At 16th and Valencia

by L.L. Beal

We get off the train at the Sixth Street station, and this half skinhead, half electric blue haired guy comes up to my wife like I'm invisible. He has this crazed look like he might whip an Uzi out from under his black leather jacket and spray the crowd with bullets. I'm standing on the curb trying to decide if I should fight to protect her, offer him money or just stand my ground, when she steps forward and kisses him on the mouth. After 10 seconds that pass like six hours, she turns back to me and introduces him as her good friend Slash. My wife actually seems to think that someone who calls himself by a verb most people use to describe an act of violence can be her good friend.

OK, I figured she had some boy toys in the city. I mean, I know if she's up there so much she has to be sleeping somewhere, but no way no how is this drug addict with a crucifix tattooed on his clavicle anybody's good friend. He has one of those rings in his left nostril: I want to put my index finger through it, rip the sucker out of his flesh and watch him bleed.

We walk to the corner, or rather, I walk and they walk, and I'm trying to figure how things got so out of control. She's right next to me, and she's completely beyond my reach.

An orange and yellow Muni bus with black lettering and swastikas on its windows pulls up to the curb. They get on the bus, and I hear tokens drop. Alisha turns toward me and skips down to the curb. She kisses my neck at the soft juncture just above my shoulder and says, "Be cool." She gets back on the bus and the doors swing together behind her. As I watch it pull away, the bus buries me in a big cloud of diesel exhaust.

My skin is still moist where she kissed me, and I see Slash already has his tongue down her throat. I wipe my neck with the shoulder of my T-shirt, and it leaves a raisin-colored stain.

It starts like this. Alisha comes home one day and says she'd rather live on rice and beans than spend another eight hours staring into a computer screen. Knowing my wife, that probably means she'd already quit, but that was OK; I don't mind rice and beans. She starts going to the city all the time, spending time with these people who rent warehouses south of Market and hire bands to play in them all night. She says it's for a good cause, and I'm not so naive as to think she means they're giving the profits to charity. She says she spends her days putting flyers on phone poles, sticking them under the windshield wipers of parked cars. She says not to worry: She's being perfectly safe. I wonder what that has to do with anything.

Alisha comes home one day with her hair dyed to match the flier of the week. It's this wild shade of blue, like a radioactive gum ball. I kind of liked it actually. The next week it's lime green with psychedelic purple at the roots. I tell her it looks like the shave ice of a kid who couldn't decide on a flavor. It's almost too vivid against our blue chambray sheets, especially in the soft light of morning when I watch her sleep.

When things start disappearing--her sewing machine, her laptop computer, her engagement ring--she has no explanation. I tell myself this is just some 20-something thing I'm too old to understand. She tells me she is deeply, deeply happy.

She starts staying in the city on Saturday nights, and other nights, too. The weekends start stretching from Sunday to Tuesday, then bleeding back from Friday to Wednesday. Sometimes I miss her so much I wash with her shampoo just to remember the smell of her. It's those nights coming home to our empty house and missing her so much that keep me from kicking her out altogether.

She comes home with two more pierces in her left ear and sleeps for a couple of days. There are strands of rainbow-colored hair clogging the shower drain. She won't go to her parents for Hanukkah because her hair is falling out. I go anyway, doing my best to cover for her with this story about her being in the city doing something with the homeless. They nod up and down, heads tilted sideways as though this makes sense. They are odd, seemingly too polite to press me on the details, two professors of sociology, so practiced at seeing the world as collections of groups they easily overlook individuals. They speak of their daughter as though she is still a doctoral candidate off gathering research for a paper, and I do not correct them.

There's this photo of us her mother keeps on the entry table. Looking at the photograph gives me this uncertain feeling, like seeing two people I used to know but can't quite place. Alisha's hair is long and straight, its true color of cinnamon. Her eyes are golden brown with darker flecks like nutmeg. My arms are around her shoulders, and we're both glancing off on the same tangent. That's when I was truly happy.

I've heard it said that women can only choose from among the men who have already chosen them. For Alisha and me, it was just the opposite. We met at the meal hall in the grad student dorm where she was working part-time after school. She was an undergraduate, virginal and sexy in thigh high stockings under a plaid, pleated skirt. She said she was studying Jung.

Alisha could have had any of us lonely guys in graduate student housing. She said she chose me because she liked my pierced ear, and she probably sensed I would do anything she wanted. We used my fellowship money to do a little experimenting, nothing too insane. Being with her was the closest thing I've ever known to flying: Without her I was just another gearhead, emotionally trapped, earthbound.

One Sunday I'm under the truck changing the oil when a purple jalopy stops in front of my house. It has that laboring sound old cars get when their insides are breaking apart. Alisha and Slash get out. He has his hand deep in the back pocket of her jeans like he owns her. I can't believe she actually brings that asshole into our home, but I promise myself I'll "be cool." By the time I slide out from under the truck and go inside, Slash already has his legs draped across my couch, my TV remote in his right hand. Alisha is in the kitchen standing in front of the open refrigerator. She says, "Hello."

I don't know what to do or what to say, so I put a pot of water on the stove to boil. She and I make pasta and pour a can of sauce on top. The three of us eat in silence in front of the blaring TV.

After dinner, she falls asleep with what's left of her electric blue hair draped across my lap. There are needle tracks on the blue-green veins inside her elbows. There are more of them, inflamed like spider bites, in a cluster behind her knee. With Slash asleep on the couch, I carry her to the bedroom. I hold her in my arms as long as I can stay awake. My sleep is troubled, haunted by images of doors I know I have locked that keep blowing open.

Next morning it is quiet. They are gone.

On Tuesday this woman calls from my credit card company regarding "unusual activity" on my account: three cellular telephones, four televisions, a set of tires and $7,888 to The Diamond Broker. "You're over your limit, Mr. Morrison," she says. I ask her to hold while I check my wallet. When I open it, my health insurance card falls on the floor. The credit card is not there. There used to be a photo of Alisha in that divider, holding the contents firmly in place, but it's gone too.

"Are you saying these aren't your charges?" she asks.

"No," I say, considering the consequences. "Those aren't my charges."

"Well, then, Mr. Morrison," she says. "You will not be held responsible. We will take care of everything." I hang up wishing that could possibly be true.

The next week two police officers come to my door asking for Devon Nelson. From their description I know they mean Slash. They hand me the list of unauthorized charges. I think about asking them to add my wife's name to the list of things the bastard has stolen.

A week before her birthday, Alisha asks me to meet her at 16th and Valencia, in front of some donut shop. She says she'll meet me out front, probably because only paying customers are allowed inside. I take the train to the city, then walk the long blocks to 16th and head north to Valencia. The stench of damp wool and urine comes to me in waves. When I reach the donut shop, I am grateful for each whiff of cinnamon and baking bread.

I look from blanket to blanket, afraid to see that familiar face. There is an old station wagon parked right in front, its flat tire bulging over the yellow curb. I count three bug-eyed Chihuahuas standing guard on the dashboard, and four street-worn people asleep in the junk-packed car. Grocery carts and cardboard boxes spill out onto the sidewalk from the alley across the street.

"We all look alike to you or something?" asks Alisha from under the brown blanket a few feet to my right. I still love her voice, full of night fog and swamp water. It is her only feature that has not changed.

"Let me buy you a meal," I say, but she pushes on into the donut shop, giving the red-cheeked baker a triumphant glance as she establishes herself at a corner booth.

"Just coffee and maybe a couple of twists," she says. I order two coffees, two milks, and a baker's dozen of cinnamon twists. When I hand her the white bag, she pulls out one of the pastries and divides the coiled bread into two separate lengths of steaming dough. The soft insides are golden, brushed moist with butter and spices.

"This is the best part," she says, running her tongue up the smooth bellies of the donuts. She is childlike in her pleasure, not at all self-conscious. I used to love that about her.

"The cops came looking for your friend Slash," I tell her.

"Oh, sorry 'bout that," she says, crystals of sugar outlining her lips. She pours milk into the coffee until it turns golden brown.

"They'll leave you out of it if you get treatment," I tell her. "There's a new program up at St. Helena. Maybe you should check it out." Used to be I'd offer to take her home for a few days, tempt her with a hot shower and a good night's sleep.

"You could check me in, but I'd just leave again," she says. She wipes cinnamon off another bun then licks her fingers from knuckle to tip. "They can make me do without it, but they can't make me want to do without it."

"That's the trick, isn't it? Making a person want to give up what's bad for them," I say.

"You know about that, too, don't you, lover?" she says.

She is looking out the window, out past the corner of 16th and Valencia, and I wonder if she has forgotten my name.


Judge's Comments

A talented, innovative writer. The characters are unusual, riveting. The vision is keen and perceptive, with a careful eye for surprising detail. A deep poignancy emerges through the humor of the narrative voice.
--Chitra B. Divakaruni

This is a story of rough people in an unforgiving world, but its true strength lies in the gentleness and forgiving nature of its narrator. His longing coupled with his wit pack a powerful one-two punch.
--Tom Parker

This is an original story with something provocative to say about addiction. It is sharply observed, honestly felt, economically told, and the language throughout is lively and precise but seemingly effortless. This is an accomplished writer.
--Peter Steinhart