Every day I walked down 31st street and passed the city park. I’d pass by her. A pathetic patch of grass was planted on each side of the sorry little park’s gate. The patch on the left had a worn-out wood bench to go with it. She would sit next to her dog in front of the bench. The dog looks like a Tibetan Mastiff mixed with mutt.
Each day she had a different paper cup from one of the nearby fast-food places. I’d never given her anything; not money, not food. Until that day. I had grabbed a complimentary cup of coffee from the office before heading out to lunch. Then I realized I would rather pay for a decent brew. I set the cup down by her as I walked to my car. I was moving quickly because I worried she would smell. She looked dirty. She glanced up briefly and maybe mumbled thanks.
She was surprisingly pretty. At least it was surprising to me. I expected the torn jeans and dirty hair but under the soiled skin were definitely attractive features. I looked back once as I walked away. She had picked up the cup and was holding it under her chin letting the steam drift up over her face. It was fall and getting cold. The pathetic patch of grass now had a sad sprinkling of orange leaves blown over from the trees in the park.
I had to go to lunch with Barry. Barry was 34 going on 17. He’s a lot of fun when I’m drunk. Why do I go to lunch with Barry? On this specific day I had lunch with him because he had a sort of date and she was bringing a friend. Barry and date were already at the café. Her name was Clover. He liked women with names like that. She was tall and curvy. She had long dark red hair and she wore flowing things.
Barry liked women like that too. Women who made him feel he was on vacation somewhere exotic. Women he wouldn’t phone when the vacation was over.
“Hey Nick. Have a seat Nick. This is Clover, I told you about her.” He had just gotten a tan and it hadn’t settled perfectly. I sat next to him and tried to stop staring at the botched job.
“Good to meet you Clover,” I said, and we shook hands.
“Sorry Gabrielle isn’t here yet, but she still has five minutes. She’s usually exactly on time,” Clover said.
I smiled. “No problem. What’s good here?” We chatted for a couple of minutes before Gabrielle came. She has a beautiful smile and flawless cocoa colored skin. She shook our hands while still standing, then sat down next to Clover. After we ordered, Barry and Clover returned to their flirtatious conversation. Gabrielle and I started out amusingly enough. Then the waiter came with our coffees and I was reminded of the homeless girl.
“There’s this really pretty homeless girl I go by on the way to work,” I said absently while stirring my drink. I realized what an awkward thing it was to say a second too late. A short silence followed.
Gabrielle tilted her head slightly and smiled. “Really? You know I do work with the shelter in the area. They have some really good programs for people who want to get back on their feet.” I nodded and took a drink, while attempting to come up with a statement that was less awkward than my last one. Gabrielle saved me. “Speaking of great programs in the city, are you at all interested in hockey?”
“Did Gordie Howe know how to score?” I said.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Gabrielle said.
Apparently, Clover overheard because she put in, “Oh, you are going to love her. You haven’t told him where you work?”
Clover looked at me. “She never knows if people like her or the arena tickets. Personally, I love the tickets.”
“Shut up,” Gabrielle nudged her, and Clover turned back to Barry, who was smirking at me approvingly. The rest of lunch went well, and I decided I needed to see Gabrielle and her gorgeous smile again. I took Gabrielle’s number and we planned to go out that weekend. I got a to-go box for the rest of my lunch and headed back to work.
She is still there.
I walk past the homeless girl again. I leave her the rest of my lunch and she looks straight at me now. She looks like she’s in her early 20’s. She has a small scar below her left eye. I wonder who gave her that scar.
There is a breeze and the smell hits me suddenly. It’s strong and musty like my gym clothes after a week without a wash. I move my head to the side, and it’s gone just as quickly. I walk away. I wonder if she will share with the dog.
I can’t concentrate anymore. I blame the tedium of my job. I create multiple identities for the homeless girl. She was 12 when her mom got a new boyfriend who beat her and then kicked her out.
She runs away on a whim, bringing her dog. She plans to see the world but all she finds is a pimp who uses her until she is 19 and threatens to leave. He tries to stab her, cuts her face slightly but the dog saves her, and they run.
Or she had a normal life in a small apartment, and she saved the mutt from a shelter. Then she lost her job and ran out of her savings. She lived in her car until she came back one night, and it had been towed. I count down the minutes until I will walk past her again.
She is still there with her faithful partner. She watches me as I walk by, but I do not look back. On the way home at the red light, searching for my keys, eating dinner, when the game goes to commercial, at midnight when I can’t sleep, my mind wanders over to the park on 31st street. Is she there now huddled against her dog for warmth? And where did she get it from? Was it a pet from childhood? Where did she grow up and what went wrong? Did she ever have friends and relatives or afternoon dates at neighborhood cafés? I decide that tomorrow I will bring her a muffin and a decent coffee and find out her name. But she not there anymore and she is not there the next day, nor the next, nor the next.