The Shelter

She was coming his way wearing a white apron with blue flowers and carrying a tray full of fresh chocolate chip cookies.  She kept stopping and smiling at people, appearing very interested in everything they each were saying.  Impatiently and nervously Jonas smoothed his hands down his shirt front and, noticing his dirty too long fingernails, put his hands into fists in his lap under the long table.  She stopped to talk to the family who had just moved into the shelter last week, giving the little girl a one armed hug and ruffling the boy’s hair. 

Jonas felt an ache in his stomach similar to hunger as he watched her touching the children.  He wanted her to put her cool white hands on his face and take away the heat and the pain, he was always in pain.  He wanted her to put her soft arms around him and pull his head to her shoulder.  He closed his eyes and shivered as he felt a jolt of desire just for some human contact.

The last time Jonas had been physically touched by another person was Ash Wednesday, almost a year ago when he had gone to the church down the street from the shelter.  He had been walking by and the doors were open.  It was unusual for the doors to be open and see people filtering in on a Wednesday night and he had been curious.  He’d stopped to watch the people and felt the warmth from inside smelling the incense.  He’d decided to go in and see if he could just get warm.  He had been raised Catholic and was pleasantly surprised when he’d realized just how much he remembered from his childhood days in the church.  He had knelt before the altar, eyes closed, while the priest put a cross of ashes on his forehead.  Jonas could still remember the feel of the strong hand gripping his shoulder as he leaned down to make the cross with his thumb.

She was just three people away from him now and Jonas could smell her flowery perfume.  Lowering his head Jonas pulled his right hand out to scoop a spoonful of stew from the metal bowl but immediately put his hand back under the table to hide his dirty nails.  Jonas had gone to the free store that morning and the lady there had helped him pick out a slightly worn but clean oxford shirt and a pair of Dickies.  Sunday nights the boxing gym down on the corner of 4th and Carondolet let the homeless guys in to take a shower, they even provided soap and shampoo.  He had gone there and stood in the hot water as long as they would let him.  He had talked Althea, one of the women he had met on the streets into cutting his hair.  She had taken clumps of it in her small hands and cut it as close to his head as she could, using a dull knife.  He had cleaned his black shoes and shined them as best he could last night and he knew that he looked pretty good, or at least better than he had in the old sweatshirt and black pants he had worn for the last few months.

She was right behind him now and he took a deep breath absorbing her scent of flowers and soap.  She leaned between him and Crazy Martin and lay a cookie down on his napkin talking in her soft smooth voice.  “Hi Jonas, here’s a cookie” she whispered into his ear, her brown hair brushing across his face as she pulled back to a standing position. 

Jonas lowered his head looking down at his dirty hands as she moved on to the next person at the table.  Tears prickled behind his eyelids and he was shaking like a leaf as she moved away handing out cookies and dispensing smiles.  He could never bring himself to talk to her.     

He finished his stew quickly and efficiently and bolted down the cookie and bottled  water before hustling down the aisle and leaving through the side door.  As he opened the dented metal door he turned to look back at the assembled people and volunteers immediately spotting her on the right side near the bank of windows.  He watched her walk amidst the tables making everyone feel stronger and happier if only for a moment.  Jonas observed her for another minute or two before he left the shelter and walked out onto the alleyway leading to the busy street. 

As he came out of the alley and rounded the corner he ran into his friend Ali.  She was grinning like a fool and holding out a cupcake to him.  “Happy twelfth birthday Jonas!” Ali exclaimed.  “I’ve been waiting here forever for you to get out of there!” she chattered.  “Did you see her?  The lady who looks like your Mom?”

Jonas took the cupcake out of her extended palm, broke it in half, gave half to Ali and began walking north up Carondolet with a swagger in his step.  “Nah, I was wrong, she doesn’t look anything like my Mom, she’s just another bleeding heart” Jonas said over his shoulder as Ali scrambled to catch up with him.  Ali and Jonas headed for the park to start their day, both chewing their half of Jonas’ cupcake.  “It’s going to be a good day Jonas, the sun is already strong so they’ll be lots of people in the park to pan handle today.”  Ali chirped as she skipped alongside him with icing on her face.

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