Clatsop County, Part I: Leah

by Tamuira Reid

Fog fills a dead, gray street. As it begins to part, an opulent, borderline gaudy building glows from within. Like the Taj Mahal has plopped down on this small, sleepy town.

In the front window I can see *Leah, looking out. A large neon sign, Open For Business, clicks on next to her. She yawns and then disappears from my sight.

I met Leah through an outreach project last summer, a small non-profit that has since gone under. The goal was to help teenagers like Leah – kids who had fallen into the cracks of a town gone wrong – find jobs or apply to trade schools.

When I enter the pawnshop this morning, she is vacuuming. Then she is scrubbing a toilet. Then she is polishing a glass case full of pawned valuables; wristwatches, pocketknives, flasks. A few abandoned wedding rings.

I’m used to her flurry of movement by now, and sometimes it almost seems an act of defiance, a just wait until I’m ready to talk to you type of thing. After all, I am a writer and she is my subject and all the lines and spaces in-between are blurred. We don’t always know what to make of each other. We don’t always want to trust.

The shop manager, *Tony, knows me by name now. He thinks I am a lonely local housewife – a cover I’ve honed well – and can’t believe all the shit I buy. But, hey. I am a customer and he loves customers. Almost as much as he ‘loves’ Leah.

He says hi to me without actually looking at me, points in the direction of some new silver jewelry that has come in. “Good quality, I’ll cut you a deal if you buy more than one.”

“Yeah, okay, good,” I say, and pretend to care about the rings and chains and bracelets laid out on purple velvet. The pieces of crap that someone hopes will be their ticket out of this hellhole.

Tony moves over to Leah and whispers something in her ear before heading to the back office. Leaving her cleaning supplies behind, Leah follows him.

It will go something like this:

Tony, middle-aged and burly, sits at a desk, waiting. Leah walks over, stands in front of him. Undresses down to her panties. Tony quickly unbuckles and unzips, pleasures himself. He finishes quickly, letting out a small moan as he does. What’s left of his hair is sweaty and matted to his head.

All of this with me and another customer still browsing for treasures up front.

****

“I do it for the money,” she tells me at lunch later that day, a lunch I begged for, a lunch that took weeks to finally happen. I don’t blame her for being weary. It feels weird to be written about.

“I can change your name, you know,” I offer to her again. “No problem. You can remain completely anonymous, if you like.”

She laughs. “Anonymous? No one is anonymous in a town this size. But yeah, change it.”

I order a salad and an ice tea. She gets a coke and fries. We are quiet. The sun comes out finally.

“I mean, what else am I gonna do? Wait tables? Like Candy at that truck stop piece of shit? I make two hundred more a week than she does. Or pump gas? I make way more than those guys. And a whole fuckton more than that bitch cashier at 7-11. Her Slurpee’s suck.”

I nod my head in agreement because I don’t know what to say.

“And I don’t let Tony touch me. Ever. It’s a job, not a relationship. I’ve got my dad to take care of.”

When Leah was nine, her father lost his job with the cannery after it closed its doors. Six months later, his wife, Leah’s mother, was struck by a car in a hit and run and killed instantly.

“He’s never been normal after that. It’s like his heart broke and so did his life. It just busted apart.”

Most days, her father sits catatonically in front of an old TV set in the living room, the kind that uses knobs and dials and relies on an antenna. Not that he actually watches much; it’s more for comfort, one of several daily rituals to help keep him tethered to the real world.

He’s tried in the past to secure work, but his grief makes him unemployable. His grief makes him crazy. Crazy enough to receive disability, but not crazy enough to pay all the bills coming in. Mortgage, electricity, water, food. Leah sets a budget and ensures that ends somehow meet each month.

“That’s why I do it, with Tony,” she says, looking me square in the eyes. “Okay? That’s why I let him do it.”

“Okay,” I answer.

“So don’t judge me.”

“I won’t, uh, I’m not.”

She lets out a deep, guttural laugh. “You’re a fucking writer. Of course you’re a judgy bitch.”

I start eating my salad at lightning speed, embarrassed. I suddenly feel fat and old. Unworthy. Of her youth. Her fire. Her time.

Unemployment is high. People, well, they’re high, too. That’s what I heard before I went to Clatsop County, Oregon. A bunch of tweakers living in the woods. What I found was bigger than this, though. I found a meth wasteland, road after road of closed-up houses, abandoned flatbed trucks and empty boat trailers. Gutted cars in the driveways. Parents, and sometimes, even children trying to smoke away the day-in-day-out of being poor, the knowing that they’ve been altogether discarded by their own state. Not unlike the sofas or armchairs littering the dying front lawns of their once thriving coastal town.

I can’t tell you exactly what it was that pulled me to this area. I have a friend nearby, who gave me a cabin to work in. It’s close to California, where I spend most of my summers. I needed more big trees in my life. The Goonies was set in Astoria, nearby. But the truth is I find it so desperate and raw and achingly beautiful here, a physical space that feels at once forgotten and held tightly by its own manic energy.

It wasn’t until I visited several times that I really got what was going on. That there was an entire community of people barely holding on by a thread.

****

Leah meets me outside on the porch of her home. “It’s fucking messy as hell in there, let’s just go.” Her father’s house, a modest blue cement square with blackout curtains covering the windows, is not far from the Columbia River, and so we decide to take a walk. I’m slightly discouraged, half-hoping I’d catch a glimpse of the life that she makes sure to tuck neatly away from my view.

“Do you know other girls that make money this way?” A fishing boat lurches towards the dock and we step around a giant pile of nets strewn over the planks of wood at our feet.

“Yep. Tons of horny old guys here.”

She points at a burly looking fisherman, fixing the motor of a small metal boat nearby.

“That’s my next door neighbor. He said he’d pay me fifty bucks if I sucked his dick.” She pauses, popping a piece of gum into her mouth. “I didn’t. But I’m sure some other girl did. Or guy. A mouth is a mouth.”

We watch a group of kids kick a deflated soccer ball into the river, panicking as it begins floating further and further out.

“Tony is my only. For now. It’s easy. But yeah, who knows, right?” And then she rises and walks over to the kids to offer some help.

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