Food For Thought

Submitted into Contest #96 in response to: Write about someone welcoming a stranger into their home.... view prompt


Creative Nonfiction


Have you ever been voluntold? When it happened to me, I felt swept away by an undertow, with nobody to rescue me. New in recovery from alcoholism, I was eager to gain approval by helping others.

Lorraine, sober for five years and working as a counselor in a woman’s shelter, introduced Jean to me at a meeting. Jean had just finished an in-patient treatment program for drugs and alcohol, and was living in a transitional home.

 “Jean could use the support of someone like you, with a solid year in sobriety,” said Lorraine. “She asked me, but I’m burned out at work. I think you should do it.”

Jean was a short, stout woman with curly red hair and freckles. Some of her teeth were missing, forcing her to speak with a lisp. I agreed to meet up with her at coffee shops, drive her to meetings, and take her back to her residence afterwards. I paid for the coffee because she was on welfare.

Over coffees, Jean talked about her addiction to crack and alcohol, her life on the streets, and the horrible consequences of using. She frequently complained about having to share a small room with a woman she didn’t like. She wanted her own place, but had been told to give it time and stay in transition housing until she stabilized.

“I know it’s hard, but whatever you do, don’t pick up,” I repeated over and over. “It just gets worse if you do. Be grateful you have a roof over your head.”

Jean didn’t take well to my comment. As soon as we arrived at the meeting, she sought out Lorraine and sat beside her, two rows behind me. I was secretly relieved. The room hummed as more people entered and hugged or shook hands.

Over the buzz of conversation, I suddenly heard a howl, and turned to see Jean with her face buried against Lorraine’s bosom.

“Oh Lorraine, my roommate is such a bitch. She stole my favorite sweater. She’s mean. She’s a liar. I’ve got to get out of there, or I’ll relapse.”

“Oh, hon, I know that place. It has a terrible reputation. I feel so bad for you.”

Do you have any Kleenex?”

“Here you are, Sweetie.”

 I considered asking Jean if she’d filed a complaint of theft with the people who were in charge, but waited patiently for the heaving sobs and gasps to subside. When Lorraine was finished bestowing her benevolent gesture of a hug, she turned and spoke directly to me. Her words were strident, laced with accusation.

“Victoria, you’ve got a two-bedroom apartment, and you’re living alone. Jean should stay with you!” Her booming voice penetrated the chatter. Onlookers stopped their conversations to tune in on the drama.

Guilt punched the sense out of me. “Yes, um, I guess she could…for a little while…”

“Oh my God, you’d do that for me?” squealed Jean, and then burst into a fresh round of sobbing. “You’re an angel. I owe you my life.”

In spite of the sensation that a rat was gnawing at my stomach lining, I agreed to pick Jean up at her residence the next day after I finished work. Lorraine nodded with an approving smile. I wanted to knock her teeth out.

That night, I lay awake kicking myself. When I did finally fall asleep, I dreamed I was trying to drive a car in reverse through torrential rain. I couldn’t see a thing out the rear window … suddenly the car is plummeting in slow motion, falling into murky, black water, sinking lower and lower. Water gushes into the car, rises higher and higher, and I wake up, gasping.

After an exhausting day, I headed over to get Jean. She was waiting on the lawn in front of the three-story brick building, which had been renovated to accommodate up to ten residents. She was perched on top of her suitcase. Heaps of clothes on hangers were laid out beside her. She held a transparent plastic bag on her lap. Two fish swam around inside. An empty fish bowl completed her array of belongings.

“I had to bring my pets. We can get the rest of them later.”

I helped her load the car, and prayed she wasn’t referring to lizards or snakes.

Jean settled in immediately. She crooned over my place, thanked me a million times, and stretched out on the couch after unpacking. She brought out a set of knitting needles and continued working on the scarf I’d seen at meetings. I fed her, and wondered if she’d offer to pay for food, or if it was even fair to ask.

She explained that in two weeks, at the end of the month, she’d get her welfare check, and would move into an affordable room.

For the next few days, I returned from work to see Jean sprawled on the couch watching mindless sitcoms and reality shows. She was knitting. “I’m making a scarf, just for you.”

I’d pull together a meal, and then retreat to my room to talk on the phone or read. I assumed she was apartment hunting, but didn’t see any newspapers. She said she preferred walking around, looking for rental signs. Leaving her a spare set of keys so she could come and go, I reminded her to help herself to food from the fridge.

On Monday evening, Jean ambushed me as soon as I walked in the door after work.

“Can you drive me back to my old place? They phoned me today, and told me I have to get the rest of my fish.”

That was good news, I thought. What harm could a few more fish cause?

When we got there, I suggested I wait outside in the car while she ran in. I assumed she was just going to get another fishbowl.

“Oh no, I’ll need you to come in and help.”

We had to transport a large aquarium, fully equipped with hoses and filters. First, we emptied it, cup by cup, after netting several species of tropical fish and pouring them into water bags for the journey. It took the whole evening.

Back at my place, Jean filled up the tank, set it up on my desk in the spare bedroom, plugged it in, and carefully deposited the many colorful occupants. When she asked me to take a photo of her and her companions, I felt a rock lodge in my throat.

“This is my family,” she grinned, and I snapped a shot of her semi-toothless smile as she sat in front of the aquarium and cradled the smaller fish bowl on her lap.

Friday was check day. I raced home, eager to hear that Jean had found a room, as promised. I dreaded the thought of draining the fish tank again, but what the hell.

She was lying on the couch, asleep. Her knitting had fallen to the floor beside her. When the apartment door closed behind me, she stirred.

“How’s it going?” I inquired, hoping to hear all about a place she’d found.

“Not good,” she said, stretching and yawning. “You’ll never guess what happened. I went to the bank machine to withdraw my welfare and a guy held me up at gun point. He took everything. I have no money to move.”

For somebody who’d just had a life-threatening experience, Jean’s demeanor was calm. I listened in stunned silence as she repeated her story. Incredulously, she resumed her knitting as she talked about the so-called thief.

“Did you report this to the police?”

“Na, they’ll never catch the bastard.”

“But there are cameras at those machines.”

“The guy hid his face with a scarf.”

I played dumb, said little else, and plotted. Out of her earshot, I phoned various shelters, and the next day, found one with a vacancy. Without warning, I marched over to the coffee table and swooped up the extra set of keys she’d left there. She was giggling at an episode of “The Simpsons.” I grabbed the remote and shut off the TV.

“Get dressed and packed. I’m driving you to a shelter.”

My body shook with dread. What if she got violent and refused to leave? For a moment, her eyes bulged in surprise and anger, and then squinted with silent resentment. Without a word, she did as she was told. The car ride was silent. I let her out in front of the shelter and helped her unload. She reached into one of the bags and pulled out the scarf she’d finished knitting.

“I made this for you,” she hissed, and shoved it in my face.

“Thanks. Take care of yourself.”

Without another word, I drove away.

When I got home, I realized I still had Jean’s fish.

Later that month, all the fish in the aquarium died. Somehow, the tank had become unplugged. After a thorough cleaning, I gave it to a neighbor downstairs.

    The two fish that resided in the small fish bowl were spared. They were easy to care for. Once a week, I’d net them, pour them into a temporary plastic container, scrub out their slimy home and refill it with fresh water…easy, right?

    A month later, I detected hundreds of tiny little black dots…babies! I watched in panic as the dots rapidly enlarged. But then, one by one, they perished. There just wasn’t enough room in the bowl. Mamma and Papa swam in endless circles as I removed their dead babies with a net. I wondered if they were grieving. Then I found one of the parents floating on its side with a big chunk of its stomach missing. Gross!

So now I was down to one. I decided, for no particular reason, that it was a she, and named her Emma. Emma seemed happy enough living by herself, but her life as a single lady changed when Duffy, my tabby, took a shine to her. She had the same markings as him, so my pussycat may have thought she was a distant cousin. He began drinking out of the fishbowl, and she’d swim up to greet him and nibble on his tongue. Their friendship lasted over three years, until Emma went “bottoms up” and I flushed her away.

Duffy still refuses to drink out of anything other than that fishbowl, now a permanent place-setting on my kitchen table.

As for Jean, shortly after I dropped her off at the shelter, she was seen back on the streets, smoking crack. Had my eviction been the cause?

“Victoria, here’s the thing,” said Mary, a dear mentor in recovery. “First, there are shelters in Toronto, funded by our taxes. You are not a shelter. Second, there is nothing you can do that will make a person stay clean and sober. Third, there is nothing you can do that will make a person relapse. You are not GOD.”

I had to admit, her words were food for thought.

June 03, 2021 19:21

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Sharon Kretchmar
00:45 Jun 09, 2021

This story covers a lot of ground (not to mention that it is very well written). Lots to think about V!


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22:54 Jun 08, 2021

Wonderful message in this so very interesting story!


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19:00 Jun 08, 2021

Amazing story! Loved it!


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