Chapter Fourteen: Reseda
My shift ended. I hung up my apron in the office. Then, Fatima and Pearl came in to hang up their aprons.
Pearl turned to me. “I’m walking Fatima to the car.”
“I’ll come with you.” I figured since I’m off the clock and out of uniform, I could kick Need Beer’s ass if he showed up.
Employee parking was in the back. I could tell that Fatima was still shaky from what happened earlier. Pearl supported her as we walked out the back security door into the parking lot. We led her to her car, a black Honda Civic. Fatima seemed to relax. She used the remote to unlock her car.
Pearl let her go. “If you need anything...”
“I’ll be fine.” Fatima’s usual smile returned. “Thank you so much.”
“See you tomorrow,” Pearl said.
“See you.” I added.
Fatima got in her car. “Thank you so much. God bless you both.”
She shut the door. Pearl and I stepped aside as Fatima started up her engine. We watched as she backed up, and we kept her eyes on her as she pulled out of the parking lot. We didn’t say a word until she was safely on the street.
We then turned to each other. Pearl looked up and down me.
“That redneck asshole was right about one thing,” she said. “You stink.”
“Guess so.” I let out a small smile, knowing that I probably couldn’t do anything about it.
“Come with me.”
“Come with me.” She turned and started walking.
She didn’t answer. She pulled her keys out of her purse and pressed the remote. The taillights of a blue Hyundai Elantra hatchback blinked. It was an old model, about ten years old. But her license plate showed that she got it not too long ago. It also had the faint outline of vinyl stickers that kind of looked like the ET logo for El Toro, the high school Dad graduated from. Or there could be a school in the Valley with those initials. Either way, it was a car somebody didn’t want anymore. But Pearl did.
She opened the passenger door.
I stared at her. “Where am I going?”
She walked around to the driver’s side and opened her door. “You’re going to take a shower.”
Everything felt strange. The sensation of riding in a car again felt strange. Whizzing through a town where I only knew a few streets felt strange. I had no idea where Pearl was taking me. I assumed she was taking me to her house. But why? We barely knew each other, and half the time she asked me those sort of rude, sort of weird questions about me being homeless. Or a virgin. Still, Pearl seemed like a kind person. The way she helped Fatima when she was all shaken up. The way she would even help me.
I thought of all the times back home when we drove past homeless people. People standing at parking lot exits, or huddled in doorways, or pushing shopping carts down busy streets. We acted like they weren’t there. Like they were invisible.
I should have been invisible too. But Magdalena offered me free food and kind words every day. Reza let me use his bathroom. Fatima gave me smiles. Ngoc gave me a job. And none of them had any reason to. Magdalena had recovered from a stroke, Reza risked his job to help me, Fatima was a refugee from war-torn Syria, and Ngoc came up from nothing to manage a store. Yet they all treated me like I was a human being. Even assholes like Need Beer acted like I took up space.
Reseda was indeed a weird place.
Pearl turned into a side street called Amigo Avenue. She then turned into a driveway that led to the front of a house. I was relieved that she wasn’t going to leave me in the mountains to die. I hoped she didn’t have any shallow graves in the backyard.
Pearl fished her keys out of her purse. When we both got out of the car, she pressed the remote and locked the car with a beep. I followed her to her front door. She put the key in the lock.
I had to ask, “You live here by yourself?”
“With my mom.” She turned the key. “She takes her nap around this time, so be quiet.”
I wasn’t sure what Pearl meant by “quiet,” because she tossed her keys on a side table by the door with a loud jangle and clack. I decided not to say a word.
I followed her past what would be considered the great room of the house, the living room and dining room together, with a short wall separating the entryway from the dining room. But Pearl’s great room was no bigger than a bedroom in Mom and Steven’s house. Or a closet in Zoey’s.
We went through a door and entered the hall in the back of the house. I followed her to a bathroom.
“The shower here heats up faster.”
I took my first slow steps into the first real bathroom I had been in for a month. A shower/bathtub, a clean toilet, and a sink. Even the vinyl floor with the fake tile pattern was a welcome relief from cold gray concrete.
“Leave your clothes on the floor,” Pearl said. “I’ll wash them.”
All I could do is nod. I was too overwhelmed by the comfort and generosity to say “Thank you.”
When the first streams of warm water hit my skin, I cried.
I didn’t realize how filthy I was until the layers of grime washed away from me. I watched the gray swirls dissolve down the drain. A shower was something I didn’t think about when I lived at home, except when Mom yelled to hurry up because there was a drought. But she had no problem running the sprinklers four times a week so the grass could look like a green carpet.
But I felt different standing in Pearl’s shower/bathtub, feeling the water warm my skin, washing all the filth away. I felt like a human being again.
That’s was until I opened the curtain to get the towel.
Pearl stood right there. I gasped. Pearl had the same expression when she was ringing up an order. Her tone was also matter-of-fact.
“So, were you circumcised for religious or medical reasons?”
I grasped the corner of the curtain and covered the part of me she was asking about.
“I was just picking up your clothes.” She held up my boxers and studied both sides. “No skid marks or cum stains. I’m impressed.”
She bundled up my clothes and tucked them under her arm. She then plucked the towel from the bar and handed it to me.
“You look like you’re shivering.”
I was, and not because I got cold from turning off the water.
I kept the towel wrapped tightly around me as I stepped out of the bathroom. If I didn’t feel vulnerable before, I did then. Pearl had my clothes. And she saw me without them. I hoped I didn’t run into her mother.
I turned the corner where an open door led to a room. Curiosity got the best of me, so I stepped inside. It reminded me of Muriel’s room. Lots of sports trophies and plaques. A bookcase filled with books. A desk by the corner window with an old MacBook Pro. And a twin bed that I assumed was Pearl’s. Some clothes were folded on the bed. I was relieved there was no BDSM gear or some weird shit like that. I’d hate to think she’d brought me here to be her sex slave.
“You can put those on. We’re about the same size.”
I stared at Pearl for a moment. Maybe she wouldn’t make me be her sex slave, but she was going to dress me in women’s clothing.
I picked up the clothes. They looked like a man’s t-shirt and sweatpants.
“Are these your boyfriend’s?”
“Mine. I find men’s sweatpants are more comfortable.”
I looked at the clothes. I looked at Pearl. I wasn’t sure if she would let me have my privacy, especially when she had already seen everything she could possibly see about me. But I knew the beach trick of slipping my clothes under my beach towel.
Then a voice bellowed down the hall. I assumed it was her mom calling her name, but it sounded like, “Puh! Puh!”
She held up both palms towards me. “Stay here.”
She closed the door behind her.
I didn’t have to do the beach trick anymore, but I still felt uncomfortable putting on her sweatpants. Especially because I had to freeball it where she kept her private parts. I then put on her t-shirt. It was blue with “Reseda Regents” on the front. I had seen people around the library wearing shirts like that. I guessed this was from the local high school. I also guessed that Pearl had recently graduated or is still in high school. And if she were still in high school, I felt even creepier about freeballing it in her sweatpants.
I was relieved to see a high school diploma. It was from last year, so she was at least a year older than me. Her diploma had all these gold seals on it, meaning that she graduated with honors. The other plaques and certificates told the same story. Her sports trophies were equally impressive. They were all from basketball and softball. Muriel played softball too, but Pearl’s trophies were more impressive. Her tallest said “Most Valuable Player, Valley Mission League.” Pearl would have kicked my sister’s ass in softball.
I then came to her biggest certificate. It was from the City of Los Angeles. In beautiful colored calligraphy, it said, “Award of Merit to Pearl Hawthorne for being awarded the Girl Scout Gold Award.” It had the city seal with a green, yellow, and red ribbons and was signed by a city council member.
Pearl’s awards impressed me, but they also made me confused. If she was so smart and so successful, why was she working full-time at Buck & Awesome? Shouldn’t she be going to college? Especially a cool one out of state, like Muriel?
The door flung open. Pearl walked in holding a plate with a sandwich and a bottle of water. She backed into the door to close it.
“I brought you something to eat.” She handed me the plate. “I don’t know what you wanted to drink.”
“Water’s fine. Thank you.”
She quickly backed towards the door, holding her palms up towards me. “I have to go. Stay here.”
Again, she closed the door.
I could understand why she wouldn’t want her mother to know I was there. But the bedroom isn’t the best place to stash a guy. I should’ve eaten the sandwich, but I wondered if there was a place I could hide if needed. I saw a door next to the door to the hallway. I put the sandwich down next to her MacBook Pro and walked over to that door. I hoped it wasn’t where she kept the dead bodies.
It was a walk-in closet, but a small one. I knew I shouldn’t snoop around in her stuff, so I gave it a quick glance. There weren’t a lot of clothes. The baggy dresses. Blouses, short skirts, shorts. She seemed to like short things. She had a couple pairs of jeans and a shirt that looked like a softball jersey in navy blue with white underneath the sleeves. Her old Girl Scout uniform hung in the corner. Leaning against a corner was a bat bag. Next to it on the floor were a couple basketballs and some rope.
I closed her closet door. I really needed to eat, and I didn’t know when she’d be back. I wouldn’t want to her to kick me out for creeping in her closet. Especially since she still had my clothes.
Pearl was gone for a long time. What was wrong with her mom that she needed so much of her help? And why would she leave me alone in her room? She barely knew me! Well, at least she knew I was circumcised.
The sandwich was good though. Wheat bread with deli mustard, Black Forest ham, lettuce, sprouts, and tomato. And she didn’t skimp on the ingredients. Usually, poor people got the broke-ass sandwich, like cheese. Or peanut butter without the jelly because that would be too nice. And it would be on this cheap spongy white bread. That’s what they gave the poor people at school for lunch. Yes, Dana Point has poor people. And we made fun of them while our parents brought us Chipotle.
Pearl and her mom may be poor, but not poor enough not to buy decent food. Or maybe Pearl gave me the good food while she had peanut butter.
And she let me, a homeless person, stay in her room. She trusted me to be here alone. I wouldn’t have taken any of her things. I’m not that kind of person. But could I trust some homeless person as much as Pearl trusted me?
I looked at her bookcase. You can learn a lot about people by looking at their bookcase. She had the books you’d expect a girl to have. The full set of Harry Potter. And Twilight. And The Hunger Games. And Nancy Drew. And Wonder Woman. And a whole bunch of that John Green shit. She also had Fifty Shades of Grey. I though only middle-age women got off on that BDSM stuff.
There were some thick books called The Talisman. They must have been her high school yearbooks. I only got two of my high school yearbooks. One for freshman year and one for sophomore year. I didn’t get one for junior year because I was in the military academy. Dad bought one for me for senior year before I dropped out. I’ll probably never get it, and I didn’t deserve to have it anyway.
I was relieved she didn’t have Face Time with Jesus.
That’s when the door flung open. Pearl had folded my clothes in a neat stack and handed it to me.
“I’ll drive you home.”
She already knew I was homeless, so I figured I’d have her drive me straight to the Explorer.
She stared at it for a moment. I didn’t think she’d be the type to pass judgement, but I started to worry what she thought about all this. The guy she worked with, showered in her shower, and freeballed in her sweatpants lived in an SUV.
But she nodded and said, “You found an environmentally sound use for that vehicle.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
She then turned to me. Her expression turned grave, and the evening shadows made her expression more serious.
“Are you going to be OK?”
“I’ve been OK so far.”
She then stared at the dashboard and exhaled hard. “I can’t keep my mom waiting.”
“Then don’t.” I opened the car door and stepped out. “You’ve done more than enough for me, Pearl. Thank you.”
For the first time, Pearl seemed speechless.
I smiled and closed her car door. “See you tomorrow.”
“See you.” Her voice seemed tight. Regretful, perhaps?
But as I watched the taillights of her Hyundai disappear onto Canby, I knew she had nothing to regret. Thanks to Pearl, I felt like a human being. At least for a little while anyway.
And she managed to silence the hateful voices in my head.
I didn’t realize how much better being clean made me feel. As soon as I climbed inside the sleeping bag in the Explorer, I started getting sleepy. But I still reached over and made sure the doors were locked. I guess I cared enough about myself that night to make sure I was safe. I then drifted off into a deep sleep, probably the first I had since I was thrown out.
Until I heard something like pouring water.
I pulled out my iPhone and checked the time. It was 11:33 p.m. Could it be raining? Nobody talked about rain. We weren’t supposed to get moisture in Southern California until the next El Niño or when we’re covered up by rising seas.
It had to be something else. Or someone else.
I reached under a pile of clothes and pulled out my folding knife. I bought one when I was dealing and kept it stowed in my Explorer. I thought about buying a gun, but they cost too much. And I sucked at shooting in military school. There was no way I could take out somebody with a gun, but I could stab him like a motherfucker if I had to defend myself. Even if it meant looking at blood.
And I had to defend myself.
The rear passenger door was the quietest in the Explorer. Much quieter than trying to open the lift gate. I slowly unlocked and opened it. I sprung out of the vehicle with my knife open and drawn.
And some dude was zipping up his pants.
We shouted over each other. “What the fuck!? Are you fucking crazy!? Who the fuck are you anyway!? Holy fuck!”
We stopped shouting “fuck” at each other when the dude said, “You live here?”
“Yeah!” I shouted. “So what the fuck are you doing here?”
The dude looked away and rubbed the back of his neck. “I was just hanging out, you know. I just wanted to go for a walk, you know. Just unwind. You know what I’m saying?”
The guy raised his head and stared at me. I could see his eyes in the faint parking lot light. He was nervous. And when someone is nervous standing behind an abandoned theatre late at night, he usually reached for a gun. That’s when I was sorry I didn’t have one. Or learned to shoot better.
Instead, I softened my voice. “I know because I used to too.”
He lowered his shoulders. His face seemed to relax. I folded the knife and put it in my pocket.
The dude gave a small smile. “So, you want something?”
I did. I even had the money for it. I exhaled hard. “No, I’m good.”
I nodded. “But I’ll make a deal with you.”
He stared at me for a moment. Then, I spoke.
“You stay out of my shit, I’ll stay out of yours. Deal?”
“And don’t piss on my ride again, OK?” I gave him a small smile.
“OK.” He smiled back. “But if you ever want anything...”
“I’m good. Really.”
He nodded. I nodded back. He turned and walked away. I turned and walked back to my Explorer.
I figured it was better we didn’t shake hands or say each other’s names. Not just because we didn’t trust each other. If I knew him or touched his hand, it would take me back to a life I didn’t want a part of anymore. I was clean now, inside and out.
I went back to the Explorer and made doubly sure that all the doors were locked. I glanced at my iPhone. The charge was 64%. I hoped there was enough for the alarm clock to go off in the morning. I had to be at my job on time. A job where using drugs would get me fired.
But I really wished I could have gotten something from him.