Chloe Doe

By: Suzanne Phillips

This is the Place you Become Miss America


At four p.m. the music plays in rec. This is where we learn a new talent. We will all learn dance or it’s back to our rooms for solitude, to think about why we don’t want to learn the merengue, to think about why we don’t want to hold the sweaty, fat hand of Dolores or Tina, why we don’t want to swing across the floor in the arms of one of our own.

They want us to say we were no good but now that’s changed and we’re ready to go out and work a real job. The nurses, the doctors, our social workers here at Madeline Parker Institute for Girls with Real Problems, they want us to say, Sure, I’ll take that job at Burger King. I’ll be happy to. And leave our lives on the street behind. No more turning tricks. There’s a better life for us. But Burger King doesn’t pay the rent, not even on that crackerjack apartment on the Amtrak. It doesn’t buy food. It doesn’t give us an opportunity.

They think we’re out there never seeing tomorrow, but that’s all we see: Maybe mañana things will be better. Maybe mañana I’ll win the lottery. Maybe mañana I’ll meet my one true love.

Things can change that fast.

In the meantime, we paid the rent and ate Hostess cup-cakes from the 7-Eleven, and maybe a Slurpee, because it’s something we always wanted but were told, No, not today. Which meant not tomorrow. Not Tuesday of next week. Not until you can pay for it yourself. Not unless you know your way around the counter, around the night clerk.

The first question the cops ask you, the first time they pick you up: Where did you live? The time before now. The time when you had parents and maybe brothers and sisters. Where did you live?

How old are you?

Dieciocho.

You’re not eighteen. Do you have proof you’re eighteen? Show me proof you’re eighteen, and this time I let you walk.

What state did you live in? Come on, honey, give me at least that. What state?

California, mijo.

You don’t sound California. What state?

Do you have a telephone number? From the time before now. Do you know your parents’ telephone number?

No familia. Está no familia. My family died in a house fire; in an automobile crash; in a boating accident in the Pacific Ocean. Or one after the other to some disease, cancer or AIDS. Or you tell them they moved leaving no forwarding address one day when you were in school. This is the best response. The easiest. No questions asked because you don’t have answers. No death certificate, no hospital papers. You say your family vanished.

They call it cultural blending, the way I substitute the español for the English. To emphasize. They say I do it to words that need an extra understanding. And maybe I can get away with it, with my dark hair and almond-shaped, beer-bottle-brown eyes. But my skin is too pale. It’s no good. What am I hiding behind the words, the words in Spanish? Why, Chloe, won’t you say it in English?

They ask, like I have a secret. Like I’m the Great Houdini slipping out of my former life.

Was it so bad growing up Chloe-white-girl with an education and maybe a good family? Or maybe not a good family. Maybe a very bad family. Is that why? Did your father beat you? Did he touch you like he wasn’t supposed to? Did he molest you? Did your father take you into a dark room, maybe your brother’s bedroom when he was at school or band practice or sleeping, and anyway, too young to know? Did he take you and take you and take you? And is that why?

I don’t live in the streets. Not anymore. Some are disappointed — those who want to know a real ticker. A bomb set to blow any minute.

I have better control than that. I lived in a closet with a toilet and a sink, near the Amtrak. The building roared, the walls pitched with each passing train.

On the street you have to watch out for yourself. I did what I had to to get by. You’d do it, too.

No doors open in this city after eleven p.m. Except car doors, swung open from the inside and a body broken down over the front seat, looking for a little coochie: Twenty dollars? Thirty dollars? Gets me how much?

The place they send you when you have the last name Doe isn’t bad. Quiet, like the street right after a car backfires, at night, when the sound can travel for miles or hours. The quiet following a sonic boom. Following anger’s passage from a closed room. Following a death of any kind.

Quiet that strips the paint from the walls. Here, bird-shit-gray walls peeling like cut hair, curled on unwashed floors and pushed aside from foot traffic.

Madeline Parker Institute for Girls.

Tight-faced Janes, we sit here molting. Yellow, black Janes. Sit in the chair. Sit there. Tell us your sorrows.

They think a little talk will do us good. Confession is the first step to recovery.

▶ Also By Suzanne Phillips

▶ Hot Read

▶ Last Updated

▶ Recommend

Top Books