The Sign Painter
Amy Dowell considered herself a very good mother. She did not allow her circumstances to dictate how much love she had to give. She did not permit the presence of worries to color the way she greeted her daughter. “Good morning, darling.”
“I don’t want to get up.”
“I know, sweetheart.”
“It got loud last night.”
“But we were safe here inside our little home, weren’t we?”
“In our love cave.”
“That’s right. Here, let me slip this over your head.”
“Can’t I sleep a little while more, Mommy?”
“No, Kimmie, we have to get a move on.”
“But why? I’m so sleepy.”
“Because I have a new job this morning. I told you last night, remember? Kimmie, let go of your pillow, honey. Give me your foot. Now the other one. Okay, here we go, ready to face the world?”
A delivery truck chose that very moment to start up. Amy’s daughter had hated the sound of truck engines ever since the two of them had been forced onto the road. It was why they seldom stayed in truck stops. The rumbling motors gave her terrible nightmares.
Kimmie scrunched herself into the crook of her mother’s neck and squealed. Amy raised her voice to be heard over the departing truck. “It’s all right, honey. It’s leaving.”
“The big bad truck wants to eat me!”
“No, it doesn’t, darling. There, see, it’s gone now.” Amy dropped the plastic holdall with their washing items into her backpack. She had a purse, but it remained stowed in the cabinet over the sink. Carrying a purse was something from a different life. Amy waited until the truck had merged with the sparse dawn traffic to open the door. By mid-May, central Florida was already hot and sticky at six-thirty in the morning. Kimmie was big enough to walk under her own steam, but Amy carried her anyway. It was hard managing the flimsy stairs while hefting her daughter and the bulky pack. But she had grown used to much harder tasks than this one.
Their home was a camper cab bolted to a Ford truck. The pickup had a hundred and seventy-two thousand hard miles, and the massive eight-cylinder motor sucked gas. The tires were bald and the front windshield was cracked. The previous evening, Amy had parked in a service station’s rear lot, behind the car wash. After the nine P.M. shift change, the lone attendant of such stations rarely left the bulletproof enclosure. A year back, Amy never would have dreamed that such knowledge might prove vital. Or that she would become proficient at picking locks, which she managed with Kimmie wrapped around her
neck. All service stations had cameras surveying the restroom doors. But at six-thirty in the morning, half an hour before the shift ended, the attendant rarely paid attention to the security screens. Amy opened the restroom lock in ten seconds flat.
Once they were cleaned up, Amy returned to the camper and gave careful attention to Kimmie’s hair. The five-year-old whined a bit over the inevitable tangles but mostly stayed quiet. By now Kimberly was familiar with their new-city routine. So much depended upon them both putting on their best face. Kimberly had hair like summer wheat, dry and blond and so fine that it poofed out with static electricity when brushed hard. Sometimes that was good for a laugh, but not this morning. Amy was in a hurry, and Kimmie was still sleepy.
Amy dressed her daughter in a clean T-shirt and jeans, then let Kimmie curl up with her blanket in the passenger seat. Amy flattened the sheet of instructions she had copied down the previous evening from MapQuest. Another thing she had mastered over the past eighteen months was finding her way through strange cities.
As they turned onto Highway 192, Brentonville’s main thoroughfare, a pair of police cars came flashing past. Amy could not completely hide her flinch. Her fear of cops was genuine and well founded. Her most dread nightmare was of some new city’s social services trying to steal Kimmie away. Not to mention the fact that her vehicle was a rolling list of violations. No one knew cops like the homeless. It was a fact of life on the road.
The church was easy enough to locate. The main building rose north of the thoroughfare that ran arrow-straight to Disney. It was good that Kimmie was drowsing, because they passed a giant sign advertising the theme parks farther west. That was all
Amy needed, having her daughter freak out over how close they were to the Magic Kingdom.
The First Methodist Church complex dominated two full city blocks. Amy had researched it on her laptop the previous day, after the job offer had been confirmed. Most big cities had at least one such church, where the problems of today’s world were not hidden beyond the barrier of faith. There were websites dedicated to people like Amy, live boards that posted helpful information about every city in the nation. Some of the sites were specifically designed to help single mothers: where to go, where to stay, what to avoid. How to survive.
Newcomers without roots were not always welcome in churches. Which was why Amy parked her truck at the back of the church lot, then brushed Kimmie’s hair a second time and fitted in the two pink plastic hair clips and straightened her T-shirt before getting in close to her daughter and saying, “What are we going to do when we get inside?”
“Smile and be nice,” Kimmie replied.
“That’s my good girl.”
“Will they have eggs, Mommy?”
She took the little girl’s hand. “Why don’t we go and see?”
Many city churches with schools and day-care centers served breakfast for students and families. These days, too many of their charges arrived hungry. This free meal was generally restricted to people signed into the system. Others had to pay. Sometimes, though, Amy was able to slip in. It just depended on the church and the day. As they joined the line, she saw a father with three young boys set money on the counter. Amy gave a silent sigh
and reached into her jeans. She hated having to use her gas money for food, but she needed a safe place to leave Kimmie.
The desk inside the cafeteria doors was staffed by a woman with an expression that Amy had come to know all too well. The woman’s name tag read LUCY. Her no-nonsense gaze held the hard-earned wisdom of having long experience with Amy’s world.
“You’re new,” the woman said.
“We just arrived last night.” Amy tried to make her voice as cheery as possible.
Lucy motioned for Amy to swing around to the side of the desk. The woman continued to accept breakfast vouchers as she asked, “Where from?”
Amy knew the administrator’s easy tone masked a well-honed ability to sense trouble before it started. The only way to handle a person like this was not to try and handle her. People like Lucy had heard all the hard-luck pleas and were not moved. Amy gave it to her honest and straight. “Tampa, and before that, Tallahassee. Before that, Atlanta.”
Kimmie reached for her mother’s hand and said softly, “I didn’t like ’Lanta.”
“Neither of us did,” Amy agreed.
The woman smiled a greeting to a young family and asked, “So why go?”
“Work. I was a graphic designer, you know . . .”
“Before,” the woman supplied, looking at her with a glint of what might have been sympathy. “And now?”
“Mommy paints pretty windows,” Kimmie said, a trace of genuine pride in her voice.
“I’m a sign painter,” Amy explained.
The woman appeared won over by Kimmie. “You have work?”
“Supposedly. At Denton Chevrolet. I won’t know for sure until I show up.”
“And you need a place for your little one to stay.” She smiled as she handed Amy two breakfast vouchers. “Go eat. I’ll stop by later. We’ll chat.”
Amy fumbled her thanks and hated how her fingers trembled as she stuffed the crumpled bills back in her jeans. The woman noticed. Amy suspected that Lucy missed very little. She gave Amy another smile, one survivor to another, and said to Kimmie, “I believe I saw them making waffles.”
Kimmie’s delight was genuine. “My favorite!”
Amy thanked the woman again and joined the breakfast line. She gave her eyes a quick swipe when she thought no one was watching. She had grown used to this, how an unexpected kindness threatened to unravel her control.
Amy filled Kimmie’s plate with sausage and waffles, then took eggs and sausage and hash browns and biscuits for herself. Kimberly hated how the syrup ran over her sausage, but the little girl had learned not to say anything. They walked down the central aisle. Amy veered away from the first table with free seats because of the man she spotted just as she was about to sit down. He was in his late forties, and very handsome in a chiseled fashion, and clearly a cop. Which was why the only other people seated at the table with him were church workers. The man might as well have had a stone wall built around him. No one else even looked his way. Amy was far from the only person in the room harboring bad memories from run-ins with the police.
Amy spotted two places at a table holding several Bibles. She smiled a greeting and let Kimmie snuggle up next to her on the bench. The room was filled with pinched features and faces bearing the remnants of a leathery tan. Many of the gazes were hooded and fiercely aware, all products of life on the street. Amy knew she was gaining some of the same telltales and was helpless to do anything about it. Another of her nightmares was waking up one morning and discovering the same traits drawn on Kimberly’s young face.
There was no conversation at their table. This was another thing she once found remarkable and now accepted as normal, how silent most people were. People on the verge knew others had no interest in hearing their worries. They also knew someone here might be very close to exploding and could be set off by the smallest word. Quiet was safe.
Lucy took a seat at the table across the aisle and watched as Amy helped Kimmie cut her waffle and sausage. When Amy finished her meal, she unzipped her pack and pulled out a Bible. The woman observed that, too. Amy had no idea why Lucy was so interested in them. But eighteen months on the road had taught her to judge people swiftly and well. She sensed no danger from Lucy. Amy opened her Bible to the passage that was listed on the board by the front podium. Let the woman watch.
The woman stepped to the front podium and introduced herself as Lucy Watts, head of the church’s outreach ministries. She led them in prayer, then preached a brief sermon. Amy followed the words with determined intensity. These daily lessons were a vital part of her holding on to what was most precious in her life, including the ability to set aside all her worries and bur
dens, and show her young daughter the love she needed. Amy had learned to clamp down on the questions for which there were no answers. Such as how God could allow these things to happen, or when they would find a way out of their impossible situation, or where she could offer her daughter a future. Stability. A home. All the things that had become impossible dreams. All the things that Amy was determined to regain.
When Lucy left the podium, she walked down the aisle, greeting several latecomers and hugging one woman who rose from Amy’s table. Lucy seated herself across the table from Amy. She reached over and swung Amy’s Bible around. The two pages were underlined, with thoughts and prayers written into the margins. “A student of the Word. I like that.”
“It’s all that holds my life together.”
“I know what you mean.” Lucy’s gaze drifted over the rapidly emptying room. “I wish I could wake up a few of the nodders to that same truth.”
“I can’t condemn them,” Amy replied. “I’d probably have given in to the same bitterness, except for one thing.”
Lucy watched Amy stroke her daughter’s hair. “Where do you live?”
“My husband’s camper. It was actually his dad’s. He used it for hunting trips.” Amy looked down at her little one. “I was after him for years to get rid of that old thing.”
“You lost him?”
“Twenty-two months ago.” The terse response was all that was required. Amy settled her hand over her daughter’s ear and pressed so that the other ear was covered by her body. “Cancer.”
“You lost your home?”
“No. First I lost my job. Then my health benefits. Then I declared bankruptcy. The home went last.”
Kimmie squirmed and pushed Amy’s hand away. “I can’t breathe, Mommy.”
Lucy rose from her place. “Mind showing me where you live?”
The Ford pickup had never looked more battered. The camper’s rust spots were glaring blemishes in the morning sun. The door shuddered as Amy pulled it open. The old vehicle seemed as embarrassed as she was over having someone see how they lived. Amy had forgotten how loudly the right rear suspension creaked when someone climbed the stairs. Lucy entered and slipped into one of the two chairs by the narrow fold-down table. She gave the cabin a very slow look.
Amy settled on the bed and pulled Kimmie into her lap. She had no idea why Lucy was here. But she knew an interview when she saw one. For what, Amy had no idea. Even so, she felt a faint thrill of electricity run up her spine. Maybe, just maybe, this woman would give Kimmie a free place in their day-care center. It would make all the difference in the world, knowing her little girl was taken care of by people like Lucy while Amy was off at work. Making money. Trying to climb out of this hole.
Lucy pointed at the drawings taped over the window above the sink. “Your daughter has real talent.”
“Did you hear that, honey? The nice lady likes your art.”
“Mommy only puts up the ones that make her happy.”
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“How old are you?”
“Almost five and a half.”
Amy added, “In two months.”
“That’s ‘almost,’ isn’t it, Mommy?”
“Yes, darling. You’re my big good girl.”
Lucy asked, “You select the drawings that are happy?”
“It’s the best reinforcement I can give her,” Amy replied. She heard the shiver in her own voice. Please, oh, please let this woman give my baby a day-care place and for free!
Lucy nodded and did not speak. She continued to look around the cramped confines. Amy’s gaze tracked along with hers. She saw the battered equipment and the neat rows of possessions, the shelf with Kimmie’s toys and dolls, the shelf where their clothes were folded, the scruffy cabinet with the cans of emergency food and their two plates and two cups and two knives and forks. The narrow sink beneath the opposite window was clean; the drying rack held their soup bowls and glasses and spoons from dinner the previous night.
Finally, Lucy rose from her chair and started for the door. “Come with me.”
Together they walked through the parking lot shared by the outreach center and a small medical clinic and the crisis pregnancy center. Lucy took them along a covered walk past the main church buildings, crossed a street, and stood before what formerly was a down-at-the-heels strip motel. Amy’s heart started beating so fast, she thought it might escape from her chest.
“The church acquired this property two years ago. Volunteers converted it into nineteen studio apartments.”
Kimmie protested, “Mommy, you’re squeezing my hand!”
Amy swept her daughter up into her arms. She did not trust herself to speak.
Lucy fished a key from her pocket and unlocked a door. “The family in here until the day before yesterday has been moved into a home built by Habitat for Humanity. Normally, I only give our apartments to church members, or families recommended by a local relief group. But just before you showed up this morning, I felt God whisper to me.”
The studio apartment was freshly painted and had a kitchenette and a real dining table. There was a door with a lock and pale curtains and a foldout sofa and a sleeping pallet rolled up in the corner. There was a bathroom. With hot water. And a shower.
It was a palace.
Kimmie whispered, “Mommy, is this for us?”
Amy could only nod.
“Let me down! Let me down!”
Amy allowed her squirming daughter to slip from her arms. She had no choice. Her strength was gone. She could scarcely hold herself erect. She felt tears course down her face.
Lucy had clearly seen it all before. “Why don’t I leave you folks to settle in. You can come by later and we’ll go through the forms.”
Amy managed, “I need to go see about this new job.”
“So call me when you get back.”
“I have no idea when that will be.” Amy heard her voice break over the words and did not care. “All these jobs are rush-rush.”
“Girl, believe me, I don’t serve with this ministry so I can work from nine to five. Your daughter is welcome in our day care. We run a special after-hours service for working moms.”
The outreach director set the key on the table by the sofa. “Welcome home.”
When the door shut, Amy did not so much fall to her knees as feel the carpet rise up to meet her. Kimmie was suddenly in her arms. The little one was crying, too. Her daughter’s joy was as great as her own.
This was another lesson the road had taught them both. How much it could hurt to hope again.