I’ll tell you how I got to know Annie, who once called her life “a long skid mark.” I had my first conversation with her on a winter’s evening at the back door of the basement soup kitchen on Allen Street where I volunteer twice a week. Before then I had known her by sight as one of the old homeless ladies; she had curly gray hair and a red scarf with a snowflake pattern that she wore in all seasons. I spoke with her that first time because she followed me outside and said, “You forgot your mittens, dummy.”
She dangled them in front of me, and when I thanked her she delivered a monologue on frostbite progression: an initial discomfort followed by blistered and finally dead black appendages. Corpse fingers, she called them.
As she spoke her hands kneaded the front of her spattered winter coat, and on impulse I offered her the mittens. “No thanks, young lady,” she said. “I’ve got nothing left, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
In the following weeks I paid more attention to her. When she ate she mumbled to herself. She liked her soup cloudy and noodle-free, was partial to canned peaches and never ate beans. On most days after the meal she hung around to talk to me; her favorite topic was how I was too thin and needed to take better care of myself.
“I walk a lot,” I told her, “and I never had a big appetite.” Not for food, anyway. But by that point I’d been clean for three years, and if I got restless a long walk helped.
“Your parents look out for you?” she asked.
I could have told her that I was twenty-six, and that they’d disowned me four and a half years earlier. “They’re dead,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah they are,” she sighed, rubbing the back of her hand against her nose. “I bet you didn’t hate them.”
She told me about her family a few months later. It was a mild night in late spring, the air soft and warm, and she walked with me to the house on Holly Street where I rented a room. I learned she had two grown children: Karen and Adam. She also mentioned the exact date she had last seen them: July 21st. She didn’t specify the year, but later I figured out that it was six years ago. I was able to check the date on the Internet, in an archived article from the Dispatch.
That year in June Annie had moved across the US to be closer to her kids; she was getting old, they’d kept their distance for years, and she’d hoped for more family togetherness. She had wanted them to visit on the Fourth, but they put her off until the third week of July. They stayed over one night and in the morning she offered to take her grandkids to the beach.
Tracy, age 20, and Drew, 17, were her daughter’s children; Beth, 19, was her son’s only child. She got along with them better than she ever had with her kids, she said. Tracy was skinny, thoughtful, and prone to withdrawing behind a book; she was studying to be a veterinarian. On the way to the beach she sat in the back seat of Annie’s Volvo, on the driver’s side. Drew clowned around, played drums, and thought about being a kindergarten teacher, though he was afraid his friends would mock him. He was in the front passenger’s seat, to better fool around with the radio. Beth, a warm chatty blonde who was majoring in chemistry, sat in the back seat behind Andrew. Annie could even remember what they were wearing: Tracy’s steel gray one-piece and red shorts, Drew’s neon green and blue trunks, and Beth’s purple two-piece and fringed sarong. When I asked her what she was wearing she said, “What do you think an old lady wears to the beach? A big shirt and the longest skirt she can find to hide her wrinkly chicken legs.” She then added more quietly that the skirt might have been too long; it had spilled around her feet and made switching from gas pedal to brakes more difficult.
On the highway she missed her exit. She was still unfamiliar with the area, and Drew was distracting her with the radio. “Just pick a damn station and stick with it,” she snapped. She got off at the next exit and tried to figure out how to turn back. It didn’t help that there was construction, signs sticking out everywhere, not to mention the cars honking behind her and the grandkids giving her conflicting advice. Lost, she turned onto a residential street: houses on one side, and on the other a steep embankment sloping down into woods. “We need to stop and think,” Beth said, right before the van, flying out of an intersecting street, made impact.
A few weeks into her hospital stay Annie had regained more or less normal patterns of consciousness. No one seemed to know about her grandkids. No one visited her. Whenever she woke up she asked the nurses, “Did anyone come?” with the desperate hope that her family had crowded round the foot of her bed watching over her as she slept. Through the haze of her recovery, with its hours of surgeries and days in bed, she finally learned what had happened, not from her son and daughter who weren’t answering their phones but from different nurses. Drew had died on the scene; Tracy had held out for several hours more. Beth had seemed stable at first, but succumbed four days later to a brain bleed that the doctors couldn’t control. Annie told me she lost it when she heard the news; she didn’t say what she did, only that it landed her in the OR again. She was assigned a grief counselor, but what she both wanted and feared was to speak with her children.
After those first phone calls she had tried several more times. Caught hold of her “doofus son-in-law” once; he stammered on the phone and said nothing when the apologies poured out of her. She should have noticed the van, she told him, she should have hit the brakes or maybe leaned on the pedal and sped the car out of harm’s way. She should never have taken them to the beach to begin with (never have moved across the country, never have stayed in contact with any of them, never never). After a while she felt like she was talking into a great and terrible silence. She didn’t even know if he was there on the other end. She asked to speak with her daughter, and the line went dead.
She finished her physical therapy and tried visiting them in person. She started with her son, because he had always been more patient. Years ago when her husband left her, Adam had been her rock, only telling her years later that it wasn’t normal for a mother to use her son as a replacement spouse. “Psychobabble,” she told me, as we leaned on the spiked fence that fronted my landlady’s property. “Thought he was Oedipus.” When she drove to her son’s home she found that he’d moved without telling her. The front door had opened and shown her a polite and bewildered stranger. Annie never thought that anyone could just disappear like that. Adam’s wife, an annoyingly phony woman according to Annie, had passed away years ago, so the only person she could ask about his location was his sister.
Karen hadn’t moved, but she hadn’t opened the door either. “That was the worst day of my life,” Annie said. Her jaw quivered, and she shook her head. “One of the worst.” She had rung and rung the bell, knocked on the door, with her knuckles first and then her fists, and then she’d lost it, screaming, “Let me in!” A curtain might have twitched in an upper window, she wasn’t sure. The police came soon after; she didn’t know who’d called them, Karen herself or her worried neighbors.
After that it seemed an easy matter, with no family and with huge medical bills, to let the house go, to let her life go and drift out onto the streets.
Buttoning up my jacket, though it was nearly summer and I shouldn’t have felt so cold, I offered to contact her daughter for her. “Will you try and make up with your parents?” she shot back.
Her perceptiveness startled me. I was tempted to tell her again that they’d died, but I couldn’t, not when she’d been so brutally honest. I considered what it would take for me to show up at my parents’ house again, if they still lived in my childhood home, the one-story Tudor with the June roses out in front. It wouldn’t be enough for me to just turn up and tell them I was clean, for real this time, and that I wouldn’t be pilfering from my mom’s purse or calling them from jail at three in the morning. I’d need to have a college degree and a respectable full-time job, not the odd jobs I cobbled together now. Maybe I’d have to bring a man with me too, a good one, to show them that there was someone in the world who could love me and give me trust.
I said to Annie, “It’s different. I really don’t think they love me anymore.”
Her shrewd look melted into sorrow. “Karen never liked me,” she said, fussing with her red snowflake-patterned scarf. “I just wanted the best for her. She could’ve done great things, things I never got to do, and instead she settled down with a half-wit. Tracy and Drew got her brains, that’s for sure.”
I wanted to reassure her that there was a chance of reconciliation, especially if I told her daughter that she was living on the streets, but I doubted Annie would like that; at best her children would handle her with a sense of cold obligation and stick her in a home somewhere. Maybe she wanted the pride of being on her own and the penance of being homeless. It’s possible she never wanted to be close to anyone again.
Whenever she walked home with me I would invite her inside to join me for some coffee and my landlady’s oatmeal cookies. Each time she refused. When we were done talking, I would watch her trundle off into the night, her gait stiff, and I always had a feeling in my gut that it would be the last time I’d see her. To keep her longer in conversation, I asked questions; she never seemed to care how tactless they were. Like when I wondered if the driver of the van had died too.
Her lips twisted with something like bitter humor. “He’d been in a rush. Heard his sister had had a heart attack. He was going to the hospital to see her.” She sighed. “Last I heard he was still in a coma. Probably the only way he could live with himself.”
Another time in late fall when the night had a cold smoky aroma, I asked her about her scarf, and why she always wore it. Was it a gift from one of her grandkids, or maybe her kids?
“Got it at a clothing drive.” She patted it fondly. “I don’t know who donated it. Maybe it’s from a lost and found bin.”
After some hesitation, I pulled out my mittens. They were pale blue and fraying at the fingertips. “Here,” I said, holding them out. “I heard it’s going to be a rough winter.”
A muscle jumped in her cheek. “No, young lady,” she said. “I don’t want anything from you.”
She didn’t make it through the winter. After her body was found four blocks from the soup kitchen some inquiries were made, and I was contacted because people had seen us together. I didn’t have enough money to get her a decent funeral, and she was buried mostly at the city’s expense; I was the only person at the brief graveside service. I had actually found her daughter’s contact info and called her up, but nothing came of it. The woman on the other end had answered to the right name but when I mentioned her mother all she said was, “You must have the wrong number. She’s been dead for years.” She hung up right after, and I sat there listening to the dial tone with my heart pounding.
The day after Annie’s funeral I called my parents. I picked a time when I thought they wouldn’t be at home. I got the answering machine with my mom’s voice, slightly impatient, telling me to leave my name and number after the beep. There was only one question I wanted to ask them: can people ever reach a point in their lives where they can’t be loved anymore?
Because I was too afraid to find out, I hung up without leaving a message.
Hila Katz is a writer living in NYC. She has a background in psych research, and in her spare time likes to walk for miles in cities and forests. Her longest running blog is The Sill of the World.
© 2011, Hila Katz