These and more stories will bring you into the deepest, darkest corridors of the heart, leaving you breathless with suspense and in awe of the incredible storytelling ability of Patricia Abbott.
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On Pacific Beach
You'll find my mom sitting most days on the sun-bleached bench outside Von's Market. She's probably pushing her shopping cart back and forth as if a fretful baby lay inside. Luckily, it's usually one of the small ones so shoppers can get around it without having their ankles clipped. I wonder if she ever rocked me so lovingly.
Even if I don't recognize Mom in whatever permutation she's adopted — a muumuu, cut-offs, a white tuxedo — I'd recognize her hair, a long, reddish-gray braid that's beginning to look skimpy. She must be what, sixty-two now? She's taken to wearing a baseball cap most days — an item easy to find left behind on the beach. Last time, it was a Padres cap, and her braid, mostly reddish-gold in the sun, erupts from the hole in back like a dragon's tongue.
Her cart might look a little lighter than when I saw her four months ago, just five blocks from here at a Rubio's Taco Shop. The '70s TV she pushed around for a year or more is gone. It's hard to imagine someone pinching a useless TV from a homeless woman. Maybe she dumped it herself. Certainly she was thinner than the last time I flew out.
I'm told there's no facility that can keep my mother off the street for long. San Diego's Health and Human Services office has tried many times.
"I'm so sorry, Ms. Delaney," the woman in a lavender pantsuit told me, thumbing through Mom's file. That was probably more than a decade ago — back when I still hoped Mom's problems could be solved.
"Andrea. Call me Andrea," I told the woman, hoping to create camaraderie.
"Andrea, right. Well, your mom outfoxes us every time. She can pick any lock, disarm guards with her smile, and shimmy down the wobbliest gutter."
Ms. Gutierrez chuckled, and then covered her mouth. "She's very inventive. And so affable."
With so many assets, why was Mom homeless?
There was a time when I thought Mom's resourcefulness was a good thing — when it got us the food we needed to survive, when it got the rent paid, or the school authorities off my back for missing classes.
"Audrey's so affable (there's that word again) when we let her alone. Not confrontational like when she's confined. She's been befriended by a group of locals who feed and look after her in a fashion. One called a month or two ago to say she was sick. Nice, wasn't it?" This was more recently.
Nice in its way, but living on the street, a woman's so vulnerable, out there for the picking. I thought of that flying into San Diego recently when I spotted a relevant headline in the local paper.
"Local Girl Found Strangled on the Beach."
I picked the newspaper up long enough to read the story. It reminded me of those deaths on Long Island, but it was too early to know if this girl's associated with the sex trade. Is there something about beaches that make women particularly defenseless there?
Does Mom remember the names of the so-called folks who look out for her any better than she does mine? I still remember the first time she forgot it. Introducing me to someone on the street, she was tongue-tied for a minute, and then called me Suzie. I searched for some meaning in its choice and found none.
I used to get angry when people questioned me — when an EMS technician, a doctor on the phone, or a cop on the street said, "Can't you do something about this?"
If a two-hundred-fifty-pound cop couldn't wrestle her into a van, what chance did I have?
I want to tell them — all those people employed by some government service — some non-profit — not to judge me. None of you know about the days there was no food in the fridge, the nights she set fire to her bed with a cigarette, the occasions she showed up at school wearing a foil hat to protect her from "the forces," the stuff of mine she hocked to buy her booze or Kools. There's no one to tell these stories to.
My mother's cart is different from carts found in a northern state. No need for heavy winter coats, boots, or an ice scraper. You can make out without even an umbrella here. The guy who's staked out my entrance to 1-94 in Chicago has built the kind of tent fortress I used to make as a kid. Blanket after blanket connected in some jerry-rigged system to keep him warm, to protect his stuff. A shovel to dig his way out pokes out of a hole. When I stopped to slip him a fiver last month, several cars behind me beeped.
"You're part of the problem, lady," someone yelled. I gave him the finger, which shut him right up. The possibility of my suffering from road rage douses any follow-up remarks. Oh, yes, I have some of my mother's genes coursing through my veins.
"Know me?" I ask Mom when I finally ratchet up my nerve. "It's Andrea." When she doesn't blink, I add, "Andy?" Still nothing. "Your daughter?" And finally, "Suzie," which gets a small smile.
Though she doesn't usually seem to know me, I think I must represent possible captivity. Or maybe my face or actual name — Andrea, not Suzie — summons up some vestige of remorse. But in the swirling eddy inside her head, my face does not bode well for handouts or a Subway sub. So I rarely get a smile.
Today, she shakes her head and begins to rearrange her cart. She's gotten her hands on a bright blue boogie board, which she strokes possessively. She's a vessel of maternal gestures she never expends in the usual ways. The boogie board is in good shape so it won't last long. But she makes no attempt to hide it under her dirty beach towels, her copies of La Jolla Light, her pile of tee shirts.
"Going surfing?" I ask, trying for a little humor. She considers my remark, her bright blue eyes sizing me up. She is a bit thinner than the last time I saw her — four months ago now. Handouts for the homeless must have its ebb and flow.
These trips to the coast three or four times a year stretch my paltry salary as an EMS dispatcher to the breaking point. They also raise my level of stress for weeks before and after each visit.
"Why don't you just move back there?" my friend, Rachel, asks me every so often. "Gotta be nicer than Chicago."
A full half-minute passes before Mom laughs, showing me another tooth is missing. The reason for this is simple: homeless people sift through trashcans, and the most common item in a trashcan is the remnants of a sugary drink. Mom's chief diet staple is a Slurpee. That's why both her health and her teeth suffer.
"How about getting some lunch?"
There are several possibilities for a healthy lunch on the street, but since I can't take her inside, we walk to a taco stand where I order the healthiest items on the menu: a tossed salad, a chicken taco, and a carton of milk. She carefully removes the beans and lettuce from the taco, the cucumber and avocado from the salad, then eats eagerly without saying a word. The milk carton is too hard for her to open, and she executes a nice hook shot into the trashcan before I can intervene.
"Do you know who I am?" I ask again. "Remember me, Mom?"
She gives me her brightest smile, the one she probably offers to anyone who buys her a meal. "Of course I do," she says, getting up. In a second, she pushes off.
She stops at a trashcan half a block away to retrieve a Big Gulp drink, thirsty I'm sure.
I see her again the next day and the day after, doing what I can each time to clean her up, feed her, and finally, fumbling with her in the back of a vacant auto parts store to change her clothes. She hates my touching her; hates my making her step into a new pair of pants; shudders when I momentarily expose her bare breasts to the dark windows above us; wiggles her feet when I try to trim her toenails before putting on a new pair of sneakers. It's frustrating, but there is something curative, for me at least, in the feel of her flesh under my hand.
I used to smuggle her into the showers on the beach or the one in my motel, but no one, including Mom, liked that idea. So any washing or a change of clothes must be done on the street. Over time I have learned how to do this discreetly.
Before I take off, I call the social service agency to talk to Ms. Gutierrez, who still takes an interest in my mother. A harried-sounding man tells me she's on vacation — won't return until the next Monday. Where does someone who lives at a resort go for a vacation, I wonder?
In my childhood in the Encanto section of San Diego, I never heard of anyone taking a vacation. A trip to the amusement park at Mission Beach was a big deal, a weekend at a grandparents' place in Rosarita even bigger. I left home at seventeen, searching for an entirely different view to look at from my window. At that time, Mom wasn't a street person. Just a woman living on food stamps and handouts from men she picked up. Odd, forgetful, but not completely daft. She sometimes even took the occasional job until her list of deficits became clear to a potential employer.
"Now, keep in touch," she said as I headed out the door that last day. "Send a postcard when you get there."
Did she dream I was going to Hollywood to become a movie star? Did she think I was off to see the Queen? Did she remember I was only seventeen?
I keep up with Mom, or at least the city where she lives, through an online subscription to U-T San Diego, the local newspaper. Pacific Beach's in the northwestern part of San Diego. I have never been clear on how Mom found her way there from Encanto. Probably a date drove her up one night and she liked what she saw and stayed. It's a good place for the homeless, not too toney but fairly safe. Do the homeless migrate to the southwest for the climate?
As I click through stories about the mayoral race, the rise in housing prices, an indie film being shot in the Hillside area, the price of guavas and exotic chilies at Whole Foods, a few days later, I find a story that makes me sit up. It's about that dead girl found on the beach — Mission Beach it turns out — just down the Boulevard from Pacific Beach. She was dressed in a wetsuit and found strangled in the sand by a sunrise class in Tai Chi. It gives no name — five days later now — which must mean they haven't been able to ID her. Or perhaps to locate her relatives.
I don't think about this much over the next few days — such things don't surprise people who've lived in Chicago any length of time. But when another girl turns up strangled a week later, I begin to feel dread.
This time it's in Carlsbad, thirty minutes up the coast. I'm not actually afraid for my mother — these were both girls, after all. The first woman has now been named: Rebecca Sweet. And it turns out she's not a surfer at all but a twenty-five-year-old day-tripper who must have wanted to try her hand at surfing. Or maybe not. There's speculation she wasn't surfing, but had been dressed in the wetsuit by her assailant — something about the size of it being wrong. I follow the story closely in the days ahead, hoping for more information about either case. Is the murderer looking for day-trippers, young girls, surfers, or none of the above?
Maya Velasquez, the second victim, was not a surfer, not dressed in a wetsuit, not a day-tripper, and not under thirty. I find this out three days later. She was a thirty-five-year-old tax accountant from L.A, down in Carlsbad for a meeting. She'd been expected back by eight o'clock but never turned up. There's a photo online. She looks attractive even though the lighting isn't good, but her hair is yanked back enough to see her features clearly — it's probably a picture from a driver's license.
With the third murder, three weeks later, I go into alarm mode. They post pictures of the three victims side by side — large photos now — and the third woman found on Imperial Beach is said to be a sex worker. Felicity Brown serviced the servicemen on the base and was probably abducted from her usual post and taken, still alive, to the beach. She was found under an abutment of rocks, had probably been there for several days. An unusual period of rain had kept the beach empty.
They have a better photo of Maya Velasquez in this edition too, and it's easy to see the one object the three victims have in common. It's not surfing accouterments, nor an age similarity, nor the location of their bodies. It's that all three women wear their hair in a braid, and apparently these braids were used to strangle them. Or suffocate them rather: the hair was cut or ripped off and stuffed down their throats. Pushed so far down, in fact, that strands of hair were found in the lower esophagus of all three women. Did he use an instrument to do this, I wonder? Some sort of barbecue skewer perhaps.
My mother wears her hair in a braid and has her entire life. I used to ask her why, back in the days when she could still answer a question.
"Hair on my face makes my skin itch," she explained, "and a braid's easy to do."
If only I could call her. I've tried giving my mother a phone, but each time it was gone before I even left San Diego. She cannot learn to use one either. People far more sentient than Mom struggle with such devices.
I call Ms. Guiterrez's number as soon as it's nine a.m. on the West Coast.
"I'm sorry," a woman says, "she doesn't work her anymore."
"Is she in another office?"
"No. With the government cuts, she was laid off."
Laid off? She had to have spent at least ten years in that office. I try to remember the first time I called her. How deep were these cuts?
"Has someone taken over her caseload," I ask, realizing as I say this that Mom is not part of anyone's caseload. At best, she's someone who pops up on the radar from time to time. Because she was friendly, no one really paid much attention to her. Could anyone in the state of California ID her in a morgue? How would anyone know where to call me should such a thing happen? I am stunned at my negligence. Stunned at my inability to foresee such a large hole in my plan to keep an eye on Mom from two thousand miles away.
"We're sorting it out now," the woman said. She sounded exhausted and it was only 9:02 in the morning. "What was her name again?"
"And her address?"
I sighed inwardly. "She's homeless. That's why I can't get in touch with her."
"We give cell phones to the homeless now. Especially the women. It's a new program. So they can call in for help."
"She's not that kind of homeless person. She wouldn't be able to hang onto a phone." When the woman didn't say anything, I add apologetically, "I've given her at least three phones in the last five years. Even if she could keep one, she'd never use it." Why am I explaining this to her?
Pause. "God helps those who help themselves."
I am speechless after this bon mot from a servant of the state, so it is she who speaks next.
A huge sigh and then, "Well, I'll see what I can do. Might take a few days. Can you give me your name and number?"
Without a shred of hope that I'll hear from her, I give it to her and she promises to get back to me, adding, "Did you ever consider coming out here to help her out? Your mother, I mean."
I hang up the phone.
But that's what I do — fly west.
I can ill afford this trip, and have to use my last three vacation days. If I can't resolve whatever it is that needs resolution, I will probably have to quit my job or take an unpaid leave. And our office has no unpaid leaves as far as I know.
My Fiesta rental gets me to Pacific Beach at around one o'clock. The streets look as benign as ever — certainly not the locale for a serial killer. I don't see a single woman wearing a braid, not that this is a common hairstyle. Perhaps it's more popular on the beach than elsewhere though — a way to deal with wet hair, or to keep hair out of the eyes. But I imagine any woman with a braid has changed her hairdo after those newspaper photos. Except, of course, the sort of women who don't follow the news. Like my mother.
The street in P.B. that Mom favors is Garnet, where ethnic restaurants, several supermarkets, and a Trader Joe's offer the opportunity to pick up food, rest on a bench, and watch the foot traffic. Mom's usually too out of it to panhandle, and if she does, the money probably ends up in another person's pocket. Most of the time, she'll be somewhere on this stretch running from I-5 to the Pacific Ocean. Other times, I can find her on the boardwalk that runs along the beach. Her cronies usually occupy the nest of benches there, and like the birds that badger outdoor diners, the homeless sweep in for discarded food too.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "I Bring Sorrow"
Copyright © 2018 Patricia Abbott.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
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