tagRomanceThe Gate

The Gate


I am fortunate to have a back yard large enough to do things in, like growing the three fruit trees that allow me to walk right out the kitchen door and pick my own oranges, lemons, and limes. Then there's the cactus garden over in one corner. One of the best features of the yard is the brick wall all around it, just short of six feet high. If somebody wants to sunbathe out there in the nude, which a visiting niece once did, she can have complete privacy to do so, as long as she keeps the thick foliage of the orange tree between her and the gate.

That gate, in the wall on the west side of the house, is an ongoing problem. Why anybody would build a six foot wall and put a three foot high gate in it is the sort of mystery that you can expect to stumble onto when you buy a house that's thirty years old. I've been planning to replace it with a taller one, but in the ten years I've lived here it never made it to the top of my to-do list. At least until this summer.

My list isn't the neatest thing you ever saw. It really is several lists and notes on various sized pieces of paper, that live in a box on the desk that I almost never use. I sat one morning and went through the box, crossing off jobs that either got done or were no longer necessary, and trying to judge the urgency of the remaining tasks so I could select my next chore. There was the gate. I looked over some other scraps of paper, and there was the gate again.

It turned out that I had jotted the gate down in four places, and I didn't have any other job that had cropped up that many times. Try as I might to find an easier job to tackle, I was forced to admit that the gate was the most important, and I'd better get going on it.

I took some rough measurements and looked around for some materials that I could use. There was a piece of plywood that I could trim down to the right size, and various scraps of two by four that might come in handy, but I would certainly have to buy hardware, paint, and some lumber. It would probably not come to a hundred dollars, but it was sure to exceed fifty.

While I was standing at the side of the house thinking about it, a little voice came from behind me, and I turned to see a cute little girl, probably 18 or 19 years old, standing waiting to address me, but with a facial expression of fear, as if she'd turn and run if I said "Boo!" She was dressed simply, but her clothes were neat and clean, and everything about her seemed to scream middle class respectability.

"Hello, how may I help you?" I asked in my very best Dale Carnegie manner.

"I'm looking for work: odd jobs, housework, yard work, anything to earn some money. I graduated from high school in May and I haven't been able to find any work since then, other than a few hours here and there that haven't even paid me enough money for food. I'm getting pretty desperate. Do you have anything I could do?"

"Look, it's hot right here with the sun roasting us. Around back I have a couple of chairs, and we could talk there in the shade. Would you like to come around there?"

She looked fearful, and I hastened to assure her that she would come to no harm. "I'll leave this gate wide open. I'm not leading you into a trap. You can turn your chair so it faces the gate and you'll have an easy exit. I'll leave it to you to decide whether you want to come into the back yard, but I'm going there right now because I'm hot."

I turned and walked back to the small patio by the lemon tree and positioned two chairs as I had said I would. Then I stepped into the storage room back of the kitchen where the spare refrigerator stands, and got out two ice-cold bottles of water. When I came back to the patio the girl was standing behind a chair, clearly trying to decide whether to sit or flee. Without another word I handed her a water bottle, and sat down in the other chair. Finally she turned her chair a little to aim it directly at the gate, and sat down on it as if she feared that it would attack her like a bear trap.

"I'm Mr. Dunham. My friends call me Carl. What's your name?"

"I'm Sally Clark. I live a few blocks down that way, where the road curves around. I wanted to go to the community college but I don't have the money for tuition. I live with my mother, who was supporting me but she's only working part time now and we're just about out of everything." As she said this she uncapped the bottle. She took a small sip, licked her lips, and then downed a big gulp.

"Sally, have you eaten anything today?"

"No. I didn't even have any coffee because when I went to make a pot, the can was empty. My mom works at a restaurant, so she'll get something there, but I was completely out of luck."

"I don't want to talk business with you while you're starving. I'm going into the kitchen to fix us something for lunch. You can stay out here, or come in with me, whatever you'd prefer. It'll take me about fifteen minutes, I expect. I'm going in there now."

I heated up a frying pan and cut up an onion to flavor some ground beef. In five minutes I had two big hamburgers sizzling in the pan and two rolls heating up in the toaster oven. I looked up when I heard the kitchen door close, to see Sally about a foot inside, sniffing the aroma of the frying beef and onions. "Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked.

"You can keep an eye on those rolls, make sure they don't burn. In the refrigerator, in the door, you'll find ketchup and mustard, and in the drawer in the refrigerator marked Meats, you'll find a bag with shredded cheese. You can put all that on the counter over there. If you want to go to the bathroom, it's down the hall on the right. We'll be eating in five minutes."

When we took our burgers out onto the patio, she had hers half eaten by the time I had sat down. "Sally, when's the last time you ate?"

"Yesterday morning. Oh, this is so good!"

"Slow down, or your stomach will reject the food and you'll throw it up. Take your time, small bites, and then we'll see what else you might like. Your blood sugar must be very low. The protein in the meat will be metabolized to provide you some energy, but it'll take a while. I'll get you a glass of orange juice for a quick pickup, to give you a jump start. What you need then is a little rest, to let your body digest your food and sort itself out."

By this time her burger was history. "I'll go to the kitchen and get you some orange juice now. If you'll go into that little storage shed, you'll find a folding lawn chair that you can put here in the shade and lean back in, to let your body do what it needs to do while you lie still for ten minutes. Then we'll talk some more."

A minute after she'd drained the orange juice glass, Sally was asleep. I went in the house and got my trusty clipboard and came out and started making sketches and notes for the gate project. The problem would be to keep it flat. You can use two by fours for a frame around the edges of a piece of plywood, and it will look great on day one, but a week later it will have started to curl up like a potato chip.

I had decided to frame the sheet of plywood and then glue another sheet onto the other side of the frame, to make it like a sandwich panel, with some two by four blocks in the middle to space the plywood facings apart. The trouble with the concept was that it would be awkward to build. I could lay the plywood out flat on the patio and glue the frame and blocks to it, but I'd like to get a few screws into it to hold it together while the adhesive cured. Every way I looked at it, this was a two man job, and I was only one man.

I was working on my seventh sketch when Sally began to stir. She opened her eyes, blinked and went almost back to sleep, then sat up straight with an "Ohmygod!" She looked around in a panic, then recognized me and composed herself. "Did I fall asleep? Oh, I'm so sorry. I never meant to do that!"

"You just took a nap for about forty minutes, that's all. No harm done. You must have been tired. How do you feel now? Any stomach ache?"

"No. I feel fine. In fact, this is the best I've felt in a while. Wait. What did you put in that hamburger? Did you drug me?"

"Ninety percent lean ground beef, sweet onion, steak seasoning, and just a tiny pinch of salt. I put some mustard and ketchup on it when I put it in the roll, which was all whole wheat. Nothing else. And yours was made the same as mine. Why are you acting so suspicious?"

"I've heard horror stories on TV about girls being drugged and raped, and their bodies are found out in the desert days or weeks or months later. I know I have to keep myself aware of what's going on around me all the time, and not let myself become a victim. You seem nice enough, but you could be some dirty old man trying to take advantage of me. How can I tell?"

"Sit up and drink some of your water while I get a picture. I'll show you what a terrible old man I am." I went in and brought out a group photograph of my family, taken several years earlier. "Look, this is me. It was taken before I grew the beard, but you can see that it's me. This is my wife, who died shortly after this was taken, of natural causes. There's my son and that's my daughter. Look us all over very carefully. See any bank robbers? Any rapists? Look at those smiles. Those faces show every feeling right there on the surface. They couldn't hide anything if they tried. This is a family that was raised with lots of love. Nobody has ever had anything to fear from any of us, and you can tell that just by looking."

"Where are they now? Do they live around here?"

"Far away, in New England and California. Coast to coast. And I'm right here, all by myself. I can understand your concern for keeping alert to what's going on and not letting yourself be an easy mark, but if I wanted to molest you I had a perfect opportunity while you were sleeping, and I never laid a finger on you. You know what I think?"


"I think you need a friend. Why don't you decide to let me be your friend, and relax while you're here. There may be places where you'd be safer, like maybe locked in a bank vault, but in the real world you'd be hard pressed to find a place where you'd be any safer than right here in my back yard. I've never killed or raped or attacked anybody in my whole life, and I'm not about to start now."

This drew just the faintest glimmer of a smile from Sally, and her body language told me that she was letting herself relax just a little bit. I looked at my watch and saw that the afternoon was fleeting past. "Should you call your mother and tell her you're okay and when you'll be home?"

"No, that's all right. She's used to me being out on my own." The line was delivered convincingly, but the total change in her facial expression was so abrupt that it was alarming to see.

"Sally, is something wrong? Something about your mother? I don't mean to pry, but it's obvious that something is bothering you. Anything I can help with?"

Her composure crumbled, and tears started to pour from her eyes as if a dam had suddenly burst. Through the sobs she said, "No, there's nothing wrong! I'm all right! Don't you worry about me!"

The sobbing went on for a couple of minutes, and then she was sniffling and trying to pull herself together. I said, as gently as I could, "Sally, your words say one thing and your behavior says just the opposite. We can lie with our mouths, and sometimes with our faces, but our bodies usually tell the truth. And people don't break down and cry like that because everything is just peachy. You don't have to tell me anything, but I know that you're lying and I can't allow you to be here at my house and lie to me. So I think you'd better leave now. If you want me to, I can drive you home, and if your mother wants to know what you've been doing, I can explain it to her. I'm sure she'll be at least a little bit worried about you."

That just brought on more tears. I wasn't pushing the right buttons, that's for sure. So I sat back and studied my clipboard some more. The tears were subsiding again, and Sally was trying to say something, so I put the clipboard down again and tried to make out the words that were getting all tangled up with the sobs.

"You've been--nice--to me." Pause. "This is the first--time--anybody's--even talked--to me." Long pause. "Yes, I--lied--to you. Nothing--is all right." Another pause. "I'm all alone--and I don't know--what to do." Then she completely dissolved in tears.

I was torn: should I take hold of her shoulders and rest her head on my shoulder, or go to the other extreme and avoid touching or any other form of personal involvement? What the hell, this is a case for a social worker, some agency that helps people with problems. But what if she were my kid? Wouldn't I hope that somebody would reach out and help her?

Without thinking any more about it, I took hold of her and gave her a shoulder to cry on, complete with appropriate comforting sounds. "There, there. You're not alone. I'm right here. When you can, tell me what's wrong, and we'll see if we can make it better. There, there. That's it, cry it out. Let your feelings come out. Don't try to keep it in. Go ahead and cry. I'm right here with you. It'll be all right."

I have no idea how long she cried. I do remember being amazed that such a small girl could have so many tears in her. Finally she seemed to be about cried out, and as she loosened up I let her lie back in the lounge chair, the same one she had slept so soundly in. I stepped inside and came back with a box of tissues and a bucket to serve as a wastebasket.

"I want to tell you about it. The truth. I haven't told anybody. Is it all right if I tell you? Do you mind?"

"You talk and I'll listen. Get it off your chest, out in the open. Tell me all that you want to tell, and then we'll talk it over. Go ahead. It's all right."

"My father left a long time ago, when I was in elemtary school. My mother worked to support us, but she got laid off and all she could get was part time work. She did as much as she could, and we just barely got by." Pause. "I worked when I could, a little bit here and there. In the summer before my senior year, she got serious with a guy. He seemed okay, and he moved in and helped with the rent and food. Then, right after graduation, she told me that they were going away and I was on my own."

There was a pause, and then she took a deep breath and continued. "She gave me an envelope with money in it, all that she had, and said that before it was gone I'd better get a job. Then she was gone, and I looked around. She'd left all the stuff in the house, like furniture and all, but it was all trash anyway. I paid the rent the next month, and then I used up the rest of the money for food, even though I ate as little as I could. I worked a few days, but nothing steady.

"There are so many people around here who are out of work, but they all have some other source of food, from family or whatever. Not me. I've got nothing and nobody now. That hamburger was the first solid food I've had in two days. I've gone around trying to find something I can do to earn a few dollars, and got nothing to show for it. You're the first person who's given me anything to eat. I'd like to say thank you and walk away, but I can't. I'm going to be thrown out of the house in a couple of days, but there's nothing there for me anyway, just my clothes. I've got no place to go. What's going to become of me? Where can I go? How can I get any help?"

Toward the end of that speech she was growing more anxious, and I didn't want her to have a panic attack. "Look Sally. That is your name, isn't it?" She nodded. "Your most immediate need is food. Can you cook at home?"

"Not any more. The electricity's been turned off."

"Well, that knocks down that idea. I was thinking I'd take you shopping at a supermarket, but there's not much that you could eat without cooking or refrigeration. Hmmm. There's just one more thing I can think of, but it doesn't seem like a proper thing to suggest. Oh, what the hell. Look, I could use some help around here, but I couldn't pay much. I could offer you a place to live and plenty to eat, and you'd be a live in housekeeper for me. What it would do to your reputation and your social life I can't imagine. I'm not trying to take advantage of you when you're down and out, and I really could use the services of a housekeeper, so it's not charity on my part. I could slip you a twenty when I've got one to spare, but I couldn't pay you steadily, and sometimes things get a little thin around here so there might be times when you'd go for a week or so without any money from me. I know that seems a little strange, but it's the best I can come up with right now."

"Oh, Mr. Dunham, that would be wonderful! That's the best thing that's happened to me since my mom left. Can we go to my house and get my stuff while it's still daylight?" She paused to think about it. "Will I have a room of my own?"

"Yes, but it's got a lot of my stuff stored in it right now. We'll have to clean it all out for you. The bed is small; it's a trundle bed really, but it's got an extra thick mattress and it's very comfortable. I've slept there a lot of nights, and I always got a good night's sleep on it."

"Oh, that sounds great. When my mother brought her boyfriend home with her, they used the bedroom and I had to sleep on the sofa. It's just about too worn out for sitting on, so you can imagine how it is to sleep on. The only good thing about them moving out was that I had the bed to myself."

* * * * *

I've helped a bunch of my friends move, starting when I was in college and then on through the years. One guy in college piled all his stuff on top of his bed and two of us walked it about a mile to his new digs. Later, when I was starting a business I had a big, roomy box van that we hauled enormous amounts of stuff in, and after that there were station wagons and an SUV that would hold a lot. But moving Sally was a whole 'nother thing! She packed all her stuff in two trash bags, and tossed them onto the back seat of my little Buick. It was so simple, so small in scale, that it was pathetic. Nearly nineteen years of life and that's all she had to show for it. I could have moved her on a motorcycle.

She settled in and got right to work, cooking and cleaning, then rearranging and organizing all the closets, and soon she was just about managing the house. I wondered how I'd ever got along without her.

* * * * *

About once a week Sally had terrible dreams and woke me up screaming or raving in a loud voice while sound asleep. I'd go in, wake her up, and get her out of bed to walk around until she was fully awake. Sometimes she'd tell me what it was all about, and more often she'd forget everything except the terror. The nightmares seemed to lessen in intensity and frequency as she got comfortable and felt more secure in her new home.

There was another problem that did not go away, however. "Carl," she asked one evening, "how would you describe our relationship?"

"I probably wouldn't. I think of this household more as two people living in the same house, than as a relationship. You've come to mean a lot to me, and I've grown very fond of you, but it's not like being lovers or having a torrid affair. You're you and I'm me. Here we are, watching TV together. I hope none of the neighbors are trying to make up some sort of lurid rumors about us. Still, as long as they're not casting me as a rapist or child molester, I can only take any attention they give us as a compliment."

"I'd like to have a simple way to explain our living arrangement if people ask. I say I'm your live-in housekeeper, but I don't think they buy it. They sort of wink and say, 'Oh, sure. Housekeeper, huh?' and there's nothing I can say to change their minds. It kind of gets to me, you know?"

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