Diane, a loving wife and mother with a photographic memory, escaped the horrors of the street to start a family of her own.
Then the unthinkable happens, and she just can’t forget…
God, please help me not to be a cat. I don’t want nine lives. The four I’ve lived so far have been plenty.
Strange the prayers sent up when your mind has nothing to do. Nothing to occupy the time.
But I know I can’t do this metamorphosis five more times and carry with me every memory. Every detail. Every image in technicolor 3-D. I feel a bad spell coming. I’m seeing things.
This morning, I thought I saw David. But MoMo started having a fit and that was a distraction. At least for a few minutes. Then David, or what I thought was him, was gone, and I relaxed.
My back rests against the yuppie diner’s brick wall in Penrose Alley. Penrose Alley tucked away from the bustle of the tourists and crowds. The only ones coming and going here are those hauling trash and those considered to be trash.
At least it’s warm. I did that part right. Coming south for this regrouping instead of staying put in Chicago. I hate the cold.
I look at the back of Eddie’s head lying across my lap. His curly hair needs a cut. We both need a bath, but when your stench matches everyone else’s, no one smells anymore.
Trash smells of trash to other garbage.
Or of nothing.
I adjust my weight on my roll, triple-folded to give my coccyx a little more barrier between it and the choppy asphalt. Eddie stirs and continues his midday slumber.
Before the deli’s dumpster cuts off my view of the rest of the alley, I can see Melanie and Eric, in a similar position, though Melanie is the one with her head in Eric’s lap. Beyond them, Helen’s cardboard shack, duct taped and tarped, shakes a little as she stirs.
Then the green and rusted dumpster with its flitting flies and bees and dripping grease and soda from the rusted hole in the bottom blocks my view of the other five or so occupants of Penrose. From the end of the alley, I hear MoMo’s cough. It’s getting worse. The clinic won’t see him again. Not after the ruckus he caused there the last time.
I lean my head against the brick wall and close my eyes. I think of David back in Chicago. Of Kallie at Berkeley. I think of the concrete wall across from me with its marred surface and graffiti marks. If a bomb were to take the building down, I could piece it back just the way it is now. I’ve memorized every gravely detail of it.
I think of cherry popsicles and thank-yous and broken butterfly wings.
Wings of black and blue with dabs of white. One side perfect. The other side…not. Soaking up the melting cherry popsicle.
And I curse my photographic memory.
I reach into my pack for my composition book and the stub of a pencil, sharpened by rubbing the graphite along the brick or the concrete. Sometimes on the edge of the dumpster. I have a knife which would be better, but I keep that treasure hidden deep in my pack. Only Eddie knows I have that.
I flip through the pages of the book. The one I’d bought for Kallie just before school started two years ago, but never got a chance to give to her.
I don’t need to write anything down to remember. I write it down so my mind might release it and I don’t have to carry so many weights in my brain.
In my first life, I was a girl. A real, live girl from upper middle class USA. Straight A’s and no studying. I could do anything I wanted with the perfectly wired computer sitting between my ears. The girl with the brightest of futures. With the typical doting parents.
Well, maybe not so typical. Mom wouldn’t listen to me about Dad. Took his side.
So I split with my perfectly functioning photographic memory. Even at fifteen, I thought life would be easier on my own.
It wasn’t easier. No amount of book smarts and speed reading can prepare a hormonal teenager for being on her own. And carrying massive trauma to boot.
Eddie sits up, knocking the composition book from my hands. He rubs his eyes and apologizes.
“All good?” he asks.
He stands and heads toward our latrine. His metamorphosis had a similar start to mine. He’s only eighteen. Two years ago, he told his parents he was gay and they kicked him out with nothing. Two months after that, when I arrived in the city, I found him half starved and shunned, even by the trash. I offered him my gifts first, and now he goes where I go. Tall and lanky, but scrappy as a tom cat. He’s warded off more hazards than my knife ever did.
When I gave gifts to Eddie first—food and camping supplies—the other members of Penrose got in line. I shared what I had and was accepted into the safety of their numbers. They’re my people. We have respect. Look out for each other. My previous experience—and the loot I carried in with me that first week—gave me a little more confidence and leverage than I had had at Eddie’s age.
And when the cherry popsicles and thank-yous start chanting too loudly and the broken butterfly wings flap so hard as to stir hurricanes through the alley, Eddie’s the one who pulls me back to reality. Back to Penrose to the unmoving asphalt and stable brick walls and shelter of cardboard and dumpsters. He puts his hands on my face. “Dee. Dee. Mantelo junto.”
Keep it together, Diana.
Of the dozen or so at Penrose, Eddie’s the only one who knows why I’m back on the street. He’s the only one who knows why I was on the street to begin with.
He’s the only one who knows about that middle life with David and Kallie.
Eddie returns and goes toward the tip of the alley and stretches, but he doesn’t linger there. That’s the deal we’ve made with the businesses. We won’t cause problems during the peak times. We’ll keep our stench in the trench so to speak. And we get free reign of the dumpster when the sun goes down.
He sits next to me and does the daytime stare at the wall across from us. He’s taught me quite a bit of Spanish. I help him perfect his English. That and staring at the alley’s décor is all we have to do. The nightly feast of half-chewed subs and potato chip crumbs was hours away. And Molly was working tonight, so there’d be no freebies. Hopefully Dale is on tomorrow—the more sympathetic co-owner who saves back the ends of the meats and slightly wilted produce.
The hollows in our stomachs are like bad neighbors that won’t move out of town. I guess that’s how the rest of society feels about us. Just move. Be someone else’s problem.
I pick up my book and flip through it again. I’d written about David quite a bit.
David tried to save me. And he did; it just didn’t stick. A social work student out in the streets of Phoenix for a school project, he wasn’t much older than me. He saw something in my twenty-year-old self, and he made it his mission to hunt me down no matter which corner or park or back alley I’d move to. He’d bring food to me. Apples. Bottled water. Snickers. He’d bring me staples as part of his project.
Then he’d bring things to me when he wasn’t in school. And when he’d graduated.
I kept moving corners, but he never stopped looking for me. I tried to be invisible. I didn’t want the attention. But he was charming. And so freaking determined.
His parents warned him he was walking a dangerous path. Falling for a street girl. Kindness to strangers like me doesn’t go unpunished.
But he persisted. Rescued me. Poured in kindness and love.
And I tried not to punish him for it.
We got married and I became that upper middle-class wife that my mother had been—minus the deadbeat husband; David is nothing like my father. I got a nursing degree and a nice job. It wasn’t hard. No studying required. And we had a child.
If you didn’t know where I’d come from, you wouldn’t have known.
I drew a picture of Kallie when she was an infant. Facebook and Instagram had been filled—and I imagine they still are—with memes about “remember these times” and “time goes by so fast” with regards to raising children. I didn’t have that problem. Time moved, yes, but I remember everything. From every day.
Cherry popsicles and thank-yous. I wish I could forget.
Anxiety wells in my chest. Eddie sees my leg bobbing and puts his tanned hand on my knee. “Dee.”
I breathe and the urge to perseverate passes.
I study the pen-and-pencil drawing of my daughter. She’s now the age I was when I got married. She was heading for Berkeley. She’s not quite photographic, thank God, but she never studied for her honor roll status.
That day comes back. That last day I saw her, I’d told her I’d be right back with her school supplies. She’d clean the house while I’d shop for spiral-bound notebooks, a composition book for chemistry labs, a backpack, writing utensils. Stock up on toiletries to make the beginning weeks of adjusting to the school year run smoothly. And, as providence would have it, a heavy-duty sleeping bag for her pre-senior year trip with her friends. Camping by Lake Michigan.
All the supplies a girl could need for such a trip turned out to be all the supplies her mother would need to run away from cherry popsicles and thank-yous.
Cherry popsicles and thank-yous.
In a rush, the scene plays out. I feel Eddie’s hands on my face, but I can only hear bits of my name and his fluent Spanish. I feel myself slipping, slumping down the brick to the fetal position.
And this time, it’s bad. Complete with tactile sensation. Playing out in real-time.
I’m back in my red Lincoln Navigator. The back hatch filled with Kallie’s camping and school supplies. And groceries enough for three people for two weeks. My purse sits in the passenger’s seat. Pockets filled with gum, pens, phone, my grandfather’s Swiss Army knife, and an envelope of cash from the bank. Cash for Kallie’s trip and for flea markets with David the next day.
David texts me while I pump gas. He wants to grill out tonight before Kallie leaves on her trip. Can I pick up some barbecue sauce?
Sure. The gas station doesn’t have any. This means another stop.
I’m irritated he didn’t tell me this before. I never need a grocery list. I don’t forget anything. But he’s adamant about fixing our daughter’s favorite. Determined as always, and I still find him charming.
I stop at the mini mart in the last tiny neighborhood before the burbs tumble into neatly arranged neighborhoods south of Chicago. Not big, but it saves people from venturing further away. Lots of pedestrian traffic from the nearby rent-controlled apartment complex.
I park the Navigator in the tiny lot. An entrance to the north and an exit to the south. All one-way streets around. Some people cut through the mart’s lot to avoid the lights. I take my purse and lock the doors, alarm activated.
I walk into the store and the brass bells above the door announce a new customer is on the premises. I walk past coolers of ice cream and popsicle treats. Past coolers of pops and water bottles, sweating in the summer Chicago even behind the closed glass doors. I see an elderly couple checking out. Bread. Milk. Eggs. Lottery tickets.
A mother pulls a distracted toddler through the baby aisle, his little black arms reaching for too-expensive bobbles.
The bell above the door clanks again, and I turn to see a small child. A little girl with auburn locks stuck to her face with sweat and grime. A dirt-stained mint green shirt, black shorts, and pink rubber flip-flops. She stands over the cooler with the ice cream. She’s alone.
I go about my business and find the condiment aisle. I pick up two flavors, surprised they have both sweet and heat.
When I return to the front, the mother with the hyper toddler is paying for diapers, bemoaning potty training and all the glories that task brings. I stand behind her until it’s my turn at the single cash register. The clerk, older than me by ten years and wearing a crisp, beige apron, rings me up. Her name badge says Faith.
The little girl still stands at the cooler looking intently through the foggy glass.
I pay for my sauce with cash and pull out a single one-dollar bill after Faith hands me my receipt. “I’d like to pay for that little girl’s treat. And she can keep the change.” Faith smiles and nods and takes the bill. She approaches the girl as I gather my sack and adjust my purse strap on my shoulder. I see the girl choose a red sugared delight from the cooler and follow Faith to the register.
As I exit the building, I hear Faith say, “You should thank that woman. She bought this for you.”
I hurry my step. I don’t need a thank you. I like to be invisible.
I reach my Lincoln and unlock the door.
“Thank you, lady,” the little girl chases after me.
She doesn’t see the sedan.
The driver doesn’t see her. I have no time to warn her and my voice stays in a paralyzed lump in my throat.
The cherry popsicle falls to the ground. A pink flip flop tumbles. Coins, three quarters and a dime, roll and spin to stops.
Another thud and screech of tires on asphalt. I hear nothing after that.
I’m frozen by my vehicle. Faith runs toward the child.
My eyes rest on the cherry treat melting near the tiny, dirty hand. Coins lay scattered. Three quarters and a dime.
A cheap cherry popsicle.
A black and blue butterfly lands in the sugary goo and bobs its wings up and down, taking what doesn’t belong to it. The chaos shoos it away.
It lands on the bumper of my Navigator. One wing is perfect. The other one tattered and dull with the tiniest of red from the popsicle. It’s at the end of its life.
Then it flits away.
Cherry popsicles and thank-yous.
Then I drive as far south as my gas and my cash will get me. Because I hate the cold. And homeless in Chicago can’t happen. David will find me. Kallie will be humiliated.
So I drive.
When I come to, I’m drenched in sweat and likely water from Eddie dowsing me. That’s what I’d told him to do when I reach this level. Throw water on me. He’s kneeling by my side with his hands on my face. MoMo and Helen stand over me.
“Dee. Dee. Mantelo junto. Mantelo junto.”
I try to sit, and with his help, I’m able to resume my position against the brick wall. I accept water from Helen’s bottle. MoMo paces.
“I’m alright guys.” They leave.
Eddie stays. “Hay alguien aquí para verte, Dee.”
There’s someone here to see me?
I think my spell must’ve been alarming enough for someone to call 911. To risk our spot at Penrose. My heart thumps a little harder.
Eddie nods to the tip of the alley. I see an elbow and part of a leg. Someone leaning against the building. “Want me to…” He pounds a fist into his palm.
He helps me stand and walk to the elbow.
David turns to greet me.
Determined and charming.
“I found you. I’ve been all over Phoenix. I finally found you.” He reaches to hug me, but I step away. I can’t do another metamorphosis. Not another life.
He’s telling me about Kallie.
Maybe I am a cat.
She’s well. Safe and sound at Berkeley.
A cursed cat.
“Wait, Diane. What are you doing?”
Cursed with cherry popsicles and thank-yous.
I go back to my wall and gather my things. Eddie does the same. Eddie goes where I go. I say goodbye to Helen and MoMo and the others who’d gathered in audience. They understand. They’re my people.
“I’ll find you again.” Desperation in his voice.
I know he will. Eddie and I leave Penrose Alley.
“I won’t stop looking. You know how this works.” He calls after me. He won’t force me. He’ll wait me out. Wear me down.
Or at least he’ll try.
“She didn’t die. That little girl. She’s okay. No one blames you.”
I stop for half a breath. Eddie stops too. Where I go, he goes.
“I’ll find you again.”
I know. Because he’s determined and charming.
But he doesn’t understand the things of Penrose Alley, cherry popsicles, and thank-yous.
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Copyright © 2019 by B.A. Paul
This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.