Jenny’s coat wrapped around her body as if it were beaten into her, the rain fell between the cracked plastic and settled into the rotting poly-cotton stuffing that peaked through as if it were making baby faces to the outside world. She huddled into herself, shivering on my porch as the rain whipped behind her. At the end of our walkway, William, waved shyly, his blue eyes a stark contrast to his brown skin. I stepped out onto the porch making sure that none of the cold could slip into our warm house, my wife stood in the kitchen, head bobbing in the background wondering who would be knocking at the front door in this weather.
We didn’t have too many unannounced visitors, and as we settled into the house we had planned to remake into our own, we preferred it this way. As sobriety surrounded us, the clamoring for social affirmation diminished and we simply kept to ourselves. Jenny was swaying, almost to the vibrations of the house, the wind, or some internal song churning into her ears. It had been a long time since she swiped makeup over her face, put a line of lipstick around her lips or wore a necklace around her neck; the skin on her face was taunt, tan from the sun and as weathered as the paint peeling off the side of our house. Her hands were leathery, the ends slightly yellowed by cigarettes, light brown spots a gift from the sunshine, it was hard to believe that just five years prior she wore silver bracelets and pearls. She had been through a lot this past year, from living in South Beach, in the mansion of a millionaire, to the streets and jails of Miami to the streets of Columbus. During this time she went from making a record with a new collaborator in Boston to having almost everything she owned put out on the sidewalk. I had been given her trumpet and a small suitcase that held a few of her CD’s and records but the rest was gone. She had nothing to play them on and her lungs were no longer capable of blowing a melody into the trumpet.
Her artwork, which she created in manic bursts, had been dumped into trash bins, which would happen anyway over the years as she would gather up some of her belongings and then discard them within a few years as the urge to move would be greater than the need to stay. She had painted hundred of doilies with thin limbed characters holding glasses of wine or playing skinnier pianos, other creations where painted coconut shells that appeared to be a mash-up of dive-bar art with deranged arts and crafts that would horrify most average JoAnn Fabric’s shopper. At one point, while living in Florida my wife and I drove down to Miami for an art show my wife was participating in. We went out to dinner with Jim Williams and Jenny on a beach front restaurant that not only smelled of seafood but of money, the wait staff knew Jenny and Jim and brought them there drinks without them asking what they wanted. The next morning we went to the sprawling house that Jim lived in with his elderly mother, he inhabited a sort of mother-in-law suite that was attached off the living room. The house was stuffed with garish art work and a baby grand piano collected half a room of dust in one corner, as we passed it Jenny said, “His old bitch of a mom won’t let me play it, we had to move to this other part because her and Jim kept yelling at each other.” Jim’s unit was crammed with recording equipment, keyboards, guitars and a big red bass the bounced the sunlight off of its shiny exterior. “Jim bought me all this shit, even if I can’t really play guitar, he wants me to make another record.” The back yard was complete with a bar and dozens of painted coconut shells with dangling baubles, gold chains and the hair of the shells were combed down to make glamorous “sea” models. Jenny said she was trying to make a “whole platoon of these things, I wanna string them around the whole yard, so when it’s night time, the moon can bounce of their jewelry. I have about forty of them done.” These too, in their ruffled glory were tossed to the trash bin when Jim died.
“Hey, Bela, I know you’re busy,” she stuttered, “but we need to use your bathroom real quick, the Tim Horton’s power went out and William has to take a shit and we don’t have anything in the tent. In case you didn’t notice, it’s kinda raining out.” She grinned when she said this last line. Jim waved in the background as if waving to the President in a motorcade, weakly smiled back, I turned and said, more to my wife than Jenny, “sure come on in, but be quiet the baby is asleep.” Williams started stomping and rattling the rain off of his soggy body as he trudged up the steps, Jenny with arms folded refused to go farther than the front entrance. “Jenny comes into the kitchen, do you want some water?” my wife asked. “No, I’m cool, I’ll just hang here, I don’t want to wake the baby and I’m real wet, if you can’t tell.” The smell of alcohol shrouded her voice, and I realized that breakfast had been served in the homeless camp.
William smiled as he entered and was prone to over thanking us so I nodded at him and casually mentioned that anytime we could help we would. When manic and drinking, Jenny usually spoke with pressured speech, jaw set tight, and her lips stretched around her teeth as if they were made of crystal. Her blue eyes held droplets of water, and for a moment the room was illuminated in these gobs of heavy water, she looked like a battered Christmas tress waiting to be cut down. “I’m sorry to come over here, especially when we have been drinking, we have to get a little bit in the morning, you know, I don’t want Merijn to see me like this.” She paused. “It’s embarrassing.” Most of my life I have never been at a loss for words, but at certain times in dealing with Jenny I was. There were a few moments when all was quiet, the sound being interrupted by William unloading in the other room. We laughed, “I swear to God, I’m going to kill him. Jesus, his ass is going to wake the baby,” she muttered. I heard my wife go upstairs, “bye Jenny.”
Earlier that year, after Jenny had been evicted from the Ohio State School of Music I woke up one morning and found her sleeping at the end of my driveway under the front end of my car. A congested mass of hangover, twigs, frayed nerves and sweat, with a large piece of Little Debbie Snack Cake plastic stuck to the side of her face. “Shit,” she said when I aroused her, “I didn’t have any place to go,” wincing as she pulled the plastic off her face, “what the fuck, I don’t even eat this shit.” “It’s probably from the plasma center customers, they are always throwing shit in our yard, candy wrappers, cigarettes, roaches, I even found a crack pipe in our yard.” That night, I let her sleep in our garage but told her she couldn’t drink in it and couldn’t tell Merijn. I found her gone the next morning, the garage door open and an empty bottle of vodka upstairs next to her make-shift bed. She walked in while I stood standing there, my head trying to shake the disappointment from my shoulders. “Oh, shit, sorry,” she tried to explain, I told her to leave and she started screaming at me, “God-damnit, you’re so fucking uptight, I can’t believe anybody would live with your ass. You fucking control freak, what the fuck, you are such a son-of-a-bitch. Fine, I’ll fucking find my own place, I don’t need your fucking help if all your gonna do is try to control me!” Taking a breath as if it were water, I paused, counting, “Jenny, there is some expensive stuff in her, what did I say, this is Merijn’s studio.” “Fuck you, it’s not that it’s you want to tell me what to do, always.” She continued yelling as I went into the house and called the police; by the time they arrived she was gone.
A small pool of water collected at her feet, looking into the puddle she bent her neck slightly like a scientist gazing through a telescope, “I don’t think we’ll stay out there long, some guys from the shelter are trying to get us out of there. But I and William want to stay together, they think I could get my own place but I want him there. The apartments they give you are in the hood, I just don’t feel safe. We saw a few of them; can you imagine me stumbling out there in crackville central? I’d be eaten alive…no, I want him there with me even if he can be a pain in the ass. He doesn’t smoke that shit anymore, he did once and I told him to forget about me if he was going to do it, I’m done with coke especially after Jim died.”
Jenny’s apartment is on the east side of Columbus, it is her second apartment since living on the streets in 2005, it’s a bit safer than her first one she shared with William, the one with gun holes in the walls, roaches openly defying a person who chose to sit on the threadbare couch, and the group of young African-American teenage boys, conferring in the parking lot at all hours who would always acknowledge be with a nod. I would do my visits there, with my work badge attached, the one that said that I worked for the largest community mental health center. Even drug dealers have a soft spot for social workers. It gave me access to the most dangerous of places.
Her current apartment is still in an unsafe part of Columbus, especially for a mostly single woman who has no income and who battles inner demons on a daily basis. She doesn’t go out at night and takes great care to make sure she has the required reserve of alcohol in her cupboards, under her bed and strews around the house before night falls. She drinks bottom basement vodka, which is usually Kalashnikov, long gone are the days when she would drink Stoli’s, Grey Goose or even Skyy her needs are more basic at this stage of her life. At one point her liquor cabinet was full, with Dewar’s, Makers Mark, Jamison’s and imported beers stocking her refrigerator and pantry, her vodka at that time would be housed in the freezer, as it would not be consumed entirely during the course of the day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night keep me grounded. She pours it into a large tumbler that she keeps next to her bed, mixed with a splash of fruit juice, a twisted reversal of a standard drink. Her artwork climbs the walls, paintings of landscapes, black and white photographs she has torn and forged from discarded library books and old Life magazines. Photos of young romantics, cuddling in outdoor cafes, the scent of love on their necks as they take in the scents of whatever far off city they happened to be captured in, Paris, Antwerp, and Brussels, whatever. The smells of the cafes mingling with the cigarettes that hangs, as if they were props, from long thin fingers while the other hand is intertwined with their lover. For Jenny, it’s the idea of romance and the reinforcement that desire is not tossed asunder as one age, the fact that ideas live in a person’s head regardless of circumstance. She is proud, and her defiance to her situation, while at times appears to threaten her life, is one to behold. The photos of a young John Kennedy and of a determined Leonard Bernstein attest to the culture that have sprung from her well of life in spite of the pain she has tunneled through over the years.
Life is difficult for everybody, and as age grows around our ears, crowding our brains with the trivial and the serious, oftentimes in the same moment it is easy to take the burdens of daily life as a personal Odyssey although for the most part the majority of people I know have a journey paved with soft beds, scrumptious meals and a fairly easy commute to work, there are many where life is a continuous botched attempt to find a moment’s solace. Nearly every time I want to cook an elaborate meal, I run to the store in my 2009 VW, complete with MP3 player and heated seats. There is one mederterian store across the street from my house, and two large grocery stores within one mile of my house as well as five pharmacies within a one mile radius. I mutter under my breath while I stand in line holding a bunch of cilantro and a habanera pepper, thinking of my valuable time.
Chronic, long-term alcoholism can result in a condition called alcoholic peripheral neuropathy, which in laymen’s terms means that muscles cannot receive vital minerals, potassium and calcium due to liver damage. This can result in an awkward gait or at worse the inability to walk; it was one reason why many alcoholics die from taking a tumble down the stairs even though they might not have had very much to drink or anything at all. At times, both William and Jenny have a need to use a wheelchair or a walker, a startling experience for those of us who knew her in high school when she used her young legs to run cross country on a team that won the State Championship, or the young woman who graced the field of Ohio Stadium during half time of a Buckeyes game while marching in The Best Damn Band in the Land. One afternoon, circa 1996, I was leaving Bernie’s Bagels, stepping into the sunlit afternoon from the damp underground bar after taking a short beer break from Used Kids; I passed Jenny replete in gray sweat pants, running bra and white tee-shirt, running down High Street. “Jenny,” I shouted as she galloped past, “what are you doing?” She turned, blowing out hot breath, “shit, I got to get into shape; I thought I’d start running again. What are you doing?” Glancing down High Street, I answered, “oh, I just went on my beer break, Larry’s isn’t open yet so I went to Bernie’s. I’m on my way back to work. I have time for another one, if you want?” Jenny looked down at her brand-new running shoes, glowing white and unblemished from any dirt, fresh out of the box, “sure, I can always run later.”
Running became a passion of mine, shortly thereafter; I started in 1992, to ward off a beer gut that started creeping over my jeans. It blossomed around 1998 when I took to running roughly five miles a day and erupted in 2000, when a personal life that was crashing around me, and an inability to quit drinking once I started I trained and ran a marathon. I did not let a hangover cripple my runs and at one point ran eighteen miles with a hangover that would have immobilized a small dog, cursing my legs and my body the last two miles, I found solace in the long runs where music would guide my emotions and for a brief period I had a purpose even if it were only to put one foot in front of the other for two hours while the OutKast or Superchunk provided the background to the pleasures of my thought.
The journey of running has little to do with the physical aspect, which is easily solved through practice and finding a pace that fits one’s body, but the key is the isolation as feet pound against concrete, step by step, mile by mile until there is nothing. At about forty minutes the brain releases a flood of dopamine into the body, about the same amount as a small shot of heroin, and from there, feeling the runner’s high, a runner finds relaxation and perhaps the glow of creativity. Shortly prior to the summer of 2001, while training for my second marathon, my spouse got a job in Gainesville, teaching Fine Arts at the University of Florida. A dream job for her. I was running daily, drinking roughly four days a week, staying out as late as I could and starting arguments with her on the nights when she wanted me home, so I could escape into the bar lights and the mist of alcohol. Jerry had died shortly before then, Jenny had moved to Miami and I was unmoored, restless with pangs of secrecy and self doubt, even music did keep me grounded. In June while I was in Oklahoma for my cousins wedding I got a call from my wife, “honey, I have some bad news,” she said as I stood above the toilet, willing a minor amount of urine to come out, my head balanced against the wall as my wedding party hangover threatened to dis-rail the soft grip I had on my dick. “What?” She answered slowly, “the record store burned down last night, it’s in ruins, and everything is destroyed.”
Running became something that helped absorb whatever thoughts I had mounting in my mind, diverting fear into the pulse of my headphones zapping mix-tapes into my ears while sweat poured down my back, it was a daily practice that I still continue although the fear has since left me many miles ago when the drink found another person to occupy. The fear now is of age, of finding time to cram the lilting dreams that still drive me today, dreams for my children, dreams for my job, dreams for my friends, and dreams of finding time to write all my ideas.
Jenny is frail, with thin arms and legs that are slivers of skin, her clothes hang off her as if she were truly skeleton pried up by skin. She shakes and wobbles when walking, and with William in a nursing home, she has taken to wheeling herself around her small apartment. She needs medication but does not have health insurance and no income; both she and William live off of his Social Security that she helped him get. She has been hospitalized at least five times this past year but in an all too frequent encounter I have daily, the system has failed her. Several times, I have spoken with social workers while she was in the hospital to help her get her Medicaid as she easily qualifies, it has never been done. She was linked to a mental health center some years ago and got awful service, where her case manager lied to her and never followed up. Her case was eventually closed as her case manager stated “she refused services” although I had spoken to her case manager directly explaining her needs and advocating for her.
The nearest grocery store to Jenny is roughly two miles from her house, it takes her three buses to get there, and fare for a bus is $4. There is a convenient store about half a mile from her apartment as well as a Dollar Store, she buys pasta and tomato sauce and sometimes sells her food stamps for a ride to Kroger. She is given prescriptions when she leaves the hospital but is unable to fill them as she has doesn’t have insurance. She has not been able to have any mental health service in five years as she doesn’t have any insurance. The only alcohol and treatment center in town will not pick her up, she will need to call every morning by seven am and the get herself there by eight if a bed is available. It is nearly an hour and a half bus ride to get there. At times, she feels stuck, hiding in her apartment, huddling in her bed, watching reruns of the Golden Girls, at times feeling the inspiration to paint a picture or play some songs on her keyboard.
Days clog into one another; the fermenting carpet that is dotted with vomit, coffee and vodka and juice droplets makes the apartment more oppressive. Lately, with William sleeping against death’s door, Jenny is again reminded of what she has lost. Her eruptions are always on the phone, and while the anger has long since been wrenched from her voice, the fear remains steadfast. She calls and I listen. Listen. And then I listen some more. While my son points out the back window of the car, noticing the fire engines, a dog or the billowing blow up advertisement of a Jiffy Lube sale, Jenny issues a play-by-play of the madness in her world. Her life is one of frustration, of a beginning that never really begins and an ending that is clouded in the annoyance that the little things never get done or have never arrived. The oddity of my own life is that I have spent a good deal of my days the past seven years helping many people like Jenny, at times helping the person leave the shell of poverty, mental illness and addiction but most of the times, offering a concerned ear to the decimation of their lives. I get paid to be compassionate. With Jenny, there is always the wish that something would click but I have learned in my life that I cannot put my own expectations for her life as a guide to measure her life, so I listen some more.