A Hard-Boiled Short Story
When I stepped off the large ferry boat, it was still dark out, with the wind off the bay cutting like ice through my layers. I tugged my hat further down around my ears and wrapped my scarf more tightly around my neck.
Emma had made that scarf for me, years ago, in her brief knitting phase. Made from cheap acrylic yarn in my favorite colors, shades of sea blue, green, and black, the uneven stitches of the scarf looked like the waters of the Golden Gate.
“Follow the path up to the top,” a woman’s voice said.
Beneath a floodlight shining on the defaced United States Property sign, I could make out a spray-painted scrawl that read, simply, “Indian Land.”
Following the heaving mass of people in their own layers of coats, hats, and scarves, I began the ascent up The Rock.
Alcatraz Island. A former penitentiary, now tourist trap, and who thought that was a good idea? But before that? It was simply a large rock jutting from the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay.
My feet found the hard steps of the rising earth, and I began to climb in the cold darkness beneath the scattered stars. San Francisco glowed across the waters. The light of Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, built by Lily Coit to honor the volunteer firefighters of the city, and decorated with radical WPA murals, it was another beacon to tourists, and the wild green parrots who lived there. The Transamerica Pyramid and the towers of the Embarcadero twinkled, casting light on the churning waters.
Behind us, another boat arrived. There were thousands of us here, ready to greet the sunrise when it came. People of many Indigenous tribes came to remind us that this land should have been properly ceded to them when the prison here was closed. They gathered to honor those who died fighting to free this tiny island, in November of 1969.
They gathered to mourn every one of their dead and to honor the sun that rises on joy and grief, love and anger, all the same.
I am just a white person, here in solidarity. My crew dropped me off with supplies, sacks of beans and rice, ready to be sent off to reservations who needed them. Then my crew returned to the soup kitchen to start cooking the oatmeal that would feed everyone who walked through our door.
Yes. I am just a white person, here in solidarity. But on this Day of Mourning? Like most people, I carry my own grief.
As I crested the hill, I felt the push of the crowd, and fought down a flash of panic. I don’t like crowds. Never have. Skirting around several clumps of people, I found a place slightly outside the crowd, stepped onto a cluster of rocks on the edge of the flat space atop this tiny island, facing the city and the orange bridge that spanned the waters of the Golden Gate.
Below me, a circle formed. Flags and banners whipped in the wind.
A voice came over a microphone. Looking Horse spoke. He spoke of the legacy of colonization. He spoke of the ongoing genocide of his people. The missing and murdered women. The stolen children. He spoke of broken treaties. Poisoned waters. Sickness. Stolen land.
A woman’s voice took over. I never caught her name. She spoke of the people gathered across the country in Plymouth.
“This is a National Day of Mourning. We mourn for our people, for the land, and for all that has been lost.”
My thoughts wandered to my past. Had time stolen Emma from me? Or had I tried to claim what was not mine?
We cannot own our children, any more than a person can own a piece of land. But we humans always try.
Below me, a large round drum covered by a massive skin was carried into the center of the circle. A group of men gathered around it. Other men and women arrayed themselves around the drum.
A beautiful voice rose in the frigid air. A rhythmic pounding shook the earth. More voices joined. The dancers whirled and stomped.
Across the water, the sun began to rise.
The work of the soup kitchen never stopped, even on the Day of Mourning or its more popular cousin, a.k.a. American Thanksgiving. I thanked every God and Goddess there was that the soup kitchen had decided to stop celebrating the latter years before. It wasn’t always a popular decision, but we stood firm.
After the sunrise ceremony, I caught the ferry back across the water and made my solitary way back to the formerly industrial area at the edges of Potrero Hill. The place had been seriously gentrified over the years, with small boutique shops and internet startups filling the former warehouses that surrounded our old auto-body shop turned House of Hospitality.
My crew had done a good job of getting breakfast going without me. I arrived an hour into service, and soon enough it would be time to close and start prepping for lunch.
The pot of oatmeal on the battered twelve-burner Wolf range was bigger than me. Almost. It steamed in solitary splendor beneath the industrial range hood, its aging metal a gray contrast to the cracked terra-cotta tiles beneath my boots.
It took two people to hoist a pot from the stove and carry it to the serving station. Even the tallest, strongest volunteer couldn’t manage a full pot on their own, let alone a five-foot three- inch person like me.
Breakfast was always oatmeal, though weekday lunch had a different flavor of soup: black beans and rice, split pea with ham, vegetable minestrone, turkey barley, and potato leak. Weekends were a free for all, depending on what was in the larder and who was working.
It was a two-pot morning, and the companion pot already crouched on the low wood stand behind the serving counter, as two volunteers in blue aprons chattered to each other and greeted each guest that paused in front of the serving station, fingertips poking from half unraveled gloves.
Mark Twain may have quipped that the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco, and for a southerner, he was right. August fog drapes the city, catching tourists by surprise. But that doesn’t mean November wasn’t plenty cold.
Dorothy’s Kitchen, named after the great “don’t call me a saint” Dorothy Day, was an ocean of concrete. In the winter months, the gray slabs that made up the floors of the dining hall and the courtyard outside, clung to the damp nights and radiated that cold back upward all day long.
Oh, we made the dining room as cheerful as possible, with the exposed brick back wall, the colorful multi-religion altar behind the tea and bread station, and plants that lived up in the rafters near the whirring and clanking heaters that were as old as my daughter would be now.
If I knew where she was, and where she’d celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday.
My daughter was why I was there, after all, serving oatmeal or soup, salad, tea, and bread to the working poor and unhoused people of one of the wealthiest places in the United States.
Emma, her name is. Was. Whatever. She broke my heart, that one, but not until life broke hers and she ended up, shattered and alone, refusing all contact for years.
Just under a decade later, I kept hoping I’d see her elfin face walk through the gate. Hadn’t happened yet, but the sliver of hope left in my heart refused to die.
“Hey! Has anyone seen Rosco?” Maggie called through the double metal doors that led to the courtyard outside.
I shook my head, and rounded the counter, checking that the food line was running smoothly and that Rafael and the rest of the crew had the kitchen well in hand.
Weaving through the round tables filled with sleepy guests, I walked toward Joann, a fireplug-shaped white woman in her late sixties, with short gray, bristle brush hair, a red nose, and pale green eyes. Her jeans and layers of sweatshirts were as baggy as possible. My clothing was much the same. Everyone who worked there full time wore cast-offs and donations and made them fit somehow. Too big was a lot more comfortable than too small.
“That’s Danny’s dog?” I asked, though I already knew the answer. Rosco was an arthritic black lab who went everywhere with Danny. Best friends, those two. A big dog is a boon when you live on the streets, offering companionship, a modicum of protection, and a warm body to curl up with on your stack of cardboard at night.
If Rosco was truly missing, that was bad news. Danny needed Rosco to survive.
The man in question paced nervously outside the metal doors in the outdoor dining area covered in wavy plastic sheets secured to big posts and roof beams covered in chipped white paint. Bright art surrounded the space, hanging on the old brick walls. A tea urn sat on a table next to a bookcase and a chalkboard.
Danny jerked his body between the bookcase, tea urn, and a bike rack. A jittery young Black man with pale-brown skin, he was tall and too scrawny for his own good. You’d think it might be meth that caused his tension and attenuation, but it was just his mind and nervous system, both always racing too fast for him to keep up.
“Murph!” His dark eyes snapped and flared. “You seen Rosco?”
He wrung his hands and my heart lurched in my own narrow chest. I’m not as skinny as Danny, but I’m thin, wasted by grief, my mother said last time I saw her.
She’s gone now, too.
I shook my head. “When did you see him last?”
“Last night. We bedded down under the overpass. Janey, Sprout, and me were going to
Saint Martin’s for turkey later. Rosco was really looking forward to it.”
There would be no turkey dinner here today, just our Thursday soup of turkey barley.
Observing the National Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving meant lunch would be slow.
I couldn’t blame Danny or any of the others for heading somewhere else. Whether a person celebrated the colonizer’s holiday or stood with their Indigenous friends in grief and rage, sometimes a filling dinner with special foods was necessary. When your bed is a sidewalk or the back of your broken-down car, or you live in an apartment but just can’t afford to feed your kids by the end of the month, a turkey dinner with all the trimmings is a luxury I wouldn’t begrudge anyone.
As long as I didn’t have to cook it, or wash pan after greasy pan afterward.
Besides, as Maggie always said, it’s not as if we didn’t give thanks every damn day for the gift of being alive in this harsh world. Here at Dorothy’s, we could mourn and give thanks at the same time. We had to, didn’t we?
It was that or drown in the misery of it all.
“But when I woke up to pee this morning, he was gone,” Danny continued. “I think he’s on a mission.”
“You didn’t hear anyone?” I asked.
Danny hung his head. “Tasha gave me my gummies yesterday. I slept pretty hard. I should be on Rosco’s mission with him. He shouldn’t have to be brave alone.”
I sighed. Tasha worked for a local dispensary and got a steep discount on CBD gummies. She gave them out when she could to folks on the streets. It was a kindness, truly. Danny needed them, both for his anxiety and physical pain. But yesterday’s dose must’ve had THC in it, too. Or CBN. Or some combination that would’ve knocked Danny out hard enough to not notice someone took his dog.
Sleeping deeply on the streets at night was a dangerous thing, though I couldn’t blame Danny for wanting some ease. But why wouldn’t Rosco have barked?
My mind ticked away, trying to think of where Rosco could’ve gone. Who would’ve taken him.
Who would Rosco have trusted enough to not set up a ruckus? Or, if he was on a mission, like Danny said, where would he have gone?
“Seen Sarah recently?” I asked.
Danny shook his head.
Sarah was Danny’s ex. Rosco would’ve gone quietly with her. But who else?
There were sounds of commotion at the wood gate across the courtyard.
All three of us looked up, past the roses in their barrel pots and the camellia bush with its pink winter flowers. Past the benches where people sat, smoking and eating, talking or sleeping. It was Mouse, a huge white man with a red beard, a black watch cap covering his shaggy hair. His hands like catcher’s mitts gestured wildly from beneath his patched black coat. A small white mouse peeked from the breast pocket of his coat.
Mouse was talking with Graciela, who listened intently, hands tucked into her blue apron along with a brace of plastic-wrapped toothbrushes that she handed out to anyone who asked. A frown marred her pretty, light brown face, and she turned toward me, gesturing me to come.
Wrapping my sweatshirt more tightly around me, I wished I’d grabbed my coat, but it hung safely on the back of a chair in the break room. I hadn’t expected to be outside this long. When I reached the wooden gate, I saw tears in Graciela’s eyes.
“What happened?” I asked.
Graciela looked up at Mouse, who cleared his throat.
“Flea is dead. And your daughter says to come.”
My heart leaped in my throat, followed quickly by my stomach. “M-my daughter?”
A flash of compassion crossed Mouse’s eyes before he looked away, staring out at the cars heading by on sixteenth. Yeah. Everyone knew I hadn’t seen Emma in nine years.
Graciela touched my arm. “You don’t have to go.”
“She does,” Mouse said. “And I need to lead you there before the cops arrive.”
“Shit.” I cursed, suddenly covered in sweat despite the cold. “Okay.”
I turned, looking for Maggie, then started. She was right there, standing at my side on the cold concrete, shadows from the tall fence bisecting her square face.
“Go,” she said. “We can handle breakfast cleanup, and lunch will be slow today.”
As I headed to the break room for my coat and the precious scarf from Emma, I tried to hold onto the memory of sunrise over the bay.
But even that couldn’t lift my heart.
Not to make it personal, but it seemed like the Indigenous Day of Mourning, which I thought I had done my best to honor, wasn’t done with me yet.
Mouse hurried me around the corner, Danny trailing us, muttering to himself.
“Mouse?” I asked softly. “Why is Danny coming?”
“Rosco is with Flea.”
Oh. That made a kind of sense. Flea always had a treat for Rosco, and the old lab loved him almost as much as he loved Danny.
The streets were fairly deserted at this hour. Holiday traffic wouldn’t start up for another few hours. Most people with homes were in them, cooking an enormous glut of food to feed more people than their tables could hold.
My own family broken long ago, I felt well quit of all the major holidays. Enforced cheer had never been my friend, and for too many years, family gatherings were just an excuse to drink even more than usual because “It’s a holiday.” Those days always ended in fights, alcohol and proximity loosening secrets and old grudges better left locked behind a person’s teeth.
One year, my brother punched me in the face, breaking one of those teeth. That was the year I stopped dragging Emma to family events. We would eat sad, dried-out turkey breast in our little apartment.
Yeah. Giving up the genocidal holiday was no hardship. Christmas, either. And New Year’s Eve? For a former alcoholic like myself, its best to hide, eating ice cream and binge watching whatever I can find.
Used to be, the holidays were the only times I got drunk in front of other people. Over the years, I got quite good at “social drinking” knowing that once I got home, the stash in my bedroom was waiting like a lover, hiding beneath my bed and on the top shelf of my closet like a shameful secret.
Except Emma knew, and she hated it.
Until she started drinking herself, breaking into my stash on her fourteenth birthday and never stopping until she ran away one final time.
I sobered up after that. Too little, too late.
A stitch in my side reminded me that my cardio was for shit. Part of me enjoyed the pain. A little punishment for my past transgressions.
My sponsor would tell me that was bullshit, but I felt it all the same.
“How much further?” I panted.
Mouse looked down on me. “Couple blocks. We turn up here.”
Up here was the rusty blue-gray girders holding the freeway aloft above us. We turned and the rise we were on sloped downhill once more, heading deeper into the flats at the base of the hill that was just one of San Francisco’s seven.
“There.” He pointed, and I saw a small encampment nestled among the steel girders, tucked against rock and crushed vegetation. There were three tents and a blue tarp covering what was likely a common area. The tents were up on pallets, which was smart. Kept the cold out.
Then I stopped breathing.
A young woman stood, faded black jeans, ripped black puffer jacket mended with black tape, a cranberry sweater beneath it. And wisps of blond hair peeking out from beneath a cranberry-and-blue knit cap. A black lab sniffed around near her boots. Rosco.
And my daughter.
I fingered the blue-and-green scarf around my neck, trying to soothe myself, to stave off panic, and wave upon wave of remorse, sorrow, and despair.
“Mom.” It was a statement. Not a greeting or a question. A bald, bare fact.
“Rosco!” Danny lurched forward and the black lab’s head jerked up, and the dog yelped a greeting. “I knew you were on a mission! Why didn’t you come get me, boy? Did you find Flea? Did you try to help him?”
“Sorry ’bout that, Danny,” Emma said. “I needed him here.” One mystery solved, at least.
She turned her cool hazel eyes my way. “We tried to revive Flea. Rosco licked his face. I gave him a dose of naloxone...”
“But it was too late.” I finished the sentence, the words hanging in the cold air and dim light before falling away beneath the noise of the freeway rumbling above.
Emma—my daughter—gave a quick nod.
Mouse cleared his throat. “We need to get the camp packed up and cleared as best we can before the cops arrive.”
I nodded. If the cops got there first, everyone’s gear would be swept, and thrown into Dumpsters by the Clean Team. With winter coming on, that was a death sentence as surely as whatever it was that killed Flea.
*** We made short work of camp cleanup, with Mouse coaxing back the other tent dwellers
from where they were hiding out two blocks away. It was strange to watch my daughter acting as a capable adult, pitching in, organizing gear, and offering direction when it was needed.
It was probably strange for her to see me acting as a capable adult, too. Couldn’t say I gave her the best example her last few years with me.
“You look good,” I said, bagging clothing as she boxed up the makeshift kitchen. The others scurried around, breaking down tents, and stowing sleeping gear. All of it was loaded into waiting shopping carts.
Her hands stalled, gripped around a green propane bottle, then moved again, tucking it into the box alongside the stove.
“Thanks. You, too.”
A car drove by, a snatch of A Tribe Called Red’s “Burn Your Village To the Ground” rumbling from a cracked-open window. Another person honoring the Day of Mourning, then. There used to be plenty of us here, but as the city grew wealthier, those who cared were fewer and further between than in years past.
As the camp cleared, reality hit. I was going to have to call the cops and the coroner myself. The phone number was well used, unfortunately, and the coroner and I were on a first- name basis. The big basement at Dorothy’s held far too many urns of people long forgotten by their families. People like Flea, whose only family were the people he camped with in fog and rain.
“I saw you, you know.”
“What?” I looked at my daughter in confusion. She had finished packing up the kitchen. As a matter of fact, the whole camp was pretty much cleared. The folks who lived here mumbled softly to each other as they tucked their final possessions into carts with Mouse’s help.
It was as if they didn’t want to disturb the dead.
As if, for a person like Flea—and for every missing Indigenous woman, every child taken from their parents, every tribe ground down under ongoing, rolling genocide—talking out loud mattered.
As if their whole lives had not been disturbed by forces too large for them to fight.
I swiped at my cheeks with cold fingers. They were wet. I was crying. Then not only crying. Sobbing. Bending, hands on my knees, snot filling my nose. It was too much. We tried so hard. We worked and worked to save every single person and we failed. We failed all the time. Every fucking day, we failed. And it was cold here. And dark. And smelled of oil and diesel and despair.
“Mom. Mom.” Emma’s voice was gentle, but firm. When had she grown up? And how? “Mom. Stop.”
I drew in a shuddering breath, pulled a soft, well-washed hankie from my jeans, dried my face and blew my nose.
“Sorry,” I said. “It just...”
I looked around. Mouse was conferring with the people at the carts. They had covered Flea’s body with the blue tarp. When had that happened?
“We’ll head out now,” Mouse said. “You’ll make the call?”
I nodded. He raised a finger to his forehead in a sketchy salute, and the small caravan was on their way, leaving two living people and one dead. Rosco gave the blue tarp one last sniff, then limped after Danny.
“You saw me where?” I finally said. I was stalling. Putting off the inevitable. The call.
“Alcatraz. This morning. I saw your scarf.”
She gestured to my neck. My eyes filled again.
“You were there? Why didn’t you say something?”
Emma shrugged, then gave me a considering look. “You were on the other side of the circle. By the time I got around, you were gone. Back to the ferry, I guess.”
“Why are you here?” I asked, finally asking the thing I should’ve asked half an hour ago. “And why did you send for me?”
She exhaled a long, slow, breath. “I’m here because I work for House the Streets. I was out on my usual supply run, seeing if folks needed socks, vitamins, you know... And Seelie ran up to me, asked if I had any Narcan.”
She shrugged, as if the rest was obvious. But only part of it was.
“Why didn’t you come to me before? You knew I worked at Dorothy’s?” Everyone in the neighborhood knows I worked at Dorothy’s. Well, every social worker and unhoused person does.
“I wasn’t sure if you were still drinking. But when I saw you this morning, I saw the scarf I made you wrapped around your neck. And your face looked clear. Your eyes.” She gestured at my face. “Even across the circle I could see that. And I knew you were okay.”
“Can I hug you?” I asked.
Emma opened her arms and enfolded me. I didn’t cry this time, I just pressed her tightly against me, breathing her in. The smell of licorice and spice drowning out the smell of the street.
We stood that way for a long time. Finally, regretfully, I released her. My daughter, brought back to me again.
I cleared my throat. “Let me make this call. It might take a while. You don’t have to stay.” She looked at me. “I’m staying.”
I risked a smile then, despite the body two feet away, dead from overdose or sheer neglect.
Funny. When society kills a person, we don’t call it murder, but it’s murder all the same. I know that with all of my being. I’ve seen a lot of all kinds of murder over the years. Of
“You’ll come for soup after? Turkey barley? I’d like to talk. Catch up.” Find out if there
was a way to make amends.
“If you have a vegetarian option, I’m in.”
“Always,” I said. “There’s always an option.” I placed my call. The coroner was on her way. And the Day of Mourning?
Turns out that to change the future, we have to face the past. It isn’t enough to honor the dead. We have to admit to the darkest parts of ourselves. Find a way to make things right, as best we can.
And then we greet the rising sun of a new day.
This story is part of the WMG Holiday Spectacular, which delivers a short story to your inbox every day from late November until January 1st. Days of Mourning is a bit darker than most of the tales in the Spectacular, and it will only be up on my website for one week. Want to have it in your permanent collection? Subscribe to the Holiday Spectacular.