BY KARIN BRITT GALL
Arrabelle backed the thirteen foot camper into the designated spot of the megastore parking lot until she heard the thump of the metal pole. The gray-haired widow wondered if this was the place—her final destination. She sat for a moment and rotated her shoulders, trying to stretch her aging muscles into a comfortable position. She wished away the dull ache they’d accumulated on the long drive from Kansas to Ohio.
She flipped the visor downward and studied the photograph she kept there. It was a photo of her and Mac in better times. Despite the lines etched into her forehead, her olive-toned skin was smooth for someone in her sixties. Mac panned a goofy smile showing even, white teeth and a gray mustache beneath a tanned face. Oh, how she missed her husband and their little bungalow.
She turned off the engine and dug into the large brown leather wallet that had belonged to Mac. One pocket held an Oregon driver’s license, a Medicare card, and registration papers for her car and camper; the other held ten one-dollar bills. She ran her fingers over the worn leather and checked the attached coin purse. She snapped it open and found two pennies.
Arrabelle counted the money a second time. She riffled through the papers and found two quarters. Bonus! Ten dollars and fifty-two cents. It would have to last until she found a job.
Arrabelle removed her petite frame from the rusting Jeep and trudged with resolution across the pavement. Thank God for the big-box stores. They didn’t gripe if someone stayed for a night or two in the parking lot as long as they parked away from the building. There was no hookup for water or electric for the camper, but she could stay free-of-charge and make use of the restrooms for a quick wash.
Her body was lethargic, and a buzzing started between her ears. Once inside, she grabbed a cart and looked at the fresh loaves of bread in the bakery. A deep sniff verified that more baked goods were in the oven; cinnamon permeated the air. Her stomach longed for the cakes and doughnuts she forced herself to pass. At the opposite end of the bakery, she found 24 Parker House rolls marked down to a dollar. What a score! They’d last a week if she was careful. Next, she walked to the canned food aisle, gripping the steel cart with force, trying to steady herself. Black beans were on sale for forty-nine cents.
She rolled the cart to the check-out line. When it was her turn, she placed the bag of rolls and six cans of beans onto the conveyor belt and watched the middle-aged woman behind the counter scan each item and then place them into two plastic bags.
“Three dollars and ninety-four cents,” the cashier said, spinning the metal turnstile with the purchases toward her.
Arrabelle unzipped her wallet and counted out four one-dollar bills. She hesitated before putting the money into the other woman’s hands and flushed with shame at her sympathetic look. “Say, they aren’t hiring here are they?” Arrabelle asked, trying to sound casual.
The cashier placed the rumpled dollar bills into the register and counted the remaining change into Arrabelle’s scarred hands. “Part-time. Come back in the morning and ask for Dan.”
Arrabelle lowered her voice. “Is there a food pantry nearby?” She blushed again and gave the woman a weak smile.
“Down this road, past the freeway, there’s a food bank and warehouse.”
“I think I saw that driving into town.”
“There’s also one at the Methodist church further down about three miles. You can’t miss the purple door.”
“Thanks. I’ve hit a patch of bad luck.”
The blonde cashier nodded. “Yeah, these are tough times for everyone. My sister and brother-in-law just lost their house, and they have four kids.”
“I can relate.” Arrabelle grabbed the wallet and picked up the grocery bag. “Thanks for the information about the job.”
“Hey, good luck. Hope we get to work together.”
Arrabelle nodded and said, “Me too.” She walked toward the automatic front doors and felt them open with a whoosh. She moved toward her car with a spring in her step.
When she reached the camper, she put the key into the deadbolt lock and heard it open with a familiar snick. She dumped the groceries onto the kitchenette counter, opened the bag of rolls, and then a can of beans with a manual can opener. Before she knew it, two of the rolls were gone. Arrabelle scolded herself and ate the beans with a slower motion, trying to savor each spoonful. She found a bottle of water she’d refilled at the last gas station and gulped it. Her money needed to last until her next social security check—two weeks.
She set the deadbolt on the door and turned off the battery-powered lamp. At the back of the camper, she undressed in the dark, found her cotton nightgown beneath her pillow, and pulled it over her head. She crawled under a pile of blankets in the single bed. The linens reminded her of the home she had owned before Mac had died of cancer.
Five years ago she’d declared bankruptcy, only managing to keep her camper and ten-year-old car. After the monthly payment of $302 for the camper, there wasn’t much left of her Social Security check for food and land rental. She figured she’d have to work the rest of her life. There were many days she’d prayed and asked to die. She hated moving from place-to-place looking for a job. Tonight, she was grateful for what she had. She knew others had much less; she’d met them on the road. They were known as the “Graying Nomads.”
* * *
Monday morning, Arrabelle selected one of the five decent outfits she had left for work. She grabbed her Social Security card from its hiding place beneath her mattress and said a quick prayer.
At 8:45 a.m., Arrabelle walked to the big-box store and asked for the hiring manager. A perky redhead shook a head full of curls. “Sorry, he’s on vacation until Wednesday.”
“Is there anyone else I could speak to?” Arrabelle tried to tamp down her desperation.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
She turned toward the front door, her shoulders slumping.
“Hey, try around 9:00 a.m. He’ll have had his coffee by then.”
“I’ll do that. Thanks for the tip.”
“No worries,” the girl said, shuffling the papers before her.
Arrabelle ambled back to the camper. It was time to scope out her surroundings. She unhooked the car from the trailer and drove toward town. Pleasant Grove had seemed like a nice little town when she’d pulled into the exit. There were lots of businesses, restaurants, and grocery stores. Down the street, she saw the food bank the lady had mentioned. It was a big metal building with blue, vertical, corrugated strips of steel around the entrance.
She pulled into a parking spot and saw that the building was dark inside. She hurried to the door and looked at the posted hours: closed on Mondays. Maybe the church pantry would be open.
Arrabelle drove into each little recessed shopping strip and made a mental note of places with help-wanted signs. A pancake house with a sign proclaiming, “Now Open” sat between a CVS and a Mexican restaurant. They might need waitresses or dishwashers. There were also two grocery stores. When she stopped at each and asked for an employment application, she scanned the cashiers and servers. There were two older workers but most were younger. Her knees ached as she shuffled back to the car and drove further down the street. When she got to the church pantry, she drove up and noted that it was only open on Saturdays. Forget about food, keep moving.
Arrabelle turned left onto Broadway and entered the historic downtown area. There were a few businesses—a barber shop, a bowling alley, a diner, a hibachi restaurant, three pizza places, and a bar. She parked the car and tried them all. Only the diner owner had been encouraging.
“I could use someone part-time during the day now that the college kids have gone back to school. They won’t be available again until summer.”
“Have you ever waited tables?” The buxom brunette looked her over.
“What hours can you work?”
“Whenever you need me. Seven days a week.”
“Well, we’re closed on Sunday’s and open from early morning through lunch. We don’t serve dinner.”
“That’s fine. I’m flexible.”
“Fill out the application I have on the counter and put down a phone number where I can reach you.”
“I have a cell phone. You can call me there.”
The woman nodded and said, “We’ll see.”
Arrabelle filled out the paperwork and listed her mobile number. She’d bought a burner phone and charged it up using a special cord she plugged into her car cigarette lighter. Another older couple she’d met in Missouri had suggested it since they didn’t always have electricity available in their camper.
Arrabelle spent the rest of the day filling out employment applications. She even ventured a few miles away to the big city. Most people saw her cropped gray hair and nodded politely, but she’d received no encouragement.
Later at home, she waited by the phone. She had never been so desperate for food or a job. Before heading for Ohio, Arrabelle had swallowed her pride and called her sister. April and her husband, a doctor, had been at a charity event, so she left a message with the housekeeper. Arrabelle cringed. The last time she borrowed money, April reminded her she hadn’t paid back the previous $50.
“I will,” Arrabelle said. “I promise.”
“It’s a good thing Mother and Father are dead,” April said, sniffing. “If they could see you now. No husband, no kids, no job, no inheritance.”
“It wasn’t Mac’s fault he died,” she said, defending her husband. “I work when I can.” But her sister hadn’t returned her call. Arrabelle would have helped April and offered her a place to live. She wouldn’t have begrudged her a few dollars.
* * *
On Tuesday, Arrabelle arrived at the food pantry at 11 a.m. and waited in line. There were mothers with small children, men and women with canes, and adult daughters and sons accompanying their parents. An air of resignation settled like dust around the adults while youngsters ran around playing tag, ignoring the steely looks of their elders. When the pantry opened an hour later, Arrabelle took a number and waited until it was called. “This is my first time here,” she said to the thirty-something young man with a crew cut and green golf shirt.
He gave a wide, encouraging grin. “Okay. When your number is called, come up to the window and someone will take your income information. A volunteer will escort you around the pantry for the first time. She’ll tell you the food item limits. Once a month you can do a big shop and then every week you can come in for bread and produce.”
“Here’s a couple pieces of literature about us. You can sit over there until it’s your turn,” he said, pointing to four rows of gray metal chairs.
Arrabelle took the flyers and walked to the seating area. She found an empty chair next to a grizzled black man. “Your first time?” he asked, glancing at the fact sheets the young man had given her.
“Yes,” she said, grimacing.
“You’ll get used to it,” he said, nodding his head up and down one too many times. “They’re okay here.”
When it was her turn, she told the lady in charge her story. The volunteer’s name badge said, “Annie.”
“How much income did you make last year in total? Did you work?” Annie asked.
“Yes, I worked whenever I could find a job. Altogether I made $16,500. I couldn’t find anything full-time, just part-time jobs at fast-food places and department stores.”
“So you move around a lot?”
“I have a camper and a car, and I go where the jobs are available. I’d like to settle down somewhere if I could find steady work.”
The volunteer tilted her head. “Must be challenging.”
“Very.” Arrabelle was glad she found someone who understood.
“Let’s get you started with a cart. Then, we’ll walk around and get what we can for you.”
“I don’t have electric at the moment, so there’s no refrigerator available. I can’t store cold things long-term or cook. But I do have a cooler.”
“I understand,” the tall, angular woman said.
The food pantry resembled a small grocery store. Annie threw a box of cereal, cans of vegetables and spaghetti, and two loaves of bread into the cart. She also chose milk, margarine, and sour cream from one of the refrigerator coolers. They shopped the rest of the aisles dodging white and black kids in pigtails and slouching Latino teenagers following their mothers and grandmothers. Annie grabbed several orange juice boxes along with fresh fruit and produce and added them to the food items. At the end of the shopping trip, the cart was three-quarters full.
“Now, you drive past the end dock of the building, walk up the steps and tell the man there I said you need ice for a cooler. He’ll fix you up. Next week, we’ll get you more. I know it won’t last all week, but it should last two or three days.”
Arrabelle thanked the woman.
Annie continued. “If you want to check on job leads, go to the library in town. It’s on Park Street, off Broadway. They have employment flyers at a table by the front door.”
“I was in that area of town yesterday, job-hunting. I think I know where that is.”
“You come back next week, you hear? We’ll see about trying to get you food stamps to help out.”
“I will, no matter what happens. Bless you!”
Arrabelle guided her car to the end of the warehouse. After the fourth loading dock, she saw a steel door and parked in front of it. When she entered the building, she told the burly fellow that manned the entrance what Annie had said, and he grabbed two small bags of ice and deposited them into her car.
“I’m Earl. I’m here on Tuesdays and Fridays,” he said, sticking out a beefy hand. “If you need more ice on Friday, come see me.”
“Annie said once a week,” Arrabelle said, returning the handshake.
“Yeah, that’s the official story,” he said, winking at her. “But when I’m here you can come on Fridays too.”
Arrabelle estimated the man to be in his late sixties. He was bald and walked with a limp. “Do you work here then?”
“I volunteer.” He reddened at her surprised look. “Had some trouble myself when I was younger. I know how it is to need stuff.” He cleared his throat. “That should take care of it for now.” He closed her car door.
“Thanks, Earl. I’m Arrabelle. Probably see you Friday.”
Arrabelle got into her car and drove back to her camper. She unloaded her booty onto the counters and grabbed a small cooler from the closet. She wedged the foam container into the refrigerator and then loaded in the perishable items. For the first time in days, she smiled and meant it. Things were getting better. So far, no one had hassled her about parking in the box-store lot for more than a day. She hoped they’d be patient. If not, she’d have to find another place to park for free, at least until she got her government check.
After a nice meal of cornflakes with milk and an orange juice box, Arrabelle waited by the phone hoping for a call about a job. A loud knock on the camper door followed by a gruff voice hollered, “Anyone in there?”
“Just a minute,” Arrabelle called. She peered out the side window and watched a tall man dressed in a red shirt and blue jeans move from one foot to another. She grabbed a hammer from beneath the bed, walked to the door, moved the curtain aside, and smiled. “What can I do for you?”
“You can open this door,” the man said. “I’m security from the store.”
She opened the door a crack and tried to look innocent. The man glanced at a pair of oversized men’s work shoes on the ground and took a step back in surprise. “Ma’am, is your husband here?”
“I’m afraid it’s just me. No husband.” The work shoes were a ploy Arrabelle used for protection when traveling.
“Well, we don’t allow overnight camping on the lot. The other security guard said you’ve been here more than a day.”
“I’m waiting until Wednesday to talk to the HR manager. He’s on vacation until then. I’m hoping for a job interview.”
“Maybe, but we don’t allow camping here.”
“But your other locations do.”
“Yes, ma’am, but someone hit a two hundred gallon gas tank here two years ago and so management has denied any overnighters ever since.”
“Well, I’m a widow, and I’m on my own. Just trying to get along.” Arrabelle looked at the man’s gray eyes and chestnut hair. He looked like a son she and Mac might have had.
The man studied her old car and aging camper and shook his head. “They do allow folks to camp overnight at the Circleville store.”
“How far away is that?”
“It’s twenty-five miles from here. I can give you directions if you come into the store.”
“No thanks. It’s getting late, and I don’t see too well in the dark,” she said, hoping for a reprieve. “Besides, tomorrow is Wednesday, and I don’t have much gasoline.”
The security man scratched his head. “Ma’am, you can stay until you talk to the manager tomorrow, but then you have to move, job or not. If I let you stay any longer it will be my job. I hope you understand.” He turned pleading eyes toward her and then walked away.
“Of course, son, you have a job to do.”
Later, she walked to the restroom, ran a basin full of water, wet several paper towels, and washed and dried her body. It would have to do until she had running water again.
That night, Arrabelle dropped into bed and said her prayers tearfully. While her sister lived the life of security and country clubs, Arrabelle had nothing. She should be retired by now and puttering around in her flower and vegetable gardens. She cried big, noisy sobs. It didn’t take long for her to fall asleep.
* * *
In the morning, Arrabelle dressed and waited until 9:00 a.m. She filled out an application and met with Dan afterwards.
The middle-aged manager smiled at her. “We need overnight stockers. But the work is strenuous, and you need to be able to lift fifty pounds because the stockers also help unload the early morning delivery trucks.” He scanned her slight body and pursed his fleshy lips.
“Is there anything else?”
“We also need someone to clean the restrooms—the floors, toilets, sinks, stock the paper towel dispensers, and empty the trash cans. And you’d also help the other team members clean the store floors and dust. It would be four hours a night, six days a week. A maximum of twenty-four hours a week with no benefits. Starting pay is $9.00 an hour.” The hiring manager paused.
Arrabelle nodded and calculated the wages and figured it could pay for a place to park her camper. “I’d be glad to do it. I really need a job. I have a camper and no place to put it.”
“Ah, you’re the lady in the parking lot.”
She nodded, hoping he wouldn’t hold her infraction against her. “I’m afraid so.”
“If you don’t want to drive all the way to Circleville, try parking in one of the strip malls, at least for now. You might have to move around a bit until you get settled, but it would be closer.”
“I’ll try it.”
Kind blue eyes assessed her. “We pay weekly and don’t hold any money back so you’d get a check the first week you worked. We hire a lot of seniors, and they like getting paid that way.”
“That would be a big help. I’d like to try it out if you’ll have me. I’ll work hard and be here every day.”
Dan gave her a long look and stuck out his hand. “Yes, I believe you will. I’m sorry I can’t offer you more hours, but it’s all I have. Oh, and you’ll get a store discount too.”
“I’m grateful for what you can give me.”
“When can you start?”
“Okay, I’ll get you a copy of Rita’s schedule.”
“She quit last week. She got a full-time job.”
“Good for her!” Arrabelle said.
“Good for me, too, that I met you. Some people are pretty picky about what kind of work they’ll do. To tell you the truth, it’s hard to fill this position.”
“Not me. I need to eat.” She stared at the man hoping her determination showed.
Dan looked at her with admiration. “I’ll see you tomorrow then. That should give you time to find a more permanent spot.”
After she completed the hiring paperwork, Arrabelle floated back to her camper. She’d be the best toilet and floor cleaner the big-box store ever had. It was part-time work but promising. She couldn’t wait to tell the folks at the food pantry about her job.
* * *
The work was difficult and messy as Dan had warned, but Arrabelle threw herself into it, happy to have a steady income. At the end of the second week, Dan approached her with a tense face.
“Can you please come into the lunchroom with me?” he said. Dan often used the space as a makeshift office.
Arrabelle followed him wondering if she had done something wrong.
Dan shuffled papers in and out of a folder avoiding her eyes.
Arrabelle broke the silence. “Is there something wrong? Didn’t I do a good job?” she said.
The HR manager took a deep breath. “Yes, your work is wonderful, which is what makes this very hard. Arrabelle, I’m afraid I have to lay you off. The economy is tight, and the company has cut my hours.”
“But how will the bathrooms get cleaned?”
“Someone from another store. They’re cutting back all over the company so they’ll be glad to get the hours. You’re the last hired so . . .”
Arrabelle nodded. She’d heard this before. She tried to look the man in the face, but her eyes clouded with tears. Losing a job never got easier.
Dan handed her a check. “Here’s what we owe you for the hours you’ve worked and a little extra for such short notice.”
Arrabelle looked down at the check. It would last until her next Social Security check. “Thanks, I understand.” Arrabelle signed her final papers, cashed the check at the office, and rushed out of the store.
In the car, she considered sticking around until morning to say goodbye to the nice people at the food bank but decided against it. Instead, she drove to the nearby RV park where her camper now sat and readied it for the road.
With a lump in her throat, she drove past the neon signs of restaurants and gas stations and pulled onto the I-71 North Cleveland exit, leaving her new friends and the familiar twinkling lights behind. Over the years, it had become hard to say goodbye. She stiffened her lip and listened to the thump of the tires hitting the road one more time.