A lonely, wealthy woman with a troubled past meets a young, homeless woman with the same.
|April 13th - April 19th; Prompt #1: Your main lesbian character is wealthy and volunteers at a soup kitchen where she falls in love with a homeless person.|
Word count: 4,997
I was dreading my first night working the soup-kitchen at Our Lady of Peace.
Granted, I would mostly be around people who, if they had homes, were too busy serving those without to pay attention to all the media coverage following my . . . misadventure, but I worried, nonetheless. Wondered if I’d be made, as it were, by someone on the staff or even one of the . . . clients . . . and the rest of my atonement made over into the same living Hell the rest of my life had been for the past sixteen months.
Looking at myself in the full-length mirror in my bedroom, I ran a hand through short blonde hair that had gathered quite a bit of grey over the past year and avoiding narrow, ice-blue eyes. My features looked haggard and careworn . . . a trifle too thin. The lines bracketing my mouth were worn deeper than they’d been even a couple months ago, and not from laughing.
Sighing, I smoothed my hands over my sweater, jeans, and a pair of new Birkenstocks: simple, comfortable clothes which I’d gotten out of the habit of wearing regularly, after so many months spent in a courtroom nattied up in my best business-formal wear. Like the somber expression on my face—the one that my mother used to say made me look as if I’d forgotten how to smile—the courtroom-clothes had become almost a part of me. Habit.
I turned away from my reflection, grabbed my wallet off the dresser, and walked through my silent penthouse, shutting off lights and closing doors as if I didn’t expect to ever see the place again.
Keys snatched off a hook near the door, I lingered in the hallway, gazing back down it, as if expecting something . . . maybe the imparted good-bye of the pets I’d never had because Kate hadn’t wanted them—never mind children—or maybe just a feeling: that of embarking on a new journey.
Or maybe a new life.
All I felt was that strange sensation that attends every leave-taking: of having forgotten something important.
Yet the important things in my life were already gone—taken away from me in one fell swoop sixteen months ago.
Turning away from the empty, indifferent penthouse, I let myself out silently.
I met Sunny on my third evening of volunteering.
I’d long since gotten over my fear of being recognized—if I was, and I’m certain at least two of the other volunteers did—no one cared enough to acknowledge that they knew who I was.
No one called me The Suicide Socialite (as coined in the Times’ headline: SUICIDE SOCIALITE IN LITIGATION OVER WRONGFUL DEATH OF HOMELESS GUARDIAN ANGEL!). And once the clients started showing up, there was thankfully no time to talk to the other volunteers about anything other than the work we were currently doing.
Sunny was the second person to approach me—at the mashed potato station, and that stupid oldies song was stuck in my head because one of the other volunteers had started singing it when our supervisor had given me my station for the night—and did so in an jaunty manner, hailing the other volunteers by name. All of them, except, of course, for me.
When she reached me, her round, dark eyes met mine and she smiled, showing even white teeth in a perfect smile that belonged on a movie star, or in an advertisement for toothpaste.
“And you must be new,” she said slowly, in a whiskey-and-cigarettes alto. I was too startled and nonplussed to do more than stare at her, I’m ashamed to say, like she was a talking dog.
“Um,” I said intelligently, and Sunny laughed, those perfect teeth flashing as she held out her tray.
“I’m Sunny. One of O.L.P.’s regulars—among other places. Pleased to meet you, uh—?”
“Deb,” I said, still too discombobulated by her cheerful manner and happiness—honestly, what did someone frequenting a soup-kitchen have to be happy about?—to remember the nickname I’d come up with to give if any of the clients asked my name. “Deb Fullerton.”
“Pleased to meet you, Deb-Deb Fullerton,” Sunny said cheekily, still grinning at me and looking me in the eyes so easily—more easily than anyone has since Kate left me—that I blushed and glance away, focusing instead on scooping slightly runny spuds onto her plate, smack between the carrots and the meatloaf.
That done, I waited for her tray to slide to my right, and to Carlos Valenza, who was dishing up dessert, but it didn’t. It stayed right in front of my station, held almost loosely in square, capable hands the color of rich earth.
When I chanced a look up at her, about to ask if she wanted more potatoes, I caught a small, thoughtful smile on her face and consideration in her eyes.
“Give it time. You’ll do alright here,” she said, her smile turning back into that movie star-grin. Then she was at last moving on, already asking Carlos who he liked for the World Series.
All I could do was stare after her—at least until the next client cleared his throat and asked for his mashed potatoes.
As I was scooping one, then another runny glob of them onto his plate, I sneaked glances at Sunny. She wasn’t tall—several inches shorter than me—and despite her baggy, nondescript clothes of olive khakis; hideous, purple polyester sweater; and orange rayon windbreaker, I could tell she was wiry and underfed.
Her hair was twisted into neatly-kept dreads that framed her heart-shaped face and hung past her narrow, coat-hanger shoulders.
She couldn’t be more than twenty, I realized with a sudden pang of pity. She should be sitting in a college dorm room somewhere getting baked and cramming for an exam, not depending on a soup-kitchen for sustenance!
She glanced back at me, caught me staring, and winked.
Then she was back to telling Carlos why his team wouldn’t win the World Series while Carlos protested vehemently.
Meanwhile I kept my eyes firmly on my potatoes from then on out, till they were gone. And every once in a while, I got the feeling that someone was watching me. For some reason I didn’t dare to look in Sunny’s direction.
When I got back to the penthouse late that night, I was too tired and depressed to shower. I just took off my clothes, left them where they fell, took my meds, and got into bed. I was more than ready to sleep.
Only . . . once I was actually lying down, sleep eluded me, and I found myself brooding, as I so often did, in lieu of sleep.
Laying in the darkness, I thought about Kate . . . about the day she’d moved out. She’d waited till I was in court to do it, and when I got back to the penthouse in late afternoon, it was neat, but noticeably empty of her things. All that was left of her was a note taped to the screen of the television.
I’m sorry, it had said, and: Don’t contact me.
And I hadn’t. For ten months I hadn’t so much as tried to find out where she was. It was the least I owed her . . . to obey her wish to remain so completely apart. It was, after everything, the only thing I could give her that she would have accepted: my absence.
I turned over in bed and stared out the window, at the lights of the city, like the Earth reflecting the firmament above. I thought of nothing for a long while, before I finally started drifting off. My last thoughts as my gritty eyes began to close were of Sunny’s smile, and how apt a name “Sunny” was for her.
Sunny was at the soup-kitchen again the next night, wearing grey sweats and the same ugly orange windbreaker. Her shoes—her boots were old and battered-looking, scuffed and dirty. They’d clearly seen a lot of hard miles.
I couldn’t stop staring at them for some reason, as she approached the line forming in front of the tables where the food was set up. I had dessert-duty, that night, and no doubt everyone would be my friend because of it, since dessert was peach cobbler. My first night at the kitchen they’d served the same thing for dessert and all the clients had shamelessly tried to get seconds from Gloria Rios before they’d even tasted their first slice.
(Gloria, five foot-nothing and about three hundred years old, was no soft touch, and had democratically denied everyone seconds until all who’d wanted a first slice had gotten one.)
I’d decided to take a page from her book, and was doing so admirably until Sunny reached me, smiling and practically radiating contentment.
“Hey, there, Deb-Deb Fullerton.” She winked and chuckled, holding out her already-laden tray. Plenty of franks and beans, rice, and cornbread. She was, it was obvious, well-known and well-liked, as evidenced by the extra piece of cornbread. Even Gloria, it seems—who had the cornbread station that night—couldn’t stand against Sunny’s strident charm. “What’s the good word?”
“Uh. Cobbler,” I replied, holding out a piece with my tongs. In the process of placing it on her plate, the tongs slipped in my plastic gloved-hand and the cobbler went in the franks and beans.
Frank and bean-juice went all over the tray.
“Well,” Sunny said, seeming amused as I swore and apologized. “That’ll make for an interesting dinner.”
“Damnit, I’m sorry.” I tried to pick the cobbler up with the tongs and the whole thing fell apart in the franks and beans, bits of crust and peach going everywhere. “Fuck!”
“Ah, it’s no skin, Deb-Deb. Ill-chay.” Sunny picked a peach-slice out of the franks and beans and popped it into her mouth. “Mm . . . meaty.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said again, turning so red it felt almost like a sunburn. I glanced down the line of people behind Sunny, all waiting patiently for the line to start moving again. “If you go back and show Carlos and the others what happened I’m sure you’ll be able to get another plate. . . .”
“Nah, nah. It’s okay. It’s just cobbler, not toxic waste. Dinner might taste a little . . . peachy, but that’s no reason to throw it away,” Sunny said kindly, without accusation, but I felt like the privilege-princess I was.
“I—sorry—” I began again, and Sunny’s brow furrowed in concern, her bright smile dimming just a little.
“You already said that part, Deb-Deb. It’s cool. But clearly someone fell down in your cobbler-training.” Sunny pulled a serious face for a moment and then laughed once more. All I could do was stand there, and stare and blush. “So. Yeah. Thank you for dessert. And for making dinner more interesting.”
And with that, she was gone, heading toward a table in the center of the room, sitting with three other people who happily welcomed her.
The person after her, a mustachioed older man called Rex got a very gingerly placed piece of cobbler and I got a look that told me I was an idiot.
“Can I ask you something?” I followed Carlos into the alley behind the church where he lit up a cigarette. “I mean, if you don’t know or don’t want to tell me, that’s cool, but . . . I was just wondering. . . .”
C’mon, c’mon, spit it out, his eyes said as I meandered even farther from the chase than ever. Finally I managed to get out: “Sunny. What’s her story, if you know?”
Carlos puffed on his cancer-stick for a few moments before nodding sagely. “She don’t seem to fit in a place like this, right? Too . . . I dunno. Sweet or happy or something, right?”
“Something like that,” I murmured, thinking the word I might have used was untarnished.
“She is sweet. A sweet kid,” Carlos confirmed almost dourly, as if I’d said something to the contrary. I held up my hands in placation, and he went on, huffing smoke through his bushy mustache. “Had a rough life. She don’t talk much about it, but I met some people that know her a little from the streets and . . . well, don’t go tellin’ her I’m tellin’ you this—”
“My lips are sealed,” I said earnestly. Besides Carlos, the only other person at the soup-kitchen who talked to me was Gloria—and that only to impart her hard-won wisdom about working in soup-kitchens—and Jana Del Valle, the kitchen supervisor. I had no one here to tell secrets to.
“Well,” Carlos said again, glancing up and down the well-lit alley as if making certain we were alone. Then he leaned in a little and spoke sotto-voiced. I listened raptly as he told me Sunny’s story, pieced together from several different sources.
It wasn’t a happy one.
That night, I didn’t sleep very well, but what else was new?
The next night, Sunny didn’t show up.
Nor the night after that.
After the third night of no Sunny, I began to worry, despite being reassured by Carlos that Sunny was probably at one of the other soup-kitchens in a city rife with them.
“She got friends everywhere, that girl. Not just at O.L.P.,” he’d puffed out smoke and I’d waved it away absently, though after nearly two weeks of spending breaks out in the alley, listening to him shoot the shit, I was used to the smoke. “Sunny makes the rounds of the kitchens when she gets bored, just like most of the regulars do. She’s probably eating meatloaf at Saint John’s as we speak.”
“Okay,” I’d said doubtfully, making a mental note to swing by Saint John’s after shift.
But the workers at Saint John’s hadn’t seen Sunny in over a month.
Neither had Christ the King.
Nor Holy Trinity.
Nor Fellowship in Christ.
Nor any of the others I tried.
By the eighth night of no Sunny, I was running out of soup-kitchens and the slight tickle of a bad feeling I had was worse than ever.
And I was sleeping even less than I had before my little . . . mishap on the bridge.
“If you’re really so worried about her, you should try the East Side. Ninth and Van Ness,” Carlos said on the thirteenth night. I puffed on the cigarette I’d bummed from him then huffed out smoke, stifling a cough.
There was no need to ask who her was.
“What’s on Ninth and Van Ness, other than my untimely death?” I asked hoarsely.
Carlos rolled his eyes and muttered something in Spanish that probably wasn’t complimentary. “That’s a pretty popular corner for certain, uh, ladies of the night.”
Which seemed apropos of nothing. “It’s been a while, but it hasn’t been that long,” I choked out, snorting and trying to clear my sinuses. “And I’ve never paid for sex in my life.”
Rolling his eyes again, Carlos sighed heavily, dramatically. “That’s the corner Starla usually works. And Sunny and Starla are like this.” He crossed the first and second fingers of his held-up right hand. “If anyone knows where Sunny’s been for the past two weeks, it’s, uh, her.”
His emphasis on her made my eyebrows shoot up and Carlos delicately elucidated. “She? Ain’t ashe where it counts,” he said meaningfully. Then held up his hands before I could reply. “Not that Starla ain’t good people. She is. And pretty. If you’re into that sorta thing. Which I’m not,” he added, lest I get the wrong idea.
This time, I was the one to roll my eyes. But then the import of what he said began to trickle in.
“Thanks,” I said, my mind already an hour and a half hence, when clean-up would be over and it’d be time for everyone else to go home, and me to start hitting up other churches and soup-kitchens and homeless shelters.
I had a lead on Sunny.
Four hours into my impromptu stakeout of the Ninth and Van Ness intersection, and my eyes were burning.
I’d been sitting in my Audi—doors very much locked, please and thank you—in front of an abandoned building and across from another abandoned building, watching Carlos’ ladies of the night tease and cat-call cars, and the few passersby. Despite the pervasive chill of the night, the ladies wore precious little.
I kept trying to work up the nerve to go out there and ask if one of them was Starla, but couldn’t even manage to unlock my door.
What am I doing out here? I finally asked myself angrily, exasperatedly. Why am I looking for some indigent girl whom I barely know to say ‘hi’ to? Especially when it’s entirely possible that she doesn’t want to be found? And assuming I find her, what then? What will I do? Take her home like a stray kitten? Offer to save her from a life on the streets? I can’t even save myself!
My self had a good point.
“This is stupid,” I said out loud, breath escaping me in a meaningless white plume as I took one last glance at the colorful ladies. “Go home, Deb-Deb Fullerton. You don’t belong here.”
And I would have. And I was. Until I noticed someone among the ladies. Someone who hadn’t been there just a minute ago.
Without a second thought I was unlocking my car door.
“Thanks, guys. Thanks,” Sunny was saying around a racking cough as I approached the four ladies with whom she’d been chatting. Her eyes widened when she noticed me, and that brilliant smile was nowhere in evidence.
“Deb?” She sounded utterly incredulous, blinking up at me like I was an alien. I missed the sound of my name repeated, but nodded all the same.
“You—what’re you doing here?” Still wide-eyed and incredulous, Sunny glanced back at the ladies who were cackling and sizing me up. “This doesn’t strike me as your kinda neighborhood.”
“I was worried. I came looking for you,” I said breathlessly, excited and proud of myself for being proactive. But Sunny merely looked aggrieved. “I found you!”
“Yeah, you did . . . good on you, Deb-Deb.” Sunny smiled a tight, nervous smile and glanced around warily before taking my arm and marching us, down the street toward my car. Puzzled, I looked back at the ladies, who were watching us, laughing and cat-calling after us.
“Was one of them Starla?” I asked as we got to my car. Sunny stopped dead, her hand falling away from my arm as she blinked up at me in shock.
“What—how—how do you know about Star?” she finally demanded, grabbing my arm again, this time roughly. Still in my own happy little world of accomplishment—though rapidly descending to Earth—I didn’t even try to yank my arm away.
“Carlos,” I said instantly, breaking my word to not divulge how I knew anything whatsoever about Sunny. “He said Starla would know where you were. You’ve been gone for about two weeks,” I added, just in case she hadn’t realized.
Sunny snorted bitterly—a word I would never have associated with her before that moment—and let go of my arm again, covering her face with both hands for a few seconds. “Yeah, well, Star may know where I am, but I sure as fuck don’t know where she is. She’s been gone for about six weeks.”
“She—your friend is . . . missing?” I asked tentatively, my return to Earth now nearly complete as I realized we were two women standing at one of the most notorious intersections in the city, at night, near an expensive foreign car.
I put my cold hands in my pockets and discreetly unlocked the doors with my key-fob in case we needed to jump in and go.
“No, she’s not missing, she’s just . . . away for a little while,” Sunny said irritably, looking off down the street with narrowed, absent eyes. The irritation didn’t hide the worry and concern in her voice or her emotive face. “She’s done it before. Hooked up with some damn guy and played the happy homemaker. It lasts for two, maybe three weeks—a month, tops—and then she’s back in the slums with me, crying her eyes out and waiting for another Mr. Trick to turn into Mr. Wonderful for a few days or weeks.”
Sunny’s eyes met mine, intent and intense, dark and demanding. If there was some response she wanted, I didn’t know what it was. I could only look away, blushing like a nervous prom-date, and mutter: “If she flakes out on you all the time, why look for her? Won’t she turn up when she’s ready?”
“Probably.” Sunny crossed her arms over the zipped up rayon windbreaker. She was shivering. “But usually I can find her if I keep my ear to the ground. I keep my distance, but I always know where she is and whose ass needs a beat-down when she comes back to me covered in bruises and crying her heart out. But I haven’t been able to find her and no one knows anything.”
Sunny finished with a soft, weary sigh, and I ventured: “Maybe the police—”
And with that her whole face changed. Shut down. She gave me a once-over that was neither kind nor approving.
“You found me, Deb-Deb. I’m fine. So go home.”
“Go on. You don’t belong here.”
“Neither do you!” I called, and Sunny, in the midst of walking away from me, stopped and turned back incredulous once more. She looked angry and mean, and I wondered: Where’s the girl I met three weeks ago? Where’s that smile?
“You don’t know a damn thing about me, Deb. Least of all where I belong,” she said, colder than the cracked grey concrete we stood on.
“I know you’re the sort of person who’ll defend a woman who repeatedly flakes out on you over random guys, only to come crawling back to you when the shit hits the fan.” I crossed my own arms, trying to look tougher than I felt.
“If you don’t know shit about me, you for damn sure don’t know anything about Star,” Sunny said, eyes narrowed once more as she stepped toward me. But after a few steps she stopped herself and laughed bitterly once more. “You’re just some rich-bitch who inconveniently grew a conscience because her pet project got real all of a sudden.”
Sunny heaved another weary sigh, shaking her head tiredly. “Go home, Deb. You’ve done your part for truth, justice, and the American way. Leave me alone and mind your own business.”
“Fine. Stay here, then.” Sunny turned and walked quickly away. Locking my car again with the key-fob, I trotted after her till I caught up.
“Stop following me.”
“You can’t follow me around all night.” Each clipped word was a puff of frigid air and Sunny’s shoulders were hunched up practically to her ears.
“Let’s put that to the test, shall we?”
“Fuck off!” A flash of dark, angry eyes shining with tears from worry, frustration, the cold, or all three.
“Maybe I can help you—”
“You really wanna help me, you’ll go home.”
“I’m not leaving you out here alone, in the middle of the night!”
That bitter laugh, winded and breathless. “I’ve been out here alone, in the middle of the night since I was fifteen. This—” Sunny turned in a circle, arms flung wide, as she walked without breaking stride. “This is my home.”
“It shouldn’t be,” I said softly, so softly I thought she wouldn’t hear, but she did, and whirled on me, startling me into stumbling backward.
“Who says? You?” Her eyebrows shot up in faux-innocence. “I mean, I’d love to live at the Ritz-Carlton, but, don’tcha know? They don’t have hourly rates!”
Turning away again, Sunny stalked off, coughing once more. It didn’t sound good.
“You’re sick,” I said when I caught up with her again.
“So . . . you shouldn’t be out here when you’re sick. Is there a shelter you can stay at, or—”
“Shelters close their doors at ten. And anyway, I don’t stay at shelters unless it’s cold out.”
Thinking of the way she was shivering and coughing, I wondered what, if not tonight, was considered cold. “So what’re you gonna do till morning?”
“What else? Keep moving.”
“Or. . . .” I held my peace till Sunny looked at me almost unwillingly. “Or you could let me buy you a cup of coffee.”
Dark eyes were rolled impatiently and booted feet picked up their pace. “I don’t need your fucking pity.”
“Since when is a cup of coffee pity?”
“A hot cup of coffee, maybe a wedge of pie . . . doesn’t that sound good?” I wheedled like a bad afterschool special. Sunny laughed, and though it was wry, it wasn’t bitter, this time.
“Fuck your pie, Deb-Deb,” she replied almost as merrily as she might have three weeks ago, but her stomach growled, too. When she slowed down, I slowed down, as well.
Finally she stopped and turned to give me another measuring, but otherwise unreadable look.
“Fine,” she said grudgingly. Then: “But only because I missed the dinner-bell at Christ the King.”
I glanced away to hide my sudden smile.
“So what’s your deal, Deb Fullerton?”
I looked up from my barely sipped coffee and across the diner table at Sunny who—after inhaling what I’d ordered as my dinner and dessert, then professed to have lost my appetite for—was gulping piping hot coffee like it was liquid ambrosia.
“Yeah, you know . . . what’s a person like you doing volunteering at a soup-kitchen?” Sunny added even more sugar to her coffee then sipped it with a contented sigh. That sigh made mesigh and feel . . . something. I couldn’t have said what.
“I . . . thought I might benefit from doing some . . . good works, shall we say? By connecting with my fellow man.”
“Uh, your fellow man is about eighty tax brackets away from here.” Sunny snorted, but didn’t seem especially angry or rueful. “So, what, you’ve got rich, white liberal-guilt?”
Thinking of the bridge, and what it’d felt like to fall . . . to hit, struggle, and sink . . . and to know that that was the end . . . then knowing nothing more till I woke up in the hospital, cuffed to the bed and about to endure months of observation and eventually a civil suit that would cost me my privacy, my fiancée, and half my net worth, I bit my lip and tried to smile. “Something like that.”
Sunny grunted, slurping more coffee. “You’re a shit liar,” she said matter-of-factly, and this time,I laughed. Sunny flashed the brilliant smile I had missed for just a second then cleared her throat. “Seriously, though . . . what’s your deal?”
I sipped my own coffee. “I . . . owe a debt to someone,” I said after a minute, and Sunny frowned.
“For what?” she asked almost tentatively, as if uncertain she wanted to know.
For costing him his life while trying to take my own, seemed far too melodramatic a thing to say, even though it was true. “I . . . someone saved my life once, and I’m . . . paying it forward incrementally.”
“One piece of cobbler at a time, eh, Deb-Deb?”
“Something like that.”
“Nothing, just . . . you and Star . . . she’s a big believer in paying it forward, too.”
Silence fell between us for long minutes, until I broke it, surprising myself and Sunny by saying: “Let me help you find her, if you’re so worried.”
Another weary sigh. “Help, how?”
“My attorneys work with a private investigator who’s very fast and very thorough—”
“Not every problem can be solved by throwing money at it!”
“No, but this may be one of them. And if it is, do you really want to let pride keep you from finding your friend?”
Sunny leaned back in the booth defensively. “She’s probably just shacking up with some low-life who’s as we speak kicking her crazy ass to the curb.”
“Possibly.” Beat. “But you don’t believe that.”
Off my patient silence, Sunny finally looked down. “No, I don’t.”
“Then let me help you.”
“And what do you want in return for this help, huh, Deb-Deb? Oh, that’s right: you’re paying it forward.” There went that bitter laugh again. “How do I know that you won’t bring the cops into it?”
“Why would I do that?”
“I dunno. Why would you?”
More silence, then: “Alright. No cops. Just the P.I. Will you let me help you?”
Sunny’s brows lowered over her suddenly angry eyes. “Can I stop you?”
“Probably not,” I admitted, expecting an outburst of some kind. But what I got was her face slowly, slowly changing from pissed off and annoyed, to wary and surprised . . . and finally vulnerable and confused.
“Why, really?” she asked quietly, blinking several times and sniffling. “Nobody helps anybody for free.”
“Maybe I do.”
I shrugged. “You have nothing I want or need.” Except that smile.
“Yeah, well.” Sunny sniffled again and smiled. Not the one I wanted. This smile was as cynical and broken a thing as I’d ever seen. “Fuck.”
And I repeated to myself that she wasn’t some stray kitten I could rescue, and tame to my hand. That I wasn’t Jesus Christ or Phillip Marlowe. That her problems were her own business and that I should, as she’d said, mind my own.
And I thought about a young man, sacrificing his life to pull the half-dead body of a woman he hadn’t even known out of a cold river one dark and stormy night. . . .
I thought of all these things and bit my tongue.
“First thing’s first,” I said brusquely as I took out my phone. “I wake my ambulance-chaser and get the investigation train rolling. In the meantime, would you like a place to stay tonight?”