Chapter Eight

Grateful she’d left her purse and keys in her car, Ashley peeled rubber as she screeched down the long drive and through the gates that were still open, onto the street. She turned to go home but changed her mind. Ashley was sure her parents would head straight to her condo and she couldn’t face them yet. Her heart was racing, her mind whirling faster than the tires on her Volkswagen. Her anger fueled her and she squealed her tires turning a corner, then another, no idea where she was going. The quiet neighborhood she’d grown up in, where her parents and her grandparents had estates in, was a distant blur of holiday lights in her rearview mirror. Snow had begun to fall, and Ashley cranked the dial for the heater, cursing that she’d forgotten her coat at her grandparent’s house.

Driving into the downtown core, she slowed her speed. She didn’t want a ticket tonight, to read headlines tomorrow screaming that Ashley Gallagher had been driving like a maniac on Christmas night. She pulled into the lot behind the shelter, surprised at where she was. With no coat, she sat in the driver’s seat, trying to decide why she was there.

There was a tap on the driver’s window and Ashley jumped. Looking out into the snowy darkness, the face that peered back at her made her stomach jump. Pressing the button to lower the window, she fixed a smile on her face. “Hello, Henry.”

“What are you doing here? Did you forget somethin’?” He brushed snow from his shoulders.

“No, I was just driving around –” Ashley trailed off, not knowing what to say. Why would she, an obviously privileged person, be sitting outside a homeless shelter in a part of the city known for higher crime rates? And wearing expensive jewelry, driving a nice car? She had showered and changed before going to a late dinner at her grandparents, she no longer looked like the woman who had cooked for hundreds that afternoon.

“You should turn around, go home,” Henry muttered.

“I should. Want to get a cup of coffee?” Ashley grinned at the way his eyebrows, still dark unlike his beard, shot up.

Henry came around to the passenger side and got in. “Nothing’s open, it’s Christmas, remember?”

Ashley closed her window with a frown, turning in her seat to face Henry. “Any ideas?”

“Not a one.” Henry stared at her, a curious expression visible by the bright parking lot lights.

Ashley unbuckled her seatbelt, turning her whole body towards him. His clothes were well worn, but the hat and mitts he’d gotten for Christmas at the shelter looked as new and clean as they had when he’d taken the wrap off them earlier. “Where do you sleep?”

“There.” Henry pointed at a dark corner of the lot by the back door of the shelter.

Ashley wondered what to say. ‘Nice’ seemed ridiculous. “Do you ever sleep in the shelter?”

“Nah, but I’m new here. Might when I get to know some people.” Henry didn’t look at her, and Ashley wondered what she could ask without appearing rude.

“New to the streets?”

“Nah, new to this area. My other shelter got too crowded, and I heard about the spread being put on here –” Henry trailed off, still looking out the dash window.

“Oh,” Ashley felt ridiculous at her inability to carry a conversation.

“Yep, might not hang for long, too many people,” Henry muttered, scowling at the other areas in the lot where men and women were probably sleeping.

“You don’t like people?”

“Some.” Henry shrugged. “Some of these homeless bums are crazy, and it’s the crazy ones you gotta worry about.”

“Yeah, no kidding, but I think the ones that let you know they’re crazy aren’t half as bad as the ones who pretend to be normal.” Ashley thought of Michael Jr., shivering slightly.

“You clean up pretty good.” Henry peered at her finally. “Rich.”

A split-second of worry flashed – was Henry going to rob her? – and it passed. Henry seemed like a good guy, even if he found living in a box preferable to a room or bed in a shelter. “Thanks.”

“You are rich?”

“I do alright,” Ashley winced and hedged.

“Bling like that could buy me dinner for a year,” Henry remarked casually, pointing at the ring on her right hand, an antique that had belonged to her mother’s grandmother.

“You want it?” Ashley asked, twisting it off her finger. If he was threatening to rob her, she’d save him the trouble and give it to him. She put the ruby and diamond ring on her palm, held her hand out.

Henry looked at it for a long moment, then shook his head. He turned back to look out the window and began fingering the chest pocket on his ratty coat. If she didn’t instinctively trust Henry, she might have thought he had a weapon, but decided he must have some treasure of his own hidden in it and was just reassuring himself it was still there. “You’d really give that to me?”

“Sure. It was my grandmother’s, and it was my grandmother’s mother’s, but all it does for me is look pretty. If it would buy you dinner for a year, then I’d say it would do more for you than for me.”

Henry looked back at her, his beard twitching. “I think you might be one of those crazies you were talkin’ about.”

Ashley grinned, feeling herself relax as she slipped the ring on her finger. “Depends who you ask.”

Henry’s blue eyes crinkled at the corners. “What’s your story?”

Ashley blinked as she tensed. “My story?”

“Well, earlier you said your name was Anne but then one of them rich girls called you Ash. I read ‘bout the spread today put on by rich folk, that’s why I moved here. You’re obviously one of them rich ‘uns. I wouldn’t expect no one to say you guys were crazy unless it’s crazy for all the work you did, all the money you spent, so what’s your story? Why might some say you’re crazy?”

Ashley relaxed again, curling up in her seat so that her right foot was tucked under her left thigh, her arms wrapped around her bent right leg. “People see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and make their minds up based on the pieces they felt mattered. Some might tell you I’m kind, others might not speak so kindly. Perspective. I’m sure you know what I mean – some think the homeless are drunks or criminals, others feel sorry for them.”

“Oh yeah? And what do you think, moneybags?”

Ashley wondered if there was a hint of malice? Sarcasm? in his tone, but he was facing her fully and seemed interested in her answer so she smiled. “I guess like anything, really. Some stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason and I’m sure there are individuals who fit the whole ‘degenerate’ definition, but I think on the whole there’s a story to be told by each one of them, and some stories might be similar, but none will be the exact same. I’m not so privileged that I can’t see how life could wear someone down so much that the streets were the only place left to go.”

Henry stared at her for a long time, so long that Ashley felt uncomfortable. Then his beard twitched, his eyes crinkled, and he barked out a laugh. “You really are one of them crazies, ain’t ya?”

Ashley shrugged, her attention caught by an old man rummaging in a rickety old shopping cart. “I wish I had some of the leftovers, that guy looks hungry.”

The parking lot lights caught his sunken features in stark light when he kicked the cart.

“He wouldn’t take it, he’s still full up from all the stuff he rummaged outta the compost things your crew put up.”

Ashley put a hand to her mouth, her eyes filling with tears as she glanced at Henry. “Was he turned away from lunch for some reason?”

Henry snorted, shaking his head. “Idiot got drunker than a teenager tossed in a whisky vat. Woke up ‘bout seven, scented the compost, and feasted til he was full up. Fought off buncha raccoons and rats – setting up compost down here was kinda on the stupid side, you don’t mind me sayin’ – and now he’s sulkin’ cuz he done drank all the booze last night and ain’t no one fessin’ up they got some. That woman there?”

Ashley followed the direction Henry lifted his chin in and spotted a woman about the same age as Ashley, huddled in a blanket by the back door of the shelter. “What about her?”

Henry glanced at Ashley before looking back at the woman. “She’s got a mickey of rye she stole a few months ago. Quit drinkin’ the day she stole it, never opened the bottle. But she keeps it in her pocket, says so long as its there she don’t feel the need to drink it. If ol’ Ray there knew, he’d fight Mary for it. He took it? She’d be lost for days in every damned bottle she found, stole, begged, hooked for. Funny, huh? She’ll go on benders to drink her fill, then walk around forever more with a  bottle and never sip it.”

Ashley leaned her head against the seat, let her eyes drift closed. “The guy I bought this stupid car off of?”

“Volkswagen is a stupid car.”

Ashley’s eyes opened for a minute and she saw Henry watching her, his head nodding. “He’d just got the job at the dealership. He’d been a top seller at the Mercedes dealership for fifteen years, but his wife and daughter died in a car accident a couple of years back and he started drinking. Just a bit at first. I didn’t know him very well, but I’d been referred to him for years by family and friends. I never owned a Mercedes though, never bought a thing from him. Then his drinking got heavier, and Mercedes had to fire him because half of Rose—the neighbourhood his dealership was in – started complaining. People in the neighbourhood didn’t take kindly to his drinking, you know? Guess the rich prefer to drink socially, it’s more acceptable than swigging from a flask in your pocket. Anyhow, his son, the only person he had left, started struggling in school.” Ashley felt a pang in her heart, remembering how Liz had been so broken up over suspending the boy, how the father radiated pain she could feel every time she saw him. Liz had just been made principal, and her first disciplinary action as a new principal was to suspend a boy she wanted to hug more than punish.

“Hard on a kid, losing a mother. Guess he lost his father too, to drinkin’?” Henry’s voice was low, almost a whisper. Ashley nodded, opening her eyes to look into Henry’s.

“The boy missed his sister most of all – they were twins and best friends. After the accident, he’d had no one but his father, and then he was losing his father too. The boy, I think he’s twelve now, tried to kill himself. So the father found him, saved him, and quit drinking. Mercedes wouldn’t hire him back, but Volkswagen gave him a chance. I was going to buy a new car, was leaning to buy my first Mercedes. Then I heard the story, and I went to Volkswagen, and I bought this car. He told me until I bought this car, he wasn’t sure he’d still have a job because he hadn’t sold a single car since he’d started.”

“That was good of you.”

Ashley shook her head. “I’m not telling you to look good, I’m telling you because I think I understand that woman – Mary — there. When you’ve got what you need, you don’t think about it. When you don’t have something, it’s all you can think about and you drive yourself nuts trying to get it back. The salesman told me he’d been driving himself crazy trying to get his wife and daughter back, even knowing that was impossible, and almost lost his son in the process. He keeps a bottle of rum in his desk drawer, never opened it, but says so long as he has it, he doesn’t need to drink it. He keeps his son close, too – because he can’t get back his wife and daughter, can’t fix things for his son, but he can be the father his son needs.”

“And you’ll buy another Volkswagen, won’t ‘cha?” Henry’s whisper was so close Ashley felt the hair at her temple move.

“He works for GM now, since August, so I’ll have to figure out what I want there.” Ashley smiled, picturing herself driving a domestic car – and the way her grandmother would sniff if she picked out anything beneath a Cadillac.

“You buy a new car every year?” Henry’s tone had Ashley’s eyes popping open. She saw incredulity and disdain warring on his face.

“Only if I hear he’s not selling anything. I hate this Volkswagen, anyhow. I opted for a standard transmission because it cost more and he works on commission, but sure would be nice to drive a car that didn’t roll when you fall asleep and forget to set the parking brake.”

“You look about to fall asleep now – did you set the brake?”

Ashley nodded her head, her cheek rubbing on the leather seat.

“You had a long day. You’ll be safe here.”

Ashley nodded her head again, feeling herself floating. She dreamt she bought a car, sight unseen, from the salesman who needed her most. He promised her it was the best wheels money could buy and that she’d love it. She went with Henry to the dealership in Scarborough to pick up her new car and the salesman handed her the keys to a motorized wheelchair. Henry laughed until he wheezed, tears streaming down his face and disappearing in his beard, his electric blue eyes glowing with mirth. Ashley didn’t understand why she needed the wheelchair when all she’d wanted was a car. Henry told her she didn’t deserve to drive when the Golden Boy could only roll. Ashley started to cry, her head began to pound. People gathered around her in the parking lot of the dealership, pointing and laughing and shouting how she didn’t deserve such a good set of wheels. When she looked back at the chair she’d been sold, it was the same one she’d been wheeled out of the hospital in, the one they’d forced her to sit in until her father pulled up to take her home. She’d complained then about how she was fine, she could walk out, and she’d heard the nurse pushing her chair say ‘Trust me, we all know you can walk. Don’t complain about this short ride when the man you put in his chair will never have a choice.’ The nurse stepped forward out of the crowd now, her eyes flashing with malice. ‘You ain’t got a choice now, bitch.’

Ashley straightened in the driver’s seat, her heart pounding. She didn’t know where she was at first and her terror increased. Her eyes scanned the snowy parking lot beyond, trying to focus on the shadows – she’d heard Michael’s maniacal laugh and that’s what had woken her.

“Michael?” Ashley whispered, turning in the seat and realizing she was alone. Her neck was sore, and she put a hand to massage the kink. She remembered Henry – hadn’t the homeless man been sitting with her? She peered out into the inky darkness, seeing only what the parking lot lights allowed her to see. She wondered where Henry had gone.

She shook her head, cleared the remnants of the quickly fading dream away. She put her hand up to wave good-bye in the direction of the corner Henry had gestured to earlier. Even though she couldn’t see him, she was sure Henry was out there, watching her, watching out for her.