The Outsider


The numbers on the screen don’t add up. Or maybe the problem is that they do. Too damned much.

When I came back ‘home’ six months ago, I had a plan. I bought the old wood-frame house where my Gran raised me. I have money now. I’m going to fix it up. Solar and wind power. Raised beds instead of that dry, worn-out red clay where she’d done her best to supplement our monthly food stamps.

The faces around this old mill village might be more diverse than when I grew up here in the seventies, but there is still plenty of poverty. Working-class families with more month than money, as Gran always said.

And idealistically, I thought I could come back here and show them all a better way. Traditional Ecological Knowledge and permaculture techniques combined with Gran’s good old Depression Era values of looking after your neighbors will see us all through these tough times that are getting tougher every day.

But over four decades living on the west coast, first Los Angeles, then Silicon Valley, and finally Portland has changed things. Or me. Or both. I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m trying to figure out a lot of things. And coming back to where it all started had made sense.

At least it had eight months ago when I began to clear out Jason’s office and talk with all the lawyers and financial advisors. Two decades of marriage, and I never even knew how much my husband was worth until he died. That may seem naïve or maybe stupid, a throwback to another time. But we’d liked it that way. Or at least at first.

At thirty-nine, I’d been a recent divorcee, starting over in Portland. I’d spent twenty years of my life raising my daughters and taking care of our home. I had no marketable job skills, so the best I could do was barista. But I’d liked my job and getting to know the regulars who worked in the big tech companies around the coffee shop. It was almost like being a wife, mother, and homemaker. I got paid, though not very much, to take care of people.

Jason was one of those people. He, too, was recently divorced. Though they’d had no children. We never really dated. Just walks in the park talking about all sorts of things. He was intelligent, well-read, and kind. It just sort of went from friendship to sex to living together.

Of course, I had an inkling that Jason was ‘rich’ when he took me to his house. It was wooden like this place, but that’s where the similarities ended. Three stories, a Georgian Colonial with a colossal wrap-around porch, oak hardwood floors, original stained glass windows, and red fir wainscot. Six bedrooms and four bathrooms, the house was a piece of history that Jason was lovingly restoring to its former grandeur. It was his pet project, or perhaps his mid-life crisis.

Sometimes I felt, probably still feel, like I was another of Jason’s ‘projects.’ Maybe that isn’t fair. I know he loved me. I saw it in his expressive green eyes every day for over two decades. He wasn’t shy about saying it either.

But it was those little jokes. ‘You can take the girl out of the trailer. But you can’t take the trailer out of the girl.’ It all came down to the house. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that house. At first. Who wouldn’t? It was magnificent, even in its dilapidated state. And as each room began to take shape, it was….

The problem was, it was Jason’s house. Jason’s project. Even though I lived there, even though I cleaned, cooked, and entertained his friends, my opinion didn’t hold the same weight. By the time it was finished, after a decade of loving work, hundreds of builders, and who knows how much money, I wasn’t certain if I was his failed Pygmalian project or the maid, cook, and whore.

Our wedding was more a grand reveal of his house than a celebration of our love and commitment to one another. I’m still struggling to figure out why I went through with it. But I’m glad I did. Or I am most of the time.

Covid. Jason worked long hours. There was never any time for exercise.  If I didn’t cook for him, he ate crap. And he was older. I still carry the guilt that I could not be there when he needed me most. But there are lots of wives, husbands, sons, daughters, and parents in that boat. It is just part of our ‘new reality.’

Along with this pessimistic acceptance of capitalism gone mad. The rich are getting richer. And the poor are starving. I spent two decades volunteering in the ‘right’ liberal think-tank projects around Portland. After all, Jason Joiner’s partner couldn’t be a barista.

So, here I am. Sixty next month. Five million, two-hundred, forty-seven thousand, six hundred, eighty-four dollars, and oh, fifty-two cents in my various ethical bank accounts and investments. Yeah, I know my net worth down to the penny. And I check it daily, sometimes more than once.

But the thing is, as much as that once seemed to me, a million dollars doesn’t go as far as you’d think. Between this house, the vacant lot down the street that I’m slowly turning into a community garden, all the retrofitting of solar panels and a wind turbine, I’ve blown almost half a million already.

And I’m nowhere near my vision for this community. That’s part of the problem. They say, ‘you can never go home.’ Maybe they’re right. I might have grown up here. With all my roots in this house and that infertile, dry, red clay dirt, but now I’m an outsider. The rich, white, do-gooder.

The whole idea was simple. I sat right here at a similar melamine table on the same sticky plastic and metal chairs and listened to dozens, maybe hundreds, of Gran’s stories of how this neighborhood pulled together to make it through the hard times of the Great Depression. Hell, she could make the struggle to feed your children sound almost romantic.

But there’s no romance in being a single mother of three teens after your husband died of stomach cancer. My grandfather worked ten, sometimes, twelve hours a day in that damned textile mill at the end of the road. It’s still operating. Though few of the workers live in this neighborhood.

That was the idea behind these houses. If you built homes for your workers near the factory, it was easier to get to work. From a strictly environmental point of view, that’s ideal. It also minimizes commute time, making more for family and leisure. And, of course, keeping greenhouse gases out of the air.

But bottom line profit motivated Peter Millner, not the environment or care for his workers. My grandfather’s death proves that. Of course, that’s next to impossible to prove almost seventy years later. But working those kinds of hours with toxic chemicals had to contribute to the problem.

Hell, even growing up, Gran always warned me not to go near the little creek that ran behind the plant. I could even smell the metally, sulphuric sludge that came from the pipe in the bank of that stream. And any goldfish that I ‘freed’ quickly died. Just as my grandfather had.

Leaving my mother a tween without a strong male figure and my Gran forced to work long hours. I suppose it was almost to be expected that she turned to alcohol, drugs, and boys in those turbulent sixties of free love.

But love isn’t free. I know that. My whole life, my very existence proves that. Now, the best that I can do is use the next three decades or so of my life, if you believe those statistics, and Jason’s millions, to make life a little easier for other single mothers and daughters, fathers, sons, and non-binary too.

Except to paraphrase Gran, there may be more life left at the end of that five million, two-hundred, forty-seven thousand, six hundred, eighty-four dollars, and oh, fifty-two cents. And more people to help than I have time and money.

Why don’t the privileged, like the Millners, get that? Hell, who needs to be a billionaire anywhere? Just think of all the good they could do with that money. But my mother got that wrong too. Sometimes it isn’t easier to love a rich man than a poor one.

Not that it matters. I’m through with men. Bob, my vibrator, doesn’t even need batteries anymore. He’s solar and wind-powered. Which is good, given the arthritis pain in my hands after digging in those raised beds all day.

Oh, well, as that racist heroine said, ‘I’ll think about it tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.’ And I have a hot date with Bob. He might not be a rich man, but he gets the job done. With a helluva, a lot less hassle and heartache.

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