The Little Bitch
“Ka-the-leen!” Lucio DiLorenzi yelled for everyone in the world to hear. He was out on the sidewalk with Stanley Miller, the pock-scarred man from New Jersey who lived upstairs in the single-resident occupancy building. Both of them were huddled up, thick as thieves, in front of Lucio’s café, Café DiLorenzi.
“Ka-the-leen,” he called again for her to come on down the hill.
She was going to the café anyway. It’s the nicest place on the street. She walked towards them like they were getting her on her way to somewhere else and maybe she could stop for a minute.
“We need to talk to you about something,” Lucio said. He had a dirty dishrag tied at his waist and it flapped in the breeze.
Then Stanley said, “Sorry to bother you. I know you got a lot going on.”
She squinted at them both, then shrugged.
The girl was seventeen but she could have been twenty-five. Nobody knew anything about her except she lived at the BelAir, which was a home for girls who got there for one reason or another. She smoked too many cigarettes, and in the summer, when she moved to the street, she always wore red lipstick and showed off her skinny legs. She laughed a lot back then, but by the fall she was covered up and quiet. Thin, as if she’d missed a meal.
It was December now and cold out on the sidewalk. The wind from the San Francisco Bay swooped down in frigid gusts, pushing winter into the sidewalks. What leaves there were blew off the trees and then were scattered along the pavement.
But it was odd to see Lucio talking with Stanley. Just two days earlier Stanley told Kathleen he didn’t like or respect Lucio DiLorenzi at all. He said Lucio was filthy and disgusting and Stanley was never going to eat anything in the café anymore, not even a cup of tea. He had actually seen Lucio pick a spoon up off the floor and put it back in the container of spoons meant for stirring cappuccino.
“He’s stopped showering,” Stanley said. “Stopped shaving, too. The guy’s gonna self-destruct.”
But there they were, Stanley Miller and Lucio DiLorenzi, out on the sidewalk, chatting away like they had a million things to say to each other.
She was going to the café anyway because she was hungry and by that time of the day Lucio started giving away the pastries. The lunch crowd was long gone and the office clerks stopped coming in for coffee so, if he had time, sometimes, he would make Kathleen a sandwich. He’d just bring it over and set it down at her table. It wasn’t like she was poor and couldn’t pay for it herself. Not like Stanley who had practically agreed to be poor for the rest of his life. She just did what she had to do to get out of this situation eventually.
“Come on, Ka-the-leen,” Lucio said. He opened his arms up like it was a great big invitation and then he put a large, calloused hand on her back. “We need to talk with you about something.”
A lot of what Stanley had said about Lucio DiLorenzi was true. Lucio had gained fifteen pounds in the last two months after returning from Italy, the greatest country in the world. He’d gone to see his family and when he came back everything was different. He started working all the time and his face didn’t look boyish anymore, the way it had back in the summer. In the summer he parked his motorcycle right up on the sidewalk until the city made him move it to the street. The days were longer then and he closed up early to ride down to the wharf. The clubs there were cool and once in a while he took Kathleen. She held onto his jacket and felt the sound and the speed and the wind fly through her whole self and for a while she knew what it was like to be alive for only one moment at a time. She had a taste for things like that and he liked seeing the awe in her eyes, so even if they couldn’t go inside the bars and clubs they sat at picnic tables and listened to the bands and the drunken men in suits tripping out to their cars as the bay rippled and smacked the rocks beside them.
That went on for a couple of weeks. But Kathleen was in the business of turning everything to her advantage. And Lucio was married, and once she understood these things about him: married, café, motorcycle - the awe was completely gone, like the summer, and then, like fall.
And now Lucio was always smacking around that dish towel like he was going to get a little crazy. The customers were dropping off so fast he got maybe a handful of lunch orders and the days of people hanging out were basically over. His face was wider now and loose a little bit and he worked manically, piling up the chairs and scrubbing the floor between the table legs with cones set up around a bucket.
Stanley would not set foot inside the café so he stood in the doorway with his hands jammed inside his parka. “We gotta talk,” he said.
Stanley lived right upstairs in a tiny room with no TV. There was a bathroom down the hall that he had to share with everyone else in the building. And Stanley was old, forty-something, or fifty, Kathleen thought, so it was strange he didn’t even want a job so he could move to some place better. He acted like it was all just dandy eating noodles in his room and checking out library books. He liked to study. Stanley studied history. History is the best subject in the world, he said, because it is an accumulation of knowledge. It gives you the tools to work out problems going on now. He got this idea like being hit with a brick in the library one day.
When Stanley used to come down to the café it was just to take a break from all that studying. Then, just two days ago Stanley told Kathleen that Lucio DiLorenzi was one of the problems he was working on. He was trying to figure out Lucio’s brain, because something was seriously wrong with that guy. Stanley believed he would find the answer in the collected volumes of The Story of Civilization, by Will Durant. They were standing up the street, outside the BelAir while Kathleen smoked a cigarette. The BelAir required its young women to hold a job or go to school. There were certain other rules. It wasn’t great. In fact, the BelAir wasn’t even good, but it was a place you really wanted to hang on to. The administration didn’t allow men upstairs and they didn’t allow loitering out front, but there was an awful lot the administration didn’t know about a young woman.
Kathleen had wanted to be polite about it. She tried getting Stanley to move on down the street. She really didn’t feel like pointing out that someone could be keeping an eye on her just then. She wasn’t in a position to break any rules. All the same he was going on and on about Will Durant. She listened to him and let it go. Stanley referred to Will Durant a lot, and she wasn’t sure about any of the facts Stanley came up with. The bottom line was always, go read Will Durant. The fact that one man could offer the world so much, and all anyone had to do was simply read his words, made it obvious that everyone needed to stop everything they were doing and read, read, read, day in, day out, until the world was filled with better people, exactly like Stanley.
“It’s just money,” Kathleen said, two days ago, partly to get him to stop talking. “He thought his parents would lend him some money to keep the café going, but they didn’t. That’s all.”
That was true. But today, out on the street with both of them there, looking at her, waiting for her to make a move, she wished she hadn’t said anything. People assume things, and people talk. She hiked her backpack higher up on her shoulder and looked into Stanley’s face. He had an old stab wound on his left cheek. It was a red, jagged squiggle a couple of inches long but it went deep enough so his face sunk in there. Kathleen had seen the scar so many times it didn’t bother her. She had spent so much time walking around town with Stanley and hearing all about how he was hopped by a guy outside a club in Jersey City and how he won this tax-free settlement that meant he didn’t have a work a day in his life ever, that Kathleen barely felt sorry for him anymore. He was serious. Whatever was going on with Lucio, Stanley didn’t like it one bit.
“Sure,” she said. She went right inside the café. Ivan was there. He’d been a regular for a couple of months. He was playing chess with a kid she had never seen before. The kid was maybe fifteen and Ivan was an older man. He always wore the same navy hat pulled down on his white hair. He raised his eyebrows at Kathleen. She dropped her bag on the chair next to him and slid onto the bench against the back wall. Ivan never bought anything in the café but Lucio let him stay. He said having Ivan play chess was better than having an empty café.
“Be comfortable, Ka-the-leen. We need to talk to you, Stan-lee and me.” Lucio wiped his face with his hands and then he wiped his hands down the front of his shirt. He danced around the café waving his dishrag at everyone. “Let’s be open,” he said.
“No,” Stanley said. He was still standing at the door and wouldn’t come inside. “There’s customers in there,” he said, even though it was just Ivan and the boy.
“Too many stories, Kathleen.” Lucio stopped and stood right in front of her, spitting out his words. “Stanley called me a liar.”
She looked over at Stanley but he wouldn’t look back. His eyes were fixed on the street.
She had an idea what this was all about, but she had to think about it first.
“Can I have a Coke?” she asked.
The truth was she knew exactly what it was all about, but she could not believe that Lucio wanted to talk about it. She looked at Ivan.
Ivan looked at Stanley and then at Lucio. “I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said. Then he looked back at the boy who was grinning, and then he picked up a pawn and made a move.
“Certainly, Kathleen.” Lucio went behind the counter, behind the wall of straws and spoons and the giant blackboard where he wrote out the daily specials with colored chalk. He took a tall glass and filled it with ice, opened a refrigerator case and removed a can of Coke. Then he came out with it, setting down the glass and opening the can, and pouring out the soda over the ice.
She wanted him to stop. She smiled, saying, “thank you,” but he kept on going. He tore open the straw and put it in the glass.
“For you,” he said.
She opened her backpack and started going through it for her wallet.
“No, no, no,” he said. “This is for you.”
She found her wallet and took out a dollar. She wanted to pay for it. She wanted to show them all that she had a dollar.
“No, no, no,” he said again. “You are the queen.”
She set her bag back down. She didn’t know what Lucio was up to.
He put his boot up on the chair across from her. “Now, we’re gonna talk about these stories,” he said.
“I haven’t told any stories,” she said. She bit the straw with her teeth.
“Oh, I think you’ve been telling stories,” he said. He wasn’t smiling now, he was looking at Ivan and the boy and then back at Stanley, like he owned this place and everybody in it.
“What kind of stories?” she said.
Lucio’s face wrinkled, but he held still. He paused, looking fast at his people. And then he held out the dishrag, opening his arms. “Like I fucked you,” he said slowly, “and then I left you.”
Stanley poked his head in the door. “Look, I don’t care if you slept with her,” he said.
“You know,” Ivan said suddenly, lifting his head, “she’s a very smart girl.”
He had played chess with her a couple of times.
“Any one of you play chess with her,” he said, “I put my money on the girl.”
She had her back against the wall and didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to talk about that. She tried to think about what somebody ought to say, what would Jackie O. say, at a time like this? That was the only advice her aunt had given her as she packed her in the car. Think. What would Jackie do?
Kathleen drummed her fingernails on the table top. “What happened to you in Italy?” she said, quickly.
Lucio squinted, and then he started slapping his dish towel on his knee. “Mama mia,” he said. “This is my life.”
“It’s not the same,” she said. She looked at Stanley and Ivan. “You came back here and you’re so serious all the time.”
“Mama mia,” he said again, slapping down the rag.
“Lucio, Lucio,” Stanley said. “The poor girl can’t sit in peace and have a Coke?”
“That’s my business,” he said, getting loud again. “I want to know what the fucking stories you’re telling Stanley. Look at him. He won’t even come inside.”
“What happened in Italy? Somebody didn’t give you money so you gotta make a living all of a sudden?” As soon as she said it she was scared, like somehow just talking about it would make everything good disappear. She doubted seriously if Jackie O. had ever found herself in a situation like this. And it wasn’t just the sandwiches and the pastries that might go away. She already knew that, at seventeen, sitting there day after day. It was going to take so much more to get the hell out of there.
Stanley poked his head around the door again. “Everybody knows, Kathleen. Everybody on the whole street knows what’s he’s doing to you.” He stepped in now and he reached out an arm for her. “It isn’t right. He’s not right, Kathleen.”
Lucio swung around to look at everybody. “What I don’t understand,” he said, “is I come to this country and I say, this is beautiful, I want to live here. What can I do? I love people. I have a café. I say hello to everyone. I say, come in, eat, stay, be happy. Ivan,” he shouted, “didn’t I say that to you?”
Ivan had been looking at the chessboard. He raised his head and looked up crossly at Lucio.
The boy was already sitting up straight. He had stopped playing chess and had his hands on his lap.
“Let’s be honest,” Lucio said, not waiting for an answer.
Ivan turned back to the board.
Lucio slapped the dishrag on the table. “I fucked you,” he said loudly.
“She’s seventeen,” Stanley said.
“And then I left you.” Lucio’s voice was so loud now, and it seemed he didn’t mind or even care how foolish he was acting.
Ivan shook his head. He was going to leave.
Kathleen reached for her backpack and slid it up over her shoulder.
“Hey,” Lucio said, “this is not some game.”
Ivan and the boy were scooping up chess pieces and putting them back in the box.
Lucio shook his head like he didn’t want them leaving. “What am I doing here?” he said.
“It’s all right,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”
“She says it doesn’t matter.” All at once he slapped the rag and it flew out his hand. “What doesn’t matter?” He was yelling louder now and kicked the chair into the table. “My café doesn’t matter? Mama Mia.”
She held very still. She wasn’t the kind of girl who could run away.
Stanley was right next to her and he held out a hand, but Lucio took hold of her arm and squeezed hard so it burned. He started shaking her. “Or that I fucked you?”he looked straight in her face. “Is that what doesn’t matter?”
“No, that doesn’t matter,” she said.
“Let her go,” Stanley said.
Lucio dropped her arm and started picking up the chair by the legs. “Nobody will come here anymore,” he said. “Is that what you want?” he said to Kathleen, but turned to look at everyone.
Ivan and the boy were standing there with their coats on, watching.
“Come on,” Stanley nodded at Katherine to step outside.
She took her backpack, and had to go around Lucio.
“The bitch!” Lucio yelled. “The little bitch!”
She made it out to the street, followed by Stanley. Ivan and the boy were already headed up the hill. She watched for a second as the backs of their coats disappeared into the Tenderloin.
Stanley and Kathleen walked for a little bit, and then they turned the corner so the café was no longer in sight. She stopped and slid her backpack off her shoulder. She fished around for cigarettes.
“I’m really sorry about that,” Stanley said. “I tried to stop him.”
“Yeah,” she said. It took her a couple of tries to get the cigarette lit.
“Can I walk you to your bus?”
“You don’t have to,” she said.
“Nah, I want to,” he said.
She inhaled and nodded.
“Boy, I hope you get out of here,” he said.
“Yeah.” They walked for a while and then they were there.
“You’re young,” he said, finally. “You know. You’re just a kid.”
“Yeah,” she said, though it didn’t mean a thing.
“You only get so many chances to start over, Kathleen.”
She threw her cigarette out into the street and waited. Pretty soon there’d be a bus.
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