Megan’s shift at MacDonald’s ended at eleven. The night manager, Kevin, a skinny white guy around thirty with a bad complexion and a pleasant disposition had a philosophy that Megan liked: he didn’t mind if Little Lisa stayed while she worked. ‘I don’t mind at all,’ he told Megan four months earlier when she’d been hired, ‘Just don’t let her bother the customers.’ And Little Lisa never did. In fact, she kind of grew on all the employees, especially Kevin.
One thing the little girl was good at, and that was entertaining herself. Tonight she colored an old ‘My Little Pony’ coloring book someone had left next to the trash bin using some crayons Kevin had bought and kept for her back in his office. When Megan found the book and brought it to Little Lisa (along with Kevin’s crayons) it was like someone had given both of them a fancy present, reminding Megan for the millionth time that when you didn’t have much, every little thing was important, seen almost as a gift, and nothing, not even someone else’s trash, was ever taken for granted.
When her shift was over, Megan and Little Lisa were bundling up, getting ready to head outside when Kevin ran up and stopped them. “Hey you two, don’t forget your dinner.” He handed a sack to Megan. After every shift Kevin gave them each a free Full Meal Deal. He knelt down so he was eye level with Little Lisa, “And I’ve got yours all special for you, just the way you like it: six chicken nuggets with no sauce, small fries, apple slices and chocolate milk.”
He really was a nice guy.
“Thank you, Kevin,” Little Lisa said politely, holding her meal tightly to her chest.
“See you tomorrow,” Kev, Megan said.
“Yep,” he mock saluted, “Until then…stay warm and don’t take any wooden nickels.” Megan rolled her eyes at him, appreciating his attempt at humor. Then he turned and went back behind the counter to check on the remaining two helpers. They stayed open until 2am and he had a long three hours ahead of him.
“What did he mean by that, Mommy?” Little Lisa asked as they made their way to their car. The snow had quit falling, but there was maybe three inches on the ground and on her car.
“He was just kidding, Sweetie,” she said, getting the little girl settled in her car seat before setting to work sweeping off her car. It took her about five minutes. She was diligent and careful to get it all removed so she could see clearly. When she was finished she got in, buckled up and started the car. They chatted together for a few minutes, eating their dinners while the car warmed up. When they were finished they dumped their leftover paper and wrappers in a trash can and then pulled out of the parking lot, sliding a little where the snow had compacted. At times like these Megan was conscious of every move she made – from making sure not to fall down and injure herself when walking on icy snow, to being watchful and careful with her driving – everything she could to be conscientious and safe and not do anything that might jeopardize the tenuous hold she had on her life with her daughter. A stay in the hospital or medical bills was something they could ill afford.
The drive from Minneapolis out Highway Seven west to Minnetonka took forty-five minutes; nearly twice as long as normal due to the snow clogging up the roads, slowing the late night traffic to a crawl. The big box store they were heading for closed at midnight and they barely made it in time to rush inside and make their way quickly to the women’s room where they washed up and brushed their teeth. Then they bundled up and headed back outside. The temperature was dropping and the cold was settling in. It might even dip into the single digits overnight. Megan shivered and held Little Lisa’s mittened hand tightly.
She had parked the car way off to the side, half way from the store out to the service road that ran along the far end of the parking lot. She was able to spend the night because the store had instituted a policy a few years ago of letting people similar to her situation park their cars overnight as long as they were gone by six in the morning . And also, most importantly, as long as no one caused any trouble they were welcome to come back. For Megan, it was exactly what she needed. In the five months she’d been staying at the lot no one had ever caused her or anybody else any trouble. In fact, it was just the opposite. More than anything, she was finding that homeless people like her mostly just wanted to be left alone. During warm weather there might be up to fifteen cars scattered around, each leaving as much space as possible between themselves and the nearest vehicle. However, with the onset of winter and freezing temperatures, the number of vehicles had dwindled to maybe three a night at the most. Tonight, it looked like Megan’s old Ford would be the only vehicle there.
“Come on, honey,” Megan said, reaching the car and opening the front door, “Let’s get you settled.”
Little Lisa knew the routine well: she climbed into the passenger side while her mom went around and opened the back hatch where the few belongings they owned were stored (mostly clothes stowed in a single Tupperware container). She grabbed their blankets for the night and then went around to the front driver’s side where she climbed in, securing and locking their doors. Then she pulled up the latch that let the seat slide back as far as possible. She had learned through trial and error that sleeping in the front seat was roomier and easier on both of them, especially in the winter, where they could take advantage of the car’s heater if they ever needed to. But running the Ford at night cost money, so they rarely did.
Megan helped Little Lisa get settled in. She took off her snow boots and set them on the floor in the back. Then she pulled an extra thick pair of wool socks over her feet, rubbing her toes and joking with the little girl, making her laugh. Megan always felt it was a good way to go to sleep – with the sound of her daughter’s laugher in the car, drowning out any depressed feelings they might have about their living situation. Then she put her in a snowsuit and a kid’s sized sleeping bag before finally putting ‘Lambie’ her favorite stocking hat on her head and wrapped a scarf around her neck and face. Then she covered her up with a thick quilt she had bought at a Dollar Store just after Thanksgiving. By morning the temperature in the car would be the same as outside, and although it would be cold, at least wrapped up like she was, Little Lisa would be warm.
When Megan was satisfied her daughter was all set, they did their final bedtime ritual. “Do you want me to read you a story?”
“Yes, Mommy, yes,” Little Lisa exclaimed, her breath showing as she spoke. It was already getting cold in the car. “Can you read me about Elsa and Anna?” Little Lisa was hooked on ‘Frozen’ and anything having to do with their characters would be sure to bring her joy. This book was a favorite.
“Yes I can, Sweetheart,” her mother said, reaching under the seat for the book and taking it out of the large zip-loc she kept it in for protection. The lighting from the parking lot flood lights gave her enough light to read by. She began the story, watching her daughter’s eyes go from excited to heavy almost immediately. It had been a long day. After a few minutes her face relaxed, her breathing deepened and she soon fell into a peaceful sleep, transported by the story to a world of fantasy far away from the one in which she was living.