Every Last Piece

Every Last Piece

Every Last Piece 1080 995 Henry Presente

I used to love optical illusions–the rabbit/duck head, the flower vase/two faces, all those pictures where one thing could be another–but now they haunt me.

This one especially:  imagine a bottle of Tide detergent.  Now attach two melted red Skittles near the top.  Hang some straw wrappers down around the cap.  Jam a ball of bubblegum on either side and stick a coffee stirrer into each one.

What do you see?

Me, all I saw was garbage, but my girl?  Eyes, hair, arms–she saw her dolly and she loved it.  “Belinda” she called it, and who knows where she got the name, but she brushed its hair with her fingers painfully slow so she wouldn’t rip the straw wrappers, cooed at this monster thing with its red candy eyes like it was a fairy princess.

Sometimes it was more than I could take.  Then I was grateful for the snow outside, because it was still pretty cold inside and that meant they let us keep our coats on, so I could hide my face in a sleeve and squeeze a few tears out–real quick because the place wasn’t safe enough for a real cry and I had to keep an eye on the girl playing with Belinda, had to listen to her gush about the prayer session just forced into our ears like it was the best cartoon she ever saw.  Left me wondering what kind of world a mother gives her daughter where trash is a toy and prayer is top entertainment.

Can you blame me for hating Belinda?

Eventually I put Etta to bed, waited for lights-out to sip whiskey until the room started spinning.  Suddenly I couldn’t tell if the light down the way was from the bathroom at home or the bathroom right here–finally an optical illusion working in my favor–and I started drifting off.  But then the gal a few beds down hissed at her invisible friend to shut up or get cut, and after that there was no mistaking where I was, no telling how long before I’d fall asleep.

So was it really my fault that I snored through the 6:30 a.m. wake-up?  That I mumbled something rude to the too-friendly gal with the stinky feet who tried to rouse me?  That I shoved Etta’s hand away when she shook my shoulder?  Forget that nice nonsense.

But the bullhorn announcing we had 5 minutes to clear out and if we were 1 minute late, then no bed tonight?  That got me on my feet, shuffling down to the bathroom and shouting at Etta to pack our things because the clock was ticking, my tonsils tasted like whiskey and mildew, and there was no telling how sick I was about to get.

By the time I returned, the girl had gotten barely nothing done with 30 seconds to go, so I just scooped our stuff into the duffel, grabbed her hand, and raced us out the door into the morning light, the sun so bright it brought up another mouthful of something I had to swallow down.

We were halfway to the rec center before I heard her crying.  When I looked down, the front of her coat was wet and I realized she’d been at it a while.

We’d left Belinda behind.  I’d left Belinda behind.  But there was nothing for it.

We got to the rec center and settled into the basement chairs by the ping pong table, watched the kids whack the ball around.  I tried to get hypnotized by the back and forth but they weren’t good enough to make the metronome, kept fumbling the ball and laughing about it, and then my phone charged up enough for me to check bank balances, which did nothing for my peace of mind, and Etta kept whimpering anyway, nonstop rocking back and forth and staring out the window.

“Will Belinda still be there tonight?” she said.

“Don’t know,” I said.

“Can we go see?”

“They won’t let us back in til 4.”

“Maybe someone put her in the laundry room again?” she asked, her brown eyes getting wide with hope.

“I know you’re not confusing that place with the motel the City put us in last month,” I said.  “It’s not cold enough this week for us to get the Travelodge treatment.  There’s no laundry room in the shelter for us.”

“Oh,” she said, her face falling apart.

“You love your doll so much, you sure are careless with it,” I said.

Etta bit her lip and her cheeks got pink.  She hugged herself so hard that I swore I could feel her fingers clamping on my own arms…  And then I looked down and realized those were my fingers, my nails cutting into my biceps, my insecurities turning me into an 8-year-old’s mirror.

“I’ll get us breakfast.  Don’t move,” I said and jabbed the air in front of her with a finger.

She nodded, looked back out the window.  I went to the elevator and hit the third floor, headed to where the vending machines were tucked away, had to wait for some kid too old to be wearing that hoodie drain a Coke and phone his girlfriend to beg time with her tonight.

I pretended to agonize between pretzels and cookies until his narrow face made space for a smile.  He was going to have a good night, winked at me as he walked away, raised his arm and slapped the EXIT sign in celebration.

Soon as he was gone, I grabbed the top of the vending machine and pulled, adrenaline making me too strong, almost hauled the thing on top of myself, almost ended up the punchline to a joke about how dumb people die, but I managed to get a foot back on the opposite wall and kicked off.  The machine slammed upright again and my face rattled against its plastic.  I tasted blood, tongued my teeth, felt one of them wiggle.

For my trouble:  two bags of Cheetos and a pack of Big Red, but there wasn’t time for another go–I could hear someone coming–so I stuffed them into a pocket and headed back to the elevator, walked past the front desk lady strolling over for a snack, deadpanned her when she smiled at me because I didn’t want to give her an eyeful of my bloody tooth.

But when I got downstairs, my lips peeled back and put the gore on display.  I rushed forward and pushed aside the friendly gal with the stinky feet who’d sidled up to Etta and was chatting away–because maybe she was more than just friendly, who’s to say?

“Leave her alone,” I said.

The woman’s smile froze and her gray braids shivered as she shook her head.  “No, no, please do not misunderstand,” she said.  “The girl was crying.  I was trying to calm her.”

“We don’t need your help,” I said.

“It seems she has misplaced her laundry doll,” she said, sweat beading around the dot on her forehead.  “Perhaps I know where another doll–”

“She doesn’t want another doll,” I said.  “You think I didn’t get her another doll?

“Yes, but the girl–”

“–will be fine,” I said and stepped forward to bump her belly with mine, gave her a close-up of bloody teeth.  She backed away, turned around.

I put a bag of Cheetos in each of Etta’s hands, helped her open them.  “Eat,” I said, and between those orange twists and the Big Red smacking between her lips for dessert, plus a turn at the water fountain where Etta discovered “now the water tastes like cinnamon too,” there was a string of six minutes, each one featuring a genuine smile.

After that, tossing those Cheeto bags in the trash felt wrong.  They looked like trophies–shiny and golden and reflecting my little girl’s light.  I couldn’t just leave them there, so I snatched them back.

But by the time I returned to Etta across the room, the illusion was over, the victory gone.  She was trembling about Belinda again, her orange teeth grinding.  I felt sick but couldn’t leave her alone with that weirdo around, so I grabbed her hand and rushed down the hall, but I wasn’t going to make it and ended up heaving into those Cheeto bags so I didn’t leave a trail of bile to the bathroom.

When I was done leaning over the toilet, Etta was looking at me sad and scared and–embarrassed?  Checking out the door every other second to see if someone else would walk in.

She was embarrassed?

I made her brush her teeth til her gums bled.  I scrubbed her armpits with paper towels so that it left pink streaks on her skin.  I kept at it until another girl her age walked in and she blushed all over.

Why was I being so unkind?

Nothing else to do, I wondered the afternoon away on that question, the hours skipping by in my distraction, conscious of the world only in a strobe of images:  a hard slap of a ping pong ball, Etta slumped over an armrest asleep, a boy in a Superman shirt chasing a Slim Jim-stealing dog.

It wasn’t until the clock hit 4, not til Etta had grabbed my hand, rushed us out the door, raced us down blocks of sidewalk chattering about Belinda the whole way–not until we were almost back at the shelter before it came to me why I’d been hard on her:  intake.  I was dreading intake and taking it out on her.

But if the shelter had last night’s records, couldn’t I skip it?

Good sign:  the security guard remembered us!  Waved us over with his clipboard and even opened the door for us, but then he was pointing at the front office.

“We did intake last night,” I protested, but he kept pointing with one hand, using the other to fend off some gal who was drunk and angry and making grabs for the door handle.

“You want a bed or not?” he snapped at me, so we went where we’d been told.

In the office, Etta and I stood staring at the preacher man, who was sitting behind a desk groaning under the weight of old paper and half-eaten salami sandwiches, the meat going green under the fluorescent lights.  He blinked his cow eyes at us.

“Lorna, right?” he said, shuffling some paper.  “I never forget a name,” he congratulated himself.  “Let’s get the paperwork done.”

“I already did it with that girl yesterday,” I said.  “Patricia.”

“Patty’s out today.  Didn’t even call in.  And I have no idea where she put the form, so let’s just honor the process.”

“But preacher–” I said.

“Pastor Rodman,” he corrected me.  “Listen Lorna, I’ve got a lot to do and zero time.  Without these forms, we won’t get federal assistance for your stay and that makes it harder for us to help, okay?”

So he forced me to put on a repeat performance… name, last address, no substance abuse issues, just a general hard-luck story full of medical bills and relationship problems, but he pressed me on that just like Patricia had, and I gulped hard and stuttered about how Earnest’s abuse had become physical, how scared I was, no family and no place to go, how much we needed their help.  And the Pastor nodded and checked the boxes, said we’d found a safe place, should hit the showers, claim our beds.

Walking down the hallway holding hands, Etta looked up at me.  “Now can we see if Belinda is still here?” she asked.

“House rules:  we have to shower first,” I said, putting a pout on her face.  “You know Etta,” I said, “Your father never yelled or hit me.  I hate saying those things, but I had to be sure they wouldn’t turn us away.”

She kept walking.

“You hear me?” I said and shook her hand.  “Only thing your father ever did wrong was buy you too many toys.”

Even with the rent coming due.  Even when he should have been facing reality at a doctor’s office instead of dodging it down toy store aisles.

Etta looked up and took me in with her soft baby browns.  For a second I thought a smile was coming, but her lips–those full flapjacks she’d inherited from Earnest–didn’t move.  Impossible to know if she was remembering her daddy’s warmth or transforming the lies I’d told the Pastor into awful, new memories.

Was I trading something pure and good for a pastry and a pillow?

We spent the required time in the showers and I tried to go blank, but there were too many bodies banging about, too many soaps skimming off too much filth, endless coughing, buckets of phlegm.  Despite the effort, I ended up looking around and thinking how unfair it all was:  I had nothing in common with these people, I was too smart, too white, my parents had loved me, I could play the piano, I even knew how to tango… fueled by spite, I once again listed the facts for a God who loved to ignore them.

After we dried off and put on the standard issue sweatsuit, Etta sprinted to the dorm to check under our beds from last night, search the other cots, look in trash cans, talk to people–the staff who shrugged at her and the homeless who mostly ignored her, though a few cracked shy smiles to soften the news that they hadn’t seen Belinda, including the friendly, stinky-feet woman, who reached out to pat Etta’s shoulder but pulled her hand back when she saw me watching.

A full hour of frenzied search, but fruitless, and Etta slowed to a stop.  She dropped onto her bed, body quivering, heaving deep sobs into the paper mattress.  She wouldn’t look up, howled in agony when I touched her arm.  I’d never seen her like that before.

My empty stomach flipped inside out.  My vision filled with spots and my head got light.  I put my hands on my knees and gasped, staggered, barely caught myself before falling.

Using my arm like a cane, I hobbled across the wall toward the stinky-feet woman, who avoided looking at me at first, but then bolted over, put a steadying hand on my arm.

“Watch her, please,” I said, and then I was lurching down the hall, the wrong hall, no bathroom this way but no fighting the momentum, and suddenly I was in a small room with lots of chairs, most of them empty, and I collapsed into one, fought to slow my breath.

A heavy battle against myself, a hard campaign, a war… eventually won.  After who knows how long, the world reoriented right side up.

I wiped the sweat off my brow with a soaking sleeve, noticed the pawn shop pulpit at the front of the room, heard the assistant shelter manager practicing her preacher act to a dozen nodding heads.  I’d stumbled into the early prayer session, which was optional–unlike Pastor Rodman’s dinner show.  The gal was deep into the Bible story about Jesus healing the ten lepers, how important gratitude was.

“Be thankful for you are indebted to the Lord!” she roared, but it was no good because my senses had come back, and last I checked the Lord had extended me no credit, unlike the banks that had drained me dry, and I knew that Bible story besides, felt like screaming back “even the ungrateful lepers got healed but every last piece of me is falling off!”, but I kept my mouth shut.

When she was done and everyone had shuffled out, fear spiked through me.  I ran back to the dorm, prepared to rip open Heaven and Earth to find Etta, but she was right where I’d left her on the bed, sitting upright now, the friendly, stinky-feet gal behind her and braiding her hair.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“I’m getting braids,” Etta said, sad salt crusted around her eyes.

“Thank you,” I said to the Indian woman.  “You okay?” I asked Etta.

“Yes,” Etta said.  “Belinda’s gone but Mari said that she’ll come back.  So it’s sad, but it’s okay.”

I looked at Mari confused.

“I am Hindu,” Mari said.  “We believe in reincarnation.  I explained that even if Belinda has passed on from her current form, she will be born anew.”  Mari took a hand off Etta’s hair to point toward the corner of the room, then returned to the hair-braiding.

There was a trashcan where she’d pointed–a big, green, perplexing trashcan that made absolutely no sense, and no matter how grateful I was, I was also exhausted and disgusted, and I was about to turn back and ask Mari what the hell kind of nonsense she was putting in my daughter’s head, but then I realized it wasn’t the garbage she’d been pointing at.

Behind the trashcan, there was something that scrambled my mind.  An optical illusion so unexpected that it sucked the air from my lungs.  A small blue bin overflowing with plastic bottles and take-out containers, but here’s the thing:  although the recycling bin was dripping oil and downright filthy, it also looked–I don’t know–no other way to put it I guess–nice.

Header photography © Hananah Zaheer.

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