Chapter One: A Prologue Of Endings
Robin gathered her things, hoping they hadn't noticed her.
She'd been sitting on a bench with a paperback copy of The Little Prince open on her lap, willing herself to put her eyes on the assigned pages and make sense of the words that boredom had transformed into a black and white design. At the north end of the park, an ice cream man held court from within his truck. From among the crowd of waiting children, four deceptively sweet faces stuck out malignantly.
Her heart sank. They had spotted her and were making their way over.
"Yo, new girl. Too stuck up to say hello?" This from Steven Shrout, who was smoking.
Robin fixed her eyes on the pavement, wondering what she could do or not do so that they would leave her alone.
"Hey, weirdo! We're talking to ya."
Weirdo, gooney, loser. No matter what the school, it was always the same. And no matter how many times she heard them, the names still stung.
Ralph MacGregor gestured to the bulging bag on her hip.
"Whadaya keep in there, your room?"
Robin held her bag tightly. It was badly scuffed, its zippers shot, but it had been a present from Gram and she would use it forever.
Matthew's sleepy eyes suddenly came alive at the prospect of a bit of unexpected fun. He took hold of the gray briefcase. Robin reluctantly surrendered her possession, letting the long strap thread through her fingers. The quiet dread at the back of her brain was now a full blown shout.
He set the bag on the ground, knelt down and thumbed the flap open.
"Gross!" Emily exclaimed. Robin's face reddened.
A plush rabbit with a cracked plastic eye and sticky fur was tightly wedged against textbooks, several thick magazines, a balled-up brown paper lunch bag, and an assortment of greasy fast food wrappers.
Matthew tugged the stuffed toy free. "Woo-hoo," he chortled, tossing the rabbit into the air. He delivered it an irritated kick, sending it yards away.
"What's all this crap?" He pointed to the magazines and broke into a grin. "Ya got some porno?"
Still staring at the pavement, she shook her head.
With a quick look at his friends, he wrestled one of the magazines free. Lined papers flew out along with it, lifted by the wind like little runaway kites.
"Check it out," he said, passing the magazine to Emily. The glossy cover featured a dark-haired model with scarlet lips and promised within its pages the secrets to losing weight, winning a better job, and pleasing your man.
Robin stole a glance at Emily. Emily's thin fingers slid the pages back like a child might, carelessly creasing them. Blue jeans hung loosely on her slender figure; a flat belly peeked out of the bottom of her red and blue cotton paisley halter top. Her red hair hung in braids that fell over her shoulders. She was so pretty.
Emily smirked, shaking her head slowly. "Beauty tips? Sorry. Ain't gonna help."
Robin's resolve to ignore them was abruptly shattered.
"Give me that!" she snapped, snatching the magazine from Emily's hands.
"Oops," said Steven. His cigarette dropped into the overstuffed bag.
Robin squatted down, frantically tossing out books and notebooks. Her eyes were hard with tears as she gingerly retrieved the glowing butt and threw it to the ground.
Clutching the bag protectively, she tucked back inside the magazine and whatever papers the wind hadn't stolen.
"Idiots," she muttered.
"What was that?" Matthew said holding his hand to his ear. "Feisty! I like that in a lady."
He puckered his lips into an exaggerated miming of a kiss, and placing his hands firmly on Robin's upper arms pulled her toward him. Robin swatted at him, urging him to let her alone in a low, timid voice. This only encouraged him.
The circle around them tightened.
"You've got a strong stomach, my friend," Ralph commented.
Emily giggled. "I don't think she likes you, Matt."
Matthew let go of Robin's arms then and placing a hand on the front of her cardigan sweater, squeezed hard. Pain radiated where his hand had been. Robin knew an overwhelming shame.
At once someone shouted, "Hey, quit that!"
As if a director yelled "cut." All action ceased.
Robin's stomach dived at the familiar voice, gentle even in its authority. She had been waiting in the park hoping to catch him on his walk home, but not like this. Heat spread across her forehead and cheeks.
"Sorry, Mr. Aronson," from Matthew.
The group looked decidedly uncomfortable.
There was a moment of quiet and then Steven suddenly announced he had to buy a present for his cousin's birthday. He wanted to get her an album and maybe some concert tickets-she wanted to see the band Cold Sweat when they were in the city next month.
"She likes those lame guys?" Ralph asked in amazement. This lead to an impassioned discussion of popular music as they ambled out of the park and toward the shops.
Robin felt a firm hand rest solidly on her shoulder. Her face flushed with the warmth of the touch, the ache in her breast fading like a bad dream.
"Hey. You're Robin, right?"
Robin lifted her head hesitantly, her eyes transparent in their adoration. She took in the strong muscles of his thighs under the faded denim, his long fingers and the sparse hairs on his knuckles, the stubble on his jaw.
"You okay?" he asked.
He bent down to get the plush rabbit and handed it to her. She prayed he would not notice how her hands were shaking.
She nodded, her heart beating furiously, her limbs boneless. But the thrill of his nearness was instantly extinguished by the agonizing awareness that this close, he could not help but see all of her flaws.
Suddenly she realized Mr. Aronson had company. A young woman, only slightly older than a teenager, with heavy dark hair that hung to the middle of her back and the taut, willowy body of a dancer, waited a few feet to the side.
Mr. Aronson's expression changed, as if remembering something. He looked self-conscious. "Robin, Courtney, my fiancee. Courtney, Robin."
Fiancee! The word came out as a punch to her solar plexus.
The woman called Courtney smiled at Robin. Her even white teeth were as perfect as the rest of her. She smoothed her hair behind a delicate ear and turned to Mr. Aronson, squeezing his hand affectionately.
Mr. Aronson raked his fingers through his own hair, tossing it out of his eyes, as Robin had seen him do a thousand times.
"I guess we'll be shoving off. See you at school tomorrow. And don't pay any attention to those jerks."
He patted her shoulder, and then put his arm around Courtney's waist. Robin's eyes were riveted on his fingers. The nails were bitten down, like her own.
She stuffed the rabbit into its vinyl home, watching Mr. Aronson and his lovely fiancee walk away. What a gift to be beautiful, she thought, aching with envy. What would it be like to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and see that such perfection actually belonged to you? To have long slender legs, the kind her magazines called coltish. To have a tiny waist and a tight, rounded rear-end. She would never look like Courtney and men like Mr. Aronson would never fall in love with her. They might feel sorry for her but that would be the extent of their interest.
Afternoon was subtly giving way to dusk. Old people gathered their newspapers or books or sewing projects and relinquished their benches. Robin eyed them sadly. It seemed that the importance of looks diminished with age until it had virtually no significance at all. If she were old, maybe nobody would think her ugly.
In a gesture like Mr. Aaronson's she laced her fingers through the unruly strands that had blown across her face. A hard sticky wad lodged beneath the tangles blocked her hands. Gum. Sticky, disgusting with saliva, deliberately placed for maximum adhesion.
Tears spilled unchecked down her cheeks, burning rather than cooling her eyes. A hard lump of misery lodged in her throat. Unbidden came Gram's compassionate face, her knowing laugh at something only they would find funny, the remedy she had for any heartache. She saw Gram tending their little flower garden, dealing out the cards for rummy, putting walnuts on the tops of brownies, the clock turned back eight years, four years, four months.
Suddenly a sense of purpose seeped into the familiar feeling of emptiness. She walked deliberately, passed the entrance for her train, moving as if under water, barely noticing the outlandish outfits displayed in store windows or the people sitting at sidewalk cafes, talking about problems they surely donned and removed as easily as the black sweaters they wore all year long.
Evening was descending quickly. The sky was an artist's palette dappled with the melancholy colors of dusk.
This eastern section of the city was deteriorating. Decay settled on everything like a coating of ash. Shells of five-story buildings stood with eyes put out, the empty windowless sockets staring blindly, ominously, daring anyone to enter and behold with the terrors they held from view. Voices of children in concrete playgrounds were harmony for horns and sirens. Old people sat on stoops or stood in alleys, as motionless as reptiles. Everywhere the distinctive smells of fear and hopelessness rose from that unnamable timber that distinguishes a place, making it unique.
At last she reached it. The very edge of the city, its piers of rotted wood kissed by murky waters, not blue, not green, not black, not brown, but a mixture of these, topped with dirty foam, yellowed as an old doily.
The lone bridge extended into the distance, the only structure of its kind in the city, a lithe and powerful animal that spanned the tenebrous waters and seemed to extend without end. It stood, staring at the world beneath it, through lights that glowed like a thousand sparkling eyes, regarding humanity through those all-knowing orbs with fascination, disdain, and ultimately, compassion. It was at once arrogant, sensitive, proud, and childish.
Beneath the bridge, the blackish river undulated in an ominous rhythm, stirred by unseen treacherous currents. The sun had softened into a thin band of orange fire, reflected on the water, soon to dissolve into the blue night. The lump in Robin's throat was hard as a sour ball.
Here, beneath the greasy water, was the exit out of this world of disappointment and pain. She did not belong here. Not in that stupid school, not with Mama, not anywhere. Would the impact of a jump into those waters break the dirty plastic film that eternally covered her, forever setting her apart from others? What would it be like to be deep, deep under where there was no hurt, no feelings at all, only the cooling touch of the filthy river? She edged closer and stared out into the orchid and violet duskiness, feeling herself begin to separate from the scene and yet, at the same time, to be consumed by it.
Without Gram there is nothing here for me anymore, she thought, a sad resignation dulling any other feelings. There never will be.
I can't swim. All I have to do is fall in.
There it was again. She heard it above the soundtrack of vehicles moving along the ribbon of road atop the overpass. Like a cat. But unlike one.
Fumes harsh and dirty burned the back of her throat. In the fading dusk everything was gray, the smudged gray of an artist's charcoal rendering.
She heard it again. This time she scanned the area for the source of the sound. In front of a bank of disintegrating wood, an old lady was splayed out on the litter speckled ground, in front of a dented wheelchair.
In a tinny whimper, the old woman begged, "Help me back up?"
Robin approached cautiously. The stench of sweat and urine grew in intensity with each step. She felt a surge of revulsion followed by pity.
The woman's cotton dress was too faded and soiled to have a color anymore. Sausage limbs, splotchy with freckles and other decorations of age stressed the short sleeves. What remained of her hair was matted down to a dirty gray scalp, the scanty strands dotted with tiny white balls that could have been lint or eggs.
Robin set her bag down and offered her arms.
The strength in those gnarled hands was surprising. Hugging the body to her, all loose bones and flesh and filth, Robin hoisted the deadweight into the dilapidated wheelchair. Her arms tingled with exertion.
"Thank you," the woman said, settling herself.
Robin looked at the woman's face, the pained eyes, and the sad resignation behind them. What sort of life led her to this?
On impulse she asked, "What's your name?"
The old woman looked down for a moment and then grasped both Robin's hands in her cool bony fingers.
"Why, it's Helen," she said. "In this city, when you lose your address, you lose your name. You have just reminded me I have at least still that."
She stared intently at Robin as if struggling to recall where she had last seen her. Her eyes narrowed with unexpected shrewdness.
"You know, the way you were going, that's not the route you were looking for."
She held up a crooked finger lest Robin try to interrupt.
Her knobby hand disappeared within a pocket on her dress. She retrieved a dirty handkerchief, then continued groping for something else, her expression determined. A small smile teased a mouth slack with predictably rotting teeth.
"Here," she said. "For you."
A wooden charm attached to a leather thong rested on the old woman's palm.
Robin gingerly picked up her gift. It was a gargoyle, about the size of a quarter, a bit creepy, with a wizened old face. It looked like something Mr. Aronson might have owned. "Thanks."
Her fingers closed around it.
"Hold onto it," the old woman said. "A gift from one lonely person to another. A reminder that there is friendship in this world if only you'll look for it. You may need to remember that someday. Let this charm be your reminder."
Robin offered to wheel the old woman somewhere, but Helen shook her head, preferring, she said, the outside where she could look at the majestic bridge.
Not sure what else she could do, Robin thanked Helen again. Clutching the charm tightly, she backed away and headed toward her train.
The voice was soft and tremulous, yet strong enough to be heard against the traffic.
It was to be a long time before Robin thought again of Helen and the cryptic advice she had given.