SHE HOLDS on to my neck as though I were a tree rooted at the edge of a cliff, the very edge of the world, beyond which lies the shadowy realm of things that go bump in the nightmares of children.
Four years old, she has been through enough to feed the night-time beasts of old men. The Howard County shelter where I work and she lives with her grandmother offers warmth and food and a place to play.
She goes to a good day-care center, where she has begun to exercise the intelligence hidden behind her stammer. She is in the custody of someone who loves her fiercely and wants the best for her, even if that love is sometimes tired and grumpy and that best demands toiling long hours away.
If you go by the calendar, the worst times are past.
Sadly, however, even for grownups, past is not always past. Ghosts are real. History and biography have claws, sharp ones, that tear into mind and heart and spirit.
Tonight her grandmother is pulling another double shift, trying to provide, to lay a foundation for the two of them and to meet the expectation that clients work and save enough to get a running start out of the shelter.
The resident baby-sitter put her to bed and then turned her attention to her own children.
The 4-year-old's room is dark. Her grandmother is not close by to ward off the ghosts particular to this short life. Crying, shaking, she comes to the office and without a word flings herself upon me and fastens herself to my neck.
The shift has been a busy one. I have to meet with clients to discuss what they are and are not doing to make substantive change in their lives. Disputes must be mediated, residential contracts reviewed, progress or lack of it examined and recorded. At any moment, the police will bring in a mentally ill young man they picked up along the highway, and we will have to assess his situation and our capacity to meet his needs for the night. Our beds are full, so all we can do is get him through the night until we can refer him elsewhere in the morning.
We are short-staffed. The air is heavy with the stress and tension of men and women who have been working hard to move themselves and their families out of poverty and homelessness, but see the goal only in the distance. Immediately at hand are close quarters and a lot of other people, each feeling the claws of history scratching at the sheets in the middle of the night. It is an evening for being up and on the move and aware.
How do I explain all this to a little girl who, at the moment, knows only that she is without her grandmother and that the night is scary indeed? I can't. I can't justify the press of duties to a 4-year-old who knows the night beasts. There is no confidence that the sun will come out tomorrow. There is only now.
Knowing that it is forsaking what I must do, knowing the rightful and proper claims on my time, I choose to abandon them, if only for a stretch of minutes. I hug her and hold her tight as she cries. I fight back my own tears.
I pray that the slim reed I know myself to be holds firm at the edge of the cliff. I pray that God knows what he is doing in the darkness because I surely don't. I pray that Blake was right and eternity is to be found in an hour, and that even the stumbling efforts of a sinful fool like me might be a window for the light, if only for an hour, an eternal hour.
In the fluorescent glare, amid the hum of office electronics, we sit. Outside the office window, it is dark. We rock in the uncomfortable blue swivel chair. Over and again, to which of us I'm not sure, I whisper, "Everything's OK, everything's all right," until she sleeps.
Baltimore resident Terrence S. Kenny is evening and weekend supervisor at Grassroots Intervention Center in Howard County.