footfall in leaves

Ronald walks in the door of the downtown shop where I volunteer to show me more drawings. He’s in a surprisingly good mood. A few days ago, the police took his sister away from him and though Paula’s back with him temporarily, she’s trailing him around town, sobbing dramatically about how she doesn’t want to leave her brother. As Ronald flips through his sketchbook full of pastel colored-pencil landscapes, Paula clings to her brother’s arm and then moves toward the mirror by the jewelry to gaze at her heartbroken, red face. I can see her reflection, stilled in mid-wail, and my heart sinks for her. She stands there, not studying but staring, like a news photo of someone caught in the middle of unimaginable tragedy. It’s a photo I will keep tucked away in my memory.

Most people in town know Ronald and Paula. They walk everywhere and I’ll see them out on the highway one hour, then making their rounds of downtown stores the next. Ronald was diagnosed as autistic late in life, and I’m not sure if Paula’s disability has a name. They’ve been on their own since their mother died a few years ago and they seem to be surviving in one another’s company. They come in our store once or twice a week: Ronald to parade his latest drawings and Paula because she goes everywhere Ronald goes.

There aren’t many gathering places in our small town where Ronald and Paula are welcome. In fact, some say Ronald has the capacity to be violent, and a local church has a restraining order against him. Here in our shop, though—run by volunteers with backgrounds in education, social work, community development—Ronald and Paula and the others in our town with nothing else to do besides walk the streets all day know that they’re welcome. It’s one thing to have a place to lay your head at night. It’s quite another to walk through the door of a public space and have someone welcome you as a friend. There’s a level of need that food, clothing, and shelter can’t touch.

Would it be a relief for people if Paula were put in a group home? Would it be a relief for Ronald? He escapes tough times by drawing and he’s been especially prolific lately. He shows me the papers that have been signed by their other sister and says he can’t get public assistance for a lawyer. He shows me the picture he drew with small figures on a beach. “That’s me and Paula,” he says.

Ronald begins to move toward the door. He carries with him a wooden recipe box shaped like a house that he’s going to color for Paula. It still has someone’s yellow $.25 garage sale sticker on its roof, even though they picked it up for free at an outreach store down the street. Paula is smiling now as they leave, and Ronald is holding his fragile companionship with Paula gently like a precious found treasure, terrified that it will leap out of his hands and shatter on the sidewalk before his tired feet.

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reistma is head caretaker at the Fetzer Institute’s GilChrist Retreat Center.