She woke to the sun shining through her room window. “Well, Bernie,” she muttered to herself, “you lived to see another day.”
She sat up and straightened her arms above her head to stretch. Her shoulders popped. Her eyes still fuzzy, she could just make out her water bottle, a plastic gallon milk jug. It sat on an upside-down blue plastic milk crate bearing faded white letters spelling out “Coleman Dairy.” She grabbed the jug and twisted off the blue lid, then pressed it against her chapped lips and tilted it up.
Holding the jug at arm’s length so she could focus, Bernie saw a thick layer of ice on the water’s surface. It was a sign that her humble surroundings had again surrendered to nature’s hasty march into winter. She shook the jug to break the ice and took a long, refreshing draw. Pain shot through a lower left molar. She tilted her head to the right to re-direct the cold water as she continued drinking.
When only broken ice remained, she set the jug back down on her impromptu bedside table. Two more of the containers sat empty in a corner.
“Time to go get refills,” she mumbled.
Despite the sun’s warming light, her sore arms shivered. All night she had curled up to fight the cold; her thin blanket, riddled with holes, had carried her through October fine, but November’s chill proved too much. That night, she knew, she would have to use her coat as cover, unless she could find a blanket before then. Her self-inflating, insulated sleeping pad made sleeping on bare ground acceptable for most of the year, but soon she would need more layers underneath, too.
A gap glowed orange between two gray wall boards. Dust twinkled in the resulting shaft of light. Bernie stood slowly, hyperextended her knees, then relaxed them for a joint-loosening pop. With just a few steps she crossed the dirt floor to a blue Maxwell House coffee can, peeled back its plastic lid and plunged a hand inside. Her thin fingers, their once carefully manicured nails now worn to nubs, pulled out a gob of rust-colored, muddy clay. Bernie kneaded the stiffened muck until it was spreadable, and then packed it into the gap between the boards. The repair finished, she flicked the excess clay into the can and replaced the lid.
She looked at her fingers. “Damn.” They were dirty now, and she had no water to rinse them before eating breakfast. “Well, girl, you’ve eaten worse with dirtier hands.”
A bread loaf container sat next to her bedside table. Bernie popped the blue lid off the end and poured out an assortment of individually wrapped snack cakes and crackers. She rifled through them, muttering, “Granola, granola. Come on.” Unsuccessful, she settled on a Mrs. Freshley’s bear claw two months beyond its expiration date. The cellophane gave way easily to her strong fingers, and though a little tough, the first bite was sweet. She set aside a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie and snapped the lid back on the container.
Unsure what day it was, she consulted her calendar. November’s picture was titled, “Hemmed-In Hollow.” From a high cliff wall clung icicles as tall as oak trees and, where they clung to the rock, as wide as cars. The text above the calendar grid called it, “The site of the tallest waterfall between the Appalachians and the Rockies.” Hoarfrost coated leafless branches of trees below. On the top left corner, along the bluffline, a bible verse overlaid the picture. “By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. — Job 37:10.” Bernie carefully ripped off the verse and wadded it up.
She pushed the wrapper farther down the bear claw and took a large bite. The empty calories satisfied her hungry stomach, but she hoped the calendar would reveal something much better in store for that night.
Tuesday was the last square crossed out, and she smiled when she saw her own neatly-written text spelling out “Trout Day” inside Wednesday’s square.
Her itinerary was turning out to be rather simple, in number of tasks if not in difficulty. Every day included the usual quest for money and food. She had all that down pat. Her special missions were get a better blanket, refill her water jugs, and enjoy Trout Day.
And avoid Glenda.
She dressed quickly and stepped over to a full-length mirror hanging on the wall. With renewed disbelief Bernie’s deep brown eyes took in her two-dimensional clone. Tangled strands of brunette hair reached her shoulders. Thick, nearly black eyebrows, once meticulously groomed, thinned only slightly as they curved down to meet each other. High cheekbones sat atop shallow cheeks. Dark gray semicircles spread out below her eyes. She knew she was still pretty, but couldn’t imagine anybody finding her attractive.
The one thing that remained constant through good times and bad? The pencil lead dot from seventh grade that still shone through below her left temple. Analise Thompson, who had tried to stab her, was a successful neurosurgeon now.
Bernie wore a cardinal red, long-sleeve t-shirt encouraging, “Go Panthers!” in white across her chest. A recent acquisition from the Cleburne County Cares program, it still appeared brand new. Her jeans, considerably older than that, were almost threadbare in the knees. A few inches too long, they overlapped her Reebok shoes (also from CCC) and rested on the dirt behind her heels, frayed white threads trailing each step.
She flipped over her bedside table and placed four empty milk jugs inside, then set the crate in her only brand new possession — a shiny Red Flyer wagon. She grabbed the black tongue’s handle and walked over to the door. Sliding open the lock, she stopped and drew in a deep breath, held it for few seconds, then noisily exhaled. It hung as fog before disappearing almost instantly.
Her old coat, a black synthetic blend, hung on a nail beside the door. She lifted it, thrusted her right arm into its sleeve, and winced as she worked her left arm into place and fastened the large plastic buttons up the front. The night’s stiffness lingered.
“Oh, almost forgot,” she said. She walked over and picked up the Oatmeal Cream Pie she had set aside after breakfast, then opened her coat and tucked it into the liner pocket.
Back at the door, she took another deep breath. “How close are they now?” she wondered, and pushed the door open. Its rusty spring stretched to allow her to pass, then yanked the door shut behind her.
Bernie’s eyes squinted against the bright sun and took in the small dirt field spread out before her. A bulldozer marked “Got a Lot, Inc.” pushed down one of the few remaining trees about 50 yards away. As it fell, the blackjack oak’s roots pulled up a dry, crumbling cake of beige soil, leaving behind a crater deep enough to hide in standing up.
A new sign stood between her and the bulldozer. It read, “Future site of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.”
“Must have put that in this morning,” Bernie muttered.
She turned back and gave her shack a forlorn look. Steeling herself against crying, she shook off the thought and ambled toward Searcy Street, a two-lane road that on this side of town was lined with low-rent duplexes and nearly forgotten homes. Her wagon bounced dutifully behind her.