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Rigger was ten paces beyond the little girl before the image of her eyes registered on his fogged perception of that cold December afternoon, the end of his longest day. His doctor had put him through the stress and strain of a raw recruit, and he wanted it finished.
When he turned back toward the girl, an enormous man, shiny bald, with a cane in one hand and the Wall Street Journal under his arm, bumped into him. Rigger stumbled, but kept his grip on the gray slips of paper in his hand.
“Drunken fool,” mumbled the bald man as he straightened his overcoat and hurried on down the street.
From a distance, the girl’s eyes looked both melancholy and almost gleeful. It seemed to Rigger 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.
Her fingers toyed with a bare plastic foot as she stared at Rigger. The doll’s other foot was stockinged in faded blue and covered by a tiny black slipper with the strap swinging loose.
A cardboard sign hung around the little girl’s neck, lettered in childish crayon; “Wil work 4 food”. Some imprinted words were torn in half along the bottom edge of the cardboard, “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 his aching heart. Rigger stuffed the five slips of paper into his coat pocket, and knelt before her on one knee, feeling the icy 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 the girl 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 pea-jacket, the type one might buy for two dollars at a military surplus store. The outline of a torn-off chevron marked the shoulder of the jacket’s right arm. Her legs were bare below a short skirt. Thin socks and castoff Nikes rounded out her collection of old clothes. She stared up the street, over Rigger’s head where a lady dressed in silk and sable, came out of a jewelry shop, and turned their way. Slick crimson nails tucked a fur collar tight over her harness of jewels.
A hand slipped from the pea-jacket pocket.
Rigger carefully fastened the strap on Barbie’s shoe as he watched the child’s face. He knew it would take only a wisp of a breeze to topple her into his arms where he could hold her close until she was warm and cozy. “Can you drink hot chocolate with little marshmallows?” he asked with a grin.
He saw her face start to brighten, but then she caught herself and glanced up at the woman. Rigger looked up, too. The woman ignored them as her eyes following the sable. The eyes of the sable focused on some distant point where parallel lines came together. Sable elevated her nose and quickened her step.
An empty hand returned to the coat pocket. She didn’t look down at the two people at her feet, but shifted her gaze to a young man getting out of a taxi and motioning the driver to keep the change.
“How about you, Ma’am?” he said up to her. “Could you go for a cup of hot chocolate?”
She glanced down at him and he saw only bitterness. There wasn’t the slightest trace of happiness in the woman’s face, hidden or imagined. Perhaps there never had 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 had anything to eat all day. That’s what he saw in her cold shrug.
“I help Mommy clean ‘partments,” 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 had met them. They on one side of the table, Rigger facing them on the other. He slipped his coat 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 steaming mug. “I bet you’re a big help to Mommy.”
The girl nodded as she held a sticky marshmallow to Barbie’s lips, and then popped it into her own mouth. She picked up her cup and slurped another marshmallow. Her mother stared out the window with her hands wrapped around an untasted mug of hot chocolate.
Rigger turned to see what held her attention and was startled to meet her eyes in the reflection of the glass. She watched him in the mirrored window and didn’t shift her gaze. He blinked and took up his cup.
“We gonna get a pet l’phant,” the little girl said to Rigger.
The woman turned to the girl, narrowing her eyes. The girl narrowed her eyes back at her.
Rigger 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? Was “pet elephant” a code phrase for something forbidden, perhaps an exotic bird, or maybe a father? Whatever it was, Rigger envied their easy relationship.
“Hurry up with your chocolate, mamma,” her mother said. “We have to go.”
“So,” Rigger said. “You do cleaning work.”
“Wait, don’t tell me.” The caustic knife of her words formed with practiced precision and cut without qualm. “You just remembered your maid went 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? Or perhaps a menace to something close to her? Why can’t she see 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.” This exchange was wearing Rigger down, and taking them nowhere.
“I just wondered how much you charge.”
“All that the traffic will bear.” Her cold eyelock never wavered, never weakened.
“Isn’t that what you charge?”
“I don’t charge anything, since—”
“I guess you just live off the fat of the land.”
Rigger gave up. “I suppose so.” He returned his gaze to the little face framed in dark curls. He smiled as the girl silently admonished Barbie about something she apparently said without asking the girl’s permission. I wonder if her hair is naturally curly. If not, someone spent a lot of time on it. Unusual for street people.
The woman sipped her chocolate, licked her upper lip, and then took a long drink. She followed Rigger’s gaze to her daughter. The girl tried to catch a marshmallow with her tongue.
Ten minutes later, outside Hannibal’s, Rigger watched the two of them walk away. The girl hung on to the bottom edge of the pea-jacket as the woman shoved her hands into 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 prescriptions from his coat pocket.
On the following Tuesday, the day after Christmas, Rigger walked the streets. He really had no reason to return to Hannibal’s Café; he just wanted to taste the chocolate again.
He caught his breath when he saw the two of them across the street from Hannibal’s, working the busy lunchtime crowd. They wore 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 rest of them had Bluetooth headsets clamped on their ears. All of them chattered a bit too loudly and waved their hands about, very much full of themselves.
“Hi there,” he said, coming up on their blind side.
The woman jerked her head around toward him, almost smiled, but then took on an expression that could have said, “I was actually expecting someone else.”
The child had a new sign, “Please help. Mommy lost job.” The girl’s face was stony as before, but her eyes welcomed him, and she turned Barbie his way. The doll gave him a blue-crayoned smile that wasn’t there last week.
He returned Barbie’s smile, and then spoke to the mother, “How’s business?” An urge to grab her 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 there was an unguarded sign of relief in her eyes.
“Not bad.” No shrug.
“You two had lunch?”
“Nope,” she said.
“I’m on my way to see what Hannibal has on today’s special. Wanna join me?”
She glanced down at the girl. “You hungry, mamma?”
The child nodded vigorously.
“Well then, let’s go.” Rigger stepped around the woman and picked up the girl before either of them could change their mind. She was light as a new kitten in his arms. Without hesitation, she put her arm around his neck and held on.
They threaded 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 Rigger noticed an expression of yuck on the child’s face. They ordered from the menu and the waitress scurried away to the kitchen.
Rigger spoke to the girl, “What’s your name?”
“Rachel. I’m in the Bible, you know. This is Henry.” She held the grinning Barbie doll out to him.
“Hello, Henry.” 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.”
Rigger studied the girl’s face and thought, Rachel—Appearance - 10, Likability - 10, Attitude - 8, Usefulness - 2.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” the woman said without warning.
Rigger 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 Rigger, expectant looks on their faces.
He savored the moment, feeling some sort of perverse victory over the woman. Had he penetrated her icy facade and touched a warm current of womanity? Street Woman; Appearance - 8, Likability - 1, Attitude - 0, Usefulness - 6.
“Sorry,” Rigger said, thinking he might persuade her to lighten her attitude. “My maid came back from vacation.”
“Let’s go, Rach.” She grabbed the girl’s arm, pushing her to the edge of booth.
“Wait.” He was no match for her. “Kidding, I was only kidding.” He reached for her wrist to keep them from leaving.
She glared at his hand, wrenching hers away, and then settled back to her place. “Don’t fool with me, Rigger. 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,” he said. “No jokes, no smiles. I got it.”
The woman held her hand out to him, palm up.
“What?” he asked.
“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?” Rigger had reached a point where she was either going to 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.
“You have to add ten percent,” the woman said. “We do it at Punky’s Pawn Shop, over on Forty-third.”
“You don’t think a street woman 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 separate them. 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.
She shrugged and asked, “Meat loaf?”
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 hard 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.
Rigger picked up his fork and stared at it as if he had forgotten what to do with it. When did I tell her my name?