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The Worth of a Bowl of Chowder
I hadn’t like him before he opened his mouth, and when he did I found myself having to avert my eyes. A disheveled row of yellow teeth teetered uncertainly upon his swollen gums. About his teeth, his cracked, white lips circled, an uneven frame about his smile. I was instantly repulsed by not only his dental work (or lack thereof) but by the tangled mess of black wires mashed into his scalp, the tattered rags which draped about his emaciated form, the way his tendons snapped against the underside of his rough, grey skin.
It wasn’t as though anyone who’d filed through the soup-line had been particularly nice looking. Desperate people always looked that way, desperate I mean. And why else would you show your face in the soup kitchens if you weren’t desperate? I would have sold my soul to the devil himself before I’d have gone to the good-of-heart for such charity. It was a matter of pride. I wouldn’t have even been in that dreadful, rusty kitchen that day were I not fulfilling a tangible obligation. Miss Bell, my history teacher, had insisted that each member of her class volunteer in the community that semester. I didn’t understand why. What would charity teach me about history? I doubted the vulgar man before me had any inkling of who Charlemegne was, or who’d built the Eifel tower, or when Columbus had sailed the ocean blue. No, he was just a dirty vagabond, a failure with low enough morals that he would turn from a life supported by honest work to one in which he leeched off of the system. It was pathetic.
“Miss?” the man’s smile had vanished beneath closed-mouthed concern. My ladle was hovering in mid-air.
“Sorry,” I snapped, sloshing a meager cup of chowder into the man’s outstretched bowl. The pungent white liquid swirled about in the bowl before settling and uneven chunks of what appeared to be week-old clam climbed uneasily to the top of the mixture. I sniffed.
The man smiled at me again, in a mournful sort of way before responding, “Thank you kindly, young miss. ‘T’s awfully nice of you ta help us folk out.”
“Yes,” I murmured, gazing pointedly past him at the next wretched woman in line. The sooner I’d paid my dues to Miss Bell, the sooner I could get home. By this time, I desperately needed a bath.
My skin was glistening with sweat, my hair disheveled, and my old blouse speckled with broth and encrusted with little bits of clam by the time I finally emerged that evening. The cool night air enfolded me welcomingly as I strode north along the main street towards home. I stepped along briskly, wishing to get back as quickly as possible to take care of that much needed washing-up when, all of a sudden, I bumped headfirst into a tall black figure.
“Oof! Terribly sorry, sir, I was just heading…” I hastened to explain, head down, attempting to maneuver myself in a careful circle about the man when his meaty hand shot up and caught my wrist.
I froze, and looked up into his eyes for the first time. It was then that I realized that I was in desperate trouble. I was looking at a tall, muscular man with shoddy clothes, shaggy hair, and unevenly shaven beard. His grey eyes gleamed glowed in the light of the rising moon with the triumph and hatred of a wolf howling over a kill. I shrank back, attempting to yank my arm free, but the man’s hand was like an iron manacle. I wasn’t going anywhere.
“Let me go!” I squeaked, my voice distressingly weak. I knew it was a stupid thing to say. The man clearly wasn’t planning on letting go.
The man grunted, baring his chipped teeth at me in an animalistic snarl.
“Stop!” I shrieked, now over the initial shock which had robbed me of my voice.
“You’re gonna shut up now, I’m telling you,” the man growled, speaking for the first time. His breath was heavy with the smell of whiskey.
I whimpered as his hand contracted around my forearm, squeezing so hard that I could feel my bones bending in towards each other. I pulled against his grasp, my eyes darting madly about for anyone who might be witnessing my capture, but the street was deserted.
I was almost crying and beginning to lose hope, when I heard a familiar voice.
“Eh, Biff? What you think you doin’ with the young miss?” A figure had emerged from the darkness. It was the man from the soup kitchen. The one with the bad teeth.
“None of your damned business, old man.”
“Now Biff, I think it’s very much so my business. You see, this little lady here gave me one mighty fine meal down at the kitchens today. I’d say I owe her a debt, seein’ as I didn’t pay her nuthin’ for it. So how’s about lettin’ her go, big fella? I ain’t gonna ask again.”
“Shove off, grandpa,” Biff growled, turning away, me still heavy in his grasp.
The man chuckled. “See, that’s what I figured you’d say.”
In one fluid motion, the man lunged at my captor, revealing an iron crow-bar clutched in his right hand. It glinted once before braining Biff who cried out in pain before slumping like a sack of potatoes onto the pavement.
I rubbed my sore wrist in shock, staring up at the crooked-toothed angel who’d just saved me.
“Sir… thank you. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t…”
The man chuckled again, dropping the crow-bar to the pavement with a clatter. “No need for the thank yous, little miss. Since I lost my job on the railroad, it’s been kind folks like yourself that have kept food in my stomach and a roof over my head. Would that I could do such a deed for one a my savin’ graces every day. Don’t you worry your head none ‘bout Biff none neither. He’ll wake up with a nasty headache tomorrow, that’s all. An’ he’ll come round. You’ll see.”
Then, without even my asking it of him, the man lead me home through the dark, one paper-skinned hand resting on my shoulder. I smiled up at the stars which arched over our heads, silently thanking Miss Bell for the lesson I'd just learned: sometimes giving a needy man a bowl of soup can save more than just one soul.