The woman who vanished

Sometimes you’re powerless.

The story began on May 15, 2022.

That Sunday, as I had done for a couple days also before and after, I stayed late in the evening at Dunkin’ Donuts to use the wi-fi, because the wi-fi at the shelter was unreliable.

So I went to Dunkin’ Donuts after supper, stopping first to buy smokes at the convenience store.  Outside, as I was opening the pack, here was this woman I’d never seen before, and she asked if she could have one.  I gave it to her.  She was young, maybe 5’5” tall, “thick,” pretty enough, black as coal.  She was not carrying anything, so I could not tell if she were on the street or homeless or whatever.  Her face was expressionless.

It is always expressionless.

She came into Dunkin’ Donuts some time after I did, and given my breaks and whatnot, would ask me for two more cigarettes before the store closed.  That’s three cigarettes in 90 minutes, she asked and I gave her.

Turned out she was housed at the shelter; over the next couple days, I would see her sitting on the guard rail that borders the parking lot north of the shelter, and every time she saw me, she would call out asking me for a smoke.  If I was twenty feet away, she would call out.  And every time, I gave her one.  But it did begin to irritate me.

For context, in mid-May 2022, I was having extreme trouble with “takers,” people coming to me asking me for things I could not afford to give; in most cases, cigarettes.  Dunkin’ Donuts is about 200 yards from the shelter; I go there five times a day; each time I’d go there, as many as four different people would each ask me for a smoke.  I can’t afford that.  I’m smoking the American Spirits in the dark green pack, the costliest smokes on the market, that cost $12.65 per pack.  On my own, I would smoke one pack per day.  If I gave to all the “takers,” I’d have to buy two packs per day.  It had been years since I’d last dealt with so many “takers.”

There was no other conversation.  I never observed her speaking with anyone.

Wednesday night or Thursday night, I guess it was — I would typically take a late smoke break, at 21:00, after dark; smoke two, then come back in and put in one more session on the laptop before bed.  Curfew was at 22:00.  So, this night, I’m sitting at my usual spot on the guardrail, about fifty yards north of the shelter’s front door; and she walks up and asks for a smoke, and I give her one; and then she starts becoming irritable.  She started picking with me.

Now, as recently mentioned elsewhere, “The machinery of my mind does not operate in accordance with such expressions, so in this or any other instance it’s almost impossible for me to recall such speech.”  I do recall her asking angrily, “Why do you always sit beside this tree?”  It’s where I always sit.  But that’s a basis for her anger?  Something inside me said to not answer, not say a word, albeit she continued in the same vein for several minutes.

And I did not say a word to her for the next several days.  I would not acknowledge her; would not look toward her; would not answer when she called; and certainly would not give her a cigarette.  After a while, she got the message.

Saturday, during the day, as I came and went, several times I saw her sitting in the vestibule, as if she could not immediately come in.  On one occasion, it appeared she needed to finish drinking a couple bottles of water she’d brought.  We’re allowed to bring in bottles of water, but only unopened; an opened bottle may mean someone poured out the water and replaced it with gin or vodka, etc.

Sunday the 22nd, during the day, I saw her sitting, now here, now there, with this big, clear plastic trash bag half full of stuff.  The significance of that bag did not register on me at first.

That night, going out for my 21:00 break, I found her standing in the front doorway, talking with Tischa, the big boss.  She wanted to come in out of the hard, cold rain.  Tischa would not let her.

TISCHA: “You’re suspended. [Meaning: barred out.]  You’re not allowed on the property.”
HER:  “Why?”
TISCHA:  “You attacked somebody.”

The trash bag held all this woman’s worldly possessions.

I squeezed past them and went out to my normal spot to smoke.  After some time, the woman came, with her bag, and sat down near me.  She asked me for a cigarette.  Under the circumstances, I gave her one.

Minutes later, she asked me for another.  “That one broke.”  I gave it to her.

Long silence.  I thought and thought about anything I could do for her.  There was nothing.

She said, “What do I do now?”

I answered, “I don’t know.”[1]  It was now past 9:00 p.m. on a Sunday night, and I could not think of any shelter that would take her in.  She had been there all day in that status, and had done nothing to assure that she would sleep indoors that night.

Long silence.

She asked me to go get her a bottle of water from the shelter kitchen.  I said no.  I did not say this, but I was not going to walk fifty yards south to the shelter door, in that cold rain, to get her that bottle, and then walk fifty yards back, in that cold rain, to give it to her.  That was not going to happen.  After a little more back-and-forth, I told her she could go get it herself.  A few minutes later, she picked up her bag and walked south.  She never came back.

When I finished my last smoke and walked south myself, I found her sitting outside the back door, on the north side of the building, where there is an awning; she was there with her bag and a bottle of water.  As I passed, she called to me asking for one last smoke “before you go in.”  I gave her one.[2]

I never saw her again.


[1]  It occurred to me later that she could go to the emergency room either at Mercy Hospital, half a mile west, or Johns Hopkins Hospital, about a mile and a half east; and tell them she was suicidal.  If that were a lie, it would still assure she’d sleep indoors that night and get the psychiatric help she so clearly needs.

[2]  Halfway between there and the door, a particular man met me and asked for a smoke, also.  Now, I’d taken a shine to this individual, and had decided some time before that whenever he’d ask for a smoke, I’d give him one, regardless; he only asks once a week or so.  But giving two people smokes in less than two minutes informed my decision Tuesday, May 24th, to no longer give anyone smokes at all, under any circumstances.


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