Frequently we transformed a stroll into a hike, and then a stop at QuikTrip for gas, and then dinner at a restaurant, followed by a half-hour drive around town. It was not unusual for a quick errand to require I.D., reading glasses, lipstick, and a change of clothes. Not this time. It was already nine o’clock, and we rarely saw the other side of ten. I changed from my pajamas into shorts and tee shirt still dirty from yard work and left my purse on the couch.
Ben paused in the garage. “I feel like driving your car.”
His was a Chevy, the front seat like a couch; we’d napped on that front seat.
The passenger seat of my Honda felt foreign, cramped.
A band was playing in the park. We lingered and danced a bit, before walking around the mile-long loop. In the summer sky, a shelf cloud hovered over the landscape. Lightening flashed repeatedly in Missouri's version of the Northern Lights. Too far away to produce thunder, but the air was thick and still, a wall of nascent storm.
Our minds already in bed, we pulled into our driveway. Ben clicked my always-temperamental garage door opener. He held it upside down, sideways, closer to the windshield, higher, lower. No response.
He got out of the car, intending to punch the security code into the lock box.
Our neighbor, who was pacing in his driveway, phone to his ear, glanced in our direction. “Power’s out.”
I felt my chest cave in a little. While Ben headed to the back door, I checked the front. Both were locked.
My house key was in my purse. Ben’s was in the Chevy. We’d never gotten around to hiding a spare.
Locked out. It was final. It was hopeless.
No, no. It was nothing more than a glitch. The power would blink on soon enough. Until then, I would surrender.
We sat in the car, Ben tapping the steering wheel. “Hey, let’s go to a casino.”
“Good idea. People watch. Grab a snack.”
As the glass doors slid open, we were blasted by air conditioning and cigarette smoke. And then by the jangle and clang of slot machines and the strobing of lights and neon signs. I shoved my hands into my pockets to ward off the chill. We grabbed a couple of chairs in the lobby near an ice cream stand. Tempting on any other occasion, but neither of us was hungry. It was ten-thirty. How long before a security guard demanded to know what we were doing there, doing nothing? A white man … a black woman without I.D. The slots jangled louder. The lights strobed faster. I wanted peace and quiet. I wanted my bed.
We'd been there only a few minutes, when Ben squeezed my hand. “Let’s just park in our driveway ’till the power comes back on.”
“Sure.” I was resigned.
In the driveway, he clicked the locks, leaned back, and closed his eyes. His cell phone lay on his lap.
I curled up on my side, knees against the passenger door, comfortable in the peace and quiet that descends on a city block when the power goes out. I closed my eyes in meditation.
Around 11:00 headlights and a truck engine split the night; we both sat forward. The electric company? No. I sank back against the seat. The house loomed, impenetrable and unrepentant in its act of betrayal.
I wanted to get rid of the desperation that threatened to choke me. I wanted to go to a hotel.
Why is this happening to me? Why not me? Who should it happen to?
Surrender. The ash tree spread its arms protectively over our car. Storms in the distance painted the sky a watercolor of navy blue, indigo, and dove gray.
This can’t be happening. Oh yeah, it’s happening.
Ben’s eyes were closed again. His breath was easy.
How can he let his wife sleep in the car?
Surrender. Freed from the brash competition of streetlights, stars showed off their brilliance.
Our neighbor across the street always watched the house for us when we were out of town. “Honey? How about Neva? She’d take us in.”
“I hate to disturb her so late.”
What? I’m walking over there and knocking on her door. Right now.
She was a neighbor, not really a friend, and I was too embarrassed to ask her help. Ashamed I’d slept in the car. Ashamed I’d sought refuge in a casino. Ashamed I had no place to go.
“Honey? I need a bathroom.”
“Okay, we’ll run over to QuikTrip.”
At the store, closing the car door behind me, I was grateful for a well lit parking lot, and I knew the restroom inside would be clean. But were we going to drive my sixty-five-year-old bladder to QuikTrip every couple of hours? With every groggy step, my stomach sickened with panic.
A man was loitering near the entrance, just out of range of the light beaming through the plate glass windows. In my peripheral vision, even reduced to shadows, the signs of his homelessness were familiar. A sag in the shoulders, a downward tilt to the head, a stance that lacked commitment. An isolation as deep as a well. I wish I could report a moment of compassion, when I transcended self-absorption, when a midnight epiphany struck, and the light in me honored the light in him.
Such a flame was not ignited.
I hated him for reminding me I was homeless too.
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