The phone rings. She is 17,18 years old maybe by the sound of her voice but I can't tell between her sobs. She asks if we have any beds open. There's no room I say apologizing in as many ways as I can while only saying I'm sorry, we're full. I'm a youth counselor at a homeless shelter in Minneapolis and between cooking meals, conducting poetry workshops, and the obvious positions of accounts that there is always a clanging orchestra of phones. Some days I have turned aways as many as 20 teens. Today it's just one but I wonder if she can hear me break.
I close my eyes, pull the phone from my ear. I hold it above me like a showerhead. I can feel the weight on her breath. I let every word slide out. When I was young I poured water into the receiver hoping it would leak onto someone's face 200 miles away. I know just enough about fluids to believe water can move that way. And the first time she calls as I hold it above my head I wonder why her sobs don't drip through the phone.
I listen to her gasping for breath as the room she calls from begins to fill with water. The city's runoff has been spreading water, has been running through gutters and sidewalk cracks forcing its way beneath bridges and other park benches. This city is overflowing in water, will not stop moving until it finds a place to sleep.
These kids are packed in alleyways and bus stations, crushed into ghosts by the shipwreck of a city. Those inspectors walking the streets until dawn blanketed by their last ounces of pride. Do you know how heavy the ocean is?
As a youth worker it is in my bones to save the world but the silence of a phone call, when both of us are too afraid to hang up, I'm reminded of just how heavy it is, of just how weak I am. I hope they notice it's the same person they call. I'm at the shelter every night.
I hope they understand that means I'm sitting in an office, that my bed at home is empty. I've developed my own language. Telling them to move like water. I give directions made entirely of apologies. I pray they notice I say I'm sorry differently each time. I'm sorry, cross the river to the West Bank. I'm sorry we're full, head down Franklin Avenue past a whole market. I'm sorry there are no more beds, take a left down Clinton. I'm sorry please keep calling, take a right on 24th. I'm sorry I'm so sorry there's nothing more I can do,2411 the blue house the white door, the spare keys are under the floormat. My friend is the last door on the left. There's at least one pillow in the city to lay your head on, I want you to find it.
Each phone call is like watching someone else's life flash before your eyes. I'm half youth counselor, half executioner. This phone is an accent. Ever click is gunfire, the downtone: a flatline.
The best I can do is pretend that this phone stuck to my hand is not an anchor. The best I can do is remember the first time I dove into the ocean, understood why the human irises always felt infinite. The best I can do is pray that this phone never stops ringing because the days do come when I don't have to apologize when there's a bed open. When I can feel somebody else's weight lifted and they're finally given the chance to swim.