Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chapter 1 (begun)


Had you asked anyone who knew of him, they would have told you that the day Johnny Hellebore’s life began to unravel was surely the day shortly after his thirteenth birthday, when he came home to find police cars in his driveway and his father in handcuffs.  His mother was hysterical, flailing and beating at the arms of the uniformed men leading her husband away, as other men and women tried vainly to restrain her.  The man with his hand on Johnny’s father’s shoulder was a large man, a man with a stony, impassive face, and he took no notice of the madwoman thumping his back with her fists.  He did not smile, or frown, or speak: he just moved the sad little man with the goatee that Johnny occasionally referred to as “Dad” down the driveway to a waiting cruiser.  Johnny remembered thinking that the cop should have a moustache.  He wasn’t sure why; just seemed like that big face needed one.  He never found out that policeman’s name, but he never forgot his face ... even long after his father’s own face was fuzzy in his memories.

But perhaps you won’t think it so unusual to imagine Johnny forgetting what his father looked like if I tell you that Johnny rarely saw the man, even before the police came and took him away for bank fraud.  Johnny’s family was very well-off (although not, as it turned out, honestly so), and his father worked, and his mother drank.  Occasionally, if they were feeling particularly saucy, his father would go on business trips and his mother would take designer drugs instead.  But these were minor deviations.

Johnny, like many children of the obscenely rich, was raised by a nanny, a dark-skinned woman named Amiira.  He remembered her as kind, intelligent, observant; deferential to his parents, as a good servant should be; but stern with him, strict yet loving, as a good parent should be.  Anyone who actually knew him would have said that Johnny’s life actually began unraveling the day that Amiira disappeared ... or would have said, if there had been anyone left who truly knew him.

So on that day when Johnny came home to find his comfortable if strangely detached life in shambles in his driveway, that day when his mother would not stop crying and screaming, or even look at him, that day when the servants stared at the ground and shuffled their feet in uncertainty or fear and slowly stepped aside whenever he or his mother came near, already distancing themselves from the people that they innately sensed were no longer their employers, on that particular day when Johnny should have been in despair over the crumbling of his family’s fortune, he felt little.  He felt no surprise, really, because his father had never been honest with him, so why should he have been honest with his business partners?  He certainly felt no sympathy for the woman with the red-rimmed eyes who had given birth to him: he knew that she cried not for the loss of her husband, but for the loss of her income, and possibly for the loss of her sanity, if she were thinking clearly enough to recognize it.  Which, in retrospect, she probably wasn’t.

And so Johnny Hellebore, barely 13, pale and slight, with his watery blue eyes that sometimes appeared green, depending on what he was wearing (“cat’s eyes,” Amiira had called them), slightly tall for his age, with his thick, unruly mane of raven black hair, left the chaos in his driveway and went upstairs to his room to gather those few of his belongings which he felt were precious, because he knew that he might have to leave soon.  And, as it turned out, he was right.

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The streets of Washington DC, like the streets of any large city in the United States, are filled with those people who live in the margins of society.  They are commonly referred to as “homeless,” as if a such a simple label can encompass all the myriad reasons why people choose to—or do so without choosing—live without a permanent address, sleeping in shelters or on park benches or in subway stations, or on the trains themselves, moving from place to place seemingly without purpose.  Some have left mental institutions, or been kicked out due to lack of funding, and some have lost their jobs and then their homes when they could no longer afford their rent, and some are criminals, moving from petty theft to petty theft around the city, and some are disabled veterans down on their luck, and some are veterans who are not so much disabled as changed by their experiences in such a fundamental way as to preclude holding down a normal job, and some are people whose fondness for addictive substances has gotten the better of them, and some are people who have grown disgusted with the consumerism that surrounds them and have just quietly dropped out of the rat race in protest.  And at least one was born to a life of privilege that ended abruptly in an affluent suburban Maryland driveway.

In the Metro

Johnny recognized the smiling young man coming towards him immediately: not as a specific individual, but as a general type.  He was what Jimmy the Squid would call a CCF—a crazy Christian fuck.  Not that all Christians were CCFs, of course: only a very small minority qualified.  Johnny could not have said what tipped him off to this; there was something in the beatific smile, a certain way of walking, an intense light behind the eyes ... something that warned Johnny of impending conversion.

Johnny was minding his own business, scrounging for change.  He had his super-size McDonald’s cup (very durable, those), his sign proclaiming “Lost Our House,” a fantastic spot at the bottom of the escalator at the Smithsonian station, and his “mother,” which part today would be played by crazy old Jane Sarin, who was commonly known as Dotty, for obvious reasons.  Dotty was a favorite mother for the street urchins because she was crazy in a very quiet and pleasant way, and she generally stayed where you put her.  Plus she wasn’t so old as to strain credulity, which was important to maintain the illusion for the audience.

Different people on the streets had different attitudes about panhandling.  For many it was just de rigueur.  For others, it was disdained: Johnny knew many who wouldn’t accept coins even when they were offered without solicitation.  Even among those who did it, there were vastly different philosophies on how to go about it.  There were a few who believed in being confrontational, some who believed in saying “God bless you” rather than “thank you,” some who believed it should be approached like a con: you didn’t just sit off to the side begging, you went up to people, started talking, let them know how down on your luck you’d been recently, make it personal, and the money would come.  This latter method required a much larger time investment, of course, but then the payoff was much bigger (when it paid off at all).  Johnny, though, was a fellow who believed in the basics: get a nice heart-wrenching sign, a big cup for loose change, plant yourself at a busy intersection looking pitiful, and the people would pay not to have to look at you.  It was satisfyingly transactional: you offered a service (guilt alleviation), and a compelling pitch (all it takes is your pocket change!), and you dealt in quantity to offset the small margins.

Had it been a social worker coming, Johnny would have disappeared into the crowd and left Dotty to take the rap (this was not quite as cold as it seemed, since Dotty was so lost in her own world that it was essentially impossible for her to be “in trouble”), but, as it was just a CCF, he only moved in front of Dotty to intercept him before the man could get to her.  While it might be amusing to watch people batter their intellects on the breakers of Dotty’s solipsism, it was inevitable that the upstanding citizen would want to find someone to “help” her, which meant having her locked up somewhere long enough for the guy to lose interest so that whichever agency had her could cut her loose.  Which, again, was irrelevant from Dotty’s perspective (since she had absolutely no clue where she was at any given moment, she could care less if she was “locked up”; she probably never even noticed), but it meant depriving dozens of street kids of a perfectly usable mother, which could easily mean tough days on the streets for Johnny until he was forgiven.  If he had to, he’d take off, but one CCF he figured he could handle.

The soft but spooky light in the man’s eyes shifted easily from the “mother” to the “child.”  “Hello, my son,” he said to Johnny.  “What’s your name?”

“Johnny.”  Johnny kept his eyes lowered: while there were some creatures you needed to look in the eye if you didn’t want to invite pursuit, in general it was smart to avoid a direct challenge with an unfamiliar beast.

“Johnny what?” the man continued.  His voice was soft, but Johnny couldn’t help but believe there was something underneath, and it scared him a little.

Being among those street people who had no fear of being “identified,” Johnny nearly always used his actual last name.  “Johnny Hellebore,” he replied.

“Hellebore?”  The crazy light faded a bit, and the man sounded puzzled.  “That’s a weird name.”

A bit surprised, Johnny looked up at the man’s face.  His eyes were narrowed slightly.  Was there suspicion in his expression?  Perhaps the fact that Johnny’s last name contained the syllable “Hell” offended his religious sensibilities.  Johnny swallowed a snort.

“It’s a flower.  Also called a Christmas rose.”  See, Johnny could play the game.  Get Christmas into it, and then we can have a nice chat about Jesus and how he’s my personal savior and yes, I have accepted him into my heart and been born again and Praise Jesus! and all that and then I can get back to my cup and you can go find someone else to save.

The man still looked suspicious.  “A flower, eh?  Well, I never heard of a name like that.”  This latter was stated almost as a challenge.  Johnny snuck another glance at the man’s face; no real danger yet.  He opened his mouth to reply, but then realized that there was no safe reply to this.  He tried out a cock-eyed grin and a shrug.

The man gave an exasperated sigh, but faintly: clearly he hadn’t really been expecting Johnny to rise to this bait.  Hoping, perhaps, but not expecting.  “Well, son, I need to speak to your mother for a moment.”  He made as if to push past Johnny.

Johnny shifted his weight to the other foot, which just so happened to put him even more in the man’s way.  Ever so carefully now, he thought.  “Yes, sir, of course, sir.  My mother’s name is Jane.”  The man loooked confused at this; obviously he had moved past “what’s your name” and was well onto “if you don’t want to burn in the eternal fires of Hell.”  Johnny continued on innocently, still not looking the man directly in the eye.  “She and I came up from North Carolina after our house burned down in a fire.”  He considered putting a little Carolinian accent in there for good measure (“fire” could easily become “fahr”), but decided it was too late for that.  “A lot of the town burned up as well; our church got burned up too, you see, and our pastor, Pastor Frank, he was so busy trying to help everyone that we decided that we needed to get out from underfoot, you know? and so we prayed on it, and then Momma said that God had showed her what to do and that we needed to come up north to visit her cousin”—Johnny dared to take a little breath at this point, because he could see he had hooked the man solid—“because cousin Edna, she always been a God-fearin’ woman, and she don’t have much money, but Momma said that don’t matter, on account of the Lord will provide, you know sir? and we got most of the way there (cousin Edna’s up in western Pennsylvania, which I reckon is not too much further) and then the car broke down, and those Godless mechanics” (Johnny nearly gave the Godless mechanics a racial epithet, but he couldn’t quite tell what this man’s flavor of  prejudice might be, and he didn’t want to risk it) “they want more’n the car’s worth, even, for us to get it back, so we’re down here praying right now, hoping the Lord Jesus will show us the way again, and, sir, I just know He will, ’cause seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all things shall be given unto you and take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take care of itself, am I right sir?”  The man blinked in surprise; Johnny knew he’d mangled the verse a bit, but apparently not enough to make it unrecognizable.  “Yes, sir, I know you understand what I’m saying, and my momma is prayin’ on it right now, you see sir?”  Johnny gestured vaguely behind him and hoped Dotty was staring vacantly at the ceiling—it was a fair chance she would be—and apparently the man bought it, from the look in his eyes when he glanced at her.  “So if you wouldn’t mind sir, just kneeling down here with me to pray with us ...”  Johnny dropped to his knees, put his hand on the man’s arm, and started tugging at his sleeve.  The man looked alarmed now: apparently his plans to save some souls in the subway today did not include getting his pants dirty.

“No, I ... son, I’m going to take your message of need back to my own congregation now, and put the mighty power of prayer to work for you and your mother, with many more devout souls than we could muster here in this place.”

Johnny tried to put the same feverish light in his own eyes that he’d seen in the man when he first started coming this way; Johnny doubted he was a good enough actor to equal the task, but the man’s own light had dimmed a bit, so perhaps it was sufficient.  “Would you sir?  Truly you are blessed of the Lord.”  Johnny made sure to give “blessed” two syllables.  “I thank Jesus for working through your vessel.”

“Yes, son, of course, my pleasure ...”  The man wasn’t really making much sense by this point, but he was walking steadily backwards, so it didn’t much matter.  Johnny stayed on his knees with his hands clasped together in front of him until the man turned the corner, then he got up, rubbing his knees where he’d cracked them on the stone floor of the station.

“Very nicely done,” said a small voice from behind him.  “Although your mastery of Matthew 6:33-34 needs a bit of polishing.  I assume that was the King James version you were trying to quote?”

Johnny didn’t need to turn around.  “Hey, Larissa,” he said, dusting off his ragged jeans.  “How’s it going?”


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