by Sylvia Nickels
“Hello, Starr.” Bridget Steele looked up from her papers. She smiled. It looked real, like she cared. Social workers have a knack for puttin’ on that look. “Why don’t you take your coat off?”
She picked up her telephone and talked for a minute and hung up. Her pale blue eyes fastened on me. “Any ‘visions’ recently, Starr?”
“It’s in your file.”
“No visions. Nope. Keep hands to m’sef.”
“Not touching old cars? You told Miss Mills, your previous counselor, that’s what brings them on?”
I didn’t answer.
She held the piece of paper I needed between her finger and thumb, tapping the edge on the desktop. I needed the paper to get my pills from the clinic. Couldn’t sleep without the pills. Afraid t’ sleep then, but can’t stay awake all the time.
“Here, Starr. You do remember to take some food with the pills?”
“Yeah.” I snatched the paper and walked out quick as I could. If my cart and stuff was gone it would be her fault. Ned, the security guard, said he’d watch it. What did he care? To him it was junk.
I run by Ned and out the door. Still where I left it, jammed up next to the side of the steps. Ned stood there, laughing. “See, Starr, I kept it safe for you. Aren’t you even gonna thank me’?”
I pushed away from the Services building. The wobbly front wheel on my cart hit a big hole in the sidewalk next the light pole and nearly turned over, taking me with it. I reached for the rusted old Chevy setting on its bare rims at the curb. My fingers managed to grab the convertible top’s last handful of rotten fabric.
Then I was in the car, its top down, moving along a wide sunny street. A kid was driving, radio blaring, long hair flying in the wind. Suddenly the sun was gone. Shouts, screams, shots, and sirens sounded in the darkness all around me.
“Help me.” Head on the sidewalk, the kid lay partly out of the convertible, the top now half-up with big holes in it. The kid reached out with one hand, the other on his chest. Dark fluid was running through his fingers, more and more as I watched. Something whizzed by my head and another big hole opened in the convertible top.
A voice whispered. “Not happening. Let go.” I realized it was my own voice. With alla my strength, I pulled away from the convertible top and lurched back. I couldn’t catch the cart handle and landed on the crumbled sidewalk. As suddenly as it had gone away, the bright sun was back. The rusted hulk of a car was still there, but no kid with a sucking hole in his chest from a shotgun blast. Darkness again. I put my hands over my face.
“Starr, no layin’ on the sidewalk. Get up and go on to the clinic.” Ned. It was his carcass blocking the sun. Not another vision.
“Yeah. Yeah.” I pulled myself up. Hobbled on down the cracked sidewalk, trying to miss the biggest holes. I got a piece of luck at the clinic. Marge was standing outside, smoking, and talking to Ol’ Henry. They’d already been inside and got their pills.
“Marge, watch m’stuff?” I didn’t want to ask her, but I had to go in ‘n get my pills. I give Marge five last month. She was in bad shape and I thought I could go till the end of the month. She would do it fer me, did I need it sometime. It’d been hard. Couldn’t stand no more nights laying awake in my box house next the old laundry, remembering the visions.
“Here, Starr. I wadn’t much hungry at lunch.” Danny, the skinny orderly, pressed something into my hand. He went back to pushing his worn-out broom across the floor. I stuffed the paper-wrapped square into my pocket.
Outside I pulled the package from my pocket and opened it a little. Egg sandwich. Tonight I wouldn’t have to try to find scraps in a dumpster that’d already been picked clean. I filled my jug at the clinic water fountain, so I was set for the night. Snugged in, I drifted off after takin' my pill.
* * *
Tommy’s face floated in my dreams. He used to pick me up in his little white Volkswagen Bug. I begged him to drive up the curving road with trees hanging over it to park on the hill above the city. You couldn’t see the dirty, mean streets. And the shabby one room apartment I lived in, with my old man, when the drugs and whiskey let him remember where he lived.
Maybe a million twinkling lights spread out before us. I told him about the baby. I begged him, “You’ll tell your folks? They’ll want their own grandchild, won’t they? Even if I’m his mother?”
He didn’t say anything and wouldn’t look at me. Then he held me tight, “It’ll be okay, honey. I love you.”
I wanted to believe he was saying what I wanted him to say. That his folks would accept our baby and me in their big fancy house because Tommy loved me. When he kissed me I did believe it.
The dream turned dark, the lights winked out. I half-woke, moaning, crying. I didn’t want to go through the next part again. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to get back to the hill and the pretty lights. But I couldn’t.
Come right at us, he did. Never tried to veer and miss us. I woke up a week later, my mind all messed up from the scrambled brain cells, screaming and calling for Tommy. For certain the baby was gone. And they told me Tommy wasn’t there, wouldn’t look at me. Like they was tryin’ to tell me he was dead, but I wouldn’t believe it. I hollered and yelled for him till they give me shots that knocked me out.
* * *
All’a sudden my house rocked and shook around me. “Knock it off, Starr, wake up. I’ll have to run you in.” The beat cop’s loud voice cut through the dream. I poked my head outside.
“Didn’t you get your pills yesterday?” His lips skinned back from yellow teeth, his version of a worried smile.
“Yeah, yeah.” I started to pull back inside and close the flap.
“You oughta go inta the fortune-tellin’ business.” Claude slapped his nightstick against his palm, eyes narrowed. “Make money, say you got ‘Starr sight!’” He slapped his palm again. “Yeah, Starr sight.”
“Don’t have no visions.”
“Don’t mess with me, Starr. I’ve seen what happens when you touch some ol’ wreck. What do you see?”
“Sleepy.” I mumbled and reached for my door flap again.
“How come you don’t see things when you touch people? Like that guy on the TV?” Claude’s black eyes bored into me.
I crawled back into my house and curled up. Never oughta talked about the visions. Hadda get my pills. Told Mills about the first one. How many people seen them files?
They patched me up best they could and after six months put me on the street. Said they couldn’t find my old man. Told me about Support Services, said go to clinic, get my pills every month to keep me settled down. Learned to live like street people. Wandered from doorways to flop houses to religious missions. A little park in summer. Another year, half of it in a hospital. Back on the street.
Old woman lived next the old laundry on Globe Street in a big throwed out wooden box. Marge told me when the old lady didn’t come back to it and she heard she died. I claimed it. Had to fight fer it, but I got it. Box was big enough for my cart to go inside, too. Over two years before the first vision. Maybe it was building behind some wall in my mind.
One day I stumbled, fell off the curb against a wrecked, stripped old car. All at once, I was in the car and it was turning into a crowded parking lot. Neon signs sprayed colored light over the cars. A man drove, a woman in a low-cut shirt sat close to him, smiling. She kissed him on the ear.
Then it was different, the car was moving along a dark street, the man drank from a beer can, steering wheel in his left hand. He looked at the woman, punched her, swore. She screamed as the headlight of another car showed her wide-open mouth.
Confused, I thought I was back in the Volkswagen with Tommy. But my body didn’t jerk and fly around when the cars hit head on. I heard the screeching, twisting of metal and then stillness. The man was hanging on the broken steering wheel. The woman was throwed out and laying on the street.
I pushed away from the old wreck and the death scene faded. Whimpering, I scooted across the broken sidewalk until my back was against the filthy wall of a crack house.
For two days, I didn’t leave my house. I tried to figure out what it was. It made no kind of sense and my head hurt. Finally I forced myself to the clinic. Miss Mills asked if I was visitin’ the crack house just before the vision. I denied it and she just looked at me.
I knowed no illegal drugs was in my veins when I saw it. What if the wrecked car set off something in my messed-up head? Maybe I could do a kind of test. It scared me, but I had to know.
A fenced-in junkyard full of wrecked cars was a few blocks away. I walked there, slow. It was ten minutes before I reached through the wire and touched the squashed blue fender of a Dodge truck.
A strong wind blowed on my face. The truck was speeding across a wide concrete bridge, and over the low railing I saw another road below. The driver smiled as he talked and held something to his ear.
I heard a loud noise. The truck jerked toward the railing. It hung there for long seconds. Just before it slowly tipped over, I saw a little silver car with two young girls in it reach the bridge. I glimpsed their eyes when they saw their fate just as the truck hit. Before I could snatch my hand back, I saw a small head roll away, long blonde hair whipping.
Gagging, I sat on the curb. This couldn’t be happening. But it did. I knew they was people who claimed what some called ‘second sight’. Fortune tellers, gypsies, palm readers. I always figured they just took folks’ money and told them what they wanted to hear. Did they really see things, like me?
A week later I couldn’t think of nothing else but the visions. Then a glimmer of a thought took shape. I could know if Tommy was truly dead. If I touched his wrecked Volkswagen, I would see the wreck. Could I do it? Where was it? How could I find out? Just one person I knew to ask.
Bridget thought it was a bad idea. She wouldn’t help. It was probably crushed and recycled, she said. Maybe so, but maybe not. What else did I have to do but look for it?
Remembering the other times made my gut clench. To find out what I needed to know I had to keep my hand on the car longer, not jerk back. Maybe I’d go screaming clear around the bend. What did it matter?
I found wrecked cars behind garages, and old cars in vacant lots. Some of them was white Volkswagens. Them I touched, heart tripping. None of them was Tommy’s car with its little back seat where we loved and laughed and made our baby. I saw little kids go through windows, like little rag dolls. They was the worst.
The morning was cold, wet, I nearly didn’t come out to look some more. And I found the one I wanted in an insurance company holding lot, scratched, rear engine cover all smashed, the engine pushed into the back seat. Couldn’t be the one, but I stuck my hand through the hole where a board was missing from the fence. I saw Tommy. He kissed the Starr I used to be. Tears streamed from my eyes. I would sell my soul to get back to that place.
Then we was driving back down the hill, Starr-then’s head on Tommy’s shoulder. The bright lights come at us, she screamed. The door on her side popped open and she fell out. Her head cracked on the pavement. I could feel the battering pain echo in my head, but I kept my hand pressed to the cold metal. Sirens, police cars, an ambulance.
At the hospital, bloody Starr-then didn’t move as doctors and nurses worked on her. Tommy tried to raise up from his stretcher to see her. They held him back, shook their heads. Starr-then was wheeled away somewhere.
A man and woman rushed through the door. “Son. Oh, son. You’re alive.” She held Tommy’s hand and gave orders. She said they was taking him to another hospital, their doctor would tend to him.
“Starr. I want to stay with Starr.” Tommy struggled to get off the stretcher.
I saw the look of disgust on her face but Tommy was lookin’ around, wild-like. “Starr? The trashy girl with you? She’s dead. You can’t do anything.” Tears poured from his eyes and he laid back. Tommy’s stretcher was wheeled out the door.
I couldn’t bear it, fell back from the fence. Breath rasped in my throat and pain whirled in my head. Tommy didn’t die that night. His mother told him I died. He would have come back for me, but he thought I was dead. I sat in the weeds next to the fence, rocking and crying.
Three days I stayed in my box house after seeing Tommy. Something about the car was not right. Our crash was head on and the Volkswagen’s motor was in the back. I couldn’t hardly believe either of us got out alive. But the wrecked car I touched had the back caved in. My head hurt, trying to figure it out. But Tommy was alive. I held on to that and my heart sang.
Today I’m gonna make Bridget Steele believe me. Beg her to find Tommy for me. Shinin’ white in the sunlight I see one of the new rounder Volkswagens parked in one a’ the special parkin' spaces at the Services Building. I climb the steps. Better stop at the public restroom before going to her office. If I clean up a little, maybe I can convince her to help me.
Back in the lobby, I see Bridget walkin’ with a man toward the front door. Ned’s sittin’ at his desk, looks up at them. “Morning, Mrs. Steele. Doc Steele, that’s sure a fine automobile.”
“Thanks, Ned. I sure miss the old VW bug, but the insurance company wouldn’t pay to fix it again. And it’s been ten years since the last time.”
“It was a worn-out relic. I’m glad that garbage truck rear-ended it. I think you just kept it all this time to remember your old girlfriends and the fun you had.”
A shadow of pain crosses the man’s face.
Bridget touches his cheek and kisses him on the lips. “At least you weren’t in it this time and nearly killed. I couldn’t leave my job and take you on a months-long cruise to heal like your parents did.”
She turns and sees me as I slide slow to the floor. Steele. The wreck and my head crackin’ on that pavement give me the awful visions. Stole part of Tommy’s name from me. And I didn’t even realize I forgot it.
“Starr! What’s wrong? Ned, call an ambulance.”
But her voice is gettin’ fainter as I let my Tommy go at last.
Copyright © 2007 by Sylvia Nickels