By Karen Brode
Gary and I were regulars at the Senior Center each Tuesday. We were there to retrieve thermal containers of hot food and cartons of cold milk for the people waiting on the east side of town. These were people down on their luck, out of luck, or people who had never had any luck to begin with. We’d load up the backseat of our car with the container of meals and head off with our list of recipients.
It was my job to get the meals coordinated before we hit our next destination. I sat in the backseat and called out to Gary the name and address of each person. Then I’d pull a meal from one container, a carton of milk from another, and finally, dessert. I’d have everything ready by the time we arrived to the next place.
Many of the Meals On Wheels recipients were old and lived in the Projects, a housing community where rent was subsidized and adjusted to the income of the person living there. I felt sorry for most of them, and I couldn’t help but think that this could happen to anyone. There were many roads to The Projects. No one was immune from ending up there.
One particular woman was a frail old lady who was so thin she seemed to only eat that one meal a week. She asked Gary if she could have two of the small cartons of milk instead of the standard one carton per person. Gary came back to the car to see if we could give her an extra carton, but all we had was the one. By the time he got back into the car, we both agreed it would be best if we stopped by a convenience store and bought a gallon of milk for the lady. Then, at least for a little while, she’d have all the milk she wanted.
You know that feeling you get when you do something nice for somebody? It kind of lifts your heart a little, makes you feel like the world isn’t so bad after all? That feeling for us only lasted long enough for us to step off that old lady’s porch.
The woman a few doors down was waiting for us when we got to her apartment. She was next on our list and, since we had just dropped off the extra milk to her neighbor, we decided we’d stop by her house together.
“You’ve done killed that woman, you know,” she said. She was a stocky black woman bent from years of walking the earth. She leaned heavily on her walker.
Only moments before, Gary and I had been smiling, happy to have done something nice for someone, but this stopped us in our tracks.
“That woman over there, she lactose intolerant,” the woman said, pointing an arthritic hand toward the porch several doors behind us. We just stared at her, taking in what she just said, and not really sure how to respond. “She can’t have milk! I done put a sign up on her door, but she take it down!”
I looked back at the closed door and imagined the little old lady laughing maniacally as she gulped down the whole gallon we had given her. A little shiver went down my spine to think we might have done something horribly wrong.
“What happens when she drinks milk?” I asked.
“Oh Lordy, honey, you don’t wanna know that! If she drink all that milk by sundown, she be dead!”
I looked at Gary, but he kept his eyes on the hot meal in his hands. The color had drained from his face, so I knew he was feeling as bad as I was.
“I’m gonna make another sign,” the woman continued, “but I have to look up how to spell it. I should just say ‘Don’t give her any milk!’ That would be simpler and folks could understand it better. People don’t know what lactose intolerant means. They probably think it’s some sort of attack dog that might come out to bite them.”
Finally, Gary looked up and offered to help the woman into the house with her meal. When he came back out, I noticed his forehead was sweating a little.
“What should we do?” I asked.
“We can’t just go take the milk from that woman,” he said.
“She’ll be okay. Right?”
Gary cleared his throat. “Sure.”
It only occurred to me later how fast we had walked back to the car and how quickly Gary had thrown the car in gear. We rode to the next house in silence. I think we were both worried that we had just killed an old lady with a gallon of milk. Before long, the police would come looking for us. I wondered out loud if they would believe us when we told them we were only trying to help.
When we were several blocks away from the scene of the milk crime, I finally remembered we were supposed to be handing out meals. I glanced down the list of the people next on our list and my eye stopped when it came to a name that rang from my distant past: Arthur Cordell.
I looked out the window at the barren yards scorched by too many summers and not enough water. I tried to imagine what Arthur must look like after all these years. He had to have been in his mid-sixties. Had prison changed him at all?
My mind was flooded with memories of my mother begging my brother John not to go places with Arthur.
“Being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person could end up badly for you,” she’d say. But that was my brother. If it hadn’t been Arthur, it would have been somebody else just like him.
There were many nights my mother sat on the front steps of our house waiting for John to get home. She stared off into the night, her jaw clenched tight, her hands opening and closing in nervous fists.
When I wandered out beside her, I could hear her talking to herself.
“Please not jail. He can’t handle that. Oh, but what if it’s an accident? What would I do?”
She worried so much for my brother. He always promised he’d be home by midnight and she always sat out on the front porch waiting for him past midnight into the wee hours of the morning.
When he finally did come home, it was usually around three in the morning. She could hear him coming from blocks away. He was always riding in the passenger seat of Arthur’s beat-up Chevy that rumbled with loud music and a busted muffler.
Before they got too close, she snuck inside the door and watched him stagger out of Arthur’s car. He was always drunk when he got home and it made her sick to watch him stumble across the front yard and then lean against a tree to throw up. Before he got in the house, she went to her room and fell across the bed. She heard him tiptoe past her door and she wanted to scream at him, to ask where he had been all this time, but she didn’t. She decided it was better if she didn’t know.
She confessed to me later how she had felt nothing but revulsion watching him then. He had robbed her of her peace of mind, her sleep, and she knew he would do it all again.
But as much as she worried about him, she never had to face what Arthur Cordell’s family did.
“They don’t deserve any of it,” mother would say. “They’re church people, godly people.” But Arthur hadn’t gone to church since he was in grade school. And like John, Arthur didn’t make it much past seventh grade in his school career either.
Arthur’s father always looked as if he couldn’t stand one more thing to happen to their family, but because of Arthur, it always did. With each blow, Mr. Cordell grew thinner and paler, as if his life force was being drained from him with each new arrest or accusation.
Mrs. Cordell got to where she rarely went out of the house. She only went to church sporadically as her son got older and became more trouble. When Arthur went to prison, she never went back to church. It seemed she couldn’t face the sympathies and the pretend concern from the other church members. Even I knew at my young age that most of the sympathies people offered were really just curiosity and attempts to find out more about what Arthur had done. I knew this because I was just as curious as everybody else.
The list of his crimes was endless. He had burned a boat that belonged to a man who made him mad. He had raped several girls and the girls refused to go to the police to report the rapes out of fear. One girl had Arthur’s child and she refused to see the baby before it was placed for adoption. Mrs. Cordell told my mother she didn’t want to see Arthur’s baby either. Not under those circumstances. She was already in her forties when it happened and she knew she couldn’t raise another child like Arthur.
My mother had been one of the few who would go check on Mrs. Cordell. They seemed to bond over horror stories of their sons. I remember being taken to Mrs. Cordell’s house. I had a window seat into everything Arthur did.
There was a plaque that hung above the kitchen table, which read, “The family that prays together stays together.”
My mom held Mrs. Cordell’s hand the day she explained to us in tears that she didn’t know where he had gotten the gun.
“We don’t have guns. We’re not gun people,” she said into a damp handkerchief.
This home should not have had an Arthur in it either, but it did.
“He screamed at me, Hazel,” she said. “He told me if he hadn’t shot that policeman, he was going to be shot. And then he asked me…” she looked away and seemed to be holding her breath. “He asked me which would I have preferred?”
She said it looked like the entire police department arrived just a few minutes later. She watched them take her son away in handcuffs and shackles. She knew that as soon as they were out of her sight, Arthur would not be treated well. Then she sat down on the floor of her living room and wasn’t really sure if she would ever have the energy to get up again.
My mother invited Mrs. Cordell to join her at church on Sundays, but she shook her head.
“I can’t do it,” she said. “I can’t ask those people to pray for my son. They want to pray for the sick folks and the hard-luck people, but they won’t really pray for my son. He’s in prison. I can barely lift my own head in prayer for him. I can’t ask those people to pray for him.”
There was a time when Arthur was a good boy, she told us. He was a sweet boy who picked bouquets of daisies and wildflowers and brought them to her.
“Those folks at church don’t know that child. He’s just a bad seed to them. They’ve written him off. He’s getting what he deserved. But he wasn’t always a bad seed. He had a sweet face as a child and slept with a teddy bear.” She dabbed at her eyes. “I don’t know what happened to change that.”
Gary and I drove into my old neighborhood and these memories of life back then nearly overwhelmed me. My old grade school was now a church building. I thought of how we used to line up on the sidewalk when recess was over and walk into the brick building in an orderly fashion.
I looked fondly at the small swing set right outside the back cafeteria door. I remembered trying to swing so high to make the swing wrap around the frame of the swing set. I could picture it happening so vividly. But that was before I had taken physics. That was before I knew that I would never have had the momentum to swing completely around the top bar.
Gary stopped the car and I rushed to get the hot meal out of the thermal bag along with a carton of milk. People were mostly grateful when Gary brought them their meal. They often introduced him to their pets. Gary told me about the woman in a blue house who had a little Chihuahua. She could hold it in one hand. She was so proud of that little dog that when Gary asked if he could hold it, she was happy to let him.
I knew from their faces that the old ladies we delivered food to looked forward to my husband coming up their sidewalks and onto their porches. He was kind and he loved their animals. Sometimes he would give them a small amount of money if they seemed desperate. Gary was always good. There were no bad streaks in him. He had not worried his mother and father like John and Arthur had worried their parents.
Arthur Cordell’s house was next. Surely he wouldn’t remember me. I didn’t look too much like the seven year old I had been last time I saw him. I pulled the visor mirror down, and stared at my face. Maybe I looked a little like I used to. But he would never expect me to show up on his front porch with his meal.
At first, I wanted to deliver the meal myself, but there was enough fear left in me about what he’d done back in his youth that made me want to steer clear of him. He wouldn’t know Gary at all. So it was Gary who took the meal to the porch and rang the bell. I watched as Arthur came out to meet him. He was thin and old looking. He looked at Gary as he took the meal from my husband’s hands, but Gary was not someone he recognized.
Arthur still looked enough like he used to look that I would’ve known him, I think. He didn’t look like a mean person. He didn’t look like somebody who could have done all that damage all those years ago. He just looked tired and old.
I watched Arthur stay out on the porch even after Gary had come back to the car. He looked up at the sky and watched the trees blowing in the fall breeze. It occurred to me then that these were sights he hadn’t seen in more than 40 years.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.