Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Venus is a Planet (Feather on the Stoop), Part 1

Lydia was a homebody; she liked the everydayness of things there. How, when she returned to her small one bedroom apartment after work, everything looked the same. Unremarkable, perhaps, but undisturbed. The tea kettle on the right back burner where it whistled and sighed as it ran out of steam each morning. The bronze, burgundy and green paisley tablecloth, smooth and clean, slipped over a round table by a main window. Her bed refreshingly unmussed, three pillows plumped for bedtime. Her books lining the wall stacked by size. Such simplicity and order gave her a ping of happiness as her eyes swept over all a last time, then closed the front door firmly behind her. And when she opened it later in the day, she released a pleasant sigh before the door even shut.

At least she told herself this was all true. At the Head and Body Salon an older co-worker, Alma (who said they were the same age though Lydia saw the crow’s feet and loose skin about her neck–she didn’t care, anyway) challenged her sharing of such a peaceful tableau.

“But to have it so quiet every single day? I can’t imagine not having my husband griping about something. Or the canaries not singing–they keep me company when he doesn’t.” She smiled; such thoughts gave her a grudging pleasure.

“I have car and foot traffic, don’t forget–or the train lumbering by at night, its whistle almost a comforting shriek. There is a big dog, a Lab, above me–I hear Riley romping, big barking at times. I know my neighbors, sort of, Riley’s owner, his name–” She picked up the phone to answer a customer call. “Hello? Just a refresh? Hmm, yes, maybe next Monday? Let me check and we’ll get you taken care of, not to worry.”

Alma rolled her eyes at Lydia, then waved at a regular who just came in–the gal insisted on a rinse that made her mostly white hair more bluish. Alma longed to just dye it all royal blue and be done with it. But that wasn’t her way. Tony had more fun with clients. He started to chatter at her and the young one in his chair; she could barely follow his staccato speech so often just nodded. She and Tony worked long hours since Ginny, the owner had her baby and took leave. Anyway, Tony got the younger ones, and gloriously experimented. But a job was a job, thank God for it, Alma thought, as she aimed the hair drier onto a champagne blonde’s thick fluffy mop. She worried about Lydia sometimes, though. She had worked there over a year, and never seemed to go out afterwards–she was maybe thirty-five. Still half a kid, really. She harrumphed.

Lydia tapped her teeth with a pencil as she watched the two stylists plying their trade. Alma could do what she did with eyes covered after all her years experience. Tony got excited, took risks–sometimes too great a risk. But the salon made decent money. She should be happier in the mini-beehive of activity so awash in pleasantries. Who came and left a hair and skin treatment salon feeling miserable? No one that she heard about. She worked efficiently and nicely, took satisfaction in her multi-tasking. Yet Lydia’s mother always had said, “You have the mindset of a dizzy moth–you stare at the light, take in little and do even less, get burned. I can’t understand daydreamers–it does nothing for you but slow you down.”

Or a variation on those sentences. Moths were far better than that; she needed to read the facts. But, no. .. she was the space cadet, poor Lydia the laggard, Lydia the forgetful. In fact, she recalled a great deal; she just didn’t pay much attention to her mother. Her mother was so busy, too ambitious in her opinion. She was a hyper overachiever by any stretch and Lydia–she was just herself. So what if she got dreamy-eyed? She still knew how to live fine. Didn’t she?

“How can I have birthed a slacker daughter?” asked the mother who had become VP at a small real estate agency last year. “Have you looked into a civil servant exam yet? Even the legal assistant program? It isn’t too late to forge ahead. I will still pay for a four year degree!”

Lydia no longer quite answered; she mostly slid about those words like a cat slipping between legs, there and not there, not even rude. She found something to do with her hands when confronted– like rearrange the flower bouquet her mother dropped off after work with take-out twice a month. They had dinner, if you could call it that, and in 35 minutes maximum her mother was gone and not a word until the next time.

Like her mother, now Alma seemed to be saying she wasn’t making much of a mark on life. Or life wasn’t leaving any interesting marks upon her days and nights. That’s how it sounded to her, at least.

In bed at night Lydia stared at the ceiling light fixture before drifting off. It was a very old, fake chandelier. She watched various lights bounce from street and windows, then off the teardrop crystals. When the train rumbled by, the crystals shook the smallest bit. She loved that, a little sassiness of light and form. But she’d feel a sadness well up from time to time. Her bed was terrifically big some nights, the room seeming emptier for all the lovely dances of crystal and light and shadow.

It wasn’t easy to meet people that she really wanted to meet, or who cared to understand her. Deep inside, Lydia feared that she’d never really know anyone, and that she would live and die without being truly known. It haunted her when she least wanted to think on it.

*****

That the lady was there at all startled her. Lydia had to step back fast to avoid falling over an outstretched leg. She was slumped onto her side over on the landing above three short steps, not far from a doorway. The watch repair shop had closed month ago when the owner passed away. No one seemed to desire it’s worn homeliness. But random people didn’t just hang out on unused steps. Four blocks down, maybe. Not there.

Lydia checked her grandmother’s delicate watch, then looked closely at the form. She knew it was a woman because of the shoes and hat. The former were brown lace up, calf-high boots with a narrow, worn heel; the hat was purple, crumpled, wide-brimmed and with a kind of dirty feather stuck in the hatband. Her form was large but likely tall, not overweight. Her coat was a stained Mackintosh. It seemed too cold to be wearing such a coat. Was it lined for warmth?

“You alright? Should I call someone for you?” She reached out to touch a shoulder, then drew back. Maybe no one ever had come for her or she didn’t want anyone around. She guessed the person had been living pretty rough for some time. She might be angry that anyone bothered her.

Lydia felt jittery– yet curious. What was wrong, anyway? What could she do? Her watch showed she was running late. The woman stirred, pulled her knees up close to her chest. Her pale face turned enough that it was partly revealed in the weak morning winter light. Her eyelids fluttered, then squeezed tightly against the light. She lifted a gloved hand–finger poking out the ends–and rubbed her lips gently. There was what looked like dried blood on the upper lip. Then she buried her head into folded arms, relaxed again.

Her heart beating fast, Lydia stood there a long moment, then looked up at the sky. It was getting bluer and brighter. Perhaps no rain, then. She glanced at the woman and frowned, then went on her way. She kept turning back, but nothing seemed different there. Just her entire morning.

******

When work wound down at seven o’clock, she tidied her desk, waved to her co-workers, and left. Alma and Tony exchanged a look–where was she off to so fast?

As she walked down her street, Lydia strained to see the shopfront where the strange woman had been. In her mind, her name was Feather, nothing else had come to her. It appeared dark, empty; the sun had long gone down. But as she slowed and peered into the area, she saw her sitting with back against the doorway, head bowed, arms crossed over her chest. She had on frayed jeans and they now covered her boots.

“Are you okay?” Lyida said softly.

But the woman didn’t speak, only held herself closer in with her arms, lowered her head deeper, and seemed to be asleep shortly after.

After a quick dinner, she paced a bit, thinking of what to do. In her bedroom at the foot of her bed there was a cedar chest with wool blankets and extra throw pillows and some other items she rarely used. She pulled out a wool Pendleton blanket ivory with yellow, red and green stripes at each end, one she’d gotten used. And a crewel floral-covered pillow. She found a large cotton bag she’d well used for market trips, so folded the blanket and pillow and stuffed them into it.

She threw on her jacket and shoes, then ran down one flight of steps and out the door, walked briskly down the street. But when she got to the steps where the feather hat woman had been, the spot was full of nothing. Hesitating a moment, she put down the bag and retreated, standing with hands on hips looking about. A bicyclist wheezed by and glanced over his shoulder at her; two cars passed, one slowing as a passenger eyed the bag. What was the point if someone stole it or tossed it in a dumpster? She ran up the steps and grabbed the bag, turning slowly to check one last time for the now-named Feather. The street got busier as people headed home after a dinner out or a late day at work. A gust of wind lifted her dark hair and strands covered her eyes. Pushing them out of the way, she walked back home, shoulders crunched in the growling wind. Well, it was presumptuous of her, she thought. Her dumb ideas!

Across the street another woman watched as she thought, It’s her, that one who stopped. Why would she stop for her, what did she want? She wasn’t begging. She’d have none of that. This was temporary, a kink in the road, that’s all. But, Lordy, that blanket would feel sweet and toasty against her cool prickled skin. She pulled the thin coat close at her neck and rambled down the street to look for discarded restaurant food. Dumpsters were never an easy thing. But she was strong enough.

******

In the morning, Lydia saw that just the purple hat lay on the top step of Feather’s spot, so she went back upstairs, got the bag, then carried it back into sprinkling rain. She looked about–no one paying any attention, the homeless woman was not about–so set it by the hat.

She made it to work on time but all morning considered: surely she wouldn’t leave that worn but pretty hat?

“Lydia, calling Lydia, you there?”

Tony called out, waving a brush–other hand deep in red-streaked black hair– at the ringing phone.

“Head and Body Salon, good morning!” she chirped.

“What is that girl about the past couple days?” Alma whispered as she washed her client’s hair in the shampooing sink. “You’d wager she met a man…oh, not that, right?” She smirked as he raised his eyebrows.

“Okay,” Alma said, hunched over the counter clients leaned on above the desk, “give.”

Lydia sometimes didn’t understand Alma or Tony; they too often talked in shorthand. “Huh?”

“Whatdya mean, ‘huh’. You’re more drifty than usual, my dear–and look like you’re planning a secret trip somewhere far away and it’s all you can do to keep it quiet.”

Lydia rearranged her pens and pencils before her, lined each one up. “Well, that’s not true. I have no plans. Just a few things on my mind. You know, the holidays are coming up…”

“Well, that should be easy. Your mom always takes you to Bartles for a swanky dinner and gives you a gift card for thousands. Or is she taking you to Tahiti this year like you said she did three years ago?” Alma laughed; Lydia always worried about what to give her mother in return. She got that but really, it was not such a problem. “Did you make the idea list for her yet? You should come to my house–the hubby wants everything but he’s getting far less than that.”

“Alma, take it easy on our coworker!” Tony called out and smiled sweetly at the receptionist. He’d been pondering his own ideas of what he could swap with her and the other two at their annual holiday potluck. “She’s doing her job, which is more than I can say for you.” He pointed emphatically with his rattail comb at the mess Alma had left at her station. It was a slower day.

“Yeah, yeah,” Alma said. “Chin up, Sweetie, your mom will be fine, she gets nice stuff. Make her a poppy seed cake… I’d like that.”

“I’m not sure what this Christmas has going for it. Mother will be in New York for some conference-slash-social getaway–likely time with Grant, her newest–until the last minute. And it’s not thousands, by the way…only a few hundred!” She snickered and batted at Alma’s arm with a pen topped with plastic daisy, then was answered the phone.

On the way back home, Lydia walked rapidly to try to avoid the sudden downpour which only made her wetter as the wind rushed her faster. It was darker than usual with the curtain of rain, the heavy clouds above. But as she passed the steps where Feather had been before she slowed, anyway, pushing wet bangs off her forehead to get a good look. There she was, crouched under the metal awning of the doorway. Wrapped in the wool blanket, the pillow behind her head while leaned against the long glass pane in the door frame. The cloth bag was stuffed with something Lydia couldn’t discern.

“Hello,” she said, nodding at the blanketed figure. “Glad you found it.”

Feather looked away as the train clackety-clacked on tracks from a block away. Lydia hurried on. It was late. She needed hot soup, a grilled cheese and steaming tea, then a warm bubble bath and a book as she grew dozy on the couch.

It was only when she slipped her tired lean body into the inviting frothy water that she thought: did Feather get to eat tonight? When did she last have a basic hot bath? She sank deeper into the gentle warmth. Such comfort and relief in her ordinary, secure world…and she felt shame, and wondered what else she– a fumbling human who understood so little– might do. Tears sprang up as sandalwood perfume wafted into her nose, clung to her rosy skin. She wept, grew sleepy, then got out.

That night the rain stopped a handful of drops at a time. In bed, looking up at the shimmery chandelier and listening for the ten o’clock train whistle, she thought how things might be different for Feather, if only…. or for herself… who knew? The whistle blew and she closed her eyes, imagined that she who lived on those steps might have blinked hers open wide to check for the blanket and pillow–to make sure the world in all its violence was not coming upon her in the rain skidded dark.

******

The next morning Lydia found the blanket folded carefully on top the pillow, all pressed against the door. But Feather and the bag were gone. She looked up and down the street, found it as usual, busy but calm, and left a plastic storage container of macaroni and cheese and green beans piled at the side. It had a plastic fork; she added bottled seltzer. She looked about a last time and, satisfied no one saw her at it, she hid all under the blanket.

As she pushed open the salon door, she was surprised so many were waiting. Was she late?

Alma sidled up to her. “You know that holiday special we ran? This is the start of an avalanche, get ready girl.”

The whole day was hectic, full of talk and extra chores that when they were finishing up, Lydia wasn’t prepared to chat. She wanted to get home. The book she had started was excellent and the bath awaited.

“Wait a second, Lydia. We wanted to talk to you, “Alma said, grabbing her bag. “How about coming down to Shorty’s with us and having a beer and fries?”

“Oh, I can’t– not tonight, have things at home to tie up and–“

Tony shook her loosely by the arm. “You can’t spare us an hour?”

Lydia frowned. Could she? Not really, not now. “How about Saturday night unless my mother comes by as supposedly planned? Or next week? I really have stuff to address…”

“Don’t say we haven’t offered… again…you’re a dodger!”

Lydia winked at them and was out the door.

She took her time. The wind was up but the sky was a radiant darkness from which stars beamed like heaven’s eyes. She recalled as a child, when wishing on one, how she felt certain her wish had been heard. But her mother, sitting on her bed beside her.

“If you wished on that bright one”–she pointed it out–“well, sorry, that’s a planet. Venus. Try another one.”

But that year her wish–wasn’t it the science kit?– came true at Christmas, so she kept wishing on Venus, or what she thought was Venus–even after learning it rained sulfuric acid and would flatten you dead if you went there. Now she didn’t wish, of course. But she still believed the sky with its remarkable planets and beautiful stars might hear her pleas, if distantly. She gave up a few secrets when they shone as they did tonight; they were perhaps God’s guardians at the gateway to the great beyond. Possibilities reigned in Lydia’s thinking, even if that’s where they simply stayed.

From the steps Feather watched Lydia walk closer. On the bottom step was the container and plastic fork, cleaned. She had the heavy Pendleton blanket around her shoulders and over her lap. Her hat was on.

Lydia bent and picked up the container and fork, smiled. But Feather was looking up at the sky with its stars saved up after days of rain.

******

Lydia finished her cup of coffee at ten o-clock in the morning, grabbed the bagel made of almond butter and raspberry jam, and a sausage and cheddar-filled whole wheat sandwich, a cold seltzer and put them in a large paper bag.

Feather was sleeping. Or she was pretending well. Her rumpled hat covered her face; the feather looked like a wet owl feather. It occurred to Lydia that this was a better name, then thought she ought to know her real name; Feather was just silly to call her. Like an owl, though, she was still most of the time, then looking everywhere but at her. Likely awake at night, standing guard of her stoop, few possessions, her safety. And then she’d fly off.

At work it was a regular day–that is, it was hectic again, as it would be until the New Year. She thought about little, working the phone, greeting customers, who for some reason were talking her ear off with their excitement for parties coming up. It was an infectious thing, their trilling away. They looked at her closer, and she responded with eyes warm and bright. Lydia was feeling pleased with things, it seemed.

Her friends knew nothing of Feather. It would stay that way. It was her personal life, her own experience.

That night, the stoop was empty. The items were gone. Lydia studied the street, waited a bit, then went to her home. Anxiety snagged her as she fixed a meal. Had she done too much, was that possible? The woman hadn’t asked for one thing; maybe she didn’t want anything. No, she ate the food, used the blanket and pillow. Maybe it was too hard, any “charity” taken. It confused her, and though she did not rest as well that night, she awakened feeling hopeful, anyway. She packed a few protein bars, a peanut butter sandwich, and filled a thermos with coffee. She tossed together a small baggie of sugar and one of powdered creamer plus a plastic spoon and fork. Added a can of tuna fish with a lid that could be pulled open with a tab. Lydia stopped. Did the woman drink? She didn’t think so. She never looked drunk or smelled of alcohol. She looked lost and very tired, but almost proud when she sat up

She was there, on her feet, and the blanket had slipped into a bunched tower of brightly striped wool. She was talking to someone, a man. He was listening, stood so close to her that Lydia knew they were familiar with one another, or she hoped. Then he slapped her across the face and charged off.

“What’s going on? Can I help?” Lydia’s heart crashed against her chest as she took in every feature of the woman. loveliness bloomed beneath grime and pain, and a youthfulness that was wearing thin.

Feather’s hands went to her cheek, but shook her head. She looked down the street and saw he was gone.

“I’m okay, wanted money, haha,” she said, her voice surprisingly low and a bit hoarse. Back to the stoop. She climbed and sat with elbows on knees, chin propped in her hands. Her hair, tangled by a long time unwashed, stuck close by her ears and face. She put the hat back on; the feather wobbled. She stuck it in better, looked away after she spotted the bag of food.

“Can I leave this with you? Will you be alright?”

She nodded, looked at her hands a long moment, rubbing them as if trying to warm them up. Or remove the street. “Who are you?” she asked as if to herself, but mostly to the odd woman.

But Lydia was on her way. She was trying to calm down. That man had hurt Feather. It made her feel ill, but she didn’t want to be late, either.

******

“Why is there a woman camping out on the watch repair stoop? And she had a blanket that looked much like your old one.” She took a bite of food, then shook her head. “Don’t get involved! I should buy that place… well, maybe not.”

Her mother was rushed more than usual, and she was barely finishing some Thai takeout; she had a meeting at Bartles. Had to leave room for great drinks.

Lydia said, “She’s homeless, Mother. But she’s okay.

“Is that your blanket, Lydia? I’ll get you a new one, but only if you don’t give it away.”

“It’s fine, I have enough. When do you leave for New York? Are you going to be back in time for our annual night out?”

Her mother shrugged luxuriously, her hands palms up. “Who knows for certain, my dear. I will try my best. Grant and I–“

“I know. It’s okay.”

Her mother got up. “So sorry to rush. I’m glad to see you looking well. Now, don’t give anything more away, you hear? Hard earned money and all that. Donate to a reputable charity if so moved. And if I can’t be here on the date we chose, I’ll make it up to you, of course! And I will call or text you.”

With that, her mother laid a slim hand against her cheek, gave her a peck where coolness was left by her touch. After she was gone, her signature perfume lingered on her skin and in the air. Lydia waited a few minutes, then washed it off.

She took the rest of her Thai dinner downstairs, left it beside the softly snoring body and returned to her refuge.

******

The next morning was Sunday and no work to take up time and energy.

The stoop was empty. The blanket was gone, the pillow was gone, there was no bag full of anything. The woman who lived there, the owl feather, had drifted elsewhere. Lydia left a bag with two croissants and two little tubs of butter and a plastic knife; also, a fat wedge of cheese and a giant sized water, plain. Then she yawned, put head on arms crossed on her knees. She welcomed thin sunshine on her shoulders and head. She had slept fitfully. There was rain in the air but it was holding back. The sharpening breeze was moving about buildings, pushing down the streets with its wintry intent. She decided to walk to the park a block and a half away, where there were skeletal oaks and green laden pine trees lining the walks and a small fountain burbling–if it was on in December, she could not recall. A walk before the downpour and very little to do at home.

At the park she circled twice, and thought she saw her. The brown coat hanging crookedly, the cloth bag stuffed overly full–the blanket, pillow?– hair tangled and lifting in a mass as the wind blew hard. She was talking with another woman and a man, people who might also be homeless if one determined such a thing based on clothing and heavy slump of shoulders, the way they huddled together like co-conspirators. Trying figuring out the next place to shelter. But they were far ay and it was not her business who they were or what they did.

Lydia sat on a bench, stared at the fountain a moment–no water–and opened her book. It would likely soon fall, the rain, but she had a few minutes to read, to be taken away; to watch and listen for the cranky train that would pass. Then she’d be home and listen to music, putter about her apartment, plan what to give her mother for a gift and also Feather the next time they met up. If they did. She hoped they might, unless it meant she’d instead found a safe harbor that was clean and warm–where folks were nice to her. No one slapping her, either.

Later, when the rain took a long needed break for the night, after Lydia had been knitting a scarf just like some old person with nothing better to do–Alma would tell her that; Tony would offer to take it off her hands but it was for someone else–much later, as the sun parted skittish clouds and daubs of blue were offering visitation, Feather opened the sack left for her. She had walked a long time. She had talked with others, found them hard to be around. The shelters were filling up already. A cold wet night again, soon, too soon. She found the croissants mostly dry–the bag had been left way under the awning, where little rain had splashed. She held the opened butter tub close to her nose and inhaled deeply its richness. Then the sweet and toasty croissants. She could imagine how tasty they’d be if they were warm and moist and…. she shook her head.

Of course they were cold as she pressed the butter on them. She took a big bite and then another, another, another, and she hummed with delight, then started on the second and Lordy, so good to me, she thought. So tasty, it nearly hurt but she licked her fingers clean one by one. Feather pulled the yellow and green striped blanket closer, its rough heat like a tent of power, her eyes shut against the confounding world. She prayed for the shy, skinny woman He’d sent her way, that she would sleep just fine inside the fresh starlight. Like she felt she might, too, with her belly fuller. The train whistle cried out to her one last time for the night and she let herself be at rest awhile.

(Readers, Part 2 is coming up next week. Stay tuned.)

Seeing Those Unseen

Youths-on-the-street-001

The walk through heavy double doors to the office in the rundown building is powered by my will to land a job. Voices careen through shadowy and inaccessible rooms, doors bang shut–or is that something being thrown against a wall? I sit in front of a supervisor of a residential alcohol and drug treatment center. In this place long-term services are provided to adolescents. I am wondering why I ever agreed to an interview. As moments tick by, I am riveted by the description of the job and answer questions with genuine enthusiasm even as there are people scuffling and two persons trading expletives. Yet I want to be here. I can feel their hunger, the electric life.

That was a vivid scene in my mind upon awakening recently. The halls and voices of my past still haunt me. They changed my life.

Lately I have been filled with unease and distracted by a related issue, the sort that seeps into each day and night as if bubbling up from a subterranean source. There are only a few weeks before I must re-certify my CADC (Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor) which enables me to stay in this field. I’m also qualified to provide some mental health counseling.

I quit my last position because retirement was becoming more attractive. I experienced difficult ethics dilemmas regarding issues that can plague such organizations, especially non-profits, and felt they were not being well-addressed. And returning home at eight-thirty or nine p.m. after eleven hour days was tougher. But I also quit because I had spent too many years jotting down storylines in between clients, starting poems on sticky notes, then hiding them away. I was overdue to write full-time.

A daughter recently asked me: “Are you happy with your life as it is?” It seemed easy to answer: yes, I am glad to live this life! But I do miss working with the invisible ones at the fringes of society, challenged, changed or disabled by mental health and addictions problems.

Most people in this field burn out between three and five years. There are many who continue, but not too many for twenty years or more. For some reason, my committment and caring deepened and a restless compassion still fills me. I am not special; those who help others are everwhere, often unknown. So I am just one of those unwilling to give up on what (or whom) I love most. I’m not sure it is even a choice.

So let me take you way back to 1994, back to that interview scene I awakened with, for it was very real…

 ******************

It has been months since I suffered the consequences of downsizing. I am desperate. Despite sending out countless resumes and ending a couple of interviews on a high note, my efforts have come to naught. I did not coplete my Bachelor degree but before I left Detroit I’d been a home care department manager for a human services program providing for three counties. My 350 primarily homebound clients included younger people who had suffered a variety traumatic brain injuries, as well as those with other disabilities. I hired and trained 150 employees. Yet here in Oregon I am scrambling. Everyone seems more qualified than am I, at the top of the heap.

So when money runs out and I study the requirements for a “Residential Care Facilitator”, it seems folly to respond. I have never worked with disturbed or addicted youth; I am not a therapist. They want someone who is sober, can monitor and assist at-risk youth and develop better programing. I am living a recovery lifestyle, have raised five children and manage to convey indirectly that I am not easily intimidated. I have experience developing programs and providing practical support to high risk populations.

Just not teenagers who have been homeless or incarcerated. Traumatized. Mandated to residential alcohol and drug treatment. They are bound to be enraged and depressed. What am I to them? I am part of the barrier in their thinking.

The interview goes well. The supervisor likes my varied experience and passion to be of service to others. I get the idea he is interested in hiring someone more mature, older than twenty-something. At forty-two, my competence has been tested and deemed solid. But this time I am a neophyte. He explains the majority of youth here for three to six months are gang-affiliated or gang-affected, prone to violence against themselves and others. Girls and boys, ages twelve to eighteen, are in separate dorms but share activities. All have become addicted to multiple drugs including alcohol. They bear scars of physical and emotional abuse. They have mental health diagnoses, serious abandonment issues. A challenging group to watch over much less teach, inspire, and point in a healthier direction.

They also need someone to coordinate field trips, create outside educational activities, plan enjoyable physical recreation. The clients must be driven to parks and A.A. meetings. They require monitoring at all times. I might assist the teacher in the alternative school teacher at times. All for little pay.

“So, what do you think?” he asks, eyes lit up.

What I think is that my smile is straining my facial muscles. My heart rate increases every time a kid screams at someone or I glimpse a sullen face outside our door. I regret not learning excellent office skills so I can work at a dentist office; it might be so much easier. I’d taken a donut shop counter job. But completing college would have been the best idea. Instead, I married my first husband and he finished his Masters while I had (well-loved) babies. I have to turn my life around, escape another failed relationship and avoid looming poverty. A more fulfilled life is a goal; while joy isn’t critical, I at times dream about it.

“If that’s an informal offer, my answer is ‘yes’,” I say, shaking his hand.

My extended family wonders if I am scared to work with these troubled kids. (Yes! But no one else will know that.) How will I pull it off? (By paying attention. Following instructions. Getting to know the clients.) My partner, not who I hoped, thinks any paycheck in my name would be good. He is right, always. He can make this painfully clear. Little does he know of my hidden agenda: moving out with my teen-aged son and daughter when I save money.

I shrug. “It’s not like I’ll be working in a reform school or jail. I’ve had difficult clients before.”

“Sure. Elderly and disabled,” my youngest child reminds me.

The first day I enter the girls’ unit there are a number of sneers and questions. Heads pop out of rooms and eyes try to stare me down. I know how to not blink and act brave. I try memorizing the unit’s rules and my duties but at the end of the day I feel as though I have left a “hot spot” where a fragile truce has been called. I make it out intact due to my helpful co-workers, all under thirty yet oddly jaded. When I get home I don’t want to talk. I want to sleep a dreamless sleep and wake up a professional.

For a long week I watch and am watched. Not primarily by my boss, but the clients. They assess me better than I do them, as their instincts are well-honed and street smarts prepare them for anything. I know I look like someone just out of a Junior League meeting with coordinated slacks and blouse, hair and lipstick just so. It’s the casual version of my old work attire. But it isn’t just that other employees wear jeans and t-shirts to blend in, like camouflage in the wilderness. These kids are savvy and know I am green, not just new. They’re looking for my soft spot, the weakness that will allow them to get extra attention or more dessert, a later “lights out” or a good word put in with their therapists. Someone they can make a partner in crime.

I figure all this out when my supervisor informs me on the fifth day that the reason A., a thirteen year old client, is so friendly and flattering is that she needs good reports in order to not be “discharged incomplete” which means locked down somewhere else. She has hit a dorm mate once and threatened staff. Duly noted.

I return home at almost midnight, sit on the back stoop and cry without sound. How can I do the work if caught between a passionate impulse to be of service to those in need and noxious fear of the unknown and possible assault? I resolve to give it two months. Thoughts of failure makes me feel I am teetering on a scary precipice. I pull myself back and grit my teeth. I must succeed.

What the clients do not know is that I am not all I seem at first glance, just as they are not. I have gotten through treacherous times. Have my own survival skills. A will that holds fast and a deep-rooted desire to be useful in the world. I am driven and have have discipline, both of which were instilled during a somewhat privileged life that was soon scored with pain and loss.

It takes a couple of weeks, but I begin to see that beneath scars, bravado and bad words are the longing to belong, a dim hope of kindness, and vulnerability they fight to protect. They have been abandoned, beaten, sexually abused, thrown out on the street, supplied drugs by their families, locked in closets and reform schools. Many have been in multiple foster homes and found not one bearable. Many of the teens have been diagnosed with mental health disorders and are medicated, with uneven results.

I find my place as the kids make room for me. I work every shift and overtime, including graveyard, for the money but also the experience. I am good at staying calm so group counselors include me to encourage safe, effective dynamics. The alternative school teacher needs help so I start a writing group. They learn there is more to language than they imagined and discover words for nebulous, confounding feelings. I watch them change. A good way to connect with them is to provide experiences that are different than most are used to. I coordinate a recreation program that includes visits to the ballet and the art museum as well as barbeques and badminton in parks. Another is to pay attention when they need someone to bear witness to dark secrets and fragile dreams, most of which have been too long unspoken.

Or is just holding steady, as when one beleaguered young woman, stands in silence as she fires an imaginary .22 at every car in the parking lot. And then at me. I freeze. Then hold out my hands to her. She drops her phantom weapon, grabs on. Later, much later, we laugh. I immortalize her in a poem and pray she stays alive. As I do every one.

Without fail the person who learns the most is me. Resilience comes from the human need to keep living. Strength for the weakened arises from being comforted amid suffering and learning how to reach back. Hope sparks when even one small event clarifies possibilities for a better life. Sheer survival can transform into flourishing. It is astounding to behold. The result is freedom to create a better life. In the end, love does what it can.

*******************

Was it really so hard to take that job when I didn’t think I could do it or even wanted it? Only in the beginning. I worked at that facility for almost five years. In between working hours I returned to college, became a certified alcohol and drug counselor, gained education in mental health counseling, and have served diverse populations. I discovered one of my callings–God offered me a chance I hadn’t expected–and it carried me along the next twenty years.

Can I leave it behind for good? I’m still uncertain. There are so many needs, some of which are mine. But I can share their stories, perhaps hold up lost ones and warriors with these words:

You are seen. Known. Remembered and honored by this woman.

Photograph by Joseph Szabo
Photograph by Joseph Szabo