REACH OUT AND TOUCH
“Take a little time out of your busy day/To give encouragement/To someone who’s lost the way
(Just try)/Or would I be talking to a stone/If I asked you/To share a problem that’s not your own
We can change things if we start giving/Why don’t you
Reach out and touch/Somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place/If you can…” Diane Ross 1970
The wrinkled, smudged envelope lay stuffed among my junk mail. I studied the faded words. Neither the handwriting nor the no-name return address rang a bell. The barely legible postmark read: Ukiah, CA, but the zip code had faded out. The date stamp read: Aug 21 20… The rest of the year had smeared into blue oblivion.
As I trudged back up the potholed drive, I wiped the liquid August heat from my brow with the tail of my dirty t-shirt. The mystery letter provided a good excuse to take an iced tea break. Inside the old two-story, clapboard farmhouse, I reached toward the sink sideboard to flip on some music. My hand groped empty air then I recalled that the DVD/CD player had been one of last night’s casualties.
No-last-name-revealed Susie, a girl who couldn’t have been more than fourteen that I’d brought home from the Seattle streets the week before ran off sometime during the night. Three hundred dollars in cash and the compact disc player ran off with her. It’d been a long time since that had happened. The missing material items didn’t hurt as much as the feeling of failure.
Maybe Tim had been right. His shouted accusations from six months earlier still gnawed at me. “Just because you can’t have kids, doesn’t mean my life should be embroiled in chaos created by other people’s juvenile delinquents.” His lip had turned up in that hateful way he had as he’d shouted, “Do you really believe you’ve changed a single one of those brats’ lives? All you’ve accomplished is to wreck our marriage!”
Life would certainly be simpler, and quieter, without rebellious teen girls and angry parents who stormed up to my door in the middle of the night. They refused to take their child home, yet demanded I turn her out. Facing aggressive abusers at fifty is a lot scarier than at forty.
The month before Tim stormed out of my life, I’d had to call the police on a stepfather waving a handgun outside my back door. After the police hauled the man off, Tim issued his ultimatum. “Sandra, it’s either me or those damn girls. One of us isn’t staying here.”
How could I close my door against #girls whose only other choice was often sex for food?
I carried the letter into the living room and folded onto the faded sofa. One foot tucked up under me, I took a sip of lemony tea then set the glass on the scarred cherry wood end table. Carefully, I slit open the envelope. A sheet of yellow tablet paper with scrawled lines fell out.
It’s been ten years since I split in the middle of the night with all the cash I could find as well as the clothes you bought for me. I hitched a ride with a trucker from your place in Bellingham to Mom’s house in Ukiah. Two weeks later I caught a bus back to the streets of #Seattle. I’d picked a fight with Mom. Mays, of course, grounded me. The truth: my running had nothing to do with Mom or with my stepfather, Mays. I just couldn’t seem to get comfortable anywhere.
After living with you for those eighteen months, I viewed street life differently, somehow. Maybe it was those late night gab sessions that you, Stoney, Jaimie and me used to have. Slowly I realized that none of us street kids were the glamorous outlaws whose personas we tried to don. Those outlaw clothes hung on us like baggy rags. Just scared, hungry, stoned kids running from one thing or another, but not running to anything, except a dead end life.
Eight months after I hit the streets again, my best friend, Lydia, died from an overdose. She lay dead, there on the filthy mattress in the back room of a crack house next to me. I woke up from my own drug run and felt her cold arm against mine.
As tears rolled down my face, I could hear you telling me the first time we met on First Avenue in Seattle, “It’s up to you, Michelle. You can stay here on the streets where there isn’t any future, except death of one kind or another, or you can walk away now and with work become anything you want to become. It’s your choice.”
When I dragged home, neither Mom nor Mays ever said a word. Back at school, whenever I felt like quitting, I’d recall how you took me in and told me I could make my life count for something good. You peered through the caked on makeup, the green hair, all those piercings and saw me. I promised myself that I’d write when I became someone you’d be proud to know.
So, I’m writing.
When I received my degree in psychology, Mom and Mays helped finance the opening of a halfway house for street girls. We call it Phoenix Rising. It’s not much. Five acres and a rambling old farmhouse that Mays and the girls are helping me remodel. In the pasture are two horses, Lost and Found, both from auction, both headed for slaughter. They keep company with a goat named Bad Manners. Our orange housecat was a feral kitten a friend of mine live trapped, injured and flea ridden. Her name’s Welcome and that’s what she does to every girl who walks through the front door. Our lab mix came from the local shelter. We named her Friend, and she’s been one to every living thing on this place. Every day those animals keep teaching me the lessons I first learned from you, lessons about having an open heart, believing in others, and giving.
Currently, ten girls live here. Kathy and Melody have been here since a week after the house opened. Kathy’s a computer genius who has already been scouted by a couple of colleges. Melody plans to attend a nearby vocational tech school to learn carpentry.
Sandy, do you remember that night about two weeks after I arrived when you and I were standing, leaning on the top rail of your pasture fence? I told you that a person needed a nice car, good clothes, a fine house and money if they wanted to be happy.
You studied me for a few minutes then turned back to stare out at your Arabian, Angel, prancing across the field. Then in that quiet voice of yours, you told me that after your baby had been born dead and the doctor said you could never have children, you swallowed a handful of pills. The nice house, the fancy clothes and the big car couldn’t give you a reason to live.
Your friend, Rachelle, found you and rushed you to the emergency room. She stayed with you for days. The day you were discharged, Rachelle drove you down to First Avenue then on up and around the university district. She pointed out the street kids as she drove then she pulled over to the side of the road and turned toward you. In a furious voice, she said, “Of course, you can have kids! There they are!” She’d swept her arm to include a young girl probably no more than thirteen huddled in a doorway and another young girl panhandling on a corner.
“There are your kids. If you don’t claim them, if you don’t reach out and touch their lives, who will? And if someone doesn’t give a damn, they’re going to die. Same as your baby died, but for a whole lot less reason.”
You looked at me then. Tears glistened in your eyes as you told me, “The important things can’t be purchased. They can only be handed on, from one person to another, a priceless inheritance.”
Sandy, thank you for my inheritance.
Love, Michelle Dryer.”
Double-checking the phone number on the letter, I smiled as I punched it in.
“Hello?” An older woman’s voice answered.
“I’d like to speak with Michelle Dryer. This is Sandy Harmer.”
“The Sandy from Bellingham, the one Michelle stayed with for a while?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“I’m Eleanor. Eleanor Dryer. Michelle’s mother.”
“Oh, I thought the number on the letter was Michelle’s. You’re not going to believe this, but I just received a letter from Michelle that apparently got lost before it wound up here. In it she told me about her halfway house for girls, Phoenix Rising.”
“That letter must be almost two years old!” Eleanor gasped. “Michelle…” I heard a catch in the woman’s voice, a hiccup much like a strangled sob. “Michelle was killed a bit over a year ago.”
“Killed?” I sank back against the couch.
“Andrea, a little thirteen-year-old, was sent to Michelle by a street worker. The mother and her drunk boyfriend found out where Andrea was and showed up one night. They tried to force her to go with them, but Michelle got Andrea loose then the boyfriend pulled a gun. Michelle jumped him and yelled for Andrea to run.
“Poor child, she ran to the house and called the police and before she even hung up she heard a gunshot. She ran back outside. Her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were gone, but Michelle had been shot. She…she died before the ambulance arrived.”
“I’m sorry. So sorry,” I whispered as tears trickled down my cheeks.
Eleanor sniffed, cleared her throat. “It’s a great loss to all of us. Mays was devastated. He and Michelle had grown very close.”
Tim’s angry words echoed in my heart, “If you keep playing around in other people’s business, you’re going to get yourself or someone else hurt!” Now, Michelle was dead.
Almost as if she could read my mind, Eleanor said, “Sandy, we want you to know how grateful we are that you were part of Michelle’s life. We could’ve lost her on the streets, but we got to share our beautiful daughter’s life. We’ve been blessed to see all the good that she’s done.”
“I…I feel like I somehow got her…her killed.” My throat ached with tears and sorrow.
“Why, Sandy, you should see the girls who came when they heard. Some of them were just girls Michelle talked to on the streets, and others she helped in some way. And, the girls who lived here when it happened, they all stayed on with Mays and me. Said this was home. I don’t think we could’ve gotten through this year without them.” I heard her sigh then she said, “The life Michelle lived because of you was so much better than the life she would’ve lived without you. Thank you.”
After I said good-bye to Eleanor, I laid the phone softly back on its’ cradle and wandered outside. I headed up to the barn. Across the miles and years, Michelle had reached out and touched someone. Had renewed yet another person’s faith and given hope where hope seemed gone.
This time that someone was me.
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