Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: SKELETON IN THE CLOSET (11/30/17)
TITLE: The Bones of the Past
By Jan Ackerson
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“Let me help you, sir,” he says, and he takes the tray, letting the man lead him to a table. The other men there complain a bit about the extra pudding, and the air around the table seems alive with a warm and yeasty fug.
Ryan remembers that smell, comprised of long-unwashed bodies and stashes of furtively hoarded food. It was his own smell, once.
When he returns to the serving line, the woman next to him says, “That was nice of you.” Ryan looks over at her as she places rolls on the trays, smiling at the thin and shuffling men. He doesn’t recognize her, but that’s not unusual; there’s a constant turnover of volunteers here, earnest young people with grand ideas of making a difference but stunned by the smells, the lice, the toothless outbursts.
She glances at him, her hair bouncing, and he puts a hand to his own hair, remembering what it felt like after finally getting a shampoo, remembering when they sheared off the dreads. The woman is pretty. She’s wearing nice clothes. She won’t be back.
But she does come back. Her name is Amanda, and once he’s sure she can handle it, Ryan assigns her to more challenging tasks: women’s intake, distribution of clothing and sundries, community relations. She does everything with an aura of quiet compassion, and Ryan finds himself gazing at her.
He wonders what he would have done if he’d met her when he was on the streets, moving from mission to mission. He wouldn’t have had the nerve to look at her, he knows that much. And now they’re working together in this downtown storefront. Ryan supposes he’s her boss, though it’s hard for him to imagine being the boss of an angel.
He’s tongue-tied around her, keeping the conversation to matters specific to the shelter. He knows how to talk about keeping the showers clean and starting up a library, but when Amanda sits down near him with a mug of coffee and shows him a picture of her Siamese kitten, Ryan’s throat clogs with words. Surely this exquisite woman must know that Ryan has only ever known flea-ridden alley cats. Doesn’t she realize that he’s from the streets? One of the other workers must have told her. But when Ryan contemplates showing Amanda a glimpse into his past, his breath catches at the sight of the thin gold chain at her neck or her manicured fingernails. He has nothing to offer her, this child of privilege.
Nevertheless, as the weeks pass, something loosens in Ryan’s spirit and he finds himself more and more turning to Amanda. She’s invaluable when dealing with shelter business, but he learns also that she writes limericks and hates olives and watches black-and-white movies and can’t carry a tune.
One day at lunch, he touches the side of her hand with one finger, his breath shallow in his chest. “I could never be good enough for you,” he says. “Before I worked here…I was a client. I’m not educated, and I don’t have much money.” He looks away. “But I wish…”
Amanda leaves her hand next to Ryan’s tentative finger. “Come with me after closing,” she says. “I want you to meet my parents.”
“I can’t,” says Ryan, indicating his gray tee-shirt, his sneakers.
She takes him first to a cemetery, where a plaque in the ground reads DEVON HALL, 1972-1990. “He was just a kid,” she says. “He was killed before I was born.” Ryan takes off his cap, and Amanda kisses her fingertips and presses them to the plaque.
Then they drive for a while more, and park outside a gray building surrounded by walls and barbed wire. “My mom’s in there,” says Amanda. “Since 1997. She might be out next year.”
They’re silent for a while, then Ryan takes her hand and presses his lips to her palm. “You could marry me now,” he says, his voice tight with hope. “My place is small, but we’d have a room for her, once she’s out.”
The bones of their past crumble to dust, and are remade into something beautiful and new.
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