I notice her right off, the only woman in a sea of men who gather every morning at the parking lot near the pier, a lot that serves as our town’s wrecking yard, our Motel 666. She’s hanging there with the rest of the drifters, the sniffers, the cast-offs, cast-outs, leaning up against a busted-up truck painted a dull, dark, burnt orange, burnt something, as if someone slapped a bucketful of Rustoleum all over that thing. The truck’s chassis is raised up high on muddy tires, the luggage rack on the roof holds a rolled-up tarp or tent, an old gas can. The kind of vehicle you’d find in Death Valley or the Mojave, Mad Max at the wheel, driving across the flats, kicking up a dust cloud in the high heat. Mel Gibson in full apocalyptic sportswear, in Cormac McCarthy’s new athletic line.
The woman catches my eye, sees that I’m staring, stares back. Gives me a little smile.
I turn away, keep walking. Something about her scares me. A white woman in a fake fur coat, thin, greasy blond hair pulled back into a black scarf. Not young, not old, but getting there fast. She’s thin, way too thin, and stands in that familiar smoker’s stance: right arm held tight across her chest, right hand cupping left elbow, left arm held perpendicular to the sky, cigarette between her fingers. Thin squirrely line of blue smoke rising up in the air.
Squirrely. As in sped up, fidgety, jumpy.
The next morning, she’s there again but this time, she’s sitting behind the wheel of the truck, throne high. And she isn’t alone. Right beside her, riding shotgun on that bench seat, a small head pops up. A little girl, maybe six or seven, long blonde hair hanging down in her eyes.
Mad Maxine and her sidekick, mini-Max.
Now that they’re on my radar, I see the two of them whenever I take a drive down to the sea. They’re always there, day and night. Usually, the little girl is playing in the dirt median next to the parking lot where nothing grows, where cans and cigarette butts and paper wrappers collect. I watch as she twirls her toes in the dirt or piles crushed beer cans into a pyramid, while the woman leans against the truck and talks with the other dudes, the druggies, the hey buddy, give me a toke, hangers-on who hang around in their dented vans and ancient RVs, pit bulls tied to the fenders on rope leashes, on frayed tethers. Snarling. Ready to make a breakfast snack out of my dog and I as we walk by.
And always, in the middle of that swirling, squirrely scene, that little girl.
People have always lived by the sea. Misfits, outliers, drawn to the edge, past the edge, who pull up and pull in for the night to bed down in back seats, front seats, though it’s against the city ordinance in this Northern California beach town. But everyone knows: Once you get close to the sea, the laws of the land don’t apply.
“Oh, let em’ sleep,” I once overheard a guy say to a cop who was writing out a ticket for a tent pitched on the asphalt next to an old VW van. “What’s the harm?” And really, what is? Ever since the tech crowd bought up this town, found that they could “live coast side,” and in the morning rocket down to Silicon Valley in time for their first game of air hockey, the rents have skyrocketed. Where are people without that kind of wherewithal to live?
Over time I’ve come to know every junker in this used car lot: Kite Man’s van, front windshield busted out by a rock or a fist, a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe visible on the dashboard. The rusted Econoline where a long-haired vet lives with his three cats. An RV from Arizona that houses the biker guy who got kicked out of the mobile home park. The souped up GTO of two runaways in love, their bodies entwined like licorice sticks in the back seat. All are owned by drifters at the mercy of the elements, drifting away on a cloud of something stronger than the onshore breeze coming in off the sea. Everyone here is untethered and floating, like that young woman I saw last summer on a bus speeding downhill.
My wife and I hop on the city bus headed for downtown Seattle, tourists for the day. We’ve just left the old cathedral on the hill where we always make a stop to light a candle or three. Even though we’re both fallen away, some rituals remain. This morning, walking in during the middle of a mass, I heard the priest say that new Pope what’s-his-name proclaimed this year, “The Year of Mercy.” Amazing that he can just name a year like that. That he can give everyone something to shoot for.
After paying our fare I take a quick look down the aisle. A bus full of people going to work. Most stare down at their cellphones. A few others look out of the bus windows, daydreaming about a life beyond the 9-to-5. All the seats are taken except for the senior and disabled seats that face each other on either side of the aisle, right behind the driver’s perch.
The bus takes off with a jolt so we quickly sit down in the senior section. The seats across the narrow aisle are already occupied by three young people. They look to be in their early twenties. Two young men, and sitting between them, a young woman.
The two guys stare straight ahead. One has a scruffy light brown beard that doesn’t mask the red sores on his chin. The other is dark-haired, lazy-eyed. Both could be poster children for the grunge look, Seattle’s old claim to fame. The young woman’s head is bent low over her chest, her long straggly hair hanging down, covering her face. She’s sleeping. Her head bobs up with each bump the bus hits, eyelids flickering for a second. I hear her mumble something incoherent, then she drops off again.
I’m wrong. She’s not sleeping. She’s out of it. So far gone she can’t hold her head up. The guys sit close to her, use their bodies to prop her up. She can’t sit up straight, can’t look up. She’s on heroin or downers or is coming down off of speed, too far gone to say what she’s on.
Her hair is in her face. I can’t see her face.
My wife can’t not respond. As a nurse practitioner at the county hospital, she takes care of whoever comes through the door in whatever shape they’re in. She always says, “Everyone deserves health care.” Even the man who beats his wife. Even the woman who sells her script for pain meds on the street. Judgment can’t have a place in the equation.
She gets up, crosses the aisle, and asks the guy with the dark hair, “Do you need help?”
“No, Ma’am. Thank you, Ma’am,” he says and smiles as if nothing’s wrong. “We’re getting off soon.” Super polite.
Grabbing hold of the overhead rail, she slowly inches her way forward to the bus driver.
“Sir. You’ve got some people in trouble back there,” she whispers.
“Listen, lady. They were in trouble when they got on.”
Everyone in the bus is pretending not to look, but they’re all looking, watching. The bus heads down a steep hill, jerks hard with each pump of the breaks, and finally comes to a full stop at a bus shelter. The two guys try to get the young woman to stand, but she can’t. Her legs are rubber, are jelly, as if her limbs are deboned. Each guy puts one of his arms under one of her armpits to hoist her up. Her feet don’t touch the bus floor, dangling puppet-like. Quickly, they lift her down the bus steps and out the front doors.
The doors close with a sucking vacuum sound. As the driver takes off I hear one of the guys outside yell, “C’mon! Dammit!”
That night, in our hotel bed, I can’t sleep. When do we intervene? Is there something more we could have done? That I could have done? In the morning, my wife tells me all we can do is offer help. You can’t force people to accept what’s offered. Sometimes the person in trouble accepts a hand. Other times they’re too far gone.
Last month, in the news, there was another trio. One morning, three faces stared up at me from the newspaper, young drifters, meth heads, who shot and killed a Canadian backpacker in Golden Gate Park, then shot and killed a Marin hiker, and stole the hiker’s station wagon. After committing the murders, they drove up to Portland with the station wagon’s GPS on, leaving a trail any amateur hound dog could follow.
Usually, I can’t start the day with murder. Every morning I take a quick scan of the headlines. If there’s a story about a man who sliced up his girlfriend and put her in the freezer, or a woman who drove her kids over a cliff, I head right for the sports or art sections. Only after I’m fortified with coffee am I strong enough to return to read the gruesome.
But that morning I didn’t turn the page. There was something about those drifters. They were so young. The acts so senseless. Then I thought about that other trio, that bus ride, and kept reading.
The article offered up a series of mugshots. In the first arrest photo, taken who knows where or when or for what charge, the trio looked like three young, white, fresh-faced, college kids on a camping trip. Then, in the next arrest photo, they look more disheveled. Dirtier. Scruffier. Finally, in the most recent shot: three ravaged faces. One young man with dark bushy hair, an insolent fuck you look into the camera lens. The other guy, blondish, shaved head, red-rimmed eyes, pockmarked skin. In the middle photo a young woman, skin rash, rat nest of hair , Rastaman vibration white girl look, dreadlocks she wasn’t quite pulling off. During the police interrogation, she admitted to being in love with the blond-haired guy, said that she would do anything for him.
What she did for him was help tackle the woman backpacker right before he shot her. A meth head triptych. Even though it’s been a month since that story, their images continue to haunt me. How they stared up at me from the paper. What was it about them? Something familiar in that stare. Something that said: Go ahead. Dare to judge me.
Then it hits me.
The mother at the beach.
I look up WebMD: symptoms of meth use.
Skin irritation? Picking at skin? Check.
Twitching? Tics? Finger twitching? Rotted teeth? Check. Check. Check. Check.
Why has it taken this long to see the signs? Was I too far gone in my safe little world to notice?
“Oh. There you are!” she shouts over at me. A morning in early fall. It’s been weeks since there’s been a sighting. I’ve been looking for her, scanning the parking lot for that truck. Maybe she’s been looking for me too. We’ve been playing hide-and-seek, the adult version.
She’s standing with the regular gang, in her regular spot, leaning against a champagne-colored Jaguar. If that’s hers now, she’s definitely moved up in the world, has found better digs with leather upholstery, bucket seats, a wood-grained dash. Where’s the little girl? In the plush back seat taking a nap, her small cheek resting against that cool leather?
The woman’s thinner than the last time I saw her. She looks ghostly, barely there. An apparition. Her arms and legs as thin as pencils. Tweaker thin.
I give a quick wave, mouth a noncommittal “hey,” and keep walking. I don’t want her to think I’m interested in opening this door any wider. A few yards past I glance back and see the little girl come running out from behind some trash cans, bouncing a red rubber ball like it’s morning recess. She skips over to the passenger side door of the Jaguar, opens it, hops on in.
It’s September. Mid-week. Mid-morning. Hasn’t school started yet?
Is the girl being home-schooled? Van-schooled? What is she learning in that parking lot, a child in the middle of all those men? An old sing-song lyric rises like a puff of blue smoke. What did you learn in school today, dear little girl of mine? Another sing song rhyme rises up, a fall classic: Time for pencils, time for books. Time for teacher’s dirty looks. Or was it a summer classic: No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks ? Either way, the implicit message: The teacher wasn’t friendly. In truth, I never wanted to go to school. What I most wanted was to ride down to the docks with my fisherman father and run around the nets and boats while he stood around bullshitting with the rest of the men, all of them outlaws from the 9-to-5. My earliest role models had a few things in common: They were dirty, foul-mouthed, and fun.
My mother had other plans for me. A cleaner life, a respectable life. A white-collar job in white collared clothes. She always made sure I had a new school outfit for the first day. A red Tartan skirt with a big safety pin or a navy corduroy jumper. New saddle shoes. And an important accessory: a brand-new pencil box.
Oh, mercy, mercy me . Things ain’t what they used to be, Marvin Gaye. Nothing sing-song about that line.
A month later it’s a black BMW.
“Hey!” she shouts over at me. “How do you like my new wheels?”
I look over and spy the little girl behind the car. See her lifting a small scooter out from the BMW’s open trunk.
I walk across the median, go over to her window. Mime like I’m a carhop with a pencil and tablet in my hands. “Can I take your order, Ma’am?”
She lets out a big laugh. I notice she has more than a few teeth missing.
“Nice car,” I say.
“Daddy gave it to me,” the woman says.
Who is daddy? I don’t ask but have a good guess. The man in the bashed up white utility van who circles by the parking lot, usually late in the afternoon. Slicked back black hair. Grizzled face. Glassy-eyed. Always three sheets to the wind. Or four. He looks a lot like Mel Gibson did in his mug shot for drunken driving.
“He got it from a guy he was doing a job for. The car was just sitting there under a tarp. ‘What’s under there?’ Daddy asked and the guy gave the car to him.”
“Just like that he gave it to him?”
“Yeah, can you believe that?”
She tells me her name is Liz. I tell her mine. Now, we’re on a first name basis.
“You’re riding in style,” I say, then call out a “hey there” to the little girl. She doesn’t look up, just scoots round and round on her new set of wheels. As I’m leaving I peek around the back of the car and notice the trunk is full of toys; dolls, a beach ball, sand shovels.
A BMW can be anything you imagine. A castle, a ship, a forest, a prison.
Liz spends more time with her child than anyone I know. Quality time. Mother/daughter time. The girl is never out of her sight. Or is it the other way around? The girl watches too. She always knows where her mother is. I’ve never been a mother. My mother was a stay at home mom in the fifties and always wanted to know where I was and when and with whom. If she were living today she’d slap a GPS on my wrist in a minute.
When I first told my wife about Liz, told her about that round the clock presence with her kid, she said, “Listen. A present mother is better than a dead mother.”
Late December afternoon, at the end of a long workday in my white-collar academic world, where the clothes are clean but the politics are dirty , I drive down to the beach. The first person I see is Liz. But not in her usual spot. She’s standing by the beach railing, dreamy look on her face, staring out at the waves. Alone.
Today I just can’t do it, can’t take another encounter. I just want distance, it’s too much. It’s all too fucking much. The looks and the stares and the not knowing what to do and the not doing anything. Mercy, mercy me, Marvin. What’s this got to do with me?
I park the car and start my walk. In the distance, I see a woman I call Fergie walking towards Liz from the other direction. Fergie looks just like that woman singer in the Black-Eyed Peas, except this Fergie is a personal trainer with six-pack abs, a walking advertisement for body beautiful. She’ll reach Liz before I do and provide an assist for me to slip by.
They greet each other like old friends.
“Hey, hey,” I hear Liz say. Then she pulls out a pack from her coat pocket and offers Fergie a cigarette.
“Man, I needed this today,” says Fergie. I watch as they settle into girl talk. Neither notices when I cross to the other side of the street.
What if I’m wrong about Liz? Pope what’s-his-name said mercy comes before judgment. Or was it “instead” of judgment? Who am I to judge Liz? Or Kite Man or Daddy or Mr. Econoline? It’s not like I don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of swift judgment. Just last week, my wife and I were strolling by the sea hand-in-hand when we passed a parked truck. A guy was sitting behind the wheel, glaring at us. He stuck his head the driver’s side window and yelled, “Christ. Go get married.” I should have calmly replied, “We already are,” shouldn’t have added fuel to that fire. Instead, I yelled back: “Hey buddy. Small minds, small dicks.” In that exchange, nothing changed. We kept our distance. He kept his.
I look over at Liz and Fergie, laughing, chatting like two schoolgirls sharing secrets about their crushes and trading makeup tips. There’s an ease, a familiarity between the two that’s obvious. No stiffness or judgment or suspicious looks. I think of all times I’ve seen Liz with other people down here. Sharing a cigarette with Fergie. In deep conversation with Kite Man. Laughing with the Econoline vet. Everyone seems to know her. To like her. Trust her.
The year ticks down. Does the year of mercy end at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve? Can I have an extension? An image of the three drifters pops up again. The murdering meth heads. During the trial phase, they were transformed one last time. Their lawyers gave them a makeover. Both men sported super short haircuts. One wore big tortoiseshell eyeglasses, college kid drag. Their gray and pink striped jail jumpsuits looked clean, almost sporty, like new athletic wear. The girl had short hair too and red-rimmed eyes as if she’s been crying. The photo showed her staring down at the table. All the belligerence gone. She looked so young. I tried to imagine her before the downward slide, before she went looking for love in all the wrong places. Before she drifted away. Would it have made a difference if someone along the way showed her a thimble full of mercy?
A TV news reporter, doing background on the story, did follow up on the three, an attempt to piece together who they were once upon a time. People always want to know how it happened that three kids turned out like this. Were there warning signs? Didn’t anyone notice something, anything early on? The reporter went back to their childhood homes, found a neighbor who knew one of the guys when he was young. “What was he like?” asked the reporter. “Was there any indication he’d turn out this way?” And, the neighbor, as is often the case, shook his head and said, “He was such a good kid. Loved his mother. Always helped around the yard. I just can’t believe he turned out this way.”
I look back at the sea railing, see Liz and Fergie continuing to chat. Where’s the little girl? I scan the area. She’s not scooting around the parking lot, or playing in the dirt median. Not by the vans, not near the men. Is she in school? Did Liz decide it was for the best?
Then, I spot her, running on the grassy area by the picnic tables, kicking a soccer ball around. Wearing a small jean jacket, sparkly pink skirt, pink tennis shoes. Hair flying. A thin thing, getting taller by the day. Gangly, skinny. Happy.
I start to walk over to where she’s playing. “Hey!” I shout and make a gesture like I want her to kick the ball to me. She laughs and starts to run at the ball to send it my way, then stops. She turns her head to where her mother and Fergie are standing at the railing, gives a little wave. To see if it’s okay.
Liz waves back at her, then sees me and smiles. She gives me a little nod of her head. A nod that says, “Go ahead. Let’s play.”