(Editor’s Note: Lisa is a resident at the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community, which provides recovery oriented transitional housing to those experiencing homelessness. She took part in writing classes provided by our Fort Lyon Writer-in-Residence Program, and what follows is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress, Our Story.)
By Lisa K. George
I was living in subsidized housing just south of Colfax. A building packed with “the seriously mentally ill.” I had imagined a people festooned with character and self-knowledge, but I’d never experienced anything so rife with madness and malignancy since I’d left my parents’ house.
I took the basement apartment because I needed to leave Five Points, Denver’s ghetto. After nine years I was still referred to as “that white girl upstairs.”
The first morning on Pearl Street, I gagged on the water. I encountered a silverfish swimming across my journal, roaches and millipedes filing up from the kitchen sink and swollen bed bugs nurtured by the former occupant. I called management and declared that I, too, had grown up middle class; that there should be a certain line in the sand. That statement actually won me some respect and consideration over the next year, which was good because I had, in fact, leveled out at a degree of status commensurate with my poverty.
I’d hit an alcoholic bottom that could no longer be rectified. I was hallucinating at night and waking in a panic of withdrawal. I had two wide windows off of the kitchen and adjoining living room, facing the street at ground level. Anybody who scoped me out during the day could easily use a large rock to break in at night. Whiskey was a dubious companion, the strange proclivities of others a gathering certainty.
I was terrified. The carpeting squished beneath my toes like a swamp. My neighbors were mostly shut-ins, and the cops considered the rest of us a nuisance. “Skelator” used to walk her big dog up and down the skinny alley outside my bedroom window, with a digital camera around her neck.
Thus I had been primed for the homeless community one block away. There was a short cut, through the cement park on the corner, to the liquor store. Daniel was a scruffy-looking man with a disharmonious set of teeth, lewd and predatory, but also intelligent and protective when he wanted to be. He always caught my eye and said hello. It wasn’t until the night I met Baily, however, that my affinities set in.
I was crossing diagonally over 13th. A blur of longish, auburn hair and rage, Baily literally growled at her companion, “I need a beer.”
I said, “I’ll buy you a beer.” She swung her head toward me and intoned to her friend, “Is she for real?” I said that I was headed to the liquor store already, and if she really needed a beer that bad then I would buy her one. She fell into a sort of lock-step behind me, glancing back incredulously at her friend. Once she got that I was for real, she simmered down and took me to a spot on the park where her husband was playing a quiet, melodic electric guitar. We sat together on a blanket until she offered to walk me home, swaying and stumbling and hanging tight to her arm.
It was one of those coming-together stories that we frequently told in tandem, both of us relishing it more every time.
She was stunning. A high forehead, prominent auburn eyebrows and a strong nose and jaw. Her blue eyes shone cat-like above high, flushed cheekbones on milky skin. She commanded both respect and impossible love. “Everyone wants to sleep with Susan.” Tall and lanky, boyish, charming and difficult—Susan (aka Baily) honored fidelity to her husband, Chain.
They moved in with me. I wanted Baily: slip-sliding in the shower; making those silky, snorting sounds on the floor outside of my bedroom; drawing me in and out of her private respite. Not even Chain encroached upon her sleeping space. Then Baily disappeared for two weeks.
Chain and I called Detox, Denver General and the County Jail. She was out on a spree. We kicked back, smoking weed and recounting with glee the Simpsons episode when Lisa discovered the saxophone. But Chain was no saint, either. He took Baily for granted. I asked him once why he had married her, and he just said, like a confident sailor, “Have you ever looked at my wife?” Yes: A tenacity of spirit dislodged by a ferocity of intelligence.
Baily finally returned, showing up at my door wrapped in her sleeping bag as if it were a shawl and looking as forlorn as a child.
Chain got locked up for a while, and Baily was on her own again. She slept and slept, and then we would step out, onto the street. She’d been living outside for nearly twenty years—half her life—and knew all the crack guys. We’d step out on our own, everybody assuming we were lovers, and then she’d dump me on some sweet, hot guy.
Finally we danced. She towered over me, glancing down with obvious pleasure at our entanglement. She lifted my breast between us and said simply, as though to herself, “She’s so hot.”
We cooked together. We watched deadly serious movies. She had come to an astonishing sort of vow of silence. One night, when we were camping outside, she let me hold her rocking and laughing in the rain. Later that night, she rolled toward me and set my hands aside. She held my hands as if in prayer, and then turned goodnight.
I don’t know what happened. Chain came back. They fought incessantly. Baily resumed stealing bikes to support her heroin habit. She was shooting up in the back parking lot. Skelator kept calling the cops. I was too drunk to care, and they finally evicted me. Karen, who had warned me about my “new friends,” salvaged what she could of my belongings, bearing in mind what one would miss if one’s house burned down.
I ran into Baily on Colfax. She danced a jig at seeing me for the first time in months, and we sat on the curb exchanging sketches rapid fire. Her long arms and legs extended like reeds between the parked cars, and I said the wrong thing. A letter fell out of her journal, handwritten, obviously from Chain. I said, very flip, “He loves you better from the inside than from the out.” Baily slapped me hard—whack, across the face. I made my way back to the hotel slowly, threading my way through traffic and wearing her red hand on my cheek.
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