The caterers had quickly brought the food to the kitchen, unpacking trays while setting up a heating area. Ouma’s face was one of shock as the food kept coming in. “How big was this party?” She blinked a few times as several trays of collard greens were slid into the oven to keep warm.
“Big enough. Shall we set up the line? I am sure hungry folks are waiting,” I said.
Ouma smiled at me. “Yes, we should.”
I wrapped my arm around Ouma’s, and she took me out of the kitchen and into the serving hall. The room had a few long plastic tables scattered around the place, with one for the food. The center was desperate for a makeover, but the love that filled it made my chest feel warm.
The walls were still nicotine-stained from back when the mortals smoked inside, while the shag carpet looked like it was right out of the ’70s with a lime green color. The chairs were old folding chairs in desperate need of replacement. A couple of younger kids were playing with a couple of action figures.
“Evening, Ouma,” said a male voice.
“Michael, good to see you,” Ouma said as she hugged the young man.
“Heard that someone bought the place, had to come down to make sure everyone is okay. We’ll have to make a plan for Old Joe since his wife died,” Lance said with a grimace.
Ouma shook her head. “Don’t you worry about Joe and us. We’ll be fine.”
The young man took both of Ouma’s hands in his own and kissed them. “If it weren’t for this place, I wouldn’t have made it into uni. Over there, at that table, you, Joe, Mama, and others helped me understand my math. This place…” he paused, a pained look crossing his face. “I was hoping to come back and help, but like the other places, the rich guys will push yet another neighborhood out.”
“Well, I scared the fool off this afternoon,” I said as I slid around the table, my hand out. “Hi, I’m Hestia.”
“Hello, Hestia, I’m Michael Jones. Why did you help? No offense, you’re not from around here. Why bother?” he said, his stance shifting as he moved Ouma slightly behind him.
“Because it’s the right thing to do. Family is important to me. This place is the heart of the neighborhood. From blocks away, I could feel the love. This place is where young women learned how to deal with heartbreak, the basketball courts where boys found someone to look up to, the hours struggling to study, the worried nights when husbands didn’t come home, and so much more. This place is the hearth of your family. Your family is the ones that see this palace as home,” I said, smiling at the young man.
“Yeah, this place was a home to me,” Michael said as he glanced around.
“I believe in saving such places. My catering company allows me to help out where I can. I also know lawyers that the gods would hire. Let me see what I can do in the morning about stopping the sale,” I said.
Michael snorted. “The gods aren’t real, but I get your point. I wanna trust you, Hestia, but so many come in and try to scam us, more so folks like my Ouma.”
“Actions speak louder than words. I am not family yet. The only thing I want from Ouma and the rest of the folks around here is for you to have joy, love, belonging, and to experience life with the ones that your heart calls my family. After all, when you have family, you can do anything,” I said.
“For the love of,” Michael said as he ran a hand over his face. “That has got to be a marketing stunt. That meme just got too popular too fast.”
“Still the truth. It might be a gag, but when you have the support of a family, then you can fly. You can do anything, and you can become anything you want. You might bend when the world tries to crush you, but you won’t break as you would alone when you have a family behind you,” I said.
“Talk about this later. It’s time for dinner. Michael, you mind turning on the sign?” Ouma asked.
Michael kissed the top of Ouma’s head. “Sure thing.” He walked over to the windows and flicked on a neon sign that said hot food while Ouma and I moved to serve dinner.
The next few hours were a lot of hi, I’m Hestia and yes, this is my first time here comments. I made small talk, listened when they talked. A lot of the older folks were lonely. They had no one in the house anymore. They got up, ate something super simple, sat in their recliner, and stared at the TV for the rest of the day while chain-smoking. They were begging life to send someone to their door, even if it was Jehovah’s Witnesses. Anything to change the day.
The air was thick with tension from the fear hanging around the place while they still tried to enjoy what could be one of their last nights in the center. Hestia brought a plate to an older black man. His hair was on the shorter side, but his last haircut was a few months ago. He hadn’t shaved in a few days. He was staring at his hands on the table.
“Hey, I didn’t see you in line. I wanted to make sure you got some food,” I said as I sat beside him.
“Thank you,” he said. His hands shook as he tried to unwrap the napkin and silverware combo.
“Would you like some help?” I asked. I knew never just take over for someone. Independence meant so much to a person’s mental health.
The man winced as he closed his eyes and let out a long breath. “Please.”
“I’m Hestia,” I said as I unwrapped the silverware. “Do you want help eating?”
The old man nodded. “Can you cut the meat? My hands…” his voice trailed off in embarrassment.
“There is nothing to be upset about,” I said as I started to cut the boneless pork chop into bite-sized pieces. “What name did your mama bless you with?”
“Mama called me Lance,” he said with a smile. There was a bit of a flicker behind his cloudy brown eyes.
“Well, Lance, my mama called me Hestia.” Lance tilted his head slightly as I said my name.
“Like the goddess? When we took Naples, some of the guys dared me to mess with some of the statues. I was going to, but I saw the statue of Hestia and felt like my Bibi was giving me the stink eye. I couldn’t do it. It turned out no one could do it after entering. Strangest thing,” Lance said as he tried to take a bite of rice. His hand shook the food off the fork, landing in his lap and on the floor.
I gestured to the fork before he handing it to me with a soft huff. “I know it sucks, but it takes a strong person to accept help,” I said softly. “You think she was there or something?”
Lance took my offered bite, thinking before he answered. “There was something there that made us all think our grandmothers would be extremely displeased at us defacing them. Even if some rich fascist lived there before. After that, we all were a bit less rowdy in the squad. We looked after each other a bit better, like all of our Bibi’s would want. Never forget that feeling.”
“Things that change us, stick with us,” I said while giving him another bite.
“No, I made sure my son learned that, too,” Lance said.
The two of us chatted for a while, making small talk as he ate. After saying goodbye to him, I took the dishes back to the kitchen. My caterers snatched the plate out of my hands when I entered before shooing me out the back door. I chuckled at their efficiency. It was not my job to wash dishes, so don’t clog the kitchen.
“Thank you for providing dinner and giving them hope,” Michael said. He was leaning on the corner, a few buddies passing a joint around.
I walked over to the four, smiling at them. “Hit?” One of them asked after he took a puff. I shrugged before taking a long pull. Holding my breath, I passed it to Micheal. The guy who passed it to me, lips pursed in the I’m impressed kind of look as I held it through his puff. The group started whooping before I let out a smooth blow. I smiled at the group. “That some dank shit,” I said with a laugh, smoke covering my face.
A motor revved slightly, tires squealing as it ripped around the corner. The men moved to try to protect me, for what little apparent good it would do from whatever threat this was. The car screamed by as someone leaned out of the back window and threw an object with a long flame behind it. It broke through an upper window, landing with a thud.
“Sound the alarm,” I snapped, already breaking into a run to head back into the building.