A Backward GlanceChapter 3
No," I said. "Hunh-unh. Let me outta here."
"Stop whining," Frank said. "You need it."
"No. There's no way you're gonna get me into one a' those."
We were standing in the middle of Grayson's for Men, downtown. Frank the chiropractor was trying to get me to pick out a suit---a suit, for God's sake.
"At least let them fit you for some trousers."
"Like you wear? Are you crazy?"
He didn't tell me where we were going when we got in the Packard that morning. He just said, let's go, and then told me we were going shopping after we were rolling.
He let me walk out of the men's store without too much argument, then he dragged me into another store down the block.
"Here, just get one shirt. One."
"OK." I picked up a shirt that was laying on top of a pile of shirts, and held it out. He took it away from me and held it up against me. Like my mother used to do.
"Wendell, this won't fit you at all. Be serious here. Pick out just one."
OK. I found one, he held up to me, and I said, "Can we go now?"
"In a minute."
He got 12 shirts like the one I picked out, only in different colors. Socks, shorts, undershirts, handkerchiefs. He even picked out some trousers and dungarees that I refused to try on, went ahead and bought them anyway, after the saleslady said he could bring them back if they didn't fit.
"What are you doing this for?"
He just grinned. "Don't you like to get new things?"
He dragged me outta there and into a drugstore. He got all kindsa stuff there-shaving soap, razor, hair soap, a whole sack fulla shit like that. Then into a hardware store. I was carrying all the packages, probably so I couldn't stop him gathering up all kindsa other things. He picked up fishing rods and started talking about reels with the storeowner.
I said, "I'm gonna take this stuff to the car."
"No, wait, Wendell, I want to know what you think about this rod. Look at this---"
"What the hell do I know about fishing rods? And what do I care?"
"Have you ever been fishing? With your dad?"
He just grinned some more. If he'da had a tail, it woulda been wagging like crazy. I guess he was having a real good time.
Him and the storeowner decided on the rods they wanted him to buy while he was hanging onto my sleeve to keep me from leaving. I got to carry those packages, too.
Out on the sidewalk, he headed the opposite way from the car. "Let's just go down here---"
I stopped and he had to stop, too, or let go of me. "Explain to me just what the hell you're doin'."
"What do you mean?"
"You're running around here, buying this, buying that, getting all this crap, like….like the cash was burning your hands, like I was your long lost…..I don't know what. What're you doin'?"
"This is what I'm supposed to do, Wendell. I'm your foster-father, I'm supposed to provide the things you need. And I want to do that."
"Stop right there. I don't need you to do nothing. If the damn social workers'd leave me alone, I could take care a' myself."
"But you don't have to. I'm just sort of a stand in for your father…..Trying to do for you what he would do if he were here."
I threw down the packages I was carrying. "I don't need another old man. I don't want one."
"Wendell. I understand that you love your father and I'm not trying to take his place---"
I tried to chuckle. It was kinda funny, but I didn't really feel much like laughing. "The last time I saw my old man he was trying to crack my head open with a tire iron." So, OK, I exaggerated some again-if my old man'd really wanted to crack my head open, I guess he probably coulda done it; since I was tied up at the time, and couldn't get away.
It shut him up, though, and that was what I wanted.
"You don't know nothing about me. And you don't know what the fuck you're doin'."
"I'm just trying to help you-"
"I don't want you to help me. I have to go where they send me till I'm eighteen, but I don't need anything from you. I just want you to leave me alone. Can you do that?"
And I walked away. Didn't look back, 'cause I felt like a heel enough already. I knew just what he'd look like, standing there with all those damn packages on the sidewalk in front of him.
Stupid to let this go any further. Better to stop it right now.
"Wendell…..get in the car, we'll go home."
I kept going, around the corner, away from his car and his money and his fishing rods, away from him and his stupid "help".
Later I wished I'da just gone home with him. The wind came up, and got kinda chilly, and the sky clouded over. I pulled the collar of my shirt up against my neck, but it didn't help much. It'd be a long walk, but I had to go back 'cause my stuff was all there….what little I had.
It was a good thing I was walking, though, at that particular time, 'cause I came across somebody I didn't know, a big guy, new down in our part of town, giving Anna a hard time.
You couldn't really tell how old Anna was. Pretty sure she was older than me, but I didn't know how much. She looked down at the sidewalk most of the time; her hair was long; and she wore a big floppy cap with a bill like a boy's most of the time. She wasn't around much during the day, and she stayed in the shadows……..
Nobody really knew her. She didn't talk much. If you left her alone, she'd leave you alone. She and I weren't friends. I did an easy favor for her once or twice, just because, and she did the same for me. So I knew who she was, and she knew who I was, but we weren't friends.
She didn't have to stay in the shadows, she just wanted to. Nobody was looking for her, not the social workers, not the police, not her family. Nobody gave a damn where she was or what she was doing. She coulda gone anywhere and done anything…..she just didn't wanna, I guess.
Other girls like her started hooking, usually, to make some cash, but if she did, I never heard about it.
Anyway, this bum was standing at the other end of the alley behind the drugstore where I'd just stolen a box of candy. I stopped running to listen, to hear if anybody was coming after me. What I heard was, "Whatsa matter with you? Cat got your tongue?" and a hiss of anger. Couldn't see Anna till I got closer. I think the hiss was from her. The prick had his hand inside her shirt, she was pushing at him, he was squeezing her against the brick wall so she couldn't get away.
I picked up a piece of rusty angle-iron from the top of a pile of junk. The prick didn't hear me coming up behind him. I wasn't trying to be quiet, he just wasn't listening. He was too busy trying to unbutton Anna's trousers. He wasn't having a lot of luck 'cause she was squirming, but I figured pretty soon he'd just wallop her and then do whatever he wanted. I walked up behind him, said, "Hey," and when he turned around, I let him have it. A coupla times.
He stumbled sideways and fell to his knees. I said, "Don't bother Anna again," and let him have it again. He fell down onto the bricks and started to bleed.
"You OK?" I asked her. She nodded. She looked straight at me then; her eyes were blue. She held her shirt closed with both hands.
A couple drops of water hit my face. It was gonna rain. Dammit. "You gotta place you can go?" I asked her. She nodded.
I always figured she was good at finding a safe place to stay; I never saw her trying to sleep in a doorway, and I think all the rest of us had done that at one time or another.
"Better get going, then, before you get wet."
"You?" she said. Her voice was real soft, mostly breath, like it hurt her to talk.
"Nah, I got a ways to go yet." I looked up at the sky again. The raindrops were coming a little faster. Cold. I was gonna get soaked.
She took one hand off the front of her shirt and held it out. "I got a dry place. Come on."
It started raining on us before we got to her place. A couple blocks from where we were, down some steps under street level, through a window that looked boarded up but wasn't really, and into a basement. Across that basement, through a hole in the brick wall, and into another dark basement.
Looked like she'd been living here for a while. You can kinda tell by how much stuff is there. If you're moving around a lot, you can't take a lot with you. She had some boxes with stuff in 'em. I didn't look in 'em to see what she had; none of my business.
She had a candle, and some apples. I had the box of candy I stole. We sat around the candle in our wet clothes and shivered while we ate. We didn't talk much. She said she hadn't seen me around, and I told her where I was living now. Then she took off her shoes and crawled under some blankets that were laying over in the corner. Her bed, I guess.
I could hear the rain pouring down outside. Felt lucky to be in a dry place. Hoped the prick was still laying in the rain.
"You cold?" she asked, whispery soft.
"A little. I'm ok. My clothes'll dry out pretty soon, then I'll be fine. Thanks for letting me stay here."
In the dim candle light, I could see her hand come out from under the blankets. "Come here." I scooted over closer. "Take your shoes off." She lifted up the layers for me to get in.
Her bed smelled like woman once you were inside, woman and apples; and something…….different. Musty and flowery and odd. I've never smelled it since. When I think of Anna I can smell it again. In my mind.
It was warm. She snuggled up close, and shivered at the dampness on my clothes.
"My name's Anna."
It was cozy, laying there with my arms around her. My clothes dried, it was toasty warm inside there with her; and I was almost asleep when she kissed me, quick and scared-like.
She kissed me again. I put my hand behind her head to keep it from being so quick this time.………………………
She had scars. One big one on her neck that I felt with my mouth, with my tongue; and a couple others on her shoulder.
She acted like she wanted it, but scared, too, you know? Like she hadn't done it much. Like she wasn't sure about it. Skittish. I tried to do stuff I thought maybe she'd like, so she wouldn't be so nervous. I didn't expect anything like this when I followed her down to her place in the basement, but after we got started, I didn't wanna have to stop; it'd been a long time for me.
Just before the candle guttered out, she looked up at me and said, "It doesn't hurt," real surprised, like you'd sound if you just saw pigs fly.
Why would you wanna do something if you thought it'd hurt? I didn't understand that at all.…………………….
I figured it was morning when Anna woke me up. It was hard to tell what time it was, down there in the basement, but I felt like I'd slept a long time. She was sitting next to me. I pulled her over and kissed her.
"You can't stay here," she said. "This is my place."
She seemed real nervous again.
She went outside with me, like she was afraid I might get lost on the way. When we were standing outside in the sunlight, she said, "Don't tell anybody."
I understood what she was saying. The only reason she'd held onto a good place like that is because nobody else knew about it.
I could see her better in the sunlight. She wasn't wearing her hat, and I pushed her hair away from her face. She looked older than I'd figured she was.
"I won't tell anybody anything."
Her eyes filled up with tears, and she hugged me once before she turned around and took off running down the street.…………………
I took my time getting back to Frank's. Talked to Broome's brother. Another Broome---I guess he was Broome now. Kept my eye out for Marly, but I didn't see her, or LaDonna. Asked around to see if there were any deliveries I could make to earn a dollar or two, but nobody had anything.
Walked in the back door, into the kitchen, about suppertime, and there he was. In my face.
"Wendell! Where have you been? My God, I've been worried sick!"
"I thought maybe something had happened to you. Don't do that to me again!"
There musta been something really terrific in the oven. The smell was wonderful. 'Course I hadn't had anything to eat for a day and a half except an apple and some bon-bons. "You don't have to worry about me. I can take care of myself."
He shook his head. "That doesn't make any difference. Things can happen to anyone. There was a man that was beaten and left for dead last night in an alley not far from where we were shopping yesterday. That could have been you."
Not hardly, I thought. I shrugged. "So is he dead?"
"No….but he very well could have been…..set upon by a gang of thugs like that….."
I snorted. A gang, huh? What a pussy.
"And that's not the point, anyway. You should have let me know where you were and what you were doing, so I wouldn't worry."
"I been taking care a' myself for a long time, Frank," I said, and turned to go upstairs.
That was when I saw her. She was standing in the doorway. Frank was still talking, I was trying not to listen to him. I turned to go through the doorway to go up to my room, and there she was. Just standing there.
"You must be Wendell," she said, when Frank stopped to take a breath. "You've caused quite a commotion for someone that's only lived here five days. Frank was up all night, weren't you, dear?"
"Wendell, this is Mrs. Corwin, my wife," Frank said.
She didn't look like a chiropractor's wife. At all. She didn't look like anybody's wife. Blonde hair in soft curls around her face, great big green eyes, long lashes, and red, wet lips…….I felt lucky I'd spent my nickel last night, so I didn't embarrass myself.
"Call me Ruby," she said.
And just like that, she had me. I was hooked……..