I try to give money to the Salvation Army whenever I can. It’s never enough, I always feel it should be more. There are a lot of so-called charities out there, but the Army is one of the few I feel use their money for helping people instead of padding the salaries of the mucky-mucks at the top. I’m biased, though, from listening to my parents when they talked about the easiest places to get free food or a shelter on a rainy night. The Salvation Army wouldn’t ram religion down your throat or anything, they would quietly help in whatever way they could without harshly passing judgment. They gave me clothes and Christmas presents, served me warm food on Thanksgiving. They had kind smiles, and you could feel they meant what they said when they said “You’re welcome.” When their shelters are full, they try to find you a motel room and that was always the best.
When the bored Santas stand ringing their bells on a streetcorner, I always search my purse for cash or write them a check that I can slip quietly into that red pot of hope. A little here, a little there, like a prayer of thanks.
Homeless shelters have a ranking system, from the good ones that gave you toys and games and a nice room with a door, to the ones that made you wish you were sleeping outdoors away from the smells, away from the old lady that sat in a plastic chair and stared at you as if you were a slice of pizza. Some of them would let you stay for a few weeks, especially a family with children, while they helped you find a job and while you pretended you wanted one. Most of them would close up in the middle of the day, providing a place to sleep and kicking you out into the world after breakfast. We would spend the days in parks, in Boise, Idaho, in Spokane, Washington, in Duluth or St. Cloud, Minnesota. I would pick grass, lying on my back staring at sky blue skies, a book open on my chest and a deep, satisfied sigh. I liked being out of the wilderness, around civilization. I liked having a real bed and a shower, even if it was shared by other people in a long hall that looked like old college dorms. There was always hope, that maybe we would stay here. Maybe I would go to a school with an art program, a library, with students and teachers and that imaginary “normal life.” The real yearning for that didn’t kick in until middle school age, when I got tastes of school and friends and society at different schools around the country. I was tired of just us, of our little insulated world away from everything else. The important stuff, I imagined.
Now that I have had all those things, I look back fondly and wonder what it would have been like if things had never changed. I would probably still be where I am, now, if they hadn’t, an escapee from freedom.
I wouldn’t call him a bad guy. He’d describe himself as mysterious, the cocky little bastard. He’s that kind of guy. Black Ray-Bans, rockstar hair. Too cool to care. It would make him happy if you said, “Now that Ed, he’s an enigma. Can’t figure him out.” But it doesn’t take that long to figure him out, though his motives might never be clear. He loves Clint Eastwood, DeNiro, all the paragons of cool. He likes big guns, and loud trucks, and women. He’s smooth, like the rest of his brothers. When a bunch of Roethles get together, the panties drop. Panties just can’t withstand the onslaught of so much testosterone in those little rooster-like men, the swaggering, hard-partying German/Irish with a taste for action and those sharp cheekbones and thick dark wavy hair. They’re all either criminals or cops. Grandpa had 15 kids with his tiny Irish bride, one after the other falling out like clowns from a two-seater car. Grandpa taught his boys well, with his quick temper and hard-line rules. I never saw him then, only knew him as a benevolent patriarch who would preside at family gatherings with a glass of vodka and the propensity to pop out his teeth in an attempt to scare little me. It didn’t work, teeth don’t scare me even if they’re not in their proper mouth.
I heard stories of the brothers terrorizing the nuns in Catholic school, something about peanut butter pressed into organ keys, and imagine those boys running roughshod over old ladies armed only with rulers and sharp tongues. From what I understand they had it tough at home, poor enough to consider bread and gravy dinner and never to be quite warm enough in the Minnesota winters. I’ve seen a few old sepia-toned photos of the family then; tall, handsome, angular Grandpa next to his tiny wife, the twinkle in his eyes reflected in the mischief shining from three little boys’ faces, their mother’s look of calm detachment mirrored by one sister. Behind them you can make out a small farmhouse, and then the background fades. The boys all wear hats with fuzzy flaps, my aunt who was the lone girl in the photo noting that they all had terrible earaches when they were young. Hmm, me too.
I wish I knew more about all of them. Most of what I’ve gleaned has been second-hand, through stories circulated among relatives, passed to me in the few instances I’ve gotten to spend time with my extended family. When you grow up place-less you’re always looking for roots, I think. It’s hard to know where you come from when you’ve never seen it. Neither of my parents know much about their own families, beyond two generations. Something in both of them seemed to want to detach, to start fresh on their own. You can’t ever escape family, though, whether it be the earaches passed down through blood or the specter of alcoholism.
I avoided the alcoholism, so far. Lucky, I guess. I vaguely remember my dad before he was drinking, straight white teeth and the little prickly hairs on his chest where I would take naps, the sweat melding my cheek with his skin. I don’t remember him yelling, or angry, though the earliest dream I remember featured a soft feminine face with soothing words, on a black background, over me as if I was in a crib, then suddenly a howling evil man face would appear. It is the most terrifying dream I’ve ever had. I wonder if there was more strife than I remember consciously.