The money had run out in December. We had moved out here in September. I had laser aberration surgery for an immunodeficiency-related cervical cancer, which sounds very sci-fi and futuristic, at the Wichita Surgery Center on September eighteenth, the date our lease ended at our duplex in Wichita. We stayed in a hotel that night while I recovered in a daze of hyrdocodone, and the next day we left the hotel and drove west with all of our belongings in a U-Haul on the back of John's truck. Packing all of our belongings while I prepared for surgery was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
In October we had opened the business, and it was small but it was going well. Authors and publishers around Colorado started getting excited about us. I was in remission from both cancer and lupus. We still had plenty of operating capital. And then we got a letter from my insurance company, and they weren't going to pay for laser aberration, and I should have known that hydroxychloroquine and immunosuppressants would give me cancer. In November, I paid my hospital bills. And in December, we ran out of money.
I don't mean we were low on money. We had zero point zero zero dollars in out bank account.
Still, we showed up to work every day, even though no customers did. We might go a week without a single browser, let alone a purchase. On Mondays we went to the food pantry and got as much stale bread as we could carry. We applied for food stamps. We applied for as many jobs as we could. I sold every ounce of silver or gold that I had inherited from dead grandmothers. We burned wood for heat instead of using gas or electricity.
In January we got an eviction notice while waiting for my student loans to be transferred to our bank account. I was taking classes, still, at Wichita State University; they were all online classes and I took them remotely. I was still enrolled under a pre-law scholarship that covered my tuition, but in our dire circumstances, I decided to take out the loan available to me.
We paid rent and avoided eviction by less than forty-eight hours. We paid some more hospital bills. We bought Lyric a used mattress, donated his toddler bed, and bought him a new duvet emblazoned with Batman. We purchased some stock for the bookstore from more well-known independent authors and publishers who could afford to turn down a consignment contract. We did alright in February. We signed a lease addendum to move from the isolated upstairs unit in Old Town Marketplace to the more attractive window-front unit. We found graffiti and mural artists willing to embellish our walls for a book-trade. We opened shop again in a much more visible location. But we didn't make enough money. And we couldn't make March's rent.
The day before we were evicted was the day of Central Elementary's Craft Fair. The school was holding the fair to raise money to benefit their sister school in Uganda, and one of our clients, Jason Gage-- an illustrator, rather than an author-- had purchased a booth for the fair. But he found himself over-committed, having also signed up to play the didgeridoo at a lunch-time performance at the craft fair, and his sister unexpectedly came to visit, so Jason bequeathed his booth to us, and we took him up on the offer.
I set up my booth at my assigned table in a hallway near the principal's office, next to a mother selling a variety of felt-bird mobiles hanging from a hand-welded frame, and across from a teacher and her six-year-old son selling knitted scarves. John and the kids helped me to carry in stock, and then they left to go seek assistance.
I arranged our newsletter sign-up sheets and stickers adorned with our logo and flyers promoting upcoming events, along with dozens of books I had selected to bring for the fair. To be fair, people did buy books; mostly the children's book that Jason Gage had illustrated, as the children recognized the name of their art teacher, but other books as well. I wrote out receipts and entered credit card numbers and reloaded our bank account webpage-- over and over and over again-- waiting for our tax return to show up. The tax refund should have been for over six thousand dollars, due in part to my excessive medical bills the previous year. The tax return should have been deposited into our bank account on February twenty-eighth, but on March sixteenth it still hadn't arrived. We had just gotten the eviction notice the evening before, upon returning from work after nine o'clock that Friday night, and the tax return was our last hope. We knew our rent was late, and the previous week, I had emailed our property manager a copy of our tax return and its expected deposit date, begging for a little more time, begging for no eviction while we waited on our tax return. I got no reply. So I suppose we were expecting the eviction, but we weren't expecting to have less than forty-eight hours' notice. We weren't expecting it to be over the weekend while nobody's office was open.
Still we kept waiting on the tax return, even as the hours disappeared before us and our eviction time crawled closer. But there wasn't much hope that our bank account would be updated on a Saturday. There wasn't much hope that anyone's office would be open on a Saturday; but still, John drove with the kids from county building to non-profit organization to payday loan shop, looking for any way to keep us in our apartment. Everywhere was closed.
At the crowded craft fair, I gave my elevator-speech about carrying books from local, independent authors and never sending our customers' money to the Big Six publishers in New York; I expected the same polite feigned enthusiasm I received from browsers at the bookstore, and I got plenty of it, but I also sold book after book, more than we had ever sold in a single day before. More than we had ever sold in a single week. I watched the stack of receipts stack out, eagerly totaling the sales. We owed a thousand dollars in rent, but even if we paid it, we would still be required to pay three-hundred dollars in court fees to reverse the eviction.
I totaled the sales receipts: Fifty-three ninety. Eighty-seven twenty-one. A hundred and twelve thirty-six. A hundred and fifty-two sixteen.
As the craft fair neared to its close, I gave up hope that we would make it. To have sold more books at one time than we had ever sold before, and yet to still be so far from making rent, was humiliating.
I sat on the stoop outside a side-door of the elementary school, clutching a box of promotional materials and leftover stock, crying for an hour before John picked me up, children in tow. The truck bed was full of liquor-store boxes, meant for our inevitable move; although to his credit, John had bought only a single can of beer.
John took the children and me home, and he unloaded all of the empty boxes for me, filling our back porch and living room. Then he left to go back to work while I was to pack our belongings. He had already packed all of books and DVDs into liquor-store boxes and had taken them to our shop to store in our back room. The empty bookshelves stared down at me.
I didn't know what to do with the children, because it was their nap time but I needed to be able to pack their clothes from their closet, so I put the miniature VHS player in their room, and put on an old movie, and told them that they didn't have to go to sleep but they needed to stay in bed.
While desperately searching the internet for some resource that would allow us to stay in our apartment, I had come across a checklist meant for those packing for 'potential homelessness.' The list was divided into time frames:
What to do if you may become homeless in the next couple months.
What to do if you may become homeless in the next two weeks.
What to do if you may become homeless in the next couple of days.
What to do if you may become homeless in a few hours.
What to do if you recently and unexpectedly became homeless.
I had skimmed the 'next couple days' section, desperate for a resource I hadn't heard of yet. Rent relief, homelessness prevention, family togetherness; all offices were closed for the weekend. But still I had culled some information: Keep all the birth certificates together in one backpack. Keep the toothbrushes here, too. Find a friend who might let you store the possessions you won't be able to carry with you. If you have any favors to call in, or anyone who will lend you money, try to borrow as much as you can because you need it now. Keep it all somewhere safe, like in a bank. Keep about fifty dollars with you somewhere safe, like in your shoe.
I wondered what you were supposed to do if fifty dollars was all you had.
We didn't have any friends or any favors to call in, so I started packing backpacks. I went through our file folders, taking the ones we might need; taxes, birth certificates, immunization records, health insurance. Everyone's tooth brushes went in my backpack, too.
I packed the children's backpacks, which were fairly small. The plan was to pack everything that couldn't fit in the backpacks into trash bags and liquor store boxes, and take them to a storage unit; the only problem was finding a storage unit open on a weekend. Since we didn't know if it would happen, I didn't plan on us being able to pack the extra clothes, and I packed everything of importance into the backpacks; A t-shirt from Sophie's first dance recital, with her name on the back along with the forty other performers. A dinosaur t-shirt I had bought Lyric at a museum. A fair balance of long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts; I didn't know what the remainder of March or April would bring. Every pair of long pants the children owned, which was not many, and a pair or two of shorts. And lots of socks and underwear. Then I started packing everything else into trash bags.
“What are you doing?” Sophie asked, and I pretended I didn't hear her the first time, but it was unavoidable when I returned to their closet with a second trash bag. The kids were watching Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.
“Well, sweetie, we might be moving soon, so I'm packing up our stuff just in case.” I still had hope that we'd somehow, some way, come up with the money before two-thirty the next day.
“I want to stay here,” Sophie whined.
“I know, sweetie, but these apartments aren't very good for us, so we're going to try to find better ones,” I told her. How do you put a positive spin on being homeless for your three-year-old child?
When John came home, I had already packed most of our clothes and was working on the dishes, moving them from cupboard to box in an automated, unstopping motion. I was so scared of running out of time. The children were happy to see John and told him gleefully about getting to watch a movie instead of taking a nap. John tore me from my mechanical, emotionless motions, squeezing my arms against my body in a tight hug, halting my work. I breathed against his warm chest, savoring his scent and hard chest against my face. It's the only place I've ever felt really safe.
Words would be wasted on me, unlike his embrace, so John didn't say anything. He just held me for a few minutes before moving on to the children.
“Alright, guys, I got all these boxes here.” Our living room was strewn haphazardly with dozens of boxes. “I think we should make a castle or something. What do you guys think?”
The children helped John clear out a space in the living room, pushing all the boxes against the walls, and then they built the perimeter. They stacked Svedka and Bud Light and Grey Goose boxes to make walls taller than themselves. I worried that there was something sinister in the irony; how would they remember this frolic if we ever wound up inside of a cardboard box. I supposed that homeless people didn't actually live inside boxes, but then again, I really didn't know.
They built a castle tell enough for Daddy to sit inside with them, and they built a roof from flattened boxes, and turrets and towers to scrape our low ceiling. The children played inside their castle for a long time, and then John brought out a ball.
The kids had never been allowed to play ball in the house; we had a security deposit to worry about. But now we weren't getting it back anyway, and John launched aLyric's child-sized basketball ball at the cardboard castle, knocking out a turret.
The children's mild disappointment quickly dissipated when John handed the ball off to them and they realized that they would be allowed to play, too. I only watched. John devised a catapult from a stretchy exercise band, and all three took turns launching the ball at the castle until it was flattened. Then John and I put the children to bed and our work began.
I helped John carry out our antique Motorola record player, and we loaded it into the truck for John to take to the shop; the record player now functions as our coffee table, as I have mentioned. We loaded a few other things to take the shop that we couldn't carry and didn't want to leave behind, mostly furniture: an office chair, a filing cabinet, an antique or antique-looking bookshelf.
While John was gone I finished packing the things in the kitchen: Dishes, appliances, and the contents of our spice cabinet.
When he returned, I had dumped out an old trunk full of Christmas decorations on our bedroom floor; We had thrown out all of our Christmas decorations when we left Wichita, but had inherited this trunk from the woman next door when she moved. Tacky cotton-ball Santa Claus crafts littered the floor, and I filled the trunk with things I didn't want to leave behind: My collection of antique cameras, some dresses my grandmother had sewn, a Raggedy Ann doll she had made as well. My high school diploma; although I doubted I'd ever need it to prove my graduation, I figured better safe than sorry.
John and I went to sleep, curled up together on our mattress, with an alarm set for early morning.
When we awoke, we took a long shower and made love, uncertain of when the opportunity might again arise. While the children were still sleeping, we packed John's truck with the trunk full of things I couldn't stand to lose and the liquor-store boxes of dishes and the trash-bags of clothing, and John left for the only storage unit that was open on Sundays. I boiled all the eggs in our fridge in one pot we had left out, and gave the children cereal with the end of the milk, and yogurt because it wouldn't keep either. I dug boxes out of closets, like the box of bug spray and sunscreen and water floaties we only used in summer months. Another box with a table-top charcoal grill, half-a-bag of charcoal, and grill tongs and spatulas. All our sleeping bags. Our mildewy tent. The kids' box of dress-up clothing. A box of cleaning supplies. I stacked them up in the living room for when John returned.
I told the kids to each pick out three toys, and I put them in a shoe box. Sophie picked a Batman action-figure, a Rapunzel barbie doll she'd gotten for Christmas, and a Sleeping Beauty of the same type as Rapunzel, but whom she'd gotten from a garage sale instead. Cat Woman went back into the plastic toy dresser after much deliberation. Lyric picked three action figures from a Jurassic Park set that had belonged to John when he was young. I wrapped the plastic toy dresser up with tape, so that the drawers would stay shut. It went into the living room, too, to wait for John.
I filled a box with bubble bath, shampoo, the extra brand-new toothbrushes we kept under the sink to replace the children's tooth brushes just in case they got strep or the flu. I packed extra soap, unopened toothpaste, lotions and body sprays. I filled a trash bag with towels and bedsheets. I folded up the children's blankets, Lyric's Batman duvet and Sophie's pink one with princesses. I stacked them up on the couch with their pillows. John returned from the storage unit with an empty truck bed and a storage-unit key and plenty of complaints about hidden costs and required insurance. I helped him carry out the mattresses, the boxes, the children's toy dresser. I cried a little more and he hugged me and he left. It was noon and I gave the children hard-boiled eggs and whatever cheese we had left, along with the end of the fresh apples.
I started packing the things we would need with us, which would not go to the storage unit, and I placed them on the couch with the all our blankets: The backpacks with our clothing, the birth certificates and toothbrushes. A shopping bag with Rigby's food and water bowls, and the rest of her bag of food. The laptop computer, still open so that I could continue to reload our bank account page, still waiting for the IRS to rescue us.
John still had not returned, and we had an hour and a half before the sheriff was scheduled to come, so I cleaned out our cooler and emptied the contents of our fridge, along with the rest of the boiled eggs. I packed the nonperishable food into shopping bags, along with a can opener. Crackers and peanuts. Fruit snacks.
John still had not returned and I was getting nervous. And then I got angry. The property managers had the nerve to kick us out with so little notice, on a weekend when they knew no resources would be available. They hadn't returned my email. They hadn't faced us to give us the notice. They posted it on our door , while we were at work, when they knew we wouldn't see it until after their doors were shut for the weekend. They had wiped their hands of us. I wanted to make them feel ashamed.
I climbed up on the couch, balancing on top of the folded duvets, and I scrawled a message in Sharpie on the wall:
“3.5 million homeless Americans.
million are children.
Today, my children are 2 more.
It was childish and rude, but then again, so was refusing to look at my face while putting my children out on the street.
John returned, and he looked at my message on the wall, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he loaded the blankets and cooler into the truck. The kids and the dog got in, too. It was just after two o'clock, and the sheriff was scheduled to evict us at two-thirty, and we didn't want to chance meeting him. We didn't want our children to hear the police tell us to leave. We'd rather them think we were leaving willingly.
John came back inside after the kids were in the truck, and he picked up our hall closet door-- which wasn't attached to the frame, and had never been repaired no matter how many times we contacted the maintenance department-- and threw it down to the ground in our narrow hallway. He balanced on it, then bounced up and down until the wood cracked. We weren't getting our security deposit back anyway.
We left the front door unlocked and pulled out of the apartment parking lot, then stopped on the side of the road in a little slice of suburbia that was no longer ours while we deliberated where to go next. We decided on a motel in town where we knew a lot of homeless people lived. It had thirty or so units in a U-shape, with an RV park in the middle, and the office at the top of the U, which faced Main Street. It had been in business for eighty years and we assumed that at one time, it a camping spot and motel on the outskirts of town, but now it was surrounded by gas stations and urban squalor. We knew homeless people lived there because a few months before, a Longmont police officer was honored for redirecting a homeless man and his middle-school daughter to that RV park instead of ticketing them for parking illegally at the fair grounds.
We inquired about vacancies at the motel, but they were full and cost two hundred dollars a week anyway. We weren't quite sure what to do next so we went to a park so the children could play awhile. I wore a big brown baja hoodie that enveloped me like a shell and came to my knees, but I started to get chilly as the sun set. I had also been too nervous to eat lunch, so I was getting hungry as well.
“You've been homeless for two hours and you're already cold and hungry,” John remarked. “This does not bode well.”
We ate hard-boiled eggs in the truck, rolling them on the outside of the door through the open window to break the shell. Rigby ate hard-boiled eggs too.
It was getting dark, so we headed to our shop. No other shops in our building were open on Sundays, so we had the empty building to ourselves. The lights in the window-front shops, including ours, stayed on all night unless you turned off the breaker, so we thought it best to leave them on. This meant that anyone on Main Street could see into our shop, and the back room was full of our belongings and was only about fifteen square feet anyway, so I turned the couch and set up our chalkboard and other furniture to block one corner in the back of the room from the view of late-night pedestrians that might pass by on the Main Street sidewalk. We spread out the children's blankets in that corner, and we slept there, side-by-side on the hard ground.
In the morning we ate breakfast at the homeless shelter and went to one of the many offices that had been closed over the weekend. They helped us to apply for lottery-based housing assistance, and we turned in all of our verification forms after a hectic day of photocopying, but then the county office was notified that due to the American Budget Sequester took that took effect on March 1st would eliminate certain county funds, and lottery-based housing assistance was indefinitely postponed. We spent our days trying to find food and fresh water and a shower while we ran our shop, unaware until mid-April that our names would never be drawn because the lottery would never take place.