Another new resident slumped across from Isa and picked at ragged cuticles. Isa had to tell the two boys not to climb the plastic shelf with the toiletries again.
“You have four weeks,” explained Isa. “We’re an emergency shelter only. There are job postings on the bulletin board. Goodwill is having an employment fair. That could be a good option.”
“But I have an education and professional experience. I can’t work for minimum wage.”
“You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” recited Isa in practiced cool tones. “Register yourself with temp services. Once you have a job, we can discuss housing.”
“I’ve applied for dozens. I’m overqualified. He drained our savings.” The toddler, another boy, stirred in her lap. “I didn’t know.”
“Don’t forget the chore list is on the refrigerator. Since you have children, you have to clean the playroom.” Isa stood and walked to the office door. “I have a meeting soon. Why don’t you call Goodwill?”
The other new resident, with hair in a disheveled ponytail, trembled in the kitchen. She kept opening cabinets and examining labels. Anything marked with initials belonged to another resident. Everything was marked with initials.
She wanted to make tea but couldn’t find a teapot. She didn’t know if she could use mugs. The sweat suit they gave her fell from her skeletal frame.
He had done the thing with the gun again. Loading and unloading bullets. Keep acting that way and I will have to shoot you like the dog you are.
She ran out when he passed out. Even the sputtering truck didn’t rouse him. As she left the driveway, she kept headlights off as a precaution, but turned them on for the drive down the mountain.
Shoot you like the dog you are. Shoot you like the dog you are. Seven words from his tirade haunted her as she opened and closed cabinets.
Isa whisked by on her cursory morning inspection.
“Maybe you can help me. I’m looking for—”
“You can’t be barefoot in common areas,” Isa said. “We gave you socks. You have to wear them.”
An impeccably-dressed woman, a new board member, swooped into the conference room for the monthly meeting.
“Isa, I’m surprised by the statistics about how short women’s stays here are.”
“Research shows that it can take women up to seven attempts before they leave their abusive partners.”
“I understand. But there must be more we can do.”
“We have to respect everyone’s choices here even if we don’t understand them.”
On her cursory afternoon inspection, Isa discerned that the resident with the ragged cuticles had not yet cleaned the playroom. Isa found her sitting at the long dining table in the shared living area, staring blankly at the classifieds while her boys stared blankly at cartoons.
“You can’t ignore the chore list,” Isa asserted. “It must be done before this evening’s house meeting, or else you will get a write-up. You must take responsibility for your children.”
On the edge of the ripped sofa, the other new resident rocked in vacant oblivion, with her knees to her chest. Although Isa was supposed to meet with her too, the board meeting was a clear priority. She remembered the surreal threat from last night’s intake and made a mental note about probable mental illness.
Isa’s heels clattered down the hall as she went back to the business side of the building.
The ragged cuticle resident’s husband had pushed her hard against a wall. He’d crushed his forearm into her throat to stop her from screaming. She was lucky to get away with the kids. Still, she collected her children and the toiletries they gave her and wrote “home” on the sign out sheet.
“Why did she go back?” The other new resident’s coal-gray eyes met Isa’s at their initial case management meeting.
“We have to respect everyone’s choices here, even if we don’t understand them,” intoned Isa.
“But her husband almost strangled her with the baby in her arms.”
“Research shows that it can take women up to seven attempts before they leave their abusive partners,” Isa recited. “You have four weeks. We’re an emergency shelter only. There are job postings on the bulletin board.”
“But I haven’t worked in over 30 years. He didn’t let me work.”
“Goodwill is having an employment fair. That could be a good option.”
“I can’t get a job and a place to live in four weeks after 30 years of not doing anything on my own.” Her eyes grew wide.
“You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Now, what kind of health insurance do you have?”
“I… have no idea.” The new resident twisted hands in her lap.
Isa sighed. “The free medical clinic does intakes on Thursdays. With any luck, they can get you in for an appointment next week and a psych referral before your time runs out. The community mental health department offers housing subsidies for those who qualify.”
“You think I’m crazy?” She started trembling all over. “I’m not crazy. He says I’m crazy.”
“Calm down.” Isa was weary of residents’ sudden shifts in mood from somber to anxious. “I’m pointing out opportunities. You’re in charge of your own choices.”
“What if I choose to go back?”
“We have to respect everyone’s choices here—”
“Even if we don’t understand them! I got that. I don’t understand how my husband can threaten to kill me and the only choices you give me are sorting through dirty donated clothing or getting a crazy check. Are those my choices?”
Isa’s eyes shrank into fierce slits. Years of the same scenarios, new faces on old problems. She marched to the office door and swung it open. “All our services are free here. You should be grateful for that. I’m not going to tolerate aggression.”
The resident stayed silent, exited the office. She collected her one change of clothing and the toiletries they gave her and wrote “home” on the sign out sheet.
C.J. Harrington’s fiction and poetry has been featured in many journals including Blast Furnace, Rose Red Review, The Vehicle, Gone Lawn, and The Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2014. She is a member of the Winding River Writers’ Workshop, a group of advanced creative writers in the Shenandoah Valley. You can find her on Twitter @_CJHarrington.