What Color Was the Door?
I was having a cookie last night when the phone rang. Back in the day, Gary and I used to bicker over who had to answer. “You get it,” I’d say. The phone would ring again.
“I got it last time.” Ring.
“Did not.” Ring. “Oh come on,” I’d plead. “I’ll make you corn bread.” Another ring, and I would cave.
I’d dive to answer just before it was too late and make a nasty face at my husband while I chatted with whoever was calling. Gary and I rent out property, so we get a lot of phone calls. Mostly they come from tenants about maintenance, but we also have some vacancies. When the phone rings now, we both know I'll answer. I guess you have to pick your battles.
So last night, when I saw an unfamiliar number flash on my screen, I assumed it was someone inquiring about an apartment.
The space I’d just advertised had been occupied by a woman who looked like central casting for Prairie Mom. You get the picture – she was pretty, in a modest way, and her kids were adorable. She wore a cute sensible haircut and prudent clothes. When I visited, her space was always spotless, and she’d often be engaged in a craft.
But appearances can be deceiving. I went there recently with two contractors to check the access door on her ceiling. As a precaution, I also brought law enforcement, and they came in kevlar vests with back up.
Shortly after Prairie Mom moved in, Gary and I learned that she was well known to cops because she dated the most powerful meth dealer in town. Apparently, her beau used the crawl space door to access the attic and then lower himself into adjoining apartments to rob neighbors. I found out because while he was creeping around, he accidentally put a foot through the neighbor’s ceiling.
California’s eviction laws are broken, so Gary and I paid Prairie Mom to leave. After she was out, we posted an ad for the space on Facebook. In the comments, I got blasted.
“You’re a greedy slumlord who only cares about money.”
“Families cannot afford that rent.”
“Congratulations for contributing to homelessness.”
Some people posted diatribes, others short critical jabs. Typically, I ignore blow back, no matter how hurtful. Gary and I calculate taxes, insurance, maintenance, and other costs and compare our offering to others in the market. And even though we get burned occasionally, we allocate some of our spaces to at-risk families. When the phone rang, I thought it would be about the vacancy.
Actually, it was X. Remember her?
She’s the tenant I posted about recently – a troublesome lady who didn’t pay her rent and made a mess. After she moved, she wound up in Southern Mexico, beat up, with no money. For some reason, she called me for help. When I hung up with her that day, the FBI, a social worker in Northern Cal, and US embassy employees were working to find her and get her back home.
Over the next several days, the social worker and I traded texts. The FBI asked if I knew the color of the front door where X was staying.
I was also asked about a bakery X referred to during our conversation. Did I know what she was wearing? I told them about the babies crying in the background, construction noises, dogs.
That week, I found myself thinking about X a lot and tried to make peace with not knowing what happened to her. Eventually I stopped waiting for her call.
Then, last night, the phone rang.
“X!” I said. Honestly, I thought she might have been dead.
“I’m at LAX on a borrowed phone,” she said, rushed. The US Embassy had put her on a flight. She’d asked to go to San Francisco, but they sent her only as far as LA. It was dark out when she called me, and she said she had no where to go.
“Can I call you back?”
“No. I don't have my own phone”
“Call me in an hour,” I said and whipped open my laptop to google shelters. All of them were closed. I texted a social worker in Northern Cal. When I was about to start dialing churches, my phone rang again.
“I can stay with a niece,” X said. “She’s coming to get me.” Relief surged through my body.
I still don’t know how X wound up in Mexico or how she’ll make it from LA to Northern California. I don’t know what happened to her kids. And I don't understand the choices she makes to create so much havoc in her life. What I do know is that life sends us teachers, some to show us what to do, and others what not to do. When the student is ready, as they say, the teacher will appear.