Lillian O’Mally couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten a warm meal. Even the food at the soup kitchen was cold by the time she got her helping. It never seemed to matter how early she got there, she always ended up last in line. People would sneak and push and bicker and beg their way ahead of her in the food line, and she’d always let them pass. Most of the time, she could comfort herself with the thought that they must need it more than she did. But some days, she would stand there fuming–lecturing herself for being so easily pushed around. On this day, she was leaning more toward the latter.
As she sat outside the kitchen that day, it occurred to her that it wasn’t just that she couldn’t remember the last time she had a warm meal, she really couldn’t remember the last time she had been warm. Really really warm. The kind that heats a person all the way to their bones and radiates outward. It must have been Summer, she realized. It was currently late January, and there didn’t seem to be an end to the cold in sight. The winter had been long, and frigid, and wet. The wet was the worst of all. It was one thing to be cold when you were dry, but once the snow fell, a person didn’t stand a chance.
Her mood was not improved by the fact that the kitchen was located next to one of those fancy coffee places. It wasn’t just that the smell of coffee wafted out each time someone opened the door. It was the steam she could see rising from each person’s cup. She was freezing to death out in the Colorado winter, and every other person that passed her, even the little kids, were holding pristine white cups full of hot drinks.
She bounced back and forth on her feet, trying to busy herself and stay warm. As she did this, she coughed quietly into the palms of her gloved hands, prompting the woman in front of her to turn around.
“Cover your mouth!” the woman barked.
Lillian, whose hands were, in fact, still covering her mouth, showed the women two middle fingers before pulling her hands down away from her face. Her back was toward Lillian, so she didn’t see it happen, but still, Lillian felt better. Then, Lillian sniffled, and the woman turned around completely in order to properly glare.
“Do you mind?” the woman said.
“Not at all,” Lillian replied before thinking about it. Then she sneezed.
“For the love of all that is holy. Just get in front of me. I don’t want you back here spitting your germs on me.” She opened her purse– a very nice, and very expensive-looking purse–and pulled out a small spray bottle. She began spraying it all around Lillian. Lillian stood frozen.
“Move,” the woman said, gesturing in front of Lillian.
Lillian stepped forward wordlessly. She couldn’t believe that was all it took to move ahead in the line. She sniffed again, a real need, but a slightly exaggerated one.
“Sniff all you want, said the large man in front of her. “I’m not moving.”
Worth a shot, she thought, as she continued to bounce around in the cold air.
Mercifully, the doors to the kitchen opened, and the line full of hungry and cold people began to file inward. Of course, Lillian was far enough from the front that she still had to stand outside while the first wave got their food and sat down to eat it. She didn’t begrudge them that. How could she? She wanted food and warmth just as much as they did.
As she waited, someone from the Kitchen came out with cups of coffee. They did this often, but it was almost always cold by the time she got her cup. Today, it looked like she was in luck. Teddy, one of the kitchen helpers, was headed her way with the tray, and she could see steam bellowing gently from the tops of the cups it held.
Lillian smiled, perhaps for the first time that day. Warmth. Finally, warmth. As Teddy handed her the cup, he gave her his warm, kind smile.
“Here you go, Lil,” he said. “Finally got a hot one for you.”
Lillian smiled at the man. He volunteered at the kitchen a few times each week. He was in his late 30’s or early 40’s, but beyond that, Lillian didn’t know much about him. Except that he was kind. He was always kind, no matter how grouchy or rude some of the patrons got with him, Teddy was always kind to them.
Lillian took the cup and thanked him. She clasped it in both hands and pulled it close to her face, letting the steam tickle her skin. She took a test sip to make sure it wasn’t too hot, and right as she went to take her first real, gulp of the warm coffee, she sneezed again. Try as she did to hold it in the sneeze shook her entire body, causing almost every drop of the hot, brown liquid to slosh out of the small styrofoam cup.
She heard the cow of a woman behind her laughing. She promised herself that the next sneeze she felt, she would turn around and deliver directly to her friend behind her. The made her smile slightly. but it didn’t make her forget the coffee.
Mmmmmm, Lillian breathed in the smell of the kitchen, and her mouth began to water. Sure, the food wasn’t spectacular, but it was food, and she was hungry. The day had been long and cold, and full of unsuccessful attempts at finding work. All she wanted was to eat, and then go home to her cold, dark trailer, and forget the whole day.
As she got closer to getting her tray, she realized with no small amount of excitement, that there was still good food left. Still hot food–not much, but if luck was on her side, she’d get a nice piece of fried chicken from the looks of it. As she inched closer, she realized that she was about to get the last piece of fried chicken.
Unfortunately, that also about the time that the cow behind her realized it, too. She shoved her way in front of Lillian, seemingly unphased by the same germs that had been so bothersome less than half an hour ago. Now in front of her, the cow grabbed a tray, and stuck it out to the server for the last piece of chicken.
Lillian had had more than enough of this bad day. She grabbed her own tray and hip checked the woman, sending her crashing into the other people waiting in line. The cow straightened, and charged straight for Lillian, but Lillian managed to stiff arm her, and save herself from too much injury.
It was then that Teddy appeared behind her. Gently, he touched her sinking shoulders. She knew what was coming before he said it.
“I’m sorry, Lil,” he told her. “But there are rules. I have to ask you to go.”
“I’m so sorry,” Lillian said, looking down, trying to get a hold of herself. The cow was attempting to regain her own composure. She stared at Lillian, defiance in her eyes as she grabbed her tray off of the floor and rejoined the line.
Only for a moment did Lillian consider that it might not be fair for her to have to leave while the cow got to stay and enjoy a meal. It was her own fault, she reminded herself.
What on Earth got into you,? she asked herself.
Lillian escorted herself outside. She stood out in the cool air for a moment before she began her walk. Her stomach growled. She tried to ignore it, and began her long walk home.
Before she’d even made it to the corner, she heard someone calling her name. She turned around to find that it was Teddy, carrying a styrofoam container in one hand.
“Here,” he said when he’d caught up to her. “A couple of the volunteers told me that it wasn’t really your fault: the whole mess back there. I thought the least I could do is give you some dinner.” He smiled at her as he handed over the box.
Lillian opened it to find a large piece of fried chicken sitting on top of mashed potatoes, and a generous pile of green beans. She smiled wide, and hugged Teddy.
“Thank you so much,” she told him. “You have no idea. Just, thank you.”
“No problem, Lil,” he told her. “Things’ll get better for you, Lil. I know they will. I can feel it.”
Her smile weakened. “I hope you’re right,” she said.