Empty boxes. Banana boxes, frozen entrée boxes, Healthy Start cereal crates, waxed produce boxes. The bread boxes, usually full and available for the taking, are also empty. They are piled waist high and haphazard just to the left of the entrance to the church, remnants from a week’s worth of meals, now abandoned and awaiting a free pair of hands to take them to recycling.
On the counter of the narrow, galley-style kitchen, I find four more boxes full of slightly rotting produce. I dig through softening tomatoes, spotted zucchini, and wrinkling eggplant. My brain begins to search for a formula for the day’s meal. Cauliflower plus cream plus broth equals soup. Eggplant suggests ratatouille, or perhaps curry. In the refrigerator I find four cooked turkey breasts and a dozen bags of prepackaged salad. How, I wonder, does this amount to lunch for sixty people who come hungry for so much more than food? I sort out onions, cauliflower, green beans, tomatoes, and eggplant and stack them in piles on the counter. I set potatoes for peeling in a colander in the sink.
At the window from the hallway, Janice stands with her oxygen tank.
“Well,” I say. “Looks like we’ll have soup.”
“What’s in them boxes?” She peers in to the boxes I start to carry into the hallway.
“Rotten tomatoes,” I say over my shoulder.
I set the counter with cutting boards and knives. Volunteers and slightly sullen community service workers have started to arrive. I set T.J. next to the soup burner so that he can cut directly into the pot. I get Mary de-boning turkey and put Cindy in the children’s room on salad detail so that her two year old can watch Barney while she chops. I start to chop onions while my mind quickly calculates: one steam table pan—green beans; two—soup; three—turkey casserole; four—vegetable curry. We need one more. This isn’t enough. The kitchen hums with sounds of chatter, chopping knives, and clanking pans. Dan takes over the sink beginning to accumulate stacks of used bowls and knives and pots. Potatoes are dropped into a pan of steaming water. Turkey is layered with corn, tomatoes, rice, and cheese. I no longer know whose hands are mine. By midmorning, the counter is slick with vegetable peelings, turkey bones, and plastic wrappers.
Elaine, another cook at this soup kitchen, had a dream that she was cooking a turkey in the roasting pan, and it turned into a ham. “That’ll never be enough,” she thought, panicking in her sleep. I once dreamed that I was making soup, but no matter how much I made the pot was empty every time I looked in. I wonder if these dreams of scarcity are about feeding those who come to the community meal or if they are about feeding something that hungers in us.
At 11:30, the fifth steam table pan of mashed potatoes is dropped into its slot. The lids are lifted. People have begun to stream in the doorway, coming in from a frosty morning. There is Richard with his stooped back and careful shuffle. Tom, Nate, Michael, and Chris come in before classes at the local college. Brian and Johnny are just off shift. Cassie and Lara come with their children. Troll, at this hour, is still sober. Janice is first in line. They fill their plates and find metal chairs at the long tables of the warm dining room. A woman comes in, but rather than heading into the dining room with the others, she stands in the doorway, looking. I don’t notice her at first. There is still much to do: the counter needs to be cleared, dirty pots and bowls stacked, the sink filled with soap and hot water. She doesn’t speak English. I take quick birdlike glances around the room, thinking about balance and flow, about portion size and numbers.
The woman gestures at the hallway where we usually have boxes of bread. “Pan?” she asks tentatively. “Hoy, no hay,” I say. But then I remember a package of waffles in the freezer. I ask her to wait. There is a box next to the kitchen that is full of produce. I hand her the waffles and gesture to the box full of heads of lettuce, droopy green onions, and radishes, Cindy’s leftovers from salad making and other remnants from the day’s cooking. “Lechuga,” I say before returning to the dining room to see if we are running low on forks.
A few minutes later, Mary catches my arm. “There’s a woman in the hallway walking off with a whole box of produce,” she says. I look. The woman has taken my gesture at heads of lettuce as a full invitation. She has loaded up our remainders—the cucumbers, lettuce, and peppers—into her box with the frozen waffles.
A whole box? Is there enough for tomorrow? The question catches in my throat. The woman hesitates. She sees that las gringas are talking about her. I hesitate too, and then hold up my hand to tell her it is OK. “Esta bien,” I say. “Esta bien.”
Only a few diners are left finishing their meal. We carry the remains back into the small kitchen—a scrape of casserole, the watery broth at the bottom of a vegetable pan, a few sad lettuce leaves, a gooey brownie. We wash dishes, the grey soapy water making tiny waves up to our elbows. Each steam table pan is scrubbed shiny. Each ceramic plate returned to a stack in the dining room. Each table cloth wiped free of smears and crumbs. In a rhythm of time and tide, the dining room empties and turns quiet. When everything is clean, I walk toward the door, hand lotion slicking my hands under my gloves and pass the heap of boxes, now topped off with a bag of plastic recycling, cake containers streaked with frosting, and several more pieces of implacable cardboard.
The stoop is dusted with snow. I take one last bag of trash to the dumpster. Every meal leaves me with a restless question I cannot ever finally answer. As I heave the trash into the metal dumpster and walk home along the snowy street, I do not know if I can trust it, this demanding abundance, this hunger in me. I wonder what is enough.