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  • I got out of my car, took my jacket off, and put it and my purse into my trunk. Carrying just a clipboard, pen and my ID, I walked into the building and said a silent thank you that I had only two flights of stairs to climb in stairwells that reeked of body fluids. I swore—again—that this was it; next week I was going to go get a job that offered more than an up-close view of entrenched poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and despair and anger so aching you could not bear to look at it. Technically, I was in the business of trying to help, but the truth was, all too often I, and myriad others doing similar things, only added to the overall misery that was life at the bottom.

    I knocked on the door and after a few moments it opened. In front of me stood a young woman—we’ll call her Denise--who looked like she had just gotten up, although it was past lunch time. She said she was expecting me, asked me inside and took me to the room that was her living room. On the way through the apartment I fought to keep the disgust from my face and my breakfast in my stomach.

    To say the apartment was dirty would be generous. It reeked. There was not a space in the kitchen that was not filled with dirty dishes or rotting food. There was an aquarium sitting on the floor, and while whatever had been in it was long gone, the water remained, fetid and covered with a green slime. Cockroaches scurried across everything and up and down the walls, so many they had seemingly dispensed with their preference for dark spots and now were willing to claim any territory they could find. I’d like to say I was surprised, but I was not. My past experience with these home visits were the reason my coat and purse were in the car. In my job, you quickly learned how to avoid taking unwanted critters home with you.

    Denise deposited me in a room that was almost dark. The lone light bulb hanging from the ceiling had burned out and Denise went to look for another one. The only furniture in the room was a corner piece of a sectional couch—no other pieces in sight—and a grimy wooden kitchen chair. I chose the chair, figuring I could more easily see the movement of the roaches on it, and I sat, praying Denise wouldn’t think she had to be polite and return with something for me to drink. I counted my blessings.

    I thought about why I was here, in someone else’s home. Denise had had her four children taken away from her, not because of the condition of the home, but because her boyfriend had been abusing the children---broken bones, concussion, black eye abusing---and I worked with the agency that was supposed to help her get them back, if possible. I also was responsible for home visits and reporting on the suitability of the home for children and Denise would have known that. The fact that she had made zero effort to make the apartment somewhat presentable told me that she was either in a depression, which wouldn’t be surprising, but if proved would mean that she would have to be in treatment for a substantial amount of time and make significant progress before her children would be returned. Or, and this was, in my experience, just as likely, Denise believed her children were better off without her, and at least for now, was enjoying a lessening of the stress involved in not being able to adequately care for her four children. In any case, these children were not coming home soon. And I was the one who would tell her that.

    Denise returned with only the light bulb, screwed it in and started to sit down. Her phone rang and she was gone again. Great! All I wanted to do was finish the visit and leave and she was talking on the phone! I scanned the room as I waited. The dirty lime green walls held nothing, until I looked at the wall behind me. In about the middle, about six feet up, was a framed piece of art work. Nice frame. I got up to get a closer look then stopped as I realized what it was. It wasn’t a painting or print. It was a needlework piece, more specifically, crewel work. It was of a bouquet of pastel colored flowers on a green linen background, very pretty, and the result of many hours of work. I knew because I had sewn every stitch, tied every French knot, stretched the canvas, a bit unevenly. I was the one responsible for the crack across a tiny bit of the right lower corner, having dropped it while hanging it for the first time. I had completed it at least fifteen years ago, and it had been at least five since I had included it in a box of stuff I gave a relative for their yard sale.

    It was the first needlework piece I had ever done, shortly after my marriage, in part as a way to demonstrate my appreciation of womanly arts, but also to prove that I was a good wife, decorating our abode with the work of my hands. When the marriage disappeared, so did my fondness for the things with which I had marked my spousal territory. But that piece remained special because it took so long and each stitch was made with love and hope for my new and promising life. It all came back in a heartbeat as I looked at it. It occurred to me that my fingerprints were probably still on it somewhere. My young, naïve fingerprints.

    Denise returned once again, apologized, and saw me looking at her one piece of decoration. The only thing I had seen hanging on her walls. She told me she couldn’t remember where she got it, but she loved the flowers. Yes, I said, most everyone loves flowers.
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