Sunday, December 12, 2010

Chapter 8 (continued)

As they passed through Dupont Circle, Johnny asked Larissa where they were headed.  The little girl shrugged.  “Park,” she said shortly.

Johnny considered that.  “Rock Creek, or Mitchell?”

Larissa merely arched an eyebrow.

“Nothing wrong with Mitchell Park, you know,” Johnny contributed.  “It’s a nice little park.”  Larissa kept walking.  “Maybe not as big as Rock Creek Park ...”  Again the eyebrow.  “Okay, not even remotely as big as Rock Creek.  But, you know ... it has tennis courts, and ...”  At this point, Larissa actually stopped and stared at him.  “No, I know: we don’t play tennis.  I’m just ...”  He stopped and laughed at himself.  “I’m just babbling, apparently.  Lead on, Macduff.”

“Lay on.”


Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him that first cries ‘Hold, enough!’”  Larissa paused.  “Not that you want me to attack you, I suspect.”  Johnny smiled.  “Perhaps ... Forward the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!  Although of course that’s still a bit martial for the sentiment you were trying to express.  You could try ...”  But Johnny was laughing openly now.  Larissa stopped and looked at him.

“No, nothing.” Johnny was still chuckling.  “It’s just good to be back to normal.”  He looked around the crowds walking up and down Massachusetts Avenue.  “Or as normal as our lives usually are, I suppose.  Just ... carry on.  You lead, and I shall follow.”

Larissa looked at him for a moment longer, then turned and resumed walking.

At Q Street they turned left and walked across the bridge over the Rock Creek Parkway.  Just past the end of the bridge, they ducked off the sidewalk to the right and walked down through the trees to the bike path.  The trees were just starting to change colors.  Though the sounds of traffic still came to them clearly, it was as close to walking in the wilderness as it got in DC.

They followed the path, occasionally spying the outer edges of the cemetery to their left, then across Devil’s Chair Bridge, where the bike path rejoined the parkway.  Following the countours of the busy road, they eventually walked underneath Massachusetts, then the bike path cut across Rock Creek again.  Here Larissa took a left onto the footpath and they walked back they way they had come, but on the other side of the creek now, back under Massachusetts again.  It was a pleasant two miles or so altogether, accompanied by birdsong and the busy rustlings of squirrels.  Even walking alongside the parkway, this was still a place where you could forget you were actually in a city of half a million people.  After crossing another small creek, Larissa abruptly left the footpath and led them unerringly through the trees until they came out in the heart of Montrose Park.  Then they strolled west down R Street and took a right on Wisconsin.

They were in Georgetown now, a place where Johnny rarely came.  The more upscale parts of town contained more rich people, which theoretically meant people with more coin to spare, but it also meant people with far less tolerance of ragged street urchins.  But Larissa seemed just as much at home here as in any of the “bad” parts of town (though even the street people stayed out of the really bad neighborhoods).  She walked confidently down the sidewalk, ignoring anyone who looked askance at her.

They crossed to the west side of Wisconsin and approached a small café.  Johnny looked at Larissa somewhat nervously.  “Hey, L?  I’m not sure we can afford ...”  Larissa ignored him and opened the door, ushering him inside.

The interior of the place was as fancy as he had feared.  Johnny didn’t normally feel that dirty, but it was undeniable that he generally wore the same clothes every day, and only got to wash them once a week or so at best.  He was sure he didn’t smell that hot compared to the sort of people that would frequent this upscale eatery.  He felt several eyes on him, but no one commented.  Larissa took his arm and led him up to the counter.  A young, very well-dressed woman came over and looked them up and down.  “Can I help you?” she asked, with vague disapproval.

Larissa ignored her and waved to someone in a back room.  Immediately an older woman with slightly graying brown hair piled on her head came out and flapped a hand at the waitress.  “Never mind, Mary, I’ll take care of them.”  She beamed down at Larissa.  “And how’s my secret weapon today?”

Johnny blinked.

The woman lifted a hinged countertop and ushered them behind the counter.  Ignoring Mary’s flustered look, she shooed them into the back room, which turned out to be a small office just off the kitchen.  She closed the door behind them and offered them chairs.  “Who’s your friend?” she asked Larissa.

Still somewhat confused, Johnny stuck out his hand.  “Johnny Hellebore, ma’am.”

“Oh, pooh,” she said, clasping his hand briefly.  “I’m not a ‘ma’am,’ I’m just Sandra.  Very pleased to meet you, Johnny.”  She turned back to Larissa, still smiling broadly.  “And is Master Johnny one of the priveleged few?”

Larissa nodded.

“Ah, good, that’ll make things easier.”  She turned back to Johnny.  “Such a pain, you know, not being able to use the name.  I generally register her under ‘Elizabeth’ and then just call her ‘Liz.’”  She lowered her voice conspiratorially.  “But Larissa is a much prettier name.”

Johnny nodded, more confused than ever.  Obviously this was a friend.  But what did she mean by “register”?

“Well!” Sandra continued.  “Let me get you some food first off.  I’m sure you’re both quite hungry.”  She bustled off to the kitchen.  Larissa sat on the chair, swinging her legs back and forth.  Johnny looked around.  The walls held various plaques and certificates.  Here was a caterer’s license made out to Sandra Hunter.  Here was a diploma for an Advanced Culinary Arts degree from Stratford University, also for Sandra Hunter.  And here was a plaque for 1st place in a ...

Sandra came back in juggling several plates.  “Ah, so you’ve seen our trophies!” she said, beaming.  “That one was for last year’s tournament.  Substantial cash prize, that one was.  And this one over here”—she had put the plates down on the desk and was proudly pointing out further plaques now—“was the year before, we came in second, and this one ...”

Johnny interrupted.  “Second?  With Larissa on your team?  Seriously?”

Sandra frowned.  “Well, you know, there is a bit of luck involved.  The other team got the better die rolls, that’s all.”

Johnny put up a hand.  “Sorry.  It’s just ... I mean, she knows everything.”

Sandra immediately put her huge grin back on.  “Yes, isn’t she wonderful?  First place year before last as well.”  She pointed at yet another plaque.

Johnny nodded.  “I didn’t actually know there were organized tournaments for Trivial Pursuit.”

Sandra nodded enthusiastically.  “Oh, yes.  Well, you know, it’s not a national sport or anything, but we have a pretty big group that covers the greater metro area, and we do an annual tournament.  And I’ve been playing for years now.  Then I found Larissa here ... and, well, the rest is history.”  She looked at them both, still smiling.  “But, please, don’t let me carry on.  I’ve brought you the best my humble kitchen has to offer.  Eat, eat!”

As it turned out, Sandra’s “humble kitchen” was quite impressive.  There was French onion soup, and pasta salad, and hot prime rib sandwiches with gooey brie cheese.  It was all amazing, as far as Johnny was concerned.  He hadn’t eaten this well in ... well, however long it had been since he left home.  And probably not for a while before that: the last few weeks, between his father’s exit and his mother’s final breakdown, the cooks were just killing time while they found new jobs.

As he ate, Larissa was packing up food into a curious vest thing.  “What’s that?” Johnny asked, his mouth half-full.

Sandra jumped in.  “These are marvelous.  You wear them under your coats ... here, I’ve got one for you too.”  She held it up.  “You see, so that you can carry food around without being obvious.  I understand that in the circles you two travel in, carrying a bag or pack or something along those lines would just be inviting trouble.”  Johnny had to agree with the wisdom of this.

“Thanks Sandra,” said Larissa when she was all packed up.

Sandra was still beaming.  “My pleasure, honey!  You know I’m here for you, any time.  Half that cash prize is technically yours, you know.”

Larissa gave a faint smile.  “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it.”

Sandra chuckled.  “Benjamin Franklin today, is it?  Very well, then, I’ll hold on to your half and just mete it out in foodstuffs and vests.”  Her laugh was unaffected and infectious.  Johnny couldn’t help but grin himself.

As he finished up, Larissa was handing him a vest to wear himself.  He took his coat off, put the vest on, and then replaced the coat over it.  The vest itself was light, but the food packed in it gave it a little heft.  Still, it wouldn’t weigh him down too much, and the extra food was certainly welcome.  This was dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow, at least, and possibly more.  None of the food in the vest was hot, so it would probably keep just fine until they got around to eating it.  Additionally, there was a thin thermos attached under one arm.  Water, most likely.

As Larissa zipped up her own jacket, she pointed at the half-finished menu Sandra had been working on when they came in.  “Try salmon roe here,” she said, putting a finger about halfway down the page, which was upside-down to them.

Sandra scooted around the desk and put on a pair of half-moon glasses from her pocket.  Squinting at the page a bit, she drew her eyebrows together.  “Red caviar?” she mumbled.  “Salmon roe, salmon roe ...”  She trailed off, gazing now at the ceiling, lost in thought.  Suddenly she clapped her hands and broke into a grin.  “Yes, salmon roe!  Of course!”  She rushed around the desk and siezed Larissa’s head, kissing her crown.  “You are brilliant, my little partner!”  She turned her happy expression onto Johnny.  “You must come again, Master Johnny.  And take care of this one.  She is precious.”

Johnny nodded.  “Yes, thank you, Ms. Sandra.  And yes, I’ll take good care of her.”

Together, they left the café, Sandra waving at them happily.  Larissa led Johnny on down Wisconsin until they reached Whitehaven, where they turned right to head toward Dumbarton Oaks Park.

section break


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