Sunday, July 25, 2010
When the little bell over the door rang, the big man in the flamboyant brown cowboy hat turned around and boomed “Hello cousin!” Then his eyes lit on Johnny and Larissa. “Oh, you damn kids. Get on outta here.” He flapped one chunky hand at them. Johnny could tell from the brightness of the man’s nose that “Cuz,” as he was universally known, had been availing himself of his stock again.
Johnny spoke cautiously. “We have money, sir.” The “sir” was a time-tested way to buy a little forbearance. “Just a sandwich, maybe?” The place was primarily a liquor store, of course, but there was also a small deli in it. Primarily it was used for serving lunch, but you could often talk the proprietors into a spot of dinner, if you had the cash. Which, at the moment, Johnny did.
Cuz was in a touchy mood tonight, though. “Ain’t makin’ no damn sandwiches this time of night! I’m runnin’ a respectable place, for respectable people, not a damn meal service for hobo children.” He picked up a small dixie cup from where he had stowed it when he’d heard the door open. Raising the cup to his flushed face, he mumbled another string of no doubt unpleasant admonitions.
The small round woman appeared from the back room. She was dark-skinned, perhaps Native American, with thick glasses over her downcast eyes. “I’ll make it for them,” she said softly, not meeting his belligerent gaze.
Cuz snorted. “Damn right, ’cause I wouldn’t ... here, boy, let’s see your green.” Johnny walked up to the counter and presented some crumpled one dollar bills. The white-haired man held them up to the light as if he suspected they might be counterfeit. After staring at them bleary-eyed for a bit, he tossed them at his woman (he often made it clear she was not his wife). “Go on then, if you haveta. Damn grungy kids, with their ... you kids oughtta show some respect. I was a federal judge, you know.” He moved off to restock some shelves. “Thirty years in the ... didn’t work all that time just so ... that’s what I oughtta ...” Cuz trailed off as he busied himself rearranging liquor bottles.
Johnny glanced back at the man. He wore a huge, red-checkered apron over coveralls. There was a small red feather plastered to the side of the cowboy hat. Johnny turned back to the woman making his sandwich. “Was he really a judge?” he asked curiously. She nodded without looking up. Johnny glanced back at Larissa, who was staring at the store’s owner.
“Appellate judge,” she pronounced critically, but not too loudly. “Never saw the inside of a courtroom.” She paused. “Well, not from behind the bench, at least.” Johnny thought he saw a small smile play about the plump woman’s lips, but she didn’t comment.
The sandwich was finished and slid across to Johnny. “You want a soda?” the woman asked softly. Johnny nodded, and fished around in his change for some coins to cover it. The woman accepted the silver, then, glancing at Cuz to make sure his back was still turned, slid one of the bills back to Johnny. Johnny protested silently, but she acted as if she couldn’t see him. Johnny stuffed the bill back in his pocket, smiling gratefully at her. Turning to Larissa, he offered her half the sandwich. She raised her hand and shook her head slightly. Johnny shrugged and stuffed his face.
The bell rang again and a distinguished-looking man in a dark suit and tie came into the store. “Hello cousin!” was called out cheerily again. The man waved absently and turned to look at the expensive wines. Johnny and Larissa took this as their cue to leave. As they quietly exited the store, they heard the customer being regaled with more of Cuz’s good-ole-boy greetings.
Outside the liquor store, Johnny finished stuffing his face. Another thing about being homeless: you learned to eat fast, before someone could take it from you. Larissa just watched him eat, with that cool disinterest she habitually wore. Johnny didn’t ask her why she wasn’t hungry. If she needed to eat, she would’ve said so.
With his mouth so full he couldn’t even close it properly, he stuffed the sandwich wrapper back in his pocket (never can tell when you might need something like that) and opened the can of Coke. Again, he offered some to Larissa first; again, she refused. To his knowledge, Larissa didn’t drink soda. Just water. But he always offered anyway.
Once he had swallowed enough to be able to speak, he glanced back through the big glass window of the store at the flamboyant man in his flamboyant hat, still talking animatedly to his customer. “Crazy old bastard,” he muttered. “Who’d a thought he used to be a judge?” Larissa simply pointed up at the sign over the door: Courthouse Liquors. Johnny looked uncomprehending for a minute, then his face brightened. “Oh, yeah ... hunh. Fancy that. Never thought about it before.”
He looked out at the crowd. It was late; there were no day people left. And the night people were no good for begging. They were college students, hustlers, club kids, working girls, night shifters ... in other words, people who had little coin to spare. He could hear some music drifting down from the new club living in DC Space’s space. “Wonder who’s playing?” he asked idly. Not that he cared to listen to the music so much, but he knew a few musicians; if one of them were playing, that might be worth some more food and drink, and a place to be off the streets for a while.
“No one we know,” Larissa pronounced decisively. She started to walk north on 7th St, not bothering to check whether Johnny was following or not. Naturally, he did.
“Where we going?” he asked.
Johnny looked around. “Well, there’s nothing at MCI tonight. There’d be more people around. So what’s in Chinatown?”
Larissa shrugged as if to say that was irrelevant. Johnny shrugged too, although his was more a mark of surrender.
They passed the sprawling MCI center, where the Caps and the Bullets played. It was ghostly quiet tonight. He stared at the building with a faint sense of longing, as he often did when walking this way. It always reminded him of better times: Amiira had often brought him here as a child to watch the games, especially basketball. Basketball had been her favorite.
“Wizards,” said Larissa.
“Hunh?” Johnny turned around abruptly. He had forgotten she was there, almost.
“Wizards,” she repeated. “They haven’t been the Bullets for about five years now.”
“They’ll always be the Bullets to me,” he said softly. By which he meant, they’ll always be the Bullets to Amiira.
Larissa held his gaze for a moment, then abruptly turned and continued to walk.
Almost a block past the final white column of the MCI Center, Larissa turned right on H and passed under the Friendship Arch. Then she jaywalked across the street during a convenient break in traffic and headed down the sidewalk on the north side. Johnny followed, of course. He had no idea where she was going, but he was content to tag along.
At Tony Cheng’s, Larissa ducked into the alley. Johnny trailed behind. For a tourist—even for most city residents—alleys were scary places that you learned to avoid. For the street people, they were vital thoroughfares through the city. Of course, this particular alley, Johnny knew, didn’t go anyplace in particular ... perhaps Larissa just wanted to cut over to I Street? There was a bit of greenspace in the triangle formed by 6th, I, and Massachusetts. Not what you’d call a park by any stretch, but a pleasant place to sit down and ponder the state of the universe.
They exited the alley into an irregularly-shaped parking area in the center of the block. Larissa jogged left, heading for the alley that would lead them to I Street. Johnny, by now trained to be alert to his surroundings at all times, glanced right to make sure there weren’t any unsavory lurkers who might follow them. This was more an automatic response than anything else; he didn’t actually expect to see anything. Or nothing more unusual than a few fellow travelers scrounging the area, looking for anything interesting in the dumpsters, or perhaps just a place to lay down. He certainly didn’t expect to see a tall figure in the shadows, just barely distinguishable in the jumble of dumpsters by the parking lot’s entrance. He paused, straining to make out the figure. It was full dark now: the moon was nowhere to be seen, and the city lights weren’t trained this far into the interior of the block. There was a lamp attached to the side of the building over in that direction somewhere, but it didn’t provide much light. And another lamp in the alley they were heading towards didn’t reach that far into the shadows.
He turned towards Larissa, half expecting her to have gone on without him, but she had stopped too. “Do you see it?” he whispered. Her head twitched in the bare beginning of a “no,” but then stopped. She was staring directly at the place he had seen it, so she must have seen—or sensed—something. He strained his ears to make out any sounds, but the traffic noise was echoing down three alleys at them and it was impossible to hear anyone if they were standing perfectly still, which ... if there was anyone there at all ...
No one moved for perhaps half a minute. Then there was a glint from the shadows they were staring into. “Knife,” Johnny hissed urgently. Larissa turned and fled, Johnny hot on her heels.
They burst into the brightness of I Street and hooked right immediately. Larissa scanned the cars going past and suddenly ducked into the street. Johnny didn’t hesitate: if Larissa stepped into traffic, she had seen a hole they could fit through. In the movies, people leapt into busy city streets all the time, and cars honked angrily and stopped just short of hitting them. In the real world, the only time Johnny had ever seen anyone attempt that, they had left the street in an ambulance. But tonight either luck or Larissa’s keen insight carried them across without even a cursory beep. Johnny supposed it wasn’t that busy late at night in Chinatown anyway.
When they crossed 6th Street and reached the green triangle with its few trees growing along the edge, they stopped to catch their breath. “Was it a knife, you suppose?” Larissa didn’t answer. Johnny looked at her, leaning against a tree and breathing heavily. After a moment, he grinned at her, and she smiled hesitantly back. “We’re just spooked,” he chuckled. “It was probably nothing.” She held her half-grin and just stared at him appraisingly. After a few more minutes, they staked out a spot under one of the trees and sat down in the cool grass. Johnny felt himself drifting off, but he wasn’t worried. This was a pretty open area. They would be safe enough. When he opened his eyes again, dawn was breaking and a policeman was walking down Massachusetts giving him the hairy eyeball. He touched Larissa’s shoulder and her eyes flew open. He inclined his head slightly towards the cop; she saw him at once and nodded. Together they slipped off in the other direction. The officer showed no inclination to follow them.