by Jane Hertenstein
Every couple has their own story, but certain stories are stranger than fiction. That’s our story.
It was 1985, a time buried in the armpit of disco and the Euro New Wave. By the mid-80s I knew that the decade would go down as a footnote. Seemingly all the real history was behind us and we were stuck with Reagan and mediocrity. I think I was entering my cynical years, post-college, and just realizing that the world had nothing to offer me—especially a career. We were in a recession, nothing new—except that this one peaked right when I was graduating and needed a job. When nothing came fast enough I panicked and took a bus for
where I ended up doing volunteer work. In exchange for room and board I worked at a city mission where I was promised a chance to use my educational background tutoring underprivileged kids. Chicago
Instead I ended up sorting through donations.
In retrospect I can see how my classes in psychology were helpful. I developed a character profile on who donates old clothes caked with feces to charity. After ripping open a bag that smelled like cat pee I insisted on wearing latex gloves. Who actually thinks: There’s still wear left in holey underwear? Who donates ONE shoe? It was enough to confirm my low opinion of mankind. Cynicism was a coping mechanism, not just an attitude.
For every fifty gross bags there was maybe one containing something fantastic—like a vintage gown or a black-dyed lamb’s skin fur coat with oversized buttons. Once I found $20 in an old purse. Each day I was greeted by a mountain of black garbage bags. I’d pull a few out, but the pile never went down because the mission was always getting calls from people wanting to donate. That’s the worst part—our brothers went out in a snub-nosed old mail truck and picked this stuff up for free when the owners should have been taking it to a dump.
Let me back up and explain. The mission operated a Freestore. On assigned days we opened to our clients to let them “shop” for the things they needed. We had regulars. One came so frequently that I struck up a conversation with her. What do you do with all the clothes you get? I asked. Miriam had about five kids. I say about because she also kept her friend’s children and had a revolving door policy of hospitality, so she was constantly on the lookout for sizes anywhere from 0 to 13 juniors. One of the older daughters also had a baby, I think. Miriam seemed embarrassed at my question. I assured her that this was why we were here, to help people like her.
She finally confessed, “We get new stuff when the other’n get too dirty. But don’t worry, we give it all back.”
Well, that took care of my profile. I simply didn’t have that category in mind. The person who gives because they hate doing laundry.
I was set up in an annex, a building that was in a perpetual state of repair and, because the work was being done in-house, the renovation was going slow. Like whenever there was money, which wasn’t too often. During my entire Freestore tenure the abandoned annex was one brick away from collapsing. At one point the walls had been demo-ed down to the lath, the wooden slats beneath plaster, awaiting drywall. If I needed to use the bathroom I had to walk an obstacle course, through walls and around pipes and hanging electrical wires, to the opposite end where there was a stall without a door but those clinking beads that you see in the
Mediterranean where it seems climate appropriate and not a side effect of poverty. It was like a Cohan movie or a Beckett play where life is cruel and somewhat absurd. Along the way I passed through an “office” where a guy sat taping on a typewriter.
What are you working on? I asked one time.
I’m working on a story.
He had clunky glasses, sturdy, and always dressed neatly in casual office Friday attire. Like the stuff I pulled out of the sacks stacked up to the ceiling three rooms over.
I explained I was looking for the bathroom and he continued typing, while sitting in architectural chaos. One day he asked me if there were any new book donations. I said, yes, in fact there had been. He followed me back to the Freestore where I’d set up a display rack in what used to be a shower. Watch out, I warned, pointing to the hole in the floor where the toilet used to be.
He helped me sort out the books. What do you do with the totally lame stuff? He wanted to know.
I knew what he meant. Mass paperbacks. Thrillers, romance, Christian prophet and Christian profit titles. How to live like a King’s Kid. I throw it down the hole, I said.
We tossed in some John Grisham and Tom Clancy.
We opened a banana box of books on childrearing. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, etc. Mike attempted to put a book down the toilet hole. Wait! I halted him. What are you doing?
He was embarrassed.
Breast feeding is important. A lot of women have questions about it. I put them over here.
There was a baby swing, the kind used to soothe a child into slumber, I had six or seven books stacked in the seat along with a handful of breast pumps, the cheap models that resembled torture devices.
We continued sorting and I was grateful for his help. It got a little creepy working in the Freestore alone. Once I found a guy sleeping in the bathtub I used for the one-of shoes (I kept them just in case, a totally hopeless situation.) He’d wandered in off the street drunk and had no idea where he was. He’d been looking for a bathroom. After a brother escorted him out I peered down the hole. There was The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey at the bottom pelted with piss.
On really slow days I tried on clothes and modeled in front of a bleary mirror. There were some really funky styles. I don’t know why I wasn’t freaked out about bedbugs or head lice. On really cold days, the days when frost collected on the inside of the windows (none of the radiators worked; they’d all been disconnected when the pipes burst), I wore layers of coats and rag-picked wearing fingerless gloves like a character out of Our Mutual Friend.
Yet I always had reading material. Whole libraries were donated. I could easily guess the former owners and their preferences, likes and dislikes. I acquired what was left of the estate of a university professor. His specialty was antiquities. The books were all hardback, the pages brittle and liver-spotted, and smelled of basement, as if they were in fact artifacts, stolen from a sarcophagus or pried from the hands of a mummy. It was sad. A couple divorces and liquidates their combined library. The kids are grown and their old books given away. I randomly collected Newbery Award winners, most inscribed by a literary auntie or uncle to their favorite niece or nephew: “Christmas 1962” or “To a Special Boy on His 12th Birthday”.
Mike got into the habit of stopping by to help me organize. Of course he took home whatever struck his fancy. We got to know each other and found we had a lot in common, not the least books and writing. One day he asked me out.
So when people ask how we met, my mind wanders back to those cold days leaning over crates of books, my breath a noir-ish fog, the wind rattling the loose frost-glazed glass in the window panes, bundled beneath layers of dead people’s coats. Mike, he just tells people, I found her at the Freestore.
Jane Hertenstein is a blogger, memoirist, tightrope walker, and blender of blended genres. She is not to be trusted. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in:
, Rosebud, Word Riot, Flashquake, Steam Ticket, The Write Room, Frostwriting, Cantaraville, Fiction Fix, Six Minute Magazine, and Tonopah Review. She is the author of the books Beyond Hunger Mountain Paradise, Orphan Girl, and Home Is Where We Live. Visit her blog at: http://memoirouswrite.blogspot.com/.