I continued to bring B to the strip mall parking lot, guitar and grocery bag in hand, on my way to work. He was spending all day with M and E but when I came to pick him up, I started to hear things like, “Can he stay for just another half hour?” “Can he stay until we finish writing this song?” “Already? But we didn’t even have time for music! One more hour?” During this extra time, I’d go for a walk, read my book, dash over to the coffee shop. (I mean if I had to wait for B, I was practically forced to spend the money on a Mocha, right?)
On the way home, B would reiterate that we were supposed to be helping more. And on the way home, I would assert that I could not possibly. We had already done more than anyone would expect.
One afternoon I came to pick up B and he looked upset. E was crying, weeping into M’s shoulder as he alternately stroked her hair and threw rocks against the side of a building. My heart froze. What had happened? Did something happen to E? Did something happen to/with Ben?
“Mom….” B’s voice held a warning tone. I stopped and just stood there, rooted in place, terrified by the tension in the air. What had happened?
I realized T., the boarding house owner, was standing behind M and E, his arms crossed, his foot tapping. “Well…. I have to make my mortgage payment and they have a point. You’re just a couple of freeloaders. If you really wanted to stay here, you’d be responsible and get a job. You should stop playing house and just go home. Or is it really that your parents want nothing to do with you? I mean you are just a couple of lazy, irresponsible, little…”
“Shut up.” M yelled as he pushed E away from him. “Just shut up! You have no idea what you’re talking about!” He ran his fingers through his hair and E started sobbing harder.
I pulled B aside. “What is happening? Do we need to call someone?”
“I don’t think so,” he said softly. “This is a crisis. T is being a jerk but I think it’ll be fine. Just let it be a minute.”
“Well, neither do you, you arrogant little bastard.” T said. “You have until Friday but sooner is better.” He spun around and headed up the street.
M started kicking the dirt and throwing rocks at the building more furiously.
E put her head in her hands and sank to the ground. “I can’t do this anymore, M. I just >hic< can’t do this anymore. We have nowhere. We have nothing. M. We have nothing. We are nothing. I am nothing.” She was no longer sobbing but wailing. Seeing a young woman crushed, her heart and soul destroyed, hopelessly wailing out her pain and devastation right in the streets? Heartbreaking. Absolutely, cataclysmically heartbreaking.
I sat on the ground next to her. I just sat.
B walked over to M and handed him more rocks.
“It’s >ping< just >whack< not >ping< freaking >whack< right!!!” M kicked at the ground again, dust swirling up to the top of his sneaker. “We were safe here!” He threw his hands up in the air. “We were safe. He said there was no problem and then, and then… ARGH!” He rushed towards the wall, fists raised as if to punch it.
Ben stepped in front of him. “No, it isn’t fair. And T is wrong. You’re not a freeloader, M. You’re not lazy. You’re not irresponsible. You were earning your way. Remember? He made us remove his popcorn-finish ceiling and repaint it? He had us repanel his basement.”
M wiped his nose on his arm.
“We replaced his sump pump.” B continued. “We replaced his outlet and changed all his yardlight bulbs. How many times did we mow his lawn and clean his beach? We moved all that furniture from downstairs… that’s not lazy and irresponsible, M.”
“Well, apparently it is.” M took another kick at the ground and stepped around B to hurl another handful of rocks at the building. He spun around and sank to the ground next to E, rested his head on top of hers and closed his eyes as her wails dissolved into hiccups and silent, shaking sobs.
I continued to sit, frozen in place.
After a few minutes M, his eyes still closed and his head nestled into E’s, spoke. “She’s right. We are screwed. … I am just so tired. And I don’t know what to do. I suppose we could try shelters again. Or maybe there is a church who… yeah. Churches don’t want us either. They never do. They’re always afraid we’re going to steal the baby Jesus or something.”
B. looked at me, his eyes fierce. He nodded his towards his friends and whispered, “God.”
I was panicked, torn. How could this be happening? How could I possibly? How could I not? What would people say? What would they think? How could I make a decision or extend an offer? Who was I to offer an idea? My husband had moved out exactly 13 days earlier. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even really know what was happening. I didn’t know.
B mouthed more insistently, “God.” Seeing my hesitation, the mouthed whisper again, “God!”
M misinterpreted what was happening. “It’s okay B. She can know. She might as well. Go ahead and tell it. I’m just tired.”
“Well, apparently,” B explained. “Some of the other boarding house tenants found out M and E live there for free and they have all banded together and refused to pay rent until E and M pay their share. They can’t pay so T told them to get out.”
“But they were doing work in exchange and … he doesn’t even let them be there during the day or eat or…?????” I was so confused! I thought T was a good person helping M and E.
“No, mom.” B said. “He was fine with them there as long as things got done. He basically treated them like they were slaves and now that he is out of work for us to do, there is no reason for him to continue letting them live there. The tenants are just a good excuse he can lob onto.”
“Wait… out of work for the three of you to do?”
“Yes. The three of us. He started coming home in the middle of the day and demanding things get done.” B explained. “And the things he wanted the two of them to do were so impossible! ‘Scrape the popcorn ceiling off but I don’t have a ladder you can use?’ Neither of them are taller than 5’4.” How did he possibly expect them to do that? So I did it. And we made it fun. Sometimes I’d just scrape the ceiling. Sometimes I’d give one of them piggybacks so they could take a turn. T’s a dehumanizing jerk.”
M closed his eyes again and I asked, “When do you have to be out? Did he say Friday?”
“He’s going to throw our stuff in the street.” E asserted, completely defeated. “We saw him do that to another guy.”
“Friday” said M. “Or as soon as we can.”
B glared at me, holding his hands out in a silent gesture of incredulity that I had not jumped in, had not fixed things yet.
I closed my eyes, breathing in their pain, their defeat.