From Dust,Portland,ME, Book One
Pain punished her.
The bottle numbed her.
Guilt kept her trapped.
Thirty-nine year old Sydney Donner needs a break. After finding too much solace and comfort at the bottom of a bottle, Sydney lost everything that meant anything to her. Now, at her lowest as she’s rifling through the contents of a dumpster, everything changes.
Holding her secrets close, Sydney can’t resist the comforting draw coming from The Skipper and the opportunities the strong, gruff man offers her. From the unconditional friendships it offers to the protective roof it provides, the place begins to melt the frost off her heart, slowly stripping away her resistance.
But forty-four year old Gunnar Lucas has his own worries and misgivings. Under the pressure of competition crowding him out of his family’s pub and the need to protect his children from the ruins of a bad marriage, Lucas can barely breathe. That is until a mane of strawberry-blonde hair and a set of big, pale blue eyes, shake him up.
Lucas never expected the shadow of a woman he finds on the floor of his washroom to bring him the air, the balance, and the light he’s been missing. Together, can they rise from the dust to create a future together?
I think it’s April, but I can’t be sure. I haven’t been interested in staying connected to the world for so long now, I couldn’t even tell you the day of the week, let alone the time of day. I generally take my cue from what I feel and see. When the sun starts going down, I know the wharf will be virtually abandoned, and I feel I can finally leave the small shed that has been my home for a while now … a few months? Maybe it’s been a year already, I couldn’t tell you with the way time just seems to drift on endlessly.
The seasons are usually pretty easy to distinguish, but we’ve just had a particularly cold winter and it feels like it is lingering too long. I feel like I’ve been wearing every last stitch of clothing in my possession for a very long time now. It’s been a bitch trying to get them clean at the outdoor tap on the edge of the dock. There’ve been many times this winter that I’ve gone rank with the cold temperatures; too cold to peel off even one of the layers of clothing to wash them, or myself for that matter. Who cares anyway?
Tonight I have a particular destination in mind. I heard the big delivery truck rumble past my shack earlier today, heading for my ‘neighbor’; a pub and grub called The Skipper. That usually means it’s Thursday, because on Thursdays, The Skipper serves an all-you-can-eat menu, and that means that tonight, the dumpster in the alley behind the pub will be rich with leftovers.
I usually wait until I’m sure the place is good and locked up, but I haven’t eaten more than a few bites of an apple somebody had discarded on the dock the day before yesterday. It only had a few bruises and I washed it carefully at the tap, but those few, richly flavorful bites put a rare smile on my face. It’s not often I manage to get my hands on anything ‘fresh’ tasting, let alone a whole apple.
I guess I could panhandle and buy some food like I’ve seen a few others do, but something holds me back, no matter how hungry I get. Begging would not befit a Donner, or so my parents have hammered into me. Funny, that after all these years, that is still as deeply ingrained as guilt is for a good Catholic.
I shake my head before my thoughts start drifting into areas I don’t want to visit and pull my flannel shirt tighter around my shoulders to ward off the chill. Damn, it’s cold.
Keeping to the shadow side of the alley, I tentatively edge my way to the dumpster that promises food for a few days, keeping my eye out for the big motorcycle that is often parked right beside it. Its usual spot is empty, which means the big, burly, and angry looking man isn’t here tonight, or he’s left already. I watch him sometimes when he drives by. I’ve come to the conclusion he must work there since he’s there quite often. With that dark and dangerous air about him, it’s difficult to keep from looking when I hear his motorcycle rumble past my shed. But tonight the coast is clear, and it appears the place is shut down. The only visible light is the weak bulb above the pubs back door, and that is on all the time.
My stomach starts rumbling, already reacting to the food smells wafting from the dumpster. When it comes to food, I’m thankful for the lingering cold weather. There have been too many times in the heat of summer where I’ve been so overwhelmed with the stench of a garbage can or dumpster, that I wasn’t able to stop from puking, but not so tonight. Tonight I can smell frying grease and garlic. The odd hint of herbs and spices filters past my olfactory senses. I’m hungry and my mouth is watering.
Using the dumpster’s frame, I climb up and over the side, trying to be as quiet as I can—just in case. When I settle my feet among the garbage, I scan the immediate area around me. Jackpot. A box of now familiar looking paper packages sits within reach. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about hopping The Skipper’s dumpster is that they wrap the leftover food in the paper lining of the baskets it’s served in. Then they gather them all in one of the delivery boxes until it’s time to dump them out. As a result, the leftovers are relatively untouched and it somehow makes the food taste better. Weird how once the thought of eating anything someone else had touched—let alone discarded—would have been enough to make me gag, but now, I’m just grateful; Grateful for the prospect of a full belly and with the chill still in the air, the option to save some for another day before it spoils.
The soft plea freezes me with a French fry halfway to my mouth. So preoccupied with stuffing my empty stomach, I didn’t hear anyone approach. My hand drops the fry and I scramble to the far corner of the dumpster, looking up from under my eyelashes at the woman peeking over the side of the dumpster. I’ve seen her before; a tall blonde, about my age, with blue streaks through her hair. I’ve seen her go in the back door of The Skipper before and guessed she was an employee.
Her soft eyes and half-smile fill me with shame. Pity is devastating when it’s directed at you, and I’ve never felt it as strongly as I do now. Wrapping my arms around my waist against the chills running through my body, I turn my eyes away so I can avoid looking at myself through her eyes.
“I’ll make you something fresh. Do you want to come in out of the cold?”
My eyes flick to the back door before returning her steady gaze and I shake my head. The thought of being exposed to more pitying eyes would surely undo me. As tempting as it would be to walk through that door behind her and be able to sit down to a plate of food, I’m scared that I won’t be able to return to this bleak existence I’ve resigned myself to afterward.
“I’m the only one here. We’ve closed up for the night and I was just putting the last of the garbage out.” She winces at her own words, probably realizing the implication of her garbage reference. “Please…”
When she reaches her hand out to me, I can’t resist stretching my own to touch it. It’s been so very long since I’ve had any direct human contact that the moment our fingers touch, tears I thought had dried up long ago start rolling down my face. A craving to bask in her warmth some more has me following her gentle pull on my hand and I find myself cluttering over the side of the dumpster. Meekly, I follow behind as she leads the way through the back door without a word, only stopping briefly at the threshold. The warmth rolling out of the open door is so inviting, I hesitate, wondering if I step through this door—if I allow myself this comfort—will I ever be able to turn back again. My heart pounds in my chest as I force myself to follow the woman inside the dark hallway, letting the door fall shut behind me.
A steaming plate of breaded fried fish and fries sits before me on the large battered table in the bright, industrial kitchen. I wearily eye the woman as she cleans up the kitchen without a word. The smell of the pot of fresh coffee she put on is causing my mouth to water and I tentatively shove a fry in my mouth. Oh God, this is good. The crisp texture and salty flavor bursts over my tongue. With the woman temporarily forgotten, I start shoveling the food in my mouth as fast as I can.
A glass of water is set on the table beside my plate and the woman sits down in a chair on the opposite side of the table.
“Don’t eat too fast—it’ll only give you stomach cramps,” she says quietly. “My name is Vivian, but everyone calls me Viv. I’ve seen you around a few times.” Her eyes hold mine as she reaches for my hand again to give it a quick squeeze. “Will you tell me your name?”
Fear of being exposed has me shake my head, but it doesn’t seem to matter to Viv because she just continues to talk.
“I started working here when I was only fifteen. We lived next to the Lucas family then—they own the joint—and I jumped at the chance to earn a little extra money washing dishes. With four older brothers, we never really had a lot to spare for frivolous things. At that age, I wanted to be able to buy CD’s and clothes, grab the occasional lunch at the diner with my friends, and the money I earned here allowed me to do that.” She smiles wistfully. “Never really left after that. Not even after graduating high school. I just kinda stuck around and became as much a part of The Skipper as Gunnar is.”
At the mention of the strange name, I look up, wondering who she is referring to. Noticing my interest, she explains. “Gunnar Lucas is the owner now. He bought his mother out after his dad died five years ago. I had just come out of a long-term relationship which had knocked me on my ass when Gunnar pulled me aside and told me I could keep waitressing as I’d been doing, or I could finally start living up to my potential. He offered me the job of manager and I jumped at the chance. I haven’t looked back since.”
I’m dumbfounded by the amount of information she parts with, barely noticing the fact that I’ve finished my plate. Just listening to her talk is like a soothing balm to my shredded soul, but it’s the open and honest way she talks about herself that has me open my mouth for the first time in years.
“Sydn … Syd.” My voice sounds hoarse and cracks from lack of use as I catch myself spilling my full name. I can’t give up that much of me; not even to this seemingly friendly and empathetic woman.
“Syd.” She echoes back to me. “Nice to meet you, Syd. Love the name, it fits you.” The smile on her face seems genuine and I tentatively smile back.
“Listen,” she continues, “I’m a pretty forward person and I hope I don’t offend you in any way, but I just lost an employee today, which is why I’m here so late—I had to do her work and mine. She cleaned the pub before hours, but when she called this morning to say she wouldn’t be back, it left me pulling a double today since Gunnar is out of town.” She runs her hand through her short head of hair and takes a deep breath. “Anyway, excuse my rambling, but what I wanted to ask you was if you would be interested in the job?”
I’m stunned, and it must show on my face because she immediately grabs for my hand again and scrambles to explain.
“Look, I don’t know your history or how you got where you are today, but I’m generally a good judge of character—something honed by years of working in a pub, I guess. You seem like someone who doesn’t really belong on the streets. There’s an inherent poise about you and I get the feeling you simply fell on some really hard times.”
It’s hard for me to stop the moisture gathering in my eyes and I direct my gaze down. I’m not sure whether to run or to stay here and bask in the warmth Viv exudes. I swallow hard and look up from the table, braced to find pity staring back at me, but all I see is an encouraging smile.
“Why would you do that?” I manage.
“What? Offer you the job?” She leans back in her chair and seems to consider the question. “Karma.” She says firmly. “I believe strongly that sometimes things are just meant to happen a certain way. Don’t ask me why, my brothers rib me about my ‘new age’ views all the time, but the reality is that I was given a great opportunity when Gunnar put me on the spot and demanded I live and not just exist. I guess I see something in you that deserves the same. The fact that the day I end up one employee less is the same day I meet you is not a coincidence in my opinion.”
A brief silence follows, in which I let her words sink in and find myself actually considering her offer. Is this something I want? Something I need to do? An hour in the presence of Viv has me scrutinizing my situation, and if I’m totally honest with myself, I agree with her. Regardless of my dark and twisted path, I don’t belong on the streets, and frankly, just hearing someone’s voice directed at me has lifted a little of the dark cloud that always seems to hang over me.
“Okay,” I whisper, excited but scared out of my wits. A big smile creeps across her face and she waits a minute, giving me a chance to say more, but I don’t know what else to say.
“Great. Can you be here tomorrow morning at ten? I’ll make sure to bring you a uniform. Don’t worry,” she smiles at the eyebrow I raise, “it consists of only a T-shirt and jeans. I’ll make sure you have a few extra shirts. We’ll do the work together for a while, at least until you are comfortable.”
“Are you sure?” I can’t help but ask, overwhelmed by the radical turn my life appears to be making in such a short period of time.
“Sure I’m sure. There is a shower in the upstairs apartment you can use whenever you want and food is on the house. You have no idea how much I appreciate you doing this.”
I know what she’s doing. She’s making it easier on me to accept the help, and make no mistake, I realize this is a helping hand. The irony is it actually makes me feel a little better about accepting it, but there is a small problem.
“I don’t have a clock,” I’m embarrassed to admit.
“Shit. Right. No problem,” Viv answers, taking the blue watch she is wearing off her wrist. “Here, use this. I have a shitload of these at home in all colors of the rainbow. Got them in bulk because I tend to lose them so I have a few left at home.”
“Thanks.” I’m pleased my voice is coming through a little stronger.
When Viv closes the door behind me, the cold air hits me hard, but my full belly, the plastic blue watch around my wrist, and the prospect of what could well be a turning point in my life has me smile against the stiff breeze coming off the water.