I doubt there many activities in our lives that haven't gone through some changes since the flowering of the computer age and in particular, the Internet. That is, for those of us who reached adulthood before it really took off in the early 90s. Those who grew up with computers can hardly conceive of life without them. I suppose I sort of resent being tied to that technology on some level but I certainly reap some nice benefits along with the frustrations.
I now live in a remote area of West Virginia where frequent power outages are an accepted fact of life. I moved here from Missouri and bought a modest but well cared for house way up a 'holler' two years ago and was soon introduced to the vagaries of the public utility infrastructure. Since I require Internet access for my work, an early purchase after moving to the back woods was a gasoline-powered generator. That was incomplete thinking on my part because, while the generator provided electrical power, it didn't restore the DSL service lost with the power outage so I wound up adding satellite Internet to the mix. Well, there you are. Life goes on.
I mention this because the Internet allows me to work at home and that, indirectly, brought about some very big changes in my life. I'm a writer. I don't make my living writing novels, although I hope to some day. No, to pay my bills I do technical writing; you know, manuals, instruction booklets, that kind of thing. Clients send me specifications and pictures of their products and I whip up something they can include in the package. It doesn't make me stinkin' rich but I live comfortably. On the artistic side, I've written a lot of short stories and poems and I've even published a few but I can't count on it to put food on the table. I'm actually half way through a novel I think has a good chance of being published. We'll see.
Personal data? I'm forty-one, divorced and childless; not an uncommon condition in the present day and age. I'm not a hermit but I do like solitude and I'm very jealous of my privacy. I get along well with my neighbors but I really don't socialize much. It doesn't seem to bother them. I don't appreciate people infringing on my time without good cause. I never answer the phone if I don't recognize the name on the little screen, so keep calling, telemarketers, it's your nickel but you'll never speak to me in person.
Every once in a while, the idea of remarrying crosses my mind but then the memory of my first and only venture into that arena gives me the cold sweats and I quickly dismiss the notion. Normal bodily needs drive me to occasional dating and casual sex but I bolt for the door as soon as I feel the matrimonial noose tightening. I find Internet porn to be of extremely poor quality and Internet chat rooms to be amazingly boring so those resources don't really provided any avenue of relief for either biological or social imperatives.
A few months ago things changed at my house and that's what I'll tell you about.
It was mid-June and I was sitting at my computer, fingers blazing across the keyboard when Gao, my dog raised her head from her paws and gave a little "woof". That's about as far as she goes by way of communicating there might be somebody approaching the house. She says the same thing when she needs to go out to take care of her business so I'm never absolutely sure of the message. This time when I looked out the window I saw a bedraggled looking female timidly walking down the drive. There's a lot of poverty in my area and she looked like she was from the bottom end of that subset.
I hoped she wasn't begging because I really have a hard time with people who do that. I got up to go to the front door, ready to open it with a stern look on my puss to discourage any pleas for alms. It's not that I'm against charity. I have a list of charities I donate to annually. I'm just against giving direct cash gifts to individuals who, in my opinion, have the ability to earn it.
My black chow-chow was standing beside me with her tail stirring up a breeze. She's far more inclined to lick you than bite you but, if you know what that breed looks like, you know they can appear to be very menacing.
As soon as the doorbell rang, I jerked the door open. I felt bad immediately because I frightened the poor girl so that I thought she was going to faint. I thought I'd better soften my approach.
'Yes, may I help you?" I asked in softer, kinder voice than I'd originally intended.
She seemed to spend a few seconds trying to gather some pluck before she got anything to come out of her mouth. "Ah'm sorry ta be a bother but Ah's wonderin' if y'all needed someone ta do some cleanin' n' stuff? Ah work real hard n' Ah don't charge too much."
At least she wasn't begging. The girl looked like she'd had a hard life and her face looked so tired and gaunt I couldn't guess her age. She might have been anywhere between eighteen and thirty. She was at least five-eight or five-nine but I'll bet she didn't weigh a hundred pounds. I thought her face would probably be kind of pretty if her cheeks weren't so sunken in. My first impression was that she was malnourished, maybe even ill. Unlike most of the people in this part of the country, obesity was not her problem. My second impression was that, having been warned by my neighbors that letting strangers into your house wasn't wise since they might be scoping it out to see if you had something worth stealing, she might be in cahoots with her boyfriend or husband or brothers.
"Well Miss, in this house it's just me and my dog and keeping it clean isn't any problem at all. I doubt I'd have enough work to make it worth your while."
"Oh, it wouldn't have to be ever' day. Ah could come once 'r twice a week."
It was a pretty sure bet she didn't have references. "Do you clean for other people around here?"
"Well, not yet but Ah'm hopin' to."
My curiosity was getting the best of me. This girl looked and sounded pretty desperate. When I took a closer look, I saw she had some bruises on her upper arms like someone had grabbed her way too hard.
"Miss, are you married?"
"No, sir. Ah ain't got a husband, jest a baby boy."
"Where's your baby now?"
She turned and pointed up to the road. At first I didn't understand but when I stepped out onto the porch and looked up the drive, I saw a baby carrier and a diaper bag sitting beside my trash bin just off the road. That torqued my jaw a few pounds.
"Young lady, you shouldn't leave your baby alone like that! What were you thinking?"
Her eyes started getting wet. "Well, Ah jest didn't want you ta thank ... oh, Ah don't know..." She sank into the plastic chair beside her and broke into sobs.
Of course I felt like an ass. "Look, why don't you go up there and get him and bring him down here. I've got some iced tea. We can sit and talk some more and maybe work something out."
She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and trudged up the drive like a broken spirit. When she came back with the carrier and bag of baby supplies, I showed her into the kitchen and had her sit at the table. She picked up the baby who didn't look more than three or four months old and laid him over her shoulder, patting his little butt. I set a tall glass of iced tea in front of her along with the sugar bowl and a tall spoon.
In for a penny, in for a pound, I figured. "Have you had lunch, Miss?"
"No, sir. Ah ain't got no money." Her expression was a mixture of pain, desperation, shame; you name it.
"How about the baby? Do you have milk for him?"
"Ah still got a little bit of powdered formula in a can. Ah been tryin' to breastfeed him but Ah can't seem to make enough milk. Probly 'caus Ah ain't had much ta eat myself."
That seemed like the first order of business. "I've got some baked chicken and some potato salad in the fridge. That'll get you started and I'll make up some formula for the baby. Give me that can of formula and his bottle."
"Ah surely do thank ya, mister. Ah'll do whatever you want to pay ya back."
I had no doubt she would and more's the pity. "Not necessary. What's your name, Miss?"
"It's, uh, Charlene Gibbons. Mah boy's name is Eli." The little pause left me in doubt.
"Pleased to meet you, Charlene. My name's Evan Duncan. Do you live around here?"
"No, Ah ain't got a place yet."
I did a double take on that one. "Are you saying you don't have any place to live?"
"Not yet. Ah jest got here this mornin'."
"Over in Kentucky. We hitched a ride n' he let us out down at the highway. Ah been tryin' ta find work all day."
"Don't you have family in Kentucky?"
"No, sir. Ah had a boyfriend but he kept stealin' mah money to buy beer 'n dope. I told him to leave but he wouldn't and the only thang Ah could think ta do was ta jest git out myself so Ah took off while he was passed out on the floor." I wouldn't call her a liar but there was something about the story that didn't quite ring true.
"Did he put those bruises on your arms?"
She looked down at the purple marks and said, "Ah guess."
I thought about everything she's told me while I was preparing the baby's formula and his mama was wolfing down the chicken and potato salad like she was afraid it would vanish before she could scoop it up. In the end I decided to break one of my own rules.
"Charlene, I can let you have a few bucks to tide you over 'till you find work. There must be some sort of social service around here that can find a place for you and your baby to stay."
.... There is more of this story ...