Cathedrals of Homelessness

Letti gasped when she saw a realtor’s lockbox on the door to the townhouse. Would her key still work? Yes, but inside, the [img_assist|nid=6822|title=The Johnstown Flood by Rachel Dougherty © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=225|height=300]darkness reeked of carpet shampoo and fresh paint. She turned on the entryway light and rushed into the empty living room. Then she raced up the stairs. At the top, each door opened onto slices of inanimate space once inhabited by her mother, her stepson, and her husband. She clutched the banister. Unsteadily worked her way down. On the floor by the front door lay an envelope.

Dear Ms. Ferenz:

I write at the behest of my client, Mr. George W. Luciano, who wishes to inform you that he has filed for divorce. Copies of his court papers were provided this morning to your attorney of record.

Your mother is lodged at the Treetop Suites on West Pearson Street. Your dog is kenneled with its vet, Dr. Sandman. Your personal possessions have been stored with Closet-Away-From-Home on Anderson Avenue. Mr. Luciano’s son has resumed residence with his mother, in accord with the terms of custody contingent on Mr. Luciano’s marriage to you. A buyer has made a bid on Mr. Luciano’s townhouse, which remains his exclusive property pursuant to your prenuptial agreement. Please leave your key when you depart the premises.

My client does not wish to speak with you, but he has asked me to convey to the attached note.

Sincerely, Thomas Metzger, Esq.


Letti turned the page.



You have been away sixteen of the last twenty-five weeks. I cannot take care of your mother and dog another minute. I cannot even take care of my flesh and blood son. I’m through with this charade. You can’t make me what I am not. We are terminally alienated, but you of all people will know how to survive this disaster. This time focus on yourself, not me or anyone else. George


As George intimated, Letti was trained in disaster response. She’d coped with everything from famine to chemical spills to violent conflicts. Her specialty was providing shelter for the dispossessed, and her basic recovery sequence was built on The Four D’s: denial—despair—dialogue—decision. Getting from denial to decision could take a while in places like Bangladesh or Somalia. It was tough in the U.S., too, where, after twenty-six years overseas, she had settled to focus on her own life and the lives of those dearest to her. That meant her elderly mother, Mom-mom; her third husband, George; George’s teenage son, Tony; and Norton the dog—but it progressively included the people she helped as a part-time FEMA disaster response specialist.

These past ten days she had been in southern Virginia, where a storage tank containing two million gallons of jet fuel collapsed[img_assist|nid=6823|title=Bronze Light by Brian Griffiths © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=249|height=166] and overflowed its containment pond, sluicing down local route 460. The red-hot catalytic converter of the first car that drove over this slithering liquid ignited it, causing an instant backflash through the gates of the tank farm. Another jet fuel tank and three liquid fertilizer tanks exploded, sending flames a thousand feet into the air and shattering windows four miles away. Total combustion: nine million gallons. Seven people dead, fifteen injured. Nine houses lining Rte. 460 destroyed. The groundwater that fed the wells of another thirty-one houses compromised. So she had her hands full. The only fun had been a helicopter ride she’d finagled for an overhead tour of the disaster site. Fires of that intensity tended to stay put, etching the earth with sharp-edged artistry.

Wink’s Mill was the nearest untouched town, so she stayed there in a battered old brick hotel with a sagging wooden front porch painted battleship gray. Cell phone service was vagrant, but most nights she spoke to George who said nothing about what he had in mind. “Letti,” he did say one night (without her detecting either the surrender or anger in his request), “what’s the song today? Sing me your aria.” By this he was inviting her to tell him about the procession of dislodged supplicants who, in their destitution, always reminded her of defeated churchgoers in the cathedrals of homelessness that encircle the globe, no roofs over head, no floors under foot, no possessions or effects. She’d sit there in her office trailer feeling humbled and enriched by the way their eyes scribbled distress messages in the air. Hymns, actually, not arias. Things she’d remember at night: the red creases around a man’s eyes, the hush of children who’d be better off playing outside but wouldn’t leave their mother’s presence, the impact of telling someone it would be three weeks until any modular units could make it from Arkansas when one day was eternity and two days hell.

Letti was gifted at this, yet guilt-ridden about it. She could not say no to a FEMA call just to keep a lunch date with George, or take Mom-mom to the mall, or walk Norton. She would pack the car and drive however long it took to meet the trailer in the dangerous regions of destitute America where the poor always seemed to be the ones who were burned, poisoned, and tornadoed. This was better and worse than the Philippines or Guatemala. There, the wailing went on for days, but she was insulated by strangeness from the depths of agony. Here, she was affected so deeply by the misery of people with whom she really could communicate that she had to shut down their agony fast. She’d look a victim in the eye and say firmly, “Now talk to me. I’m sitting here to help you decide what to do, and remember this is today, not yesterday. Talk to me about today and decide what you want to do.”

Saying things like that took it out of her. She could barely make it to bed at the end of the day, so she thanked George for asking but sang him no songs. “I’ll tell you when I get back,” she promised and remained conscious for just a few seconds longer in the high-ceilinged hotel room with its tall casement windows, drafts, and moody mixed glow of street lamps and the Pizza Hut across the way where she’d eaten dinner. Fifty-seven years old, short, thin, blonde, rigid as a clothing store manikin. Out cold, until the alarm at six and another coffee-fueled day in her chilly trailer, where what she thought about her own displacement didn’t matter. It was only temporary.


First, she went to Dr. Sandman’s to try to retrieve Norton, but Dr. Sandman’s strip mall clinic was closed. Then she drove to Treetop Suites.

“Were you surprised?” Mom-mom asked, meaning about George having the townhouse repainted and the carpets shampooed. She was wearing her blue cardigan, the one that felt so good because of the way it warmed her arms. “He didn’t want me to tell you that’s why he was clearing us all out.”

Awash in humiliation, Letti was unable to come out with it. Definitely surprised, she answered.

“That George is always doing things,” Mom-mom said.

“That George,” Letti agreed. She finished mixing a vodka and Coke from bottles she found in the courtesy refrigerator. “But his cell phone isn’t working, and the note only said you’d be here. Where’s he staying?”

“The Hilton. Better workout room, he says.”

“With Tony?”

“Tony’s with his mama. I think they’re getting along better.”

“Whoa,” Letti moaned, easing herself onto the little sofa by the window and pulling up her legs.

Mom-mom looked at her through her almost cosmic convex lenses. She asked how the disaster had gone. Letti said it was pretty hard at first. The tank field was a chronic safety violator that neither paid its fines nor corrected its flaws. The jet fuel tank was one of the few that had been updated—the 1936 rivets were switched to welds in 2003—but that led to the structural flaw that caused its collapse.

“The day you left I saw some coverage on the news,” Mom-mom said. “Poor Letti, I thought, she has her hands full this time.”

If by force of will or experience with marital failure, Letti were able to leap out of the chasm of denial and despair into which she had plummeted, that would get her more quickly to dialogue and decision, but there was Mom-mom, eighty-eight years old, a plucked-chicken of a woman with multiple miseries who didn’t know—or did she?—that Letti had done it again.


Even though Letti did not believe in God and equated faith in providence with supine passivity, she had encouraged her first husband to prepare for the ministry by becoming a missionary. “This is something you could do wherever I go,” she had coaxed him, wanting so badly to make things work. The fact is she was crazy about Gerald. She loved his slow, murky, uncertain lovemaking and credulous faith in what he called “the theater of the divine.” But fifteen months turned out to be the romantic limit to Letti and Gerald’s reckless self-endangerment. The memory still broke Letti’s heart: two twenty-somethings at war with each other in a rotting house in Léopoldville, Congo, in 1968. Prayer meetings in the huge living room from which Letti would escape by playing Big Pink very loud upstairs…no food, but plenty of gin, dope, tar-thick coffee, and Mom-mom’s Famous Boiled Water…and Gerald determined to cure himself of dengue fever by reading Psalms. When he did recover, he returned to the U.S., where he sued her successfully for his share of common property, including her small inheritance from her father.  He had died at fifty-one in Lackawanna, New York, from which Letti and Mom-mom were permanent refugees. Letti called it Slagville in honor of the Bethlehem Steel plant’s horrific waste. She was haunted by childhood memories of mountains of snow growing blacker and blacker outside her bedroom window as the winter progressed. Lawns, fields, rooftops, and even woodlands were encased in metallic sheets of frozen soot. Who wouldn’t leave and never go back?

The second marriage, nine years later, was to a fellow humanitarian relief specialist, Franklin. Shouldn’t that have worked, especially since Letti’s guilt about her first marriage led her to urge Franklin to put himself first and climb the bureaucratic ladder, even if this meant that he took USAID assignments in Washington when she went overseas? Yes, Letti loved Franklin’s steadiness and practical idealism and ex-Marine physique, but she had acquired habits of personal accommodation during her nine years as a divorcee, and she clung to them during their separations. Getting wind of this, Franklin countered with accommodations his own. Divorce again. Another decade alone before the homing instinct fooled yet again into thinking if she tried one last time, she’d finally get it right. She’d do it for Mom-mom. She’d do it for her old age. She’d do it because they couldn’t spend another year in the waste regions of their wanderings, always talking about where next, always uneasy about their lives among strangers, kind or indifferent, interesting or boring.

But how could she talk with Mom-mom and bypass George’s reproach: I cannot take care of your mother and dog another minute? It wasn’t Mom-mom’s fault. Letti knew this; she was the one who put George through the Chinese water torture of knowing the exact temperature Mom-mom liked her coffee…of Mom-mom’s scandalized attitude toward spots on drinking glasses…of Mom-mom’s excruciating pacewhile walking: three steps, stop, look around; three steps, stop, look around. Perhaps if George had not had a teenager on his hands. She thought of Tony—he had a face like a chickadee, black hair and white cheeks—storing food in his room under the bed and in drawers and on the windowsill so he wouldn’t be exposed to conversation when making continual trips to the kitchen. And she thought of how she encouraged George to retire from the IMF, swallow the requirement that he give his first wife half his pension, and accept a new job, at sixty-one, as advisor to the Islamic Alternative Bank, guiding a mismatch of billionaire Bedouin backers and hotshot young Arab financiers as they accommodated themselves to the restrictions and prejudices they encountered trying to do business in the U.S.

“You were meant to do this: think of your Arabic. Think of all your experience in the Middle East and Washington. And I’ll be right here, no more work overseas,” she promised. “We’ll scrimp until we build up our finances. Mom-mom and I take up zero room. The townhouse will be fine for now.”

George accepted her arguments with almost fathomless desire and credulity. He wanted his son back and needed a new wife to persuade the court. So he said he was willing to put up with Mom-mom if Letti put up with Tony. Besides, he adored Letti, her spunk, her resourcefulness, her worldliness. Was this love? Letti thought it might be. Sitting with him over a glass of wine before dinner in a nice restaurant, she noticed that he no longer habitually wrung his large hands together as he talked, his big thumbs kneading his meaty palms and hairy knuckles. She also noticed that he would watch her every step of the way back from the ladies’ room. Would not start the car until she had her seatbelt fastened.

But the exciting, unpredictable, exhausting separations piled up, making perfect sense to Letti, none to George. She had long lived in a world that always collapsed; he had had the world collapse on him once—his first marriage—and didn’t want it happening again. They had spats, loathsome spats. She couldn’t bear his ornate, self-hating progression from complaining to moaning to giving up.

“We goofed,” he’d say, enjoying the way that word, “goofed,” belittled their attempt at playing house again in late middle age. “We’re each entitled to the air we breathe, but breathing the same air together is asphyxiating us. I’m thinking this can’t last, Letti. I don’t know how to be married to you. You don’t want to be married to me. Off you go all the time, saving the world. It used to be Suriname, now it’s Appalachia. God knows why. What are you running from? What is out there?”

“People in pain are out there.”

“We’re not in pain?”

“They have no homes!”

“You call this a home? You don’t want a home. Why are you dragging me through this?”

“So divorce me,” she challenged him at last. Yep, she had said it. The tremendous affection she felt for the man and fear of being cast back out on the streets of the world wasn’t enough to keep her mouth shut. And bingo, she got her wish.


Letti fixed another vodka and Coke, pouring the silvery Smirnoff first to make sure there was room to get it all into the plastic glass before adding the gelatinous Coca-Cola. She knew she wouldn’t be able to turn George around, unsell the townhouse, and get Tony back as easily as she would get Norton from Dr. Sandman.  She was a schemer, but not that good a schemer. And to do what? Hole up in suburban Washington and die?

Mom-mom sat there quietly with her thin, speckled hands folded in her lap. Letti wondered if you could call this,though silent, a dialogue—like a silent auction or a silent movie—about her denial and despair. She asked herself, too, if that was the essence of her place in the world, a glimmering vault in which she flew soundlessly, never finding a broken window through which to escape

“Well, dear,” Mom-mom said at last. “What are you going to do?”

“He may have been the best of the three,” Letti said.

“I don’t know. I really liked the Preacher.”

“But Gerald never had a son to fight for, and he never took on anything like that crazy Islamic bank,” Letti said. “I think George deserves a lot of credit.”

“I ought to go live in a nursing home,” Mom-mom said.

“You know I would never allow that.”

“Then I suppose you deserve some credit.”

Letti made a dismissive sound, “Pah.”

The women sat a while, ruminating. There couldn’t be an explosion because that would be too hard on Mom-mom. The sadness did leak out, though, and pool around their feet, and under the sofa, and in the corners of the room. Back to disorientation, Letti thought. Time and again she’d counseled people to let it go; it was over: get to dialogue, make a decision, move on. And now once again it was her turn, but she did not want to listen to her own advice.

Robert Earle was born in Norristown, PA and educated at The Hill School and Princeton.  His short stories have been published in dozens of literary magazines across the U.S.  His first novel, The Way Home (DayBue, 2004), is set in Raponikon, PA (a fictionalized Norristown).  He is also the author of a memoir of a year as a diplomat in Iraq, Nights in the Pink Motel (Naval Institute Press, 2008).

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