The first office was closed. I trudged along a sidewalk in search of another. The phone address did not list an apartment number. It was a safe complex. There were bikes and plastic toys on the small patios. Through the windows I could see families eating and watching television. The windows were not defended by rows of bars. The cars crammed into the parking lots were of the midsized commuter variety, mostly clean and with all four hubcaps.
A security guard stopped me. Once he determined that I posed no threat, he pointed in the direction of the main office, at least a quarter of a mile away.
"How many units are in this place?" I asked.
"A lot," he answered. Why should he know the number?
The night manager was a student eating a sandwich, a physics textbook opened before him. But he was watching the Bullets-Knicks game on a small TV. I asked about Hector Palma, and he pecked away on a keyboard. G-134 was the number.
"But they've moved," he said with a mouthful of food.
"Yeah, I know," I said. "I worked with Hector. Friday was his last day. I'm looking for an apartment, and I was wondering if I could see his."
He was shaking his head no before I finished. "Only on Saturdays, man. We have nine hundred units. And there's a waiting list."
"I'm gone on Saturday."
"Sorry," he said, taking another bite and glancing at the game.
I removed my wallet. "How many bedrooms?" I asked.
He glanced at the monitor. "Two."
Hector had four children. I was sure his new digs were more spacious.
"How much a month?"
I took out a one-hundred-dollar bill, which he immediately saw. "Here's the deal. Give me the key. I'll take a look at the place and be back in ten minutes. No one will ever know."
"We have a waiting list," he said again, dropping the sandwich onto a paper plate.
"Is it there in that computer?" I asked, pointing.
"Yeah," he said, wiping his mouth.
"Then it would be easy to shuffle."
He found the key in a locked drawer, and grabbed the money. "Ten minutes," he said.
The apartment was nearby, on the ground floor of a three-story building. The key worked. The smell of fresh paint escaped through the door before I went inside. In fact, the painting was still in progress; in the living room there was a ladder, dropcloths, white buckets.
A team of fingerprinters could not have found a trace of the Palma clan. All drawers, cabinets, and closets were bare; all carpets and padding ripped up and gone. Even the tub and toilet bowl stains had been removed. No dust, cobwebs, dirt under the kitchen sink. The place was sterile. Every room had a fresh coat of dull white, except the living room, which was half-finished.
I returned to the office and tossed the key on the counter.
"How about it?" he asked.
"Too small," I said. "But thanks anyway."
"You want your money back?"
"Are you in school?"
"Then keep it."
I stopped at the door, and asked, "Did Palma leave a forwarding address?"
"I thought you worked with him," he said.
"Right," I said, and quickly closed the door behind me.
The little woman was sitting against our door when I arrived for work Wednesday morning. It was almost eight; the office was locked; the temperature was below freezing. At first I thought she had parked herself there for the night, using our doorway to battle the wind. But when she saw me approach, she immediately jumped to her feet and said, "Good morning."
I smiled, said hello, and started fumbling keys.
"Are you a lawyer?" she asked.
"Yes I am."
"For people like me?"
I assumed she was homeless, and that was all we asked of our clients. "Sure. Be my guest," I said as I opened the door. It was colder inside than out. I adjusted a thermostat, one that, as far as I had been able to determine, was connected to nothing. I made coffee and found some stale doughnuts in the kitchen. I offered them to her, and she quickly ate one.
"What's your name?" I asked. We were sitting in the front, next to Sofia's desk, waiting for the coffee and praying for the radiators. "Ruby."
"I'm Michael. Where do you live, Ruby?"
"Here and there." She was dressed in a gray Georgetown Hoya sweat suit, thick brown socks, dirty white sneakers with no brand name. She was between thirty and forty, rail-thin, and slightly cockeyed.
"Come on," I said with a smile. "I need to know where you live. Is it a shelter?"
"Used to live in a shelter, but had to leave. Almost got raped. I got a car."
I had seen no vehicles parked near the office when I arrived. "You have a car?"
"Do you drive it?"
"It don't drive. I sleep in the back."
I was asking questions without a legal pad, something I was not trained to do. I poured two large paper cups of coffee, and we retreated to my office, where, mercifully, the radiator was alive and gurgling. I closed the door. Mordecai would arrive shortly, and he had never learned the art of a quiet entry.
Ruby sat on the edge of my brown folding client's chair, her shoulders slumped, her entire upper body wrapped around the cup of coffee, as if it might be the last warm thing in life.
"What can I do for you?" I asked, armed with a full assortment of legal pads.
"It's my son, Terrence. He's sixteen, and they've taken him away."
"Who took him?"
"The city, the foster people."
"Where is he now?"
"They got him."
Her answers were short, nervous bursts, quick on the heels of each question. "Why don't you relax and tell me about Terrence?" I said.
And she did. With no effort at eye contact, and with both hands on the coffee cup, she zipped through her narrative. Several years earlier, she couldn't remember how long, but Terrence was around ten, they were living alone in a small apartment. She was arrested for selling drugs. She went to jail for four months. Terrence went to live with her sister. Upon her release, she collected Terrence, and they began a nightmare existence living on the streets. They slept in cars, squatted in empty buildings, slept under bridges in warm weather, and retreated to the shelters when it was cold. Somehow, she kept him in school. She begged on the sidewalks; she sold her body--"tricking" as she called it; she peddled a little crack. She did whatever it took to keep Terrence fed, in decent clothes, and in school.
But she was an addict, and couldn't kick the crack. She became pregnant, and when the child was born the city took it immediately. It was a crack baby.
She seemed to have no affection for the baby; only for Terrence. The city began asking questions about him, and mother and child slid deeper into the shadows of the homeless. Out of desperation, she went to a family she had once worked for as a maid, the Rowlands, a couple whose children were grown and away from home. They had a warm little house near Howard University. She offered to pay them fifty dollars a month if Terrence could live with them. There was a small bedroom above the back porch, one she'd cleaned many times, and it would be perfect for Terrence. The Rowlands hesitated at first, but finally agreed. They were good people, back then. Ruby was allowed to visit Terrence for an hour each night. His grades improved; he was clean and safe, and Ruby was pleased with herself.