My three boys, beautiful as saplings. All of them in jail now, expecting me to get them out. Who would you blame, if not their mother?
They’ve given interviews. There’s quite an appetite for news about them. “Did you have a difficult childhood?” My son—Rob or Ross or Roger, whoever’s in front of the microphone—says, “Not difficult, exactly.” Meaning difficult, exactly.
When they were little I created a soup kitchen, called The Soup Kitchen. I didn’t want people to think we were about Jesus or sobriety. We’re there to feed people. I started the kitchen after my husband Paul died, an aneurysm extracting him from our lives as neatly as tweezers. His life insurance was $400,000, $395,000 more than I’d ever seen at one time. The soup kitchen was obvious.
The boys worked there too. People loved them! Their sun-bleached hair, the gentle way they played with the guests’ kids. Rob got to be pretty good with a roux. They worked every day after school, and on weekends, too. Two years passed before Rob, 18 then, asked if he could have “his share” of the insurance payout. Please don’t take me for a fool. I explained that he didn’t have a “share,” that as family we shared the money, and as much as possible went to The Soup Kitchen.
“I need a car,” he said. By then our food was delivered on a flatbed, but there were always chores to run, and I was experimenting with delivering meals to shut-ins. I told him to pick out what he wanted, and he brought home a Corvette. That was a day we had the food inspector in the kitchen. The next day the big refrigerator blew. The Corvette didn’t seem important, and sometimes Rob made bank deposits for me.
Then Ross wanted a car for his 16th birthday, and I couldn’t very well say no to him after I’d said yes to Rob, so the family acquired another Corvette—a C5, he told me excitedly, and I was happy that we were having a conversation. Roger, only 14, listened, and I could see what was coming. I was already preoccupied with the grant that was due in four days. I explained from the stand, a character witness, while Roger gazed at me from beside his attorney. Even then, all I could see was a handsome, handsome boy.
Every day I woke up filled with the happiness that comes from feeding people. I’d moved The Soup Kitchen twice, and now we filled up half a block in a good spot—Lomita, on a bus line. That was always hard to find in L.A. I was thinking about creating a homeless shelter, though getting through zoning would be tricky. I sat through a lot of meetings, and often went downtown to talk with council members. Still, every day I tried to be at The Soup Kitchen at noon to break bread and talk to people. “But not her own sons!” the defense attorney said.
I didn’t see. I’m sorry.
They all went to college in San Luis Obispo, and I was proud that my boys wanted to be near each other. Roger had his own car now, an R8, he announced, full of pride, and it didn’t occur to me to ask how he got it. I didn’t realize that their clothes were made by Armani, a point the prosecutor lingered over. “You weren’t paying attention to very much, were you? You didn’t find it suspicious that they never brought home grades?”
I didn’t know how college worked, but I didn’t think the boys would be bringing home report cards. Roger talked to me at length about Omaha Beach, and I thought he was taking a history class. Then I remembered my boys sitting on my patio at Christmastime, smoking cigars as big as sausages, and I understood the depth of my failure.
When you cry on the stand, people wait for you to stop crying, and then the questioning starts back up.
Sometimes the boys still helped out. I watched Rob, home from college, talking quietly to two of our guests after they’d finished their meal, and I was happy. Here was the lesson I’d hoped to teach all the boys: that no one was better than anybody else, and that soup kitchen guests deserved dignity as well as kindness. When Rob and the two men shook hands, my heart swelled. Those are things I didn’t say from the stand.
The scheme was too complicated for me to follow, involving hand-offs and middle men, but the prosecutor claimed that my sons were providing pain killers to college campuses in California, Nevada and Arizona. He put up on the screen pictures I’d never seen—my sons, shirtless, draped in gold chains, flashing fans of hundred-dollar bills. Automatically I started calculating how much produce so much money could have bought, how many truckloads of old bread. If the boys had brought that money to me and told me to use it to feed people, I would have raced to the distribution center without asking a question. Does that make me a criminal, too? Close, I think. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
The boys were tried separately, and I went to every hearing, every day. For weeks I was away from The Soup Kitchen, and the pinch of guilt I felt was just a down payment on what was to come. Rob called and pleaded for me to visit. I pretended not to see the jumpsuit and the handcuffs. He shifted around on his plastic chair when I told him about food shipments and guests and my idea about a citywide shelter, and then he said, “You need to hire a good lawyer. You need to get me out of here.”
I was quiet for a while. “The money is gone.”
“What are you living on? What are you running The Soup Kitchen on?”
He didn’t wait for the rest, just pushed back his chair and stood by the door, waiting until the hour was over. He didn’t call again.
He got eight years, like Ross. Roger got fifteen. My baby will be out of jail when he’s thirty-seven. “Less for good behavior,” said his lawyer. Even I noticed that the elbows and knees of his suit were blown out. My sons’ suits looked sharp, and I’m sorry, but that pleased me.
I get letters from time to time. They mean that the boys are bored, and have already written to everyone else they can think of. When Soup Kitchen guests ask me if I have any children, I tell them that I have three boys, all in prison. Most of them nod, and sometimes press my hands. One lovely woman—Sandra, I don’t get to see her often enough—smiled crookedly and said, “Ain’t that the way.”
Only one guest looked scandalized. “All of them? All of them?”
“Yes. Would you like some cornbread?”
She scuttled away from the line and watched me for the next half-hour, while she kept putting more salt in her soup. We were pulling up the big pans from the steam table before she made her way back to me. “I have a present for you,” she said, and pressed something into my palm.
“Thank you!” I called to her back, then opened my hand to see a cheap St. Jude medal. You don’t have to be Catholic to know that he’s the saint of lost causes. For one moment the world went still, and then I was outside, screaming at the woman as she hurried to the bus stop and people on the sidewalk stared at me.
She cowered in a corner of the bus shelter when I threw the medal at her. I meant to say What made you think or You have no right or You don’t understand, but the sentences all came out at once in a tangle. I was panting.
“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” she said, which made me mad all over again. “Can I come back?”
An eight-foot sign hangs at the fence around The Soup Kitchen: Come And Be Fed. She could see it from where she was standing.