Friday, October 31, 2008

Dining By Firelight

The only illumination at the restaurant was the candles placed on diners’ tables. Conversation was a pleasant soft murmur. The menu was overpriced, but it was our anniversary. All elements were in place for a romantic evening out.

Tim’s phone rang. “Ignore it,” I begged, but Tim was already talking. “Yeah, we can be there,” he said. “We’re about 30 minutes away.”

“Whatever it is, it can wait,” I said. Tim hung up the phone. “I can’t. It’s the Red Cross. A family’s just had a house fire. We’ve got to relocate them.”

When people think of the Red Cross, they tend to think of the big things: war, hurricane, earthquake. They don’t realize that volunteers also get called out for flooded basements or house fires. . .these little personal earthquakes that can touch just a single family.

We arrived at the address given. It was a trailer park. I expected a fire engine or police car parked, its red lights whirling silently. But the park was quiet, and we drove down row after row of trailers until we found the one.

The fire has already been put out; the trailer was dark, with blackened soot streaking from the windows and door. We stepped out of the car. The acid tang of the residual smoke hit my nose.

Two other Red Cross volunteers, Bob and Kathy, had already arrived. “Can you smell that?” said Kathy. “That’s the smell of formaldehyde. These trailers are full of it. When I lived in one, I would shampoo the carpet over and over to get the smell out.”

Tim needed to talk to the family and assess what they could use: housing, clothing, money. “They’re over by the truck,” said Bob.

A small, well-worn woman sat on the tailgate of the truck, holding a black x-shaped guitar in her lap. Her feet swung back and forth. “Tommy would have killed me if I had let his guitar get burned up,” she said.

Tim pulled out a clipboard and started filling out paperwork. “Who’s Tommy.”
“He lives here,” said the woman.
“Is he here? Is he okay?” asked Tim.
“He’s in Vegas,” she said. “He’s bailing a friend out of jail.”

She continued to speak as Tim wrote on his clipboard. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she said. “We’ve only been here for two weeks.” The woman had been living in a motel, renting by the week, for the last few months and keeping clear of an abusive ex who had a warrant out for his arrest. She had finally landed someplace to stay. Got a job as a cashier at the local Goodwill.

Tim tried to get a head count for his report. “Now, your name is. .”
“Sharon,” she said. “And this is my son, Phoenix.”

A guy, in his early 20’s, stepped forward into the pool of light cast by our flashlight. I wondered what caused Phoenix’s mother to saddle him with such a cryptic name, since he was too old to be named after the dead actor. Perhaps his birth was a rebirth of some sort for Sharon.

“Are you owners of the house?” asked Tim.
“No,” said Sharon. “Lindsey, over there, is. Well, Lindsey’s mom does, technically.”

I could track Lindsey by the jittery glow of her cigarette, as she wandered in lopsided circles. She looked like she was in her teens, but carried the air of someone trying to pass as older. “My cat,” she said. “I’ve got to take care of my cat.”

“Is the cat still in the house, hon?” asked Kathy.
“No. . .” Lindsey said. “He ran off.”
“You know, hon,” said Kathy. “Cats are real good at taking care of themselves. I’m sure he’s hiding somewhere safe. We’ll leave food and water out for him, and see if he shows up in the morning.”

Tim turned back to Sharon. “How did the fire start?”
“I don’t know,” said Sharon. “I was gone. Lindsey was home.”

Lindsey said nothing. She continued to circle and smoke her cigarette.

“Wait,” said Bob. “We’ve got to get these people comfort kits before we put them up for the night. “ He dug through the Red Cross kit. “These are for you,” he said, giving Sharon, Phoenix and Lindsey a gallon size plastic bag. “These were paid for by the community through donations to the Red Cross,” Bob finished ceremoniously.

The bags are filled with little things: washcloths, razors, soap, and shampoo. I thought, this is all they now have. Everything they owned was contained in a gallon size bag.

“I’ve got to make some phone calls to get you folks a place to stay for the night,” said Tim. “So, if you’ll excuse me for a minute. . .”

Bob and Tim met at the hood of the truck, while Kathy chatted with Sharon. There was a problem. While driving over to the scene, Bob heard over the police scanner that this fire was a code 10-200: a fire where drugs were involved. And it was hard to ignore a conclusion that hung in the air: suspicious fire + transient residents + trailer park= meth lab fire. Bob and Tim spoke in low voices, and there were many unfinished sentences and pauses. A meth fire meant that it was dangerous for anyone to go back into the house. And while Red Cross volunteers give aid to anyone who needs it, Tim and Bob were a little hesitant to hand over a debit card with a few hundred dollars to possible drug addicts.

Tim decided to get rooms at a hotel for the three, and next morning, volunteers would get them cleanup kits, grocery money, and vouchers for clothes at Goodwill. Tim gave the hotel information to Sharon and Phoenix as they got in their car.
“I don’t know if this piece of shit will get us there,” said Sharon.
“You’ve got our number. Please call us if you have any problems,” said Tim.

A car drove up with a mustached man at the wheel. Lindsey waved off the volunteers and hopped into the car. “I don’t need a place to stay,” she said. “I have my boyfriend.” She drove off.

And the street was empty. I don’t know if Sharon, Phoenix and Lindsey will show up tomorrow morning. Perhaps they will disappear, with only the Red Cross paperwork to mark that they were here. And perhaps Lindsey was cooking meth and started the fire. But I felt no sense of justice. For whatever these people may have done, this life that they led was no life at all. And it was a life that no one deserved.

I couldn’t help but think how people could be upended so easily. And I kept thinking of Sharon’s words as we drove away from the trailer park.

“You know,” said Sharon. “Me and some co-workers had gone out to dinner tonight. To celebrate a birthday. And I thought, how nice it was for once, to go out to dinner and have some good food. I thought for once, things were looking up.”

Photo provided by bas3lin3 of stock.xchng photo (

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

All Night Long

It’s 10:37 at night. I jump up from the phone call, start stuffing an overnight bag with toiletries and clothes. There’s an opening at the Sleep Center, and if I hurry, I can make it.

I’m doing a sleep study because I have a terrible habit of falling asleep at the most inappropriate times: driving, typing at the computer, having sex. So, after months of waking up to, “Honey, was it good for you, too?” I decided to take action.

The study? Well, it’s like a sleepover. . .at your doctor’s office. I pull up to the darkened office building and walk in, a little disoriented.

“Hello, you here for the sleep center?” I hear above me. Hanging over the balcony four flights up, a guy in scrubs waves at me. “Come on up!”

There’s a partition dividing the office, and I can see monitors and graphs at two stations where the two sleep technicians, Jorge and Deidra, sit and watch me as I sleep. All night long. I’m glad that medical school led them to such a fulfilling career.

Deidra shows me my room, which is behind the receptionist’s desk. The walls are oatmeal. There’s a quilt on the bed, a Mary Cassatt print of a mother and baby napping on the wall. The decorations are overstuffed country, like a Vermont bed and breakfast. I dress quickly in my pajamas, trying to figure out if the hidden camera was placed in the stuffed animal on the shelf or is shooting from behind the potted plant.

Jorge and Deidra bustle in the room to get me ready. They become fascinated with my selection of sleepwear. “Lucky Charms,” Deidra exclaims. “How cute!” “You know,” said Jorge. “We see the most interesting pajama pants in here. Someone once wore Pepsi pajama pants!” They both giggle. I mumble something about how my church youth group all made Lucky Charm pajama pants as a project, and since I was a leader, I had to have a pair. But I get a sinking feeling that the next time someone does a sleep study, Jorge and Deidra will tell them the story of the Lady Who Wore Lucky Charms Pajamas. Why, I think, why I didn’t wear my gray sweats?

Jorge and Deidra start to attach diodes to my scalp, my legs, and my chest. They massage patches of pink gum at my temples and hook up wires.

After the 10th wire is attached, I think, shouldn’t they be done by now?
After the 20th, I start to feel uneasy.
After the 30th, I panic.

This is when being a fan of sci-fi movies works against me. The 6th day, the Matrix, Jacob’s Ladder, Minority Report, Brainstorm: nothing good happens to anyone’s brain that’s hooked up with wires. Ever.

I regret watching La Jetee last week.*

“Now,” said Deidra. “We need to place this around your neck before we get into bed.” She places a large plastic donut around my neck. This is the mother ship: the other end of all those wires that had been attached to me. Hanging from my neck, it looks like a switchboard is bursting from my chest.

I don’t know how I can sleep with the donut on my chest, but thankfully it hangs on the wall. I only have to pull it down and carry it with me if I use the restroom at night. You know, like when your 8th grade teacher thought it was funny to have you use a toilet seat as a hall pass.

“But before I can dim the lights, we have to test the equipment,” said Jorge. His accent is breathy and he’s still a little bit giggly. “Now, raise your right arm. Now, your left. Raise your left leg. . “

And turn yourself around, I think.

“Let’s have you breathe in,” said Jorge. “Hold it. Now breathe out. Now, push your tummy out as far as you can. Farther. . .now, suck in your tummy. And breathe out. In and out, very, very fast. No, faster. Hee hee, out the mouth.”

I get labor flashbacks. Deidra must be at her station in the other room, laughing her arse off.

Finally, lights out. Now, just relax, I tell myself. This is just like sleeping at home. My muscles relax, and I start to fall asleep, when a thought strikes me like a jolt of caffeine: They are watching you.

I can’t shake off the nagging paranoia, no matter what I do. I try to imagine restful beach scenes, I scoot, trying to get a more comfortable position. No good. Despite me desperately trying to contain myself, I let out a little fart. Just enough for the microphones to pick it up.

They heard that.

After about three hours of forcing myself to relax, I sit up. Five seconds later, Deidra opens the door.
“Everything all right?”

This does not help my paranoia of being watched.

I just can’t sleep, I tell Deidra. “Well, we can give you a sleeping pill.”

Now, she tells me.

I take the pill, and shuffle off to the bathroom.

I start thinking about the sleep study, and while on the toilet, start to fall asleep. That would be ironic, I thought. But I got up, because the last thing I’d want is for Deidra to come in here and find me asleep on the can. That would insure my induction into the halls of sleep study freaks forever.

But I make the mistake of glancing into the mirror while I wash my hands. Strands of multi-colored wires sprout from my scalp. My skin glistens with the gum that they used to affix the wires with. And with my drooping eyes and slack jaw, I look about two steps away from being committed.

With that pleasant image in my head, I go back to bed and crash at about 2:47 am. Next thing I know, Jorge is shaking me awake. “Come on, it’s time for you to wake up and go home,” he says in a singsong voice.
I stumble through the parking lot and drive home with a prayer in my heart. Please, please let them get enough data so I don’t have to do that again.

Later, I fall asleep in class again. “Bad night, huh?” my classmate says.

*For those that don’t know, La Jetee is a black and white film. It’s French. It’s nihilistic. It’s about a man who travels through space and time with the aid of a padded bra strapped over his eyes. I’m telling you, it makes for a fun weekend.