For the Love of Holly


I took a look around the front of the building. I was amazed to see a large, motley crew of what had to be a hundred people milling around on the sidewalk. "Yolanda, come take a look," I said.

Yolanda joined me at the corner of the building. "Yeah, we gotta make more soup. We got a good crowd already, and I don't even see a lot of our Saturday regulars." She tossed her half-smoked cigarette on the ground, and a child about nine years old dashed over and snatched it up. "That'll stunt your growth, Rufus," Yolanda laughed. The boy, dressed only in an oversized t-shirt, ragged jeans, and worn out high-topped sneakers, gave her the finger and ran away with the cigarette in his mouth. "Kids," she said. "Don't know what's with 'em these days. I know that boy. His Momma is a crack whore who worked the corner two blocks over. I heard she got busted a coupla weeks ago, so I guess the little man there is on his own now. Hell of a way to spend your childhood."

As we went back inside, I asked, "What about Child Protective Services? Why haven't they taken charge of him?"

Holly spoke up. "They probably don't know about him. I bet his mother never mentioned him, and if he hasn't had trouble with the cops, no one but us knows he exists."

Yolanda said, "James, I told you before. This is the streets. God willing, the kid's found himself a warm place to sleep, and maybe some dealer to run for, so he earns enough money to stay alive. I know him a little. I don't think he ever been to school, but he's smart. Good enough with numbers to handle the money, and clever enough to know how much he can palm without gettin' his throat slit."

"Can't somebody help him?" I asked. "Take him in?"

"What, and make him a ward of the state? Send him to some group home where he'll be beaten by the bigger kids and turned into a hardened criminal before his voice changes? I know you don't believe it, but in some ways, he may be better off this way. He has friends, I know that much, and friends are what keep you alive in this world down here. If he's lucky, and some are, he'll grow up enough to make his way out of this sewer and make something of himself."

"Hell, I thought I had it rough as a kid," I said. "My Mom's a drunk, and my Dad killed himself with a needle when I was eleven, but at least I always slept indoors."

"Yeah, and you was headed for real trouble, from what I hear, but you're making something of yourself," Yolanda said. "You're a smart boy, and so far, a fast worker. Keep it up, James. You'll be somebody."

We started cutting up more vegetables, and not long after the dining room opened, JZ brought us one of the kettles, washed and ready. We started making a fourth batch of soup. Ma came by and said she'd let us know soon if we would need to make a fifth batch.

"Yolanda, how many servings do you get out of one of these kettles?" I asked.

"Usually about seventy. I just took a look outside. We ain't waiting for Ma to tell us to make a fifth batch. I guarantee we'll need it."

"What happens if we have left-over soup, or left-over ingredients?" I asked.

"Don't count on it. Some of our regulars come in as soon as the doors open, and then come back in and get another bowl of soup just before closing time. If we would have anything left over, we could freeze it and have a head-start on next Saturday."

We worked in silence for a while. Soon, JZ brought us a clean pot, and we started cooking our fifth batch of soup. When that was done, we cleaned up our part of the kitchen.

At 1:30, Ma closed and locked the front door, unlocking it only to let the last of the diners leave. There wasn't a drop of soup left.

"Time for lunch, kids. We got thirty minutes, no more," Yolanda said. "After that, we really gotta perform. With the lunch crowd we had today, I think we'll be really hopping at dinner time." Holly, Yolanda, and I took the lunches we had each brought from home out into the dining room, and we sat down for a much-needed break.

We ate quickly, and Yolanda went out for a cigarette, leaving Holly and me alone.

I said to Holly, "Ma said you first came here on a service club project in high school. What made you decide to keep coming back?"

"I don't know, really. I guess I just felt needed. Ma reminds me of an aunt I had who died when I was younger. I was really close to her. Yolanda made me feel really welcome, and I got comfortable working with her. Then I started to meet some of our regulars, heard some of their stories. Not all of them are bad people. Some are homeless because they are on the run from an abusive husband or boyfriend. Some have a place to stay, but can't make enough money to both pay rent and buy food for their kids. Some are war veterans, so devastated by their memories of combat that they can't cope with civilian life. When I first got here, I was sixteen. I guess I had led a pretty sheltered existence. I had no idea there was so much poverty and hunger in our own city. I thought that only happened in Third World countries."

"This almost seems like a Third World country," I said.

"Exactly what I thought," Holly said. "With high school, and only a part-time job, I couldn't afford to give any money to help, so I decided to give my time. And now, with college, I still don't have any money. Besides, I can see the results of the work I do here. This place grows on you. So I keep coming back."

"Where do you go to college?"

Holly replied, "I'm at the community college just west of the park. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was eighteen, but I knew that having only a high school diploma wouldn't give me many job opportunities, so I'm taking business courses."

"What happens after you finish those?" I asked.

"Well, I'll have an associate's degree in business administration, which would allow me to take some entry-level office jobs, but I'm thinking about going on and getting a bachelor's degree in hospitality management," Holly said.

I asked, "Does that mean hotel and resort management?"

"Yes, or restaurant management. I think that's what I'd really like to do. Run a restaurant. Not a family restaurant, either; something a little more up-market. Ma already wrote me a letter of recommendation to include with my college applications. My work here is a great resume-builder, and it's also taught me a lot about teamwork, job assignments, and supply management."

"Yeah, speaking of supplies, where does all this food come from?" I asked.

"City, state, and federal grants, the local food bank, some corporate donations of food or money, and a few private benefactors. This place is run by a small charitable foundation, not the government, so the door is pretty much open to get funding and supplies wherever we can. But what we get is barely enough. Sometimes we have to close up early, because we run out. I hate that. There are people out there who would starve to death if we didn't provide for them," Holly said.

We slaved through the afternoon, preparing food for a large evening crowd. Yolanda, Holly and I were already beginning to gel as a team. Before I knew it, Ma came by and said, "Jimmy-boy, it's almost 6 o'clock. You can leave now if you want."

I got a very meaningful look from Yolanda that told me what my response should be. "It's OK, Ma, I'll stay until you close the doors. There's a lot of clean-up to do here, and I'd hate to stick the others with taking care of my mess."

"Good boy," Ma said as she lumbered away. "I won't mark your time sheet until you walk out the door."

"You just scored some brownie points there, James," Yolanda chuckled.

"I really appreciate you staying to help, James," Holly said, flashing me a dimple-enhanced smile.

When I got home that night, I intended to take a shower and watch some TV, but I decided to just relax on my bed for a minute. I slept in my clothes for eleven hours straight.

The next few Saturdays were pretty much the same. Sometimes, we had a smaller crowd than we did that first day, and, because I was getting used to it, the work became a little easier. I got in the habit of staying until 7 or even later, to make sure that our work area was cleaned up.

Three Saturdays before Thanksgiving, Ma stopped me when I walked in the door. "I've sent off your time sheets to your probation officer, along with a note about what a big help you've been. I'm impressed with you, Jimmy-boy. And now I've got a question for you. Thanksgiving is coming up. I'm sure you don't have classes on Thursday or Friday. Do you have to work at your regular job?"

"No, Thanksgiving is a long weekend for me. Why?" I already knew the answer.

"That's a real busy time for us, and we sure could use the extra help. If you would come in on Thursday and Friday, as well as Saturday, I'll mark your time sheet with time-and-a-half for Thursday and regular time on Friday. That way, you'll be able to cut a few weekends from your sentence. You don't have to give me an answer now. Just let me know before you leave tonight."

When I walked into the kitchen, I was greeted by Holly. "I saw Ma grabbed you when you came in. She asked you to work Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week, didn't she?

I nodded.

"Are you going to do it? We could really use the help. The only time it gets busier around here is at Christmas. Please say you'll do it, James. We all love working with you."

"I'll think about it," I said.

Holly gave me another one of her award-winning smiles, and went over to her prep area.

When I walked over to my area, Yolanda was chuckling. "She likes you, you know."

"Well, I like her too. I like just about everyone here," I said.

"No, dummy, she really likes you! What, are you dense?

"What are you saying, Yolanda?"

"She's dyin' for you to ask her out, idiot! She thinks you're really cute. I'd agree with her, but you're a little too young and white for my tastes. But, hell, boy, ask her out!"

"No way," I said.

"Why not? Already got a girl?" Yolanda asked.


"Shit, boy, don't tell me you're gay? I never woulda thought!"

"No, Yolanda, I'm straight. I just don't want to ask Holly out."

"Why the hell not? She's cute as hell, she's nice, she's smart, some guys would say she's hot. She sure as hell has a nice body. Don't you agree?"

"I guess."

"Then, what is it?" Yolanda persisted.

"I had a serious girlfriend. Or at least I was serious about her. She's the one who got me in this mess." I told Yolanda the whole story about Marcy, her betrayal, and my arrest.

"Stupid bitch wasn't right for you anyway. You're a good boy, James. You deserve a good girl. And Holly's a good girl. She has everything a guy should want -- looks, personality, a good head on her shoulders, some dreams, and some plans to make them dreams come true. You should go for her."

"Yeah, and she has dimples, too," I muttered, I thought only to myself.

"What you say?" Yolanda laughed. "Dimples? You got a thing for dimples? Oh Lordy, that's too damn cute!"

"Yolanda, don't you dare say anything to anybody about that. I mean it. I consider you a friend. Don't embarrass me!" I scolded her.

"Oh, James, your secret's safe with me. Shit! Dimples! That's too damn much!" Yolanda was shaking her head and giggling.

"Shut up! She's coming over here," I hissed at Yolanda.

Yolanda tried to compose herself, but the look on her face told Holly something was up. "Did I miss something?" she asked.

Yolanda burst out laughing. Finally she managed to sputter out, "James just told me the sickest joke I've heard in a hell of a long time. But I ain't gonna repeat it to you."

Holly looked back and forth between Yolanda and me, parked her wheelbarrow, shrugged her shoulders, and walked away.

"You owe me, James," Yolanda said under her breath, still giggling. "Dimples, oh my God!"

When lunch time approached, Yolanda said, "I ain't taking lunch with you two today. I'm gonna give you and Holly some time alone. Tell her I got an errand to run. Don't worry, I'll be back before we have to start working again. Now, talk to her, fool!"

I told Holly about Yolanda's errand, and we took our usual spot in the dining room. As we ate, Holly asked, "Did you get a chance to think about Thanksgiving?"

"A little. I sure could use the break, but cutting a couple of weeks off my sentence is pretty appealing. And I know you guys could use the help."

"Say you'll do it, James. You know it's the right thing to do. Please? I'd really like to be able to spend more time with you." Holly reached across the table and grabbed my hand. I froze for an instant, and then our eyes met. As quickly as it had begun, we broke our gaze. Holly quickly removed her hand as color flooded her cheeks. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said it that way. I mean I really like working with you. You're so good at this, and you make the whole kitchen run smoothly."

I didn't say anything for a moment. I didn't know what to say. I remembered what Yolanda had told me earlier, and realized that it would be very easy for me to fall for Holly. I also remembered the promise I had made to myself the first day I met her. No women for me, not now. But, was that fair? Was I going to judge Holly just because of my experience with Marcy? What should I do?

Finally, I spoke. "Holly, I really like working with you. You're right, giving extra time over the holiday is the right thing to do. As soon as we're done eating, I'm going to tell Ma. And I have all of Christmas week off from work and school. Maybe I can put in some extra time then, too.

"That would be great. Thank you, James."

When I told Ma my decision about Thanksgiving, she said, "I knew you'd do it Jimmy-boy. The whole staff will be real pleased. Do you think you can put in some extra time around Christmas?"

"I have that week off from both work and school, Ma. I should be able to take some extra shifts. Do you do anything special for Christmas dinner?"

"We try to get as many turkeys and hams as we can, and we usually serve Christmas dinner from noon to 3pm. I don't know how it will go this year, though. It's getting harder and harder to get donations. Times are tough for everyone this year."

I thought for a moment, and then said, "Let me think about that. At school, we get some of our supplies donated, and a lot of the stuff comes really cheap from wholesalers. Let me talk to my instructor and see if I can learn anything."

"Would you do that, Jimmy-boy? Any help we can get would be very much appreciated." She gave me a big hug. "But right now, you guys need to get ready for the dinner crowd."

When I got home that night, I thought about Holly a lot. I still wasn't ready to ask her out. I still wasn't ready to risk getting hurt again. But, after I collapsed into bed, I dreamed about her.

On Monday at school, I approached my instructor, Mr. Fredricks, about getting help for the kitchen. He said, "James, that's an interesting idea. Let me see what networking I can do for you. The end of the year is a good time for people to try to get last-minute tax write-offs, so you may be able to get some additional donations. I'll get back to you on that."

The next day in class, Mr. Fredricks said, "Before we begin today, I want to have a discussion with all of you about something James said to me yesterday. As some of you know, he is working at the South Street Community Kitchen. That's a free dining facility, or soup kitchen as some people call it, that works completely off of donations of time, money, and food. James asked me to help him secure additional donations to help them to have a good Christmas dinner for the homeless people who depend on that place as their primary source of food. I'm trying to network with some of our suppliers and board members to get some additional materials for them, but I'd like to brainstorm with you about this. Does anyone have any ideas about how to help these people?"

One of my classmates asked, "Does it have to be food donations, or would money help?"

"James," Mr. Fredricks said. "You can probably provide better answers than me."

"Money is always a help. The place needs money to pay for utilities, maintenance, insurance, that sort of thing, just like a for-profit restaurant. Any extra money could be used for equipment upgrades or additional supplies. At Christmas, they try to serve turkey, ham, and all the traditional fixings, but they're worried this year that donations may fall short of the needs of the community. When they run out of food, they close the doors. It would be a shame to see the people they serve go hungry on Christmas, of all days."

"What about a bake sale?" one of the students asked.

The class broke up in laughter, but Mr. Fredricks quickly silenced them. "Let's refine that idea. You're all learning to be chefs, not just cooks. I believe your career goals are for work as chefs in upscale, gourmet restaurants, so how about this idea? What about a gourmet hors d'oeuvre and desert sale? We've already covered a lot of those recipes in our courses."

"Yeah," another kid said, "we could ask for a flat fee donation from people to attend the thing, and make some money and showcase our skills at the same time."

Another kid said, "How about if we just serve small samples of everything, only a bit of everything we can figure out how to make, and then take orders for larger portions to be delivered to these peoples' homes later? They would have to pay in advance, and if we did it in mid-December, we could send the money to James' soup kitchen in time for them to buy the stuff they need to put out a nice spread on Christmas."

"Who says we just have to invite individuals?" another student asked. "Let's contact restaurant owners and try to get them to come. If we're lucky, some of them will place orders for special stuff they don't normally have on their menu for the holidays. Plus, if it's any good, they'll know where to find a bunch of young chefs who need a job."

"Sounds good," Mr. Fredricks said. "Tomorrow, we'll talk about this some more. You have homework tonight, class. I want each of you to come up with two hors d'eouvre recipes and two desert items that you think you can make and that will go over well. I'll start doing some leg work to try to find a way to publicize this. We don't have a lot of time to plan this -- this whole thing needs to be pulled together in a little over a month."

Throughout the week, the entire class was buzzing about this new project. Some of us just thought it would be a cool way to get our names and resumes out there, which was true. We all got caught up in the enthusiasm. I couldn't stop thinking about what Holly would say if we pulled this off.

By Friday when I left school, we had something of a plan in place. Mr. Fredricks had called in a few favors from the school administration, and he and I were planning to meet Sunday at his house with a few other kids to work on publicity. That gave me time to go over the idea on Saturday with Ma, to make sure that we weren't planning anything that would be a problem for the foundation that runs the kitchen.

By this time, I was so excited about the idea that I got to the kitchen around 8:30 Saturday morning. The first person I saw was Ma. I gave her a quick overview of our plan, and she was thrilled. She invited herself to the meeting Sunday afternoon so she could learn directly from the source what was being planned, and so she could give her input.

"Give me your address, Ma," I said. "The meeting starts at 1:30. I'll pick you up."

Ma laughed. "Give me your address, Jimmy-boy. I'll come and get you. I've seen that piece of junk you drive. I don't know if it would survive my weight!"

The next person I saw was Holly. I couldn't contain myself. "Holly, have I got some news for you!"

"What is it James?"

I told her about our plan. The more I said, the more she smiled, and the deeper those awesome dimples got. "Oh James, that's wonderful!" she cried. "I can't believe you're doing this for us!"

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