“Good morning, Sonny,” the kind woman said as she heaped his bowl with the morning stew. Though her grey eyes twinkled merrily and reflected a youthful optimism, the wrinkles that framed them revealed her seniority and wisdom.
Sonny figured she was actually about sixty years old since she had run the rescue mission for over forty years. The patrons called her “Mother Catherine,” and as far as Sonny could tell, she was pretty trustworthy. Well, she was about as trustworthy as the average human being who didn’t quite understand the battle that was being waged before their very eyes. Since she was ignorant to life’s reality, she was unable to choose a side, and since she hadn’t chosen a side, as far as Sonny could tell, she didn’t pose any immediate threat to him.
Sonny grunted thanks with his head bowed, eyes low under his rumpled wool, fitted, blue baseball cap, barely making eye contact. He carried his tray over to a lone chair at the far end of one of the long tables in the multi-purpose room. He checked the front entrance and quickly determined, if necessary, he would make a beeline to the door and knock over the elderly man in the wheelchair to obstruct his attackers long enough to duck into the adjacent alley, and escape through the streets and alleyways that he knew best. If they attacked from the front door, he would make a break through the kitchen and out the rear exit. He hoped to quickly locate a mop, broom, or knife to use as a weapon against any attackers who might be staked out at the back door. Unfortunately, the shelter frisked for weapons, so he’d stashed his gun and knife before he stopped in to get his breakfast. He always arrived early, hoping to be one of the first people served and the first to leave.
When his exit strategy was sound, he nodded to himself approvingly and swallowed a heaping spoon of hot shelter gumbo without chewing. The gumbo was a mixture of corn, string beans, diced tomatoes, barley, and some type of tender mystery meat. It probably didn’t taste the best, but it warmed his bones, and Sonny couldn’t taste it anyway. He no longer ate for pleasure. Food was fuel, and he needed fuel to stay in the fight.
“G’mornin’, Sonny . . .” Jimmy Two-Toes said as he slid onto the bench across from Sonny. His sandy blonde hair was flecked with gray and bristled out from under a dusty black skullcap. He flashed a gummy smile in Sonny’s direction and ignored the stone face that stared back.
Jimmy had lived on the cold Detroit streets since he fled his abusive home at age fifteen. For years he braved the brutal Michigan winters sleeping in back alleys and beneath dilapidated bridges. During the blizzard of 1978, Jimmy sought refuge from the storm in an old abandoned building. Though he was safe from the wind, the sub zero temperatures penetrated the walls and Jimmy’s layered clothing. He suffered hypothermia and had two frostbitten toes amputated. Forty years later, he was a mainstay in the Cass Corridor and a frequent patron of the City’s homeless shelters. His distinct limp made him recognizable from yards away.
“It’s damn cold out there, huh, Sonny?” Jimmy said. “So, how long you think this cold will last? I swear, if it wasn’t for this place, I’d starve and freeze to death. This damn recession don’t make it no better, either. People won’t even spare a dime for a honest man in the streets trying to survive.”
“You need money?”
Jimmy jumped at the gruff, foreign voice. It was the first time he’d ever heard Sonny speak. “Wha—?”
“I didn’t stutter man; you need money or what?” Sonny’s eyes locked on Jimmy’s. Their intensity muted the rest of the room.
“Y-Yeah!” Jimmy finally answered.
“Take this.” Sonny slid a large flattened box to Jimmy under the table.
Jimmy’s eyes darkened and his mouth tightened into a scowl. “Is this some kind of joke?”
Sonny slid his balled fist across the table and opened his hand, placing a wadded green bill in front of Jimmy. “Do I look like I’m laughing?”
Jimmy unwrinkled the one hundred dollar bill. “OK, I’m all ears.”