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Everyone needs a helping hand at some time.

Alva’s presence at the café was haphazard. The time she spent away from the café was equal to or greater than the time she spent supervising her business. If supervising was what she did there at all. If anyone had watched her operation in an analytical way, it would have been a mystery how she actually got anywhere. Yet, Alva was, in some mysterious way, able to accomplish a great deal without seeming to organize herself, her time, or much of anything else.

As for the day-to-day, she left that to others. Raoul ran the kitchen, did the ordering, and kept the inventory under control. There were three regular waitresses and a few part-timers. Cooks came and went but Raoul made sure the recipes remained as they had when Alva’s Café first opened. What else Alva did when she was not at the café was no mystery to the people who knew her. She did everything. And she seemed to know everyone. At least in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.

A week into Kitty’s stay Alva had brought home three other “guests” as she called them. Two stayed three nights and then disappeared again. The one who stayed longest slept all day and was gone all night. Kitty saw her coming back early one morning when Kitty had gotten up before dawn to pray in private in the backyard. Kitty thought her clothes tawdry and her makeup loud. She began to wonder what kind of people Alva was bringing home. When she asked, Alva laughed and told her she was right. Sometimes they were people the world frowned on. But Alva knew in her heart which were the good ones and which the bad.

“Everyone needs a helping hand sometimes,” she told Kitty.

That was why she was well-known at the mission ten blocks away. It was more than a soup kitchen, really more like a place where people could collect themselves, get back on their feet, and prepare to face the world again. She brought leftover food and sometimes took fresh pots of stew and chili. She brought over stray dogs and cats. She saw how they brought the men and women, who seemed to have abandoned whoever they belonged to in another life, back to the present moment. Strays helping strays, she would say.

One day, as Alva was walking in Brooklyn somewhere between her house and the mission, she heard a bird singing. She stopped to listen.

“Now that there’s the music of life,” she said aloud to no one but herself.

She walked closer to where the bird was singing from a tree in a backyard not unlike hers. It was small brown bird with a tail that tilted up and twitched as it sang. Its song was strong and melodic. Alva listened as if it was the first bird she had ever heard. And then a funny thing happened. She began to mimic the bird.

First she found its range, then she followed its melody, and soon they were singing together, the bird leading, Alva harmonizing. Then it took off, without warning, its song interrupted by other pursuits.

Alva, Episode Four

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