By Janyce Stefan-Cole
Sky Traquer stood in front of Starrie’s dorm, hands shoved deep into pants pockets, shoulders hunched against the early spring wind; late March going out like a lion. Paper, swirling bits of gritty debris blew along the sidewalk on Commonwealth Avenue. He’d come looking for her, she’d been cutting classes, avoiding him. He was just about to give up when her roommate walked out of the building.
“Hey, Jodie, wait up!”
“Hey, Sky Tracker,” Jodie said, using the English version of his name. She smiled hopefully. “Oh, you’re looking for Starrie?”
“She’s not answering my calls.”
“She hasn’t slept at the dorm in weeks, just comes around for a change of clothes.” Sky nodded. “Some guy,” Jodie said.
“You know him?”
“I’m not a snitch, Sky.”
“I’m her cousin, how does that make you a snitch?”
“No, I know.” She chewed a thumbnail. “He’s older.”
“How much older?" The roommate shrugged. “Gray hair older?” Sky asked.
“You want to get coffee or something?” she said. By something Sky knew she meant hook up, go up to the room; sex.
A passing guy jostled Sky, mumbled an apology. Student traffic was always heavy outside the dorm, kids in jeans and jackets, scarves wound around necks in varying degrees of making a statement. Sky had been watching out for Starrie for two days. “That’s all you can tell me, Jodie?”
“Like she tells me anything? You wanna come up?”
Women—girls—reacted to Sky. So did some men. He was tall, slender, Native American; long jet black hair and dark eyes; eyes that held a lot, maybe too much. He didn’t respond to Jodie’s overture. He knew it was an animal thing, whatever they wanted: curiosity, white superiority, or just looking to touch something different; he’d been down that road before. He’d rather be an animal, but not a circus act. “She could be in trouble, Jodie.”
“She’s seeing a guy, Sky.” To his non-response Jodie added. “So it’s probably not a big deal. Okay?”
But Sky knew different.
Bobby reached across the seat but Starrie was hard up against the passenger door, like trying to be somewhere else. “Things’ll look better in the morning, babe,” he said to her unresponsive mood. His dog began to whine in the back seat. “I gotta pull over; let Smoke out for a piss.”
Starrie turned to face the dog. Bobby steered the car under a streetlight. He reached in back to snap the leash onto the dog’s collar, handing the end to Starrie. She looked at him. It was raining. “You’re on the curb side,” he said.
Starrie pulled up her hoodie and opened the passenger door. She got out; opened the back door. Smoke didn’t want to go out into the rain either. “C’mon,” she said, giving the leash a tug. Smoke shook himself, jumped out and walked a couple of feet to relieve himself along the lamppost. The black streets were slick in the rain. There was a smell, maybe the sea or maybe trash, or both.
Nothing was friendly about a strange city in the middle of the night, searching for an address, a bed, shelter. They’d been on the road three months, zigzagging across the county. Having hardly any money left made their situation that much more tenuous. Starrie could get her hands on ready cash, plus her monthly stipend. But that money had bad spirits on it.
She bundled Smoke back into the car and climbed in up front.
Bobby said, “Babe? Are you sure you got the address right on that map?”
She checked her phone. “These streets just don’t make any sense.”
The cold summer rain came down harder.
The trip west wasn’t supposed to end at a doctor’s office typing up patient notes. On the road Bobby had said her whole life was one big detour, but he’d said that during a fight and words spoken in the heat of argument didn’t count. And wasn’t he part of the detour? Their meeting had hardly been auspicious. He’d owned a record store, the Spinning Disk—the only record store remaining in Boston, possibly the whole state. He sold other stuff at the store, cannabis mostly, in a back room to a select clientele. A regular crowd hung at the Spinning Disk, where vinyl had made a comeback. One sparkling winter afternoon Starrie walked in, tall, dark, and she must be something exotic like Polynesian, or something. His eyes stuck to her like flies on a sticky strip in the summer heat.
Starrie only knew about the music when she walked in that day looking for a Doors CD, L.A. Woman; in particular the song, “Riders on the Storm”.
“You like The Doors?” he’d asked, his arm casually blocking her way.
“I like that song,” Starrie answered, backing away from him.
“I have it. What else do you like? Sixties, early seventies?”
“That would be like your age music, wouldn’t it?”
She could be as nasty as she liked, Bobby decided. “Tell me what you want?”
She looked at him, felt the heat of him. “I already told you.”
“So let’s go get you that album.”
Two days later Bobby traced her through her credit card and called.
Starrie was late, but wasn’t hurrying. There was no point; she’d never make it to Rodney’s by ten-thirty. She’d overslept, then taken the wrong bus, then gotten off the right bus at the wrong stop. She realized on the bus she’d forgotten her phone. She wasn’t used to getting up early for appointments. They’d been on the road, free as birds. It didn’t feel artificial at the time; it felt forever. Now Dr. Rodney Eeling was expecting her about a job, a position he’d offered her over dinner, though she was without a single medical skill.
The address was in her pocket, scratched on a piece of paper in her impossible script. She hadn’t Googled it because she didn’t care about the job, and she’d forgotten her phone anyhow. Could a person be fired before they even started?
She wished she could click her heels, like Dorothy, and be gone. When she thought about California, she’d pictured long palm-lined boulevards ending at the sea. There was the sea alright, the bay glimpsed here and there from the tops of hills before the street or avenue or boulevard dipped again. The sea could be a way to orient herself, and it was fair to say she needed orienting. She coughed, wondered about stopping for a cup of tea.
San Francisco wasn’t like Boston. It didn’t feel self-contained like the land in New Hampshire either. She couldn’t get a whole sense of the city. The hills ran up and down like boils on a face, the geography askew. Starrie thought a city should flare from a central heart. Where was San Francisco’s heart?
She hadn’t known who Bobby Player was when he called her from the record store; how he’d gotten her number. “Credit card info,” he said.
“You hacked me?”
“You could say that.”
His face came back to her, the way he’d looked at her. “You’re kind of old,” she said.
“Age have nothing to do with it, baby.”
It was creepy, but attractive too. He had authority. Authority wasn’t the same as orienting, but it was something.
They’d been together just under four months when they hit the road. The yellow brick road, she’d said. He sold and gave away most of his stuff. He’d been a soldier, knew how to survive on less. She had pretty much nothing with her when they drove out of Boston in a big white SUV.
If someone was on his tail, Bobby didn’t say. By then Starrie knew about the weed sales. She didn’t know he’d tried to slip into the cocaine market; that he’d wandered onto mob turf. He’d gotten some insurance money for his 1989 Mustang, red with a black convertible top. Starrie had liked that Mustang, the wind pulling at her long mane, Bobby playing DJ as they drove. He’d paid to have the car stolen and wrecked, chop shop style, made a claim, and with the insurance money financed the trip west—on the back roads. That suited her; she was on the run.
The San Francisco damp cut straight down to the marrow. A dishonest cold she’d felt gnawing since arriving that rainy night. The fog slipping in and out was like a character in a noir film—the bad guy—especially mean at night. It was mid-September, she hadn’t yet learned to layer up and shed against a day that could start out with a wet wind only to burn off and then chill up again.
“This is sunny California?” she asked. When was it ever going to get summer hot? Everyone told her she was going to fall in love with October. They called the climate temperate, she called it treacherous.
Bobby had nudged her to take up Rodney’s offer, whatever it was Rodney wanted from her. He made the job offer over pomegranate martinis, taken them to a pricey seafood place on Pier 39, dinner on the bay. “Order anything you want,” he’d insisted, “it’s on me.”
They’d been battle-front buddies, Bobby and Rodney. Rodney was a medic, Bobby a private. He’d moved up to corporal but lost that when he went AWOL for a few days looking for whores without finding any. Rodney had laughed at him, what did he expect in the Arabian Desert, tents full of girls, hijabs removed?
To Starrie’s protestations that she was unqualified, Bobby said to just hear Rod out. The thought of a job felt like a noose tightening around her neck. But they were broke; all the temptations of city life had no meaning without cash to burn.
She’d gotten off the bus in the middle of a neighborhood that might not be the best place for a lone girl dressed up spiffy for an interview. People hanging on corners; idle, unemployed. No wonder the bus driver gave her that funny look. Her hard-to-identify race, her looks and height usually meant a free pass. She didn’t trade on her looks—aware of the edge they gave her, and the danger. Anyhow, she didn’t have anything on her worth stealing.
She gave up on finding Rodney’s office. Wandering alone for a day could be the ticket, a chance to claim the city for herself, away from Bobby’s influence. She’d reschedule for tomorrow. One more day wouldn’t matter. If Rodney refused to hire her for messing up, so what, something else would come up. Something always did, or had so far.
She walked all day, up and down; hills and valleys, tinkling trolleys, winking bay, round and round. She was looking for the magic, as if it were a kitten lost somewhere along unknown avenues. Every place has its magic, emerging on its own terms; she just had to let it happen. That’s what she believed. But Frisco was no different from towns she’d seen all across America: swathes of poverty scraping alongside centers of comfort and wealth, inequality the norm. The rich got richer, the poor ate beans. If she could pinpoint what it was about the city that disaffected her maybe she’d find a way to settle in.
Day waned into evening as she wound her way back up the hill to the apartment, the hectic workday tempo letting up, hard daytime yielding to the soft night—until that too turned hard, but in a different way. She must have asked a dozen people and one cop for directions. A cabbie drew a map. That was nice of him; she had no cash to ride in his taxi.
She let herself in, feet aching from pounding miles of concrete. Bobby called to her from the kitchen; he was on the phone and quickly hung up. He came out to the living room, his long brown hair knotted into a ponytail, shirtless in white jeans, a lit cigarette balanced on his lower lip. “Where you been, babe? Rodney must’ave called ten times. You never showed.”
Gangsta rap was playing on the radio, ‘bitches been slappin’ / gonna be some cappin’ / don’t mean just tappin’— Starrie snapped the throbbing sound off, waved the air in protest to Bobby’s cigarette. She dropped her bag on the floor before flopping down on the plush, aubergine-colored sofa, kicking off her shoes.
“These are not for walking,” she announced, lifting swollen red feet for him to see. Smoke trotted over to rub a wet muzzle in Starrie’s opened hand, eyes full of worry, submission and relief. Starrie pulled on the big dog’s satiny black ears. Smoke’s tail wagged a happy beat.
She looked up. “This city is not a good place.”
“Yeah, okay. I remember that from the first four hundred times you said so. Did you get any dinner?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Okay. Call Rodney, huh?”
“You left your phone on the kitchen table, not smart, babe.”
“It won’t happen again, Dad.” Her tone was tired and snotty.
Bobby walked out of the room.
The next day Bobby drove her to Rodney’s office and she agreed to take the job. She wasn’t long catching on to his reasons for hiring her, his friend’s girlfriend, as his assistant. Rodney left out the part about being a user when he offered her work. He didn’t need an employee so much as a lookout.
“This is a joke,” she told Bobby that night. “He’s gonzo, your friend.”
“Your old war buddy, Dr Eeling’s a doper.”
“You took the job?”
“But only until we have enough saved to get out of here. That was the deal, right?”
She’d been close to happy on the road, the pure bliss of escape. They’d gone to places with names she’d read about but had not believed in because she hadn’t seen for herself. The allure had to do with the lightness of the highway, not knowing what lay ahead at the end of each day: blinding fatigue, crashing out in a raunchy ramp-side motel, or maybe a splendor of place that eased everything about her and made the world somehow whole again, the way she’d known on the land before everything fell down.
Miles slipping by under tires, space filling in evenly with time; a neat suspension of mind and being was the spell of the road. Bobby, her improbable boyfriend, was game, wise about being out there. She’d felt safe even though their situation bypassed anyone’s idea of making sense.
“People don’t hit the road anymore,” Bobby had said, assuming his older guy mantle. “And it’s a real damn shame.”
She’d thought he meant like Kerouac and the Beats; pulled off the halter and feedbag and let go. They’d taken their time, followed no set route. Bob Dylan’s song played in her head: With no direction home. Like a complete unknown. Just like a rolling stone.
She’d been behind the wheel the day they took off from Boston, traveling due south at first, skipping I-95 and New York; the big highways. Bobby had something he needed to take care of in Baltimore. Starrie had already figured out not to ask what. He’d parked her in a motel with Smoke and disappeared for two days.
When he got back he said, “Ready to rock ‘n’ roll?”
The whatever-it-was must have worked out, Bobby’s mood was up. He wrestled with Smoke while Starrie finished packing. In the car, he said, “You drive, babe.” He pulled his hat down and closed his eyes. He said to maybe go west and then north. She went south, toward Virginia. She’d driven through the town of Hancock, where Maryland was only two miles wide, running parallel just below the Mason Dixon, road signs indicating West Virginia. She’d said, “How do you like that,” gooseflesh running along her spine. Bobby was slumped asleep in the passenger seat. She’d wanted to rouse him: “Hey, wake up, Bobby! This is history here.”
Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee; she’d imagined the soldiers’ yells, their horses’ terrified neighing, the blood the Yanks and Rebs spilled in the war divided by that line, one side of a nation pitted against the other, brother killing brother. She wanted to tell Bobby. But he knew it. He’d fought in the desert storm situation, though he said he’d hardly call that a fight. A bullshit war he called it.
The Civil War had the effect of slowing down the great American expansion. The Comanche took advantage, pushing back on the inexorable westward crush of whites taking Indian land. The Comanche were brutal: rape and torture, killing and taking scalps to put fear into the invaders’ hearts: think twice about settling on the Great Plains they called Comancheria. It was only a candle flame of hope that soon went out. The white man would never be stopped, meting out his own brand of cruelty.
They traveled to locations on the map for no better reason than that the name attracted, and arrived sometimes to find the place with the catching name had become a mall in a stagnant suburb, or a pitiful slum. A nowhere place that had changed so much over time its name was a sad joke. There was nothing even to take a picture or buy a postcard of; just a location at the edge of monotony. Bobby would ask what the fuss was all about, and she’d say: “They should at least change the name so people could lower their expectations.” He’d conceded her point. She said, “America was one outrageous landscape before Pizza Huts and Wal-Marts and sleaze-ball Motel Eights grew like infected zits all over Grandmother Earth.”
“What’s wrong with sleaze-ball? I thought you liked motel sex?”
“Sure, but maid service is the real turn on. I especially like ripping off those little paper bands across the toilet seats.” She laughed at her own cleverness.
“They don’t actually clean the toilet seats.”
“Nah. They just put the paper on so you think they do.”
“Really?” She looked out of the window. A furry, mangled-up piece of road kill lay on the shoulder. “Rabbit,” she said, turning her head until she could no longer see the body. “I wonder if he died instantly or if he suffered spasms of lonely pain before the life lifted out of him.” Bobby opened his window. “So you think they clean the glasses with the paper over them? I know you’re not supposed to put your face anywhere near the bedspreads, those they never launder, all sorts of leaked fluids.”
Bobby closed his window. “The places we’ve been staying we’re lucky we get plastic cups.”
They’d bedded down in dozens of cheap motel rooms on the road, and she’d loved every one of them—as long as no cockroaches were visible. They’d woven south to north, south again and, finally due west. They’d gone through the Badlands and wondered, why bad? Why not some other adjective like severe or spare or minimal? It was roasting hot in the Badlands under a determined sun. They’d seen a herd of buffalo eating dried-out grass, just as if they were props in a cowboy movie, Bobby said. “Cowboys and Indians,” she corrected. She didn’t say anything about Sioux living on reservations, and the Teton, Santee, Lakota Oglala tribes; the others confined on their land where they’d once roamed free; the Cheyenne, Omaha, and the Arikara.
A Credence CD blared on the car’s player, “…bother me tomorrow, today I have no sorrow, doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my backdoor. Bobby’s carefully cultivated road music; older stuff like Queen, and Cream; Clapton, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker; Sonny Boy Williamson, Roy Orbison, and, of course, Dylan. Music of the south and west, rockabilly, R&B, hard city rock; the American landscape in song and the mood in the car in sync with the road; the entire universe wide open, blessing this unintentional pair on their way to nowhere and everywhere all at once.
Bobby was surprised she knew the lyrics to Dylan’s songs. Her mother played Dylan on drives up country. Her father saying things like, the lyrics rhymed but didn’t always make sense. “But they always add up to a story,” Mom would say. “He’s the closest we pale people have to the itinerant storyteller.”
Sometimes Starrie would sit up front with her dad, her mother napping in back, tired after two days of packing for a month, six weeks on the land. He’d repeat tales of Gluskabe as they drove; talk of the myth figures. Nokemos Agaskw, Grandmother Woodchuck, or Tolba and Moskwas—Turtle and Muskrat, and how the land was formed. Repeating was the point, the power of the words. Maybe it was on those summer drives north that her mother began planning her secret book on the storytelling peoples and their myths. She never got to finish it. Of this Starrie said not a word to Bobby.
They’d driven the winding road through a verdant Shenandoah Valley, beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Starrie sang a loud, off-key, Oh, Shenandoah, as Bobby drove. They couldn’t believe their eyes that the valley remained mostly as it was in song, only more generously green than they’d imagined. Later they drove through flat and endless—Bobby complained—Oklahoma, Starrie guiding them into Indian Country, to Osage County where the reign of terror took place in the 1920s.
Bobby had never heard of it.
Starrie looked at him. “The murder of the Osage? No? Not surprising,” she said, more to herself, “Whoever talks of that history? What happened was, the Osage were pushed onto worthless prairie that turned out to be ideal for grazing. So they did alright leasing land to cattle ranchers. The thing about the Osage—the very rare thing—is they purchased their reservation. Nobody wanted that land so they got it cheap—well, they got is the point, so when oil was discovered—like 1890—no one could take that land from the Osage.”
“So the Indians got rich?”
“They did and they didn’t.” She heard herself sounding like her Uncle Gaston. Those nightly history lessons after she was moved up to Maine, to Penobscot for the rest of her growing up. Sitting next to Sky as Uncle Gaston told real Indian history, going back as far as anyone knew.
“They hit black gold,” Bobby insisted.
“Head rights, they called it: A percentage of every barrel of crude pulled out of the ground. Then the government decided the natives were too ignorant to manage their own money so they set up a guardian system whereby white men controlled the money—”
“Another reason you can’t trust the United States government.”
“You’re an anarchist, Bobby.”
“I’m not talking about that.”
“So the guardian system led to guess what? Good old greed, manipulation, and murder, all for those head rights. Over twenty full-bloods were shot, poisoned or blown up.”
“The Reign of Terror. And in Fairfax—”
“Is that where we’re going?”
“No. Pawhuska, the Osage capital where—”
“How do you know all this?”
She ignored his question. “After Pawhuska we’re gonna checkout the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, where the buffalo roam free.”
“More bison? We could skip that part.”
“Then we’re going down to Cache to see the house of the last Comanche Chief, Quanah Parker.”
“I think I heard ‘a him, a half breed, right?”
“You shouldn’t use that term, Bobby.”
“Why not, you use it? You use it about yourself.”
“Try saying mixed race.”
“Yes, ‘ma’am,” he said.
The road had been good, plenty of magic. Now they were on Nob Hill in a swank two bedroom overlooking the bay. Bobby said only she could be immune to the million dollar view. He had connections everywhere and he’d kept in touch on the road. The Nob Hill apartment was owned by a friend of a friend; a man heavily into drugs who’d gone straight and spiritual, or was trying to, at an ashram, looking to atone.
“So California,” Starrie mocked. “He’s just gonna use meditation as a replacement drug.”
“Yeah? What do you know about it, babe?”
“Plenty,” she said, but not harshly. “Plenty,” she repeated, more softly. Bobby looked at her, put off by her expression, hoping she wasn’t going to go all dark moody on him.
The doper/dealer’s good deed, letting two virtual strangers and their dog live in his posh pad, was meant to erase accumulated negative karma. He was set to return to the material world and Starrie and Bobby had to clear out. They would move to a two-family house at the back end of Golden Gate Park, leave the glamour of Nob for a tidy bourgeois neighborhood. Rodney had made the arrangements with his old friend, Ron Revelation.
Starrie said if Nob Hill was Oz, moving to Ron Revelation’s was falling dead-end down the rabbit hole. “Too tidy,” she said, of the repeating pattern of pastel houses. “Too quiet, too much hidden behind curtains.” Bobby wanted to know how she could possibly know what went on behind the curtains.
“The Richmond,” Ron told her.
She was standing at the kitchen window on a warmish morning that felt like rain, hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea. “What?”
“The Richmond District is where we are.”
Starrie was watching Ron’s grandmother outside. Tall and thin, draped in a long dark blue dressing gown, hair puffy silver in the overcast light as she slowly walked the weedy garden path, elongated fingers clasping the cloth at her throat. Starrie liked the way she moved, her poise, and wondered what she thought of her pothead grandson.
Ron had been an ER orderly where Rodney worked trauma; an inner city hospital—as bad as it gets outside of a warzone. They’d shared joints on breaks, pauses between patching body parts, pulling bullets out of wherever they’d pierced; saving the ones they could. Ron sterilized tools non-stop, was a steady presence until they fired him for being high on the job. “Getting canned,” Ron later told Rodney “was something of a relief.” Currently out of work, he was a freelance carpenter, when there was a job he would agree to take.
The pale pink two-family was spacious; Bobby and Starrie’s furnished room in front was bathed in morning sunlight—if the sun ever shone.
“How come you live here?” she asked Ron, taking a sip of green tea.
He grinned. “Home is where you hang your hat, Star.”
The house had been his grandparents, then his parent’s. His grandmother lived in a small apartment upstairs. The kitchen was the nexus. No one spent time in the living room with its Mission Oak furnishings and genuine Tiffany lamps, an arrangement that hadn’t been altered in three generations. The dining room table was covered in a layer of dust an epic novel could be written on. Shades were usually down except for the kitchen that looked out on the backyard garden. A large round table dominated, mismatched chairs clustered around it, often filled with Ron’s assorted friends. The air was permanently draped with clouds of pungent marijuana, or hashish, complimented by incense sticks and scented candles.
Starrie hadn’t smoked weed before Bobby. Uncle Gaston’s influence had held. Her vision quest had been so fraught with pain and loss, so intense the medicine had stayed true for a long time. She tossed that all away when they hit the road. Bobby had liked her purity, but now there was no escaping temptation all around.
“It has its plusses,” Ron said.
Starrie turned to face him. “What does?”
“The Richmond. Proximity to the back side of Golden Gate Park, and it edges the Pacific, which—”
“Hang on. Hear that bird?” They both stood still to listen to the short squee followed by a throaty click. “It’s a black/blue bird, metallic. The eye’s a piercing yellow with a black dot in the center.” She pointed to her own eyes.
“That would be a Brewer’s Blackbird; you will hear it all year round.”
“I didn’t know that bird.”
“You wouldn’t see him on the east coast.”
Starrie thought a minute. “I wish one would stop so I could say hello.”
They both turned when the back door opened and Ron’s grandmother walked in.
“Hey, Gran. Are you warm enough out there in just that robe thing?” Ron asked without waiting for a reply. “How ‘bout some tea, kettle’s hot.”
“Alright, Ronnie,” his grandmother said, walking past Starrie, nodding as she did. Was this very young tan-skinned creature yet another of her grandson’s dalliances?
Ron put the heat on under the kettle, set out a cup and saucer. He filled the teapot with fresh leaves. Pouring fragrant tea into her cup, he told his grandmother, “Gran, this is Starrie. She’s renting the front room. I think I mentioned to you.”
“An unusual name, Starrie.” She held out her hand, veins showing like routes on a map. “I’m Matilda.”
Starrie smiled bigger than she had in a long time. She sat when the grandmother did. Ron refilled her mug. Could this be a place to stop? Could something at last stay still inside her?
Her phone rang. She glanced at the caller’s name: Sky Traquer. She let the phone ring until the message bit took over and the call stopped. He’d located her new cell number.
“Is everything alright?” Ron asked, watching her.
Starrie looked to Grandmother Matilda, as if she might have the answer.
Bobby strolled into the kitchen, followed by Smoke, plaid robe loosely tied, newly cut hair tousled. He said, “Why wouldn’t everything be alright, Ron?”
Janyce Stefan-Cole is the author of two novels, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and THE DETECTIVE'S GARDEN (Unbridled Books). Stefan-Cole's short fiction, essays, reviews and freelance journalism have appeared in or will appear in: The Open Space issue 21, Things That Matter. The Laurel Review; The Healing Muse, Main Street Rag, FLYPmedia, American Book Review, WG News + Arts, & And Then.