The food pantry is down the road from the church, in a building mainly used for basketball practice. On the weekends a $5 entry fee gives the teenagers a place to hangout. My boyfriend’s daughter has already asked for $5 to meet up with friends on Friday night, and I tell her I don’t think it will be a problem. She’s hungry and makes Ramen. I want to ask her if she had lunch, but I don’t.
When Slim gets home from work we go right over. You’ve got to get there early for the good bread. My boyfriend’s a welder. He looks dirty and tired, even though he’s changed into a clean t-shirt and his only pants not destroyed by work. They’re not holding up all that well. Slim says the divide between those well off and the poor is widening. Middle class has become a figment. I’m not sure if we’re trying to reach it or just get by, and I’m not so sure how much of a say we have in any of it.
Basketball practice sounds more intense than usual. We can hear the ball bouncing off the floor and backboard. The squeak of sneakers skidding. Kids yell that they’re open. Pass it to me. Pass it to me.
The pop-up food pantry is open on Thursday evenings from four to six. It’s up a few stairs and to the left of practice. Slim walks a step behind me with his arm out. My balance goes, but he catches me. No one notices and he whispers that he loves me.
Slim has worked since graduating high school. He hopes he’s in line for some sort of promotion. It’s a struggle, but I don’t have to tell him about struggling. He is our breadwinner, promising overtime is coming. I have multiple sclerosis. They took away my license for medical reasons. I worked until the day before I got sick. Now, I bring in less than $1,000 a month from disability. Our rent just went up.
My son, twenty-two, is my caretaker. He’s seen me at my worst. Hospital stays. Wheelchair. He was young when the MS first came on, but now he comes by my place just about everyday to help with the basic tasks that sometimes are too difficult on my own. I worry about our role reversal just as much as he worries about me. His car just died. He’s been borrowing cars to come see me, but that’s just a temporary fix.
We live on temporary fixes. One of them is six items each. Slim takes two clipboards before we sit in the rows of folding chairs, and hands me one. Date. First name. Town you live in. These are the only questions asked, and they are at the top of each form. Then you write down six things from the board. It’s mostly canned goods donated by those on the other side of the divide. Sometimes there’s pasta and sauce, but they tend to go quick. Then a volunteer comes out and erases them.
The thing about being poor is that the less you have, the more help there seems to be. We’re on the cusp. I have government health insurance, and news of cuts make us nervous. Slim earns too much for state healthcare and free school lunches for his daughter. Still, he wants us to have everything. He says I’m just not looking at things the right way, the way in which we have almost everything. He says he’s had really high highs and really low lows. We both have bad credit and all our bills are past due, but Slim doesn’t stress about being in the red.
Someone must have made a good shot in the gym. Cheering. The coach yells to hustle. I look over at Slim to see what he’s writing down. He covers his clipboard when I look over like I’m trying to cheat on a test. A muffled laugh comes under his breath.
Spaghetti. A jar of sauce. Canned chicken salad. Carrots. Peas. Rice. I hand in my clipboard and the woman takes it into another room. That’s where the magic happens. This is how you feed the poor. Slim’s still working on his list. There’s a table where they put out unsold bread donated from a local grocery store bakery. Baguettes. Bagels. We call it the good bread. It goes fast. Sometimes they put out more, but this time there isn’t any more.
I fell in love with Slim when I had nothing but a backpack full of clothes and a maxed out debit card. I was homeless and got on waiting lists for disabled and affordable housing with a warning that years could pass before anything opened up. I called shelters and crashed with friends. Slim had been a friend until he told me he was falling in love with me, broken me. Only he didn’t see me as broken. It didn’t bother him that I had very few prospects. It didn’t bother him that I walk with a cane and sometimes I can’t walk at all. A month later we were living together. This is probably more than he signed up for, and I will always love him for his endless attempts to make everything work.
The woman who took my list reemerges with a shopping bag full of my requested items and a roll of toilet paper. Slim hands in his list. He carries both our bags and on the way out talks about what he’ll make for dinner.
In another life Slim would have been a chef. He talks about it sometimes but doesn’t give it real thought. It was a long-ago secret dream. We’ve all make derailing choices that seem to take some options off the table. Slim says most Americans live paycheck to paycheck and get by. Other people are chefs. Last summer he refinished our kitchen table. It didn’t come out perfect, but his cooking always does.