Monday, May 27, 2013

Simply, Part One:

She walked into the brightly lit foyer, her moth-eaten and faded sweater hanging, loose and sloppy.  Her frame, though bent and frail now, betrayed the fact that she'd been a sizable woman at one time.  She made her way, one laborious step at a time, toward the registration table. 

Debra, the registrar, smiled warmly and offered her a seat.  She refused.  No doubt, the effort it would have taken her to sit briefly and raise her weakened body only moments later, would have taken more out of her than if she remained standing.  "A body in motion," and all that.  Debra explained that we were updating our database; all clients must complete another information form.  Frustration showed in her eyes; shoulders that appeared to be unable to fall any further, slumped in defeat.  She managed a smile, and reached for the form.  Her fingers were gnarled, her nails yellowed and broken.  As I watched, I tried to decide whether her inability to hold the pen was brought on by one of her many illnesses, or by the addiction that had caused her malaise in the first place.

"Judi, would you give Mrs. M a hand filling out the form?  You could move on over to that table there."

I followed Debra's finger to a small garden-style table tucked into a nook across from the registrar.  To say the table was in a "cozy little spot" would have given the scene far too much Helen Steiner Rice.  The table was isolated for the sole purpose of privacy, removed so clients could discreetly pour forth the intimate details of their finances and employment situations in order for us to determine program eligibility and provide counsel.  The close quarters, the stifling heat and, almost assuredly, Mrs. M's propensity to bathe in little but her own urine was going to make this an interesting encounter.

As she moved toward the table, I couldn't help but notice her thick, leathery skin; it was an unhealthy shade of yellow-gray.  The skin draping from her face and neck seemed to move one way as she moved another.  All in all, it was a tragic scene, one from which you cannot seem to remove your eyes.  Halfway through the journey, she attempted a smile.  It was then I realized I was staring -- rudely.  The black holes where her teeth should have been, and the decaying yellow shingles that hung between, now clamored for my attention, but guilt broke my gaze.  I offered a forced smile, keeping my teeth firmly behind closed lips.  In response, she struggled to apologize for her lack of speed; even her smoke-stained voice was thick and leathery.  I muttered my assurance, but in my heart, felt disdain rising to the surface.  Helping the down and out was one thing, but those who live their lives just asking for divine retribution was another.

In the moments and weeks that followed I "helped" her through clenched teeth.  Sure, she was pleasant enough, and seemed genuinely grateful we were there to help, but the weeks she was MIA?  For someone so desperately in need of the simple necessities of life -- food, toiletries, clothing, and water -- she sure didn't keep them high on her list of priorities.  Most weeks we were closing up shop when she'd appear in the doorway, asking if we were still "open."  And the other weeks?  Some unlucky volunteer would have the privilege of dropping off her things, catering to her carelessness when she didn't show.  I began to develop such a distaste for this woman, I didn't even notice when she stopped appearing completely.

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