I was in the middle of editing, in that zone that writers enter where nothing intrudes. The phone didn’t notice, however, and my extension buzzed loudly. I had 28 minutes left of my workday, two days left to work before ending the job.
“There’s a woman here who needs help. Kimberly found her.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Sighing as I saved my doc and left my screen behind, I trudged to the lobby, limping from a herniated disc, each step like a cattle prod down my leg and sparking pain in my tingling foot. Praying as I stumbled forward.
Her name was “Anna.” Same as my youngest child. Asking for her last name set her jaw and caused her to vigorously shake her head.
“I need a ride downtown.”
Kimberly waved goodbye and ran off.
Anna was a tall young woman, thin, as most homeless people become, but not skeletal. She wore a black velvet hat with a juanty white band that covered all of her head. She was sunburned, cheeks raw and skin cracked at the jawline and around her eyes. Her eyes. They had once been lovely, not long ago in her young life. Now, they squinted aginst my strange face and again she turned her head in that jerky display that signals mental illness.
“Do you live downtown, Anna? Are you in a shelter.”
She nodded, her head bobbing a little too long, too sharply.
“I can give you a ride to the trolley and $5 for the ticket, but I can’t drive you downtown. Would you like some food?”
She looked down at the number of items piled in her thin arms – jacket, a small childn’s purse, a cloth bag, a plaid chenile afghan, another plastic bag. She wore layers of black. Several tank tops, each with a variety of sequins and sparkle covering sunken breasts, bones protruding at the top of her thighs covered by a long black dress. Over that, a silky blazer, a scarf. On her feet, brown men’s combat boots. I shuddered for a moment imagining Anna kicking those boots against drugged groins in the combat of living on the streets downtown.
“Why don’t we go get you another bag at the thrift store, Anna? Maybe you can pack your things in it?”
I opened the door and she was off like a shot, straight into the parking lot, opposite where we needed to go. I guided her over to follow me to the next building. We entered the Thrift store, staff quickly aware that I had brought a “client” in with a voucher for three items. At first she followed me to the backpacks. There were lots of suit bags in rich tweeds and heavy black canvas. No wheels. No one was buying a suit. There was one backpack and before I could get it off the disiplay Anna was off again, Racing through the store, head spinning. Then a smile.
Anna was looking through the children’s rack at tiny pants with pink roses at the waist until I caught up with her and guided to the women’s smalls. There she plucked up a stylish jacket and stripped down to the dress, swirling in front of the mirror modeling the jacket like a girl.
Valerie, on of the clerks, caught my eye. “Let me go to the back, she said. “We have items for homeless people to give away.”
Anna came with me, flinging the jacket on the floor of the dressing room. In the back, bankets were neatly stacked and sweatshirts were folded in a bin. Silently she picked the thinnest blanket and a small shirt, then was off.
“I wanted some underwear…” she said as she raced to the front of the store.
Done with shopping, I piled her things on the counter and gave the clerk a benevolence voucher. Valerie came up behind her and explained, “We donate items to people in need. That’s the kind of heart our church has for people.”
Anna was already out the door, her items forgotten and I followed her carrying them, limping along.
“I’ve been here before,” Anna said. “I feel Deja vu.” She shot across the parking lot as pain and numbness settled in my own gait. Before I was even close to catching up, she walked inside the Middle School room, where music and children made a rukcus. When I caught up to her, the leader was talking to her, terrified. Another mother mouthed “Thank You” as I came through the door. Putting my arm around Anna, I stood with her while she watched the kids sing – bright and shiny and fresh.
“It’s time to get in my car, Anna.”
Guiding her toward the door, she was still smiling when she said, “I used to go here to youth group. I went to this church.” Her smile glowed.
“Anna, we would love for you to come back on a Friday night or Sunday morning. The music is just like this and you will love it.”
Easing into the car, we got her numerous items balanced on her lap. “Do you want to put some of the things in your new bag?” Maybe I can help you organize it a little?”
I immediately felt stupid as I knew that she did not have the capacity to organize her belongings. They were piled on and dragged along beside, like misfortune and terror and the inability to recognize herself or her surroundings.
She looked straight ahead as I drove down the hill and down an alley toward the trolley. Suddenly she came to life again.
“I know those people! I want to say ‘Hi’ to my friends! Stop!”
“Anna, it’s getting late and I have people coming over and have to be there. I am going to take you to the trolley because I have to leave now.”
She set her jaw again and looked ahead. At the next block I turned around.
“I will turn around and take you to the people you saw. If you know them, jump out and say hello and see if they are going downtown. If you don’t, we’ll go ahead a few more blocks to the trolley stop.”
Her smile relaxed and, although I slowed down at every camper parked in the lot, she waved me forward. Then I spotted it. A huge, gold RV was parked next to the back of the Petco and was illegally emptying its sewage into a drain. A man in shorts and an orange Hawaiian shirt stood outside. Anna gathered her many bags and jumped out of the passenger side. She piled them onto the asphalt.
“Do you know him?”
Anna turned and looked me in the eye for the first time. Suddenly she leaned into the car and said with clarity, “You are generous. You did not make me feel bad.” She brought her cracked, burnt cheek to my face and kissed my cheek.
With a quick slam, Anna gathered her things and waved me off, eager to be found by someone else in her combat boots and no underwear.