By Janyce Stefan-Cole
Sky Traquer stood in front of Starrie’s dorm, hands shoved deep into pants pockets, shoulders hunched against the early spring wind; late March going out like a lion. Paper, swirling bits of gritty debris blew along the sidewalk on Commonwealth Avenue. He’d come looking for her, she’d been cutting classes, avoiding him. He was just about to give up when her roommate walked out of the building.
“Hey, Jodie, wait up!”
“Hey, Sky Tracker,” Jodie said, using the English version of his name. She smiled hopefully. “Oh, you’re looking for Starrie?”
“She’s not answering my calls.”
“She hasn’t slept at the dorm in weeks, just comes around for a change of clothes.” Sky nodded. “Some guy,” Jodie said.
“You know him?”
“I’m not a snitch, Sky.”
“I’m her cousin, how does that make you a snitch?”
“No, I know.” She chewed a thumbnail. “He’s older.”
“How much older?" The roommate shrugged. “Gray hair older?” Sky asked.
“You want to get coffee or something?” she said. By something Sky knew she meant hook up, go up to the room; sex.
A passing guy jostled Sky, mumbled an apology. Student traffic was always heavy outside the dorm, kids in jeans and jackets, scarves wound around necks in varying degrees of making a statement. Sky had been watching out for Starrie for two days. “That’s all you can tell me, Jodie?”
“Like she tells me anything? You wanna come up?”
Women—girls—reacted to Sky. So did some men. He was tall, slender, Native American; long jet black hair and dark eyes; eyes that held a lot, maybe too much. He didn’t respond to Jodie’s overture. He knew it was an animal thing, whatever they wanted: curiosity, white superiority, or just looking to touch something different; he’d been down that road before. He’d rather be an animal, but not a circus act. “She could be in trouble, Jodie.”
“She’s seeing a guy, Sky.” To his non-response Jodie added. “So it’s probably not a big deal. Okay?”
But Sky knew different.
Bobby reached across the seat but Starrie was hard up against the passenger door, like trying to be somewhere else. “Things’ll look better in the morning, babe,” he said to her unresponsive mood. His dog began to whine in the back seat. “I gotta pull over; let Smoke out for a piss.”
Starrie turned to face the dog. Bobby steered the car under a streetlight. He reached in back to snap the leash onto the dog’s collar, handing the end to Starrie. She looked at him. It was raining. “You’re on the curb side,” he said.
Starrie pulled up her hoodie and opened the passenger door. She got out; opened the back door. Smoke didn’t want to go out into the rain either. “C’mon,” she said, giving the leash a tug. Smoke shook himself, jumped out and walked a couple of feet to relieve himself along the lamppost. The black streets were slick in the rain. There was a smell, maybe the sea or maybe trash, or both.
Nothing was friendly about a strange city in the middle of the night, searching for an address, a bed, shelter. They’d been on the road three months, zigzagging across the county. Having hardly any money left made their situation that much more tenuous. Starrie could get her hands on ready cash, plus her monthly stipend. But that money had bad spirits on it.
She bundled Smoke back into the car and climbed in up front.
Bobby said, “Babe? Are you sure you got the address right on that map?”
She checked her phone. “These streets just don’t make any sense.”
The cold summer rain came down harder.
The trip west wasn’t supposed to end at a doctor’s office typing up patient notes. On the road Bobby had said her whole life was one big detour, but he’d said that during a fight and words spoken in the heat of argument didn’t count. And wasn’t he part of the detour? Their meeting had hardly been auspicious. He’d owned a record store, the Spinning Disk—the only record store remaining in Boston, possibly the whole state. He sold other stuff at the store, cannabis mostly, in a back room to a select clientele. A regular crowd hung at the Spinning Disk, where vinyl had made a comeback. One sparkling winter afternoon Starrie walked in, tall, dark, and she must be something exotic like Polynesian, or something. His eyes stuck to her like flies on a sticky strip in the summer heat.
Starrie only knew about the music when she walked in that day looking for a Doors CD, L.A. Woman; in particular the song, “Riders on the Storm”.
“You like The Doors?” he’d asked, his arm casually blocking her way.
“I like that song,” Starrie answered, backing away from him.
“I have it. What else do you like? Sixties, early seventies?”
“That would be like your age music, wouldn’t it?”
She could be as nasty as she liked, Bobby decided. “Tell me what you want?”
She looked at him, felt the heat of him. “I already told you.”
“So let’s go get you that album.”
Two days later Bobby traced her through her credit card and called.
Starrie was late, but wasn’t hurrying. There was no point; she’d never make it to Rodney’s by ten-thirty. She’d overslept, then taken the wrong bus, then gotten off the right bus at the wrong stop. She realized on the bus she’d forgotten her phone. She wasn’t used to getting up early for appointments. They’d been on the road, free as birds. It didn’t feel artificial at the time; it felt forever. Now Dr. Rodney Eeling was expecting her about a job, a position he’d offered her over dinner, though she was without a single medical skill.
The address was in her pocket, scratched on a piece of paper in her impossible script. She hadn’t Googled it because she didn’t care about the job, and she’d forgotten her phone anyhow. Could a person be fired before they even started?
She wished she could click her heels, like Dorothy, and be gone. When she thought about California, she’d pictured long palm-lined boulevards ending at the sea. There was the sea alright, the bay glimpsed here and there from the tops of hills before the street or avenue or boulevard dipped again. The sea could be a way to orient herself, and it was fair to say she needed orienting. She coughed, wondered about stopping for a cup of tea.
San Francisco wasn’t like Boston. It didn’t feel self-contained like the land in New Hampshire either. She couldn’t get a whole sense of the city. The hills ran up and down like boils on a face, the geography askew. Starrie thought a city should flare from a central heart. Where was San Francisco’s heart?
She hadn’t known who Bobby Player was when he called her from the record store; how he’d gotten her number. “Credit card info,” he said.
“You hacked me?”
“You could say that.”
His face came back to her, the way he’d looked at her. “You’re kind of old,” she said.
“Age have nothing to do with it, baby.”
It was creepy, but attractive too. He had authority. Authority wasn’t the same as orienting, but it was something.
They’d been together just under four months when they hit the road. The yellow brick road, she’d said. He sold and gave away most of his stuff. He’d been a soldier, knew how to survive on less. She had pretty much nothing with her when they drove out of Boston in a big white SUV.
If someone was on his tail, Bobby didn’t say. By then Starrie knew about the weed sales. She didn’t know he’d tried to slip into the cocaine market; that he’d wandered onto mob turf. He’d gotten some insurance money for his 1989 Mustang, red with a black convertible top. Starrie had liked that Mustang, the wind pulling at her long mane, Bobby playing DJ as they drove. He’d paid to have the car stolen and wrecked, chop shop style, made a claim, and with the insurance money financed the trip west—on the back roads. That suited her; she was on the run.
The San Francisco damp cut straight down to the marrow. A dishonest cold she’d felt gnawing since arriving that rainy night. The fog slipping in and out was like a character in a noir film—the bad guy—especially mean at night. It was mid-September, she hadn’t yet learned to layer up and shed against a day that could start out with a wet wind only to burn off and then chill up again.
“This is sunny California?” she asked. When was it ever going to get summer hot? Everyone told her she was going to fall in love with October. They called the climate temperate, she called it treacherous.
Bobby had nudged her to take up Rodney’s offer, whatever it was Rodney wanted from her. He made the job offer over pomegranate martinis, taken them to a pricey seafood place on Pier 39, dinner on the bay. “Order anything you want,” he’d insisted, “it’s on me.”
They’d been battle-front buddies, Bobby and Rodney. Rodney was a medic, Bobby a private. He’d moved up to corporal but lost that when he went AWOL for a few days looking for whores without finding any. Rodney had laughed at him, what did he expect in the Arabian Desert, tents full of girls, hijabs removed?
To Starrie’s protestations that she was unqualified, Bobby said to just hear Rod out. The thought of a job felt like a noose tightening around her neck. But they were broke; all the temptations of city life had no meaning without cash to burn.
She’d gotten off the bus in the middle of a neighborhood that might not be the best place for a lone girl dressed up spiffy for an interview. People hanging on corners; idle, unemployed. No wonder the bus driver gave her that funny look. Her hard-to-identify race, her looks and height usually meant a free pass. She didn’t trade on her looks—aware of the edge they gave her, and the danger. Anyhow, she didn’t have anything on her worth stealing.
She gave up on finding Rodney’s office. Wandering alone for a day could be the ticket, a chance to claim the city for herself, away from Bobby’s influence. She’d reschedule for tomorrow. One more day wouldn’t matter. If Rodney refused to hire her for messing up, so what, something else would come up. Something always did, or had so far.
She walked all day, up and down; hills and valleys, tinkling trolleys, winking bay, round and round. She was looking for the magic, as if it were a kitten lost somewhere along unknown avenues. Every place has its magic, emerging on its own terms; she just had to let it happen. That’s what she believed. But Frisco was no different from towns she’d seen all across America: swathes of poverty scraping alongside centers of comfort and wealth, inequality the norm. The rich got richer, the poor ate beans. If she could pinpoint what it was about the city that disaffected her maybe she’d find a way to settle in.
Day waned into evening as she wound her way back up the hill to the apartment, the hectic workday tempo letting up, hard daytime yielding to the soft night—until that too turned hard, but in a different way. She must have asked a dozen people and one cop for directions. A cabbie drew a map. That was nice of him; she had no cash to ride in his taxi.
She let herself in, feet aching from pounding miles of concrete. Bobby called to her from the kitchen; he was on the phone and quickly hung up. He came out to the living room, his long brown hair knotted into a ponytail, shirtless in white jeans, a lit cigarette balanced on his lower lip. “Where you been, babe? Rodney must’ave called ten times. You never showed.”
Gangsta rap was playing on the radio, ‘bitches been slappin’ / gonna be some cappin’ / don’t mean just tappin’— Starrie snapped the throbbing sound off, waved the air in protest to Bobby’s cigarette. She dropped her bag on the floor before flopping down on the plush, aubergine-colored sofa, kicking off her shoes.
“These are not for walking,” she announced, lifting swollen red feet for him to see. Smoke trotted over to rub a wet muzzle in Starrie’s opened hand, eyes full of worry, submission and relief. Starrie pulled on the big dog’s satiny black ears. Smoke’s tail wagged a happy beat.