(This fictional story was written by Juanita Sumner and may not be copied or reproduced without permission of the author. Resemblance to any person living or dead is unintended.)
Once upon a time there was a little town that was having growing pains. It was a nice little town, and people from far and near wanted to live there, but the town’s leaders were greedy and divisive and unable to make ready for all the new residents. The town started to suffer from too many people using too few resources, and before long, a once friendly and well balanced little town fell into squabbling and dysfunction.
The town showed it’s unhappiness. The streets became littered with garbage and dotted with potholes, the sidewalks buckled, neglected trees began to shed and die. Skulking bullies lurked in dark corners, waiting to take advantage of anybody bold enough to come out after dark. All through the town, businesses began to fold up and leave people unemployed, and new businesses wouldn’t come in because of the greed of the city’s leaders. Long time residents began to worry about losing their homes to the predatory lenders, many of whom held positions of respect in the town.
The townspeople stood as though in the grip of some spell. They were unhappy with the way things were going, but stood paralyzed, waiting for somebody to come and fix all their problems.
Early one foggy morning an old man appeared in the town square. He was unshaven and his clothes were old and shabby. He stood behind a “repurposed” grocery cart, full of bundles, a brand new pair of shoes the wrong size hanging over one side, a dirty sleeping bag protruding in front. He wore the smile of the completely insane.
He chattered busily to himself as he pushed his cart to the center of the square. Things to do, things to do! It was an important day – Thanksgiving. Hardly celebrated anymore, but at one time, important enough to get his whole family together – first he had to find a family to get together! And he knew how to do that on a dreary November day – a big pot of boiling soup.
And with that, rustling through his bundles, he produced a 14 inch Dutch oven and clattered it out onto the cement patio. Digging around some more, he found the last remnants of a bag of charcoal. He scrutinized the bag, ran his hand through the contents – he was satisfied he had enough to do the job.
He took the lid off the Dutch oven – a problem! There was nothing in it!
Looking around he noticed he’d attracted some attention. A yellow dog laying next to a pile of rags in the little bandstand along one side of the square had perked up one ear, and was watching the old man. The pile of rags began to move, and a cautious hand pulled a blanket from one eye. Delighted, the old man sauntered over and introduced himself – “My name is John, and I’m going to make a giant pot of soup, if I could just find something to put in it!” The pile of rags only moaned and the hand pulled the ratty blanket back over the eye. John was not deterred – “you’ll see,” and he did a little jig, “I’ll have your mouth watering in no time!”
He looked around the empty square. There were several other piles of old rags, most of them with a dog of some sort attached. You’d think dogs would be barking like crazy in a situation like that, but these dogs were too hungry.
As he stood summing up the situation, John’s eyes fell on a stone, laying to one side of the sidewalk. A very nice, shiny stone, about four inches in diameter. He walked over to investigate. Picking it up he found it was a very nice pond stone, smooth and striped, out of place here. He was wondering where it had come from, when he had a strange idea – this looked like a magical stone, he’d been looking for one all his life, knowing such things existed. He closed his palm around it and held it to his forehead – genius struck! This is just what he needed to start that fine pot of soup! He put it in his one good pocket with a pat, and went about his business.
Excited now, John giggled and skipped his way back to his base camp in the middle of the square. Still no reaction from his sleeping audience, he began to arrange his things, first dragging the bag of charcoal out of the cart and then selecting the most perfect pieces for his task, so many for the top of the pot, and so many for the bottom. He pulled a battered metal garbage can lid out of his cart and set some of the charcoals in it, tearing strips from the top of the charcoal bag for starter. Now he fumbled through his pockets and took out an old Band-Aids tin. Here he kept his strike-anywhere matches, air and water tight.
Once he had a little starter fire going, he clapped his raggedy hands together and picked up his pot – at last, a use for the controversial city fountain, built with the last of the city’s dwindling funds in an attempt to attract business. He filled his pot with water, now it was heavy, he walked with a limp back to the fire.
Now for the main ingredient – he took the stone out of his pocket and polished it with spit and the front of his shirt. He circled it over the pot a few times, as if not sure, then dropped it with a plop and a whistle. “Soup’s on!” he called cheerfully to the rag piles. It was still early morning, and the fog circled the plaza like some sad beast The streets of town were stark and bare, the businesses dark, some wearing “For Rent” signs in their empty windows.
But John chattered to himself and rubbed his hands together, moving his feet in a strange little jig, because his shoes were thin and the sidewalk came through like a block of ice. He’d put the lid on his pot, and covered it with hot charcoals – slowly the rag piles began to twitter and turn. The old pot had held many meals, and emitted a lilting aroma as it heated on the little fire.
One man finally pulled the blankets from his face, looking out cautiously, he sat up on one elbow. “What have you got in there?” he finally queried. John beamed back, “it’s a surprise!” A friendship was quickly formed, and the second man drew his pile of rags and mongrel dog up to the little fire. “Better watch for the cops,” he said quietly, “this ain’t legal.”
John puzzled over this and smiled his insane smile, “yes, the more the merrier!” The other man chuckled – somehow he too was filled with a mysterious glee.
“My name is Chet, by the way,” and he extended a bony hand from the blanket wrapped over his head. The dog lay silent, but his sad eyes followed his master’s every move.
A car came shuffling up the street. When it stopped at the square, Chet did not even look up. A woman got out of the back seat, placing grocery sacks on the sidewalk, she shut the door. The car drove away, and the woman picked up her sachels and moved toward a nearby bench. John looked at her quizzically. Chet looked up and explained, “That’s Margaret. She’s crazy. Her caregiver leaves her here every day cause she’s a pain in the ass.”
John wasn’t listening, he was already making his way over to the woman. Her eyes widened and she seemed terrified as he approached. She drew her parcels up around her and opened her mouth in a silent scream. John stopped here, extended his hat, and introduced himself. Margaret tightened every muscle, her mouth twisted and a strange groan came out. “I understand,” John said affably, holding his cap behind his back and shuffling his feet shyly. “I just wanted you to know, you’re welcome to share a meal with us!” He plopped his dirty cap back onto his head and ambled back to his fire. It was time to add some new charcoals, the cold air was eating them up fast. He still had nothing but a rock to put in his pot, but he was confident there would be soup.
Chet was busy rolling a doobie. He seemed much more awake. He was thinking. Suddenly he blurted – “you know, a guy just gave me a bag of dog bones yesterday, that’s what I feed Josh here,” indicating the yellow dog. “My mom used to make soup with bones. Think you could use a couple of these bones in your soup?” He dug into his pack and pulled out a greasy shopping bag, inside, a plastic butcher bag with half dozen marrow bones. They smelled a little rancid – nothing a little salt couldn’t fix. John rubbed his hands together as Chet chose the biggest two and plopped them into the pot. They promised the anxious dog he’d get them back, all hot and juicy.
“Now,” John put his hands on his hips and looked around the square, “if I could just get my hands on a little bit of salt…” The marrow bones were sweetening in the pot, and an aroma was making it’s way through the air. Suddenly a man sat up, “I got salt! And pepper!” And now they met Jeff, the kind of guy who was never without salt and pepper.
The rag piles were mostly alive now, wiggling and moving, full bladders reacting to the cold air. Chet had already finished his doob and headed for the public toilet. “God damn! It’s locked!” he yelled. The city had installed the bathrooms when they’d made over the town square. They’d quickly become the target of vandalism – a man had even been trapped inside for a night after a door handle had been broken off. People often stuffed the toilet to overflowing for whatever stupid reason. The city’s response was to close the bathrooms for a week or so. It was a holiday weekend, so they would certainly be closed until Monday. No businesses were open. The only recourse for these people was to head a few blocks away and use the bushes in the badly neglected city park. Chet and Josh disappeared and a slow migration headed toward the park. They left their bundles, taking only their dogs and their most valuable personal possessions.
John was left with his pot, and Margaret, who stared silently at nothing from the bench. It was about 35 degrees outside. She was dressed neatly and wearing heavy clothes, her hair brushed carefully. She held one grocery sack on her lap, arms wrapped firmly around it. Another sack sat on the bench next to her, some books and magazines protruding out the top. Margaret was indeed dropped off at the city square almost every day of the year, the only exceptions being very rainy days, or days over 100 degrees. On those days she sat locked in her bedroom to be out of her caregiver’s hair. She was dropped off very early in the morning and picked up at dark.
By this time Chet and Josh had come back, cheerful and awake now. John was shocked to notice how young Chet seemed, maybe only 21 or 22. He was wearing neat clothes, and seemed to have washed his face and brushed his hair.
As the now human rag piles came back from their morning toilet in the park, they were joined by others who had camped all night in the park, where they were out of the scrutiny of the police, could have camp fires to sit around with their cheap booze. It wasn’t as safe as the plaza, but some people would rather be left to their own devices than be harassed by the town cop.
Officer Dudley. Dudley was a well known cop, because he made a point of being seen in the city center, trying to keep the bums on the move. Business owners complained that they would fan out from the town square every morning and take up positions in front of doorways, at street corners, in front of ATM machines and newspaper boxes, and panhandle “respectable citizens.” As the day went on, some of them would get pretty drunk, as night drew on, fights would erupt around the convenience store where they bought their cheap booze, there’d been stabbings, even a couple of murders.
Dudley was also the president of the policeman’s union, even though he wasn’t the highest paid cop in town. His salary was actually almost reasonable, given the excesses of some of the other officers, including “mandatory overtime.” The police department was constantly at odds with the citizenry over staffing levels, service, and their expensive compensation packages – it was clear, when looking over the budget, that “public safety workers” were the city’s financial problem, their pensions comprising tens of millions in “unpaid liabilities”. It was also clear, that as long as they insisted on their high salaries and expensive benefits packages, the city would not be able to hire more of them – that seemed to be fine with those who were racking up the overtime.
Dudley didn’t like the feeling of being hated by the town – he was one of those quintessential cops – as a child or 8 or 10, he couldn’t remember when, but he’d dreamed of being a policeman, right here, in his hometown. Watching Adam-12 with his parents, he’d envisioned himself walking the streets of the business district, chatting with shop owners and passers by, or waving at happy children from the front seat of his patrol car. Of course, the town was smaller then, and crime was unusual, certainly not “everyday.” The town center was a carefree place then – the sidewalks weren’t lined with scumbags, haranguing passersby for money, hurling lit cigarettes and profanities at women with children.
Of course the citizens blamed the police – here he was, caught in the middle. He knew there were bad cops, people he felt should be thrown out of the force – but none of them were acting outside the law, they showed up for work every day – unfortunately, most of them seemed to spend their day avoiding any contact with people.
Dudley, on the other hand, had taken it upon himself to enforce the city laws – a panhandling ordinance had been put on the books some 10 years before, prohibiting almost all of the obnoxious behavior. Sitting within a certain distance of doorways, phone booths, newpaper or ATM machines, for example, was prohibited. Yet the sidewalks were oftentimes literally covered with sleeping bags, bodies, dogs, assorted bindles, so that a person would have to step over living things to make it down the sidewalk. This was illegal, sure, but nobody was enforcing the law. The shopowners were calling the police with complaints of disorderly drunks trashing their stores, and the dispatchers were telling them, “we don’t have enough staff, we’ll try to get somebody down there…”
That caused an uproar around town that made it to the front pages of the two town newspapers, and became The Hot Topic. Dudley was devastated by the things people were saying. This was his hometown, and people who had moved there within the last six months were criticizing him. He studied the code, and began to enforce the vagrancy laws. He went down to the city center every morning or night when he started his shift, and systematically worked his way up and down sidewalks, rousting people off the ground, making arrests and handing out tickets. One of the newspapers noticed, but the homeless people really noticed. After a few weeks, they started moving out of the city center and into the other neighborhoods, taking up posts in strip malls around town.
But a small rag-tag group, including Chet, had kept a vigil at the town square, because they felt safe there, and knew they were in their rights as long as Dudley didn’t catch them in the sack, or with booze, or using a bush for a toilet. As long as they were respectful, Dudley limited his contact with them to a quick introduction, and an occasional greeting.
When Dudley had approached Margaret, she had buried her face in her grocery sack. When he had sat next to her on the bench, she had made animal distress noises and scooted quickly away, showing him the face of a sheep at shearing time. The department sent officers for “psychological training” – a week long class at the local community college. He knew he was over his head, and limited his contact with Margaret, speaking softly to her only when she raised her face and looked directly at him. He’d stand in front of her for a moment, giving her a chance to tell him anything if she wanted, but she’d turn her gaze away and leave him standing. His duty done, he’d resume his patrol. Something told him Margaret could take care of herself.
Chet had seen her “go off on somebody” once. A man had sat next to her on the bench and started going through her shopping sack of books. She had grabbed the sack and smashed it at him, raising up her massive frame and standing over him, glowering. Nobody had noticed before what a big woman she was, and nobody ever tried to get on that bench again, not when she was sitting on it.
John’s pot was boiling away now, he was tending the coals expertly. Suddenly he noticed a shadow over himself and his pot – Margaret was standing over him, silently extending a sandwich bag full of neatly cut carrot and celery sticks. She had a little bag with a sandwich in it, like a child’s lunch, but this she returned to the grocery sack under her arm. John chuckled and took the baggy from her hands – “this is exactly what we need, Sis!” He broke the little sticks with his fingers and sprinkled them into the murky water, which was starting to smell, well, appetizing! He handed the empty bag back to Margaret, who folded it neatly and put it in her lunch bag. She silently returned to her seat, Chet watching her with eyes wide open.
Chet began to chatter, a friendly young fellow. He told John about his mother, who lived in a care home a town over, and his stepfather, who divided his days between visiting his mother in the care home and working his minimum wage job at a mini-mart gas station. Chet’s mother had a stroke when he was 17, and his stepfather had never been able to make much of a living, so Chet had to get out and find his own way by the time he was 18. He’d traveled the country, but found it inhospitable to a youngster with no job skills. Knowing he could live among friends back home, he’d returned with his new friend Josh. Sometimes he had part-time work, seasonal jobs, just enough income to eat and maybe pay to stay in a motel once in a while. He divided his nights between friends’ couches and the town square, not wanting to wear out his welcome with any one friend.
Right now Chet was kind of excited about having found work with a local veterinarian. A young man with a good heart, Chet felt hopeful for the first time in many years, telling John, “this might turn into something.” At the very least, the vet paid him “under the table” to help out at the kennels, and gave him all the free kibble he could carry. He got the soup bones from a local deli, a woman who’d seen him perusing her dumpster one day and invited him in for a bowl of soup and free bones for the dog.
“People like that keep me going,” Chet smiled, as he rolled and lit another doobie.
“And here’s our local flat-foot!” he whispered under his breath, pinching out the end of his doob as Officer Dudley made a bee-line for the little campfire.
“I’m sorry, you will have to put that out immediately, absolutely NO CAMP FIRES!” Dudley was upset, sometimes he felt like the transients were always trying to take advantage of his good nature. Here he was, working a holiday, and they just had to pull something!
John was not the least bit flustered. “Officer! The more the merrier!” And he bent over the now open pot, bubbling away, little bits of froth and celery and carrots pushing around the edges. Dudley looked into the murky pot, feeling a great wave of distaste – and then the aroma hit his little button nose, and the anger melted from his face.
“Wow, you’re actually cooking something in there…” he wondered aloud.
John was beside himself with glee. “Soup’s on!” he hollered, producing a tin cup and spoon, banging them together like a gong. Margaret stood up first, a coffee cup coming out of her grocery sack, and moved slowly to the pot. John happily dunked her cup into the bubbling brew, and said, “have a little first, give everybody else a chance!” She took the cup and made her way back to the bench without a word. There she held the cup to her face, the steam moving over her features, and took a drink. A look of surprise, and then another sip. She sat drinking in silence.
“And you Officer? If you don’t have a cup I think I can come up with an extra…” John began rifling through his cart, producing an old mason jar, plunging it into the pot. Dudley had been raised a proper child, he took the jar without so much as a grimace and held it up to his nose – it smelled good! “Thanks – bottom’s up!” and he took a drink, then proclaimed, “Soups on everybody!”
The dozen or so raggedy figures sitting immediately around John had already produced their various cups – some tin, some ceramic or glass, some cardboard or styrofoam, left over from coffee shops. Each person in turn received their soup, and finally John plunged his old cup down among the dregs and held it happily to his face.
But he paused before he drank, as if he suddenly remembered something – “Thank you God, for my wonderful family,” and he raised the cup around to each face, Dudley, Chet, Josh, Margaret, and all the other nameless souls around him, then turned the cup up and emptied it.
And then he was off. Washing his cold Dutch oven in the fountain and wiping it clean with a newspaper, he packed up his belongings and made his way out of the square as the fog came rolling in again. But not without carefully washing the little magic stone, and tucking it into his good pocket.
Dudley had already continued on his rounds, Margaret had been summoned and driven away by her mysterious caregiver, and the others were sitting by, getting ready for another cold night, trying to string together the events of the day. Nothing like that had ever happened to any of them, yet they’d always believed it would, and believed it would happen again.