Today was a bit of a wash. I needed to sit down and work on assignments, or my own writing, but because of some insomnia, I didn’t get to sleep until late and I didn’t wake up until late. Early afternoon, I was ready to sit down and work right after I finished doing some dishes. But before I could fill up the sink, my dog started going nuts. Someone was at the door. Living in the same town as my folks means the occasional drop in visit. They can happen at any moment. I’ve tried to get them to call or text first, but I can hardly get my mom to keep her phone charged, much less keep it with her sometimes.
I looked outside and a woman was walking down the sidewalk. I opened the door and she came back. She was medium height, thin, dragging a purse with her. Her hair was black with a white streak–messy and tangled. She wore a heavy coat and ratty sweat pants, canvas slip on shoes.
She said, “Sorry to bother you. I’m cold. Can I come inside and get warm?” It was then that I noticed she was pale, her hands were shaking. Her teeth chattering. I was about to suggest she go down the street to one of the businesses that were open. It had snowed recently and the wind coming out of the west was bone-chillingly cold.
I invited her inside and asked her to take a seat in my living room as I turned up the heat. I remember very well what people look like who are going into hypothermia from my days as a Boy Scout. I offered her a cup of tea, and she accepted gratefully. She explained that sometimes she has siezures.
She told me her name was L and she was on her way to take her husband his wallet. He was currently in the town jail. But she couldn’t say why. Not as in she wasn’t going to tell me, no, she honestly didn’t know why. Because of her siezures, she said that she had problems remembering things. She carried in her purse a composition book. Its pages were warped and wrinkled from water damage and a lot of use. In the notebook, she had written all sorts of pieces of information. Little notes to herself. Important dates to remember, things she loved about her husband, W. A list of her favorite songs. She read some of these to me. Lots of Don Williams, country from the 80s and earlier. She seemed…off. Speaking of herself in the third person. I couldn’t help but notice a wound on her forehead that was black. My dog kept licking her hands, begging for attention, but always back to the hands. Her right hand she kept closed, and when she opened it, I could see a big purple knot on the back of it. She said she had hurt it, falling during a recent siezure. She was taking keppra. 3,000 mg per day, but had dropped down to 2,000.
Years ago, L had a TBI that had resulted in constant siezures. I could tell she had some sort of permanent brain damage, just from how she talked and how she couldn’t remember from moment to moment: Penny’s name (which she wrote down in her book), even the name of the town, which was a header in the book with a date. They had been living in a camper across the street for a few weeks, having filled her prescription in Craig, camped in the Walmart parking lot in Laramie for a few weeks, and a stay at Ivinson hospital where she says “They saved my life” there. She didn’t say how. Unless she had written it down, I doubt she remembered.
They had been living on the road for a while. She called the camper “home.” Because her husband was in jail, she didn’t know how to turn on the heat or the generator. She had it written down to take him his wallet, and a note from the Sheriff explained that he wouldn’t be coming back for a few days. From the sounds of it, unless W could post bond, he was there until at least November. Another note written on a yellow card from a parole office said “October 27. Don’t be late.”
These folks were living the van life, but the darker side of it. They had no money, and from the sounds of it, they took turns winding up in jail in towns along the way. W had written a note which she kept in her book. It read, “No more jail! For either of us!” She didn’t seem to be a drinker or on any drugs other than her medication. Just two lost souls on the open road, bumping from place to place…passing time.
I let her know I needed to work today and I hated to send her back out, but I offered her another cup of tea. She had stopped shivering and seemed better. The color had returned to her face. She was no longer grey. At the time, I thought of the risk I was taking inviting a stranger into my house, but this stranger was on the verge of freezing to death. I outweighed her by probably 70 pounds. I know where my weapons are stashed in my house, and I had my knife close at hand. I texted my friend Tiffani, telling her quickly what was going on. Of course, she wondered what the hell I was thinking. So I kept her updated as L hung out and drank her second cup of tea. L said Penny’s eyes were “truthful.”
I’ve heard a saying that we should be kind to strangers in need, because angels are among us. Then I thought of how we shouldn’t invite vampires into our houses too. The two thoughts mixed about as well as oil and water. I told L where she could find the jail so she could bring W his wallet. She would have gone in the complete opposite direction. She asked if she should visit him today, and I told her she should. He probably didn’t know where she was and it would have made him feel better. I considered the bruise on her head and her obviously broken hand, but the notes from the police said nothing about restraining orders or staying away from W. She didn’t seem to be afraid of him, but her notes in her book about how he was her true love were jarring. Almost insistent. I can’t say, really. I’m just someone whose life intersected hers briefly.
They both just seemed like they were lost, making their way across the country, finding themselves in new places, with L unable to remember most of it. The thought of that scares the hell out of me. It’s one of my worst fears. Without being able to remember things, I wonder what the point of experiencing them is. Every moment bleeds into the next. Something fires and you know you’ve been there or done it, but did you really? The notebook remembers it, I guess, but you don’t.
I do believe that home isn’t where you live, but where you are safe. Sometimes we find a home in another person. Sometimes a place. There are a few times in my life I have felt at “home.” A few when it was a person who made me feel like I was home. And a few where it was a place. Right now, I feel very much like I am drifting, but the idea of living how L and W do…it’s not romantic. It feels desperate. They are surviving. Blown about by every wind. Connecting the dots between parking lots and pharmacies. No family to call to post bail. Nobody to even turn on the generator on a night below freezing. Having to write down your favorite songs because otherwise you didn’t know them. Writing down your spouse’s name and date of birth so you know it for the next time you have to see him in jail.
As Penny begged for pets from this stranger in the house, L told me about a cat they had for a while. How they got it a litter box and a bed and how W didn’t like it sitting in his chair. She said one day the cat just never came back. She couldn’t remember what she had named it.
As much as I would like to see the country and travel around in a van, I wouldn’t want to live like that. I guess there is a difference between living in a van for adventure, and living in one because you are aimless. All who wander aren’t lost. But some are lost. Some live on the fringe, because polite society has branded them, they have worn too many orange pajamas and been told when to eat, when to move, when to sleep, when to shit. They drift because they are tired of being told what to do. But they don’t even know what comes next. It’s just running until you can’t run anymore.
Before going, L asked if she could have a hug. I gave her one. She said she figured I would either help her out or send her away to the cold. She said I was a good person, that I was kind. I told her I’m trying. L finally left and I watched as she veered away from the straight line to the courthouse and the jail, back to the camper. I’ve looked outside a few times tonight. There are no lights on. No signs of life.
The reason I say “I’m trying” is because the whole time I wasn’t comfortable having a stranger with problems like this in my house. Wondering the whole time if they are casing my house to rob it later. I didn’t feel like a gracious host to angels in disguise, but more someone who offered tea and a place to sit in front of the fire to someone because I didn’t want to be the reason she froze to death. I can’t say that is really a “good person” kind of thing to do.
There are times I try to do things a good person would do, and there are times I would rather shut myself away from everyone because people only bring pain. They only take. They just use you. Sometimes it feels lonely to try to give back. You keep asking yourself “What’s the catch?”
I didn’t get a lot of writing done, but I guess today gave me a lot to think about.