The Pierced Lady
Waiting for the shuttle bus into San Francisco, the woman in leather shivered. Her sandy hair was tucked behind ears upholstered with gold rings and studs. On her neck, where her collar was short, climbed a tattoo’s red ink of wings or flames. Her amber eyes blinked as she excused her breath: “I have to have a beer before landing. I’m nervous about crashing. Did you ever circle around and around in the fog?”
She climbed the shuttle steps and staggered to a front seat, resting her head against a window. Cold light struck her smooth nose and small mouth with a curled upper lip. The jittery road made her image flutter. Voice quavering, she told of just returning from New Mexico and her parents’ anniversary party, her last chance to make amends and move back home, but it didn’t work out. “My fault, all my fault.” Perhaps she was thirty, with weathered skin webbed by fine wrinkles. Leaning, she picked up a satchel, her only luggage, and signaled for her stop. “Nice to meet you.” She tottered to the shimmying door.
Bus idling, she stepped down to buckled sidewalk. Two women sat in a doorway, sharing a cigarette. They exhaled smoke as she neared their sandals and long, sheer dresses that fluttered against trashed aluminum cans.
The Slap of Golden Sandals
Once again at twilight, tenants of the K-Street apartments gathered in the parking lot. A woman, at her lover’s insistence, bared her pregnancy to his friends. An elderly man lit cigarettes from a votive candle of the Madonna. A naked child squatted behind the dumpsters.
Outside #118, a single pine tree grew. Chain-locked to its trunk was a grocery cart with a toy license plate wired to the bars:
The Golden State
The apartment door opened, and a voice said, “Te voy a llevar.” In the doorway’s spilling light, a woman held a child whose head lolled against her neck. She rocked him, awkwardly curving her back to sustain his weight, but even so he whimpered. Her slightly pitted face, already pinked by make-up, grew flush. “Mi querido,” she said, “shh, shh. Remember our game? Niño chiquito y bonito. One is a boy pretty and small. Can you say it? Good boys know their numbers.” The child cried and squirmed until she took him back inside.
The next day, going into town, the woman pushed the cart. Its bars gleamed like pyrite. She had adorned her neck and ears with outsized jewelry—loop earrings that stretched her lobes and necklaces strung with golden clamshells. Her thick waist was cinched with a gold lame belt; her feet were bound with thin-strapped golden sandals. “¡El carro!” she cried. “Watch out for my cart.” Pedestrians crowding the sidewalks heeded her warning and the cart’s menacing rattle, parting to let her pass.
Inside the basket, lying propped against a pillow, was the child. He seemed four years old, or stunted. His small head was dwarfed by black hair that glossed a coppery color. The outline of his ribs showed through the thinning fabric of a long T-shirt. He kicked his sprawling legs, revealing a diaper. A thick belt strapped around his waist bound him to the cart. He kicked again and then uttered, “Ahh! Ahh!”
“¡Ah, Dios!” the woman sighed. The child limply raised his arms, stretching and clutching his fingers. His eyes, colored like tarnished pennies, were nearly buried by drooping lids. She stopped the cart and shifted a towel to canopy the boy, clamping it down with clothespins.
Once more she gripped the handlebar. Slap, slap. Slap, slap. The golden sandals struck her heels as she drove the cart through the crowd. The boy wedged his fingers between the bars. They wiggled like minnows trying to escape a net.
Morning fog smothered Highway 1 near Mendocino, where gray smudges moved at roadside. Were these deer seeking pasture among the thick grass and bushes of wild blackberries? My car’s low beams cut through the milky haze, spotlighting a woman and two boys carrying grocery bags. A stout man, his arms free, walked behind the taller child. A family was returning from the Harvest Market—ten minutes away, by foot.
The man lifted and lowered one arm in a careful rhythm, as if hammering stakes into place, but the surface he struck again and again was the taller boy’s head. His fist thumped where a newborn’s brain would be most vulnerable: the fontanel at the front of the skull. The boy fumbled, almost dropping his bag while swatting at the fist. The woman gripped the younger boy’s shoulder as a logging truck passed, carrying its cargo of felled redwoods.