By Jim Naremore Files. Or, more directly, filing cabinets.
Green, brown and different shades of grey. Battered, scratched, dented, their hardware tarnished. Some Kafkaesque bureaucratic dystopian fantasy: brown veneer second-hand conference table, a set of mismatched office chairs, several banks of fluorescent tube lights, and a wall of filing cabinets. An entire wall of them. Eight drawers high and twenty drawers long. A metal patchwork quilt, floor to ceiling.
“Jesus.” Simon said, half laughing, and half in wonder.
“Yeah.” said Eve, the staff member who’d led him to the file room. “That’s usually the reaction.”
“You guys don’t have this stuff in the IMS? Scanned? Anything?”
Eve laughed. Simon was in The Lighthouse Project’s warren of offices, the largest and oldest homelessness agency in the city, so Simon’s question had been stupid, and he knew it the moment it left his mouth. Not even the hospital programs, which, in comparison to Lighthouse, were swimming in funding, had the staff time or operating dollars to do something so bureaucratic as convert old files into digital. That kind of thing was a ‘C’ list priority, and no homelessness agency anywhere got through all the ‘A’ lists… Ever.
Simon was there to do a compliance audit. Just another part of the Regulations. He was the pain-in-the-ass that came with the never-enough City, State, and Federal funding that mostly served to buy off just enough social guilt. His job, and the regulations themselves, page after page of mind-numbing rules, were designed to protect the taxpayer, rather than the service providers. Let alone help the “consumer,” the term used for the homeless people who “consumed” the services. That term said a lot about attitudes. A lot of Public Sector jargon was like that. Simon made a note to try and carve out some collective overhead funding to help every agency deal with their files. Fat chance.
“Everything from about eight years ago to now is digital. You can pull it up on IMS, or I can get you printouts. Everything older than that is right here.” said Eve.
Simon stood and stared. Normally he’d do a random pull of ten percent of the files. But normally he was looking at two or three hundred files, max. Often way less than that. Here he was looking at…?
“How many are here?”
“5200, give or take. Another 1400 digital.”
“There’s got to be duplicates here.”
“Oh, sure. There’s plenty of duplicates. Probably triplicates and quadruplicates and quintuplicates, too. If you find some, let me know. That’d be a big help.” said Eve with a smile.
Simon wrote twenty random numbers on a piece of paper and handed it to Eve. “Give me these off the IMS. I’ll start in here pulling files.”
He stared again at the great wall of despair in front of him. He decided to pull thirty files. If he found a problem, he’d pull another thirty, but he wasn’t expecting to have to. This was his first visit, but Lighthouse’s reputation was good. This place didn’t have that familiar clusterfuck feel. If the first thirty were tight, he would be fine signing off on the lot.
Simon began filling out his checklists: proper documentation, completeness, outcomes, referrals, etc., etc. Eve came in with a stack of printouts and asked if he wanted any coffee, or needed anything else. Even with just a thumbnail pull, Simon was going to be here a while.
It was the second-to-last one.
Simon had known by the fifth file that everything was fine here. The folders were consistent and organized. No problems at all. But, he had to finish the lot, just for appearances sake, if nothing else. He took the second-to-last file, laid it out on the table, and looked at the name on the tab.
He opened the folder to verify the name on the outside matched the documentation and forms on the inside. It did. He lifted the intake form like it was made of fog. The second-to-last file was Delila Righetti. How many Delila Righettis are there in the world? There was a photocopy of a driver’s license (a rarity). He looked at it. This Delila Righetti was someone he knew. Or had known, seventeen years ago.* * * Simon Layton was a senior at Carleton High School in Carleton, Indiana, the year Ms. Hillman, the young and forward thinking new English teacher, convinced the calcified old snakes and toads at the school to let her start an honors accelerated English class. So, Simon, and eight classmates, had English last period with Ms. Hillman. The best class he ever had in high school, easily.
Honors accelerated English wasn’t called that. It was just ‘English, Seventh Period.’ And, neither was ‘English, Sixth Period’ named. But the honors students all knew it was ‘Dumbass Slow English’ (or worse names they had for it). All they had to do was look at who was in it to figure it out. This was quid pro quo for Ms. Hillman. She got the best students last period; the class before, she got the worst.
For extra credit, Ms. Hillman had her honors students help grade objective tests from her other classes: multiple choice, true/false, that sort of thing. For whatever reason, Simon always drew the tests from Dumbass English. The scores all sucked, even with dumbed-down tests. The mistakes were pathetic; however, being a teenager, pity wasn’t generally part of Simon’s repertoire. Instead, he and the other honors kids used the arrogantly assumed stupidity of their classmates to prop up their own fragile self-esteem.
The honors kids created the weekly “Dumb As Fuck” award for the worst mistake, and had endless laughing conversations at lunch over what a bag of doorknobs the entire Dumbass English class had to be (all this out of the earshot of Ms. Hillman, of course).
Simon delighted in reading the essays on the Dumbass English papers, even though he didn’t grade those. Everything about those essays was pure comedy. The fractured syntax, the fumbling, dead-end thought processes, the kindergarten semantics, the brutal spelling. Some of them were so glorious, he thought about turning them into the school newspaper. He took to doing dramatic readings of them aloud.
Had he, or any of the honors kids, been pinned down, they’d have admitted that some of the kids in Dumbass English were probably dealing with issues of one kind or another. And a fair few of them were really trying to do the best they could. But the savagery of seventeen was what it was, and sacrificing the second-hand blood and pride of the kids in ‘Dumbass’ made for stronger walls around the honors English tribe in the Byzantine personal murder of high school.
One rainy Thursday, Simon got a test to grade. Predictably hopeless. Sixty-eight percent on the objective section. He settled back to revel in the essay, the topic of which was, “Beauty in your world.” The last one he’d read was a classic, revolving around a car and watching football games. The essay in front of him now, however, was something different. Delila Righetti found beauty in her world alone in her room.
Out in the world, like at school, everything moved so fast and crazy that it all just blurred together, and stuff didn’t make sense, and all the colors blended to grey. But alone in her room, she could get things to go quiet, and slow down, and the colors came out, and she understood things better, and that was beautiful. At least for a little while.
Simon knew who Delila was, at least by name and sight. She was the sort-of-pretty girl that some of the guys that didn’t get any dates thought had great tits, and that nobody talked to. Short, punky, brown hair, always smiling, and, Simon realized, he didn’t think he’d ever heard her voice. She wasn’t the official school ‘Weird Girl.’ That honor fell to Lisa Hunter, who’d been the ‘Weird Girl’ since first grade, because she was fat, and smelled bad, and mumbled to herself, and didn’t do lunch or gym with everyone else. But without Lisa, Delila might be a good choice for that important school job. Always had to have a ‘Weird Girl,’ after all.
Simon also knew the rumors about Delila. Rumors, no doubt, started by other girls, for no other reason than it was fun, and the more fingers pointing at someone else meant the less fingers pointing at you. ‘Delila did drugs.’ Simon supposed doing drugs was a huge deal to some kids. Everyone Simon hung out with did a little drugs, but whatever, ‘Delila did drugs.’ And, Delila had been at a party last spring, and had given blowjobs to most of the baseball team. The more salacious the rumor, the more it was believed. If the rumor had been Delila had kissed Fat Tommy Hazel, no one would believe it (Fat Tommy’s mom probably didn’t kiss him), but say something like she did a three-way with the principal and the lesbian gym teacher in the chemistry room last week, and everyone would just know that was true. Simon had laughed when he’d first heard the baseball blowjob story, and asked Louis, who was on the baseball team. All Louis said was, she didn’t blow him.
But that part about things slowing down, and going quiet, and getting less crazy, that was something Simon could relate to. He remembered that. And the slow, quiet, little descriptions of the things in her room stuck to the inside of his head like melting candy.
She had a lamp on the table beside her bed that looked like a sad giraffe in the dark. There were fourteen different colors on her closet door that were all brown, and it was beautiful that brown could be fourteen different things, if it wanted to be. She wished she could be fourteen different things, sometimes. And the quilt on her bed was the most beautiful thing of all, because her grandmother had made it for her, and that’s what made it a real thing, and not a fake thing, like the rest of the things she saw all the time, and real was beautiful. Sometimes Delila didn’t feel real.* * * Simon took Delila’s file down the hall to Tabitha’s office. She was the director of case management at Lighthouse, and she’d been there damn near forever. Simon met her at one of the endless, pointless, homelessness strategy meetings, that gathered all the major players in homelessness services in the city together, to sit around a table and privately wonder why no one in the room besides themselves could find their ass with both hands, while listening to yet another continuum of care power point presentation.
Tabitha was actually one of the small cadre of people in those meetings that Simon knew could not only find their asses, but could actually make a difference, if everyone else, including the funders he worked for, got out of the way and let them do it. Tabitha had signed Delila’s case file.
“Yeah, I remember her. Why?” Tabitha squinted over the tops of her glasses with some defensiveness, assuming Simon had found a bad file with her signature on it.
“I’m just doing a random projection. Seeing how the files work in real life for a case manager.” Simon lied.
“Oh.” Tabitha didn’t really get it, but Simon was with the money, so he was allowed to be mysterious, or an idiot, if he wanted. “Well, yeah. The Street Outreach team found her downtown about three years ago. They convinced her to go in to the Women’s Day Center, and I got involved through them. She got caught pretty bad in the rinse cycle.”
“The ‘rinse cycle’ is what we call it. Pretty much everybody we find on the street has co-occurring issues. Almost always it’s mental health problems and substance abuse issues. So, you bundle them off to one of the real good mental health service providers, and they get as far as the fourth line on the intake, where it asks about substance abuse, and they tell the client they can’t take them until they get the substance abuse under control. So, off she goes to Safe Harbor, to get some drug and alcohol treatment, and as soon as they find out she’s got mental health issues, they say they won’t provide her services until she gets the mental health stuff dealt with. ‘The rinse cycle.’
“She bounces back and forth between service providers telling her ‘no,’ until she loses interest, and she goes back out on the street. We try to do what we can, but it’s tough. She came in to see me irregularly, then she hooked up with a guy named Roger, and they got into an apartment on the east side. That was a bad, bad scene. She was sure Roger loved her, but he was just a drug dealer doing what drug dealers do. The police think Roger was pimping her for a while, then something happened, and he beat her up pretty bad.
“The irony is, the domestic abuse, as terrible as it was, got her about as close to a real chance as she probably ever got. Sylvia’s House, the DV center, took her in. I wish she’d stayed there. But right after she healed up, she disappeared.”
Simon looked at the folder on the desk. “Any idea where she went?”
Tabitha leafed through the file again. “We’ve got some Street Outreach notes from June saying they encountered her at the camp under the Marker St. Bridge at the CTS railway yards. That’s all.”
“Thanks.” said Simon, and he went back to the file room to gather his things.* * * At some point, Ms. Hillman caught wind of the “Dumb As Fuck” award. After expressing her disappointment, and unleashing some pretty nuanced guilt, which sort of worked, she informed the honors English class that they were not grading tests anymore. Beyond the vague feelings of shame around the edges of his defenses, Simon felt something else on his way home from school as he passed Delila’s house. Familiarity. The more he thought about her essay, the more familiar she felt to him. All through high school, Simon lived in a modest house at one end of the Maple Heights neighborhood in Carleton. He knew Delila lived in one of the huge brick bastions at the other end of the same neighborhood, on First Street, where all the big houses and big trees and big cars were. Delila shouldn’t really have been unknown to him when he thought about it. He’d been going to the same school with her since he moved into town in second grade. He probably passed her house twenty times a week, going to other kid’s houses. He even knew both her brothers to some extent.
Damien, her younger brother, was an immature freshman class clown, with one of those rubber bodies that was always in motion. He was obnoxious, but, if you gave him half a chance, you could see his heart was mostly in a good place.
Donel, her older brother, was another matter. Donel existed on the periphery of things. You heard more about him than you ever saw of him, and his scarcity made him feel darkly mythical. Two years graduated when Simon and Delila were seniors, Donel was now in the Navy, supposedly. He had been a friend of a friend of a friend, and Simon had been around him a couple of times. He’d gotten a memorable ride home from a party with Donel once. The party had been in the country, and Donel had managed to get his car up to a hundred and five on the back roads on the way home. At one point the car left the ground going over one of the rolling hills. Simon had been terrified. Donel laughed and carried on a nonchalant conversation with another nervous kid in the front seat with him. Simon stayed away from Donel the few times he did encounter him after the car ride. There was a dangerous crazy about him.
But, while Donel had been somehow apocryphal, Delila didn’t seem to really exist at all. Delila was always there, but she was like a ghost: the longer she was around, the easier it became to see through her. She felt more like a placeholder than a real person.
She sat in the back of the class and never talked. She had a couple of friends, maybe, back in elementary school, but neither of those two girls was still around, and the memory of them was strange and felt made-up. Simon was sitting in the school library, not doing much more than staring out the window, when he felt a presence over his shoulder. He turned to find Delila Righetti standing behind him. She was looking at him like she was viewing the world through the misty window of a moving train. Removed, and amused. He looked up at her from his chair, and a pause longer than most people are comfortable with passed. But Simon didn’t know what to say, so he sort of held on, not knowing what else to do.
“Ms. Hillman said I should talk to you about my essay.” Her voice was uncomfortable, like she didn’t know how to use it correctly, and Simon now was sure he’d never heard it before.
“What about it?” That came out rougher than Simon had intended.
“She says it was good. She wants me to write it again, and make it better. She says you liked it, and you’re the best writer in the class, and you should help me.”
They looked at each other again. Delila was giving off strange in colors. Waves of it.
“Is she talking about the “Beautiful Things” essay? I did like it. I saw it when I was grading one of your tests.”
“Yeah, Rhonda said you were grading my tests. She says I ought to fuck you, and see if I can get an A in the class for it.” Delila gave an odd little toss-off laugh.
Simon gave a very uncomfortable laugh himself. He didn’t know anyone named Rhonda, and he had no idea if Delila was serious, or kidding, or being mean, or being weirdly friendly. She was completely unreadable. She smiled a little bigger, and handed Simon a copy of her essay.
“Ms. Hillman says I should give this to you, and let you read it again, and you’ll tell me how I can make it better. You can bring it to my house on Saturday. I know you know where I live. I’ve seen you talking to my brother on the street a billion times. Ms. Hillman says you wrote one too. You should bring yours so I can see it. It’s fair.”
Simon took the paper. That Saturday found Simon on the front walk leading up to Delila’s house. The big brick Tudor was shadowed by a set of overgrown yews, which kept the front of house feeling wet. The white paint on the windowsills and doorframe was pealing. Moss grew in the cracks in the mortar. The front door was open, and before Simon could reach it, Damien came bursting out, followed by three of the younger kids from the neighborhood, everyone of them the youngest sibling of a family Simon knew from their older brothers or sisters, and each of them deemed reckless or incorrigible: ‘such-a-nice-family-it’s-a-shame-about-THAT-one’ kind of kids. Damien came to a hopping halt.
“Hey, man. We’re going back out to the woods to party. You wanna come?”
“No. I came to see your sister.” said Simon, feeling out of place. “She here?”
A slightly confused, twitchy smile crossed Damien’s face. “I think so. Not sure.” and he and his small pack of early-teen hyenas dashed off down the block. Simon turned and found Delila standing in the shade of the foyer. She watched Simon open the screen door and come tentatively over the threshold. Without saying anything, she turned and led him to the front stairs, and up. At the top, she turned again, and checked his progress behind her with a strange sort of loose-set smile. She took him to a closed bedroom door, opened it, ushered him in, and closed the door behind them.
Delila’s room was full of twilight. Three layers of gauze curtains were drawn over her windows. Silk scarves were draped over the lamps, one, by the bed, Delila switched on, sad giraffe, and she folded cross-legged onto her bed. Simon stayed standing while Delila grinned up at him, until uneasiness found a desk chair for him, and he sat across the room from her. She sat there on her bed like a dissonance, a minor second. There was a strange featurelessness to her room. Maybe it was just because she, herself, was such a feature, an odd angle sitting there on the bed, or maybe it was something intrinsic to the space, Simon couldn’t tell.
Her room wasn’t messy, just lived-in. Clothes and magazines were scattered about. Simon’s eyes found a bra and some of her underwear sprawled languidly in front of her closet. Being a teenage boy with no sisters, who had never had a real girl friend, the sight of Delila’s underpinnings casually on display like that was powerfully voyeuristic and erotic to him. Mysterious and wholly female. She watched him looking.
“Except for my dad and my brothers, you’re the first boy ever in here.” She looked at him like someone looks at a jack-in-the-box as the handle is slowly cranked. Simon felt on display.
“I brought your essay,” he said.
Now she looked at him like there was an inside joke he’d just stepped into. “You bring yours?” she asked.
It was his turn to look at her, but he couldn’t for long. She studied him deeply, like he was a lifeless thing: a model, or a photograph. Or a dead bug. It didn’t cost her anything. He couldn’t look at her except in oblique glimpses and flashbulb glances. He handed her a copy of his essay, and hers, with some red ink on it.
“I read yours again. I think it’s better than mine.”
Delila took both sets of papers and didn’t look at them. Just sat them next to her on the bed.
“I don’t know. I mean, I moved a couple of words around. Suggested you rearrange a couple of things. Mine’s some crap about the difference between what I’m told is beauty and what I really feel is beauty. It’s five pages of not answering the question. Yours is just about your room. But yours is honest.” He paused and looked at his hands to keep from looking at her, or her underwear.
“And I really get what you mean about things slowing down.”
“You do?” she asked it like a real — not-weird — person.
“Yeah. And the getting less crazy stuff. I get that, too.” He ventured a look at her. She just grinned and shifted.
“Anyway, next time I try and write something, I’m going to try for honest. Like yours.”
“So, you think it was good, huh?”
“Yeah, like I said. You can look at what I marked. There is one thing…”
“I don’t know. I didn’t say anything about it when I wrote on your paper. It feels like there’s something missing. Something that ought to be there, but it’s not.”
She let out a strange little sound, and her smile sharpened into an arrowhead.
“I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s not. Like I said, it’s better than I can do…”
“Play a game with me?” she interrupted.
“Play a game with me. Close your eyes.”
“Don’t worry. It’s nothing weird. Nothing bad is going to happen. Close your eyes.”
Simon didn’t know why, but he watched Delila’s smile bloom as he closed his eyes.
“Tell me what you hear and smell.” She said very quietly.
Simon sat still and listened and breathed.
“I hear the house breathing. I smell… Lemons… And fabric softener… And…” Simon caught the warm powdery mix of musk and clean smells of a woman. It was like he was standing on the dry land of himself smelling the tide pools before the ocean of her.
“And I smell you.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. She was still sitting cross-legged on the bed, bearing down on him with that smile.
“Now close your eyes again, and take a deep breath, and tell me what you feel.” she said quietly.
Simon closed his eyes and sat for a moment. “I feel weird.” he said, opening his eyes.
“Because I’m sitting in a strange room that smells like lemons and fabric softener playing a weird game.”
She smiled even more broadly. “Try again.”
Simon tried again. “I still feel weird.”
“Why this time?” she asked.
“Because you’re a little weird, Delila. And you’re staring at me like that.”
She kept smiling, and she put her finger between her teeth and bit it absent-mindedly, like a pencil. “Try again.” She said through her finger.
Again, Simon closed his eyes. He tried to just sink into everything. At first there was nothing. Too much weird. Then he felt it. Or rather, he didn’t. He opened his eyes and looked straight at her.
“Something’s missing.” he said.
She glowed at him. “You feel it, too.” she said. “What is it? What’s missing?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t either. But it’s never there.”
Simon suddenly found he could look directly at her. Just sitting there on her bed, looking uncomfortable and a little frightened in her own skin. He didn’t know what to do, and the discomfort overwhelmed him.
“I should go.” he said, getting up.
Delila got up too and handed him her essay back. “Read it again. See if you can figure out what’s missing. And let me know when you do. I want to know. Please?” she stood at the top of the stairs and watched him leave.* * * Simon parked his car in a wet gravel turnoff by the gates of the CTS rail yard. It was late afternoon, the first Saturday after he had done his file review at Lighthouse. It was dead quiet. Rusted and graffitied train cars stood on sidings, and the wind blew. Simon walked out into the middle of Marker Street, and started towards the bridges. This end of Marker was unused by any traffic now, except police cars, or ambulances, running in and out of the camp. Simon saw the collection of tents and bikes and shopping carts tucked away at the edge of the huge set of bridges that formed a man-made cave, one of the biggest homeless camps in the city.
He didn’t see any activity as he approached, but when he got about ten feet from the camp entrance, a big man with gray dreadlocks materialized out of the shadows. Simon recognized the man immediately, but he didn’t expect the man would recognize him.
“You want something?” the big man asked.
“Your name is Myles, right?” asked Simon. “I’ve been out with Outreach a few times. I saw you at the last Connect event, in the fall.”
“Yeah.” said Myles, with some suspicion. “What you want?”
“I’m looking for somebody.”
“Everybody’s looking for somebody.” said Myles dryly. “Who you looking for?”
“Woman named Delila. About my age.”
“Why you looking for her?”
“I know her from when we were kids. I want to talk to her.”
Myles scowled at him.
“She here?” asked Simon, finally.
“She was here. She took off with some guy when it started getting cold. Young guy. Think they went south, like the birds.” said Myles matter-of-factly.
Simon stood at the camp entrance and looked past Myles. Finally he turned around and walked back towards his car. He felt like something was missing.* * * Simon kept Delila’s essay in his locker for the rest of the school year. He read it over again fairly frequently at first, then less and less so as time went by. He kept wanting to ask her about it, but they didn’t take the same classes, and didn’t move in the same circles. As far as Simon knew, Delila didn’t even have a circle. He tried finding her after school, hanging out smoking in the parking lot, or, at lunch. He thought he saw her a few times across the cafeteria, but maybe not. He thought once or twice about just going to her house, but he never did.
One time, right before the end of the year, as the reality of their inevitable lives opened mysteriously before them at the close of high school, Simon did see Delila. He was walking down the third floor corridor after talking to one of his teachers after school. Most of the other students had cleared out already, and his footsteps echoed louder than the distant sound of voices, like the seashore. And there was Delila, standing at the end of the corridor. She looked at him, knowing and lost and frightened. And he watched her slowly walk away.
He never saw her again.
Jim Naremore is part of the wave of new and emerging authors and poets in Indianapolis. His first novel, “The Arts Of Legerdemain As Taught By Ghosts”, is now available on Belle Lutte Press. Most recently, Jim has had (or will have) short fiction published in Halfway Down the Stairs, Emrys Journal, The Offbeat, and November Bees. Ever since its unveiling in downtown Indianapolis, Jim has had the slightly disconcerting feeling a 30-foot Kurt Vonnegut mural has been watching him. And possibly smirking. But that’s probably his imagination. The smirking, he means.