An acquaintance, whom I shall call Phoenix, has begun to trust me enough to reveal something of her personal situation. She is twice a widow with two young children. She arrived in Sprawling Suburb two years ago, on the run from gang murderers. She had been living in a far away city with her husband. He tended bar. One early afternoon, while he was at work and talking by cell phone with her, some men came into the bar. From her description of his tone on the phone, I know she thought he recognized them. He told her, quickly, with emphasis, I love you, then ended the call. The police came to get her an hour later. The men who came to the bar shot her husband, then left him dying on the floor. Police told her, it looked like her husband had lived perhaps ten minutes or so, unable to move, bleeding out. When she arrived at the bar, the police would not let her view her husband's body. You're not strong enough to see this, they said to her. They held her back. She watched the ambulance remove her husband's body. One of the paramedics moving the gurney tripped. The gurney tipped. The body spilled out. She caught a glimpse. The corpse was placed in the ambulance. Pronounced DOA at the hospital. The coroner also would not let her see her husband's body. You're not strong enough for this, he told her. She had to sign the papers identifying the body without seeing it. She could not say goodbye to him. Nor could her children.
The police immediately placed Phoenix and her children into witness protection. The murderers had left everything on her husband's body and in his wallet, except for her photo. I inferred that her husband's killing must have been a gang shooting. The detective thought she would be next. Had her husband been a police informer, I wondered; but I did not ask her. She said, as she often did, in nearly any conversation, I don't know anything. I took the statement as drawing a line. I didn't know how much I should probe.
She was in witness protection for only several months, when the police told her that she should leave the city and the region. She wasn't safe there. She appealed to her brothers, one of whom lived in Sprawling Suburb. Her brothers declined to help her. Her older brother's son, who is married to a Mormon woman, however, drove to her in faraway city in his truck and brought her and her two boys to Sprawling Suburb. They had to leave most of their possessions behind. The evacuation was quick. She did not even have time to pack her photograph albums, which were with a friend.
Phoenix's niece obtained employment for her. I met her through her job. As I came to know her, she grew to trust me and revealed more about her life. She lives hand to mouth, she and her children crowded into a one-bedroom apartment. She sleeps on the couch, her boys in the bedroom. When her husband was killed, the owner of the bar refused to make the claim on his employer's insurance that would have provided her with a death benefit. He didn't want his insurance rates raised. Her husband had no insurance. She used all her small savings to bury her husband. Her worldly possessions amounted to some clothing, kitchen ware, household items, and old SUV with 330,000 miles on it.
The older of her two boys is the son of the man with whom she had run away from home at age fifteen. She had the boy when she was sixteen. She left her husband, when he became abusive. Several years after they separated, he died from cancer. He had worked at a chrome plating automobile plant. Her second husband, the man who was murdered, fathered her youngest boy. Now she is in a new city, with few friends or family. She said, she was not legally married to her husbands. They were live-in partners. Her niece, who had sent her husband to bring her to Sprawling Suburb, is not a blood relative, but is the wife of the son of her brother, sort of a niece-in-law.
She wanted advice one day. Her request concerned the daughter of her niece. Her niece has several children, one of whom, now an adult, still lives with her mother. The husband of her niece is not her legal husband, but a live-in partner, to whom her niece is deeply committed. Her niece's children were fathered by a previous husband, who also had not been a legal husband and is now in jail. Her niece's current so-called husband, Phoenix informed me, is sleeping with her niece's nineteen year old daughter, that is, with his sort-of step-daughter. By this daughter, he has had two children. So my acquaintance's niece's daughter is living with her mother with her children by her mother's partner.
Did her niece know? Phoenix said that her niece denies the suggestion that her husband had fathered her two grandchildren and a third with which she was now pregnant. That denial strikes both Phoenix and me as willful self-deception. Phoenix, who is a close friend now of the young woman, said the young woman claims to be one-hundred per cent certain of the paternity. Although their sex began when she was a minor, it was, and continues to be, consensual. This young woman now desires to leave her mother's household to escape the relationship, which she recognizes is inappropriate.
Should Phoenix help her? If she does help her, Phoenix's niece would be distraught, because she does not want to lose her grandchildren from her home. The niece would also probably break off her friendship with Phoenix. Phoenix feels obligated to her niece, because the older woman was the only person to help her escape far away city. Influenced by her niece, Phoenix, with her two boys, has joined the Mormon Church. Phoenix asked, was not the right action to assist her niece's daughter to leave the niece's household. I agreed that was the morally right choice, even though it would abrogate her obligation through gratitude to her niece.
My acquaintance and her young woman friend are now planning how to extricate the young woman and her two children and set up housekeeping in a two-bedroom apartment.
I thought to myself of this situation, at every juncture of my acquaintance's life she choses to make her life more complicated in human relationships, living arrangements, and moral choices. She can't keep it simple. She does not appear to do so from desire for self-dramatization; he isn't a drama queen. She complicates her life with honorable motives, if, on occasion, apparently, with impulsiveness.
Nonetheless, from what I could observe, she has managed to make good moral choices that removed herself, her children, and occasionally other persons from harm. She is raising two boys in ways that shelter them from worst effects of their impecunious situation and the opportunities for harm that abound in the neighborhoods and circles in which they have lived. Both boys are very bright and handsome, one just having completed his first year of high school, the other his first grade. The younger boy has just been selected for the GATE program. I have met the boys, who are courteous and obedient, at least in their mother's presence.
It is easy to conclude when talking to their mother, that her sons got their smarts, or most of them, anyway, from her. Phoenix is alive with brightness, sharply observing the world around her, packing away endless details about scenes and situations. Her eyes flash widely when she talks. She exudes the optimistic resilience of someone whose brains have given her confidence that her intelligence will spy a way through her difficulties. She is a not a victim, but rather a winner, strong enough, in life's reality show, survival of the fittest.
Revised, June 21, 2008.