The smell of urine was almost unbearable, but by the corner it passed, replaced by the smell of wet vegetables from the curb. The restaurants, hip ethnic ones included, had closed up shop and pulled shut their iron accordion gates, and it was getting to about that time in the night when the population shifted, and the faces changed, and the passers through became outnumbered by the all-nighters. The street was freshly coated in the first rain of summer, and with it came all the smells that had baked into the concrete during June. The piss and bok choi were just surface level, Dean knew, the real smells would need until morning to be reactivated—if the rain kept on.
With a few in him, Dean kept his head low and walked fast, his fists deep inside a black workman’s jacket that was just humble enough not to draw additional attention. He liked to believe that on a good day he could pass for a drifter or weekend junkie and he felt a sense of pride whenever he walked past a bum and wasn’t pressed for change or conversation, though deep down he knew he was never fooling anyone.
As Dean turned onto Eddy, his thoughts came back to Mina. Three years, he reminded himself. Three years thrown away. A drunken one night stand was worse than an ongoing affair, Dean told himself, it suggested impulse and desire, excitement. Coming on Hyde, Dean caught himself thinking these sorts of thoughts and immediately removed them from his head, an act he had been performing with greater and greater ease as the evening went on.
Dean made a stop at the liquor store before arriving at All Star Donuts and Chinese Food. He had called Bud rather out of the blue and anyway, Dean knew, it was always polite to bring something when meeting a friend.
Bud sat at a window booth, a rain jacket around his bathrobe and a donut and two tall boys already on his table. He stood up when Dean walked in.
“The man himself,” said Bud.
“How are you, old pal?” asked Dean. He pulled out two more tall boys, Country Clubs, from a paper bag and added them to the table.
“You’re a fine friend,” said Bud.
“Kampai.” Dean cracked open his can. He pulled off his jacket which was soaked through. He had been walking for longer than expected.
“What are you doing slumming round these parts?” asked Bud.
“I met a coworker, for a drink. Then decided to take a walk. This place always clears my head,” said Dean.
“This place. It does something for everyone. Take take take, you got to give, brother. Eventually everyone gives something to the Tenderloin, you know.”
An underslept woman with silver hair stood at their table.
“Order something,” said Bud.
Dean wasn’t planning to eat, but it would be rude to drink for free. “Got any bear claws?”
The old woman said nothing and disappeared behind the counter.
“Problems with Mina again?” asked Bud.
“No,” said Dean. As much as Dean wanted to talk about Mina, it was a long, unrevelatory story, and he knew it wouldn’t help matters in the slightest. Anyway, that’s not why he called Bud tonight.
“Seriously, if you dragged me out of bed at this hour to listen to you piss and moan about this poor woman again—”
“We’re fine,” said Dean. “Since when do you sleep so early?”
“Where’d you go for a drink, anyway?”
“Over at Jonell’s Lounge, know it?”
“Jesus! What a shit hole. What kind of coworker takes you there?”
“He’s from Arizona. Gets a kick out of coming down here.”
“Of course. The crackheads, hookers, dope boys, homeless people. It’s not all like that Will Smith movie though, he should know. I never saw a bum round here that looks like Will Smith,” said Bud.
“I told him. He digs irony, like you. Right in the heart of beautiful San Francisco this refugee camp of addicts and have nots,” said Dean.
“I get it. There couldn’t be a Tenderloin in Phoenix. The methheads would melt the first summer.”
“So how’s everything, Bud?”
“I haven’t taken a shit in five days.”
“We’re a generation plagued by stomach problems.”
Dean looked down at Bud’s jelly donut and malt liquor. “You should see a doctor.”
“I can’t afford one on my artist’s salary.”
“If I told one of these corner boys what you pay for your studio, you wouldn’t make it to sunrise,” Dean said.
“My apartment’s 300 square feet and above a massage parlor.”
“Your rent is more than a mortgage.”
“I’m still a starving artist.”
“And tuition at Academy of Art costs more than Ivy Leagues.”
“Some people think you can’t teach art. Not my folks,” said Bud.
“If I had your parents,” said Dean.
Bud laughed and took a healthy swig. “From what I hear, you’re the man with the paycheck on the way.”
“What does that mean?”
“What do you mean, everyone?”
“Don’t be like that, how much is it?”
Dean sighed, looking around. “Ten thousand.”
“Jesus! Ten stacks to move out so a museum can turn your building into its new east wing.”
“Hey, I loved that apartment. So did Mina. And I hate moving, it’s no small thing, you know.”
“If I ever get in bad at the card rooms, I know whose door I’m knocking on at five in the morning,” Bud said.
“Jesus, you’re not playing again, are you?”
“I do have some willpower over temptation, you know. How else do you think I live around here.”
“Just try not to tell anyone else, Mina thinks we shouldn’t.”
“You were always the lucky one, Dean. Straight-laced and lucky, even back in school,” said Bud.
“That’s not true,” said Dean.
The silver haired woman dropped off Dean’s bear claw on a warped tray that spun on the table. She went back into the kitchen. Aside from the old man motionless near the pay phone, Dean and Bud were the only customers left, and anyway, there was a bell hanging from the front door.
“I’ve got to confess something,” said Dean. He cracked open a second can. “There’s a reason I called you tonight.”
“So it wasn’t just the beer and Berliners,” said Bud.
“Your jelly donut?”
“They call it a Berliner, and they charge double for it, and I don’t mind, so long as I get to call it a Berliner.”
“It wasn’t just the beer and Berliners,” said Dean.
“Tonight, after I met my coworker for a drink, when I was taking my walk through the neighborhood, not half an hour ago—well, I think I saw the strangest thing.”
Dean leaned in close. “I think I saw a prostitute get kidnapped.”
Bud paused. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well I saw this girl. She was a hooker, definitely. She was arguing for a moment with this man, this creepy looking guy, and all of a sudden, he forced her into his minivan.”
“Hookers don’t get kidnapped,” said Bud. “That’s their job, to get into strange cars with strange men.”
“But she didn’t want to,” said Dean.
“Now you know what some streetwalker wanted?”
“She looked right at me. I saw her face.”
“She was scared. And it looked like she didn’t trust this guy—this wasn’t like a pimp-hoe situation.”
“Was anyone else around?”
“I was alone.”
“Where was it?”
“Up Polk, that alley behind the old auto shop,” said Dean.
“Was she a tranny? Because nobody kidnaps a tranny.”
“She wasn’t a tranny.”
“How do you know?”
“I could tell, without a doubt.”
“Famous last words,” said Bud.
“She was young.”
“I saw a documentary about a transgender who started her hormone treatment before puberty—she was 12.”
“She looked like a regular girl from the East Bay, maybe Berkeley or Richmond. No older than 21,” said Dean, taking a pull from his beer.
“So what happened next?”
“The minivan drove off.”
“And I have a feeling you didn’t go to the police.”
“I found something on the ground.” Dean reached into his pocket and pulled out a cheap, beat-up smart phone. There was an iced-out Hello Kitty pendant dangling from the corner and the name Delilah stenciled in tattoo lettering on the back of the pink case.
“Oh shit,” said Bud. “What’s on it?”
“It’s off,” said Dean.
“Well, turn it on.”
“I was thinking, maybe that’s not a good idea. What if this is evidence. This girl Delilah turns up missing, and I have her phone.”
“You already took the damn thing and didn’t go to the police.”
“Should I go now?”
“You should see what’s on that phone now,” said Bud.
“What if there’s something weird on it?”
“Pictures, videos—I don’t know, stuff I don’t want to see.”
“What if it’s stuff you do want to see. She’s a damn hooker after all.”
“What if it’s not even her phone,” said Dean. “It was lying there really conveniently.”
“You’re right. Someone could have put a tracking device on it—like one of those tracking apps.”
“Yeah.” Dean drew a long sip of his beer as he stared out into the dark and wet and windy street, a sea of black beating against the hull of their small but safe ship. “But why would someone do that?”
Bud glanced suspiciously around the room. “Maybe it’s some kind of scam, maybe you’re framed or blackmailed—maybe you’re kidnapped too. Maybe it’s like a Korean horror movie, and whoever turns on the pink phone gets kidnapped and thrown into a minivan. Then raped.”
Bud held a solemn expression on his face for a commendable amount of time before folding and showing his big crooked grin. Dean reached for his bear claw. “I called you because you live here,” said Dean. “And I thought you might have more insight into this type of thing.”
“The TL is my muse,” said Bud.
“Then what should we do, Frida?” asked Dean.
“Well, I have class at noon. So you should either turn on that phone or I’m going to bed.”
Without further discussion, Dean pressed down on the corner of the phone. After a few seconds, the screen lit up bright and then settled in to a softer operational glow. It was on now, like any phone.
Dean swiped and tapped as Bud watched patiently enough.
“There’s nothing on it,” said Dean.
“There must be something.”
“A few apps. No Facebook, no Gmail, no WhatsApp.”
“Some privates. One received.”
“One picture. It’s her.”
“—Let me see!” Bud stole the phone out of Dean’s fingers. “She is a girl,” said Bud. “Pretty too. Too pretty to be out here.”
Dean snatched the phone back. “Now what?”
“Now, old friend, I’m going to smoke a bowl, rub one out and go to bed.” Bud tilted his 24-ounce can to the fluorescent light tubes hanging above. When it was empty, he squeezed the can just enough to put an identifiable dent in it, then he stood up, tightened the terrycloth belt around his waist with dignity, and zipped his rain jacket all the way up. “How’re you getting home?”
Dean sat back, dissatisfied, and rubbed his eyes. “My bus comes in 20 minutes. I’ll start walking soon as I finish my beer.”
“I can walk you to the corner.”
“I’m a big boy.”
Bud grinned. “I always forget. And the phone?”
“I’ll call the police tomorrow morning and report what I saw. Ask if I should bring it in.”
“Nothing else to do, right?”
“It was good seeing you, Dean. We should do this more often, really.”
“Yes, we should.”
“I mean it.”
“Enjoy your class tomorrow.”
“Oh, almost forgot.” Bud reached into his jacket and pulled out his leather-bound flask that he always carried with him at night. “For the road, like the old days.” He tossed one back then held it out for Dean.
“Why not?” Dean took a long drink from it then shut his eyes. He knew it was going to be cheap whiskey, but it made no difference.
“Give Mina my best.”
“Take care of yourself, Bud.”
Bud started for the door. “Dean, I know I’m not much for relationship advice, but get home already. It’s probably not as bad as you think.”
“Good night, Bud,” said Dean.
Bud was gone, and the door swung closed, and the bell jingled loudly, but the silver haired woman did not come out of the kitchen. Dean hadn’t eaten since lunch, but every time he looked at the bear claw, it only made him nauseous. He dropped his napkin over it and picked up the pace of his drinking.
It was only 2am. Mina would still be awake.
Like many men, Dean had always considered himself the type of guy that would leave his girlfriend if he ever found out she cheated on him, no questions asked, but now that it really happened, to him, it didn’t feel the way he thought it would. It had been a long day, the conversation in the morning, the tears, the explanation, the full day of work and now, the drinking. Still, he couldn’t go home and see Mina. He had nothing to say yet. Could a single action make you not love someone anymore? Once again Dean caught himself thinking these sorts of thoughts and removed them from his head, even more effortlessly and efficiently than the last time.
Dean took out the pink phone. The girl, Delilah, was pretty. She had dark eyes and big dimples and soft shoulders that, on their own, were able to suggest the type of body underneath, just out of frame. He thought it childish to think a thought like she’s too pretty to be a prostitute, so he came to the conclusion that she was too pretty to be a streetwalker, but not too pretty to be a stripper or online escort. He looked at his watch. It was over an hour ago now that he saw her. He left some cash on the table and found his wet jacket.
Outside, the rain was heavier, and the street was emptier than before. Dean rummaged through his jacket pocket and found an old cigarette he had acquired at a party with Mina two weekends before. He lit it and walked toward his bus, feeling like a nomad passing through a strange new city under the protective cover of dark. Despite the wind and rain, the night was not unpleasant, and Dean walked with confidence. But after a block, he stopped. Rather naturally, he stepped down into the entrance of an old laundromat, below street level. He then took out the pink phone again. He found the most recent received number, and without letting himself think twice, pressed it. He didn’t want to go home yet.
As the phone rang, Dean got down low, watching the street from a new perspective, that of a feeding pigeon or a sewer rat. After five long rings, a young sounding woman answered the phone.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hi,” said Dean.
“Hi baby, who’s this?”
Dean cleared his throat. “Do you know Delilah?”
The woman laughed, a soft, sensual one. “Sure, I know Delilah. Do you know Delilah?” She had a touch of Southern in her voice that he guessed she could dial up or down depending on the situation. He guessed she was currently dialing it up.
“I sort of met her tonight,” said Dean.
“She’s certainly not one you forget meeting,” she said.
“Are you a friend or relative?”
She laughed softly again. “You’re funny. I’m a lot prettier, but people do confuse us for sisters.”
“Have you happened to talk to Delilah tonight?”
“You tell me, baby. You’re calling me on her phone.”
Dean turned warm in the face. He put down the cigarette. “I found Delilah’s phone tonight, on accident. I called you to tell you I think your friend is in trouble.”
“What do you mean, trouble?”
“I saw Delilah an hour ago. This strange man picked her up in his minivan, but it didn’t look consensual. I was going to go to the police, honest, but I saw your phone number and thought—”
“Was it gold?”
“Was what gold?”
“The minivan, crazy.”
Dean stood up straight and looked around the street for some reason. “How did you know?”
The young woman laughed again. “Don’t worry, baby, that’s just Barry.”
“Her fiancé. And as ugly as that creep is, Barry couldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Oh.” A car alarm went off nearby. Embarrassed, Dean chuckled. “Well, I guess that’s a relief to hear.”
“You sound all worked up.”
“I was assuming the worst, I suppose.”
“I think you watch too many movies,” she said.
“You might be right.”
“Let me guess, you thought some serial killer in a minivan was out rounding up hookers in the TL?” She laughed again, loud and hard, almost breaking character.
“Of course not.”
“Those lovebirds are always squabbling.”
“Fiancé or not, maybe you could still check on her,” Dean said.
“Delilah’s got three phones. I’ll call her right after I’m done with you. She’s a klutz, but even she can’t lose three phones in one night.”
“Thanks.” Dean looked at his watch. He missed his bus. “I’m sorry for calling so late.”
“It’s okay. I’m sort of a night person anyway. I’m Tiffany.”
“Dean.” He thought he could hear her smile through the phone. “So, do you know Delilah well?”
“I guess you could say we’re colleagues,” said Tiffany. “In fact, I guess you could say we’re both on the clock now.”
“Oh,” said Dean. “I don’t mean to take much more of your time, maybe you could tell me where Delilah hangs out. I’d like to return the phone personally.”
“I’ve got an idea.” Tiffany said. “Why don’t you come to my place and give me the phone. Then, I can give it to Delilah.”
“I’d feel better giving her the phone myself,” he said.
“Thing is, baby, I could tell you a million places Delilah hangs out, but it doesn’t mean you’re gonna find her.”
“I guess you’ve got a point.”
“Besides, you sound lonely,” said Tiffany.
Dean laughed too loudly. “I’m not lonely.”
“Then why are you drinking alone at this hour?”
“I’m not drinking alone. I met a friend—I met two friends earlier for drinks. Now, I’m going home.”
“Did you think Delilah was pretty?”
“Then you won’t be disappointed when you see me.”
Of course this woman could be lying, Dean knew, but it didn’t make a difference. He had already matched her voice with Delilah’s face.
“Come over,” said Tiffany. “We’ll have fun.”
“I can’t,” said Dean.
“I’ll take care of you, promise.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Are you married?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No,” said Dean.
“Are you a priest?” asked Tiffany.
The phone vibrated. Dean looked at the screen, the battery was almost dead. “I don’t have a car.”
“If you say you saw Delilah an hour ago, my bet’s you’re still in the neighborhood. I’m staying at the Pacific Hotel, past Ellis down Jones.”
“That’s pretty far in there.”
“Far in where?”
“You sound like a big boy.”
“I just wasn’t planning to walk in that direction,” Dean said.
“What direction were you planning to walk in?”
“The other one, home.”
“Well, now you can come to my home.” They both remained silent for a long moment. Then Tiffany asked, “So, what’s it going to be, sailor?”
Dean stepped all the way up onto the sidewalk and pulled his jacket tight, against the wind. “Sure, I’ll start walking.”
“How lovely,” said Tiffany. “Fifteen minutes it is.”
“I need to ask you a favor.”
“What is it?”
“Can you pick me up some roses on the way?”
“At this hour?”
“Roses, you know,” she said.
“Oh. How many roses?”
“Whatever you think’s appropriate. I usually ask my clients a dozen to fifteen for the hour.”
“And when you get here, you need to ask the front desk guy for Tina.”
“Okay, I will.”
“And don’t take too long, baby. I have to be somewhere at four.”
“Okay.” Dean hung up the pink phone. He put it back in his pocket, turned around, and started walking in the direction of Jones Street.
One block from the Pacific Hotel, a man on a bicycle pulled up beside Dean. Dean was too busy struggling to remember if his bank statements showed the time and location of withdrawals to notice the man. It made no difference, but Dean felt an odd comfort knowing it would be an interesting clue for the police if, say, he were to disappear tonight. For the length of several cars, this man on the bicycle cruised silently alongside Dean, hunched over, one foot on his pedal, one foot floating over the sidewalk like an anticipatory kickstand.
The man on the bicycle suddenly asked, “My man, can you spot me ten bucks?” His voice was high and coarse.
Dean looked up. The man came close to him. He was older than Dean. He looked too clean to be a drug addict, but too bizarre to be completely sober. Dean told the man he had no money.
Casually, as if pulling out a map for directions, the man took out a tiny black pistol from the front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt and struck Dean in the face, right above his eyebrow, with the butt of it. In his life, Dean had never been hit in the face, let alone pistolwhipped, and he was confused. He stumbled to the ground. Once there, Dean felt kicks to his stomach and ribs, and it was only when he stopped moving that they seemed to stop. He then felt heavy hands dig forcefully through each of his pockets, back pant left and right, front pant left and right, jacket left and right. After one last kick, it all stopped.
Dean kept still on the sidewalk. He thought he heard a woman shout something from across the street, but when he opened his eyes the man on the bicycle was gone, and nobody else was around. Dean lifted his head a few inches off the cement and saw several tiny drops of blood drip to the ground. He crawled to the wall and rested his shoulder against it. His face was beginning to swell, and his head pounded. It was as if Dean’s body had never felt pain, and he was experiencing this new sensation as a researcher or spectator or tourist.
Dean felt his pockets. They were empty. His keys, his wallet, his phone, the pink phone, the $150 he had just withdrawn from the cash machine—everything was gone. His clothes smelled, and he was sitting in something wet. The man on the bicycle had taken everything. The man on the bicycle now knew the exact address of Dean’s apartment, and had the keys. Dean felt like throwing up.
When Dean got to his feet, he had to put a hand on the wall. He was still dizzy. He tried to walk, slowly, back toward Hyde. As his limbs moved, he felt like he could think clear thoughts again. He had to find a telephone. All Star Donuts and Chinese Food had a pay phone, he recalled. Or perhaps Bud would still be awake. You always give something to the Tenderloin, Dean remembered. That’s what Bud had said earlier. Dean began to jog. Then Dean ran, faster and more effectively than he thought he’d be able to. He had to hurry. There wasn’t much time. He had to tell Mina to put the deadbolt on the door.
Author Bio: Vincent Chu was born and raised in the Bay Area. His short stories have appeared in The Tethered by Letters Quarterly Journal, Bookends Review, Saturday Night Reader and WhiskeyPaper Magazine. He currently lives in Cologne, Germany.
Artwork: Anthony Fassero studied Architecture at UC Berkeley, founded a company called earthmine that I sold to Nokia in Nov 2012, and work at HERE currently. I live in Jack London square, and take lots of pictures. Some of them have been published before (including a magazine cover, album cover, etc.)