“Run, Ronnie. RUN!” the little boy screamed. But the girl he was yelling at couldn’t hear him. She was trapped in a vortex of exhaust and angry hollers.
“Sidewalk’s for walking, girl, not the street.”
“Get out the road, ya skinny bat. What’r ya, blind!?”
Across the street, the older boy everyone called Patch stood and watched this little drama play out with increasing fascination. He hadn’t intended to stop. He’d seen that flatfoot McGuire back on Liberty Avenue a moment ago and had quickly snaked a path through alleys and side streets to dodge the mean old bastard. But the sight of this helpless girl in the middle of the street had grabbed Patch by the collar as surely as McGuire’s gnarly claw would have.
It was rush hour, and the rain a few minutes ago had only slightly cleared the ever-present fog of soot and smoke from the sky. Even so, people seemed energized by the brief respite from the unseasonal eighty-degree May stifle. Clanging streetcars snarled the intersections, competing with wide Chevys and Fords and even wider trucks thumping along the cobblestones with a hum that reminded Patch of the balloons his dad had attached to his bicycle’s front tire for the Fourth of July parades. But there wouldn’t be any Fourth of July parade this year. Or even the next. Or the one after that. Patch had been wondering if he’d ever celebrate the Fourth of July with his father again when he got distracted by what was happening in the middle of the street.
The girl’s wet black hair was now slapping her face as she spun this way and that, desperate for an escape route. Every move she made was suddenly cut off by another car, another truck, another impatient shout. Patch could tell that her confusion had skipped over panic and become stone-cold paralysis. She was a reed in a hurricane. The little boy calling to her was in tears. They had been walking together, holding hands as they crossed the street, when Patch first saw them. Exactly when the little boy let go, or why, Patch couldn’t tell. There was too much traffic. But when the boy had reached the curb, the girl was still back in the intersection.
There was a gap between cars.
“Now…Ronnie. NOW!” the little boy yelled.
Patch wasn’t certain if the girl heard him, but something urged her out of her stasis, and she leaped forward toward the little boy. But her heel caught the edge of a blistered cobblestone, and instead of running she was now lurching and flailing like a spastic marionette. Right into the path of an oncoming streetcar.
Instinctively Patch rushed into the street, shoving her rudely forward until her feet weren’t touching the ground any longer. He had her by the waist, hauling her like a simple sack of Georgia peanuts, until he dumped her unceremoniously on the curb, where she landed in a very unflattering spread-eagle.
“You crazy…or just some dumb cluck?” Patch’s voice betrayed a slight quiver that was equal parts fear and breathlessness. He was handsome in that unkempt, unconcerned way boys are, but his thin fifteen-year-old face was now flushed with exertion, and his stare was hard and withering.
The girl staggered quickly to her feet and tried to regain some semblance of dignity. Patch could now tell she was probably about his age.
“I…got confused,” she stammered. “I was trying to cross. No one would stop.”
“Why would they? You were in the middle of the street, dummy!” And as if to punctuate the point, a passing driver leaned out his window and shouted an obscenity at them.
“YEAH!? AND YOUR MOTHER SUCKS TOE JAM!” Patch yelled back, puffing himself up an inch taller than he really was, expecting that his insult would not go unchallenged. But the driver only laughed.
“Good one, kid. Good one.” And he drove on.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the girl sniffed with a slightly defensive haughtiness. “I didn’t mean to cause inconvenience.” She reached for the frayed and faded carpetbag on the pavement. The little boy handed it to her, then took her hand. The two of them moved off down the street.
“Wait…hold up,” Patch said. “You know how close you came to getting flattened? Maybe a little ‘thanks’ would do. And if that’s too much for you, how ‘bout some spare change? Dress like that and your high-toned voice, bet you could handle it without too much never-mind. Where you from, anyway? Up in the East End or somethin’?”
The little boy immediately turned back, getting between the girl and this insolence.
“She said she was sorry. She didn’t mean nothin’. You leave us be, hear?”
“Okay, Sugar Ray. Don’t blow your top. Whatcha doin’ downtown alone anyway…the two of yuz?”
“We got lost,” the boy blurted.
“We’ve come to visit.” She stepped forward, pulling her heroic little companion to a less aggressive
stance behind her. “Our aunt.” She pronounced it “awnt.”
“Aunt Mary. We just got off a bus.”
“Oh, yeah?” Patch said, coming closer. “So where is this Awnt Mary that she ain’t here to meet you?”
“She works,” Ronnie said, but it sounded like she was making it up. “She lives on a street called…Montrose. We were supposed to take the streetcar. But I lost the directions.”
A distant but decisive roll of thunder suggested another cloudburst was imminent. The noise made the little boy cling even closer to Ronnie. Her eyes were darting around, like she was looking for some shelter to wait out the storm.
“Patrick. Patrick Dunne,” Patch said as he extended a hand. “But everyone just calls me Patch.”
She didn’t take it. She just stared at him blankly. “Well, thank you for your kindness, Patrick Dunne. My name is Veronique. This here is my brother, LJ. He calls me Ronnie. I’m sorry for my petulance.”
Again, that formal way of speaking. Patch couldn’t decide what to make of it. Was she some kind of
snob who was putting him down? He didn’t have time to make up his mind. Up the street, a police officer was walking his beat, swinging a billy club and keeping a hard eye on Patch as he approached. McGuire!
“Look,” Patch said stepping closer, “you can’t just keep wandering around here like a couple of bums. Come on back to my place for a bit. Dry out those clothes. Okay? I got a friend who knows every street in this city backward and forward. We’ll figure out how to get you to your Awnt Mary’s. What say?”
Little LJ looked up at his sister skeptically, but she just kept staring at Patch with that enigmatic, unfocused expression. Patch couldn’t tell if she was looking at him or through him.
“Okay, well, I ain’t standin’ out here gettin’ wet.” He started to back up. “Too bad your sister didn’t wise up, kid.” He said it to LJ, but he meant it to sting her.
More thunder beat the air. Closer now.
“Wait,” Veronique called out. “Maybe we’d like to take you up on your kind offer.”
“Ronnie…” protested LJ in a whisper.
Patch glanced beyond them. “Better hurry up, then.”
LJ turned and saw what Patch was looking at. That cop was crossing the intersection a few blocks back, coming toward them like a predator stalking prey.
“Gimme that,” Patch said, tugging at Veronique’s ratty carpetbag.
“Please,” she protested, “it’s got everything we own in the world.”
“Cripesake, I ain’t gonna steal it! Now c’mon!”
She finally let go. LJ took her hand and pulled his sister forward as they followed Patch quickly around a corner.
It started to rain again as he guided them through a warren of alleys and side streets in a seemingly directionless odyssey toward some much hoped-for shelter. The cop followed for a couple of blocks but finally gave up, using his nightstick to gesture menacingly the last time Patch glanced back.
Soon they were in a desolate stretch of town near the river. Empty, rusting barges were moored at dilapidated docks that led to abandoned warehouses and terminal buildings. The cobblestone streets here were wide enough for four lanes of traffic and suggested a time not too long ago when coal trucks shared commerce with draymen and their horse-drawn wagons of junk or produce. But sitting at a five-points convergence of these weary forgotten buildings was an anomalous three-story citadel of brick. A dilapidated scaffolding on the roof barely supported large letters made up of broken or dangling electric bulbs: DESTINY GARDENS.
Patch led Veronique and LJ toward a corroded metal door in an alley next to the building.
“This is where you live?” LJ asked.
“Me and a couple others.”
“Your family?” Veronique said.
“Just friends. We look out for each other.”
“Sounds like a family to me,” she said. Patch deliberately ignored the remark.
Inside, they followed him up a dark, narrow staircase with torn, yellowed posters on the walls advertising everything from boxing matches to ballroom dances to political rallies, even the circus. Visual echoes of the life that once crowded into here.
“What is this place?” Veronique asked.
“Used to be some kind of public arena. Destiny Gardens. But we just call it DG. People talk about the famous bands who used to play up here. But they also had boxing matches downstairs in the big hall. Big political meetings, too. Luther says the President made a speech here once.”
“The friend I told you about. It’s him, me, Johnson, and Tammy here.”
“Where’s your real people, then? Your parents?”
Patch didn’t hear her, or he didn’t want to. He brought them into a large open ballroom that ran the breadth and width of the entire building. Plaster columns bisected the space. A couple of broken chandeliers hung from the canted ceiling and still reflected prisms of dusty light that sliced through the grimy multi-paned windows lining the east wall. At the far end, a couple of old car seats flanked a beat-up table and a rump-sprung, threadbare couch. Several mattresses were laid out in a row a few feet away. He paused to let them get a look.
“Impressive, huh?” he said proudly. There was something almost majestic and theatrical about the
place, he’d always thought, even in its worn-out state. Quiet and meditative, like an empty church at night, but with the distant, barely audible echoes of music and laughter and cheering still lingering in the stale air, if you listened hard enough.
“Nothin’ ever happens here anymore, though. Nothin’ doin’ in the whole neighborhood, actually. Which is good for us. Us and the few bums passing through every once in a while. When Luther gets back, we’ll figure out where Montrose Street is and get you gone. Meantime, make yourselves at home. I got some really neat comics over here, if you wanna see.”
This got LJ’s attention.
“Weird Tales, Tales From the Crypt. The new Mad, too,” he said with a wink.
“Do you have any Archie or Dennis the Menace?” Veronique interrupted with a slight nod toward her brother. “Something more…appropriate?
”Now it was Patch’s turn to stare blankly at her. “What the hell’s that mean, ‘more appropriate’? That some kind of insult?”
She wouldn’t look at him. She kept looking past him, as if she was making sure of every inch of this place. There was something wary about her. Like those women down on Penn Avenue by the river, the loitering ones, always on the lookout. Afraid, maybe, of something…or someone.
“I’m hungry, Ronnie,” LJ complained.
“Me, too,” Patch jumped in. “There’s a market couple blocks away.”
“We don’t have much money left,” Ronnie said.
“Don’t need money,” he chuckled.
“You’re going to steal it!?” LJ said almost excitedly.
“I say anything about stealing? You want something or don’t you?”
Again, LJ looked to his sister.
“Well, I suppose we are hungry,” she admitted.
“Then I’m gonna go see what I can do.”
“You’re very kind,” she said, and smiled for the first time, which made her mysterious black eyes
sparkle. Patch had never seen eyes like that. They were hard not to stare at. It was as if they were seeing everything at once. And for the first time, he allowed himself to notice how pretty she was. And it made him nervous all of a sudden.
“Nothin’ to it.” And he was gone.
But he paused in the shadows of the stairs where he knew they couldn’t see him, and waited to see what they would do.
“What’re we gonna do now, Ron?” LJ whispered, sounding like the anxious little boy that he was.
“First we’re going to let that nice boy get us something to eat. Then we’ll think on it a bit before we decide where to go next.”
And she moved carefully out into the middle of the room and stood there, as if listening to this place, maybe trying to hear the spectral memories Patch alluded to that might still hover in the wind, whistling through windows or between the groan of floorboards.
Satisfied they were not some two-man con team ready to steal whatever they could get their hands
on, Patch finally backed away into the dark stairwell and left DG.
A half hour later, he still had not returned. And Veronique was beginning to wonder if she’d made the right decision to come here with that boy. She was at that rickety table by the window with an old rag she had found, wiping off her tattered carpetbag. The rain was coming down hard and she could imagine it running in tiny rivers among the lumpy, uneven cobblestones to collect in small ponds by building corners or in the dips of intersections. What if she and little LJ had to go out in that weather now?
A rip of jagged lightning lit up DG’s ballroom like the flashbulb of a giant camera. She was alone in this cavernous room because LJ had asked if it was all right to go down into that dusty stairwell to look at those mildewed posters on the walls.
“I like all the boxing ones,” he called out to her. “Some guy name of Blinky…Paler…Palermo…presenting …Carmen…Basilio…” he had trouble pronouncing the names, “…versus Chuck Foster. September 9, 1951. And another one with Jake La Motta…I hearda him…against some guy named Maguire. ‘Irish Bob,’ they called him.”
“Come on up now,” Veronique called back. She tripped over one of the old car seats when she went to sit down, but for the first time all day she allowed herself to relax.
Until a creak in the floor at the other end of the room finally made her look up.
“Tell me, what else did you see?” she asked.
There was no answer.
“LJ?” Still, no one said anything. “Patch?”
Nothing but silence. She turned her head to the darkening room, trying to get a sense in this dimness of where the sound had come from.
Still no answer. Now she was afraid. Because there was someone there. She could feel it. Moving among the columns. Watching her.
“LJ…if that’s you, you’re just being cruel, and you know it.”
Whoever was out there continued to move closer and closer. A stealthy, silent creep. Like a stone dropped in a pond, the movement was sending a steady ripple of vibrations toward her. Finally, she spun around angrily, ready to confront her little brother. But she froze instead. Something told her it wasn’t LJ behind that column. It wasn’t Patch, either, although how she knew that for sure she wouldn’t have been able to articulate exactly.
She just knew.
“Who are you!?” she demanded.