I KNOW Sonja will be late even before the tired woman behind the counter yells my name to give me the message. My name is an all-access pass—Lee—but she still manages to make it into two syllables. I jolt out of my exhausted trance when I finally realize I’m the Lee she’s yelling for. I’m pretty sure I’m the last girl in California not to have a cell phone. It’s after one o’clock in the morning. I’m at the 24-Hour Chinese Food and Donuts on Harrison Avenue and Second Street. Transient central for San Francisco. I probably look like a homeless person, but I’m technically only between addresses for a few hours. I kick my duffel farther under the table and make my way up to the counter, watching my bag the whole time, and wait for the inevitable announcement—“Your friend is on her way.”
I sit back down and hug my wilted cup of coffee to my face. The strength of it surprises me, dark and oily. A man in a tight green dress flashes an incomplete set of teeth at me from the counter and holds up his own cup. He looks harmless, but he could get chatty. Social rejects get chatty late at night. Sure enough, he starts up in a groggy voice, “You sure are tall, honey. What are you, six feet?”
He’s off by two inches, but I don’t want to talk about my height. I touch my index finger to the rim of my cup and draw a line across the yellow Formica in front of me. It works better with actual spit, but I just got off a Greyhound bus. I don’t want to lick my fingers.
“Are you part black or Indian? I don’t mean anything by that. I’ve dated many gorgeous brown men. And with that cute short haircut, you could just about pass for one of them.” My new white friend chuckles.
I don’t know the answer to his question. I stare at the line I drew and wait for it to work. I don’t have a lot of magic, and whatever I do have is most likely evil, if I can believe Da. I discovered the spit trick by accident, and it doesn’t work for much, just redirects people’s attention when I don’t want it. That and the music thing. Maybe one or two other minor skills. That’s all I have.
I don’t know what else I’d have in the way of magic if it weren’t for Da. His house, his rules. He’s my stepfather, or he would be if he’d married my mother. We have no legal or blood relationship, not that it matters. I know kids whose real dads beat them up. Being related doesn’t do them any good.
But I’m still going to look for my real father. That’s why I’m here.
The spit trick does work, or else the man just changes his mind. He swivels around on his stool to the slice of cake he’s been picking at, bloated white back facing me. Good. The tiny pot of marmalade on the table makes its way into my Army coat pocket, and I feel a little burst of relief when its weight settles in. I’m not a real thief. It’s just to relieve stress. Some people smoke.
I’m fifteen now, but I can pass for eighteen. This has been my plan ever since I realized I needed a plan—taking the bus to the city and staying with Sonja. She’ll be able to convince Da it was the right thing to do when he finds out where I am. Neither one of them was still living at home by the time they were fifteen. If I’m following in their footsteps, I’m already behind.
Sonja walks through the greasy glass door just as I’m starting to consider using one of the twenties hidden in my boot to take a cab, and at the sight of her, I finally let go of the breath I’ve been holding. Dark hair sticking out of a ski cap, shoes with no socks, and her Technicolor Dreamcoat. The coat hangs to her knees in different colors of swirly dyed leather. She calls it her protective cloak, and I know she’s only half joking.
“Kid,” she says to my neck when we hug. She’s not as tall as me, and I bend down and hold her lightly. I breathe in the Sonja smell—dry grass, perfume, and the tea she brushes through her hair to keep it so dark. “Come on, I’m double-parked,” she says, and I follow the Dreamcoat out to her pride and joy. The Mustang has gotten a new engine, at least one new paint job—originally black, now custard yellow—and countless other new parts since 1968. She won’t let me drive it, but I’m not offended; she won’t let anyone drive it except her. I rub my boots back and forth on the floor mat, which I know is covering holes you can see the road through.
I love the drive through the city at night, along the cable car rails sunk into California Street. Up and west, my internal compass remarks. I twist out the open window to look back at the lights of the Bay Bridge slung between the buildings of the Financial District. Everything is made of light at this hour. We stop at a traffic signal, and I watch the intersection fill with orange clouds as fog drifts under the streetlights.
A dog trots across the road, something hanging from its mouth. Sonja mutters in Croatian and makes one of her superstitious hand gestures.
“Huh?” I say.
“That was a fox. Not a good sign. I don’t want any tricksters tonight,” she says. Her voice is scratchy from sleep, the reason she was late. My body says it sounds sexy, and my brain tells my body to be quiet. We’ve been having that argument a lot in the last year, my body and I.
“A fox in the city?” I admit I’m saying whatever pops into my head just because I want to hear her late-night voice again. Sonja works as a paralegal. On the phone in the office she’s a soprano, and she sounds younger than her thirty-seven years. At home she goes lower and lower into alto as the wine flows. She doesn’t have an accent, other than that Canadian way of pronouncing certain words, but this late at night, I can hear what must be her mother’s Croatian prayers and pet names slipping through.
“They’re a sign of change, sweetness. Nothing we want too much of tonight. Okay, home again, home again, jiggety jig.” We’re in her driveway now. She eases out of the driver’s seat and reaches into the back for my duffel.
But I do want change tonight. I just ran away from home. Sonja might not know it yet, but this time I’m not going back.
I’ve come to the city to stay with her before. Weekends, and one Wednesday night last winter when I was so scared of Da I couldn’t stay home any longer. She didn’t hesitate then, didn’t ask me anything, just made up the couch and called in sick the next morning to take me to breakfast and drive me the two hours back home. I wonder sometimes how much I’m protecting her by not saying anything.
Her apartment faces Golden Gate Park. When I sleep there, I get the couch under the picture window. Sonja hates the traffic sounds from Fulton Street, but I love the feeling that the current of the city is flowing around me, that someone is always awake.
She unlocks the doors and heads straight for the kitchen. “Let’s have some tea before bed. We need to chitchat,” she says over the sound of the tap filling her brass kettle.
I feel a dart of dread as I slide my Army coat off. I’m going to have to talk about my plan. And I wore a T-shirt. I look down at my bare arms and kick myself. Stupid. I always wear long sleeves unless I’m ready to explain, and I never am. But it was a warm June night in Selkirk, even though it’s icy in San Francisco now, and I got dressed in a hurry tonight.
Sonja calls, “Tall girl? Get me that tin down, could you?” and when I go into the kitchen and reach up to the flowered tin she’s pointing at, I know she can see the long fresh welt on the inside of my arm.
When we’re settled on the couch with her funky herbal tea and a saucer of the butter cookies she hides from herself on that top shelf, she says, “So tell me what’s up tonight, srce moja.”
Srce moja means “my heart,” or something like that. Her name for me when it’s late and she’s tired, or she’s been drinking, or she’s worried.
“It just got bad with Da. You know how he is. Plus it’s the end of school. Summer is a good time to try something new, right?” I don’t want to tell her everything. I’ve always been careful about what I tell Sonja. She was my mother’s friend when they were young. My mother died before I could form any real memories of her, but Sonja says they had a deal where she would look out for me. Da, my mother’s long-term boyfriend, was supposed to raise me. As far as being fed and clothed, he’s held up his end of the deal.
But I don’t talk about the times in the barn. Not to Sonja. Not to anyone.
Here’s what Sonja knows about Da. Some pot smoking. Some heavy drinking that led him to teach me to drive the big rusted Ford at age eleven so he didn’t have to sober up for a trip to the store. Some light corporal punishment for my childhood crimes, like spanking when I got caught after lights-out reading Silver on the Tree by flashlight. Some drifting into religious territory that made even Sonja, a devotee of every religion that she thinks could help with her research, squeamish. Nothing really alarming. That’s what I’ve told her.
Now she asks me why tonight was different.
“It wasn’t really,” I say to her knees. I still don’t know if I’m going to do this or not, right now, tonight. Take the plunge. Say something I can’t take back.
She knows something is up, then. I take a long breath, fix my eyes on the dusty brass lamp to one side of Sonja’s glossy head, and talk.
What happened tonight—the barn, the rigging, the stick of yew glowing red at one end. I was afraid he was going to light the hay bales on fire. I remember thinking, through the fog of being in the barn, that he’d been getting worse lately. Crazier and more careless. So I decided tonight was the night.
My mind goes away when I try to put together what Da does. His excuse has to do with magic. There is bad magic in the world, he says, and he needs to make sure I am safe from it. My mother made him promise to take care of me, he says. Before the Winter fey killed her and turned his world upside down.
So when he tells me to, I follow him out to the barn. I take off my clothes so he can be sure no Winter fey has marked my body. I step into the rigging. He snaps shut the hasps on my wrists so that, if the Winter fey have taken me over, they can’t reach him. My ankles too. He surveys my five feet ten inches carefully. He sometimes remarks then that I am lighter than my mother in most places. Where she was coffee, I am only tan.
I step into the rigging myself. He doesn’t force me to. That’s the part that kills me.
Sometimes that’s all. He prays with his handmade sheaf of papers, the mash-up of religious photocopies he has put together to support his claim. Sometimes he lets me out then.
Sometimes he lights the yew stick on fire or takes out his side. That’s what he calls the rounded piece of steel too short to be a machete and too long to be a hunting knife. He doesn’t keep it sharpened. The point is to scare off the Winter fey, he says, not to hurt me.
I have trouble tracking what happens after that, most of the time.
I get to where I can’t tell Sonja any more. I finish by saying, “I think I might need a place to crash for a while until I figure some stuff out.”
She stares at me, espresso-brown eyes flicking from my face to my collar and back. She squeezes her face shut, pinches the skin between her eyes with manicured fingers. “I’m just going to get something,” she says and disappears into the kitchen, where I hear some Croatian bad language, and returns with a mostly full wine bottle and a glass. She fills the glass and drinks it all, and then fills it again and drinks all of that too. Then she says, “Come here,” and she’s scooting closer and her arms are around me and she’s tightening her grip on every breath like she can crush the hurt out. Her shoulder is bony under the soft sweater. She moves a hand into my hair. I tell myself You are not crying.
When she lets me go, I can feel a rough patch on my collarbone where Da might have gotten me, a round of skin that’s going to be an abrasion or a bruise. I hate that the most, the places where it shows later, because I can’t always remember the exact details of what happened from one time to the next. I hate having to read the news on my own body. I hate it when it shows on me, where I’ve been.
I have the feeling, after the barn, of being a used washcloth. Wrung dry. Sometimes I feel cleaner when it’s over, like whatever Da is doing is actually working, driving the bad magic out.
I don’t feel clean tonight.
Sonja wipes under her eyes with her knuckles and says, “We need to work some stuff out. Talk some more. Figure out how we’re going to take care of you. But for now, take the couch. We’ll be roomies. Long as you need.” And my body goes slack with relief about something I didn’t even realize I was afraid of—her saying I don’t think it’ll work for you to stay here, doll baby.
It’s almost three by now, and she has work in the morning. We sort out towels, sheets, toothbrushes, and she stops in the middle of measuring coffee beans for the morning to put her arms around me and say, “I’m glad you’re here, kid. This is right. Start your new life.” And even though I tell myself I’m not crying, my throat fills up and I can’t answer.
Start my new life. I’m going to find my real dad. That’s my plan.
SONJA IS gone when I wake up, midmorning, stifling in the sunlit living room. She left me a note that says “Dinner at 7” and three inches of coffee, cold now. I pour it into a jam jar and sit on the unmade couch to consider what to do next.
Sonja’s apartment is like a market stall on the Silk Road. The walls are covered with fabric from Tibet and Indonesia. Orthodox saints, Hindu avatars, and other icons from religions I don’t even recognize look down from the plate rail near the ceiling. Above every doorway there’s a rope of dried herbs—hawthorn, balm of Gilead, and other things Sonja says keep the fey out of your home. In a way she’s like Da, taking a little piece of every religion to make her own custom spiritual security system. They’re both afraid of any kind of magic. It’s a secret I keep from Sonja, the little bits I have.
In Sonja’s case, her obsession came about when the Winter fey killed my mother. She hates to talk about it, and Da has only ever answered my questions in the barn with his side in his hand. I don’t ask him much about anything then.
I know it happened when I was two. Once Sonja had too much wine and told me it was on the summer solstice—Midsummer, she called it—at a party she could hardly remember later. She and my mother were just finishing a season working as camp cooks for a group of climate-change scientists doing fieldwork in the Sierras, and I was home with Da. The details were hazy, she said. It was a warm night full of stars. And then later she was freezing. She remembers drinking cups and cups of coffee but not being able to get warm as she sat with an emergency blanket around her and watched the firefighters close up my mother’s body in a bag. And knowing, without being able to describe it clearly, that a wall of fog rose up out of the clear night, and something Sonja couldn’t see knocked my mother to the ground. Sonja thought it was a heart attack or something random like that at first. But then, as she was yelling for someone to radio for help and trying to get my mother to breathe again, she saw the tiny glass thimble buried in her throat. She touched it, and it dissolved into ash that blew away. Sonja is sure that was Winter magic.
She’s been hardcore about protecting herself and me from the Winter Folk ever since then, although when she’s sober, she won’t talk about the night my mother died. She hates everything about the fey world, but she insists some kinds of magic are more dangerous than others.
There are Summer fey too, and their magic isn’t bad for the world. At least not according to my mother’s letter. I found it in an envelope from the phone company, glued to the underside of my dresser, when I was twelve. She had been gone for ten years by that time, and I don’t remember anything clearly about her, but I tell myself the voice I hear when I recite the letter must be hers.
Liana, my beautiful daughter,
You are beautiful. People will tell you you’re not. You must not listen to those people. By the time you’re old enough to understand this letter, you will understand prejudice all too well.
You also know by now, or you will soon, that I don’t mean only your lovely skin and hair and eyes. Old lines of magic converge in your blood. It may have already shown itself, or it may only surface later, when you need it.
When it does, know that you can choose your path. Find the Summer Folk, or let them find you. They give life and restore good to the world. Let them help you become yourself.
I can’t be the one to show you your path. I wish with all my soul that I did not have to leave you, but I know the choices I have made will keep me from seeing you grow up.
Do not give in to revenge or bitterness. Do not give in to fear. I am at peace, and that is what I wish for you. Find your way. Find your beauty.
With more love than you can imagine,
I tell myself I have something, a blur of warmth and soft hair and good smells that is my memory of her, but all I really have is Sonja. She remembers my mother for me.
I’ve been living with that letter for a long time. I still have more questions than answers. But the letter does tell me that there is more than one way of looking at magic, not just Da’s way. I’ve been keeping my supposed magic tricks from Da ever since I found out about them, but I’m pretty sure he knows. I doubt if they actually make me fey, but I know they make him hate me.
I tell myself my real father won’t hate me, but I have no way of knowing for sure. I stretch my toes out onto the scratchy rug. I roll the silt from the bottom of my coffee jar around in my mouth and consider my options.
It’s summer. As of yesterday, the last day of tenth grade, I won’t technically be skipping school. Da will figure out I’m gone by tonight, but I don’t have a lot to worry about. I’ve stayed with Sonja before, and by the time Da realizes I’m not coming home at all, I’ll have figured out a plan.
I need money, though. The $231 I started with is already down to $179 after the bus ticket. I need a city bus pass and a way to contribute grocery money to cut down on the moocher guilt I already have after one night on Sonja’s couch. And the biggie—I need $300 for the search fee at Birthright, the company that told me they could help me find my father. The woman on the phone thought it was possible he was still in the Bay Area. “Nobody ever leaves this town if they can help it, honey,” she’d said in her flat voice.
So I’m going to need a job.
Jobs I’ve held: babysitter for my seventh grade homeroom teacher’s toddler, for a few Friday nights one winter while she worked on getting divorced. Occasional funeral singer at the Evergreen Views Interfaith Memorial Chapel for the past two years, where it turned out making people cry with my freak singing trick was not a problem. Backup apricot seller for my friend Zoe’s family at the farmers’ market, before they moved back to Alaska. Her parents mostly took me with them to the market because I’d slept over with Zoe the night before.
I should have bought a ticket north instead of south and gone to stay with Zoe. But San Francisco is big and full of people who look like me, sort of. I can blend in if I need to. In Port Protection, Alaska, I have a feeling everybody would know where to point if Da came to town looking for a five-foot-ten-inch not white or Inuit girl. Nobody who could be called Halfway, the not-so-flattering nickname I’ve had since first grade. Halfway to the moon. Halfway white, halfway not. Halfway Lee Crawford.
I might be Inuit. I don’t know. In the two pictures I have of my mother, she’s pretty, tall like me with a sweet round face and brown skin and curly black hair. I don’t know what her eyes looked like, since they’re closed in both shots. She’s too far away to see her features clearly anyway.
I wish I could actually remember her.
There’s no man in the pictures either. Not that there would be. I’ve asked Sonja who my real dad is and she doesn’t know, even though I’ve pressed her about other boyfriends, any likely candidates she might have known before Da came along. I know he could be anyone. He could be a drug pusher or a neo-Nazi, or worse, he could even have hurt my mom, a thought I can barely hold in my brain before it slides away. But I fantasize that he’s just some decent guy who was too dumb to stay with my mom. At the very least, he can’t be anything like Da. There can’t be too many men out there like him, raising kids who aren’t theirs to grow up as damaged as me.
I get dressed in the same clothes I wore last night. They’ll last for today until I figure out laundry. I tidy up the couch and stash my duffel where neither of us can trip over it. It’s a small apartment, not messy, but dense with Sonja’s collection. I wash the coffeepot, Sonja’s toast plate, and my jam jar. May as well try to make an impression as a good housemate.
I know my way around the San Francisco bus system, more or less. I make my way to the corner of Geary and Nineteenth, where two major lines intersect. I’ll take the first bus that comes, I tell myself, and get off at the first shopping area I see, and apply for jobs in the stores. Someone will want to hire a quiet girl who’s willing to work nights and weekends. They’ll take pity on me and give me an advance in the form of merchandise so I look more like the customers at Forever 21 instead of my normal thrift-store self. I practice my smile and try to feel with my fingers if it’s a million-dollar one.
I watch the traffic on Geary coming from the west, where the ocean is. A big old truck clatters by, windows rolled down to that halfway position that probably means they’re broken, both people in the front seat huddled down against the wind with hoodies over their heads. San Francisco can be freezing in June.
Sometimes emotion hits me like I’m an occupied nation and it’s the invading land army. The weight of what I’ve just done rolls over me now. It’s the truck that does it. It’s not green like Da’s, and it’s cleaner than his, but it still gives me that homing feeling I get sometimes if I spend the night away from him. A low, sick sensation, like my body is on a rope I’ve stretched too far and it’s hauling me back. Like I can’t go anywhere because it just won’t work. Any road I take will only lead me back home. Like there’s no way I could belong anywhere else. It’s a little like homesickness and a little like just plain sickness. My mouth fills up with that precrying feeling. My stomach buckles into something like a sob. I make myself recite the lyrics to “Everybody Knows” to muffle it.
I give up on the 38 Geary bus and walk toward the hill that separates the outer Richmond District from downtown. The cold exhaust smell of the wind fills my throat and cuts through my jacket. You can’t really see the fog when you’re in it most of the time out here in the western part of town, but if I were flying over the city, a low cloud would hide this whole street.
Up at Arguello, across the street from the old brick middle school with the million tiny windows, I stop because there’s an actual bus shelter, not just a sign on a post. I’m in front of a produce stand, and despite the cold I can smell basil and lemons, and that fills my body up with the idea of summer and that good sensation when you know you’re going to get to eat exactly what you’re craving. I’m young and I’m free and I’m going to see Sonja again tonight, I tell myself, and it’s true—I do feel better now, out in the open air and on my way somewhere. With my mind I stroke the row of deep yellow Manila mangoes and try to calculate whether I can peel one before the bus comes. I poke at my hunger and realize it’s huge. It’s filling up my whole body. I get a wave of hunger nausea, and my vision crumbles at the edges, like my body is huddling toward the core to conserve energy.
I’m not conscious of humming until the lyrics burst out of my mouth. It’s “I’ll Fly Away.” My mind might have picked that song because of last night, but what I sing doesn’t matter most of the time. It’s a current that hurtles through me, like the song is rushing water and I’m just the riverbed it runs through. I can’t explain it.
The girl who’s been hanging little laminated price signs on the lettuce bins turns around. Her grin is huge and crooked-toothed. I smile back without thinking. She’s wearing a striped apron with a row of red birds on the hem, and I see green-stained fingers when her hands come up to clap.
Not girl. Woman. I revise my first assessment when she turns to the toddler playing under a hanging basket of garlic and says something to him in Chinese. She must be the owner.
And then I see her eyes drift up to the cloudy sky. Her mouth opens into a blissful smile and she watches the traffic light in the intersection, where two crows are jostling for space around the police camera. She takes a step toward the street.
I keep singing.
I swear I don’t intend to do what I do next. But the woman takes another few steps toward the crows, swaying a little to the song. I tell myself to stop in time, before she goes all the way out into the busy street, trying to get up to where those birds are and fly away. And while she’s not looking, I slip two mangoes into my oversized coat pocket.
I don’t know if my singing thing is actual magic. I know it’s not normal.
Here’s what Da and Sonja have explained about magic.
Fairies are real. They exist alongside us, sometimes visible, mostly hidden.
Some fairies—and that’s probably not what they call themselves—belong to the Winter Court. Their mission is to bring foulness into the world. The fey don’t exist solely to interfere with humans, although that’s what Da believes. But they will mess you up. They’ll put you in the path of disease, distract you with flashing lights to cause car accidents, take human babies and replace them with Winter spawn who will bring horror into your home. Kill your loved ones for no reason with disappearing weapons you can never show to the police.
I went through a period of wanting to go to the Winter Lands and look for whoever killed my mother, but Sonja shut that down. “You’ll get your own self killed,” she said. “And besides, you can’t just cross over into the Faerie Realm. Mortals have tried.” The hard, sorrowing way she said it gave me the feeling she had tried herself. I didn’t bring it up again.
Some fairies belong to the Summer Court. When they deal with humans, it’s not to bring about things that destroy us. Or not with so much malice. Some of them even want to help us, although they always have a motive. That’s the difference, according to Sonja. The occasional kindness.
Da and Sonja are both pretty obsessed with Winter, Sonja because whatever killed my mother came out of the Winter Lands, Da because of me. He thinks I’m a changeling. That I’m really Winter Folk. My mother was pregnant when they met, so there’s that added mystery to my already mysterious life. Da thinks evil spirits are raising a poor human girl somewhere in the faerie realm. That’s what the barn is for, to trap me if I am Winter fey. He doesn’t think I would know about it—it’s more like he thinks it could be a secret identity, kept secret even from me. Like I’m extremely deep undercover.
Fairies can’t endure touching certain things—iron and steel, like Da’s chains, and fire. It just happens to be my bad luck that humans also don’t do so well with being burned, or that’s Da’s logic.
The Folk also can’t lie. So when he screams questions at me, that’s supposed to trick my fey self into telling the truth.
Da’s evidence is that I can do magic. But that doesn’t make me fey—it just makes me different. I can’t do much, and nothing that actually helps me, like turning litter into gold when I need to buy a bus ticket in the middle of the night. I can do the go-away trick I did at the donut shop, which only works sometimes. A few other things. I know what direction north is no matter where I am, which I only learned was uncommon from Sonja last year.
And something happens when I sing. People react somehow. They get riled up or cry or lose their inhibitions. Once in sixth grade, a guy ate everything on the table while my school choir was singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” at a nursing home lunch. When we stopped he had half a candle in his mouth and all the serving platters were licked clean. I can’t take credit for everything that happens at a show, but I’ve been testing my theory for long enough to know that when other people sing “Summertime,” the audience doesn’t usually dump pitchers of iced tea over their own heads or take off their tops. I’m working on getting that under control.
Now the little boy in the store gets up and reaches for the ceiling. He staggers toward the door, and I stop singing before I make something truly bad happen and he goes out into traffic too. The woman turns back to face me, and there’s a familiar look on her face. I’ve seen that look on other people. Like she just blacked out, and she doesn’t know where the last few minutes went.
“Arthur, come on back inside now,” she says to the little boy, and I figure she’s trying to tell me something by using English now. Her voice is totally American, middle soprano, with that way some people have of slowing down at the ends of words that makes me think of Southern California. She wipes her hands on her apron, smoothes her shiny black hair back from her face, and untangles the chain on a hanging scale over a wooden barrel of onions. “What can I help you with?” she says to me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I’m sorry for things she can’t know I’ve done. I don’t know how to handle my freak singing trick. It can come in handy, but I can never predict how it’s going to affect someone. Making people cry at a funeral is one thing, but this lady wanted to leave her son behind and climb up a traffic light in the middle of Geary Boulevard. I feel the remorse growing under my ribs, and it’s fighting the so-what feeling, the rebel tapeworm in me that says I should have what other people have, like a nice family and whatever food I’m craving whenever I want it. “Nothing. I’m just waiting for the bus.”
“You have a great voice,” she says, and she looks me full in the face, like she’s searching for something. She bites her bottom lip, and it’s such an awkward expression that I wonder if she could be younger than I first thought. “Right, Gram?” And there’s a wren of a woman behind her, with a mass of silver hair and a yellow scarf knotted at her throat.
“I heard,” the older woman says. She gives me a warm smile, but she’s assessing me, taking in boots-jacket-hair, trying to figure me out. The weight of the mangoes is pulling me down on the left side. They’re blinking like airplane lights. They’re all I can think about. The grandmother removes her oversized glasses to polish them on her charcoal sweater and says, looking down, “Reggie would love her. Down at John the Baptist. Excuse me, I’m a little obsessed with my poor suffering church choir at the moment. We just lost our good ringer, my Billie here will tell you,” she finishes, glasses back on her face. She pats my arm, and the phone rings, and she tucks herself behind the high counter to answer it.
There’s a flyer taped to the counter, a faded blue Xerox advertising a canned food drive with the drop-off site listed as St. John the Baptist Worship Community. There’s an address on Eddy Street that I quickly commit to memory. I do need a job. A church choir could be a good place to start.
The girl, Billie—I see plaid hair ties as she turns to adjust a tray of kiwi fruits and decide she must be closer to my age than I first thought—directs her voice toward me and says, “You always do it that way. Sing and it makes people fuzzy. They do stuff they don’t remember later. Or stuff they wouldn’t normally do. Right?”
I have a minor heart attack.
“Could mess things up for you if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
I don’t say anything. I don’t have to. I stare at her. My brain asks a whole list of freaked-out questions. How she knows. How much she knows. Who she is. How I can get out of here.
“Downtown bus coming if that’s your direction. Come see us, you ever want to talk.”
I push the door open without saying thank you or good-bye. She’s waving when I turn around for one more look. The girl who knows things about me. I store that under my tongue like a razor blade I’m saving for when I’m alone. That fact about that girl.
I take the bus to Van Ness and transfer to one that will take me to the Mission District, where I spend two hours of mindless happiness at Vintage by the Pound looking for something I could wear to sing in church. I resolve to ask Sonja to help me write a résumé tonight. Maybe even help me make an audition recording. Can I really get work as a singer here in San Francisco? My head is buzzing with plans, and I hear myself humming. The fat boyish girl behind the register glances at me in the sage-green dress I’m trying on, and without a word but with a smile that shows off rainbow braces, slips a soft yellow sweater off a hanger and hands it to me. It’s perfect. I look healthy and confident, and the yellow matches the retro wallpaper print of the dress. This is my day for sure. I wonder if this place is hiring, but when I ask, the clerk blushes and shakes her head as she rings me up. Her long-lashed smile makes me feel so glowy inside that I slide the blue glass ring I pocketed back onto a shelf before I leave.
My new clothes come to twenty-six dollars. I’d better find work soon. I don’t want to ask Sonja for money on top of everything else I’ve had to ask her for.
And then, on the glaring sidewalk outside the thrift store—with my new outfit dangling from my elbow in a turquoise plastic bag and the smell of roasting meat from the taqueria next door making my mind go blank with hunger—an old man shuffles by pushing a walker with tennis balls for wheels. He’s talking to himself. I’ve spent enough time in the city with Sonja to know not to listen until he says, “Pretty girl going to find her daddy where she least looking.”
It could mean anything. He’s obviously senile. But I still want to get his attention, on the off chance he’s broadcasting a message that’s actually for me. “How you doing today, sir?” I call out when he’s close enough to hear me. I realize one second later that he must think I’m a prostitute. There’s a real one leaning on a parking meter a few storefronts down the block, in a shiny wig and ripped leggings.
The man’s eyes are milky in his dark face, but he tips his stained fedora in the general direction of where I’m standing. “Bad weather. Very cold,” he remarks.
Sonja complains all the time about the microclimates in San Francisco. Out where she lives, there’s fog and an icy wind all summer. She wears a shawl over the Technicolor Dreamcoat to wait for the bus in the mornings, but then she’s too warm all day because her office is in a sunny neighborhood. Here in the Mission, it’s probably at least seventy degrees, and the sky is the unbroken blue of a child’s drawing. I’m holding my jacket over my bare arm, for once not caring if anyone can see the fresh evidence scratched on it.
“Uh-huh,” I reply. I no longer want to engage with a crazy person. I don’t have any urgent direction to walk in right now. I’m not due anywhere until tonight. I stride to the nearest crosswalk anyway. South-southwest. I have freakishly long legs. I can outrun this old man.
He keeps pace with me for several sidewalk squares, though. His breathing is awful, thick and diseased, but he’s right beside me, so I can’t mistake it for anything else when he says, “You Winter Folk, young miss.”