When I first saw Shelby, I thought she was going to be asking for money. She had the look of a desperate person. I was right and I was wrong. She was desperate, but it wasn’t money she needed.
I was sitting alone with my laptop at a fast food restaurant in downtown Trussville Friday afternoon. There was almost nobody else in the place, so I didn’t notice when she came in. I was sitting in a quiet corner, but she approached me and asked if I could help her.
She had cuts and bruises on her face. (Or some kind of wounds.) She wore sloppy and dirty clothes. She wasn’t wearing makeup. She looked desperate.
Instead of asking for money, she told me that she had been in an auto accident on I-59 earlier. A friend of hers who works about two blocks from where we were had gone to the site of the wreck, but he had to return to work, so he dropped her off at Hardee’s. She had a phone that belonged to someone else and its battery was about dead. She said she had been calling to find friends who would come pick her up, but nobody would agree to come.
She said her mother lives about 10 miles away in a part of town called Center Point. It’s a declining part of the area and I almost never go there. She said her mother had her two children there, but her mother had no car to pick her up. She wanted me to get her at least close to the area. She said she thought she could talk friends into picking her up if they just had to drive a few blocks instead of 10 miles.
I didn’t know whether to trust her. I wanted to trust her. My instinct told me she was telling the truth. But I could be wrong. Maybe she was working with someone who was waiting to rob me when I took her to where she was asking me to go. Maybe none of what she was telling me was true. (I picked up a man under similar circumstances years ago and it turned out to be an apparent robbery attempt, so I’m a little skittish about it.)
I decided my biggest concern was the possibility that she might have a weapon in her purse or pocket, so I made a deal with her. I was willing to take her, but she had to empty her pockets for me and her purse had to travel in my trunk. She agreed and we left.
Shelby is a beautiful woman. Or she was at one time. She still is, sort of, but she has the weary look of someone who’s made some bad choices. She’s 28 years old and she has daughters who are 8 and 5. She doesn’t trust men anymore, and she doesn’t even trust herself.
She has been living in Gadsden (about an hour away) with a man temporarily who she said is just a friend, but has trouble accepting he’ll never be more than that. She was driving his car back into Birmingham to pick up her daughters when she had the accident. She said a car next to her on I-59 swerved into her lane, causing her to lose control and end up on the other side of the interstate, where she and an 18-wheeler collided. The right half of the car she was driving was destroyed, but she escaped without being hurt. The marks on her face turned out to be from something else that she didn’t want to talk about, not from the accident.
She said the man whose car she was driving was furious at her for wrecking his car and he had been yelling at her over the phone, despite the fact she apparently couldn’t have avoided the accident. She struggled to keep tears back as she told me pieces of the story, but she never let herself cry at this point. She told me numbly that if she were to die, it wouldn’t really matter at this point, because there was nothing to live for.
I felt a consuming depressing and something like self-loathing from her, and I asked her whether she had felt the same way before the accident. She said she had felt that way for a long time.
Once we reached the Walmart grocery store in Center Point, the phone she had been using finally died, so she had to borrow mine. I sat and listened to her make several calls and beg alleged friends to drive less than a mile to pick her up. She almost broke down because none of her friends seemed interested in helping.
Five phone calls later, someone finally agreed to come. She handed my phone back to me. She stood there looking like a 6-foot tall little girl. Her golden brown eyes were moist and she looked as though she was ready to break down.
“Can I have a hug?” she asked hesitantly as she put her arms out. I held her and she thanked me for bringing her, trying to control her tears by just saying words that needed to be said. But she wouldn’t let go of that hug, as though she was going to die if someone didn’t show some degree of concern for her — just for this minute.
I asked her if she really didn’t think she was worth anything. She burst out into tears again and said, “No.”
I told her that I knew she wouldn’t believe me, but I told her things weren’t going to get better if she didn’t value herself. Nobody else was going to value her if she didn’t. She said she knew, but she didn’t know how to fix her life. She said again that she didn’t want to live.
We said a few more things, but it was finally time for me to go, so I released her from what was another long hug. An hour before, she was a stranger who I was afraid of. Now, she was a hurting little girl who I felt guilty leaving alone. She needed someone to take care of her. Or at least to care.
I told her to take care of herself. She told me to be careful going home.
“David?” she asked, as though she had thought of something else to ask.
“Yes?” I stopped and turned.
“I know I need help. Thank you. I want to say something else to you, but I don’t know how.”
She couldn’t figure out what she wanted to say — or she decided not to — so we said our goodbyes for the last time.
As I got into the car and drove away, I felt a deep sense of emptiness and almost guilt, because I knew the woman I was leaving behind was vulnerable and hurting and alone. She wasn’t going to be OK, but there was nothing I could do about it.