Authors: Lauren Groff
They stopped. Hang on, the woman said, and she bent down and held a lighter to a newspaper, then the newspaper to a bit of kindling. The fire revealed a heavy woman with a bready face and hair in a pink shade of red. I got the water, kids, she said. You can come out. There was the sound of a zipper, and four little bodies crept from a tent. They were indistinguishable from one another at first, four skinny things with long blondish hair.
The woman looked up and said, Not smart, coming here alone.
I had nowhere to go, she said, and her voice sounded ugly in her ears.
No family? the woman said. Clean-looking girl like you?
No, she said.
Got food? the woman asked, and she nodded as she pulled from her pack the last of her supplies: a loaf of
white bread, a jar of peanut butter, a pack of cheese, a few tins of sardines, three cheap dry packs of ramen.
Peanut butter! one of the kids said, snatching it up, and the woman smiled at her for the first time. Share your food, you can share our tent, she said.
Thank you, she said. When they sat to eat, one of the little girls came close to her and put a hand on the sole of her foot. When she was little, she'd had the same hunger for touch. She could smell woodsmoke in the girl's blond hair, something clovelike in her skin.
The big woman was named Jane, and they nursed cups of weak cocoa after the children went to sleep. Jane told her about the husband who had run off, the house she and the kids lost, the jobs she'd been fired from because of her temper. She sighed. Same old story, she said.
She could hear the campsite settling, could smell marijuana over the thick stink of the place; a man was shouting, then his voice suddenly cut off. The house was real nice, Jane said ruefully. Pool and all. My husband always said there's no such thing as a Florida childhood without a pool. She snorted, and made a gesture toward the children. Now we're camping.
How long have you been here? the girl asked.
But this was the wrong thing to say, and Jane frowned at her and said, It's temporary, and stood to clean her cup. We'll get back to where we were.
Still, when she went to brush her teeth, she noticed Jane watching. Toothpaste, she said. Kids've been out for a while. You think tomorrow you can let us borrow some? And she said sure, and Jane smiled again, and by the time the two women went into the tent and curled on either side of the four sprawling children, they were friends again.
In the bright light of the morning, the campsite was steaming with fog: it looked almost innocuous, dreamy. She started up the fire and found the drinking water and began to boil oatmeal for the kids. They came out, one by one. The oldest couldn't have been more than five, none of them school age. In other tents, other women's voices rose, other children responded. A small boy ran over, said a shy Hey to Jane's children, and fled back to his mother.
She understood now that this was the family part of the tent city, that the safety here was safety in numbers, of rules and unspoken militancy against the threat just feet beyond.
Jane poked her head out, smiled, and emerged in a fast-food uniform.
You watch the kids today? she said. The girl who usually watches them got housing a few days ago, and I better not drop them at the library again.
I can read, the oldest girl said. I can, too, the second-oldest said. Sort of, the first said, but kindly.
She looked at the children, a sinking in her stomach. Oh, she said.
Jane's face was cold again. Listen, she said. Either I work or we never get out of here. Either they stay with you or I drop them off at the library and risk Family Services catching wind and lose them. We got no choice.
Okay, she said. Of course I'll watch them. And Jane said thanks but looked at her sourly as she untangled the little girls' hair with a wet comb.
Nights, Jane came back stinking of grease, with bags of burgers and fries that had sat for too long to sell. She soaked her feet in warm water, groaning, and, when the kids were asleep, talked bitterly of her boss. Stupid young lech, she said. Felt up my boobies in the supply room.
The girl nodded, listening, offering little. But Jane seemed to take solace in her quiet presence, treating her like a slow cousin, pitiful but useful.
The kids and she were coming out of the library one afternoon when they saw Jane across the street on a bench.
Uh-oh, the oldest girl said. The youngest buried her head in her brother's back.
Stay here, she said, and sat the children on a wall in front of the library.
Fired, Jane said, without raising her head. I got a temper. I
It's all right, she said, though the ground seemed to buckle under her feet. You'll get another job.
Jane lifted her head and spat, No, it isn't all right. It's so not fucking all right. I put down all our money on a place the other day and was waiting for my pay on Friday to put down the rest.
Jane sighed and passed a hand over her face and said, Go back to the tent. I'll be in when I'm in.
For supper, she and the kids had tomato soup and cheese sandwiches. She told the children stories filched from the
, and they fell asleep waiting for their mother. She sat by the fire until she ran out of wood and the bodies drifting by in the darkness grew menacing. Then she zipped herself inside the tent, warmed by the breath of the children.
In the morning, Jane's side of the tent was still empty. She took the children to the graveyard halfway between the tent city and the town. It was their favorite place: calm, neat, and pretty, with great old oaks and rows of plastic flowers that they gathered in their arms and redistributed to the loneliest-looking stones.
At the end of the day, she brought the children to the police department and gave them each a cup of oversweetened tea and a powdered doughnut that she found on a table in the waiting area.
When she asked about Jane, the policewoman barely looked up from her computer. She sucked her lip and typed in Jane's name and said, Um-hum. Arrested yesterday at about seven. Prostitution.
No, the girl said. The children were out of earshot. She said, That can't be right.
The policewoman flicked her eyes over her, and the girl could see herself as the woman didâdirty, stringy, smelly, browned to leather, clearly homeless. The policewoman's mouth settled into its wrinkles. Well, it is, she said, and went back to what she was doing.
The girl summoned the ghost of the almost-professor she'd been and said, enunciating sharply, Officer, please listen to me. I need to have you contact Family Services. These are Jane's children and I find that I cannot, unfortunately, care for them at this time.
She sat with the children until a tired-looking woman in a black suit hurried in, stopping to talk with the officer at the desk. When the Family Services woman said a bright Hello, the kids looked up from the magazine they'd been studying and watched warily as the woman hoisted her trousers to crouch before them.
The girl stood, her knees wobbly, and backed toward the door.
The day was too bright. Her head rang. She had eaten nothing since the morning. She went back to the tent and slept until dawn. Just before the tent city began to stir, she gathered her things and walked to town, leaving Jane's
tent still up, the children's belongings tidied into piles and her own sleeping bag in the center in craven apology.
She thought of her mother, what it must be like for her to have a vanished daughter. The police must have found the abandoned station wagon and traced it; someone must have called. Her mother would think of murder or abduction, would wonder what she had done to make her daughter so ungrateful. Maybe, the girl thought with a pulse of spite, fear had finally awakened her mother. Maybe she was scouring the state for her, even now.
She slept for two days under her tarp in her former neighbor's bamboo thicket. The nights were warmer in May, but she still shivered. Once, she woke to find the bright green eyes of a cat staring at her and called out her old pet's name, but the animal ran off.
She walked all the way to the university, remembering that it was graduation weekend, which meant that many of the students were moving out. Perhaps she could get some food or another sleeping bag, she thought. In college, she had watched boys open a fifth-floor fraternity window and dump their perfectly good computers to the ground. She herself had emptied her mini fridge of its still-fresh yogurts and apples and frozen pizzas, and tossed them into the garbage. She felt ratlike on campus,
scuttling from shadow to shadow. If anyone she knew saw her. If anyone smelled her. There was a tent in one quad, and she could just perceive in the dawn that a buffet was being set up. She waited until the caterers went behind their van for a break, and swiftly filled up a plate with hot eggs and potatoes and sausage. She looked up to see one of the caterers staring at her, a crate of glasses in his hands. She smiled at him, and he, grimly, waved her off.
Outside the senior dorms, she noticed a great metal truck into which people were heaving mattresses, coffee makers, chairs. She saw an office chair levitate above the lip of a dumpster, but the boy who was supposed to catch it had already seized a crate of electrical wires and turned away. The arms holding it began to shake. Without thinking, she stepped forward and grasped the chair above her head. The man who was passing it peeked out at her, smiling. He had black hair tied back in a ponytail and crow's-feet pressed into the skin beside his eyes. You helping? he said.
She was surprised into saying, Sure.
He winked and passed over a rolled-up rug.
She carried boxes of books, a headboard, a coffee table. The truck suddenly started up and someone muttered, Come on. She ran as the others began to run and leapt with them into the truck. A security car pulled up just as the doors clanged shut and the truck moved off. It
was dark, the engine roaring, so crowded she felt as if she were suffocating. But someone touched her arm, lightly traced it to her hand, and put something paper-covered into her palm. It was a candy bar.
At last, the truck stopped and the engine shut off. There was a clicking, and the doors opened to impossible brightness. They were at the edge of a long rolling expanse of grass. She heaved her backpack down and jumped out onto the sandy ground.
A girl with a smudged face and long braid turned to her and said, It's breakfast time.
She trailed the other girl up the dirt drive to a sprawling ramshackle building. What is this? she said, and the other girl laughed. It's the Prairie House, she said. It's a squat. Do you normally just follow people without knowing where you're going?
Recently, yes, she said. The girl looked carefully at her, then said, Whoa. You don't look so good, sweetie, and led her to a bed that she sank into even though the sheets smelled strongly of someone else and she couldn't find the energy to take off her boots.
She slept through the day, the night, the next day, and woke light-headed with hunger. She crept down to the kitchen, passing bodies sprawled on cots and mattresses. The refrigerator was nauseating, overstuffed and sending off a garlicky rotten odor, but she found a
pot of stew that was still warm shoved in among wrinkled apples.
The moon had risen over the prairie and shot the hummocks with shadow. A small creature was moving at the edge of the lawn, and in the house, she could hear the others sleeping, their movements and breath. She was alert, as she hadn't been in years. She turned on the light over the stove and looked at it in horror: it was caked with old meals, stinking of grease. She would begin now, she thought, and found a cleaner under the sink, a mismatched pair of rubber gloves, some steel wool. She began inch by inch and worked as quietly as she could. She avoided the windows, sensing that if she looked out, she would see Eugene's hungry spirits massing up from the prairie, the Crackers with their whips, the malarial conquistadores on their little ponies. Or Jane's children, their faces pressed to the glass.
By morning, the stove shone, the refrigerator was clean and the rotten food tossed, the dishes in the sink scoured and the sink again its natural stainless-steel color. She had reordered the cabinets, cleaning them of mouse droppings and dead cockroaches.
Her body felt vague with fatigue, but the clarity in her head remained. When she turned around, the man from the dumpster was sitting at the table watching her. Wowzers, he said. Can't remember the last time somebody made this kitchen so shiny.
I still have a lot to do, she said, and he said, Sit down a minute and talk.
He told her the rules: No fighting, no drugs, sleep where you find a place. People were in and out all the time and nobody knew everyone, so if she had valuables, she'd need to keep them close.
I have nothing, she said, and he said, All the better. Everyone pulls their weight, doing things around the house or in the barn, where they had a business reselling discarded items on the Internet, which paid for the water and electric and some of the food they didn't just salvage. They tried to live without money as much as possible and did pretty well.
He stopped and grinned at her.
That's it? she said. Even in the tent city there had been more implicit rules.
Yup, he said. It's heaven.
She thought for a minute and said, Or hell.
Same difference, he said, and poured her a coffee.
The party had grown organically, as things did in the Prairie House. Now there were skinny-dippers, splashes of surprising white in the sinkhole, and a keg circled by Christmas lights strung up on an oak tree. She turned from the bonfire where she was standing, the silhouettes of dancing bodies still in her eyes.
Beyond the party, the prairie unscrolled, calm and impassive, meeting the sky with an equal darkness. She found herself moving into it, each step a relief from the drunken voices, the flaming moths of paper spun from the fire, the sear of the flames. Past the first hummock of trees, the darkness took on a light of its own, and she began to distinguish the texture of the ground. She moved calmly over the pits of sand, palmettos biting at her calves, strange sudden seeps of marsh. Small things rustled away from her footsteps, and she felt fondly toward them, for their smallness and their fear.