Cliff rolled over on his cardboard box, awakened by the bright morning sun. His stomach lurched at the smell of the green bile the homeless man next to him spewed onto the pavement near his head. The woman sat on a cracked ten-gallon bucket, her skirt bunched at her ankles, defecating into the plastic container.
Cliff tossed his cardboard box against the wall and ventured onto the street to greet the day. Along the way to the Moscone Conference Center, Cliff noticed that the downtown streets of San Francisco had even more homeless people on every corner than Seattle. He looked for a popular tourist spot where he could sit and share his story. But everywhere he looked other homeless storytellers already regaled their rapt audiences with their own sob stories of losing their loved ones, falling onto hard times and working to redeem themselves through honest panhandling.
He looked at the street signs. San Francisco had changed significantly since he lived there 12 years earlier. He asked another homeless man, laying across the entrance to an upscale Italian restaurant, how to get to Pacific Heights. But the man stared blankly at him as if not understanding the language.
He passed a restaurant, called “Earthly Eats”. A sign in the window caught his eye, for two reasons. For one, it featured pictures of homeless people, which seemed like a strange way to advertise a restaurant. But more surprisingly, the slogan of the poster indicated that they hire, train, assist and employ homeless people as a self-help opportunity and a way to give back to the city.
Cliff knocked on the window, but all the lights were out. The advertisement included a mission statement describing the store’s philosophy that everyone deserves a shot at self-sufficiency and fulfillment. It indicated that they aimed to help underprivileged homeless and former convicts turn themselves around and work for a living. The restaurant showed locations in LA, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.
Next to the sign, a list of partner shelters displayed a map of the city. Cliff ran his finger along the streets and made note of both the nearest shelters and the direction he needed to go to get to his old house in Pacific Heights.
He trudged through the streets of San Francisco all morning. His initial assumption of a 20-minute walk to Pacific Heights proved to be a severe underestimate. Between the steep hills and the beating sun, he made much slower progress than he expected. As he climbed the hill toward the large Victorian homes of the upscale neighborhood, he noticed a decrease in the number of homeless people laying prone across the streets.
He also made slower progress due to a stop at a convenience store where he bought a $1 comb and trial sized toothpaste for $2.99. He found a half-empty bottle of water in a garbage container and used the backwash to rinse the toothpaste over his teeth. His mouth tingled. His teeth felt gritty. The minty taste and sensation reminded him of his days as a reputable husband and father.
As he made his way up the hill toward his old neighborhood, cars slowed as they passed him. People walking along the sidewalks glanced nervously at him. It didn’t help that he looked lost. In fact, after 12 years, he couldn’t remember the name of his road. He thought about flagging down a pedestrian on the other side of the street. He spotted a woman a block ahead, pushing a baby carriage, and considered describing his home to her to ask for her assistance in finding it. But he knew he was only a heartbeat away from attracting the attention of the city police, and that engaging with the residents would only hurry that inevitability. He had to find the house first.
A woman in her 20s jogged by. He watched her fit figure bounce along the pavement. As he looked back, he imagined the old hag from the train in Seattle. He could see her look back at him as if moving away on the track. She looked, wordlessly to her left and smirked at Cliff before disappearing around a corner.
Cliff recognized a particularly tall tree. The street looked familiar. He crossed the intersection and walked along a hedge-lined boulevard. He passed a distinctive ivy-covered rock wall. He recognized the gate to his old neighbor’s driveway. He recalled driving down the street. The next yard featured an iron gate. He couldn’t see the house through the slats. He reached the entrance, punctuated by two tall stone towers and a metal arch across the top of the driveway.
A mammoth black Land Rover sat in the cobblestone driveway, shining in the morning sun. Behind it, Cliff viewed his house. It’s size and beauty caught his breath. Beside the two-bay garage, the front of the house had a stone façade. The second story rose high into the skyline with tall windows protruding into the angled Victorian roof, like royal dormers. The manicured lawn contrasted against the red brick driveway and the black vehicle in the foreground.
Cliff regarded the button below the speaker, embedded into the rock column on the right. He held his finger over it and hesitated. He took out the six-inch-long, flimsy pink comb and straightened his hair.
He moved his thumb back over the button, exhaled and pressed it.
Alex typed another message to Summer asking her what she meant when she typed “help” to him. But she didn’t respond to his third message in as many minutes. Kipp called Kumi from his home phone, and she told them to stay locked in the house.
Alex begged Kipp to take him to the apartment, but Kipp refused.
“Let the police take care of her,” Winona agreed. “There’s nothing more we can do.”
Alex texted Summer again. He asked her if she was alright. He apologized to her for being caught up in Julio’s business. He promised to take care of her. But she never replied.
Hours elapsed. Alex nearly bounced off the walls. He threatened to call an Uber. At one point he left the house to start walking. Winona barked at him to return in what little parental voice she had left that could control her son.
He texted her continually throughout the day, with no response.
The knock startled all three of them later in the afternoon. Glancing quickly out the window, Alex recognized Danny’s SUV. A sense of dread washed over him. Kipp opened the door. Danny entered first, looking grim and sullen. Kumi, worn and tired, entered second. Alex’s eyes lit when he saw Summer walk in next. She had a far-off look almost as if not recognizing him. She looked past him as she entered the foyer. Behind her, another girl looked like an older version of her, more haggard and weathered, with looser skin around her eyes. Alex recognized her as the smiling face in the picture frame he saw earlier when he visited Summer at the apartment. Summer’s older sister projected an even more trancelike expression than her younger sibling as she entered Kipp’s foyer.
“What happened?” Kipp asked.
“Drive by,” Danny replied. “Boyfriend was hit.”
He paused and lowered his voice.
“DOA,” he whispered.
“Oh my God,” Alex said, moving to Summer and extending his arms to comfort her.
Summer flinched and backed away from Alex while her sister dropped expressionlessly onto the couch.
“This is Mandy Hingston, Summer’s sister,” Kumi said. “Her boyfriend was shot to death this morning.”
Winona, Alex and Cliff all gasped.
“Them cops?” Winona asked. “Had to be. Ain’t nobody else left on the streets.”
Danny left Summer and her sister in the living room on the couch and brought Winona, Alex and Kipp to the kitchen.
“Hutch and Peters were first to the scene,” Kumi replied. “They say it was a gang hit. Said the boyfriend was working for Julio.”
“They took the opportunity to blame it on us,” Danny continued. “They’re saying the gangs from the south are moving uptown now that Julio’s out of play.”
“That’s bullshit,” Alex said. “They saw her in the SUV; probably knew her from her sister’s boyfriend.”
“Listen,” Danny said to Kipp. “This is escalating. We still don’t know who to trust.”
“They can stay here,” he interrupted. “I have a blow-up mattress in the garage for when my daughter used to have sleepovers. I can take the couch or the recliner. Someone can take the blow-up.”
“We’re sorry to impose,” Kumi said. “We’re breaking a lot of rules here, but nobody in the force knows about your place.”
“Helping out has made the days so much more rewarding,” Kipp said. “How’s the sister?”
“Shaken up,” Kumi replied. “But coping. Summer says the relationship was rocky; borderline abusive.”
“And Summer?” Alex asked.
“She’s fine,” Kumi winked. “She asked about you in the ride over here.”
Cliff waited and watched his old house in Pacific Heights. He buzzed the button a second time. He noticed the camera overhead pointing down at him. Finally, Nancy’s voice crackled over the speaker next to the button.
“Who is it?” she asked.
Cliff looked into the camera and waved.
“It’s me,” he said. “I came to see my daughter.”
The speaker remained quiet. He waited. The sound of a door closing echoed along the side of the house. He heard her footsteps clacking across the brick driveway a second before he saw Nancy’s face appear behind the Land Rover. She made eye contact and approached slowly.
“Cliff?” she asked. “Is that you?”
“Hey Nancy,” he said.
Her face shifted rapidly from confused to angry. She quickened her pace and met him on the other side of the gate.
“You’ve got some damn nerve showing up here after - what - ten years?”
“I’m trying to make amends.”
“The hell you are,” Nancy raised her voice, but squelched it at the same time. “You think you can just show up here and introduce yourself to her?”
“I was hoping…”
“Hoping for what?” Nancy continued. “That you’d have this magical connection. What was your plan?”
“I don’t know,” Cliff said. “I just thought she should know her father.”
“To what end?” Nancy asked. “And for who’s benefit? Hers? Yours? She doesn’t know you and barely remembers you. You know what I told her?”
“First, I told her you got sick and had to go away to get taken care of,” Nancy said. “Then she got a little older and I was with Brad, who ended up being my second husband for a couple years.”
“Brad, the lawyer?” Cliff asked.
“Didn’t work out,” Nancy’s eyes softened. “They never really got along. It was tense. He was respectful, but it was a bad fit for her, so I ended it.”
“It’s just you and her now?”
“No, I met a software executive, named Murray,” Nancy said. “We met on-line. Got married a year ago. She’s coming around to him. It’s hard for her to trust men.”
“Just let me see her,”
“I had to tell her you weren’t coming back,” Nancy continued, “Imagine that conversation. She wasn’t even ten yet.”
“I’m so sorry,”
“That doesn’t help,” Nancy raised her voice. “What good does that do now?”
“I don’t know, I…”
“She wanted to know if you died,” Nancy said. “I had to tell her I didn’t know. I told her you left to get better.”
“I am better,” Cliff said.
“You look better than I imagined,” she said. “But she hasn’t seen you her whole life. She’s 18 fucking years old. She wonders what the hell happened to you and why you never came back.”
“I’m here now.”
“Yah, well, she assumes you died and I let her think it,” Nancy said. “I had no clue where you were, if you were alive, if we’d ever see you again.”
“She thinks I’m dead?”
“You’re damn right she does,” Nancy raised her voice, while glancing back at the house. “Beats the hell out of her going through life thinking you just chose to abandon her.”
Cliff paced from one end of the gate to the next, lost in thought.
“Just let me see her,” Cliff pleaded.
“And then what?” Nancy asked with her hands across her chest. “You gonna come over for Sunday brunch every week; take her out to dinner on Tuesday nights? You have a job? A place to live? Are you mentally stable? Is this a one-shot deal? Or are you gonna reappear again on her 30th birthday?”
“I’m fine,” Cliff replied. “I’m going to get a job and work my way off the streets.”
Nancy scoffed. Cliff noticed the curtain in one of the upstairs bedrooms jostle.
“When you have a paying job and a consistent roof over your head, let me know and we’ll consider a reunion. Until then, I have to protect her.”
“I know, Cliff,” Nancy’s eyes drooped in sadness. “I’m not saying you can never see her. But you have to have a better plan than just showing up at the gate. It doesn’t work that way.”
Tears welled in Cliff’s eyes. Without self-consciousness, he wiped them with the sleeve of his jacket.
“You look good,” Nancy said quietly, almost as if trying not to let herself hear the words.
“Thanks, I… You do too.”
“Go back to wherever you came from,” Nancy said in the soft voice he remembered from their dating days. “Get yourself totally right. I’ll give you my number. We can talk.”
“I came a long way for this,” Cliff protested. “I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow; next week; next month. This is my shot.”
“Let me help you out,” Nancy said, rummaging through her purse. “I’ll write you a check. $2,500? Three-grand? Five? What do you need to back off for a while so Murray and I can solidify our status with her and work you in over time?”
Cliff recoiled at mention of a payment – especially such an enormous amount.
“What am I going to do with a check?” he asked.
“Fine,” Nancy clicked open her wallet. “Cash. What do you need? It looks like I’ve got about $200 on me. Take it. Buy what you need. Clothes? Food? I don’t know. Just, please. Not tonight. Not here. Not now. You need to go. She can’t see you. I hope you understand.”
Cliff nodded. He slumped his shoulders and took the cash through the gap in the gate.
“You really do look good,” Nancy repeated, handing him a business card. “Here’s my number. I’m an interior decorator now. My work and cell phone are both on the card. I hope we can work this out in the near future.”
Cliff slid the card into the inside pocket of his jacket.
“Take care of yourself, Cliff,” Nancy said, turning to walk back toward the house.
Cliff thought he could see Rindy’s eyes flash across the gap in the sliver of light that split the curtains in the upstairs room.
“Hey Nancy,” Cliff called to his ex-wife, pulling the object from his pocket. “I still have our tenth anniversary watch.”
Nancy returned to the gate.
“Do you really?” she asked. “Still works?”
Cliff looked at the cracked face and the frozen hands.
“Nah,” he said. “It got all busted up.”
“What were you doing at 9:15 on Thursday night last week?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Thursday; 9:15, last week,” Nancy pointed at the watch, frozen in time with both hands and the date paused at the moment of impact. “That must be when it stopped working.”