A return to the fictional Portland that lives in my head, and is exactly like the real one I’ve lived in almost my entire life.
A taxi pulls up to a ramshackle house in southeast Portland, somewhere between SE Powell and Division, and 39th and 82nd. House, painted gray, maybe decades ago, needing more paint. Boxy shape, flat roof. Garage on the street level and in the front. Stairs leading up to the door on the second story, with a front porch formed by the roof of the garage. Garage door open, and filled with tools and left over construction supplies and sawhorses and gardening supplies and everything else but a car or two. A single light bulb in a fixture meant for two bulbs shone down on the sidewalk, but very little light came from inside the house. Late at night, after the Oregon Liquor Control Commission’s mandated 2:30 AM cutoff time for selling liquor, after hours.
The taxi disgorges a slim black-clad figure and a person-sized black canvas box. The figure hands cash to the driver inside, and the taxi pulls away, taking its yellowness away from the black and gray of the neighborhood, taking the engine rumbling and soft hiss of tires against asphalt with it, too, leaving only a distant sound of the highway. And a dog, barking. There’s always a dog barking somewhere.
Jennifer trudged across the sidewalk, under the light, up the stairs, pulling a wheeled suitcase behind her. She smelled of cigarette smoke and creme rinse, just like the heroine of the CAKE song called “Jolene”, even though she didn’t smoke, herself. She wore a black hoodie over blue jeans, but in the suitcase were vinyl pants and leather boots and silken corsets and lingerie, along with hair-care products and makeup, and a textbook or two, and notepads, and CDs, and a wad of money, mostly twenties, that had mostly been given to her a dollar or two at a time and slowly exchanged for larger bills as her evening had progressed.
She was coming home from work at Miss America’s, where she danced and got naked for tips. She was tired, worn out, and pissed off at the nameless faceless men (and women) who had treated her like a prostitute. But she put up with it because she’d made over fifteen hundred dollars, which was a good take for a weeknight.
She unlocked the door (“the thick, breezeway door” she thought, singing the lyrics to the song in her head, though the real door was just a standard front door) and pulled her suitcase in to the front room. She closed the door, quietly, thinking her house mates were all asleep. She left her bag where it was and crossed to the couch. A pile of blankets and pillows obscured the seat, and she started to push it all aside so she could look for the TV remote.
Her hand met something of weight underneath the blankets. Something warm, and solid. “Hey!” shouted the something under the blankets. It rolled over, and sat up.
“Fuck!” Jennifer shouted, then she turned and hit the light switch. “What the fuck?”
The figure on the couch was a skinny brunette girl, like a small scale version of Jennifer. The smaller girl blinked in the sudden light, and held up one arm to block out the light. The arm had a tattoo of a knife down the outside of the forearm, done in blue-black with a bright drop of red blood at the tip. Fake blood, in ink, not real. Cartoonish, even.
“Sheila?” Jennifer asked the smaller girl. “What are you doing here?”
“Shit. I got thrown out.” Sheila fell sideways onto the couch. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. I’m such a fuck up.” She had on a bra and sweats, and her torso had several other tattoos – an Egyptian ankh on her right tit, an orange and red sunburst pattern around her navel, more. She still wore makeup, bright red lipstick, dark eye shadow and eye liner, all of it smeared from her sleep. She hadn’t bothered to remove it before crashing. “I’ve been here since my shift ended. I can’t go back home.”
“Who let you in?” Jennifer scowled, mostly at herself. “I don’t mean it to sound like that. I’m OK with you being here. If you really got thrown out.”
“Meghan said I could crash here. I’m so sorry. It’s been a shitty week.” She rolled over, facing into the couch, as tears started to fill her eyes.
Jennifer pulled the covers over her friend, sat down on top of them. “You need some sleep. We can talk in the morning.”
Sheila sniffled and wiped her eyes. “How are you doing? How’s school and stuff?”
Laughing, Jennifer said, “It’s all good. Professor Yun asked about you a couple of days ago. Wondered why you dropped out. I told her it was… complicated.”
“I couldn’t go back.” She laughed through her tears. “I can’t ever seem to go back anywhere. I was too embarrassed, couldn’t face her after…”
After coming to class one too many times fucked up, Jennifer thought. “She wanted you to know… your paper on reputation-based markets was amazing. She said you may have the nugget of a whole new way of thought. You just need some… discipline.”
“What the fuck ever. I can’t even keep an address for more than a month or two.”
“And I could use some help with my Econ homework, too. I’m just a simple country lawyer. Or, y’know, I will be.”
Sheila rolled over onto her back, looked up at her friend. “Thanks. I can take a look at it in the morning. I kinda enjoyed it. I wish I could stick with it. I’d be the sexiest accountant ever.” She drew the blankets up to her chin and seemed to collapse into herself. “Mostly all I want to do is sleep lately. I barely move when I’m up on the stage.”
“You’re the second person I’ve talked to lately who has no energy. I met this guy last weekend, and he’s so angry all the time… It just drains him, he says.”
“Oh? A cute boy? Does Odd know?”
“Odd knows. Odd knows everything. And this guy just wants to talk politics. I think.”
Sheila sighed, loudly. “That’s another thing I miss about going to school. I miss guys who just want to talk. Nobody seems to want to talk to me anymore.” Her eyes, already red from crying, began filling with tears again, and her lips trembled.
She knew, Jennifer thought, Sheila knew that she was the cause of her own problems.
Neither girl had the courage to say it out loud, though. It was like the elephant in the room about which no one could talk.
An elephant named heroin.