Chapter Five: A Fragile Fortress
Another stellar day in the dealership, a Toyota Sienna sold to a family about to celebrate Christmas with a trip to Disneyland, and an FJ Cruiser to a couple headed for Baja. "Lowest prices for vacation rentals ever," the man had told her. Good for him and his lady, good for the car salesperson. Lolo clicked the switch on her big lantern flashlight and checked out the driveway, the street, the yard, and her door. All clear. She put her housekey between her fingers, exited the car while shining the light at the rear of it -- so no one could have followed the car into the short driveway -- and then keyed the fob with her little finger as she walked away from the vehicle, locking it.
It's like living in a jungle, she thought. Make sure no snakes are going to drop out of the trees and no alligators are lying in wait on the stepstones. She minced from step to step, keeping her high heels out of the squelchy Bermuda grass. By her door, she paused to check the yard again. People were homeless and desperate these days, too many had lost jobs and homes and cars and every comfort they had ever thought they would have for the rest of their lives. 2007 had been a revelation of unexpected horrors for the whole country, the recession an avalanche of misery and humiliation for so many. Herself included. From luxury apartment to stinking scab of a sleeping room in what, three months? No, less. From a twenty-four-hour lobby with security to a door carved in the side of a house, with four cement blocks as a stoop --
She stopped, her heart feeling like it was cramping. Her lantern flashlight revealed a footprint on the cement blocks, a bootprint the size of a man's, in muddy outlines. Lolo stepped up, put her back to the door, and scanned the area again with the light. No one. She hurriedly turned around, keyed her door open, and shone the light into the room. No one again. She stepped in, turned, clicked the light on with one elbow, threw the deadbolt she'd installed, turned the lock. Sweating suddenly in spite of the December cold, she kicked off her heels, picked one up like a weapon, and examined the supposedly sealed door to the interior of the rest of the rental house. It was intact, the plastic ruler she'd glued to the door and jamb with Elmer's still in place. No one had forced the locked inner door open.
Should I just nail boards across that damned door? The landlord had made it clear that she was not allowed to board up any doors or windows; it would get him in trouble with his insurance company if any escape routes were impeded. Of course, they turned a blind eye to bars on the windows, and Lolo was sure that the insurance company wasn't inspecting the property -- the junk piled on the front porch of the house was certainly a fire hazard, at least in summer, and nothing had been done about that. The City of Modesto wasn't inspecting anything, either, or her door from her room to the outside would have been constructed to code, with a roof gutter to keep the rain from splashing onto the wood, and the south side of the house opposite her door waist-deep in weeds should have warranted a fine for the owner, but again, there had been no mowing done at least since last spring, if then. If I can just hold out another month, six weeks, I'll have enough money to get a real apartment.
If my job lasts. If I do well. If this rat-hole doesn't catch fire and burn us all up in our sleep. The man who rented the kitchen, living room, and one bedroom of the house was a chain-smoker, and how he could afford rent and cigarettes was a mystery, although the grayish color of his skin, his sickly, scrawny body, and his rotten teeth suggested some kind of meth connection. Lolo had never gone to the back of the house to look at the garage, and had no intention of ever doing so -- if he was cooking meth in there, she didn't want to know.
She started, realizing that she had just been standing still on the floor with one shoe in her hand, not moving. No coffee. Can't afford to stay awake all night. Her usual routine was to undress, remove her makeup, and shower, then fiddle around with her phone until eleven or so, and go to sleep. This time, however, as she began to unbutton her suit jacket, her hands were shaking so badly she could hardly find the buttonholes.
No one is breaking down the door. Nothing has been touched. Suddenly the depth of her fear surfaced, and she was afraid to go into the bathroom and shut the door, afraid to open the bathroom door to come out, afraid to lie down for sleep. But she had nowhere to go to be safe; every damn penny had to be saved to get out of here, so a hotel was not an option. A women's homeless shelter would have been better, but they were reserved for women in actual danger from domestic abuse, and for women who didn't have a roof over their heads -- ugly and disgusting roofs did not make a woman eligible for beds in such high demand.
The couch would help. Lolo had situated it against the outside wall of the room. There was no reason the couch couldn't be placed against that locked, allegedly sealed door to the interior of the house. No one was supposed to use that door, and as it opened inward, the couch would be as good as boards. It was getting late, though, so she had better do this home improvement project immediately.
Taking off her jacket and blouse, she put on her slouchy sleep t-shirt, and began to move the couch very, very quietly, a couple inches at a time, each end alternating, as though she was a prisoner plotting a daring move, never letting her captor know that something was happening inside her cell.
Damn, I'd actually be safer in jail than in this neighborhood.
She wedged the back of the one dining room chair under the handle of the exterior door, as she had seen on television shows and in the movies. Don't even know if that actually works.
Even if it didn't really do any good, it felt better to have made some kind of effort to fortify her sleeping space. Lolo headed for the bathroom, for soothing facial cream to remove the mask of her makeup, and for a shower to wash the sharpish smell of her fear-induced sweat away.
Tomorrow I am going to stop at the supermarket and buy some chicken bouillon. A hot cup of that would taste so good right now.
As she re-appeared from beneath the makeup, she began to relax. Pale lips replaced the vivid red, somewhat blotchy skin emerged from the porcelain perfection. She found herself grinning at the incongruity of her heavily-made-up eyes against the plainness of the rest of her middle-aged face.
Once, after several glasses of wine, Tom had sat on the edge of the tub and watched her after-work ritual. When she had gotten to the eyes, he'd stopped her, and wrapped toilet paper around the bottom half of her face, and above her eyebrows. "And just who the hell is that?" he'd asked, and they both had laughed like children. It was like some kind of clown joke, she thought. You know, that's the memory I want to think about tonight.
She pulled a few sheets of toilet tissue, tipped makeup remover onto them, and swiped the eyes of Nefertiti, of Garbo, of Elizabeth Taylor away and into the tiny trash can. She turned on the shower and waited for the icy water to turn warm.
A hot shower was out of the question; the crappy plumbing and a likely prehistoric water heater could not keep up with the demands of the renters, not that the other renters seemed particularly personally cleanly. But warmish was good enough, and Lolo remembered a teen magazine she had looked at when she was fourteen recommending that girls rinse their hair with cold water to make it shiny. It had been almost certainly bullshit, but now, Lolo pretended that it was true, to feel a little less out of control.
Before she got out of the shower, she swabbed down the sides of the stall, and re-soaped and rinsed the washcloth. She could not afford to let the cloth sour or hang dirty -- going to a laundromat was a once-a-week luxury/ordeal for undergarments and linens. Work garb of course had to be professionally cleaned; it was another work expense that she would not be reimbursed for.
Clean and in pajamas, Lolo turned to her hair, using a pick first to get most of the tangles out, then a coarse comb, then a fine comb. The loose hairs she let fall from her hand to a piece of paper, a flyer she'd picked up from work a few days ago for just this purpose. She always collected the hairs that fell out after a shower. Her mother had told her to do that, so that her personal body signatures would never be available to someone who wanted to work evil against her.
Of course, she really didn't believe that was possible, but when she was a girl, it made her mother happy that she followed the admonition, and eventually it was a habit. When Tom had sputtered about how silly a habit it was, Lolo had pretended to be serious about it -- as though she actually thought there were people out there who would use her stray hairs for witchcraft -- to tease him, exasperate him, entertain him.
An evening years ago, he had shown her an envelope with a tangle of her long black hair in it, as though he had pilfered and stored her last few weeks of shed hair. "Now I have power over you," he'd laughed, and a chase around her apartment ensued, with a wrestling match on the bed devolving to the floors, and lovemaking between the dining room table and foyer. In the morning, she'd awoken him with a "Psst" to show him that she was burning the envelope over the kitchen sink with a match. "Now you have no power over me," she smiled, even though that was not in the least way true.
Lolo let her hair hang down over the edge of the couch to dry, looked at the news on her phone, the weather forecast for the tomorrow, the lack of emails from anyone. The doors were as secure as she could make them, there was nothing left to do for the evening, and sleep was the best insurance for her job tomorrow. It was time to let go of the fear and the tension and the worries and even the triumphs of the day. It was time for ... Tom.
Tom, and his toilet paper mask. They'd giggled their way into the shower, soaping each other, caressing, cuddling, washing each other's hair. We washed away everything but us. They'd just held each other in the hot flow of Lolo's "rainfall" shower, clinging as though there was nothing in the world that could tear them apart, or touch them there.
That was so long ago, nearly nineteen years. We had a good, long time together. Never enough, but how many couples stay together for all that time? Both of them were working full time back then, and it had been the very first time they'd had so much time together. Philli had taken the kids to Colorado to visit her sisters and her mother. Lolo and Tom had both taken two days off from work, a kind of honeymoon for their affair.
For Lolo, it was the first best experience of her life, loaded with joy, pleasure, freedom, infatuation, incredible comfort and safety in Tom's arms.
She let herself sink into that memory, the remembered scent of his skin, the harbor of his embrace. Good night, Tom, my love.