I’m sitting at the Department of Family Services with this Iraqi guy and his family. Refugees. Fresh out of Baghdad. Arrived in San Francisco last night. I need to connect them with Social Security, food stamps, Medicaid.
Welcome to America.
His wife holds two kids and he cradles a baby girl. He points to the rest room and then himself and lifts the baby for me to hold. I shake my head no. Liability. If something were to happen while I held your baby, well, it’s not going to happen.
Sorry, man, I say.
He shrugs, takes the baby with him to the men’s room.
They speak no English. I need a cigarette. How do I say that? A translator at the settlement agency explained to them what we’d being doing today. He should have come with me, but, typical non-profit, it didn’t have enough staff to spare him from the office.
I tap my pack of smokes and point outside. The wife smiles, and I stand, cigarette in hand. I spread my fingers. Five minutes, I say. More smiles. Outside, the sun’s reflection dances across the back windows of parked cars and I squint, cupping a lit match in my hand.
“Hey, brother, you got another one of those?”
I turn and face a homeless guy I recognize right off. Little Stevie Krantz, a thin, patchy half-ass beard blotting his face like mold. Crack dealer back in the day. Walked around in a body length mink coat no matter the weather. Hotter’n hell and there’d be Stevie in his coat, all five foot, four inches of him sweating rivers. Mister Big Man with a roll of bills in each pocket held tight with rubber bands.
Booze did him in. Just started sipping and nipping More and more, morning, noon and night. Next thing you know, Stevie’s on Sixth Street messing himself, walking barefoot hollering at the moon. Mink coat funky as road kill. Booze, man, can you believe it? A fifth of this, a fifth of that. Amazing when I think about it. All that crack he dealt, and it was booze that rocked his world. Still, he was able to knock up Vernetta. Back in the day, she was as fine as she wanted to be. But in the end what she got was rank Little Stevie.
“What’s up, Stevie?”
“Tom? Hey man! I didn‘t know it was you!”
He hugs me, raw Thunderbird breath melting my face.
“Get off me!”
He backs away and I give him a smoke.
“Where’ve you been? Haven’t seen you in like years, man. You’re not at Out of the Rain no more, Tom?”
“No,” I say. “It hasn’t been that long. About two years. I left.”
“Hear about your boy Michael?”
I shake my head. Michael was my office manager at Out of the Rain. I took him from our shelter like I did most of my staff. The contract required I do that. Funders saw us as more than a service agency, a kind of vocational rehabilitation center for people who had been on the street.
When you’re required to hire the homeless, you know, recovering drunks who more often than not start drinking again, schizos who forget to take their meds, whacked-out, traumatized combat veterans who consider a simple question the equivalent of giving them shit, you count on the few Michaels of the world who don’t drink, talk to themselves or pick fights. He was one of the few normal people I hired. I haven’t seen him for months.
“He was diddling me and Vernetta’s kid, man, our son Stevie Junior. Police called him on it. He’s running. But he can’t run far. Far enough from me, anyway. Sick motherfucker diddling a three-year-old kid, I’ll kill him.”
I give Stevie a look like, c’moon, but he’s pissed off enough to glare right back at me, his eyes shot through with the red lines like you see on road maps.
“I don’t know anything about that.” I say.
“I’m just saying so you do know. He’s your boy.”
“I hired him. That doesn’t make him my boy.”
“He’s your boy, man.”
“Stevie, you’ve been such a standup father, I’m impressed you care.”
He lurches at me and swings, his left fist just missing my face. I’m surprised at his speed, a little of the old crack-dealing Stevie not so pickled after all.
“Take it easy,” I say stepping back.
“I’ll kill him!” Stevie shouts, shadow-boxing a tree thinner than him.
“Where’d you hear this about Michael?” I ask, feeling an old here-we-go-again weariness coming on me whenever someone told me about one of my staff fucking up.
“Sidewalks got lips? Tell me who told you?”
“I saw John. They‘d started a business together.”
“What kind of business?”
“You on the streets, you could use their room for an address. You know how it is. Shelter’s always put a time limit on how long you can have your mail sent to them. So for twenty-five bucks a month, you use Mike and John‘s address.”
Not bad. I must have had more than one hundred guys using Out of the Rain for a mailing address before I cut that shit loose. Too much paper and with a staff that could not alphabetize and clients accusing us of stealing checks we couldn‘t find, it became my definition of hell.
John was always thinking, always laying plans for some get-rich-quick scheme. Get enough guys receiving disability or Social Security, that twenty-five bucks a month could add up. John and Michael could keep their jobs at Out of the Rain, do the mail thing on the side until it took off, yeah, it could add up real good for them. Not likely, but it could if you convinced people who liked to drink and shoot up their money to part with the twenty-five dollar fee. Good luck on that.
I had been program director of Out of the Rain for seven years before I resigned. I don’t know, I was tired. Same people like Little Stevie, day in day out, no change. Breaking up fights, being called all kinds of motherfucker by the same drunk who five minutes later hits you up for a dollar and who can’t understand why you just 86’d his ass. Staff as loopy as the clients.
Out of the Rain was about the only place that would hire them, homeless and formerly homeless. Some of them were flat out crazy, and they knew it. I, however, had options they didn’t. I could leave. A solid education, no drinking or mental problems. I had that much going for me. When I earned a master’s in social work, I thought I wanted to save the world. I soon learned I didn’t and I walked.
I’m a case manager now with International Assistance, Inc., an agency that helps refugees. Mostly Iraqis because of the war. Most like me have an education and job skills. They are grateful to be here. They are polite. If they drink or use, they don’t do it in front of me, and they don‘t come to my office fucked up. Once they get settled, they find work and I don’t see them again. Ever. They’re on their way. That’s the way I like it. They don’t come back every day to show me how they are slowly killing themselves with booze or some shit like Little Stevie.
John was my outreach worker and if anybody was diddling anybody, I’d’ve thought it was him. He always brought in young women he found on the street. Hookers, runaways, slumming college graduates. He turned them over to the benefits advocate who helped them find a place to stay. Nothing wrong with it, but I wondered. Surely there were homeless men who crossed his path and needed help too. But he always found women. Young women. I told him he better not be bringing them home with him. He looked shocked at the idea and denied anything. He stayed in touch with them after they found shelter or were placed in a rehab program. Follow up, he explained. To show “positive outcomes” on his stats. That’s legit. I was required by the state to document everything. Maybe it was a head trip, an ego thing for John, a daddy-figure thing. Still, I wondered about him. But then I wondered about all my staff. None of those gals ever complained about John, however. Never. You can’t fire somebody for something you think they might be doing.
“Where’s John at, Stevie?”
“Hurley Hotel. That was their office.”
Office, I mutter to myself. I give Stevie another smoke.
“Mike always had my back.”
“I know,” Stevie said. “He took care of Vernetta when I couldn’t.”
“Wouldn’t stop drinking is what you wouldn‘t do and turning her onto crack and whoring her out.”
“Hard to believe about Mike. Sorry I swung on you.”
“If I was back on the job I‘d 86 you.”
“This is a public sidewalk. I can swing on whoever I want. You got another smoke?”
“I just gave you one. Straighten up. Look after your kid. Where is he?”
“With Vernetta’s momma, I think, in Oakland.”
“You think? You seen Vernetta?”
“No. Heard she took off after this thing with Michael and hit the streets. I don’t know where.”
“I got to go back inside.”
Stevie nods, sucks on his cigarette, closing his eyes as he exhales.
“So what in hell are you doing here?”
“Working with Iraqi refugees.”
“Man, what you doing with A-rabs?”
“Earning a living. Later, Stevie”
He walks off swaying from side to side, arms out, a sailor of the streets in search of balance. I rejoin my Iraqi family. They smile, I smile back. They face forward and continue waiting for their name to be called. Patient people, for what they‘ve been through. I give them that.
To tell you the truth, I hate fucking babysitting. It’s easy, but it’s long and boring. No war stories with this job. We could be here all day. I cover my face with my hands thinking and let out a long breath. Michael, Michael, Michael. Not you. Of all people, not you. I don’t believe it. I don’t want to.
Don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t a friend, really. I don’t know what I’d call him. Close colleague, I guess. We went through some times together. State budget cuts, drive-by shootings, the deaths of some clients and staff to drug addiction. It left a bond of sorts.
“I have to go,” I tell the Iraqis.
They look at me puzzled. I point outside. They smile.
“Smoke?” one of the kids asks stretching out the “o” sound more than he needs to, but he’s learning.
“Yeah,” I say and stand up. “Smoke and drive.”
I make a motion of gripping a steering wheel. I point outside, make the driving motion again and then point back inside.
“I go, come back.”
I tell a security guard the name of the Iraqi family and ask if he would show them to a window if their name is called while I’m out. The intake workers have translators here, so I’m good on that score. The security guard’s cool. Not a problem, he says. I shake his hand and leave a five-dollar bill in his palm. He smiles. No problem, no drama. It suits me most of the time, but I don’t want to hold anyone’s hand right now. I walk outside. I need to find John.
I’d never have noticed Michael if the copy machine hadn’t jammed. But the bitch did. I was trying to print some sign-in sheets for the front desk. Something always fucked up. Running a nonprofit was hard enough without the copy machine crapping out on me. But when you depend on donated equipment what you get is used and cheap and worn down. I spent more money repairing things than I would have had I bought them new. But my executive director never listened to that argument when I asked him for more money for equipment.
So there I stood staring at the copy machine’s blinking red lights telling me it was in cardiac arrest.
“I can fix that, sir.”
I glanced at this guy looking over my shoulder. Big dude, black square glasses, short brown hair combed to the right side. Late thirties, maybe. Red plaid shirt tucked into his jeans, a bowling ball shaped stomach pressing out against it. Work boots. Pleasant voice but impassive. Almost a monotone. I thought, “Who called the repair man?” and immediately began worrying about how much we had left in the budget for maintenance and if it would be enough to pay him.
“Did we call you?”
He smiled, just barely.
“I stay in the shelter.”
He stepped around me, opened a panel on the copy machine and twisted a few knobs. He yanked out the ink cartridge, pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper and then slammed the ink cartridge back in and shut the panel. The copy machine began clicking and flashing green lights. Then it fell silent like a car with it’s ignition shut off. After a moment, it started humming again and the rest of the sign-in sheets began dropping into a tray.
“No problem, sir.”
I watched him take a seat in the reception area and remove a paperback book from a backpack propped against his chair. He crossed his legs and started reading.
“Who is that guy?” I asked Jay, my receptionist.
“I don’t know,” Jays said. “I’ve seen him around but don’t know him.”
“A while, I think,” Jay said and started slapping his face.
“Don’t start,” I told him.
That’s the kind of thing I dealt with among my staff. Jay was a whacked-out, sandy-haired Vietnam combat vet with post-traumatic stress disorder. He used to come in every morning, sit in the reception area and refuse to talk to anyone. How do you get someone to talk? I asked myself. Well, you force him. So, I made him our volunteer receptionist.
For two days, the phone rang off the hook while Jay sat beside it and refused to lift the receiver.
“Goddamnit, Jay!” I yelled at him. “Answer the fucking phone!”
He looked at me. He looked at the phone like he had just noticed it. He reached for the receiver. In a barely audible voice thick as syrup he said, “Out of the Rain. May I help you?” He listened for a moment and then told me the call was for me. In a world of reduced expectations, Jay met my definition of success.
Now the phone was ringing again and he stopped slapping himself long enough to answer it like a champ.
“It’s Anne in the kitchen,” Jay said. “The coffee machine is broken.”
“Ask this Michael guy what the fuck he knows about coffee machines.”
The Hurley Hotel smacks up against a dilapidated convenience store. Old men, older than their years, lounge by the open door of the convenient store sitting on plastic milk crates and hustling crack to anyone walking by. Shriveled even older-looking men, longtime dope fiends and drunks most of them, wander inside the store to get cash from the storeowner. He receives their disability checks and serves as their payee. He takes a percentage. They buy his wine and cigarettes. They‘re usually broke within two weeks and he loans them money. When the next month’s check arrives, he takes his percentage plus what they owe him plus interest and hands out what little remains. Naturally it doesn’t carry them through the month so he loans them more money and the cycle repeats itself. They can’t win. Not a bad racket. I wonder if that’s what John and Mike were ultimately thinking. Use the mail drop as an in to becoming payees.
I go inside the Hurley’s darkened lobby. I ask a man behind a barred window for John’s room. He points upstairs.
I approach the stairs, feeling my asthma kick in as the mildewed stink of the carpet shuts down my lungs. It’s the kind of rotten odor you smell in old people’s homes: decay and rot and a languid mugginess that suspends itself among the cobwebs and takes the place of air. I haul my ass up three flights, take a hit off my inhaler and knock on John’s door.
The door opens a hair then widens when John sees me.
“Hey, Tom,” he says. “What are doing here?”
I haven’t seen him since I left Out of the Rain but he looks the same. Short, with a gut and the two bottom buttons of his shirt open revealing his undershirt. Gray hair brushed back off his forehead. Glasses one size too large balanced loosely on his nose.
“I heard about Michael.”
John lets me into a small room with two desks. Metal filing cabinets stand behind the desks. I go over to one of the desks and see a tray filled with business cards.
Michael Keys, administrator
Homeless Mail Depot, Inc.
I notice small framed photos of the girls John brought in to the drop-in center beside a stack of business cards with John’s name and title, “C.E.O.” Little notes are scrawled across the photos. Thank you John. I love you John. You’re the best, John. He even has one of Vernetta and Stevie junior. He sees me looking at it.
“I wasn’t part of what Michael was doing, Tom.”
“Everyone knows you got your freak on with young girls. How young did you go?”
“Not that young.”
“Don’t lie to me, Johh, how young did you go?”
“Why do you care? You’re not director anymore?”
I stepped toward him. I’ve never kicked anyone’s ass but I’m willing to learn how on John.
“How fucking young did you go, John?”
“I wasn’t part of it, Tom!”
“How could you not know?”
“How could you not?”
That stopped me like traffic light. I leaned against a desk a kind of slumped defeat. He had me. I’ve been asking myself the same question. How could I not?
“So what happened?”
“All’s I know is what Jay told me,” John says. “Michael was at work. The police asked about him. Jay told Michael. He split. Called me from the Greyhound bus station. Said he was out of here. Gone, bing just like that.”
John slides down his chair takes a box of business cards and throws them across the room.
“So much for these,” John says.
Michael fixed the coffee machine and kept the copy machine humming. He had other skills, too. He organized the front desk, the place where everyone coming into Out of the Rain had to stop and sign in. Threw away spoiled food that had been left in drawers, refilled the pen holders and put the tokens in a plastic container. When my office assistant fell off the wagon crack pipe in hand, I hired Michael to replace her.
I leave John’s place and try to put the pieces together. What had I missed about Michael? I remember him telling me he was an army brat. Called his father sir long before he joined the military himself. He serviced planes. He married in his twenties. His wife got lonely living on base, Oklahoma he said it was. Fort Bragg? Anyway, she killed herself, I know he told me that. Her death sent him over the edge. He drank. He received a dishonorable discharge. He kept drinking. He hoboed around eventually landing in San Francisco and Out of the Rain.
I didn’t do a background check on Michael or any of my other staff. I didn’t have the budget or the time; too busy begging for money to keep my doors open to even think about doing something like that. His value to me was all I needed to know. If Michael had a record, so what? Damn near every homeless person I knew had a record. Part of the profile.
I don’t doubt Michael was in the Army. All that sir shit. Makes sense. Or at least he was an Army brat. Perhaps he was married. But did she die by suicide or leave him? Was he discharged for drinking or was he thrown out because he was suspected of raping kids? Is his name really Michael?
After I hired him, he continued to spend his nights in the shelter. I told him to find his own place. He had a job, money for an apartment. He had no reason to take a cot from someone without a job. He didn’t like the idea.
I wonder if he knew what would happen if he lived alone. That the shelter had not only been a place to lay his head, but a crowded, noisy place that prevented him from being alone with his desire.
Another question. I got lots of them.
I remember the day John walked Vernetta into Out of the Rain. Why wouldn’t I? She was the hottest thing we were ever likely to see strut through our doors. Two years ago. Man, it seems a lot longer.
Vernetta, fine, sashaying light-skinned Puerto Rican gal who made even the queens look twice. Wearing a pink dress that showed off her cleavage and trim legs. Twenty something. So hot you had a hard time making up your mind where to look. Vernetta sucked the air out of all our lungs. Even the most dazed drunks felt their heads clear and vision return, a new light in their eyes. A bottle of Thunderbird and a dime of crack had nothing on that girl.
Only Michael seemed not to notice her. He did his job with an unbroken rhythm. He asked me to sign a check request form for more bus tokens. Didn’t even look up when she walked by.I signed my name and handed the check request back to him.
“Thank you, sir,” he said.
That day, Vernetta sat down and checked out the reception area like she owned it. We’d get people like her from time to time. Not as hot but like her in every other way. People who didn’t belong, who seemed to land from Mars and rattled our usual routine of freakouts and fights and DTs. For a moment they carried with them a fresh attitude that would give off a sense of possibility until we all calmed down and recognized them for what they were: an accident waiting to happen. Some little Miss Thing using the gifts God gave them to get what they wanted. Booze, dope, whatever. They didn’t come to Out of the Rain by accident. They had just held up better than the rest.
So Vernetta started hanging with Little Stevie, who still had his groove on although some cracks were showing. But at that time he knew where to get dope even if he was too drunk to deal it himself. For a quick fuck or blowjob, Little Stevie turned Vernetta onto crack. She’d sweep into the center zippidy-do-dah, speeding her brains out, jamming cigarettes in her mouth like firecrackers and throwing them out just as fast, talking a mile a minute. She was possessed, out of her mind. Little Stevie watched her before he passed out in a chair smiling in his sleep. Dreaming of booze and Vernetta on her knees.
It amazed me how fast she got raggedy. She stopped changing clothes. The one dress, that first one we saw her in, torn and stained. Face all droopy. Even Jay noticed. She’d look good again if she stuck her head in a tub for two hours and washed her hair, he said.
But she was feeling no pain and didn’t care about her funk. I don’t know when I noticed her pregnant. It just kind of dawned on me like it dawned on everybody else. Suddenly her little stick body had a bulge. I was so used to dealing with drunks, I at first thought her kidneys were going. However, that bulge got bigger and bigger and then it hit me. Oh, shit, I thought, oh shit. I told her what crack would do to her baby. How he might be born blind or without an arm or a stomach. How his brain would be mush. She never sat in one place long enough to listen.
Then I stopped seeing Vernetta. She disappeared just like that. Even Little Stevie didn’t know where she was. Not that he cared. He bragged about knocking her up but that was as far as he carried his fatherly duties.
“Sir, I need to talk to you,” Michael said to me one morning. I looked up, budget sheets strewn across my desk. I was busy drafting reasons why the state should continue funding us.
“You know Vernetta?” Michael said.
“She’s staying with me.”
I took off my glasses and pushed away from my desk.
“Yes, sir. She moved in a few of weeks ago. I saw her on the bus and sat with her. She’s pregnant, sir.”
“She told me she was trying to quit using crack but had no place to stay where someone wouldn’t be smoking it. I told her she could stay with me. I told her she had to attend an NA meeting twice a day and show me a note from the facilitator. Little Stevie doesn’t know.”
“What makes you think she’s not going out and lighting up when you’re here?”
“I’d know if she was smoking again, sir. She’s scared about this baby.”
“She should be. When’s it due?”
“How long has she been with you?”
“Three weeks. Clean so far. Hard at first.”
“I bet. You’re putting me in a bad spot.”
“I know, sir.”
“I could fire you.”
“I know, sir.”
“I should fire you.”
Michael had violated rule number one: never, I mean never, was a staff person to take a client home. All sorts of problems with that. Like exchanging a roof for sex. Even if that wasn’t the case, the accusation, if made by a manipulative little dope fiend like Vernetta, would be hard to refute.
“You should have taken her to a shelter.”
Michael looked at me. I was full of shit and he knew it. A woman’s homeless shelter wouldn’t have taken Vernetta because she was a crack head. A battered women’s shelter wouldn’t want her because she wasn’t battered. A detox wouldn’t want her because she was pregnant. Liability, liability, liability. No one would have taken her. I knew that even as I spoke.
“You’re not touching her, are you? I’m talking even a hug.”
“No, sir. You can come over if you want, sir, and ask her.”
“She seeing a doctor?”
“The Tenderloin Free Clinic, sir.”
“How’s the baby?”
“Good, they say. If she stays off the crack.”
I look at him for a minute. He stares at the floor.
“It’s not your fault your wife killed herself.”
He doesn’t say anything.
“Don’t do shit to make up for something that wasn’t your fault.”
“I’m not, sir.”
“I’m not a shrink but I don’t have to be fucking Freud to guess that much. This isn’t your kid.”
“I know, sir.”
“Find a wife and make your own kid.”
“I don’t know where to start, sir. Vernetta sat next to me on the bus. I didn’t ask for this.”
We looked at each other. He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. He looked tired.
“Keep your fucking hands off her and don’t say a God damn thing to anyone else.”
“We never had this conversation.”
I took a homeless gal home once. My first social work gig. A detox center for the homeless. Jean was thirty-seven, ten years older than me. Speed freak. Wore sandals, jeans and t-shirts and babbled on about people thinking she looked like Janice Joplin. She was prettier than that. A cross between a dead head and a cowgirl. She made no sense high, but I was drawn to her. I felt butterflies in my stomach when I saw her. A tingly desire. Every now and again she’d stop her speed freak chatter and look at me and I knew she knew.
“Pick me up a block from here by the park when you get off, work” she said one afternoon.
You have a choice, I thought as I drove my dinged-upped ’82 Toyota hatchback toward the park near Seventh and Howard streets. You can keep going, turn around. I didn’t. I stopped. Jean sat on a swing set drawing lines in the sand her one outstretched leg. I leaned over and opened the passenger door. Jean got in.
Ten minutes later, I parked the car outside my apartment on Masonic and Page.
“I have to brush my teeth,” she said when we walked into my apartment.
She went into the bathroom and I walked into my room, sat in a chair across from my bed. When she came out I said, “In here.” She kissed me without a word. I tasted the toothpaste mixed with cigarette breath. She dropped her pants and pulled down her panties. She was ready to do it just like that. She sat on my lap and tugged her t-shirt over head. I looked at the scars on her stomach and her right side where she said she had burned herself rolling into a camp fire.
In the morning, she asked for five dollars. I gave her twenty, and a change of clothes; a pair of my jeans–a little big for her–and a plaid shirt I no long wore, and dropped her at the park. Then I went to work. I saw her in line at the front door waiting for us to open. She was cool. When she saw me, you’d think we’d never met.
Jean said nothing when I told her we were a one time deal. Someone would find out. I’d lose my job fucking a client. I suppose she expected it. She’d been around the block a few times, long enough to there was nothing to us. When I dropped her at the park for the final time she didn’t even ask for money.
I was thinking of Jean when I stopped by Michael’s basement apartment in the Mission unannounced one afternoon.
Vernetta answered my knock. Her pregnancy was at a point where the T-shirt she wore barely covered her bulging stomach. But her eyes were clear, voice steady.
“Yeah. How you doing?”
“What are you doing here? Michael’s not at work?”
“I’m just checking on the situation. My staff isn’t supposed to be taking in clients. Keep this visit between us, Vernetta. I’m covering Michael’s ass and I want to be sure I’m not being played a fool. May I come in?”
She stepped aside. I looked around. The drawn curtains, closed windows, stale air. A hot plate on a card table. Two chairs. A back room where the whir of a fan muffled the sounds of traffic. One lamp. Off. Everything in shadow.
“Don’t you want any light?”
“It’s how Michael likes it. If he wants the lights off they‘re off.”
Perhaps he wanted to keep out the hot summer sun. My mother used to do that. We didn’t have A/C so she’d close the curtains in the summer to keep the house cool.
I thanked Vernetta. I walked toward 16th Street to catch the Muni back to work, skirting around the speed freaks hanging out in the alleys. I tried to convince myself I was making up for Jean by letting Michael take care of Vernetta. Look how good she was doing. Hell, she had a point. His place. If he wanted the lights off, they’re off. Still, a part of me kept thinking that was weird.
The Hurley stands a block up from Out of the Rain. I haven’t been back since my last day there one year ago. I feel an overwhelming urge now to stop by. The problem with leaving a job is that you leave part of yourself behind. The job becomes your identity. I wasn’t just Tom Murray, I was Tom Murray, director of Out of the Rain. Sometimes, I miss that Tom.
It feels good walking through the doors again. A man in a blue suit and tie, a bottle of air freshener by his elbow sits at the front desk.
I pause like a dog that had its leash yanked. I approach the desk and give him my name. I want to see the director, Deborah Brinker, I say. Miss Deborah, he corrects me. OK, Miss. Deborah. No, I don’t have an appointment, but she will know me. I was the director before her.
He appears unimpressed. He gets on the phone and pages her.
“Jay still here?”
“We’re not allowed to give out information on our clients. Confidentiality.”
“He’s not a client.”
“Talk to Miss Deborah then.”
After a brief conversation in which the the front desk guy gives my name to, I presume, Miss Deborah, he hangs up, tells me to sign in. Then he points to the stairs.
“You can go up now.”
When I reach the top, I pause and consider what had once been my office. The door is closed. Framed university degrees hang on the wall. Miss Deborah, sits behind a desk bare of anything but a computer and plastic trays filled with filed papers.
I knock on the door. With a sigh, she shuts off the computer looks up and waves me in. She reaches across the desk and shakes my hand. I wait for her to tell me to sit down. She doesn’t.
“My name is Tom Murray,” I say. “I was the previous director.”
“Miss Deborah,” she says. “Pleasure.”
“I know you weren’t expecting me. I just wanted to come by and tell you how sorry I am to hear about Michael and to offer my support. If there’s anything I can do.”
The offer hangs between us. I feel a little desperate. I want to talk about Michael. How awful I feel, how confused. But sitting and facing Miss Deborah tells me I made a mistake. I don’t belong here. Not anymor3e.
“Thank you, Mr. Murray,” Miss Deborah says. “It’s been quite a shock. Totally unexpected.”
“I can imagine.”
“The board of directors knows about this but not our funders. I hope it doesn’t go that far. Everyone understands, of course, Michael wasn’t my hire.”
“What does that matter?”
“Nothing, I hope. But if this frightens funders, if they worry about the type of staff we have, I’ll be forced to emphasize he wasn’t my hire.”
I don’t say anything. I’m her excuse. She’ll beat hell out of my name as long as she needs to. I don’t blame her. I’d do the same thing.
“Did you do a background check on Michael, Mr. Murray? Did you confirm his job histories? Michael’s so-called time with the military? I did. No Michael Kelly with his birth date and Social Security number was in the Army.”
“It’s probably not his real name.”
“All the more reason for background checks, isn’t it? And did you know Vernetta lived with him when she was pregnant? I’m sure you didn’t, but why did you permit Michael to babysit for her?”
“What he did on his off hours. . .”
“He brought her baby here to work, I‘m told. You must have known that much.”
I don’t say anything. I feel like that apostle whats-his-name when the rooster crowed every time he lied. I didn’t see the harm, I want to say. Not from Michael.
“I mean no disrespect but it’s a good thing you left when you did or you’d be answering a lot more questions,” Miss Deborah says. “I’ll try to keep this from following you. You work with refugees now, right?”
“I just came to offer my support,” I say. “That’s all.”
Miss Deborah returns to her computer. I stand to leave. Then I think of Jay again.
“Does Jay still work here?”
“He’s on disability now,” she says still facing the computer.
“I had the benefits advocate enroll him in SSI. He didn’t need to be here. He’d never get a job anywhere else. That does us no good. I want people who can find work and move on. Jay would barely answer the phone.”
She pushes back in her chair until it rests against the wall behind her and faces me, offering a tired, even sympathetic smile that tells me she knows I think she’s a bitch. She’s not. She’s doing what’s she’s doing because that’s what she learned in school. Comes with the degrees. She doesn’t want Jay. She wants suits. She wants order. She wants to triage the Jays out of here.
“You put up with a lot hiring people like Jay, Mr. Murray,” she says. “I’ll give you that.”
Vernetta had a baby boy. She named him Stevie Junior. That was more credit than I’d have given his father, who never made it to the hospital. Nine damn pounds. Because Vernetta had stayed clean, the doctors thought the boy would have little to no brain damage from crack. Over time they would know, but his prognosis was strong.
She entered a halfway house for single moms in recovery. Michael and I used the agency van to deliver her to her new home. He hauled her things up three flights of stairs to her room. It had bay windows and a nice view of the ocean and hardwood floors that caught the sun and shined like ice.
Michael set up the baby crib. When he finished, she embraced him and sobbed. He held her like a robot and looked over her shoulder at the ocean but nothing in his face revealed what he might be thinking. Not a blink or a tear or an expression of any kind. Just a blank stare and a stiffness to his body as he patted her back one, two, one, two and then stopped.
“Pretty controlled in there,” I said when were back outside.
“Military training, sir.”
“You should be really very proud.”
“I am, sir.”
“Don’t just drop out of her life. She still needs you. Little Stevie isn’t going to be any kind of dad to that kid.”
“No, sir, he won’t. I’ll come by. I told her I’d baby sit.”
Vernetta would bring Stevie Junior to work from time to time and leave him with Michael while she attended an NA meeting.
After I submitted my two weeks’ notice, I told Michael he should leave, too. I knew of a job opening at Hap Street Youth Center for an office manager. After-school activities for wealthy suburban kids in Walnut Creek. Easy. No stress. Good money. Go for it, I told him. He said he would but he never applied. To work with kids, you must agree to a background check. I hadn’t thought of that before now. I guess Miss Deborah had a point.
What was it like for Michael to be on that Greyhound bus after he got off the phone with John? Did he feel badly? Did he think, Another close call? I made it. I’ll stop it this time. I really will. Or was his escape part of the thrill?
Sitting in his seat hunkered down, maybe a hat pulled over his face, I imagine him pretending to be asleep to avoid being noitced until he does fall asleep only to awaken some place else hours later. He finds a homeless shelter and sleeps among other homeless men to protect himself from himself below the police radar, his life resuming once more.
If Michael is caught and I’m called to testify, I would talk about the man I knew. I would stand up for that man not because I condone child abuse but because that man and I were colleagues, partners. The one guy I could say, Hey, let’s have lunch, and it wasn’t an act of charity. We talked sports. We bitched about the weather. The one guy at work I could hang with because he wasn’t fucking out there. I knew when I was talking to him, I was talking to him and not half a dozen personalities jockeying around in his head. He wasn’t Jay. He was stiff, dull and ordinary. He changed his clothes every day. He had all his teeth. He didn’t hit me up for cash. And for a while he did a good thing by Vernetta.
Then I think, What am I doing? Look what he did. Did to me. Not just Stevie Jr., not just Vernetta. But Me. Me. I trusted him.
I doubt the police will find Michael. If they had not caught him before why now? He was messing with the child of a crack head and a skid row father. We’re not talking the Rockefellers here. Crack addicts and drunks. Low, low down on the priority scale.
And now Vernetta is on the street again. My kid was abused by the man who helped me, maybe even saved my life and who I trusted and loved, and boom, the dam broke. Violated once more, she cut loose and got herself some crack. An overwhelming desire always waiting to bust out. She needed an excuse and got a great one. And Stevie Junior, where the hell is he? Is he really with Vernetta’s mother or her NA sponsor or just out there too, lost and alone?
These days, I live alone in the same apartment I fucked Jean. I have no secrets other than her. And she was legal. Doesn’t say much for me, I know, but I can leave the curtains wide open and the lights on, mirrors in place.
I hope Jean cleaned up. I hope but I don’t want to run into her and find out. I’m afraid of what I’d see, what I might be tempted to do. Like try to help her. I mean really help her this time. Guilt, man. It hangs on after all these years. I prefer to deal with people I won’t see again. Like my Iraqi family. Wrap things up at the Department of Family Services this afternoon and they’ll be on their way and I’ll be on mine. No drama. Yeah, it gets old but I can deal with old. Old is better than the alternative. If you help the same people too often their little mindless shit will either add up to nothing or something and you’ve got to decide which it is and whether you can look away or not.
Me, I’d rather not know.