I have been sober for five days and sixteen hours and the tank is almost empty and my daughter stopped talking to me forty miles ago, staring out the passenger window with her one good eye. Tomorrow is her thirteenth birthday. My veins are empty and creaking with want.
The last shelter was Christian and staffed with withered ghosts who pursed their lips and whispered us into chapel with all the other women. Curfew was at nine and the rules were posted over every bed on torn and stained pieces of paper: No weapons no threats no drugs or alcohol no running no loud noises no joy or hope for the future you will clean up after your children we will ask you to leave at any time for noncompliance chapel is mandatory at seven on Mondays Wednesdays Fridays and noon Sundays.
Ruthie in the bunk next to us smuggled pints of Old Granddad under her coat sleeves and sometimes pissed herself in the middle of the night. Her body was covered in new and aging bruises and I surprised her once trying to pick our locker’s padlock with the edge of a credit card, probably not hers. Fuck off, Ruthie, I said, and pushed her, and she collapsed into a pile. The shelter gave us twenty-four hours to leave and I said We were on our way out of this shithole anyway, and so they shortened it to six. We’re fast packers. Lucky thing. Earl was not surprised to see us. Look who come crawling back. Ugly little cunt just can’t get enough.
These days Earl is the best I can do. You wouldn’t guess it to look at me now, crank-skinny and hollow-eyed, but I used to be pretty, almost as pretty as my daughter, who is so beautiful as to be nearly luminous. Even the ragged cerulean hair and metal posts through her eyebrow, the black lipstick, even the tattered cormorant madness of her clothes is not enough to tuck away her loveliness. Even the tremendous and fearsome scowl she has worn since Chehalis, the fury that radiates outward from her in tangible waves. She is wearing a sleeveless black shirt covered in patches and I can see clearly the mess of white scars laddered up her forearms. My daughter is not stupid and any Ophelia knows true shufflers off this mortal coil cut lengthwise, not across. Her deathwish’s not in earnest yet, just a little stab. Testing the waters. I’m in no position to point fingers. The shelter before the last shelter told me my daughter was in immediate need of counseling, as if the precarious state of my daughter’s mental health would somehow come to me as a surprise, as if I would say, My daughter is unhappy? How great a shock is this! I had just gotten out of the hospital, this was Michael before Earl, and was feeling somewhat poorly myself, and sometimes in the very darkest hour of the night the haze of drugs would lift from me and I would see my own life unspooling into the darkness as a long and empty road not much worth walking. Though I’ll never tell her it was my daughter’s face would come to me then, reminding me to stay alive. I do not like to think how many times my daughter has found me on couches or in alleys and brought me home. Home such as it was.
You’ll have to start talking to me at some point, I say. We’re running out of gas.
Not my problem.
It will be when we have to walk.
It is starting to rain and the car is growing colder. The last time the heat worked in this car was probably when I was in diapers. I can see my breath against the splitting black plastic of the dashboard, the empty hole where the stereo used to be. I hadn’t planned on stealing Earl’s car, nor was it wise to do so. As soon as he gets home from work he’ll know what happened, he’ll call the police, he’ll track us down. His malice has grown exponentially over the last years, the inventiveness of his cruelty; who knew that such a bovine and mediocre mind was capable of such operatic heights of creation? Earl took to hitting where it wouldn’t leave bruises and when the police arrived and found me breathless and hysterical, high as a kite, throwing dishes, and Earl cool and charming, it was always me who’d spend my nights in jail. My daughter, bless her heart, wasn’t much of a character witness.
I told you already, she says. I didn’t want to leave. I don’t want to go to another fucking shelter. Earl’s an asshole but he’s not that bad. You can get a job. We can save up for a different apartment.
I can get a job in Portland. We can get a different apartment there.
I don’t want to stay in a fucking shelter! I didn’t want to change schools! I didn’t ask for this! You’re supposed to act like a parent!
How does a parent act?
Not like a fucking crackhead!
We both lapse back into a silence which grows weightier by the second. I am sober now and so I cannot reach forward to the glove compartment because there will be nothing there but dirty paper napkins and maps of states I’ve never seen, there will be no little baggie, no relief, no quick sweet trip out of here. I’d settle for a fifth but even that’s off limits. My daughter is making the face she makes when she is refusing to cry, a screwed-up nightmare of a face, the mottled technicolor of her black eye making her look even more ghoulish. It was the first time Earl ever hit her, I swear, and I got us out of there, didn’t I, I got us out as soon as he left for work in the morning. It didn’t matter so much when Earl was only going after me. That’s what you trade sometimes for sheets on the bed you lie in. The shelter in Portland is holding a space for us, which is lucky and rare. I told them Earl was going to kill us, which may in fact be true; I’ve never stolen his car before. I watched the familiar arc of his fist descending and wasn’t I surprised when it met my daughter’s face, not mine, and wasn’t Earl a little surprised too, and pleased with himself. Earl’s not a long-term thinker. It didn’t occur to him the kinds of questions that might get asked later, when Sunny showed up at school with the results of his efforts purpled across half her face. I lost Sunny once before, when she was three and the state of Washington found me unfit to parent. In all fairness, I was. That was when I was dealing. They sent me to rehab but it didn’t take. With my daughter gone I had nothing left at all, I was like the walking dead, empty of hope or any kind of idea about the future. A year later I got her back and she was a mean-spirited and unrecognizable stranger, cried when I touched her, hid from me for months. She says she doesn’t remember it and maybe that’s true. I don’t know. She was young. But not that young.
Sunny, Sunny, I singsong finally, I know you hate me, I know you do. But this time it’s for real. Things’ll be different. I’m not gonna use anymore.
I’ve heard that so many times. She isn’t crying yet but she’s close.
I know. I know. This is for real. The shelter’s just for a couple of weeks until we can get a place to live.
She’s scowling but the charge in the air is lessening. I am winnowing my way in. We’re a team, us against the world, me and my girl. I always kept her safe, even in the darkest times. There was always someone to look after her, someone sober enough to make sure she ate and got her diapers changed. Always or close enough. Dear Jesus, I think, Dear lamb of God, you have done very little for me in this lifetime, so maybe can you make this tank hold out until it gets me where I need to go.
I’ve given Sunny the piece of paper with directions. The gas station in Northeast Portland is easy enough to find, a couple of blocks off the freeway exit, just like the girl who conducted my phone intake interview said, and lucky thing too, as we coast in on fumes. They all do this, all have some complex ritual of initiation and discovery; they will never just let you in, tell you where the shelter is, say Come on over, make yourself at home. They will say I need to ask you a few questions to make sure our program is a good fit for you and then they will give you a safe location from which to be conducted to the secret abode, the magical kingdom, the place of rest and healing where if you are lucky you will have your own room with a door and a couple of boxes of generic macaroni and cheese. The girl who meets us is skinny and wild-eyed and looks about as old as my daughter.
Shari? she says.
Yeah, I say, that’s me.
And this is Sunny? Sunny is staring at the ground without speaking.
We’re like the Sunny and Shar show, I say.
Hi, Shari. Hi, Sunny. I’m Melanie. Can you follow me in your car?
I’m out of gas.
She frowns, not having prepared for this eventuality. Well, she says. It’s late. I guess I can give you a ride and we can figure out what to do with your car in the morning. It’s kind of against the rules. It’s, like, something about our insurance.
Well, I say. Don’t hit anything, then.
Okay, she says, That’s a good idea. I can’t tell if she’s joking.
What you want to know, I will say to this girl, like all of them, is how I got here. What you want to know is the story of the tragic past, the dissolute childhood, the neglect and lack of self-esteem. Perhaps my father was not present. Perhaps there was molestation, drug use, a legacy of familial violence. Perhaps there was never enough to eat besides commodities food and five-pound bricks of nuclear-orange government cheese. Perhaps I raised eleven sisters alone on an abandoned farm in the Skagit Valley with only a single laying hen and a starveling calf for sustenance. Perhaps my uncle shot my brother and my cousin fucked me senseless over a barrel before I got my first period, perhaps my parents tied me up in the basement and denied me food and water. Who else would choose this life? Not you, surely, not you with your clean house and tidy yard, your organic cotton sweatpants, your hybrid car and your social conscience. I know your fucking kind. I’ve sat across a desk from a hundred social workers by now, a hundred wall-eyed white girls fresh out of social work school, shiny as spit-cleaned glass, with their sweet earnest faces and positive affirmations. I know the coldhearted old bitches who live for nothing other than to cross me off housing lists and emergency grants, deny me food stamps, tell me to take my kid outside, to wait in line, to draw a number, to sit in the same hard plastic chair in the same stinking piss-yellow lobby for the rest of my natural life. What you want from me is humility and gratitude and the desire to change. What you want is a story that shows I am deserving of your open arms, your warm bed, your safe house full of junkies and crazy whores just like me who, as soon as your back is turned, will rifle my things, steal my cash, pocket my EBT card, turn my daughter against me. I have been down this road before more times than even I can count. Melanie asks me if I want Shari to be present for our intake and I say She was present for what got us here, and Melanie looks at me funny and says Well okay in a small voice. I am guessing she is new to this job. An intern? A volunteer? A lovely little girl-child with the best of intentions, here to lift me up out of my degradation and bring me into the fold of universal sisterhood? I could have this little bitch wrapped around my finger in minutes, wide eyes and tears in the right places, breathless gratitude; but I’m feeling old and mean. It’s the want, the want of drugs, it’s the presence of the unfiltered world, so bright and harsh my eyes can’t focus and my skin feels rubbed raw.
Melanie asks me the questions off her sheet: Name? Social security? Medication? Do you agree to refrain from using drugs or alcohol for the duration of your stay? Can you tell me what brought you here? Have you ever spent the night in the hospital? Are you permanently disabled as a result of domestic violence? Her voice shakes a little bit and when I say, Do you want just this one, or all of them? she clears her throat. Uh, I guess, uh, just, uh—she turns a page, looks for a name—Just Earl. Um, just tell me about Earl, that would be okay.
Okay, I say. I’ll tell you about Earl.