Sometime near sunset, I found myself driving past the vacant lot at the end of the block, the lot where we used to play baseball and gather on summer afternoons to stare at the clouds. I hadn’t thought about those afternoons for 30 years and yet, there they were as warm and liberating as they were when I was twelve. Children didn’t use the lot anymore though. Now it was home to the derelicts that the cops ran out of the square after dark.
As the sun continued to sink from sight, the lot began to resemble a gypsy camp with little fires that left freckles on the darkness. Groups of men and women gathered around the scant flames sharing cans of beans, cheap jugs of red wine and the occasional blanket when it could be spared. A society unknown to those who didn't belong and one that was all that those belonging to it had left. Most of them old, with all that they owned stuffed into various crates and bags carefully placed into individual piles by their owners. Dreary voices could be heard commiserating with one another as the nervous little fires flickered shadows on the wall of the abandoned drugstore to the East.
I had seen the girl here before. Standing with the other mothers while her children wandered the camp in hopes of food. She was young, with a strong face and the posture of one who feared little, if anything. There was no man, the children probably a painful reminder of one somewhere who had done awful things and one she never knew. The boy was sturdy, with a light in his eyes suggesting wisdom beyond his age, which apparently was no more than 12. The girl was frail, underfed and defeated. She shadowed her brother as he went from group to group in search of scraps.
I shifted behind the wheel as the patchy clouds that had threatened rain all afternoon finally released the first of many drops on my smudged windshield. Within minutes, the flames that had given life to the old lot were one by one extinguished and the various groups of people gathered around them dispersed to find dry shelter. I watched as the girl sought out her children in the darkness and led them under the almost bare branches of a tree that stood in a lonely corner of the lot.
The rain was falling harder now and it was obvious that the tree wasn't doing much to protect the girl and her children from the sting of the cold drops that were now coming faster than my worn out wipers could clear. Straining through my flooded and now fogged windshield, I could barely make out the shapes of the trees in the lot and the cars around me. I glanced at my watch and remembered Peg’s parents sitting on our couch waiting for dinner.
It would be a month before I saw her again. This time she was thinner and sharing a cigarette with two younger men. I watched her as she shifted her weight from foot to foot and attempted to be interested in what the men were saying. Her eyes scanned the street from time to time. There was no sign of her children. She turned toward me and our eyes met. The watched became the voyeur. My scalp burned as I stared at my thumbs on the steering wheel.
Thoughts were coming quicker than I could process them now and when I looked up she was gone. Panic stricken, I searched for a napkin to mop my brow with. Reaching deep into the seat I found an old take-out sack and brought it slowly across my forehead, feeling strains of relief. When I opened my eyes, she was standing outside of my open window with neither a smile nor a frown, but merely a pale pink line across her face where her mouth should have been. Her brilliant blue eyes like pieces of melting ice burning holes into my broiling face. I shifted behind the wheel unable to escape her stare.
She spoke slowly, asking me for some change and then offering her body. Embarrassed, I pushed a handful of nickels and pennies through the window and declined her favors. Strangely, my curiosity grew as I watched her walk away, her weather worn sundress flitting here and there in the early afternoon light. She turned once more, emotionlessly, and then disappeared into an alley with the two younger men. The sun descended behind the skyline in the distance and I drove toward my 30 year fixed rate mortgage with thoughts of faded roses on my mind.
The next few days were filled with thoughts of alleyways and freeway underpasses. Places where she might be right then. I fought the urge to return to the vacant lot for fear of revealing my secrets. Peg noticed nothing and as our anniversary approached, she began talking of our plans in the city that evening. Dinner at Jack’s and a show - maybe community theatre or the new Steven Segal. This would be the first year since the kids were born that we had gone out and we were doing our best to stumble our way through making our vague plans.
The weeks droned on meaninglessly until a chilly afternoon in November, when I came upon a group of people huddled under an awning belonging to a café not far from my office. As I passed, I looked closely at their faces hoping to see her. Strangely, I recognized several of them from my visits to the lot and they looked at me the same way I looked at them. Wanting to speak, but not knowing what to say, I handed an old woman my to-go box and smiled weakly. She touched my hand and whispered her thanks. I began moving in the direction of the parking garage, lost in my thoughts and not feeling any better for giving the woman the rest of my lunch.
I fumbled with my keys before unlocking the door and as I did I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned quickly to see her standing silently, shivering—her children beside her with the same ice chip eyes and quiet faces.
She spoke first, asking my name. She had seen me at the lot and remembered me from the change I had given her that Summer evening. Then it was my turn.
Her name was Amy, her children Matt and Jennifer. The children looked pale and weak, as if standing there was almost too much for them. I offered lunch and the children all but pushed me out of the way getting in the backseat. I asked what they wanted and they looked at her longingly. It was obvious that this was not a decision that they were given often and they did not know what to say. She said, “anything close” to which I countered by pulling into the McDonald’s on the corner. The children choked back their excitement as we stepped inside and gazed in wonderment at the bright colors and the people sitting in the dining room.
As the children ate, she nibbled at a chicken sandwich and stared at me. I asked her my questions patiently and as she answered, I found myself being drawn into her eyes. Her husband, Steve had been a software designer in Tulsa when the layoffs hit. On the way home from being terminated, he turned his car into a bridge embankment. The state troopers said he had died on impact. After his funeral, Steve’s parents sent Alice a long letter stating that if she wanted to send the kids to them, they would be happy to have them at no expense or obligation from her.
She had migrated to Indiana from Oklahoma on her in-laws invitation who immediately changed their mind when she arrived and sent her into the streets. They had offered to take the children, but there was no place for her. Refusing their awkward charity, she took her children into the city. That was two years ago and she hadn’t seen them since.
The children were tough, she said and what they lacked in formal education they made up for with common sense. Matt was a genius at finding a free lunch and never left his sister’s side. He was not afraid of a fight and many times the people at the shelter had patched him up only to have those same cuts opened back up the next day. She said that she was afraid he was growing up too fast and had never been a little boy. I spoke only to say that it was never too soon to grow up and if he could handle this world then the real world would be a piece of cake for him. This didn’t seem to make her feel any better and as she continued her eyes filled with the tired tears of the city.
Jennifer was frail and frightened easily. She had been a surprise to Amy and Steve, born two weeks early. She was their New Year’s miracle and the love of their life. Steve was on top of the world when she smiled and her laughter was his favorite sound on earth. Steve had died two days before her 5th birthday and months went by before she smiled again.
The children finished their food and when I asked them if they were full they nodded, “Yes.” I turned to face her and pressed a 20 into her palm. I asked her to make sure this wasn’t the last time they ever saw a Happy Meal. She smiled weakly and assured me that they would be fed again that day. After a brief goodbye, I watched, as the three of them shuffled off into the city again. I remember hoping she would turn around and ask for a place to stay, but I knew her too well now.
As I entered the freeway, the sun disappeared behind the skyline and I felt a chill race up my spine and circulate through my body. I could still feel her next to me and couldn’t help thinking I should have said more. I told her nothing about myself or my family...maybe I didn’t want her to know. Maybe it would ruin my version of things…the version where somewhere deep inside of me, we were together at night. I was with her beneath the bridges and overpasses, in the dark. Hungry and cold, we huddled together. Somewhere within the concrete walls of the city we existed a family unto ourselves.