Why is a Crooked Letter

by Kath Heytink

Whenever depression scratched like a wild beast at his door, Nick counted the apples to distract himself from the oppressive absence of hope. Swallowing a sigh, he handed apple number thirty-two to a wizened woman whose tufts of steel wool hair crept out from under a dingy pink cap.

The cruel hands of time had twisted her spine into a shepherd's crook, and she flashed him a toothless grin. He watched her hobble away, and her obvious pain leaped back to gnaw at his gut. Wishing to be done with his unsettling task, he stole a glance at the line which still snaked from the scarred steel doors like a ragged parade.

On days like today when the temperature hovered near twenty, and leaden clouds threatened to release their cargo of snow, the poor and the homeless converged in front of St. Joe's parish hall as though summoned by some secret silent call. In the dim light of dawn they waited for the doors to open, then they moved through them like the relentless procession of waves tumbling onto the shore.

Where do they all come from - these casualties in the war of life - Nick wondered, with a shake of his head, as he handed his thirty-sixth apple to a small black cherub with tightly braided hair and chipmunk cheeks. Balancing a crowded tray, the child's young mother reached down to take the tot's hand. She dug deep into her small cache of pride, then she let it straighten her shoulders as she forced a threadbare smile.

Turning his thoughts inward to duck the lash of helpless rage that tore at him whenever a situation was beyond his control, Nick wondered how his friends would react if they knew where he spent a hefty portion of his spare time. Slick they often called him, and a quick review of his life forced him to admit that his actions frequently merited the nickname. Thick dark hair, deep green eyes and a face that could star in a soft drink commercial often led him down paths he didn't intend to travel, and at times his bad boy reputation chafed like a poorly cut suit.

A booming laugh cuffed his ears, and the familiar echo of it yanked him out of his reverie. Turning his head, he saw Father Jack coming towards him. With his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows and his stomach billowing over the waistband of his jeans, the genial priest strolled along the line of volunteers spreading cheer as thickly as he spread butter on his bread.

"How are those apples today?" he asked, reaching up to clap a hand on Nick's shoulder. "Did Sal give us a good batch, or do I have to beat him at ping pong again?"

"They're just fine, Father." Nick chuckled as his imagination painted a vivid picture of the portly priest and the burly produce man thrashing it out, as they often did, on the battle-scarred table in the church basement. Running a soup kitchen for ten years had taught Jack Donlan how to pry donations from reluctant hands, and he did it with the skill of a snake oil salesman.

Wonder what kind of priest I would have made, Nick thought, envying the man's charisma as he watched him work the room. In the innocent days of his youth he had entertained the notion, but a few steamy hours spent getting to know Jane Anne Prendergast in the back seat of his father's LTD, sent all thoughts of celibacy flying right out the moon roof.

He sighed as he shifted his weary feet to restore the circulation, then he glanced up at the line hoping to see the end. Instead - just behind the man hiding a green bottle with a paper bag ruff in the pocket of his tattered overcoat - he saw a young woman.

Charged with a restive energy, she gnawed the edge of her right thumb, while her left hand rubbed the thigh of her torn black sweatpants. Pale blond hair spilled in limp strands from under a grimy baseball cap with the bill turned to the back. A mottled purple and yellow bruise framed her left eye, and the skin near her eyebrow was torn by a newly scabbed cut. She looked sixteen, but the haunted gaze that brushed Nick briefly looked sixty. He caught his breath in his throat, then shook his head to reclaim his wits as she started past him.

"You forgot your apple," he said.

Her eyes narrowed briefly, then a grin lifted one corner of her mouth. "I'm not big on fruit."

Her voice was surprisingly deep with a throaty rasp, and she hesitated, rocking from side to side as she stood before him. He held the apple out to her. "Fruit is good for you."

"Then you eat it," she said, and spun away from him.

He noted where she sat, handed out two more apples, then grabbed the sleeve of another volunteer. "I need a break. Take over for me, okay?"

"Sure," came the swift reply.

He poured himself a cup of coffee, then strolled over to the table where the girl sat. As though fate had taken a personal interest, the birdlike old man sitting next to her tottered to his feet. Nick touched a hand to his elbow.

"Take it easy there, Charlie," he said, easing the old man out of his way with a warm smile.

"Father Jack's got the best chow in town, you know," Charlie said, sharing his secret.

"So I've heard." Nick flicked his eyes from the old man to the girl and back again. Charlie Niles had once played minor league baseball, and he loved to reminisce with anyone who would lend him an ear and an hour or two. Nick usually found his stories entertaining, but today he didn't want to get him started.

"You know," he whispered. "I saw Agnes Wilson come in a few minutes ago."

Charlie's rheumy blue eyes twinkled with glee. He craned his chicken neck, and spotted Agnes. Her lavender-rinsed hair rising above her head like a pouf of cotton candy, her back rigid as a steel bar she sat across the room, holding her spoon with graceful hands as though she were dining at Lutece.

"She's quite a looker, that gal," he said, jabbing a sharp elbow into Nick's ribs, then he shuffled off to court Agnes.

Nick let his relief escape with a sigh, and slipped into the chair next to the girl. "Mind if I sit here?" he asked.

"It's your show, Ace. I guess you can sit anywhere you want," she replied.

Nick's mind went blank as he watched her spoon the thick stew into her mouth between bites of bread. Her hands moved in a precise rhythm with no wasted motion, dancers following a choreographer's directions. Extending from the ragged edges of gloves that had been cut off at the knuckles, her fingers were long and graceful like those of a pianist, but the winter wind had grated her opalescent skin raw. Nick took a deep breath as he fought for control. He had an almost overpowering urge to take her in his arms and fix whatever was wrong in her life.

Time for a reality check, pal, he cautioned himself as he gripped the coffee cup with both hands, letting the heat pull the tension from his body, if not his mind. Shaking off the paralysis, he held his hand out to her. "I'm Nick ... Nick Cartwright."

Holding the spoon in the bowl and the bread an inch from her mouth, she turned her head. She ignored his hand and swept a look brimming with skepticism over him. "I'm happy for you," she said, as though he had just announced some stupendous accomplishment, then she resumed her pas de trois with the spoon and the bread. This was not going the way he'd planned.

Scores of jurors hung on his every word. Flocks of women left their phone numbers in breathless voices on his answering machine. Had he expected this girl to fall in line, to be grateful for his attention? Possibly? Probably. Instead, her reactions left him tongue-tied and skittish as a twelve year old with his first crush. He tried again. "I'm not in charge here you know. I just help out sometimes."

The girl sopped up the last bit of soup with the last bit of bread, popped it in her mouth and leaned back in the chair. She stretched her legs out crossed at the ankles, clasped her hands in her lap and studied him while she chewed. Her throat pulsed as she swallowed. "Doesn't, matter," she said. "You're on that side. I'm on this side. What's your point?"

"I thought ... I just want ..." He raked his fingers through his hair. Just what do you want? The question echoed in his head like a disembodied voice through a public address system. "How about your name," he said. "Have you got a name?"

"Doesn't everybody?" The hint of a smile drifted across her mouth, then disappeared like a soap bubble rising into the sun, and he wondered if she was teasing him.

"I guess," he said, laughing. "So what's yours?"

She scrunched up one side of her mouth to suck a bit of food from her teeth, and she continued to stare at him. "Helen," she answered, finally, dropping her eyes to her toes. "My name is Helen."

Nick extended his hand again. "Nice to meet you, Helen."

Ignoring it, she rolled her eyes to the ceiling, and shook her head. "You got a cigarette, Ace?"

"No, sorry ... I don't smoke."

"Figures." She leaned forward letting her hands slide between her knees. She turned her head to look at him again. "What do you want from me, Choirboy?"

"I just thought ... when I saw you in line ... you look so young. And underneath all that ..." He waved his hand at the trappings of her circumstances. "You're attractive."

"And you're wondering what a nice girl like me is doing in a place like this. Geeze, Ace couldn't you come up with something more original?"

She was right. He felt like he was living a scene from a B movie. "I just want to get to know you, and I thought maybe I could help somehow."

"Ride in like Sir Lancelot and take me away to Camelot? Is that what you thought, Choirboy? Well let me tell you - I'm not as young as you probably think I am. I'm not so nice, and I don't need your help. What are you anyway, some kind of social worker?"

She carried her cynicism high and proud like a knight riding into the arena with his standard, and he found that oddly alluring. "No," he answered. "I'm a lawyer."

"Just as bad," she said with a toss of her head. "You rich types in your Brooks Brothers casuals come down here so you can feel smug and tell all your yuppie friends what good guys you are. Why don't you just hop in your BMW, head on back to your fancy condo, and leave me alone, okay?"

He wanted grab her and shake her. He wanted to tell her that it wasn't true. He bit back the urge to shout that he drove an ancient Nova with a faded paint job and bald tires. And that he lived in a fourth floor walkup with unreliable plumbing. But knowing that his words would fall on fallow ground, he didn't. Still breathing heavily from her outburst, she stood up pushing the chair back. It squealed as it scraped over the asphalt tile floor.

"I got places to go ... people to see," she said. Hesitating as though some unseen force held her in place, she looked down at him for a minute, then she swallowed, pulled free of the force and stalked towards the door.

A week later, Nick was ladling out lentil soup when he looked up and saw her again. She sauntered up and smiled as she recognized him. "Well, well, if it isn't Sir Lancelot. Rescued any damsels in distress lately?"

A warm rush filtered through his momentary irritation at her condescending tone, and he couldn't help returning her smile. There was something different about her today. Her hair, he thought. She'd washed her hair. It was soft, flowing just past her chin. He knew it would feel like warm silk, and he wanted to touch it. He wanted more than anything to touch it.

Instead, he adopted her tone. Bowing deeply, he swept his hand across the front of him swinging the ladle as though it were a plumed hat. "Lady Guinevere, how nice to see you again," he said.

She bowed her head as she accepted the bowl of soup he held out to her, then folding her hand into a gun, she pointed it at him with a wink. "Catch you later, Ace." He accepted that as an invitation, and he took her up on it as soon as he finished his shift.

"So how was the soup?" he asked, noting her empty bowl as he eased into the chair next to her.

"Why?" she asked with a smile. "Worried I might be the restaurant critic from the Times?"

This time he knew she was teasing him. He shook his head as he returned her smile. Her eyes narrowed.

"Did you make that soup with your own little hands?"

"No, that's Stella's job. She'd shoot me if I took credit for her culinary efforts. Besides I'd never dare list cooking as one of my talents."

"Mmm, bet you have a lot of talents. Don't you, Ace?" She snapped her teeth together beneath her smirk.

The look she gave him was bold and frankly licentious. His pulse quickened. She licked her lips and stared at him with glittering eyes.

He recognized that glitter. He'd seen enough drugged out defendants to know it wasn't natural, and he felt reality ram into his gut. He wondered what drugs she was using, but knowing she would bolt if he pried, he sought a safer subject. "You didn't drink your milk," he scolded, nodding his head towards the small red and ivory wax container sitting unopened on her tray.

She wrinkled her nose. "I never did like milk."

"It's good for you."

"So they tell me," she said with a grin, "but I'm not really into health and fitness." She leaned back in the chair, swung one leg over the other and rested the foot on her knee. "So what are you some kind of hot shot corporate lawyer?"

"Is that the way you see me?"

Her eyes swept him. "You fit the image."

That haunting image again, he thought with a sigh. "I'm a criminal lawyer."

"I see. Putting all the bad guys behind bars, right?"

"Wrong side," he said shaking his head. "I'm with the public defender's office, and my job is to protect the poor from getting chewed up by the system."

"Oh, Lance, baby - your armor's getting so bright I need my shades." She pulled a pair of black plastic sunglasses from her pocket and slid them over her nose.

He needed to see her eyes. Wanting to maintain that small contact, he reached over to remove the glasses, but she pulled back. "You don't have to hide from me," he said, softly, dropping his hand back to the table. "What is it you're running away from anyway?"

She straightened her spine, and lifted her chin. "What makes you so sure I'm running from something?"

"Okay," he said noting her emphasis. "I'll rephrase the question. What are you running to?"

She relaxed back in the chair. "Oblivion, Ace," she answered, letting a smile spread over her face. "Sweet oblivion."

"I don't understand. You're obviously intelligent. You could be anything you want to be. You could do anything you want to do."

"You don't get it - do you, Ace? I am doing what I want to do."

"I don't believe that."

"Believe what you want to believe," she said with a shrug. She rubbed her hands along her thighs. "Listen Ace, you got any money that isn't plastic? Can you float me a loan?"

He couldn't swallow the suspicion that rose in his throat. "Why?"

She dropped her chin, and a small puff of laughter escaped as she shook her head. She slid the sunglasses down her nose to peer over the tops of them. Spreading her fingers with their rough skin and ragged cuticles, she held her hands up and examined them. "I need a manicure."

"Look, if you need money for food, or a place to stay, I'll give it to you, but I'm not going to support your drug habit."

Her eyes widened with astonishment as his words found their mark. She lifted one eyebrow, then she stood up. "Well, it's been nice chatting with you, Ace, but it looks like I gotta go earn some money with no strings attached."

"What are you going to do?"

"What do you think I'm going to do?" She didn't wait for his answer. "Fortunately, women have a commodity that's always in demand."

He shook his head. Though he knew the answer before she gave it, his stomach churned. "Do you have any idea what kind of a risk you're taking? Haven't you ever heard of AIDS?"

Her bitter laugh sent ice water sluicing along his spine. "Do I look like someone who worries about risk?" She looked down at him, and a mixture of sadness and pity colored her expression. "You know, Lance ... I hate to be the one to tell you, but Camelot doesn't really exist," she said softly, then she turned to go.

"Wait." The word snared her where she stood. She twisted her torso to gaze over her sunglasses at him, and expectation rose in her eyes as they focused on the folded twenty dollar bill he held between his thumb and forefinger. "Will this help?"

She eyed it suspiciously. "No strings," he insisted, extending his hand towards her. "You can spend it any way you want. I just want something in return. And I'll expect my money's worth."

"Now you're talking my language, Ace." She grinned as she reached out to take the bill, but he it pulled back. She sidled over. Standing next to him, she leaned a hand on his shoulder and whispered nothings that weren't quite sweet in his ear.

He felt a blush spread up to his hairline. Not because of her salacious proposal, nor her misinterpretation of his intentions, but because of the image they conjured up. He risked a sweeping glance over the room to make sure that no one had noticed, then released his trapped breath with a long exhalation. "That's not what I had in mind," he lied.

She straightened up and waited for him to make the next move. He nudged the empty chair towards her with his foot. "I'd like to talk."

She ran her hand through her hair. "I don't do talk. If you want to talk, check out Oprah. I hear she's good at it."

"Do you want it or not?" He held the twenty enticingly out of reach, and nudged the chair another inch closer to her.

With a loud sigh, she flopped down into it. "The things a girl has to do to make a living. So what do you want to talk about?"

"You ... I want you to tell me about you." He waggled the bill in front of her. "Satisfy my curiosity and it's yours."

She rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. "What do you want to know that you don't already know? I'm a drunk, a junkie, and a whore. There's nothing more to tell. Can I go now?" She reached out for the money, but he snatched it back.

"Not until you tell me how you got here. My instincts tell me that you haven't lived on the streets all your life. And I don't think you just woke up one morning in your tidy suburban home, and said, 'I think I'll be a street person when I grow up.'"

She gave him a long hard look, then ducked her head and stared at her feet. "Why are you doing this?"

He smiled as he remembered the stock answer his mother always gave him when she didn't have a real answer for one of his many childhood whys. "Because why is a crooked letter - that's why."

She shifted in the chair, then let her eyes rise to touch his for a moment. Silently she studied him, then she sucked the edge of her lower lip into her mouth, and bit it as she redirected her gaze to the green paint peeling off the far wall.

"Once upon a time," she began. "There was this perfect little family. Perfect father - tall, good looking, charming. Everyone who met him thought he was a prince. Perfect stay-at-home mom - queen of the Ladies guild, star of the PTA. Two perfect children. All wrapped up in a perfect little house complete with a white picket fence." She shook her head as if to clear the memories. "Did you ever have a perfect apple?" she asked, suddenly out of context.

Assuming the question was rhetorical and fearing he would break the spell, Nick said nothing.

"Sometimes there's a wormhole you don't see," she continued. "When you cut into it, the core is all rotten ...."

Silently, she drifted off for a minute, then she took a deep breath. "Until I was twelve, my father beat the shit out of us on a regular basis. My mom got the worst of it, but my brother Willie and I got our fair share. No one ever knew, because my mom was good at convincing everyone that we were all just unusually clumsy." She stole a quick glance at him with eyes that were dull opaque glass.

"Then one day, without any warning, he took a hike. We never found out why. He just emptied the bank accounts and disappeared. Willie and I were jumping for joy, but my mom was devastated. She said that he may have been a bastard, but he was her bastard. Go figure," she said with a shrug.

"It was tough going, but we had each other, so we managed without him. When Willie was eighteen, he enlisted in the Navy, figuring it would be easier for us if he left. He fought in the Gulf war, and my mom was so proud. He wasn't a hero, just another sailor, but that didn't matter to us. We loved him anyway," she said, her eyes flickering with emotion for the first time.

"He came home on leave and went to see his girl ... to ask her to marry him, but he found her in the sack with one of his buddies. He went into a rage and beat her up pretty bad - bad enough to convince him that he had become just like our old man."

She leaned forward to lay her face in her hands. She rubbed her temples briefly, then let her hands slide down her cheeks to drop back into her lap. "I tried to talk to him - to tell him that it wasn't necessarily true ... after all, that bitch pushed him too far, but he wouldn't listen. He went out to the watershed one afternoon with his dog Buster and the twenty-two he used to shoot rabbits. Three hours later, Buster came back by himself, yapping and barking, so I followed him.

We found Willie in the middle of the woods, sitting against an old oak tree. He had swallowed half a bottle of Cuervo Gold, and the business end of his twenty-two ... splattered his brains all over that oak tree."

Nick reached out to touch her arm. As his fingers met the denim of her jacket, she jerked away.

"Don't." She glared at him. "The last thing I want is pity." She took a deep breath.

"After Willie died, my mom lost it. They took her away to Greystone, and stuck me in a foster home. Until she died two years ago, she just sat there, staring off into space. When I went to visit, she didn't even know I was there."

She inhaled deeply, then turned a stony glance on him. "So you see, Ace, I'm caught in the middle. My mind won't let go so I can take my mother's out, and I'm too much of a coward to take Willie's. I got no place else to go, but here."

She stood up and extended her hand, palm up. He pulled his wallet out of his pocket and removed a small white card. He placed it on top of the twenty. "That's my business card. My home number's on the back." He placed both the card and the bill in her hand, then closed her fingers over them.

"If you ever need anything or just want to talk. Call me ... anytime."

Pulling her hand away, she shoved it into the pocket of her jacket. "Sure," she said, giving him a small salute, then she turned and walked away.

Nothing he did could erase her from his mind. He put in extra hours at the soup kitchen, but she didn't return. He cruised the streets hoping to find her, but she seemed to have vanished. Then one night the jarring ring of his telephone snapped him from a sound sleep. Shaking his head to clear it, he picked up the phone.

"Hey Ace, did I wake you?" Sluggish and ragged, her voice set alarm bells ringing in his head. He didn't have to ask who was calling.

"Where are you," he asked, quickly shaking off the haze of sleep. The sound of labored breathing filled a long anxious moment.

"I'm atta pay phone," she said at last. "Ya can't find a phone booth no more, Ace. I'm outside and it's cold ... so cold."

He forced himself to concentrate as he listened. He knew she was in trouble. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, stood up and stretched the phone cord to its limit as he reached for the sweatpants he had thrown over a chair before going to bed. "Can you tell me where you are?"

"Geeze, it's cold, Ace. I think I fucked up big this time. I was cruising along on a real nice high, but now I'm not feelin' too good. It's not supposed to be like this."

Cradling the phone between his neck and his ear, he tugged on the pants. "Helen, concentrate. I need you to tell me where you are." He could almost hear her struggle to think. "Can you see a street sign?"

"Yeah, um, Mercer." Her voice faded to a rasping whisper.

"Mercer and what? Helen, hang on ... think," he urged, willing strength through the phone.

"Seventh ... I'm scared, Ace. I don't want to die," she whispered, then there was a clunk as the receiver hit something solid.

He shouted her name, but there was no answer. He swore as he jammed his arms into a flannel shirt, then disconnected the phone to dial 911. He barked instructions and directions at the operator, then dropped the receiver into the cradle. He struggled into his sneakers and grabbing his coat, he sprinted for the door.

He couldn't remember racing through the rain slicked streets, he just remembered how pale and still she looked lying there in the green pool of light from street lamp.

With the scream of sirens in the distance, he felt for a pulse. A very tiny movement sent shivers of hope running down his spine. He scooped her up into his arms, and her eyes fluttered open.

"Ace ... you came." She found the strength to smile.

"I'm here, Helen. Help is on the way." He felt her chest rise against him as she fought to breathe. Torn between keeping her warm and helping her breathe, he eased back to let her lay her head on his crossed legs. He pulled his coat off and covered her with it. Her eyes opened again and she plucked at his sleeve with weak fingers.

"It was an accident, Ace. Honest, I wasn't trying to kill myself."

"I know ... it's okay. Don't try to talk." He could hear the sirens, closer now, but not close enough. "Come on, damn it," he muttered under his breath. He rubbed one of her hands between his palms, and kissed her fingers.

She responded with a slim smile. "Hey Ace ... you really are Sir Lancelot, aren't you?" she said in a voice so low he had to lean over to hear her, then she went limp in his arms.

A blast of panic sent ice through his veins, and he scrambled around to her side. Pinching her nostrils shut and covering her mouth with his, he forced his breath into her lungs. "Breathe, damn it," he demanded. "Come on breathe."

He felt a strong hand touch his shoulder. "We'll take over from here."

The paramedics moved in, and he stepped back, watching for signs of life. They worked feverishly for what seemed like forever to Nick as he stood by helplessly. Then suddenly they slowed their pace, and he felt the ground drop away from his feet.

"What are you doing? Don't stop," he shouted grabbing one of the paramedics by the arm.

"It's too late. We lost her," he said, softly. He placed a comforting hand on Nick's shoulder. "I'm sorry. Was she a friend?"

Nick nodded. "Yeah ... you could say that."

"We're taking her to General," the paramedic said, turning to join his colleagues.

It began to rain again, and Nick stood under the street lamp, letting the rain mix with his tears until the emotional pressure built to the bursting point. He let it tear from his throat as he sank to his knees. "Why?" His cry echoed unanswered in the still night.

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Copyright ©1995 Kath Heytink