Alison stood in the doorway of the day room, certain she didn’t belong in this place. A twenty-five-year-old university graduate should have had better options than a shelter for abused women. A heavy woman, wearing a black Gun Rights t-shirt, pushed past her, moving like she was even fatter than she was. She yelled over her shoulder past Alison, “Hurry up, boys! School bus is coming!” Two kids followed her to the kitchen and brought cereal out to the table, a common table for everybody at this place, a three-story Victorian house remodeled to take in desperate women and their children.
Alison felt a twinge of guilt for taking advantage of the shelter. And yet, resting her hand on her stomach, she was desperate, too, in her own way. She silently promised the baby inside of her that she would find a way, somehow. She looked at the boys eating cereal, one with his arm in a sling, and she felt of rush of concern for that woman and her children. What went wrong for them?
A petite woman came downstairs, stuffed her toddler in a stroller at the bottom of the stairs, and went out a back door to a patio where she sat and lit a cigarette. Disgusted at seeing smoke hoover over the baby, Allison looked around her. Yesterday she had entered the front door near the stairs leading to upper floors and to the room she now shared with a gray-haired woman whose name she didn’t remember. The open living room and dining room served as a day room for all of the clients, the “guests” of this shelter. Blinds on all the windows were closed, letting in only a ray of sunlight across the vinyl floor. A fake leather couch and chairs faced a TV, and the boys, eating breakfast, sat at a large wooden dining table at the far end of the room.
Alison had only one wish/goal/hope, to hold her own living baby in her arms, and this was the only place she knew to go. Her parents should have been at home and taken her in, or at least given her a key to their house. But they had gone to the Caribbean. They didn’t leave her a key, not when they changed the locks after her boyfriend ran over the roses to make a statement about the evil of their using chemical fertilizer. She moved toward the breakfast/dining table, and paused when her gray-haired roommate, wearing a Greenpeace t-shirt and her arm in a sling, came downstairs and turned on CNN. Today was Earth Day. Alison wished she was at the Earth Day demonstration in St. Louis. She wanted to show how much she would try to take care of our planet. But her boyfriend wouldn’t let her go because he said that demonstrations sometimes get rowdy.
The Gun Rights woman said to the Greenpeace woman, “There you go, starting your day with liberal lies!” A tough voice came out of the flab of her body, a voice that must have sounded normal to her boys, who continued eating without a blink. With a flash of brown ponytail she slapped her hand on the table. The gray-haired, Greenpeace woman told her to chill – she was leaving soon to get another x-ray on her injured arm. Gun Rights woman pointed a finger and said, “Tell those idiots to get your arm fixed right or you’ll sue the heck outa them. Sue the doctor. Hospital’s broke.” She turned to Alison. “Hi there. I’m Jen. These are my boys. Junior with his broken arm is ten.” The boy nodded to Alison and ate his Cheerios hurriedly. “And Sam here is seven.” This boy looked at Jen and sputtered, “Pleased to meet you,” through his milk and cereal.
CNN showed Earth Day demonstrations in several cities. When St. Louis appeared on the screen, Jen, coffee mug in hand, ran to the TV. “Might see my jerk of a husband in that crowd.”
Alison gazed at the screen. “Oh! There’s my boyfriend! I should have been there with him!” Jen asked her to point out her boyfriend. “I can’t really see him, but that’s him behind the group of teenagers. You can see the sign he’s holding up. He’s really proud of the sign he made for today.”
Below the lettering, the photo of a starving child in Africa gazed over the demonstrators. Jen choked on her milky coffee. Alison asked if Jen’s husband was in the crowd. Was he holding a sign for the environment?
“Not Bill! Him and his buddies got it in their heads at New Year’s. They’re going to show up on Earth Day and rip into as many tree huggers as they can find!” She sipped coffee. “Want a cup? I just made it fresh.” Alison shook her head. Greenpeace woman clicked the TV off and asked to be let out. Jen’s boys went out the door with her to catch the school bus.
Jen settled herself at the table and stirred her coffee. “Sure you don’t want some coffee? You look kinda pale.”
Alison swallowed. “Are there any crackers?” With prompting, she found saltines and took them to the table. She munched crackers slowly while Jen told about herself.
“Came here two weeks ago cause I had to find a shelter for me and the kids outside of Arkansas. Eleven years I put up with him battering my internal parts and broken ribs and hip. I put up with all of it because the Lord gave me strength to carry on. For better or for worse like they say. But when he started in on Junior – his own son! – I had to find a way to leave. He liked to say that if I left him, good riddance. But if I took the boys away, he would hunt me down like a stray bitch and kill me dead. He meant every word of it, him with his deputy’s badge and gun. But I got me and the boys on the bus going north, and we didn’t get off that bus until we got to this town in Missouri. And I was terrified he’d be waiting for us at the bus station. Waiting with his pistol in his hand. Waiting to shoot me dead like a stray dog. My hands and my voice shook when I called this place. Now I’m listed as a missing person, and even Deputy Bill with his badge can’t find us.” She laughed. “He don’t have a clue where to look. You just don’t know how scary it is to get away from a deputy who’s abusing.”
Alison nodded. “You said he went to the demonstration in St. Louis? He won’t make trouble will he? I mean, a deputy won’t let it get violent.”
“Huh. Depends on how riled up them tree huggers get him. I seen him get a glint in his eye and pull his gun on some guy who said our old Silverado was killing off frogs and heating up the climate. You ever hear of such? The truck killing off frogs! Well, I’ll tell you Deputy Bill turned on that loud mouth, who wasn’t carrying, and let out a stream of choice words. That guy seen the gun and backed away with Bill yelling the only frogs the truck killed were frogs on the road where they ought to stay off!”
Alison brushed crumbs from her hands. “Well, that guy was wrong about the frogs. A fungus is killing off all the frogs. But you said the truck is old, so it is definitely pouring carbon into the atmosphere, and that’s turning the planet into a place where our children and grandchildren can’t live.”
Jen said, “A bunch of climate hooey! You people think you can tell folks like us we can’t drive the only vehicle we own ourselves just cause somebody got crazy ideas about climate! Crazy ideas that don’t amount to a hill of beans! And I’ll laugh my head off when the time for climate change comes and nothing happens!”
Alison said, “You don’t understand! It’s started! It’s happening right now! Cities are going to flood!”
“So what! Katrina flooded New Orleans and they built it back! You people crying and moaning about climate stuff don’t talk about that part! We can build anything again. Build it stronger than those rickety places were built in the first place! You just cry and moan all the time! You don’t know what we can do when we set our minds to it!”
Alison wanted to shake Jen and tell her how stupid she was, but the shelter manager called Alison to the office for paperwork.
She felt shaky with anger at Jen as she sat across the desk from the manager, who gave her a bottle of water. Had she experienced physical abuse? Not really. He hit her a couple of times and both times he went out and bought her bracelets, one with diamonds and one with rubies, just to wear around the house. Did she have someone she could stay with? Family? No, her parents were in Haiti on an aid mission. They wouldn’t give her keys to the house because they didn’t like her boyfriend. How about a friend that she could stay with?
Alison couldn’t think of a friend. In college she had moved to an apartment with a professor and felt sure that he was all she needed. A week before graduation, he told her he was going back to his wife and kids and not getting divorced, after all. He gave her $300 and his old Ford and told her to go find a job. She didn’t stay to walk across the stage with her classmates. She couldn’t face her parents and tell them her married boyfriend had dumped her. With everything she possessed in the Ford, she drove west. After crossing the Missouri River, she reached Columbia, a university town, after dark. With a degree in history, she had no idea of what to do about searching for a job.
She sat alone, eating a hamburger with a glass of water when a short man in a suit offered to share his bottle of chardonnay. Wine sounded good, and he was a good talker, a lawyer, the prosecutor in a county south of Columbia. She woke up the next morning in the Holiday Inn with him, and she felt pretty good. He told her to sell her Ford, put her possessions in his Lexus, and come to live with him. He told her he was not married and had never been married. He took her to a modest farm house that he said he had inherited from an uncle. He gave her a Kindle Fire with any book or movie she wanted and Netflix on the big TV. When he became a county judge, he bought a beautiful house overlooking a river and provided everything for it: great internet, more TV options, and anything she wanted to order online. He said with deliveries at their door, she didn’t need to go to Wal Mart in town. Sometimes she ordered something just to say hello to the delivery person. The shelter manager observed that he had isolated Alison. She knew she was alone but hadn’t thought of it as “isolated.” She hadn’t known that was abusive. The manager asked what prompted her to leave the judge. Pregnancy. Both times that he hit her was when she told him she was pregnant, and she was too stupid to remember to take the birth control pills. Both times he took her to a private clinic outside of St. Louis for abortions.
In tears, Alison said she was pregnant again. All she wanted was for her baby to live and grow up, and the judge was not going to let that happen. When he left to go demonstrate in St. Louis, Alison packed her clothes and waited by the door for the mail carrier. She begged him to take her to the bus station. He couldn’t take a passenger in the mail truck, but he called his sister. She came out an hour later, drove Alison to the bus station, bought her a ticket to another town, and gave her the phone number to this shelter. She said they were expecting Alison. When she got off the bus, she begged the bus station clerk to let her use the phone to call the shelter. The shelter manager asked if she had seen a doctor about the pregnancy. No. The manager hugged her and said they would send her for a checkup. They would help her find a new life for herself and her baby.
After eating leftover lasagna with the petite smoker giving bites to her toddler, Alison slept through the afternoon. Wandering back to the kitchen, she found the Greenpeace woman with the broken arm, who asked her for help heating mac and cheese in the microwave. They shared it for supper along with the petite woman and her toddler. The TV showed more news of Earth Day demonstrations. Jen came in and glanced at it on her way to the kitchen, as her boys sat down on the couch to play games on their phones.
Alison turned from watching the toddler smear cheese sauce on his red shirt to see the TV. A demonstration had turned violent. Words crawled across the bottom of the screen. St. Louis! She got up and went closer to the TV. Shots had been fired. People were dead. The boys on the couch yelled, “Mom! Come here!” “Mom! It’s Dad!”
Jen rushed in. “Did he get shot? No! The police have him?”
She sat with her children for three hours, watching every confused account of the incident. Earth Day demonstrators had yelled insults at Earth Day protesters. The TV caught Alison’s boyfriend screaming “Fucking idiots!” and waving his killer sign with the starving child at them. Jen’s younger boy said, “Why didn’t he yell ‘fuckin idjuts?’ like most people?” and got put in time out. Cringing, Alison tried to sound carefree, “That’s Louis! Perfect pronunciation even when he’s crazy mad.” Both sides, demonstrators and protestors, reached a fever pitch of their own self-righteous fury that rose to a climax of gunshots, screams, and fallen bodies. Three died. Seven others were in a hospital.
Alison sat beside Jen, straining for another glimpse of her boyfriend. At 9:30 that night she saw his photo on the screen with photos of the other two who died. “It’s him!” Alison gasped. “My boyfriend! The picture of the judge! He’s dead!” She sobbed, tears wetting her face and shirt. Jen put her arm around her.
Except for her sobbing, the room fell into shocked silence as the TV showed mug shots of two men, arrested for murder. Jen covered her face in her hands. Junior moved close to her and Sam climbed in her lap, saying, “It’s okay, Mom. We’ll be okay.”
Jen burst out laughing. “Deputy Bill! Arrested! If that don’t beat all!” She couldn’t stop laughing. “Already confessed to murder!” His gun matched a bullet in a dead victim.
Junior said, “Will they put him in prison?”
Jen nodded and tried to stop laughing. “I reckon. That’s where they put murderers.” Laughing, they hugged each other. “No more beatings!” Jen turned to Alison. “I’m sorry. I know you’re grieving for that judge that got killed.”
Alison took a deep breath. “I cry. You laugh. You’re safe now. I don’t know where to turn next. Maybe they’ll let me use the phone to call my parents.”
Jen pulled a phone from her pocket and said, “Here. Use mine.” Alison’s parents had seen the news and recognized her boyfriend. On learning about her pregnancy, they said they wanted her to come to live with them. They sent her $500 dollars and promised to come home soon.
Jen put her arm around Alison again. “I know you and me don’t agree on much. Would it be crazy for you to be my friend on Facebook.”
Painfully aware that she had no friends, Alison looked at Jen, her pudgy body with internal scars, her pony tail draped down her shoulder on the head of the boy in her lap with her arm around her older child cuddled beside her. In a flash Alison saw them as a Madonna and Child with Junior in the role of young John the Baptist.
“Not crazy, Jen. Crazy is what happened in St. Louis.” Alison laughed. “My boyfriend wouldn’t let me use Facebook. Can you show me how?”
. . .
Alison moved in with her parents and named her baby Katie Jen after her grandmother and her friend. When the baby was a year old, Alison enrolled in law school.
Jen divorced Deputy Bill, getting half the proceeds from the sale of the house, and used it to get an apartment and go to cosmetology school. She took the Silverado, too, and drove that old truck until after both boys graduated from college, Junior with a nursing degree and Sam with a degree in education. When the salon owner moved out of state, she let Jen make payments to buy the salon. Chamber of Commerce meetings got real lively after Jen became a member.
Fifteen years passed before Jen’s ex was paroled, as he tended cause trouble in prison. Jen was cutting an old woman’s white, curly hair when she heard the salon door open and footsteps crossed the vinyl floor, footsteps from long ago. Without looking up, she knew it was him. She said to have a seat, and she’ll be with him in a minute.
“It’s me! Look at me, Jen!” He stood behind her in new jeans, white t-shirt, and a ball cap. “We got to talk now.”
She turned and pointed the scissors to a chair. “Sit.” The other stylist turned from dyeing a blonde and offered to call 911. “No need for that now. We’re all going to be civil.” Jen looked at Bill again. “Sit!” He did. Jen’s next customer had re-scheduled for another day, and she told Bill she would buy him lunch.
“No! Don’t want nothing from you! Just want to see my boys. Tell me where they are. I’ll go.”
“What I got to say to you, Bill, I need to be sitting down with a cup of coffee. And I reckon coffee and a Reuben sandwich wouldn’t hurt you neither. And I’ll tell you exactly what the boys told me to tell you.” She took him to a cafe around the corner and ordered coffee, a Reuben, and fries for each of them.
Bill fussed with his ball cap, and she was surprised to see his receding hairline. He said, “I’m going to go see Junior first. Sam visited me at Christmas the last few years. I lost all track of Junior.”
Jen sipped her coffee and set it on the table. “He isn’t called ‘Junior’ anymore and not ‘Bill’ neither. In high school he gave himself a new name. His senior year he got me to take him to court and get his name changed legally so he wouldn’t have your name on his diploma. He said I can tell you he’s doing fine, working as a nurse in an emergency room, and he loves it. He really does.”
“Nurse!” Deputy Bill snorted. “Never knew him to be a sissy when I was around. I’d a beat shit outa him before I let him do nursing! He a fag?”
“No,” Jen said. “He told me to tell you if you ever come around him or his wife or baby, he’ll call the cops. So, that’s why I needed to sit down with you over coffee. I knew it would be a hard thing for you to hear, but that’s the way it is.”
Bill pushed his chair back. “Just tell me where to find Sam, and I’ll be gone.”
Jen turned and asked to have his sandwich and fries in a to go box. Looking at Bill, she said, “You got a passport?”
“You know I ain’t got no passport! What the hell I want a damn passport for?”
Jen munched one of her fries. “Sam took the summer off before starting his school coaching job. He’s on some Caribbean island, building Habitat houses with Alison and her family.” She pulled a note from her purse. “Here. He wrote down his phone number so you can call him. He’ll be back the end of July, and he said he will go see you sometime in early August.” She touched Bill’s hand when she gave him the note. “Drink some of your coffee, Bill. It does a soul good to have coffee with somebody. Don’t have to see eye to eye on everything or like the way things turn out. Just sit for a bit and enjoy some coffee together.” Bill pushed away from the table and stomped toward the door, turned back to get the to go box of food, and left. Jen remembered two adoring little boys who ran to him when he came home from work. Wiping her tears, she thanked the Good Lord, as she did every day, that the boys were not following his ways, that they had found other paths for their lives.
She answered Alison’s phone call. “We won! The judge ruled for us all the way! The whole Great Lakes basin in U.S. and Canada now comes under environmental protections of the Paris Accord! We did it!”
Jen laughed. “I’m happy for you, girl! But now explain to me, and say it slowly, what does this do to my taxes here in Missouri?”