Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Betsy, Homeless

Betsy was cheerful. Every time I drove by her in Chinle, Arizona, just outside of Canyon de Chelly, she waved and smiled and bobbed her matted blond hair at me. Every day I drove by her it was cold and windy and uninviting, and not very conducive to sitting down and talking; the campground where she was living was half closed, nearly deserted, its most regular visitors Navajo women living off the grid down in the canyon, who came in pick-up trucks loaded with empty plastic buckets and drums they dragged off and filled with fresh water from the camp spigot. Betsy was living off the grid, too, in a truck with a camper shell, its windows covered in foil. The camp had a five-day parking limit, but when I slipped out of our warm Safari and sat down at a picnic table to talk to her, one windy afternoon, she had already been there a week, she told me, and planned to stay at least two more.

Betsy has so many layers of clothing bulging under her light blue parka she looked Arctic, but she wanted to know if I thought she'd gotten a tan yet.

"Say yes, honey," she nudged me, winking, "and make me feel good."

I told her she had a nice burn on her face (I could also see a little of her dark neck, wrinkled and hung with a heavy necklace of cut black glass or stone).

She had a big book open on the table in front of her--the same one I'd seen her reading each day. It was a trilogy of Sandra Brown thrillers with a red mark-down tag on the front. I told Betsy about my interest in books, and what I did for a living, and her story began to shift as we spoke. At first she'd told me she'd lost her job in Colorado Springs, where she'd "worked security for Intel, on the Air Force base." Now, she told me proudly, she was a librarian.

She nodded and watched me closely. "I'm all about the reading, honey, don't you worry," she said. "I tell everyone I know they should read." She looked over at our vehicles. "Oh, I have a motorhome, too, you know!" She mimicked driving a large, angled steering wheel. "And a little sports car, too. But they're buried in the snow right now."

If she was from Colorado, that was certainly possible. I asked her what she was doing so far from home.

"I went to visit my niece in Arizona. But she's moving away. To Georgia. So now," she looked at me again, "I'm on my way to a new job. I'm going to work for a professor, just like what you were. I'm going to be his assistant. Up in Idaho. I don't want to live in the cold anymore."

I thought maybe I'd misunderstood. Idaho can be fairly cold. "That's wonderful. Which university?"

"I don't know. I just have an address. In Boise. They're going to put me in a dorm room until I get settled, see. I don't have to be there for another month, though. I'll have to get all my books shipped, of course. In my motorhome, I've got shelves and shelves and shelves and shelves of books. Maybe a thousand. I have to have my books with me. Always."

"Here in your truck, too?"

"Oh, you bet. I have everything I need. A bed and a tv and everything. Except," she said quickly, as though she thought I might ask to see, "I can't go back there right now, because my niece gave me a bunch of stuff. So I sleep stretched out on the front seat."

"Are you warm enough at night?" The night before it had fallen into the twenties.

"You know those special sleeping bags the rescue teams use up at Vail to get the messed-up skiers out? I got one of those. Hang on, I want to get your name so I can get one of your books." She stood from the picnic table and went to the front seat of her truck. "After I'm done with this one here, I'm going to take it back to the library and recycle it. I recycle all my books back to the library, you know. I'll recycle yours, too. Oh, wait, I don't have a pen!"

"If you want I could write it down for you."

"Okay. You can trust me with your name. But be careful, though. Have you been getting a lot of trouble from the Arizona police? They're everywhere, have you noticed? One border patrol guy stopped me for no reason and just kept asking me all these questions and questions and more questions about what I was doing, and I told him all I was doing was looking for a tomato. So when he was done asking all his stuff, I said, Well okay, now I've answered everything for you, what you got to do is answer me one question: where can I get that tomato? I mean," she laughed, "I'm down here in Arizona from Colorado, this time of year, and all I want to know is where can I find a big red juicy tomato. Someone told me they had them at a church somewhere. So that's all I want to know. Where is it? Where is that Church Of The Big Red Juicy Tomato?" she insisted, her eyes sliding away from me, losing me, but still smiling, distantly.

"I don't know," I admitted, as the wind whipped through the naked cottonwoods all around us.


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