From “Street Life”
"And the Lord said: Let there be light!"
The radio blared from the apartment next door. Clinton B. Daqual opened his eyes with pain, the harsh L.A. sunshine streamed through the half open curtains like the hand of God. Behind it, outside the window, Hollywood traffic trudged on with its usual rage of beeping horns and squealing breaks. He pressed hands against his throbbing temple, mumbling the usual curses. More distantly and less threatening, church bells announced Sunday services. He closed his eyes and opened them again, gaze shifting from the water marked ceiling to the arm falling back to his side. The hand and arm shook. He cringed, tightened his fist, but the limb still shook.
The damned thing was of no use until his first drink, but the line of bottles on the dresser top were clearly empty. He would cut the damned thing off if he could have trusted his other hand with the knife.
The radio voice sounded again through the wall behind the bedboard.
"Shut up!" he roared, pounding weakly on a well-stained spot over his head.
His father had warned him about winding up like this, saying Daqual loved booze too much. He laughed, then coughed, hand clutching his chest against a sharp pain. He spat off the side of the bed. The room and bed smelled of vomit. The taste of it lingered on his tongue, biting the back his throat.
He eased a foot off the side. The covers were already piled at the bottom in some fit of sweating during the night. The room swayed. Someone was banging on the door.
Let there be light!
"Hold on, hold on," he said, making the last leap of faith from the bedside to his shoes-- the backs of which had been bent down from not untying the laces. He shuffled to the door. The pounding louder and more persistent.
"Who is it?" Daqual asked.
"Like you don't know, Daqual!" the landlord growled. "Open this door. I want to look at your deadbeat face."
"One minute," Daqual said, looking for some sign of his pants among the junk on the dusty floor. His yellowed, knobbed-kneed legs bubbling up with goosebumps despite the day's promise of heat.
"Daqual! Don't start this game again. I want my rent this time. All of it."
Daqual fished his pants out of the dust, his empty wallet grinning at him from the dresser top, the sprawl of useless business cars and folded applications for work spilling out instead of money. Above it, a greying, middle-aged face floated in the mirror, a protruding jaw and fluffy brows looking shabby. His drooping eyes were half disguised in shadow.
Over the years those eyes had won the sympathy of a thousand women-- trustful, brutal, beautiful eyes that seemed wasted now. Bedroom eyes, one woman had called them, emphasized by a sharp angular mouth which cut across the now-flabby portion of his lower face.
He grinned at the image, a manufactured winning smile born out of the stubble and sunken cheeks, part of the old magic that had made him so effective in the past. It was almost convincing again, even with the line of bottles.
"Daqual! Open this goddamn door!"
"Just hold your horses," Daqual yelled, "I'm trying to find my pants. Wake a man up in the middle of the night and expect him to be quick."
He peered through the viewer. The gruff angry face of the landlord filled it. Daqual opened the door to the end of its chain.
"So?" Daqual asked, his face shifting slightly, the fabric of aging skin somehow altering the light, a lifted muscle here or drooped lid there, creating the illusion of non-concern.
When he was younger and the head less grey, the impression stayed longer in people's minds, long enough to make them forget the important details of rather shaky schemes. Now, it wavered over moods, drawing up sympathy for a pocket full of change.
"So I want my rent, Daqual. And no excuses this time."
"You woke me for that? You could have caught me downstairs on my way out."
"Yeah, sure," The other man said, tugging at his beard, looking queerly at Daqual's face. "You say that after you been sneaking past the desk for three weeks. I'm not a savings and loan, Daqual. You either pay up or get out."
"My dear friend," Daqual said, patting his pockets as if looking for the wallet. "I didn't mean to ruffle your feathers."
"My feathers have nothing to do with this, Daqual. I'm just sick and tired of having to beg what I'm owed. How many months has it been since the last time you actually paid me without me pleading?"
Daqual scratched his head. "Well...."
"Daqual! Just give me my money. If you have it."
"Well, as a matter of fact," Daqual said, "I don't."
"Fine!" The man said, turning away, "I'll just call the city marshall's and have you...."
The man stopped.
The magic tone of command still worked sometimes. The landlord turned, his brows raised.
"I didn't say I couldn't get it. As a matter of fact, I'm expecting a bit of something this very evening-- from an ex-employer."
The other man's brows descended. "An ex-employer? When's the last time you worked?"
"Not as long ago as you would like to believe," Daqual said, tone dripping with hurt.
"All right, all right, I'm sorry," The other man said, gruffly. "When exactly will you have the cash?"
"I've been hounding the man for over a week," Daqual said, his fingers gripping the inside door knob, slipping on the smooth metal and sweat from his palm.
The string of his words eased the landlord closer to the door, whispered now, the way he'd whispered such words in the past, a private secret just between friends, a special little scam for his ears alone.
"When do I get my money?" the landlord asked, harsh tone breaking the spell.
"This evening," Daqual said, hurriedly. "I have an appointment with the man after supper."
"Fine. I'll give you till seven. But one minute later and the padlocks go up, you hear me, Daqual?"
"You'll get your money," Daqual said and closed the door. Through the wall, the radio preacher screamed for him to repent.
Daqual snorted. He'd been through the programs, from alcoholic therapy to job training, all with the same dismal straight-and-narrow result, all of them asking for him to step back into the fold. The cards of each were folded on the desk top like empty promises. He brushed them onto the floor with a frustrated gesture. The crashed to the flood with the bottles and the wallet.
"Damn! Why the hell did I say supper?" he mumbled. "Breakfast would have made more sense."
Though in truth, the added hours wouldn't have improved his prospects for finding the money. He fished a wrinkled shirt from out of the trash, and a tie from around the door knob, and examined the result in the mirror. He looked a little more respectable, but not good.
"Well, boy," He said, "You aren't going to collect anything here."
His father had once the street was a gold mine with a sucker on every corner, and it was only a matter of digging out the gold.
He adjusted his tie, grinning at the new mask which only a close examination would reveal the flaws. Then, with false bravado, he swung free the locks and paraded into the hall.
He was dirty and smelled. God knew when the last time he had cleaned his clothing. His underwear clung to him, leaving rings of raw flesh around his legs. He stopped at the community bathroom which was only marginally cleaner than his room. A dull bulb glowed inside a wire cage, shimmering in the line of mirrors. All of these were smudged. Burned book matches and empty glycine envelopes advertised the recent workings of a building junkie, the smell of dope still relatively fresh in the air.
His own reflection looked reasonably better than it had in his room and he wedged a bar of dried soap from a metal soap dish on the wall and filled one of the sinks with hot water. He splashed this onto his face, working up a weak lather. He needed a shave, but didn't trust his shaking hand with a razor.
Yet, with the dirt gone, he looked almost human again, drying his hands and face with used towels from the overflowing trash can-- avoiding those stained with blood. Nothing would erase the wrinkled or the slight yellow hue that stained his flesh. Just a swaggering, red-eyed man in a ragged suit, no more worthy of trust than the local tramp.
But he grinned, cleaned his teeth with a piece of toilet paper, then shrugged, adjusting his face just one more time before turning away, the mask of the master liar.
In the hall, the now vague voice of the preacher screamed again: Jesus Saves!
The stairs smelled of perfume and crack, a lingering permanent scent worked deep into the shaggy rugs with the dust. Bright sunlight through the lobby windows did not dispel its gloom. Daqual snatched a half-smoked cigarette butt from the sand ashtray near the door, lighting it from a frayed book of matches, pushing his chest back, chin jutting like a rich man.
Outside, L.A. grinned, store windows glittering with harsh sunlight, like gift wrap hinting of special treasures inside each. But these were strained treasures, battered by traffic dusty winds, eye-burning, lung-stabbing air thick with pollution. It was Summer and Summer was always hard here, a blistering hand cupped over the city, casting the sky into a grey pall through which even the sun seemed a hazy, brittle face. There were no clouds, or moon or stars.
Yet, Daqual's eyes watered as he looked down at the street, a father's admiring gaze. He sucked his cigarette to the filter, stomach rumbling with the need of food. He smiled, a cagey, animal smile and shook his pocket. Change jangled there. Enough for a cup of brew maybe, or some buttered toast. Not quite enough for a bottle of wine.
He stepped slowly into the human traffic that pushed passed the door. Around him, life percolated. The star-patterned sidewalk of the Boulevard was crowded with shuffling ragged people like himself, some at a higher stage of development, most lower, faces scarred with rude rubbings with reality, street vendors, panhandlers, beggars and thieves, twisting in and out of the bright-shirted world of blank-faced tourists, like dancing mimes in the midst of statues, clouding, dirty faced fools laughing deep in their eyes at the blind, camera-carrying money-bagged suckers in their midst.
It was the weekend, and the blankets and boxes lined the curb with all sorts of stolen novelties, blurred, water-sogged books for sale, used clothing, cheap jewelry, out of season clothing, shoes, scarfs, dirty magazines. Daqual passed them all, meeting a few of the knowing gazes with a nod, an insider to this strange, bubbling world. The faces were as mixed as the wares they sold, chicanos, orientals, blacks and whites, all marred with the same half-conscious expression of pain. Most of them had been up for hours, rousted from park benches, doorways and bus stop shelters by the police, or pushed out from the jail house door with warning about vagrancy.
Daqual grubbed another cigarette from a tourist, and sucked this one more slowly as he walked, heading East, the rising sun warming his face as it winked over the lip of the mountains.
Near Hollywood and Vine the crowds were thickest, the tourists outnumbered by shades of a thousand different types, bums and beggars, aged and disabled, drunks, runaways, war veterans, sex perverts, mentality deranged. Waves of job-hunting migratory workers floated, wide-eyed through the center of it all, an invasion of blistered hands, harvest hands and sailors, mingling with the male and female prostitutes, pimps and jack rollers curled into the deep-set doorways like clams.
Daqual walked through it all, his wrinkled suit jacket a little too neat by these standards, drawing occasional glances from the leather jacketed dudes and punk hair-dos. Even the soap he'd washed with seemed out of place, a rare perfume among people who hardly saw water, giving off the tell-tale sent of vomit, urine, sweat and shit, the real basic elements to this world.
Daqual stared at it all, as if he'd not seen it before, shivering slightly as the smell rolled over him with reminders of the hotel. He stopped suddenly, shaking his head, as someone banged into him, cursing him for his sudden stop.
"Spare change?" a ratty little man asked.
"Get out of here!" he growled, lifting the back of his hand. It was a half-blind old man with a torn hat and cracked lips and the same eerie expression from the morning mirror on his face. "Sorry--" he mumbled, more kindly, turning his hands palm up. The old man shuffled away.
"Hey! Daqual!" an unreasonably cheery voice rang out from down the street. "Wait up."
A young man jogged through the crowd's pointed elbows, waving a thin hand, his hollowed cheeks and ratty hair making him look Daqual's age. His worn jeans and ragged shirt looked slept in, stained in spots with motor oil and soil.
Daqual stepped out of the flow of human traffic and waited for the figure to catch up.
"Some night last night, hey, Daqual?" the boy said, smelling of crack, sweet and yet bitter, like a combination of candy and perfume. He was barely eighteen.
"What I can remember of it," Daqual said, "You got any money?"
"Me? Na! Spent what I had last night. What about you?"
"Enough for coffee," Daqual said, licking his lips, glancing over towards the flashing liquor store sign up the street. "But I sure could use a taste of something. This is the first time I've been this sober in months."
The boy grinned. "Me, too. Maybe we get a bottle party together?"
"In this part of town? Forget it. Hollywood's full of stuck up bums. Maybe if we go downtown."
The boy's unshaven face screwed up. "Downtown? How do we get there? If we don't have money for wine, we certainly don't have any for the bus."
"We could walk."
"That's miles, Daqual."
"Are you feeling sick?"
"No, not exactly."
Daqual shrugged. "Different," he said, looking at his hands which seemed to have lost a bit of their shake in the sunlight. "My landlord gave me the ultimatum today, but that isn't it either. Everything seemed strange, uglier than I remember it being. Even you."
"That's because you're sober," the boy said grinning. "A little taste will take the edge off things."
"We could panhandle, I suppose," Daqual said.
Behind them, a woman screamed, drawing the attention of everyone on the street. A ragged young man in torn jeans and greasy hair dragged her purse from under her arm, then darted away through the crowd. It all seemed to happen in slow motion, each single frame action lingering for Daqual's examination-- with the last frame a close-up of the young man's drug-needy face brushing by him, purse tucked up under his arm like a football.
No one made a move to stop the man. No one stirred until he vanished around the corner with his prize. Then life went on, just as it had before, save for the enraged woman standing with both hands on her hips staring at the crowd, eventually charging after the man, a vanishing bit of unfinished story.
"Come on," Daqual said, dragging the boy across the street to a vacant doorway, the windows of which had been smeared white indicating renovation within.
The boy pressed his face and hand as to see inside, but the walls were blank and the floor torn up.
"We'll panhandle from here," Daqual said, "Taking turns. You have a cigarette?"
The boy produced a crumbled back of filterless cigarettes. Daqual frowned distastefully at them, taking one gingerly, curling up the paper at one end to keep the tobacco from his tongue. He eyed the crowd passing tourists, camera clicking madly at the famous intersection of Hollywood & Vine.
"You first," he told the boy and settled back against the cool door frame, sucking smoke into his lungs. The boy nodded and plunged into the crowd, shoulders slumped, taking on the usual format of beggar, asking each passing person for a bit of change.
"No, no, no," Daqual yelled, stepping back out onto the marble sidewalk. "That's not the way to do it."
The boy looked puzzled and embarrassed, as Daqual straightened his own tie.
"I don't know what you mean?"
"I mean you look and sound like a beggar, boy."
The boy's confusion deepened. Daqual sighed.
"It's the weird way in which our world works, boy," Daqual explained. "People don't pay attention to beggars any more. We're all invisible to them. The idea of looking like you need the money is pure fallacy. In order to get these people to give you anything, you have to look like you don't need it. Let me show you."
The boy nodded and retreated to vacated doorway, still looking perturbed. Daqual tugged down on his jacket to make the wrinkles vanish and smiled at one of the tourists.
"Excuse me, Ma'am," he said, his smooth voice soothing the frown from her face. "I just lost my wallet and wondered if you could lend me a quarter for a phone call."
She eyed him, but not too closely, then dropped two dimes and a nickel in his palm, then moved on. Daqual grinned back at the boy and held up the change.
"See what I mean?"
A hard hand settled on his shoulder from behind. "And what the hell do you think you're doing, Geezer?"
Daqual turned and greeted by the jutting jaw and purple hair a local street punk, cracked leather jacket shimmering like oil in the sun. His grin was slimy and rude.
Daqual glanced towards the doorway, but the boy had vanished from it, his black mop-topped head hurrying down the street like a stranger's.
"What's it to you?" Daqual asked. "All I was doing was panhandling."
"On our turf," the punk said, nodding to others on either side of him, orange mohawks, green crew cuts, red and yellow teased bangs. They looked more like circus clowns than a street gang. But their faces were scarred from their battles and their eyes the brutality of the youth, frank and deadly, ernest in their challenging stare.
"Your turf?" Daqual said. "And here I've been paying taxes to city hall."
"Don't get wise, Geezer," the punk with purple hair said. "Just move on before you get your head broken. This corner is taken."
Daqual sighed and turned, but felt a something tug on his sleeve. A small shape had weaved between the arms and legs of the toughs, a tiny girl with stringing hair dancing barefoot over the marble sidewalk stars. She motioned Daqual down with a crooked figure, and when he bent, she pressed her mouth to his ear saying: "Jesus Saves."
She pointed back towards a sidewalk table littered with pamphlets and serious faces, round-eyed Christians waving him towards them.
"Come join us, brother," a tall man said.
"Like hell," Daqual said and wheeled away, shoving past the men in leather, tracing the path his boy companion had taken a minute before.
"Hey Ferris!" he shouted when he saw the boy leaning against a lamp post a half block down-- down over Vine where the traffic thinned and the stars stopped and normal concrete sidewalk began, narrowing into a world green lawns and two-car garages, and stucco-sided garden apartments strung inbetween.
"I'm sorry, Daqual," the boy said. "But those fuckers scare me. The last time they caught me panhandling, I almost wound up at Hollywood Presbyterian with a broken arm."
"Forget it," Daqual said. "Let's go for a little walk. I'll split a cup of coffee with you."
"Coffee?" The boy moaned. "I thought we were gonna split wine?"
"When we get downtown," Daqual said, taking the boy by the arm, continuing down the street away from the madness of Hollywood, to where the palm trees were thicker and the houses more set back.
"We're not really walking all the way downtown are we, Daqual," The boy protested.
"No," Daqual said. "I just wanted to get away from the stink of that place for a while. How long has that been going on with the gangs and their turf."
The boy looked puzzled. "How long? The gangs have always owned their turf along the boulevard, Daqual. Didn't you know that?"
"I guess I forgot," Daqual said. "I never really worked the boulevard hard before-- I always had enough to get downtown and back. How do you make a buck with them dudes chasing you off all the time."
"Hit and run. There's lots of money here if you're quick about it, and don't try and take too much."
"And I thought it was bad downtown," Daqual mumbled, his expression thoughtful. "I always thought it was classier living on the hill. But it looks like things are bad all over."
"So what are we gonna do?"
"I don't know. We're certainly not going to grub enough for three weeks worth of rent this way. Even if we go back, someone'll catch up with us."
"But we could get enough for a little wine," the boy said, licking his dry lips.
Daqual shook his head, a strand of grey hair falling into his eyes. He pushed it away. He jingled the coins in his pockets. "Didn't you hear me, I need real money if I'm going to have a place to sleep tonight."
"You could sleep in the park like I do."
"Don't be absurd," Daqual growled. "I'm not going to play bum-- no matter how desperate things get. I've been fighting against that game for years, telling myself I'm doing all right as long as I have a roof over my head and money in my pocket. I go to the park I might as well die there because there's no climbing out of that hole once you fall in."
The boy's blank eyes did not comprehend. Daqual sighed. "Never mind. Let me think. What we need is a really big scam, one that'll get us both what we want." He laughed. "I used to dream of super scams when I was younger, waiting for the one that would set me up for life. Now I'm thinking in terms of keeping that goddamn roach trap and a bottle of wine. Damn fool."
The boy said nothing, but stared at the neighborhood as it changed, the squat, mexican style single floor houses lining either side. Daqual stopped at a bus shelter.
"I got to sit a minute. My legs are killing me."
It was hot under the glass bubble, and both licked their lips as the liquor store sign blinked from across the street in the drive-in mall.
"Count the change, Daqual," the boy said, "Maybe we got enough."
"In that place, don't be stupid. Even if they let us in the store, they wouldn't have the cheap brand we drink."
"Then let's go back to town. We could hit a few more tourists over by Highland and get ourselves a big, big bottle."
"You haven't been listening, I don't need a big, big bottle. I don't need to wake up in the park or jail in the morning. I need rent, damn it-- that room is all I got."
"Well, we aren't going to make that kind of money sitting here, unless one of these gets generous."
Daqual snorted, as the cars slowed coming out of the parking lot, the faces of the middle America pressed behind tinted glass and lowered visors, their shocked and concerned expressions hinting of hatred.
"I guess they don't like the way we look" Daqual said with a laugh, then grew serious. "Guess they figure the police can keep us out of their precious neighborhoods."
"Speaking of which," the boy said, nudging Daqual. A slow moving patrol car appeared on the cross street, easing through the intersection-- it's occupants staring in their direction as well. "Don't you think we ought to move, Daqual?"
"What for? They probably think we're waiting for a bus."
"But they'll come back and when the see us here, they're gonna roust us."
"True," Daqual said. "It's the perpetual game we play, isn't it? They have to keep our kind contained in that other part of the world, wouldn't want us spreading our disease."
"So what do we do?"
Daqual rested his chin in the palm of his hand and stared off into space for a moment, the boy's head twisting around to watch which the way the police went, cringing over the continual looks of elder and women citizens, each passing with their back seats full of groceries and weekend chores.
"Daqual," the boy said, rising from the bench. "I'm going back to town."
Daqual looked up. "And you miss your drink?"
"The one I'm going to buy us after we make a little visit."
The boy frowned. "Visit? Who we gonna visit in this neighborhood?"
Daqual rose, smoothed down the wrinkled jacket and adjusted his tie, looking at his reflection in the shelter glass. "It's not in this immediate neighborhood, but close. I've haven't been around there in a long, long time. But the lady owes me a favor or two, so I figure we'll just say hello and score enough for your wine, and maybe a week's worth of rent for me."
The boy's expression visibly brightened. "Okay!" he said, glancing back towards the corner where the police cruiser had vanished. "Let's go."
They crossed the street and walked on the northern side for a time, till the shadows vanished and noon beat down upon their heads. Daqual licked his lips, but did not stop at any of the stores, cringing at the faces beyond their glass, shocked, outraged average citizens staring at their little parade.
"How is it you come to know a lady out this way, Daqual?" the boy asked. Daqual laughed.
"You think I was always a bum?"
"No, I guess not. But out here? No one I know ever came from a place like this."
"And where do all those street people come from, Ferris?"
The boy shrugged. Daqual laughed again.
"No, I didn't come from here, but I lived in a place just like it for a while. I was a married man, leading a respectable life, robbing widows and orphans for a living while my neighbors did their office thing."
The boy said nothing, just kept pace with Daqual, whose legs seemed to stretch out over the sidewalk with a comfortable stride.
"My wife wound up here," Daqual said. "Damn. I can't remember the last time I even thought of her, though there was a time when I kept close watch on the woman, just to make sure she was okay. She was one of those do-gooder bitches, who thought me as a good man though a bit confused. I guess that's why when it all fell apart, there was so much pain. For both of us."
He fell silent for a time, walking along the green lawns and swaying palm trees. Older, reddish-trunked trees appeared, out of place in the midst of stucco buildings, a eastern breed no doubt planted here during the western migrations from places like New York and New England.
"So this old lady of yours is gonna give us some money?" the boy asked.
Daqual shifted his gaze downward, to the face of the houses across the street, living in the shadow of the trees. "God knows she should. She wouldn't want to see me out on the street, no matter how she felt at our divorce. Maybe I can ask for a loan rather than a gift. She would go for that. It seems a bit more respectable. She might even believe it."
He lingered at the foot of the tree, his fingers playing with the carved hearts in the trunk. He eyes seemed misty.
"Daqual?" The boy said, touching his shoulder. "Are you all right?"
Daqual shivered and smiled. "You know, Ferris. It just occurred to me what my drinking was about. It all came flooding back, the bitter moments when she found out I wasn't off selling insurance like our neighbors. There was always that mingling of pain and love in her eyes, even across the divorce table. She might have stayed married to me if I'd had some ordinary problem like drinking or drugs. But my addiction she couldn't reckon with. She had too much moral fiber to live with a liar and cheat."
The boy squirmed. "She sounds like the mission folks."
"Maybe," Daqual said. "But she won't call the police. Come on."
They were walking again, off the main drag, into the web of middle America that had risen up between the Chicano ghettos of East L.A., and the ugly rich world of Beverly Hills, the plain, faceless houses with parked cars and petty little lawns, stretched out side by side like fallen dominos.
"This is it," Daqual said, stopping the boy at the end of the walk, a sedate little world with heavy hedges separating it from the neighbors on either side.
"God! It's just like I remembered it," Daqual said.
"Hey, I thought you said you were never here?"
"I didn't live here," Daqual said, "But I was here. Checking on her and her new straight husband. She never saw me. I never knocked. But I came around, looking at things. You can tell a hell of a lot about the inside of the house by looking at the outside."
The boy laughed. "And what can you tell about it now?"
Daqual eyed the lawn. Children's toys decorated it in dayglow droppings which might have been Christmas ornaments, spilling out onto the asphalt driveway. He shook his head. "Can't be her kids," he said, "We're both too old for that. So it must be Grandchildren."
Daqual shook his head. "Never enough time for that. Never enough security for her."
"Are you going to ask her or not?"
"I said I would, didn't I? Only you're going to have to wait here. It's bad enough me coming around after all this time without bringing a stranger, too."
"Whatever," the boy said. "I'll just sit over there." He indicated a thick grouping of roots near one of the hedges, deep enough in shadow for him to stay hidden.
"Fine. I'll be right back," Daqual said then slowly edged down the side of the driveway avoiding the toys. He glanced more closely at this world, at the garage whose doors were open, revealing the next generation of children's toys pasted to the walls, bicycles and sporting gear long covered with dust. The grey station wagon was parked the drive, sagging slightly to one side. It was filled with newspapers, bundled for recycling. A single red sticker marked the rear window like an eye saying: Jesus Saves.
He slowed when he reached the walk, his feet suddenly heavy, dragging up the three concrete stairs to the door. He paused to straight his tie, the limp rag wrestling with his fingers. His dark complexion shimmered in the glass like a stranger. A small crucifix hung at the door center instead of a knocker. He pushed the button for the bell and heard the chimes sound from inside, a deep series of percussive sounds vibrating in the walls.
A small round-faced child in a pink dress opened the inner door, her eyes growing wide with surprise and fright.
"Is your moth--Grandmother at home?" Daqual asked, his voice shy, mumbly and indistinct. The girl vanished, leaving the inner door open. Daqual shifted, peeping on an angle into the house, the wall of the hall beyond, a pastel blue. The woman herself appeared a moment later, whisking to the glass outer door like a goddess, her silver hair and crow-marked eyes the only real sign of age. She was dressed casually, a Sears & Roebuck pants suit soiled at the knees. She wiped the garden soil from her hands with a rag.
She frowned. "I'm sorry," she said with a cool but not unkind voice, "We don't...."
Her eyes suddenly opened wide, and for a moment, they stood face to face through the glass. She recovered first.
"Clinton? Is that really you?"
He laughed and shrugged. "No other."
Her gaze moved up and down him in an unflattering way. He shifted his feet slowly, as if the suit had suddenly grown too warm. His eyes grew narrow, shifting away from her, glinting with apparent pain.
"I didn't realize how much all this was going to hurt," he mumbled, as his face grew redder.
"You're blushing, Clinton," she said, still somewhat distantly. "I never remember you blushing before."
"I never felt like this before," he said. "I've had a few problems."
She nodded. "I can see that."
"I'm being tossed out of my room at the hotel. No money. I wouldn't have come but you're the only one I could think of to..."
He looked up and was greeted by a pair of shocked and tragic blue eyes. She nodded.
"I understand," she said, taking his dirty hands into hers. Her fingers were soft and pale like linen. She led him inside and closed the door. The house smelled of flowers.
She led him down the hall and into a wider room, a deep carpeted living room where her grandchildren scattered in alarm.
"Wait here," she said and quickly vanished into another room. Daqual shifted his feet, leaving an imprint on the rug. He shivered, his lower lip quivering slightly as he studied the table of trophies and souvenirs.
"Damn!" he said, "I shouldn't be here."
He turned and stumbled back the way he had come and was almost to the door when her voice sounded behind him.
He quickened his pace, but the inner door creaked as he opened it and she appeared, her fingers closing around his upper arm, squeezing slightly.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"I-I shouldn't have come."
"Nonsense," she said, but her eyes agreed. "Here. This should help."
She folded two crisp hundred dollar bills into his hand. He stared as they wilted in his palm.
"I can't take..."
"I insist," she said, pushing his fingers closed around the bills, wearing the expression of tourists who paid their bribe to the street vendors.
"Thanks," he mumbled and shoved the money deep into his pocket.
"Don't thank me, Clinton," she said, "But do take care of yourself, okay?"
A bit of his old grin rose to his lips. "Haven't I always?"
He eased himself over the threshold and back out to the air, She closed the door behind him. He stared at the yard and line of palm trees along the road, then glanced back. Her silver face appeared in the window, the pity had gone, an edge of shock and fear, and even anger, replacing it. They looked at each other for a long time before she let the curtain fall.
He followed the path to the drive, then up the drive to where the boy was sitting.
"So?" the boy asked.
Daqual said nothing, but sat down beside the boy, back against the tree.
"You got a cigarette?" he asked.
"Only a couple of butts," the boy said producing two reasonably long butts. The one he handed Daqual was stained with lipstick and tasted slightly sweet as Daqual sucked in the smoke. He let the smoke out through his nose.
"Well, are you gonna tell me what happened?" the boy asked. "Or do you want me to guess?"
Daqual opened his hand revealing the two now crinkled bills. The boy's eyes widened and he whistled.
"Man oh man. You got a gold mine there. Two hundred bucks? What did you have to do for her fu..."
"Shut up, Ferris!"
"What's the matter with you? You ought to be happy, man. You got your rent."
"I got shit," Daqual said, tossing the butt into the grass between the gutter and the sidewalk. It smoldered for a moment, then sputtered out. "I got nothing but a delay-- a few weeks from now when this is gone, I'm still gonna be doing the same thing, thinking the same thing, looking for the same thing. Damn! The whole thing stinks. Once you get onto this fucking ride you just keep going down."
"I don't understand you, Daqual. You're talking crazy."
"No, I'm talking sense. I'm saying what that lady in there was telling me years ago, but I was too stupid to hear."
He looked at the money and shook his head.
"You know what this is, Ferris? It's a grub stake. It's just enough money for me to buy some clothes and pay some rent and go out and get me a job."
"A job? You? Now I know you're talking crazy. You don't need a job any more than I do."
"And what makes you think what we got is so wonderful? You like getting rousted from the park? You like getting busted twice a month, freezing in winter, getting bug-bit in Summer, always scrounging for change to drink?"
"I didn't say that Daqual. But you and me are free spirits. We don't get on with straight jobs, you know?"
Daqual snorted and stared at the money. "I thought that way once. But not any more. This freedom shit isn't what people think it is. It's crazy. It's sick. It's just another way of dying."
He stood, his bones creaking like an old man's. Maybe he was an old man, maybe he'd simply not noticed the transition between being young and being dead. He kicked at the bottom of the boy's sneakers.
"Come on, Ferris."
"Come on where? You want me to come with you for a job?"
"No," Daqual said. "It's too late for that. Let's go get drunk."