We all have to die someday. I knew that, but this isn't what I had expected. I wasn't supposed to end up in the streets, naked and unidentifiable. They were behind me. They hadn't made their "official" move yet, but I knew it was coming. I could almost feel their hands on my skin and their bodies between my legs. I involuntarily shuddered with revulsion and fought to keep panicky tears from starting. I knew that if I started crying now I'd never stop. Panic is like that. Fear is like that.
The worst part of it all was the sudden realization that I was about to become a cliché. I had this instant Polaroid-mental image of how the scene would play out, and it was straight out of a late-night rerun of Law and Order. "Who is she?" "Who knows? Just some whore, I guess."
I hadn't been on the streets long, just plenty long enough to hear talk about this girl who was beaten, that girl who was knifed, such-and-such a girl who OD'd. After a few minutes of silence, the conversation would just drift away to other topics. It didn't seem to matter much.
The idea that I, Betsy Powell, would be reduced to an anonymous statistic finally shook me out of the fear that had frozen me in place, and I turned and headed back quickly to the all-night diner I had just left. I waitressed there part-time, working for tips and picking up whatever shifts Joe offered. I knew he'd let me sit at the counter and wait out my stalkers.
I knew all three of them from their rowdy visits to the diner-just a gaggle of street-toughs without enough brains between them to open a soda can. Together they fed on each other's quests for delinquency, rising to new highs of violent behavior when they were together and able to convince themselves of their "gang" status. I had fucked up earlier in the day. One of them came into the diner and insinuated how lucky I was that he was willing to let me spread my legs for him. I wasn't amused and said something snide that, at the time, I thought was perfectly delightful and biting and humorous.
I had forgotten my audience. My wonderful sarcastic wit was lost on them. And apparently they were there to remind me they were not amused. In short, I was fucked.
The diner door seemed miles away as I kept one eye on the welcoming warmth of its well-lit interior and the other eye on the shadows moving slowly but steadily along in my peripheral vision. It dawned on me how quiet it was. Normally I would expect to hear street sounds-that's what streets did at night, they housed sounds. Cars and horns and chatter and the distant sounds of more cars and horns. Right now all I could hear was the click of my heels on the pavement. The rest had faded into a white noise, something in the background.
I was mentally reviewing the lessons I learned in high school health class about not becoming a victim when walking alone. Walk with purpose, but not with fear. Don't run. Act like you know where you're going. Don't run. Don't show fear. I was gauging the time it would take me to get to the glass doors of the diner, and I had just about decided that my health teacher could get bent. I was making a run for it.
And here's another fucking cliché, right? No sooner did I make that half-hitch step that leads into a run, but my heel caught on something (there's always something, even if there's nothing. That's what the scriptwriters rely on, right folks?). My hands hit the pavement at the same time as hands grabbed me by the collar of my tee shirt and the top of my hair.
I heard the fabric of my shirt rip from the collar to the hem down the back (unbelievably thinking at the time, "of course, the damn thing couldn't rip on a seam, could it?"). Broken glass tore through the knees of my jeans and imbedded itself into my legs and shins as I fell heavily on all fours.
The blood pounding through my ears muted their voices, but their intent was clear enough. Hands pawed at my jeans, fumbling to turn me over as I tried to scramble away. I knew I'd survive the group fuck (what's one more, right?), but I was thoroughly pissed about my clothes. I kicked up and back with one foot until I felt my heel hit the doughy stomach of whichever asshole had grabbed me first.
My arms were kicked out from under me, and my body hit the ground hard. Suddenly, I knew what it felt like to suffocate. I heard my breath whoosh from my lungs as a foot planted itself between my shoulder blades and pushed. I could feel the heel of his boot dig into my skin, and a small rivulet of what I assumed was blood began to flow along my spine.
I grit my teeth and sagged under the weight of the man standing above me. Self-preservation took over, I guess, and I decided they'd be done with me faster if I stopped fighting. No use pissing them off any further. I relaxed my arms and lay flat against the concrete, concentrating on the rough surface against my cheek instead of on thoughts of what the rest of the evening held.
I closed my eyes hard. I'd be damned if, on top of everything else, they saw me cry. I'd be dead within a week if word got out that I cried. It doesn't take much to get marked as the weakest in the herd.
The asshole behind me jerked his hand backwards and it felt like my hair was about to rip from my skull. His face came right next to mine and his breath was rancid and hot and stung my eyes through my clenched lids. "No one disses me in front of my homies, bitch," he snarled. His voice was barely audible, his words slurred. They had obviously fortified their group-bravado with a bottle or twelve of Molson's while they waited for me to come off-shift.
Damn. Double damn. I was really and truly screwed.
Suddenly I heard, "I've just called the police."
The voice cut through the deafening silence that had surrounded our little tableau. I knew that whoever it was hadn't really yelled, but to me it sounded like he was shouting from the mountaintop.
"Whathefuck?" I wasn't expecting it, so my chin slammed painfully down on the pavement when the asshole let go of my hair. I felt my lip split against my teeth and I tasted blood but I decided that, for the moment, I was best off staying low and silent. Maybe they'd be too distracted by this new crazy guy to remember that I was beneath this asshole's boot.
One of the other assholes started posturing. "You wanna piece of 'er, motherfucker? You'll have to wait until the three of us are done wit'er. You can have whatever part's left."
The unknown saint (he deserved saint-status in my book, if for no other reason than he just bought me some time to teach my lungs to breathe again) spoke again, slowly, as though he were standing in front of a group of preschoolers. Amazing judge of character he was. "You... don't... seem... to... be... understanding... me. Listen very closely."
I opened one eye for a surreptitious peek, and damn if it wasn't another scriptwriter's wet dream. All I could see was the outline of a figure standing in front of the street lamp. He was surrounded by an aura from the light's halogen glow. I'm sure it was a trick of the light and the shadows and the fact that I was looking at him from two inches off the ground, but I swear he was eight feet tall. Thin, but still bigger than life. His arm was raised, and I could make out the outline of a small cellular phone.
"I've just called 911," he announced. "At this time of night, and this close to a donut shop, I'd guess they'll be here in, oh," he paused for a semi-dramatic glance at his wrist, "sixty-two seconds or so."
On cue we heard the approaching sirens. He tossed something on the ground at the feet of the asshole with his foot on my back. "There's my wallet. It's got about a hundred fifty bucks cash in it. Now, you have a decision to make. You can take my money and leave, or you can kick my ass and hope the cops don't get here before you're finished"
I swear to God, time stopped. I never understood what that meant before, and I always figured that people were being ridiculously over-dramatic when they said it, but at that moment I understood completely.
And suddenly it was over. The boot was off my back, and I could hear their footsteps retreating faster than the sirens were approaching. I finally caught my breath and rolled over to sit on the sidewalk.
He stepped out from in front of the light, and I could see him more clearly now. I held up my arm, and he reached down to give me a hand up. "Unless you want to have to deal with the police, I suggest we move ourselves along. I'm Howard."
I grasped his forearm and felt the muscle bunch under his skin. He wasn't eight feet tall after all, but he had to be at least six, if not more. A solid eight or more inches taller than me. And I was right-he was thin, but not gaunt. I suddenly remembered watching the Tour de France on television before I left home a hundred years ago. He reminded me of the bicyclists, or maybe a serious runner. All muscle and sinew. Then again, maybe my eyes were playing tricks. He had just saved my ass-literally.
The remains of my tee shirt slipped forward as I stood up. I caught it with my free hand and awkwardly held it over my bare breasts. I should have been wearing a bra, but I've noticed the immediate payoff in tips at the diner when I let the girls loose during a shift. Being "busty" has occasional advantages, even if it means carrying a few extra pounds in other places as well. However, a couple more hungry months out here and that wouldn't be an issue. I realized he was staring. Saint and savior or not, I felt a sudden urge to regain a smidgen of dignity. "Um, do you mind? I'm a little indecent here."
He had the grace to blush and refocus his eyes to the wall behind me. He shrugged off his jacket and handed it to me, specifically not looking at me as he did.
"Thanks." I turned my back and shucked off the remains of my shirt. Damn, it was a nice tee shirt too. I zipped his jacket up between my breasts and turned back to him. "Howard, you said? Anyone ever call you Howie?" As conversation starters go, it was pretty lame, but I was trying to regain my bearings, and I wasn't sure where this was going. I figured I was going to owe him some pretty big pay back, but I was waiting for him to make the first suggestion.
He laughed, but it was a creepy, depressed sound. "Not in a while."
Ah-ha. Girlfriend or wife left him or done him wrong somehow. Men are so transparent sometimes. I felt a sudden, overwhelming need to take some control back over the situation.
"Well, Howie, can I buy you a cup of coffee for your troubles?"
He looked down at me. "Shouldn't you go home? You'll want to have someone look at your lip, I think."
I shrugged, and was immediately reminded by a screaming back muscle that I had just spent some serious time on the ground with a foot between my shoulder blades. I grit my teeth for a minute, waiting out a sudden wave of nausea. My knees started to buckle and my vision blurred and I felt myself begin to shake. I grabbed his arm to steady myself.
He wrapped his arm under my shoulders, and we started walking. Well, he started walking. I more or less stumbled along under his arm. "You're right," I heard him say through the fog. "You need some coffee."
We went back to the diner where I work and sat at a booth against the back wall. Neither of us seemed to feel the need to sit by the window. I, for one, had seen enough of the street lately, and I didn't need to watch the world stand still outside the glass. He had gently, but firmly, steered me away from the barstools near the order window and helped me ease onto the padded seat. The vinyl creaked as I sat, and I leaned heavily back. The short walk to the shop had cleared my head, and the worst of the shakes seemed to have passed.
I could hear the radio from behind the counter. When it was slow in the diner, Joe kept it tuned to a big band station, although he'd make concessions if enough customers wanted to hear something else. Ever the businessman, he was. People didn't complain much though. Joe's was a place to relax, and the strains of Jimmy Dorsey seemed to help.
I absently traced lines in the crackled tabletop, and for the millionth time I wondered briefly what school diner designers went to. It was all such an indefinite pastel. As if someone had taken all paint left over from doing baby nurseries and mixed it to come up with this lime-cream-rose-baby blue shade. I wasn't quite sure how to start the conversation. What does one say? The arrival of steaming roasted bean juice broke the silence. Oh, the wonders of coffee.
Joe gave me a paternalistic look as he filled our cups. One of the few things Joe could be counted on was to always have fresh coffee on hand. This time of night I'm sure he was losing money on each cup. Business always seemed to lull around midnight and stayed dead until the bars closed at two. I asked him once why he bothered to stay open that late. He insisted there was always someone who needed good coffee, and, if they were out that late, they probably needed it more than most. Since that time, I've parked myself on his barstool more than once, nursing a bottomless cup. Joe was polite enough never to ask, although I'm sure he realized on those nights that I was there because whatever plans I had for sleeping arrangements had fallen through. It's not that I'm too hoity to plant myself and my sleeping bag behind a bush in the park, but sometimes sleep just doesn't seem worth the hassle.
I wrapped my fingers gratefully around my mug, and looked up at him.
"Aw, shit, Betsy." He handed me a towel and a glass of ice. He gave Howard a glance, unable to completely hide his contempt. I knew he thought that Howie was a John I had brought in. "If you needed the money, you could have asked."
I felt my cheeks burn as I put together a makeshift ice pack and dabbed at my lip. "It wasn't like that Joe." Not this time, I silently added. Unfortunately, Joe was all-too-aware of my occasional desperate attempt at cash acquisition. Every once in a while I'd had to resort to a quick $20 blowjob to keep myself in such luxuries as food and clothes. Quarter-a-cup coffee tips only bought a girl so much finery. Up to now I hadn't had to go any further into the street life, but times were getting desperate, and I didn't like the picture of the future I was seeing for myself.
Introductions were apparently in order.
"Joe, this is Howard. Howard, Joe. Joe owns this place. Joe, Howard saved my bacon tonight, but in the process he sacrificed his wallet to the gods of street thuggery. I'm supposed to be buying him coffee. But, um..." I suddenly realized that I no longer had my purse. I must have lost it when the jackass knocked me down.
Joe nodded. "No sweat, Betsy. You can owe me. Nice to meetcha, Howard." A quick nod, and Joe left us to resume our awkward silences.
"I... ," I started.
"Um... ," he began.
Good. That's always good for a laugh and an icebreaker. I started over. "Look, Howard. I don't know what possessed you to step in like that, but it was brilliant-you were brilliant. I was dead meat out there. I have no idea how I'll ever pay you back."
He had the decency to look offended, or shocked, or both. "There's no need to pay me back, Betsy."
"No. I pay my debts. We'll have to work something out." I was fully aware, and embarrassed, at the implication I was making. Well, old habits and all that.
He nodded. "Fine. Until then, talk to me. Do you live around here?"
I contemplated my answer. Honesty didn't really seem to be the best policy here. "Yeah. Not far. Just around the corner." It was almost true. I kept a locker at the bus terminal around the corner. One dollar a week, as long as I only opened it once every seven days.
Something dark passed behind his eyes. "Bullshit, Betsy. There's nothing but abandoned buildings and businesses and the bus depot around this block. If you're going to start out by lying to me, let's just say 'nice to meetcha' and we'll go our separate ways." He started to stand. "Keep the jacket. I'll get another one."
Fuck. Some woman really screwed him over, and I couldn't stand the contempt in his voice. "Wait. Howard. Please. Sit down. Let's start over."
He stopped and sat back into the booth. "Fine. How old are you, Betsy."