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by Robin Schauffler
Judy woke to green grass, all clipped neat, and a tree trunk with a perfect circle of smooth dirt around it. What the fuck. Her cheek pressed down on grass, cool and prickly. Her shoulder twisted against the ground. She felt for the knife at her belt, tied tight in its leather case with rawhide cord. Her most important thing: protection. She kept her hand on the rough leather. She couldn’t see her backpack, and that made her breath feel trapped in her chest. She braced against the pain in her hip and shoulder. She felt a lump above her left temple. That hurt too but she could wiggle all her fingers. She pushed the tangle of brick-colored hair out of her eyes.
She’d been asleep, or unconscious. She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten here, exactly. She remembered getting high, real high. A coupla bottles of Thunderbird, then other shit. A squabble on the corner of Fourth, late in the evening. She’d started walking, alone, heading east along Burnside, across the river and on. Not going back anywhere, just walking in a direction. Sometimes that was the only way to feel safe: just go. And here she was on this smooth green grass, obviously to hell and gone from downtown. No place to take a piss—sometimes that was the hardest part of the day, finding a safe place to squat.
A teen-aged girl was walking across the tidy grass. She wore a white T-shirt with a pink swoosh and those black tights like they wore all the time now, they’re hardly even pants. I woulda told my daughter to go home and put on some clothes, she thought. Then put that thought away, like always.
The girl held out a pink plastic cup. “My mom’ll kill me,” she said. “But I mean you were like face-planted right there on the sidewalk. You were kinda out of it, maybe you got a concussion or something? Mom and Dad wouldn’t notice you when they went off to work. They don’t notice things. It looked like you slept there, near the corner. That musta sucked. I mean, sorry, excuse my language, but it’s not exactly a bed or anything. Do you want some water?”
The girl stood, hands on hips, smart phone tucked in the waistband of those not-pants. A slim kid, blonde hair all over her eyes, with that young look, secret and hidden but certain at the same time. The look of someone who never worried about where she would spend the night.
The morning was warm and Judy’s mouth was dry and some water might help. But she didn’t want to get into anything. The girl set the cup down in the grass, made sure it wouldn’t spill, stood up and flicked hair out of her eyes.
Judy pulled herself a little more upright. Her jeans were ripped at the knee, long underwear peeking through. She looked at the perfect grass. Green squared-off bushes along the side, a brick walk leading up to a white door with a big gold knocker.
The girl sucked in a long breath, like she was getting ready. She looked like those kids who’d show up in groups to serve breakfast at the Center, all full of being good, all silly and giggly, trying so hard to not say the wrong thing while they handed out pieces of bread with tongs and plastic gloves. This one wasn’t giggling; she looked worried, serious.
“Um, I thought you’d want your bags. So I like brought them over?” That question-y way of talking, like she wasn’t sure of anything she said. “The backpack was over on the sidewalk?” Then quickly: “I didn’t look in it or anything.”
Judy looked where the girl pointed. Again a shot of pain. But she saw that her backpack was safe. She felt again for the knife. Yeah, good.
“Can I… um… wash up your face a little? I mean, there’s a lot of blood over your eye. Like maybe you got hit. Um, by a car. Or something.”
Judy reached up to her forehead and there was something slippery there. She could feel the tender, scraped spot. Tried to put the night back together. Shit, she’d been clean for a while now, but last night it kind of fell apart. She’d been with the group on the corner downtown, Chris and Buck had gotten into it. Then she’d just had to get away from the scene. Along Burnside, past the topless joints and vape shops, past the Salvation Army and the Union Mission and the guys all standing in line, past the big sign with the deer, out onto the bridge where the sky opened up over the shiny river, over the freeway and past shuttered restaurants and little shops, past the big intersection and the Mexican pots and the Greek restaurants, past that old record store and into the part where the houses got bigger and there were trees. She liked walking this way; one time she’d gotten all the way out to the edge of town and she’d been in farms and fields.
“I’ll get, like, a towel or something,” the girl said. “Oh, I shoulda said. Sorry. I’m Alexandra. Alex. That’s what everybody calls me. I live here. No one’s home. I mean, I’m home, but… not my mom and dad. They’re, you know, at work. Is it OK if I ask you your name?”
Judy glanced sideways at the girl.
“So I’ll get that towel?” She shrugged and trotted toward the house.
Judy was beginning to have that nervous, get outta here feeling, the sense that something was closing in on her. How the hell long had she been here? This was no kind of place to be. She looked at the row of bushes between her and the driveway, neat green squares with little shiny leaves. So well-behaved.
The girl was back. Now she had a white towel and a bowl of water. She knelt on the grass and dipped the towel in the water and dabbed at Judy’s forehead. Gentle, extra-tender, like she was petting a kitten. On the towel Judy could see a faint smear of blood. It wasn’t that bad.
“I hope I didn’t hurt you when I dragged you up here. I… I didn’t want to leave you on the sidewalk. Swear to God, when I saw you I thought you were dead. But you were like breathing and everything? I did that check-call-care thing they taught us in CPR. Y’know? Only I didn’t call 911. It wasn’t a 911 deal…”
Judy shook her head. Might’s well find out.
“So what happened?”
“Yeah, so, I don’t exactly know. I was thinking I might go out. For a walk. Just, you know, around the block or something. I was looking out my window.” She pointed vaguely at the far reaches of somewhere in the house. It was a big house, three floors and lots of windows. “Just standing there. So I looked out, and you were lying on the sidewalk, and you looked … kind of all broken.”
Judy remembered bits of the walk. The dark river running smooth below the bridge, the coffee shops and small businesses, glimmer of streetlights. Not much traffic that late at night.
“So anyway, I ran down here, my legs just ran, I was all freaked, and I thought you were dead, but you were sorta OK, so I—my mom is gonna say ‘Why didn’t you call 911, for heaven’s sake, Alex?’ I can just hear it. But I mean, you were breathing, and there was only that little scrape, and… I used the drag method they showed us, but when we got on the grass you sort of rolled over. I had to take the class for my babysitting license but I hate babysitting.”
A bug crawled up a stub of grass, falling and scrambling, climbing again, its little legs grasping at the green stalk. “I didn't call 911, because they send all these giant trucks and flashing lights and guys with these big uniforms, like when my gramma had her stroke. She was living with us, but she had this stroke, and they came. I thought that would like freak you out, like you, um, wouldn’t want the police to come. Because. I don’t, like, mean to be offensive or anything, but it looked… the bags and all, and you’re kinda wearing a lot of stuff for a warmish day, and I thought…”
Judy pointed her eyes at the grass and let the girl fumble her way through. She knew what she looked like.
“I mean, I mean I thought you might be ho—um, maybe, like, experiencing homelessness.” She pronounced it carefully. “I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't say that, but I never know what to say, I’m always doing it wrong. Shit.”
Judy looked up at the kid now. Alex. The girl’s cheeks went bright pink in the sunshine, and she whisked the hair out of her eyes and squinted and looked away. Yeah, experiencing homelessness. Fifteen years now: quite the experience.
“It was kinda traumatic, actually, if you know what I mean. It’s not every day you find someone lying face down on your sidewalk. Thing is, I’m actually grounded right now. I’m not allowed out of the house. Unless there’s a fire. Mom’s home from work any minute.”
At that Judy pulled herself partly upright and reached out for the cup still nestled in the grass. Moving hurt, all over. She held the cup between her two hands, looked down at her cracked and dirty knuckles, the index fingernail still black from that tangle with a door a couple weeks ago. The water went down pretty good.
“She works half days at this art gallery downtown. In The Pearl. It’s right near where you all… probably, ummm… Agh!” Alex crinched her hands up like she’d been stung.
Oh, hell, Judy figured. Might as well give the kid a break; she was doing the best she could.
“Oh, gosh, hi, Judy. Um. I’m Alex. Oh, like I already told you. Anyway, Alex.”
The two of them were silent, Judy still curled on the grass, the grass still brilliant green, the doorknob gleaming, Alex standing with her arms folded tight around her rib cage, her toe playing with a pink flip-flop. Judy thought of herself about that age, running out the door and thinking she’d just be gone a few days, or a few weeks, or until the summer weather turned cold. Seventeen. Ready for anything.
There was a light thud and they both jumped, and a little bird fluttered away from the picture window on the front of the house.
“I hate that!” Alex said, and ran to the window. “She’s OK,” she reported, “Don’t worry,” as though Judy had said anything. “She flew. Usually they just fly off. But one time I saved a bird that fell, it was all soft on the ground, and I put towels in a shoebox and saved it and kept it warm? I was seven and my mom said it would die anyway and it died. She said leave it, it's just a natural thing. But I couldn’t. It was in the mud under the window. It was an Oregon junco. I looked it up.”
Judy held up one hand. “Look. Alex.”
Alex stopped, her mouth a little open.
“I’ve got to get out of here. I have to get back downtown. I can’t just sit here.”
“Um, well, you’re hurt kinda bad. And. Um. I feel responsible. It's my lawn.” Alex looked around, as if she wasn’t so sure about that. Her arms still wrapped around her, holding her body in.
“You don’t worry about me. I’m taking off.” But when she sat up to go she felt dizzy, and pain flashed through her hip and down her left leg. Her shoulder throbbed. She couldn’t figure out how to get back on her feet. Jesus, if something was broken.
“See?” Alex said. “You can’t go. I need to bandage the wound.”
Straight out of the First Aid manual. Judy remembered her training to be a Life Guard at the pool. A million years ago. The scrape on her head was not the problem here, not at all, but she didn’t point that out.
Alex went in the house and came back with gauze, tape, more towels. She set to work. Actually, she did pretty good. Musta been a good class, even if she did hate babysitting. Judy watched the small hands, the chipped pink nail polish. On the underside of Alex’s pale white wrist she saw light hash marks, tiny slits on that young skin. Some already gone white, some a light pink, some a little puffy, a bit redder, new. Shit, she thought. I gotta be going. This girl’s no trouble of mine.
Alex’s eyes followed Judy’s to her wrist. “Oh, you like the bracelet? It’s my gramma’s. I mean, y’know, was.” She turned her arm and held up the wrist for Judy to see a silver bracelet. “She used to go down to New Mexico all the time and hang out on Indian, er, Native American… well, um, Reservations. You know? She took pictures and hiked around down there. She had a bunch of silver and stuff. This is turquoise.”
Judy didn't say she hadn’t been looking at the bracelet, but now she did look. It was silver, with big chunks of blue-green. Heavy on that little wrist.
“So Judy.” Purposeful now. “Like, where do you live? I mean, that’s a dumb question, but I really want to know. I mean I really want to know. How does it work? How do you…?”
“Look. Alex. You live here, in this house. I don’t live here. I have to go.”
“I know, yeah, I know. I live here. With my mom and dad and Sparky. Sparky, that’s my cat. She’s a tortoiseshell—all tortoiseshells are females. Actually, they’re kind of rare. She’s from the Humane Society, I rescued her. She can’t come outside because of the birds, and the traffic and all. And I can’t come outside because I’m grounded. And I’m outside, and my mom’s gonna kill me.”
“So go back inside. You’ll be fine. Really.” Alex was reminding her of things a long time ago, things she hadn’t thought about much lately.
But Alex settled down cross-legged on the grass next to her. Judy tried to scrunch away from her just a little, to give herself more space. Alex played with the bracelet, running her fingers over the stones like it was a ritual, a rosary. “It reminds me of my gramma,” she said. “I put it on when no one’s home. Mom keeps it in a special place on her dresser. My gramma… she got me.”
“I know, right? It’s, like, my best thing.”
Best thing except for the cuts, Judy thought.
“Only no one knows that.” Alex swiped at her hair. Then, “This old Navajo woman gave it to her; they were friends for years and years. I always wanted to meet her, but now I guess not. Only my gramma could find her.” She looked away, eyes down. “She’s my dad’s mom. Was. He’s not like her. He’s not… he’s not doing so good right now. But I can’t do anything to help him, he has to decide to do it himself.”
“Jesus, how old are you?”
“Fifteen. What?” Alex looked offended.
“That’s OK. Fifteen’s OK, nothing wrong with it.”
It was getting hotter, and Judy had to pee real bad by now. But she didn’t like to think about trying to stand up, or about what would happen after that. She touched her knife and with a shock she understood that it would be of no use to her here, on this neat green lawn. Just a little while longer, then she’d get going. For now, it was better to hold still.
“OK, Alex. OK. Go ahead. Why are you grounded?”
“Yeah, so… at school we go down once a month? And volunteer at this church? They have Neighborhood Lunch on Fridays, and we make sandwiches and mix up powdered lemonade, and serve the people who come in. From… the neighborhood, you know, the street. I mean, we have to go, so we’re not really volunteering, are we? But whatever, it’s better than Geometry.”
“Heh. You got that right.”
“Yeah, so. This one time? This one guy was like really friendly, and he’d been to college, he was really educated and everything, even though he… Uh. Anyway, me and my friend talked to him all the time, and he was nice. Kind of old—older—well, gray hair and all. So this one time? He asked me to keep some stuff for him. Stuff that had to be really, really safe, and if he kept it at the shelter, something might happen to it. So he was really nice, like I said, so I was like, ‘OK.’ My friend said it wasn’t too good an idea, but it was just a cardboard box with some papers. So I took it home, to keep it safe. I didn’t look inside, I didn’t. So that was fine. It was all fine.”
Judy closed her eyes and lay still, letting the grass cushion her. It wasn’t so bad, lying there. Blue sky through the leaves.
“Yeah. But then my friend? She got all nervous that something creepy would happen, and she told her mom. So now I’m grounded, and I can’t go down there anymore, and my mom’s all pissed off at my school. My dad totally flipped. Ranted about older guys and stuff. And the minister down there, at the church? He says—his name’s Stephen—he told me the guy’d had some, well, issues. With, like violence and stuff? But Stephen says I’ve had a really important experience, and I have to learn to have ‘appropriate boundaries,’ and I’m gonna be a really good person, and I should keep going down there. Because I can like relate to people? But I have a lot to learn. Stephen says.” Alex stopped, like a run-down clock. She looked down at her hands in her lap.
Slowly, Judy unbuttoned the ragged cuff of her flannel shirt. She rolled up the sleeve and held out her wrist. Nothing to say. Together they looked at the skin, the cross-hatches of old, old cuts, white scar tissue wrinkled and faded like a map to a gone world. Alex looked up, searching Judy’s face. Not in a bad way. Just wanting to know.
Judy held her wrist steady. “Fifteen.”
Alex squinched her brows together, stroked the bracelet. Silent for a long moment. She nodded, head tilted. Thinking. She looked at the window where the bird had flown, back at the bracelet.
A car came into the driveway, a door slammed. Alex didn’t seem to notice; she looked lost in the blue-green stones.
Click of heels on the brick walk.
Alex was talking again, taking off the bracelet.
“See, it was my gramma’s. A family heirloom, I guess. It’s so beautiful. You should look at it. Here, look. I love the way it feels, like it slides along your skin.” She slipped the bracelet over the slim bones of her hand and held it out for Judy to take.
At the edge of the lawn a woman stood with shopping bags in her arms and a gleaming leather purse with a gold clip over her shoulder. She was neatly put together, dark slacks and a white silky-looking blouse. Tired eyes.
Judy could see, as clearly as if for a moment they shared eyes, what the woman saw—she saw a daughter, her own daughter, handing her mother-in-law’s vintage silver and turquoise bracelet to a bruised, scruffy, disheveled homeless woman with bandages on her forehead and trashy-looking bags scattered all over the perfect lawn.
“Oh, Alex,” the woman said, and put the bags down on the brick walk. “Oh, for God’s sake, Alex.”