A Morning with Polly

Jeffrey Schuster

I only met her once, one summer a long time ago. I was in college at the time. A few months into the previous semester I had run out of money. I used the last of my savings to pay for tuition and then every two weeks I got a small check from my job as student assistant at the Zoology Library. So, from early January all the way through August, I roamed around campus at night, looking for a place to sleep.

After a month or two of this, I had figured out a few options. Sometimes my friend Adam would let me sleep on the floor of his apartment, the one above the bakery. Or I'd go to the lobby of one of the dormitories, find a couch and spread my books out. Then I'd lay down and fall asleep. The security guards thought I was one of the residents cramming for a big test. Most of the time, though, I'd either walk out to a Donutland along a highway or to the main lobby of the university hospital.

I was a homeless student for about nine months. During that time I carried everything around in a brown camera bag. It had a lot of zippered pockets, into which I put a couple changes of clothes, disposable razors, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, along with school books and notebooks. The rest of my clothes were hidden all over the Zoology Library.

I had keys to the library so if I got there before midnight -- that’s when security locked the front doors to the building -- I could sleep on one of the large wooden study tables. I had a black overcoat that I used as a blanket. I'd fall asleep on my back and wake up around six o'clock before anyone arrived.

Anyway, one night I missed the midnight lockup, so I lugged my camera bag out to the all-night Donutland, walking over the bridge by the Art Building and then following the railroad tracks until I reached the lit-up donut shop.

This Donutland catered mainly to truck drivers, highway patrol officers, and the bar crowd trying to sober up after the two a.m. closing time. But it was never so crowded that you couldn't find a seat. It was a wedge-shaped building with high glass windows. Inside, fluorescent lights lit up the racks of donuts, the low counter with swivel stools, and the booths next to the windows. Most of the time you could hear the workers in the back goofing off, but every now and then they came back out to see if anyone needed a refill.

The coffee was pretty awful, but the refills were free and you could stay as long as you wanted -- for me, that meant sunrise more often than not.

That night, though, for some reason, I was restless. After a couple hours of studying, I put my books away and walked back to the university hospital, where I could sit and read.

It was six-thirty or so when I happened to look up from my book. The lobby was quiet. A nurse went by pushing a patient in a wheelchair. Then a policeman came around a corner from inside the building, guiding a skinny woman in blue jeans by the elbow. He was joking with her about something. They seemed to be on familiar terms. He led her over to the sitting area where I was reading and said to her, "Just sit here and rest. We'll have a car here in a couple minutes." Then he walked over to a phone and placed a call.

She took a seat across from me. I glanced up from my book. She was wearing scuffed-up cowboy boots, faded straight-leg blue jeans, and a white T-shirt. She looked to be in her mid-thirties. She had long, slender arms, made even paler by the white shirt. Her black, shoulder-length hair was pulled back behind her ears. As she looked around the room, I noticed that the skin around her eyes was darkened and that she had crow's feet in the corners.

I returned to my book. When I next looked up, I found her staring at me. Before I could drop my eyes back down, she asked me what I was reading.

I hesitated. Then, as though I had forgotten what it was I was holding in my hand, I looked at the cover and said, "A novel by a guy named William Faulkner."

She did not ask me what the novel was about. In fact, she disregarded my reply. A conversation of sorts took place. She did most of the talking, prompted now and then by a question from me.

"I used to be married," she said. "In Des Moines I lived in this huge house in suburbia and I rode a horse every morning." She paused and then added, "Sometimes in the nude." She looked toward the entrance of the hospital. "That used to drive the neighbor crazy. He really had the hots for me." Again she paused, not looking at me at all.

Suddenly her tone changed. "I used to skinny-dip in our pool as the sun was coming up! I'd see that bastard up at his window, behind the curtain!" At this memory, her eyes blazing, she turned toward me and then she let out a loud laugh.

Just then the policeman came over and asked Polly if she was ready to go.

She looked up at him from her seat and said, "Yeah. But can you give this guy a lift?"

Earlier, I had told her a little about my situation. She said that she'd let me sleep at her house on the other side of town.

She jerked her thumb at me. The policeman smiled and said, "Sure, let's go."

I put my book away and slung the camera bag over my shoulder. Outside, at the front door, there was a police car waiting for us. Polly and I got into the back seat and the policeman leaned down and gave the driver directions.

While the car made its way across Iowa City, I was laughing inside, watching the sleepy town from the car window. I picked up a few more pieces of Polly's story, too. The night before she had almost overdosed from shooting speed. Someone took her to the emergency room. The people at the hospital knew her because this had happened many times before.

We were on the other side of town, just two blocks away from where she lived, when she asked the driver to drop us off at the Seven-Eleven. He let us out in the parking lot.

Polly pushed inside and shouted hello to the guy behind the counter. He didn't seemed that pleased to see her. She turned to me and said, "Get whatever you want. It's on me."

That was fine with me. I went to the back of the store and got a quart of milk. Back at the counter, I grabbed a donut.

I could hear Polly moving around the store, cursing, "What the hell do I want? What the hell do I want?"

Finally she came toward the counter with a few items, but instead of setting them down she kept going toward the door.

Holding the door open, she called back to the man at the register, "Okay Sam, I'll pay you tomorrow!" All of this happened within a few seconds, catching Sam -- if that really was his name -- off-guard. I reacted quickly and was immediately out the door with Polly. I could hear the man’s raised voice as we started to run across the parking lot.

Polly ran out into the middle of the street and flagged down the first car she saw.

She stepped up to the passenger side and opened the door, yelling at the driver, "What are you doing?"

The young man behind the wheel blurted out, "Nothin'."

"Come on," she called to me. She climbed into the front seat and I climbed into the back.

We were only going two blocks, but I guess Polly needed a ride home. The driver told us he was just getting off work at a factory and was on his way home. Polly invited him over to the house and he said okay because he could never fall asleep anyway.

She lived in a two-story frame house on a corner lot. The three of us went inside and she took me up to her room. She told me that I could sleep in the bed for as long as I wanted. I thanked her because I was dead tired. I couldn't remember how long I had been up. She went back downstairs, where I heard people moving around and talking.

I sat down on the bed and pulled my shoes off. Then I took my shirt and pants off and climbed into bed in my underwear. I lay on my back and pulled the sheet over me. The heat was already starting to rise on this summer morning.

It was wonderful lying there. I figured it had been about eight months since I had last slept in a bed. With the curtains pulled shut, it was like lying in the shade of a tree. I was so exhausted, though, that it was difficult to fall asleep. The stairway that led to the ground floor was just outside the door. Now and then I heard laughter from downstairs.

Just as I was about to fall asleep, someone came up the steps and into the room. It was Polly. She took a cigarette from a pack on the dresser, turned without saying anything and went back downstairs. Over the next hour, this happened seven or eight times. I have no idea why she didn't simply take the pack down with her. And I was too numb with exhaustion to ask. At the same time, I found that I couldn't fall asleep. After trying several times, I gave up.

Then I heard Polly talking to someone on the phone. She must have been sitting on the bottom step of the stairs because I could hear every word she said. She began to cry and then beg someone on the other end of the line. It was awful, pathetic. Then she began to howl and I heard her throw herself against the side of the stairwell. Her wailing came up the steps, slipped under the door, and ran right up my spine. I understood then that I'd have to leave if I wanted to get any sleep.

I slowly got dressed, picked up the camera bag, opened the door and walked downstairs.

Sure enough, there at the bottom of the steps was Polly crying. Her tangled hair covered her face. She was resting her forehead on the second step.

The guy who had given us a lift was gone. I went to the front door and was getting ready to say goodbye when I looked back into the living-room and saw a guy I recognized from downtown Iowa City. He used to hang out at a place called The Best Steak House, a restaurant run by Greeks from Chicago. In fact, I had talked to him a few times. He had told me how he used to race dragsters. One time he rolled a car and was in traction for months. That's how, he said, he got the long scar on his face. I remember that he always had a serious expression on his face, kind of sullen. The few times I saw him smile, it looked strange.

He came out of the living-room and stood by the front door with me. Half the lawn was still in morning shadows, but I was already starting to sweat.

"You need a ride downtown?" he asked.

I said that I did.

He pushed the screen door open, calling back to Polly, "Okay, let's go!"

I followed him across the lawn to a huge four-door Chrysler. Polly was coming, too. I could hear her sniffling behind me. I got into the back seat and rolled down my window.

She climbed into the front seat on the passenger side, and we pulled away, heading downtown.

"We'll get some codeine at the Wal-Mart," he said, looking straight ahead.

"They know me there," Polly sobbed. "They won't give me jack shit."

"I'll go in," he said.

In the back seat, with my left arm resting on the top of the camera bag, I watched the houses slip past in the flooding sunshine. It looked like, if it continued, everything would turn to white -- overexposed.

I looked at Polly's face. She was still crying. The wind coming through the window was smearing the tears against the side of her face.

They dropped me off downtown and I never saw her again. Years later, thinking about all those months, those middle-of-the-night walks around the city with the brown camera bag, the first image to come to mind would be the tears on Polly's face as the three of us rode downtown. It's always seemed strange to me that the strongest memory I have of that time in my life would be someone else's tears.


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