Leena’s fingernails are thick as scallop shells, her case worker Victoria observes. Her clinical afterthought is shoe tying and sewing must be near impossible. They are driving to a campground outside of Anacortes where Leena will stay with friends. Borne from desperation and desolation the transitional housing definition has expanded to include camping. To pass the time as they drive Leena recounts traumas with her parents, ex-husband, kids – especially her youngest daughter who kicked her out.
“Why’d she make me leave? I played with her kids. Hell, I shared a room with them, my grandbabies. I slept on a damn yoga mat on their floor and would’ve done it forever, forever!”
Victoria looks away from Leena’s nails, striated brown and yellow, “Let’s get past that and focus on getting you to the campground, Leena. I am sorry you’re upset your daughter made you leave. But you have friends who said you could stay in their tent. We need to get there before the campground closes.”
“Aw hell, I don’t really know how to get there. I always got a lift!” she cries, wiping away tears that disappear into the crook of her nails.
Leena looks at her damp, red-streaked face in the rearview mirror, “Look at me,” she lets out a hoarse laugh, slapping her lap with her palms, “Come on now, Vicky, admit it. Your client looks like shit!”
Victoria laughs with Leena, “You’ll never get me to agree with you.”
“Sometime I will. Sometime when you’re not all stiff and professional I’ll get you to say how god awful I am!”
Leena turns on the radio and bounces in her seat to ‘Uptown Funk’ yelling, “Oh, how I love this song! Don’t you love this song, Vicky?”
She turns the radio down to answer a call on her pink cell phone, mumbling low in an attempt to prevent Victoria hearing her, “You sure? But I don’t have anywhere else to go,” she cries, ending the call, tears dropping onto her phone, “I’m sorry, Vicky, they say I can’t stay with them yet.”
For the next twenty miles Leena dozes, yelling in her sleep and scratching at pale brown scars on her arms layered like a folded cheesecloth. Victoria has no plan now other than arriving in Anacortes where Leena still wants to go. Shelters are rarely drop-in. At best there’s a waitlist and on top of that an in-depth screening to protect other residents from admitting ill people like Leena. Victoria pictures Leena’s history like a crescent moon-shaped slope on a graph, its highest point her birth, always moving down and down: before the campground her daughter’s home. Before that jail. Before that a stretch of abuse beginning with her dad and ending with her ex-husband, Don. Victoria lets judgement creep in. The worst abusers always have plain names like Don, rarely burly ones like Damien or Malcolm.
She holds her breath and maintains a tight smile, thinking if she remains calm and focused on the terrain ahead then one of Leena’s contacts will call back changing their mind. She’s never seen this rural area before with dark trees covered with transparent yellow leaves and waving grasses in vibrant teal lining the highway, distracting her from the familiar growl in her stomach that signals an impending failure to help her client. How can it be, teal shaded grass? In the distance there is an orange light on the horizon over the blue-black water near Anacortes.
Leena awakens as they pass the campground turnoff. She looks ahead hard, countering Victoria’s beatific smile with a scowl, “Vicky, I could never count on those jackasses you call my friends. Damn them to hell! If it makes any difference we could’ve drove up to their tent and they would’ve changed their mind right there.”
The highway curves wide, climbs then drops into sharp and stunning Anacortes. The dark water separates wobbling boats in the marina. The orange light on the horizon is gone, with the ultramarine sky now almost matching the colorless water. Its low buildings do not obscure the view of the distant cluster of San Juan islands Victoria only knows about from reading they are a hip celebrity getaway. She pulls up to the bus stop, parks beside the curb and piles Leena’s bundle of belongings on a white bench under the streetlight.
Leena exits the company car squinting at the streetlight and turns stiffly towards Victoria, “Welp, we gave it a shot, Vicky! We’ll try and find something again next week,” holding out her hand, the backside of her nails topping her fingers like a weathered fence.
She clutches bus tickets Victoria drops into her palm, mustering buoyancy, “I can ride buses most all the night long.”
Victoria pulls away from the bus stop looking toward the sky and water, so dark now there is nothing delineating them.
Image – Looking west near sunset in the San Juan Islands, Washington, U.S., from a Washington State Ferry somewhere on the way from Friday Harbor to Anacortes.Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
5 thoughts on “To Anacortes by Susan DeFelice”
It’s a treat to see you back on the site!
This was a very interesting piece of work!!
I don’t know about the American system at all. However, (In a past life) I have had to refuse folks accommodation simply because there was none. I don’t know how many times I’ve been screamed at and called allsorts because there was nothing available. It doesn’t help when you tell the person that you would be delighted to accommodate them, if there was somewhere to put them.
What really fucked me off apart from knowing that some poor soul was on the street, were our gaffers who would then ask, ‘Did you phone round all the hotels?’ We had a list of those that were willing to take in the homeless and if they were full, there was no way in hells earth could you persuade the likes of the ‘affluent’ ‘Trumps Turnberry’ or ‘The Piersland’ in Troon or ‘The Lochside’ in New Cumnock to take in a homeless person. But that was all our fault for not trying hard enough.
Anyhow, I have the same thoughts here, maybe it is feasible that she would drop her off at the bus-stop. If she had a pass, then as she said, she could ride the busses all night and would at least be warm and dry. Tomorrow would have to look after itself
When I think on The American Mental Health System compared to ours, there is quite a difference.
The ‘abandonment’ in all it’s contexts and inevitability is the whole point of this story and that is a strong message.
Harrowing subject matter that needs to be addressed.
Brilliant story for number four!!! (Check them all out folks – You will be in for a treat!!)
I think that Hugh addressed your topic brilliantly. Being that I am from the area described and live in a town only a short drive from Anacortes, you have perfectly described the rapidly growing “under-population,” all around here, whose existence no one can now successfully ignore. You captured the mix of quiet despair and resignation that goes so well with the northwest winter sky.
Indeed, this is about as far West as you can go in the continental US to try and find shelter, or escape, or anything else. Leena’s at the end of the road. The ride is an interesting story. What the narrator doesn’t say is that Anacortes is dominated by one of the biggest oil refineries in the Pacific Northwest.
The descriptions were well-crafted and contributed to the somber mood. By the time we get to the end, riding buses all night seems inevitable, horrible as it is.
Thank you for your comments. You are eloquent and direct in describing the growing “under population”, as Leila describes it. I admire that. Hugh says it well – there isn’t enough housing for everyone and the poor & ill get the short end of the stick. Then social services workers are blamed for not trying hard enough to create something from nothing. Of course money is, but poor health is also a root problem – without it you lose your money, your status, the biggies in America. Insurance companies are upset that their homeless customers use emergency rooms for shelter, driving up costs and down profits. They are beginning to fund housing programs and buy buildings realizing the obvious connection between being homeless and having poor health. Sorry to get on a high horse but giving a client a $25 tent from Walmart and a book of bus tickets, then plopping them in some rural area where they are neither seen nor heard isn’t a solution.