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Food For Thought
He stank. His britches were covered with patches of mud and his little-darker-than-tan arms were coated with long grimy hair and chips of yellow paint. His black tongue stroked over the chunks of cavity infested teeth, which numbered no more than fifteen. His hair was disheveled, as if he hadn’t looked into a mirror for years. Of course, neither had I.
“It’s ‘most our turn now,” sighed the man with a slight chuckle, shuffling in the line and scratching at his flea infested skin. “Ma stummick is growlin’ like a monsta’.” He peered over the heads of the other poverty-stricken men at the door of the soup kitchen. “Haha, we’ll be in da nex’ roun’. Howdya think it’ll go dis time?”
I shifted uneasily, wiping my sweaty hands on my dirty, torn rags, which still smelled faintly of singed metal and gasoline. “‘m hungry too,” I grumbled, avoided his eyes, and cringed from the churn of the gastric juices which caused my stomach to growl loudly. My eyes darted to the snaking line of people behind me who also lived in the poorest of all conditions, either begging or stealing to barely get by with enough food for two meals a day. “There’s always those who have’ta live like dat,” I thought, lightly waving my hand in an attempt to shoo off a nearby fly. The simple action tore me from the trance-like state of my thoughts and focused my eyes on the blurry figure of the soup kitchen waiter, ushering in the next group of us beggars.
“Come on now,” urged the waiter. “We haven’t got all day.” With a gentle pull, he dragged both the shaggy man and me into the restaurant. The inside of the restaurant contrasted with the cracked, litter-covered pavement outside, that has long been trampled under the feet of the poor. It was a scene long glued in my mind after all of the times I had visited this restaurant. The same cool air circled around my head, and the same cold black and white tiles, polished until sparkling, supported my feet. A round table, coated with a thin glass sheet with a rotating piece at the center and surrounded by eight chairs greeted me with a kind welcome.
My hand clasped the nearest open seat, and my eyes scanned the room again, not noting any new changes since my last visit here except for the large LCD television set up along the wall which broadcasted a stiff Caucasian man in a black suit, entombed by an air of superiority, spouting sophisticated words. “Good Afternoon Americans,” he said. “I, President Prospero Goodman, am here to inform you of the success of our policy for eradicating poverty. As you know, the policy provides blue-collar jobs and decent housing to the financially challenged, as well as tokens which can be traded for basic necessities. These unfortunate people are also allowed access to local soup kitchens once a day, which provide free gourmet mea…”
The president’s voice was cut off by a row of waiters marching in synchrony out of the kitchen, each one carrying a platter capped with a stainless steel cover. One by one, they placed each platter on the turntable. The chef, dressed in the typical chalk white robe and tall cylindrical hat, gave it a light spin as he read off a menu. “Shrimp fried rice, deluxe salami sandwich, fettuccine alfredo, escargot and basil salmon terrine, fresh veal and parsley, Peking duck, eggs Benedict, boiled lobster.”
A loud murmur passed among the eight “financially challenged” lions, ready to devour the meals set right before their face. The shaggy man, who happened to take the seat next to me, did his best to put on a cautious face, but no one, not even I, could hide from the tempting odors floating around the room, each and every one of us salivating so much the simple body part called a mouth could barely contain it. “W’ich one d’ ya think’s worst this time, eh?” asked the ragtag man, grinning at me and once again revealing his cavity-stricken teeth.
Once more, I shifted uncomfortably and focused intently on the platter that sat before my eyes. “Dunno,” I muttered. “Just hope I don’t get that salami sandwich.”
“Yeah, da rest look pretteh good. So who da ya think…”
The voice of the man next to me was drowned out as the waiters took their places, with a single hand upon each corresponding lid. In a flamboyant movement, a young waiter, a man somewhere between the age of twenty and twenty-five, revealed the contents of the plate that sat right in front of my face. Fettuccine alfredo. I sighed out of relief. At least it wasn’t the salami sandwich. My right hand picked up the silvery fork and slowly twirled it in the sea of cheesy noodles slowly, picking up a glob of noodles between the tines of the fork.
The chef looked around to make sure everyone was situated. “You’ve got ten minutes to eat, and it starts…Now!” The chef hit a button on his stopwatch and a simple beep symbolized the start of our ten minute meal. The other waiters stared intently at the eight of us and waiting to clean up any leftover trash that may result from the meal.
My stomach growled again, this time louder than before. I gently lifted the fork to my lips looking around at the other rough men, who, just like me, gently handled their food with the same cautious look. Nibbling at the ball of noodles at the tip of the fork, the creamy, juicy noodles caused my desire to swallow the plate in one gulp to get even stronger. But I held back, just like the rest of the “customers.” My eyes darted around again. The man seated right across from me held the salami sandwich, seemingly unsure of what to do.
“Anyone wanna trade?” he asked, waving the salami sandwich around. “Anyone?” he asked again, this time softer. Those seated around the table seemed to ignore him, merely staring at him intently, not giving heed to a single word he said. His hand, the one that held the sandwich, trembled. “How ‘bout I give ya three shower tok’ns and five clothing tok’ns with it? Good deal, eh?” The table remained silent, but I could see half the eyes around glimmered, contemplating whether to take the deal. Desperate, he tried again. “How ‘bout a Linco’n? Five bucks, guys. Five bucks!” This brought forth laughs from around the table.
“If ya’ had five bucks den ya’ wouldn’ be here!” laughed the guy to his right, patting him on the back. “Haha, ya make nice jokes. If ya’ weren’ here you’d be a comedian, huh? Buaha…”
He looked like he was about to make another corny remark, but the chef, with his burly arms built from years of cooking grabbed the shoulder of the salami man and his neighbor. “Eat!” he commanded. “You’ve got five minutes left.”
The salami man shuddered, but did not dare to ignore the order of the large fingers and powerful arms. With a newfound haste, he obediently lifted the sandwich to his teeth and took a large bite. Two bites. Three bites. I grew tense. My mind became alarmed. “Could it be that I had…”
Whatever doubts I had were instantly shattered in the next moment, as the man, with a look of absolute fear on his face, grabbed his chest. One cough. Two coughs. Three coughs. Then a torrent of fresh crimson colored the black and white floor, as blood poured from his mouth. The man’s body hit the floor with a thud, the blood now spurting from both the nostrils and the gaps between his teeth. He was dead, but the rest of us could have cared less. I voraciously stabbed my noodles, barely having enough time to chew before I swallowed. I didn’t look around but without a doubt the rest of the room was following suit.
“You’re pretteh darn good at guessin’” said the shaggy man between bites of escargot, the sauce smeared upon his lips red as the bloody floor. “Bettah help me agin nex’ time.”
“Um jus’ locky,” I slurred, with a mouthful of fettuccine, its soft texture now so much more palatable without the tension of the unknown fate. And it seemed that way for everyone. Already, the mood had lightened up, all of us viciously devouring our food.
A laugh could be heard from the older waiter behind me, as the two of them brought out a body bag from the pantry. “Why do they hafta kill these guys?” asked the younger of the two, the one that was serving me earlier, filling out a blue identification form and stapling it to the corpse’s forehead with a sickening squelch. “I still can’t get used to this no matter how many times I see it.”
The older one, a man a good way into his 60s, who began to mop up the bloody streak formed by the dragging of the dead body, chuckled again. “Son, these guys, they don’t do much but beg an’ steal. We give ‘em good food and a chance ta work an’ live. It’s all part of that President Goodman’s ‘Russian Roulette Plan’. I was like ya’ at first, but this plan really works, heh. In a few years, we’ll be a poverty free nation.”
As the two picked up the body bag and flung it on their shoulders, I heard the younger one ask another question. “So why’d they keep comin’ back?”
My tongue smeared across the bowl’s edge, the remaining cheese and butter covering my lips like a coat of paint finish on a newly painted wall, listening intently for the answer.
“Look at dat one,” the older waiter said, pointing to me. “The food is so temptin’, that they can’t help but come back. He’s licking da bowl like some dog from the slums. Well, they aren’t that much better than that anyway.” He chuckled again at his own joke. “It’s much better to die here than to starve ta death on the streets. At least ya die with a full stomach.”
I watched the young man nod, and the two carried the body bag out the back exit, the delicious aromas of the lethal meal still floating in the air.