Sunday, May 30, 2010

Chapter 2 (begun)

7th Street Court

“Where’s Sally tonight?” he asked Larissa.

“7th Street Court.  Not far.”

He nodded.  It was indeed not far: about a mile, more or less, although with Dotty in tow it would take an hour or more.  But they were in no hurry, of course.  There was no job to be late for, no home with people worrying about them, no schedule to keep at all.  And tomorrow would be pretty much the same as today (Johnny thought), so no need to rush its coming.

They strolled leisurely down and across the mall, past the Smithsonian Guy (Larissa had probably told him a dozen times the name of the man whose statue stood in front of the Castle, and what he had done that was so important other than being the first head of the Smithsonian, but all Johnny could ever remember was that the fellow had two first names and had something to do with electromagnets, so he was always just the Smithsonian Guy to Johnny) and the gothic-style Smithsonian Institute Building, which everyone called “the Castle,” Larissa guiding Dotty along gently but firmly (“perfected the electromagnet,” she said softly to Johnny as they passed the statue), and they certainly weren’t moving at a speed that any sane observer would have referred to as fast, but, considering how long it usually took Johnny to maneuver Dotty through a crowd, this was positively joyous.  No question about it: Larissa was a master Dotty-herder, a fact which Johnny had known but somehow never appreciated until today.  She had taken Johnny’s “Lost Our House” sign and slung it casually over her right shoulder, and her left hand just barely rested on Dotty’s right bicep.  Every once in a while she would lean over to whisper a brief word, or even, Johnny noticed, simply tap a little rhythm on Dotty’s arm with her fingers, and somehow Dotty always did the right thing: smile at a passer-by, stop and stare at her feet sadly, clasp her hands together in front of her as if in prayer, or whatever the situation called for.  Johnny quickly got the hang of it; Larissa worked her magic on Dotty, Dotty worked her magic on the crowd, and Johnny was there with the cup and a soft “thank you” or “God bless.”  And the whole time they moved—slowly but steadily—and there was never any time for Johnny to get caught up in any long conversations or have to invent any more complicated stories.  Larissa never spoke to the crowd: she was no good at being anyone other than Larissa when she opened her mouth, but she was quite plausible at playing mute.  She and Johnny had worked together before, and Johnny knew the drill.  “No, my sister doesn’t really talk.  Yes, my mother takes good care of us.  Thank you so much, I better go catch up with them ...”

Past the carousel, across the scrubby grass to the sculpture garden.  Larissa somehow instinctively knew who would give up the coin and who it was best to just walk on by untried.  The sunshine was warm: though Johnny always considered it fall as soon as August faded into September, it was still technically summer, and there would be many more months before you could count on an inch or so of snow falling and paralyzing the city.  So it was a beautiful day, the crowds were plentiful (must be a weekend day, Johnny thought), and they were on a very pretty, very profitable walk to the 7th Street Court of Whiskey Sally.

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Wherever Sally was, the street people would gather.  Many people would bring their problems to the no-nonsense woman famous as much for her mostly iron-grey hair and black woolen fingerless gloves as for her ubiquitous flask of Yukon Jack, and she, for the most part, would solve them.  Which of course is what she was really famous for.  The canonical story on the street was that, once upon a time, Sally had been a social worker, someone whose job it was to help the homeless.  Then, in an ironic twist, she herself had lost her job and her home and ended up on the streets among the very people she sought to aid ... but still she carried on her mission as best she could.  There was a lot to be skeptical of in this movie-of-the-week premise, and Johnny was a naturally skeptical fellow (it was a basic survival skill, as far as he was concerned).  Still, there were a few undeniable facts: Sally had an encyclopedic knowledge of the denizens of the DC streets, and when you brought her a problem, she nearly always had a solution.  And, every night, wherever Sally was, people gathered.

So Sally held court, and the various locations where she spent her evenings, in a pattern that was decipherable to enough of the street people to get around, but never predictable enough to be annoying to any particular landlords or store owners, were known as the Courts.  The 7th Street Court was technically in an alley off of E Street, but it was very near the corner of 7th & E, and besides: the E Street Court was a whole different location, down in Foggy Bottom, between the Red Cross and Riverside Liquors.

So the walk was pleasant.  Past the National Archives and left on 7th, across Pennsylvania, past General Hancock on his horse, down in amongst the pseudo-upscale eateries and the bedraggled-looking clothing stores and almost to the liquor store, then a right on E.  It took roughly two hours to make the walk that Johnny alone could have done in under half an hour, but then again they made quite a bit of coin.  They ducked into the alley as the sun was just starting to set behind them, in the general direction of the White House.

By next month, the 7th Street Court might be adorned with a fire in a metal trashcan, but it was still a bit warm for that now.  There were just a few street people wandering around, seemingly aimlessly.  But Johnny’s practiced eye could easily discern the beginnings of the evening’s festivities.  These were the courtiers, so to speak, some of them with legitimate problems, but most just currying favor.  In general, the early birds were the folks who were a little loopy or a little touchy; if you didn’t have an excuse such as that, Whiskey Sally wouldn’t put up with you hanging around for no good reason.  There was Jimmy the Squid, who was the equivalent of the royal guard.  With his muscular arms and his characteristic squint, he looked almost exactly like a real-life Popeye, but no one would ever call him that.  Sally called him Jimmy the Squid and he had adopted the name, so nearly everyone else called him that as well.  Sometimes people tried out the names that Sally gave them and liked them; mostly Sally’s names were just between her and the individual.  For instance, Sally always called Larissa “Ellie.”  Though Johnny never knew exactly why, he knew that Sally, like Johnny, knew the little girl’s name, but had to keep that quiet when in earshot of others; Johnny himself often called her “L” in such situations, and it seemed a logical enough leap from “L” to “Elle” and thence to “Ellie.”  But no one else ever called her that.

Dotty herself was often in this pack of hangers-on; Sally liked to keep her nearby most of the time.  Said it kept her out of trouble.  And, in fact, Johnny was here to deliver her back to Sally.  He and Larissa took up position on either side of Dotty and escorted her forward.  Jimmy squinted at them, naturally; he needed only a corncob pipe to complete the picture.  He grunted and tilted his head back towards Sally.  They moved forwards past blind old Freefall, who cheerily called out their names as they went by.  “Johnny Hellebore! Dotty! and little Alice!  Come on down, children.”  At least Johnny assumed he meant “children,” although it sounded more like “chirren.”  His head swayed rhythmically back and forth, his filmy eyes staring over their heads.  His heavy navy blue coat was way too big for him, as always.  Johnny mumbled something respectful; Larissa actually reached up and trailed her fingertips across his stubbly chin.  He smiled at them as they passed.

Whiskey Sally herself was sitting on a wooden box, her fists planted on her knees.  She examined the small group quietly and confidently.  She nodded at Larissa.  “Ellie.”  Then likewise at Johnny.  “JB.”

On the one hand it made perfect sense for Sally’s name for Johnny to be JB, because Johnny’s middle name did in fact start with a “B.”  But on the other hand, it made no sense whatsoever, because Johnny never used his middle name.  He had never told it to anyone on the streets, and, like most of the street folks, he had no ID.  His birth certificate had definitely not been one of the things he had taken with him when he left home, and he had never had any reason to get a driver’s license.  (If he was even old enough for a license yet ... Johnny hadn’t exactly been celebrating his birthdays lately.)  So there was no piece of paper from which Sally could have divined his middle name.  Theoretically the social workers had access to it, and he had been in the foster care program a couple of times, so, if the rumors about Sally’s past were true, maybe one of them had told her ... although why it would have ever come up in conversation was a complete mystery.  But Johnny had discovered two things over the past several years: there were many mysteries to life on the streets, and, when you had to worry every day about where your next meal was coming from, those sorts of mysteries weren’t that compelling.

Whiskey Sally turned to look at Dotty, and what might have been the ghost of a smile touched the corners of her mouth.  “And Daisy Jane,” she said, eyeing the other woman.  As far as Johnny knew, there was no “Daisy” in Dotty’s real name, but that was what Sally called her.  “How’d she do?” she asked Johnny.

“Fine.  L helped towards the end.”  Johnny started counting out coins; he offered some to Larissa, but she shook her head firmly.  He made two roughly equal piles on the pavement and pushed one towards Sally.  “This is her cut.”

Sally scooped up the change and the few ragged bills.  “Nice day’s work,” she said.  “Nice spot?”  This was the homeless version of polite chitchat; Johnny knew that Sally had absolutely no interest in the actual answer to this question, so he just nodded.  “Anything else I can do for you?”

Johnny shook his head.  “No ma’am,” he said.  She looked over at Larissa and arched an eyebrow.  The blonde waif turned up her hands, palms out, and gave the older woman a wide-eyed stare.  Sally nodded with a wry grin.

“Come on Daisy Jane,” she said kindly to Dotty.  Larissa stroked the woman’s upper arm again and whispered something in her ear.  Dotty seemed to wake up out of a trance.  “My Sally!” she said excitedly, as if she had just now spotted her.  “That’s right, old girl,” said Sally kindly, taking her arm and leading her down further into the alley.


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