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Unfixable Things

by Dane BH 10 months ago in family · updated 10 months ago
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Someone had clearly done a “spark joy” cleanout of their pantry and decided that whatever wasn’t good enough for them would certainly benefit the they-better-be-grateful Unwashed In Need Of Sustenance.

Unfixable Things
Photo by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash

Natalie sighed as she pulled a dented can of orange slices out of the made-from-recycled-plastic-bottles grocery bag and set it in the discard pile. Someone had clearly done a “spark joy” cleanout of their pantry and decided that whatever wasn’t good enough for them would certainly benefit the they-better-be-grateful Unwashed In Need Of Sustenance. Natalie guessed that a good third of the donations the food pantry received were inedible, unsafe, or already opened - and that the wealthiest, most eco-conscious households were the worst offenders.

Still, food was food. Natalie shelved a box of gluten-free shortbread cookies, and pulled open the fridge to stash a few bags of baby carrots. A greenish light poured from the industrial-sized refrigerator. Natalie cracked up when she saw the source. Someone, probably Marco, had duct-taped a stuffed toy with a light inside it - one of those comfort lights they gave to children who were scared of the dark - to the inside wall of the fridge. A sticky note beneath it read, “THIS IS JEREMY. DO NOT REMOVE UNTIL SOMEONE GETS A NEW LIGHT BULB. JENNA, THIS MEANS YOU.”

Natalie checked the expiration dates on the milk cartons on the middle shelf, and added one to her growing discard pile. As she finished the inventory, she heard Marco’s giant jangling key ring as he made his way into the storage room.


Natalie stepped out from behind the rolling rack of rice and pasta. “Hey Marco! Any chance you could work on roots?” she asked, referring to the boxes of potatoes, carrots and parsnips they got each week from the state food bank.

“Hell yeah,” he replied, flexing his biceps. “I’m like, this close to an actual pullup.”

“Sweet,” she said. “I’ll be hauling stuff to the garbage.”

“Bougie trash?”

“You know it.”

Marco shook his head and raised his eyebrows before heading toward the loading dock. Natalie started piling the half-eaten quinoa and expired almond butter into a crate and headed for the trash compactor, squinting into the high July sun as she went.

“Natty!” A jubilant voice called across the parking lot filled with the awe of a celebrity sighting. Natalie grinned.

“Is that you, Joshua-the-Great?”

“It’s my birthday!”

“Your birthday!” Natalie crowed as she heaved the crate’s contents into the dumpster and turned around. Five - now six-year-old - Joshua (don’t call him Josh) had been a staple of the pantry’s visitors since the days when his father carried him through the line in a sling Natalie’s mother had given him from Natalie’s own babyhood.

It was for Joshua that she’d started the practice of measuring kids’ heights on the wall of the pantry - he and his dad had been living in their car when he turned two and could stand still long enough to be measured. Now the wall had spread to take over one whole side of the waiting area, and many kids asked to be measured and recorded on it during their first or second visit. It was a great community-builder, though Natalie’s mother sometimes looked at it sadly, watching the same kids come back year after year in need of food.

Joshua’s dad, Eli, was a year or two older than Natalie. She knew he’d struggled to find work after coming home from Afghanistan, a time he never discussed with her. She didn’t know where Joshua’s mother was. She knew he lived for the days when the pantry had fresh meat available and was obsessed with adobo seasoning, that he and Joshua were both lactose-intolerant, and that apples were Joshua’s favorite fruit.

Eli and Joshua were both popular with the pantry staff, and had fashioned themselves as ambassadors to new guests. Joshua was first to show any new kids, no matter what age, the box of toys in the waiting area, and Natalie often found Eli sitting and talking quietly with new adults, especially parents, listening to their stories and sharing what the pantry had to offer.

Marco told her once that he’d seen Eli and Joshua in the state forest campground while on a weekend campout. Their site, he told her, looked more like a place they were living, rather than visiting. Natalie didn’t believe in prying, but she’d been tempted more than once to ask Eli if there was more she could do to help them. Her mother had raised her with the pantry’s ethos from birth: offer, but don’t push. Welcome, but don’t demand. Care, but don’t get attached. Natalie included those phrases every time she trained a new volunteer, adding, “We have an important role to fill in people’s lives, but we’re not magicians. We don’t save people, and we don’t fix things.”

Normally, it wasn’t a hard creed to live by.

Natalie held out her hand as Joshua ran across the parking lot. He grabbed her index and middle fingers, the way he had when he was too small to hold her hand, and the two of them skipped back to the pantry’s official entrance, where Eli stood waiting. They were due to open in twenty minutes, but it wouldn’t hurt to let the two of them into the air-conditioned waiting room on a hot day a little early. Natalie offered them cups of water once they were settled, which Eli took gratefully, mopping his forehead and raising his cup to Natalie in a silent toast.

“Hey Joshua-the-Birthday-Boy,” she said. “Do you remember what happens here the week of your birthday?”

Joshua looked up at her with wide eyes. “Birthday box!” he shrieked. “Birthday box, birthday box!”

Natalie nodded, grinning. “You got it,” she said. “I’m going to get yours now.” She headed into the back, smiling as she heard Joshua jump up and down, babbling excitedly at what she could imagine was a smiling, if tired, Eli.

The birthday boxes had been her idea, too - keeping track of kids’ birthdays and adding a special box with a small cake donated by the local bakery, a packet of candles and matches, party hats, balloons, and a wrapped gift. The volunteers loved the birthday boxes, and donors were eager to fund them. Natalie assembled Joshua’s box by the light of the glowing green bear, added a small pack of toy cars, and brought it back out to the waiting room.

Eli took the box from her as Joshua danced around the room, still yelling, “Birthday box!”

“The cake’s still frozen; it should be thawed sometime after lunch, especially in this heat,” she told Eli. “Do you need a knife?”

Eli shook his head. “Nah, we’re good. Thanks, Natalie.” He removed the wrapped gift and held it out to her. “Why don’t you give him this now so he’s a little more chill by the time everyone else gets here?”

Natalie called Joshua over, wished him happy birthday, and let him tear into the toy. Within minutes, he was busily rolling the cars over the waiting room rug, the chairs, and up Eli’s legs. Natalie took a minute to sit and watch them, quietly scanning Eli for signs of distress or discomfort. His shirt was dirty and torn as usual, but he’d clearly stopped at the secondhand store and picked up a new pair of sneakers for himself, without any holes in the soles. She was about to get up and leave them to it when she heard Marco come in.

By Nick on Unsplash

“Hey,” he said, rounding the corner and squatting down to Joshua’s level. “Am I hearing things, or is there a birthday boy in the house?” Joshua bolted into his arms and squealed as Marco rolled onto his back, panting, “Ya got me!” They wrestled for another minute before Joshua settled with his head on Marco’s chest.

“So, buddy,” Marco said. “Any big birthday wishes?”

Eli’s face twitched - subtly, but Natalie had known him long enough to see it. She watched him go pale as Joshua pushed himself up and looked into Marco’s face before answering simply, “A real house.”

Natalie’s chest went tight. Eli looked as though he wanted the floor to open up and swallow him.

“Oh yeah?” Marco said, always a quick thinker. “Tell me more.” He folded his hands behind his head as though there was absolutely nothing heartbreaking about the situation.

Joshua fiddled with Marco’s shirt. “I want a real house like Maya’s.” Maya was another pantry regular who’d been coming all four years of her life. She and her mother had just gotten off the city’s housing waitlist into a government-subsidized apartment, and Natalie knew they’d been on that list for longer than Maya had been alive.

“Well,” Marco said carefully, “that is a very understandable thing to want, Joshua. So, did you get your birthday box yet?”

Joshua broke into a smile and climbed off Marco, eager to show off his new cars. Marco turned around and glanced at Natalie. She nodded at him, wanting him to know he’d handled it perfectly. Then she looked to Eli, who was sitting with his head against the wall, eyes closed, an exhaustion etched into his face that no amount of sleep would fix.

Natalie stood up. “I’m going to open up,” she said. “Marco?”

Marco looked up from the floor. He didn’t have to ask out loud for a few more minutes with Joshua. “Meet me up front in five?”

“You got it, boss,” he said, then turned back to Joshua. “Let’s build a tunnel for your cars, buddy.”

Natalie took one more look at Eli as she turned to leave. This time, he cracked an eye open and met her gaze. She mouthed a question at him - you okay? He nodded, glanced at Marco and Joshua, then got up to follow her.

Once they were in the entrance, separate from the waiting room, Natalie handed Eli a basket of volunteer nametags and he automatically began to sort them alphabetically. She stacked paper cartons and grocery bags and set out the sign-in clipboard. She could hear the gathering crowd outside, the goodnatured hellos and grumbles of the line on a hot day.

“I’m working on it, you know,” Eli said suddenly. Natalie gave the tiniest glance toward him and saw his head was still down as he worked, so she kept hers down, too.


“We’re on the waitlist. Been there for two years.”

Natalie didn’t respond, but stayed close. This was the most Eli had ever shared with her.

“Our turn will come someday,” he continued. “Not today.”

Natalie stood up, keeping her back to Eli as she pretended to count cans of green beans. She chose her words carefully.

“You give him everything he needs,” she said finally. “He’s a happy, loved kid. With a dad who can barbeque literally anything I throw at him, even beef liver.”

She heard the grin in his voice as he leaned into the opening she’d given him. “I’m telling you, woman,” he teased. “Someday, you and your mother are going to come over and taste the holy goodness that is a tender piece of liver.”

Natalie turned and leaned against the shelf, smiling at him. “Damn right I will,” she said quietly, then headed to unlock the door. As she passed him, she laid a hand on Eli’s shoulder, resting it there and squeezing it just a bit. She felt him pat the top of her hand. For a moment, everything was still. Natalie closed her eyes and tried not to think about campsites and cars. She imagined herself building them a tiny house, or clearing out the store room to give them a place to sleep. She imagined inviting them to come share her mom’s basement with her, the two of them in the barely-a-bedroom guest space. She let it all course through her - the want, the ache, the pain of unfixable things. She held her tongue.

Then Marco came bounding in with Joshua on his back. Eli squeezed her hand before he turned to take his son, the silhouette of the pantry’s first guest at the door pulling her away.


About the author

Dane BH

By day, I'm a cooking teacher, foster parent, cog in the nonprofit machine, and poet. By night, I'm a creature of the internet. My soul is a grumpy cat who'd rather be sleeping.

Check out my Vocal Spotlight!

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