“I spent the night at McDonald’s,” she said to me across my desk. “The twenty-four hour one on Mckenzie Avenue.” Her blonde hair was dirty and knotted. She bore scabs and scars on her cheeks and nose and smelt like cat urine and stale cigarettes. The odor filled my office. Great, I thought. Can’t crack a window now or it will be too embarrassing for both of us. I’m going to suffocate here. I think she read my thoughts. She looked down and nervously picked at her brown cuticles.
“You haven’t got any family in town?”
“None that would let me stay.”
“Hmm. Okay. I’m sorry.”
She looked up. Her eyes were tired. I had checked her file before she came in. Seventeen years old; the prime of her youth. Her eyes should be bright and full of life and vitality. “What should I do now?” she asked.
“Have you tried the shelter?”
“Yes.” Her eyes fell again. “The first night I was there some guy came up and grabbed my ass. I haven’t been back since.”
“Did you talk to a worker?”
“And what? They aren’t going to do a damn thing.”
There was a silence. No easy solution for this one. So much for a quick meeting.
“So?” she said weakly, as one does when helplessness is beginning to set in.
“I’m not sure. Is there anyone who might take you in?”
“I have family in Burlington. But I can’t get there.”
“I can apply for a train ticket. The only thing is…”
“If it gets approved, which I’m not sure it will, it would only come in two weeks. It’s a long journey, and they don’t like approving trips over a hundred miles.”
“I don’t have two weeks. I’ll freeze to death before then.”
“I know. I’m not sure. My hands are a bit tied.”
She buried her face in her hands. She began to sob quietly.
Dammit. It’s 4:45. I was hoping to leave early today.
God, how much I’ve changed.
“And why do you think you’d be a good fit at Clinton Housing Help Services?”
I pulled the front of my white shirt forward and cool air rushed up against my perspiring body. My first real job interview.
“I decided early on that this was my passion,” was my reply. “Meeting people at their lowest moments, after hitting rock bottom, and helping them slowly build their way back up.”
The interviewer smiled. Her lipstick had stained her teeth, but her grin was bright and I was hopeful.
“I had an uncle,” I said before she could follow up, “who was on the streets for a long time. I’ve seen how someone can get lost in the system. I feel like if I can be a worker to hear someone out, and really have a deep understanding of their underlying issues, then people don’t have to end up that way.”
She nodded in understanding. “And how do you think you’ll be able to set proper boundaries for yourself?”
I took a moment to collect my thoughts. “I think that’ll be a little difficult for me,” I said with an apprehensive chuckle. “I want to be able to do everything I can. But I need to do my best at maintaining a professional relationship. Not taking my work home with me and all that. I know it can be hard when you’re comfy at home while someone is struggling to find their next meal. But I know it’s important to be able to compartmentalize for the sake of your own sanity.”
She nodded once again and took down some notes. My answer wasn’t bad. But I was young, bold, and idealistic. I always had more to say.
“It’s just that… these are all people, right? I don’t want to ever forget that. Everyone has their own story.”
I looked at the young girl’s file. It didn’t have a lot of information. She was clearly new to the streets.
“How’d you get here… uh…” I glanced back over to the top of her file. “Zoe.”
“What do you mean?”
“How’d you end up needing to come to my office? All the way from Burlington?”
“How’d I end up homeless? Well, my mom was getting beaten by my dad every day. So she left with me and came here where my aunt lived. But my aunt is fuckin’ crazier than my mom. She was always so hopped up on painkillers…” She peered off out the window. “Anyways, my mom got hooked on them too. No idea where she is now.”
I nodded. Seventeen. Of course. Cut loose from Child Protection the day she stopped being a recordable statistic. The same story I’d heard a thousand times.
“Did you get hooked on it too?” I asked as she scratched her scabby arms.
She scowled at me. “What the fuck do you think?”
“We’d love to offer you a position on the team,” the interviewer said two weeks later, over the phone. “My name is Charlene. We think you’ll be a great asset to us.”
I was laying on my bed, looking at the roof, a wide grin across my face as I held the phone to my ear. “Thank you so much. I won’t let you down.”
“Do you think you should try to get clean first? Before trying to connect with your family in Burlington?”
“I have tried to get clean. I tried today.”
“Didn’t get so far?”
She furrowed her brow. “No.”
“Hey Charlene. Quick question. I’ve got a man who says he hasn’t eaten in two days. He’s barred from the shelter because he got in a fight. Says he goes to the food bank but they don’t open till Thursday.”
“I was wondering if maybe I could bring him to Burger King. Can I expense that? No problem if not, a burger is only like six bucks.”
She laughed gently. “You’re funny. No worries, we still have a few grocery gift cards. You can give him one.”
“Doesn’t it need a signature from Daryl?”
“We’ll get him to sign when he’s in tomorrow.”
“Will he get angry?”
“Sometimes in this business you just have to give things away and apologize later.” She winked. “Every once in a while”
Charlene was a goddess.
“You don’t have any friends you can stay with in the area?” I asked her.
“I did. I was staying with my friend Brittany. But we got in a fight and she kicked me out.”
“I see.” Let me guess. It wasn’t your fault.
I scratched my chin and there was more silence.
“What were you fighting about?”
“Do you care?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Paramedics rushed by me into my apartment.
“No. Sorry is what you say when you’re late for an appointment, or when you spill coffee on someone’s table. What were you thinking?” Charlene’s face was red. This wasn’t unusual. I had seen her fuming while advocating for someone, while grilling police officers, or after sending colorful emails. I never thought I’d see it directed at me. “This breaks every rule we have.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. “I knew it wasn’t allowed, but… sometimes you just have to… apologize later.”
“This isn’t just about you. I could be fired over this. We could lose funding over this.”
“It’s just… he’s a kid. I was thinking he was on the spectrum. He came to my office crying, saying he doesn’t have any family in the country after his aunt died. He just got beaten up. He couldn’t go back to the shelter. And it was ten below freezing. He was going to die.”
Her eyes blazed. “You don’t bring them into your own home. Ever. And this is exactly why.”
A stretcher was wheeled by with my client on it, motionless. I had found him passed out on my living room floor, a needle lodged in his arm.
“We’ll get him to the hospital,” the paramedic said. “We administered one dose of naloxone. He came to, but he’s a little woozy.” He looked at me. “Are you his brother?”
Charlene answered for me. “No.”
“She got angry because she said I slept with her boyfriend.”
I didn’t respond.
“I didn’t,” she said after a silence. “He’s ugly as fuck.”
She looked at me for a long while. The sound of an argument began outside. It was like the sound of beeping to hospital workers: white noise.
“Going back to your family,” I began. “If we get you to Burlington, they’ll take you in?”
“I can’t just leave you stranded out there. That would be no good.”
“You don’t believe me?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I wasn’t much into risk-taking these days.
She took out her phone. “I have my uncle’s number, but I don’t have any minutes.”
“Right. Maybe if you can find a way to get in touch with him, I could arrange…”
“Can’t you call him?”
It’s five o’clock. I should be on the highway by now. “Umm. Sure.”
“What’s wrong?” Charlene asked. “Your reports are early. They’re never early.”
“I just had a bit of extra time this week,” I replied.
“You never have extra time.”
“I did this week.”
She got up and closed the door to my office. Then she sat down across from me and placed her folded hands under her chin. “You’re burnt out. I get it.”
“It’s okay. Maybe you should take a week off.”
“Why? We’ll take your clients for the week.”
“Well for one, there’s the damn domestic file. I can’t leave it.”
“What’s it about? Maybe I can take it myself.”
“This girl from Woodston. She comes here, she’s six months pregnant. She says she came because her boyfriend beat her up and she was afraid the baby died. But the baby was still kicking, so she comes down here because she says her grandparents can take her in. Well, once they see she’s pregnant, grandpa isn’t so supportive anymore. So she comes to me and I said it’s fine. We’ll go with the domestic shelter. But the shelter says no, she can only come in if the abuser is in town. So she’s crying after I pretty much promised I had the shelter for her, and storms out of here. I need to figure something out…”
“I see,” she said and clicked her tongue.
“And then there’s this teenager who got kicked out when his parents found out he’s gay. And he doesn’t want to go to the shelter because the shelter won’t take in his cat. And he said the cat is his only friend right now. So I call the animal shelter, and they said they can only take the cat for five days or else they’re putting it down. And the teenager says he won’t do it, so he’s been sleeping in McDonald’s, but now the manager came in and said he’s not allowed back.”
“And then there’s this lady who got in an accident and was prescribed percs and… forget it. You’ve heard that one a million times.”
“But you want to know the truth?” I said, not making eye contact. “I just don’t care. I wish I did. I haven’t lost sleep over a client for a long time.”
Charlene bent down to my level. “Look at me.” I did. “It’s okay. These feelings will come and go. They will. Just know that while you go through these ruts, you are still doing good work and making a difference. Go ahead and take the rest of the day off and I can see about getting you a week.”
“Zoe is there?” he said over the phone. “Oh my God! I had no idea if she was even alive!”
“She’s here with me. Do you want to talk to her? I can put it on speaker.”
“Uncle Tom?” she said meekly.
“Zoe?” his voice cracked over the phone.
“Oh my God, Zoe, why didn’t you call me earlier?”
“I… I haven’t been doing so good.”
“Zoe! That’s okay. Your dad came and told us what happened. He’s an asshole, I always knew he was. But anyways, you don’t have to worry about that now. Just come home! I’ll put you up. Jamie moved out on his own. That room has been empty a year.”
“I… I can’t.”
“Yes you can! Don’t worry. I know what happened. I can get you checked into rehab. My sister once had a problem and she’s doing great now. You can do the same.”
A tear began to form in her eye. She began to soften, and she started to look seventeen for the first time since entering my office.
“I can’t get home, Uncle Tom. Not for two weeks.”
“We’ll work it out,” he said. “We’re a little tight on cash just now, but we’ll make it work. I’ll ask your grandmother if I have to. We love you, Zoe. We missed you.”
My eye started to itch and I rubbed it. What was this? Moisture?
“Two weeks,” Zoe said. “Then I can be home. If I get approved, I guess.”
“Two weeks,” Uncle Tom repeated. “Can you wait that long?”
“I will if I have to,” she said.
“You won’t have to,” I interrupted. “It’s okay. We’ll get it done, Tom. Thanks for the help.”
“So that’s it?” he asked.
“That’s it. I’ll talk to you later.” I hung up the phone and stood up, beginning to put my coat on.
“What are you doing?” Zoe asked.
“Welcome back,” Charlene said. “How was your week off? Get a chance to go away?”
“Nah, not really,” I said, slumping down into my office chair. Nothing had changed since the last day I was in. The same crusty “Signs of Depression” pamphlet hung on an old cork board. A mug that probably belonged to an employee long since retired sat on a squeaky filing cabinet. “It kinda flew by. I went through my closet… got caught up on Cartel Life.” I shrugged my shoulders. “That’s about it, I guess.”
Charlene smiled. “Well, resting is good too. Ready to change some lives?”
I shrugged again, but did it with my sincerest fake smile. “I hope so.”
She walked to the door and smiled. “Remember that you’re doing good work here.”
She nodded and began walking out.
“How do you do it? You’ve been here a long time.”
She laughed. “Not that long.” She paused and twitched her nose. “I don’t really think there is one way to do things. You do your best, and then sometimes something will happen that speaks to you. And when that happens… I guess you just go for it. Let those little moments remind you of why you do this.”
I said nothing. She smiled again and walked out the door.
“It’s late. I’m putting my coat on. You could use a shower, Zoe. If you’re comfortable with it, I’ll take you to my mom’s place to shower. She should have some stuff that fits you.”
“We have a long drive tonight and I imagine you’ll want to arrive looking nicer.”
“What? Really?” She laughed the laugh of a teenage girl. “What the fuck?”
“I have some consent stuff you need to sign… whatever, I don’t have it right now. Maybe I can email it to you or something.”
“What?” She was beginning to get lost in laughter. “Are you allowed to do that?”
“Yeah. Every once in a while.”
My name is Joseph Friesen and I’m a social worker from Toronto, Canada. I have always loved stories and storytelling, and have written a number of self-published biographies through my small business Life and Legacy. However, I also have a passion for fiction and am hoping to one day break into the scene. Thanks for reading!
Artwork by Kita Das