There was a place that Mary slept often, especially when it was raining or snowing. She decided to sleep there tonight and quietly shuffled her small frame up the metal grated stairs of the building with the green awnings and walked down to the end of the building where there was a dimly lit corner up against the concrete railroad bridge. It was slightly hidden from the steady traffic on the busy one-way street out front. She lay her pack down under the area that was protected by most of the rain and she begun setting up her home for the night.
She laid a dirty, ripped up yoga mat down on the concrete and pulled out a ragged blanket, an old flimsy photograph and a sketch pad and a pen. Huddled in the corner, the thin blanket covering her, she listened to the rain hit the awning, thinking about her kids. Emma and Ethan had been in foster care for over four years. The thought that they had been kept together gave her some comfort. They were six now. She had pretty much given up on the idea of ever being with them full time again. They were better off without her anyway. And the supervised visits that her state advocate setup were getting more and more painful for all of them. They were growing up without her and that was probably for the best. She couldn’t provide for them and to see the light of hope and love that once filled their eyes when they saw her being overtaken more and more by fear and disgust had become almost unbearable to Mary. She had been thinking lately that it might be best for everyone if she stopped the visits.
She pulled out a little glass pipe from her pack and stared at it for a bit then set it next to her and reached in for her book. It contained photographs of animals of the arctic. She flipped through the book, glancing at the pipe every so often. It took over, the pipe. She was always aware of it. There was no denying that IT was the master over her.
She picked up the picture and gazed at herself holding Emily and Ethan as brand new babies. Six years had grown her babies into lovely little people. She on the other hand had lost her youth, her beauty and her soul all for the sake of inhaling smoky sin from a glass pipe. Her silky auburn curls and smooth soft skin had been replaced with smelly, stubby dreadlocks, scabs and scars. The bright, smiling white teeth in the picture replaced with a hardened decaying scowl.
Were one to truly see Mary and not pass her by in either disgust or disinterest, they would see that her molasses eyes still contained an inkling of hope; that they still saw interesting things everywhere she looked, causing a whisper of love for life to stroke her heart from time to time, especially during those brief days right at the beginning of withdrawal before her brain and body began to feel the desperation and total desolation that came from the knowledge that the cycle would more than likely continue until she died from her addiction.
If one didn’t see this in her eyes, they would see hope in her drawings. Her thick sketch pad contained pictures of her children at different ages. They were soft and warm, despite being mostly drawn with a ballpoint pen. There were scenes from the street: some violent and cold, others joyful, like a drawing of an old man of Native American ethnicity, every beautiful line in his face telling of wisdom and the knowledge of pain and joy. There were sketches of animals from her big photography book that proved she had an eye for form and a deep longing to experience these animals in person.
She flipped through the sketches. There were no blank pages left. She had filled the thick book on the front and back of every page. She had no means to express her longings. No means to distract herself from the pipe.
Glancing at the door to the office she was sitting closest to, she pondered the lock box on the door handle. There was probably a key to the door in that coded box. She’d tried numerous times over the last few years to discover the four digit code but had yet to be successful.The tenant probably changed the code often anyway. She stood up and examined the handle. It was attached to the metal door by one screw. Reaching into to her pack she found a small screwdriver that had multiple attachments. Finding the right size she worked at getting the handle to come partially off. After several minutes of forcing the tight screw she successfully pulled the lock box off the handle and then screwed the handle back onto the door.
Sitting down on her mat she tried possible codes, glancing every so often at the pipe. The pull was getting so strong and her mind was getting foggy and angry. And it was getting colder, her hands becoming numb making it hard to move the little numbers. It would just be so nice to go inside where she could get warm for just a minute or two.
There was another fifteen minutes of frustration until on a whim she entered her twins’ birthdate: 0619 and like a miracle, the compartment containing the key opened. Her heart was pounding as she glanced around to see if anyone was around. There was no one. Standing up she grabbed her pack put the lock box in it before putting it on her shoulders and entering the office. On the other side of the door was another key on a red long string with a noisy bell at the end. She pulled it out of the lock and placed it in her pack. She put the key from the lock box in her pocket and turned on the light, slowly walking into the office space, past some desks and chairs that must have been for display because they had nothing on them.
She entered into the larger part of the room and immediately saw there was a bathroom. After relieving herself in the toilet she washed her grubby hands and face with warm water and soap and then placed the liquid soap container into her pack. She sifted through the basket that contained a blow dryer and a toothbrush. She put the toothbrush in her pack along with a half tube of toothpaste. Then she noticed a little green swan made from a dollar bill. Origami. She threw it in her pack along with some toilet paper.
Out in the main area she went to the table where there was an entire green ceramic container FULL of pens. She dumped them into her pack and looked down with absolute delight to see a box filled with pads of paper. She took them all and quickly emptied a bowl of candy into her pack as well. There was a personal check on the table for $200 and she put it in her pocket thinking she might be able to sell it to someone who would know what to do with it. She pulled all the books and papers out of the container on the table and sifted through them finding nothing of interest.
She walked slowly up the stairs. They creaked loudly and it spooked her. There was a small couch. She sat on it for a minute, looking around the small area. There wasn’t much up here. She overturned all of the drawers from the small desk and the plastic bins stacked under a big table, feeling a little panicked, not sure what she was looking for. She found a few more pens and pads of paper and some chapstick, but knew she probably shouldn’t stay up here too long. It felt enclosed and unsafe. She lay down just for a moment on the small couch, savoring what it felt like to be comfortable, but then stood up and turned it upside down to see if there was anything useful under or behind it. Nothing. She crept back down the stairs and saw a purple U of W blanket on a shelf at the foot of the stairs and grabbed it, throwing it across her shoulders, heading back to the main area.
Intending to leave she headed for the door but stopped to look at a couple of pictures of children on the wall. In one picture there were six of them, all smiling big, looking happy. It made her feel sad. She did not have a single photograph of her children except the one she had been looking at earlier and the sketches she’d made from the memory of her visits. She felt a flash of anger at this person she did not know and the children who clearly had at least one parent to love them steadily. Had she had better circumstances, her life might have ended up more like this person’s. Instead one rough, crappy thing after another led her down a brutal path to now. And she would NEVER work in a place like this. She would NEVER take pictures of her grinning children. She would NEVER be able to give them anything.
But then her eyes were drawn to the items sitting on the shelf next to the pictures. Two big, green plastic “Incredible Hulk” hands and a small jewelry box that had a colorful, gold, butterfly on the lid. She opened it up and found a rock that said “PEACE” on it and a sobriety coin that had the Serenity Prayer engraved on it. She’d seen these coins handed out at a couple of the meetings she’d been forced to attend in attempt to get her kids back. This was at the beginning when she had held more hope, more belief that you could change your life once you smoked meth.
Something flickered in her heart. She placed the peace rock and the coin in her pocket and gently wrapped the jewelry box in a pair of dirty socks from her pack and then placed it inside of one of the Hulk Hands. She pushed both of the green hands in her now very full pack and walked out the door.
Mary stopped briefly to look at where she had been sitting. The glass pipe was still there. She’d left it to go inside. Taking a deep breath, she kicked the pipe off the edge where it shattered on to the concrete twenty or so feet below. Hearing the sound of breaking glass made her heart feel like it was going to explode from need for what she had just tossed away. She picked up the sketch book and the photograph and put them hin her pack. Reaching for the animal book, she intended to do the same but instead propped it against the building wall next to her mat and ragged blanket. Taking one last look at where she had spent many of her evenings over the last four years, she stood up and walked away, her stride holding more purpose than when she’d arrived.
Emma and Ethan stared at the lady from the state glancing out the window fearfully to see if their mother was out there somewhere. “Your mom didn’t come today. She has decided to try really hard to get some help so that she can get back to her real self and maybe see you both more. But she wanted me to give you these. She handed the Hulk Hands to Ethan and the butterfly jewelry box to Emma. They held their gifts gently in their hands, turning them over and over as though they could somehow see their mother in them. “She is going to give it her best shot you guys.” Gazing at these strong and proud children who had their mother’s eyes, the woman saw a flash of hope that hadn’t been there before. Time would tell.
On Monday morning the tenant of the space spoke with the police officer sent to look at the mess that had been left. “It’s upsetting, yes. And I was kind of spooked. But there wasn’t really anything of great dollar value taken. They are just things, so really I shouldn’t be thrown so off base by this. The person who’d written me the check has canceled it, so that’s all taken care of. But I feel sad over the origami swan: someone special made that for me. And the Hulk Hands and the Jewelry Box, they were given to me by a couple of my children. My mom’s sobriety coin, well it was important because for a while there she had hope. Hope keeps us going, yes? Who ever was here, took interesting things. And they left a book of wonderful animal photographs. So that makes THEM interesting to ME. Maybe my things have given them a little bit of hope. I’m going to wish for that.”
So if you believe, like I do, that the narrative we create around an event shapes it, and more than justifying or rationalizing reality, the storyline defines it…there is such joy in this piece. On a side note…you can pick up a coin at the alano club, go to an open meeting, tell your story and pass the coin around if you want. Good stuff!
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Thank you, thank you, for seeing what I was trying to do with this piece. I needed this! And great idea about hitting an open meeting. For a bunch of different reasons. So appreciate your comments. Fuel.
That is a very touching story. Well written. It’s easy to condemn, and far more difficult to seek to understand, but a road better travelled. Keep up the posts!
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Wow, Heather. So sorry to hear this happened. You have an amazing attitude about it all though. Your creative writing & your imagination shine with this writing. I knew what the end was going to be. Green awning & key box…I knew it was your studio. You have a big heart!
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