Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Flash Fiction: Street, Santa Fe

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is based on a scene I witnessed in Santa Fe a few years ago. Some real-life scenes stick with you, compelling you to complete the story.

He was a high school dropout from a border town barrio. She had run away from a Boston prep school and Ivy League expectations. They met under a bridge in downtown Santa Fe where other young people had set up camp, homeless by choice or by fiat. He stood over her, studying their differences. His thrift store shoes had holes and his cheap t-shirt was worn thin; her long black skirt and red leather boots were new and designer-made.

“Why’re you here?” he asked.

“Why are you?” Her gaze was steady, superior.

“Something to do. I'm trying to see the world.” He pulled his knitted cap lower, even though the day wasn’t cold.

She leaned against the concrete wall and studied the toes of her boots. “I’ve seen it. It’s nothing special.”

For the next hour she told him about the world that was “nothing special” while he sprawled his lanky body next to hers and watched her lips and eyes. “Want something to eat?” he asked when she fell silent. “I've got a crock pot and a can of chili.”

He slung a pack over his shoulder and helped her to her feet. He held her hand as they pushed their way through crowds of tourists with shopping bags and snapping cameras. On the plaza were other young people, dirty and bedraggled, congregating around park benches and lying on blankets under the trees while tourists’ children shrieked and evaded their parents' attempts to make them behave.

“Come,” he said, pulling her along.

“Gazebo. I know. I saw you do this yesterday.”

He bounded up the steps and opened his bag. “Really?” He smiled at her as he plugged the miniature crock pot into the wall. “I had my eye on you, too.”

She turned away with a frown. “I’ll go get bowls and spoons. Same place?”

“Yeah. They don’t ask questions if you’re polite.”

While he fumbled for his can opener, she walked across the plaza. Dark clouds were moving in and the wind billowed her skirt around her ankles. At a popular diner, she pushed open the door and leaned over the counter, making her request in soft, measured tones. Then she waited, eyes on the clock, the calendar, the row of pies in the glass case— anything so she wouldn’t have to meet the gaze of someone who might judge.

A waitress brought her two foil takeout bowls and plastic utensils. “Need cups or a bag?”

“No.” She took the flimsy goods with the same good grace with which she would’ve accepted a piece of leaded crystal back home. “Thank you.”

Outside, rain was coming down in fat, lazy drops, but running would’ve been common, so she walked back to the gazebo, head high, impervious to the weather. She sat on the top step and smoothed her skirt. “How much longer?”

“Soon.” He sat behind her and pulled her into his arms, resting his chin on her head. Together they watched the tourists scurry for shelter. “Rain much where you’re from?”

She shrugged. “You?”

“Not really.”

Half an hour later the rain had passed and their meal was ready. They ate their chili in silence, then threw their bowls and spoons away and rinsed the crock in a water fountain.

She had some money, so they acquired a bottle of cheap whiskey before returning to the shelter of the bridge. As dusk settled, they passed the bottle back and forth, first in the glow of his flashlight, then in darkness to save batteries. Finally she lay down and wadded her skirt to her waist as he unbuckled his jeans and pulled his blanket over them both.

Lying wedged in the crook of his arm later, she whispered, “I don’t have to be out here, you know. I have a home.”

“I figured that.”

“It’s just that I hate it. I hate my family. There's a lot of sick, mean people in the world.”

He kissed her in the darkness. “I'll look out for you. Want to be my girl for awhile?”

She snuggled deeper into his arms and sighed as if she had finally been given permission to breathe. “I sort of thought I was.”