Safe Harbor

I’m sitting at the weathered picnic table under the gazebo in back of the crisis stabilization unit, and it smells like rain. My mother’s walking to the back door of the unit to get two cups of coffee. I don’t watch her leave, don’t watch her go inside, don’t hear the door slam shut. I’m too busy watching the short, skinny exterminator walk along the grass against the building’s foundation. He’s dressed in a white coverall, and he’s checking the black boxes filled with poison. Rodent bait boxes. I don’t think he looks at me, but he knows I’m here. He has to know. I wonder if he thinks I belong here.

The crisis stabilization unit is twenty minutes from my apartment, thirty minutes away from the reservation where Mom lives, where I grew up. I pass McDonald’s and a thrift store before I take the highway for most of the drive. Exit ramp. Red light. Always a red light. I have to turn left, so I always have to wait. Then I turn. Drive straight. School zone, drive slow. I cross a black and blue tagged bridge before cutting through a brick city. One-way roads. Then some trees. More trees. The unit is coming up. Right turn. The unit is down a bumpy and cracked side road, away from the busy part of town. Pine trees are all over the place, cardinals and finches fluttering and jetting from tree to tree.

The unit isn’t large, isn’t big. Inside, there’s the staff desk. To the right of it a long hallway filled with bedrooms. Simple rooms. Rooms that say relax. A bed with clean linen. A nightstand and a lamp and a dresser. Thin white curtains. To the left of the staff desk is the living room and kitchen and TV room with maroon chairs and a quiet room where people can paint and draw or sit and read. A white board is screwed to the wall in the living room and in blue marker a quote is written: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Like human being are ships, as if they are crafted things. Things that rock and bang or cruise smooth in an unpredictable ocean of salt and froth and depth. Out there is natural extermination.

The back door creaks open, then bangs shut. My mother’s shoes crunch the grass. The exterminator is gone, gone around the building.

“Here,” Mom says. She hands me the coffee. It’s too hot to sip so I blow and blow on it, but it doesn’t cool.

“Thanks for the cigarettes,” Mom says.

That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m always here. To bring her cigarettes. I never don’t bring her cigarettes.

I blow on my coffee again. It’s still too hot to sip.

Mom asks me what’s new.

Nothing, I tell her.

And then she goes into it, why she’s here again. The twelfth time in the past three months.

“I didn’t want to be alone,” she tells me. “The walls in my bedroom started to look black and grimy.”

I ask her if she’s out of her meds. Clonazepam. Benzos. She says she gets them filled tomorrow. She only sometimes takes her meds. She runs out because she needs money. Always needs cigarettes.

“But I have Valium,” she says. “It still won’t help me sleep. I can’t sleep.”

She tells me she’s been awake for three days. She doesn’t look it, though. Her short gray hair is spiked. She’s wearing little gold earrings. She’s dressed nice. Casual. A white T-shirt and black yoga pants and white sneakers. She doesn’t do yoga. All the white on her makes her look more Native, more Indian (she hates that word—Indian). But nothing makes her look young. She’s Native, and she has trauma. So do I, but she thinks she has more. She doesn’t say that, but she thinks it. Maybe she’s right. Maybe older Natives have more trauma than younger ones.

It takes a bit for me to warm up to her. Mom wanted cigarettes, but that morning on the phone she also asked me to buy a pack for this woman here I don’t know. Mom said the woman had cash, that she’d pay me. But then Mom slipped up, said the woman didn’t have the money yet, that she was waiting for her friend to show up who owed her. I wasn’t playing that game, I told my mother. This all happened hours ago, before I left my place. I’m still a bit uneasy, because I’ll bump into that woman here, and I didn’t get her any cigarettes.

But I start to warm up.

“I’m so tired,” my mother says. “I just want to sleep, but I can’t.”

“I’m not even here,” I say.

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