I am in Santa Cruz, bundled up in a sleeping bag and tucked into a nook of the cliff that borders New Brighton Beach. Sleeping on the beach is always something that I wanted to do. It is a nice night, the fog has just started to roll in and it promised not to be too cold. I am here from South Carolina. I keep insisting that I’m not homeless, I am just traveling. After crossing the entire country and roaming up and down the western coast, I have to admit that my van was my home. I had run out of money a few weeks ago and had been living hand to mouth since then. It wasn’t hard to get food here, though. I may be homeless but I’m pretty happy.
The next morning, I wake at sunrise and rolled up my sleeping bag. I meander my way back to my van. It is one of those camper types with a little kitchen area and a roof that pops up into a sleeping nook. I bought it after quitting my job and selling everything I owned. At 27, I feel trapped in my life. I know that I should have ‘found myself’ a while ago but I had been too busy with school and then work to even think about what I wanted or who I was. So here I am, more then 2500 miles from home. There is some granola cereal, that a hippy gave me, stashed behind my seat and I eat it plain. It’s good—honey, oats, and cranberries with some kind of nut—and I’m pretty sure it’s homemade.
I didn’t know that hippies still existed before I got to California. They were always just a Halloween costume to me. I thought the whole concept was strange but now I’m not so sure. I heard that there was still a functional commune up in Mendocino and I’m thinking about checking it out. I could imagine the phone call home:
“But Stephanie!” my Mom always uses my whole name when she’s upset, “You have an MBA!”
As if a degree guarantees happiness. The truth was, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel like I was giving anything up because I had no idea what I wanted. I feel like the world’s oldest teenager. I resolve to make it back up the coast and at least see what the commune’s like. If it’s not for me then at least I will know for sure. Maybe I’ll find happiness.
I haven’t showered in at least a week and I decide to take advantage of the early hour and wash my hair. The diehard surfers are already drifting on their boards, looking for a good wave. A few salute me as I take my travel size shampoo and suds my hair in the outdoor showers that are meant for washing sand off of feet. I throw a hand up self-consciously and wish that I had grown up here. I love this town. It feels so relaxed. I remember seeing Lost Boys as a kid, and am surprised by how much the town is really like that.
Hair wet, but clean, and teeth brushed, I climb into my van and make my way downtown. There’s a church that serves breakfast a short walk from the main strip. I trudge my way uphill to get breakfast and see Savannah up ahead of me. She’s 16, maybe younger and has been homeless for a couple of years. Her clothes are ratty and her backpack is safety-pinned together. She shaved her head a couple of days ago because of lice. In my old life she is someone who I would have refused to look at for fear that she would con me out of money. It’s different now. She’s a nice kid and I know that she comes from an intolerable family situation. A lot of these kids do.
“Hey Savannah,” I call, “Wait up.”
She stops and looks back at me, smiling. “Hey Steph.”
“You heading up the church for breakfast?”
“Yeah, wanna come with?”
I don’t have to answer because we’re already walking that way. We’re comfortably silent for a little while then she turns watery blue eyes to me and whispers, “Did you hear what happened to Ghost?”
“Nah, what?” I try not to do it, but I always find myself monkeying the street kids’ vocabulary.
“He got stabbed last night.” She shakes her head. “Some deal went bad. I don’t know. They’re talking about finding the guy who did it.”
“Shit. Is he okay? Was it bad?”
Savannah’s tight-lipped. “I think he’ll be okay. I helped stitch him up last night.”
This kind of thing is what keeps me back from the homeless populous. I don’t do drugs and I don’t want to. I don’t want to deal them. I don’t want to be around them. Not all of them are drug addicts or even drug users but it is a part of the street culture. There is a hierarchy to people outside the system and it’s dependent on this enterprise. I was on the fringes of it, observing a culture that I never knew about, but not participating. We make it to the church and collected our breakfast. I stash a few bagels away in my bag.
“I’m thinking about going up the coast,” I mumble around a mouth full of oatmeal. I can’t get enough food today.
Savannah makes a sour face. “Really? What for?” Her tone says that I won’t find anything better than what’s here.
“There’s supposed to be this commune up in Mendocino. I want to check it out. I think it might be what I’m looking for.”
“You think hippie shit might be what you’re looking for?”
“I just want to be part of something. I can’t just drift like this for the rest of my life, but I don’t want to go home. I want to do something. I just haven’t figured out what.”
“If you say so. It’s pretty up there anyway. Lots of forest.”
That was the end of the conversation. I had thought about asking her to come with me but now knew that she wouldn’t be interested. It was too bad.
I stood up to leave. “Take care of yourself, Vannah. Tell Ghost I hope he’s okay.”
“You takin’ off now? Aren’t you gonna say goodbye to everyone?”
“I’ll just be gone for a couple of days. Tell everyone where I went and that I’ll be back.”
I almost ran back down the hill to my van. I hadn’t originally planned on leaving today but talking to Savannah made me realized that if I didn’t leave now there would always some drama keeping me there. The ignition doesn’t want to turn over but I baby it until it does. The van makes a racket that I pretend I can’t hear and I push it towards 1. I only have to stop for gas once, and I use my ‘emergency’ credit card that I know is probably over the limit. My credit score is ruined.
I get to Mendocino by early afternoon. It doesn’t take me too long to find the 50-acre commune. I can see the collection of small houses and larger public buildings down the dirt road that I am stopped in front of. I hadn’t thought of what I would do when I actually got here. What if they don’t want me? I hadn’t contemplated rejection. It was too late for these worries now. I’m already here.
Bumping down the dirt road, I see a group of people gathered in the courtyard. I’m surprised by how many young people there are. Women who are my age, holding naked children, men standing back, everyone’s smiling. There are a lot of older folks, which is what I expected. My dream commune of ‘60s flower children who couldn’t give up on their way of life. They don’t look angry at my trespass and I start to relax. I smile back as I kill the van’s engine and climb out.
“Hey,” calls one of the older men. He looks like my grandfather, gray haired and happy.
“Hey,” I call back, not knowing what else to say. Can you ask to join something already so established?
“I’m Mark. Were you looking for us or are you just lost?”
I walk up until I’m standing about five feet from the crowd. There are maybe 20 people in all. “Hi Mark, I’m Stephanie. I was actually looking for you guys. I hope that’s okay.”
The group lets out a collective laugh and I know that everything is going to be fine. They don’t mind that I’m here. “That’s great. If you want to come into the meeting hall you and I can get to know each other and you can decide if this is the right place for you.”
Everyone looks so serene, like they have something that I don’t. Something I want. We settle into some chairs in the meeting hall, Mark and I sitting across from each other. I wait for him to start; I don’t know what to say.
“Well Stephanie. Why don’t you tell me why you’re here.”
I recited my story. How I had a successful career but felt incomplete as a person. How I had given up my job and all of my things and traveled across country. I recounted the past few weeks that I had spent in Santa Cruz. Mostly though, I talked about how I wanted to belong to something. I had a longing to be part of something bigger than myself.
“You were an accountant?” Marks asked when I finish.
“Yes, I have an MBA.” I felt weird touting credentials that I hadn’t thought about in months.
“That’s excellent. You understand that everyone here needs to contribute something?” I nodded solemnly. “We have a lot of farmers and people who understand irrigation. We also have some carpenters. We don’t, however, have someone who is good with numbers. We don’t use or need a whole lot of money here but it is impossible for us to be completely self-contained. It would greatly ease my burden to have someone around who understood how that kind of thing worked.”
I froze. I know the look that crossed my face. It’s the one people get when they’re told the one thing they don’t want to hear. That disbelief that makes everyone look stupid. I felt like I would never breath again.
“You want me to be… your accountant?” my voice was coming back to me from very far away. Like it had traveled to the bottom of the ocean and back. Dark and gurgely.
“Of course. Wouldn’t that be your best way to contribute? It’s kismet that you possess the one skill that we’re looking for.”
“Kismet?” I shake my head, still not wanting to believe. “You’re serious. I don’t know, Mark. That’s kind of what I’m trying to get away from. I was hoping to farm. I want to work with my hands.”
“We would want you to help with the farming. Our finances won’t be too much work for you. We all lend our best skills here, Stephanie. We could really use your help with this.”
There it was. Accounting is my only avenue. They won’t accept me unless I agree. I don’t want to do this, but I am willing to. At least I will get to farm. My hands haven’t bee n dirty since I was 10.
I give a laugh that I hope isn’t too nervous. “Sure. I’m happy to contribute. That’s why I’m here.”
I have been living on the commune for the past two months. At the moment, I have a ledger open in front of me. My desk is covered with receipts, most of them handwritten. I have not farmed. I have not played with the babies. All I do is sit in a small, stuffy room and try to figure out what has been happening, money wise, for the past 30 years.
There is no computer, so everything has to be done by hand. I hate it. At least at my old office there were computers and air conditioning and floor to ceiling windows. I put my head down and, unsuccessfully, try to keep from crying. I stay that way for 15 minutes. As I get ready to start shoveling back through the files, Mark walks in. He is smiling, beaming really, and carrying a stake of papers.
“I see you’re still hard at work!” he almost shouts at me as he sits the files on my desk. “I found some more information that you might find helpful.”
I try not to glare at him. “I don’t know if I can keep doing this. I barely get to spend any time outside. I can’t sleep and, when I do, I dream about your damn handwritten receipts. This isn’t at all what I expected.”
He puts on his sympathetic face. It was a look that I had grown to hate. “I know that this has been a bigger project than we anticipated, but I think that if you just keep plugging away—“
This is the last straw. Having a bed to sleep in is nice, but I was much happier living in my camper, doing my own thing. I stood up. There was no reason for me to keep doing this. “You know, Mark. I think I’m going to leave. I can’t stand to spend another day in this office.”
“Sure, get out in the sun for a little while, stretch your legs. Poppy could use help picking green beans. When you’re ready we can go over the paperwork I have from 1997. I think that our tax returns might be wrong.”
I rub my eyes and start to leave. “No Mark. I’m leaving. Right now. I didn’t leave my home and job just so I could be chained to another desk. I don’t need you to be in charge of me.”
“I really don’t appreciate you talking to me like that, Stephanie.”
I was already out the door. I gather my meager belongings from my house and climb into my van. I turn off the dirt road and onto the interstate. I can feel myself starting to relax. Driving makes me feel free. I heard that there might be a gypsy camp somewhere in Minnesota. Maybe I’ll head that way.
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Portland Fiction Project
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