God give me the strength, I thought and hugged the blanket closer to me, trying to find some warmth. I move to find a dryer spot, but everything is wet from last night's downpour. I cover my head, wanting to block the sounds of the awakening camp, but the stench of the blanket and my armpits force me to lower my arms.
I get up and hit my head on the center pole of the tiny tent. I peek out and look around, seeing others come out of their tents. We are huddled in a makeshift camp on an empty lot near the highway. I wonder what time it is and look at the pale spot on my wrist where my watch had been. I had pawned it two days before and still wasn't used to not having it.
My bright green tent looks new amid the faded array of canvas roofs. What am I doing here? I try not to feel sorry for myself but can't help it when I think about how my life has changed. I want my old life back. I want a place to go where I can take a hot shower in privacy, cook a meal, sit in front of the TV, and be safe. I don't want to continue wandering, looking for the next place to stay, watching my back, afraid. My stomach growls.
I hang the blanket to dry on a wire fence while I dismantle the tent.
"Morning," a voice says, startling me. I don't look up. A woman had told me to keep to myself, that's how she had survived on the streets for two years.
"Need help?" the man comes closer. I stiffen and look at him.
"No, I'm fine." I want to tell him to leave me alone, but when I look into his eyes, I relax a little and know he means me no harm.
"Nice tent you got there." The old man moves on, dragging a bandaged foot. A wet white sheet wrapped around his thin body. He looks so tired and so much older than his eyes.
"Thanks," I mumble.
I finish folding the tent into its sack and place the damp blanket on the outside pouch of my rolling bag. Inside the bag are a black dress, my pumps, and a few toiletry items. What can I sell next? I can't sell the dress and shoes because I will need them when I go on job interviews. I look around to make sure no one is looking and feel for the dollar bills I have hidden in the bag's seam. I calculate I have about twenty-three dollars left because I've only eaten two meals since I sold the watch. I drink the last bit of water from my water bottle and start out of the camp.
A young guy waves from the entrance of his tent. He's got a needle stuck in his arm. His eyes are lost, and his toothless mouth is open in what he must think is a friendly grin. I don't wave back. I hurry past him. There but for the grace of God. I remember the old saying my mother had taught me and realize the irony. I am there. I shake my head to chase the thought away. I need to get to Aunty Tilly's house. She will help me until I can get a job and get back on my feet. I have an education, I have skills, it wasn't my fault I lost my job.
I make my way out of the camp, and at the entrance, I notice a man stooped over a charcoal stove. Two little kids sit cross-legged on the ground, and a woman is combing the little girl's long blond curls. The woman looks up and smiles. She's embarrassed for both of us. I nod and look down. It's not polite to stare.
"You hungry?" the man calls out. I didn't know whether to answer or run.
"I'm okay. Thank you."
"It's scrambled eggs. Give you some strength before you get on the road."
The man looks at me and motions for me to join them. The woman nods her head.
I walk to their little campsite. It looks like the family has been there for a while. They have tied a rope between two tents. On the rope hangs a blanket, a man's white shirt, and kids' underwear. They have a little table, a stool, a folding chair, and two orange pails full of water, perhaps rainwater from the night before. A car is parked by the tents blocking the view from the street and giving them the illusion of privacy.
The woman offers me the only chair they have. The man cracks an egg and stirs it into the frying pan.
"It takes a while for things to cook with charcoal, but I make the best-scrambled eggs in the planet. Right kids?" the father asks.
"Yes," the boy and the girl shout in unison. They seem so happy you'd think the father was cooking the most refined gourmet meal.
We talk while eating our scrambled eggs and white untoasted bread served on paper plates and using plastic forks from a fast-food restaurant where the man works. The couple is feeling lucky because he's finally found a job after two months of searching.
"We moved here because I got a job as a chef in a fancy restaurant," the man said. "We were living in an apartment in a good neighborhood, and the kids loved their school. Right, kids?" The kids nod, their mouths full.
"I was working too, but then I got sick and was in and out of the hospital and couldn't work," the woman added. Her head hung in shame. "We used the money we had saved and got thrown out of the apartment when we couldn't pay the rent anymore. Lucky for us, the car is paid for."
"But that's behind us. Now I have a job, and soon, we'll have saved enough to put a deposit on an apartment. We won't be here for long," the man reassures his wife.
I, too, had had a job, an apartment, friends, life had been good. But, little by little, my life had been stripped away. First, I lost my job as a receptionist at a startup tech company, then the unemployment benefits ran out, and I had to sell all I could to pay the rent of the apartment I shared with three other women. They had been sorry to see me go, they said, but if I couldn’t pay my portion of the rent, I'd have to leave. Now, I had nothing left to sell and was on my way to my aunt's house.
"My aunt Tilly sent me money. She said it was all she had but that if I could make it to where she lives in Bakersfield, I could stay with her until I find a job," I explain. She is all the family I have.
The husband and wife both nod. They have heard similar stories before.
"Well, I got to get on my way. I have about two hundred miles to go. Thank you for breakfast."
"Good luck to you."
I get up slowly, wishing they'd invite me to stay. The family's simple campsite looks like a castle, easier than the road ahead.