We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. We had our usual spot on the edge of the old basketball court at the entrance to the locker room. The parquet floor has become dislodged, with pieces spread about the gym. The wooden pieces are sometimes used to start fires during the winter time. The number of residents has thankfully decreased over the summer. As winter approaches the population no doubt will increase. I stand up and stretch, the hard surface playing hell on my back yet again. I look down and see my daughter still sound asleep in her dingy sleeping bag. I notice her hair is matted, an indication that we must shower. The crowd this fall morning is sparse. I feel safer when there are fewer people here. I leave my area and walk across the basketball court dodging needles on the floor as well as other makeshift encampments. The ingenuity of our fellow lodgers is striking. I suppose once the survival mode kicks in the mind become very creative. As I reach the door I notice long time resident Clarence standing as if he is a sentry.
“Morning Clarence, can you keep an eye on Tasha as I step out for a smoke?” I ask.
“No problem Clyde” he simply replies.
Clarence is an old Viet Nam veteran who, by his recollection, single handily killed all the enemy he came in contact with. His tales are numerous if not humorous. If everyone was as successful as ole Clarence during battle, we would of won that war and returned home heroes. He is a kind soul at his core. He is a storyteller extodinarie. He has lived on the streets for years. He is a survivor.
“Hey Clyde, when are you going to get the hell outta here man?” he asked me peering out the gym door. “You don’t belong here. You got something man, more than most here.”
“I aint got nothing. You know that. The old lady has been dead two years, all I got is Tasha,” I explain while taking a drag of a used butt I found next to the grocery store.
“Get her outta here. She deserves better.”
“Don’t you fuckin’ think I tried dude! Don’t you think I want outta here. The government aint helpin me! My family aint here! They are down south. I got nothin’ man. Just her. Why you ask me that, you know my story. Leave me be fool.”
I stomp the butt out after my last drag and make my way back across the gym to Tasha.
“Time to get up sweetie, we gotta make it to the homeless shelter to get you a shower.”
“Good morning papa” she says with her pretty smile.
Breaks my heart every time I see that smile. How did we end up here? How did I allow this to happen? I know she deserves a much better life. Anything would be better. Panhandling. Hunger. The elements. This is our life. Alcoholism took my wife. It took us away from a home. A job. A life. It gave us this.
Her hug snaps me out of my thoughts. She loves me unconditionally.
“I love you papa.”
“And I love you. Very much.”
“Let me get our things together Tasha, then we’ll go.” I pull some pop tarts out of my rucksack and hand them to her. They are strawberry, her favorite. I managed to steal them from the store down the street. I put our possessions into the shopping cart and we walk across the gym. We approach Clarence who still is guarding entrance. “Can you keep an eye on our things please.”
“Sure”, Clarence said. “And a beautiful good morning to you Miss Tasha.”
“Good Morning Mr. Clarence, have a wonderful day today,” she replies with her smile.
“You sure are a pretty thing. You have a good day now. You hear me.”
“I sure will Mr. Clarence.”
As we exit the gym into the sunny fall morning we walk to the nearby shelter for some food and to shower. I check in the front desk and the clerk says I must talk to the social worker on duty before I can use the facilities. “This was a new service to the shelter that started earlier in the week. New city regulations,” he explains, “in order for us to keep the shelter open.”
Our wait is brief and we enter the office of a lady named Ms. Troutman. She explains a new program to me where Tasha would be housed in foster care and I would go to a type of half-way house with visitation rights while I get help starting life over. This is my little ray of hope coming true. I agree to the program as long as I can see her daily.
“She will get a great family to take care of her while you get your life in order. With our help of course. Then after the state deems you fit and able to provide for her needs, she can return to your care. It’s that easy,” she explains.
I ask Tasha her thoughts. She looks at me and says, “Papa, I don’t want to live a night without you by my side. I don’t care if I am hungry and cold.”
But Tasha dear,” Ms. Troutman says, “you will be able to see your dad daily. I promise.”
“No thank you ma’am. I’ll stay with my papa. I believe in him. We will be ok. Come on Papa, let’s get a shower and go.”
We stand and thank the social worker then do our deeds at the shelter. A nice shower with soap and shampoo. We eat a decent breakfast including orange juice. We take our place at our usual corner to raise money for todays’ meal. Then we return to the gym by evening to sleep amongst the other homeless residents. We have lived another day. Alcohol may have taken lots from us, but it has yet to take away love. We survived.
Constructive criticism welcomed @ greigronald64 @ gmail.com TY
This is fiction written for Master Class #4. The story must begin with “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium” from Margret Atwood’s classic, The Handmaid’s Tale.