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ESSAY
Church Donations
Ryan Garcia

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It’s not that I didn’t want to eat, it’s that I didn’t want to lie to a church to get food. Of all the places to lie to – a church. Just act like you belong here and it’ll be okay, my dad says. Shit, we do belong here, I think. At this point, my family and I had grown pretty accustomed to going nights without food. Our once in a while “What Would You Do If You Had Five Dollars?” Q&A where we’d dream of pizza, steak, the fizz of a soda, soon turned into a nightly dreamer’s routine. Our last glimpse of what could be as the sun fell behind the hills. And you know times are no joke when those random coins every Latino house sees under mattresses, in hallway corners, are no longer there; spent on water or a half a mile’s worth of gas.

We walk up the steps and enter the mobile-home-ish trailer that sits behind the main church. The church? Seriously beautiful. All wood, top of the hill, smooth oak pillars that resembled a mountain inspired hotel, roundabout entry way for cars, money well spent. The aging shanty we entered? Fitting for those looking for help, as if those well off were saying, “Go on, beg.” I follow my dad in and we make our way around the coffee tables and worn couches towards the makeshift counter. Behind it stands a woman who smells like the mountain, sun dyed hair that you’d catch more so along the shores than up here. She hands us both a clipboard with an attached pen and asks us to be patient. We both sit, me on the dusty, 80’s floral couch, my dad on an old wooden chair across from me. My eyes scan the questionnaire from top to bottom.

Age?

What items are you in need of most?

Do you have any children?

And so forth.

Some answers are simple enough. 25 years old, wholesome food (chicken and such), yes, of course I need toilet paper, and then I take a second and pause. Do I have any children? Do I have any children? All my life, I’ve had this list of five or six boy names I liked. I’ve also imagined what my son would look like and what little shades of my personality he’d pick up. I begin to write. Jude, 2 years old, in need of diapers, baby food, formula, teething products, clothing if possible.  Signed, Richard M. Gonzales. Great, now I’m lying about who I am to the Lord? No way he’s not looking down shaking his head. I look up to my dad and wait for him to finish his own questionnaire. He flips the page to see if there’s a back to it, looks at me, and nods. The mountain-beach woman gives us a look as she reviews our needs and asks us to have a seat once more as she gives the papers to a volunteer. My stomach starts to rumble. At this point, I let it rumble rather than shift around to make it stop. I look for any reason to feel as though I belong here, in this room, this church, this call for help. The woman sitting next to me hears my stomach and gives me a side stare as her head is positioned down to her own questionnaire.  

I get comfortable and wait.

Jude, I think. I wonder what that kid is doing right now, probably making life hell for his mom.  He’s always getting into some trouble, throwing things, splashing his juice all over the walls. I swear, that little guy tests his mom and me every day with his antics. He hasn’t had a decent meal in some time so whatever we’re given here will at least give him a full enough tummy for a good night’s sleep. Jude. This is shit, yeah, but at least I have my boy. At least his little face is there, bright eyed, happy, completely unaware of all of this. I’ll be home soon, guy. Should be home in about fifteen minutes or so with some good, warm food for you. Don’t test your mom while I’m not there. Don’t get brave just because Dad isn’t home, Jude. I swear, you act more and more like me every day.

I hear my [fake] last name called. I push myself up off the couch and slap my hands against my pants to get the dust off of them. A young but tall volunteer waits at the counter with a smile. I got two bags for you, he says. I take hold of them both and look at the young volunteer. He’s fishing for a response, theresponse, so I give it to him. Thank you, praise be to God, I say. It’s a simple enough thing to ask for being that these are entirely free donated goods, but it was work to get the words out.

The bags are both tied pretty well, some serious militia-grade knotting to keep the heavy items from busting out. My dad gets his two bags as well and we make our way out and head towards our car. It’s a short five minute drive back to the house, and I spend them looking over the two bags on my lap. It wasn’t too long ago we were slurping authentic Italian pasta from San Francisco’s ocean view restaurants. It wasn’t too long ago my brother and I toasted our pale ales in a desert themed hotel bar, minutes from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  

Well, we’re eating good tonight! my dad exclaims.  

In the kitchen, I eagerly rip open my bags. Travel size shampoo, a soap bar, I’m-going-to-cut-your-ass-to-shreds toilet paper, cookies a couple weeks from expiration, off-brand milk that’s more grey than white, pasta boxes “imported” from they don’t exist Italian cities, juices with pulp – is that pulp? – and everything I asked for wholesome in cans: canned chicken, canned beef, canned tuna (normal, I guess), canned ham, salmon, clams, you name it.  

My younger brother and mom make a game out of what we brought, frantically making piles for themselves, laughing as they play tug-of-war with things. My bags are empty and I start moving things in search of what I asked for, what I spent nearly fifteen minutes writing in explanation for. I said I have a kid, I declare.  

What? Drew asks.

When I filled out the paper, it asked if I had a kid and I said yes. There’s nothing here for him.

My mom and Drew look at each other and laugh.  

I mean, shit, a church asks if my kid is hungry, I say yes, and they don’t give him anything?

Your fake child is starving tonight, Drew says with a smirk as he continues stacking his pile.

What if I really did have a little boy here? Do they not care?

Just be thankful, my mom says.

And we did eat good just as dad said we would. After a couple of days of no food to a shared Instant Lunch back to no food, you’d think canned chicken was on par with prime rib too. The sounds of flipped lids, cookie wrappers, and questionable milk being poured made its way from a “What Would You Do If You Had Five Dollars” fantasy to our seeing is believing dinner plates.  The rest of the night, after dinner, Drew and I place the remaining items in the kitchen pantry. Our mom and dad in the formal dining room, sweeping up for the night. We don’t talk, Drew and I, we just shelve what we need to. Item after item, can after can, they collect. There are no piles, no claims, just the last perishables getting comfy next to each other on one shelf – one shelf, at eye level, in a pantry the size of a walk-in closet.