When my father smiles, the wide gaps between his teeth are on cartoony display. His family could afford braces for only one child, and, as the girl, his sister’s looks won priority. In adulthood, Debbie was the homeless woman with perfect teeth.
The last time I saw my aunt was Christmas 2007. I was home in North Carolina for winter break during my senior year of college. I’d just completed my second term of French, and, on Christmas day, I was arrogant in my use of rudimentary language skills to make snide remarks to my French-fluent mother. A gruff smoker’s laugh interrupted my stilted chatter, and Debbie piped up in proficient French. I was shocked into silence—chagrined because I’d been talking about my aunt and beyond surprised because, being homeless and an alcoholic, Debbie was the last middle-aged person you’d expect to recall lessons learned in high school.
That Christmas, my aunt brought in her suitcase two white mice that quickly took up residence in the guest room closet, presumably pleased to be no longer homeless.
At one point, Debbie made me tea, and, to test the heat, she’d sipped from my cup. I took the cup but never had a sip myself. Taking me aside, my dad demanded that I stop treating her like a homeless person. “Dad, she is a homeless person,” I said.
That Christmas, Debbie told us that, while she was living in “the forest” – a phrase so Disney-movie-inspired we all found it darkly hilarious – her morning wake-up call involved overly friendly raccoons scratching her gently on the nose.
During her visit, Debbie never smelled homeless. She smelled quite fragrant, minty fresh, in fact. She’d been reduced to satisfying her alcohol addiction with Dollar Store mouthwash and remnants oozed from her pores with her sweat.
Until he passed, my grandfather offered Debbie some monetary support for her flophouse lifestyle with an ever-changing group of fellow addicts and enablers packed into overcapacity roach motel rooms or near-condemned dank one-room apartments in Wildwood, N.J. But when he died, Debbie refused to be taken in by my father and retreated to “the forest.” When winter chill set in, the cops in Cape May arrested forest dwellers on loitering charges, or whatever outstanding warrants were on the books, to protect them from the elements.
In the weeks prior to that holiday, my father had been to New Jersey three times to try to have Debbie transferred from county jail to a state facility that would dry her out. Each time she was released on her own recognizance and returned to the forest, disinclined to take up the “square” lifestyle my dad’s help required. Travel costs put a strain on my parents, so my dad forced the issue and transported Debbie and her few belongings southward just in time for Christmas.
By New Year’s, my dad had secured Debbie a job as a grocery store butcher, but it wasn’t long before she was fired for getting drunk at work. Eventually, my parents worried that Debbie might pass out with a cigarette in her mouth and burn the house down or that she’d offer shelter to other, more unsavory former forest dwellers. Going with their contingency plan meant setting Debbie up in a cheap motel across the border in South Carolina near the Mitsubishi plant site where my dad worked as an environmental engineer.
My father encouraged Debbie to search for employment within walking distance of her motel. One afternoon, Debbie was refused an application at Sonic. So, she panhandled enough for a dram of cheap vodka and, in short order, earned a citation for drunk and disorderly conduct after peeing on the lawn in front of Sonic in full view of diners and passing traffic.
Soon enough, Debbie made friends and moved from the motel into a small tent city in a warmer forest away from her brother’s questions and surveillance. It was an outcome that was expected, even inevitable. Debbie was going on 40 years held hostage by addictive impulses. Her drug and alcohol habits were full-grown by her late teens.
Over the past four decades, my dad unsuccessfully attempted to rehabilitate his sister countless times. Once, when I was a baby, he’d bought her a ticket home for a sobriety try. Debbie made it into the car he’d arranged to take her to the airport but did not make it on the plane. Outside departures, she found a cabbie who offered her a fare-free ride. She should have been skeptical of this beneficence. The cabbie was counterfeit and piloting a stolen taxi. My aunt was arrested as an accomplice to grand theft auto.