Sunday, May 9, 2010

Chapter 1 (concluded)


Larissa was the one person Johnny might have called a friend.  Most of the social workers just called her “Alice,” probably because her stringy blonde hair and wide eyes, combined with a deep innocence and a tendency to verbally wander into odd locations—she never babbled, precisely, she just made you feel you weren’t following the conversation she was having at the moment—all called to mind a connection with Lewis Carroll’s young heroine.  She seemed the right age too: she was probably somewhere between eight and ten when Johnny first met her, shortly after he arrived on the streets—must be two or three years ago by now—so she was probably somewhere in the general neighborhood of twelve.  Her eyes were faraway most of the time, as you might imagine Alice’s would have been as she sat on that bank, making daisy chains, just before the white rabbit came along and caught her attention.  And when her eyes would suddenly sharpen, you felt that she had just noticed the pocket watch that you were completely oblivious to.

Of course, the social workers called her Alice mainly because they had no idea that her real name was Larissa.  Very few of the street people knew it—Johnny could probably count on one hand the ones he was allowed to use that name in front of.  When most people asked her her name, she either stared blankly, or answered a completely different question, such as “The largest city in 2,000 BC was Ur, in Chaldea, although of course it was part of Sumeria at that time.  That was where King Amar-Sin tried to build the Tower of Babel, while Mentuhotep II was reuniting the Middle Kingdom and the Minotaur roamed Crete.”  Then she would generally stop and look expectantly at the person who had asked, as if she fully expected them to continue this discussion of bronze age history.  Occasionally someone would be foolish enough to persist in asking for her name; this inevitably produced ever more byzantine and nonsensical answers, delivered in a tone that suggested that the other person might be a little thick, such as “Well, obviously 3.86 times 10 to the 33rd ergs per second at an intensity of 1,370 watts per square meter results in a distance of a little over 93 million miles before it drops below the hearing threshold, so the distance is within physical parameters, but obviously your question depends on just how loud the sun can scream, which is a completely unknowable factor.”  The coolest thing about this, from Johnny’s perspective, was that she could keep it up far longer than the patience of any known social worker or religious volunteer could possibly last.  The person who  held the record (and the stories of it were legendary among the street denizens) was a psychiatrist, or psychologist—who could tell the difference?—who traded obscure knowledge with “Alice” for nearly two hours before he finally admitted defeat.  Larissa, of course, had looked like she was ready to go all night.

That was one of the nice things about not having a job or a home or a family, in Johnny’s opinion: you were never in a hurry to finish anything.  You could always take your time and do it right.  Larissa seemed to share this view, particularly when it came to discussions of arcane trivia.

He had met her on his first visit to the 9th Street Shelter, one of the few places where it was safe to appear without having to rope in someone like Dotty to pose as a parent: trying to sleep at many of the local shelters would get you picked up by social services and shipped off to an orphanage or foster home somewhere.  Which was annoying, as then you had to expend all that energy to get out again.  So he had heard about this shelter where there were no questions asked, and he had cautiously checked it out.  He found several people his age, and younger even, so it seemed it was indeed safe.  The folks who ran it were friendly in an absent sort of way: they had been doing it so long, Johnny figured, that they had realized the futility of trying to get to know anyone.  They were obligated by law, of course, to report unaccompanied children on the streets, but they barely looked at their clientele, so you could skate by if you were quiet and seemed to know what you were doing and where you were going.  The 15-year-olds could pose as 18, even if no one really believed that, but when you were 9, or however young that stringy-haired blonde waif in the corner talking to Whiskey Sally was, you just had to look like your mom was “over there” somewhere.

Larissa had been sitting on a cot staring into space when he came to claim his own tiny bed.  “You’re Johnny,” she pronounced decisively.  He stared at her for a second, but then he realized that of course Whiskey Sally knew everyone on the streets, and certainly knew him.  Obviously Sally had told her who he was, that was all.

“Yeah, I’m Johnny,” he answered cautiously.  In Johnny’s situation, you did nearly everything cautiously, if you wanted to survive.

The little blonde girl lowered her voice conspiratorially.  “I’m Larissa,” she whispered.  “But you mustn’t tell anyone.”

A brief pause.  “Unless they already know, of course,” she added.  “Standard non-disclosure contractual rules apply.”

And that was how he met Larissa.  In all the time afterwards, Johnny never knew her to reveal her name to anyone else on first meeting them, and he eventually came to feel sort of honored by it.  She was such a strange little girl that it was difficult to feel affectionate towards her, exactly, but Johnny did begin to feel protective towards her.  It would have been too simplistic to imagine that he thought of her as the little sister he never had, but they looked out for each other, and that was something.

To the Surface

And so it was that when Johnny heard a young girl’s voice criticizing his recall of bible verses, he had no need to turn around.  “Yeah, I was close enough, though, right?  I think I could have pulled him in even better if I could have figured out what sort of ethnic group to pin on my ‘mechanics.’”  He turned and saw her clear hazel eyes staring intently at the corner around which the CCF had disappeared.

“Hispanics,” she pronounced decisively.

“Oh, yeah?” he asked, a bit crestfallen.  “I was so sure it would be black guys.”  There was no need to question whether she was right in her assessment.  Larissa was always right.  “Well, good thing I didn’t try it then.”  He sighed.  “But, still,” he said, brightening a bit and smiling slightly at her, “it worked out, right?”

She arched an eyebrow at him.  “If you hadn’t gotten on your knees, it would have gotten ugly.  That was somewhat inspired.”

This was what passed for a glowing compliment from Larissa.  “Hey, thanks, man,” Johnny shot back.  “Want to give me a hand with Dotty?  I think it might be time to move along, if you know what I mean.”

Larissa turned her gaze back on Johnny.  “Oh, undoubtedly.”  She unfolded her arms and stepped over to Dotty.  Taking each of her hands in one of her own, the small, thin figure bent to whisper in the older woman’s ear.  Johnny collected the sign and the cup—he was pleased to see that the money had continued to come in while he had been distracted—and scanned the edges of the crowd, looking for cops, transit or otherwise.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dotty swing her head around slightly, and he thought he heard Larissa murmur something with “Jane” in it.  The vacant half-smile never left Dotty’s face, but Johnny was sure he saw her nod slightly, then she got up and followed Larissa up the escalator.  Johnny smiled to himself.  Larissa was a good person to have your back.  Blending seamlessly into the crowd, he let the escalator take him up to the warm autumn sunshine of the National Mall.


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