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Friday's Soup


ESRAmagazine Short Story Competition - First prize 

The first time I saw old Leonard with his baggy pants and stringy hair, he stumbled towards us with a big smile, his missing front teeth frightening me even more. When I pressed back against my mom he looked sad because he'd frightened me. I felt my mother's reassuring pat on my shoulder and her voice say, "Welcome Leonard and how are you this morning?" She gently nudged me forward and when I handed him the sandwich, he said thank you and then let his cup be filled with soup by my sister Beth.

That following Sunday when Leonard reached the front of the line, he laughed and said, "Sonny, you got nothing to worry about because without no teeth I ain't got nothing to bite you with!" Mom and Beth laughed, and I laughed, and so did Leonard. He handed me a Spiderman comic that I could hardly read yet, but I liked looking at the pictures anyway. He said I could call him Lenny and we became great friends after that.

Ever since I can remember, on Friday afternoon after we got home from school, Mom would lift the big pot from under the sink on the back porch, fill it with water, and set it boiling on the stove. For the next half-hour we'd hear the thud of the big knife chopping vegetables on the cutting board. In the summer months the carrots, onions and tomatoes were picked fresh from our garden; in winter we bought them at the A & P. The soup varied from week to week. Sometimes we added red beans, other times rice or noodles, occasionally some chicken, but it was mainly vegetables.

The sandwich department – mostly peanut butter and jelly – was my department. Mom bought these huge jars I had to stick my whole arm down inside to scrape out the bottom when they got low. When I asked why she didn't just buy regular size like Skippy or Jiffy she explained that buying food in big containers cost a lot less. I didn't exactly understand why that was so, but I knew we didn't have much money, so I didn't argue.

Sunday morning after Hebrew school was always followed by an hour or two at the city square, ladling soup and passing out sandwiches to the ragged men on the streets. I thought it was just the second part of Sunday school, like a play with two acts. When apples or bananas were cheap she'd buy a big bag and I passed them out. One year on Thanksgiving, Beth made pumpkin pie and Mom splurged and bought whipped cream in a can and I squirted it on top of each piece; they really liked that.

Mostly the people in our line were old men, but sometimes they were young. One thin man with long hair and a beard jabbered away to himself all the time, cursed and said words that Mom would have soaped my mouth if I had said, but Mom smiled and talked to him anyway. Occasionally women and teenage girls showed up. Once in a while Mom brought a bag of her and Beth's old clothes and she let the street ladies search through the pile and find something they liked.

I was used to the people of the street: Lenny, Lizzy, Prince Albert with his funny coat and hat, Reuven and Marty, Betty pushing her shopping cart, One-eyed Joe, Bart and all the others. Sometimes one of the regulars wouldn't show up on Sunday and Lenny, who seemed to know just about everything, would tell us that Sam had moved on down the coast, Maria had been arrested again, or that Benny Bozo had died last winter. After all these years they'd become familiar, some of them friends, and I didn't think it so strange that people lived out on the streets as they did. 

I remember the day I realized that something was really wrong when I was passing out sandwiches and a pair of small hands stuck themselves in front of me. When I looked up I saw a boy just a year or two younger than me. Our eyes met and we stared at each other for few seconds, then he took the peanut butter and jelly and quickly turned away. I couldn't stop thinking about him all that day and the next. Somehow I understood grown men being on the street but not a boy and his mother. When I asked my mom about it she explained to me about confusing things like misplaced priorities, something called the Pentagon, and a war in someplace called Vietnam. But in the end it all just made me sad.

The next Sunday I brought one of my old shirts and a Snickers bar to give to the boy, but I never saw him again. In the following years more and more mothers and children began to show their faces in our line and Mom would say to Beth and me, "Just don't ever pretend you don't see these people. If you have nothing else to share, you can always just smile and say hello."

Sometimes we didn't begin making the soup until Saturday, but Mom said Friday's soup always tasted better because it gave more time to bring out the flavors of the vegetables and greens. I could never tell the difference, but Mom said she could. Friday's soup was a family affair, something the three of us always did together, because Mom wanted it that way.

My mother, she was a strict mom, but a good one. She made me do my homework, straighten my bed in the morning, hoover the carpets before lighting the Shabbas candles, and got mad at me when I burped on purpose in public and all. But she never said things to me like: "Do it because I'm your mother and I told you so" or "Boys aren't supposed to cry" or "When you grow up you'll understand." She always spoke to Beth and me like we understood whatever it was she was talking about and most of the time I did, or really tried to.

One thing though she wouldn't let us do was play cops and robbers or combat. If my friends brought their toy guns to the house she made them leave them on the front door step telling them that too many people have died in pointless wars to make a game out of it. At first my friends thought she was kind of kooky, but after they hung around our house for a while they got to thinking she was cool because she didn't care if we used the sofa cushions to make a raft through bubbling quick-sand pits and piranha infested rivers or made a mess painting out in the garage. About things like that she didn't care at all.

I remember during that last year when something began changing in my mother. She started moving a little slower and there was a look in her eyes I'd never seen before. Then, some mornings, my sister made breakfast for the two of us before we went off to school while Mom stayed in bed. Mom said she was tired and needed extra sleep before she went off to her job.

Mom told my sister before she told me because Beth was older and Mom thought it would be easier for her. Well, it wasn't because Beth cried a lot more than I did. I suppose it was because I didn't exactly know the meaning of the word malignant. I knew it was bad, but didn't know how bad.

As the months went by Mom got worse. Sometimes she was too tired to go temple and saved her energy instead for going to the square. At first I was afraid because I thought maybe something awful would happen to me if I didn't go to temple, but when I looked at my Mom I realized something awful had already happened and it had started long before we'd stopped going. For a while I considered not believing in God at all, but Mom said not to stop on her account because she still had faith.

Mom got more and more sick and was in and out of the hospital. She tried to smile and keep us from being afraid, but when she thought we weren't looking I could see the pain in her face. Her skin had a funny color to it and she'd lost a lot of weight. I knew she wasn't going to get better the day she couldn't eat the chocolate covered macaroons that Beth and I brought her; they were her favorite sweets. 

One day Mom and I were in the hospital room playing canasta to pass the time when we heard a commotion out in the hall. It got louder and louder and suddenly, there at the door, were Lenny and his friend Bart. The nurse pushed in right behind them scolding and saying things like they couldn't come in here. I could understand how the nurse might be cross because Lenny and Bart were kind of wild looking and she didn't know they were our friends, but I could see Lenny had combed his hair and even put on a clean shirt for the occasion.

When I looked over at my Mom her face was all lit up and there were tears in her eyes. Then she smiled a smile I will never forget for the rest of my life. She stretched out her hand and said, "How sweet of the two of you to come visit me." The nurse rolled her eyes and left us alone.

It rained that day just as you might expect it to. The funeral was simple and modest. People from temple came and a few of the neighbors. My mother's brother, who I had only met twice before, showed up from somewhere out west and helped with the wooden casket. I was only twelve but able to carry a corner at the foot of the box. When the rabbi said we were one short of a minyan to recite Kaddish, I looked up and saw Lenny, Betty, One-eyed Joe, Bart, Prince Albert, and a half a dozen others from the square standing in a soggy huddle looking sad and low; they must have all chipped in together and gotten themselves a couple of taxi cabs to get all the way out there to the cemetery. Since we figured that anyone named Leonard must be Jewish, Kaddish was said.

When everyone had taken their turn tossing a handful of dirt into the grave, Lenny laid down a cluster of branches, which I recognized were from the bush that grew behind the bench we always served our Sunday meal from. He said to Beth and me, "I'm real sorry about your mom. She was a fine, fine lady. You probably didn't know that a lamed-vavnik could be your own mother."

When he realized from my blank expression that I didn't know what he meant, he added, "It's said that it is only because of the thirty-six righteous souls living on earth at any one time that God keeps the world spinning. Your mother might have been one of them."

That long week after Mom's death crept by slowly and I still couldn't believe she was gone. When I came in the front door after school one day Beth was in the living room just sitting on the couch waiting for me. She looked up and said, "Well, it's Friday." It took me a moment to understand what she was getting at and then I remembered. I had forgotten – it was Friday. Then I started crying, and Beth cried, and we both held onto each other and cried on the couch.

When we were done we looked at each other and kind of laughed. We knew we had something to do. I pulled the pot out from under the sink, set it on the stove, and got the water boiling. Beth rummaged through the refrigerator and started in whacking at the vegetables on the chopping block. I found a bag of pinto beans in the back of the cupboard and dumped them in. Before we lit the Shabbas candles, we both made a vow then and there that our soup would always be the best soup, Friday's soup, because Mom would have wanted it that way. 

See also: Bill Strubbe: The Winner by Carol Novis



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Thursday, 18 July 2024

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