Thought I’d post the first chapter of Less Than Nothing as a tease. I can’t tell you how happy I am with the way this turned out.
Anyhow, the story’s about a couple of street kids, sort of a coming-of-age romance with an underlying adventure that will carry it through the whole trilogy.
Less Than Nothing
San Francisco, California
I used to wonder where homeless people came from.
What personality flaws or bad decisions resulted in them living on the streets? Maybe they were too lazy to work, or drunk all the time, or mentally ill?
I know that’s totally shallow, but that’s how I felt. I admit it.
I remember driving by groups of street people, peering at them from the quiet safety of my folks’ car, giving only seconds of thought to the question before moving on to more important things, like texting my friends or posting on Facebook.
Now that I’m one of them, I’m not so judgmental.
The morning air is crisp, the fog having burned off in the last hour, although if I look toward the Golden Gate Bridge I know I’ll see the russet towers rising from a white snowscape. I set my overstuffed backpack on the sidewalk and open the guitar case I carry everywhere I go. Its handle is broken, and the hard black plastic is as battered as I feel today after another restless night in the park.
The guitar’s caramel-colored top is scarred from the years, the varnish rubbed off where my forearm’s worn it away, the protective coating no match for my sweat.
Seven years playing it every day since I got it on my tenth birthday, my constant companion and friend, the one thing my father left me other than his blue eyes…no matter what chaos was going on around me, Yam was there. Not an original name, I know – it’s a Yamaha guitar – but it’s the one thing in my life that’s a constant, and now that I’m homeless it’s doing double duty supporting me… or so I hope every day when I sing for my dinner.
Or lunch, in this case, but still.
A tall woman with long gray hair, wearing buckskin moccasins and a floral summer dress, slows as I croon the final words of Yellow Bird. When I finish, she places a quarter in my empty guitar case with the solemnity of a general awarding a medal. Her kindly hazel eyes have that washed out look you see a lot in this area, a vacant quality. Probably one too many tabs of blotter acid for the old brain to handle.
“You got a beautiful voice,” she says, her voice sandpaper rough, and offers a faint smile, her skin crinkling like parchment in the corners of her eyes as a faint whiff of patchouli drifts to me.
“Thanks. Glad you like it,” I say, but she’s already moving on, her attention caught by something else. The constant parade of the shell-shocked and the stoned provide a daily spectacle in the Haight, where it’s always 1967 and the Summer of Love never ended.
I eye the coin, my reward for a half hour of singing my heart out, and do a quick, depressing calculation. Mondays are always the worst – few tourists, and the locals broke from the weekend.
“Hey, Sage, whassup?” a familiar voice says from my left, and I turn to where a whippet-thin guy with a mop of dreadlocks and a stringy goatee, army surplus jacket over well-worn coveralls, stands with his mountain bike.
“Hey, Todd. You know. Same ‘ol. You on today?”
“Yeah, gotta earn my keep, you know?” He glances at the quarter. “Big money isn’t going to ruin you, is it?”
“Nah. I’ll still remember you when I’m accepting my Grammy.”
Todd’s harmless, a bike messenger who rents a room over the clothing store next to what I think of as “my” spot. He gave up hitting on me after a few weeks, transitioning into a friend after receiving my “I’m not going to blow you” vibe loud and clear. Best of all, he lets me use his bathroom to shower whenever I’m out of options – a simple thing you learn not to take for granted when living outdoors, as I like to think of it.
“All right. Later,” he says and darts between two parked cars, straddling the bike in one easy motion before disappearing in a blur, cheerfully ignoring the chorus of honking horns behind him as he cuts across traffic and runs the red light at the corner.
I’ve learned that harmless friends are good to have, living on the street. A lot of the other runaways I’ve met are pretty easy-going. The majority are just trying to make it day to day, get high, avoid the indifferent cops, dodge the predators that prey on them. Some are aggressively crazy, but they’re easy to spot and don’t last long, and I quickly figured out how to stay out of their way. But the older street people, the adults, are a different story. A lot of them are mental, violent, and inhabit a ruthless jungle of their own devising.
And it’s all playing out in a city with limitless prosperity symbolized by gleaming high-rises jutting into the sky, luxury cars rolling down the streets, and a thin veneer of civility over the rot at its core.
“Don’t go all emo on your ass, girl,” I mutter to myself, a habit I’ve gotten into lately. I push my dyed black bangs aside and close my eyes for a second. “Sing the blues, don’t live ’em.” I shift on the blanket, my ragged Chuck Ts bleached a dull gray from the sun, and strum a few chords, checking the tuning of the high E, which always wants to go flat, and then launch into some Janis, a reliable favorite in this neighborhood, and usually good for a few bits.
I’m halfway through the chorus of Bobby McGee when I notice him. Leaning against a parking meter, twin curtains of unruly hair framing a pair of bottle green eyes, an amused smirk on his face, black jeans and scuffed leather motorcycle jacket in the best post-punk tradition, a cardboard guitar case dangling from one hand. I keep playing, singing like the devil himself is after my soul, and when the last note dies he puts his guitar down and claps, slowly.
I look up and my heart skips a beat when he brushes his hair back – chiseled jaw, high cheekbones, a nose that looks like it might have been broken at some point, which only makes him more attractive. No, not attractive. That word doesn’t come close. He’s more than that. He’s…he’s beautiful.
Before you think I was all, “looking at his eyes was like staring at two blazing suns,” let me clarify. Some guys are Calvin Klein model hot, and some are ruggedly handsome, but this guy is…he’s thermonuclear, OH MY GOD, all-caps-warranted, hot. Like take-a-picture-to-make-sure-it’s-not-your-imagination gorgeous. Not that I ordinarily pay attention. I’ve got a reputation on the street as cold, which is how I prefer it. But crap. How often do you see a guy who should be carved in marble, fig leaf optional?
I gaze up at him and swallow hard. “Tip jar’s right here.”
He nods. “Wish I had more than admiration to offer,” he says, his smile making my stomach flutter, and then strides down the block, sits by the coffee shop entry, and pulls out his guitar.
Great. Competition. Another homeless dude trying to cut into my action.
I rise to defend my turf when he strums a few chords left-handed and starts to sing. My stomach freefalls – his voice matches his looks. No, it’s actually better than that. It’s mesmerizing to listen to, the timing of his inflection just unexpected enough to make it seem like he’s toying with the words, rolling them around in his mouth like wine tasters do in the movies, then setting them down for gentle landings at the last possible instant. As a singer, it’s the equivalent of watching a dizzying high wire act with no net, part of the fascination the wait for the inevitable fall…that never comes.
My dismal prospects for making a living just got worse, with this guy working the same street.
And I was here first.
Talented and hunky or not, I need to protect my little piece of sidewalk, or I might as well print “Welcome” across my back and play mat, which isn’t my style.
A pair of women drop coins into his case when the last note dies, and I watch as he banters with them, his green eyes flashing in the sun’s warming rays, his smile easy and his laugh easier, almost musical. I heft my backpack and pocket my quarter, and after slipping Yam into its case, march over to where he’s sitting.
“Kind of rude, don’t you think?” I say, struggling to keep my voice steady, my feet spread apart defiantly. My heart sinks a little when I see he’s already amassed a dollar – each woman must have given him fifty precious cents. A dollar that should have been mine, on my sidewalk, here on my street.
“What is?” he replies, his tone gentle, a small smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.
“This is my block. I’ve been playing here for months.” I know there’s an edge to my voice. I try not to let my gaze linger on his face, but when my eyes drop to his tanned arms and sculpted chest, it’s almost worse. He’s wearing a form-fitting black T-shirt that’s like a second skin, and his biceps and pecs are as perfect as I’d feared. A stylized tribal tattoo runs down one arm, and on his right forearm, a fifties-era Elvis in dinner jacket and slacks dips with a mic stand.
I have no idea why I’m totally checking him out, and find myself eyeing his guitar so I’m not obvious about it. Besides, I’m pissed. He’s taking my customers. This is war.
He strums a few notes and adjusts the A string a little, and then nods, satisfied. I notice it’s strung for a right-handed player even though he’s left-handed, which looks weird to me, but I refuse to be distracted any more than I already am. He looks up at me and offers a grin.
“I missed where you could own a whole block. Didn’t see the signs where you’d staked a claim or whatever.” His tone sounds reasonable, but I detect mockery in it.
“I’m telling you it’s my street, and it’s not big enough for both of us.” My eyes flare anger at him. Nobody makes fun of me. I’ve been living by my wits for the last four months, and I’ve learned that you never back down when you’re protecting what’s yours, or the world will take everything from you. Beautiful or not, he’s picked the wrong girl to try to buffalo.
He seems to think for a few moments, and then flashes another smile. His teeth are so white they could be on a billboard or something. My heart rate accelerates ten beats per minute, and I have to remind myself to breathe. What the hell’s wrong with me?
When he speaks, it’s the worst John Wayne imitation ever. “Them’s fightin’ words, pardner.”
In spite of how angry I’m getting, I can’t help but laugh, and he laughs with me, his face warming with it and dimples appearing on his cheeks. The black leather necklace he’s wearing jiggles, and a small silver musical note glints hypnotically in time with his chuckling.
I will myself to hold it together. “I’m serious.”
He nods, as though I’ve finally gotten through to him. “What kind of parents saddle their kid with a name like that?”
I can feel the color rise in my cheeks, a flush that’s as reliable a warning as a snake’s rattle.
“Do I look amused?” I ask, my voice suddenly quiet. I’m using my ‘important matters’ voice, which I learned from my mom. It’s the subdued, “This is really frigging serious” tone she reserved for discussions about sex or drinking or drugs. I think mine is way more ominous sounding.
He sighs and stands. “We could do the dueling guitars thing from that movie with the hillbillies. Although I’m not into the whole rural rape thing.”
“Deliverance. And it was banjos.”
“I knew that.”
He seems genuine, so I soften my approach a little, since my current attempts to get him to acknowledge my claim on the area aren’t having the desired effect. I could threaten him, but it would be laughable. It’s pretty obvious that he could more than defend himself against anything I threw at him.
An image of me throwing myself on top of him flashes through my mind and I shake it off. He seems to be able to read my thoughts, because his smirk returns. He takes a step toward me, and my eyes widen – but I don’t back off.
This. Is. My. Street.
He holds out a hand. “I’m Derek.”
Now what do I do? I didn’t ask his name. I’m not asking him anything. I told him to get the hell off my strip of cement so I can make enough to pay for lunch.
I hesitate, and then shake his hand. “And you were just leaving,” I say, my delivery firm.
“I didn’t catch yours. Or should I just call you serious?”
Now I’m back to getting angry again, having been sidetracked by his little run at humor. “You think this is some kind of game?”
When he stares directly into my eyes and steps even closer, I draw a sharp intake of breath and hope it isn’t audible. He leans into me and whispers in my ear, like a lover telling a secret.
“I really need to make some money today, Miss Serious. And neither one of us is making anything arguing.”
I debate kneeing him as hard as I can while he’s so close – close enough to smell soap and the faint aroma of his tanned skin. As though he can sense my impulse, he pulls away, eyeing me with caution. That’s more like it.
He studies me with an amused expression, like I’m a slide in lab class.
“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” he asks. The question takes me by surprise. No, you can’t, you smirking interloper. Not in a million years.
Which isn’t how my answer sounds when I say, “Fine.”
He grins again like he’s won a round, and I wonder to myself what just happened. I clear my throat and debate repeating my claim on the street, but decide that a hot cup of java actually sounds pretty good, especially since I haven’t eaten anything today, having squandered my prior day’s fortune on budget Chinese food and a dog-eared paperback copy of The Stand I snagged for a buck to pass the time.
Contrary to what most people imagine, one of the worst things about being homeless is the boredom. No TV, no gaming, just one relentless hour after another, either hungry or trying to find someplace safe to catch a few Zs or avoiding danger…or the cops. But mostly sitting around doing nothing.
Which is why being a big reader turned out to be lucky for me. If you can call anything about living day-to-day by the skin of your teeth ‘lucky.’
Derek leans over and scoops up the change, and against my better judgment I sneak a look at his butt. Definitely impressive, if not world class. He slips on his leather jacket, shoulders his rucksack, and appraises me as he sets his guitar into the case.
“Where’s the best coffee?” he asks. Anything that moves him away from his position on the sidewalk is a big win for me, so I point to a shop on the corner.
“Peaches and Cream. It’s rocket fuel.”
“Cool. Lead the way.”
I try to figure out whether he’s trying to check me out as I walk to the café, and decide there could be more unpleasant things. Besides, my clothes are baggy, shapeless as possible, the better to avoid unwanted attention from the pervs and letches who are drawn to vulnerability like bees to honey.
I catch sight of my reflection in the display window as I approach the entry and realize how much taller he is, easily eight or nine inches – which isn’t hard, considering I’m all of five three on my tallest day. God, even his reflection looks amazing. That’s just not right.
But one cup of coffee isn’t a surrender. I’m not backing down.
Just draining the enemy’s resources before the big battle.
At least that’s how I think of it as I glance to my left, confirming there aren’t many pedestrians out yet – so I’m not likely losing that much in earnings anyway by taking him up on his offer.
I get another good look at him in the window and notice he’s staring at our reflection, too, which immediately makes me self-conscious, wondering whether he caught me looking at him.
Then the seductive fragrance of freshly ground coffee reaches me as I near the entry, and the world seems to tilt. My nose twitches like a hamster having a seizure, and I’m lost.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a coffee slut. It’s like catnip, and I’m un-shameable. But there are worse things, as I know. Still, I feel a pang of guilt about giving up my spot to indulge my habit, and it’s with conflicted emotions that I reach out for the handle, wondering what the hell I’m doing letting a rival for my little patch of safety take me to P&C.