The cable car tracks are singing, sewing alarm into my pulse: Shame! Shame! Shame!
I am. Jittering on a couch at Chela’s. Her man is a firefighter. A Chinatown native. Small-time coke dealer. He’s still on duty around the corner, where we spent the last evening. It’s seven a.m. Sunlight pours in pink and yellow. I need to be in the office by eight. My body is a husk. My eyes feel at once too big and too small for their sockets.
Chela is the one who talked me into this punk haircut and dye job, these pointy Joe Jackson shoes. She calls me “Nat,” for Natalie Wood. Chela and I work together at an office on Montgomery Street. Last week, I took magic mushrooms while the rest attended an industry luncheon. I wasn’t allowed, since I’m not old enough to drink. While they sipped wine, I lay on the founder’s cheese-colored leather couch and watched his amate paintings undulate.
I am always ill at ease here at Chela’s. Since that one time one of the firefighters, off duty, came in drunk for a visit and chased me around the glass coffee table. Everyone laughed their asses off. I kept thinking someone would help me.
I stagger barefoot into Chela’s kitchen, pop open a can of Coke. Only it isn’t a Coke; the can is a headshop safe with a tight roll of bills inside. Will Chela’s boyfriend count the bills to see if I stole?
Late last night, Engine 22 got a call. For a moment, Chela, Leticia and I were alone at the firehouse kitchen table. Chela stood, snapped: Out! Outside, we sat on the sidewalk against the building. Watched them leave us, sirens wailing. Then the metal door rolled tight and it was quiet again. When they returned, they sent us to Berkeley for more coke.
The firefighters think I am a sharp cookie, which compared to Chela and her sister Leticia, I guess I am. Leticia is pregnant, but no one is supposed to know.
The fire captain, Marshall Nugent, likes me. He slips me valium so I have a fighting chance at sleep. Once he took me to his place in Marin County. He refers to San Francisco as a ghetto, and Donald Trump as a real American. Sometimes late, he’ll come by my place to see if I’m up. One time, he visited me in the Financial District and took me to lunch. He wore an unfashionable wide tie and brown shoes. At Station 22, only Chela’s boyfriend is single.
I have to go to work. I splash my mouth and face, locate my Joe Jackson shoes and carry them down the stairs and onto the apartment building’s stoop. The fog is a balm.
On my way to the bank, someone will urge me to smile. I may do so at the bank, depositing all that cash I stole from Chela’s man.
Patricia Q. Bidar is a native Californian with roots in New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Her stories have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Sou’wester, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Citron Review, and Pithead Chapel. Apart from fiction, Patricia writes for progressive nonprofit organizations and lives with her DJ husband in the San Francisco Bay Area.