The characters are fictional, however they are comprised of the combined personalities of people I have known and portray the difficulties encountered by so many of the homeless people I have been fortunate to encounter and become friends with while working on the downtown streets of the City of Calgary.
I dedicate this story to Danny One Owl and his wife Mary, Mark, Fred, Crazy Sally, Terry B and Terry O, Ron Beard, Blaine and all those dear men and women who live rough in parks and under bridges, as well as all those who survive on grates behind buildings or in doorways whose names I don’t know but whose stories I have heard. For all who spend days riding the trains, or reading in the library or moving from one store to another in the pursuit of warmth.
It is my premise that homelessness will persist as long as there is no treatment for the mentally ill or brain injured, and no help for family violence, prejudice and disrespect for the rights of others. The statistics bear out that only two percent of people who find a happy ending such as I have portrayed in this story.
However, each person on the street has a story to share that will break your heart, and the only thing that will help them is genuine unconditional LOVE.
The Stairway To Love
BY: Linda Penton
Lucy walked down an alley to the warm air grate behind the old Hotel where she planned to spend the night. The temperature was -12 and with the wind chill it felt more like -27. She was equipped to sleep rough, with a couple of black garbage bags defence against the damp and a sleeping bag that the shelter had provided. She was dressed in four layers of clothing that she had not removed in at least a week. Scratching had become a futile exercise in trying to relieve the itch which convinced her that she had picked up some not so friendly critters from the woman who had slept next to her in the shelter two days ago. That and the abuse she had suffered in the shelter had convinced her it was better to sleep out in the alley as long as she could survive the cold.
Lucy had not always lived like this! She and her husband had lived a good life. He had been an accountant in their small town in BC with his own practice and she had worked in the local pharmacy. They had owned a small but beautiful house on the lake shore and been part of a close knit group of friends.
Now after having been on the streets of Calgary for the last ten years her 48 year old face looked more like 60. Her once shiny blond hair was a dirty tangled mass and she had all her worldly possessions packed in a back pack which she would use as a pillow every night. In this way she had managed to save her documents; social insurance card, birth certificate, and old drivers license from theft. She had them packed in a plastic bag in the bottom of the pack along with the pictures of her son and husband sitting together in a small boat holding up their catch of the day. They had loved camping and fishing and that passion had resulted in their untimely death on that terrible day when their truck had gone through the ice, Boxing Day of 1999. They had been so excited and just couldn’t wait to try out that new ice fishing equipment Santa had brought even though they knew the weather had been too warm for the ice to become hard enough to hold vehicles.
For years she had tried to overcome the grief with counselling but the guilt she felt for not stopping them that morning overwhelmed her in huge waves until she felt she would drown in her own tears. Then she began blaming herself for not being there to die with them. Finally she had suffered a complete break down. Her friends and her family had tried to help her but after a time they had drifted away because they couldn’t reach her as she retreated deeper and deeper into depression. Her parents had passed away and she had lost her job as she had lost touch with the reality that was her life. The bank had reluctantly repossessed their property and so homeless she had come to the big city to try to find some reason for existing again.
Here, ten years later, Lucy was just numb, stumbling blindly from one day to the next without realizing or caring what day of the week it was or where the next meal would come from. Misery was her lot since the emotional and physiological pain had obliterated all else from her life. She had even lost the drive to commit suicide and so she lay down this evening with a sigh hoping that she could simply go to sleep and never wake up again.
At 2 am the waiter who was in charge of the final garbage run from the Hotel bar stumbled over her prostrate form huddled over the grate. He yelled at her and told her to get up and move on. He reinforced the command to move on with a good swift kick to her ribs as he hurried back into the warmth of the kitchen.
Across the alley on the balcony of the fire escape of the apartment block Tom sat having his final cigarette of the evening before turning in for the night. He had witnessed the savage kick and waited for the huddled form on the grate to rise and move off.
Tom had come to Calgary five years before with everything he owned packed in a couple of bags. He had lost the love of his life to cancer six years ago. He could not stay in the house they had owned because everything there had become a painful memory. So he closed the place up, handed the keys to a cousin, telling him to rent it out if someone wanted it and had gone to stay with his older sister and her family in Toronto for a time. He had tried to find work there but everything he tried seemed to come to an end.
Then he had met an old friend from back home, in a bar one evening and together they had made a plan to go west where it was reported jobs were plentiful. At first he found Day labour and had stayed in The Seed. Then he had found a good man, a contractor, who seeing how Tom put in a fair days work for his pay, offered him a permanent job on a construction crew. Slowly, he had worked his way into a better position, until now he was a crew chief and had a lease on this three room apartment with a small savings account socked away for a rainy day. He still missed his wife, Lorna and kept their wedding photo on the bed side table but he had accepted her death and the solitary existence that was his lot in life. He had formed a few friendships with some people from down east who gathered in a small bar just about every weekend. This group’s friendship had, over years, resulted in a traditional East Coast dinner for Christmas Eve, with fresh lobster flown in and some down home type music. He was looking forward to the tastes and sounds of home he would share with friends tomorrow, as he smoked quietly on the second floor balcony. He had been remembering the kitchen parties he and Lorna had enjoyed with their neighbours before she had become ill.
The violent act below had interrupted his reverie and he felt his pleasant anticipation slip away from him as he witnessed the harsh scene. He understood the pain of that person beneath the garbage bags and was surprised that there had been no further reaction from the lump that was a human form there on the grate.
Fearing the worst, Tom knew he had three choices. He could just ignore the whole thing and go to bed or he could call the police and let them deal with the situation. But from the somewhere deep within the recesses of his memory came the recollection of a story his mother had told him as a child. The story of the Good Samaritan convinced him the right thing to do was help. Suddenly he knew he could not ignore this person’s plight and he knew that calling the police was not the answer! Pulling down the fire escape stairs he pulled the hood of his coat over his head and prepared to do what he could to rescue this poor soul from certain frost bite or worse.
When he reached the alley he approached the person with care, calling loudly before he got too close. You never knew when that person would rouse, on the attack with a knife or a gun to defend their position. After calling, “Hey You! Hello there! Are you Okay?” with no response, he got close enough to touch a shoulder. Finally, there was some movement. “Huh, whadya want?” and to his surprise he saw it was a woman.
Tom explained, “ I saw that guy kick you and when you didn’t move I thought you might be in real trouble.” The woman grunted humourlessly “Ah, what d’ya care?” was the short response as she prepared to burrow deeper into her bag. “Let me sleep. Maybe I’ll get lucky and freeze.” she finished, pulling the bag back up over her head. “Hey that’s no way to talk to someone tryin’ to help you!” Tom spoke with some force. “ Help?” the rusty face reappeared over the edge of the bag, “Why would you think you can Help ME? Help me die or leave me to do it on my own!” was the woman’s last response before she burrowed back into the bag. “Hey, I can’t leave you here. It’s supposed to go down to -22 tonight and if you won’t take my help, I’ll have to phone the police. I don’t want you on my conscience if you die here.” Tom grabbed the bag and said “Y’re comin’ with me Lady!” He picked her up bodily, bag and all and found she was barely a good armful, maybe 100 pounds soakin’ wet, he thought. The back pack fell away to the ground. With that, some primal instinct made her fight to retrieve it and Tom was forced to set her down again.
She grabbed the pack and hugged it to her chest as he picked her up and once more struggled to take his bulky package back up the two flights of stairs to his apartment. Out of breath he set her down just inside the door and began to peel away the layers. For someone so small and hopeless she was surprisingly strong and she fought to hang on to the sleeping bag with both hands. “Come on you!” Tom commanded, “You can keep the bag but you have to walk ‘cause I can’t carry you another step! So let’s open it up so you can step out of it.”
With out saying a word she undid the zip and as she did the putrid scent of her unwashed body and clothing rose to fill the hall in front of Tom’s apartment door. “Whew, when was the last time you had a bath?” “Long time.” she stated flatly. “Why d’ you care?”
“If you’re comin’ in, I care.” he said.
“I didn’t ask to come in!” and she began to walk back towards the fire escape door. “Oh, no you don’t !” he said grabbing a handful of grimy hood. “You try going out that door and you’re goin’ to force me to call the police. Is that what you want! They’ll take you in and hose you down in a cell with cold water ‘cause you stink and I’ll bet you have lice too. They won’t mess with that beautiful hair they’ll just shave it all off and lock you up for vagrancy. “
Lucy stopped dead in her tracks and with total dejection, submissively turned back “I don’t want yer help and I don’t want the police! I just want to be left alone to die!” “Not on my watch!” Tom said firmly as he steered her into his apartment. “Take off those awful clothes!’ he said giving her a black garbage bag. “ I have nothin’ else.” she complained. “That’s Okay you can have something of mine until I wash your stuff!” He pushed her toward the bathroom. “Push it out when you’re undressed and have a bath while you’re in there and I’ll get something for you to put on after.” I don’t want lice in here!” he finished.
An hour later he had the clothing in the laundry, a pot of soup and some hot tea and crackers on the table as Lucy timidly poked her head around the bathroom door wearing a t-shirt and some flannel PJ pants rolled up at the bottom. “Wow, she cleans up real nice!” Tom complimented as he saw her blond hair damply curling around a pale face, setting off blue eyes that seemed too large for her gaunt features.
For the next four hours, until daylight started to creep into the warm little apartment, she ate and he encouraged her to talk about her experiences on the street. She told of the physical and sexual abuse at the hands of other homeless individuals, the rejection by people who thought they were better than she was, ladies in fur coats and men in Armani suits. She talked about the endless classes and programs she had endured in order to qualify for the right to sleep on a thin mat on the cold floor of the shelter, eat day old sandwiches and rubbery apples. Tom listened to the stories about jobs hard won and easily lost when the manager had no patience with distress because of grief or memory loss because of mental illness or brain injury.
Finally, after the second pot of tea was empty, she had run out of words and stopped shivering, she had fallen soundly asleep on the chesterfield, the big fleece blanket his sister had sent wrapped around her. Deeply asleep, she had relaxed her grip on the back pack at last, allowing it to slip to the floor. Tom studied her. The too thin face with dark circles under her eyes, the cracked and still dirty hands with split finger nails from years of living out doors tugged at his heart as he opened the pack quietly in an attempt to find out who she was and where she had come from.
He emptied it one item at a time. There was a tattered old rust coloured man’s sweater, a dirty set of hand knitted boys mittens, a package of crackers long since crushed into crumbs and two tins of sardines that would have been her Christmas Eve fare. There beneath these few treasures, wrapped in an old plastic bag, was the identification of one Lucy Middleton, last known address 39 Lake Shore Drive, Revelstoke, BC. along with several pictures of a freckle faced boy of about 9 and a handsome man who was an older version of the boy. In one they were sitting in a small boat holding up a stringer of lake trout. The sun was sparkling on the waves behind them like diamonds and you could see the love and pride of the man shining in his eyes and posture as he leaned over, one arm around the boy.
Tom thought, “This is what you lost! This is why you don’t want to live anymore!”
“ I understand.” He whispered softly as he tucked everything back in the bag in the order he had found it.
He went to lie down on his own narrow bed facing the wedding picture of himself with Lorna, forever frozen in time as the young Bride and Groom. The tears came as they usually did but today was different. He began to think about his wife’s illness and how he had coped with her death. Why was it so different for him? At last just before he dropped off, understanding came to him, “I had time to say goodbye and time to accept it. I found a new life but the main difference was, I didn’t loose a child. She lost everything, all at once, now she has no reason to go on.” With that, he determined to help Lucy regain meaning for her life, if it was the last thing he did.
He found her still sound asleep when he woke up and left her there as he sat reading in a chair across the room. She turned a couple of times. Once she had risen, muttering and fighting off some invisible foe. But it wasn’t until the sun came into the west window bathing the room in the golden glow of sunset that she finally stretched like a cat in the warmth and opened her eyes. Shock and confusion registered there in waves on her face as she surveyed the scene around her. Tom could tell she didn’t remember, at first, what had transpired there during the wee small hours of the night. Then as her eyes came to rest on him recollection dawned and she clutched the blanket closer.
“You!” she uttered in a cracked voice rusty from the cold she had suffered and the long sleep. “Whadd’ya want with me?”
Tom replied vehemently “I don’t want anything with you! Except to save you from freezing or being beaten to death.”
“Why?” she croaked.
“Well, call me stupid but I don’t like to find frozen bodies outside my window if I can do something to help it.” Tom was being sarcastic now.
“You some kinda perv. Or something?”
“No, I’m Tom Rigby and this is my apartment.” He answered more calmly. She sat up and saw the pile of freshly laundered clothing on the arm of the couch. “Why ‘re ya doin’ this for me? I’m a nothing, a nobody t’ you. Why d’ ya’ care?” the tears were flowing again as she gathered the fresh laundry into her arms and buried her face in them.
Tom gently touched her bowed head as he asked her if she remembered anything about the evening before? Rubbing the side that the waiter had kicked she nodded. Over the next hour they pieced together the events that had brought her to his apartment. Finally he suggested she get dressed while he would make an omelette.
Much earlier he had decided that there would be no Christmas Eve party for him this year and he had gone out quietly to pick up a few groceries at the corner store. He didn’t quite understand but he felt responsible for her in some way, like she was a long lost relative or something. He also knew he could not turn her back out into the cold, not just because it was Christmas Eve, but because he had muttered, “There but for the grace of God go I!”
Over the next few days, while Tom was off work, he watched the colour come back to the frost bitten cheeks. Her hair fell in shining blond curls to frame her face once more and the cracks deep as knife wounds and swelling from infection in her hands began to heal. She attempted to clean the dirt that had become imbedded under her nails and she even laughed once at some funny show on TV.
At first she had argued with him and tried to leave every day but finally he had convinced her to stay, at least until he had to return to work. After three or four days they had fallen into a routine where he cooked meals and she cleaned. They played cards in the afternoon and read quietly or watched TV in the evening. By day six they finally ventured out for a short walk around the block because she seemed to have regained some strength but by the time they made it back to the apartment she was weak as a kitten and shivering uncontrollably from the cold.
“Now you’ve done it!” She complained, ‘I’m getting as soft as a spring chicken and I’ll die for sure out in the cold now!”
Tom rounded on her with anger in his face and tone, “Well I thought that’s what you wanted. So I guess you should say thank you and go!” He ended harshly turning back to finish peeling the potatoes he was cooking for their New Years Eve supper.
“Yea, Thanks a lot!” Then he heard the door slam and the clatter of her boots on the fire escape as she made tracks for the alley below.
“OH Dang!” Tom dropped the knife into the potato pot and ran after her with nothing more than a hand towel over his shoulder.
He caught up with her half a block away and grabbing her jacket from behind he swung her around to face him, “What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted at her. “You’re not strong enough to walk around the block but you’re just going to take off, without your extra coat or your stuff.”
Her hands still displaying painful cracks from her long stay out doors curled up in a defensive motion. She was shaking all over and crying soundlessly. Tom felt like such a brut as he gathered her in and just stood holding her while she clung to the front of his shirt like a drowning person clings to a piece of flotsam.
Eventually, the cold seeped into his back and he began to guide her back toward the fire escape. He got them back up into the warmth of the apartment and ordered her to “SIT!” as he went to pour two shots of brandy. He came back to force the glass into her shaking hands and sat down beside her. He put an arm around those emaciated shoulders, quietly pulled her toward him. After her sobs had subsided he urged her to drink the brandy and told her he had no intention of forcing her back out onto the street. “You can stay with me here for as long as you want.” he ended emphatically.
“But I can’t! I have no money to pay you and I’m more than a little crazy most of the time!” she protested.
“I don’t need your money. You eat like a bird and I’d just spend it on booze at the bar or gamble it away playin’ cards.” He justified, “At least this way it does some good and besides I kind of like your company.”
She looked up at him then, big blue eyes still swimming in tears, “You like my company!?” she repeated with wonder in her voice.
“Yeh, strange eh! Filthy old ‘Bag Lady’ freezing on the street and here comes me, ‘Big Hero’, to the rescue. Now I can’t explain it and I don’t know how it happened but this here so called ‘Hero’, is the one who really needed rescuing from loneliness and bad habits and you, ‘Bag Lady’, are the princess charming who has wormed your way into my life.”
A year later, on Christmas Eve a small crowd of friends gathered in the alley behind the apartment building to celebrate. The minister stood on the bottom step of the fire escape stairs, with the old sleeping bag hung up as a back drop. Lucy was holding the old back pack but now it was stuffed to overflowing with flowers. In the bottom of the pack, under the bridal flowers, her old identification cards and the pictures of the man and the boy smiling over their catch were the only vestiges left of Lucy’s former life. When they had repeated their “I do’s” Tom swept Lucy, back pack, flowers and all into his arms and carried her up the two flights of the fire escape stairs back into the warmth of the apartment that was now their home. The chattering crew of friends soon followed them to stand in a circle around them as they drank a toast to the Bride and Groom.
Lucy felt her husband’s arms come around her as he leaned in for a kiss and when she opened her eyes she saw the circle that these new friends had formed around them. A circle of friendship, love and support, defence against mental illness, loneliness, pain and sorrow. Oh, she understood all too well that there would be hard times in the future but she also understood now that she was strong enough to survive anything because she was accepted and needed. She had become a part of that circle. She belonged to a community, she was needed and loved as Tom’s wife but she also understood that she was valued for herself and who she had become during the last year.