Life Amongst the Ashes
She counted the money in her purse for the fifth time that morning and wondered what she was going to do. Rising from the chipped linoleum table,
she crossed the kitchen and headed down the hallway to the closet. The door
hung open, hinting at the blackness beyond, the emptiness. For one brief,
horrific moment, she felt the same. She saw that blackness, that emptiness
as the escape from her daily meal of fear and concern.
In the living room, she heard her children talking as they watched the television and replaced the blackness with longing, sadness and relief. She had no time for this, no time to wallow in empty desires of an easy way out. She had no choice, and that was the real soul killer. She had to accept and go on even though each step hurt so much.
Some days it felt as if every step she took ripped a little piece of her off. A slice of skin here, a bit of flesh there. She felt all bones and rags as she maintained a brave, stoic facade on the crumbling building of her life. Quietly and pretending as if she were rearranging things, she searched the
pockets of all the coats. All the shabby and outdated coats. Coats that
had not been that nice when purchased but had at least been affordable.
Frayed cuffs and tears in pockets were the least of the problems that marred this fashion show. There were stains and burns, catches and tears that could not be hidden or mended. Each one was its own pothole, its own empty storefront of a dying city. Once the shabbiness set in, it was almost
impossible to escape.
She ran her hands through the pockets, down past the holes and deep into the liners. Maybe she had missed something. Maybe, somehow, that one thing that she so desperately needed would be there. Today her daughter had a school outing - nothing fancy, nothing really great, but still it had a
price. Five dollars, an insignificant amount, but an amount she didn't have
Years ago, when the fat of life had started to slip, she learned the necessity of trimming. She cut corners here, made do there, sacrificed
everything to try to maintain just the status quo, just to remain even. But
that never works. Slowly, the shabbiness started to appear, the wearing down, the breaking, the worn through. Inch by inch the level, low as it was, started to descend even further.
One unexpected bill, one surprise cost and everything was thrown into disarray. It didn't take much, it wasn't fortunes that made the difference but something as simple as five dollars. The entire class would be going, all
the smiling faces as they escaped the drudgery of school for a diversion
however limited. But her daughter could not go, would not be allowed to go without the precious and insignificant five dollars.
What could she do, she wondered as she stroked the coats absentmindedly. Could she call the school and beg for assistance, a week's delay in the need for the money? She would be able to get it somehow; ask a friend, call her parents even though she didn't dare, couldn't ask for more from those who had already given so much.
Maybe she could explain it to her daughter, tell her how she had nothing to give, nothing to offer to send her on the trip - but at what cost? The chance of the diversion... God how she wanted one herself, anything to let
her out of her prison. She longed to run, to fly, to explore and laugh but
she hadn't felt a real laugh in years and smiling almost hurt.
She had been through these coats before. Her hands had searched the pockets earlier in her desperation to find that one thing she needed. Even a little change would be a start. A few quarters here, a few dimes here and slowly she might scrape it together. If only she had a little more warning, an
extra month to plan, to get ready for this, but she hadn't. The school had
sent the note home Monday for a Wednesday departure and twenty-four hours
just wasn't enough time.
Dejected, she stepped back from the closet and walked to her room. She dropped heavily onto the bed. Across from her, she saw her reflection in
the mirror and suddenly wanted to scream. That was not her; that was not
that beautiful and vibrant girl she had once seen there in the silvered
glass. What she gazed at now was the face of a haggard woman, too thin and
too worried, the lines of fear etching themselves into brittle and
She felt the tears well up inside her like some great geyser about to explode. She felt darkness creep in again, its tendrils black and oily at the periphery of her vision. All she wanted to do was succumb to it.
She wanted that darkness… To sleep, to escape this, to leave all these worries and weights behind. It could only be better, it could only be
quieter in the grave. At least there, she would not hear the voices of
doubt and denial that sang in her head.
She fought this battle daily, this battle between living and dying, between wanting to live and wanting to die. She thought of her children crying, she could see them weeping at her gravesite and wondering why she had chosen to do what she had done. Some days that was enough to break her of her
deserved self-pity. Other days it almost fortified her resolve. She would
be dead, she would hear no cries, see no tears. She would be free.
She wondered at them, those children who lived totally unaware of her agonies. She did her best to try and maintain the appearances for her daughter. It was so much more difficult being a girl. Appearances were everything, clothes and shoes defined not only who you were but the friends you could have.
Show up badly dressed, and for your sufferings you could expect more. You would be ostracized, ignored, taunted, marked for life. No matter what happened, what changes of fortune occurred, you would always remember how
badly you felt that day. Women lived their entire lives scarred by the
happenings on playgrounds and classrooms. A cruel word, a mean gesture, a
single taunt could lead to tears, embarrassment and the horror of ever
The girls, the other ones, those angels. They would descend like hawks amongst doves to devour those that didn't fit the mold. Later, regardless of anything else, that one victim would be forever watched, forever preyed upon. In so many ways it was so much easier to raise a boy.
She steadied herself on the bed, seeing in her mind's eye what her children would most likely be doing right now. Her daughter would be in the bathroom curling her hair and primping for the day's appearances. Her meager
collection of clothes would be accented, switched, mixed and matched to
belie the limited numbers. Add a belt here, a scarf there, maybe something
bright to distract the eye, the daughter was already skilled in hiding.
She saw the hungry look in her daughter's eyes as they passed clothing stores. She could almost smell the desire to at least try on the beautiful things, but she had learned. To go into the shop would only lead to the overwhelming, searing need to possess. Possession was out of the question.
Any more than a passing glance would lead her to her own sorrow.
This was the life of want, the life of need that that slowly broke away little pieces until finally she felt like crumbling. It was a life of
disappointment and hidden secret tears. While she could understand her
daughter's response to the situation, she could not understand her son's.
The son seemed to live in an easy oblivion to everything.
If he had books to read or quiet private games to play then he was happy. A cardboard box was a spaceship for days, sheets of paper became the controls of a destroyer once penciled in. She wondered at his oblivion, wishing she could experience the same.
He had learned the secret early on and he maintained it well. He had learned that by not caring, he never felt the pain. By not really paying
attention, he was free of the concerns and minutia that plagued everyone
else. He learned that disappointment was so all consuming that he could
either ignore it or die by it.
His friends' toys were cooler and more varied. Their houses were bigger and more spacious. Their lives were fuller and greater in the promise they held. If he really paid any attention, he would fall to the ground and never ever get up.
The woman sat on the edge of the bed, her world an empty shell of grey pain and disappointment. The mirror across from her was her enemy and she wanted to smash it, to throw something through it, but she knew she couldn't. For all that it was, it was still furniture and that was something they could
ill-afford to replace. The mirror, for all its faults, was still too
useful, too needed to be discarded so easily.
She was just about to walk back out to the living room and her daughter's disappointment when she spotted it. Folded like a tiny little Japanese kimono and tucked into the plastic grip around the mirror was something she could not believe. Tentatively, she approached the object. She wanted to run out of the room, ignore it, pretend she hadn't seen it. It was a lot easier to ignore it, if she did, it couldn't let her down, it couldn't
shatter her hopes.
But she couldn't give up, not now, not with her arm stretching towards the silly, folded shape. With shaking hands, she reached out and plucked it from the frame where it had stayed for years, forgotten, unnoticed. As she held it, she remembered what it was and a flood of memories came back to
There had been happier times when they were still a family, when everything and anything seemed possible. They had been sitting around the kitchen table one night when the son wanted to show off his latest skill. He had done some origami in art class and now anything that could be folded was
being folded. He took a bill from his father and quickly creased it into the tiny shape she saw before her now. The father had laughed that it was expensive doll's clothing but he had never unfolded it. It had, instead, been tucked into the frame and here it still sat.
Sentimentality was the first to go when need rose its ugly head. With her heart beating solidly in her chest, she unfolded the dusty doll and sat in stupefied amazement at what she held. A five-dollar bill made up the
kimono; a ten made the doll inside and another five was folded into the
belt. She was holding a fortune, or at least a fortune to her.
For a lot of the people who would be passing by her apartment that morning, twenty dollars was chump change. They might blow that on some pointless purchase or a good lunch. To them, the twenty would mean little or nothing in their scheme of things. To her, however, it meant more than she would even be able to tell. That simple amount meant freedom. For a few days she would be free of the immediate fear. For a little while, she would feel
good about things and have some faith in how they might turn out.