When you grab the yellow plastic tray, you notice everything is out of place. The salad is where the bread should be; the steaming beef stew is swallowing the red apple; the soft sugar cookie is hiding under a small carton of milk. Before you can rearrange them, a volunteer with a baby mohawk snatches the tray and hands it to a woman with sunburnt skin. She whispers, “Thank you,” to a line of young volunteers, but no one responds, except you — at least you think you do, but you’re never loud enough.
Mohawk boy elbows you. “Hey four-eyes, where’s your hot mommy?”
“Work,” you say.
It’s your first time at the homeless shelter without your mom, coordinator of the 8th-grade after-school program. “This will look good on your resume and college applications,” she would say.
A giant shuffles forward. You see him every week, long crusty hair and talking sneakers. He begins to yell at his shirt pocket, something about a leaky faucet, mold, and an owl. Everyone looks down, except people waiting for their meal. As he walks by, both paws clutching his tray, he starts laughing, a rumble you feel in your chest. You want him to see you smile, but you’re afraid to show him you’re not afraid.
After the last trays are handed out, all the volunteers run out of the kitchen, zipping through a few stragglers, as if they’ve just been dismissed for recess. No one is at the check-out window, so they all fling their badges toward the glass, phones inches from their faces. You hear a girl ask, “Did you get a pic of us helping?” as the double door shuts behind them.
The bus doesn’t leave for another fifteen minutes, so you step into the dining lounge. There are thirteen round tables, each with four chairs. It’s towards the end of the month, so it’s quieter than usual. Head down, you grab a wet rag from a bucket of disinfectant and start wiping the empty ones, some of which have bread drowning in spilled apple juice.
One by one, chairs begin to squeak backward. In the corner, alongside the doorless restrooms, a woman shoves a spoonful of stew into a man’s mouth after feeding herself. Pieces drip down his gray beard. You expect her to get mad like your mom does when she feeds your grandfather at home, but she just smiles, wiping his chin, his beard, his sweater, as if painting a statue.
The woman with crisscross notches on her arms and belly, the one who gives you coins from her tiny purse, gets up from her table, and says, “I wish I had something for you today kiddo.” You reach into your pocket to hand her the dollar bill you brought for her, but you’re not fast enough; she’s already out the door, trash bag of clothes over her shoulder.
You pass by the dusty wooden piano you’ve wanted to touch since you were eleven. When you asked your mom, she said, “Never touch broken things; you might make it worse,” so you never did, even though you have medals and awards hanging above your desk.
Last night, after spending two hours on homework and workbooks your mom bought at Barnes and Noble, you tried playing “Für Elise.” She told you it was a child’s song.
Looking over your shoulder and then at the piano and then back again, you inch towards it. There are several people left, two of whom are older volunteers with letters and numbers on their faces serving their community hours. Maybe they’ll yank you away like your mom did when you froze during your first recital.
Hands trembling, you sit on the bench as if it was made of thorns. You stare at the keys, chipped and cracked.
You wait but feel no one coming.
No crowd in the distance, in the darkness.
You think of all the songs you know how to play, ones that make people rise from their seats, songs that make your mom cry.
“Für Elise” floats from your fingers, filling the room.
Sitting alone, the giant stops mumbling for the first time and turns to you with unblinking eyes. The older volunteers waltz, circling their brooms. The painter drops her spoon. The statue comes to life, swaying his head, rocking back and forth to the melody.
You don’t see any of it. You just play.
Jean-Paul Lor grew up hating writing, which is why he pursued a BA in English two years ago — to get a better command of the English language. Unexpectedly, the story-telling bug stung him during a fiction writing course, while reading stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Kelly Link. Since then, he’s written a handful of short stories, several mediocre poems, and two really bad novels.