(Photo: “Priscilla” Joseph Szabo, 1969)
It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and I’m watching my friends surf a last time in the season when this kid comes up and grabs the cigarette out of my hand.
“Are you crazy? Give it back–you’re about the age of my niece and she’s only ten!”
But she inhales nice and easy like she’s a pro. I’m not sure what to make of it. I stand up and make a grab for it but she steps back. I take another tact.
“Who do you think you are? No one grabs a smoke out of a stranger’s hand. It’s rude. For you, also illegal.”
She smiles, and the thing is, it’s a charming smile despite the cigarette dangling between her small white teeth. It fits snug against the space between the two in front. I’m disgusted by her smoking but I wave her closer. She pulls up her pants and puts her hands on skinny hips.
“Okay. What’s your name?”
She blows out a thin stream and watches it slink between us as though it is a standard greeting from a little monster. Because I think that’s what she may be or at least tries to be.
“Priscilla.” She lifts her chin a notch and peers down at me. A smaller smile starts and stops.
The sound of her voice is smarmy, like she’s trying to impress me with her kid wondrousness. I would’ve thought she’d had a nickname to offer, but how do you nicely shorten a name like that?
“Well, Miss Pris, I’m Constance, Connie if you’re a friend of mine which you’re not. What are you doing out here, anyway? Where’s your mom or sister?”
Priscilla makes herself at home a few feet away from me, sits and smokes, her hair flying in the cooling breeze. She holds it between her thumb and index finger, handing it back to me. I examine it, take a short drag, and smash it into the sand.
She shrugs, shoulders held close to her ears for a few seconds, lips puckering. When they come down, she looks away. “Don’t have one or the other. I live-” she opens her arms and indicates the beach and surrounding park”-just here.”
I guffawed. “No, you don’t. You’re too clean for that. You’ve got shiny hair and nice clothes and a look in your eye that tells me you’re up to something.”
Priscilla takes off her red tennis shoes and digs up the sand with tanned feet, making the sand spray at me. It’s not silky sand like you’d want to lay on in a bikini. It’s grainy, cool and none too clean. She narrows her eyes at me.
“What are you doing here? Looking for a boy? Trying to be cool with your Frye boots when it’s only sixty degrees out?”
I have an impulse to swat her like I would my niece but of course that can’t happen. “No, fool, I’m with my friends. They’re surfing out there. ” I point. “Don’t change the subject. Do you live around the neighborhood?”
She turns and gazes at the ocean so long I about give up and take off.
“I used to. In that big house at the end of the road.”
She pointed at a nearby two-story grey house with black shutters. It was large enough for two families, at least. There was a covered veranda that looked empty and a very long dock where a boat, a small yacht, really, was tied up.
“Yep,” she asserted and turned her attention to me again. “But Father lost all our money in a bad business deal and mother, well, she took off with her best friend, went to Hawaii, and never returned. So now father lives in a crummy little apartment. I have this narrow, cramped bedroom with a day bed, that’s what he calls it, which means it isn’t really a bed, at all. He works at a car place, you know, where they sell used cars.”
I sink down beside her, pull a last cigarette from the crumpled pack, and shake my head when she tries to reach for it. I light it. “So, what are you doing here alone?”
“My father gets home late so I come down here sometimes. I have this dream that I will find my mother.” She scrunches up her face and rubs her eyes, sniffs a little, the trains her big brown eyes on me. “I’m twelve, anyway.”
I get an odd sensation. The girl’s tone is dramatic, strange, too old for her age but I feel her sadness, too, so maybe her parents did have bad times. “I’m sorry. But you can’t just wander around here all afternoon. It’s not safe, Priscilla.”
“Oh, I’m fine. I know the area. The apartment is just a bus ride away. I have my crappy old cell phone.” She pats her pants pocket for reassurance.
I can see my friends coming in. They’ll wonder why this kid is hanging out and I have to be honest, though I’m worried for her, I want her to get lost. I have plans. I don’t want to feel responsible for a smart-alecky waif who steals cigarettes and who knows what else.
“Good,” I say, “because I have to meet up with my friends. We’re going to eat, then have a bonfire later.”
She looks at me imploringly.
“No, you can’t stay. Do you need money?”
“No, I’m good.” She shakes her head, then walks away.
I watch her as she ambles down the beach. She stops a couple times and looks back, then stops by a man in a straw hat, hands in her back pockets, her stance like a tough kid’s, which she sort of is. I’m about to turn away when I hear her laugh. She sits down by him. Alarm runs through me.
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking.”
I turn to see who’s talking to me. A guy, medium tall, tan, scruffy and pleasant-smelling. Older than me. He looks like a runner, all trim in tank top and shorts, low-cut socks and sneakers.
“She stole my smoke this morning, too. She’s a brat, really, but what can you do? I can’t break her of her bad behaviors and dad is very busy these days. Pris is too smart, funny, and a little rougher since mom left.” He looks down the beach and nods. “Looks like dad interrupted her stroll.”
I follow his gaze to Priscilla and the man. “Ah. Your dad. You live over there?” I point at the grey house.
“Yeah. I’m George. Come by later and join our barbecue. It’ll be a crowd like no other!”
Relief surges within me but I wave him off. He smiles the family’s magnetic grin and starts running. I head down to shore and catch up with my friends. I am sorry and scared for Priscilla but also stunned. That’s the only time I plan on being conned by a ten year old. But I worry it won’t be the last time she snags cigarettes or chats with strangers. I wonder if my friends want to stop by a barbeque tonight.