Ariion Kathleen Brindley


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Cat Springs

A Novel by
Charley Brindley



Chapter 1





The yellow richness of declining sunshine painted Saxon in the brownstone and brass doorway. Standing on the third step, he studied a scrap of gray paper, trying to decipher the Latin scribblings. Turning it over, he looked at the backside for a moment. Along one edge ran a line of tiny print saying something about recycled pulp. He shook his head in resignation and stepped to the cracked December sidewalk.

          He walked for a moment, but then stopped. Confused by the unfamiliar view, he felt disoriented. Then he realized he had gone the wrong way. Turning, he went back the way he came from, past the brownstone doorway and toward his car parked in the next block.

           He was ten paces beyond her before the image of the girl's eyes registered on his fogged perception of the chill afternoon---the end of his longest day. Those people up there had put him through the rigors of a raw recruit and he wanted it finished. When he turned back, an enormous man, shiny bald, with a cane in one hand and the Wall Street Journal under his arm, bumped into Saxon. He mumbled a curse then hurried on his way. Saxon seemed not to notice the man at all.

           From a distance, the girl's eyes looked both melancholy and near to gleeful. It seemed to him that her sadness was a tender veil---a valiant attempt to disguise her urge to play with the Barbie doll tucked in the curl of her arm. As she stared at Saxon and turned the corners of her mouth down, her fingers toyed with a bare plastic foot. The doll's other foot wore a stocking of faded blue and a tiny black slipper, the strap swinging loose.

           Around the little girl's neck hung a cardboard sign, lettered in crayon; "Will work 4 food." At the bottom, some imprinted words were torn in half along the edge, "It's the real thing."

           Past, present and future fused into a frozen tide of emotion, the Earth lumbered on toward the winter solstice and compassion warmed an aching heart. Stuffing the slip of paper into his coat pocket, Saxon knelt before her on one knee, feeling the cold cement through his tweed.

           "What kind of work do you do, Sweetheart?" He guessed she was about four years old.

           The woman standing next to them spoke a daggered, "God bless you," to the back of a departing pedestrian who had dropped two coins into her outstretched hand. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and slipped her hands into the pockets of a dark Navy p-jacket, the type one might buy for a few dollars at a military surplus store. Her legs were bare below a short skirt. Thin socks and well-worn Nikes rounded out her collection of old clothes. She looked up the street, over Saxon's head. A lady wearing a long sable coat came out of a jewelry shop and turned their way. Slick crimson nails tucked a fur collar close over her harness of jewels. A hand slipped out of the p-jacket.

           Saxon carefully fastened the strap on Barbie's shoe as he watched the girl's face. He knew it would take only a wisp of a breeze to topple her into his arms where she could get warm in his cozy hug.

           "Can you drink hot chocolate with little marshmallows?" he asked with a smile.

           He saw her face start to brighten, but then she caught herself and looked up at the woman. Saxon looked up too. The woman ignored them, her eyes following the sable, the eyes of the sable focused on some distant point where parallel lines came together. Sable quickened her step. An empty hand returned to the pocket. She didn't look down at the two people at her feet, but stared at a young man getting out of a taxi and motioning the driver to keep the change.

           "How about you, Miss? Could you go for a cup of hot chocolate?"

           She looked at him then and he saw only bitterness. There was not the slightest trace of happiness in the woman's face---hidden or imagined. Saxon thought perhaps there had never been. The shrug of her slim shoulders conveyed much more than I don't care---she said without a word that she hated him and every rich bastard who walked by and insulted her with a few tarnished coins. Yes, she would take his stingy offering of a hot drink, but only because she and the girl had not eaten since breakfast. That's what he saw in her cold shrug.

 

* * * *

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           "I help Mommy clean apartments," the little girl said after a sip of the hot chocolate. She gave her sweet brown mustache a lick. The three of them sat in a window booth at Hannibal's Cafe, three blocks from where he met them. They on one side of the table, Saxon facing them on the other. He slipped his overcoat off and let it fall behind his back. The woman and girl kept their coats on and buttoned.

           "Oh," he said, warming his hands on the mug before him. "I bet you're a big help to Mommy."

           The girl nodded as she held a sticky marshmallow to Barbie's lips then popped it into her own mouth. She picked up her cup and slurped another marshmallow. The woman stared out the window, her hands wrapped around her untasted drink.

           Saxon looked out to see what held her attention. He was startled to meet her eyes in the reflection of the glass---she had been watching him in the mirrored window. She didn't blink, but he looked away and took up his drink.

           "We gonna get a pet elephant," the little girl said.

           The woman turned to look at the girl and narrowed her eyes. The girl narrowed her eyes back at her.

           Saxon tried to interpret this fragment of intercepted communications. Was it a secret that the girl wanted a pet and strangers shouldn't be made aware of it? "Pet elephant" might be a code phrase for something forbidden, perhaps an exotic bird or maybe a father. Or was it simply an affectionate exchange between mother and daughter? A look of mutual love and understanding? Whatever the case, Saxon envied them their close, almost twin-like, relationship.

           "Hurry up with your chocolate, mamma," the woman said, "we have to go."

           "So," Saxon said, "you do cleaning work."

           "Wait, don't tell me," she said. The caustic knife of her words formed with practiced precision and cut without qualm. "You just remembered your maid is on vacation."

           "No, I don't have a maid." He kept his voice soft in spite of her combative attitude. Has life been so difficult for her that every man is a threat? he wondered. Or perhaps a menace to something close to her? Why can't she understand she has nothing to fear from me?

           "Then your apartment is suddenly very dirty." It sounded like an accusation.

           "As a matter of fact, I keep it fairly clean," he said. Saxon grew weary of their exchange, he had no heart for confrontation.

           "What then?"

           "I just wondered how much you charge."

           "All that the traffic will bear." Her cold eyelock never wavered, never weakened.

           "Oh."

           "Isn't that what you charge?"

           "I don't charge anything."

           "I guess you just live off the fat of the land," she said.

           Saxon gave up. "I suppose so," he said, returning his gaze to the little face framed in curls. He smiled as he watched the girl silently admonish Barbie about something she apparently said without asking the girl's permission. I wonder if her hair is naturally curly? he asked himself. If not, someone spent a lot of time on it. Unusual for street people.

           The woman sipped her chocolate to test the temperature, then took a big drink and licked her lips. She followed Saxon's eyes to the girl who was trying to catch a marshmallow with her tongue.

 

* * * *





Ten minutes later, outside Hannibal's, Saxon watched the two of them walk away. The girl hung onto the bottom edge of the p-jacket, the woman's hands in the pockets. Only the Barbie doll, cradled against the girl's shoulder, looked back at him. He waved good-bye to Barbie, sighed and went the opposite way. As he walked toward the drug store, he took the doctor's prescription from his coat pocket.

 

* * * *


The next week Saxon walked the streets. There was no reason for him to return to Hannibal's Cafe, he just wanted to taste the chocolate again. Imagine his surprise at seeing the two of them across the street from Hannibal's, working the busy lunch-time crowd, wearing the same clothes as last week. He hustled through the traffic while they watched a gaggle of stockbrokers in pinstripes waddle by, half of them with cellphones grafted to their ears, hands attached.

           The woman jumped when he came up on her blind side. "Hi there," he said.

           The girl wore a new sign; "Please help. Mommy lost job." Her stony face didn't really fit a four-year-old, but her soft eyes welcomed him and she turned Barbie his way. The doll gave him a blue crayoned smile that wasn't there before.

           He returned Barbie's smile, and then spoke to the woman, "How's business?" An urge to grab her by the shoulders to keep them from shrugging, rose from his pectorals and tingled down to his hands, creating an awkward gesture. But she surprised him and for an instant he thought he saw an unguarded sign of relief in her eyes.

           "Not bad." No shrug.

           "You two been to lunch?"

           "Nope," she said.

           "I'm on my way to see what Hannibal has on today's special. Wanna join me?"

           She looked down at the girl. "You hungry, mamma?"

           The girl nodded vigorously.

           Saxon said, "Well, let's go then." Stepping around the woman, he picked the little girl up and held her in his arm. Light as a new kitten, she put her arm around his neck and held on.

           They threaded their way through the traffic and he opened the door for the woman to precede him into the cafe.

           The waitress told them the day's special was liver and Saxon noticed an expression of yuck on the little girl's face. They ordered something else and the lady scurried away to the kitchen.

          Saxon spoke to the girl, "What's your name, Honey?"

           "Rachel," she said. "I'm in the Bible, you know. This is Henry." She held the smiling Barbie doll out to him.

           "Well, Henry," he said as he shook the outstretched plastic hand and then felt the texture of her coral and rose pinafore---three doll-sizes too large. "I'm glad to meet you and I must say, that's a very pretty dress you're wearing."

           Rachel turned Henry toward her and listened for a moment while adjusting the garment over an exposed shoulder. "She likes yours too."

           Saxon smiled.

           "Okay, here's the deal," the woman said without warning.

           Saxon and Rachel looked at her, so did Henry.

           "We'll clean your stupid apartment, but it'll cost you fifty bucks."

           The girl and Henry turned to Saxon, expectant looks on their faces.

           He savored the moment, feeling some sort of perverse victory over the woman. Maybe he penetrated her icy facade and touched a warm current of womanity. Saxon studied her eyes, the flow of her hair, the turn of her cheek and the unpainted blush on her lips. Street Woman; Appearance - 8, Likability - 1, Attitude - 0, Usefulness - 2.

           "Sorry, my maid came back from vacation," Saxon said, thinking he might persuade her to smile.

           "Let's go, Rach." She grabbed the girl's arm and started pushing her out of the booth.

           "Wait." Saxon was no match for her. "I'm kidding, just a dumb joke." He reached for her wrist to keep them from going.

           She looked down at his hand and wrenched hers away then settled back to her place. "Don't fool with me, Saxon. I don't play jokes."

           "All right, I'm sorry..." He stopped, confused for a moment. "I just wanted to see you smile."

           "I don't do that either."

           He glanced down to see Henry slowly turn her smiling face toward him.

           "Okay. No jokes, no smiles. I got it."

           She held her hand out to him, palm up.

           "What?" he said.

           "Payment in advance."

           "Yeah, right..." He saw one eyebrow go up. "Okay, okay. Payment in advance, no jokes, no smiles."

           When his checkbook came out, she shook her head.

           "American Express?" Saxon asked. She could either take a joke or they were going to end this mercenary affair.

           "Actually I CAN do American Express."

           "Didn't she say no jokes?" he asked the girl and also looked the question at Henry. They both nodded, innocent eyes wide.

           "You have to add ten percent," the woman said, "and we do it at Punky's Pawn Shop, over on Forty-third."

           "You're serious."

           "You don't think a street person can do business?"

           "Oh, I think you are a businesswoman all right, a very good businesswoman." He took some currency out of his wallet, riffling the new twenties to see if some were stuck together. When he passed two twenties and a ten to her, he looked up to see the waitress glancing from
the money to him to the woman. Her face a mask of, "So what."

           "Meat loaf?" she asked.

           He nodded and made room for her to set the plate before him. She placed the chicken-fried steak in front of the woman, dropping it from a height that made an annoying clatter, but not quite enough to break the plate. Rachel got a hamburger with a side order of M&Ms--- gently. Henry sat down on the table with her legs splayed out. She watched Rachel pick out three green candies. One went into Henry's lap.

           When did I tell her my name? Saxon wondered as he picked up his fork.







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