To These Guys

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Monica had been talking rapidly, unruffled; I had tried to say “uh-huh” at the right times and gulped half a dozen cups of coffee. My notion of a “cafe” had an accent mark hovering over it: a dark place, like the Café Renaissance, around the corner from my apartment in Berkeley, where you could people-watch but weren’t forced to, where you could get cappuccino and work for hours on an overdue English paper. I was a junior at Berkeley, though I spent most of my time across the bay in San Francisco. The place got quieter and I focused in on Monica.

“My first time in Corona I was nineteen. Thirty days on a stinkin morals charge. I didn’t sleep once the whole time. Corona didn’t have methadone then, 1959. First two weeks I couldn’t keep anything down. Every time I’d start to vomit I was sure I’d die. ‘Not now,’ I’d tell myself, ‘no fuckin food or sleep in two weeks.’ They threw me in the Detox tank, only me and this little old black lady on an overnight drunk. I was so sick I crawled over to her: ‘help me, help me,’ but she just looked at me. Didn’t know what the fuck was goin on. I finally kicked up so much noise a big motherly Detox lady came in. She was the only decent person there. She asked me how long I’d been in, I said two weeks, she asked me if I’d slept or ate I said no. She tells me, ‘you probably won’t sleep, but you will be able to eat.’ She had me try some green Jell-O. I couldn’t look at it sorta wigglin on the plate, let alone swallow it. She tried again the next day. I ate it.”

We left the coffee shop. Out in the night Monica was talking about her first husband. “I knew Sonny was goin, he drank a couple fifths every day. He was thirtyfour years older, a dope fiend like me. I was twenty when he died. He went to see a doctor about pains in his liver, doctor told him he had cirrhosis. I kept thinkin I shoulda made him stop drinkin, it was my fault. I was so damn young.” Monica had a way of watching you closely when she spoke, squinting slightly, as if focusing on something more finely detailed than a human face.

“So damn young,” she repeated. “I didn’t understand about alcohol. Sometimes I feel him so near me I can reach out and touch his body, big and sweet as ever. 1960, and I still can’t believe he’s dead.”

We wound up on a bench in Civic Center Plaza, the gilt dome of City Hall looming behind us. It was getting late.

An old black man stumbled by to ask, “Ny-ou gah nnickel f’me?” That seemed reasonable, so I gave him one. “Thiggou,” he murmured, going on his way, “thiggou v’much, Cap’n.”

My stomach, emptied by coffee, was making huge sawing sounds; we talked for a few minutes of smaller things, winding down, and walked to the median strip on Market. Though she was quite tall, heroin had stretched her on the rack for many years, attenuating her, paling flesh that was already pale, weakening flesh that was already weak; she seemed somehow immaterial, as if she were in the process either of assuming physical form or slipping out of it. I had the feeling that if I turned away now and went down the escalator to the train headed across the bay, I would never see her again. I waited until her streetcar came.

I didn’t see Monica for three weeks. That turned out to be the pattern: she’d come in to check on her case, we’d spend an evening wandering the city, she’d disappear for a month at a time, and finally she’d show up unannounced at the office, sometimes be waiting there when I arrived in the morning. She spent five weeks with a 20-year-old dealer named Blue, living in eight different hotels because the Mexican Mafia — whose cadres he’d been acquainted to in prison — wanted to “see” him.




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