To These Guys

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Appeared in Witness; nominated for the Pushcart Prize; Selected for Special Mention in The Pushcart Prize XX:  1996, Bill Henderson, series ed.




In an hour she smoked a pack of cigarettes. For the rest of the afternoon, after she left, my co-workers at Legal Aid scurried in and out of the room, cadging pens and legal pads, gabbling about the upcoming Bar exam. A shaft of sunlight crept along the scuffled blue fake-marble linoleum floor, up the side of the olive-gray metal desk, across my hands and onto manila folders, goldenrod application forms, green carbonless copies, pink message slips; first striking out the colors bright, then, as the sun set behind Civic Center Plaza, turning the papers red and brown, like autumn leaves. The office rang with high-pitched fluorescent emptiness. I was glad I could still smell the full ashtray on the desk.

Monica had applied for General Assistance — San Francisco’s sub-subsistence monthly allowance of $138 — but had been turned down by the County’s infamous Mrs. Kostic on the usual grounds: that she could return to her last job. Mrs. Kostic hadn’t asked Monica what that job had been, so I called her up, told her the truth — that Monica had last worked as a prostitute — and asked her if the County wanted a piece of the action.

A week later there was a gaily printed card in my mail, sealed with a peel-off carnation sticker from a box of Cheerios. Monica’s writing was ornamental and oldfashioned. It leaned evenly left and was flat on the bottom; she had used a ruler. She thanked and thanked and thanked me, calling me mister, though she was twenty years older than I. The mail room had opened and stamped Monica’s card REC’D OCT 9 1982, as if it were official business.

She came in late that afternoon. I told her how much more she could get from federal disability than from General Assistance, got her an appointment with our shrink, and typed up the application, giving it to her for signature. She kept writing until she’d run two inches out of the Name box.

“Monica Hidalgo San Juan Garcia Portillo de la Rosa,” I read.

“You like it?” She spun the paper toward me and began giving capsule
biographies of her husbands, touching a finger for each with the filter end of her cigarette. “Sonny
Hidalgo was my first husband,” she said. “Gil San Juan’s still down on Guerrero, still stealing jewelry and still on methadone. Hector Garcia was negligible. A mistake.” Soon she had all five fingers of her left hand extended. “Shit, what am I gonna do if I get another one?”

“Quit smoking?” I suggested.

She knit her brows together. “Quit marrying.” She took half a drag and lost the smoke laughing. She’d been doing Ritalin — poor man’s speed — and hadn’t slept since I’d first seen her. I had guessed she was about 30, but with her features caught in the strobe light of laughter, she looked her real age, 42. Now her pale skin stretched even tighter around her high cheekbones and narrow jaw, sagged more under her nervous green eyes. Her light brown hair was clean and brushed.

At 5:30 we went to the Terminal Cafe, next to the Greyhound station, for what she promised would be “the best cup of coffee in the Tenderloin, but that isn’t sayin much for it.”

We swung open the saloon-style doors of the Terminal Cafe and took a booth. Two teenagers with chains hanging all over them started shoving behind us. An old man in the doorway waved a cane at a lady. A clean-cut guy came in, surveyed the crowd keenly, like he was trying to find someone, then began screaming about Jesus. The cook emerged from the kitchen, yelling at him in Spanish and waving a meat cleaver.



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