A spoonful of potato hits the plate with a wallop and a little spec of mash lands on the hand holding it. Instead of shuffling on like most, he pauses, making eye contact. I steel myself, waiting for a curse word or a dirty look but all I see is empathy.
It’s the last place I want to be and if I hadn’t already committed, I’d be home, covers over my head.
“Bad day?” he asks, his voice soft, but hoarse.
“I’m sorry,” I apologize. “I didn’t meant to…”
“No big deal.” he shrugs. “I’ve had worse.” His smile, as he moves on, leaves me with goose bumps.
“Yes, please.” The next one says as I turn away from the man with the smile. Her toothy grin, oily bob and blackened fingernails win her an extra scoop.
“Oh, thank you!” she squeals, as though I’ve just given her a hundred dollar bill.
My head throbs and pain stabs at my sinuses as I wonder which would be more disgusting; wiping my dripping nose with my cuff or pulling out the last damp, crumpled Kleenex I’d tucked into my sleeve.
There’s a lull in the line and I stand behind my steaming tray, looking out at the fifty round tables we had spent the morning setting up. I find it alarming that all are full.
My toothy friend sits at the one closest, chuckling and chatting with whomever she can engage, her worn out red coat contrasting with her dark hair but matching her cheeks, her potato-covered tongue on display as she laughs.
They are all oohing and ahhing over the stockings we’d filled and placed at each setting; holding up the toothbrushes, bath beads and chocolates, hooting at the decks of cards and bags of mints.
Boom, boom, boom. I’m tempted to leave my post to grab some aspirin, but the hoards are headed my way. The warming lamps hover over the food, making me sweat and I start to feel very claustrophobic.
“Just a little, please.” The tiny girl in front of me requests. “I can’t eat very much and I’m not allowed to waste.”
She’s only about five and the sleeves of her shiny dress are completely tattered. Her chin is just above table level and her big, gold eyes are like dollops of honey suspended over my shiny, silver tray.
“Yeah,” her dad confirms. “Not too much for her. Leave the rest of her portion for someone else.”
“How about you?” I ask.
“Oh, I’ll take my fair share.” He says, looking down. I feel his shame.
“I meant, would you like the rest of her portion?” I shrug, trying to be nonchalant.
“Well, if…” he continues to look down, head hanging like a scorned pup.
Very gently, I place a double helping next to his peas.
“Anybody asks,” I offer, “you send them my way.”
He finally looks up and I can see that his eyes are an older, much more trampled version of his girl’s. He too, smiles a smile that leaves me reeling.
After about twenty more servings, there’s another break. I really am desperate for some relief. My headache has turned into a machete attack and my nose is about to explode over the entire table.
I slide two fingers into my cuff and pull out the mutilated tissue. Cupping it against my palm, I bring it up to my nose but it’s no use. There’s more crumple than cotton. Embarrassed, I try to stuff it back under my sleeve, unnoticed.
Plates are clamoring and I realize someone has cleared my tray away. That’s my cue to get out on the floor and start helping clean up.
Coffee and tea is being served and everyone’s holding their cup with both hands, aware it may be the last warmth they feel until, well, who knows when.
I make my way around the room, the blinking Christmas lights taunting my overly sensitive eyes, while I push the bus cart loaded with well-used tableware.
As I reach out for yet another empty plate, a familiar finger brushes mine.
“I’m sorry. I know I’m not supposed to touch you,” he says, “but I thought you might need these.”
I look up from the tan and weathered hand and see his forgiving face once again. He’s holding out a small packet of Kleenex, the same one I’d placed in his stocking this morning.
I did need them. I needed the Kleenex, I needed the compassion and I needed these people.
I was ignorant for being surprised that every seat was spoken for, naïve for being shocked that they wanted no more than their fair share, but mostly, I was foolish for thinking that this was the last place I wanted to be.