Eilis stood on the crumbling sidewalk across the street from an old couple with dark, wizened skin and pure white hair and watched them play catch in the front yard with a couple of children. One was about six and the other was about twelve. They were laughing and calling encouragement to each other, just as Eilis remembered.
The sun was setting. Eilis didn’t know if they’d just had dinner, if it was on the stove, or it hadn’t been started yet. She recalled that dinner was always at six sharp, and it was almost that. But that was almost thirty years ago and the Potters were old now.
Another woman came to the door and called sweetly, “Dinner in ten. Wash up.”
Eilis recognized her, even though the years had not been kind. She was the Potters’ biological daughter, not quite smart enough to get any but the most menial jobs, smart enough that she knew she wasn’t. It had always frustrated her to tears, softly, into her pillow in the middle of the night when she thought no one could hear.
Eilis heard. And pondered. She realized how lucky she was that she was smart and maybe … just … maybe she could do something LaTanya couldn’t do: think. Reason. Eilis hadn’t had the words “to reason” yet. Just a vague idea that her mind could do more. And in the weeks that followed, she had studied the other foster children in the home. They were smart, but they didn’t think past their eighteenth birthdays when they’d be out of the system.
Eilis wanted to figure out what to do after she got out of the system. How would she support herself other than furtive blow jobs for some quick cash? Where would she go? What would she do? Because she certainly did not want to be a working girl for the rest of her life. She had to get out of the neighborhood. She knew she couldn’t get to Southfork Ranch in Dallas, but she might be able to get a respectable job and a respectable little house in a respectable little neighborhood where people might be poor but respectable.
She continued to watch the adults and children in the yard. They were as happy as Eilis remembered them being. At five minutes to six they trooped inside, and she wondered how—or even if—she should talk to them. To offer help of some kind. If she helped them, should she do it anonymously? She wanted to thank them. She wanted them to know she was thanking them.
She spoke suddenly, startling her cousin Felix who stood beside her, and said these things.
“They’re proud people,” Felix said low. “If you donate through me, they won’t protest. They’ll just get a lot more resources than I usually give them.” He paused. “I had to fight them, you know. They’re moral and honorable way past a fault and wanted to report their extra.”
Eilis sighed. “I didn’t mean materially, but I do wish they were a little more deep-sighted.” She always had. Even as a kid, she knew what they should do, even if she didn’t have the words. She had her innate management skills and math to help them, thanks to Fen’s DNA, but she was a kid and they were adults who thought the government was a moral authority. “How did you get them under the table?” she murmured.
“I told them, first, I’d go to prison again and it would mean the whole neighborhood would suffer. They’ve already been through that so they had a frame of reference. They’re not going to make innocents suffer for their honor. Second, that the higher law is God.”
Yes, they would respond to that. “Jesus said to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s.” Boy, did she remember that sermon. It had always rankled for reasons she only found out later.
“Yeah, they tried that. I referenced the Sermon on the Mount.”
Eilis shook her head. That was familiar, but she didn’t remember the story.
“Jesus was preaching. More and more people gathered. It was a long day and people got hungry. They may or may not have had anything at home to eat, probably not, so it would’ve been pointless to leave to eat. And Jesus was preaching that the meek would inherit the earth. So he asked who had brought a lunch. He collected five loaves of bread and two fish. To feed five thousand people.”
“He did it. He fed five thousand people on that. It was one of his many miracles.”
“Do you really believe that happened?”
“Does it matter? Miracles happen every day. People just don’t recognize them. How many times do people say, ‘It was a miracle that thing happened’? It was a miracle you found out your ex was stealing from you right before he got away with it. How many lives would have been destroyed?”
She couldn’t dispute that.
“We call it many things: happenstance, serendipity, karma, coincidence, fate. God. Even if it’s a myth, Jesus’s point was to call it God. So I asked the Potters—” He chucked his chin to the now-empty yard. “—if Caesar demanded a monetary percentage of the value of the food Jesus produced. It wasn’t Caesar’s, so he didn’t.”
“I know them, though. By their logic, if he had, Jesus would have been honorable enough to have them cough it up.”
“Or produce it out of thin air and satisfy the debt to make it easy for his people to listen to him. That’s what I do. I’m not Jesus, but I am doing his work. The Potters had to admit that no, Caesar was not entitled to a percentage of the value of the food. And by refusing our help, they were making it more difficult for the children than it had to be.”
Suddenly, Eilis understood. “They don’t take cash from you. Just goods.”
“And their roof. I bought their house so they don’t pay rent. Or utilities. But I did have to get their preacher involved and he backed me up.” Felix shrugged. “He was thrilled I’d finally gotten through to them. Now they can feel good about going shopping with Joan and she’s pushy about what to buy.”
Eilis wanted to say something sarcastic about how detrimental religion was, but she didn’t. If it hadn’t been for them and their religion, she might not have realized what not to become. Striving to not become something was very often more effective than striving to become something. At least for Eilis it had.
“I want them to know their efforts aren’t in vain.”
“I understand the sentiment, but they don’t need or want the thanks because they feel it cheapens their pure hearts. This is your burden to bear, not theirs. If you want to thank them, don’t make them carry it.”
Eilis bowed her head and wiped the tears that leaked out. Felix draped his arm around her and turned her to go down the sidewalk.
“You have your mission,” he said lightly. “I have mine. Each of us here has a purpose and we all work in tandem. When I need someone else’s talents that we can’t provide, they show up. Like you. All the people in your classes were ready, and I was getting desperate to find someone like you. And there you were. Fate? Coincidence? Karma?”
He didn’t have to say it.
“Explain to me,” she said, “how your family is so wrapped up in money, then turn around and do … these types of things.”
“The philosophies we follow about money and social responsibility don’t prohibit charity. They depend on the altruism of individuals to take care of the people who can’t take care of themselves. They prohibit the government taking from us to do it. It steals from us and enslaves the people it claims to help by keeping them at subsistence level. Punishing them for working to better themselves. We’d resent it less if it were a true step up. Seed money. But it’s not and it’s expressly designed not to be. Sebastian’s mission—and everyone else who donates—is to provide seed money and everything our people need to protect it. It’s not their responsibility just because they’re rich, but it is how true capitalism works. A rising tide raises all boats, yes?
“We were raised to serve. Mormons as a culture see being rich as a virtue because we will then have the resources to feed the poor and we are commanded to do so. No matter how many times I get thrown in prison, the church will not excommunicate me because I obey the higher law. And I have access to a lot of money.”
Eilis was compelled to keep what was hers. She did not share and it made her ill to do so after years of protecting what little she had. It was difficult to think altruistically, difficult to throw money at Felix. So she didn’t. Did this make her immoral according to capitalism or whatever gods they worshipped?
“No,” Felix said when she asked him. “In your everyday life, you provide jobs and you went through hell to keep those jobs. Here, you donate your time. No amount of money can buy the knowledge you bring to the neighborhood and your willingness to share it. That it hurts to be here at all makes it even more precious. You have the experience to be empathetic to the neighborhood’s struggles and the knowledge to teach it effectively.
“Knox is a born teacher, but he can’t empathize because he grew up rich. Sebastian can teach, but he isn’t effective in this context. Giselle has nothing left to give anyone after the demands the family makes on her. She makes it possible for the rest of us to reach outward instead of spending our time taking care of our own. But now her real mission is to save Bryce and by saving Bryce, she saves dozens of burn victims around the world. Étienne and Tess have not only donated, but they built here, provided inexpensive shelter, energy, and water. They also found it valuable because they refined their green energy skills, funneled new technology they developed here into their projects, then donated back into this community to build better housing. Now I have contractors who are willing to donate their time off the books to continue their work. It’s a cycle.
“Nobody I have access to can do what you do. And if I did, none of them would tolerate the guff your students give you. They wouldn’t understand how angry, afraid, and suspicious they are. Nobody else in my family would understand because we have a family and we take of us.”
Eilis was in tears. She had never felt valuable to anybody until Sebastian had run HRP for two months—and nearly run it into the ground—and she was still uncomfortable with her employees’ approval of her leadership. Here, she was valuable and, like unconditional kindness, it was frightening and intimidating and painful to accept in case it was ripped out from under her.
Yes, she understood her students all too well. Yes, it was why she tolerated—indulged—their cynicism, sarcasm, jabs, and angry outbursts. It didn’t hurt her feelings and she could turn those things into teaching moments. It was part of the process of transitioning out of the neighborhood. Eilis had simply gone through it at a much younger age. Her classes were more group therapy than academic. And she had time because she had the resources to spend her time here.
She went home without having thanked her beloved foster family. Now she understood because Eilis, too, did not want thanks from her students.
It hurt too much.