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TODAY

Monday, June 26

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Detour

Green

Eloise heard horror stories on her first day of work. Under the fluorescent lights of the break room, her female coworkers — white, gray-haired hippies with crow's feet that started where their eye liner stopped — descended upon Eloise's table and unwrapped their tofu pitas.

Each case manager shared a story. There was the malnourished runaway who lived under Wacker Drive and used all her panhandled money to go to Sunday matinees. And the homeless pregnant woman who visited her social worker in a different fur coat each week, all gifts from "a boyfriend." Eloise learned that one client, a recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian, was particularly trusted, even given a receptionist position at the day shelter. She streamlined the check-in process because she never forgot a face or a name. Then one day in December, when the workers were in a staff meeting, she stole all their wallets and bought $4,000 worth of shoes at Neiman Marcus.

"Most of the charges were on my card," sighed Jane, the clinical supervisor. "It took me two months to get them reversed. That's your first lesson, Eloise, never self-disclose to these women."

"No matter how much you trust them," a case worker added.

"You are..." It seemed as though Jane was about to mention Eloise's age. "Green. And they know it."

Eloise nodded but kept her eyes fixed on her salami sandwich. Her coworkers were all jaded. Already, she felt that she didn't belong.

~*~

Eloise sat in her cramped office the next day waiting for her first client to arrive. She had added a few personal affects: her M.S.W. diploma from Loyola and a framed quote from Mother Teresa on her desk:

We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.

Eloise sipped tea out of her travel mug and glanced at the clock. It was 9:37 and there was still no sign of her client. Through the thin walls, she heard Judy's voice in the social skills workshop. "Hey, ladies. Good morning. First, business matters: you can talk to the front desk about getting a locker if you don't already have one..."

Eloise scanned the intake form for a third time: Nelly Fadden, Female, Caucasian, 20 years old. Under "health status," someone had scribbled: presents with symptoms of depression, complains of headaches, does not admit to drug use. She noted that her client was unemployed but formerly an artist. The word "artist" stood out. Not many women at the shelter described themselves as artists. Ever since she was young, Eloise had been naturally talented at sketching and painting. When she felt left out at school, Eloise drew the sky, the students, the teachers, and the playground. Eloise truly admired people who used the word "artist" to describe themselves and what they did every day. It was risky to make art for a living.

Eloise was about to put the papers back in the folder and prepare for her next client when there was a tap at her door.

"Come on in," Eloise called out.

A woman with a bird's nest of blonde curls piled on the top of her head pushed the door open. She hesitated in the doorway. Slightly overweight, she wore ripped jeans, a pink cotton sweater, and a necklace of soda tabs. Black liner ringed her eyes.

"Hi... Nelly?" Eloise rose with her hand outstretched.

The girl eyed Eloise and did not offer her hand in return. With the less than warm greeting, Eloise decided to change her approach.

"I'm your social worker, Eloise Pullman. You can sit right here."

As Nelly lowered herself into the seat, Eloise noticed her face. Her cheeks were rosy but there were dark bags under her eyes. Being on the street had aged her at least 10 years.

"So Nelly, how did you hear about us?"

"Clarissa. Do you know her?" Nelly didn't wait for an answer. "She comes here to take showers, and she's trying to get off the streets so she can start her own business. She makes jewelry out of bottlecaps, stuff she finds in the trash. Really nice stuff. She made this for me..." Nelly motioned toward her necklace. "She's just gotta lay off the crack. It messes with her mind. Makes her all depressed and shit. Anyways, she said that someone here helped get her necklaces to some shop on Armitage Street and that she has sold like five necklaces for like $80 each..."

Already, Eloise liked Nelly. Her honesty was refreshing.

"Right. We can help women to develop skills and make business connections. Why are you here today, Nelly? How can we help you?" Eloise smiled, even though Nelly had yet to make eye contact with her.

"I don't know. I guess I thought someone could help me here. I want to get back on my feet." Nelly looked up. Her cold blue eyes seemed to soften for a second, exposing her vulnerability. "And I don't know what else to do."

Nelly noticed Eloise's glass jar of root beer barrels. "Can I have one? I love these."

"Of course," Eloise said. "They're my favorites too. So, you're an artist?"

"I never said I was an artist. Who told you that?" The muscles on Nelly's face tightened.

"Well, I am just looking at your intake form, here..." Eloise tapped the end of her pen on the desk to fill the silence. The fragile connection might snap if she wasn't careful.

Nelly picked at a scab on her arm for a few seconds. "Right, yeah. So OK, I used to be an artist."

Eloise probed deeper, trying to understand what caused Nelly to turn to the street. But it was too soon, or maybe she had already pushed too far — Nelly was not ready to share. Eloise backtracked and gathered information about a typical day in Nelly's life. She learned that Nelly spent most of her day looking through the garbage for aluminum cans to sell. Sometimes she found little treasures, too, like a chandelier earring with aqua beads or a paperback copy of Arabian Nights. These finds kept the day interesting. For meals, Nelly used the money she earned from selling soda cans. She frequented all-you-can-eat lunch buffets in diners downtown, stuffing her coat pockets full of rolls, little jams, and gold-foiled butter pads when no one was looking. During a typical day, Nelly had to travel quite a bit: from the tree-lined neighborhoods of Lincoln Park to the scrap metal buyers near Cabrini Green. Sometimes, when she had extra change or could sneak under the turnstiles, Nelly took the El. But that was a luxury, and usually, she just walked. At night, Nelly preferred being with the street kids because even though most of them were stoned out of their minds, they were not crazy like the ladies in the overnight shelters. She could have philosophical conversations with some of them and a few were really talented musicians and artists. When her friend Brian from Minneapolis was sober, he could play any song from memory on his clarinet. And somehow, he always managed to find a literary magazine or used newspaper that he would share with Nelly. If it was really cold, she went to the shelter or rode the Blue Line from O'Hare to Forest Park and back, letting the clacking of the wheels over the tracks lull her to sleep.

As the session drew to an end, Eloise promised that they would work on improving Nelly's situation. Nelly nodded, managed the start of a smile, and moved towards the door. Eloise noticed she had a tattoo at the nape of her neck. It was two Japanese characters that Eloise knew well. They made the word kiki, or crisis.

"Hey, Nelly," Eloise called out from behind her desk. "Nice tattoo. Japanese for 'crisis.' With danger comes opportunity, right?"

"Are you Japanese?" Nelly returned.

"No, I'm Korean, but I took an introductory Japanese class in college. I think I got a C+ so don't quiz me or anything. Does it mean something to you, the tattoo?"

"I guess it just kind of sums up my life. Like a motto or something." Nelly let out a sigh and walked out of the shelter.

That evening, Eloise rode Bus 71 home from the day shelter, even though her coworkers advised against waiting alone at the stop.

"You'll get mugged," one warned her.

"The Gangster Disciples hang out on that corner and deal cocaine," another one said.

Eloise hardly noticed two men with cornrows, who stood watch on the corner smoking cigarettes. Another Chicago winter was already bearing down and she shuffled from one foot to the other to stay warm. By the time the bus came, she had lost feeling in the tips of her fingers.

The bus sighed and pulled away from the corner. Eloise looked at her reflection in the window. A 25-year-old Korean American woman with high cheek bones, almond-shaped eyes and silky black hair stared back at her. As a child, Eloise stared at her reflection a lot, and by the time she was 3, she knew she looked different than her parents — red-headed Marlene and blue eyed Tom — because she was adopted. Marlene, a school librarian, had introduced the concept of adoption to Eloise through a children's book. Marlene had a book for every difficult issue that Eloise might encounter in life — death, menstruation, sex — and subscribed to the theory that published authors could say just about anything better than she ever could.

Marlene told Eloise a more detailed adoption story when Eloise reached 14 and became hungry for more information. The call came one Saturday in March when Marlene had just finished planting in the garden. She reached the phone on the last ring. After four years of adoption interviews and waiting, a baby, three months old, was theirs: an orphan. Both parents had died in a car accident in Seoul one week before and the relatives were unable to care for another child. Marlene called Tom away from painting the barn door and they celebrated with a bottle of wine in the empty nursery. "It's simple, really," Marlene told Eloise, "We were over the moon with joy."

Eloise was not embraced by everyone. Each summer she rode with Tom and Marlene to Kentucky to visit Grandma Pullman, the family historian and Eloise's namesake. Tom tried to make it fun for Eloise, taking her into a nearby mining town to buy lemon drops at the country store and helping her to catch butterflies in the tall grasses behind Grandma's house. But it was a trip that Eloise dreaded. Grandma never seemed to accept the fact that Tom and Marlene could not have biological children. The topic usually came up when Grandma thought Eloise was asleep: "What is she, Tom, a Vietnamese? God, your father would roll over in his grave if he knew you brought one of them into your house."

To make matters worse, Eloise had to sleep in Tom's old room, surrounded by yellowing photos of the Pullman clan. She tossed and turned at night, imagining generations of light-skinned Pullmans on the opposing wall staring down at her, disapproving. Where's your Pullman nose? How come you don't have freckles?

Eloise noticed two black girls in school uniforms sitting across from her on the bus. They were playing pattycake and singing: "I went to a Chinese restaurant to buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread. The waiter asked my name and this is what I said, said, said. 'My name is Eli Eli Chickali Chickali Pom Pom Beauty Extra Cutie. I know karate. Punch you in the body. Oops! I'm sorry. Don't tell my mommy.' Chinese. Japanese. Freeze!" The heavier girl with braids thick as rope blinked first and lost the game.

Growing up in rural Illinois, people frequently thought Eloise was Chinese. Marlene said they didn't know any better. Eloise herself barely knew what it meant to be Korean. So when Eloise met Susan Kim in high school it was just a matter of time before she sought out her friendship. Susan, who wore the foreign scent of bibimbop unabashedly, invited her to her family's restaurant, the only Korean restaurant in Rockford. It was peppered with bamboo plants, little Buddha statues. The girls sat across from one another at a small table divided by a barbeque pit. A sweating tea pot and two empty cups were brought to the table with the menus. Eloise's heart sank when she saw that the menu was written entirely in Korean. She squinted to make out the little pictures that danced across the page in a sequence that somehow translated into "barbeque pork and rice." Even if she could have read the menu, she would not have known the first thing about ordering — the only Asian food she'd ever had was cashew chicken from the Three Happiness Chinese Restaurant near Marlene's school.

Susan seemed to sense Eloise's confusion and took the lead, ordering for both of them in Korean. The staccato language rolled off her tongue. Eloise wondered if Susan and the waiter were talking about her because the man kept looking at her and smiling. Pardon my friend, she could imagine Susan saying. She's not really one of us.

When Eloise got home later that night, Marlene was already asleep on the couch with a book in her lap. Eloise stood in front of her with a warm doggy bag, sensing something was not right. It took Eloise a moment until she realized what it was: the smoky, foreign scent of barbeque pork was out of place in the Pullman house.

~*~

Over the next few months, Eloise increased her counseling caseload to six other women, all in various states of despair. It could be draining at times, hearing their stories of rape, domestic violence, addiction, abuse and sickness. Some of the women seemed like Velcro balls that kept rolling along and picking up more and more troubles. And although it wasn't professional to think this way, Eloise favored Nelly over her other clients. She gained rapport with Nelly quickly, giving her a sketchbook and telling her to keep a journal of drawings each day. Although Nelly was always hesitant to share her drawings, that didn't bother Eloise. She knew that artists could sometimes be secretive. The drawings Nelly did share were reflective of her journeys: a steeple of a church in Pilsen; the worn faces of street kids around a blazing bonfire; fruit stands lining Maxwell Street. Her pen strokes were bold, unafraid. One picture showed a Vietnamese café bellied up to a gold domed mosque. The drawings captured why Eloise loved Chicago, the city that spread its arms wide and welcomed outsiders, misfits, those without homes.

There was something that Nelly held closely, though — her reason for being on the streets. Nelly refused to discuss the subject until one afternoon in the early spring.

"How are you feeling, Nelly?" Eloise asked as she opened Nelly's folder.

"Like crap," Nelly said. She rubbed her eyes like a tired child. "But what's new?"

"So you've been feeling like crap for a while?"

"Try my whole life." Nelly braided and unbraided a strand of her hair.

"Can you remember the first time you felt this way?"

"When I was 4 years old," Nelly said with a bit of hesitation. "Our neighbor called the police on my mom because he found me playing in the yard with a bag of blow. My mom was so stoned. She didn't even notice. The police took my mom away and I got put in a foster home."

"A foster home. For how long?"

"I don't know. I lived some of the time with this lady, Missy, in Oak Park. I swear her life revolved around Jerry Springer and chain smoking. I don't think she even knew I was there."

"That must have been hard."

"Yeah, and she had this older adult son. What was his name?" Nelly paused and looked towards the ceiling for answers. "I can't remember his name. Anyways, he had acne. They would always fight about money and Missy would leave the room. I hated that son of a bitch."

"Why?" Eloise asked.

"Because he molested me. And I was just a little kid." Nelly said this as though it was an obvious fact, something that Eloise should already know.

"Nelly, I am so sorry... how terrible. I mean, I can't believe. It must be very difficult. Can we talk more about that? Can you tell me what happened with Missy's son?"

"No."

"I think it might be helpful, given what you've been through..."

"No."

Eloise wrote a reminder in Nelly's file to revisit the subject in a later session. She was unsure of how to proceed. This wasn't something she learned in grad school.

"So how long did you stay with Missy?" Eloise tried.

"Until the DCFS moved me to another place. My mom never got straight so I stayed in the system until I got emancipated. When I turned 18."

"Then what did you do, when you were emancipated?" Eloise made notes in Nelly's file, but her mind was elsewhere. Instead of thinking of Nelly, Eloise was thinking about herself. It was not the first time she contemplated what her life would have been like if she had never been adopted. She often imagined herself living in the dirty, rat-infested Korean orphanage, a prisoner for life. If she ever escaped or ran away, she would be forced to roam the crowded streets of Seoul looking for a chance connection or opportunity. She realized that this life — Nelly's life — could have been hers.

"Mrs. Shelly — she was my art teacher at Proviso. She helped me get a scholarship to the Art Institute... for my drawing and painting. We put together a portfolio and everything."

"Oh, Nelly, that's fabulous. It's so hard to get in there. How'd you like it?" Eloise was having trouble concentrating. Remember your role, she thought. You are the healer, the professional.

"The teachers were cool. The studios were nice. The kids were spoiled shitheads, though, drinking their $4 coffees and moaning about their lives. What bullshit." As she told her story, Nelly remained unmoved, like a news reporter reading off the teleprompter. She picked at her chipped nail polish. "Yeah, but class was awesome. I took this art history class and we got to go to the museum. Did you know that Michelangelo might have been gay?"

"So what happened? I mean, with school. Not with Michelangelo."

"I left. At Christmas, the place closed. All the little brats went home to mommy and daddy. The dorm got locked up, the cafeteria, the studio — all closed. I didn't really have any friends to stay with. So I left. Left the dorm, left school. Just left."

"Nelly. Wasn't it too much to give up? Your art?"

Nelly looked over Eloise's shoulder out the window. She squinted as though trying to make out something in the distance. "I don't expect you to understand this, OK?"

"OK. But give me a try."

"I realized nobody gave a shit about me," Nelly said softly. Her eyes seemed to focus on something far away. "Nobody cared if I passed or failed. Fuck that — nobody cared if I lived or died. I had nowhere to go, nobody to go to. I didn't belong anywhere. So I started to live on the streets."

Eloise could no longer control her racing thoughts. She pictured herself leaving the Korean orphanage and knocking on relatives' doors only to be turned away. She saw Susan asking her what her Korean name was. She heard Grandma Pullman's condemnation: "Where's your Pullman nose?" I never belonged anywhere either, she thought.

When Nelly stopped talking, the room was silent, except for the noise from next door where the social skills class was practicing interviewing in pairs. Silence had always made Eloise uncomfortable. But it was something more than the silence that moved her to speak.

"Thank you, Nelly, for sharing what must have been some extremely unpleasant memories for you."

Eloise knew that she should just stop there and end the session for the day, but she let her own emotions boil over. "You know... I haven't told you this, but I am adopted. And though our stories are different, I feel moved by what you shared. My birth parents died in a car accident in Seoul when I was a baby... I never knew them at all. This is all I have to remember them by."

Eloise held up her hand and pointed to the thin gold band with a chip of jade on her finger. "So I know how hard it can be to feel alone and out of place."

Marlene had given the ring to Eloise when she turned 21. It was one of the few belongings that traveled with Eloise from Korea. The social workers at the adoption agency had given it to Marlene in a cardboard box that also contained a grainy picture of Eloise's young parents standing side by side on a street lit by neon store signs. The photo was shadowy and the faces blurred, but it was framed and placed on a dresser in Eloise's room from the time she was a baby. Eloise had been overjoyed by the gift of the ring, but tempered her reaction so as not to hurt Marlene. Much later, she learned from a college friend that Koreans believed jade held healing, medicinal powers.

Eloise searched Nelly's face for some sign of connection or empathy. Nothing could crack her stoic mask.

"I gotta go," Nelly said.

"Wait, Nelly... Is everything OK?"

As Nelly gathered her bag, sketchbook, and coat, Eloise became conscious that she might have made Nelly uncomfortable with her story, but it was too late. Nelly was leaving. She hurried clumsily out of Eloise's office, her coat trailing on the ground behind her. Eloise could only listen to the sound of Nelly's snow boots on the stairs and then in the hall as she rushed towards the exit. "Bye Nelly. See you tomorrow," she heard the receptionist say, and then the shelter's front door slammed shut.

~*~

Eloise stayed at the shelter late that night so she could finish her case notes on Nelly. It was difficult for her to admit, but it might have been a professional mistake to share her own story. Still, there was nothing she could do now.

The shelter was quiet except for the ticking of the clock on the wall and the tapping of Eloise's fingers on the computer keys. The clients all left the shelter at five, hauling bags, carts, and suit cases as they headed to a soup kitchen, shelter, or evening hideaway. Like owls, they disappeared soundlessly into the gray twilight.

At 8:11 p.m., Eloise's stomach started to growl, and she packed up her planner and travel mug to head home for the day. On the way out, she grabbed a book on adult foster children to read before her next appointment with Nelly. Outside of her office, the lights were off but Eloise made her way instinctively to the back door. It was a closer route to the bus stop from there. She pushed hard on the door and was greeted by the earthy smell of spring rain. As she turned to lock the door behind her, she fumbled with her keys.

Suddenly, Eloise felt a presence behind her.

"Ms. Pullman?"

Eloise swung around to see Nelly. She was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and both of her hands were tucked into the large front pocket. Her eyeliner was smudged, like charcoal that had been rubbed by a fingertip.

"Oh, god... you scared me, Nelly. I'm so glad it's you," Eloise let out a sigh and smiled. "Are you OK? I thought when you left earlier..."

Eloise stopped when she saw Nelly remove something small and shiny from her pocket. It was a knife.

"Give me the ring, Ms. Pullman," Nelly murmured.

Eloise felt sweat condensing above her lip. "Now, Nelly, if something upset you, we can talk about it. It's me, Ms. Pullman. We're friends."

"I said to give me the ring."

She waived the knife in the air and moved closer. Eloise noticed that Nelly's eyes were red around the corners, as though she'd been crying.

"You don't mean it, Nelly. I know you. You don't mean it." Eloise's voice did not sound like her own. It was removed from her body, floating above her. "You wouldn't hurt me."

"Don't talk. I can't listen to you talk any more. Give me the fucking ring."

Nelly's gaze held steady. Her face remained emotionless. Eloise knew now that the danger was real.

Eloise was conscious that tears were sliding down her face. "You know, it's my birthmother's. I can't. Please. Here, Nelly... Take my wallet. And my cellphone..." Eloise dropped her wallet and cellphone on the wet pavement.

"I told you, no more talking."

In a quick movement, Nelly grabbed Eloise's hand and twisted her arm. She was now facing the back door of the shelter where a sign read, "Welcome, please use our front door."

"OK, OK." Eloise winced.

Time moved in slow motion. Eloise slid the ring off her finger with her teeth and placed it on her flat, sweaty palm. She reached back towards Nelly. Warm fingers plucked the ring off her palm.

"Don't move," Nelly repeated. "I want you to count to ten before you move."

"I can't, I can't..." Eloise wailed. "I'm sorry, I can't."

The pressure on Eloise's arm was suddenly gone, and the alley walls echoed with Nelly's quick footsteps. Eloise quickly turned around. Her pulse was pounding at her temples and her legs were soft beneath her.

Betrayal overcame Eloise like a cold wind. It was a gray evening and still cold, even though it was almost April. Eloise noticed the alley was lined with neglected, overflowing trashcans. Near her feet, a green weed poked out of the cracked pavement. And for the first time, Eloise read the words scrawled in spray paint on the alley's brick wall: "go home bitch."

In the distance, Eloise saw Nelly running away down the alley toward the main street. She did not look back. Her hood had fallen off, exposing the familiar tattoo.

 

About the Author(s)

Natalie Tilghman is a student in the University of Chicago Writer's Workshop Certificate Program in the area of Short Stories. Natalie resides in West Town and has a background in social work.

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