Cliff sat on Kipp’s couch. He rested his foot on the coffee table while Doctor Kushnick affixed the softer brace. Kipp loaned him a pair of hiking boots, which fit well over the brace and required an extra pair of socks on his good ankle. Kipp loaned both the socks and boots to him, but told him to keep them with a wink and a pat on the shoulder.
Winona remained in the kitchen separated by the stucco wall from Cliff’s position on the couch. They had barely spoken to each other since reconnecting by the Fremont Troll under the Aurora bridge.
“We can’t guarantee Hutch and Peters won’t come after you again if you leave here,” Kumi told him.
“You should stay away from the Aurora bridge,” Danny said. “That’s the first place they’ll look.”
“I’m leaving town,” Cliff said. “It’s time I went back.”
Alex, still fuming from his interaction with Summer, pushed from the kitchen table.
“So, that’s it then?” he snapped at Cliff. “You’re just taking off?”
Kumi ignored the drama around her, intently reading Cliff’s statement.
“When did they take you into their custody?” she asked.
“The night Winona went to the shelter,” he answered, looking at her for the first time since rejoining her. “It’s why I was so late getting back.”
“And, you’re supposed to meet them under the bridge tomorrow night? 10pm?”
“That’s what they said,” Cliff replied. “But I’ll be long gone by then.”
“I’m talking to you, old man,” Alex interrupted. “She cares about you.”
“We barely know each other,” Cliff replied.
“That don’t matter,” Alex said. “Did it occur to you maybe she needs you.”
Kumi ignored the drama, re-reading Cliff’s statement.
“I have unfinished business,” Cliff said, moving toward the front door.
“You’re damn right,” Alex said. “You got unfinished business right here.”
“Enough, Alex,” Winona snapped, rounding the corner to face Cliff. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about the shelter. I told you…”
Cliff raised his hand and cut her off. The image of her bare chest, writhing in the moonlight atop some arbitrary, faceless man in the dark basement of the church assaulted his consciousness and disgusted him. Her speech grew garbled in his mind and her face morphed into the visage of the hag on the train with the saggy skin and the missing legs.
“Let him go,” Winona said softly to Alex. “He’s gotta see his daughter. Let him be.”
She returned to the kitchen, the blue dress swaying behind her, revealing her smooth, shaved legs protruding through the slit in the back. Alex shook his head at Cliff and joined her on the other side of the kitchen wall.
Kipp handed him a paper bag filled with fruit and cookies. He shook hands with Danny, Kumi and Latoya and wished them the best of luck.
“I’m going to hitch down to San Francisco,” he said. “I’ll be safe and out of everyone’s way down there. It’s time I broke out of my bubble and took charge of my life.”
Danny flipped him a $20 bill. Kumi gave him $10 and Latoya handed him another handful of bills.
“I’ll give you a ride into the center of the city, where you can catch a bus,” Dr. Kushnick said. “Whatever the cost, I’ll cover the difference.”
As he entered the front seat of Dr. Kushnick’s Lexus, he looked back at Winona’s face, peering through the bay window. She waved meagerly and he waved back with a half-smile.
The doctor turned onto Aurora Boulevard and crossed right over the spot where Cliff first met Winnie. They traversed the channel and descended into the center of the city. Dr. Kushnick took him to the drive-through window at McDonalds and ordered him a Big Mac with fries and a large vanilla milkshake. After parking by the Coleman Dock and eating their dinners by the side of the bay, the doctor took him around the corner to the bus stop, pulled to the curb and wished him luck.
“If you ever need anything,” he said as Cliff shook his hand in thanks. “Contact the clinic. Try to get in as much walking on that ankle as you can. And Cliff…”
Cliff leaned into the open passenger side window.
“Give Winona a break,” he said.
Cliff put his hands in his pocket and shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not sure how much control she has over herself,” he continued, handing cliff a $50 bill. “She needs acceptance and assistance not judgement.”
The Lexus drove off and Cliff turned to check the bus schedule. He counted his money and compared it to the cost of a bus pass to San Francisco. He had two hours. Across the street, a red and white barber pole spun next to a small shop tucked between a Starbucks and a luxury watch store. He had just enough cash left over to get a haircut and decided a new clean look would help him reconnect with Rindy if he could succeed in finding her.
The feel of the sheers slicing through his ratty, unkempt hair tingled his head. The sound of the sharp metal snipping sound sent shivers down his spine. Long strands of hair fell across his face and covered his chest. The barber used clippers to shave the sides. He left the top just long enough to comb stylishly across his forehead. He then cut his beard to give it shape and used the clippers to tighten it against his face. When asked if he wanted to keep it, Cliff waved his hand and told him to take it off.
The barber lathered his cheeks, lip and chin. He used a straight edge and cleared the facial hair completely from his face. Cliff looked at his transformation in the mirror in disbelief. The man who sat in the chair 15 minutes earlier no longer existed. Instead, he felt more like the man he used to be. Excitement ran through his body. He pictured Rindy greeting him for the first time in 12 years with her freckle-faced smile.
But then another unexpected thought crossed his mind. He pictured the joy on Winona’s face that first afternoon after showering at Kipp’s house and changing into the floral sundress. He related to her excitement and wished she could see him with his shiny pale new face and professionally coiffed hair.
He looked at the clock above the mirror and realized the train would leave shortly. He considered returning to Winona. He understood she had a problem and that her sexual encounter in the shelter didn’t reflect offense to him personally.
He imagined what Rindy might look like as an 18-year-old young woman, possibly on the verge of going away to college. The clock ticked the top of the hour. He had ten minutes to decide which way to go. He paid the barber without tipping him and walked out to the street. The beauty of the gold and silver watches in the store next to the barber shop caught his eye. He spotted one that reminded him of the anniversary watch his wife had given him. He reached deep into his inside pocket and pulled it out. It had cracked and stopped running when he fell from the bridge. He considered tossing it aside, but flipped it over to read the engraved message: “Happy 10th Anniversary – Cliff & Nancy”.
He put it back into his pocket, crossed the street and entered the bus station in time to catch a ride south to San Francisco.
Winona sat on Kipp’s couch next to Alex. They had just eaten a filling spaghetti dinner with French bread and fresh salad. Winona hadn’t felt so full – or full at all – in years. Kumi, Danny and Latoya had all left an hour earlier with all three vowing to return to check on them every day until they could figure out what was going to happen with the case against Edeyo and Rulon for drug and human trafficking.
They watched current sitcoms on television. Alex yawned. Winona didn’t find any of the jokes funny, but enjoyed curling on the couch with a soft fleece blanket over her legs.
“Lucky was right,” she said to Alex. “It’s time to come off the street.”
Kipp suggested they switch to a movie and found an action-packed super hero film to entertain them for the next few hours until bed time.
Winona fell asleep about 10 minutes into the movie. Kipp moved back and forth between the kitchen and his recliner chair, watching the program only passively between cleaning the kitchen. Alex seemed to enjoy the distraction and the enormous television in Kipp’s living room.
“I can’t go to work at the pizza place tomorrow,” Alex said as the credits rolled. “I’m stuck here.”
Kipp looked back at him from the kitchen. Alex immediately backtracked.
“No offense,” he said. “We appreciate your help.”
“Hopefully,” Kipp looked sadly at Alex. “This will resolve quickly.”
They awoke Winona, who groggily ambled to the bedroom, changed into Kipp’s wife’s pajamas and crashed on the plush, queen-sized mattress. Alex stripped down to his shorts and t-shirt, setting aside his jeans and pullover. Kipp offered to wash and dry them overnight. He took out his phone to call Summer, but it went straight to voicemail.
“I used to piss off my wife all the time,” Kipp said to Alex as he sat on the edge of the bed holding his phone. “Best to give them 24-hours and then just simply say you’re sorry. Always seemed to work for me. We were together 40 years until she passed away.”
Alex nodded and rolled under the covers.
“Can I get a ride to her sister’s apartment tomorrow?”
Cliff watched Mount Rainier move past the horizon. The moon floated just above it, casting faint silver highlights across the snowcap. He leaned his head against the window and imagined his reunion with Rindy. The window felt cold, rattling against his cleanly-shaven face. As he drifted to sleep, he replayed his panhandling story in his head. He refined it and changing it based on his new circumstances. He eliminated the part where he wanted to earn a roof over his head for a new fiancé and changed it to highlight his quest to reconnect with his daughter. He rehearsed the phrasing, the cadence and the dramatic pauses in his head. He visualized his new plan to focus exclusively on working his way off the streets as soon as possible.
The bus pulled into the depot in the financial district at the heart of San Francisco. The sharp jolt and loud hiss of the breaks startled him from a deep sleep. He could see the iconic TransAmerica building out his window. He had forgotten how beautiful the city was at night with the tall buildings and the busy streets.
He stepped off the bus and looked up Market Street. He figured about a 20-minute walk to Pacific Heights where he assumed Nancy still lived with Rindy. He saw a bar up the hill with a crowd of people congregated on the sidewalk and decided to try out his new story. But close to midnight, most of the patrons ignored him, caught up in their own inebriated good time.
He found an alley and a card board box against a wall. Another bearded homeless man with black and yellow pussy lesions on his face lay face up next to a dumpster. A woman lay under a pile of blankets with garbage all around her at the far end of the alley. Cliff spread out his cardboard box and dropped back to sleep.
“Tomorrow,” he thought, “I make my plan. I find places to tell my story to a sympathetic audience, maybe by the conference center. I make a little money. Wash up even better. Maybe clean my teeth and buy a comb to keep my hair looking good. I’ve got one shot to make an impression on Rindy. It has to be perfect.”
Winona slept well past nine. Alex awoke by eight. Kipp made homemade pancakes. He warmed the glass bottle of maple syrup in a hot saucepan of water and fried rounds of Canadian bacon. He poured Alex a tall glass of orange juice and asked him how he slept.
“Good,” Alex replied. “But I’m serious, I want to go visit Summer. I thought about what you said. I didn’t know what was in those cars I was driving. But, she’s right. If there were little girls in there, then I gotta make that right and testify or whatever I gotta do to bring down them cops that were running this smuggling operation.”
Kipp smiled and nodded his head.
“I just want to tell her all that,” Alex added. “But she’s not answering my texts.”
Kipp put his hand on Alex’s shoulder and told him she would come around in time and that he should keep reaching out to her.
“You’ll take me there?” he asked.
Kipp paused and sat next to Winona’s 15-year-old boy.
“Until we get the okay,” he said. “You have to stay here.”
Alex squinted and looked around the house.
“I don’t mean no disrespect,” he said. “But I’m already feeling a little cooped up here. You got a great place and you’re a good dude. But I’m from the city, man. I don’t normally stay indoors watching television and sitting on the couch with my mom.”
“Maybe you should spend more time with her.”
Winona entered the kitchen, pulling a white bathrobe across her chest and inhaling the smell of maple and bacon.
Kipp served her a plate and poured her a glass of orange juice as well. She sat and gripped Alex by the wrist.
“We ain’t spent an entire night together in years,” she said. “It was kinda nice.”
Alex smiled briefly and then gazed down to his phone, looking for a message from Summer.
“She just won’t answer,” he said, sliding the phone across the table.
“Too bad,” Winona continued to clutch her son’s forearm. “She seemed like a keeper.”
“Same with that dude, Lucky,” he replied.
They both looked at each other wistfully. Their forlorn gaze shattered as Alex’s phone buzzed and seemed to crawl across the table toward him.
“It’s a text from her,” he said, moving his face above the camera to unlock the message.
His cheek muscles tightened in confused horror as he read the one-word message out loud.