Little Spy

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

The haggard man of indiscriminate age slumped over, then lay on the wooden plank seating as he did every morning. He had had his pint already. On a green bench three women who acted as if they were glued together were a newer sight, had taken to coming here with a mangy little dog held tight one wide lap. The other two clutched shopping bags or purses, it was hard to tell which the voluminous objects were.

The girl was there, under the tree. She came and went from Angle Park, a good-sized slice of public space at Hammond and Right. She scrunched up her eyes at passersby; this gave her a mean look though she wasn’t always aware of it. It was part habit born of seeing less clearly than she ought. The other part was because she could be troublesome. And ruled by distrust. Why deny it? She stared at The Triplets, as she called them, and wished they would move on soon. They had dozens of things in those bags, pulled them out and spread them between themselves as if counting treasures. The girl had nothing but what fit into her pockets and a well-used backpack she’d found in a dumpster. The contents were hidden unless there was real need of anything, like the worn toothbrush or a second pair of socks.

Across the street Marlene puffed on a slim cigarette, her one luxury. Perched on the top step of stairs belonging to a crumbling brick apartment complex, the neighborhood’s work and recreation were noted with roving eyes. She worked, not as often as she’d prefer, as a cleaning lady. It was good money if she got four or five jobs in a row. Her ex-boss, her mother’s friend, recommended her for some that were too small for the company so she had gratitude. She put her name and number on bulletin boards and in the weekly rag. Things had slowed, though; rent was due. She had called Sal to see if he could loan her three hundred. He might stop by after nine that night. Or not.

He was a fickle one, that man, but he had a way. They had long ago been school chums. Now he had money and could make things happen. Marlene found him repulsive even as she was mesmerized, that teardrop tatoo on his cheekbone, hands calloused and powerful, words like spun honey spiked with vinegar. In a far better time and place he might have been the mayor, she thought, but he was “Boss” around the neighborhood. She loved to hate him, she smiled to herself, then wondered what he’d demand in return for the loan.

That girl, KZ, was sitting still as some yogi, Marlene thought, as she lit another cigarette from the burning tip of her first. Not even moving, eyes closed, head bowed like she was a saint. Caffeine withdrawal was setting in and if Marlene had five extra bucks she’d get the girl as she sometimes did, tell her to run to the coffee shop for a latte, then give her a few dollars for a tip. That could buy her a cheap burger or a pair of socks.

She lived somewhere around here, Marlene thought, but beneath that thought was a shiver. Where? The girl showed up off and on all day. She was a thug’s messenger, drug runner or thief–or what else? People knew about her but didn’t care to know more–live and let live. Whereas Marlene did think about things like the weather and her flimsy, grungy hoodie or that bad hair, as if she had hacked off the top in a fit of spite. Or that steady silence. She spoke as little as possible: “yeah, naw, dunno.” Didn’t she go to school at all?

“Hey, KZ! Wake up, come here!” she called out as she walked across the street, cigarette dangling from her thin, Solar Pink lips.

KZ didn’t open her eyes. She heard Marlene but didn’t want to be disturbed. She was trying to get somewhere else, to her grandfather’s, to the mountains where they used to visit him, or just to sleep. Could she sleep sitting like this? It had happened once. That would be handy.

Marlene stood over her, breathing as if she’d been running when she had just walked fast. Her lungs felt heavy and noisy; she had to stop smoking. She knew KZ felt her there so tapped hard on her shoulder, then wiped her fingers on navy capris. Looking down onto her spiky head, she thought she saw something move and took a step back.

“I need a coffee. If I get a small, you could get one, too. Or an oatmeal cookie. I only have seven bucks, so it’s a tiny tip or a treat. What say?”

“Can’t go, halfway to Mt. Ferron.”

“That’s a long way,  it’ll take you more than one little yogi sit.”

“Bother The Triplets.”

“Who?”

“The Triplets. Bags full of junk. Over there.” KZ, eyes still closed, pointed in their direction.

“Why would I ask them when I can always get you to go? I don’t know them; they’d take my coffee.”

“They just moved in.” KZ breathed all the way from her tailbone to her chest, then let it go, a slow hiss. “Go.”

“How long will it take you to get to the mountain and back?”

“Ten minutes.” KZ turned her whole body toward the tree and away from the woman.

Marlene sat down in the dappled shade. The alcoholic was sleeping already. The three women were boring, cards in their hands, playing a game where no one seemed to be winning.

“How come you’re always here and alone? Don’t you have nobody?”

KZ’s shoulders didn’t even rise or fall with her breathing. It was possible the kid was a yogi or something, she seemed to know things no one else did, and she could disappear without a trace. It had been four months since she’d arrived. Marlene had been taking groceries up the steps when she had heard a swift movement behind her and planted her feet, dropped her full bag and got ready for a fight. But it was just the girl, her grubby hand out.

“Got a dollar?”

Marlene blinked in the street light glow and tried to assess what else was coming, then dug into her pocket and pulled out a dollar. Then she grabbed a package of donuts and tossed them to the child.

The blazing grin that broke across her grim, pale face erased any ill will Marlene might have had. They had been half-friendly since, but from a distance, without exchange of personal information. Or at least, not much from KZ but a name and a few other less personal comments. Observations, Marlene had come to think of them. About the neighborhood, but also about life. Like the time she said something that shook her up.

Marlene had had a fight out back with Sal over how he treated her, nothing the kid would know about, and afterwards KZ had come up to the porch and stood in front of her.

“That man is a greedy dark dragon; you’re not for him. Let all death-seekers die hard, alone!”

“What are you talking about?” It scared her, such words delivered with the sound of authority, KZ’s voice a wild wind. “I’m no fantasy lover and don’t believe you half the time. I’m just… well, about him, stupid! Go away.”

“You do believe, just wrong things.”

And KZ ran off. The night enveloped her slim, short figure so that she seemed to dissolve into its depths.

The Triplets threw their cards down, then one stuffed them into a bag. They got up, hooked arms and walked to the corner where they waited for a bus. The little dog trotted along. Marlene stretched, fidgeted, ready to get her own coffee. She just hated to walk before she got that charge of energy to all systems.

“Alright.” KZ opened her palm and money was placed there. “And Sal won’t be around tonight.”

“Sal?”

The girl left on a fast, steady jog, dodging a couple of cars as she crossed the street, people honking at her, yelling. Marlene imagined she could run for hours if necessary. Days, even. KZ lived on air and the unreliable decency of others. But not for much longer, she thought. She had to be ten or eleven. She’d had a shaky diet and bad sleep a long time; she could be older or younger than she looked. But she would grow up; she’d be hunted out there. It was enough to ruin Marlene’s entire morning thinking about it.

She did need a good washing even if it wasn’t kind to think it.

It wasn’t the first time Marlene considered all these things but KZ had never entered her apartment. She didn’t think she would, even if she welcomed her with a hot meal in hand. Smart girl. The one time she had brought out a grape jam and peanut butter sandwich for her, everyone in the park was at her for one, too. That lasted a couple of days, then she quit. She didn’t have so much she could always give it away.

“I’m good,” KZ had said and shrugged. “There’s food, just have to know where and when.”

So what did she mean about Sal, anyway? KZ got around; she paid close attention. Her observations had been right, often.

A medium latte came back to her with two cookies.

“Counter guy, Rod? Gave you extra coffee, us another cookie.”

KZ kept one cookie and the dollar, then tucked both into the passed out drunk’s hand.

“Hey, that was for you. And hey, what about Sal?”

“You’ve got a life, right? Ole guy T-Man has a life, too. I got work to do,” she said and took off.

******

It was nine o’clock, it was nine-thirty and then ten, then later than she wanted it to be. Marlene was watching a show on iguanas and desert flowers, things so exotic she almost enjoyed it. Smoking her cigarette after long-delayed noodles with a tuna sandwich made her stomach clench. She checked her cell. No messages. For the tenth time she peered between faded floral curtains into the lonely street, then Angle Park with its amber-lit lanterns. She could see forms moving through the walkways, and when she raised the window a few inches for a wash of night air, she heard strangers talking, rumblings on a cool draft. Maybe they were secret lovers or buddies loose from crummy jobs and on the prowl. More likely they were customers of some kind. It didn’t matter to her as long as they stayed out there.

The park had once been good, a lush green spot among grey, pitted blocks of buildings. That was before rents went up though places decayed. Some were replaced and people moved out. Somehow the park–that whole block–became a stop for foragers and drug users and petty criminals. Marlene was accustomed to it though her mother called once a week to inform her what was for rent in the suburbs. What a joke! She could no more live out there on her earnings! More to the point, she could no more move there after being wedged into this corner than if she was a princess encouraged to move into a tent. You couldn’t change things up like that. Her mother had married better a second time so moved, that was alright for her. Marlene was in a holding pattern with everything, that was all. Right now she needed rent money, not wishes or advice.

A gust carried in a light, high whistle. A pause then another louder one. Marlene put her ear close to the window sash and doused the pole lamp. She moved out of the frame and sneaked a peek outdoors. Nothing looked different; foot traffic was swift, quiet. Another whistle, this time shrill, rising from beneath her window.

“Marlene!”

A spiky top of a head appeared, then KZ’s frowning dark brown eyes.

“Lemme in!”

“Why? You never come in!”

“Gotta talk!”

“Coulda rung the doorbell.” Marlene got up to open the front door.

“Couldn’t. Back door!”

“Alright already!”

Heartbeat upticking, Marlene ran to the back door that opened onto an alley and let KZ in her tiny galley kitchen.

The girl was sweating, face seemed more ruined than usual. Her breath fell out in jagged gasps until Marlene got her a glass of water, then made her sit in the blue painted wooden chair and sip it. Then she saw the line of blood coming from her hand, trickling down her wrist and dripping onto the floor. She examined the long but likely not emergency-type gash, got a damp tea towel, dabbed at it and wrapped it.

KZ breathed more slowly. “Chain link fence. Got caught going over but someone was chasing me and listen–Sal, he’s not coming.”

“So you said. Why are you a mess of nerves and sweat?” She tried to not breathe deeply; KZ had been unwashed a long time and the kitchen was stuffy. She didn’t want to think too hard about Sal but something was bad.

“Sit down, okay?” The girl shook but was firm in tone.

Marlene took the other blue chair and sat. She felt dizzy, as if she had about missed a seat on a moving train, and her shoulder hit the wall.

“He’s gone. G-O-N-E.”

“What? Not true! KZ, stop with the stories!”

KZ’s eyes were open for once. Marlene almost shrank in alarm though they were nice enough, just shy of pretty eyes. Maybe it was the darkness, her being able to see without being readily seen, or maybe she called on her other senses to direct her more. But now those distrustful orbs were round and golden brown in the 60 watt light fixture above Marlene’s kitchen sink.

“They got him.”

“Who got him, what d’ya mean?” She grabbed the tea-toweled hand, released it when KZ winced, then flattened her own hands on the table.

“I dunno, maybe it was cops, undercover. Somebody said so, it was so fast, guns, shouting like when dad was taken, mom shot four times, so much noise everywhere and blood, you can’t believe it’s happening so when Sal was down on the porch like that, face mashed on the floor and then they handcuffed him and guns out, it had to be cops, right, or gangsters, right? And he’ll die or worse—”

“KZ! KZ, KZ, shhh. Breathe, breathe like a yogi, breathe now.”

“–then there were two more guys shooting and I took off because they saw me I was flying you know there was fence back the house and I climbed it hand caught or they’d catch me and then it would it would it wouldn’t it, right? Or if–”

Marlene got up and kneeled before the girl. She grasped her shoulders and shook her gently in slow motion, KZ tumbling forward and backward in her grip, those terrible words ebbing until they were a dribble and all the fear let go and she got quieter so that the room of silence stopped them at one still point, breathless.

The were like that awhile, Marlene and KZ hunched now on the floor, moths beating their perfect wings against her screen door, the alley empty of all but the rats and a few angry fierce cats and a barking dog that cried out in pain eventually just once, and Sal going down for life or forever. It was more than Marlene could bear but she bore it. She held on and KZ held on back until they finally got up and sat on the tattered love seat in the shadow-shrouded living room.

After awhile Marlene reached over and touched KZ’s toweled hand. “Want a hot bath?”

KZ blinked at her as if she now realized who she was, where they were. She looked around. Nodded so imperceptibly that Marlene had to look her in the eye for the okay.

KZ sat on the toilet lid, knees to chin, waited as Marlene turned on steaming water and poured in a cupful of bubbly soap. Then a few clean things were gathered for the girl.

“Soak it all off. I’ll be waiting. We’ll drink sodas and eat cheese and saltines and watch tv. My couch can be yours for now.”

When the door closed, KZ peeled off filthy clothing, then stepped in with each tentative foot. She lowered herself beneath wavelets of sweet frothy water, face turned up to twinkling white Christmas lights that ringed the walls. She wept and wept without a sound and her mind turned sheer blue as mountain skies, her dad and mom and grandfather stepping forward to gather her and hold her, hold her fast.

 

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