Lana leaned back against the sloping concrete, listening to the sound of water leaping over rocks and discarded tin cans in the rain-swollen creek. She lifted the camera and photographed the huge nests nestled between the beams and girders overhead. She carefully photographed last night’s graffiti, noting the distinctive artistic styles and color choices of her favorite local artists. She wished she knew the people behind the spray cans, but they worked under cover of darkness and rarely claimed credit for their creations.
Lana tucked the camera back into her bag and enjoyed the juxtaposition of sounds: water flowing through the creek, birds squacking and chirping as they squabbled over food and territory, car tires on the reinforced concrete overhead. Missing were the sounds of children’s laughter, people in animated conversation, dogs barking – it was very different, down here, than up in the park. Lana was loathe to admit it, but the first time she’d come here, she’d half expected to spot a dead body floating in the water, caught up in a tangle of wire or debris at the bottom of the slope.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when snaggletoothed T woke up and shouted at her, unintelligibly, from the bankhead abutment. T was harmless, and smarter than he looked. Smelled cleaner than he looked, too. But he was missing half his tongue and a portion of his lower jaw; he kept his teeth and a section of crumbling jawbone in a can of chaw to remind him not to do that to the other side. A large man, T was terrifying to those who didn’t know what an empathetic soul lurked inside the tattered body of a once burly man.
Lana always brought a bag of sandwiches down here with her. She didn’t dole them out to the poor wretches that camped here on the slope; despite the gnawing hunger, they had their pride. Lana would just set the bag down, take out a sandwich, and begin to eat. If anyone cared to join her, she had plenty to share. Gradually, quietly, T and Maude scootched down from their perch at the top of the slope and sat next to her. Lana rummaged in the paper bag.
“Turkey and provolone sound good to you, Maude?”
Maude nodded, her clear, round eyes fixed squarely on the bridge of Lana’s nose. Maude wasn’t used to people remembering her, calling her by name. She reached out tentatively, like someone who thought the treat would be yanked away and replaced with a slap on the hand.
“And…” Lana peered into the bag and pulled out a sandwich bag marked with a “T”. “How about chicken salad, today, T? No chunky veggies, just the way you like it!”
T nodded and smiled. “Hangk goo.” It was an effort, but one he earnestly wanted to make.
The three sat in companionable silence, munching their sandwiches. “Oh! I almost forgot.” Lana reached into her bag and pulled out two bags, one for each of her friends. In the bags were boxes of juice, milk, and a few protein bars.
Smiling with gratitude, Maude reached out and patted Lana on the arm. T opened his mouth to speak, but Lana interrupted. “You’re welcome. It gives me pleasure.” She smiled at T.
The sudden clatter of wheels on concrete, three racing blobs on all sides, and a loud teenage whoop of exhilaration made the three jump and turn in different directions. Lana put a hand on her camera, but didn’t pull it out of her bag. Maude shrank into Lana’s side, willing herself to be invisible. Three wiry teens hopped off their skateboards simultaneously. One failed to stick the landing and rolled into the muddy, shallow water at the creek’s edge. All three uttered a stream of profanities, and Lana couldn’t tell whether they were high on life or hyped on X, but they were wired and moving with ungainly legs in an erratic, loping ways that made Lana, T, and especially Maude nervous.
“Hey, whatchoo starin’ at, Ol’ Whiskey Nose?”
“Leave ’em alone, Ry, they’s just a bunch o’ scared rabbits–”
“Dirty, useless bunch o’ freeloaders.” Ry picked up his board and gestured with it as if he meant to throw it at Lana.
“What’s your problem?” asked Lana. Her protective instincts kicked into high gear and she moved quickly between the boys – especially the one they called Ry – and her friends.
“You people crappin’ up the neighborhood. Him – huhhuhhuh–” Ry mocked the sounds T made when he tried to speak. “All you alkies.”
“Alkies? You think I’m an alcoholic?” asked Lana, still angry but honestly perplexed. Ry’s face was red and twisted with anger. “Ry? That’s your name, right? I don’t drink.”
“The hell you don’t. I know that look.” Ry ran a hand through his hair and twirled the skateboard on its end against the slope. “Those little lines on your face–Old Whiskey Nose. That’s what Dad used to call it, like it was s’posed to be cute.”
“Your dad drank?” asked Lana, inching closer.
“My dad was a mean drunk.”
“Well I’m not, Ry. I don’t drink,” Lana said. “Those little red spider veins? That came from pushing ten pound babies into the world. Three of them.”
“Where are they now, Bitch? Child Protective Services?” It looked as if Ry needed to punch something in order to hold back the floodgates and not cry. He desperately wanted not to cry.
“Why aren’t you home taking care of them, then?” Ry glared. His friends shifted their weight back and forth and tried to fade into the bridge supports.
“They died, Ry. In a car accident. Their father, my husband, died, too.” Lana said the words matter-of-factly. There was a time she’d have punctuated that with a scream – a long, drawn-out ellipsis of a scream.
“I–” Ry stood there, looking at his feet, the last of his tough-guy act played out.
“I know. You didn’t know. You didn’t know that Maude and T, here, were the first on the scene – that they sat with my babies, right over there… My three babies… they’d be about your age, now. T and Maude, here, held them and comforted them while they died. I was at home–making dinner. They were coming back from some dumb movie. A comedy. I should have gone with them–” Lana trailed off as Maude stepped up and wrapped a warm hand around her arm. T came up behind both women, just stood near them, protectively. Lana squatted down, hunched over, and let out a sob. “I should’ve–”
“Then you’d be dead, too.” Ry knelt in front of Lana, who knew better than to say, What would be so wrong with that? to a teenage kid. “You’d be dead, just like my mom and dad,” he said quietly.
“Both your parents are gone?” Lana caught a glimmer of Ry’s pain, crouched and hiding behind the anger.
Ry’s anger gave way to something much, much worse. He nodded. “My dad, he was at some bar up the road. Mom took a taxi, tried to get him to come home. The cops said he was driving. He’d never let her drive that car. They fought over it all the time, only louder when he was drunk. Scared the crap out of me when I had to ride home with him from a game, you know? He was always drunk.” Ry laughed a bitter little laugh. “‘I drive better drunk than most people drive sober,’ he’d say. Believed it, too. It was bullshit, of course.” Ry looked up at the grassy hillside that led to the roadway. “They say he hit another car head on, killed a whole family…”
“A whole family?” asked Lana, letting her breath out, slowly.
Ry’s face went white. “Well, no. Another dad. And three kids.”
This is #7 for StoryADay May. I know a thing or two about bringing nearly ten-pound babies into this world; the rest of the inspiration came from a photo walk under a bridge at SH249 and Cypress Creek, where today’s thumbnail photo was taken, and from the fact that I like to turn stereotypes and assumptions upside down.