In the balmy summer between middle school and high school, at midnight on Independence Day, my mom and I began our journey west in her old, beloved, red Buick regal. Even though she adored that car, she hated driving in traffic, so we set out with only the stars for company.
We had an Uncle Bob who lived north of us in Bloomington, Indiana. He’d always asked us to move in and Mom always said no. As a kid, I wanted to move because there was a nice basement apartment with its own entrance and a really nice yard; it helped that Uncle Bob had always been a pretty great guy. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to. Once I became an adult, she told me my grandpa, Uncle Bob’s baby brother, didn’t trust him alone with Mom and her two sisters. Grandpa was afraid he would try something because he said Uncle Bob was such a pervert and a womanizer. No one knows if he knew something about Uncle Bob or if he was just protecting his daughter, but Grandpa had been adamant that we not move to Bloomington. By the time we set out that summer, Mom felt it was okay because he’d moved to New Mexico to be near his girlfriend’s family, and Grandpa wasn’t around to say no. She said the move to New Mexico would be good for us. She thought she could get a better job to support us, and that I could go to a new school where I wouldn’t be bullied anymore. We’d also been told it would be cheaper if I decided to go to college in California, which is what I wanted at the time.
I navigated us to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where our small town bones were dying for a stretch. We’d just gotten a kitten, and we’d brought him with us. He still didn’t have a name.
At a truck stop, we saw some buffalo. For us, this constituted an exotic animal. The two of us talked to an old rancher while I held our kitten. I was a distracted kid, though, and he hopped out of my arms and headed straight for the buffalo pen.
“You’ll never see your cat again,” the white-haired rancher said around his toothpick.
I cried after Mom chastised me for my irresponsibility, but to our surprise, the little gray kitten ran right back to my arms. He wasn’t hurt by the bigger animals and, now, he had a name – Buffalo.
The next afternoon we arrived in New Mexico, ready for a new start. Uncle Bob was his usual jolly self; he was a little balder where his white hair thinned, and his belly was bigger, but he still wore his white wife beater muscle shirt. He was joking and laughing; it was a happy reunion.
His girlfriend Ellen had the same gray hair, stiff on the top of her head, and wore a perpetual grimace on her face. She showed us around the city that would now be our home.
Hobbs was a beautiful and bustling—everything Vincennes wasn’t. The biggest differences were the stoplights. We were used to vertical hanging stoplights and in Hobbs they hung horizontally. All the pawn shops were high-end compared to the Piggy-Banc back home.
Of course, Ellen took us to every small town’s mecca: Wal-Mart. It was much bigger and more intimidating than our tiny one. I remember Mom buying me the Backstreet Boys’ first single. Then we went home to Uncle Bob.
At first everything was fine. Mom says we were only at Uncle Bob’s a few days; I believe it was longer. All I remember is watching the Jenny McCarthy show with guest stars Hanson. I also remember Uncle Bob growling for his drink, Seagram’s Seven and Seven-Up. I was his full-time bartender.
Uncle Bob had always been a drinker and could hold his liquor. The man I had memories of, and therefore expected, was a fun guy with a belly that reminded me of Santa Claus. But the reality was more like an episode of The Real World. Suppers with him had always been a warm, conversation-filled feast, but now they were quiet and quick: he’d turned surly and mean. He started looking at me like I was freeloading, never with a smile on his face. After a few drinks, he was even worse. There was no one moment when it got bad: it was just never good.
Buffalo had to stay in the hot shed and wasn’t allowed out for any reason, while their dog came and went as she pleased. It was over 100 degrees by day and uncomfortably cold at night. There was a small window, but we couldn’t open because we didn’t want to risk Buffalo getting out.
I missed the great relationship I’d had with Uncle Bob. He was the cool uncle I couldn’t wait to see ride up on his black motorcycle. Only now he’d sold the Harley and didn’t like me anymore.
“He’s getting older,” Mom would say. “People change.”
Then, one day, I overheard Mom and Uncle Bob talking in the kitchen. It was hard not to, since the kitchen opened into the living room and tiny hallway.
“Why’d you bring Danielle?”
“What was I supposed to do? Leave her with Mom?”
“That’s exactly what you should have done.”
Mom has since explained to me that Uncle Bob had wanted her to come out, immediately get a job, and do everything else while he and Ellen drank the day away. I was just a hindrance, an inconvenience.
“Never would’ve happened,” Mom still says.
The final straw came early one morning when I was in Uncle Bob’s way and didn’t move fast enough. He picked up a TV box—one of the old kind, before flat screens—and threw it at me with real force.
“That’s it,” Mom said angrily. I knew she was beyond angry because she didn’t yell or scream. She just spoke in a tone that told me to shut up and do as she said.
She yanked me down the tiny hallway and into the room we shared. She had us packed up and out of there, and had grabbed the cat from the shed, before I could say a thing.
We spent the whole day at a park Mom found. It was a pretty green with lots of trees. I was reading a Seventeen magazine, one of the reader pieces, and I thought I could one day write about all of this. That night, it turned cold and we slept in our car, thankful we’d brought blankets from home. Mom parked in front of Uncle Bob’s trailer and we never saw him nor Ellen.
“He knew we were out there,” Mom said.
In the morning, Mom found a grocery store with a pay phone and looked through a phonebook for Welfare’s number. She called and got directions from the grocery store, then we headed to the office and waited about thirty minutes before we saw someone.
Mom laid it out for the black woman behind the counter, who was short and heavyset, with a Mexican accent we weren’t used to. She had a certain style: she looked nice, and she acted nice. The place was crowded and I sat in a hard plastic chair while Mom talked. I love people watching, and there were all types mulling about.
The woman gave us emergency food stamps, more than we’d ever received in Vincennes. We still had nowhere to sleep that night, however, and no way home. We drove back to the grocery store, where I’m sure we got something to eat, but all I remember is Mom calling Grandma, tears streaming down her face.
“I need you,” she said.
They talked and Grandma agreed to send us the money to come home. She just needed an address. Back to Welfare we went.
It was the end of the workday so the building was now almost empty. Mom spoke to the same woman and, this time, I stood beside her. The woman knew of a homeless shelter, but it was closed. When she called someone and told them our story, they opened it just for us.
“Now you can’t tell anyone but your mom the address,” the woman behind the counter said. “Don’t take pictures either. Do you understand?”
“Why?” I asked. Mom always said that was my favorite word.
“A doctor donated the house but he doesn’t want any publicity, so we keep it hush-hush.”
We agreed, of course. With the directions in hand, we couldn’t help but wonder where our adventure would lead next.
When we arrived at the shelter house, we couldn’t believe our eyes. It was a mansion with a nice gated yard, a guest house, and more rooms than I’d ever seen. A house manager that looked like a walking twig draped in jean shorts and a shirt appeared. She had long, dirty blond hair that obscured her face as she showed us the rooms we could use. She was the only other person staying there. The room was bare, but Buffalo would be all right if he stayed in our room. At least he was allowed inside this time. I didn’t see the house manager again.
Mom called Grandma and gave her the address for the shelter, explaining that it was secret. Afterwards, we went grocery shopping at the same grocery store again.
“What do you think of spending whatever’s left on the shelter and stocking their kitchen?” Mom asked.
It sounded good to me. I was just glad to be going home.
Back at the shelter, I was in for a culture shock. There was no TV. The living room, or common room, had a bookcase full of books. Our family loves to read, but I hadn’t picked up a book in years. For entertainment, I read Danielle Steel. I liked her. We had the same name, so I sat by the large fireplace and read.
We stayed at the shelter for about a week until Grandma’s check for around $300 came in the mail. As soon as it did, we went back to Welfare to see the same nice woman. She helped Mom cash the check, and before long, we were heading home. But first we spent the couple hundred left in food stamps, bought food that wouldn’t go bad too soon, and filled the shelter’s storage cabinet.
We drove straight through to Tulsa. Then, when we arrived at our motel and I went to get Buffalo out his cat carrier, he wasn’t moving and felt stiff.
“Mom!” I cried.
She immediately understood the situation. “Go up to the room.”
I took the key and went upstairs. I figured Mom would be right behind me, after fixing Buffalo. When she didn’t appear, I tried to find her out the windows, but we were too high up. When she returned, Buffalo wasn’t with her.
“I buried him. He liked it here. It was only right.”
“He wasn’t sick, was he?” I asked her as the tears fell down my cheeks.
“Not that I’m aware of, but the trip was hard on him. First the drive out, and you know he hated the cat carrier, and then to stay in that hot shed just to be put back in his cage. He was only a baby.”
The rest of the way home, Mom and I talked about Buffalo, Uncle Bob, and the shelter. I came to understand that people change and things aren’t always what they seem. I was hurt by Uncle Bob and I was angry about Buffalo. When we reached the Indiana state line, we wanted to get out and kiss the ground. We were home.
We drove straight to Grandma’s and ended up living with my Uncle Robert, my mom’s baby brother. Uncle Robert, Mom, and I have been homeless at times since then, but never have we received the sort of kindness and help like that we found in Hobbs, New Mexico.
When I was 15 and selfish, all I understood was my pain. Now I look back and see so much more. I cherish the adventure and the valuable lessons I learned. I learned you can’t always trust family. I also learned to believe in the kindness of strangers.
It does exist.
Danielle Thompson grew up in southern Indiana and worked in various fast food establishments before finishing the Long Ridge Writer’s Course. She still lives in Indiana with her daughter (the wannabe fireman), her parents, and a cat who thinks he’s a dog. She writes fiction and blogs at http://daniellethompsonwriter.blogspot.com.