William Locke Hauser, after military and business careers, is engaged in a ‘third career’ of writing fiction. “Home” is his twenty-fifth published story, following “Pity” (Wisconsin Review, Autumn 2011) and “Fleta Mae” and “The Frog in the Window” (Rosebud, Spring and Fall issues 2013, respectively). He and his wife Helen Alexandra, an entrepreneurial businesswoman, live in Reston, Virginia.
by William Locke Hauser
The clerk at the rail station said the woman was there when he opened his counter, and the dispatcher at the taxi stand thought she must have arrived after daylight, while he was busy putting people into cabs. The proprietor of Kevin’s Diner knew better: “She came in here about five a.m. for a cup of coffee and one of my cornbread muffins.”
The first sizable crowd of commuters, those catching the 6:57, found her crouching by a grocery cart bulging with her possessions, on the steps from the parking lot down to the platform. Most were inured to such phenomena on the streets of the city, but never before in this comfortable suburb. One distinguished gentleman, the head of a consulting firm on Madison Avenue, was so disturbed that he counted out four and a half dollars to the unfortunate woman, precisely the amount needed for train fare (“off-peak, so wait till ten o’clock”) back to the urban setting from which she must surely have strayed. This largesse made for compliments throughout the giver’s ride, enhancing his reputation for community service.
She remained there all day, shifting only as needed to catch the feeble rays of the late-autumn sun. Thus it was that the very folk who’d had to step around her in the morning, found themselves clambering over her in the evening.
“Did that lady fall down, Mummy?” a little girl named Gillie asked from the rear seat of her car.
Sada Charbonneau Chastin shut the door and settled back, her arms filled with packages. As her husband, Farris pulled into traffic, she struggled to fasten her seatbelt. “What lady, sweetheart?”
“Back there at the station.”
“Oh, I think she’s waiting for someone, and got tired and sat down. Like Mummy is tired from shopping in the city.”
Farris said, “She was there this morning, Sada, when I dropped you off. It’s a disgrace!”
“How can a lady be a disgrace?” Gillie asked.
“She’s not, precious,” her mother said. “Daddy is afraid she might be sick, and he didn’t want to worry you.”
“If she’s sick, we ought to take her to the hospital.”
“The woman is not sick,” Farris sneered. “Drug-addicted tramps have no place in a nice town like Onhaitet. If you feed a stray cat, it’ll never stop hanging around, so leave her be and she’ll understand that her kind aren’t welcome here.”
“How do people get that way, Daddy?”
“Defying their parents,” he said, stabbing the air, “in violation of God’s fifth commandment, that’s how!”
“You’re frightening the child,” Sada said. “Don’t worry, Gillie, everything’s going to be okay with that lady.”
“I’m glad, Mummy. Can we stop for ice cream?”
On a lakeshore at the edge of town, in a cozy setting of wood paneling and polished brass, Ned Broder stood by a roaring fire. This was Davey Jones’ Locker, the downstairs bar of one of the town’s boating clubs. The walls were hung with fishnets and blue-glass floats, photographs of champion sailing crews, and a stuffed marlin, caught in some long-ago tropical sea by some now-forgotten member. A ghostly rectangle, lighter than the surrounding wood of the mounting plaque, revealed where a commemorative plate had once been affixed. Across the room was a mahogany bar with a brass rail along its base. The bartender, a young man wearing an apron over his button-down shirt and repp tie, polished glasses as he studied a college textbook.
Ned called to the bartender. “A light beer, please, Guido. And let me tell you what I saw at the station today.”
“Here you are, Mr. Broder. What?”
“There was a homeless woman, shopping cart and all.”
“More likely someone’s live-in maid, sir. Got fired or quit and took her things with her.”
“She was there all day. When I left this morning, and when I came home tonight. Hadn’t budged.”
“Police’ll run her off. They don’t allow that sort of thing in a nice town like this. Mrs. Broder joining you?”
“She’s hasn’t come from the city yet, but you can put a bottle of the ‘82 Vouvray on ice for our dinner, please.” Ned glanced toward the entrance. “Here she is now.”
Taking Ned’s hands in her own cold ones, Beth leaned to offer her cheek to his kiss. “Pardon my lateness. I had to wait in line at Macy’s for those sourdough rolls you like so much.” Her face glowed from the outdoors. “And then I gave half of them to a homeless woman at the station, along with some money. I hope you don’t mind. I would have given her only the cash, but that seemed so impersonal.”
Love welled up in Ned. “I don’t know what more you could have done. She’ll probably be gone next time you catch a train.”
But she was there the next morning and evening, in the same place. The day after, there was an early-season snowfall. Sada, after taking Gillie to the city on Saturday for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, returned home incensed.
“That person is still at the station, Farris.”
“It’s a public place, my dear, so say those left-liberal bureaucrats at Town Hall. She’ll leave soon enough, when it gets colder.” He smiled at the prospect.
“But she… she… Gillie, go to the kitchen and put some ice in Mummy’s drink.”
When the child was out of sight, Sada resumed. “She smells! We can’t have that sort of thing, not in the very middle of our shopping district.”
“No,” he replied, “not there. Terrible for business.”
By Sunday, the woman had become the topic in the town. Waitresses and patrons clucked their tongues in Kevin’s and at the IHOP on the road to Polton Mills, debates were held in homes both townside and across the lake on the Ridge, before church and in all three boating clubs afterward, and the subject was discussed over many a dinner table that evening. There was a consensus, keenest among homeowners concerned with property values, that the woman had to go.
Ned parked his car in the station lot, remaining inside as he surveyed the area. A light rain was falling through the misty air, and piles of snow shone dirty white below the haloes of streetlamps. There she was, huddled under the telephone overhang, a heap of clothing identifiable as human only through foreknowledge. The grocery cart stood beside her, presumably containing her pitiful belongings. A change of clothing, he guessed, plus a collection of old magazines and cake tins, and perhaps a journal in which she recorded the strange images peopling her private universe.
He got out, stretched to cross a puddle, then picked his way through the slush of the roadway.
“Can I help you?”
“Going to run me off, are you?” she cackled, then broke into a fit of coughing.
He waited until she’d recovered. “Would you like a place for the night?”
“Indoors?” Her voice lost its feistiness. “Lead the way.”
Pushing the cart with one hand while she walked alongside holding his arm, he led her across the street. The stone walls of St. Cornelius rose gray in the night sky. They made their way up the slippery flagstones to the side door, where he let them in with his vestryman’s key.
The church’s interior was cold, its darkness filled with smells ecclesiastical: candle wax, incense, furniture polish and old hymnals. He turned on a switch. As the light caught her face, the woman looked away, then jumped in fright. “Who’s that?” she exclaimed, pointing at a dark figure half-concealed within a niche in the wall.
Ned laughed. “Nothing to be afraid of. That’s old Corny.”
As her eyes adapted to the light, she looked again. What had surprised her was the life-size, wooden figure of a Roman soldier, a sword grasped in his outstretched hands. “Corny?”
“St. Cornelius, the patron saint of our parish. A statue. Our rector says the old guy reminds him of the company commander he and I served under in Vietnam. Some imagination!”
“It sure fooled me. No other spooks around here, I hope.”
She looked perhaps fifty, with delicate features in contrast to a body thick with layers of clothing. Her skin was clean but reddened from the cold. Ned could detect no body odor, only the smell of wet wool.
“There’s a cot downstairs,” he said, “in the choir room. You could spend the night, but you’ll have to leave in the morning.” He pressed a fifty-dollar bill in her hand. “Train fare,” he mumbled.
“God bless you, sir,” she replied huskily. Embarrassed, he touched her lightly on the shoulder, and left.
The next morning, at work in the city, his secretary buzzed him. “You have a call from a Father Dahlgren, Mr. Broder.”
“Morning, Hal. What can I do for you?”
“It’s about this woman, Ned. She says you said she could live in the choir room.”
“I told her no such thing. She was supposed to leave at dawn. I should have called last night, but it was late, and today I’ve been caught up in…”
“Well, Manuel found her when he came in to clean. He knew she couldn’t stay there, so he moved her to the storeroom in the parish house. That’s where she is now.”
“Believe me, I intended nothing of the sort. I even gave her money for the train.”
“You did indeed, and she handed it to me about an hour ago. ‘For the less fortunate,’ she told me. She’s swept and dusted the place—that’s needed doing for a long time—and hung some makeshift curtains at the window. Looks to me like she’s settled in.”
“I never dreamed…”
“I’m going to let her stay a few days, pay her a little something to help Manuel catch up around here. He’s been overwhelmed since old Jenkins retired and left us without a sexton. And get some weight on her. She’s horribly thin.”
“Oh Lord, I never asked if she was hungry!”
“Anyway, she’s already made herself and the Thrift Shop volunteers a morning snack in the kitchen. She also gave Manuel the dickens for its condition. He’s helping her clean it now.”
Late that afternoon, Hal was in his rectory office, after an exhausting day. He’d spent much of the morning with an ancient, lifelong parishioner, who was dying at home with a slowness agonizing to every member of his family but himself. Garrulous in the prime of life, he was the more so as death approached, with an urge to share his repertoire of stories before they were sharable no more. And there had been a hospital visit to a dreadfully ill young man, who’d been coming quietly to an occasional early service until the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma could no longer be concealed under long sleeves and a high collar. Finally, the choirmistress, a grim perfectionist with an expertise perhaps too rich for this little parish’s blood, had nagged him for an increased music budget.
No, that wasn’t his final task, for he was still faced with the day’s—be honest, the previous week’s—paperwork, piles of which cluttered his desk. He hated paperwork.
“You wanted to see me, Reverend?”
Hal wondered who had walked in. “Ah, yes, Miss…”
“Josephson, Reverend. Angela Josephson. You asked me to stop in and talk before you went home.”
The transformation was miraculous. She wore a belted shirtdress of light blue denim, and her feet were shod in a pair of loafers which, though scuffed, appeared to be of good quality. Her features, haggard this morning, were now softened with a tasteful minimum of makeup and a look of hopefulness, and her gray-streaked auburn hair, which had writhed like Medusa’s snakes, was clean and brushed backward into a neat bun.
“Sit down, please, Miss Josephson.”
“It’s Mrs., Reverend. And call me Angela, please.”
“Won’t you make yourself comfortable… Angela. And why have you come to see me?”
“It was you wanted to talk with me.”
“Uh, yes. Are you comfortable where you are staying?”
“You want to know when I’m going to leave.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“Uh, yes… I mean no, that is…” He regretted having let Ned off so easily.
“Here’s how it is, Reverend. My husband and I raised three kids in Chicago, but they all left home mad from his drinking, and after the booze killed him and left me with no insurance and a pile of debts, not one of them could be bothered. So I came back to New York where we got married when he was on shore leave from the Navy, but I didn’t know anybody anymore. And I ran out of money, and they put me up in one of those shelters—you know that big old armory on Park Avenue?—and I was going crazy there. You can’t keep yourself clean, the druggies steal everything you own, you can’t sleep for all the nut cases.
“I stole a shopping cart from a D’Agostino’s and put my stuff in it, what I had left, and came to the PATH Station, and got on a train. I thought it was the one to Hoboken, where maybe I could find some of my people, but I wound up here. I’m sorry for the little white lie I told you—Mr. Broder didn’t really say I could live here—but you can imagine how desperate I was not to go back out in the cold. I hope you’ll let me stay a bit longer, while I look for work.”
Her account finished, she folded her hands in her lap and sat quietly, as he struggled to find words.
“Well, Angela, I really don’t know if we… we really don’t have what you’d call proper accommodations…”
“Say no more. I’ll be out of here first thing tomorrow morning, or tonight if you insist.”
“No, no, I meant you’re welcome to remain, until you can find a more permanent solution.”
“Thank you, Reverend”—she prepared to rise—“but it’s probably best…” There was a knock, and the door cracked open behind her.
“You’re with someone, Mr. Dahlgren. I’d hoped to find you alone.” It was Sada, head of the altar guild and self-anointed “first lady” of the parish.
“Come in,” he answered cheerily, ignoring the peremptory tone. “We were just winding up. Sada Chastin, I’d like you to meet Angela Josephson.”
Sada paused warily. “How do you do, Angela. New here?”
“Yes, ma’am, I arrived last week.”
“Well, I hope you’ll like our little town. Nothing fancy, but there are those of us who love it!” Her manner changed again as she addressed Hal. “We need to speak on a most unpleasant matter.”
“Is it confidential?” He glanced at Angela.
“I’ve been working this afternoon in the Thrift Shop, and would you believe, the morning-shift ladies, under the influence of that sentimental old fool Essie Gillson, have been giving clothes away! I’ve put a stop to it, of course, for we price items when received and sell them as marked, no exceptions.”
“There must be times when an exception makes sense, Sada, if the person truly needs the clothing but can’t afford to pay. I’m sure Essie meant well.” He glanced toward Angela, who was staring at the ceiling.
“Well yes, if she’d chosen one of our local indigents to shower with charity, but it was that homeless person who’s been hanging around the station. As Farris says, and my lawyer brother Robert Charbonneau agrees with him, the wretched woman will never leave if people encourage her. More will come, and before you know it, this town will be a regular Calcutta.” Sada grimaced. “You’re new here, Angela, but I’m sure you can see what a problem this could become.”
“Still and all,” Angela replied, “the Lord did tell us to clothe the naked.”
“Yes of course, but if we give away clothing, we won’t have any profits to distribute to charity. And with the Christmas Fair coming up, you know—I guess you don’t, being new here—we want plenty of stock for that blessed occasion. Besides,” her features puckering, “our little town isn’t equipped to handle this homeless business. That sort of thing is better taken care of in the city, where they have shelters for those sorts of people.”
“‘Are there no workhouses…’” Hal muttered. Then, aloud, “I failed to make a proper introduction, Sada. Angela is going to fill our sexton vacancy.”
“How nice, I’m sure.” Sada’s tone betrayed a social unease. “Do you normally do this sort of thing? I was just now moving racks in the Shop, and I’m exhausted.”
“Is the job done?” Angela asked. “No? Excuse me, Reverend, while I go help the ladies before I quit for the day. And we’ll be wanting to shape up this place, by and by.” She indicated the stacks of paper on Hal’s desk. “Give me a couple of days to catch up cleaning, and I’ll come help you with administration.”
He could hear them chatting happily, as they walked away down the hall.
Copyright 2014 by William Locke Hauser