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Homeless






Homeless





            The people sitting around the bar were the usual collection of gringos. It was the kind of place they liked, familiar enough in the midst of the disorder. The owner was a white guy everyone called Shaggy. He was gone—somewhere in the States, they said, trying to get a visa for his wife. She’d been waiting for him a long time. She’d grown thick, able to take care of herself—living aboard a falling-apart little sailboat in the bay, rowing her sagging inflatable in every day to sit in this bar. Or the other one, depending on the time of day. Shaggy’s mother was there too, a red-faced, wild-haired drunk with a Southern accent. She could manage her boat herself no matter the conditions, but she never seemed to go anywhere in it. Sometimes she’d just disappear, the boat lying primly at anchor.

            None of them, Jenny was sure, had planned to stay here. It was the kind of town you came to use, for the protected, polluted harbor, the cheap provisions, the chandlery in Santiago. For the still-lithe girls who desperately needed money, and what might become a plane ticket to New York or Canada.

            But it never came as a shock to them that they stayed (all of them—the girls, the gringos). Even when they bought a piece of land, fixed up a house, the neighbors’ chickens running in and out—it made sense, even if it had been unexpected. It was the kind of place that made the rest of the world seem like it barely existed. One couple bought some land up in the hills and spent a week in the boatyard sawing the mast and the keel off their boat so they could plant the dry hull in their yard. Even that violence done to the shell that had once protected them from the ocean where none of them would ever belong didn’t seem to surprise anyone.

            Jenny threaded her way down the main street, going left when it bifurcated at the wedge-shaped bar that was for morning drinking, passing under the guava tree that hung over the sidewalk dropping fruit that split pink on the gray pavement or rolled into the gutter. She didn’t like to think of herself as someone who hung out in gringo bars, but forcing herself out of that cocoon was an effort filled with incomprehension and constant stabs of shame.

            They hadn’t meant to stay here, either. But two years later, here they were. In a manner of speaking. Her husband wasn’t her husband anymore, for one thing. Technically they were still married but he was still living on the boat and she’d moved ashore, to a crappy rental above a disco. Her mattress was on the floor and she lay there feeling it vibrate all night long. She liked the music. That was the only thing that saved her.

            She pushed open the gate in the low cement wall crudely painted with hibiscus. She could see Evan sitting at the bar, talking to the racist old Australian who’d moved ashore a few years ago though he seemed to hate the place. Evan had spent the day trying to be a father to Lily and now it was her turn again.

            Some of the drinkers looked up, hoping for new blood, or gossip. She knew they were always waiting for something to happen because that was what she herself was waiting for. Something bad to happen to someone else, to keep life interesting. Pull everything into perspective.

            Lily came running toward her, her expression bright, glowing even. A look that probably wouldn’t last much longer—how long could anyone believe she was the center of the universe? But as she got closer Jenny saw her face was twisted.

            “What is it? What’s wrong?”

            “There’s a kitten—a little kitten! It’s been crying and crying. Behind that wall. And no one will take it home!”

            Jenny felt a sudden burst of black misery. “We can’t take it, honey. We already rescued one.”

            “But they said they’ll kill it! They said they’re going to kill it if no one takes it!”

            “Who said that?”

            Now she could hear the insistent crying, somewhere on the other side of the wall. She went and leaned over it. There was a tiny black and white kitten, its pink mouth open wide. She picked it up and carried it down the street to where her daughter wouldn’t be able to hear it anymore, then set it on the front porch of some people she’d passed once or twice, an old couple who had set their chairs on the sidewalk in the evening to watch the street. The kitten crawled behind the washing machine next to the front door and kept crying its head off, but at least she could tell her daughter she’d found it a home.

            How had they gotten to this point? It suddenly all seemed optional. She and Evan—all their fights had been stupid and meaningless. They could have been having a perfectly nice life, and instead they had chosen—this.

             She knew she should go back to the bar now, get her daughter, maybe take her to the pizza place for something special, but somehow she couldn’t. She just couldn’t. An ugly old urge had resurfaced, the one that had caused her to walk away from high school one afternoon in her senior year and all the way back down the highway that led toward home, not letting herself think about the consequences.

            Now she was walking out of the town. Up the narrow, rutted road that the farmers drove their cattle down. Today the trees were blooming, their masses of green hidden by yellow and white insects that made the leaves quiver and tremble as they sucked nectar from tiny flowers.

            She tried not to think what Lily was making of what was happening to her. Of the impending—if they could save the money for it—divorce. Most nights she lay by Jenny’s side, falling asleep on the trembling mattress. She was going to school now, learning Spanish the way Jenny herself never would. She didn’t seem to have friends but Jenny told herself that would come. And maybe it was for the best. There were pedophiles in town—she’d heard that from a few people. Sometimes the school day ended early for no clear reason, as least that she could tell. The kids had to shift for themselves, so she went at lunchtime every day now and sat across the street in the public park with the pigeons that were pecking at the trash, the genteel old guys in worn fedoras, the young guys strolling by looking tough. She’d watch the school doors, and every so often, she’d get up and go peer in the windows, just to make sure the kids were still in there.

            That was how she’d met Danilo—in the park. The drinkers in the bar would have called him something, some slur. Quite a few of them couldn’t stand the locals and Jenny wondered what they were doing in this country in the first place. There was something special about Danilo. He had stared at her with a burning look, but there was something about him that said he would also be good to talk to. When he sat down next to her on the park bench she didn’t get up. Even with her imperfect Spanish, wildly confused between past, present, and future, she was able to express something of herself. She’d even told him that she was still married.

            Now far along the path, she saw fresh tracks from the cows, which lurked still and silent behind the trees. She didn’t trust cows. Not at all.

            She was overtaken suddenly by a terrible guilt. It was like falling into a pit, falling and falling—had Lily wandered out into the street when Jenny had gone with the kitten? Had she come after her, looking for her? There wasn’t much traffic but the motorcycles, the drunks—the cow path stretched endlessly into the distance. Jenny told herself that surely Evan must have been watching—“on duty,” as he said.

            She started back, running. She’d walked much farther than she realized—at last she was running back down into town. The street flashed by. There were people watching her—she might even have heard someone calling to her, a few words that failed to resolve into substance.

            When she finally got back to the bar, no one was there. Not even one of the people she’d seen sitting at the bar or milling around as she’d tried to pretend she wasn’t one of them. They had gone. And she was alone. Possibly forever, lost in a fold of time. This place had folded over itself and now she was marooned, a remnant. 

            After what seemed like an eternity but might have been only one second, a young woman appeared wearing an apron over her skintight jeans.

            “Where is everyone?” Jenny demanded, not knowing if she was speaking Spanish or English, possibly neither.

            The woman stared at her and she tried again.

            “The people—my family. They were here. I’ve lost them.” She went on trying to explain, details spilling out of her. She must be speaking English. She could never say all that in Spanish. “They’ve gone,” she said. “I need to find them.”

            The woman looked at her pityingly. It might have been simply because she was a perpetual stranger. Maybe it didn’t have anything to do with the fact that her daughter had disappeared, might be dead. The woman pointed down the street again and said something Jenny found impossible to understand. 

            There were sounds coming faintly from the other end of the street, near the roast chicken place they all went to when it was open, which was impossible to know in advance. Whatever had happened, was still happening. The old people who’d been sitting out on the sidewalk, watching the world pass by—they had vanished. But there was a crowd growing, disorganized atoms of humanity drawn down the road, toward something to watch, something to fear, something to assess and escape. 

            She became part of a jostling mass near the house where some Canadian expats used to live. Crazy, everyone had called them, living right there in town by the locals. They’d been scraping together money doing something on their computers, though Jenny had never been able to figure out what. A dark stain was spreading across their narrow wooden porch. Jenny closed her eyes and opened them again. The stain was still there. And an arm. An arm only, the fingers of the hand reaching out.

            She’d accidentally hit all the wrong buttons. The man was screaming though he didn’t seem to have more than half a head. The word child. She heard it quite clearly. And there—there was a little girl. There was a little girl in the dirt yard and she was dead.

            With all her venting of fears, she actually hadn’t believed them. It was an awful luxury she had enjoyed, imagining disaster.

            The man without an arm, his brains threatening to spill from his head—somehow he was still moving, still making sounds.

            When she and Evan had sailed out of the harbor in Portland, years ago—in another life—everything had been new. She had never been able to appreciate time.

            “What happened?” she said, to no one in particular. The police were coming, they had to be. Yes. Out of the corner of her eye she could see a man—a young man, almost a boy—in the gray uniform the cops wore. He looked as confused as any of them, but he was the one who had do something. She ran towards him, wanting—what? For him to transform into a god, to turn back the years, give them all another beginning?

            Evan appeared on the far side of the policeman, looking self-possessed, competent. He always looked like that, Jenny realized.

            “Where were you?” she shouted, running at him. He was so close now she could hardly think. He was a cave, a long stretch of cool shade. “Where’s Lily?”     

            “Where were you?” he said, sounding bewildered.

            Now the sirens of the national police sounded, coming down the street toward them. 

            She waited for the relief to come that it wasn’t Evan whose arm had ended up far from his body, like it had grown unbearably impatient, tried on its own to reach one of the sweet small níperos on the tree beside the porch. Relief that though the little child, whom she had seen playing in the fountain downtown, laughing as it tried to pet someone’s scraggly old terrier, was lying in a pool of blood, Lily was safe—for now. When she thought of Lily sweetness flooded her, making her feel half immortal.

            But then there was the other half, raw and spilling over as if the machete had nicked her as it swung down toward the brain of the man lying on the porch, the man whose name, for the life of her, she couldn’t remember.



Jessica Adams



My short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in a variety of literary journals, including Thug Lit, Avidly, and The Common. I am an English professor at the University of Puerto Rico, and have also written and edited a number of scholarly books published by major academic presses.


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