“I have seen your face before,” Shade said absently as she quickly cut another tomato.
“I don’t see how.”
“No, I’ve seen it.” I remembered her greeting everyone at the door last night. She was good with names. “‘Frank’ doesn’t jog my memory. Perhaps you have another name.” Her smile was slight, but I did see the small curve. I cut another tomato, conscious she was doing two for everyone I did.
“I like the name Frank right now,” I said truthfully, while respecting her deduction, “yesterday was the first time I have ever seen you, so I am sure you must be thinking of someone else.” I couldn’t see how our paths had crossed in the past. My mind was drawing a blank.
“It will come to me,” Shade said, “I never forget a face.” I needed to change the subject. Dolapo didn’t know Frank. It was easier to try and forget as Frank.
“I thought there would be other workers.”
“Not until one,” Shade replied, “I only need one for prep.” I felt like I was in a coring competition. Every time I moved to catch up to her pace, she would accelerate. Finally, I surrendered and slowed to a reasonable pace. “Nice try.” Shade was wearing a smirk as she slowed to a pace just a bit faster than mine. She obviously liked to win.
“So how did you end up here?” I asked Shade. I was truly interested in how a model of efficiency could find herself running a free cafeteria for the homeless.
“Long story. Maybe I will tell you sometime.” Shade paused, then smiled and said, with emphasis, “Frank.” ‘Touché,’ I thought. She was willing to trade stories, but not give hers up for free. I just smiled back. Shade had a quick mind. Dolapo would have liked her.
“How do you fund this place?” I changed the subject to something more comfortable.
“Donations. Lots and lots of donations.” Shade lost her smile as she continued with the tomatoes. The answer seemed to exhaust her.
“Charity?” It came out of my mouth before I could stop myself. It was habit. Shade stopped cutting and looked up at me.
“Do you understand financial statements?” Shade had already surmised a lot. I wanted to feign ignorance, but I had asked the question too confidently.
“Will you look at my books?” Shade’s question sounded almost pleading. I sensed her confidence didn’t extend into accounting. So much for totally ignoring my old life.
“I can do that.” I didn’t want to sound too confident about my abilities. Sometimes people hand you a horrible mess and expect you to create facts from thin air.
“Okay, tomorrow, same time. I’ll get someone else for the preliminary preparation of the food.” Shade’s mood changed. She started cutting with enthusiasm. I thought I might have just bitten off more than I could chew.
I learned a lot about mass food preparation. Shade changed from authoritative to patiently instructive. Maybe her books were more than a mess. I was being buttered up for tomorrow. Strangely, I found the labour fun and relaxing. It was fairly easy, different and repetitive. Nothing you had to think too deeply about. Each task had an endgame, a place where I could identify that it was done and enjoy that sense of completion. I needed the mindless labour, and today I was good at it.
At 1:00 four other homeless workers showed up. Each had worked for Shade before, and confidently went to work after reading a chart on the wall. Felicia, the large women who was serving food yesterday, didn’t read the chart. Shade instructed her verbally as a matter of course. I suspected Felicia couldn’t read. Shade just took it in stride and ignored the limitation. In fact, she put Felicia in charge of teaching me every other thing I needed to know. Felicia smiled.
Felicia redundantly educated me about washing my hands and using latex gloves, which I took in stride. Her personality was a lot like Shade’s, only leaning more toward the compassionate side.
My university degree was useless compared to her experience. It was refreshing to be taught something new and to have a teacher so enthralled with the experience.
“You single?” Felicia asked. There was a twinkle in her eye and I couldn’t help blushing. The question came out of nowhere. I mumbled, trying to come up with an answer that wouldn’t scar the rapport we had. I could think of nothing that would not come out insulting. I whispered some truth for both our sakes.
“My wife just passed away.” It was quiet enough to remain private. Felicia nodded slowly and leaned into me compassionately.
“I’m sorry,” Felicia whispered back. I wasn’t sure if she was sorry about my wife or the fact she flirted.
“We have three more pots to fill,” Felicia said, returning to the job at hand. I think she saw my need for manual labour. We worked in tandem with the next three batches. She didn’t flirt any more, but we bonded. She started humming ‘Tempted and Tried’ as we cooked. I joined in after a few moments. Felicia smiled at me and I realized she was humming for Dolapo. I was touched that she understood, although she had never met my wife.
I turned to hand off the second pot of cooked meat to the next station. I caught Shade staring at me. She clumsily went back to her paperwork. I wondered if she had heard my confession. I hoped she hadn’t. I only told Felicia to spare her feelings, and mine.
If you do food preparation, you get to eat first. It was a wonderful rule that my growling stomach appreciated immensely. I had been smelling food all day, and had had nothing but water. I was getting used to eating only once a day, but it’s tougher when watching it being prepared. There was no cheating or snacking in Shade’s kitchen. I even had to wait for ‘ I Need An Angel.’
Luckily, Fabio was near the front of the line. I waited until he sat down before I started eating. It wasn’t so much manners as it was a show of friendship. I liked him liking me without the need for my past. I loved feeding off his lazy enthusiasm for life. It was refreshing.
“Good evening, Fabio.” Shade had snuck up on us in the middle of our discussion. Fabio nodded with mouth full of food. She leaned down and whispered in his ear. He nodded again. Shade placed a foil wrapped fish on Fabio’s tray. Fabio smiled, showing all his awful teeth.
“I got to get you warmer clothes,” Fabio said, never taking his eyes off the fish. I snapped my eyes up, looking after Shade. She was moving off, back to the front of the line. Her flowered skirt, greenish this time, swaying confidently back and forth. The books must be in really bad shape.
Fabio showed me how I could get some warmer clothes. It wasn’t exactly stylish, but I was now wearing an old brown jacket that looked like it might have been used by someone in construction, and a pair of NYSC boots. The laces in the boots were strange against the colour the boots were made of. It was better than the old loafers I had been walking around in. I really looked the part now, homeless. Everything mismatched, but functional.
The next morning started the same as the first in all but one respect. Shade was smiling when she opened the door. The books must be an absolute disaster. I took a shower, which I now appreciated greatly, and met Hassan. He was a shy younger man who was to replace me. We shared the dryer. Not unexpectedly, there were two of everything waiting for use. Two towels, two toothbrushes and two shampoos and soaps.
Shade never prepared more than necessary. Exactly what was needed and nothing more, but it was always exactly what was needed.
Shade took me into a small office connected to the kitchen. It looked as clean and organized as the rest of the building. There were three four-drawer black file cabinets labelled by year, plus a small desk with an old computer and small printer. A stack of folders, each labelled with a month and year, were piled next to the keyboard.
“These are this year’s receipts.” Shade pointed to the stack of folders, “I hope you are familiar with the accounting system of NGOs.” She logged into Microsoft Money I was quite familiar with. I nodded my head. So far so good. “Can you make sure it is all correct? Nothing can be wrong.” I looked at her worried expression. All of this seemed too neat and orderly to be worrisome. “You just want me to audit the books?” I asked, the surprise evident in my tone.
“Please, it’s important.” Shade left before I sat down. She never even doubted I would do it, but I did note she used the word ‘please.’
I made myself familiar with Shade’s chart of accounts and printed off a balance sheet as of the first of the year. With that starting point, I began matching receipts to journal entries. Her record keeping was meticulous. I had very little trouble reconstructing what she had done. There were no journal entries without supporting documentation and each receipt corresponded to an entry. I was impressed. It is rare to find such perfect record keeping. I ended with printing a current balance sheet and income statement. Everything was perfect to the penny. It had only taken me four hours to complete.
“What’s the verdict?” Shade asked as I walked into the kitchen with my notes. She seemed apprehensive and I couldn’t understand where it was coming from. There was no way she could think her books were bad.
“All good,” I responded confidently, “you expensed some things as repairs that I probably would have capitalized, but you did it consistently. There is nothing wrong that I could find. In fact, they are very accurate and well done.” Shade visibly let out the breath she had been holding.
“Do you think you could look at the three previous years?” It began to make sense.
“You’re getting audited,” I stated. Only the FIRS could make someone like Shade fidget. She waved me back into the office.
“Yes,” Shade answered once we were alone. She pulled an envelope from a drawer and handed me the letter inside. The FIRS was auditing her last three tax returns and wanted to examine her supporting documentation. There was a paragraph about providing necessary documentary support to maintain her charitable status. The letter seemed to be worded a bit differently than a standard audit letter. The amount of money involved usually didn’t generate FIRS flags and certainly didn’t warrant an audit this deep for an NGO only M&E would have sufficed.
“This seems a bit heavy-handed,” I offered when I handed back the letter.
“Will you look at the last three years?”
“Sure,” I answered, with some fight in my words. I never did like it when the FIRS picked on the innocent. Frankly, Shade was doing the world a favour. I had only known her for three days and I could tell the city needed her. “It will take a few days and I’ll need the tax returns.”
“Each year has its own drawer.” Shade hastily pointed toward the file cabinets, “The first folder contains the tax returns.” “It will be alright,” I said, trying to calm her nervousness. “They can only go after fraud. I’ve seen nothing coming close to that. If your tax returns reflect your financials, this will be nothing but an annoyance.” Shade looked slightly more relieved and even gave me half a smile.
“Thanks.” Shade left the office for a moment then poked her head back in. “What are you doing here?” I guess my skills didn’t make sense with my homelessness.
“Nothing criminal, I assure you,” I said in all honesty. Of course, if I was a criminal, I would have said the same thing. Shade seemed to size me up and accept me at my word. Either that, or I was the only one convenient to trust. I was busy putting this year’s files into their proper drawer as she returned to work.
Hassan and I were in the front of the line when ‘I Need An Angel’ came over the speakers. It seems auditors gain the same rights and privileges as prep cooks. Felicia winked at me and gave me a slightly larger portion. I winked back in a friendly way and waited for Fabio again.
“I owe you,” Fabio said with a mouth full of food. I wished I could live day to day like he could. He seemed to have no concerns beyond the present. I envied the freedom he had built in his own mind. My mind was still lost in the past. My precious Dolapo was gone and I was forgetting her face. I could imagine her touch and her voice. It was her face that was fading. The rest would follow. My mind was too weak to hold on.
“You owe me nothing but good company,” I said. Fabio laughed and told me about the boat he saw get caught among the pilings under the bridge earlier. It took the better part of the day and two more boats to get it free. To him, it was quality TV. I laughed when he told me how one guy was trying to rig a pull line while straddling both boats. They invariably pulled apart and sent the guy into the river. To Fabio, the incident was as good as soap opera. For me, a moment not lost in the past.
“Good evening, Fabio.” Shade had snuck up on us again. “Why don’t you show Frank how get a warm bed tonight.”
“Shade, a man lives where he wants,” Fabio stated firmly. It was funny watching him consolidate behind his beliefs. I was strangely flattered. Shade rolled her eyes, reached into the pocket of her blue flowered skirt and placed a foil-wrapped fish on his tray. Fabio smiled and I stared dumbfounded at Shade. “But a man ought to know all the options,” Fabio retracted quickly.
“Thank you, Fabio.” Shade never really looked at me. She just headed back to monitor the line.
“You’re the best thing I ever pulled out of the river,” Fabio said slowly as he unwrapped his precious fish.
“Did you tell Shade how you found me?”
“That’s for you to say.” Fabio took a small bite of the fish, obviously trying to make it last. “Sometimes it is best not to say – leave it in the past.” That I had to agree with.
…to be continued