The dashboard is your fireplace on a chilly evening, like the hearth in the house you walked away from. Pontiac dashboards smolder the warm red of glowing embers. Yours keeps you company through the dark hours when sleep is dangerous. Dawn arrives, you shut off the lights and the dashboard is the last thing you see before you drift off and the first thing you see when glaring afternoon sunlight awakens you.
Daylight and weather rule your activity when you live in a car. Last spring was cold and you had to idle the engine night and day for heat. Summer wasn’t horrid, but you ran the air conditioning when you couldn’t find shade. Now it’s fall, and you fear enduring winter in a four-door. Libraries, malls and restaurants offer comfort and Wi-Fi. Still, you go through tanker trucks of gasoline, though you creep along when you drive. You figure for every tank of gas you buy, you idle through most of it to keep the temperature tolerable and the battery charged. Natural gas heated your house. Now it’s Speedway or Sunoco.
Lately, you spend days parked in the garage at Central United Hospital. It’s like a big dank mausoleum, so sunlight waking you isn’t a problem. The security officers noticed you, but they don’t give you trouble and you feel safe with them around. The downside is cost. If you pull in after eight am and leave by two, you can get out for three dollars even. Five or so hours sleep is barely enough. The lights in the lot at the Pacific Diner stay on after it closes. Probably to keep the homeless from congregating, but it works the other way. Eddy the Shopping Cart guy. Dorian the Nam vet. A guy they call Slammer because he bangs his head against buildings and other solid objects. They’re regulars, and there are others. You’ve formed loose acquaintanceships. Most are harmless, but you only allow yourself short catnaps because bad people also school like sharks at the Pacific. You stay alert, dogpaddling all night in a scary ocean.
+ + +
Where the heck is Cass? You met her on a frosty evening when you saw her shivering, took a chance and offered her the passenger seat. You have yet to completely comprehend your alliance, but desperation is the major component. You glance out of habit and remember you recently pawned your watch. The sixteen-hundred-dollar Baume-Mercier you awarded yourself when they promoted you to Assistant Human Resources Director only netted you a hundred-fifty dollars at Thrifty Loans. Enough to afford a prepaid cell. You search jobs websites and email applications, so you need the phone for callbacks.
Cass is usually here by now. You worry. You’re concerned on a human level, but she also gives you money. Then, three quick raps on the passenger window announce she’s standing outside. You rock the switch to unlock the Bonneville’s passenger door.
“Hey, Cass,” you say, as she drops into the bucket seat. She’s on the frenetic side tonight and you watch to see if she’s just wound up, or agitated. She could be both. You relock the car.
“Oh, Christ,” she burbles, slamming against the headrest and rocking back and forth. She’s large. A big beautiful woman, she proclaims. She has pretty features. Her hair forms snaky brown tendrils if she doesn’t wash it often enough. You try to nudge her gently toward cleanliness without offending her. “What a night,” she says.
“Oh yeah?” You try to tell yourself you don’t want to know, but part of your psyche loves to vicariously share her adventures. When she tells you her crazy stories, it excites you in ways that scare and titillate, a delicious combination. She constantly lists the benefits of tricking and tells you how much you could make. You think of it as a 401k. You don’t want to touch it. Substantial penalty for cashing.
Cass shucks a laceless athletic shoe and begins picking at her big toe. It looks like a soft white mushroom. “These guys are no match for me, babe. I mean, they don’t stand a chance.” She apparently decides her yellowed thumbnail won’t make the fix, so she stuffs her foot back into the shoe. “I mean, I know I’m no Albert Eisenstine, but these guys are really stupid.”
You suppress laughter. You can smell her briny breath from across the console, so you offer Tic Tacs. “Really?” you ask, and sit back to listen.
She goes on to explain a new idea she came up with. She charges extra to let them fondle her breasts while she gives a ten dollar hand-job, the only sex act she claims to perform. “I come on like there’s no way I want ’em touching my jugs, and that makes ’em want to even more.” She cackles like a witch, then squeaks in a little girl voice, “Oh no, please don’t make me.” Her voice lowers. “It’s the old forbidden fruit thing, see? I let them talk me into it for an extra five, and that little bit of touchy-feely gets ’em off quicker. I’m on to the next moron with less elbow grease.” She bites down on the Tic Tacs and wintergreen fills the cabin when she laughs.
As quickly as she does anything, Cassandra falls asleep, her chest rising and falling in a new cadence. It can’t be as simple as she says. You try, but you can’t imagine yourself grasping some stranger’s penis and him groping your breasts. You were always second rung looks-wise, and you accepted that. Concentrated on personality and kindness—options for the pretty girls. Men responded. You’ve had a few serious relationships. Never found the right man and weren’t in a hurry. Your career and your girlfriends were as important as a man. When you did have sex it was only after much consideration, so the idea of hand-jobs is repugnant, even when the gauge says you’re low on gas and Cass isn’t around to give you money.
What if you decided to sell a hand-job and lost control of the situation? What if the man became insistent for more, or for something else? This is lame-ass, bitch. Nah, I think you need to suck it. Pull down your panties or I’ll yank ’em off, myself. These are the horrors Cass must face and you feel badly that you take the money she offers. Does that make you a pimp? You figure she’d be doing what she does, regardless. You do nothing to encourage Cass’s tricking, but you never try to talk her out of it, either. Never ask her for a penny, though you take what she gives. You offer companionship and shelter. She says her house burned when she was a child and she can’t sleep inside four walls. She has exclusive rights to the glove compartment and she keeps her money there—calls it her safety deposit box. You never peek. She sleeps in your car when she likes. You tell yourself that’s even trade but, bottom line, you take her money. And feel like a pimp.
+ + +
Little more than two years ago you were riding high. Pulled down sixty thou a year, plus bennies. Full medical, no co-pay. Fifty percent tuition reimbursement. You got excellent reviews and earned your way up to three weeks’ paid vacation. You palled with other mid-level management women and you all loved the ladies’ nights out and girls-on-the-loose vacations. Cancun. Aruba. When they were sacked in the downsize, too, your friendships didn’t weather the tsunami of unemployment. Each of you drifted off like shipwreck survivors who lost their hold on the overturned hull of the life you shared.
Now, you stare at the dashboard and wonder how they fared. Did they carry your debt load? Did they have family they could turn to? Or are they like you, living in a car because pride precludes making that phone call to admit you need help? Are your old friends close to going down for the third time? You remember the times you shared, took for granted and thought would never change, except to improve. You look over at Cass’s dozing hulk and a chilling thought occurs. There may come a time when you’ll look back at tonight as one of the good old days. Tears blur the glow of the dash while soft rock murmurs from the speakers.
+ + +
Cass rattles out of her sleep, eyes wild for a moment until she looks at you and relaxes. She pats your wrist. “You look a little weepy, babe. Everything okay?”
Her concern boosts you out of your doomsday thoughts. “Actually, I think I’m coming down with a cold. Head’s stuffy, is all.” You seal the fib with a warm grin and she seems to buy your story.
She glances at the clock on the dash. “Almost break time at the loading dock. Got to go do my regulars.” She opens the mirror on the back of the visor. It lights and she primps, pushing a few wisps of hair from her cheeks, and rolling her lips as though she just applied lipstick. She isn’t wearing any. You wonder what image she sees when she looks at herself.
“You doin’ alright, babe? Need gas?” She leans to look at the gauge as she snaps the mirror closed. “Oh, shit, you better get some.” She opens the glove box, pulls out a wad of bills and peels some off without counting. “That should do for a while,” she adds, giggling. She stows the rest, unlocks the door and gets out.
You roll the lock and count the money. A hundred thirty dollars. That would be thirteen hand-jobs, fewer assuming some would pony up an extra five for jug access. Figuring five minutes a trick, Cass just handed you her earnings for about an hour’s work. Not a bad wage. You wag your head. A 401k you could tap if you have to, but you can’t imagine it in your wildest dreams.
You put the Bonneville in gear and pull out of Pacific Diner’s lot. Skokie’s is open twenty-four hours and they have free Wi-Fi. You haven’t checked your email since morning, and a cup of coffee sounds good. You pull into Skokie’s, circle the lot and park where you’ll be able to keep watch. The car is rarely out of your line of sight.
Cass has custody of the glove box, but the trunk is your personal storage locker. All your office clothes, purses and shoes are neatly packed and sealed in airtight plastic bags. Your computer rests there in its satchel, also sealed in safely with the other items that graced the desk and bulletin board in your former office. You never let anyone see something of value come out of the trunk because a lock can be popped in seconds.
You scan, see no one and get your laptop out of the trunk. Once inside and seated, you order black coffee and a bagel with cream cheese from a stony-faced waitress who treats you like a suspect. You take her demeanor as a challenge, and when she returns with your order, you smile your friendliest and comment on her bracelet. She covers it with her other hand and backs away. Tosses you a thin thank you. You wonder if it’s because you broadcast homelessness and need, or because she is just naturally vigilant.
You savor a couple soothing sips of coffee while your laptop boots. It’s old and slow, but you know what to expect and how to make it to do what you want. Just the sight of the sign-in screen settles and comforts you, maybe because it puts you in touch with another time when your life glinted like the sun on the river behind your house. Life was so comfortable and easy back then. Of course, it didn’t seem so at the time. Now you know.
You type in your pass, betterdays. It used to be a fact, now it’s a wish. Your home screen comes up and you click on your internet access. You long for AOL, for the bright colors, high-end graphics and tabloid-trashy stories about stars who were busted for drugs or got caught cheating on an outwardly perfect Hollywood mate. You rarely read them, but their absence is just one more testament to the bare-bones nature of your skeletal existence. Your life, with no fat and little tissue remaining to protect its various parts. The county-run web page opens and the weak pastel colors emphasize the even more feeble tints and shades composing your day to day, other than the warm rosy illumination radiating from the Pontiac’s instrument panel. Your hearth. You glance through the window. No one is near it.
Then you see it. No enthusiastic, “You’ve got mail!” but a graphic says you have one unopened email. You used to be inundated with silly jokes and videos your friends sent, so many you deleted most of them, unread. Now when you get an email, it is a reply to an inquiry about a job, or a job app. Your hand trembles as you guide the cursor and click. You gird yourself for the inevitable, “We are so sorry … ”
But this email is from the director of alumni development at Tontogany State University. She’s reviewed your resume and talked to your former boss. Your background in human resources may fit into creating programs and planning events to encourage alumni donations. She’s impressed with your qualifications and the recommendation your previous supervisor gave you. She wants to interview at your earliest convenience. Your convenience. How long has it been since you’ve heard that phrase?
You write her name and phone number in your directory. You click reply and, in your most professional business jargon, explain that you are interested in the position, eager to meet her and excited about exploring this opportunity. You tell her you will be in touch later today. AOL had spell and grammar check. This local server doesn’t, so you pore over the email several times, make adjustments by reverting to words you are certain are spelled correctly, and hope you placed the commas properly. You say a silent prayer and press send. You save her email and shut down your laptop.
Four a.m. is the equivalent of seven p.m. in your former life, several hours from when you ordinarily sleep. Not this morning. You need to set up your interview. An interview for a job that could get you out of your car. Oh, it will be entry-level. Probably no more than thirty or so a year. Less than half of what you used to make, but who the hell cares? Out of the car and into an apartment. A place with a bed and a kitchen, so you can stop eating the Subways you live on. Fast food can make you fat, and your office clothes have to fit. Subway, noon and night. Low in fat and high in protein. Not too pricey. God, you never want to see another sub sandwich once you’re working again. Working. You say it aloud. The word feels strange on your lips.
Back at your car, you stow your computer in the trunk and start for the Pacific. Cass is probably wondering where you are. You ease along, nursing the engine to save fuel. If you get this job, will you keep the Bonneville? Aside from its age, it’s a wonderful car. Bought it with the eight hundred you had left over when you sold your Lexus and paid off the loan. The aging Pontiac is comfortable. Tidy as your house was, and it’s so much easier to keep clean. This car is more than a set of wheels. It’s your shelter. Your friend. Even if you buy another car that’s more economical, could you ever let it go?
+ + +
You’re less than a block from the diner when the lights from a police car jar you out of your thoughts. He must need to pass, you decide. You pull over to let him go, but he stops behind you. In your rear-view, you can see his face. He’s young. Talking on his radio. He finishes, puts on his hat and gets out. He’s sidling, hand on his holstered gun. You roll down your window and put both hands on the wheel where he can see them. You’re surprised. Why did he stop you? At the same time, you’re happy to have someone to share the news with. You may have a job. You’ll be making an appointment. At your convenience.
“License, registration and proof of insurance,” the young officer says, his voice colorless and cold. Maybe a bit tense.
“Yes, sir,” you say. “I keep my purse in the trunk. May I get out?”
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” he says.
He smacks you with the beam of a bright flashlight. You understand. You lever the door open and stand, hands sort of fluttering over your head, just in front of your face. You feel silly and wish he’d just tell you what to do with them. “I’ll open the trunk, if it’s okay.” He nods and you lead the way. When you key the lid open, you glance at his face and notice he’s taken aback by what he sees. “I’ve been living in my car since last March. I got sacked in a downsize over a year ago and lost my house. Lost nearly everything but this car.” Tears shock you as they overflow your lower lids and gush down your cheeks. Embarrassed, you wipe at them with the backs of your hands. “I just got an email from Tontogany State.” You can’t rein in your excitement. You’re giddy with joy and crying at the same time. “I may have a job. I have to set up an interview.”
The officer takes his hand off the butt of his gun for the first time. You suddenly remember why you’re both standing at the open trunk of your car and pick up your purse, pull out your wallet and hand him the documents he requested.
He looks everything over and seems satisfied. The corners of his mouth allow the slightest of smiles to break his professional mask. “You were a good twenty under the limit,” he says. “I thought you might be drunk. That’s one of the things we look for.”
You laugh, but once again wipe at residual tears. “I love a glass of wine, but to be honest, I haven’t been able to afford any for a while.”
The cop shows his teeth when he actually grins at you. “Maybe when you land that job,” he says as he hands you your paperwork.
Before either of you can say anything else, another police car slides up behind the first one. The light bar begins to strobe and an officer in a white shirt steps out and puts on his hat. “Everything under control?” he asks as he walks up.
“Yes, Sergeant,” the patrol officer says. “I stopped this woman because she was driving slowly. Thought she might be DUI, but she’s fine.”
The sergeant is beginning to circle now. Looking your car over suspiciously. “Did you conduct a search?”
“No, actually, I didn’t. I talked to her and—”
“Anything in the car we should know about?” the sergeant says to you. “Any drugs or guns?”
This is his job and you want to make it easy. “No, sir. I don’t do drugs and I never shot a gun.” You pause. “I’m not sure I ever held one.”
The sergeant completes a three-sixty of your car. He aims his flashlight at your belongings in the trunk. “Do I have your permission to search your possessions?”
“Sure,” you say. You want to be helpful. You understand the situation police face on the street. Hell, you live in the craziness and evil in this neighborhood every night. “Everything’s in watertight bags to keep it clean. Clear plastic so I can find things easily. These are my blouses and tops,” you say, picking up one of the zippered bags. “Those are skirts and slacks. Business suits,” holding up another bag. “I lost my job almost two years ago. Moved into the car last March. I’m going to have a job interview at Tontogany State today.”
The sergeant is impassive. He picks up several of the bags, examines them and tosses them back down. He opens the one that holds your panties and bras, dumps the contents and clumsily paws through them. “And what do you do for money?” he asks, his voice grinding as though his throat is sore.
Anger flashes through you like arcing electricity. He ransacked your undies. Touched them. He didn’t need to do that. You glance at the young patrolman and he looks uncomfortable. You wonder if the sergeant got off on handling your under-things, or was it just thoughtlessness? Regardless, you swallow your anger and answer. “When my unemployment ran out, I started pawning jewelry. I had a pretty bad jewelry habit back when I was working.” You shrug. “I guess it paid off.”
Suddenly, you remember Cass’s stash of money in the glove box. It hits you like a kick to the solar-plexus. This cop is bound to find it. The best you can do is to tell him up front. Honesty. That, and get out ahead of the curve. “Oh,” you say, “and a friend gives me money now and then. I let her sleep in the car when she wants to. She keeps money and some personal stuff in the glove compartment. We treat the money she gives me as rent.” You force a smile that you’re pretty certain looks strained. You have the distinct feeling this is going downhill fast.
“Where does your friend,” he says, putting a sarcastic trill on the word, “get this money?” His flashlight beam is trained on the glove box door.
Honesty. Stay out in front of this. “She, ah … men pay her to masturbate them.”
The sergeant’s head snaps around like he heard a gunshot. The young patrolman’s eyes are trained on you, as well. “And what’s this person’s name?” the sergeant says.
“Cassandra. I don’t know her last name.” You shrug. “She doesn’t know mine. On the street, we don’t use last names.”
The sergeant’s laugh sounds like a sneeze. He nudges the patrolman. “Cassy, the hand-job queen.” He goes back to a stern official glower. “Do I have your permission to search?” He’s waving the beam from his light at the glove compartment.
You raise your hands and let them drop. “I’ve never opened it myself. It’s her property. But sure, go ahead.” You are hopeful. The money is explained. No other skeletons will rattle out of the Pontiac.
The sergeant rips into the compartment like a pit bull. He pulls out Cass’s wad of cash and hands it to the patrolman. “Here,” he says. “Count this.”
As the sergeant continues to root in the open glove box, you look around. A small crowd from the Pacific has formed at a safe distance. Nobody wants to get too close. Most of them are probably a warrant check from a ride to the lockup. Eddie is easy to spot with his shopping cart, but no Cass. You look closely. Nope. You’d recognize her chunky form and ropey shock of hair in an instant.
“Four hundred eighty-five dollars,” the patrolman says.
Forty-eight hand-jobs, you think. At least one with jug access.
Suddenly, the sergeant dangles a baggie in your face. He shines his flashlight in your eyes, so you can’t really see more than the translucent plastic. “What about this?” he says. You struggle for focus. He shakes the bag and there is a faint clatter. What is it? Before you can even begin to parse together an answer, he rips it open. “Ecstasy,” he calls out, the way your grandmother used to shout “Bingo!” “You are in possession of an illegal substance. You are under arrest,” he says and gives you your Miranda rights.
He’s trained his flashlight on the bag. There are fewer than a dozen pills in it. You grip his arm gently and look straight into his eyes. “Those aren’t mine,” you say. “If you check that bag for prints, you won’t find mine on it. I never saw it before, and had no idea it was there.” You search his face and you’re not certain, but you think you detect a softening. The lines around his mouth appear to smooth a bit.
You’re about to press your case, but the patrolman opens an evidence sack. “Let’s put the baggie in here,” he says. The sergeant nods and drops it inside. “Technically, you are in possession because the baggie is in your car, unless someone else claims ownership,” the patrolman tells you. Gentry is the name on his ID tag. “But the fingerprint angle is a good one. Your lawyer will probably pursue that.” He closes the evidence bag and walks to his cruiser.
Your lawyer. You roll your eyes, picturing a disinterested preppie doing pro bono work to impress the full partners. You’re not willing to entrust your fate to a guy like that when you can feel the Tontogany job and everything you’ve prayed for slipping through your fingers. Yeah, like you could use the one call you’re allowed to set up an interview, at your convenience.
Gentry is in his patrol car. You are alone with the sergeant. “I wouldn’t have told you about the money if I knew about the drugs.” Your voice is a throaty hiss. “I’m homeless, but I’m not stupid. And you can test my hair, my blood, anything. I’ll be negative. Nothing. I don’t even take aspirin.” You pause, wondering if you should just shut up, or offer up your 401k. “And I need that job at Tontogany State.” You give his arm a gentle squeeze. “Need it, Sergeant.”
He grasps your waist and turns you around. His hands linger and he pulls you toward him, simultaneously bucking against your bottom. Offer accepted, you figure, but then he grabs your wrists. The cuffs are cold against your skin. He takes you over and guides you into Gentry’s cruiser, making sure you don’t bump your head as you drop into the back seat. He slams the door without a word. You can’t believe what just happened.
+ + +
Your car will be impounded, Gentry explains as he pulls away. Your possessions will be logged in and secured, pending the outcome of your case. You take a last look at the Bonneville. Your home. Will you ever see it again? Ever again bask in the warmth of the dash lights? You scan the cast of characters looking back at you, hoping to spot Cass, but no luck. Shopping Cart Eddie wags his hand without raising his arm, as though he hopes no one but you will notice his farewell gesture.
Now you understand how canyons of desperation can lead a person to engage in anonymous sex. Hell, you’d do every cop in the precinct if they would confiscate Cass’s pills and let you go to your interview. Cass acts strangely, but you suspected mental illness, not drugs.
Would she have stepped up and admitted the Ecstasy was hers, if she’d been there? Probably not. If there’s anything you’ve learned on the street, it’s that survival is paramount.
The lights on the patrol car’s dash have a cold greenish cast. So does your mirror image in the Plexiglas shield. You watch your mouth twist into an ironic sneer and wonder if it bothers you more that you offered the sergeant your 401k, or that he rejected the proposal? All that time you swore you wouldn’t use it. Then, when you caved, he turned you down.
You can’t resist. “You were done with me, weren’t you, Officer Gentry?” you say. “If that sergeant hadn’t stopped, I’d be home free, right?” You watch him closely. He almost says something, but his face contorts and he rubs his nose. “You know I’m no criminal. I’m down on my luck, but I had it going. I had an interview with Tontogany State. Now, I’m going to jail.”
Gentry squirms in his seat, but still says nothing. No surprise. He can’t bad-talk his superior. Nothing you say will do any good, but you feel powerless and venting gives you some measure of solace. You sense Gentry is in your corner, and you want to make certain you don’t change that. Keep him sympathetic. Nice-talk him.
“And that sergeant,” you go on. “I’m sorry, but he was just so unprofessional. Pawing through my panties and bras. My God.” You pause to let Gentry rerun that clip. “Does he really think the streets are safer with me locked up, or did he just want to make my life harder?” You wipe your eyes. You aren’t crying, but Gentry can’t tell through the shield. “It worked,” you say, feeling bad for playing the helpless female, but that’s what you are. You crave a little pity from someone other than yourself.
The vulnerable card works, too. “I’m sorry,” Gentry says. It’s almost a whisper.
“No, it’s okay,’’ you say. “You did your job. What you were told to do.”
Gentry eases his cruiser in through the gates at the city jail. Everything is cold concrete and steel bars. Bright security spots paint sickly yellow light on the jail walls. Brown streaks cascade from the rusty steel bars grilling the windows. You are terrified. You replay scary images from movies and reality cop shows.
You come close to crying for real, but gather yourself. You sit up straight and wait for Gentry to get out and open the door. You endured six months of living in a car. You’ll survive this, too. “At my inconvenience,” you whisper.