Tucson Salvage: A house is not a home

Brian Smith
Linnadee Dehart and Chief Harley in her home.

The grind is on, on it goes.

The heat waned some and it's dreamy and strange out. A kid violinist serenades, exhilarating Eastern-sounding modals and delicate danceable rhythms. The entire eastern sky blue-black, a worlds-colliding monsoon thunders in her direction. The 67-year-old woman grasps at the beauty, says it lives wherever she can find it, even while resting against a car, the one filled with all her earthly possessions, in a Target parking lot. She sees God poke in from time to time, implying a greater force at work, its indifference to human suffering notwithstanding.

An ex-cop whom she'd met in nearby Udall Park, whom they both called an angel, put her up in a couple motels for nearly a month. That helped her catch her breath until her cat, sick with cancer, recently operated on, cracked open her stitches and bled on the floor.

Linnadee Dehart lost everything—computer, waterbed, family photos, her dentures even—six months ago after a sewer pipe burst and flooded the condo she shared with her partner. She gums her food now, the least of her troubles. The condo condemned, her partner now somewhere out of town fighting for his life, cancer. He gave her the car, a nice-looking blue PT Cruiser. It often will not start.

"I pray a lot," the diminutive, 98-pounder says, pacing outside her car, wearing two-pocket black yoga pants, purple top. Neck tendons flexed, features hollow. Sometimes a COVID mask. An absent laugh. "Maybe I am losing it."

This is when her story unfolds, in jumpy vernacular, raspy yet feminine, sentences upon sentences like processions and burials for the persons she used to be, or still is. A barrage of wrenching scenes enough to finish anyone off, interspersed with moments of calm, work and relief. Relief now in the inexplicable surprises of daily life that are not devastations. Relief in the lives of two aging animals she keeps with her in her tidy, packed car, her "children," cat box on the passenger-seat floor, flies buzzing around it and a half-finished McDonalds fries, old Chief Harley, her pitbull-lab mix, stretched out on the backseat.

Indiana born, the family soon existed near, but far away from the Southern California dream machine, in Rancho Cucamonga, outside Ontario, California. The father, an ex-Marine, once befriended John Wayne after appearing as an extra in one of his WWII films, even took the family on a visit to Wayne's yacht.

That dad, big belly, three-packs a day, the eternal beer in hand, began raping Linnadee when she was 6 years old, sometimes on the family's dinner table. The horror that lasted into her high-school years. Once her mother walked in and said, "you leave Linnadee alone, she has school in the morning," and went to bed. Victim-blamed by some family members, the intrafamilial rape criticisms, called a whore; loyalties divided, dad versus Linnadee. Her shame internalized.

The father's ugly grip on the family dynamic became the family dynamic, uncover any rock to find the rotted worms. "He would never stop touching me, for years," Linnadee says. "My mom, my grandma, my aunt knew he was molesting me, but he could get away with it. He might kill me. Mom was scared of him. We all feared him. When I close my eyes I still think about things my dad did to me."

Jennifer Kurtz is Linnadee's sister, two years her senior, on the phone from her home in Fontana, California, and remembers everything about Linnadee. Says, in soft tones, "My mom didn't have sex with him. Linnadee had large breasts, and he went after her. He'd lock me in my room, the windows were nailed shut. He put a knife to my throat and said he'd kill me if I ever said anything. He did it to her all the time." She pauses, "that woman has been through living hell."



Linnadee can't remember her elementary school years, blocked out, if she went at all or if it was all bible school with her grandparents. "I remember junior high and high school," which she graduated in 1973, a cheerleader in parades, with dreams of being in the Army, of making grandfather clocks too. She even created one once.

She spent time away from dad with her grandparents, and grandpa was an ordained Methodist minister, the one man she could trust, who literally died in her arms when she was a child. "Something is with me—him—still, wherever I go."

But grandma's hands did things to Linnadee and Jennifer in the bathtub. She would lock Linnadee naked in a closet, force her to eat her own thrown-up cottage cheese. "That was my father's mother."

To escape dad's purview, Linnadee married young. A few marriages ensued to men who either beat her, or hid addictions from her. Every union came with stabs of real resentment. "I was married to my first one for years and I had no idea he was shooting heroin or that he had a record. I found out when he got arrested."

Tells of her second husband, a marine stationed in Japan, who later wiped her out, stole everything, and moved far away. "I reported it," Linnadee says. "Of course, nothing ever happened." Another put her head through a wall in Phoenix, Arizona. A Greyhound bus took him away, and she wound up in Tucson. One cracked her tailbone with a kick and broke her fingers.

There was the time she was kidnapped and nearly murdered by a stranger. She was beaten and bloody, but kicked and screamed herself away, chased until someone unleashed his dog at the man, who vanished into the night. Maybe the dog saved her life.

"'You're dead, bitch,' was all he would say," Linnadee remembers, her mind hazy with the worst details.

"She did manage to escape that," Jennifer says.

"I can't believe I survived all these things," Linnadee says, adding, "I never did prostitution though, I was a good girl."

One time, Linnadee lived alone with her daughter, 6 months old, at a "roach-infested" motel in Ontario, California. Some guy living in the room next door got into Linnadee's room and raped her. He got away and disappeared. In 1991, her son Timothy, the product of that motel horror, now 13 years old, was murdered by a cop's son.

"I could never afford anything for my kids at Christmas," Linnadee says. "But I finally saved up $400, I was working two jobs, and got Timmy an all-chrome bike. He just cherished it. This kid, this cop's son, was big, and a bully. My son started skipping school because he was so afraid of him. But he stole my son's bike. Timmy went to get the bike back. Now this kid's dad kept his gun, a .357 Magnum, under the bed, unlocked." He used that to shoot Timmy in the face, killing him.

"The kid said they were playing Russian roulette," Jennifer says, "But that was proven wrong in court."

"He went away for less than a year," Linnadee says. "I looked him in the eyes in the courtroom, and said, 'you got away with murder.'"

The devastated mother went to a local newspaper for help and they set up a fund to have her son buried. "Lots of people showed up for the funeral," Linnadee says. "It was a child. But not one cop showed up."

Thirty years later she can hardly hide the grief.

She recalls the day her dad died, a heart attack at age 45, "his last words at the hospital were 'did The Dodgers win?'" She half-laughs. Quiets a moment, adds, "You have to forgive. I forgave him. I knew he was a sick pervert. I knew his mother was sick."

***

Linnadee reclines in the front seat of her car, her nightly bed, and affects ease in conversation with Chief Harley. "Are you OK?"

At night she pulls her car into a nearby apartment complex lot where it's safe to sleep until morning. Her day begins and ends taking care of her animals. But first it's McDonalds, at 5 a.m., hits the restroom, sometimes gifted food with a "shhhh, don't tell anybody" whisper. It's Udall Park later, where her dog and cat can lay out on a blanket and she places ice water in their food bowls. Sometimes she waits on a friend who accepts mail for her, to swing by.

She thinks often of the moments of calm; say, the last six years when she was paid to aid in teaching Bible studies, nighttime classes outside the condo. Before that, the good dependable work she'd found in food service, at Sirloin Stockade, eight years a crew leader at Golden Corral. The calm of a place with walls and a door and a shower for many years, the routine of a partner. The calm of no longer needing to escape.

"I haven't found a church yet that will help me in a bigger way. They help with food and clothes, they don't help you get a place." She's familiar with San José Women's Shelter, but found too many rules—to Linnadee, a catalog of insurmountables: "I'd get a case-worker, I don't need a case worker. I'd have to apply for jobs but I can't work. I have gout, sores. My knee is bad and I have arthritis; I wasn't able to walk for a long time after my right leg swelled so bad. I couldn't have my cat. I'd have to get the vaccine shot, but that makes me so nervous, getting sick for weeks, then I couldn't care for my animals. The drug test part is fine, I don't do drugs." Linnadee is also diabetic, and eats very little now.

"Motels are $400 a week," she adds. "I don't get that in a month. I just need a place to live. I never had a problem until I got kicked out of my condo."

She receives $360 a month Social Security, $90 of which comes off the top for her phone, but she is getting a no-charge new one. Receives some state food assistance, but not much. Her regular Bible-study teaching, for which she was paid $300 a month, is now gone.

It is a strange Target, this particular branch of the corporate behemoth. There is an employee here, Adam Peebles, prayer-bead bracelets and the kind of temperament one wishes most could slide up into. Peebles is young, smart, talks philosophy and psychology as such apply to the ethics behind his work in the store. Talks situational forces of nature, as if he's running a Goodwill help center. It was Adam's kindness toward Linnadee, the water, milk, sometimes cash from his pocket. "He talks to me," Linnadee says. "He's a good man, he has a heart. I broke down twice in front of him, I was so embarrassed. They're all like that at that Target."

A lenient negotiation of troubled folk versus store commerce can't be easy. I'm no fan of corporate culture, but skepticism subsided when I witnessed the store's treatment of Linnadee. There is a nonjudgmental aspect here, more so than a cruise through your average Walmart, or Whole Foods. In a way, Adam is doing his job, but in another he's pulling something from within, a quality that got him hired.

"A lot of people treat her subhuman," Adam says, "unable to see past damage. Our culture is changing. I try to translate that to humans. You know, Linn will not ask for help when she is needy."

Adam doesn't know this, but one day he saved Linnadee from killing herself. I tell Adam what Linnadee said. Wet appears in his eyes. He adds, "The resilience of human beings blows my mind."

***

Linnadee's daughter, in her 40's now, lives in Northern California, works as a dialysis technician (Linnadee: "Isn't that something?") and they communicate. Linnadee has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

"After my son died, she was a teenager, and we fell apart, she'd run away from home," Linnadee says. "Her father came back into her life, which was great for her. But I don't ask her for help. She's not in a position to help me and I know she wishes she could."

"She's all I got," Jennifer tells me on the phone. The sister isn't enjoying an autumn-year easy-go herself, daughter and grandchildren live with her, a divorce from her husband imminent, and she may lose her place to live. "I don't have money laying around, I send her clothes and things when I can, we talk all the time. She's had a rough life. She doesn't deserve it. It doesn't seem fair. It's like nobody cares."

"I've had bad luck," Linnadee says, now standing outside the Target store entrance, rain beginning to wet her gray, neck-length locks. "There are so many things I don't like that could help—medicine, beer, cigarettes. I do take medicine for my diabetes." A long moment passes, she adds, "My dog would let me know if something was wrong with me. He knows.

"But I've always had dreams of helping kids with cancer," she says, and tells of visits to kids in a local hospital oncology unit. "As sad as it is, the children always get me to smile."

A few nights later I receive a text from Linnadee and I call her. She's a mess, her cat died, and she is crying and screaming. One of three heartbeats living in her car, gone. Storm winds distort the line, but she manages to calm down. "She was 17 years old and we were soooo close. I helped her through everything. I just have to move on."

Here's the thing about Linnadee: She is gracious. Shows no malice toward humanity, and if she has none, who should?

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