Ingrid awoke in the pre-dawn mist. She turned over, her bones bruising against the damp concrete. The coffee shop would open soon and she couldn’t face its customers.
She rolled up her sleeping bag and heard a familiar voice behind her. “Mrs. H—good morning! Come in and keep me company for a few minutes while I set up shop.”
Ingrid almost smiled. She finished packing up her cart and made her way inside. Billy slid a cappuccino across the varnished wood counter. “Test this one and let me know if it’s ok. I cleaned the machines but sometimes the oils are resistant.”
She closed her eyes as she savored the bitter and the sweet. Inhaling deeply the bold richness, she was back on her balcony. Her wrought-iron chairs with the velvet cushions and the little matching table for her coffee cup and books. The candle pillars in one corner and the garden in the other. She lingered until she couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Billy, it’s heaven.” He seemed pleased with this assessment as he went about his tasks. She waited until he’d gone out back to quietly let herself out.
She pulled her cart down to the railroad tracks and watched the sun climb the horizon. For these few moments the world stood still and she was normal; just another being. When she estimated that the community breakfast would start in an hour or so, Ingrid turned and started the trek eleven blocks east.
An amplifier blared through the quiet streets and Ingrid pulled her hat low over her eyes. The tour bus announcer’s tinny voice grated against her ears. “This is the notorious area that I mentioned earlier. Take care that you don’t find yourselves in this part of town on your own.” Tourists gawked, pointed and aimed cameras at the makeshift tents, cardboard-littered entrance-ways and sleeping humans strewn about.
At the side entrance of the mission, Ingrid placed her cart with the other shopping carts, suitcases and assorted bags. Then she made herself stand in line. Her hunger pains had finally overpowered her humiliation.
The volunteers manning the buffet warmers scooped scrambled eggs and asked if she wanted sausage and potato mash. She’d been vegetarian. Before. She supposed that no longer mattered, so she nodded. Then she hesitated to take the plate from the man’s outstretched hand.
“Fine-looking woman,” he thought, surprising himself. She could have been pretty. What a shame. His hand accidentally brushed hers as she finally took the plate. The pity in his eyes extinguished the last of the light in hers.
Sissy dug through the donation bin. The Rolling Stones! She pulled out a faded denim jacket covered in pins and patches. Slipping it over her art-therapy painted tank top, she posed in front of the mirror. “Lookin’ good, girl!” She shimmied and blew kisses to her reflection.
Her new room was better than anywhere she’d ever lived. She had everything ‘cept her friends. If she left, though, she’d lose her place on the lists. She’d go see Colleen. Maybe she could fix things. Sissy sang to herself as she packed her duffle bag, hoping she’d be able to stay over there a while.
“Are you sure you want to come back here? People usually want something more stable.” And clean, safe, functional, fit for humans…Colleen sighed. She wasn’t surprised that Sissy hadn’t adjusted; it looked like she could still be using. Sometimes the street didn’t let go of people. Or was it the other way around?
“Can I stay here tonight?” Sissy asked hopefully.
“If there’s room left when the doors are locked at 10:00 p.m..” Colleen could probably find someone to trade places with Sissy tonight. That would be overstepping bounds, but the alternative meant waiting until she was kicked out.
“Thanks, C!” Sissy unpacked and arranged her shower basket. How much longer until she could use her new soap? AJ had given it to her along with a sparkly scarf. She better not tell Colleen; she wasn’t s’posed to ‘sociate with him.
Ingrid stepped cautiously into the shower stall locking the door behind her. A scurrying shadow made her cringe and she choked back her revulsion as she smashed it flat. She quickly flooded it down the drain. She tried not to touch anything as she adjusted the water temperature.
Standing motionless, Ingrid let the water scald her back. Focus. Breathe. Relax. One muscle at a time. She imagined that she was back at yoga class. The clean tranquil room.
Sudden yelling and banging on the metal door jarred her brain. A few moments of calm scattered across the days was the best she could hope for now, wasn’t it? She was always a step away from a hurricane. Violence, drug-fuelled rage, theft, rodents. Then there was the endless marching of the bugs.
The steam enveloped her. Suspended. Silent. Suddenly, her chest heaved painfully. She had no more tears.
“You been in there long enough! People is waitin’!” Sissy banged on the metal door. No response. She stomped to the desk where Colleen was doodling on the crossword.
“That old woman been in there over a hour!”
“Sissy, she’s younger than you.” Colleen tried not to tease her, but when she acted this way she couldn’t resist.
“Everyone got to follow the rules!”
“Sissy, if it seems like a long time then it’s because she really needs that hot shower.” She would have to issue a warning to ban Sissy from the showers if she continued with her confrontations.
“So do I!”
“What about your new place? You can shower anytime you want.”
“But I like it here.”
“And we like having you.” Colleen smiled. “It also means that Ingrid has priority at this facility.”
“You know, Ingrid is new around here.” Colleen pointed to the cafeteria menu, remembering Sissy’s favorite. “Maybe she likes fried rice too.” Trying to impart life skills and social skills was an ongoing challenge. More often than not, these days, Colleen wondered whether it made any difference.
A thud echoed from the shower stall. In an instant Colleen was pounding on the door. Using her master key, she held her breath as she unlocked the door. Blood trickled down the wall. “Call an ambulance!” She yelled at a security guard. Ingrid lay crumpled on the concrete. “Now!”
“Why would she do this?” Sissy wailed, peering over Colleen’s shoulder. The blood from Ingrid’s wrists turned the water crimson. Colleen shut off the taps and knelt at her side. She searched for a pulse. She was breathing.
“I don’t know.” Colleen had seen it too many times and still didn’t have answers. “At the right moment it could be any of us, couldn’t it?” Another security guard brought over two first aid kits.
“Aw hell no, not me!”
“Sissy, remember your compassion.” Colleen elevated and wrapped Ingrid’s wrists with gauze from the kits. “Ingrid’s troubles were too big for her to bear tonight.”
“I’m sorry!” Sissy cried. What if it was her fault? “I shoulda been nicer.” She retrieved the red and yellow package from her shower basket.
“For you, for when you come back.” She closed Ingrid’s hand around the cellophane wrapping. She had to stay alive and come back now. Right?
She turned to Colleen who was covering Ingrid with a blanket. “It’s some kinda fancy soap. Lily of the Valley they said at the church.”
The EMTs were concerned about head trauma. “Do you have any medical information for her? Is there a DNR in place?” Stan knew that the hospital may not be able to obtain a complete medical history quickly enough.
They loaded Ingrid into the ambulance and Sissy tried to climb in. “Ma’am, you’ll have to meet your friend at the hospital.”
“You sayin’ cause she homeless that she got to die alone!” Sissy yelled.
“Ma’am, she’s not going to die and you can’t ride in the ambulance with her.” Why didn’t this woman understand that there was no time for this spectacle.
“Cause I’m homeless? You discriminatin’ me cause I’m homeless!”
“Just get in.” Stan rolled his eyes at Micah. “Try to be quiet, ok?”
At the hospital, Micah stopped at the nurse’s station. “No indication of drug use. The shelter didn’t have any more information.”
Sissy made a call from the pay phone by the entrance. “Baby, I need a boost.” AJ would meet her in the parking lot in twenty minutes.
Get the rock off my head! She struggled under its crushing weight. Slowly, Ingrid’s eyes focused in the dim light. She was in a bed. Somewhere. The sheets smelled faintly of bleach. Then she saw the tubes taped to her skin. She groaned as she remembered. What had gone wrong?
“Hey, welcome back.” Sissy leaned forward in her bedside chair. Ingrid stared at her blankly.
“I’m from the shelter. I’m the one that wasn’t so nice to you. Sorry ’bout that.”
Ingrid closed her eyes and her jumbled thoughts came out a hoarse whisper. Then her fingers grazed the cellophane. “You gave me this. What is it?”
“It’s for your next shower. You can stay in there until that soap’s all gone if you want.” She wouldn’t let nobody give her a hard time.
Ingrid started to say something, then laughed as tears streamed down her cheeks and her whole body ached.