by Marcia Muller
Page 4 of 6
The "greasy spoon" was called The Coffee Break. It was
small--just five tables and a lunch counter, old green linoleum
floors, Formica and molded plastic furniture. A slender man with
thinning gray hair sat behind the counter smoking a cigarette. A
couple of old women were hunched over coffee at a corner table.
Next to the window was a dirty-haired blond girl; she was staring
through the glass with blank eyes--another of the city's
I showed Mike's picture to the man behind the counter. He
told me Mike looked familiar, thought a minute, then snapped his
fingers and said, "Hey, Angie."
The girl by the window turned. Full-face, I could see she was
red-eyed and tear-streaked. The blankness of her gaze was due to
misery, not drugs.
"Take a look at the picture this lady has. Didn't I see you
with this kid yesterday?"
She got up and came to the counter, self-consciously
smoothing her wrinkled jacket and jeans. "Yeah," she said after
glancing at it, That's Michael."
"Where's he now? The lady's his aunt, wants to help him."
She shook her head. "I don't know. He was at the Vinton, but
he got kicked out the same time I did. We stayed down at the
cellar in the vacant lot last night, but it was cold and scary.
These drunks kept bothering us. Mr. Ahmeni, how long do you think
it's going to take my dad to get here?"
"Take it easy. It's a long drive from Oroville. I only called
him an hour ago." To me, Mr. Ahmeni added, "Angie's going home
I studied her. Under all that grime, a pretty, conventional
girl hid. I said, "Would you like a cup of coffee? Something to
"I wouldn't mind a Coke. I've been sponging off Mr. Ahmeni
for hours." She smiled faintly. "I guess he'd appreciate it if I
sponged off somebody else for a change."
I bought us both Cokes and sat down with her. "When did you
"Three days ago, I guess. He was at the hotel when I got into
town. He kind of looked out for me. I was glad; that place is
pretty awful. A lot of addicts stay there. One OD'd in the
stairwell the first night. But it's cheap and they don't ask
questions. A guy I met on the bus coming down here told me about
"What did Mike do here in the city, do you know?"
"Wandered around, mostly. One afternoon we went out to Ocean
Beach and walked on the dunes."
"What about drugs or--"
"Michael's not into drugs. We drank some wine, is all.
He's... I don't know how to describe it, but he's not like a lot
of the kids on the streets."
"Well, he's kind of... sensitive, deep."
"This sensitive soul ran away from home because his parents
wouldn't buy him a moped for Christmas."
Angie sighed. "You really don't know anything about him, do
you? You don't even know he wants to he called Michael, not
That silenced me for a moment. It was true: I really didn't
know my nephew, not as a person. "Tell me about him."
"What do vou want to know?"
"Well, this business with the moped--what was that all
"It didn't really have anything to do with the moped. At
least, not much. It had to do with the kids at school."
"In what way?"
"Well, the way Michael told it, his family used to be kind of
poor. At least there were some months when they worried about
being able to pay the rent."
"And then his father became a singing star and they moved to
this awesome house in Pacific Palisades, and all of a sudden
Michael was in school with all these rich kids. But he didn't fit
in. The kids, he said, were really into having things and doing
drugs and partying. He couldn't relate to it. He says it's really
hard to get into that kind of stuff when you've spent your life
worrying about real things."
"Like if your parents are going to be able to pay the rent."
Angie nodded, her fringe of limp blond hair falling over her
eyes. She brushed it back and went on. "I know about that; my
folks don't have much money, and my mom's sick a lot. The kids,
they sense you're different and they don't want to have anything
to do with you. Michael was lonely at the new school, so he tried
to fit in--tried too hard, I guess, by always having the latest
stuff, the most expensive clothes. You know."
"And the moped was part of that."
"Uh-huh. But when his mom said he couldn't have it, he
realized what he'd been doing. And he also realized that the
moped wouldn't have done the trick anyway. Michael's smart enough
to know that people don't fall all over you just because you've
got another new toy. So he decided he'd never fit in, and he
split. He says he feels more comfortable on the streets, because
life here is real." She paused, eyes filling, and looked away at
the window. "God, is it real."
I followed the direction of her gaze: beyond the plate glass
a girl of perhaps thirteen stumbled by. Her body was emaciated,
her face blank, her eyes dull--the look of a far-gone junkie.
I said to Angie, "When did you last see Mike... Michael?"
"Around four this afternoon. Like I said, we spent the night
in that cellar in the vacant lot. After that I knew I couldn't
hack it anymore, and I told him I'd decided to go home. He got
pissed at me and took off."
"Why do you think? I was abandoning him. I could go home, and
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