Me, Pa, and Ma, who’s holding Little Lizze, are waiting. Tony’s late getting home from picking up supper. Wednesday’s always Taco Bell leftovers. Some people put on too much habañera sauce and they can’t finish; that means big portions for us, but sometimes it’s hard for little Lizzie to digest.
“Damn, where’s that kid?” Pa says. “The last bus’s ready to leave, and they’ll close the station in fifteen minutes. What are we going to eat if he gets stuck outside?”
“Tony’s a good boy. He’s never missed a closing,” Ma says, reading her cleaning supplies. “Look, there he is.” She points down Central Avenue, near Walgreens. “Oh, it looks like he is limping. Janet, run down and help Tony.”
I put my sleeping box and clothes bag next to the door and run down the street. Tony has a little dried blood around his nose and the beginnings of a black eye.
“What happened to you?” I say.
“You should see the other two,” Tony says. He holds up the Taco Bell bag. “And I got their leftovers. We’re eating good tonight.”
* * *
Inside Ma tells me to start cleaning while she fixes up Tony’s leg and gets the bad stuff out of the leftovers before laying out our supper. I clean the whole restroom on my own. Lucky for me, Wednesday’s not an awful cleaning day for the Level II men’s restroom—the Conrad Hilton, Pa calls it. “Just think,” he likes to say when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves, “if we had to sleep out at the rest stop on the Interstate, those armed truck convoys showing up every couple of hours. Your Ma would be cleaning up after every convoy, else they’d complain to the Alternative Housing Authority and get a new family to live there.”
Weekdays are easy days because the buses stop running at six p.m. Fridays are the worst. There’s shopping all day long, and the buses run until nine. There’s always a drunk who pukes, missing the toilet bowl. Sundays and holidays are our days of rest; light traffic and early closure at five. Sundays we take our washbasin baths, first boys, then girls. Except Lizzie gets a Wednesday bath as well, being a baby.
After supper, we lay out our sleeping boxes. Little Lizzie inherited my old sleeping box with the Styrofoam liner. It’s nice and warm for her, which is good because she’s been coughing a lot lately. But, of course, the men’s restroom is pretty warm at night; they turn down the heat, but not enough to let the pipes freeze. Back when I was little, we got kicked out of the Rassmussen Westside Park restroom and had to sleep outside until Pa got enough money to pay the Alternative Housing Authority for a new camping spot. The Styrofoam-lined box kept me warm back then.
Next morning, Ma’s up early and runs down to the Bruegger’s bagel shop for the two-day-old bagels. Usually she can get some expired cream cheese, maybe even some old deli slices, if we’re lucky. Pa used to go down for breakfast, but since he broke his foot climbing out of a big dumpster, he stays home and washes yesterday’s clothes and gets our stuff ready to move out before the 6 a.m. bus arrives for the first passengers. Pa and Tony are planning the day’s scavenging.
“I want to go back to the 8th Street Chili’s,” Tony says.
“It’s too dangerous,” Pa says. “The City Hall Basement women’s restroom clan’s got three boys almost your age. They carry sticks with nails. If they sneak up on you, you’ll be full of holes. I only got ten Band-Aids left.”
“I’m not afraid of those roach turds. I’ve run them off before.”
“Maybe, but they’re not nine no more. They’re growing up to be mean little bastards,” Pa says. “You can’t count on scaring them off forever.”
“I’m bigger too, and faster.”
“Not with your injured foot.”
“I’ll be okay,” Tony says.
“I could go along,” I say.
“You’re a girl. What could you do?” Tony says.
“I can grab the food while you’re fighting them off,” I say.
“I don’t want no girl along. It’ll make me look like a sissy.”
“Janet, you stay here with me while your Ma’s out looking for clothes at the Marshalls dumpster,” Pa says. “I need your help with Lizzie while I guard our shopping carts. The Eastbound Train clan has been eyeing our stuff, and I can’t move so fast no more.”
* * *So Tony makes out fine at Chili’s. The City Hall Basement clan was slow getting there, and Tony was already finished scavenging when they showed up. We wait for the Central Station workers to finish their lunch break, and then we take over their picnic table. I get part of a strawberry shake and most of a bag of fries and two partly eaten burgers. One has too much salsa for me, but I eat it anyway. We clean up the picnic area real nice, so we won’t get complaints from the Central Station workers.
It’s a nice day, and me and Ma and Little Lizzie go over to the park for a nap. There’s a sandy spot under the palm trees the homeless guys don’t like. They like the grass, but we have cardboard boxes to lie on the sand. So mostly we don’t get hassled by the homeless, except for crazy Gerald who tries to sell us aluminum foil hats so our brains won’t be abscessed or something by government mind-control microwaves. Ma tells Gerald the microwaves help us get to sleep faster. “Exactly,” he says, slapping his hands against his head before he walks off talking to himself. “Poor guy,” Ma says.
* * *
When we get back from our nap, Tony and Pa are arguing about scavenging supper.
“Olive Garden is too fancy,” Pa says. “Those upscale scavengers work in teams; some of them are ex-military. You want to end up in a dumpster casket?”
“For the last year, I’m the one’s been feeding this family,” Tony says. “I don’t want to be a fast-food scavenger the rest of my life.”
“How many kids of fancy food scavengers you run into?” Pa says. Tony doesn’t answer. Pa waits. “Well, how many?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
“You can’t remember because there ain’t none. They’re all dead.” Pa stops, calming himself down a little. “Look, son, you want to have a family of your own someday? Camp in a nice place with heat, running water? You got to be smart. Don’t take unnecessary chances.”
Tony’s hands are clenched. “It’s not good enough.” He picks up his sack. “Today’s Little Lizzie’s birthday, and we having something nice for supper.” He walks toward the road, still limping a little.
“Tony,” Ma says. “Listen to your father. Please, I don’t want to lose another son.”
Tony keeps going. Ma looks at Pa, who shrugs.
* * *It’s almost six, and Tony’s not back with the food for Little Lizzie’s birthday dinner.
“Pa, should we go out to look for him?” Ma says.
“What, and leave Janet and Little Lizzie alone all night?”
“Frank’s on guard duty tonight. He don’t seem like a pervert,” Ma says.
“We can’t.” Pa rubs his head with his hands, maybe to keep us from seeing that he’s crying. “We don’t even know where to look.”
“He’s pig-headed like his father,” Ma says. “He went to the Olive Garden for some fancy leftovers.”
“I say no.”
“Let me go by myself, then.” Her face is red with anger.
Pa reaches over and slaps Ma. I’ve only seen that once before, when Mike went missing.
“What, and end up with another Lizzie?”
Ma turns and swings at Pa. That I’ve never seen. Just then Frank the guard pulls down the grating for the front door and padlocks it.
We move our carts and boxes into the men’s restroom. Ma brings out our emergency rations. In honor of Little Lizzie’s birthday, we share a can of just-expired little Vienna sausages Ma’s been saving for a special occasion.
* * *Last couple of days, Ma and Pa have both been going out scavenging for food. Pa stays pretty close to Central Station because of his leg, so we’re getting a lot of Mexican and Chinese leftovers. Pa says in these low-end restaurants people don’t leave many leftovers; we’re getting mostly table scraps.
Ma and Pa aren’t talking much, and they won’t tell me why Tony isn’t back. I was only Lizzie’s age when Mike left, “for a better place.” We never talk about him anymore, not since Tony made some remark about the time Mike was casing the Sizzler and he sees this lady going into labor right at the table, just when the food’s being set out. He scored two three-course meals. Pa took Tony out into the corridor, but we could still hear the yelling, and Tony’s face was all red when they came back in.
I’m camping under the paper-towel rack, and we’re getting ready to lie down in our boxes when Ma comes over and sits down beside me.
“Your pa wants you to start scavenging for food tomorrow. I told him no, you’re too young, but he says he can’t get enough food, what with his bad leg.”
“I can do it,” I say. “I can run real fast. Remember, when I was in school for a while, I could beat all those boys in a race.”
“I know, but it’s not school kids I’m worried about. I heard them City Hall Basement boys did bad things to a girl they caught. You’re too young to have something like that happen to you.”
I hear the tremble in Ma’s voice; she’s trying real hard not to cry.
“So, I’m going to dress you up like a boy. I got some of Mike’s old clothes from when he was little that I was using for cleaning. I washed them up. You won’t look too good, but likely nobody’s going to bother you much.”
“Sure, I want to help.”
“Good, I’ll show you the ropes tomorrow morning when I scavenge breakfast. Your pa’s going to tell you the safest places to scavenge and how to keep out of trouble.”
* * *Scavengers don’t get to dress up much, but even I’m embarrassed how bad I look in Mike’s old clothes—like the people out at the dump, who make a living off what comes out of the garbage trucks. Ma’s a little ashamed to have me walking with her. If someone asked her, she might not admit being my Ma.
I’m learning how to scavenge for food. Figuring out which guy brings out the garbage can and getting to the backdoor before him and offering to dump the garbage for him. Going into the building would get you shooed away by security—no more food. The tricky part of scavenging is watching for people putting good leftovers in the trashcans outside the building and then snatching it up before it gets buried. I stay out of sight while watching, because having a mangy wretch hanging around out in the open will drive away customers, and then security will run you off the property. When I was a girl, I could look cute and whimper, but boys are just treated like pesky flies around a garbage can.
After a week I’m going out on my own, mostly working the Circle Ks and the other convenience stores where the competition is pretty light. Pa’s rule is “half a hotdog ain’t worth a black eye.” I’m getting better at scavenging, but I’m really not bringing home enough food for the four of us. Pa tells me not to worry, things will look up.
Scavenging behind the Safeway on Monday I find a girl’s outfit that looks like it will fit me. I try it on, and it looks okay. There’s also a coffee cup with a little nick on the lip. In my new clothes, with my coffee cup, I go around to the Safeway entrance and stand next to the pillar where security can’t see me. I hold out the coffee cup for passersby, and they put money into it. Pretty soon I got a lot of change. Lucky my new outfit has pockets.
Once my pockets are full, I go over to the Burger King and buy two junior Whoppers, a Big Whopper and a fish sandwich—Ma likes fish when she can find it. I get a supersized Coke, which I divide up into three other empties I found. I take bites out of all the burgers so they look leftover and go back home with the best meal we’ve had since Tony disappeared. Everybody is pretty happy.
“See,” Pa says, “I told you things would look up.”
* * *I hide the new outfit and cup every day before I go back to Central Station. Ma and Pa would have a fit if they caught me begging. I thought they didn’t want us begging because they were too proud. Then early the next week, I’m outside of Safeway again, and a cop catches me begging. Usually I’m pretty alert; whenever I see a cop car I stop begging and start walking around like I know where I am going. I keep an eye on the cops and wait until they leave. This guy was off-duty in his own car and stopped by Safeway for some milk.
“Hey, kid, what’ve you got in that cup?” the cop says.
“It’s money from my piggy bank. I’m waiting for Ma. She’s taking a pee in Safeway, and then I’m going to buy a doll with my money.”
“How long has your mom been gone?” he says.
“Oh, she just went in. Had to go real bad. She’ll be right back.”
“I’ll wait. She shouldn’t leave you out here by yourself. Somebody could snatch you up,” he says.
“I already went at home. Mom’s got a ukulele trap inflection, so she’s always peeing.”
“Ah ha,” he says, “even so, you shouldn’t be out here on your own.”
A crunch, the sound of a horn, then some yelling. The cop turns to me.
“Stay here,” he says. I smile and leave the minute he is out of sight.
* * *Begging is a lot better than scavenging, but you have to do it different. Scavenging, you stake out a restaurant, learn all their comings and goings, how they do things, like when do they throw out the kitchen wastes and when do they clean out the cans in the restroom and when do they empty the inside trash can, which is where you usually get your best leftovers, still in their wrappings or cups. Some places are busy at different times of day. For instance, your best leftovers from the Circle K come during the afternoon when the guys from the recycling center are on break. They only got 15 minutes, and a lot of times they can’t finish the whole burger or dog before the whistle sounds.
Restaurants get used to the scavengers, especially the helpful and tidy ones like my family who don’t throw around the garbage and leave a mess. You get into routine with the restaurant guys. Begging is different. After some old lady gives you a quarter four or five times, she’s going to start asking questions:
“Now, little girl, where are your parents?”
“There in the restroom. I’m going to see them now.”
“Sweetheart, do you have a home, a place to sleep?”
I can’t tell her I live in a public restroom, but … “Oh, we have a big place with five urinals and three toilets.”
“Little darling, I have a whole closet of beautiful dresses that would fit you perfectly. Would you like to come to see them?”
“Sorry, mister, my parents told me not to accept gifts from strangers, except for money.”
After a week or two at a particular store, customers start to see you as a nuisance.
“Why don’t they do something with those street urchins? Don’t we pay taxes to put them somewhere else, out of sight?”
After a while I learn to move around to different stores on different days so I won’t run into the same customers. I make more money than I can spend on fast food, so I buy a pair of shoes and some new outfits and a hat. That way I won’t look exactly the same all the time. I buy some cough medicine for Little Lizzie. I get the clerk to help me find some that’s expired, because Ma and Pa will get suspicious if I come home with something that looks like it was shoplifted. If you get arrested, the police will come looking for your Ma and Pa, and then you all end up out on the street looking for a new camping site.
Finally, I build up enough of a stash that I don’t have to beg every day. I decide to go around to see some sights. Some kids tell me how to take the bus out to the flea market where they have all kinds of stuff to look at. I tell the bus driver where I want to get off.
“Where’s your parents? You shouldn’t be riding alone,” the bus driver says.
“Oh, my aunt put me on the bus, but she had to go to work. My parents are waiting for me at the flea market.”
While I’m getting off, the driver wants to know where my parents are.
“Over there, see.” I point to a man and a woman with a small child next to the fence. “There’s my sister Lizzie too.”
* * *The flea market is a whole new world for me. I’ve never seen so many colors and shapes. I want to buy a bunch of different things but I have no place to keep them. If I take them home, Ma and Pa will want to know where I got the money, and then I’ll be back to scavenging leftovers full-time, or they’ll make me stay home with Lizzie. I find a blue string bracelet for Lizzie. I can break it and then fix it again. Ma and Pa will believe I found it in the trash; the SUV people throw stuff like that away all the time. I’m going to come back to the flea market next week.
I’m walking back to the bus stop, and I see this big fenced in area with a hundred kids outside playing, throwing balls, chasing each other, screaming in the sunshine. Over the far side of the yard, I see somebody who looks like Tony. I’m having a hard time getting a good look, because there’s kids running back and forth across the yard in front of me.
“Tony,” I call. “Hey, Tony.” There’s so much screaming, I wonder if he can hear me. I wave my hands, but he’s not looking my way. Then a buzzer goes off, and all the kids go back inside. I walk around to the front of the building. There’s a big sign, but I don’t know what it says. Back on the bus, I ask the driver what’s the big building with the fence.
“It’s the orphanage,” he says.
“It’s a place for kids who don’t have parents,” he says. “Say, where are your parents? You shouldn’t be riding the bus alone.”
“They’re waiting for me at the Burger King on Central Avenue. My aunt dropped me off but she had to work at the flea market.” I hope there’s lots of different bus drivers, because I can’t use this story too many more times.
* * *“I went by the Burger King on my way back from the Penney’s dumpster,” Ma says. “I didn’t see you scavenging there.”
“I had to pee.”
“They’ve got restrooms with an outside entrance. Wait for someone who’s got a key to come out and sneak in before the door closes,” Ma says.
“They were cleaning the restrooms. I couldn’t wait.”
“There goes the last bus. Time to move our stuff in. Looks like another nice haul today. You even got a salad.” Ma frowned. “Why is the salad dressing packet in the bag? This doesn’t look like a leftover; it’s fresh.”
“The lady was sitting outside. She got a call on her cell phone, started yelling and left before she even opened up the bag. I grabbed it.”
“Then why’s there a bite out of the burger?”
“Oh, well, she started eating that before the call.”
We clean the restroom and set up for supper. Ma and Pa are whispering to each other. We clean up after supper and put the trash bag out for the janitor. Pa limps over to the paper towel dispenser where I’m setting up for the night.
“Your mother and I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“Oh,” I say.
“You’re not very excited,” Pa says. “Why aren’t you excited?”
“I’m just tired, Pa. What is it?”
“New clothes,” Ma says. She holds up a pair of jeans, almost new, and a cowboy shirt with pearl buttons. “You’re going to be a much nicer-looking boy from now on.”
Pa looks at me. “What’s wrong, why you aren’t happy? You’ve been complaining about Mike’s raggedy clothes ever since you started scavenging.”
“No, I’m surprised they’re so nice. They’re better than my regular clothes. How did you get them?”
“Well, a lady tried to return them at Penney’s, but the store wouldn’t accept them. The lady got so mad, she threw them away.” Mom holds up the shirt in front of me to see how I’ll look. “Think of them as a birthday present.”
“Today’s my birthday?” I say.
“No, well, maybe,” Pa says. “We’re not sure, but you’re doing such a great job scavenging, we wanted to celebrate. Go in the stall and try them on. Let’s see how they fit you.”
* * *Next week I use my cowboy outfit to visit the flea market so I won’t have to worry about running into the same bus driver. The flea market is interesting, but I keep close to the side next to the orphanage to see when the kids are let out to play in the yard. I’m looking at some plastic bead necklaces when I hear noise from the direction of the orphanage. I don’t see Tony, but I go around to the other side of the yard where I saw him last week. After a few minutes a small group of bigger boys comes out from around the side of a shed. There’s Tony. When he gets close, I call.
“Tony, Tony, over here.” He looks at me and then ignores me. I keep yelling, but he won’t come over. I find a rock and throw it over the fence. The rock bounces off the ground and hits one of Tony’s friends. They all pick up rocks and start running toward me.
“Tony, it’s me. Janet,” I scream. Tony holds up his arms and says something to the rest of the gang. He comes to the fence. He’s staring at me.
“Janet, is that you? Why do you look like that?”
“I’m doing your scavenging. Pa wants me to look like a boy so I won’t get in trouble.”
“Pa and his crazy ideas.”
“What are you doing here,” I say. “We thought you were dead.”
“I was, practically,” Tony says. “Pa was right about the Olive Garden. Some big kids had staked it out. They caught me and beat the shit out of me. They threw me in the Dairy Queen dumpster. A worker found me, thought I was dead, and called the police.”
“How’d you end up here? You’re not an orphan.”
“If I told them about Ma and Pa, you’d all get kicked out of the Central Station. That’s a nice place for you. Good food close by, no perverts sneaking in after dark for you and Little Lizzie. I didn’t want to mess that up.”
“Why don’t you run away?” I say. “You could climb this fence easy.”
“It’s nice here. I get three meals a day; not as good as dumpster food, but it’s okay. We got games, TV. I got friends, and we protect each other. I can stay here until I’m eighteen.” He looks around like he has a big secret to tell. “And, hey, I’m learning how to read. Some of the older kids got these hot books about, well, never mind that.”
“What about Ma and Pa, me and Lizzie?”
“Tell the truth, you don’t really miss me. I took up space on the restroom floor, and I was gone all day scavenging. I can see you’re not starving. You’re probably eating better than me.”
“Well, maybe, but …” I don’t know what else to say. I’m mad. I start to cry. “I want to be dead too.”
“Really?” he says. I nod. “Okay, but you got to wait until tomorrow. And put on your girl clothes, because if you come like that, they’ll send you over to the psych facility for being a cross-dresser.”
* * *I want to get Ma and Pa and Little Lizzie one more good meal before I die. I have plenty of money in my stash with my girl clothes. The orphanage will just take it away. I know it’ll make Ma and Pa suspicious because Kentucky Fried Chicken is not near any of our normal scavenging spots, but we hardly ever have real chicken, and it’s a special occasion—for me, at least.
“What’s this?” Pa says.
“I heard there was a grease fire at the Kentucky Fried Chicken. I figured there’d be a lot of food lying around I could scavenge.”
“Heard? How?” Pa says.
“A customer was complaining at the drive-up window about losing his lunch order. So I ran right over.”
“Didn’t I tell you to stay out of that neighborhood? Those kids living at the public golf-course restroom are vicious. They don’t like strangers in their territory,” Pa said. “You’re lucky to still be alive.”
“It wasn’t rush hour, so I figured the golf-course kids wouldn’t be around.”
“Lucky for you, or you could have ended up like your brother Tony,” Pa said
“At least it won’t be the same old stuff tonight.”
Pa grumbles some more, but as soon as the last bus leaves and Ma gets the eating area set up, Pa’s up to his elbows in chicken wings. Everybody is burping and licking their fingers, even Little Lizzie, who has still got the cough and doesn’t seem to fatten up even with the extra food I’ve been bringing home.
Groaning like beached whales—I don’t know what a beached whale is, but it’s something Pa says when he’s had a big supper—we all slide into our sleeping boxes and get rested up for tomorrow, Friday, the day when the shoppers are followed by the drunks, and Ma and Pa will be up until midnight cleaning up after them.
* * *I’m feeling real bad about dying on Ma and Pa and Little Lizzie, but I saw those kids in the orphanage playing, getting food handed to them and learning how to read and write like the SUV kids. I want to be an orphan like that. I’ll have to pretend not to know Tony, but they keep the boys and girls in separate sides of the orphanage, so it won’t be too hard.
After breakfast, I head out to my scavenging spot at the Burger King. I change into my girl clothes and get on the bus for flea market. Tony’s got it all worked out. I steal some bread from the bakery stand. When the cops come, I tell them I’m hungry. My Ma and Pa got killed crossing the interstate. I hit my head. I don’t remember my name. I start crying; I don’t stop until I get to the orphanage.
“Who’ve we got here?” the lady in the uniform says. I smile.
“Don’t know. No ID. Says her parents were killed in a traffic accident. Hit her head. Doesn’t remember her name,” the cop says.
“Well, what should we call you?” the lady says. “Do you have a favorite name?”
I smile again. “Wendy.”
“I bet you like hamburgers, don’t you, Wendy?”
I smile and nod my head like I’ve seen the homeless airhead kids in the park do.
The lady turns to the cop. “Well, the paperwork is going to be a snap. Just lost a bunch of kids to the flu, so there’s room for her.” She turns to me. “Honey, did you get a flu shot by any chance?” I keep smiling like my brain is fried. “Okay, we’ll get you shot up and then off to supper.”
The cop pets me on the head. “I hope the other kids aren’t going to take advantage of her, what with her being simple and all,” he says to the lady.
“She’ll learn the ropes quick enough.”
I kiss the cop’s hand as they take me away. He looks sad. He’s probably got his own SUV kids at home that get to eat a bought dinner every night, to sleep in a bed, maybe even know how to read and write.
“Hey,” the cop says to the lady. “Here.” He slips her a twenty-dollar bill. “Make sure she gets a nice bed, okay.”
“Sure,” the lady says. We’re walking down the corridor, hand-in-hand. The lady looks down at me. “Looks like you’re a lot smarter than people give you credit for, honey.” She unlocks a metal door, and we go in.