I left them at noon on Friday, four hours before my flight, and I headed back to my muddled life in D.C.
Of course, the apartment was empty when I returned Friday night, but with a new twist. There was a note on the kitchen counter. Following my cue, Claire had gone home to Providence for a couple of days. No reason was given. She asked me to phone when I got home.
I called her parents' and interrupted dinner. I labored through a five-minute chat in which it was determined that both of us were indeed fine, Memphis was fine and so was Providence, the families were fine, and she would return sometime Sunday afternoon.
I hung up, fixed coffee, and drank a cup staring out the bedroom window, watching the traffic crawl along P Street, still covered with snow. If any of the snow had melted, it wasn't obvious.
I suspected Claire was telling her parents the same dismal story I had burdened mine with. It was sad and odd and yet somehow not surprising that we were being honest with our families before we faced the truth ourselves. I was fired of it and determined that one day very soon, perhaps as early as Sunday, we would sit somewhere, probably at the kitchen table, and confront reality. We would lay bare our feelings and fears and, I was quite sure, start planning our separate futures. I knew she wanted out, I just didn't know how badly.
I practiced the words I would say to her out loud until they sounded convincing, then I went for a long walk. It was ten degrees with a sharp wind, and the chill cut through my trench coat. I passed the handsome homes and cozy rowhouses, where I saw real families eating and laughing and enjoying the warmth, and moved onto M Street, where throngs of those suffering from cabin fever filled the sidewalks. Even a freezing Friday night on M was never dull; the bars were packed, the restaurants had waiting lines, the coffee shops were filled.
I stood at the window of a music club, listening to the blues with snow packed around my ankles, watching the young couples drink and dance. For the first time in my life, I felt like something other than a young person. I was thirty-two, but in the last seven years I had worked more than most people do in twenty. I was fired, not old but bearing down hard on middle age, and I admitted that I was no longer fresh from college. Those pretty girls in there would never look twice at me now.
I was frozen, and it was snowing again. I bought a sandwich, stuffed it into a pocket, and slogged my way back to the apartment. I fixed a strong drink, and a small fire, and I ate in the semidarkness, very much alone.
In the old days, Claire's absence for the weekend would have given me guilt-free grounds to live at the office. Sitting by the fire, I was repulsed by that thought. Drake & Sweeney would be standing proudly long after I was gone, and the clients and their problems, which had seemed so crucial, would be tended to by other squads of young lawyers. My departure would be a slight bump in the road for the firm, scarcely noticeable. My office would be taken minutes after I walked out.
At some time after nine, the phone rang, jolting me from a long, somber daydream. It was Mordecai Green, speaking loudly into a cell phone. "Are you busy?" he asked.
"Uh, not exactly. What's going on?"
"It's cold as hell, snowing again, and we're short on manpower. Do you have a few hours to spare?"
"To do what?"
"To work. We really need able bodies down here. The shelters and soup kitchens are packed, and we don't have enough volunteers."
"I'm not sure I'm qualified."
"Can you spread peanut butter on bread?"
"I think so."
"Then you're qualified."
"Okay, where do I go?"
"We're ten blocks or so from the office. At the intersection of Thirteenth and Euclid, you'll see a yellow church on your right. Ebenezer Christian Fellowship. We're in the basement."
I scribbled this down, each word getting shakier because Mordecai was calling me into a combat zone. I wanted to ask if I should pack a gun. I wondered if he carried one. But he was black, and I wasn't. What about my car, my prized Lexus?
"Got that?" he growled after a pause.
"Yeah. Be there in twenty minutes," I said bravely, my heart already pounding.
I changed into jeans, a sweatshirt, and designer hiking boots. I took the credit cards and most of the cash out of my wallet. In the top of a closet, I found an old wool-lined denim jacket, stained with coffee and paint, a relic from law school, and as I modeled it in the mirror I hoped it made me look non-affluent. It did not. If a young actor wore it on the cover of Vanity Fair, a trend would start immediately.
I desperately wanted a bulletproof vest. I was scared, but as I locked the door and stepped into the snow, I was also strangely excited.
* * *
The drive-by shootighs and gang attacks I had expected did not materialize. The weather kept the streets empty and safe, for the moment. I found the church and parked in a lot across the street. It looked like a small cathedral, at least a hundred years old and no doubt abandoned by its original congregation.
Around a comer I saw some men huddled together, waiting by a door. I brushed past them as if I knew exactly where I was going, and I entered the world of the homeless.
As badly as I wanted to barge ahead, to pretend I had seen this before and had work to do, I couldn't move. I gawked in amazement at the sheer number of poor people stuffed into the basement. Some were lying on the floor, trying to sleep. Some were sitting in groups, talking in low tones. Some were eating at long tables and others in their folding chairs. Every square inch along the walls was covered with people sitting with their backs to the cinder blocks. Small children cried and played as their mothers tried to keep them close. Winos lay rigid, snoring through it all. Volunteers passed out blankets and walked among the throng, handing out apples.
The kitchen was at one end, bustling with action as food was prepared and served. I could see Mordecai in the background, pouring fruit juice into paper cups, talking incessantly. A line waited patiently at the serving tables.
The room was warm, and the odors and aromas and the gas heat mixed to create a thick smell that was not unpleasant. A homeless man, bundled up much like Mister, bumped into me and it was time to move.
I went straight to Mordecai, who was delighted to see me. We shook hands like old friends, and he introduced me to two volunteers whose names I never heard.
"It's crazy," he said. "A big snow, a cold snap, and we work all night. Grab that bread over there." He pointed to a tray of sliced white bread. I took it and followed him to a table.
"It's real complicated. You got bologna here, mustard and mayo there. Half the sandwiches get mustard, half get mayo, one slice of bologna, two slices of bread. Do a dozen with peanut butter every now and then. Got it?"
"You catch on quick." He slapped me on the shoulder and disappeared.
I hurriedly made ten sandwiches, and declared myself to be proficient. Then I slowed, and began to watch the people as they waited in line, their eyes downcast but always glancing at the food ahead. They were handed a paper plate, a plastic bowl and spoon, and a napkin. As they shuffled along, the bowl was filled with soup, half a sandwich was placed on the plate, then an apple and a small cookie were added. A cup of apple juice was waiting at the end.
Most of them said a quiet "Thanks" to the volunteer handing out the juice, then they moved away, gingerly holding the plate and bowl. Even the children were still and careful with their food.
Most seemed to eat slowly, savoring the warmth and feel of food in their mouths, the aroma in their faces. Others ate as fast as possible.