I'd love to tell you what the ocean looked like today (blue, green, white, rambunctious), and how welcome it was to jump into after running three laps around town his morning (39 minutes, 13 per lap, not bad). I got knocked down by a wave, scraped my shoulder in the sand; later, I walked to the end of the Pines and back; even later, I took an evening stroll along the bayside, through the tall fragmites that close in on you like children of the corn. In between, I wrote most of the rest of Chapter Four, which is called "Nine Visits in Nine Days." Here's how it begins:
The Wednesday before Christmas, and the cafeteria at the shelter was decorated with freshly handmade construction paper signs in red and green and black: MERRY CHRISTMAS. HAPPY HOLIDAYS. HAPPY KWANZAA. I was walking in, and I saw Nadine coming my way, two girls dogging her heels like she was the Pied Piper. I raised my hand and smiled in greeting, and she stopped short, nearly causing her coterie to collide with itself.
"Juhneece. You know your friend Samantha is back in the hospital."
"Oh no. What happened?"
I'd just seen Sam last Wednesday, her hand freshly recast from the successful surgery the week before – she was wincing here and there, making do without much in the way of painkillers, but her spirits were high. She'd spent most of the night by my side, talking about what she wanted to do after her year-long stint in rehab upstate – maybe she'd become a vet, she said, or a mechanic. When there was a lull in the bead action towards the end of the night, she'd confessed to me that she was scared to go away, scared, after seven years of complete autonomy, to commit the next year of her life to an institution where they'd dictate her every move. But, she told me, she trusted her drug counselor, Jodi – for the first time in her life, she was trying to trust an adult for longer than the duration of a drug deal – and Jodi said that rehab was the way to go. So she was going to trust rehab.
I hadn't known, at the end of the night, if they'd be moving Sam upstate to rehab this week, if it would be the last time I'd see her. I'd wanted to hug her goodbye, in case, but she'd slipped away as I was leaving.
The two girls tailing Nadine got distracted and moved on; Nadine moved closer and dropped her voice. "She got an infection, her hand, from the surgery. Bad fever, really sick. She waited a long time to say anything, you know she doesn't like to show pain; the doctors hope they got to it in time to save the hand."
"Oh my god." I thought of Sam, handless, trying to become a vet or a mechanic. "What hospital? Is she nearby?"
Nadine caught my eye with that all-knowing look of hers, her forehead furrowed with concern. "Well, officially I wouldn't say anything, but you know, off the record, she is at St. Vincent's. I'm telling you that because it's the holidays…" And here she gave me a warning look, and I nodded my head, right, the holidays, special once-a-year dispensation, not a policy change. "…And I know you've been important to her."
"Well, I…" I didn't know what to say. I was important to Sam, trustworthy to Nadine. Nadine, who once almost canned me on the spot in my first six weeks for taking a camera-phone picture of one of the girls – Juhneece! What are you doing! You don't take pictures of the girls, you compromise their security. "Thanks, Nadine."
"Off the record," she reminded me. Her followers were coming our way to regain their pursuit.
"Miss Nadine, we got a situation in our room, Miss Nadine!"
She gave me a droll smile, raised her voice for the girls behind her. "Upstairs, ladies." One more emphatic look, and she forged on.
It was all I could do not to declare bead time cancelled for the evening, run straight down to St. Vincent's before the end of visiting hours, whenever those might be, but I'd already been spotted – by Ellenette, of course. She waved me over to her table to give me the good news – she was getting her Section 8 housing voucher, her free pass to the projects. "I am gonna be set up!" she declared, holding her palm up for me to slap.
"Congratulations," I said, trying for enthusiasm. Thinking, Welcome to welfare, Ellenette. Good luck enjoying your shitty, limited life.
It was an all right night, I guess; who knew, who cared. All I wanted to do was go see Samantha; the rest of it seemed like a waste of time to me. So Ellenette would make it to the PJs with one more pink and purple bracelet; St. Croix would make the seventeenth pair of earrings that said ST CROIX on them – would any of it make a difference in their lives? Would it help them get jobs, or find self-esteem, or save them any suffering and pain? I spent three hours every Wednesday at the shelter, an extra hour to run to the bead store during the week for supplies; I'd been spending four hours a week on volunteering, for ten months now. I should have cured homelessness already. Instead, I had decorated it.
And then there was Sam.