I woke up with a throbbing arm and a head that felt as if a brick had smacked it. I rang for the nurse. I examined my arm. It was braced in a sling and resting on my stomach. I touched my head with my free hand and found a bandage covering a rather large bump.
“Mr. Roberts, has anyone talked to you?” asked the nurse as she swept into the room. She had wide hips and droopy brown eyes. She checked my IV and had me sit up while she fluffed my pillow.
“Uh. No, I just woke up.”
“Ok. Mr. Roberts, you’ve been in a car accident, ok?”
“Yeah,” I moaned, “I figured.”
“You’ve been unconscious for just a few hours, ok? We’ve already set your arm, so you don’t need to worry about that. And you’ve suffered a concussion. We’ll be keeping you overnight, ok? I’ll be back with your meds, and I’ll let your daughter know that you’re awake.”
My daughter? But before I could ask her what she meant, she was gone, chart in hand. I was bewildered and in need of drugs. My eyes were very heavy, and I must have closed them because I jumped when I heard a voice near me.
“Hey…dad,” it came, half chuckling.
I opened my eyes to see Amy smirking at me and shaking her head as if she’d never seen such a fool.
“You look like shit,” she said.
“Well, I feel like I’ve just been rolled down Russian Hill in a barrel.” As I tried to sit up, I learned that my left elbow was pretty banged up, too. I winced as I tried to remember the moment in which I was hit. I had been crossing the street. Then I remembered. She was running away. ”Why did you leave? And…and why are you here?”
“Why do they think that you’re my daughter?”
She brushed the hair out of her face. “They never even asked. I just hopped into the ambulance with you.”
I said, “Am I even old enough to have a daughter your age?”
“Well, I guess you look it.” She said as she sat down on the foot of my bed.
“Thanks,” I said. “I really need to get out of this place. It’s way too clean. Besides, I could really use a drink,” I said, watching the saline drip down into the back of my hand.
“Somehow, I don’t think that’s on the menu here,” she said, looking absently out the window down at the dimly lit parking lot.
The floors were made to look like cherry wood. They even had grooves where real wood would have been fitted together. It was a lame attempt to make the room seem homier. But this was far from home. What I wanted was a cigarette and a glass of Glenmorangie 10. Instead, I was stuck with a chicken noodle soup that tasted like liquid cardboard and a plastic container of applesauce Jello.
“Amy, where are you staying tonight?”
“I dunno. Union Square Park?”
“Very funny. Seriously, where will you go?”
She stared at her gray Chuck Taylors for a moment, looked up and shook her hair out of her face. She stared passed me at the wall for a moment and shrugged. “Sometimes I stay at the shelter on Ellis,” she said, “It’s clean, and they don’t ask too many questions.”
“So, you’re homeless?”
“Like I said, they don’t ask too many questions.”
“There’s a fold-out here in the corner. Stay here tonight, and then we’ll talk about this more tomorrow.”
She didn’t say anything. It was late. She made a bed out of the fold-out chair and curled up under one of the blue blankets she had found in the closet. I watched her sleep for a little while. The nurse stopped in to give me some more pain killers.
“I’ll stop by in a few hours to see how you’re doing, ok?” she said.
“Thanks. My, uh, daughter is going to stay with me.”
“That’s fine, Mr. Roberts. Do you need anything else?”
“When will I be able to leave?”
“We’ll take you for a walk in the morning, and if that goes well, you’ll be discharged before lunchtime.”
She flipped the light off and closed the door on the way out. The room became hushed. The only sound was Amy’s breathing just a few feet away from me. I fell asleep listening to her and devising a plan to keep her off the streets.
I fell in and out of sleep that night, awaking to dreams of a former life. I dreamed that I was with Laura again. We were watching TV together. I could smell her perfume.
I vaguely remember the nurse coming in to feed me another oxycodone. When I woke up the next morning, pale light filtered through the blinds. Amy was gone. I guess I knew she would be. The blanket was folded neatly on the chair.
I was eager to leave. I needed to find her. When the nurse came in with my breakfast, I asked, “So how about that walk around? I’d like to get out of here as soon as possible.”
“Have some breakfast, and then we’ll see.”
When they rolled in my tray, I ate quickly, slurped down a cup of lukewarm coffee, and buzzed the nurse’s station. She came in and said, “Ok, then Mr. Roberts, let’s get you up.”
After an easy walk up and down the hall and a quick look at my eyes, she declared that I’d be able to leave. I was out by eleven a.m.
I walked to the corner drug store to fill my prescription; then, I took a cab home. There was nothing to be done until night, so I poured myself a glass of scotch and crashed into my chair. My hope was that I would find her at the shelter, but I knew that if she didn’t want to be found, I would never find her. I flashed back to the scared look on her face the night she came to my window. I knew something or someone had frightened her. Was it her father? Was he looking for her? I imagined what kind of violence it would take to create a bruise, such as the one she had been given, and a wave of anger ran through me. I wanted to help her—keep her safe.
After a few more drinks, I passed out. The drugs mixed with the booze had hit me hard. I would not wake up until after midnight.
There she was, just as she’d been weeks before. She tapped at the window. I was wobbly on my feet, and my head was thick with sedation. I was also nauseated; overdosed on painkillers and booze. I opened my door to her once again. Her eyelids were heavy with exhaustion, and her hair was damp from the fine mist that enshrouded the city. She was silent–no smart remarks as she walked straight to my couch, covered herself with the blanket, and went to sleep.
I took my usual hangover cocktail of Alka Seltzer, Pepto Bismol, and Dramamine and settled into my chair. I was growing used to the sound of her breathing while she slept. My dreams were chaotic and fragmented. I chased a tornado in a beat-up old truck down an Oklahoma back road. I lay on the street, staring up at a stoplight seeing glimpses of Uncle Ray driving a tractor. I fell from my office building on Sutter Street.
I woke up to the smell of garlic and eggs. My stomach had settled, and it was a welcome smell. I hadn’t eaten since the following morning at the hospital. Perhaps she was beginning to trust me. I found her in the kitchen in her bare feet, humming quietly and standing over my gas stove. I watched her for a moment, fascinated by this girl who was quickly becoming a fixture in my life. She must have sensed my presence because she turned around to look at me. She bit her lip and studied me for a minute as if she was making some kind of decision.
I began to say good morning, but my voice caught in my throat. After clearing it a little more violently than I intended, I said, “Well, look at you. You didn’t run away.”
She emptied the pan onto two plates and laid them on the kitchen table. She’d also made coffee, which she poured for me as I sat.
“Thanks for breakfast, Amy. I usually just have–”
“Scones and a cup of coffee at the cafe on the way to work.”
“Right. Smells great.”
The sun was already shining through the tiny window on the kitchen wall. I’d overslept and would certainly be late for work. I took in a quick breath and let it seep out slowly.
“I’m gonna be late,” I said as I began to get up.
“Who gives a fuck. Sit down and eat your eggs. I don’t make garlic eggs for just anyone.”
I sat down. I guessed that she’d found my newspaper on the porch because she picked one up and began to flip through it.
“I can’t believe anyone still reads these,” she said as she turned to the want ads.
“Looking for a job?” I said, taking a bite, “Hmmm. God, this is delicious. Wait–” I swallowed. “Shouldn’t you be in school or something?”
She ignored me and flipped the paper over to the next page. The smell of coffee and newsprint always made me think of my father in his ratty, blue robe sitting in his easy chair with his reading glasses reading the Oklahoma Daily. I’d never been up early enough to know what time he actually got up in the morning, but I knew that it was early.
“Maybe I’ll get a job at Farid’s place where you bought me that crappy cup of coffee. There was a help wanted sign in the window. Waitress.”
“You might have to lie about your age.”
She smirked and laid the paper down. “You don’t even know my age. Why should I lie about it?”
“Yeah, about that. What are we doing here? You don’t think it’s a little strange—you staying here? A young girl and a—”
“Old man?” she said smirking.
“I was gonna say young…youngish man? You don’t know shit about me. Maybe I’m a serial rapist, and–”
“James. Are you a serial rapist?”
I began thumbing through the paper and said, “Amy, I seriously doubt he’ll hire anyone under eighteen.”
“Like I said, why should I lie about it when my drunk uncle James can do it for me.”
I sat the paper back down. “Uncle, huh. I thought I looked old enough to be your Dad?”
“I lied,” she said, poking her eggs with a fork, “You don’t look as bad as that, at least while you’re sober. And when would that be?”
“Funny. So what’s it going to be? Are you staying, or are you running?”
She brushed her hair away from her face and took a bite of eggs, then she set her fork on the plate and looked at me with her dark, enigmatic eyes.