Night and Day
John Doe on El Cajon
“I’m not a prostitute.”
Oh, boy. Street workers fall into three categories: unashamed and brash, ashamed and honest, and deny-it-all until you’ve seen the cash. John Doe on El Cajon & Johnson, currently John Doe in the El Cajon Sector 6 Station, was one of those last ones. I looked for patience in my cold, black, truly wretched coffee. Unsurprisingly, it was vile. Even less surprisingly, it contained no patience. I took a drink anyway. “You hang out with them. Birds of a feather.”
The skinny, skanky kid leaned back in what he probably considered a seductive pose. Past master of three supervisor-mandated police inequities classes, I wanted to avoid a fourth, so I restrained a snort as the little cocksucker looked left, right, then at the ceiling before responding. “Didn’t say I never been whore. I just wasn’t there asking for money to fuck tonight.”
I’d heard voices more weary and pathetic than this one, but only out of people in shock. This kid… Giving him the evil eye didn’t energize him. Leaving silences deep enough to sleep in didn’t phase him. Hell, being dragged in by Dick (sorry, sorry, Richard) Norbert didn’t made any impression. This kid had given up on life.
“What’s that accent? Scottish? Welsh?” He was damned well drowning me in my nan’s beloved Contae Aontroma – Antrim, Ulster. In Eirie, they would have started a brawl to last for days.
The pathetic little lump had obviously been Americanized. “Belfast. Long time ago.”
Ever the optimist, I reached for the next inflammatory remark. Then I held it, as lightning lit the station windows and was followed by a roar of thunder that shook the glass. “So you’re a pimp?” No way in hell. He wasn’t old enough or mean enough to hold together a stable. And if this creature was living anywhere that didn’t rent by the hour, so help me, I would mace myself.
“Ever seen a pimp dressed like me?” Overlong arms spread to indicate ripped vinyl pants, filthy long hair dripping over everything to create a puddle at the back of the chair and around crimson alligator-stamped Doc Martens.
Good point all around. Big Daddies save the red shoes for the hookers. John Doe Irish’s scarecrow arms settled back to let his hands rest limply in his lap, the mesh shirt clung wetly to the inner angles of his elbows. “You fuck the dealers and cut out the middleman? C’mon, you fucked somebody for something, or Norbert wouldn’t have brought you in.” The only other way to get brought in by No-Belt was to not fuck him, but your dick might fall off if you put the boots to this boy. I wondered uneasily how close you had to sit to get crabs.
The damned kid was so used to the routine, he barely had to think about the answer. “Sure. Figure out what and let me know.“
“I’ll do that. How ‘bout I stick you in a cell until I think of something?”
“I can use somewhere warm to sleep. You’ll feed me in the morning, too, and all through the day. It’s Sunday in the morning, and the judge isn’t like to bugger off from golf to stop me from enjoying your hospitality.”
Another roll of thunder passed us, the sound too loud to speak over in this damned little brick and metal box of a police station. Mother Nature belongs on the stage, and a mere man can’t compete with her. After the thunder faded, I told the kid, “He’s not going to be playing golf if this keeps up.”
“It won’t.” He looked up sharply as lightening flashed down again, then listened with his eyes closed as thunder drowned the world. “It’ll be gone at three am, and the sun’ll be out tomorrow, you mark me well. I’ll be here safe and snug for a day and a night.”
A woman rushed into the station, soaking wet, babbling frantic nonsense about a man and her purse and being pushed into a gutter. She banged hard on the counter bell twice, even though a duty officer was already heading toward her.
For the life of me, I can’t tell you why I did what I did next. Too much time listening to my Catholic nan, maybe, with her unsuitably bloody bedtime stories. Under the desk, my hand made the gesture to ward off evil. My hand rose, still of its own accord, and made the sign of the cross.
John Doe’s eyes snapped open then, and I got a uncomfortably good look at them. One was bright green – cat green. The other was a backlit amber. Either was a normal enough color for a redhead. Both together, though, was horrible. I teetered on the edge of asking him which one was the evil eye, but didn’t. He would’ve had to tell me both to make me believe him.
I didn’t look away. I tried. I really tried. His stare pinned me in my slump to the cheap plywood desk. I couldn’t put down my coffee, and he stared and stared. Whatever he found surprised him, and he seemed as stuck as I. His hair moved in the currents from the air conditioner.
The air conditioner was broken. His hair still moved.
The kid whispered, “See me. You really see me.”
I didn’t mean to speak. “I don’t know. What the hell is this?”
“No, no. You say _What the hell are you?_” He moved. He leaned toward me, his fingers reaching toward my face. “Help me. See me. Help me. I can’t get in trouble if you already knew, right? And I can’t go back. So you already knew, and you saw me. And then you helped me. That makes it OK.”
I wanted to flinch away from his eyes, from his fingers, from the anticipation of his utter stench. I didn’t move. He touched wet, greasy fingers to my eyes, smeared them gently, and light exploded my vision. I stopped breathing and waited for the pain.
Not a sound from anyone else met my ears. This kid, this thing had reached out and put his fingers on my face in a room full of cops and no one moved? No one even yelled? What the hell?
“Just a little second,” came a nervous whisper near my left ear. “Just a tiny moment. No harm to you, so be quiet with it. Be still. You know. Of course you know. You always knew. I couldn’t tell you, but it’s OK since you already knew.”
My eyes were cool, but they didn’t hurt. I found I could blink. As vision cleared, I saw the empty chair in front of me, the squad room the same as always. No one had even glanced at me. Everyone facing me was absently gazing in a different direction.
To my left spread a sunny warmth and a perfume that made my mouth water. I risked a look and saw the whore crouching there. Dirty, malnourished, and dripping water, John Doe should have smelled like a wet dog. The way he was giving off heat, I should be smothering in acrid body odor. To keep from drowning, I said the first thing that came to my tongue. I guess it could have been worse. He was dirty and too skinny, and it was beautiful on him, like one of those Romantic poets with TB. He was a glorious glass figurine perched on an open windowsill. He was a walking fucking tragedy. I could have said that. Instead, I came out with, “Why do you smell like SweeTarts?”
He shifted his feet and and stared at them. “I’m being all uncooperative, officer, you should put me in the cell now. I committed assault on you, touched you. You should lock me up for a few days. Say, ‘til Thursday?”
My cop-brain started to function again, yelling at me that anything to made him this nervous was useful. “Why SweeTarts? We aren’t going anywhere until you answer me.”
“I don’t know. Do boys usually smell good to you? Maybe you like the little boys? I didn’t take you for the likes of Officer No-Belt out there, but maybe you’re like him.”
You’re not good at this, so don’t bother. “You want to be locked up? No answer, no cell.”
John Doe leaned back on his heels. “Fine. You live in the city, but it’s Spring here. Always Spring here. And there are trees and trees of plums.” The boy sighed the word like “plumes”, like it was the most exhausting fruit imaginable. “They’re the first flower you’ll see on the trees here. The first that smell good, anyway. And I smell like plums. Now you have your answer. Will you hurry up and book me now?”
“No. Who are you hiding from?” He scowled at me, and I scowled right back. I was going to give him what he wanted, but I liked him less for it. “You expect us to protect you from whatever you’re hiding from?”
“You can’t. But your cells are old and cold and heavy.”
And he smelled like spring, and he burned like the sun, and he’d come fully alive at my nan’s warding against fairies. “And the bars are steel.”
“Yes, and the bars are steel.” Light glinted off his sun-red hair, and his green eye glowed. The tilt of his head shaded his amber eye, made the socket seem deeper, as if the eye were missing altogether. His mouth pulled into a frown. “Please, steel.”
What the hell else could I do? This was beyond belief, beyond my understanding. I locked the kid up and gave his paperwork to No-Belt, who predictably screwed it all up and “lost” it. I tossed the kid out on his ass on Thursday, nice and early.
Before he left, John Doe handed me a Carmex pot full of grease. “One use, about. Look at your wife, if she loves you. Your kids, maybe, if she don’t. Don’t ever try to find me. I don’t owe you. This makes us square.”
I’ve been divorced for fifteen years. I don’t have kids. But Nan’s still in the hospital. She’s on wires and tubes and a lot of things that keep her alive. Ma can’t think whether to just let her off the life support or if that would be murder. I figure I owe my Nan, for teaching my hands something my brain forgot.
I’m not waiting for something beautiful. I’ll take my shot on something real.