Portrait of a Killer

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I need time to think about where I will get rid of the gun, so I get off near Kearny and walk the rest of the way to Embarcadero. 

There is a grainy mist in the air that makes San Francisco feel forbidding and cold like it doesn’t really want to receive me. 

I work here, sure, and I live in fucking faraway Montara, but the whole Bay Area feels like a stranger every morning, even though I have come here for over three months. 

Like this is someone else’s city.

I glance at my watch and try to distract myself with calculations about how fast I can walk to the pier and back to the restaurant without being late and getting fired. I have not had the best of records in being on time so far, and it’s not just because of traffic. I have to pull myself together or Mrs. Nicolo’s famous social conscience might wear thin – if it hasn’t already.

And still, there is the gun. I can feel its weight in my bag as I cross the street and make a point of passing the Financial District, without actually passing through. That is a world that is now forever out of reach, after the road I’ve been on for the last three years. 

My career as a drifter would not get me anywhere in those hallowed halls of glass and concrete. And to think I once dreamed of being a lawyer who went there and made an example of some guy who did all the dirty deals, and then I showed society what justice was all about. Just like on TV.

I hurry towards the water and the Bay. I can see the green-blue stripe between the buildings and I think for a brief second about if I should take a boat to Alcatraz, which is crazy because then I could really be late and get my ass fired.

One of the few people who gave me a chance, and I would have let her down. And myself. Well, I’ll be damned if I will let that happen.

So I walk faster.

And still, I feel the gun in my bag, brush at my side, like that little extra weight that shouldn’t be detectable given all the other shit I put in that bag, but it is the only weight I am aware of.

I wonder if I can throw it in the water with none of the tourists noticing?

Then I stop myself. I’ve almost reached the pier, stretching before me, like the road to some kind of vague, abstract freedom.

There are tourists, but not too many. But someone might still see me. I must’ve left my brain in my room. I should go on a tour boat. Or preferably climb down the rocks in Montara and let the damn thing disappear in those hungry whirls of white. Nobody would find it in a million years … 

I shake my head. What am I doing here?

A Japanese couple asks in halting English if I can take their picture.

I agree, because I hunger for their world of carefree normality, and every bit I can steal … I do that.

I give the Japanese couple back their camera and turn towards the water one last time, sighing. 

I know I can never get there. It is only 10 yards away, but it might as well be 10 million miles.  But I can’t stay. I can’t sit down at the edge and just be still as the water and it all day, letting the stillness fill my mind. And I definitely can’t get rid of the gun. 

A bulky man is standing near the end of the pier, struggling to get just the right snap of Alcatraz. When satisfied, he turns, camera dangling from his neck like an absurd dog tag. Then he shuffles after his diminutive wife and mumbles something in a language I don’t understand, but I think it’s Scandinavian.

The bulky man is gone, and then I can see clearly. A woman is sitting on a folding chair at the end of the pier. She is blonde like me, about my age. But prettier. I wonder … was Bulky Guy photographing her?

I smile briefly, and then I see what she is doing, and my heart sinks. 

The woman is sketching with a pencil on a pad, looking as if she is in almost Zen-like concentration. It could be the Golden Gate, it could be Alcatraz, it could be her imagination. But she is doing what I did many years ago. And I don’t do it anymore.

I let myself down more times than I care to count. First, I ditched drawing because I had to study. Then I ditched my studies because my life was too fucked up and I couldn’t concentrate on that. I flushed it all down the drain. I never returned to any of it. 

Well, almost. I do a few sketches now and then, but I am hiding them better than my gun, I can tell you that. I’m not exactly sure why. But somehow it is easier to say that I didn’t get to be a lawyer because I couldn’t hack it in college. It feels more dignified in an odd sort of way. Maybe because I never really believed that I wanted it, but I did it because it seemed like a sensible choice. It was about justice and I like justice. And you could make a shitload of money, too. Not bad.

And now I have less than 200 dollars. In cash.

So I hurry back to the restaurant, half-running. I don’t want to screw more things up this morning.

When I can see the door, I am running all I can – and I can feel the gun hitting me every time my bag slaps against my hip.

I get in and am welcomed by the usual odors of fries and bacon. We’re a restaurant in much the same way McDonald’s is, but I like to think we’re healthier for real.

Mr. Nicolo is at the desk today, so Mrs. N must be at the shelter, I guess. Butch is scrambling eggs and doing dishes and Lidia is trying to look very interested in an elderly gentleman’s story about something before he presumably gets around to ordering. 

Mr. N raises a gray eyebrow as I brush past the desk to find my uniform in the locker out in the back. “One minute. Very good.”

I stop with my hand on the door to the back. “There was traffic … ” 

He waves me off. “I don’t care if you got run over by Dubya’s motorcade. It’s one minute before nine. That’s all I care about.”

The little lecture is followed by one of those smiles, I hope that drill sergeants reserve for their recruits when they haven’t quite given up on them.

I breathe deeply, open the door and get into uniform in record time.

The bag, and its contents, go into my locker and I make sure – twice – that the key is in my left breast pocket where I always keep it.


Winter hasn’t lost its grip on San Francisco, but by noon in Restaurant Nicolo I almost feel the skirt and short-sleeved uniform top are too much. 

It’s devilishly hot in the kitchen now. I suspect it is actually too small to do all the fried stuff, but nobody has been here yet to frown and wave regulations. So we suffer through it. And the rest of the place is hot enough, although people coming in for half an hour to eat don’t seem to mind.

My shift is not over until 6 PM, though. By then I’ll be happy to get back out into the frigid Frisco mist.

Butch looks happy in his kitchen, though. Not at all affected by all the boiling and simmering around him. I guess it’s better than the bench in the park, and even if it’s not quite the same as Hotel Fairmont to work here, it’s better than the streets. 

Butch sleeps at the Nicolo family’s shelter and never talks about his wife and kids. I don’t think he is allowed to see them.

“Honey – we’re waiting over here.”

A middle-aged couple seated by the window where you can get at least a slice of the sea-view they talk about on the website. I make my way through the tables and get the order.

The husband, a balding account-type guy with a French accent, is especially annoying, and the wife seems embarrassed by him. He keeps asking all kinds of questions about ingredients I don’t have an answer for, and I’m not sure if it’s because he is just allergic or pedantic. 

Maybe it’s his own little way of feeling power because back home he has none? Not in the house, nor in the bank?

What the hell do I know … But I put on my best, I-love-to-serve-smile and finally I can head back to Butch with the order. On my way past the desk, I catch Mr. N’s eyes following me. He is standing behind the desk, slowly polishing a single glass, surveying everything in the little restaurant – and Lidia and me.

He says nothing when I pass and I hand the order to Butch, who begins flipping open several cupboards. 

“Why did he want the omelet with broccoli?” he moans. “We never have enough of that.”

I cross my arms, “I’m not going back to tell him if you don’t have it. This guy will sue us for sure. He’s got a ruler up his–”

“There!” A triumphant cry from Butch as he pulls out a big green lump from one of the lower cupboards, where we have the refrigerator boxes for veggies.

He hands it to me. “When are you going to draw that portrait of me, dear?”

Butch has been obsessed with getting his portrait since I carelessly told him I could draw one day after shift and too many beers. I could, and I did. Once. In another lifetime … Don’t know if the thought of seeing himself done in pencils and hung on a wall does something for him. 

And why not? Maybe portraits make us feel like we matter? I’ve never done my own.

“Well, Miss Artsy – when?” He dips his head and looks at me with those puppy-eyes which once must have charmed a lot of women. If not everything else had been going to hell lately in Butch’s life, I bet they still could … 

I take the broccoli out of his hand and put it on his desk, so he can get started doing his job. “As soon as you get a shower and get that grease out of your hair, I promise I’ll draw you.”

He grins. “Good. You just made my day.”

And how many times did we have that conversation? And I postpone it every time because I’m not sure I want to flaunt my drawing anymore, or that it’s worth flaunting. 

But the topic always comes up, and the answer is almost always the same. And Butch is polite enough to pretend that this time is the first time he asks, and now we have a deal that means something. It’s akin to a tug-of-war between two different realities. 

We both want something we don’t really dare dream of. I want to feel good again drawing, but I don’t think I have it in me anymore. Butch wants something else – who knows. I don’t think he is hitting on me. I think he really feels it would be a hoot to see himself on that wall. Something beautiful in his life, after so much grease.

But today is not the day when promises will be kept, except to the customers.  

So the battle continues all day. Butch, Lidia and I fight on like good little soldiers, to make sure everyone gets their orders in good time, and that everyone is satisfied.

It’s a battle, but it is also a kind of meditation. It is a routine that allows me to detach from the part of myself that still thinks about the way I’ve gone home these past few months.

It is a safe travel companion. 

So the day ends like it always does. I am dead tired. I get out of uniform. I say hello to Christa and wish her a good evening shift. I take my stuff from the locker and make sure no one sees that I do it, although it is stupid because not even Mr. Nicolo has x-ray vision (not as far as I know).

But if he knew what I brought for work every day, he would throw me out, no matter that I barely have enough to live for after I’m back on the street. He doesn’t tolerate that, and I understand.

But my companion needs to be with me. It is the only way to not think about Jeremy. Or rather, it is the only way to think about him and be able to pretend not to care.

It’s the same always, isn’t it? You report a guy and it gets lost in paperwork, or they don’t believe you. Or they don’t take you seriously because you are white trash coming in with the bus. And then, at some point, you stop reporting anything. You don’t want too many questions, either.

I mean,  I’ve been clean for months now, but I have … friends back in Miami. What if the police want to hear more about them? There were people who gave me what I needed, and it wasn’t good, but it was my choice. I don’t want to rat them out. But any police officer would be suspicious about those scars on my arms – where did they come from? Especially the ones around the veins… 

Well, maybe I cut myself? Yeah, I’m a cutter! That’s it.

Sure, with a needle. Small pricks – right where you usually prick yourself to get out of this world, not to remain in it with some pain only you control.

No, the police are a dead end.  Considering how much I thought I wanted to be a lawyer in a past life, that’s kind of ironic. But that’s how it is.  And now a gun is the only help I can trust.

Pity I’ve never fired it.


On my way home on the bus, the whole damn chain of thoughts follows me, and the gun doesn’t help one bit.

I automatically scan the other passengers, especially the guys. Could either of them want to follow me? Or maybe to have a little ‘chat’ with me, with the help of his fists – or even with a knife, as Jeremy once did?

None of the guys look like that, I always tell myself. But then again, Jeremy never looked like that either. And then you got to know him … 

I get off the bus at the usual spot where the highway slants into Montara before there are too many houses. I check my bag for the nth time and get ready to hike the gravel path to the Fremont Home right out where the land ends and the sea begins. It’s not dark yet and I’ve practiced often enough not looking down the slope to my right and into the frothing waves.

That’s my view – each morning. The waves. White whirls mixing with pale blue. A predictable pattern.

So I feel secure where I am going. And I feel secure knowing as I get off the bus I am going there.

For a split second.

For a moment my heart stops, but then I see it is not Jeremy who got off the bus with me. Just a guy who used the back door.

Why didn’t I see him on the bus? It’s not for lack of trying …  

I pull myself together and acknowledge his presence there with me on the lonely road with something that’s supposed to resemble a nod. Because what else do you do when you are two complete strangers about to hike into the oncoming darkness together?

Or maybe not? Maybe he lives in a house further up the road?

But I’ve never seen him here before – not at this hour. Not here.

He picks up his rucksack. “Is this the way down to the Fremont Home?”

I cram my bag tightly against my side. “Yes … it is. You going down there?”

“Right.” He nods and smiles briefly. 

Nice-looking guy, but hey – aren’t they all? Slightly curled hair and beard. Well-trained. About my age – or no more than 30, for sure. But what’s with those dark glasses?

“You know the way?” He eyes me curiously, but despite my best efforts I see nothing with him, I don’t like. Not yet, at least. 

There is … something about him, though, that feels off and that keeps my inner killer vigilant. You know, the one who is sworn to take down anyone whoever threatens me again.

But right there and then I do my best. I do the small-talk routine and find out what I had already guessed: He is going to stay in a room at the Fremont Home like I have done for over three months now. How can I say no to show him the way? 

So we walk alongside the cliffs, out towards the house. And the Pacific sky gets darker while we walk. But I talk to keep myself thinking about that, too.

Obviously he is just a normal guest. He is not a creep or anything – that’s just crazy. And maybe he looks a little like Jeremy and is the same age, but that’s about it.

My brain has been infected and I know it, but I’m doing my best to keep it rational. I want to see a clear path forward, even if I’m a little less able to see where I put my feet the closer we get to the house.

So his name is Daniel, and he works as an engineer-something in Frisco. That’s what I get because he seems to want to rival me in not volunteering any information. It’s all: “Sure” – “Hmm-hmm” – “that’s nice” and so on. But he never follows up, and I don’t press him.

Then we get to the Home and Mr. Conway is waiting up and Daniel goes to get his keys and pay. I head straight for my room and lock the door almost on reflex. In the hallway, I hear Mr. Conway and Daniel’s footsteps, but they don’t talk. 

Who is this guy?

Most of us stay here for a good deal longer than your average motel, but that’s because we are stuck. We were moving from here to there, and then something happened that threw us off course.

Like the quiet man in Grant. He sleeps all day and who I’m sure brings in bottles and takes them out empty in the morning, even though it’s not allowed.

Like the talkative 40-something redhead, Jeanine. She stays in Bradley, even if she probably hasn’t a clue who Omar Bradley is. But Mr. Conway is a military history nut, so that’s how it is. Grant, Bradley – and there are more.

But first, we have Mr. Jenkins, who got evicted for some reason that I don’t know about, only that it was brutal and quick (McArthur). 

And Mrs. List, who has a small travel agency to some islands, and it was going kind of well (Nimitz). But then her husband got nasty. 

Oh, and how can I forget ‘Beans’ as Mr. Brockeridge wants to be called (LeMay). He stays in his room all day, too. Last (and only) time his door was slightly ajar, I saw a screen saver that was some bomber. B2’s I think they are called. Dark metal ravens circling the sky for prey.

But that’s what I know about the people here. Not much more. 

We have this covenant, all the present guests: We don’t talk.

It’s not a covenant we agreed on, obviously. It just came into being. 

Oh, we small talk, of course. We talk about the little communal kitchen at the end of the hallway and who forgot to clean his or her plate. Or if Mr. Conway forgot to buy new toilet paper. But we don’t talk about why we are here. Or where we are going.

Anyway, I don’t know how people find The Fremont Home. Mr. Conway seldom advertises. I was lucky, I guess. But I’m beginning to get the idea that, like me, people find this place if they don’t want to be found. 

And there are a lot more out there who want to come by, but Mr. Conway is a choosy man and apparently he’s got a treasure chest somewhere. I’ve seen him say no to, like, five times more people than actually come here to stay, for shorter or longer periods.

But this guy, Daniel, with the neatly trimmed beard and the evasive attitude – he just waltzes right in, like they know each other or something.

Who is he?


Continued in part II


Photo by Anton Malanin on Unsplash

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