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Little Girl Blue - Short Story

Seeing as I'm in New York for Christmas, I thought I'd dig out this short story I wrote many, many years ago.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Little Girl Blue

I sat down on the old tatty red stool which was split all along the side. It had gray electrical tape holding its foam guts together. Like most of the guys who perched on them, many of the stools were broken in some way. It was the usual old faces, all hiding from a New York winter that was taking chunks out of everybody. I put my hands on the counter, which I hardly felt because they were so numb.
    My worn gloves were a useless illusion, just something I put on in the hope they might help a little. But they never did. I slipped them off and flexed my fingers, trying to get a little life back in my joints.
    "Hey Champ. Merry Christmas my friend," It was Jer.
    "Sure," I muttered. He was a good guy of course, but a little too full of the seasonal cheer for me to deal with. He came ambling over.
    "How you feeling today?"
    "Cold and bruised," I replied, my cracking voice waking up with their first words of the day.
    Jer had been working at the place in one capacity or another for years. He used to recount how he started out as a fifteen-year-old smart-mouth, bussing tables and tooting after the waitresses. Zip forward a couple of decades, and the joint was his, thanks to a bank loan that near crippled him. It means that he can't retire for another five years. Of course, he's been saying that for at least ten now, and though he won't admit it, we all know he simply has no other place to be. Few of us really do.
    "I heard he tried to bite you," Jer said, bringing the coffee pot over.
    "It wasn't anything," I shrugged, watching him fill the cup. And it wasn't. So what if a punk wants to take a pop like that? It was against the rules and they wouldn't let you fight for a couple of weeks as a way of teaching you a lesson. But more than that, it just wasn't gentlemanly, and fighters who don't respect you will always take the cheap route.
    Jer looked at my hands for a moment before taking them in his. He ran his thumbs over the back and then over my fingers - his routine once-over. "This," he said, pausing on the pinkie on my right hand, "it's broken."
    "That's what I was afraid of," I muttered.
    "You need to see a doctor."
    "I can't afford a doctor."
    "But you can't afford for it to be broke either." He gave me a heavy look, and we both knew he was right. "And they're cold."
    Jer slid the hot coffee pot between my mitts and I wrapped my fingers around the glass. The heat was welcome. He patted the back of my hands and went back to his kitchen. In another life, Jerry had been a fighter too. But after a couple of broken noses, the gig wasn't for him, "Too many beautiful ladies to stay pretty for," he would say.
    I watched the griddle guy, he was new, a Mexican. I'd met him already, but I'd forgotten his name. It happened a lot. New names and new faces slipped by me all the time. The Mexican scraped bacon along the griddle, the fat slipping between the hot bars. He looked around at me, smiling a 'good morning' smile. I nodded. It didn't seem like he spoke much English, so I didn't feel bad not knowing his name, and neither one of us took it further than that. I sipped my coffee and looked back at my buckled hand.
    The diner door flipped open and an ill breeze ran riot through the place. Everybody pulled their collars a little closer.
    "You're late," yelled Jer through the kitchen door.
    "I know," replied Lori as she hurried through. She zipped off her coat and rushed past us all. She was a good girl, probably no older than twenty-two, twenty-three. We didn't talk too much, but that wasn't unusual, I didn't really talk to many people. Jer was trying hard to be pissed at her, but he wasn't doing such a good job. It would be a struggle to be angry at such a pretty face, no matter how late she had been turning in for work recently. She had a kid too. This I knew because I'd hear the old guy whose name I forget, always asking about him when she poured his coffee. She'd smile wide at the thought of her boy and it was always good to see.
    "You can't keep doing this..." Jer said as Lori came through, the swing doors letting him know that was the end of everything.
    Tying her apron around herself, she headed over to me. "Can I?"
    "Sure," I replied, as she took the coffee pot from in front of me. I folded my fingers over, trapping the heat and watching her carry on her morning. Jer continued his half-assed yipping at her but he couldn't keep it up for long. He always was a sucker for blondes.

    That night, the crowd bayed like hungry dogs. "Go down," they screamed, wild eyes and hollering from their bellies. My hand was squeezed so tight in bandages there was hardly had any feeling left in my broken finger.
    The kid rocked me with a right so quick it felt like I'd been slammed by a stock car. For a moment, I was blind. White lights dotted across my vision. I hadn't been hit that hard in a while and my senses were playing catch up, trying work out which way was ceiling and which was floor. Then another blow, juddering right through my jaw. Damn he knew how to hit. I was trying to punch through, but the kid was half as young and twice as strong. When you throw a punch, your defence is at it's weakest. It seemed like I was trying to swat hornets, but they just kept cutting through, stinging me time after time.
    His uppercut ricocheted straight down my neck, tearing through my spine, a rod for lightning. My legs folded, and I hit a wall, almost collapsing to the floor.
    I was a car crash. An embarassment.
    "You're too old," the dogs yelled. "Give it up, ya bum!"
    The wall scraped my skin. It didn't want me up against it. A hand from the crowd pushed me. If it wasn't for that unfriendly brickwork and the hard shove from the blue, I would've fallen all the way over.
    It twisted and burned.
    My head swayed heavy. It was desperate to rest on the blood-stained floor.
    But I held on, padding weakly along the wall, trying to get  a grip, my other fist balled on the ground. I teetered and swayed, urging myself to keep going. I couldn't lose this one.
    I pushed back up to standing, my back scraping up the naked brick, more pain on top of more pain, hands grabbing me, forcing me back into it. My chest heaved and creaked as it filled with desperately drawn breaths. My lungs ached as I plundered the air, furiously trying to support this aching frame. My thumping heart, pulsing in my ears like I had a drummer on my shoulder. It pounded, over and over and over.
    The kid stalked from just a few feet away. His arms were like bricks wrapped in silk, with veins cabling up from deep inside grimy bandages. He looked good - no wonder they all had their rent money on him.
    The dogs continued to yell - they needed me to drop.
    These fucked up old legs had to give up.
    I had to go down.
    Slowly, my ribs inflated and deflated.
    The kid cocked his head, a split-look to the side as he spat on the ground.
    Air in. Air out.
    I dug my grip hard into the wall.
    He wiped the spit and the blood from the corner of his mouth, shifting his weight from foot to foot, elegant and fierce.
    "Come on," I whispered through busted lips. "Is that all you got?"
    The room collectively held it's breath, anticipation seething through the smokey air.
    The kid stepped in fast - BOOM - another sky rocket launched from the middle of his body, slicing the air in two.
    But I moved.
    Not a lot, just enough.
    Cherry Blossom used to say that to me. Just enough. I liked to think of her sometimes. The loaded fist shot by my ear, hammering hard into the wall. There she was, for just a moment, stood beyond the crowd, in the doorway, smoking out the place with a devil crafted smile.
    Like dry ice rolling over ground, "Sometimes just a little is more than enough."
    Goddammit Cherry. God damn you. You always knew how to make an entrance.
    Through gritted teeth, I threw a log-heavy-fist, right into the kid's heart, nearly stopping him dead. I was no longer quick, but I still knew how to punch. He was lost to Wednesday by the time I followed with a devastating cross. It wasn't pretty, but it was simple. By the end, the kid's face was pulp.
    The dogs were pissed. But I didn't care. I was out of there before anybody knew how to react.
    I burst through the fire exit doors and tucked the money in my coat pocket. But the finger - it wasn't letting me forget about it. Ice-packs weren't going to get me through the night. I tried to look at it, but it was too dark. All I could see was the fat silhouette amidst falling snowflakes. More fucken snow.
    The mess of the kid flashed through my head, but I had to put it to one side. Being in the middle of a fight is a cheap place to be. I've lamented many a time about the waste that goes into the goddamn machine, just to turn out an imitation of true glory. That's not to say there's no heart in the sport, but rather that some of the sonsofbitches that pull the strings have no sport in their hearts. So many wasted lives. Tell a kid he can be somebody, that fighting is the path to becoming more than a man, to becoming a legend, a hero, and you'll soon have that naive young pup absorbing body blows like he's crash barrier. Now, with this body to broke to be believe in all of that bullshit, I just fight to eat. To survive.
    That's the only real reason that we, as an animal, learned how to fight - to stay alive. The other stuff is crap. I just wish it hadn't taken me thirty years and two broken marriages to realise that. This fickle business. It takes everything you've got and then rewards you with nothing.
    But that's just surface. Most people I ever knew hated their jobs. It didn't matter if you worked in a factory making tyres, a boxing ring or an office pushing ink across paper, work is shitty for just about everybody.
    The thing that really lodged in my throat was when the other guy went down and never got up. At least behind a desk, you didn't risk having your life ended in a second.
    I could have been a painter, or a writer. My mother would have preferred that. She could have been truly proud. But instead, I became a fighter. She could never be happy for a son that beat people to the edge of death for a living. Neither could Cherry Blossom.
    I stood on the corner, snow falling slow. I inspected my swollen pinkie under a street lamp. Jer was right, better to get it looked at. The victory drink could hold till later.

    Cherry Blossom was angry at me.
    "You fucken nobody," she screamed. Her lipstick was smeared and her mascara run. Even though she was drunk, she was still stringing her words pretty well. "You think you're the greatest, don't you?"
    I didn't respond.
    "Don't you!"
    "Baby," I uttered, looking her dead in the eye and balling my fist like I was about to lose it with her. "I know I'm the greatest. I know, because I have the belt. But the only jewelry you have is the shit I provide."
    "Fuck you."
    "Fuck you too, you stupid whore."
    She came at me like a wildcat, scratching and hitting, screaming and wailing. Just crazy. I threw her off, and for a moment, she just lay there, looking back at me. We looked at each other for a moment or three. How had it all come to this? How could two people so mad in love, end up tearing each other to pieces? We were both thinking that way.
    "Fuck you," she growled once more.
    After that, I never saw Cherry Blossom again, but I sure did miss her.

    The lady on the desk was being a real bitch. I was trying to keep it together, but she wouldn't let me see the doc.
    "My finger is fucked," I protested.
    "I understand..."
    "Then let me talk to him."
    "Sir, I already explained to you, you need to have medical insurance."
    She eyeballed me cold, and I knew I wasn't going to get any place quick.
    "I bust my finger up."
    "I need to see Harry, he's my doc."
    She must have pushed a button under the desk or something, because the security guard started walking over. Great, I wasn't ready for this tonight.
    "Hey..." It was Harry. "What are you doing here?"
    I was glad to see him. He calmed things down with the lady and ushered me to take a seat while he made some arrangements. I sloped over to the blue chairs, taking stock of the security guard as we crossed paths. Neither of us really needed the trouble.
    I rested myself down and stretched out my legs. A TV bubbled in the corner, some inane chat show with a comedian I recognised but couldn't recall his name. He was funny though. Then, a tap on my shoulder. Lori.
    "Hey," she said. "What are you doing here?"
    "Finger," I replied, instinctively holding it up to show her my swollen hand.
    She sat down beside me.
    "What about you?" I asked.
    "Just visiting somebody." She smiled. "I thought it was you."
    "Yeah." I didn't really know what to say. "Who you here to see?"
    She took a moment, then looked at me real sweetly. Nobody had looked at me like that in a while.
    "My Mom. She's not too great."
    "Oh. I'm sorry to hear that."
    And then the conversation slid away. I watched the comedian on TV some more. He was doing a skit about the president. It was fun.
    "Hop up on the bed," harry said as he closed the door behind himself.
    I did as I was told, and he pulled a little stool up to take a look at my hand.
    "Whoa," he continued. "It's a mess."
    "I know."
    "How long has it been like this?"
    "About a week."
    "You should have come to me sooner."
    "I spoke to Jer."
    Jerry? From the diner?"
    "He's good with bones and stuff."
    "He's a cook."
    "But a cup of coffee is still cheaper than insurance."
    He gave me a weighty look. "You don't have to worry about that."
    "Thanks doc."
    We'd been friends since we were kids, and Harry was the heavyweight champ of our block. That was, of course, till I broke his nose. His mother chased me with a broom for messing up her baby boy. Those days were something special. His nose was still crooked to one side.
    "You're still fighting?" Harry put a splint down the side of my finger. "I thought you'd given it up?"
    "I did. But you know how it is. Can't do much else."
    "I wish it was."
    "Your hands won't get better if you don't give them time." He had my fingers in his palm, a friend talking right to a friend.
    "I'm broke."
    "I can see."
    He wrapped my pinkie to the ring finger and bound it up nice and tight.
    "Where are you fighting now?"
    "Still down at Max's place."
    "Jesus - he's still running that racket?"
    "Just a couple of nights a week."
    The doc shook his head. Max's was a bar with a big enough basement to hold fights. Everybody knew it as the bear pit.
    There was a lot of mixed martial arts stuff which people seemed to like, but I just stuck with with I knew - using my hands. It paid alright, but there was nothing sweet about the place. On a Friday night, you could literally see the blood and sweat seeping out of the walls. It was a dungeon or a dream palace, depending where you were in your career. If making a name was more important than making a paycheck, it was a good spot to beat on an old half-legend. If not, it was the only way to make feeding money.
    The doc finished fixing me up.
    "You want to go for a drink?"
    "Sure," I replied.
    We sank beers late into the evening, talking about old times and the sweethearts who'd wrecked our hearts. Laughing and lamenting. His lady had been dead a couple of years, lost to cancer. I didn't like asking about it, never sure if it's fair to wade through another man's misery, so I didn't. But Harry being Harry, he was naturally curious about Cherry Blossom.
    "What happened?"
    "She left. You already know that."
    "Yeah, but you never really said why. I thought you guys were so..." he looked for something, gesturing with his hands like he was sifting through a bag of words. "Together. You know?"
    "I'm too intense," I replied, taking it to the very core of the subject.
    The doc smiled.
    "What?" I asked, my word slipping down the bottle of the beer as I trailed it with a sip.
    "I don't know..." he muttered. "I just hate to see you alone."
    It was unusual to hear a man who's wife was cold in the ground worrying about my loneliness. Humbling, almost.
    "I'm alone," I continued. "But I'm not lonely."
    "What about your daughter?"
    I didn't know what to say.
    "You spoken to her recently?"
    I shook my head and picked at the label on my beer. Just the mention of Annie made my eyes sting at the back, and I could feel my heart shift a couple of inches. I didn't like it.
    "Where is she?" he pursued.
    "I don't know. California some place."
    "The other side of the world."
    "...And as far away from me as possible."
    "Come on..." He supped his drink back, leaning deep into his chair. "You should go see her."
    We chewed the fat till the morning, flitting between shit that mattered and junk that meant nothing. It felt good and he let me sleep on the couch.

    The snow was thicker every day, getting more and more beautiful. Fresh snow on old snow is a good thing, always covering up the worn away spots that have been made by cars and kids scooping up snowballs. Gives everybody a chance to start cutting into the surface again.
    I walked to the diner, hunching my shoulders tight around my ears. Jer cooked good pancakes that heated me up from the inside, which was good because I hadn't eaten much with all the finger pain.
    "You got it fixed," he said, taking the empty plate from in front of me.
    "Yeah," I replied. "Doc took care of me."
    "I was right then, wasn't I?"
    I smiled. The old bastard loved being a smart-ass.
    He laughed. "I'm telling you, I should have been a doctor."
    "Sure, get you out of cleaning tables."
    "Ah," he shrugged, waving his cloth at me. "If I did that, you wouldn't be able to afford me."
    His wicked smile. I wondered how many of those waitresses he'd snared all those years ago flashing that as a busboy.
    "I saw Lori down there."
    "At the hospital?"
    "Yeah. You think her mother is going to be okay?"
    "Not really," Jer said, getting a little serious. "Hard to see, if I'm honest. But she's believing in miracles. She's a great girl, but it's taking the life out of her, being there all the time, trying to raise her kid."
    "She's a rock."
    "So it seems."
    "What's wrong with her mother?"
    "Her lungs, they ain't so good. But Lori..."
    "She's got hope?"
    "Yeah, unfortunately. It's going to tear her up."
    "I see."
    "You still an atheist?"
    Jer smiled. "Well, if you ever get over it, say a prayer for Lori, alright? The kid's going to need it."
    "I'll put it on my list of things to do."
    "Okay champ." And with that, Jer walked back to the kitchen.
    All that talk of praying and shit, it made me think. I only ever prayed once for somebody, all the other times were trivial and usually wasted at the trac, screaming at my horse to win the race. Sometimes the big corner man in the sky listened, and sometimes he didn't. After Cherry Blossom left, it seemed he stopped listening at all.
    The last guy I prayed for was Ricky Dostoffson, a sharp kid from the Mid-West. He was a real farm boy, blond with tanned skin from whole summers working the hay bales and whatever else farm hands do. He'd been trained in a barn out back, and was just one of those people who were gifted in gloves. I always had to work hard, out-think as well as out-box, never finding it in my nature to bob and sway like some fighters do. But Ricky was like one of the chickens on his farm, alert and his head always on the move. Made it hard to hit.
    He was a beautiful fighter, pure and honest. Spoke a little hokey, but that just shined as light on his innocence. A Christian boy too, just like his Momma and Pa (as he called them). It ripped me up sitting by his bed. The last time I'd seen him, he was in the corner of the ring, eyes rolling back in his head, the doctor pulling his gum shield and his tongue out of the way to get the oxygen in him. One of God's finest, his head bleeding out amongst the catcalls and hurried hands of a dozen frantic people trying to keep him alive.
    It was hard to not be pissed at God when you're watching the little blip on the heart machine by Ricky's bed. His mother came in. She looked like an angel whose heart was breaking. I guess in many ways, that's exactly what she was. I've stood across from some of the toughest men in the world, seeing searing anger as they tell me they're going to punch me into the grave. But I was never more scared than when I had to talk to that sparrow of a lady.
    She sat down next to me, not saying a word. She simply took my hand and stroked the thick knuckles, reassuring me that it was okay. I couldn't help it, I broke down and cried like a baby. These hands that had destroyed her son, she cradled them with all the love and goodness she had, as if she was my own mother. As if I were own son. I wept for Ricky, for her, for Cherry, for my daughter, for my ex-wife, but mostly, I wept for me. I had to. I wasn't ready for redemption. Best to keep a little back so nobody expects too much from you.
    Before I left, Ricky's mother asked one thing of me, she asked me to pray for him. I said I would, and as I walked out of the hospital, I uttered a few words to somebody I wasn't even sure existed. "God," I said, "please don't take him from her. Don't take him from the people that love him. Not yet. They don't deserve it."
    That night, Ricky passed away. I never went to the funeral, I just don't think I could have seen how much damage I caused.
    I also never stepped inside a pro ring again.
    Soon, the money and luck ran out, but I was happy to hide away from the world. The phone rang a couple times after Ricky's death, but when I picked up, they never said anything. They didn't have to. I knew it was Cherry Blossom, obviously a little drunk, just running questions through her head. It was just nice to hear her soft breath to be honest, and I would let her stay there for as long as she needed. I was always sad when she put the phone down.
    For a time, I managed to carve a little money from bouncing at clubs and bars, but after I got a little heavy on some guy, nobody wanted to take the risk with me. I couldn't blame them really, it was a pissy job. Fighting was all I knew how to do and sometimes, that's the sorriest part of my whole goddamn life.

    The hot water pipe had frozen and cracked, and there was no way I could afford to get it fixed. As it was, I was already behind on the rent, and another missed payment meant that repairs would be the least of my worries. I looked at my finger, all wrapped up like a sarcophagus, and listened to the lady screaming down the hall. She was going crazy at her boyfriend who was locked out, banging on the door, hopping between threatening to kill her and devoting his undying love for her. Crazy bastards. When my wife found out about Cherry Blossom, we did something not too dissimilar, only we curtailed the language because of my daughter's presence. Still, she saw more anger out of the both of us than she ever should have. I was a terrible husband and a selfish father.
    Thoughts of the past aren't really good for anybody, least of all a fighter. They distract you when you need a clear head, but I'm not perfect. None of us are. And so things that happen now always seem to remind you of something from back then. Maybe we just like to torture ourselves? Who the fuck knows.
    If I had to listen to people shouting and hollering, I might as get paid for it. I unwound the doc's good work and slipped on my coat.

    I didn't know the guy, but it was obvious he'd been around the block a little bit. His hands were bound and his big chest was smeared with Vaseline. I don't know why, but I had a bad feeling about it. It happens, you know? You get spooked by something, a feeling in the air almost. Everybody knows when their belly is screaming for them to do something else, but their head doesn't listen. Maybe I just didn't want to listen. You think about fear and you end up scared. I watched him huff through his broken teeth. Still, I couldn't shake it.
    Like always, we started at opposite sides of the room, not too far, not too close. The stillness hangs on stale air like a oil on water and you just don't know what's going to happen next. Anticipation. Who's going to leave the room with victory ringing in their ears?
    Jimmy, who runs the fight nights, steps in, scarred up bottle cap in hand. You wouldn't believe it, but in the weighty atmosphere, the sound of that metal cap hitting concrete rings like a bell.
    Everything after that is mayhem.
    The last thing I remember with clarity is the bell ringing out.
    That ice cold air bit hard again as the fire exit kicked open. It went from blurred strip lights to snow fall as they carried me through the doors. It was a woozy sensation. I was lost, but aware.
    I could feel blood rolling down my cheek, into my ear. That's how I knew I was horizontal. Some guy's fingers were dug in hard under my arm, and he said words that were hurried and breathless, stacked with panic. He was talking to the other guy, the one who had my ankles. Snapping at each other, both scared. I knew from their panic that I was a fucken wreck. They were in a hurry too. A car. I figured it must have been the parking lot. It was night. Still night. Still snowing.
    The car door opened and they threw me in the backseat like I was already dead. Maybe they thought I was. Maybe I will be before we get to wherever we're going.
    It's fast. They're still talking, still panicked. Snapping like turtles. Driving like they have a problem bleeding out in the back seat.
    I looked at the window, just where the glass meets the brim of the door. A little bit of snow had settled.
    The car jerked hard and the wheels sang as we skidded.
    The door opened and I watched the snowy brim swing away. They dragged me unceremoniously out of the car.
    The ground was wet on my face. The snow gritty and brown in front of my eyes. Slush.
    Doors slam again.
    The car squealed away once more.
    I wanted to sleep. That's all I wanted. To go to sleep. I was exhausted, I was cold, and I could feel my thoughts slowing down.

    "Oh my God!"
    The sound of filled trash bags hitting the ground woke me. A new layer of snow in front of my blurry eyes, shiny white.
    I must have been a train wreck, because Lori freaked some more when she got over to me. "What happened to you?"
    Sweet Lori.
    An angel, just like Ricky's mother, standing over me when I am most broken. I must have dragged myself to the diner in a half conscious state. I don't know why - it was nowhere near the hospital. Maybe I hoped Jer would fix me up. Whatever, there were a lot of blanks I couldn't fill, and with my Swiss cheese memory, I was never going to recover it. The only thing that was certain was that I was now slumped down around the back of the diner, amongst the fruit crates, bins and rats. Lori helped me up. Her petite frame supporting my lumbering body. Never underestimate the strength of a women though, especially a mother. She guided me through the back of the diner, through the kitchen, around the counter and across the floor to a booth. I dropped down and just sighed.
    The joint wasn't due to open for another hour or so, but Lori got the machines on so she could get a hot chocolate inside of me. I looked at the still-wet black-and-white checkered floor and, glistening from being just mopped. It'd be wrecked within ten minutes of opening in this weather, hardly seemed much point.
    "Here," Lori said as she put my drink in front of me.
    I watched the little pink and white marshmallows gently melt in the top and laughed a little to myself.
    "What?" Lori asked.
    "Nothing," I replied. "It's just that nobody has put marshmallow's in my hot chocolate since I was a kid."
    "Call it habit. It's the way my son likes it."
    "Right." I smiled at her. "Thank you."
    "No problem." She slid into the booth opposite me and sipped her own chocolate too.
    "Where's Jer?"
    "I'm opening. Got a few late showings to make up for." She had an inescapable sadness about her.
    "It's Christmas Day."
    "Like I said." She paused. "Besides, I'm only here till twelve."
    "How's your mother doing?"
    "Okay. I think she's going to be out soon." I thought of what Jer had said, about how grave he'd been. It was hard to tell if Lori really was in denial, or if Jer was just a dedicated pessimist.
    "What happened to you?"
    "I got in a fight," I replied.
    "I thought you were dead."
    "I guess they did too."
    "Just some people."
    "Fight people?"
    I didn't say anything. I guess my fat mouth and wrecked face explained enough.
    "What's it like being hit?" she asked.
    "It is what it is. Normal." And then I thought about how ridiculous that must have sounded to somebody who waited on tables for a living. "It's something you get used to."
    She took a moment, measuring her thoughts. Then, "I don't think I could let my son box. It'd kill me to see him getting hurt like that."
    "I mean, good as in that you wouldn't let him fight. He should do something better with his life. Use his head for something smart, not as a punchbag."
    "Oh, I see. Yeah." She looked at the clock on the wall. "I have too much to do this morning."
    "What time do the rest get here?"
    "Luis is in shortly."
    Luis! That was the Mexican grill guy's name. I tried to commit it to memory.
    "You staying for breakfast?" she asked.
    "I don't think so."
    "Then you should go see a doctor."
    "I will," I lied.
    "Where's your family?"
    "What do you mean?"
    "I just see you coming in here all the time, alone. And you never seem to talk about anybody."
    "My family live in San Francisco now."
    "Do you see them?"
    "Not really."
    "Why not?"
    She was confronting me. I wasn't used to it. This little girl, who had seemed so blue, was now flipping it all around on me, trying to get me to look at my truth.
    "Money," I said, espousing an easy excuse.
    "Money? You get paid to beat people up all the time..."
    "Not all the time..."
    "You get paid to beat people up a lot," she reaffirmed, "and you don't have the money to go see your family?"
    She had a mouth on her. It surprised me a little.
    "You're just talking shit."
    "And I thought you were a nice girl."
    "Who's there, in California?"
    "My daughter and her son."
    "Then you need to go."
    "I told you..."
    "And we both know what you meant really. You're just scared."
    And she was right. But I didn't know how to admit it. Who wouldn't be scared? This type of fear wasn't one that could be dealt with fists, it was laden in my stomach.
    Lori looked at the wall clock again. "I have to make a start."
    She got up and went to the counter, doing whatever it is she had to do.
    I watched what was left of the marshmallows, and thought about what she'd said to me. It's easy to not deal with the truth in your head, I supposed, just as long as you have something else to keep you busy. But the fact was, I was fast running out of distractions. I finished the hot chocolate. Then, Lori was back at the table, standing by my side.
    "Here," she said, handing me a small coffee jar filled with dollar notes and a coins.
    "What's this?"
    "It's all the tips I've made this month."
    "I don't..."
    "Just take it," she butted in. "When you leave here, either use it to convince a doctor some place to fix up that face of yours, or put it towards getting to California."
    "I can't."
    "No. You can."
    She was serious. It was there in her eyes. A curious thing made me realise that here was a girl about to lose her own mother, and that must have taken her head and heart to some deep and ponderous places. It didn't take a psychologist to see she was reflecting her situation on my own, despite only knowing the smallest of details.
    "Thank you," I said, as I took the jar. "I'll pay you back."
    "Okay," she smiled. And went back to her counter.
    I finished the last drop of my already empty cup, really just as a way to give us a little space again. Then, I got out from the booth, minding not to slip on her nice clean floor.
    I looked around at the counter where Lori was stood with a handful of napkins. She looked back at me.
    "I'll see you around," I said. "Merry Christmas."
    "Okay. It's cold out there today, so stay warm."
    "Merry Christmas," she smiled.
    As I opened the door, the Mexican grill guy came through.
    "Hey Luis," I said.
    "Hey..." he said, trying to remember my name.
    Then, I stepped out into the snow, wondering what the weather might be in San Francisco.