Elizabeth’s life was a study in courage, although she didn’t know it. She woke up on the dirty box springs on a dirt sill, a shelf shored up by bricks, a makeshift basement underneath a house built around the turn of the previous century and divided into efficiency apartments. She climbed down from the unhappy bed and stepped to one of the basement windows. The window was screened by several small plants the she had nurtured in the odd greenhouse dirt shelf, plants that brought life to that tomb. Brushing one aside she looked out the portal at weak winter daylight with a blanket of snow on the ground beneath overcast skies. There were flurries outside, but the temperature would be settled somewhere in the mid twenties, and she suspected her feet would warm in the white slush from the exercise of walking a distance. She wouldn’t spend the morning inside like she had done at first, in the late autumn months after her husband had died. She ruffled her close cropped blond hair and studied an amateur painting she had obtained in a partially burnt out house in the poor neighborhood. The work decried ghostly images trudging through a dark world, a world that she couldn’t help thinking was a graveyard. She walked over to the storm door, a tornado entrance to the cellar and pushed it up above herself, letting light fall in around her, which she faced with an upturned face. At first she hadn’t been able to stand light, and it sent fear through her. Her husband’s death had ripped off the limbs off her spirit, and the abject terror of lonliness had surrounded her. Slowly she had learned to make use of light, though she still couldn’t say she enjoyed it. She had at first thrown herself into survival mode to handle the loss, and it seemed like every day was an effort of gulping down her heart to stop possible tears, knowing she couldn’t afford depression. The pain had become less, though she didn’t realize she had started to accept the truth. The vacant midwestern city sounds filtered in, and she carefully lowered the door so that the tenants upstairs wouldn’t know that she lived there.
Although it had taken a while for the idea to take, she had been told to keep busy after Ed’s death. She couldn’t manage the apartment at first, and although she hadn’t seen the eviction notice, she had kept invisible from a block away, watching as the management had thrown furniture from the deck to crash and break on the ground below. She trudged through the snow of neglected sidewalks and passed a tree that had long ago been hit by lightening and was divided, a strange feature of the neighborhood that showed her stricken life. She walked past an unusual convenience store adjoined to a laundry mat where the poor washed their clothes. She passed old houses fortified with large columns porches of the same age as her own stolen residence. Elizabeth guessed that it would be better to face arrest for trespass while living in the safer neighborhood than living at a shelter downtown and being arrested for vagrancy or suffer rape. She walked along an unused street centered by a wide boulevard on which stood the ancient giants of Silver Maples, long since grown ghosts of the past that loomed above her like the death of her husband and that threatened to crush her. The roots of the trees stayed anchored in the earth however, and other fears of emptiness remained without trigger. She turned a corner and came to the top of a steep hill, looking over the precipice above the valley below. She noticed a shopping store where she had first stolen tuna, taking it into the restroom to eat before finding better sources of freer nourishment. She watched the cars on the street below and recognized a comfort with others that had appeared out of the morning, felt more settled with who she was and less marked by the loss. The moment of acceptance that again marked her growth was lost to the movement and machine sounds of the city below, though she felt it would come again.
At the bottom of the hill she turned on to an ignored side street with low curbs and gravel parking lots behind the brick backs of small businesses. She walked past a green dumpster and then a blue dumpster and coming to a second blue dumpster, which belonged to a bakery and squatted down, sitting on her hams, back leaning against the metal, to wait. The baker was Vietnamese and had a heavy accent. He usually apeared at the back door at the same time every morning. He would appear in a powdery white baker’s suit tied down with a smock, weighing the ever present cardboard box in his hands. He wore a white paper cap and smiled, almond eyes sharpening as Elizabeth stood up. He was glad to see her.
“You didn’t dig in the trash today?” Liu always made it seem a bargain between himself and the other. He was proud of saving her the disgrace.
“I didn’t dig in the trash,” she said, laughing. He had first found her doing so, and had chastised her for it. He was careful to disguise his generosity.
“I have egg and onion bagels today.” Elizabeth neared him and looked into the box, suspecting a forty count. “Can you eat them all?”
“Some of them. I’ll share the rest.” She said.
“Where do you share?” he asked.
“The Elijah house.” She said, smiling again, mentioning the radical Catholic food kitchen and boarding house.
“It sounds like they help lots of people.” He frowned a little, “That’s a long walk with a load of bagels.” He grimaced, beckoning in the direction of downtown.
“Yes,” she said, “after Ed died they suggested I keep busy.”
“Oh,” said Liu, frowning sadly at the ground for a moment, “your husband sounds like he was a good man.” Elizabeth smiled in return.
“Yes he was.” She pushed back tears as she spoke. She had told Liu of her husband, and they had developed a friendship on the pillars of that loss. She noticed again that she had forgotten Ed during the conversation at first, and that while talking to Liu, she had stepped out of herself enough to find the world more settled when she had mentioned her husband. Liu turned his head up again smiling out a strange foreign happiness. She smiled in return, both for the food and the sympathy. “Thanks Liu.” She said, taking the cardboard box.
“See you tomorrow!” he said as she turned to the street.
As Elizabeth looked down at the bagels she felt hungry, but something inside told her not to eat. She turned a corner onto the main street that led downtown. She crossed the street and passed an open door mission built into the façade of an old brick building where a woman stood in the shadows of the entrance.
“Hi Mary!” She said. Mary was a kindred spirit who was known for obtaining public benefits for the mentally ill, and really, obtaining a public benefits to all the visitors of the mission,
“Want a bagel?” Elizabeth asked. Mary nodded, acknowledging Elizabeth.
“ Sounds good,” she said, grabbing an egg bagel from the box.
“How are things at the mission?” Elizabeth asked.
“ Pretty good, I helped with the coffee,” Mary said, mentioning the massive
fifty gallon urns that served the clientele, “so it is ready to go for lunch.”
“Well, this is bound for the Elijah house,” Elizabeth said, “so I had better get moving before lunch time comes around.”
“O.K.” Mary said with a partially full mouth. “Take care.”
Elizabeth continued her trek toward the downtown area, as the buildings turned to brick and grew in size, becoming daunting and closer to vertical, and in the mid day, a meshwork of shadows closed around her. She glanced at the street as she walked, noticing once again the overcast daylight and almost running into a woman in a blazer and skirt. She wondered if she wasn’t pushing against an opposite traffic, and whether there were any walking against her direction intentionally. The thoughts only made the transit more difficult. The walks were filled with businessmen and women moving from one tall building to another. Her husband Ed had been one of them, but since then, self consciousness had been thrown aside so that she now wore dirty jeans and a trench coat. Some registered her with surprise, while others gave her nasty looks. She stopped at a corner, setting the box on the floor in the crosswalk, taking a break as the meticulous world flowed around her. She considered leaving the box and returning to the basement to sleep the rest of the day. Was the effort really worth it? The feeling of doing something important evaporated. Would she ever return to normal? Carrying the box over a distance had tired her. She remembered Ed. Would the pain inside ever stop welling up?
She picked up the cardboard box again, this time ignoring the business like black and navy and charcoal gray suits. The travel was difficult and she had to push against her emotions as well as the distance. She took a deep breath, recognizing the business people for being no greater or lesser than they were, knowing them to be just who they were supposed to be.
Ten minutes later she exited the skywalk system, having circumvented much of the downtown. She felt the bare touch of snow again, knowing again the physical contact of the outdoors. She climbed a small sharp hill, passing a building that had once housed fire engines and had become instead a home for groups ranging from the Green Party to Amnesty International. She passed a small extension campus of a community college in the midst of the same poor neighborhood, wondering at the intellectual workings inside, along with the firehouse a second attempt at inner city renaissance. She crossed a double wide street, and chose an avenue that led past dilapidated houses with rickety porches.
She came to stand in front of a rennovated house, with a sturdy two posted yard sign that claimed it the Elija House. She climbed the heavy wooden stairs and crossed the uncomplaining porch boards to push the door open. She dropped the bagels on a thick wooden picnic table, in the dinning room, one of several used for feeding the poor. Exhaling at the task finished, she stared myopically down at the box as her body rested, replenishing her after the physical effort. A volunteer appeared from the kitchen in back and took the box, smiling and looking at the table and then at Elizabeth, and then returning to the kitchen. Elizabeth looked down at the table which seemed a bulwark of respite from her hard life. She slowly stepped forward and found a seat. She glanced at a shelf built into the wall of the room with a philodendron vine on it that ran the the length of the room. It reminded her of the plants in the basement where she had woken, and the tree split by lightning that refused to die, and even the boulevard lined with trees, simple plant life that needed daylight like she needed others. Several seconds of inspiration hit her, Why not? Instead of slipping through the cracks she could chose to grow back out. When lunch was served she would treat it for what it was and participate in the sacrament.
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