I MET SONNY the same day I met Tracy, only later in the day, when I found my new apartment.
Tibetan prayer flags lining the porch, hanging like thin slips of pastel laundry on a string, always means community to me. I'm not Tibetan or Buddhist, and I'm not even sure how to pray, but I like the flags and count on the kinds of people who hang them.
Tibetan prayer flags and a big porch with a sagging couch and three stories high and a "room for rent" sign--my idea of home. This building was walking distance to the research hospital where I worked.
I parked on the side of the road and slept in my car, waiting for the night to turn into day, and then for the morning to grow late enough to ring the manager's buzzer.
Besides sleeping curled in the front seat of my car, mostly I'd been up all night. I had everything I owned with me.
When I put my face to the glass of the building's front door, I could see a flight of wide, wooden stairs that came down into the lobby--perfect Southern date stairs, with a landing halfway down. I could see a carpet that didn't reach all the way to the walls, leaving
painted wooden floorboards visible. I saw the wallpaper, the parrots and flowers on it, and the carpet that was the same way, with more vines and flowers and birds, the wide hands of leaves and spiraling stems trailing. I pushed the button marked "Manager," although the word was so worn off I wasn't sure it meant what it said.
Nobody answered, and I waited. After a while I saw a woman inside the building, the whiteness of her skin growing lighter, like a fish swimming toward the surface of a pond or a crawdad moving beneath the current, as she came nearer to the door.
I made myself ready to ask for a room. I wiped my sweating hands across my thighs and brushed off my lucky magenta dress, the lucky dress looking less lucky after two days and two nights in the car. I'd talk about how I didn't have pets and didn't have children. I had a job. I wasn't loud and could pay my rent on the first or by the fifth, whatever was the rule.
She pushed open the front door. The sun made plum highlights visible in the dark dye of her hair.
She was younger than I expected. She said, "What is it you want?" She was wearing only a tight black cotton dress with the thin lines of spaghetti straps running over her pale shoulders.
I said, "I'm Lindeen. I'd like a room," and I pointed at a sign, on the outside of the building. In fancy green and gold calligraphy the sign read, "Housekeeping rooms, Day rooms, Studios and Apartments." The sign had probably been on the building 50 years or more. The woman took one step out the door, still holding the door open, and looked at the sign as though she'd never read it.
"Huh," she said. "Well, we don't have any rooms. What we have is a list. You want in here, I can put your name and your phone number on the list."
I smiled as best I could. I said, "Thanks. But that won't work. I don't have a phone. I need a place to live."
The woman looked at me without answering. She had a short haircut grown long, and her
bangs were low over her forehead, halfway over her eyes. She tipped her head back, looking out from under her too-long bangs. She shook her head. "Jesus, it's hot out." She held the door open with her foot and fanned her face with one hand. I could smell her sweat like overripe onions in the air.
I asked, "How much are these apartments, if there was something? Just an estimate, the cheapest you have."
She looked past me, over my shoulder and across the street at a man who was more of a boy, in his early 20s at the most, pale and soft, unrolling a sleeping bag in the shade of the single tree that grew on the church lawn. He was wearing a light blue dress. The dress barely reached the boy's knees. I could see a darker band of blue where he'd let the hem out, where stray threads dangled in clumps. He lay on top of his sleeping bag, crossed his feet at the ankles, and folded his hands behind his head, bundling loose clothing as a pillow.
He had a shopping cart covered in plastic bags and newspaper.
I didn't know yet that this boy was Joan of Arc; that I'd be his friend and I'd be his worst enemy, that I'd lure him with sandwiches and dresses and tea.
She said, "We don't have anything. I can't give you a price on something I don't have. They're all different, different sizes, different prices. Come back when you have a phone." She said, "Try another time if you don't want on the list."
She shut the door. I watched through the glass as she walked across the carpet and disappeared again behind the wooden staircase in the center of the lobby. I went back to my car. I was sweating on my neck below my hair and on my legs behind my knees.
I'd left the keys in the ignition. My driver's-side door didn't work and locked every time. I'd locked myself out enough times by now that I'd quit locking the passenger's side, but this time the passenger's-side door was still locked from when I was sleeping in the car. Everything I owned was inside the car, including my money and address book.
I called over to the boy in the dress. "You have a hanger in that cart?"
The boy, stretched out on the church lawn, didn't move. His face was round and blank, his eyes wide.
I went back to the building and rang the manager again.
The manager answered more quickly this time. I said, "Hey--do you have a clothes hanger, or a wire? I locked myself out," and I pointed at the car across the street, an old Checker cab, fat and long--oversized to begin with, made larger with huge bumpers.
Squinting at the car, she said, "One moment," and let the door drop closed again.
She came back with a hanger already unbent. I took the hanger from her, and she followed me into the street, walking barefoot on asphalt that must've been scorching. She stood behind me while I worked the loop at the end of the wire past the rubber seal. I'd done this enough times before. The seal grew more forgiving each time.
She cupped her hands around her face and put her face up to my car window. "You really don't have a place," she said.
I caught the lock inside the car door with the wire loop.
"No," I said, "I don't. I've been camping."
When I opened the driver's-side door a bottle of hair spray fell into the street. The wrapper of the burrito I'd been eating was on the dash in the sun, and the sun's heat made the air inside my car pungent with cayenne and cumin, beans and tomatoes. She bent to pick up the hair spray as it rolled toward her, and put the hair spray in the car. Then she picked up a book I had on the car seat, about drawing and brain function.
She said, "You an artist?" and flipped through the pages.
I said, "No. A scientist. It's the brain function part that interests me." I pointed to a stack of files on the back seat--manila folders, documentation, and evidence.
She leaned against my hot car. She said, "Huh." Then she asked, "What's a scientist doing living in a car?"
I laughed. "What's anybody doing living in a car?"
She put the book back, and ran her hand over the edge of my pillowcase. It was an old pillowcase, with blue bachelor buttons embroidered along the scalloped edge.
"Did you do this?" she asked.
I said, "It's from the Goodwill."
Looking at the stitches, holding the cotton pulled taut, she said, "My name's Tracy." She asked, "Where you from?"
I said, "The other side of the river."
She nodded in a slow way. The other side of the river probably wasn't as far as she was expecting to hear. She reached past the pillowcase for my old crazy quilt, pulling the soft and worn cotton of it toward herself, running her hands along the seams of my grandmother's scattered, unpatterned plan. She started sifting through clothes, tossing a shirt back into the car, a pair of underwear, rummaging through my car as though I'd opened the car only to invite her in, a tiny museum, portable secondhand store, a display of what it meant to be me. I had a $40 bottle of whiskey in a brown paper bag that I was saving for the right moment. I made sure the bottle didn't get knocked from the car.
Tracy picked up a pale lemon shirt and held it to her own body. Then she draped the shirt over her shoulder. She said, "So, what's your story?"
I said, "What do you mean?"
She said, "What're you doing here?"
I didn't move to take the shirt back. I said, "I was hoping to rent an apartment. To move in."
She said, "Yeah, but--why here? You get a sudden urge to put on your Versace gown and live in a rat trap like...?" She waved a hand at the sprawl of the building across the street.
The dress wasn't Versace, wasn't even designer. But it had been a good dress, before I started sleeping in it.
She said, "You have money, for a room?"
I bundled my underwear inside another shirt and put the bundle in the back seat. I was okay for money. I'd taken what I considered my half of the money out of a joint bank account, filled out the paperwork to get my name off the account all together. I had a job and a budget in mind. I needed a cheap apartment. I said, "I have money."
She said, "Cash?"
I said, "Yes, I've got cash."
Not looking at me but instead watching the boy on the church lawn, she said, "Listen. If you want to come inside, I have a place. I have one room open. It's not much of an apartment, that's why I didn't mention it, but it's a room. We've got a list, people waiting. If you want this one room, we'll say you were on the list."
I took my keys out of the ignition, locked my car again, and followed her back across the street into the building's cool darkness, cutting across the floral rug of the lobby.
She said, "The key's in my apartment. Third floor. Your room will be next to mine."
As we passed through the first and second floors, I heard music playing. I could smell food cooking, heard voices, but all the doors were closed. The room Tracy offered was completely square, with a ceiling as high as the room was wide, in the middle of the hallway and across from the only bathroom on the third floor. There were four bathrooms in the whole building. All the bathrooms were shared.
"It's not great, but it's a room," Tracy said, holding the door open and stepping out of my way. The air in the room was rich with the scent of ground coffee and sandalwood. Whoever had been living there hadn't been gone long.
The room had two big windows set next to each other, a tiny stove, and a stained sink. Out the window was a small patch of roof, then the alley far below. The floor in the room was wooden and painted in a thick gray paint. It looked like it had been painted around furniture, with the square of a bed left bare, another space where there may have been a bookshelf, maybe a box. The floor was splattered with pink and blue over the areas of gray paint, red patches in one corner.
Tracy ran her hand along the chipped paint of the door frame, her fingernails under equally chipped polish, the polish red against the white of her skin, her skin even whiter against the smoke-yellowed walls. She said, "Jamie lived in this room for years and years." She said, "Then she disappeared, overnight."
In Tracy's apartment, I signed the single piece of paper that said I wouldn't have pets and wouldn't leave without notice. I counted out first and last month's rent plus a deposit from a roll of bills. I held the bills low and close, keeping them covered with my hand.
Tracy's floor was painted black. The walls were red. A long, dark lump of a lizard, earth-colored and warted, slept in a terrarium under a purple light in front of a red wall. Tracy tore a piece of bread in half. It was a small slice of bread, a single round cut from a baguette that was sitting on her counter. She offered me one half, and put the other half in her mouth. I didn't want half her bread, a small and handled bite-sized drying crust, but I took it anyway, as though the bread were connected to the room for rent, and if I wanted one I needed to show an appreciation for the other. She gave me a single key.
I propped the building's front door open with a brick, went out to my car, and bundled up the quilt. I found my toothbrush and pillow and took them upstairs, where I folded the quilt into thirds to make a mattress-less bed over the dusty wooden floor.
It's that easy to hide. I had an address now.
I started to write a letter to the home I'd most recently left. I wrote, "Matt, what's wrong with you?" But then I stopped, because it didn't seem the right way to start a love letter, and anything I wrote to Matt would end up a love letter whether I planned it that way or not, just as any story I told later, to Matt or the cops, would be more about memory, about the limits of recall and chemical brain function, than it would ever be about truth.