Chapter 2: The soup thickens Another day, another blizzard – that’s life in Montreal in the depths of winter; snow, snow, snow varied with ice, blasting chills, colds and sniffles. Why was he still here? John continued stirring the soup. He leaned over the pot, carefully sniffing the aroma. Roasting the vegetables really did add another layer of flavor to the soup. He added some salt and tasted again. He’d been lucky enough to have a couple of large hams donated yesterday, so he’s spent some time cutting them up into small cubes of meat. He’d saved the ham bones and roasted them in the oven, too, and then added all that in this morning when he’d come in and started the day’s soup. Of course, once he’d decided that he had ham, he had to find some peas to go with it. This was French Canada after all, pea soup was almost mandatory. He’d soaked several bags of peas overnight and then started them out this morning by adding some large cans of chicken broth, the roasted ham bones and the roasted vegetables. Perhaps not quite authentic, but nourishing nonetheless – and that was the first imperative, the soup had to be nourishing. This might be the only meal some of the people got today. As he kept stirring, and adding “stuff” according to what his nose and intuition instructed, he couldn’t help but remember the young man who had helped him with the vegetables yesterday. Jeremy had caught his imagination – sure, he was good-looking, actually, very good-looking. But there was something else, something about him that caught at John’s heart. Who was he, why was he here? How could John help him? He crushed some garlic and added it to the soup, stirring it in, careful to keep the soup on low so as not to burn the bottom. He tasted, nodded to himself, and kept stirring. Yep, this was going to be a good soup today. It was eight o’clock, time to open the door. The overnight shelters would be letting the people out now, having fed them breakfast of some kind. They didn’t keep people during the day, just overnight. Everyone had to find somewhere else to sit and wait out the day. That wasn’t hard during the summer; Montreal was full of parks and plazas. You could easily spend a lovely day outside under the shady trees, enjoying the day. But in the winter, it was something else. It was bitterly cold in the winter, spending any length of time outdoors could be deadly, especially if you didn’t have a really good winter coat. Frostbite was a real danger. Every year some poor unfortunate homeless person, trying to avoid the shelters, huddled up against a heat vent somewhere in the city and discovered that it wasn’t enough. Every year there was a story about someone discovered dead in the morning. Sure, there were lots of shopping centers open during the day in Montreal, and lots of security guards to make sure that the wrong sort of people didn’t scare away the right sort of people with money to spend. That’s why the Shelter had been started as a place for people during the daytime, a place where they could come in out of the cold and find a warm lunch, a place where they could just hang out and not get hassled, a place where they could be safe. He opened the door, and they began to drift in, already standing in line to come in out of the cold. He nodded at the ones he recognized and greeted the newcomers. He’d already put the coffeepot on when he came in earlier. He did that first thing in the morning, even before he started the day’s soup. It took a while for the large coffee urn to get going in the morning. He would fill it up several times during the day, hot coffee to keep them warm, to keep them awake. About 2 pm, he’d switch to decaf. They never knew that he did that, but he didn’t want them wired up when they went to the overnight shelters; they needed their sleep undisturbed by caffeine dreams. By 9 o’clock, the place was filling up. It must be really cold outside today. Hal, his Tuesday volunteer came bustling in, throwing his “good morning’s” around indiscriminately as he wove his way through the people to get to the back and put his coat away. Tuesday was Clothing Day, so the volunteer came in earlier than usual to help. Hal went into the back room where the clothes were kept, and began to set out the day’s supply. Given the weather, he put out extra hats, mittens, scarves, and got the heavy winter coats ready. He set out a stack of thick, woolen blankets. Some of the people would take those to wrap themselves in – some for the daytime and some, unfortunately, for the night. Despite the weather, they wouldn’t stay in the Shelter all day. Driven by a restlessness they couldn’t explain, they would go out and wander around in the cold. Sometimes they would come back later in the day, sometimes they wouldn’t. He didn’t always know what happened to “his” people. Some turned up for a day or two and then disappeared again. Some turned up in the news – that usually wasn’t good news. Some, a very, very few, he could help. They would return to society and find a new place for themselves. Those rare stories kept him going – they were the ones who filled him with hope. “Listen up, everyone. Today’s Clothing Day, so if you need something, go over and see Hal. The clothing section will be open until just before lunch, and then again after lunch. Just go see Hal.” Some of them began to straggle over to the clothing room, lining up patiently. They spent so much time lining up to get things that it was second nature to them now. They were pretty good about it, there was very little jostling and almost never was there any conflicts. They knew that they would all get a fair share of what was available – and if it wasn’t there today, then maybe it would be tomorrow, or next week. Sometimes it was comical to see what colors and outfits they would put together. Most of them just didn’t care anymore about dressing well, they just wanted to be warm. The door opened, letting in another blast of cold air. John looked up, and smiled. It was Jeremy. He’d begun to wonder if he would come in today. He wondered if he’d maybe scared him yesterday with his questions. He really had to learn to listen and wait patiently for “his” people. “Hi, Jeremy. How are you today?” “OK, thanks. It’s really cold out there today.” “Yes, it is. Want some coffee? It’s over there; I just made a fresh pot.” “Thanks.” Jeremy went over to the coffee pot, poured himself a cup and then just held it in his hands, savoring the warmth. He was still fully dressed, cap pulled down low over his forehead, scarf wrapped around his face, coat collar turned up. John noticed that he didn’t seem to have any gloves. He hadn’t seen Jeremy take them off, and he wasn’t wearing any now. “Jeremy, do you need some gloves? Today’s Clothing Day, you’re welcome to go over to Hal in the clothing room and get some.” John’s natural parenting instincts seemed to take over. He found himself getting up and going over to Jeremy. He pulled out a chair for him, and helped him take his coat off – almost as if he were a little child who needed his dad’s help. “You really look cold, Jeremy. Are you OK? Shall I get you a blanket?” “No, I’m OK, just cold. It’s a long walk from my apartment to here, especially in the snow. I just got a little cold, that’s all.” He smiled up at John, his smile lighting up his face. Even with wind-chapped lips and red cheeks, he still was extraordinarily good looking. John decided that it was the blue eyes. He was a sucker for blue eyes. The long, angular face, the high cheekbones, all helped to give him an almost elfin beauty. Of course, who’d ever heard of an elf all bundled up to avoid the cold? Nonetheless, he was an elf, with some of the fey humor and mischievousness of a Puck giving his face character and laugh lines. John reluctantly pulled his eyes away from Jeremy. “Come on, go get yourself some gloves. You obviously need them.” John could be such a mother hen sometimes. He knew it about himself, but it was good cover up for other emotions. “Let’s just get you in there and find you some. Do you need anything else?” Jeremy got up and moved over to the clothing room. He was smiling. He looked at John, a twinkle in his eyes. Maybe he understood the mother hen routine; maybe he even enjoyed it. “Thanks, John. Ya, I do need some gloves.” Hal welcomed Jeremy at the door of the room and they disappeared together inside. John turned back to his soup. He went into the kitchen, stirred everything up again, just to check it, and tasted it carefully with one of the stack of little plastic spoons he kept for just that reason. One taste and then throw it away. That was the rule. Yep, it tasted fine. It was almost ready to serve. He began to set things out for lunch. He looked up with surprise as a set of hands took the bowls out of his hands and set them down in their place. It was Jeremy, wearing a nice newish wool sweater, its heather blue color going well with his eyes. He smiled at John. “Can I help? Thanks for telling me about the clothing room. I got this sweater and another thick off-white one. Hal said it was a fisherman’s sweater. They should keep me warm. Oh, and I got two pairs of gloves – that will really help, too. So, can I help?” Jeremy was almost chattering, he was talking that fast. John laughed aloud. What a change! His elf was perking up. “Sure, you can help. You seem to know what to do. Just put the bowls there, and I’ll get the spoons out for you to put there, too.” He turned away back into the kitchen, and started putting out more bowls and spoons. He pulled out a stack of paper napkins and put those out on the Dutch door for Jeremy to put out. He pulled out some loaves of pre-sliced bread and put those there, too. They were almost ready. Hal came in from the clothing room; seeming a little surprised that so much was already set out. John gave him the tubs of margarine, and then put out some fruit. They tried to have a lot of fruit available for the people who filled the Shelter at lunch, but they had to be careful about having a variety. John had learned early on that he couldn’t put out only hard fruit; a lot of the clients didn’t have good teeth anymore. So he put out some apples, and then supplemented that with bananas and ripe pears, and a few oranges, too. That way there should be something for everyone to eat. Jeremy got his bowl right away and then hurried off to eat it quickly. John wondered what was going on with him. Then Jeremy surprised him by quickly coming back and taking some of the fruit bowls and setting them out on the tables. He really seemed to want to help, and he seemed to be enjoying himself, too. Lunch went quickly with the extra help. Jeremy helped with the clean-up too, so that Hal could go into the clothing room a little earlier than usual. John finally took his own bowl of soup and went over to sit down. Jeremy came to sit with him. “Thanks for letting me help, John. I liked that. Do you need any help in the kitchen this afternoon? I could help peel vegetables; I could even chop them up, too.” “Sure you can.” John felt a little uncomfortable about letting Jeremy use a knife. He was pretty careful about doing that with the clients. But Jeremy was different. John wasn’t sure what was going on, but he just felt that he could trust Jeremy. He hoped he was right. “So how come you walked over this morning? Did you run out of money? I know it’s late in the month.” “Well,” Jeremy blushed and looked down, reverting to yesterday’s behavior, “it’s too cold to go cruising. Most people just don’t go out in the evening when it’s this cold, so I didn’t make any money the last couple of days.” John realized what Jeremy was telling him, that he was a prostitute, selling himself on the street to make some money. He felt sad inside. It didn’t shock him anymore. He’d heard too many stories in the time he’d been working at the Shelter, but it still saddened him. He reached over and touched Jeremy’s hand. “It’s OK, Jeremy, we do what we gotta do to get by. I understand.” He left his hand there, just touching Jeremy, not wanting to impose on him but still wanting Jeremy to know that he wasn’t turned off, that he still cared. Jeremy looked up, smiled quickly and looked down again, but he put his hand over John’s, letting his touch speak for him. “How long have you been tricking?” “A while. There’s not much else I can do.” “What else have you tried?” “Well, there was the restaurant. That was good. But then I had to go to hospital…I have trouble sometimes ‘cause I don’t read too good.” Jeremy fell silent as John kept looking at him. John was surprised now. Jeremy seemed pretty bright, so why couldn’t he read? Did he have some sort of disability? If he did, why wasn’t he getting any government help? There were a lot of unanswered questions here. “You’ve mentioned hospital a couple of times now. Do you want to tell me about that?” “I’ve been in a mental hospital some. That’s why I don’t read too good. They don’t teach you reading in the hospital.” Now John was really curious. What was Jeremy’s story? And how could John help him? There was an awkward pause, and then John got up. “Well, are you ready to help me in the kitchen? Let’s go, the soup doesn’t wait around you know.” Jeremy looked up and smiled. He relaxed as he heard the words. He quickly got up and went into the kitchen with Jeremy. They worked well that afternoon, just as they had yesterday. They quickly prepared the next day’s soup and set in on the stove to begin simmering. The long simmering would really give it some depth of flavor. As they cleaned up and began to get ready to close the Shelter for another night, John came over to Jeremy. “If I give you some bus tickets, will you use them to go home and stay out of this cold? I’ll give you a book of tickets, that way you can use it tomorrow, too.” Jeremy took the tickets, looking at them slowly and then put them away in his pocket. Then, suddenly, he threw his arms around John and gave him a big hug. “Thank you. You’re really being good to me. Thank You. I’ll be back tomorrow, is that OK?” “Yes, Jeremy, that’s OK. I’d like to see you tomorrow.” Jeremy left and John locked the door behind him. He really needed to look into this boy’s story. Who could he call to get some background?