Community Service by Sean Daly

Community Service

Frankie shifted in his chair.
It was Tuesday night.
His night to work at the homeless shelter.
He looked at the number of bodies outside the door waiting to come in.
They formed a huddle.
Moving in the dim light.
Many gathered around the lone trash can and flicked ashes at it,
knowing full well that the ashes would never make it to the bin.
Frankie hated their half-hearted attempts.
And this idea that they needed a helping hand.
Yeah, right.
A helping hand,
my ass.
Or that they should be pitied.
For what?
For fucking up their lives?
Frankie recognized an older couple that lived in their car.
Phyllis and Earl.
They came to the shelter once the temperature dropped.
Earl had emphysema.
He sucked on his oxygen all night.
Phyllis had a beard that she didn’t pluck,
but shaved.
He wondered, were those two married before?
Or did they meet at the shelter?
He wanted to know.
But he never asked them.
Like he wanted to know more about Jan.
The only other host besides him.
“Five more minutes,” Jan said.
She walked by Frankie and touched his back.
Her touch was divine.
God Damn divine!
From day 1,
he loved everything that she did since meeting her at the shelter.
The shelter that was once a church,
until a proper church was built.
Then it became a gym,
until a gym was built.
When the room had no meaning,
they dubbed it a “multi-purpose room”.
It had a basketball hoop still fixed at one end,
but nobody shot a ball at it anymore.
They installed an extra bathroom, though.
A unisex one with a shower.
Frankie eyed Jan’s backside,
as she continued to walk by.
Nice and big.

“They’re getting restless,” Frankie said. He wanted to let Jan know this, but he didn’t do anything without Jan’s approval. She was in charge, but she walked into the kitchen not saying a word. She leaned over the counter with cutlery and paper plates in her hand. Frankie looked in her direction. She was a single mother who owned a feed store. She was approaching middle age but she was the type that looked better with age, with a bit of weight. It fell in all the right places. Frankie had seen a picture of her with her kids when they were younger. She had it on her dashboard of her truck. Ruffled and faded. Jan had an edge, a veiled meanness, Frankie thought, but she had a heart too. She was like sweet and sour pork.

She was comfortable bossing people around too.
Comfortable feeding people.
And she never talked about her ex.
That Frankie made a mental note of.
The ex that was gone, gone, gonzoe.
There was a reason for her being here though.
“My father was homeless,” she explained once.
She had spent nights in these shelters as a kid.
These shelters saved her and her mother from the streets.
But she never converted.
She wasn’t Catholic.
Or Christian.
She was a proud atheist, in fact,
but a few months back she said, “I thinks there’s something out there, but not some dude with a beard.”
She said this without any provocation.
Frankie remembered her pointing to a picture of the Sacred Heart above the coffee pots when she said it.
Jesus’s chest opened up,
His heart blazing with love.
Frankie didn’t have any opinion on such matters.
What he did know was that he got a DUI a while back,
and he was given a choice of where he could serve.
So he decided to do his community service hours at the shelter.
It was warm and he got a meal out of it.
Not bad.
Fr. Cotter told Frankie that Jan ran the program.
“The church provides the dinner and you help serve it,” Fr Cotter said, “our guests make their own beds and put everything back in the morning.”
Our guests?
At the time, Fr. Cotter was wearing a monk’s robe like those kind from the middle-ages.
Frankie didn’t think they still did that.
Wore that.
Fr. Cotter had a rope tied across his big belly and he wore sandals, too.
But with white socks,
and his socks had holes in them.
At the ankles.
Jan gave the thumbs up, so Frankie opened up the door and the homeless walked inside.
They showed their TB cards.
They got their mats.
They got their blankets and pillows, too.
They staked out a place in the multi-purpose room.
To sleep.
Pretty civil.
All in all.
Jan called out his name from the kitchen.
Frankie used two hands to get up from his chair because of his size.
He was large.
Obese according to the technical definition.
But he detested that word.
He looked it up once on the internet.
And calculated his body mass index afterwards.
And he determined that if he lost 25 he’d just be a run-of-the-mill fat guy.
Frankie’s wife didn’t help.
She would nag him about his size, sometimes.
His wife wasn’t opposed to him working at the shelter.
“But what you really need to do is work off some of that weight,” she would say.
Frankie’s wife drank and smoked cigarettes and told Frankie that it would be more beneficial to pick up trash along the side of the road.
To lose the weight that is.
But Frankie said, “No Goddamn way!”
That was for losers.

Finally Frankie got up with a bit of effort.
He hiked up his suspenders.
His feet swelled and rose out of his sandals like two pot pies.
He shuffled to the kitchen to see what Jan wanted.
There was a big bowl of pasta in front of her.
Jan spooned a mouthful of marinara and noodles into her mouth.
Most of it dripped onto her chin.
It streaked down.
Frankie lifted a napkin toward her mouth and wiped it.
She closed her eyes and let him.
She said, “You can take the girl out of the shelter, but you can’t take the shelter out of the girl.”
She fake laughed.
As in Yuk! Yuk!
Frankie loved it.
She had on jeans and a shirt that showed her cleavage.
A glorious divide.
That went on infinitely.
He could only imagine where it ended.
“Food’s up!” she shouted across the hall. “Come and get it!”
Frankie could feel the weight of her breath.
The moisture from her mouth.
And he tasted the tomato sauce.
That flew from her lip.
Onto his.
Frankie made sure everyone formed a line.
The smell of a hot meal filled the air.
Soon there would be the aroma of coffee, too.
Soon Jan would wave goodbye and Frankie would get ready to stay the night.
Soon he would set up his mat like everyone else, and wander over to Phyllis and Earl.
And say goodnight to them.
Not because Earl was a Vietnam vet who flew a chopper.
Who mowed down the enemy.
Strafing the jungle from his Huey gunship.
Or that Phyllis was once a bookkeeper for an insurance company.
That folded.
Because the Department of Insurance raised the amount of reserves needed.
He just liked them.




Sean Daly lives in Ojai California with his wife and children. His work has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Jersey Devil Press, and The Hell Gate Review. His memoir, What We Talk About When We talk About Cancer, was published in 2016. He tutors reading and writing at Todd Road Jail in Ventura CA. @seangdaly.


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