I first saw her during the summer. I had just moved here. She was a mound in the middle of an abandoned parking lot beside the car wash. It was the stroller that got my attention. After studying her bobbing head as she napped in the blazing sun, I realized she was alone. I went on.
Another time I saw her was over six miles from there. There was a stroller packed with stuff. She was seated in the same sprawling position on a thin blanket that separated flesh from jagged gravel. The sun beamed down on her as she sat scratching her feet. Just a few feet behind her, was about three feet of shade.
This is what got my attention. I ate my fried cheese sticks in my car at the establishment next door. I watched her for more than twenty minutes as I was timing my munching so I could be just in time for carpool. As I paid the waitress I asked, “Tell me something about that girl there?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “She is there a lot.”
This puzzled me. I watched cars come and go, look at her hard and then continue on, not to mention the four lanes of traffic stopped for the red light. I watched her again, scratching her feet. As I pulled out I rounded behind the abandoned building and pulled beside her. She jumped. She had been sleeping in the nearly 97 degree heat.
“Hey!” I said. “What ya doing here?” Afterwards thinking to myself, “Really? Is that what you want to ask her?” I added, “Are you ok?”
She looked up at me, her black face covered in sweat. “I’m fine,” she answered.
“My husband and I pulled in here the other day in that little grey car, you know? He asked if you were ok and you said the same thing,” I added.
“Yeah, I remember you,” she said as she looked down and shaded her face with her hand.
“Well, you don’t look ok to me,” I told her. “Do you need anything?” I prodded.
“If you got some bug spray I might need that,” she said, scratching her legs again beneath the long socks I had watched her put on in the sweltering heat. “They’s eaten me up.”
I dug around in my car. There is always something in the bottom of my purse for every occasion. I pulled out lotion and antibacterial gel. “I’ll go get you some,” I told her. I explained I had to get my child from school, but that I would be back.
“You going anywhere?” I heard myself mumble before I could stop myself from the obvious.
“Nope,” she said.
It was then I had to dig deeper. “So if you could go home, where would that be?”
“South Florida, Gainsville.” She answered. “I got children there.”
I thought about it all the way to carpool. I called my husband. “But she didn’t ask me for money. She just sat there.All she asked for was bug spray for her legs. They were itching. I want to get her a bus ticket,” I told him. He was on the golf course.
I called the police to see if she had a record. I couldn’t imagine much harm she could do. She was so big she could barely move. They were not obliged to give me such information.
I picked up my daughter and I wheeled her in for a shake while I explained the big mound in the rearview mirror to an eight year old.
“Oh, Lord,” is all she could say, laughing at her mother who did not surprise her in the least bit.
I helped her gather her things, convincing her to ditch the bent up baby stroller and put them into the back of my husband’s pickup truck.
“We gotta get her to gymnastics,” I said as I introduced the two.
Her told me her name was Mary.
She, my eight year old daughter and I strolled into the Dollar Store for a few things for her. She picked out some feminine items and we convinced her she had to have a gift for each of her children. She picked out small inexpensive things.
My husband had cooked a roast, potatoes and corn bread. She wouldn’t eat any of it, blaming it on the burger and shake she had inhaled on the way to our house but said she would love a to go for the bus.
I had put her in our guest house to shower and get dressed with an outfit my daughter and she had picked out, stretch pants and a long top. A few minutes later I heard a knock on my door.
“No hot water,” she said, holding the towel I had taken out to her as I gathered her clothes to wash them.
“Crap, I forgot,” I said. The pilot light had started giving us trouble the week before.
“Let her take one in our bathroom,” I heard coming from the kitchen. “Really?” I said.
I went up to get it ready, tuck some things away, “just in case” and called her up there. She was there at least an hour, basking in my tub. I had lit the battery candles even.
We smelled her before we saw her. She was coming down the stairs wreaking of each of my perfumes. My husband chuckled as he was finishing up doing spelling words with our daughter.
Mary asked to sit up high on a straw stool behind us instead of the sofa with us as we proceeded to watch an old rerun of Pretty Woman (my husband’s selection) while we waited for the ten o’clock bus time to roll around on this school night.
“I don’t have no ID,” she said quietly.
After a few calls and speaking to the bus stop personnel, we were assured she could “get on the bus”. She seemed nervous as we got closer to the gas station/bus stop, which I had no idea existed.
We helped her with her bags, including a lime green monogrammed one that happened to have the same last initial as her first name. “You can’t be going home to see your babies with those bags you are carrying,” I told her.
She sat in the corner eyeing my husband as he talked to the girls there. They laughed and I could see Mary out of the corner of my eye, her finger swaying and her head bobbing as she told that girl, “Don’t you be talking to my peoples.”
It was then I realized, Mary had been here before, had taken trips, had been helped before.
But on the way home, after we made sure she got on that bus and didn’t sell her ticket, I thought about her sitting there watching my husband with my daughter doing homework. Something had to sink into that heart of hers that night.
In the next few weeks that heat that baked that bumpy gravel parking lot turned cold. I was glad each time I passed it that Mary wasn’t there. A week later, I turned to see her perched there again.
I yelled out the window. “What the heck are you doing Mary!” and kept on going. It hurt me. I found that the toys we had bought, she left at the gas station. Every time I passed I wanted to tell her how disappointed I was.
A week later after the first freeze I got a call. It was Mary being released from the hospital from pneumonia. I had shared my story with many of my friends, perhaps for consolation for myself.
“I can’t get released without someone getting me,” she said. You told me you could help me, she said. I told her I’d have to call her back.
This time I called my husband to say, “We have to do something.”
I called the shelters. They don’t house women. I called some churches, it was the day before Thanksgiving and they were full. I called the police again, they told me, “do NOT put her in the car with your child. We have had some complaints of violent outbursts.”
I thought about my tantrums that might somehow be deemed by my family over the last coke being missing as violent outbursts and felt helpless.
How might I react to people if it was me on the street, for any reason, or any length of time. When might our carnal instincts over ride our self-control?
When I called back to the number she called from I was assured, “There ARE no women here in the waiting room. None.”
I thought about what she said when I told her on the phone, “Mary, you lied to me!”
“I didn’t. They weren’t there. It was all gone, the family, the trailer. I went to Florida!”
She went on to tell me how dangerous it was there and in Atlanta on the streets. She wanted to come “home”.
We didn’t see Mary again until Christmas morning. We were taking our yearly “breakfast at Waffle House” tradition. She was standing at the turn lane waiting to cross.
We rolled down the window. “Merry Christmas Mary!” She jumped. We introduced her to our teenagers who could not believe she really did exist.
I looked at my husband, “NO.” We handed her some money, she covered her face again,which later I came to find was because she has no teeth and said “Merry Christmas” as she began pushing her cart back towards the same gravel parking lot.
On the way home we passed a huge velour sofa on the side of the road.
“Come on now! Lets take it up there and plop it in the parking lot where she sits!” I said.
I imagined Mary’s surprise but thought also about the surprise and dismay of the owner of that empty building she had taken up residence in front of, leaving her trash strewn all in the gutters. Maybe one day, I thought, I will cruise by there and see Mary with her legs propped up on the sofa, eating roast and potatoes. But not today.
If you have comments, suggestions, about this story, contact your local shelters to see how we can help people like Mary make it each day. There is nothing, according to the authorities, we can do to make them seek help. She was released from the hospital after a week of observation and is mentally as stable as the other person walking around. The closest shelter is in Birmingham for women. They have agreed to take her, that is if she will ever go.
I don’t have the answer. I was even feeling better at least everyone would know she has a name if I wrote about her. Come to find out there is MORE to the story.
I soon discovered that a local photographer had also taken to Mary, had gotten an apartment donated for her, clothes, food. She had lived there for a month or so as he worked out sponsors to help. They taught her to make wire crosses that she could sell on the roadside or in a few local businesses. I was confused when I heard a friend talking about it. They referred to her as Cheryl or Chastity but I knew it was Mary. I recently heard she had relocated to a spot under the bridge. She said it was scary in that apartment. It made me realize, no matter WHAT you do to help someone, if they aren’t willing, you are wasting your time. A hard lesson for someone who likes to fix situations. We are all under God’s grace but sometimes life blinds us. We are all just one bad decision away from being on the streets, each and every one of us, no matter how much we acquire. We just have to learn to live life the best we can and share a smile with the Mary’s of the world. One day, maybe God will give them the direction they need to make a change. Until then, all we can do is share ours.