My name’s Tanner, I’m fifteen. Three weeks ago I ran away from home. I hitchhiked from Redondo Beach to Santa Cruz with my surfboard (a six-seven Ukelele, quad fin), a sleeping bag and my backpack. It’s possible my mom hasn’t missed me. She’s got a drinking problem (vodka) and often she doesn’t know what day of the week it is. I quit school a few months back and Mom didn’t notice, nor did anyone else. It’s OK. Books and I don’t agree, plus I don’t like teachers telling me what to do: sit here, do this, be quiet, stop picking your nose.
I chose Santa Cruz because it is, hands-down, California’s premier surfing spot. Ask any shredder and he’ll tell you I’m right. A break exists at Steamer Lane, near the wharf, it churns out head-high rights like a machine. They keep coming. And Santa Cruz cops tolerate homeless people. Most nights I sleep under a lifeguard tower on the beach, near the arcade, and nobody bothers me. I panhandle before La Barrenada Mexican restaurant and I do pretty well. Tourists — moms especially — feel sorry for street boys, and they’ll slip me a buck or two. They’ll say, “Buy yourself a sandwich, honey.”
I’m no movie star, but people like my smile. I’ve got good teeth and I take care of them, I brush three times a day. My choppers help.
The big problem with homeless life is keeping clean. Santa Cruz bums don’t shower for weeks at a time and they stink like rancid meat. Me, I like to bathe and wash my hair at least every other day, and it poses a problem as there are no public showers in Santa Cruz. My solution? I approach guests at one motel or another, and ask if I can shower in their room.
When I make these bathing requests, folks often look at me like I’m daft. They’ll say, “Forget it, kid,” or something like that. But this is California and eventually some guy (there’s no use asking women) will acquiesce. He’ll say, “Sure, come in,” and I’ll get myself clean.
When you’ve got a home you take things for granted: your bathroom, the washing machine and closets, they’re just there. But when you live on the street, you face problems: Let’s say I want to go surfing. Where do I stow my backpack and sleeping bag while I’m on the water? Not just anywhere `cause Santa Cruz bums are serial thieves. I must find someone trustworthy — a shopkeeper or motel manager — a person who’ll let me place my belongings in his storage room.
Same thing with my surfboard: You can’t walk around all day with a stick taller than you. But leave your board untended in Santa Cruz and it’ll disappear quicker than a rainbow.
I lucked out on the storage problem: A week after I arrived in Santa Cruz I met a woman named Rosa, part Mexican. She’s got green eyes and pretty hair and she’s probably forty. I was eating a grilled cheese at the lunch counter by Boardwalk Bowl and she took a stool next to mine, she ordered lentil soup. She wore leather sandals and a dress with multi-colored stitching on the chest. When my gaze met hers she smiled and said hi. Then she brushed my bangs out of my eyes and she looked at me funny. She said, “You’re a runaway, aren’t you?”
I said, “How’d you know?”
“I have a gift: I read minds, I foretell the future.”
“Are you a witch?”
She laughed when I said that. She said, “I don’t ride a broom.”
After Rosa finished her soup we went to her place. It’s a few blocks from the lunch counter, a cottage in the Beach Flats neighborhood with figures painted on its clapboard siding: unicorns and sun gods, astrological symbols and such. A neon sign proclaimed: “PALM READINGS AND TAROT”. Inside was dim and musty-smelling. She probably owned a dozen cats (you could smell the litter box) and they wandered the place, they slept on furniture, they perched on window sills and looked out. We sat on a horsehair sofa, me and Rosa, next to a long-haired calico kitty, and Rosa took my hand in hers. She turned my palm up and she studied it, she traced the creases with her index finger. She showed me my “life line”, my “health line”, my “marriage line” and so forth. She pointed to one crease she called my “fame line.” She said, “One day you’ll be a celebrity of sorts.”
I said, “Of sorts? What do you mean?”
“Your name will make headlines. I’m not sure for what.”
I’m not a superstitious guy and I considered the whole thing bullshit, but I went along. I nodded and stared into my palm.
Afterward, I told her about myself and my present circumstances. She kept her eyes fixed on me while I spoke and, honestly, I felt a bit uncomfortable, like she knew my deepest secrets. (Yeah, I beat off twice a day. So what?) I told her competition surfing at the world level was my dream. I’d shred waves in Bali, Indonesia, Australia and Hawaii. I’d collect sponsors who would pay for my boards and wetsuits and travel. I said, “Maybe that’s how I’ll make headlines — with my surfboard.”
She dropped her gaze to the carpet and didn’t say anything.
I described my storage problem, and Rosa said I could keep my stuff in her shed, a little structure out back with a door that locked. She showed me where she hid the key — under a galvanized bucket — and she said I could sleep in the shed when the weather got bad. She was very kind and I felt blessed I’d met her, but when I asked if I could shower at her place from time to time, she said no, she wouldn’t feel comfortable with it, and I understood, really I did. She’s a single woman, living alone, and she doesn’t want some strange kid getting naked at her place.
Being homeless in Santa Cruz can get lonely. When it rains and the sidewalks and parking lots are empty and wind blows trash about the streets, there’s no one but wharf bums around. These are middle-aged guys with tangled beards, dressed in rags and holey shoes they found in a trash bin. Many are crazy and hostile, and they’re often high on drugs or alcohol.
One night, I lay beneath a lifeguard tower. The temperature was chilly and a light rain fell and I shivered in my sleeping bag. I was half-asleep, listening to sea lions bark, when this bum approached and kicked me in the ass, two or three times. He hollered, “Punk, give me some of that money you panhandled today. I need beer.”
I squirmed in my bag and I got to my knees. I yelled, “I don’t have money; leave me alone.”
He kicked me again, this time in the chest, and it knocked me flat. He grabbed my backpack and worked at the zipper. “Your pretty smile made tons of cash today, I saw,” he said. “Now, where’s the money?”
I wriggled out of my bag while he pawed the backpack. He threw my stuff — socks and underwear and t-shirts — upon the sand, and this got me angry. I’ve got a butterfly knife I keep in my back pocket, six inches, and I pulled it out and snapped the blade into place. (Zing!) When the bum heard the noise, he looked up and saw moonlight reflecting off the knife. His jaw slacked and he looked at me and said, “What the hell?”
I cried, “You crazy bastard, get away from me or I’ll slice you open.” I held the blade before me, and when I took a step toward him he dropped my backpack and fled, kicking up sand. Over his shoulder he hollered, “You crazy little shit, I’ll get you one day. Just watch.”
Some days I don’t speak to a single soul and it’s lonesome. I’ll often visit a favorite spot, a park on Cliff Drive that overlooks the wharf, very near a bronze statute erected by the Santa Cruz Surf Club. Coast redwoods grow there and I like to sit on a particular boulder — one with a view — and ponder my past. I’ll think of my mom and whether she cares I’m gone. I’ll wonder if my life might’ve turned out different had I grown up with my dad. (He was a cop, killed when I was three, shot when he tried to break up a domestic dispute.) I’ll think of my friends in Redondo Beach (I had a few) and wonder what they’re up to. I’ll ask myself: Did I made a mistake running away?
I think not.
My mom has a boyfriend named Ray. He works as a stevedore at the Port of Los Angeles, a burly guy who thinks he’s hot shit ‘cause he drives a new truck and owns a membership at a golf course. Sometimes he sleeps at our place, and when he does he and Mom drink liquor and after a while Ray gets bossy and insulting toward me. (He calls me “Blondie.”) Once, when I complained to Mom of Ray’s behavior, she said, “I know he’s not perfect, but he’s company. Do you know how it feels to be lonely?”
One night, after dinner, Ray told me to clean up the kitchen — two days’ worth of dishes and pots and pans — and I said, “We all ate from these. How about some help?”
He pointed a finger. “Don’t argue with me, Blondie; get to work.”
I said, “You’re not my dad. You can’t tell me what to do.”
He slapped my face then, really hard, and it almost knocked me down. It hurt so bad I cried. I yelled for Mom, but she lay upon our living room sofa with her eyes closed and she pretended not to hear. So I washed the damned dishes and every pot and pan. It must’ve taken me an hour or more, standing at the sink with my hands in soapy water, and all the time I thought to myself: I can’t take this. I’m leaving.
Next morning, while Mom and Ray still slept, I gathered my stuff and took off.
I made a good choice, I think, but I worry about my future. What’s to become of me? I’ll never be a surfing contender if I’m sleeping on the beach. And what will happen when cold weather arrives? No tourists will come to the Boardwalk and what will I do for food money? Who will I panhandle?
I sit on my boulder and mull.
Today is Tuesday. I haven’t eaten since Sunday and my stomach grumbles and my head hurts. I glance at my wristwatch. It’s four-thirty and the sun will set in half an hour. Thursday is Thanksgiving and St. Vincent de Paul will serve dinners to the homeless, but what’ll I do for food till then? I’m out of money and no pedestrians are about so I’ve got no one to panhandle. An onshore breeze intrudes, chilling my ears and the tip of my nose, rolling an empty soda can along the sidewalk. I stand in La Barrenada’s alcove entrance (they are closed today) and I stamp my feet against the cold. Across the street is Santa Cruz Boardwalk, the city’s most famous attraction. It features an arcade called “Neptune’s Kingdom” with miniature golf, all types of games, rows of pool tables and several restaurants. There’s an amusement park with a roller coaster — “The Hurricane.” A mural with a red octopus and a diving bell adorns the arcade’s entrance and normally the building has a whimsical appearance, but today it simply looks forlorn.
In Santa Cruz, November’s sunlight is feckless.
I crave food and a warm shower and maybe a friend to share my troubles with. I would visit Rosa but she’s at her sister’s in Bakersfield so it’s not an option. I hoist my backpack to my shoulders, I stuff my hands into my pockets and I walk to the Palm Court Motel, a 1960s structure sitting across the road from the beach volleyball courts. Palm Court’s waterfront rooms have balconies. In good weather patrons will sunbathe there, they’ll sip cocktails, they’ll watch people pass on the sidewalk.
I scan rooms facing the beach. Lights are on in a few, but every balcony is empty. Who wants to sit outside when it’s damp and chilly? Beside me, a yucca plant trembles when the breeze blows. I turn and study the wharf, a pier-like structure jutting half a mile into Monterey Bay. Seafood restaurants operate there and their lights are on. They’re open for business. I consider visiting the wharf, I might check trash bins for recently-tossed food. Tourists order seafood platters, then they don’t eat half what is served them and the balance goes into the garbage. The stuff’s good, albeit cold. I keep packets of tartar sauce and ketchup in my backpack (swiped from convenience stores and take-away counters) and I’ll slather discarded fish filets and clam strips with my condiments and they make a decent meal. Sometimes I’ll find snow crab legs. They’re especially good cold.
Behind me, a glass door opens. Rollers squeak against aluminum tracks. I turn and see a guy — he looks in his mid-thirties — leave his room, he steps onto his second-floor balcony. He wears slacks and a windbreaker with a sweater underneath. His hair flutters in the breeze. He carries a drink with ice in it and he takes a sip, then he places the drink on a table. He lights a cigarette and looks toward sunset.
I wait a minute or so, I stare at the horizon like it’s fascinating. Then I turn and raise my chin. I smile and say, “How’s it going?”
He looks down at me, we’re only a dozen feet apart. He says, “I’m good. Yourself?”
“Great, just fine, but I’m a little hungry.”
He doesn’t respond to my comment, but his eyes narrow. He takes a drag from his cigarette.
I ask, “Are you from out of town?”
He nods. “Sacramento.”
“I’ve never been there.”
“It’s OK, but I prefer the ocean. I like salt air.”
He says, “If you’re hungry, why don’t you go home and eat?”
I drop my gaze to the sidewalk, I put my hands in my pockets, I kick concrete with my sneaker toe. “I left home,” I say, “I’m on the street and, to be honest, I’m short of cash.”
He draws on his cigarette.
I look up and tell him, “I haven’t bathed since Sunday. Could I please shower in your room? I’d be quick and I’ve got my own towel and stuff. I wouldn’t mess things up.”
He studies me a moment. Then he says, “What’s your name?”
I tell him and he looks at me some more. He works his jaw from side to side, then he says, “All right, Tanner, come on up. I’m in Room 212.”
I exhale and my shoulders slump. At last. I scoot inside and the desk clerk gives me the eye but he doesn’t stop me from getting on the elevator. The second floor hallway is poorly-lit, the wallpaper’s stained, and eau de carpet freshener is the prevalent aroma. I find the guy’s room and I knock and he says come in.
I’ve visited several Palm Court units. All were all like this: queen-size bed with a chenille spread, laminate furniture, a wall-mounted lamp with a fluted shade, a pole lamp (also with a fluted shade), a vinyl-upholstered chair and a television with a remote. The nightstand contains a dog-eared Santa Cruz phone book, a menu from a pizza place and a Gideon Bible which has never been read.
The heat’s on and the room feels toasty. The guy sits in the chair, he holds his drink in both hands and his legs are outstretched. He wears his windbreaker. His athletic shoes cost two hundred dollars. I know; I priced a pair once.
Lamplight reflects off his gold watch, off his wedding band too. He looks older up close, forty maybe. His gaze travels from my face to my shoes, then he rises and extends his hand.
“I’m Will,” he says. He’s a head taller than me, then some. My hand disappears into his when we shake. He’s broad-shouldered, athletic looking, but his eyes are puffy like he doesn’t get much sleep. He points to the bathroom. “Help yourself,” he says.
I take my backpack into the bathroom. I close the door behind me and lock it. I undress and get into the shower, a fiberglass, prefabricated thing with a flimsy curtain. I turn handles, I adjust the water temperature till it’s just right, then I stand under the spray and let it pound the back of my neck. Ah-h-h-h. I have my own soap and shampoo (I try to be a considerate guest.) and I don’t linger, I’m done in five minutes. The bathroom has fogged and I can’t see myself in the mirror when I leave the shower. I fish a towel from my backpack and I dry myself as best I can in the damp air. I put on fresh boxer shorts, then my jeans. I unlock the door and bring my stuff into the room where it’s not so muggy, so I can get dry before I finish dressing.
Will mixes himself another drink, a gin and tonic. He’s got a lime which he slices with a plastic motel knife. He looks me over like he did before, taking his time. Then he rattles the ice in his drink, he raises his eyebrows. “Want one?”
I look at the glass in his hand. I’ve tried alcohol before — Mom’s vodka mixed with orange juice — and I didn’t much care for the taste or the way it made me feel. But I’m so hungry anything sounds good, plus he’s got a can of roasted almonds on his nightstand and they might go well with a drink, so I say, “OK, sure.”
I sit on the edge of his bed, I towel my back, I dry between my toes, then my hair. When I’m done he hands me my drink and I take it in both hands, I say thanks and take a sip, then I make a face. The drink has a bitter taste. I pluck the lime wedge out and suck on it. I take another sip from my glass, I swallow and this one’s not as bad as the first.
Will returns to his chair. I set my drink on the nightstand and get myself dressed: fresh t-shirt and socks, sweater. But I leave my shoes and jacket off. It’s comfortable in the room and maybe my host will let me stay a while. I locate my hairbrush and go to the wall mirror. My hair’s long — almost to my shoulders — and it takes a while to get the job done. In the meantime, Will’s gin takes effect. It warms my tummy and I’m more relaxed than I’ve been in days. I shift my weight from one leg to the other. I stare into the mirror.
“What’s it like?” Will says, “living on the street?”
I shrug. Approaching the nightstand, I point to the almonds. “Can I have some?”
I eat three handfuls in seconds — half the can — and Will chuckles, he says, “You are hungry, aren’t you?”
I nod, fighting an urge to eat another handful. Be polite, Tanner.
I sit on the edge of the bed, this time facing Will. I chew almond bits, then I chase them with a sip of gin and tonic. My glass is half empty now.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
I stare into my drink. “Street life sucks. It beats home, though.”
“What’s wrong at home?”
I explain about Ray and how he mistreats me, how my mom drinks too much. When I’m done I have drained my glass.
“Would you like another?” Will asks.
I say sure, then he makes us each a drink. He points to the almonds. “Go ahead, eat the rest.”
I gobble them up, I turn the can upside down and shake the dregs into my mouth. I chew and swallow till nothing is left but spit.
Will gives me my new drink. He raises his glass and looks at me, dipping his chin. I raise my glass and we clink rims and Will says, “To Santa Cruz.”
I nod and take a swallow. I think to myself: This drink tastes better than the last. I sort of like gin and tonic. It seems like a week since I stood on the sidewalk, talking to Will.
I point to Will’s wedding band. “You’ve got a family?”
He nods. “A wife and two girls, eight and ten.”
“Where are they tonight?”
“They don’t like Santa Cruz?”
Will looks into his drink, swirling ice cubes. “Sometimes I’ll go away by myself for a day or two, to be alone.”
I nod, but I don’t say anything. I sip from my gin and tonic.
Will says, “I’ll help with your cash problem if you’ll help me.”
I look up from my drink and my gaze meets Will’s. “How?”
“Sex. I’ll pay you sixty bucks.”
Sex? My heart flutters and I stare at my lap, working my toes into thin carpet. Sixty bucks… enough for two weeks’ food, but…
I don’t look at Will when I answer. “I’m not gay, plus I never …”
“You needn’t do much.”
I chew my lower lip and ponder: Sixty bucks . . . maybe more if I ask. Who will know?
I raise my chin and look at Will. I say, “I’ll do it for seventy-five.”
Will nods; he says I must take off my clothes.
We lie side by side in darkness, me and Will, and I stare at a palm frond’s shadow, one cast upon the ceiling by a street lamp. My fingers gather behind my neck and my elbows stick out. The bed’s soft, the pillow’s springy and it smells fresh. Will said I was “tender” when we made love. (Yeah, tender.) I didn’t let him fool with my butt hole or kiss me on the lips, but he held me in his arms and stroked my hair and I liked that part.
I hadn’t been held since I was a little boy. It made me feel special.
After sex we lay between the sheets, Will and me, and I laid my head upon his chest and we spoke in whispers about loneliness. His voice sounded deep — like he spoke inside a cave — and my cheek vibrated when he talked. He said, “It’s strange; I’m surrounded by people day and night, but often I feel like I’m alone in a rowboat, out at sea, and I get so sad I want to cry.”
I told Will about my spot, near the surfer statute, the one I visit when I’m lonely, and he said he had such a place. He went there to think about decisions he’d made; it was a pond in a wooded area near his home in Sacramento.
Will paid me eighty dollars, then he bought me a steak dinner and, afterward, he said I could stay the night if I wanted.
I said yes, I’d like that.
Now I lie in darkness at Palm Court. I listen to Will’s breathing and I feel safe.
I shuffle down Beach Street, a month after I met Will. I wear a wetsuit and carry my surfboard. Over my shoulder a timid sun ascends. The morning air feels crisp, there’s no breeze and tide is low in the Bay, so I think swells will be fine at Steamer Lane and maybe I’ll have some fun. Santa Cruz shredders are cliquish, but they’ve come to know me and they don’t toss me attitude. They’ve seen me blast a lip and snag a bit of air.
I pass a Sentinel vending box and I glance at the front page and I see Will’s photo. Bending at the waist, I study a headline through the glass. It says, “Governor’s Aide Takes Own Life.” Yesterday, it seems, Will (last name Brainard) stuck a nine millimeter pistol into his mouth. He pulled the trigger and died instantly. He is survived by a wife and two daughters. He didn’t leave a note.
Without reading further, I know where the suicide took place.
I stand by a fence at Lighthouse Point, near the cliffs, my knees trembling.
Rosa said I’d make headlines.
Will made headlines.
A sign says don’t cross the fence, one must avoid the area beyond. People have fallen here and died. The cliffs are sixty feet above the shore and a guy will break his neck if he jumps.
I study the sign, the fence, the cliff’s edge.
I finger my surfboard’s rail.
Christmas morning I wake in Rosa’s shed. Gray light enters, it passes through an opaque window, one with hexagonal wire mesh embedded in the pane. I’m in my sleeping bag and the air’s cold and my breath steams and I shiver, I pull the bag’s edge to my chin. I crook one arm behind my head and I stare at roof beams, at plywood sheathing. The room smells of kerosene and damp rot. The Bay’s nearby and I hear sea lions bark. They sound sad, like they are weeping.
Down on Beach Street, tinsel Santas and Christmas trees hang from standards on lamp poles, they flutter in an onshore breeze, they reflect paltry sunlight. Fog hangs over the city and it lends an air of sadness to a day which should be merry. Wharf bums stir, they squabble over dregs in wine bottles, over cigarette butts.
I wonder if Mom put up a tree this year? I picture her and Ray in their bathrobes, seated in our living room. They open gifts beside a blue spruce; it blazes with colored lights and shiny ornaments. Vodka gimlets rest on drink coasters. Rod Stewart sings Silent Night on Mom’s stereo.
Weep, sea lions; weep for my mom. Weep for the wharf bums, weep for Will Brainard.
Weep for Tanner, weep for the lonely people of this world.
Weep for Santa Cruz.