A beam of morning sunlight made its way across the cement floor of the homeless shelter in the Wallingford section of North Seattle. Winona awoke to the sound of rusty metal scraping the floor and the smell of fresh brewed coffee.
Most of the beds sat empty with several folded upward in half as the workers carted them into a storage room. The food selection included bright yellow scrambled eggs, a mini-sized bagel and a glass of cranberry juice. The line extended out the doorway.
Winona rolled to her back and slung her feet over the side of the cot. Her ruffled dress swayed against her knees. She scratched her tangled hair, yawned and stretched. As her feet hit the ground and supported her weight, she felt the blood run through her veins from head to toe.
Having slept on an actual mattress for the first time in several years, she should have felt so much better. But, despite having slept in, she still felt the ache of weariness in her legs and back.
After her sexual detour with whichever fellow homeless guy lay in the bed on top of her, she remained awake, staring at the ceiling, unable to close her eyes or relax her body. Usually, getting off calmed her and allowed her to shut out the pain and frustration of her world.
But, this time, as she lay back and felt the joy of a fat, hairy male body thrust against her chest and stomach, she recalled the flash in the window and knew it had to be Cliff.
“He wouldn’t have just left me here,” she said to herself. “He said he’d be back.”
She straightened her top and picked up her jean jacket from the floor.
“What took him so long?” she continued to ask herself. “Why did he have to leave me alone?”
She scanned the room for her faceless, random partner from the previous night, but couldn’t tell one hollowed out bearded set of cheeks from another in the food line. The hot meal should have settled her acidic stomach. But she felt just as empty after filling it as she had with a vacant stomach.
“How are you this morning?” a cheerful volunteer in a bright blue apron asked, lightly placing her hand on Winona’s shoulder.
“Terrible,” she answered.
“So sorry,” the volunteer smiled cheerfully. “What seems to be the problem?”
“I, uh,” Winona paused as the curious words formulated in her mind. “I think I may have cheated on my boyfriend.”
“Oh, no,” the volunteer answered. “I hope y’all can work that out.”
Winona felt her face heat and her throat constrict.
“Why did I do that?” she asked.
“Well, I uh, don’t…”
“I need to see my son,” Winona interrupted, abruptly turning and leaving the facility as quickly as she could.
The walk to Fortunato’s Pizza restaurant took her about a half hour. Only five blocks away, she walked slowly, having pushed herself the day before, while leading Cliff across the city.
She tugged on the door handle. She could hear the bells jingle, but the door only wiggled slightly without budging. The sign in the window displayed hours of operation starting at 11:30am. She had no idea the time, but pounded on the door as loudly as she could.
The interior of the restaurant remained dark. The sound of her knocking echoed down the road. But nobody came to the door. She pictured Cliff’s face in the basement window as sad, angry or even apathetic. She wasn’t exactly sure how he would react. Her thighs ached. She could still feel the friction from the wool blanket.
“Damnit,” she yelped, sliding with her back against the door and landing in a sitting position. “Where are you, Alex?”
Disgusted, she reached into the depths of her sundress, clutching the loose band of her panties. She slid them down her legs, past her ankles and threw them into a puddle at the corner of the sidewalk.
“Fuck you,” she said to the inanimate object.
Summer trailed behind Alex as they crossed the busy 50th street at the top of Fremont Ave. She reached out and took his hand as they darted across the four lanes, just ahead of a speeding bus. She giggled as his strong arms pulled her across the curb onto the sidewalk.
“We have time for this?” she asked.
“It’s my day off from the restaurant,” he said. “And, we don’t have to take the SeaTac for a couple hours.”
“I been by here a million times,” Summer said. “But I never went in. I always wanted to see the elephants. They’re so big, fat and dumb.”
“That’s why you like them?”
“They remind me of my dad.”
Alex guided her past the tree and rock where Cliff panhandled for his $20 booty. They approached the booth by the gate.
“How much?” he asked.
“Twenty,” answered the woman at the window.
“Twenty bucks, hell,” said Alex.
Summer took out her clutch and fished for her money, but Alex had his wallet out and his money in hand before she could offer to pay.
“I got it,” he said with a smile. “I got paid yesterday too.”
They wandered the tree-covered walkways pointing at the monkeys, trying to find all the snakes in the snake pit, waving to the lions and inventing goofy names for each animal.
While Summer used the rest room, Alex asked a park official where they could find the elephants. When she emerged, he grabbed her from behind, placing his hands over her eyes. He told her to trust him as he led her to the back of the park.
“There you go,” he said as he removed his hands from her face. “There’s your daddy.”
Summer squealed and hugged Alex as she waved to the elephant and named him Harry after her father.
They ordered burgers and milkshakes at the commissary and shared a bucket of fries.
“I can’t believe how big daddy Harry was,” she beamed. “So fat and beautiful. I wanted to just give his long nose a hug.”
Alex laughed at the image and slurped the last drops of his shake.
“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Your obsession with the elephant is just a little bit weird.”
“What? He reminds me of my dad,” she said. “He’s a big, fat, lazy shit that sits around eating peanuts and crapping all over the place. But he’s still pretty cool. Plus, I haven’t seen my dad in years, so this is the best I got.”
“Alright,” Alex looked back over his shoulder, craning for one last look. “Whatever works for you.”
He looked back at her and his eyes locked into her sky-blue pupils.
“What kinda animal am I?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she smiled, playfully tossing the last fry into her mouth. “I haven’t figured out if you’re a snake…”
“A snake?” Alex interrupted.
“… or a stud,” she continued.
Winona limped down Fremont Ave. The hum of the Aurora bridge grew from a murmur to a roar as she approached the underpass with the giant sculpted troll and the pile of junk tucked up the incline by the side of the hill.
Both Jackson and Duff had left for the day to solicit enough change for a light meal and a heavy smoke. Unexpectedly, the green, rancid mattress that usually supported the two meth-addicted young girls lay empty. Tourists walked past the troll, taking pictures and climbing up the backside of the cement piece of pop art.
Elmer sat atop an orange 10-gallon plastic bucket shouting obscenities at the tourists and generally scaring them off. Next to the bucket, his handwritten sign crafted in all capital letters read:
“Former U.S. Marine down on his luck and in need of a meal. Please help me out and donate any spare change you can afford.”
She caught his attention as she approached. His heavily whiskered face smiled briefly.
“They just don’t appreciate good music,” he ranted. “Them antennas in their ears is gonna eat their brains. Gotta wear them headphones when they got a fire in the hole. But, they’s like zombies now. All this rap shit. Can’t even hear nothin. It’s like the gunfire at the shootin range. … I’ll shoot you all in the head. … Ain’t no headphones gonna stop a bullet. How you like that? …I put lead right through your eyes - all of you. … Ain’t no better music than the old boys and the Motown, baby. That’s the real shit. Not this mind control they beam into them headphones.”
Winona quietly interrupted Elmer’s diatribe.
“Did you happen to see my son?” she asked. “You know Alex? He’s tall; dark hair. Did he happen to come by looking for me?”
“He one of them cops?” Elmer asked. “Them assholes is gonna get a beating one of these days. They come round here, fat as a pig, kickin them guys around. They come back and I’ma show them they ain’t welcome. Ain’t no respect no more. Used to be, you see a cop or a priest or a teacher and you shake their hand. But, now, they ain’t worth a damn. Should just shoot em all.”
“But, my son,” Winona cut him off. “Did you see Alex? I’m trying to find him.”
“Them two pigs beat the shit outta them two good dudes, dragged them out into the street, tied them up on bamboo racks and just pummeled them dead.”
“Dead?” Winona asked. “Bamboo?”
“I told ’em I’d kill them, but they don’t care about me. They don’t even see me. I got the camo. I’m invisible like a ghost. I can just sneak right up to them. And they don’t even see me or nothing.”
“Dead?” Winona touched his shoulder. “Can you focus? What happened?”
Elmer took a breath and his body seemed to discernibly relax for a moment.
“They split,” he said. “Said they ain’t takin no more beatings.”
“Where are the two crackheads?”
“Gone,” Elmer said, his agitation returning to his face. “Them crackers came all tough like they own the world. I told them I’d kick their asses. But they don’t pay no attention to old Elmer. They be sorry. They don’t know. They ain’t got no clue about old Elmer. I kick their asses, they come by and make all that noise again.”
“The two girls?” Winona repeated. “What happened to them?”
“They took them?”
“Threw them in the trunk and took off.”
As they exited the zoo, Summer took Alex’s hand again and thanked him for showing her the elephants. Alex teased her for thinking of her dad as a fat, lazy mammal.
“Well, what animal is your momma?” she asked.
“My momma ain’t no kinda animal,” Alex answered before pausing. “Maybe a hedgehog.”
“Yah, man. In middle school, we had this dude from the zoo come with a buncha animals and I got to hold the hedgehog. It rolled up in a tiny little spiky ball. It was pretty cool.”
“And that’s what you think of your mom?”
“Well, for one, it kinda reminds me of her hair, all frizzy and spiky. And, for two, the guy from the zoo said the hedgehog is the best animal in the world at self-defense. It can’t be attacked. It just rolls up into that little prickly ball until its predator gives up and goes away.”
Summer nodded in appreciation of Alex’s analysis.
“She lives under the bridge?” she asked. “How come you don’t let her stay in your place?”
“I tried. She don’t want to come live with me. Says I need to live on my own. Become a man.”
“You bout there yet?” Summer asked. “Not for nothin, but from what I could tell, I’d say you’re pretty full grown.”
Alex gave her a shove and laughed as they strode down the street toward the water.
“We gotta catch the M24 down the bottom of Fremont,” he said. “We can stop by and say hi to her if she’s there and not out collecting cans.”
Winona labored up the hill from the canal back to the area behind the troll. She had refilled her scrunchy water bottle from freshwater Lake Union when she spotted Alex, hand-in-hand with a petite, but curvy young blond girl bounding down the stairs adjacent to the troll.
Alex pointed at the troll and the girl climbed up its back, waving two fingers as he took pictures of her. She could hear Elmer wailing about tourists taking too many pictures and the spy cameras they used in the 80s.
She approached Alex from behind as he aimed his cell phone at Summer.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked.
“Hey momma,” Alex replied. “This is Summer.”
“That’s a name?” she said. “Sounds like the girls I used to dance with.”
“Yah, got a problem with it?” Alex tightened his tone.
“She a whore?”
“Momma,” Alex snapped. “What’s wrong with you? Whatcha gotta be that way for?”
Summer climbed down from the troll and smiled faintly.
“It’s alright,” she pat Alex on the back and faced Winona with her hand extended. “Summer. That’s my real name and not some porn star name. And, yes, I work at night, but I’m still a good person. And I kinda like your son, so I hope you’ll be nice to me, cause, I think I might be sticking around for a bit. Can you live with that?”
Winona froze, sucked in a deep breath and smiled.
“I can live with that.”
Alex flipped her a $20 bill and told her to take care of herself.
“Better clear out,” Winona said, looking at Summer. “Been dangerous round here lately. Cops acting up and hassling us good people under the bridge.”
“I saw that deadbeat dude you was seeing,” Alex changed the subject. “Says he ain’t with you no more. I gave him a good scare. Told him to get outta town.”
“You what?” said Winona. “Where’d he go?”
“I told him to cross the bridge and don’t come back no more,” Alex replied. “Damn asshole, treating you like that and then just leaving you.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Winona said. “It wasn’t his fault. It was my fault.”
“What did you do?” Alex asked, half expecting the same answer he had heard from her numerous times in the past.
“I couldn’t help myself,” she said, looking at her feet. “He took so long. You know how I get. I couldn’t stop it. I just… well, you know.”
Summer looked perplexed. Alex didn’t bother to explain it to her.
“Maybe it’s better this way,” Alex said. “That guy seemed like a loser. He’s the one who tried killing himself? Right?”
“He’s a good guy,” Winona said. “Wants to clean up and get off the streets. Wants to help me too. Wanted to get our lives back together.”
“Damn,” Alex exclaimed. “Seems like you actually like this dude. I never heard you dig a homey before.”
“I do,” she said. “You sure he’s gone? You know where he went?”
“He scared him pretty good,” Summer interjected. “Seems like he’d a split town by now.”
“I’m sorry momma,” Alex added. “I didn’t know.”
“We’re supposed to meet the investigators tomorrow afternoon,” she muttered to herself, looking down the stretch of the bridge as if she might see through the rafters and pavement to spot him in the distance. “Fuck that. Guess I’ll just blow it off and pretend like none of it never happened.”