June 27, 2014 11:44:54 AM
This woman in ill-fitting, soiled clothes sat beside a shuttered gas station in front of Leigh Mall. I would pass by in the middle of the day and see her. Usually her head was down and she was there a lot. This went on for weeks. We all have places to go.
On Tuesday she was there again, and I stopped and walked over to find her chin against her chest and her eyes closed. In her lap was a notebook with some words jotted down. By the way it sat there, it seemed like she had fallen asleep while writing.
Her eyes opened when I spoke and she told me she was trying to get back to Tuscaloosa.
"If I can get back there," she said, "I'll never come back."
She kept saying she had come to Columbus for help. I asked what kind, but she wouldn't or couldn't explain. She had a book bag stuffed with toiletries and a few pieces of clothing. She said it was all she had.
I thought, 'What the hell,' and asked if she wanted a ride to Tuscaloosa. She said, Yes, and off we went. During the next 55 miles she spoke only if I asked questions. She said her name was Chelsea.
She was 32, from Chicago and she got to Alabama via a long-haul trucker she met. They had traveled together in his rig for a while but in Tuscaloosa one day she went into a truck stop and when she came out he and his rig were gone. I asked why.
"Because I wouldn't do the things he wanted me to with other truckers," she said.
The thing clearly embarrassed her. It happened last winter. She had spent the last several months begging in Tuscaloosa and then hitchhiking to Columbus and begging here, and back again, back again. I sensed that in her there was something submissive, something broken, something hidden. I am only human and figured an addiction of sorts played a part. She spent our trip looking through the passenger window.
I asked about her parents. She said they had left her with family friends when she was 8 and she had not seen her mother or father since.
"I guess they didn't think they could raise me good," she said.
I felt sorry for her, and asked if she had children.
She said she had three. Then she said, "Four," and shook her head at having forgotten one. Other people had custody of them, she said. She wouldn't or couldn't explain too much.
I thought of her not thinking of her children much. I thought of her forgetting for a moment how many she had. I thought of children with no mother. And the sympathy I felt for Chelsea dipped some.
She said she hoped to go back to Chicago.
Between Reform and Gordo she fell asleep. I woke her in Northport and asked where she wanted to go. She said the Exxon station along the highway.
When she got out I asked what she had been writing in her notebook earlier.
"Just some stuff I need to do when I get back home," she said. "I make lists sometimes when I got nothing to do."
I asked if I could see the list, and she let me.
I drove back to Columbus thinking, the entire way, about that list. This is what it said:
Miguel, boy, 1 pack of Kuddles baby diapers, candy
Malik, boy, toys from Dollar General
Daemian, boy, 1 pack of Luvs deluxe diapers, needs toys too
Montega, boy, 1 pack of Kuddles pull-ups, better with them
Chelsea's kids, wherever they are, have a mother who thinks of them when she has not much else to do.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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