This is a romance between two young people thrown together by an unlikely set of circumstances, at Christmas time.
If you are looking for a porn story, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for a lot of wild sex, you will be disappointed. But if you are looking for a tale of romance and generosity, a story about growth and selflessness, I hope you will read and enjoy. I would be remiss if I did not thank my muse, the amazing woman who keeps me sane and happy.
"Mr. Summers, do you have anything to say to the court before I pronounce sentence?"
"I guess not, Your Honor."
"Very well. The Court has some discretion in sentencing for cases like yours. I could remand you to the custody of the County Prison System for a period of up to twelve months. When I first saw your juvenile record, I was tempted to do just that. However, your last brush with the law occurred when you were fifteen years old. Since then, you have not been in trouble, or at least you have not been caught. I also am advised that you are working a full-time job while going to culinary school. Is it your intention to make cooking your lifetime work?
"Yes, Your Honor. If I complete my courses with honors, which I am determined to do, the school's placement office has assured me that I will be able to find work as a chef. My dream is to one day have my own restaurant, and becoming a chef is the first step toward that goal."
"Very well," the judge said. "Both your employer and your school have presented character testimony before the Court on your behalf. In light of this, I am going to use my discretion in your sentencing. But mark my words to you today. If you get in any trouble again, your probation will be revoked and you will serve the full prison time allowed by law. Don't disappoint me, young man. I hereby sentence you to time served plus three hundred hours of community service. Because of your skills and interests, you are to perform your service as a cook at the South Street Community Kitchen. If you do well, you will be an asset to the community. Young man, you may even enjoy your community service."
I thought to myself, "How the hell am I supposed to enjoy cooking up swill for street people? That's an insult to my skills." But, luckily, I kept my mouth shut and my expression blank.
The judge continued, "The Court is aware of both your work schedule and your course schedule. Since you work five nights a week and take courses five days a week, the Court concedes that it would be unreasonable to expect you to work more than one eight-hour shift a weekend at the kitchen. You will be expected to be at the kitchen every Saturday, beginning this weekend, from 9:30am to 6pm, with a 30-minute lunch break. That will allow you to do both prep and cooking work for lunch and dinner every Saturday."
I did the math in my head. "Holy shit!" I thought. "That's almost nine months. Nine months of feeding street people will kill me."
"If you have the opportunity on holiday breaks from school or work, you may work extra shifts to satisfy your obligation more quickly, with the approval of the kitchen. I know they can use all the help they can get during holidays, especially at Christmas. Do you have any questions or comments, Mr. Summers?"
"No Your Honor. And thank you, Your Honor."
"You have a future ahead of you, son. Make the most of it. I don't want to hear anything more about you, other than positive reports from your Probation Officer. This Court is in recess until 1 o'clock."
Great. Wonderful. I'm going to spend three hundred hours, or almost thirty-eight eight-hour days, cooking half spoiled food in some cockroach-infested hellhole of a kitchen, and serving it to starving toothless winos, all because I had been stupid enough to think I was in love with Marcy. Wait, that's not true. I really had been in love with Marcy. The stupid part had been believing she was in love with me.
I had been pretty crazy in middle school. After my Dad died when I was eleven, I stopped listening to my Mom. I'm old enough now to see what she had been trying to do, being so strict, all out of fear that I would wind up like Dad. But at that time, all I could see was that she was on my shit constantly. At first, I just resented it. I had just lost my Dad, and she wouldn't let me alone to work through my grief. I know now that she was hurting too, and scared out of her mind, but back then, I just saw her as a bitch.
I started cutting school, hanging out with the wrong people, getting into fights, and finally getting into trouble with the cops. Nothing big, just little petty stuff, but enough of it to have me sent to Juvenile Hall. When I got out at age sixteen, I had straightened up. I had worked in the mess hall while in juvie, and I learned just enough about cooking to know that I wanted to learn a whole lot more. So, I made up the schoolwork I had missed, graduated on time, got a half-decent second shift job, and enrolled in culinary school. It was all coming together.
Then I met Marcy a party right after I turned nineteen. She was beautiful, sexy, and had an infectious laugh. She also had a cute little dimple in her left cheek when she smiled, which she did a lot (I get kind of weak in the knees about chicks with dimples -- hey, it's my thing!). We hit it off right away, and in no time we were dating.
I remember the first time Marcy and I spent the night together. We had gone to a concert, using tickets she had won from a local radio station. We had a great time, and, as the evening progressed, we held each other more and more closely. By the end of the concert, we were making out, and when I took her home, she invited me in. Her roommates weren't home, so we resumed our make-out session on the couch. In less time than I expected, I had her naked, and she was leading me to her bedroom. She was as much fun in bed as she was out of it, and I discovered that a dimple would appear on her right cheek, too, when she sucked my cock. I was hooked, I knew it, and I didn't care.
We had great sex almost every night for months. I thought having her completed my life. I was supporting myself well enough, going to school, making plans, working on dreams, and now, I had a hot girlfriend. Onward and upward. Or so I thought.
One night, when I went to pick up Marcy, she was in a really bad mood. She wouldn't say why, although she assured me she wasn't upset with me. She said she had an errand to do, and asked me to drive her over to her friend Janie's house to pick her up. When Janie got in the car, Marcy told me to drive to a neighborhood on the other side of town. She had me park on the street, and she and Janie got out. They said they needed to see a girl who owed them something, and told me to wait in the car. They walked around the corner, and were gone for about fifteen minutes.
Suddenly, they came running up to the car from the opposite direction, threw themselves inside, and told me to get out of there as fast as I could. They wouldn't tell me what happened, but told me to drop them off at another girl's house and then go home. Marcy promised to call me in the morning to explain everything. I didn't like the smell of it, but I didn't know what else to do.
Marcy didn't call in the morning. Instead, the police came knocking on my apartment door. I was led away in cuffs, and charged with about a million counts of vandalism, malicious mischief, and destruction of property. I couldn't believe it. It turns out that Marcy and Janie had messed up a lot of stuff at the home of a girl they had a beef with. No one saw them, but several neighbors heard them, and identified my car speeding away. I tried to tell my side of the story, but no one believed me. Marcy and Janie had been questioned, but they denied having seen me that night except early in the evening, when they said I drove them to the party, before the vandalism occurred. They told the cops that they had complained to me about the girl they victimized, and claimed that I said I knew who this girl was. Everyone at the party they had gotten to hours after they said they did vouched for them. I was screwed.
Many of the charges were dropped, but the sighting of my car fleeing the scene was enough to get me convicted of a few of them. I guess if you throw enough shit at something, some of it is bound to stick. Anyway, that's how I wound up in court, and got myself sentenced to work in a damn soup kitchen.
I guess it could have been worse. I managed to keep my job, I didn't lose my apartment, I didn't have to drop out of school, I didn't get thrown out of school, and if I kept my nose clean and showed up at this slop house, it would eventually all go away. All but the feeling that I had lost a love, and that I could never trust a woman again.
Saturday morning I showed up at the kitchen at 9am. I reported to an immense middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Ma. At nearly 6 feet tall and at least 350 lbs., Ma was obviously a force to be reckoned with. I told her my name was James Summers, and she immediately enveloped me in a huge, greasy, onion-smelling hug. "Welcome to South Street, Jimmy-boy! I know why you're here, so you don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. Some of us are here for the same reason you are, and some of us are volunteers. We only have a few rules. No drugs, no alcohol, no fighting, and no frowns. I'm sure you can handle the first three rules, and I hope you learn to follow the last one. Let me introduce you around.
"JZ! This here's Jimmy-boy." she yelled.
JZ was a big, tough-looking black man, who I judged to be in his mid-twenties. He was wearing a black nylon do-rag, instead of the hairnet everyone else wore. He smiled, and slapped me five. "My man!" he said. "You here from court?"
"Yeah, some vandalism crap," I answered.
He grinned and pointed a meaty finger at himself. "Work release program from the crack half-way house down the block. Keep it real, man, we gonna have some fun here. No one bites, not even old Ma." He grinned and went back to washing dishes.
"Yolanda! Meet your new cook," Ma said to a tiny, pretty, but somewhat hard-looking, 30-ish Hispanic woman.
She turned and looked me over critically. "The last one they sent us to help cook couldn't boil water without help. What do you know about making dinner that don't involve a microwave?"
"I can cook, ma'am," I said.
"Jimmy-boy here is in culinary school. He's gonna be a chef someday," Ma said.
"Do tell? Boy, you may not find the makings for too many fancy sauces here, and our clientele don't really appreciate a good souffle, but if you can cook plain food in big volumes, you'll be a Godsend." She shook my hand warmly.
As we walked away, Ma said, "Yolanda came to us almost seven years ago, on a community service thing like you're doing. She got her life straightened out, got a job, but she's always back here every weekend and every holiday. I guess she found a home here."
Ma took me around the rest of the huge building, introducing me to the rest of the kitchen and serving staff. Some, like JZ, were doing community service. Others, like Yolanda, were volunteers. There were too many names to remember, but one stuck out. Holly.
Holly was a pretty blonde girl-next-door type (complete with dimples), my age, who first came to South Street as part of a service club project in high school. That was over two years ago. Like Yolanda, she never left. Her main job was vegetable and salad prep, which meant peeling tons of potatoes, cutting up cases of lettuce, tomatoes, and carrots, and coring and slicing apples. Even with a hairnet, which was required by the sanitation code, she looked cute as hell. But any naughty thoughts I may have had about her were pretty quickly put on the back burner when I saw how she could handle a knife! Besides, I just wasn't ready to get involved with a girl again.
By the time 9:30, my official starting time, rolled around, I had been given a hairnet and an apron, and had been assigned the task of helping to make soup for lunch. I had cooked in volume before, of course, so I figured this would be easy. Ma put me under Yolanda's supervision.
"Jimmy-boy," Yolanda said, "we usually feed about 250 people at lunch on Saturdays. The weather's nice, so some people might not come in, but you never know. We usually figure on about 175 breakfasts, 250 lunches, and 325 dinners. Breakfast is served from 6:30 to 8:30, lunch from 11:30 to 1:30, and dinner from 4:30 to 6:30. We try to shoo 'em all out of here by 8 in the evening, and we usually get to lock up about 9. The morning shift comes in at 4:30am, and by 6 there's a line waiting outside. In a way, you have the gravy assignment."
"How's that?" I asked.
"Most of the overnight crazies have sobered up by the time you get here, and the evening weirdos don't start getting restless until about the time you leave. You won't have to deal with none of that, though, since you'll be back here crankin' out the culinary delights. And I'll tell you, most of these people get a lot calmer when their bellies are full."
"Do you ever have problems in the dining room?"
"Hell yes, white boy. This is the streets. Where the hell did you grow up?"
"Over on the north side."
"Figures. Rich white people don't know nuthin' about survival here. Well, just keep your nose clean. And don't be afraid to have JZ or one of the other big young bucks walk you to your car. In fact, we sorta have a rule that we don't go outside alone, especially after dark. If no one's available to walk you out, just hang around until there's two or three others to walk with you. And if you do run into trouble, just show the punks respect. Do what they tell you. What you got in your pocket ain't worth your life. And buy a can of Mace, just in case you run into some really whacked out shithead who just likes to fuck people up, Jimmy-boy."
"Yolanda, let's get something straight. First, I'm not rich. Mom's been on assistance ever since my Dad died of an overdose when I was eleven. She's too much of a drunk to hold a steady job. Second, I like to be called James. It's Ma who started calling me Jimmy-boy. I hate that."
"Yeah, well, Ma's gonna say what Ma's gonna say. Jimmy-boy ain't such as bad name. It sure as hell beats what she used to call me when I first got here."
"What was that?"
"Ma introduced me to everyone as Little Brown Sugar, cuz' I was here on a prostitution bust. I was a free-lancer, didn't have no pimp to get free of, and I wasn't hooked on no drugs like so many of them whores are. I didn't even have no diseases that penicillin couldn't take care of. Guess that's cause I wasn't in the life for too long. Anyways, Ma showed me what trouble I was headed for."
"She introduced me to some of our regulars in the dining room. Them girls is all dead now, but we always have a few broken down old whores. One's dyin' of AIDS. A couple of others is hooked on crack or meth. But we don't make no judgments here. If they're hungry, and if they ain't violent, we feed 'em."
"How does Ma fit into the picture?" I asked.
"No one knows her background, except that she's a rich widow. She don't talk about it. She's run this place for more years than anyone can remember, and she's changed a lot of lives. She's a strange old bitch, and I didn't like her much at first, but she helped me to see that life had more to offer me than turnin' tricks with sick old men who couldn't even get it up. Once I started to get straightened out, she stopped calling me Little Brown Sugar. You'll see. She's a real sweetheart, and she'd give you the shirt off her back if you needed it."
"She seems like the matriarch of this whole place. She's tough, huh?" I said.
"You don't know the half of it. Wait till the first fight breaks out in the dining room. JZ's sort of our bouncer right now, and he's a damn good street fighter, but Ma can sling a punk or some skanky bitch out the door before they know what hit 'em. Ain't nobody fucks with Ma. And a word of advice to you, Jimmy-boy, uh, I mean, James. Ma's gonna be watchin' you like a hawk. Pull your load, and she'll love you to death. She'll even write letters for you. But, screw off, and she'll violate your probation so fast your head will spin. Like I said, ain't nobody fucks with Ma. Now, we'd best get cookin'."
With JZ's help, we half-filled three huge pots with water and started heating it. To me, they looked like the pots you see in old cartoons where the cannibals are boiling the explorers. I started to grasp the size of the task ahead of us, especially when Holly came over with a big wheelbarrow full of freshly peeled potatoes. "We serve vegetable soup for lunch," Yolanda said. "Start cuttin' up them potatoes and throw em' in. I'll dice up these carrots and celery," she said, pointing to the many five-gallon pails Holly was lugging our way. "And make the pieces pretty small. A lot of our patrons don't got many teeth."
"What else goes in here?" I asked.
"We got some left-over roast beef, some left-over meatloaf, and the guys at the griddle are frying up some other meat we got laying around. If we get done before they do, we'll start dicing that up too. Shit, boy, cut faster. There's 250 hungry mouths to feed!"
Yolanda and I worked hard, but there were small mountains of vegetables to cut up. Holly joined us, and soon the kitchen was filled with the smell of boiling vegetables.
"Hey, Jimmy-boy!" Ma yelled. "You're the newbie here, so you've got to be initiated. Remember my fourth rule? No frowns? Let's see how well you do with this." She dumped a bucket of peeled, raw onions on the worktop in front of me. "Dice them up real fine and add them to the soup. And smile!" She laughed loud and hard, and waddled away.
"Damn, I hate cutting onions," I muttered. My eyes were already stinging from the fumes, and I hadn't even picked up my knife. There had to be about ten pounds of onions there. I knew I was in for a rough time.
Yolanda was just watching me, laughing quietly. "Get to it, James. You gotta get them diced and in the soup so they have time to cook."
Holly was grinning (there were those dimples!) and watching me too, so I got to work. It wasn't long until tears were streaming down my face. "I gotta take a break and get some air," I said. "I'll be right back."
"Wash your hands really thoroughly, rub a lot of hand sanitizer on them, and then wash them again," Holly said. "I think I have some things that can help you."
By the time my hands were dry, Holly was at my side. "Here, put these on." She held up an old pair of safety goggles that were held together by a piece of string. "I always wear these when I have to cut onions. They help. Turn around so I can tie them tight for you." She pulled them snug against me and tied them behind my head. "Wear these." She handed me a pair of rubber gloves. Then she pulled a small kerchief out of her apron pocket. "I spray this with a little of my cologne and tie it over my nose. Trust me, it helps a lot." She fastened the kerchief around my face, and then began to laugh. "You look like one of those apocalyptic bikers from those Mad Max movies!"
I felt ridiculous, but the stuff Holly lent me made the job easy. I quickly had the entire bucket of onions diced and in the soup pots. While I was working, Holly kept smiling at me. Her cologne was a strangely seductive, spicy smell. For a moment I fantasized about what it might taste like between her perky tits. No, no, no! I wasn't going there. No women for me until I got my head on straight. The last thing I needed right now was to have some chick screw me over again. Although Holly didn't seem like the type.
As the soup simmered, we all took a short break. Yolanda poured three Styrofoam cups of bad coffee, and handed one to Holly and to me. Since it was daylight, and actually pretty warm outside for the first weekend in October, we decided to go outside. "Drink up, kiddies," Yolanda said, lighting a cigarette. "As soon as the dining room opens, Ma will decide if we have to make one more batch or two. With as nice as the weather is, our patrons are probably all up and moving about, so we could get a good crowd today."
I took a look around the front of the building. I was amazed to see a large, motley crew of what had to be a hundred people milling around on the sidewalk. "Yolanda, come take a look," I said.
Yolanda joined me at the corner of the building. "Yeah, we gotta make more soup. We got a good crowd already, and I don't even see a lot of our Saturday regulars." She tossed her half-smoked cigarette on the ground, and a child about nine years old dashed over and snatched it up. "That'll stunt your growth, Rufus," Yolanda laughed. The boy, dressed only in an oversized t-shirt, ragged jeans, and worn out high-topped sneakers, gave her the finger and ran away with the cigarette in his mouth. "Kids," she said. "Don't know what's with 'em these days. I know that boy. His Momma is a crack whore who worked the corner two blocks over. I heard she got busted a coupla weeks ago, so I guess the little man there is on his own now. Hell of a way to spend your childhood."
As we went back inside, I asked, "What about Child Protective Services? Why haven't they taken charge of him?"
Holly spoke up. "They probably don't know about him. I bet his mother never mentioned him, and if he hasn't had trouble with the cops, no one but us knows he exists."
Yolanda said, "James, I told you before. This is the streets. God willing, the kid's found himself a warm place to sleep, and maybe some dealer to run for, so he earns enough money to stay alive. I know him a little. I don't think he ever been to school, but he's smart. Good enough with numbers to handle the money, and clever enough to know how much he can palm without gettin' his throat slit."
"Can't somebody help him?" I asked. "Take him in?"
"What, and make him a ward of the state? Send him to some group home where he'll be beaten by the bigger kids and turned into a hardened criminal before his voice changes? I know you don't believe it, but in some ways, he may be better off this way. He has friends, I know that much, and friends are what keep you alive in this world down here. If he's lucky, and some are, he'll grow up enough to make his way out of this sewer and make something of himself."
"Hell, I thought I had it rough as a kid," I said. "My Mom's a drunk, and my Dad killed himself with a needle when I was eleven, but at least I always slept indoors."
"Yeah, and you was headed for real trouble, from what I hear, but you're making something of yourself," Yolanda said. "You're a smart boy, and so far, a fast worker. Keep it up, James. You'll be somebody."
We started cutting up more vegetables, and not long after the dining room opened, JZ brought us one of the kettles, washed and ready. We started making a fourth batch of soup. Ma came by and said she'd let us know soon if we would need to make a fifth batch.
"Yolanda, how many servings do you get out of one of these kettles?" I asked.
"Usually about seventy. I just took a look outside. We ain't waiting for Ma to tell us to make a fifth batch. I guarantee we'll need it."
"What happens if we have left-over soup, or left-over ingredients?" I asked.
"Don't count on it. Some of our regulars come in as soon as the doors open, and then come back in and get another bowl of soup just before closing time. If we would have anything left over, we could freeze it and have a head-start on next Saturday."
We worked in silence for a while. Soon, JZ brought us a clean pot, and we started cooking our fifth batch of soup. When that was done, we cleaned up our part of the kitchen.
At 1:30, Ma closed and locked the front door, unlocking it only to let the last of the diners leave. There wasn't a drop of soup left.
"Time for lunch, kids. We got thirty minutes, no more," Yolanda said. "After that, we really gotta perform. With the lunch crowd we had today, I think we'll be really hopping at dinner time." Holly, Yolanda, and I took the lunches we had each brought from home out into the dining room, and we sat down for a much-needed break.
We ate quickly, and Yolanda went out for a cigarette, leaving Holly and me alone.
I said to Holly, "Ma said you first came here on a service club project in high school. What made you decide to keep coming back?"
"I don't know, really. I guess I just felt needed. Ma reminds me of an aunt I had who died when I was younger. I was really close to her. Yolanda made me feel really welcome, and I got comfortable working with her. Then I started to meet some of our regulars, heard some of their stories. Not all of them are bad people. Some are homeless because they are on the run from an abusive husband or boyfriend. Some have a place to stay, but can't make enough money to both pay rent and buy food for their kids. Some are war veterans, so devastated by their memories of combat that they can't cope with civilian life. When I first got here, I was sixteen. I guess I had led a pretty sheltered existence. I had no idea there was so much poverty and hunger in our own city. I thought that only happened in Third World countries."
"This almost seems like a Third World country," I said.
"Exactly what I thought," Holly said. "With high school, and only a part-time job, I couldn't afford to give any money to help, so I decided to give my time. And now, with college, I still don't have any money. Besides, I can see the results of the work I do here. This place grows on you. So I keep coming back."
"Where do you go to college?"
Holly replied, "I'm at the community college just west of the park. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was eighteen, but I knew that having only a high school diploma wouldn't give me many job opportunities, so I'm taking business courses."
"What happens after you finish those?" I asked.
"Well, I'll have an associate's degree in business administration, which would allow me to take some entry-level office jobs, but I'm thinking about going on and getting a bachelor's degree in hospitality management," Holly said.
I asked, "Does that mean hotel and resort management?"
"Yes, or restaurant management. I think that's what I'd really like to do. Run a restaurant. Not a family restaurant, either; something a little more up-market. Ma already wrote me a letter of recommendation to include with my college applications. My work here is a great resume-builder, and it's also taught me a lot about teamwork, job assignments, and supply management."
"Yeah, speaking of supplies, where does all this food come from?" I asked.
"City, state, and federal grants, the local food bank, some corporate donations of food or money, and a few private benefactors. This place is run by a small charitable foundation, not the government, so the door is pretty much open to get funding and supplies wherever we can. But what we get is barely enough. Sometimes we have to close up early, because we run out. I hate that. There are people out there who would starve to death if we didn't provide for them," Holly said.
We slaved through the afternoon, preparing food for a large evening crowd. Yolanda, Holly and I were already beginning to gel as a team. Before I knew it, Ma came by and said, "Jimmy-boy, it's almost 6 o'clock. You can leave now if you want."
I got a very meaningful look from Yolanda that told me what my response should be. "It's OK, Ma, I'll stay until you close the doors. There's a lot of clean-up to do here, and I'd hate to stick the others with taking care of my mess."
"Good boy," Ma said as she lumbered away. "I won't mark your time sheet until you walk out the door."
"You just scored some brownie points there, James," Yolanda chuckled.
"I really appreciate you staying to help, James," Holly said, flashing me a dimple-enhanced smile.
When I got home that night, I intended to take a shower and watch some TV, but I decided to just relax on my bed for a minute. I slept in my clothes for eleven hours straight.
The next few Saturdays were pretty much the same. Sometimes, we had a smaller crowd than we did that first day, and, because I was getting used to it, the work became a little easier. I got in the habit of staying until 7 or even later, to make sure that our work area was cleaned up.
Three Saturdays before Thanksgiving, Ma stopped me when I walked in the door. "I've sent off your time sheets to your probation officer, along with a note about what a big help you've been. I'm impressed with you, Jimmy-boy. And now I've got a question for you. Thanksgiving is coming up. I'm sure you don't have classes on Thursday or Friday. Do you have to work at your regular job?"
"No, Thanksgiving is a long weekend for me. Why?" I already knew the answer.
"That's a real busy time for us, and we sure could use the extra help. If you would come in on Thursday and Friday, as well as Saturday, I'll mark your time sheet with time-and-a-half for Thursday and regular time on Friday. That way, you'll be able to cut a few weekends from your sentence. You don't have to give me an answer now. Just let me know before you leave tonight."
When I walked into the kitchen, I was greeted by Holly. "I saw Ma grabbed you when you came in. She asked you to work Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week, didn't she?
"Are you going to do it? We could really use the help. The only time it gets busier around here is at Christmas. Please say you'll do it, James. We all love working with you."
"I'll think about it," I said.
Holly gave me another one of her award-winning smiles, and went over to her prep area.
When I walked over to my area, Yolanda was chuckling. "She likes you, you know."
"Well, I like her too. I like just about everyone here," I said.
"No, dummy, she really likes you! What, are you dense?
"What are you saying, Yolanda?"
"She's dyin' for you to ask her out, idiot! She thinks you're really cute. I'd agree with her, but you're a little too young and white for my tastes. But, hell, boy, ask her out!"
"No way," I said.
"Why not? Already got a girl?" Yolanda asked.
"Shit, boy, don't tell me you're gay? I never woulda thought!"
"No, Yolanda, I'm straight. I just don't want to ask Holly out."
"Why the hell not? She's cute as hell, she's nice, she's smart, some guys would say she's hot. She sure as hell has a nice body. Don't you agree?"
"Then, what is it?" Yolanda persisted.
"I had a serious girlfriend. Or at least I was serious about her. She's the one who got me in this mess." I told Yolanda the whole story about Marcy, her betrayal, and my arrest.
"Stupid bitch wasn't right for you anyway. You're a good boy, James. You deserve a good girl. And Holly's a good girl. She has everything a guy should want -- looks, personality, a good head on her shoulders, some dreams, and some plans to make them dreams come true. You should go for her."
"Yeah, and she has dimples, too," I muttered, I thought only to myself.
"What you say?" Yolanda laughed. "Dimples? You got a thing for dimples? Oh Lordy, that's too damn cute!"
"Yolanda, don't you dare say anything to anybody about that. I mean it. I consider you a friend. Don't embarrass me!" I scolded her.
"Oh, James, your secret's safe with me. Shit! Dimples! That's too damn much!" Yolanda was shaking her head and giggling.
"Shut up! She's coming over here," I hissed at Yolanda.
Yolanda tried to compose herself, but the look on her face told Holly something was up. "Did I miss something?" she asked.
Yolanda burst out laughing. Finally she managed to sputter out, "James just told me the sickest joke I've heard in a hell of a long time. But I ain't gonna repeat it to you."
Holly looked back and forth between Yolanda and me, parked her wheelbarrow, shrugged her shoulders, and walked away.
"You owe me, James," Yolanda said under her breath, still giggling. "Dimples, oh my God!"
When lunch time approached, Yolanda said, "I ain't taking lunch with you two today. I'm gonna give you and Holly some time alone. Tell her I got an errand to run. Don't worry, I'll be back before we have to start working again. Now, talk to her, fool!"
I told Holly about Yolanda's errand, and we took our usual spot in the dining room. As we ate, Holly asked, "Did you get a chance to think about Thanksgiving?"
"A little. I sure could use the break, but cutting a couple of weeks off my sentence is pretty appealing. And I know you guys could use the help."
"Say you'll do it, James. You know it's the right thing to do. Please? I'd really like to be able to spend more time with you." Holly reached across the table and grabbed my hand. I froze for an instant, and then our eyes met. As quickly as it had begun, we broke our gaze. Holly quickly removed her hand as color flooded her cheeks. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said it that way. I mean I really like working with you. You're so good at this, and you make the whole kitchen run smoothly."
I didn't say anything for a moment. I didn't know what to say. I remembered what Yolanda had told me earlier, and realized that it would be very easy for me to fall for Holly. I also remembered the promise I had made to myself the first day I met her. No women for me, not now. But, was that fair? Was I going to judge Holly just because of my experience with Marcy? What should I do?
Finally, I spoke. "Holly, I really like working with you. You're right, giving extra time over the holiday is the right thing to do. As soon as we're done eating, I'm going to tell Ma. And I have all of Christmas week off from work and school. Maybe I can put in some extra time then, too.
"That would be great. Thank you, James."
When I told Ma my decision about Thanksgiving, she said, "I knew you'd do it Jimmy-boy. The whole staff will be real pleased. Do you think you can put in some extra time around Christmas?"
"I have that week off from both work and school, Ma. I should be able to take some extra shifts. Do you do anything special for Christmas dinner?"
"We try to get as many turkeys and hams as we can, and we usually serve Christmas dinner from noon to 3pm. I don't know how it will go this year, though. It's getting harder and harder to get donations. Times are tough for everyone this year."
I thought for a moment, and then said, "Let me think about that. At school, we get some of our supplies donated, and a lot of the stuff comes really cheap from wholesalers. Let me talk to my instructor and see if I can learn anything."
"Would you do that, Jimmy-boy? Any help we can get would be very much appreciated." She gave me a big hug. "But right now, you guys need to get ready for the dinner crowd."
When I got home that night, I thought about Holly a lot. I still wasn't ready to ask her out. I still wasn't ready to risk getting hurt again. But, after I collapsed into bed, I dreamed about her.
On Monday at school, I approached my instructor, Mr. Fredricks, about getting help for the kitchen. He said, "James, that's an interesting idea. Let me see what networking I can do for you. The end of the year is a good time for people to try to get last-minute tax write-offs, so you may be able to get some additional donations. I'll get back to you on that."
The next day in class, Mr. Fredricks said, "Before we begin today, I want to have a discussion with all of you about something James said to me yesterday. As some of you know, he is working at the South Street Community Kitchen. That's a free dining facility, or soup kitchen as some people call it, that works completely off of donations of time, money, and food. James asked me to help him secure additional donations to help them to have a good Christmas dinner for the homeless people who depend on that place as their primary source of food. I'm trying to network with some of our suppliers and board members to get some additional materials for them, but I'd like to brainstorm with you about this. Does anyone have any ideas about how to help these people?"
One of my classmates asked, "Does it have to be food donations, or would money help?"
"James," Mr. Fredricks said. "You can probably provide better answers than me."
"Money is always a help. The place needs money to pay for utilities, maintenance, insurance, that sort of thing, just like a for-profit restaurant. Any extra money could be used for equipment upgrades or additional supplies. At Christmas, they try to serve turkey, ham, and all the traditional fixings, but they're worried this year that donations may fall short of the needs of the community. When they run out of food, they close the doors. It would be a shame to see the people they serve go hungry on Christmas, of all days."
"What about a bake sale?" one of the students asked.
The class broke up in laughter, but Mr. Fredricks quickly silenced them. "Let's refine that idea. You're all learning to be chefs, not just cooks. I believe your career goals are for work as chefs in upscale, gourmet restaurants, so how about this idea? What about a gourmet hors d'oeuvre and desert sale? We've already covered a lot of those recipes in our courses."
"Yeah," another kid said, "we could ask for a flat fee donation from people to attend the thing, and make some money and showcase our skills at the same time."
Another kid said, "How about if we just serve small samples of everything, only a bit of everything we can figure out how to make, and then take orders for larger portions to be delivered to these peoples' homes later? They would have to pay in advance, and if we did it in mid-December, we could send the money to James' soup kitchen in time for them to buy the stuff they need to put out a nice spread on Christmas."
"Who says we just have to invite individuals?" another student asked. "Let's contact restaurant owners and try to get them to come. If we're lucky, some of them will place orders for special stuff they don't normally have on their menu for the holidays. Plus, if it's any good, they'll know where to find a bunch of young chefs who need a job."
"Sounds good," Mr. Fredricks said. "Tomorrow, we'll talk about this some more. You have homework tonight, class. I want each of you to come up with two hors d'eouvre recipes and two desert items that you think you can make and that will go over well. I'll start doing some leg work to try to find a way to publicize this. We don't have a lot of time to plan this -- this whole thing needs to be pulled together in a little over a month."
Throughout the week, the entire class was buzzing about this new project. Some of us just thought it would be a cool way to get our names and resumes out there, which was true. We all got caught up in the enthusiasm. I couldn't stop thinking about what Holly would say if we pulled this off.
By Friday when I left school, we had something of a plan in place. Mr. Fredricks had called in a few favors from the school administration, and he and I were planning to meet Sunday at his house with a few other kids to work on publicity. That gave me time to go over the idea on Saturday with Ma, to make sure that we weren't planning anything that would be a problem for the foundation that runs the kitchen.
By this time, I was so excited about the idea that I got to the kitchen around 8:30 Saturday morning. The first person I saw was Ma. I gave her a quick overview of our plan, and she was thrilled. She invited herself to the meeting Sunday afternoon so she could learn directly from the source what was being planned, and so she could give her input.
"Give me your address, Ma," I said. "The meeting starts at 1:30. I'll pick you up."
Ma laughed. "Give me your address, Jimmy-boy. I'll come and get you. I've seen that piece of junk you drive. I don't know if it would survive my weight!"
The next person I saw was Holly. I couldn't contain myself. "Holly, have I got some news for you!"
"What is it James?"
I told her about our plan. The more I said, the more she smiled, and the deeper those awesome dimples got. "Oh James, that's wonderful!" she cried. "I can't believe you're doing this for us!"
Suddenly, I saw that her eyes were welling up with tears.
"What is it, Holly? Why are you crying?"
She threw herself at me and hugged me tight. "I'm so happy right now. I knew you were special the moment I met you. This is going to be the best Christmas this place has ever had!"
As nice as it felt to hold Holly, it got a little awkward when I realized Yolanda was standing in the doorway, watching us. Reluctantly, I peeled Holly off of me. I hoped the reaction my body was having to hers wasn't visible.
Holly saw Yolanda standing there. "Yolanda, guess what? James's culinary school is putting together a benefit for our kitchen. And they're trying to find new corporate donors. They're going to help us give our people a real Christmas dinner!"
"For real?" Yolanda asked. "You think you can pull it off?"
"We're sure as hell going to try," I said.
"James, if you do that, you gonna be the new saint of South Street!"
I said, "Ma's coming with me to a planning meeting tomorrow at my instructor's house. We'll see what we can do. Don't go congratulating me or my school yet. There's an awful lot of work to do, and we're going to need a fair amount of luck to make a difference."
"You can do it, James," Yolanda said. "You sure as hell know how to work. And luck? You make your own luck. Don't ever forget that. You make your own luck, good or bad. I want to hear more about this. But we better work while we talk."
Holly, Yolanda, and I all put on our aprons and hairnets and set to our tasks. When we got the first three kettles of soup simmering, Yolanda said, "Time for a break, James. Holly, you ready to take a break?"
"You two go ahead. I have a little more to do before I can go on break."
"OK," Yolanda called back to her. To me she muttered, "Outside. Now."
When we got outside, Yolanda didn't say anything. She lit a cigarette and took a few drags in silence. Finally, she said, "You remember when I asked you if you was dense?"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"You remember when we was talking about Holly a few weeks ago and I asked you why you didn't ask her out? I asked you if you was dense, that you couldn't see she was crazy for you. I'm gonna ask you again. Are you dense, or what?"
"You mean that hug? She's happy about the kitchen."
"Of course she is. I'm happy, too. But you didn't see me throwing myself at you and holding you tight like you was a life preserver and I was drowning, did you? I don't think so. That girl is doing everything she can think of to get you to notice her. And don't you dare deny it. I sneaked a look at the front of your blue jeans, boy. You noticed her. Now, when you gonna do something about it?"
"Yolanda, I don't know what to say to you. I told you why I don't want to date anyone right now. And besides, Holly seems like a good girl."
"Of course she's a good girl, dummy! That's why she hugged you the way she did. If she was a bad girl, she woulda stuck her tongue in your mouth and her hand down your pants. Boy, this place means a lot to her. And now you're showing us it means a lot to you. You just opened the door to her for yourself, and you're a damn fool if you don't walk your skinny ass on through!"
"I don't know, Yolanda. I just don't want to get hurt."
"The only one's gonna get hurt around here is her if you keep on ignoring her. I ain't saying you have to fuck her. She may not even want that, at least not right away. But you gotta be both dense and blind if you don't see the way she acts around you. Hell, it getting' on toward Christmas. That's the most romantic time of year. If you don't ask her out, and soon, I'm gonna just set you two up together. And you know me well enough by now to know that I'll do it. I don't know how, yet, but I'll fix you two up. Now, if you don't wanna be embarrassed, I suggest you go ahead and do it yourself."
"Let me think about it, Yolanda," I said.
"Yeah, well don't think too long. Come on, we gotta get ready to make more soup."
Ma came to my apartment to pick me up on Sunday. As we walked out to her car, she said, "The front seat's full of books and papers about the kitchen. I figured I'd bring our financial records along to share with your group. I want them to see how badly we need new donations. You're going to have to sit in the back with Holly."
"Why's Holly with you?" I asked.
"Holly helps me with the books and does a lot with inventory and supplies. It's important for her to get exposure to fund-raising too, and this seemed like a good opportunity," Ma said.
When I got in the back seat, I was stunned. Holly was wearing a casual blouse and skirt and low heels. Every time I had seen her at the kitchen, her blond hair had been pulled back in a ponytail which she then pinned up so it would fit under her hairnet. Now it was loose, flowing, shiny, and framing her face perfectly. She had on some subtle make-up. And her dimples appeared when she smiled at me. She was beautiful. I was in deep trouble.
"Hi, James. I hope you don't mind me tagging along. Ma thought it would be good for me."
"I'm glad you're here," I said honestly. "Wow, you look great! I mean, you always look great, but I've never seen you like this."
Ma laughed from the front seat. "Yeah, Jimmy-boy, she cleans up nice, doesn't she?"
We drove the few miles to Mr. Fredricks' house engaged in an animated three-way conversation. We were all excited about the meeting this afternoon, and full of hope for the progress we could make. At times, I was having difficulty concentrating on what Ma was saying, though. I had trouble taking my eyes off Holly.
The meeting went well. Ma had come fully prepared with copies of the kitchen's annual reports from the last five years, showing a steady increase in the number of meals required each week, and a recent sharp decline in the donations the kitchen was receiving. She made quite an impact on everyone there about the desperate need the center had for additional funding. From the way some of the guys at the meeting were looking at her, I could see that Holly made quite an impact, too.
With Ma's help, we hammered out the language of our publicity campaign. The students had organized themselves into committees, and the heads of those committees presented the recipes we were going to use, along with the way in which we were going to go about getting donations, making sales and collecting money. Mr. Fredricks had already gotten some written promises of donations of food and money, and he presented those, along with the list of restaurant owners who were going to be invited. We made a rough estimate of the proceeds we hoped to be able to donate to the kitchen.
Then Mr. Fredricks floored us. "I've had a stroke of good luck, people," he said. "Our school's head of Public Relations is a good friend of the CEO of the company that owns one of the local TV stations, two FM radio stations, the highest rated AM station in the area, and one of the newspapers. He's assigned a camera crew to be at the kitchen on Thanksgiving to drum up public interest about the work you people are doing. They're also going to do a spot on the evening news at our so-called 'bake sale,' to publicize what we're trying to do for the kitchen. This could be huge, people!"
The meeting broke up shortly after that. We all had our assignments, and we agreed to meet again the following Sunday to discuss our progress.
When we got out to the car, Ma, Holly, and I were all floating on the clouds. "I'd offer to take you kids out to dinner to celebrate," Ma said, "but I have to go back to the kitchen. I have to get the orders for next week finished, so I can get them to our suppliers first thing in the morning."
I knew what I wanted to do, but I was nervous. When we got to my building, I finally blurted it out. "Holly, would you like to get some dinner? There's a great Thai restaurant two blocks from here. I can run you home after that."
"I think that would be very nice, James. I love Thai food, but I haven't had any in years."
"OK with you Ma?" I asked.
"Sure, if Holly trusts riding in that rust-bucket of yours."
"I'll be fine, Ma," Holly said.
Ma dropped us at the curb.
"I want to change clothes. You're dressed too nicely to be seen with a guy in a t-shirt and jeans. Will you come in? It will only take me a minute."
"Sure, James, but you look fine the way you are."
"Not if I'm going out with you," I said.
Holly and I went up to my tiny apartment, and she entertained herself by looking through my cookbook collection while I went to change clothes. I quickly chose a nice shirt and slacks and dressy casual shoes. As I dressed, I thought to myself, "Well, James, this is it. You're going out on a date. What the hell are you thinking?" I pondered that as I was brushing my hair, and realized that I was thinking how excited I was to spend time with Holly away from the kitchen.
We walked to the restaurant. As soon as we got inside, Holly said, "Oh James, this is nice."
"I like it. I used to come here every Saturday night before I started working at the kitchen. Now, I'm too tired after my shift to do much more than go home and fix something to eat, and then fall into bed," I said.
"But it's a good kind of tired, isn't it?" Holly asked.
"The first night, when I got home, I decided I was going to take a shower and then make dinner. I thought I would lie down for a minute to get the kinks out of my back from slaving away all day, but the next thing I knew, it was morning and I was still in my smelly clothes from the kitchen. I've gotten more used to it since then, but it still tires me out. But yes, it's starting to become a good kind of tired," I said.
"I love it there," Holly said. "Some of my friends think I'm nuts, but I just can't imagine going through life not spending some time there every week. I just like to feel that, in some way, I'm helping to make a difference."
"What about after you get out of school?" I asked. "Even if you do wind up going for your degree, after that you're going to want a full-time job. You might not be anywhere around here."
Holly thought for a moment. "My roots are in this city. This is the only place I've ever lived. I'd like to stay around here. If I can get a job in a good restaurant here, I'll still work at the kitchen whenever I can. If I have to leave town to get a job, I'm sure I'll find another kitchen in another city so that I can keep doing this kind of work."
We ate in silence for a few minutes.
"You know," I said, "when the judge first sentenced me to working at the kitchen, I was really upset. I thought the work was beneath me, and I came in there the first day prepared to hate every second of my three hundred hours. Now, I find that I can hardly wait to get there on Saturday mornings. I guess it gets in your blood."
"It does, James. I know it did for me. And look at some of the others. Yolanda has been there for years. She can't leave. Ma's been doing this for longer than anyone can remember. It's her life. I heard JZ say the other day that he's going to keep coming in when he's done at the half-way house, because our patrons remind him of what he was going to become. He also says he likes the people he works with."
"Yeah, that's the thing with me too," I said. "Ma's getting to be more like a mother to me than my own Mom. I don't know what I'd do without Yolanda's teasing and smart-ass humor. That woman really can make me laugh. And, if I stopped working at the kitchen, I wouldn't get to see you." It was out before I realized what I was saying.
Holly looked at me. Her dimples grew very deep as she smiled. "Even if you left," she said shyly, "we could still be friends."
"I can't see myself leaving," I said. "But you're right, I would still want us to be friends."
I paid our bill and helped Holly with her jacket. I could smell that cologne again.
"Do you have to go straight home?" I asked.
"I do have class in the morning, but it's not that late. What do you want to do?" Holly asked.
"Walk with you. And talk."
"I'd like that," Holly said softly.
We walked aimlessly for a while, talking about the kitchen and the people there. Finally, Holly stopped and turned me to look at her.
"I've always been a little shy, and I guess I'm a pretty traditional type of girl, so I'm not good at this," Holly began, "but I have to know something. Why do you seem to avoid me, James?"
We had found ourselves at the entrance to a small park. I guided Holly over to a bench, and we sat down. "I don't know how much Yolanda has told you about how I wound up getting sentenced to work at the kitchen. It was because of a girl," I said. I then told Holly the whole story about Marcy, starting with how I met her, detailing the growth of my love for her, and finishing with her betrayal of me. "I thought I was in love with her, Holly. I thought she was the one for me, forever. Now, of course, I know how foolish I was. But it's made me very afraid of getting hurt again. I'm afraid to let myself feel attracted to another woman."
"I'm not Marcy," Holly said quietly.
"No, you're not. I see that much clearly. But it's me. I'm just not sure I can afford to act on my attraction to another girl," I said.
"Are you attracted to me, James?"
"Very much. You're beautiful, smart, a hard worker, a woman with goals, and you're a lot of fun to be with."
"Well, since it's honesty time, I'll tell you. I'm attracted to you too, James."
"I like hearing you say, that. I'm just not sure I'm ready for more than a friendship. I think I want more, but I'm just not ready."
"That's OK, James. I can wait."
I put my arm around her, and she laid her head on my shoulder. Feeling Holly against my side had my mind working very hard. I knew I liked this girl. I knew I wanted her. But I didn't know what to do about it.
There was a church next to the park. The bell in its tower struck 9 o'clock.
"Holly, I have an 8am class tomorrow. I guess I should get you home."
"I have early classes too," she said.
I stood, and extended my hand to help her up. We walked, holding hands, not speaking, back to the parking lot at my apartment. I held her door for her as she got in my car. Other than giving me directions to her apartment, Holly said nothing as we drove, and neither did I.
When we got to her place, I walked her to her door. "Thank you for going to dinner with me, Holly," I said.
"I had a great time with you, James, both at dinner and afterward."
A part of me wanted to flee, but a much bigger part of me hoped she would invite me in to stay the night. Holly was just standing there, staring into my eyes, as though she was trying to read my thoughts. Finally, I broke the silence.
"Will you come to next Sunday's meeting with me? Now that I know where you live, I could pick you up."
"Come here at noon. I'll have lunch ready. Then we can go to the meeting together," she said. "And maybe we can hang out a little after the meeting, too."
"That would be nice. Well, I guess I'll see you at the kitchen Saturday."
"OK," she said. She turned away from me, got her key out of her purse and opened the door.
"Holly?" I said.
She turned to face me again. "Yes, James?"
I pulled her to me and kissed her. I had intended it to be a light friendly kiss, and that is how it started. But it lingered. And grew. Her hands went to my neck and my arms pulled her against me. The kiss changed from one of friendship to one that promised much more. She felt good in my arms, her slender form pressed against me, her breasts against my chest, her hips against mine, my growing erection pushing against her belly, her lips parting against my mouth. Before I knew it was happening, my tongue had touched hers, and I could tell we both liked it.
When we finally parted, I could see her nipples straining against her shirt. "I'm looking forward to next weekend," I said.
"So am I," Holly said, her dimpled cheeks glowing. "Good night, James."
It took me a long time to get to sleep that night. My thoughts were a jumble of nervousness and desire. I had never known a girl quite like Holly, and I had never been attracted to a girl this way before. Not even Marcy. I thought about my relationship with Marcy for a while, and realized that, as much as I had thought I loved her, she had never inspired the emotions in me that my one kiss with Holly had.
When I finally fell asleep, I had some very entertaining dreams.
The next week flew by. At school, we were spending more time on plans for our fund-raiser than we were on actual cooking lessons, but Mr. Fredricks thought the organizational work we were doing was valuable, so he encouraged us. By Wednesday, things were coming together nicely. I had to tell Holly, so I called her on my lunch break at work. I think she was a little surprised that I called, but we had a nice talk.
Saturday morning, I sought out Ma as soon as I got to the kitchen. "Ma, I have Wednesday night off from work, so I'm going to be here Wednesday afternoon this week to work the dinner shift, and I can be here all day Friday and Saturday."
"Well, Jimmy-boy, that would be nice, but I don't know if we really need the help on Wednesday."
"Tell someone else to take off, or put me to work cleaning the place up to get ready for the TV crew on Thanksgiving day," I said.
"Oh lord, Jimmy-boy, the whole place needs a coat of paint, but there's no way we can do that while people are here. But if you're serious about working Wednesday, I bet I can find someone who would be willing to stay home to start working on Thanksgiving dinner for their own family. I'll let you know. Say, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?"
"Working here," I said.
"Yes, but after we close. Are you going to your Mom's place for a late Thanksgiving dinner?"
"No, Ma, the only thing she'll want to do for Thanksgiving is snuggle up with a bottle of Wild Turkey, and I just can't stand to be around her when she's like that. I'll probably just go back to my apartment and fix something."
"Nonsense. You're coming to my house. I already invited Yolanda and a few others for turkey and all the rest, and Holly's going to be there." She gave me a knowing smile.
"I'd love to come, Ma," I said. "That would be really nice."
I went to my work station and found Yolanda already suited up and elbow deep in prep work.
"Hey lover-boy," she said, "I hear you had a real good time on Sunday with Holly. About time you started acting like a man around her."
"Knock it off, Yolanda. We had dinner and went for a walk. That's it."
"Did you have a good time?"
"Yes, I did."
"Did you spend the night with her?"
"No, and even if I had, I wouldn't tell you!"
"Did you kiss her? Now don't you go lyin' to Aunt Yolanda, boy. I can smell a liar from a coupla blocks away."
I was embarrassed, but she was right. I couldn't lie to her. "Yes, Yolanda, I kissed her."
"Did she kiss you back?"
"Yes, she did."
"Was it good?"
"Yes, it was. Now please, can we drop this?"
"For now," Yolanda said, giving me a wicked smile. "But don't you go thinkin' I'm gonna let you alone about this. You gotta make a serious play for that girl. She's ripe for the pickin', and she wants you to make a move. Get your man on and go for it."
We settled into our usual frantic routine, and break time came up fast. I barely had time to talk to Holly while we worked, but at break, we all put our jackets on and went outside. As Yolanda smoked a cigarette, the three of us talked.
"Ma tells me you're coming with us to Thanksgiving dinner at her house after we close on Thursday," Holly said.
"She invited me this morning. I think it will be fun. I'm looking forward to having dinner with the people who have sort of become my new family," I said.
"I never thought I'd be family to some punk white boy," Yolanda wise-cracked.
"That's true. Oh, I get it. I'm the token minority!" We all laughed.
"I'm looking forward to it too," Holly said. "Ma's one of the nicest people I know, and she makes a great Thanksgiving dinner. She's done this for a few years, but she usually only invites old-timers like me and Yolanda. She really likes you, James. She respects you for what you're trying to do for this place."
"Do you need a ride to her house?" I asked. "I could take you and drop you off at your place when we're done. Besides, I don't know where she lives, so you could direct me."
"I'd like that, James."
Thanksgiving Day was insane. The place was packed for the mid-day meal, and we managed to have small portions of turkey, yams, and stuffing for everyone, along with our regular soup. The TV crew stayed longer than anyone expected, and they didn't just set up outside. A newsman and cameraman spent a lot of time in the dining room, interviewing staff and clients alike. A reporter from the paper was able to spend a few minutes with Ma, and she introduced him to some of us in the kitchen. JZ and Yolanda gave him a few good quotes about the importance of the kitchen in the survival of the street people in this part of our city, and both of them were completely honest with him about their own backgrounds and why they were there.
After we had closed down the kitchen, Holly and I went out to my car and headed to Ma's house. As I half expected, Ma assigned us seats at her dining room table, and Holly and I were placed next to each other. We all talked about what a busy and exciting day it had been, and Ma seemed very pleased with the publicity we had gotten.
We stuffed ourselves. Ma is an excellent cook. Over pumpkin pie and warm apple cider, we talked more about the importance of the next four weeks. "Kids," she said, "I've got to be honest with you. We're in deep financial trouble. The utility bills are overdue, and some of our suppliers are starting to threaten to suspend our deliveries if we don't catch up on our payments to them. Last summer, I mortgaged this house and lent the money to the foundation to help out, but they are struggling to make their payments to me. I have my late husband's life insurance money to use to pay back the mortgage, and I'm prepared to do that, but still, things don't look good.
"The fundraiser will save us," Holly said.
"It will help, but I'm afraid it won't be enough. Starting in January, we may have to change our kitchen hours to cut down on the number of meals we serve. It's the only thing I can think of to try to cut expenses."
"Some of our people will go hungry," Yolanda said.
"I know, but what else can I do?" Ma answered. "The only other thing we can do is just keep on like we are until they turn off the lights and the gas, and then just close up completely. I don't want to think about having to do that."
We talked a while longer, but it was getting late. I drove Holly back to her place and walked her to her door.
"I heard the one guy from the TV crew say that they were going to do a spot on the 11 o'clock news about the kitchen. I want to watch it," Holly said.
"So do I," I answered, "so I guess I should get going."
Holly looked at my watch. "It's almost 11 now. If they do it as the lead story, you're going to miss it. Come in and watch it with me."
She led me into her apartment, and indicated that I should sit on the couch. She turned on the TV, and then sat down next to me. The local news came on almost immediately.
"Good evening. I'm Mike Samuels, and I'm here today at the South Street Community Kitchen. Over 350 disadvantaged residents of our city depend on this facility as their only means to escape starvation. Standing with me is the amazing woman who runs this place, a woman who prefers to be known simply as Ma. Tell our viewers about the work you people do here, Ma."
Ma gave a brief interview, explaining that the kitchen was run by a small charitable foundation, and that all of our operating budget came from donations and charitable contributions. She also said that the demand for our services was on the rise, while funding was decreasing. The camera then switched to shots of the dining room, filled with homeless people having their meager Thanksgiving dinner. After that was some footage taken in the kitchen. The TV guy was doing a voice-over as these scenes were shown.
"The South Street kitchen struggles more every month to stay open," he said. "All of their workers are volunteers, or individuals like James Summers, shown here, who was sentenced to community service work here at the kitchen as a result of a brush with the law."
"That's you!" Holly exclaimed.
Mike Samuels continued, "James is a student at the City Technical Institute School of Culinary Arts. He has involved his classmates and his instructor in a campaign to raise desperately needed funds to allow the kitchen to provide a proper Christmas dinner for its patrons, and, hopefully, to allow the kitchen to remain in operation throughout the winter, when its services are needed the most. I spoke with James' instructor, David Fredricks, about their fund-raising effort.
"Look, Holly, that's my instructor! I didn't know he worked the serving line today!" I said.
Mr. Fredricks was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, covered with an apron that had some food stains on it. He had a hairnet on his head. It appeared that they had just closed down the serving line. The TV reporter got Mr. Fredricks to talk about our fundraiser.
Then the scene switched to Mike Samuels on the sidewalk outside the kitchen. He said, "The current recession has made it tough for all of us. But most of us will still have some kind of a dinner on Christmas, and expect to be able to continue to feed ourselves and our families. For the people of South Street, the picture is not as good. As we move into the holiday season, we ask that you take a moment to think about these disadvantaged people, and the struggling facility that tries to help them. Your small contribution can make a huge difference. For more information about the South Street Community Kitchen or the City Technical Institute's fundraiser, go to the websites being shown on your screen, or call the toll-free number shown here to make a pledge. A little help will go a long way." The TV then cut to a commercial.
Holly looked at me, wonder in her eyes. "You're going to do it, James. You and your friends are going to save the kitchen."
"I hope so," I said.
Holly leaned into me and kissed me. Our kiss was warm, loving, full of joy and hope. She then turned her back to me and settled against me. I put my arms around her to hold her, and we relaxed, cuddled together to watch the rest of the news. She was asleep before the sports came on.
The feel of Holly's warm body against me was both stimulating and comforting. She just felt right. Being with her made me happy. Apparently, I was more tired from our busy day than I thought, because I don't remember seeing the weather broadcast.
At some point, I think I remember feeling us shift our positions on the couch so we were lying down together, but the next thing I was truly conscious of was the smell of Holly's lovely hair against my face. I woke up to feel her beautiful ass pressed against my morning wood. My hand was cupping her one firm breast, and I could feel the very hard nipple between my fingers.
"James? James? Wake up. I could lie here like this with you forever, but we need to get ready to go to the kitchen."
I became conscious enough to realize where my hand and cock were. I quickly removed my hand and attempted to pull my pelvis away from her. "Oh God, Holly, I'm sorry."
"Please, James, it's OK. You're not the first man I've ever woken up next to." She stood up, looked intensely into my eyes, and then looked shyly down at the floor. "I've been awake for a while. I liked to feel you against me. But," she said, looking up again, "we need to get moving. You take a shower while I make breakfast. I've got some football jerseys that I sometimes wear to bed. One of them should fit you. You don't really have time to go home. There are extra towels in the bathroom."
When I got out of the shower, I could smell the full-bodied aromas of Colombian coffee and bacon. I dressed quickly and went to the kitchen. "Smells wonderful!" I said. Holly turned and smiled at me, and again, I appreciated her beauty. Especially those damn dimples.
"Breakfast is served, dear sir," she teased, as she set a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a plate filled with perfectly browned bacon and two eggs sunny-side up, a side plate of whole-grain toast, and a steaming mug of coffee in front of me. She joined me at the table with smaller portions of her own.
"Wow, Holly, you didn't have to do all this. I usually just grab a bowl of cereal for myself in the morning."
"You, the aspiring master chef, don't cook in the mornings? I would have thought eggs Benedict and made-from-scratch muffins would have been your usual fare."
"I would do that if I had a guest for breakfast, I guess," I said between bites.
"I'd like to have you make me breakfast sometime," Holly said. Then she quickly looked at her plate and began to eat.
As I ate, I wondered exactly what she had meant by that. Did she just want me to invite her for breakfast, or did I dare to infer much more?
"Would you do me a favor, James?" Holly asked as she stood up from the table.
"I have time for a quick shower before we have to go. Would you mind doing the dishes? There should be plenty of hot water. You don't have to worry about freezing me in the shower."
"I'd be happy to." Holly quickly left the room.
Odd. I normally hate washing dishes. But that domestic chore was suddenly enjoyable, I guess because I was doing Holly's dishes. For a moment, I found myself just standing at the sink, my hands in the water, listening to the sounds of Holly in the shower. I wondered what she looked like, shampoo in her hair, soapy water streaming over her breasts, her luscious looking ass, and her pussy. I wondered if she was shaved. I tried to clear my head, saying to myself, "Stop it James. We're just friends. Getting to be very good friends, but friends, all the same. Don't do something stupid and screw it up."
We were a couple of minutes late getting to the kitchen. Ma gave us a strange look when we rushed in together, but simply said, "I was starting to worry about you two". Yolanda, to my surprise, kept her mouth shut for once. But her smiles at me seemed a little more naughty than usual.
The crowd wasn't too overwhelming, although after the previous day, almost nothing would have overwhelmed me.
At lunch, Ma joined us in the dining room. "I've been on the phone all morning. It just won't stop ringing. Mr. Fredricks, your instructor, Jimmy-boy, tells me that the websites they showed on the news last night have crashed twice because of the number of hits they've been getting. The TV reporter who was here yesterday called to say that the station has hired two temps to man that toll-free number, because they're getting so many calls. They didn't say how much they've received in pledges, because they can't keep up with the totals. But he did tell me that one anonymous donor asked for an estimate of our utility bills for next year, because he's thinking of paying them for us!"
Yolanda said, "Ma, that's the kind of help that could keep this place afloat. Thank you, lord!"
Ma said, "Jimmy-boy, if your people do what I think they're going to do, we could have enough to make a big Christmas dinner for everyone, with enough money left over to carry us deep into next year. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Holly grabbed my hand, on top of the table where everyone could see it. "You're saying that James is going to save the kitchen."
"Not without a lot of luck, and lot of help from my friends," I pointed out quickly.
Yolanda said, "James, I told you before, you make your own luck. Just like you make your own friends. I'd be proud to hear that you think I'm one of them."
"You've gotten to be one of my closest friends, Yolanda. In spite of the way you tease me, in spite of the way you make fun of me sometimes, I know you're a very special friend."
Since this was my Thanksgiving break from work and school, I worked my usual Saturday, and went in on Sunday, too. Each day was the same after our Thanksgiving rush, busy, but manageable.
As we were getting back to work after lunch on Sunday, Holly said to me, "What are you doing after work tonight?"
"I don't know. What do you want to do?"
"Go shopping for Christmas decorations for the dining room. The stuff we have is so old and beat up that I hate to see us put it up again."
"OK," I said. "That could be fun."
"We could stay late next Saturday and decorate after we close the dining room. You could stay at my place again, and I'll make us breakfast." She didn't wait for a reply, but instead turned and walked to her work area. I watched her tight little ass sway as she walked away.
I head Yolanda chuckle. "Stay at her place again? She'll make you breakfast again?"
"It's not what you think, Yolanda. We fell asleep on her couch watching the 11 o'clock news Thanksgiving night."
"Uh huh," Yolanda said, giving me a wicked smile.
"We did, damn it. And our clothes were on the whole time, in case you need to know."
"I've been at Holly's place. She has a nice couch, but you had to get pretty damn cozy to both fit on it together. Clothes stayed on? Yeah, well, it's a start," Yolanda said.
I could feel the heat in my cheeks, but I decided I shouldn't say anything more.
Every time Holly came over to me that day, I found myself looking at her a little differently than I ever had before. It wasn't really lust; I'd already had some fantasies about her, and there was no denying how attractive she was. I realized that my attraction to her wasn't just physical anymore. And I was starting to get pretty comfortable with the idea.
Yolanda caught me looking at Holly a couple of times. She just gave me her knowing smile, and sometimes a little wink.
After work, Holly and I got in my car. We wanted to get busy with our shopping, but we were both hungry, so we stopped at a little pizzeria and grabbed a quick dinner. Over dinner, we talked a lot about the kitchen. We agreed to split the expense of the decorations, and then discussed the kinds of decorations we thought we could afford.
After dinner, when I opened my car door for Holly, she drew me in and kissed me again. "I think this is going to be a great Christmas, James."
"I do too," I said as I held her warm body tight against me.
Holly directed me to a store that specialized in discount holiday decorations. The place was huge, and had every type of light, wreath, tree, and decoration you could imagine. We spent a long time admiring everything and trying to make up our minds. An employee came over and asked if he could help us, since it was getting close to closing time.
"We're trying to find some simple, durable decorations that we can use for a big room," Holly said. "But we don't have a lot of money to spend."
The store employee looked at me. "Don't I know you from someplace?" he asked. "Wait, didn't I see you on TV? You're from the South Street kitchen, aren't you?"
"I work there. Their dining room is what we're trying to decorate," I said.
"Wait right there," the guy said, and he hurried off. In just a moment, he returned with a heavy-set older man, with a flowing white beard and white hair.
"Hi, my name's Chris," the man said. "And yes, I get it all the time, since my last name starts with a K. I've always loved Christmas, so when my hair went from gray to white, I decided, why not? The beard completes the Kris Kringle image, don't you think? But enough about me. I saw you on the news last night. James, isn't it? And is this lovely young lady your wife?"
Holly said, "My name's Holly. James and I work together at the South Street Community Kitchen. We decided we wanted to decorate the dining room for the season. But we don't have a lot to spend."
"Holly? Oh I like that," Chris said. "Was your father's name Rudolph, by any chance?"
"Frank, actually," Holly replied.
"No matter," Chris said, giving us a jolly laugh. "Just a little holiday humor."
We both managed to grin politely at the man's poor attempt at a joke.
"Hmmm," Chris said, combing his beard with his fingers. "I saw the dining room on the news. I think I have some things that would really spruce it up. Get it? Spruce? Christmas tree?" He laughed, and his belly honestly did shake. "Oh never mind, just follow me.
"You'll need these lights, about twenty strings, to put around the windows and along the tops of the walls. Don't worry. They're LEDs. Hardly use any electricity. And a couple boxes of these window appliques. The ceiling looked to be about twelve feet high on TV. Is that about right?"
"Yes, but we don't have much money," Holly said. "James and I are paying for this out of our own pockets, and we just can't spend much."
"OK, you'll need about a ten-foot tree. Here, we just got this one in yesterday. Artificial, but top-of-the line. It'll last for years. This display model here comes complete with lights and decorations. That would do nicely."
"Chris," I said, "we can't afford anything like that."
"What? Oh, my dear boy, you're not paying for anything. I wouldn't hear of it. It's Christmas! Consider this a donation. I'll even put everything up for you. When is your dining room empty?"
Holly said, "The last of the breakfast crowd is out by 9, and we don't re-open the doors for lunch until 11:30. But wait, you're donating this stuff?"
"Of course. I was poor once too. Dirt poor. I know you can't tell now, considering how, ahem, portly I've become, but as a kid I never had enough to eat. That's why I love Christmas so much. It's a season of giving and joy. Let me enjoy Christmas this year by giving to you folks. I'll load up my sleigh (actually, it's a truck) and I'll be there at nine with some of my elves, I mean, employees. We can be done and out of there by 11. What do you say?"
For a minute, Holly and I couldn't say anything. Finally, I found my voice. "I guess 'Thank you' is pretty weak, but it's all I can think of."
"'Thank you' is more than enough for me," Chris said. "Now run along, you two. I've got some work to do."
When we got out to my car, I said, "What just happened in there?"
"I think Santa is coming early to South Street," Holly said.
"That guy was a little over the top, wasn't he?" I laughed.
"Yeah, but I think it's great."
"So do I," I said.
We were quiet during most of the drive back to Holly's apartment. When I parked the car and walked her to her door, she asked, "Will you stay with me tonight?"
"We both have classes tomorrow, Holly, so maybe I should just go home."
"What about breakfast?"
"I could pick you up and we could go somewhere before we have to be at school."
"James, please stay with me tonight."
"I don't think my back can take another night on your couch."
"Who said anything about the couch?"
I couldn't believe she had said that. "I don't know, Holly."
"Don't you like me?" she asked, with a little bit of a pout.
"It's not that at all, believe me. I'm starting to like you a whole lot. But I don't want to hurt you."
"James, I'm not that fragile. I don't hurt easily."
"OK then, I don't want to hurt myself. I told you, I promised myself, after Marcy, that I wasn't going to rush into anything. I'm being honest here. I think I could fall for you, hard, but I'm just not sure I'm ready."
"Here's an idea," Holly said. "I have a big bed. I'll sleep under the sheet, and you can sleep on top of the sheet. We'll share the blankets, but that's it. What do you normally wear to bed?"
"Usually, I just take off my shoes, socks, and jeans and sleep in my t-shirt and boxers."
"OK, I sleep in a big t-shirt or one of my football jerseys. I'll change in the bathroom and get in bed, then you can undress in the bathroom. I'll turn the bedroom light off so we won't be able to see each other when you come to bed. It'll be completely innocent."
I remembered how innocent I definitely did not feel when I woke up with her breast in my hand and my cock poking her ass the other morning.
Holly wasn't giving up easily. "I make a mean blueberry waffle. I have a new toothbrush you can have. I washed your shirt from the other night, so you'll have a clean shirt for school. And I just want to be near you. Please, James?"
"The waffle did it," I laughed. "Come on, girl, let's go inside."
Holly got us some sodas, and then sat down at her computer. "I want to see what's going on with those websites," she said.
She keyed in an address, and a picture of the outside of the kitchen came on screen, with a large group of our customers milling around outside. The shot must have been taken just before we had opened for Thanksgiving dinner. There were tabs that led to pages about the foundation, a brief profile of Ma, our mission statement, the annual reports from the last five fiscal years, and a projection of the expenses for the coming year, along with our projection of the number of meals which would need to be served, showing a severe shortage in funds. There was also a link to the Culinary Arts school's fundraiser website. At the bottom of each page on the website was the phone number for pledges.
Holly clicked on the link to the fundraiser. Of course, there was a link to the Technical Institute's main website, but the primary thrust of the site was our class' fundraiser. The first page included a video file of the 11 o'clock news feature story we had watched. There were tabs that showed pictures of the treats we were preparing, along with a deion of each item, a downloadable order form, a price list, a "contact us" tab which allowed the reader to e-mail the school for more information, an on-line contribution pledge page, and, of course, the main toll-free number for making pledges.
"Let's call the pledge line," I said.
"Good idea," Holly said. "We can pledge the money we were going to spend on decorations."
The phone rang, and a very professional female voice recording told us a little about the kitchen and the fundraising campaign, with Christmas carols playing softly in the background. Eventually, a live male voice came on the line. "Hello, thank you for calling the South Street Community Kitchen donation line. I'm Mike Samuels. How can I help you?"
"Mike Samuels?" I said. "Aren't you the TV guy who was at the kitchen on Thanksgiving?"
"Yes, I am. How can I help you?"
"I'm James Summers. I work at the kitchen. You interviewed me."
"Oh yes, James, I remember you."
"Why are you answering this phone?"
"Hah! This pledge line has gotten so busy that station management asked staff to donate some time to help out. I was there at the kitchen, James. How could I refuse? Some of our radio dj's are here, along with some staffers from the paper. Right now, there are about ten of us taking calls. Now, I don't want to seem rude, but we have some callers on hold, so is there anything I can do for you?"
"I'd like to make a donation. It's not much, but it's all I can afford."
"You probably know better than I do that every penny helps," Mike said. "We've had everything from pledges of $5000 and more from local businessmen down to a three-year old kid who emptied her piggy bank on the receptionist's desk at the studio. That little girl gave $1.87. It was everything she had. Her picture will be on page one of the morning paper."
I quickly made my donation pledge, Mike thanked me, and I hung up the phone.
Holly said, "Was that supposed to include my money too?"
"No," I said, "I kind of forgot you wanted to give too. I guess you'll have to call back."
"But James, that was twice the amount you said you were going to spend on decorations."
"I know, but I guess I just got carried away. It's OK, the kitchen needs it."
"You're such a sweet guy," Holly said. "I'll call in my pledge tomorrow. It's late. Let's go to bed."
We went into Holly's room, and she pulled a well-worn football jersey out of her bureau. "Be right back," she said, heading to the bathroom. I could hear her in there, and my mind was picturing what she might look like as she undressed. In a few minutes, she came out. The jersey was short, and I could see all of her smooth, beautifully shaped legs. It was obvious that she wasn't wearing a bra, since I could see her pointy nipples poking against the fabric. When she got in bed, I got a glimpse of a pair of tiny pink panties which did a poor job of covering her luscious-looking ass. I swallowed hard.
"Are you just going to stand there, silly, or are you going to get ready for bed?" she teased. "If you're too shy, I'll turn the light off when you come out of the bathroom."
"OK, yes, I want you to turn the light off," I said as I closed the bathroom door behind me.
I quickly stripped down to my boxers and t-shirt, brushed my teeth, and then came out. True to her word, Holly had the light off. There was a small nightlight on the one wall that helped me navigate to the bed. I pulled back the covers and climbed in next to her.
"I thought you were sleeping on top of the sheet," Holly giggled as she snuggled in against me.
"Oh shit, I'm sorry!" I started to get out of bed, but Holly grabbed my arm.
"It's OK, I trust you. I know what your feelings are, and I respect them. But please, James, will you hold me until I fall asleep?"
I looked at her. In the dim light, I could make out all the lovely features of her face. I began to lightly stroke her hair with my fingers, and then to caress her face. "You're beautiful, Holly."
"Thank you. You're not so bad yourself," Holly said as she smiled. Her dimples always became very pronounced when she smiled.
I leaned in to kiss her mouth. It wasn't long until our kisses changed from warm to hot. God, I wanted this girl. I wanted to make love to her. I wanted to be in love with her, all of her -- mind, body, and soul. But I just couldn't let myself.
Without even realizing it, I had moved my one hand down to Holly's breast. Her nipple was hard, straining against her thin shirt. I felt her legs part, and my one thigh went between hers. Her hand was stroking my back, then my hip, and then began to work its way forward toward my very erect cock that was threatening to pop out of my boxers.
I forced myself to regain control of my feelings. "Holly, I can't do this. I'm just not ready. If I make love to you, I want it to be because I love you, not just because I want you. Can you understand that?"
"I understand, James. You're special. You're not like some of the guys I've gone out with, who want the physical part first, and wait to see if an emotional bond can develop. I like you the way you are, and I respect that." She kissed me again, passionately, and then more gently. Finally, she said, "May I go to sleep with my head on your chest?"
"I wish you would," I whispered.
Nothing more really happened that night. I woke up a few times as we shifted our positions in our sleep. One time, I found myself spooned tightly against Holly, my hand over her breast, and her hand holding it in place. Another time, I felt her spooning against my back. I think the thing that woke me was her hand against my cock, although I could tell by her breathing that she was asleep.
In the morning, Holly kissed me awake. "Breakfast is almost ready," she said. I opened my eyes to the wonderful sight of Holly leaning over me. I doubt she realized it, but I could see down the neck of her jersey, with a good shot of her breasts. If the neck opening had been just the slightest bit looser, I would have been able to see her nipples. I quickly rolled on my side, hoping she didn't notice how my body reacted to the view.
"I have to get back in the kitchen before things start burning," she said. "Get up, sleepy-head."
God, what was I going to do? Should I just give in to temptation, throw caution to the wind, and let myself go with this girl?
"James, get up! I'm serving your food," Holly called from her kitchen.
I quickly stuffed my hard-on into my jeans, attempted to adjust myself to not be conspicuous, and went to the kitchen.
Holly was already seated. There was a plate of steaming blueberry waffles in front of both of us, along with grapefruit halves and mugs of coffee. In the center of her small table between us, there was a plate of nicely browned sausage links.
"You make a hell of a breakfast," I said.
"I believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day," Holly said, "so I like to have a good one."
As we ate, we talked about what the coming week was going to bring. I knew it was going to be busy, with less than two weeks until the fundraiser and less than four weeks until Christmas. I wondered how much time I would get to spend with Holly away from the kitchen.
When we were done eating, Holly said, "You go and shower while I do the dishes. You have a longer trip to school than I do. If I catch the 7:40 bus at the corner, I'll make it to class on time."
I went in the bathroom, and got in the shower. When I got out, I found my clean shirt folded on the vanity. I knew it hadn't been there when I had gotten in the shower, which meant Holly must have come into the room while I bathed.
I was standing in front of the mirror, dressed only in my boxers, drying my hair, when Holly came in.
"I heard the water shut off, and I figured you'd be decent by now. I'm sorry, but I have to get my butt in gear."
When I realized she was going to strip right there, I turned away. That meant I was looking in the mirror, which was really no better. I stood mesmerized, watching Holly pull her jersey over her head. Her belly was flat, smooth, and beautiful. Next I saw her breasts, perky, medium-sized, perfectly shaped, with small pink areola and erect, pencil-eraser nipples. As if that wasn't enough, she then slipped off her little pink panties. Her puffy little mound sported a tiny triangle of close-cropped blond hair, but the rest of her sex appeared to be clean-shaven. Oh God, how I fought for control!
I don't know if Holly caught me looking. She quickly got in the shower and pulled the curtain, which I now realized was translucent. I shook my head to clear it, and finished getting dressed. "Holly, I've got to go," I said.
"Wait, James!" she cried. She leaned her wet head out of the shower, holding the curtain against her body in a poor attempt to hide herself. "Can I have a kiss goodbye?"
Resisting the urge to tear my clothes off and jump in the shower with her was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. But I did resist. I gave Holly a nice, warm kiss and then fled the apartment.
I was in a trance when I got to class. All I could think about was Holly. I'm sure I looked like a complete idiot when Mr. Fredricks had to say, loudly, "Mr. Summers, it was good of you to bring your body to class today, but I was hoping that you would have brought your brain, too! Would you be kind enough to pay attention to what's going on in here?"
I snapped myself out of it, and did manage to pay attention. The gist of what Mr. Summers was saying was that our fundraiser had the potential to be the biggest thing the school had ever done. Although there would normally be both a written and a performance exam at the end of the semester which would count as half of our grade, he had decided to eliminate the formal exam and to grade us solely on our performance in relation to the fundraiser. That was good to hear. Between my job, my work at the kitchen, the fundraiser, and my new preoccupation with Holly, I couldn't imagine how I would have found time to cram for a written final exam.
Every waking moment that week that I did not spend at my job was devoted to preparing for the fundraiser. I did manage to call Holly a few times, but she was busy, too, since she was going to have to endure the horrors of finals in her courses.
Saturday dawned cold and wet, with a forecast of freezing rain and snow late in the day, so I knew the kitchen was going to be packed. JZ was the first one I saw when I got to the kitchen. "My man," he said with a huge grin, "get your white ass into the dining room!"
I was amazed. Chris K. and his "elves" had transformed our plain, somewhat dingy mess hall into a bright, cheerful Christmas wonderland. Tiny colored lights sparkled everywhere, the windows (which the elves had washed) were festooned with candy canes, sugarplums, wreaths, and snowflakes, and the tree was magnificent.
"Damn, boy, your Santa wannabe buddy did a hell of a job on this place, didn't he?" JZ said. "Holly come in all excited on Monday and told me about it, but man, you shoulda seen the look on her face the first time she seen it. I was with her, and I thought she was 'bout ready to pass out! Ma sure was happy, too. Wait till she sees you. She gonna crush you with one of them big hugs."
"Yeah," Yolanda said as she came into the room, "I gotta give the new Saint of South Street a big hug myself before Ma squeezes the life outta you. James, I knew you could do big things!"
Holly came in shortly afterward. "Ma wants to talk to us. Come on," she said with a grin.
When we found Ma, she said, "Come here, you two. I don't know what all you've been up to, but I'm at a complete loss for words! Kids, I'm so happy. The dining room looks so wonderful. A lot of our regulars have sought me out to tell us how happy they are to see the place all fixed up for Christmas. Their kids are happy, because a lot of them have never had Christmas with a tree and lights before. Good lord, I bet some of them have never had Christmas indoors! This was the best surprise ever!
"And there's more. James, I guess you didn't know about this, since I think you would have told me, but the construction trades classes at your school are going to start work after the holidays on a project here. There's a lot of un-improved vacant space in this old factory building. They're going to expand our kitchen and dining area and then renovate the existing part. All the materials and equipment are being donated by local companies, and most of the work will be done at night after the dining room closes. They've even gotten grant money to hire and pay some of the neighborhood people for general labor help. This is a dream come true! Now come here and let your old Ma give you a big hug."
When I was able to breathe again after Ma's bear hug, I said, "I talked to my probation officer. He's given me permission to leave right after lunch next Saturday so I can be at our fundraiser, if that's OK with you."
"Of course it is, James. He already called me. I told him we needed your help here, of course, but I also told him that the help you were giving us with the fundraiser was even more important. Plus, I understand from your Mr. Fredricks that you're sort of required to be there," Ma said.
"I could have worked it out with Mr. Fredricks so I would have still gotten credit for the fundraiser if my P.O. and you wouldn't have agreed, but thank you. I guess the fundraiser should be my first priority next weekend," I said.
The day went by quickly. At the end of the day, I took Holly home, went home and got cleaned up, and then went back to her place to take her out for a late dinner.
"Will you stay with me tonight?" Holly asked.
"I have to be up at dawn to go over to school to do some prep work for the fundraiser. Hell, it seems that's all I've done all week. After the fundraiser is over, my life should return to normal. I'll make it up to you, I swear. It's killing me not to be able to spend time with you. Can you forgive me?"
"Oh James, don't be silly, of course I forgive you. This is very important to you, and it's something you have to do for school. These courses are for your future. Just know that I'll be thinking of you," Holly said, "and if there's anything I can do to help, I will."
The following week was completely crazy. I went to school early every morning, stayed as late as I dared without making myself late for my job, and then went home and collapsed. By Saturday, I was actually dreading the fundraiser.
Saturday at the kitchen, the fundraiser was all anyone could talk about. Everyone on staff wished me luck, and some of our customers spoke to me to offer their best wishes and their thanks, too. As soon as I could, I left the kitchen, rushed home, showered, dressed in my freshly pressed white pants, shirt with the school logo, and toque (the floppy white headpiece traditional chefs wear). And then I raced to school.
The place was a madhouse of activity. The local TV station was doing a live feed from the school, as was the AM radio station and one of the FM stations. All of my classmates were psyched, and Mr. Fredricks was beaming. I got to work.
Just before the opening time, Mr. Fredricks pulled me away from the others. "James, I want to talk to you."
"What is it, Mr. Fredricks?"
"Have you seen the final guest list?" he asked.
"No. I know it was being circulated in class yesterday, but I was too busy to look at it."
"James, every major restaurant in this city is going to have at least one person here, either the master chef or the owner. Several luxury resorts are sending people to sample our wares. The food critics from our own paper, and from several out of town papers are going to be here. Every member of the school's board of directors is coming. The mayor and his wife are going to be here, along with several state legislators, and the governor's office bought four tickets. I just thought you should know what you started. And by the way, you've got an A+ for the semester. Now, let's see what job offers you get."
"Thanks, Mr. Fredricks. But let's not count this as a success until it's over," I said.
"I guess you're right, James, but I hope you realize that none of this would have happened if it weren't for you," he said. Then Mr. Fredricks clapped his hands loudly. "OK, people. This is it. The doors open in five minutes. It's showtime!"
The crowd was impressive. Men in suits or evening clothes and women in elegant gowns sampled our wares. The people manning the tables where orders were being taken had to make several trips to the copier for more forms. Credit cards were being processed as quickly as possible, and our till filled rapidly with checks and cash. There was an additional table, which we only thought to set up at the last minute, which actually had a line of people making donations, above and beyond what they were spending at our little "bake sale."
About an hour before our 9pm closing time, one of my classmates poked me in the ribs. "Isn't that the woman from the kitchen and that girl she brought along to our meetings at Mr. Fredricks' house?"
I looked where he was pointing. There was Ma, in an ivory floor-length evening dress. Even though it probably used enough fabric to make dresses for three normal-sized women, the dress looked wonderful on her. Next to her stood JZ. He was wearing a purple crushed velvet tuxedo, with matching purple do-rag. On his arm was Yolanda, who actually looked classy for once. And then I saw Holly. She had her hair up in an elegant, formal style, and was wearing the classic "little black dress," black stiletto heels, and an onyx choker necklace.
"My God," my classmate said, "that chick is gorgeous! You work with her at the kitchen, right? You gotta introduce me."
"Don't count on it," I said.
When they made it over to my table, Ma crushed me in one of her massive hugs. "Jimmy-boy," she said, "you've made a fat old woman very happy."
JZ slapped me five. "My man, this be the finest thing I ever did see. I can't hardly wait to be a part of this next year!"
"What do you mean, JZ?" I asked.
"I just got accepted to this school for the fall. You gonna be outta here this spring. Someone has to take over the work you did for this fundraiser. I figured, who better than me, a black recovering crack addict from the streets who knows that kitchen inside and out? So, I'm gonna be a chef in two years, just like you. And I'm comin' to you lookin' for work. You gonna own your own successful restaurant by then, I bet, and you gonna be lookin' for help. That's me."
Yolanda said, "JZ's been released from the half-way house. He needed a place to live, so he's rooming with me. Sorry, James, but I like dark chocolate a whole lot more than vanilla. Besides, I'd get in the way of a very special young lady." Yolanda then surprised me by kissing me on the lips. "I love you, boy. You are now officially the Saint of South Street. I told Ma, if there was enough money, we should put up a statue of you in the dining room."
Holly then came to me. Right in front of everyone, she drew me against her and kissed me. It was not a sexual kiss, but it certainly spoke volumes to anyone who saw it. I thought I had died and gone to Heaven.
Soon after that, Mike Samuels, the TV guy, came over to me. "James, he said, I wish I could tell you how much money your group has raised, but the donation lines are still open at the studio. I can tell you that this fundraiser is going to be the lead story on the 11 o'clock news again, and the newspaper has already told me that their article is going to be on the front page of the Sunday paper. Our media company is footing the bill to keep the websites up and running all through next year, and the donation line will stay operational as long as donations keep coming in. James, this is huge."
I didn't even get to say goodnight to Holly before she, Ma, Yolanda, and JZ left, and it took us until almost midnight to get everything cleaned up and put away. When I got home, there was a note taped to my door. It simply said, "I'm sure you're exhausted. You helped to make a lot of people happy tonight. Call me when you can. Love, Holly."
I unlocked my door, stripped off my clothes, and slept ten hours.
I wasn't scheduled to work at the kitchen on Sunday, which was a good thing. I was too drained to even think about working there. But I did go in to have lunch with Holly.
When I got there, Ma greeted me. She was smiling the biggest smile I'd ever seen. "Jimmy-boy, you are my hero. I don't have final numbers yet, but we've already covered our budget for the next year and a half. And the pledges are still coming in. You earned us far more money than I thought possible, even in my wildest dreams. You not only provided the first real Christmas dinner a lot of our people have had for years, you've made it possible for us to feed all of them, and more, for a long time to come. I guess I can't call you Jimmy-boy anymore. You're now James. And we all love you."
Yolanda and JZ had come in while Ma was talking. "All hail St. James of South Street," they yelled. The staff started to applaud and cheer. I wanted to crawl under the nearest stove and hide.
"You here for lunch, James?" Yolanda said.
"Yeah, I thought I'd like to have lunch with Holly," I said. "Where is she?"
"Out in the dining room. She hoped you'd come by. I'll let you two love-birds alone," Yolanda said with a wink.
When I walked into the dining room, Holly looked up, and came running over to me. "James, I'm so glad you're here. I'm sorry if I embarrassed you last night."
"How did you embarrass me?" I asked.
"By kissing you the way I did. Can you forgive me?"
"On one condition," I said. "Kiss me that way again."
"I think I can manage that." She melted into my arms.
Before I knew it, it was time for Holly to get back to work. "Can I see you this week?" I asked.
"I want to James, but I have a paper to finish and a couple of exams at school."
"I'll call you every night on my lunch break at work. I'm going to be real busy during the day, helping to prepare all the food we sold at the fundraiser. But starting Saturday, I'll be here every day through Christmas. Mr. Fredricks excused me from delivery duty with the food sales, so I can spend all my time here."
"James, how many more hours do you have to spend on your community service?" Holly asked.
"I don't really know. I guess I should be done by late winter. I lost count. But I don't care. I can't see myself ever leaving here."
"I was afraid I was going to have to say goodbye to you," Holly said softly.
"Not until you're sick of me," I answered.
"I can't see that happening," Holly said, and then she kissed me again.
Holly and I spoke on the phone every night the following week, but I didn't get to see her until Saturday, the last Saturday before Christmas. The work that day was like any other Saturday, but we were all excited about the plans for Friday, Christmas day.
Ma came to our work area as we were putting the finishing touches on the first three kettles of lunch soup. "Kids, you're going to love this. We're serving our usual breakfast on Christmas, but there will be no soup preparation on Christmas day. Three local restaurants have formed a committee that is doing all our food prep for the main meal. The menu for Christmas dinner is turkey, ham, all the traditional fixings like candied yams, cranberry sauce, mince pie and pumpkin pie, the works. They're donating and preparing all the food in their kitchens and trucking it here. All we have to do is keep it warm and serve it. And they're making enough food for five hundred people! We're opening the dining room at noon and staying open until 4pm, or until no one can eat any more. And that's it. Everyone has Christmas night off!"
Ma quickly wiped a tear from her eye and turned and walked away, a spring in her step I had never seen before.
Yolanda broke the silence that followed. "Ma said to me when I came in that she had something big to tell us. I'm surprised she didn't tell you two that the kitchen now has the budget to run on a bigger scale for over two years. I ain't never seen Ma cry before. James, you did it!" She hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks.
When we broke apart, I saw Holly standing there. "I thought you two were never going to give me my turn," she said as she put her arms around me. "James, thank you. This has been a dream for a lot of people, and you've made it come true."
We sailed through the rest of the day. When we closed up for the night, I dropped Holly off at her apartment and went home to clean up for a celebration dinner I was going to take her to. We had a wonderful evening, but I went home to my own place after our date.
Every day that week week was the same at the kitchen -- our usual breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare. We had to work extra hard to provide more servings, since our crowd was growing every day. Apparently the street people had heard all about our Christmas dinner, and were intent on sampling our wares. After work, Holly and I would have dinner, sometimes out, sometimes at her place, and once at mine. That night we spent several hours working on my resume, since I had gotten a number of requests for it from restaurant owners who had been at our fundraiser. We were always exhausted, so we would say goodnight at a decent hour and go our separate ways.
I was at the kitchen by 4am on Christmas day. I was too excited to sleep. Breakfast was the usual fare, served to an exceptionally large crowd. By 10:30 am, there was already a line at the door, waiting for Christmas dinner. The restaurant trucks began showing up a little after 11, and the excitement in our kitchen was almost overwhelming.
Christmas dinner was everything anyone could have hoped for. I spent the day in the kitchen, helping to warm the food, carve the turkeys and hams, and keep the servers supplied. Holly worked the serving line. Every time she came back to the kitchen for more food, we took a half-minute kiss break. And everyone saw it. I couldn't have cared less.
Ma called me into her office when the serving line closed. "I don't have anything wrapped to give you for Christmas, but I do have a gift. A dear friend of mine owns a very exclusive restaurant downtown. He's ill, James. With any luck, he'll live about three more years. He is his own executive chef, but he needs a bright young man to learn his recipes and take over for him. The job's yours if you want it."
"Ma, I don't know what to say," I managed to say.
"You could say, 'Thank you,' or 'Merry Christmas,' but before you say anything, I need to tell you the rest. Listen carefully. My friend, the restaurant owner, has no heirs, so he was looking for a buyer for his business. I've seen his books. He's shown a nice profit every month for over twenty years. Even now, in this economy, the place makes money. The problem is, when he is no longer able to cook, he doesn't know what will happen, which is one reason he wants to sell.
"The foundation has repaid the entire loan I had given them, the one from me mortgaging my house. I used that money, and some other investments I had, and bought controlling interest in the place. He will stay on as long as he can. Our deal is that I can pay off the balance from the profits my shares in the place generate, which will support him when he can no longer work. When he dies, the remaining shares will be divided among several key employees, including the man who replaces him as executive chef. That man, I hope will be you."
"Ma, I...," I began.
"There's more James, so hear me out," Ma said. "I also have no heirs. The foundation that runs our kitchen will receive a portion of my estate, but I am prepared to bequeath my shares in the restaurant to you, James, if you can run the place and keep it profitable. You've become like a son to me, and I want you to have this."
I sat in dumbfounded silence for a moment. Then I said, "Why, Ma? Why me?"
"Let's just say that it seems fitting that the man who saved my dream, this kitchen, should have a chance at his own dream, owning a fine restaurant. Think it over if you want to. You probably should go and meet the owner before you say anything at all. Wait until after the holidays, and then make an appointment to see him. Now, go home, James. And Merry Christmas."
By this time, the dining room was dark and the kitchen was spotless. It was time to go home.
"James, you're spending tonight with me."
"Yes, Holly, I want to," I said.
We drove to Holly's apartment and went inside. Her little Christmas tree sparkled merrily in the corner of the living room. "I'm so upset," Holly said. "With finals, and the kitchen, and all the craziness, I didn't buy you a Christmas gift."
I felt relieved. "I didn't get you anything either."
"That's OK. Good, in fact. Because I do have one thing I want to give you, and there's something I want you to give me," Holly said. "Wait here."
She went into her room and closed the door. I sat on the sofa, not knowing what was going on. In a few minutes, her bedroom door opened. "Come here, James," she said.
I walked into the room. Scented candles were the only light, and they filled the air with the smell of holiday spices. Then I saw Holly. She was wearing a green satin dressing gown, tied with a red sash.
"I want to give myself to you, and I want you to give yourself to me. I love you," she said.
I took her in my arms. I kissed her, and she kissed me back. We crushed ourselves against each other. With each kiss, our passion grew. I knew that she was what I had wanted for a long time.
We broke our embrace and gazed into each others' eyes. "I love you too, Holly. I guess I've loved you for a long time, but I was never able to say it until now. But, Holly, I do love you."
I untied the sash holding her gown together, and slowly slipped the garment off her shoulders. This was the first time I had seen her body clearly, and I was intoxicated by her. Her skin was perfect, pale and glowing in the candle light. Her blond hair framed her beautiful face perfectly. Her ripe lips smiled at me, and her dimples drew me in. Her breasts stood proudly on her chest, her beautiful nipples erect. Her slender torso called to me with its perfection. A small blond triangle of carefully trimmed hair topped her mound, and the lips of her sex glistened with moisture, promising the thrill that awaited me.
"Let me unwrap my gift now, my darling," Holly said.
Slowly, carefully, tenderly, she undressed me. As every area of my body was exposed, she caressed it, first with her delicate warm fingers, and then with her lips. Finally, there was only one piece of clothing to go -- my boxers. She struggled for a second with them, the waistband being hung up on my straining erection.
When my shorts were finally at my feet, Holly began to fondle my cock gently with her fingertips. She then kissed the tip, letting her tongue dart out briefly to lick away the thick, clear fluid that had appeared there.
"I want you James," she whispered.
"I want you too, Holly," I breathed as she took my manhood into her mouth.
With her tongue, she bathed my entire length. She stroked my scrotum with her nails. I don't think I had ever been so hard, and I know I had never experienced such joy from the ministrations of a woman to my sex.
After a few minutes, Holly stood and pressed her body to mine. "Make love to me, James. I want you inside me."
We went to her bed. She lay down on her back, her arms outstretched to hold me. I lay down with her, and began to worship her body. My hands stroked every inch of her. My mouth enveloped first one of her breasts, then the other. As I licked and suckled her nipples, she moaned her delight.
I could smell the sweet, musky aroma of her sex, and my mouth was soon drawn to it. She trembled with anticipation as I kissed and nibbled on her thighs, and she spread her legs in invitation. Moving slowly, I made my way to her center. When I first ran the tip of my tongue over her lips, she gasped. I hardened my tongue to probe inside her, and she whimpered. And when I finally began to suck on her engorged clit, she cried out her orgasm and said, "James, please, baby, I need you to take me."
I moistened the head of my cock by stroking it over her shiny, wet slit. Slowly, I began to ease my way inside. She was as tight as I had dreamed she would be. Using short, slow strokes, I advanced. When I was all the way inside, I leaned down to kiss her. We stayed like that for a while, our loins joined but still, enjoying the love we shared, expressing it only with our lips and tongues.
"I love you, Holly," I said. Very slowly, I withdrew about half way, and then, just as slowly, pushed myself inside her again. We had all the time in the world, and we both wanted this, our first lovemaking, to last. We moved together, my slow thrusts answered by the luxurious movement of her hips to meet me. It was a long time before she wrapped her legs around me, but after she did, our pace increased. Her breaths became more rapid, and her pussy muscles began to pulse around me. But we never hurried. We had too great a need to express our love.
I had never made love quite this way before. It may be that I never had sex with a woman I loved like I loved Holly. It took some time for her to cum, but when she did, the wave-like clamping of her muscles around me brought me to the end.
As we cuddled after our lovemaking, Holly said, "That was the best Christmas gift I ever had."
I kissed her and held her tight against me. "Holly, I love you. I hope we can spend many more Christmas nights together."
"Do you plan to have your restaurant open on Christmas Day?" Holly said.
"My restaurant. God, how I love the sound of that! But no, I think my assistant chef, JZ, and my hostess, Yolanda, will want Christmas Day off so we can work at South Street. But, of course, I'll have to consult with my wife and business manager about that. Assuming you'll take both those assignments."
"Are you asking me to marry you, James?"
"More like begging you," I said.
She kissed me and then laid her head on my chest. "I'll say yes, to both offers. I love you. Merry Christmas, James."
"Merry Christmas, Mrs. Summers," I said.
And a happy holiday to all of you, dear readers. If you've read this far, I'm sure you understand my intention with this story -- to describe the growth of love and the spirit of selfless giving. Isn't that what the holidays are supposed to be about?