TOGETHER, THEY SURVIVED: Shared strength helps couple through hunting accident - and the jokes.


 Steve Egan raised his rifle to finish the job.

From 90 feet away, he was sure he saw a wounded hog on its back, feet wiggling in the air.

Assuming it was the same hog he had shot a few minutes earlier, he found his mark and fired a .30-caliber bullet. He jogged toward the tree line to get a look. The shape on the ground didn't make sense. He thought: "What is this person doing here?"

"Steve, you shot me."


His girlfriend.

A year ago in the woods of Flagler County, something terrible happened to Steve Egan and Lisa Simmons. It was an ordeal that for many months they were reluctant to talk about publicly.

But that sure didn't stop the rest of us.

- - -

Lisa Simmons, 51-year-old country girl, didn't scream. She had been a nurse for heart doctors for 18 years. She looked at her left leg, splayed at an unnatural angle from her body. She knew the blood pumping on the ground came from her femoral artery.

"I don't want to die out here in these woods," she thought.

Egan yanked off his belt and made a tourniquet. Simmons held it tight. He ran back to the hunting blind to find their only cellphone and steadied his hands to call 911.

Neither knew exactly where they were. The sun was setting.

He watched her skin turn from pale to gray. They listened to sirens grow close, then far away, then close, then far away again. The cellphone died.

He told her to stay awake, told her he was sorry, told her how much he loved her.

She told him she loved him too. She told him she was going to be all right. But she could feel blood seeping past the belt, trickling down her leg. How could she die before holding a grandchild at least once?

By the time the helicopter came, almost an hour after the shooting, she had grown silent.

Doctors operated all through Saturday night. She needed 14 pints of blood. She almost died twice during the surgery. The trauma surgeon would later say it was the worst noncombat gun injury he had seen anyone survive.

- - -

The news accounts that appeared in Monday's newspapers were short on details. Most carried a variation of this headline: Man mistakes woman for hog, shoots her.

The jokes followed soon after.

Bubba the Love Sponge mentioned it on his morning show. He sent listeners to Simmons' Facebook page to see if she looked like a hog. The comments were so mean, Simmons' kids deactivated the page. When the page disappeared, Simmons' friends thought she might have died.

The couple told staff at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach they did not want to release a statement. The story went viral anyway. The head nurse told them a reporter tried to sneak in to interview them.

Most blogs used stock pictures of a wild hog to go with the story. One used an illustration of a pig in pearls putting on lipstick.

Jay Leno couldn't resist:

"I don't know what is worse for the girl: having your boyfriend shoot you in the legs or saying the reason he did it was that he mistook you for a hog. Pretty awful."

"The good news," he reassured his audience, "is that the woman's going to be fine."

In the hospital, Simmons was missing four inches of her thigh bone. Doctors worried they might have to amputate her leg if the repair on the artery didn't hold.

- - -

The couple met nine years ago at O'Brien's Irish Pub in Brandon. She came for happy hour and there were two seats at the bar. One in front of a video game, the other next to Egan.

"Looks like you're the lesser of two evils," she told him, and sat down.

They hit it off.

A few years later, they took a cruise together to Mexico and went on a "nonsponsored" outing. When they returned, the ship had left. They were told by a cruise line representative they were in Mexico illegally. They had no passports. Just a bottle of tequila, a bottle of hot sauce, a ship registration card and a wet towel. In customs, she watched Egan laugh about their predicament. He never lost his cool, never assigned blame. She fell in love.

They didn't fight a year later when they had a house fire. Or the year after that when the house started cracking up the middle from a sink hole. They moved with two dogs into a small trailer out front and worked together through the bureaucracy and the repairs. They had disagreements, but no real fights.

They agree that watching television, or sitting still for any reason, is boring. They both seize any excuse to get on his boat, sit by a campfire, spend a day in the woods, anything outdoors really.

- - -

The day of the accident, Simmons, in camouflage pants, tromped alongside Egan. When she came across wild turkeys, she grabbed the cellphone and shot video, not knowing how precious the battery would later become.

They had passed a sour orange tree early in the day and she regretted not stopping to pick a few. She knew a great recipe for a sour orange marinade.

By the end of the day, she sat in a hunting blind next to Egan, chatting quietly and watching the sun work close to the horizon.

A hog came into the clearing. Egan took a shot, then scrambled after it as it darted into the brush.

Simmons noticed another sour orange tree across the field. Figuring Egan had killed a hog, she decided she would make that marinade after all. She circled the tree, dotting the grass with fresh fruit.

A last few were just out of reach. So she jumped up on a log.

She balanced on her toes. She wobbled a bit as she stretched. Her torso disappeared into the tree.

Just as she pulled on a big, ripe orange, something swept her legs from under her and sent her tumbling to the ground.

"It's amazing how quick life can become a whole new ball game," Simmons says.

- - -

The media attention was a constant source of irritation. Simmons' mother called a local TV station to complain about Leno's insensitivity, but the attention continued for days.

"They really wouldn't leave it alone until that guy ate a man's face in Miami. Then it just disappeared," Egan said.

People assumed that their relationship couldn't survive such a colossal mistake.

Yet it did.

"I don't think you can go through something like this and not get closer, if you really love somebody," Simmons says. "We don't have any issues between us."

Simmons never blamed Egan for the accident. "Not even for one second."

"Take responsibility for your part of what happened," she says. "Whatever it is, don't blame the other person because a lot of things go into an accident or problem. It's not just one factor."

Egan couldn't sleep the week after the accident. Eventually he sought counseling for post-traumatic stress.

"Every time I see you limp ... ," Egan begins to tell her, and tears up. "It's with me all the time."

"It's okay, honey. At least I'm here to be seen," she says, taking his hand.

In the past year, Simmons has moved from bed, to scooter, to cane, to no cane at all. She is on long-term disability from her job, but she refuses to apply for Social Security benefits. She cannot stay on her feet long enough to return to work as a nurse, so she is working toward a degree to become a nursing teacher.

"By the time they process the Social Security paperwork, I'll be back to work as a teacher," she says with a hint of pride.

One day soon, probably in June, Simmons will limp over to a chair, gently sit down to take the weight off the rod in her leg and claim her prize for last year's long, hard fight in the woods. Someone will place a granddaughter, her first grandchild, in her arms.

"At least I'm still alive," Simmons says. "I still have both legs and I've got a really good story to tell her some day."


LIVING AS AMY: Formerly John, Amy Hepker has found her identity, but at great cost.


At about midnight, Amy Hepker parks her 1993 Nissan 200SX directly under a light pole in the very back of a strip mall parking lot. A skittish little black cat she named Shadow jumps in the back window to watch her grab a few extra layers of clothes from the trunk.

She feels old.

The 58-year-old - all 6-foot-1, 220 pounds of her - reclines the driver's seat and settles in for the night. Her knees ache from eight weeks of not being able to stretch out, her feet are swollen from a heart condition, her back throbs from an old work injury and she worries about her high blood pressure. But mostly she feels alone.

For most of her life, Hepker has lived as John. She raised two children as John. It was always easy to get a job, be in a relationship, build a life. And she could have those things back in a heartbeat, if she'd just put on men's clothes.

"I look like a quarterback in women's clothes," Hepker said. "It's hard for a lot of people to get past that."

But she can't go back to being someone she never was.

"I don't have a choice. It is who I am. It is who I have always been."

The world saw a hard-working, blue-collar guy.

John Hepker logged a million accident-free miles as a trucker, worked on the docks, drove a tractor, cut brush.. After work, John raced a '66 Mustang, tricked out and tuned up by his own greasy hands.

"It was all about proving to myself that I could be more male than them, but then I'm laughing to myself: 'But I'm female!'" Hepker said. "Overcompensating is a kind of a 'fake it till you make it' thing."

Faking had begun early. At 5 years old, Hepker abandoned plastic soldiers, trucks and toy guns to sneak off and dress Barbie with the girls down the street. At 18, Hepker asked a girlfriend: "Want to dress me as a woman?"

The teens walked around Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the middle of the night. Hepker's heart thundered in her chest. "That was 1975. If anyone had seen us, I would have been put away to be 'cured.'"

But for the first time, Hepker felt free and right in her own skin.

She has never been attracted to men and always told anyone she was romantically involved with that she felt like a woman. They all bought her clothes and loved her for who she was, as long as she kept the secret at home.

Six times she purged her wardrobe of women's clothes.

"I felt I had to be the man I'm supposed to be."

Twice before now she decided to live as Amy full time. Both times she lost her partner and her job.

"Younger people can pass. With hormone therapy today they could pass you in the street and you would never know.

"But people look at us older transgenders like we're drag queens. Drag queens are performers. We just want to be who we are. We don't want to draw attention to ourselves," she said.

She swears this time she is Amy for good. She knew from past experience that it was going to be rocky.

Last year she told her employer, a local document shredder, she would start coming to work as Amy in two weeks. A week and a half later, she was fired for being rude to a customer. She insists she was not.

Shortly after that, her girlfriend of nearly two years said she would always love and support her, but couldn't stay with her.

"If you were John, it would be different, but that is not who you are," she recently texted.

Until eight weeks ago Hepker lived with a friend and tried without luck to get a job. When the friend lost her home to foreclosure, Hepker found herself homeless for the first time in her life.

She has settled into a lonely routine, spending days at a local park chatting with anyone who is willing. A local restaurant owner gives her ice in the afternoon to keep her sodas cold. Shadow, the cat, comes out for a few minutes now and then. At night she finds a quiet corner of a parking lot, always under the protective glow of a streetlight.

She begins her evening prayers the same way:

"God Almighty, Jesus Christ our Lord, Mother Mary Superior, thank you for the life I have and for the miracles you've granted me."

She prays for forgiveness of her sins. Then for family and friends. Then for herself.

"Please Lord, help me find a home. Help me find enough money to get by. Help me find a lady who will love me."

She believes God makes sure nothing lasts forever and nothing stays the same. She knows God will help her.

"I just don't know when."


Jewel Goodman eases back into his porch chair and breaks the filter off a peach-flavored Clipper cigar. He rolls it absentmindedly in his fingers and closes his eyes to smell the breeze tattle on an incoming storm. In his 57 years, he's seen enough hard days to know not to rush an easy one.

For most of his life he has toiled long days in hot fields picking cabbage, potatoes and tobacco. Eight of those years were spent on a farm in Hastings, south of St. Augustine. In 2007, Ronald Evans was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison after holding Goodman and other farm workers "perpetually indebted" in what the U.S. Department of Justice called "a form of servitude morally and legally reprehensible."

Goodman is one of more than 1,000 slaves who have gained freedom in Florida since 1997.

Goodman lights his cigar, takes a slow draw, leans back and remembers.

"I had to scrap with the devil for my living. And by the devil, I mean contractors," he says. "All the camps I been in, some of them was good and some of them wasn't, but Evans . . . that was slavery time. No playing around."

It started one day in the early '90s, when a white van stopped him in front of the Fruit Stand grocery store in Hastings and asked if he needed work. He did. But as soon as he met Evans he knew he had found trouble. Evans was mean in a way that made Goodman feel suddenly aware of how far out of town they were. There was no phone. Chain link and barbed wired surrounded the property. The crew leaders looked hardened, "like they just come out of prison." The field workers called them henchmen.

One of them gave him a pair of bloodstained work boots.

"He said 'These belong to the last guy who ran. If I catch you trying to get down that road, you're going to answer to me too.' "

Eventually, Goodman ran anyway.

"I went through the ditch in the back of the camp. As soon as I got down the road I saw some lights behind my back. It was a white van. One of the henchmen grabbed me by the back of the neck, threw me in. That's how they'd do you. You couldn't go down that road."

He never saw any money for his work. Rent was deducted from his wages and workers were only given credit at the company store in an age-old scam that left them immediately and perpetually in debt. Alcohol and crack cocaine were available on credit as well, feeding addictions and deepening obligations. Goodman was a drinker, and his debt piled up.

Occasionally he'd work up the courage to make a run for it, and one night it worked. From experience he knew to leave at 3 a.m., to leave his shoes behind to buy extra time, to get right through the drainage ditch, into the woods. He knew to stay still when the white van headlights scanned from the road, to move only after they passed. By 5 a.m. he made it into town and took shelter with another contractor, whom everyone called Jitterbug.

The next day Evans found him at the new camp, but Jitterbug wouldn't let him come in. From the road, Evans promised he would get Goodman back eventually, and said it would be a sorry day for him when he did. But now Evans is in prison, and Goodman is smoking peachy cigars on the porch as free man.

"All that money you took from me. Let's see how much of that money you can spend where you are now," Goodman says of Evans. But all is not equal. Never will be.

"Thing is, it's real hard for me to trust anybody now. I just don't trust nobody no more."

Times photojournalist John Pendygraft can be reached at or (727) 893-8247. Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

* * *


Since 1997, more than 1,000 agricultural workers have been freed from forced labor and slavery in Florida. Below are the most recent cases investigated by the Department of Justice:

IN 1997, Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery, extortion and firearms charges. Flores and Gomez had a workforce of more than 400 in Florida and South Carolina.

IN 1999, Abel Cuello was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison on slavery charges for holding more than 30 tomato pickers against their will in Immokalee.

IN 2001, Jose Tecum was sentenced to 9 years in federal prison on slavery and kidnapping charges for forcing a young woman to work against her will both in his home and in the tomato fields around Immokalee.

IN 2001, Michael Lee was sentenced to 4 years in federal prison and 3 years supervised release on a slavery conspiracy charge after pleading guilty to using crack cocaine, threats and violence to enslave his workers.

IN 2004, Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery and firearms charges. Their case involved a workforce of more than 700 farmworkers in Florida and North Carolina.

IN 2007, Ronald Evans was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison on drug conspiracy, financial restructuring and witness tampering charges for recruiting U.S. citizens from homeless shelters with promises of good jobs and housing. Evans deducted rent, food, crack cocaine and alcohol from workers' pay, holding them perpetually in debt.

Sources: U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2006-2009; Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture, Oxfam America, March 2004; and Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers

CLINGING TO THE VINE: This year's paltry tomato crop is putting added stress on the Spartan existences of migrant farm workers and families.


 Between two rusting mobile homes in a dirt road migrant camp, a small gathering of seasoned workers, the strong backs that support this area's farm economy, pray on bended knee.

From his place of honor under a precariously hung 60-watt light bulb, Father Demetrio Lorden from Our Lady of Guadalupe church asks for prayer requests.

Alicia Castillo, 50, answers first: "I pray for the tomato plants, that they will be healthy, so there will be enough work for everyone."

A murmur of understanding agreement weaves through the congregation, knitting them closer together. This community needs a good harvest. Everyone knows the current crop is slim pickings, and the plants for the next harvest are showing signs of trouble.

Maria Garcia, 34, whose husband is a crew supervisor in the tomato fields, bows her head a half nod lower.

"Lord, hear our prayer."

For most in the congregation, tomatoes are their next paycheck. Some are pickers; some work in the packaging house; some are truckers who take the fruit to market. They all know times are tough.

For a field worker paid by the bucket, Mother Nature can make or break a paycheck.

"In a good season, an experienced picker can pick maybe about 350 buckets a day, at 45 cents a bucket that's about $150, before taxes," explains Garcia. "Right now people are lucky to do 150 buckets a day. That's only $67. In six days that's just over $400. And all the same taxes everyone pays comes out of that."

Fewer tomatoes mean less work in the packaging house, and less produce for the small trucking business to haul.

"I asked my husband when is the last time he's seen it this bad, and he said since forever," Garcia adds.

After Mass, the smells of just-fried, homemade corn tortillas and light rain chase away the mosquitoes that everyone pretended to ignore during service. Over cold sodas and paper plates filled with tostadas, the talk turns to bad weather and disease.

For the tomatoes to set, night temperatures need to be below 65 degrees. Florida has seen record-breaking night temperatures in the mid 70s. The recent warm, wet mornings increase the likelihood of disease. An older picker says he's seen too many white flies, which carry Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus from plant to plant. Others say they've seen harmful bacteria spots on the leaves.

"The workers are right to be concerned," says Dr. Phyllis Gilreath, an extension agent for the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service.

To make matters worse, the depressed housing market has made the workers' fall-back jobs in construction hard to come by. And because of national immigration crackdowns, migrants who can't find enough work are afraid to go back home to wait out a bad year where the cost of living is lower. Many fear they would never make it back.

"It's a real crisis. These people are between rock and fire," says Father Lorden. The demand on the church's food pantry and thrift shop has boomed beyond what the church anticipated.

"On Saturday morning it looks like Wal-Mart here," he says, "I don't know how they get by. They just do what they can. But they will get by ... God willing."



 Maria Juhasz, 46, closes her eyes and pushes her fingertips deeper into garden soil. She wiggles them through the dirt until they touch just below the stem of a Mexican petunia. She doesn't wear an iPod, carry a cell phone, sing or even hum. For hours at a time she is absolutely quiet. The gentle tickle of sweat rolling on her skin and feeling of careless dirt on her body assures her she is not lazy. In her garden she is strong, capable, intelligent, at peace and in control. She forgets about her cares: the foreclosure notice on her home; how she will stretch her groceries to last through the week; and the appraisal that says her home is worth $40,000 less than she paid for it less than two years ago near the peak of the housing market. The appraisal that she says puts no value on the thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours she has put into landscaping. The appraisal that counts only bricks, mortar and comparable sales.

If the bank doesn't appreciate the value of her yard, she will. Everything she has planted at her home is being pulled back up, repotted with care, and set in rows to be sold to anyone who replies to her online ad:

Plants for Sun and Shade-Great Prices! (St. Pete, 5728 2nd Ave. North)

Reply to:

"Even if I'm selling the plants at 10 or 20 percent of what they cost, I'm getting something back," she says."I've cried over this, but never out here."

Juhasz, who has a master's degree in education administration, came to St. Petersburg to work as a substitute teacher and pursue her teaching certification. Buying a home was cheaper than renting, and no one loses money in Florida real estate, right? So she bought a 756-square-foot home in 2006 for $153,000. She completed her certification, but has been unable to get a full-time job. In 2007, her taxes and insurance went up beyond her means and she has been trying to catch up ever since.

Eyes closed, she leans into the shade of a spruce tree and digs into another cluster of petunias. As she inhales the smell of evergreen fills her lungs and floods her with memories.

Working near the spruce always takes her back to the first time she left home. She is 7 years old, living with her family in a tent under a cluster of pine trees in Yugoslavia. They are in a campground, among dozens of other families and the ever-present smell of pine.

She remembers the faces of all sorts of playmates coming and going. No one speaks the same language, so they communicate with hand gestures and silly faces.

The faces come and go. Days roll together into weeks. Weeks into months. With memories recorded through the worry-free eyes of a child, Juhasz remembers her family's flight from their native Czechoslovakia.

It is 1968. The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia to quell a pro-democracy movement that would later be dubbed the Prague Spring. Juhasz remembers destroyed roads, joining the kids on her street taunting soldiers with machine guns, and grownups rushing them inside. One day her parents packed up the car for what seemed like a normal vacation. They went to Yugoslavia and lived in a campground for four months while the family applied for asylum. She remembers going from there to Chicago, and her father working as a janitor while he struggled to learn English.

Another cluster of Mexican petunias goes into another pot. Memories and thoughts comfort Juhasz as she tears apart her garden.

"Just thinking of those days that I saw my parents struggle. I think they were able to succeed despite much bigger odds against them. I certainly can, as well."


Matt Rizzotti, 23, is heading into what he hopes is the first game of the rest of his life. He is armed with (in chronological order): an empirically tested and proven wine red Louisville G-174 baseball bat, a deepening appreciation of the Eastern philosophy of Wei Wu Wei, a recently ingested chicken teriyaki Subway sandwich and John Mayer's live version of the song Clarity streaming from his iPod to calm his nervous mind.

He listens and remembers the time he silenced 10,000 people in a College World Series qualifying game by hitting a home run off a slider thrown by Joba Chamberlain, who is now a standout pitcher for the Yankees.

He can do this.

In about 10 minutes the National Anthem will be sung for the first regular-season Clearwater Threshers baseball game. About 10 minutes ago, the air in the locker room started to feel thick. For Rizzotti and most of the players around him, this is the first day they will play truly professional ball.

"This is where the pitchers get smarter, and the hitters have to follow suit," he explains. "This is what determines if you have what it takes to make the majors."

Baseball is a superstitious sport, and good stats are believed to be the result of a kind of life stew. And every player has a recipe, born of experience, coincidence and life's mystery. Here's what's cooking in Rizzotti's head:


Wine red Louisville G-174: Rizzotti's first swing of the red bat, last year in a mid-season game, was a home run. After that his average went uphill, from .240 to .290. In baseball, that meets an unspoken and universal definition of sacred. Rizzotti has never swung the red bat in batting practice or in the cage. "You find a bat like that and things fall into place. Whether you bat better or not, you start to feel better."

A few dozen games later the bat tragically breaks on a line drive single, and Rizzotti's average begins to dip. The end of the season stops the slide.

"It's $150 for a box of four. Now I have an arsenal."


Embracing Wei Wu Wei, AN ancient eastern philosophy of "action without action" or "effortless doing": Rizzotti noticed players hit better in spring training than the regular season.

"If you ask guys what it would be like if you could extend spring training all year, they'd say, 'Oh yeah, I'd be hitting .500.'

"Last year as soon as the season started I locked down. Your whole mind-set changes. These games count."

This year he is trying to extend spring training in his mind. "I'm trying not to care too much. Not in the sense of not caring about the game, but in the sense that if I'm 4-for-4 or 0-for-4 it doesn't change me."

No more trying to outthink the pitcher.

"Now I get in the box and it's just sit back, arm down, elbow down, get your hands in position, two breaths, bring the bat back, one deep breath before the pitch, and just barrel the ball."

Subway sandwich: In spring training, Rizzotti was 3-for-3 at the plate for two games in a row after eating Subway chicken teriyaki for lunch. So he tried another for the last preseason game and hit a double. Though science has not studied the neuromuscular effects of Subway chicken teriyaki, hits are hits. And Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game.

John Mayer "Clarity," the live version: Important ingredient in establishing new transcendental mind-set. Also important in the mix, Dave Matthews' Everyday, also the live version. Live versions are longer, which helps establish and maintain new chill attitude.

The opening game results? An RBI, two singles and a fly out. Not bad stew.

DREAMS OF A NORMAL LIFE: A former streetwalker nearing 50 takes stock of her life and wants to fill the emptiness. She becomes tech savvy and now works online.

Forty-nine year old "Renee Holly" sits naked in front of her laptop, a Web cam broadcasting her every move to "Papi," a man somewhere in the world who is willing to pay $6 a minute to peep into the cramped St. Petersburg area studio apartment she uses as her brothel.

"Do you think I'm beautiful?" she asks. It's not a come-on. She really wants to know. An empty space inside her needs to hear the answer.

Papi writes back that he thinks she is absolutely gorgeous.

For a second, something flutters in her emptiness, but it's not the one thing she wants most.

Renee has made a living selling her body for most of her life. She describes her past as a working girl stereotype: hooked on drugs and addicted to the attention she gets from sex. About a year ago, she got clean and started taking stock of her life as she nears 50. About the same time, almost by accident, she tapped into the marketing power of the Internet.

She posted an ad in the erotic services section of Craigslist and e-mails started pouring in. Her phone rang off the hook. She learned the new technology quickly. Now all e-mails get an automatic reply from her BlackBerry. She has a Web site. She blogs. Recently, she signed on with the Web cam site, where she is engaged with Papi in a "private session."

Renee - that's her Internet name - is glad not to have to work the streets. Working independently online she feels safer and can make as much as $1,000-$3,000 a week, depending on how many "dates" she takes. She can average three a day, each at between $100-$200 an hour. But that money can't buy the one thing she really wants most.

"I've got nothing that's real. I can't buy anything with the money I make this way. If I get busted, they can take away anything I purchased with money I've made illegally. So you rent, rent, rent but you don't own anything," she says.

"I just want to buy a little shanty and to have a little equity, all the things that other 50-year-olds already have," she says. "I want to be a regular citizen, in my own way ... . I guess I'll never be a regular citizen, but I want to have legitimate money, pay taxes and just have the peace of mind from knowing I have the right to own things."

Enter the Web.

The money she makes in front of her Web cam is legal, and may be the step she needs in her quest to "go legit." On the site Renee uses, she gets $1.50 out of the $6 a minute customers pay. Every two weeks she'll get a paycheck, pay taxes and be able to save her money. She could get a loan for a car. Put a down payment on a house. Start a small business. She could begin to fill the empty place inside her with the one thing she wants most.

What she really wants is to be mainstream. To be accepted. To be somebody's boring next door neighbor.

"I'd like to be married and in love. Everyone would. But I'm too ... free ... or calloused ... . I don't know which ... ."

Last week, she opened a business bank account and put $1,500 in it to start building a future.

After 14 minutes, Papi logs off and Renee slumps her shoulders. Holding her dress in her lap she looks up at the ceiling loses herself for a few seconds as she does the math. Fourteen times $1.50.

"A little over $20," she says out loud.

It's a start.

A LONELY ROAD TO A DREAM: Cory Patton dreams of playing under the bright lights of Major League Baseball. But the chase comes with great sacrifice.

All in all, Cory Patton would rather be thinking about batting practice at the Blue Jays minor league field in Dunedin than a broken-down car in Tulsa, Okla.

Standing with his cell phone pressed to his ear in a locker that smells of sweat and leather, his heart is at a familiar crossroads. One road runs through the phone and across state lines to Bobbie, his wife and soul mate back home in Tulsa. The other leads just outside to the smell of ballpark grass and the kid's game he loves more than he can say.

His wife is upset about the car, and his teammates are outside stretching for the game.

Last year, the couple spent the season together, traveling game to game with the team. But the Pattons learned the $1,500 a month Cory earns playing Class A ball can't float the dream for both of them. So this year she stayed home with a day job.

"We've lived on a whole lotta nothin'" he explains, "This year has been a lot more difficult than we both anticipated. It's hard, her not being here. I haven't seen her in nine weeks."

At 25, this is his third year in the minors.

Patton describes baseball as an exercise in learning how to cope with failure. If he gets a hit just 30 percent of the time, he earns a .300 batting average and stands to live his dream of making millions in the major leagues. That means he'd fail 70 percent of the time.

He knows his young marriage is not a game of failure. Batting .300 with your wife lands a fellow an all-star spot sleeping on the couch.

Standing in his locker, he's practicing the skill he believes he needs to be successful in both arenas: consistency.

He believes a minor-league ballplayer makes the majors when he can play his best game consistently. A good husband loves consistently.

So he and Bobbie talk three times every day - she from Tulsa after clocking out of her job at a local bank, he at the most inconvenient time, in the hours just before the game. It's hard to find a window for a 20-minute conversation. She starts her day at 5:30 a.m. and is in bed by 10:00 p.m. He works nights at the ballpark, playing 7:30 p.m. games that end after her bedtime.

The dream: Patton makes the majors, and money is never an issue again and Bobbie travels with him everywhere he goes. But the real odds of making The Show are a harsh reality.

"Well, I'm not too good at math, but I know not very many of us are going to make it,'' he says. "On any given team, there may be one, maybe two who make the big leagues."

For Cory, and every other player on his team, love of baseball bridges the gap between the statistics and the dream.

"I still feel like a kid out here...There's nothing I'd rather be doing. The first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning, other than my wife, is baseball. How I'm ready to get out there and do better than I did yesterday. I'm always thinking about it. Even at home lying in bed, I'm still thinking about my game and what I'm going to do the next day," Patton says.

For better and worse, the Dunedin Blue Jays fell just short of making the playoffs, and Cory is free to go home to Bobbie. In the offseason he plans to substitute teach, put on a hitting clinic for local high school kids and maybe pick up some work at his uncle's concrete business.

He will finally get to curl up at night with his wife in his arms and feel a sense of peace he lived without during the baseball season. And as he falls asleep, neither has any doubt what he'll be dreaming about.

LOSING EVERYTHING: Diane Ryder never dreamed she would be facing foreclosure. Then came knee surgery and cancer. It could happen to almost anyone.

Before the surgeries and before the cancer, Diane Ryder felt secure. Thanks to money left by her late husband, the 59-year-old St. Petersburg woman felt financially cared for. For about three years after his death, she led a comfortable life. She ate out whenever she wanted, drove a nice new Lincoln Town Car, and was renovating the bathrooms in the home she has lived in for nearly 30 years. Everything was paid for, and she lived on about $6,000 a month.

Ryder did have an annoying trick knee that turned painfully inward when she walked. She went in for surgery and didn't heal well. When the staples were removed, the knee broke open.

More surgeries were required. Each seemed to leave the knee worse off than before. In place of a functioning knee, bone rubs against bone. The pain leaves her bedridden. Now her doctors recommend surgically fusing the bones together, leaving her a leg that won't bend.

There were a lot of medical bills, and things got tight financially, but Ryder thought it would pass. In six months or so, she would be okay.

Then in November 2005 an X-ray found cancer in her lung. She quit smoking five years ago, but the damage from years of cigarettes had already been done. The doctors said the cancer could kill her; the knee wouldn't. So the knee was left for later, and cancer treatment began.

She pays $600 a month for health insurance, but the co-pays mounted beyond what she could afford.

"I thought what Medicare didn't pay, my other insurance would. But they don't. So they send me the bill to pay," she says.

Soon she was putting medications and groceries on credit cards. She mortgaged her home.

It wasn't enough.

She canceled her Internet, cable and phone.

It wasn't enough.

She sold her stereo. Her lawn mower. Her computer. A vacuum. A ceiling fan. Some furniture.

Not enough.

She received a foreclosure notice. She pawned her jewelry, including her parents' wedding bands, and found homes for three of her four dogs.

Still, it wasn't enough.

Her home will be scheduled for auction on the courthouse steps in a few weeks.

The cancer has stopped growing. But her knee is still painful and debilitating. Ryder requires constant care, which she receives from her boyfriend. They fell in love shortly after she hired him to tile the new bathroom in 2003, one good year before her health problems began.

"I need 24-hour care. I can't even get to the kitchen for a glass of water. We've thought about having someone in here to care for me. They don't have to be a nurse, just someone. But what he'd make going back to work, it wouldn't pay what it would cost to have someone take care of me. We don't know what to do," Ryder explains.

She feels frustrated by the fact that, because she is not yet 60 years old, she is not eligible for most programs designed to help the elderly with issues like home health care and transportation to doctors appointments.

"The state of Florida's medical system is horrifying to older people ... well, the ones older than me can get more help than I can. I'm 59. If I was 60 I could get more help. At 59 in other states, I'd be able to get the help. They don't have this 60-magic-number-thing in other states. ... I feel that I'm being discriminated against," she says, "If I can make it one more year, maybe we can get the help we need to get our life back together."

She said she doesn't know what will happen if the foreclosure goes through.

"I guess I owe about $120,000 in medical bills," she says.

Her bank accounts are at zero, and her credit is shot.

"How are we going to get first month, last month and a security deposit on an apartment? I have no idea."


HER MORNING PICK-ME-UP: A former nun takes on each day with a simple breakfast and a mission at AARP to help other senior citizens make ends meet.

Bertha Noack begins her 77th birthday at 6:20 a.m. the same way she begins every day, with breakfast at Pepper's Restaurant in Pinellas Park, across the street from where she works. The waitress knows to expect the former nun and which booth she'll be in. She knows without a word to serve a poached egg, rye toast and coffee.

She knows Bertha will prepare her coffee with two creams, no sugar, and a few ice cubes from her water glass to bring it to just the right temperature. She knows she'll drink three cups, but not to give her a refill until the mug is completely empty. Full cups are the only way to keep the ice cube cooling system in order. Half-cup refreshing makes a mess of it.

Bertha politely chugs the last two swallows as the waitress walks by, and gets a perfect one cup refill. The faint sound of When Doves Cry by Prince fills the quiet booths around her at the approximate volume of two dishes clinking together. It is one in an endless loop of bad '80s hits cleverly used as white noise.

In her first life, for 32 years, she was a nun, but retired in 1989 for reasons she describes as "personal." In her second life, she was engaged for a November wedding, but a September heart attack took her groom. The dress hung in the closet several years before she had the heart to give it away. She still wears the engagement ring, a simple single stone on a plain gold band.

In her third life, she works as a counselor at AARP helping retirees find jobs to make ends meet. While in the convent, she worked as a schoolteacher but did not contribute to Social Security, so retirement is still a dream.

"I put $50 into a savings account two years ago with the idea of putting something in it every week, and I just haven't been able to. I'm one week to the next," she says, "I'm going to hang in there as long as I can, physically I mean."

The waitress drops the check, for $2.89, face down, as she does every day. Noack says it doesn't make sense to cook breakfast for one, but means she'd rather not begin the day alone. The breakfast is the one luxury she affords herself.

"Sometimes I feel guilty. I could be using the money for something else, but I don't drink, don't smoke and don't go to movies. I've been working since I was 17 years old and I deserve it."

LIVING ON PRAYERS, DREAMS: A single father tries to make the day-to-day math of his current life add up while he works on a business administration degree.

What Javontae Wright's north St. Petersburg apartment lacks in furnishings, it makes up for in faith.

Faith fills the barren bedroom walls as Wright, a 24-year-old single parent, tries to cajole his 2-year-old daughter, Zi'Yhon, to sleep. She's having none of it.

"No more monkeys jumping on the bed," he sings to Zi'Yhon (pronounced Zion) in a tune that is half playful, half Dad Voice.

Faith and two large stuffed toys are all that fill the apartment's living room. He won the toys for her at the state fair.

"C'mon, give me a kiss and it's time to lay down." Now the tone is: Dad is tired and means what he's saying.

Faith fills the space between an eviction notice and a paycheck.

"Let's say our prayers. Then it's bedtime." The tone is now: That's an official Dad order.

Zi'Yhon knows about half of the Lord's prayer and most of the ABC song, and seems to think they belong together somehow. Dad helps fill the gaps, lifts her onto a pillow and starts patting her back.

"Paycheck to paycheck is no fun. You've got to make your bills meet your money and your money meet your bills. It's $40 to fill up my tank; her pull-ups will cost you at least $20 a week. Groceries, clothes, insurance - it's never ending. After paying everything I may have $50 to stretch from the first to the 14th. That's $5 a day. Five dollars a day keeps the bad man away. At least it's some money in your pocket. It beats being in debt."

Zi'Yhon is squirming. Her eyes pop open and she starts giggling.

"When rent was due on the first and I couldn't pay it till the ninth I was getting worried. It's frustrating. When I get frustrated I pray more. In those times I have to pray hard. Prayer is powerful. It changes things.

"In April my rent was late. I had an eviction notice and the Lord stepped in right on time."

Zi'Yhon is off the bed, into the living room and back with one of the carnival toys, a stuffed Spider-Man nearly twice her size.

"It's a lot of pressure. I would like to take her out of town, take her to Disney or a nice vacation, something out of our routine, but I have to do everything on a budget. I would love to have more furniture for her. ...

"Someday I want to get her a three-bedroom, two-bath home. Most people want a mansion, a big two-story home. I just want a nice house with an education/playroom and a back yard with a little nature for her to play in."

Wright is a few semesters from a degree in business administration from St. Petersburg College. He usually takes nine hours a semester. He's worked as a teacher's assistant at Oak Park Middle School, and an account manager for a collection agency.

Through WorkNet, he recently took a job as a recreation counselor with the Police Athletic League. One day he hopes to open his own youth center to provide child care and after-school activities.

"Zi'Yhon! Put ... that ... toy ... back ... and ... get ... into ...bed!" Dad Voice With Pauses means business, and Zi'Yhon wobbles out of the room with Spider-Man. Back in bed, lying on Dad's chest, she can't stop fidgeting. Dad can hardly keep his eyes open.

"Man, I shouldn't have let her have pudding before bedtime."