young woman walked into the Church basement, her head down and three children in tow. She stopped and assessed the room layout with tables on one side and chairs on the other side. Then shuffled across the floor and pointed to chairs where the children promptly sat, and she stood guard next to them.
Barb approached with an outstretched hand. “Welcome to the Pantry, glad you came. I’m Barb, the volunteer coordinator. You’re new here, right?”
The small, dark-haired woman took the offered hand. “I’m Maria. Yes, this is my first time here. I hope it’s okay I brought my children, I have no one to leave them with today.”
“Of course it’s okay. All are welcome here, especially such handsome and well-behaved children. We’re not quite ready to begin but do you want me to give you an explanation of how it works?”
“No, thank you, I’ll watch and figure it out.” Maria’s eyes went to Barb’s feet and stayed there.
Barb returned to her station as the clients lined up and went along the tables accepting or declining the foodstuffs piled at stations on the surfaces. All the clients accepted vegetables, pasta, and sauce, but most were not interested in two types of dry beans. Barb kept an eye on Maria who was intently studying the clients pass through the line. She watched Maria face her children and quietly address them. Maria turned and joined the end of the line and went along the tables piled with packaged goods. A nod and slight dip of the head acknowledged each volunteer who handed her a food item.
At the end of the pickup line, Maria stood with a box containing dry beans, canned vegetables, soup, raisins, dried pasta, and a bag of oranges. She looked up and met Barb’s eyes.
Barb smiled. “Maria, here are some lentils, they’re a really good source of protein. Add a few spices and they are quite tasty. Boil them for 20 minutes like the bag says.”
“Thank you,” said Maria, eyes fixed on the tabletop.
“Maria…” Barb started, but waited for Maria to look at her.
When Maria raised her head, Barb continued, “You know, many people don’t want the dry beans, may I give you another bag?”
“It’s okay, it will not cause anyone to go without. Besides, I’m kinda in charge here anyway.”
“Yes, thank you,” Maria said.
“Perfect.” Barb handed her a bag of dry beans. “Here, they go well with rice, so take these two bags of rice as well, the bags are small.”
Maria’s rich brown eyes lit up. “Really?”
“Yes,” said Barb, “the bags are small, and they really do go well together.” Barb chuckled, and both women smiled at the joke.
Maria returned to her children. The oldest boy peered into the box, pulled out the bag of oranges and started wiggling in his chair. He hugged the bag and wiggled more. A quick glance from Mom settled him down.
Barb continued to volunteer at the food pantry as summer faded into fall. Winter was approaching and that always brought more need to the area. Maria and her children were clockwork regular every Tuesday, their appointed day. The volunteers looked forward to their visit as Maria and her well-behaved children were always grateful for the generosity of strangers.
Barb was excited this week as the local grocery store came forward with a donation of a turkey or chicken for the food pantry clients. It would be a welcome addition to the usual fare from the pantry.
Barb handed out lentils to those that wished and vouchers, which all took. At the end of the line, Maria looked at the piece of paper Barb handed her. “This too?”
“Yes, Maria, that voucher is good for a turkey or a roasting chicken. Just take it to the grocery store down the hill, pick one out, and hand them this.”
“Thanks.” Barb saw her fighting back tears before she quickly turned away with her box.
Maria’s absence the following Tuesday caused hushed whispers among the volunteers. Her absence was a concern for the volunteers as she had been so regular. The week after that, the whispers became concern. There had been occasions where harm had come to some of the young women that suddenly stopped showing up. Barb asked around, but no one knew where Maria lived. Each week, concerns grew greater and a discussion about requesting a wellness check on her surfaced. None of the volunteers had been successful in gathering any information on her whereabouts.
Five weeks later, all the conversation quieted when Maria and kids walked into the pantry. She held her head high, and all four were full of smiles and joy; not always what one sees at a food pantry during Christmas week. Barb caught the eyes of a fellow volunteer and they nodded. Yes, indeed, Maria had come a long way.
Barb smiled as she approached Maria. “Welcome, Maria. So nice to see you and your little angels. You’re a bit early today, we need another thirty minutes to get ready.”
Maria pointed to the chairs and the children obediently went and sat. She turned to Barb and straightened up to be taller than her full five feet. “My Momma was bad sick, but she is better now. The hotel gave me my job back with extra rooms to clean.” Nodding toward her children. “Momma watches them during the day.”
“I can take every Tuesday off. We are all here to help. It’s Christmas week, everyone should have food. Blessed are we that found this food pantry. Please let us help.”
“If you don’t mind taking the spot next to mine along the table.”
“Thank you, Barb.”
Maria went to her children and spoke to them. The three looked at Barb and scrambled out of their seats, beating Maria to the table.
Barb turned to the other workers. “Volunteers, we have additional help. Maria and her children are here to assist us today. Blessed are we.”
NT Franklin writes cozy mystery short stories, nostalgia short stories, and Flash Fiction and has been published in Page & Spine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Fiction on the Web, Madswirl, Postcard Shorts, 404 Words, 101 Words, Freedom Fiction, Burrst, Entropy, Alsina Publishing, Fifty-word stories, Dime Show Review, among others.