Alan J. was a boy who no one quite wanted around, not really. Even if they didn’t hound him with that fact, he felt it. It wasn’t that he was a nuisance; that would be something to note, make him easier to relate to. It might have made life easier in the school yard where he was ignored, generally, and at home, where he suffered the ignoble status as youngest and smallest–a “runt” as his siblings said. He could make the fiercest faces at them (which incited more taunts) but had even less to say as the years rolled by. It was not his nature to spout off or to mumble on about things. It made many people uncomfortable. He observed and learned quickly, he asked such questions for just an eleven year old, his teachers assured his parents; he was an unusually introspective child.
Maybe, he thought, he was just not ready to tell the world what he thought of its silliness and beauty and puzzles.
Even the house, once rather grand, seemed to ignore him, perhaps in relief, as it was full of raucous activity. He could fade away into its dusty far corners. It was a big house, if now worn about the edges. Gran and Grandpop (the J. of his name: for his grandfather, Jackson) had run it as a bed and breakfast for many years, then Grandpop died. The past nearly four years she had relinquished it to her daughter and son-in-law and their four children. It had become more a home, not a business, Gran said with a long sigh–as if she missed the latter and didn’t so much crave the former, anymore. At least in its present state. She was slowing down and let them deal with the greater matters.
Wintry rainfall pattered and dashed against the roof, under which Alan J. sat with flashlight in hand, illuminating the bead board of his sloped ceiling. Once an attic, the room was a reasonable size if a bit dank, separated by a small bathroom from his oldest sister’s bedroom. Sarah was now relegated to visitor status since attending college. And big brother Gerry didn’t want the room, as he was well installed at the end of the third floor hallway, the opposite end of his parents’, separated by a guest room and bath; the second floor was primarily commandeered by Hannah and Gran though there was a also study (and bath) used by both his father and mother. Alan J. wasn’t sure how he’d lucked out getting an attic room. It suited him, and he was nagged about taking too frequent refuge in the so-named “AJ Cave.”
Grandpop used to take refuge with him in either attic room way back then if none was rented, as they loved to watch the sunset, the moon and stars from up there. The old man had a telescope which was in the den now, and he’d also read some of any book Alan J. chose, then the boy would read haltingly for his soft-spoken, hunched over Grandpop. He was the one tourists loved to see again; Gran was hospitable, unruffled but sheathed in a coolness, ever the businesswoman. But that was all a long time ago, three and a half years now. Grandpop was sometimes nearby yet not there, at all, a baffling thing.
He smiled as he studied the darkening blur beyond his window. Treetops whipped about in a glistening wind. His flashlight beam then zigzagged about the bead board ceiling, then back to his personal balcony which was long and narrow. It stretched from his small outside door to his decamped sister’s. Sarah had long ago put up a bamboo screen and nailed it to the railing and outer wall. It was decrepit but ivy she’d had in pots crept up the house and over the top into his sunny or dreary part. He liked seeing it there still. Alan J. missed her some, especially the last year when there were midnight bombs of marshmallows and chocolate drops and dumb missives thrown over the screen, at his windows. She had gotten drunk a few too many times. He’d not complained as she laughed more then, and he generally liked her surprises. Sometimes he had tossed marshmallows and miscellaneous junk back and then total madness was on.
She had at least seen him, noted his presence often. But Sarah would not be home for holidays; too much money for a quick plane trip.
It was getting closer to Christmas, a week or so now. This bothered him. Alan J. usually knew what to get people, something simple like packets of seeds for spring or a good if used book or a drawing of the brick-red covered bridge over D Street Canal or a flamingo or a race car or bouquet (his one talent, his brother conceded, was that he drew well). This year he was empty of ideas, probably because they’d had to tighten the purse strings, as mother said, so the mood was less inflated. Dad, a big manufacturing plant’s supervisor (soon to be manager, they still hoped), was laid off with the rest of the workers for six weeks, on a sharply reduced pay. That meant their allowances were suspended, other budgetary cuts made.
No, he was not yet inspired to draw much of interest, but it might still come. Or he’d come up with a crafty thing.
Alan J. stood and looked out over neighbors’ houses. The whole block had houses two stories or even one. People thought they lived in a mini-mansion but the truth was, they lived in a rambling house that looked good across the street but up close showed age, even an unmistakable neglect. Still, the view from his attic room and balcony stirred in Alan J. a sense of confidence and expectancy, as if he was a ship’s captain or an airport watchtower’s commander and there were important things to see, do and plan. He liked being able to glimpse quick scenes of neighbors’ activities, too, as darkness fell and lights cast a golden glow over inhabitants. Sometimes he tried to sketch them at their tables or lolling on porches or watering gardens. He found it all worthy of a long look.
Tonight he watched various goings-on, and the black bare tree branches and gleaming streets, and felt something like a longing with discontent, even as he smelled pot roast aromas stealing upstairs. Or he imagined it, since Gran and his mother– after she’d rushed home from her bank job–were preparing it earlier. His father had been in the basement, fixing a scratched old toaster or at least looking busy at the workbench and he’d nodded at his son, asked how the day was. Then they both fell silent. His father was down there a lot lately, and he cracked jokes less often than Alana J. would have liked, despite how corny they were.
The trash cans banged and crashed about; the wind had tossed things here or there. Another sudden crash disturbed the falling dark, and then another. It could be a homeless person or a raccoon or even a coyote. Alan J. had seen the last only one time, and he hoped to see another, so he tossed on a heavy grey hoodie and went onto his balcony to take a look.
As he bent over the railing and peered down below he just made out a scrawny figure with a backpack poking about the trash cans, tossing a couple of cans into a plastic bag. His father might yell out a window at a vagrant, as he called most who came onto their lot, but Alan J. always looked. Waited. He wondered where they came from and where they were going, what they most hoped to find. Any tossed food–even if it was not spoiled–would be a sodden mess in winter and the thought of having to eat such a thing made him feel ill.
He’d left outgrown tennis shoes out there; they were gone faster than he expected. So he left other things in bags by the cans, like a sweater he hated (had a dog on it) and a pillow that had fuzzy yarn daisies which Sarah left behind in her closet. Gran had seen him do it. And Hannah, now thirteen and too busy for him, so she just shrugged and flounced off. Gran shook her head, said nothing.
The rummaging didn’t stop despite the inclement evening, chilled and wet. Alan J. was afraid the person might fall face first into the can, so far into it was his or her body. He shivered, pulled the hood closer. He felt like calling down. What was needed at six o’clock at night in the rainy dark? His mother called up the stairs loudly; dinner was ready. Still he felt compelled to watch and when finally he was about to go indoors and dry off, the person three and a half stories below looked up, scarf falling away from the face.
Her face, he saw as light, long hair was tossed back in a chilled gust. She stood stock still, stared at him a long moment, then slowly raised a gloved hand to him. He saw she couldn’t be so much than fourteen, maybe less or more. She was short and looked terribly thin even in a puffy jacket, face also narrow, small. Alan J. raised his hand to her in almost a wave, and a rush of feelings coursed through his body, a shock of something. He wanted to call out, ask her why she was out there all alone, or what was it she needed. But she quick like a rabbit scurried right into the street and beyond.
Alan J. took his perch by the bedroom window to watch for her the next three late afternoons and evenings like he was an appointed sentinel. He’d tried to recall the color of her jacket–black or was it navy?–how her eyes were, how she stood with arms dangling, a half-empty plastic bag slumped on the ground, her fingers wrapped around the top. Bedraggled and worn out was his impression and yet he thought she must have been roaming all day long and still would roam more. She had to be brave, strong. Or entirely out of luck and options. Both, he decided. But she did not return.
The fourth night he decided to get something ready for her just in case, he told himself. Hannah saw him put a sweet roll, box of crackers and slab of cheese into a bag and rolled her eyes. He liked snacks late at night–she did, too– and only told on him when he once took the last three chocolate cupcakes. He then took it all to his room, found a basket of hair stuff in Sarah’s room and emptied it onto her bed. They had used all the string last week threading together plastic glow stars, which they neatly hung atop the windows. So he got the very long, doubled piece of yarn he’d cut from Gran’s stash of skeins and tied it around the basket handle.
It had stopped raining awhile, but he had slicker and flashlight at the ready. A half hour later he caught a glint of that blond hair under the corner street lamp by their house, then saw her run to the garbage cans. He left the flashlight behind–he didn’t want to startle her– but got the basket and entered the balcony to stand at the railing. His heart was beating almost like a hummingbird’s; his breath caught in his throat. Would she look up? He was afraid if he called out she’d dash off. He didn’t want her to be afraid. Worry he’d be mean.
After she found a few empty cans and a small portion of last night’s pizza, she ate hungrily and drank from a large water bottle. Alan J. took the newly food-filled basket, placed it over balcony edge and lowered it down to the ground. It thumped on sodden earth and she glanced that way then away, then back again. It spooked him to imagine her distrust as her elfin face slowly lifted up, up, up until she might have thought she saw someone at the top balcony of the house. But Alan J. had crouched down, made himself small, and leaned against his door, yarn taut in his hands. He did not intend on being seen. It would spoil things. He could hear her run to the basket, rummage in the contents and then, right before she left, there was a tug on the yarn. After listening a few moments, he heard only crows and the slight damp wind. He stood and pulled up the basket. Empty.
Each night when Alan J. could manage it, he put something good in the basket. A soft scarf no one really needed. Four dollars from the makeshift Mason jar “bank” on his dresser. A small summer sausage with a can of seltzer. A paperback fantasy novel he’d enjoyed and Tootsie Rolls. Each time he hid under cover of darkness–she came roughly around 5:30–as the girl stealthily arrived and left. She always tugged on the basket and he never came forward. It occurred to him that she was counting on him, and that made him feel good. Alan J. had a new purpose and it propelled him through the days, gave him an uncommon sense of fullness.
His family was oblivious. His father was in the basement or at the table eating or in the den with the TV muted. His mother was frantic with Christmas preparations, working on a wreath, and Gran was busy knitting and crocheting, or up to her elbows with kitchen matters. Hannah was with friends, doing homework or telling him to stop looking over her shoulder as she read–she’d pass her sci-fi book along if it was any good. Gerry was just gone; at seventeen he had a junker car and it was his freedom ticket. Plus, he worked part-time.
On the fourth night he stole a look at her. He knew she knew it, as she turned in an oddly careful way toward him, showed him a big smile. Then she dallied a bit over trail mix and a single bottle of apple juice he’d put in the basket, and raised the empty to him in a “cheers” before heading off with bright steps.
He waited to see her from then on. They didn’t speak but communicated with a look, a gesture. He wondered if she could talk, then realized she might wonder the same. Once they both looked at the stars at the same time. It gave him chills when she waved at him without even turning and kept waving as she melted into shadow.
After the seventh time it also came to him that, since she was counting on him, what would she do if he quit this? Strictly garbage can living again–unless others were doing the same as he was. It seemed almost wrong of him to ever consider stopping, yet how could he for certain keep with it? He just would.
The ninth night, three days before Christmas, there was a weather warning: rain mixed with sleet. Possibly snow but likely the dreaded black ice. Maybe she wouldn’t come at all. Maybe she’d found shelter; that would be perfect. But he filled the basket, anyway: a pair of Sarah’s worn mittens, his striped knit cap, a small crocheted throw from his reading chair. And a fat sandwich, lots of turkey with big slab of cheddar. Gran had seen him fix that at four o’clock. She’d warned him to not eat the whole thing before dinner, for goodness’ sake, or his chicken dinner would be unwanted. And then she’d put hands on hips and narrowed her eyes with head cocked to one side. Stopped him cold a minute. He kept his face impassive and waited, but she just threw up her hands and went back to her work.
The sleet hit like bits of glass on glass of the many tall windows. There was a steady fire roaring in the living room and Alan J. sat on the floor near Gran and Big Cat, her black Persian. He listened to the clicking of knitting needles. Heard his father’s footsteps as they trudged up basement stairs. The Christmas tree, as fancy with decor as each year, was beaming at them. His mother was running quite late and Hannah was dozing under a blanket on the couch. He had worried the cuticle of his right index finger until it bled. He re-checked the time on his cell until it was closer to when the girl might come by. If she’d bother. Gran got up to check on the browning chicken so he slipped away to his room.
He put on his winter coat, went to his balcony, lowered the basket. When he looked down, there she was beneath him the three and a half stories below. And she was looking up. The lights from the house illumined her softly. Her wide eyes were dark and her hair long and straight, the color of straw but streaked with black. She was very pale, perhaps older than he thought, but not as old as Gerry or young as Hannah. She had a grown up air to her as she stood with one hand on hip, jaunty-like.
“Hey, brother, what’s your name?”
Her voice was much louder than he expected; it cut through low howling wind.
“AJ,” he called out, thinking it easier to catch than his whole name. Sleet stung his cheeks, wind seared his eyes. She pulled her hoodie closer to her face and head. He cupped his hands, said, “So here it comes.” The basket slid down over the railing.
“AJ, okay, I’m Marley! Thanks for everything, you’re the best. Saved my belly–you’re a real prince of a guy!” She grinned at him, a big smile that showed uneven teeth.
As soon as it neared her reaching hands, she sorted through it all, tucked the sandwich into a pocket, put on the hat, pulled the mittens over her gloves. He saw her slap and rub newly layered hands together and thought of their radiant fireplace. Of the delicious dinner waiting. Marley took the warm throw and put it around her shoulders and managed to tie a fat knot in the ends. She hesitated a second then pulled out the sandwich and took a giant bite, then another. He wanted to invite her in, to make a ladder and pull her up. She kept eating as he waited; they endured darts of ice and the bitter air. He wished he had stairs to his balcony and a chair for her. What a sight she made, all decked out with the added layers. Somehow she gave off cheer and this made him smile.
Gran set plates and glasses on the table, hoping for her daughter-in-law’s safe drive home. Big Cat sat alert on a window ledge, ears pricked, head turning back and forth. Gran checked to see what she was seeing. It was a medium-sized basket dangling, swaying in the air close to ground, and a slight young girl, alone. Right there in the middle of a storm, she stood eating a sandwich. A basket in mid-air? She grabbed her coat from the coat tree, rushed to the kitchen side door. As soon as she stuck her head out, the girl started, then froze, her fingers releasing the remaining sandwich fall to the ground.
“What’s going on here?”
The girl looked over with saucer eyes as Gran followed the basket string to the crouching boy at the other end. When she looked for the youth again she was gone.
“Alan J.!” she yelled up the balcony. “What are you up to?”
But she knew full well. Her hand pressed against her heart as she closed the door to shut out all the storm.
His mother got home and walked into a murmur of excitement. At dinner the event was all they wanted to talk about: a homeless girl and the basket idea and Alan J.’s initiative and how good of him to think of it– but, too, rather risky. Pats on the back, hair ruffled. But still, you never knew…. he should be more careful. No more good deeds that might endanger them all, right?
He didn’t tell them how many nights it had been, just that he’d noticed her once out back, so he’d given her some stuff. All he thought about was how full his stomach was, how warm the rooms and where did Marley have to go next? Gran scared her off. He felt angry. Alarm at that and sadness. Still, the bigger thing was that no one had ever called him “brother” who was not blood, nor called him a “prince”; he heard her voice ring out, carried to him on raw wind. No one had said “thanks for everything” to him like that. He found it sad, yes, but she was amazing, out there on her own, surviving somehow when he’d curl up in a ball and die. She deserved to have more than a small basket now and then, didn’t she? To have a better life, not root about for crumbs.
After dinner, he was glad to get away and scampered upstairs to do math homework. Tried to. He knew she wasn’t still out there; black ice was laid over all now, she’d at least be inside a store or fast seeking shelter. He had a name now, he knew who she was; they’d talked a little. But that was it. It all stuck in his mind like tantalizing clues.
A few minutes later there was rapping on his door. Alan J. didn’t want to answer. But Gran walked right in–he could not recall when she had done that—and sat herself at the end of his bed.
“I want you to know I’m proud of you. Grandpop would be happy to hear it, and likely he does… And I suspect it wasn’t this one time. I didn’t want to embarrass you at the table but, Alan J., you have his spirit, his kind ways.”
At the thought of his grandfather, Alan J. nearly choked up; he was the one he wanted to talk to about the girl. Gran moved closer, put a strong arm about him. The door pushed open and in came his mother and father and they, too, sat on his bed and briefly hugged him.
“But what about Marley?” he asked, tears hot as coals sizzling down cool cheeks.
“I think she’ll be back,” his mother said, laughing, “to see if you were real.”
“You’re a sort of angel for her, son,” his father said with uncharacteristic emotion.
He shook his head. “No.” His words were gulped, hard to get out. “Marley is.”
But he knew they wouldn’t understand. She’d called him “brother” though he was a stranger; she’d called him “the best” when he’d only done the easy thing. A “prince”– for what? For giving her stuff he didn’t need. Marley had welcomed his offerings, and that made him feel rounded with contentment. He’d received the most.
“Maybe she’ll turn up soon,” Gran said as she stood up and peered out the window at the sudden snow. “Getting rougher out there.”
“If she does, can we invite her inside? For dinner at least?” He wiped his nose on a sleeve and stood next to Gran as his parents fidgeted.
She sighed. “I imagine so, we’re in the hospitality business, aren’t we? Of course we are.”
He nodded, wondering if it’d ever really happen. If she’d come in, take off her puff jacket, mittens and the thin gloves and sit by the fire and warm herself, lean in at their table and share hot food. He had to shut his eyes to remember how she’d waved at him, spoken to him. She could fade so fast.
The grownups saw he had gone inside himself again so left, carefully shut his door behind them.
But Alan Jackson Havers III didn’t leave his post at the cold, filigreed window for a long while. He was watching the thickening confetti of snow soften a treachery of ice, watching his street turn into a velvety blanket of white and garbage cans turn into bright, frosty mounds. Watching for Marley with yellow and black hair streaming from beneath his favorite striped hat, a tattered angel sliding along icy sidewalks, roaming the street for good finds.
He felt his fingers itch for drawing pencils and prepared to recreate what he could of her smallness and bigness, which felt to him like unfolding wings in the great secret of darkness.