The BART took me within a fifteen-minute cab ride to Heath’s apartment in Fremont, where there was a large Indian community. His apartment complex was modest but by no means a dump. As I climbed the stairs to his third-level apartment, I was overwhelmed by the fragrance of cumin, turmeric, ginger, onions, and garlic. The hour-long train ride had not done much for my appetite.
I was greeted at the door by a young, pudgy Indian woman in a sari. She was not unattractive, perhaps well-matched to Heath’s appearance.
“Welcome,” she said warmly, “I am Padma. You must be James. My husband has told me so much about you. Come in,” she said very formerly.
“Thank you; it’s lovely to finally meet you. Dinner smells delicious.”
“You like it? Do you eat Indian food often?” she asked as I handed her my jacket.
“Of course. Who in San Francisco doesn’t like Indian food?” I said, perhaps a little over-enthusiastically. I was feeling very anxious about the evening.
“Please have a seat wherever you like. Can I bring you some tea? You must be tired from the train.”
Her hospitality touched me in small-part. I did not generally drink tea, but it sounded like something that could settle my stomach. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
Laura and I decided to break up the spring of our senior year of high school. She had chosen to go to a small private college in St. Louis, and I would be staying in Oklahoma to study computer science. We wouldn’t write or call. That was the deal. But we would reconnect in the summers–no questions asked. Summer became my favorite season.
It was the week after our junior year in college, 1995. I had totaled my Ford Festiva out in front of my bank a week before. Bijan said he would get his dad to cut me a deal at the dealership where he worked. My dad and I drove up to the city to look around the lot. Much to my father’s disapproval, I intended to by a pickup truck. I felt that I would be moving around a lot in my twenties and might benefit from it. He had never owned a pickup truck and didn’t like unknowns when it came to a large purchase like a vehicle.
We had fallen into a routine of morning coffee and newspaper. I no longer questioned her presence in my apartment and my life. She was a part of my existence now. She was filling a piece of a large hole in my life. What piece, I did not know.
I heard her shuffling to the bathroom as I sipped my coffee and opened the paper to the Arts and Entertainment section. Something I saw gave me an idea.
“Amy?” I called out. There was no answer. I walked toward the hallway and called again, “Amy?”
“Please don’t,” she said softly and sullenly from behind the door.
“Talk to me while I’m taking a shit.”
“Oh. Sorry. There’s just something–”
“And yet you’re still talking.”
I supposed that my idea could wait a few minutes. I sat down again and studied the paper. I pulled out my phone to see what my evening was like. Nothing planned–as if I ever had anything planned.
As a child, people called me Lucky. I had an uncanny knack for finding money everywhere I went–quarters, dollar bills, fives, and, on three separate occasions, twenties–which drove my older brother Mike absolutely crazy.
One time, at the county fair, I had found two twenty-dollar bills, one under a flattened popcorn box in front of the ring toss and one on the floor of a port-a-potty. 40 bucks! Mike never had in his life found anything higher than the fifty-cent piece he had found waiting in line to ride the elephants at the circus two years before.
“One of those twenties is mine!” Mike had shouted at me on the way home, sobbing, superman t-shirt stained with vomit. “I was going to use that port-a-potty, and you went first!”
My software project was a six-month contract and was mostly complete but overdue. Still, my manager had already lined up two more projects for me if I wanted them. It was good money, and it was as far away from Oklahoma as I could get without leaving the continental United States.
After work, I walked to Farid’s cafe. I had held to my well-trodden tourist paths since I’d moved here, not sure whether I would be a true San Franciscan or just a temporary visitor. There was a blue neon sign over the storefront which simple said, “Hot Coffee Here.” It would be easy to walk past without even noticing it, but Farid served the best coffee and scones in the city, at least the best on my route between work and home, and he needed a waitress.
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.”
I stepped outside my favorite pub near Union Square for a smoke, belly full of bangers and mash. I was used to the cold, damp fog of the Bay Area by then, and there was no shortage of it that night. I had just taken my first long, after dinner drag when a teenage girl–no more than seventeen–with an Army jacket and backpack walked up to me, ghostlike and wordless, communicating her desire to bum a cigarette with a faint hand gesture. In the flame, I could see that her face was blue and green on one side, and for a brief moment, her dark brown eyes pierced mine. They were hard eyes, but there was something about the way she looked at me that let me know that she was in great need. Before I had a chance to ask, she was disappearing into the fog at a swift pace, glancing back at me only for a moment.
David Wilson-Burns offers his gritty and emotionally potent debut novel, Bay City Runaway, a story of two runaways finding each other in their escape from abuse and tragedy.
James, a thirty-something software wiz with a drinking problem, runs away to San Francisco to escape a tragedy in his home state of Oklahoma. In front of his favorite pub one night, a teenage girl with a nasty bruise on her face asks for a cigarette. He sees her several more times and gives her food and smokes. She appears to be living on the street, running away from abuse. Late one night, the frantic teen, Amy, shows up at his China Town apartment. Having nowhere else to go, she seeks shelter and protection from her abuser, who could show up at any time. They form an unlikely and complicated friendship.Wilson-Burns’ moving and engaging novel brings to vivid life the struggling, lonely alcoholic, the precocious, street-wise teenager, and the sexually-charged complication of a would-be girlfriend, Kyra, as their lives become intertwined.
He also captures 1990s college life as he tells the story of how a new friend, Zach, helps James win back the girl he will marry, leading up to the tightly kept secret of the tragedy that puts him on a plane to San Francisco in 2007.
In gripping detail, Wilson-Burns delves deeply into how alcoholism can grow from little seeds into a tragic and disastrous bloom.
Wilson-Burns uses his expressive, straightforward writing style to create an emotional experience for the reader and brings a deep sense of redemption and faith in humanity into his characters and story. Those who have experienced alcoholism in their lives will identify powerfully with James and Amy’s struggles. He shows how love, friendship, and faith can redeem the running, lost, and hurting.