The Cost of a Good Day’s Lunch

It’s not often that he goes to Gideon’s for lunch but today is a good day so he celebrates with a small act of charity for himself. Charlene at the office suggested they share a meal but he persisted in watching his computer screen until she went away. It is better this way; she is loud and sometimes uncouth in ways that can annoy him, like slopping coffee when putting the pot back on the hotplate  or noting that so-and-so has about gone bald this year or clipping her shoulder painfully as she rushes around a corner. Not that Peter is the most graceful or civilized person. But he tries to be, at least at work, whereas she tends to let things fall where they may, words included, though her work is good. She sits four cubicles away from him, so there is relief in that. But he still sneaks around at times to avoid her; it depends on his mood he’s noticed.

“I’ll have to hogtie you one of these days, then take you out on my own dime to see what else can develop,” Charlene informed him once in the elevator, smiling rather wickedly before flouncing off. He has been afraid she might manage it somehow, and that image is not pleasant but its funny, too. He can’t imagine why she persists when he tends to feel flattened by such boldness.

To be fair, Peter avoids most people, they are all too much in some way. He has one good friend and their camaraderie is based on passion for video games, something they can’t quite abandon despite closer to thirty than they ever imagined. They get together on every other Saturday night to play and compete and share a couple beers and pizza. Peter doesn’t much like pizza but Tim does; they both enjoy the strange trance that playing provokes when adrenaline kicks in. Other than Tim and his sister, Everly, who lives twelve blocks north and occasionally comes by on a Sunday (though they text once or twice a week), his world is solitary. He prefers it that way, overall. He has had more friends but they end up being a distraction from his research on gemstones or forest canopies or alternative fuels–whatever grabs his interest. Gaining knowledge is his main activity after the workday at Drummond Systems. It staves off the bleakness that creeps in like mildew, a little at a time until it cannot be eradicated.

But today he has received clear praise from his manager. It goes a long way in scrubbing the grayness from his cynical being even if it is temporary. To prolong the upwelling of happiness he felt after supervision, he has come to Gideon’s on Rose Terrace Boulevard, so-called because there is an old and neatly terraced rose garden across from the restaurant.  Peter glances at the garden as he pushes the door open; it has a long way to go before pruned bushes grace them all with greenery and showy blossoms. When they erupt into color he will come more often, maybe twice a month until they die down again. A small extravagance he allows each summer.

“Mr. Ellison, welcome back.”

The hostess nods at him and he follows her. He has been coming here off and on for six years yet he still forgets her name, he could be more mindful. When seated he glances at her name tag, Ursula, that’s it alright. He smiles at her and when a new waitress arrives with coppery curls and an overbite he smiles and orders what he often does, a club sandwich on triple toasted sourdough with a premium dill pickle. And then he sighs audibly, glad to be here, and sips ice water.

Matt Carter has been a tough boss to please. In fact, very few do and Peter has not been different in that respect. But he wants to move up, make more money so he can save for a bicycle trip to Holland or France, perhaps both, he works harder and longer hours than most. So the talk today acknowledged this; Mr. Carter knows a loyal and upward bound employee when he sees one, and Peter Ellison is fast becoming most expert in his domain. A bonus is due.

It might actually happen, his trip, maybe a promotion before he knows it. Peter gleefully looks about the open space with its casual but certain loveliness as if to spread his unexpected good cheer. Everyone is, of course, busy with others or on phones or staring out the window. He gazes out at a news stand and the cars inching by, and imagines telling Tim, then wonders if it will matter or if he will be envious since he’s stuck in a low paying, tedious sales job. Everly will shriek and throw her arms about him so he’ll have to pry her off. He might call her at her museum job so she’ll maintain a calmer demeanor. He chuckles. She’s three years older, is kind and protective of him ever since their parents split up when he was sixteen. If he calls them tonight,  Dad and Mom will murmur “Good work, Peter, really, it’s about time”, then swamp him with details of their busy lives until he begs off and hangs up. No, he won’t share it with them. Not yet, he wants it to be his good news, safe and sound.

Looking down at his glass beading up from warmth of his hand, he removes it and studies a ragged cuticle, picks at it until it reddens.

Lunch arrives. Peter reaches for his earphones when someone roars with laughter. He looks  over at the red-faced, bulky man in a charcoal grey suit. He tenses, rumples his napkin. He’s so like his father, boisterous, big, commanding attention of two others at his table. Both Peter’s parents excel in making their presences known. It was a chore for Everly and him to be properly seen so they got by those years like overlapping shadows until they moved to this sprawling city for college and work. Let their parents have their world, they had made their own; sometimes they got together, but not too often.

He plugs in to a playlist of electronic music and takes a big bite. Savors tang and saltiness, crunch and chewiness, feels lucky to have a place like this to enjoy lunch. To feel a little relieved and even good about his success today. Peter half-closes his eyes as he follows along with the music softly soothing his brain, is in a silver roadster and head out on the highway, the top down, the wind gleefully wrecking his hair, and he’s headed to the mountains when there is a fast flick of a sinuous tail, almost a snap at his shoulder. Peter’s eyes widen.

A dingy white and rusty brown cat. Parading along a low room divider as if performing for treats, tail swaying, head high. It then licks a paw a couple seconds. There was never any mascot at Gideon’s, certainly no breathing, licking, scratching cat so what is it doing here, a restaurant at lunchtime? It thrusts its head at Peter, sniffs, whiskers twitching, then pulls back and primly sits right above his table. The cat–a girl, Peter decides–has no intention of leaving him to his sandwich, it smells wonderfully of thick bacon and turkey and ham so he looks nervously about for his waitress who’s at the far end of the room. Waves at her but she moves away. The next table’s occupants don’t notice the cat as they’re intent on coffee and dessert, so Peter shoos the creature away, who simply follows his hand with bobbing head, then eyes the food. He pulls out the ear buds, unnerved. Takes a bite, then another and chews with mouth shut and stares at the cat in defiance of its motives to make ruin of his meal. How irksome and odd to have a cat present. It has to have run in when a door opened wide.

Peter overall feels neutral about animals unless they’re in the wild, then he’s all eyes and ears. They’d had a terrier when growing up but he got hit by a taxi in a rush to get their father to the airport. That was that. Everly asked for a cat once but the answer was a resounding negative; their mother found them fussy and unpredictable. His sister now had no time for pets; Peter had no inclination.

“Go!” Peter commands of the calm statuesque cat.

“Oh dear, where did this one come from? Now aren’t you something, pretty thing?”

Marcy, the name tag announced, is smiling at the cat despite a tremor of alarm in her high voice. She pushes back long wispy bangs. Squints, reaches out with lips pursed as if about to kiss the furry thing but her plan is to grab and hold on despite fear of scratches. The cat leaps down and behind half-wall so she moves slowly around the end, whereupon the cat darts between her legs, under Peter’s table. He can feel its warm body atop his shoe and moves the foot but it moves, too, remains there wedged between the wall and the world, a benign bulk settling in.

“I need to tell the manager,” Marcy says frowning.”A shame, such a pretty feline. Not yours, I assume?”

“No, no, I was enjoying my meal and it appeared as if invited.”

Marcy giggles. “It likes you, apparently.” She looks under the table a moment. “We could offer it some bacon.”

Peter shakes his head emphatically. “Not acceptable to encourage finishing off my meal.”

“Oh, right, sorry, sir, it might just do that.” She leaves in search of the manager.

Peter pushes the cat off his foot with the other foot. It remains close at his ankle, purrs, rubs its head on his pant leg.

“Leaving your fur on me, are you? You need to go.”

It persists with rubbing its head on his pants. Peter  looks under the table again, worries his pressed jeans pants will be hairy with cat fur, shakes his leg. It–she?–stops but stares at him without any concern and rumbles its purr even more.

“I got a bonus today and you had to interrupt my victory meal. Why not bother someone else? I never much cared for cats.”

The next two tables’ occupants have taken notice and watch with either distaste or amusement. He reaches under, tries to snag the cat but it slips around the barrier.  It has begun to feel like a battle being lost so he quickly finishes the sandwich, determined to get back to work late. The cat reappears, disappears, hides under the table. About the time he is ready to get the check, the manager rushes toward him.

A lanky man with a long nose, he looks down through thick black rimmed glasses toward the floor, then at Peter and the others.

“I am so very sorry. This has never happened before. I’ll deal with it, don’t worry.” He studies Peter, his features exuding regret. “It didn’t nab your lunch, sir, did it?”

“No, she must be full of mice as she might have made a pounce for it. May I have the bill, please?”

The manager beckons Marcy, whispers to her, reiterates regrets to him then finds the recalcitrant cat. Swiftly he grabs her by scruff of the neck so four legs stick out straight, then they rush between tables toward the front doors. Out she goes. Peter can just see this from his spot, tossed out just like that. He wonders if the cat’s fate is to scrape by and die on the street.

“No charge, sir, we’re so sorry this happened but hope you’ll return,” Marcy says, blue eyes downcast–but no tip, either.

Peter unfolds himself from his chair, smiles vaguely in her direction. “How generous of you. Crafty cat. No worries, I’ll be back.” He gathers ear buds and phone, gets his wallet out and tucks a tip at plate’s edge as she steps away, lips parting to reveal bright big teeth. He grabs his backpack, eager to leave it all, and exits. Marcy finds him attractive in a disheveled, studious way, hopes next time he remembers her name.

Once outdoors, Peter consults his watch–ten minutes for two blocks–and steps forward, nearly squashing a mass of something. He just catches himself from falling and it yowls–damned cat! She’s been lurking, wishing to hold him up. Now she slinks along the building’s wall and eyes him suspiciously. Maybe she’ll at last go, he’s fed up with shenanigans when he just wants a few more moments to celebrate on the walk back.

She dashes out into the street as a truck lumbers up to the corner so that Peter must run out and hold up his hands to stop honking traffic, then scoops her up, presses her writhing mass to his chest and makes for the corner right by the garden. He plops on a bench, clutching her. She stops wiggling, pokes her nose at his, licks it to his mild dismay. Now he will have to be responsible, how can you not be when you save a life? Isn’t it a spiritual law?

Peter accepts he will now be late. He worries…he knows his boss will not like it–but he will also overlook this slight error of his man of the hour. The cat settles in his lap as he takes out his phone. It rings three, four times and he is about to hang up when it is answered.

“Everly, what are you doing after work? I have news, work-wise and otherwise, can’t say what just now. A surprise, yes. We can order take out, Indian.” He pets the cat firmly. “I have a favor to ask, also, not that big, maybe just advice.” The cat tries to turn a full circle on his now-ruined lap. “Good, see you at seven.”

When Peter enters the office he walks right to Charlene who is startled by his sweaty face. He crooks his finger at her and she gets up, follows him into the empty break room.

“Hold on, now, I just have a chore to ask of you.”

“What’s that?” she asks, curls shimmering at him.

“Where can we keep a cat until I leave?”

“A cat? Here? A real live one?”

“Sshhh!” He lifts his backpack, undoes the flap buckle so two ears and a pointy face pop out.

“Hello, gorgeous! How exciting, Peter, I never imagined you—”

“Pipe down, Charlene, this is serious, I can’t leave work until five but this cat followed me, more or less…so where to keep it? Without being found out and duly dismissed, both of us?”

“Oh, well, there’s the storage room, put it in a box maybe. I do sit right by the door, no one can get in without my knowing. I’ll check on it a couple times. Hopefully it won’t be noisy. I even have leftover ham sandwich, we have milk here, I can feed it if it fusses.” She beams up at Peter. She’s finally gotten into his good graces. Or will soon. “I hope it doesn’t make any messes, though…”

“Perfect, you’re a titan of fine ideas. I really appreciate it. And if you want a cat at the end of the day…”

“No thanks, I have a white poodle puppy to oversee.”

He shrugs, hands off his backpack and she takes over as he lopes back to his cubicle. He turns at his desk and goes back.

“Want to go out sometime, maybe?”

“I passed a test or something?”

She looks undone by his question and it tickles him.

“Maybe.”

“Sure, of course, why not?”

She almost glows some moments, he thinks, like a peachy-orange sunrise moving along the horizon.

Peter returns to work. He has plenty to do and he’s no slacker, that’s for sure. Neither is he a cat person much less a people person. He hypothesizes that life changes at times without his full approval or understanding. But he suddenly feels ready for more happenstance; he’ll figure out the necessary details and make a few accommodations as need be.

 

A Way Back Home

“Life hurts more in this city, it shakes its fat fist in my face every day. I can’t take it,” he said, glasses reflecting the phantasmagoria of the giant tree’s lights. They beamed onto the brick and cement urban park, “the Square”, but he was blind to that.

TC knew what he meant, but she couldn’t entirely agree. It was pretty there. They could view the 75 ft. tall Christmas tree decked out in its glory, gather with others in the Square each morning with their maximized paper cups of coffee and a warm  croissant with butter or a cranberry scone. They could watch the shoppers mill about with brightly bulging shopping bags, study folks on lunch break as they lined up at food carts–oh, those savory aromas of hot food drove them nuts. Maybe they’d manage to get a bite to eat later. If she sold enough of her leather jewelry to tourists trying to be tolerant, or city dwellers trying to show good will, they’d get by another day. Harley didn’t think the way she did, though; he needed a drink by noon and then he went from bleakest to medium bleak.

“It’s too pretty, unlike reality, a total sham,” he insisted and took off his glasses, put them in his pocket. Something he did when his eyes hurt or he was just weary of seeing things. He frowned at her, deep brown eyes going darker. “What do you see in it all? It’s just another city where we half-starve and are too cold and wet–or too hot and dry. I’ll take too much heat over this. Let’s go back to California, baby.”

“It’s better here. I like Portland. I feel some real good energy here; just let yourself feel it, too, Harley.” She tamped down the  irritation in her words but it was like a bubble, it sneaked up to the surface.

He got up and winced, then bent over to grab fifteen bucks from her little box before she could stop him and ambled down to the Plaid Pantry. A beer, smokes, a small package of beef jerky.

There went their decent lunch. TC sighed and smiled at the same time at passersby who glanced her way. Her hip bones and rear hurt; her big jacket was barely long enough nonetheless and the sidewalk got harder by the hour.

The light drizzle had been wetting scenery along with people in fits and starts all morning. No one was much bothered. TC had pulled her burlap scrap laden with jewelry under the corner awning of Lil’s All Natural Bake Shop. They had been overlooked by the owner for two days and they hoped for a few more. But there were countless stores and offices, about as many awnings, so they’d just move on. It had been this way for about seven months, ever since she had lost the baby and he had lost his job due to being drunk too many mornings. Harley had argued he was just hung over but if anyone had taken his blood alcohol level he’d have had to cave and admit he was rarely sober. He had things on his mind and his fiancée had had a bad time of it. Two miscarriages in a year. Well, he was sick and tired, too, and out of decent luck. Maybe she was the luck killer, he wasn’t sure.

Fiancée. TC had said that word a few times in her mind. It had first felt luxurious in her mouth, like caramel and dark chocolate or salmon with creamy potatoes. It had shaken her up, given her a small thrill that he’d asked her to marry him a year ago. That was when he was still working at the factory and she’d had a part-time job waitressing. But she’d had her doubts back then, too. Harley wasn’t easy to be with; he wasn’t pleased with anything for long. He reminded her of her father, really, who’d been miserable enough about his circumstances that he’d exited her and her mother’s life early on, then later turned up dead behind an Alaska cannery. Her mother and she hadn’t gone up to his funeral even after his current girlfriend called, hysterical. It had been three years since he’d skipped out by then. They’d not missed him much; it was sad but understandable her mother reassured her.

TC was eleven then and she already had the notion that men tended to be thin-skinned, slow to change, hard to coax love from; she found real life matched those ideas that over the eight years. After the miscarriages, she ought to have struck out for better parts but she was determined to not do as her father had done.  Look where it got him. Her mother just swore and threw up her hands the last time TC had met with her, told her to lose that boy.

Now here they were. Lacking a home and broke and Harley going from bad to worse. She worried about his alcohol problem every minute. She wasn’t able to make one whit of difference.

“Those are cool,” a teenager said as she touched a pair of earrings with their fine leather leaves. “You make these designs yourself?”

“I do,” she said and held them up to the potential buyer. “Thanks!”  But she knew better. This was a teen with little cash, less real interest. The girl fingered the earrings, put them back, made a peace sign and left.

Someone will come along and buy five pairs, TC told herself in a sing-song way. It was like a spell she said often. It could mean at least fifty dollars, maybe seventy-five if they got the fancier ones. She got scraps at the leather supply store and she had had the tools for years, so her profit could be decent.

If only they hadn’t lost the apartment in Sacramento, but when Harley got going all the money was poured down his gullet or wasted elsewhere, she was never sure how. And she had been unwell with the pregnancies, then miscarriages. It got too hard to get up each day and try to hold things together while Harley was out there ripping and roaring with buddies. TC hated being a loser, being unable to pay her way, giving up when she had a very strong will. her will didn’t do her much good when she made bad decisions. Yeah, she had weak-willed herself right onto the streets along with dealing with Harley past the expiration date of their relationship.

So much for being a fiancée. And how to will herself off these streets, nice as they seemed? She knew she might be kidding herself when she filled up with hope but it mattered to her to believe, anyway.

Before the sun had peaked and then started its way back down, TC had made three sales, enough that she could eat even in the morning–maybe share with Harley if he hadn’t gotten food. She stood more often, shifting from foot to foot, rubbing her gloved hands together, blowing her nose on extra toilet paper she had taken and stuffed in her pocket earlier. She had to go to the bathroom now, but she’d learned how to wait and wait and wait, if necessary. When Harley came back, they’d go into a store for a while to warm up, use restrooms. Meanwhile, the towering Christmas tree was so beautiful TC stared at it again, then counted the bills and felt much better.

But Harley didn’t come back. TC decided to not run the streets looking for him; it was getting late and unsafe. He might show up later, he might not. That was, finally, how she felt.

******

It was dark  by 5:00 so time to head out. After she used the restroom, washed up a little and ate a grilled ham and cheese sandwich (and saved the turkey jerky, a fair protein source), she warmed up as she sipped fragrant hot coffee. Harley was nowhere near from what she could tell. She got up and checked out nearby shelters, but they were already full since December was spewing icy darts of wet. She walked to a nearby residential area. Her feet were starting to ache with damp and cold, the old leather seams of her boots letting in water; she tried to avoid puddles. She knew of a small apartment building; its second floor cement balconies were big enough that she could stay mostly dry beneath one. There was a spot by a casement window where she curled up with a fleece throw kept stuffed in the backpack. The spot  was still available; she hunched down, knees to chin, blanket about her, thick navy cap pulled down to her eyes. The trick was to become invisible–not the tenants as much as roaming street people. So far it seemed she was alone.

It took a long time to doze off to the dull rhythm of rain on cars, trees, gutters and roofs, that balcony but when sleep came it gave her five or six hours, to her surprise. She’d been dreaming of Christmas  as a kid, and she was about to open a box she shook it but it sounded and felt empty. TC straightened up, the aching stiffness making her feel old and half-sick, Her legs were cramped up so she stretched them, only to get a direct hit from raindrops. TC yanked her soiled blanket tightly about shoulders and chest. Her cheap cell phone indicated it was almost midnight. She should move, find a doorway even more protected.

“Hey,” a husky but feminine voice called out. It came from above. “What’re you doing there? It’s freaking pouring ice chips and it’s about my bedtime so I step out for a smoke and there you are, shivering underneath my feet!”

TC stood up fast, crammed her blanket in her pack, started across the muddy spot.

“Hey, hey, hey, girl–I’ve seen you here before. I was going to offer some help this time.”

TC hesitated, looked back, rain flooding her face. She then pulled the cap down to her eyes and struck out.

“Hey kid, I’ve been there!” The woman lit a cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the weak light of her balcony. “I’ve done the street thing, suffered the price and now have a place.” She coughed. “This weather, what can you do? I have a couch you can use tonight, no deals needed, no ulterior motives. Just a chintzy dry spot.”

TC hunched her shoulders. The rain was biting at her skin now, it was closer to sleet, and she was shivering in spite of her strong will to be okay, to deal with it. She’d heard the stories of street people dying of hypothermia, getting vicious lung infections, being killed. This woman of about fifty with reddish hair stood on the covered balcony in sweatshirt and sweat pants. Waiting as if she was willing to be patient. What was there to lose? Maybe she would attack her, maybe she would do worse, her nightmares come true but she carried a knife, everyone did.

With Harley she had felt safer even when she wasn’t, really. Why did he disappear again? But it was freeze or hopefully get warm.

“So you know, I’m Eve Marker and I live with my terrier, Pearl. I’m a singer but she is not. She doesn’t bother to bite unless I am scared. I’m not a bit scared, and neither should you be, dear. I’m cold and I’m going in, are you coming?” She tossed her cigarette into the sheet of rain. “And you are, if I might ask?”

“I’m TC.” Her skin was starting to get goose bumps from the temperature. “Okay, yeah.” Did she know the name Eve Marker or was she just wishing she did? A club, maybe, near where they hung out. Not that it made her feel very reassured.

“Smart kid. Go to the front door.”

Animal comfort just won out. She ran to the heavy door but it was locked so she, stood under the eaves until the older woman came. She followed her upstairs. Eve wasn’t as old as she had first thought; the woman gave her a lopsided smile and her face softened.

“Hello there,” Eve Marker said.

“Hi.” She wondered if this was the biggest mistake of her life but no alarms went off in her. She knew how to sense danger and avoid it if at all possible. This was just different, even if peculiar.

When they entered the apartment, and Pearl the terrier lifted her head from her bed and then put it back down on front paws, TC was filled with a small relief. It was a small, cramped place–Eve said it was one bedroom, that was all she needed–but no matter, it was dry and there was small fake, decorated Christmas tree; a candle burning that smelled of cinnamon; and a tiny kitchen revealed a late night snack of half eaten toast and peanut butter nd a mug on the counter. TC dropped her backpack, took off her shoes by the door, then lay her wet jacket on top of the rest.

“Nice manners, TC, you were raised good. Want some tea?”

TC looked about her. She felt calmer, now she was inside the pleasant rooms, soon to dry out. “Sounds nice, thanks.”

Eve leaned against the kitchen counter, hands on thin hips. “I don’t know why I let you in. You could be a madwoman! But I just thought, I’ve seen you a few times down there–I’m an insomniac, everything gets me up and going–and tonight the spirit moved me.” She smiled that sloppy smile at TC. “And like I said, I’ve been on the street. Once, long ago, for nearly a year. I got behind on all my bills and one things led to another. Those were the bad ole days when I was below thirty thinking life owed me and I drank to silence the whiny wail of self-pity.”

She laughed a throaty laugh, eyes half-closed, and waved her hand as if to dispel the past, faded red hair fluffing about her delicately lined face. She filled a mug with hot water, dunked a peppermint tea bag into it–Eve thought she’d like chamomile but no matter, any hot tea was a gift as she dried out. “What happened, TC?–and what’s that short for?”

“It’s just TC.” She pulled her hat off and shook matted chin-length brown hair. Put her nose close to the bright scent of mint.

“Alright, then, you from around here or what?”

“Are you?” She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t about personal questions yet. “You said you sing?”

“Yes, born and bred. I’m at L’Heure Bleue Club four nights a week, you know it? Jazz club at Twelfth and Main. Tonight is a night off.”

“I’ve heard of it.” She had passed it many times; it was in a more ritzy part of city center.

“Well, it doesn’t pay like I used to be paid but it’s a gig and I’m glad of it. Music is my only love these days!”

TC sipped and when she bent her head she could also smell sweat and the dirt and despair and anger of the streets on her. “I make jewelry, that’s how I try to get by. Harley, he– oh, never mind.”

“I know, he’s here and there, huh? I like the sound of handmade jewelry. Maybe tomorrow you’ll show me.”

“I don’t know if it’s any good. Just made a few bucks. But Harley’s gone, maybe. Just has less patience and sees the worst in everything. I guess I should find him.” She looked back at the door, as if thinking this was a mistake and there was time to get out fast.

Eve watched her face close off emotion, saw her mind drift and so she yawned dramatically without apology. “Listen, TC, I am going to try to get some shut-eye. The more we talk, the more wide awake we’ll both be.” She rose and pointed down the hall. “Bathroom is there, feel free to shower, warm up. I’ll get some pajamas if you want. If you need anything else, holler.”

TC’s eyes flickered with anxiety despite a deep desire to be calm. The lady came closer and TC could not avoid her eyes without being rude.

“Hey,” Eve said gently. “You’re safe here. I get it. Still, we may as well be as nice to one another as we can. I know you’ll hightail it out of here early morning. It’s okay. Eat something. Take food to go, I don’t care. I can give you a few bucks, I’ll shove it under my door to the hallway, you can just get it, no worries. ”

TC shook her head. “No, I won’t take anything–maybe I should leave, I shouldn’t be bothering you and I’m not sure– I mean, why?”

Eve ignored the question. “And let me know if I can help otherwise. You can look me up at the club anytime. Tonight, though, I’ll put clean flannel pjs and undies in the bathroom if you want to use them. Toss your clothes in the washer, dry them tonight –there are stackables in the closet by the kitchen to use.” She gave a quick but sad smile, eyes quiet as her voice. “Night, kid. Take care.”

She turned and went to her room. Pearl trotted after her mistress with the slightest glance at TC then gave a small yelp as she disappeared after Eve.

TC sank into the lumpy couch, smoothed the worn wooly blanket on it and gazed at the blazing Christmas tree. Sleet slid onto, then pummeled roof, street, trees. She thought of Harley squeezed in between the dozens of other dirty, tired, hungry, angry and tough and longing men at a shelter. Or drunk under one of the many bridges, too cold for living long. New fear and hurt threatened her fragile hold on her oddly improved night. She looked toward the hallway. What luck she had found under that balcony,  being told she could come up just like that.

But a stranger, she was in a stranger’s home and no one knew where she was; no one really cared. Even her mother had gone off the radar the past month or two, caught up in her own dramas (husband number three) and pressing needs. His house was overrun with two bratty kids and three crazy cats, she’d said. No room for TC.

TC entered the clean oh-so-private bathroom, not a mildewy group shower, and stripped off soiled damp clothing. Held a sweet-smelling, soft green towel to her face. Her feet had raw blisters, more cracked and itchy spots. When she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror she shuddered. How had she gotten this miserable and worn out? Where was her basic good nature, the hope? Was it all an act for Harley, and to kid herself so she could go on?

The shower was turned on; she stepped into a generous spray and let it run over chilled flesh a long while, relishing the moments, the fresh smell of the soap. Heavenly. This woman must be a genuine angel–was that possible in these times? She giggled at that and let out a deep sigh. She’d have leave in the morning, of course, but at least she would have another good memory.

Eve heard the shower and lay with eyes wide open. The girl would leave at dawn and keep on running, no doubt. She knew how it was. No good place to claim as one’s own, no one to care for you, no reason to keep trying after a while. Or was she like herself, more stubborn, and willing to get out of her own way, let the man go and start to better grow up? Get a life together again?

The water flowed a long time. Eve imagined how good that steamy air felt to TC and recalled how it had been for her when she had been drifting in a haze of boozey illusions and days without food or good hygiene. But she drifted off, anyway, and began to dream of her little sister when she was still alive, of the music she adored and sang by heart every set, of other rains sweet on her lean body in a faraway time, a different country.

A triple knock at her door brought her right back so that she sat bolt upright, her quilt pulled to her chest.

“Who…?” Oh, the girl again.

“Eve?”

Her whispery voice didn’t sound right. She must have been crying, that was it.

“Yeah, what is it, TC?”

“Can we…talk a little more? I’m sorry to bother you.”

So Eve got up in the fine veil of darkness and sat on the couch. The Christmas tree threw a multicolored prism of light across the humble room, on a bunch of white and yellow mums in a second hand blue vase set upon the coffee table and the art prints on walls The leaf print overstuffed pillow on the floor was taken by TC, where she slouched, looking at her hands.

“Shoot,” Eve said. “We all have stuff we need to tell.”

“My name is Teresa Christine…Keenan.” Her voice almost disappeared but she began again. “I grew up in L.A after my father left my mother and me and then we got by on her hairstylist’s earnings–she’s good– but it was not a piece of cake. Though back then I thought it was all good, I was glad to wake up in my peach bedroom with its narrow bed and a handmade Raggedy Ann doll and my library books, hearing my mother yelling for me to get up, come down already, it was late, and she made me frozen waffles. I believed if I tried hard enough, things could be better… but things got worse off and on. My mother says all this is just more life, take it for what it is and don’t complain. But now I have to change things. I just can’t accept my life like this.”

Eve heard her voice as if it was the sea rolling in and out and she sensed this lost young woman might be ready to find her own balance for the first time. She might even stick around a bit. Pearl jumped up to listen on Eve’s lap, ears cocked, and they sat that way even after the heedlessness of winter rain failed to wreak greater damage and just gave up. Even after TC fell into the relief of  good sleep.