You’ve heard of a half-way house? Well, this was a quarter-way. For those who no longer needed a locked facility. But only just barely. The quarter-way residents had not been in jail. They’d been where you go when someone decides your brain might bring you harm. But all that was behind them. They’d completed the programs. Had their meds re-adjusted. Now, they were free. Or a quarter-way free.
One had been through a life that left her skittish and cagey. She smoked on the stoop, trying not to remember. Another had nearly completed a doctorate in math at somewhere prestigious before it all came unraveled. But that was years ago. Now, he held court in the kitchen, his lap stacked with newspapers, haranguing the staff in imperious tones. Then there was a woman I’m going to say was called Gina.
Nothing about Gina could not be called big. A hairdo that spread out in every direction. A winter coat sewn with a giant in mind. And a voice with claws that could find you there down at the end of the hall. You know how some people’s complaints are poetic? Well, Gina’s poured out like sludge from the back of a cement-mixing truck that can never turn off and will never run out. A hospital was only two blocks away. That was the place Gina went to shoplift.
As for me, I worked there only a month, maybe two. I left with the idea that I could do better.
By that point, through the years, I had worked for too long in two other group homes. Had subbed around here and there on the overnight shift. Every place was the same. They would make it all homey. You had the living room, the kitchen, the bedrooms, what-have-you, where everyone who lived there could wander all over. The industrial sofa would be urine-resistant. The pictures hung up in frames with no glass bolted down to the wall. Then, for the staff, a locked office, and a lounge with a couch.
A staff area was like you were hiding off-stage. Resident areas? Back on-stage again. Like the set of one of those sit-coms where a family does pratfalls in a brightly-lit house. Except in this sit-com, the girl shaves off her eyebrows to sing Billy Joel, and the teenage boy wipes his own shit on the door. But here’s what I’m getting at: the on-stage and off? Those were other homes, far away. The quarter-way house didn’t come with an off. You were on all the time. Just like part of the family.
How things were laid out wasn’t the only thing different. At the previous homes, I had worked with teenagers. With a teenager, you can make yourself think there is hope. But at the quarter-way, the residents were in their forties, their fifties. The question of whether to hope or not was long settled by now.
But it is in the nature of hope to flicker up just at the moment it seems to be gone. After escaping from Egypt, and passing through the Red Sea, the people of God are out in the wilderness, years from the Promised Land. It says that they murmur, but that’s putting it gently. They are starving. They’re lost. What they do is freak out. Which is when, in the story, the manna appears. Is it dew? Or hoarfrost? A filigree of honey-sweet flakes that you eat at first light, before the sun burns it off. You don’t store up manna. You don’t save it for later. The next day, scripture says, it will stink, crawl with worms. So, it’s food for right now. Just enough to go staggering on toward the dream.
You know the hospital two blocks away? In the cafeteria, you’d see families draped over lunch-tables, on break from the rooms where their loved ones were already failing. If you were hungry, you could get a tray, load it down with whatever, then take it to the lady at the front so she could ring you up. You’ve been somewhere like that. You know how it all goes. The point being, this is not what Gina did.
Baskets of bread-rolls were set out to go with your soup or your salad. Gina would head straight for them and fill her winter-coat pockets, six or seven bread-rolls in each. And then she would just leave.
Did she explode if you said it was theft? Was the concept of stealing beyond her somehow? It’s been so long now that I just can’t remember, but I know we were not to discuss it with her. It was a directive. You didn’t want to praise her for shoplifting, of course. But you weren’t supposed to scold. So, when she slammed through the door, crowing like her pockets had diamonds, not bread-rolls, we all kind of shrugged and averted our eyes.
The night the supervisor heard second-hand I was planning to quit, he called up the house phone. Right there in the living room, with an audience of staff and residents both. Maybe he was upset because now he’d have to find somebody for a job that nobody would want. But what he focused on, in a voice loud enough that it bled through the receiver and out into the room, was you just don’t waltz in and out of people’s lives. Especially the residents, who had been abandoned again and again. If anyone was going to get better, if anyone was ever going to be happy or stable, it was going to take trust, and hanging in there, and patience, and faith. He went on for some time. Wanted to know exactly what kind of person I was. As if there was an answer.
Here’s what I can say. Two weeks before, Gina slams through the door, just like always, coat bulging with bread. But on this day, instead of pushing past me, she stops. Digs a roll from her pocket, holds it out. The shift is over. I’m clocked out. In my wired-shut heart, I’ve already resigned. But I take what she offers. Without speaking, we eat. I do not feel, in that moment, the presence of God. But I see we are lost and that she is my sister. Which is food for right now. Just enough to go staggering on toward the dream.