The Rose Hotel

Before I even started grade school, I spent most of my nights at a homeless shelter.

I grew up with a dreamer. My father saw opportunity no matter where he looked, and his kindness knew no limits. He was a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy, a contractor by day, preacher by night/weekend, and a philanthropist by heart.  To me, he hung the moon. Try and convince me otherwise.

We never had much money, but he always found ways to give to others without his family’s suffering.

The Rose Hotel was an old dilapidated hotel located downtown in the city in West Texas where I grew up. My father managed to get a deal on cheap rent for the building and turned it into a shelter for the homeless.

the-rose-hotel -2

Every night, my mother made big pots of stew, chili, soup, etc, and we drudged downtown to The Rose Hotel to feed the hungry and offer as many as we could a warm bed for the night. Every night, I sat on a stool at a long cafeteria table and ate my dinner chatting with people from different walks of life. Alcoholics, drug addicts, a few prostitutes, people who were just down on their luck, and sometimes even children.

My parents never told me that the people who we helped were poor.  I never knew they were any different than us. We all ate at the same table. We all ate the same meal. My dad preached every night, and then we left and went home.

My dad hired one of the men to be his “supervisor” when we were away, which basically meant that the people who slept there had to follow the rules. No drinking, no smoking inside, and no swearing.

One night, as my dad preached to the adults, I helped my mother clean up the kitchen area. A woman and her daughter walked in, immediately grabbing mine and my mother’s attention. The mother wore a battered coat with holes and stains, some scuffed up white pumps and held the hand of a little girl, blonde with blue eyes wearing a hooded sweat shirt and pants that showed her mismatched socks that peeked out of the worn toes of her shoes.

For the first time in my short life, I felt something. An aching to do something. Perhaps it was pity.

Perhaps I felt compassion.

I couldn’t define it, but my heart went out to that woman and her poorly clothed daughter as they stood there in the doorway looking cold and very tired. After taking them to McDonald’s to get them a quick bite to eat since the shelter had run out of food for the night, my mother convinced me to give the little girl one of my barbies. I struggled and tried to argue, but my mother gave me the look, that look, so I handed over one of my barbies to this strange girl who would become my playmate for a few nights. Her name was Casey.

I made lots of friends within the walls of that old hotel. One will forever occupy a little corner of my heart. I met him when I was six years old. We called him Willy.

Willy came to us in the dead of winter wearing overalls and a dirty white undershirt, no coat , a worn out train engineer hat, and a partially toothless smile. I remember the first night he walked through the door. He smiled with his whole face. My dad greeted him with a handshake, but Willy pulled him into a hug and patted his back.

“Is this a church or a hotel? I hears there’s preaching here,” he announced.

My dad chuckled and said, “Yes, sir, there’s preaching. And a warm meal and a bed if you need one.”

Willy clapped his hands and said, “This ain’t no church. There ain’t no crosses. Gots to have crosses to be a church.”

I sat next to him that night at dinner. He made me laugh. When no one was looking he made cross eyes at me or opened his mouth to show me his chewed up food. He laughed when I did it back to him and said something I’ll never forget, “You and me, we is friends.”

Later that night, we sat on the floor and played checkers. He let me win.

I looked forward to seeing him every night. He was kind and always paid attention to me. He laughed, full body shoulder shaking laughs, at almost everything I said, and he always seemed genuinely happy to see me.

One night, he grabbed my hand and pulled me into another room. He whispered, “We’s about to do something, but you have to promise me you won’t tell you’s dad.” I nodded.  I trusted him. He put his finger over his mouth shushing me and guided me on tip toes to the room where my dad usually preached. He handed me a marker. I noticed he had one in his hand, too. “Ain’t no church if it ain’t got crosses. Can you draw a cross?”

I nodded then giggled as he drew a big cross on the wall. I watched him draw two or three more before he noticed I wasn’t drawing. “What you waitin’ for, girl? Draw some crosses on this wall.”

He was an adult, and I was a child, and I was told to trust and obey, so I pulled the lid off of my marker, and Willy and I drew at least a hundred crosses on the wall of the former lobby of the Rose Hotel. My dad came in as we completed our masterpiece. I heard him chuckle behind me and dropped my marker. I knew better than to draw on walls.

“Preacher, we’s making you a church,” Willy said to my dad.

“I see that,” my dad said as he walked over and stood next to me. He reached down and picked up the marker I dropped. I looked down at the floor, ashamed of myself for ruining the building my dad worked so hard to keep up.

“You missed a spot, Willy,” my dad said and drew a few crosses on an empty space on the dirty wall of that dilapidated old hotel.

I  learned much later that Willy was mentally challenged. He had the mind of child, which is why he became my best friend. I only saw a person who smiled with his eyes, who enjoyed my company.

I don’t know how long Willy lived at the hotel. It seemed like years and also like minutes. One day, my dad sat me down and told me that Willy wasn’t going to be living there anymore. Already he had stayed longer than any other person. The shelter was supposed to be temporary. The goal was that my dad would try to help people get back on their feet, find work, find a home, but seeing the relationship I had with this kind man, my dad couldn’t turn him away. Plus, finding work for somebody with Willy’s disability proved to be a challenge.

He had found him something though, something that was perfect for Willy. A job with the circus. The next day, my parents took us to “The Greatest Show on Earth” and I watched my best buddy experience a whole new kind of happiness. He jumped up and down and clapped during every part of the show. After the finale, we went back to where Willy would be working. We met his boss, an old wrinkled man with a curled up gray mustache who greeted Willy with contagious warmth.

“This my new boss, Mandi,” Willy said shaking his boss’s hand.

At some point, my parents explained to Willy and me that he would be leaving town with the circus, traveling to different cities to help them get set up before the show and break everything down when the show came to an end. That meant Willy was leaving the next day.

We shared an emotional, and very tough goodbye.

The next year, when the circus came to town, my parents took me to see Willy. He walked us around like he was ten feet tall, introducing us to his friends, telling us all about all of his responsibilities. So proud and so happy. He asked me what my favorite part of the show was, and I told him it was the monkeys on the bikes. He disappeared for a minute telling us not to move. Then he came back with a little stuffed monkey. “I’s allowed to take this. It for you,” he made monkey sounds and chased me around with it before placing it in my hand. I still have it.

I never saw him again after that day, but I never forgot him. He lives in a little corner of my heart, and I see him in every homeless person I come across.

We helped so many people while we ran that little shelter. We also turned people away. We saw some really ugly things, but my parents never gave up. They saw the good in people, and they offered their assistance whenever and however they could.

That person on the street holding the “will work for food” sign is not just trash, littering up the view at your stop light. He’s a person. He’s somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, and maybe even a little girl’s best friend. Don’t look at him with irritation or loathing. Remember, he has a story, and maybe he made bad decisions, maybe that needle is the only thing that gets him through his day, but perhaps he’s just a man who needs a hand to reach in and pull him out of the darkness.

My dad is a dreamer, and his dream is to help people. He’s also my hero because he taught me that valuable trait we all need: compassion. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Story of Autumn

I am so excited to introduce you again to my absolute favorite Brit, Lizzi, from Considerings.  She joins me today with her latest and final installment of Anitra’s story.  If you haven’t read the first three parts, please get caught up, and do it quickly:

Shadows and Stardust

The Wasted Minstrel

Anitra’s Chance

Now go find a soft welcoming chair, settle in making yourself comfortable, and sink your teeth into Lizzi’s brilliant words.

 

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Have you ever mourned the loss from your life of someone who’s made you angry; whose very memory causes your brow to furrow and your heart to become hard, even as part of you twists in pain because they’re gone? Have you ever lain awake at night worrying about them one second and hating yourself for giving them head-space (again) the next?

Have you ever wished and wished that they’d return safe, just so you could punch them in the middle of their face to let them know how much they hurt you?

My winter was cold and dark and immeasurably long as I tried to continue life, now thrown off-balance by the third loss of Anitra. I seemed cursed by my inability to unhook or maintain any sense of proportion as I wished for her return, at the same time nurturing a boiling rage against this woman who had taken our friendship and wantonly shredded it in front of me, throwing the tattered pieces in my face in defiance.

I trudged back and forth from the homeless shelter after my working days and at weekends, taking a masochistic pleasure in braving the bad weather; the sleet falling down my neck, my soaking shoes and damp coat serving as reminders that I meant it – I was helping because it was the right thing to do, not just because of the faded harmonies of years-old memories.

Throwing myself into helping, I vehemently protested with every deed, that this wasn’t just about her – and I convinced everyone except myself that this was the case. So much so that as the days began to lengthen again, I was given a new task, this time seconded from my job as an outreach volunteer (it looks good when your company has employees involved in ‘outreach’ – it makes the brand more personable, more human, and ultimately far more appealing than those faceless corporations who don’t care for the community which supports them).

A community garden.

The transformation of a council-donated patch of wasteland into a miniature park and shared vegetable plot, where the homeless could work alongside the homed, the lion could lie down with the lamb, and the sharing would be restricted to trowels, not needles. “A pipe dream of Eden”, I thought at first, telling the director that it was unlikely to happen – that the homeless were essentially a selfish, transient bunch (no matter how much we might want to help them) and that they would never stick around long enough to dig more than a few spadefuls of dirt, never mind see it through to harvest.

He looked at me sternly, over the top of his glasses, and firmly told me that this was my chance to prove my commitment to the cause – to do something outside of my comfort zone – to engage in a collaborative project which would rely on the homeless proving themselves to me.

“Give it a try”, he urged. “Let them show you that they aren’t all like Anitra. They won’t all hurt you. I’ve already got other shelters keen to be involved – we’re going to make a real go of this, for the sake of the whole community. And I want you to be there. Let their efforts begin to heal those broken chords in your heart.”

Grudgingly at first, then with increasing excitement, I pitched up each weekend in my scruffs and boots, greeting familiar faces, new faces, old co-workers, and together we scythed and burnt and stripped the patch of wasteland of its shroud of weeds and litter, huddling together around the bonfire, drinking tea from thermos cups and enjoying an easy camaraderie. We toiled and tilled, our backs bent as we broke the clotted soil open and let in new life, planting ready for harvest, and transforming the formerly useless into something beautiful and practical (a process we could hear echoing in our souls).

Garden (2)

True enough, people came and went over the ensuing months – both the homeless and the homed were inconsistent in their participation, but a core of people never failed to show up and gradually my faith was restored. All was well in the garden.

Until she arrived.

The minibus from one of the other shelters disgorged its usual huddle of volunteers, and there she stood amongst them, looking around her with curiosity and a genuine interest in her eyes.

Gone was the look of haunted desperation. Her stick-thin figure had filled out, leaving her looking healthy. Clean? Who knew, but the pinched look had left her eyes, and her skin was no longer grey. I experienced the curious feeling of my soul simultaneously flying up into a crescendo, and crashing into the dirt, and I turned away, not ready to face her yet; unsure of how I’d react once we were standing in front of each other again.

I was sullen that day, and in spite of the sunshine baking my neck and shoulders, a chill remained inside, my heart dark and my digging rendered vicious by those painful memories:

Holding her close, watching her finally relax and give in to peace once the storm of tears was over. Her smile of genuine happiness when I said I’d do all I could to help her get back on her feet. Her jeering, insouciant eyes as she mocked me for caring. Her jutting chin and bold defiance as she told me that she was beyond help and that the therapy group were all clueless dickheads. Her glazed, unfocused eyes as she reached for me, spewing lies and violent words…

The next weekend she was there again, and I still didn’t let myself look at her, my tongue now laden with a week’s worth of angry barbs, prepared for her next attack, however it might come guised. She noticed me, though, and I caught her in my peripheral vision, staring at me then starting towards me. I turned away swiftly, and she didn’t materialise, having presumably thought the better of it. I pruned several rose bushes so harshly they ended up as near stumps, taking delight when one raked me with its thorns so that I could hack and slash at it, turning the branch into ribbons of mulched waste.

I waited for her to leave, but as summer progressed, she was there every week, without fail. She worked diligently, quietly, making no effort to intrude on my hurts, letting them quell with time as I became used to her presence again. A peaceful presence, this time, which gradually soothed the jags and corners of my anger, allowing my heart to re-focus and revel once again in the delight of the growing garden – in the beauty of the place we’d crafted together – and immerse myself in the scent of sunshine on freshly-turned earth, the flowers spilling their fragrance over cupped petals into the air, and the sound of honeybees as they busied themselves amongst the abundance.

The vegetable garden swelled and proliferated with good things as they came into ripeness with the season – simple foods planted quickly to give us a sense of achievement: squashes, marrows, a giant, orange pumpkin and a climbing, green tangle of beans.  We tended, watered and weeded, smug looks being exchanged around the team as we surveyed our success.

 

I stood one afternoon in golden light, infused with the richness that only the middle of autumn can bring – when the orange and red hues in the trees seem to pour their notes forth into the air and mingle with the lighter warmth and deeper resonance of the sun – and watched a red-breasted robin flitter down and peck through the freshly turned earth, searching for bugs. A step behind me caused him to take flight, landing in a nearby tree, where he cocked his head, fixing us with a beady, black eye before opening his beak in a glorious torrent of song.

A whistle echoing his song was released into the air, fluting past me, my ears not deaf to its beauty even as they pounded with anxiety and I turned to see Anitra standing there. A half smile stretched her lips as her eyes darted, making only glancing contact with mine, which I could tell had narrowed, feeling my guard coming up like shutters closing behind them.

“Nina…”

The sound of my name was all it took: the slap rang out, my hand stinging as I watched her head snap back. I was shocked because I hadn’t known I was going to do it, nor that I had such force within me. She reeled away from me, clutching her now-reddening cheek, the imprint of my fingers clearly visible. From the corner of my eye I saw the robin fly away, scared, and heard a sudden ripple of whispers travel out across the garden, where everyone had frozen, like statues at a children’s party.

The atmosphere was charged. No-one moved, and my narrowed eyes bore down into a full glare, my jaw tightening, turning my face into a stony mask.

She hesitated, then seemed to make her mind up, stepping back towards me. She dragged her eyes up to meet mine, and in a strained voice disseminated a clipped version of her time since I’d seen her last.

“I found somewhere – I didn’t go back to the streets. You insisted that my life could be better, and I wanted to try again. I didn’t know you were doing this: I got involved through the shelter who took me in, cos now I’m alright, I’m trying to help – trying to give something back. When I saw you here, I was glad, because I thought we could try again too, and that I might have a shot at fixing what I broke. If you don’t think so, I’ll go now, and that’ll be the end of it. And I’m playing again. Not well, and not often, yet, but I thought you’d like to know.”

“So…” her voice trailed off as she looked for my response.

I turned away from her, raising my hands and clasping them, fingers laced behind my head. I attempted to blinker myself from the world with my own elbows, breathing shakily, deeply, and trying to figure out what to do next.

The skies held no answer, just memories zipping past my mind’s eye, accompanied by seventeen jangling, clashing soundtracks and the timpani of my pulse.

I closed my eyes and willed them not to spill over, then exhaled at length, shaking my head, bewildered as I heard her start to walk away.

Then I heard it. A pause.

We turned at the same moment, briefly dipping back across the years into that old synchronicity as we said, in unison “Can we just go for coffee or something?”

She grinned and I rolled my eyes, the mood transforming instantly to a lighter pitch.

Around us, the garden came back to life as the people resumed their work, realising the spectacle was over. Anitra fetched her gardening tools over, and set up alongside me as we busied ourselves harvesting the beans, chatting as we waited for the end of the day.

At some point in the fading afternoon, the robin returned to his perch and began to sing for us again.

warning fiction

Lizzi

I’m a deep thinker, truth-teller and seeker of Good Things. I’m also silly, irreverent and try to write as beautifully as possible. My thoughts are prolific and can be found at my blog, Considerings

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