Marley Ames searched the ground before him, taking carefully calculated steps to avoid ripping away the loosely hanging sole of his right shoe. In his part of town, strands of wire littered the dirt alongside the sidewalks. Any time he needed wire, he simply started walking and very quickly discovered a suitable piece.
Sure enough, the third wire that presented itself was the kind of strong easily bendable line that would hold a shoe together. He sat on the curb to remove the shoe and then held it up so he could force the wire through the synthetic material. He made a ring of it and twisted it tightly. After bending the excess wire repeatedly until it broke free, he repeated the operation twice. Once finished, the shoe seemed good for another two to three weeks. He had wired other shoes and so had gotten to be quite the expert.
Marley was able to walk naturally now as he continued down the sidewalk. He had not realized he was this near the zoo until he looked up and saw the entry. It always surprised him that the Fresno zoo was so near to home and easily accessible. He wandered in.
In the first cages were monkeys. They were a species with dark fur and fairly large and they ignored Marley totally. After watching them for a few moments he discovered that a peanut meant for the monkeys had fallen near enough he could fish it out of the outer cage. Sure enough, with a bit of diligence, he secured the peanut. As he stood up and broke away the shell and pushed the tender salty meat into his mouth, he heard a voice say, “That damn kid’s a pig.”
A man and a woman had come around a curve in the path in time to catch Marley in the act. Embarrassed, the boy wandered away from the zoo and toward home.
He wistfully gazed inside store windows along the way, feeling the pangs of deprivation, having been aware his entire life that other families than his were somehow not as dysfunctional and actually had enough money to eat well and dress well. He had gone just five blocks when a brand new ’54 model car pulled over to the curb. “Excuse me,” a woman’s voice called out.
He recognized the woman and the man from the park. She wore a long dress and kept her hair in a bun. He was tall and thin and wore a blue jacket. He had more grey than black in his beard. Marley paused to hear what they had to say.
The man spoke from behind the woman. “My wife and I are heading for Schultzi’s. We would like to invite you along to eat with us.”
Marley motioned with his hands as though pushing them away. “I don’t think so,” he said.
“Please,” the woman said.
“I will be honest with you,” the man said. “I couldn’t help but notice you appear to be hungry. Your shoes, the patch on your jeans -”
“No,” said Marley. “I’m going home.”
“We can’t force you,” said the woman. “But if you’ve never eaten at Schultzi’s you’ve missed some of the best eating this side of Heaven.”
“Chicken fried steak, corn on the cob. Ice cream. And you can have all you want. We’re paying,” the man added.
The more they spoke the more Marley’s poor stomach rebelled against the boy’s intransigence. Finally, as it began to seem the couple in the car might pull away, Marley said yes.
He was let in the back seat, where the clean of newness was vastly impressive to a child of poverty. They rode in silence until the car pulled onto the parking lot. As they stepped away from the car, the woman smiled and said, “I’m awfully glad you decided to come with us. I’m Daisy Chance. My husband is Professor Oliver Chance.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Mr. Chance said. “We come into town Fridays just to eat Shultzi’s wonderful food.”
“I’m Marley Ames,” Marley said.
His embarrassment over getting caught taking a peanut out of the monkey cage had long since faded. In a life filled with indignities, specifics meld into a single fabric.
Still a bit timorous, he went beside these Chance people as they entered into what proved to be an all-you-can-eat buffet.
As Oliver Chance settled the bill, Marley and Daisy Chance took up their plates and went off to fill them from steam tables and salad bars. Marley selected a portion of fried fish, a helping of beef tips on a bed of egg noodles, four green olives, four purple olives, and four tiny tomatoes. He met Mrs. Chance at the table and they put down their plates before going to the drinks station for glasses of tea. She took napkins, enough to share with Marley. As they settled to eat, Mr. Chance arrived with a plate full of various meats and a side dish of coleslaw. He was off to the drinks station when his wife told Marley, “Don’t wait. Dig in.”
But Marley felt he owed it to Mr. Chance to wait for him to get seated. He did sip from his iced tea. After the professor joined them it became a situation of every person for themselves. Marley ate his fish, olives, and tomatoes first. He reserved the beef tips over noodles for the last because it was sure to command his complete attention. He had never eaten such a dish and he intended to savor it. After a lifetime of eating mostly pinto beans, fried potatoes, and skillet biscuits he was about to fill his mouth with heaven.
It was as he anticipated. The beef tips over egg noodles put him on another level of dining. And when he finished Mr. and Mrs. Chance tried to interest Marley in the table laden with desserts. But Marley took up a clean plate after the custom and bypassed the dozens of untried dishes and desserts to fill up with more of the same, minus the fish and vegetables.
It passed through his mind when eating that his Mom and siblings would be home, preparing for the usual pintos with biscuits or cornbread and he vaguely felt sorry. Not sorry enough to forgo the feast, however. When his plate was polished clean, he sat with a stuffed belly, hating that he would have to get out and walk very shortly.
He drank down the tea, watching his hosts enjoy their desserts.
“I should go home now,” he said.
Daisy and Oliver Chance paused, forks poised above the black chocolate desserts they were eating. “Don’t you want us to drive you home?” Oliver said.
“No,” he answered. “I can walk home from here. It isn’t that far.”
He stood before them and thanked them, clumsily, sincerely, and turned and walked away.
Outside, in the late cool air, he turned toward the home on South Walnut Street. He wondered if his drunken stepfather would get home today. It had been about three days since he got his paycheck, about as long as it usually took to spend the money and come home. He thought about how Mom would quietly tally another day her children safely gathered for dinner and bed. He would never forget the Chances and the finest meal ever provided a hungry boy. This was the best day of his life.