"Sadie," she said in response to my question. "My mama named me after a book she read. Or maybe after a stripper." She laughed a small, hollow laugh.

"It's a nice name."

"This is James," she nodded toward the boy whose hand she held at the edge of the table, smiling into his drawn face. "And him-" with another nod toward the somber, dark-eyed man on the other side of James, "he's Wolfman."

Sadie wore three ragged sweaters, the edges of each peeking around the next, and a pair of jeans that would have fit someone half again her size. Her hands were rough like a rock climber's. Dirty fingernails made exclamation points of short fingers. Yet her face, covered with scratches and grime, was somehow hauntingly familiar.

It had been a long time between baths for any of them. But in addition to the small group's odors of unwashed clothes and bodies, Sadie smelled also of innocence, with some lingering suggestion of pine and new grass.

The three were at one of my tables at a weekly 4 p.m. dinner in San Francisco served to homeless people with AIDS. Most of the dinner guests are regulars. Reservations are required for the event, which features flowers on linen-covered tables, hot meals, and a small break from tough lives. On this day, attendance was off. The three had come at the invitation of the hosts, from the park across the street. They'd been sleeping there, they said, for a few days.

Sadie's eyes were a dull gray green, her nose upturned and saucy, her expression defiant yet somehow wistful. It was a face I had seen, but where? She had a long mass of light brown hair, now lifeless, that might once have been pretty. I figured her to be 16 at most. James had the gaunt, sunken-eyed look of someone very sick, possibly with late wasting-stage AIDS. He might have been 18. Wolfman looked healthy, swarthy, and in control, perhaps as old as 30. He might have been Sadie's pimp.

"So how long have you been here?" I asked Sadie.

"Oh, a couple of months. Me and James here." She smiled at him again, the way Gwyneth Paltrow smiled at Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare. "I've been taking care of him."

"James, you look like you need taking care of."


"Have you been anywhere for help? There are places you can go, you know."

"Been to General. But we're doing OK."

Wolfman and Sadie were tearing into their dinners; James was picking at his. His hand shook occasionally.

"Where were you before?" I asked.

"Salt Lake City," said Sadie. "Dullsville, USA." She did the hollow laugh thing again.

"If I were your mama and didn't know where you were or how you were doing, I'd be worried about you."

"My mama hasn't worried about me in a long time."

Sadie speared James' mostly untouched lasagna onto her plate.

"There's plenty more," I said.

We traded meaningless small talk as I came and went, Sadie's eyes often glancing up at mine with a softness about them that said she knew too much but still believed. It was as if she were looking through me to a world I couldn't see. I wanted to find some way to say what screamed from inside me: Please, please go home, go back to Dullsville!

But I knew there may be no home to go back to, no place where anyone cared.

I brought third servings of peas and rolls, and a Styrofoam box for anything they wanted to take with them. We sang "Happy Birthday" to everyone in the room who'd been born that month, served chocolate cake with great dollops of too-sweet frosting, and the dinner guests made their way out the door. Sadie and her friends slowly gathered their boxes and belongings.

Wolfman pulled the chair back for James, who seemed even paler than when they'd first come in. As they crossed the room, Sadie slid one arm around James' waist, clutching his hand with her other hand.

I handed them the papers I'd brought to the table earlier, with suggestions of places they might go for help. But I knew they wouldn't go. It was warm and balmy that day in San Francisco, still nice for sleeping under the stars.

I put my hand on James' cheek. "I hope you'll call one of these numbers. They might be able to help."

Then I turned to Sadie and hugged the thin shoulders wrapped in castaway sweaters. "Take care of yourself, Sadie," I said, unembarrassed by the catch in my voice.

In that split second, I realized why I knew the face. It was the face of my daughter in her teens, of the shining, laughing American young person with the world at her feet.


Sadie grinned and hugged me back.

"Thanks, Mom," she said.

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