She repeats the word slowly, tonguing it, pushed from one side of her mouth to the other, the taste enough to offend, and yet still, she finds herself curious of the flavor’s true origin.
“Pedigree. What, like the dog food? I don’t have a dog.”
“No. Pedigree. Background. Something to – something to stand on.”
“Something to stand on.”
“Yeah. Something to stand on. Pedigree.”
Expectant. Nearly exasperated. It’s obvious to her that he believes his explanation to be not only coherent, but comprehensive. Full of all of the truth and meaning this world could ever possibly offer.
She does not know the meaning of the word comprehensive.
Or exasperated. Though she feels it. Feels it plenty.
In her mind, the word or something like it, something small and possibly winged, flits and flutters, moving too quickly for her panning eye to follow. Even turned inward like she is, it’s as though she is outside again, out in the cold, the wet, unfamiliar in an unfamiliar place, just as she and Alley had been the night before.
“No more, mama. It stinks. I don’t wanna go. Isn’t there someplace else we can go?”
She knew how much Alley hated it there. Hated the talk and looks as much as, if not more than, the smells, the tastes of the place. She also knew the girl hated the sign outside, the bright, pulsating cross meant to imbue a sense of hope, instead turning their faces and everything else it touched a chaotic, sinister red, the thing itself a terrifying symbol of wrong, a reminder of all that had been broken, that just hadn’t gone right.
“Something to stand on.”
She casts about, already angry, aiming to put the fool in his place by pulling herself up onto a box of paper or a chair or a stool, something to send her towering over him, to laugh down on him, but there’s nothing, her eye panning as pointlessly here, in the real world, as it did in the world of her self.
There was another inside her - she’d always known that to be the case.
For a time, after Alley was born and Terrence had disappeared to god knows where, taking their Camry and the few hundred dollars she’d had left over from her too-frequent trips to the blood bank, that she’d thought maybe Alley was that other, the separateness of her body and mind, that unexplainable, unaccounted for self, made real, given life and breath and physical being.
But, of course, she’d been disabused of that notion, time and again.
Too many times.
Like when that boy, that stupid boy at Beacon had mocked Alley, mocked her hair, her clothes, taunting her with not-quite-whispered insults about how her name was perfect, just perfect. Perfect, perfect, perfect. Perfect, he’d said, because she was born street, the lowest of the low, named for the very thing she’d spend the rest of her life wandering, the trash barrels next to which she’d warm herself, the piles of newspaper and wet cardboard she’d hunker under when the weather got like it was now, everything cold and wet and yet still so hard, always hard.
Hard like the man’s eyes, looking at her now.
That other, that self, had risen up, all on its own, come crashing down on that boy in the form of screams she’d never quite understood, not even now, not even hours, days, months later, avoiding it as best she could and yet finding herself drawn to it just the same, just like the sickly sour taste of the hard-eyed man’s words.
And there, just there; Alley, mouth hung open, arms hugged tight to her body, not a part of that rising up, that other, that not-so-secret self at all, but confronted by it just the same.
Confused by it.
Shamed by it.
Maybe even afraid of it.
And here. Now. Here, a piece of crumpled paper in her hand, worry over what Alley could be getting up to without her beating a chaotic rhythm in the back of her head, staring up at this man with his hard, full-stop eyes, like no matter how close you looked they’d never go any deeper than the beautiful blue color, working double, triple time to keep that other, her not-so-secret, not-so-quiet self from rising up and crowding this man’s day, his life with her truth, just as she’d done to that poor, stupid boy.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. There’s nothing more I can do. You’ll have to come back tomorrow if you’d like to seek placement in a different program.”
She reaches for him almost reflexively, hating how pitiful the gesture must have seemed.
She knows the meaning of the word pitiful.
“But. I need to do this today. This was the only day I could get someone to look after my daughter so I could come down here. I understand ain’t nothing on my–“
She waves the paper, disgusted by the ugly way it curls in her hand, the badness of her made plain by it.
Swallowing down her self, she tries to start again.
“Please. Sir. I don’t – can’t you make an exception? Just this once?”
He hesitates, the precipice of compassion so close she thinks she can almost see it, her face – her real face – reflected in the coolness of his eyes, just a moment, one single moment, there and then gone, just like that, just like so many things in her life, in her and Alley’s lives, snap, bang, broken. And then he’s shaking. Shaking, shaking, shaking, left to right, like a meth head who’d missed a hit, only slow. So slow.
Like windows rattled by a storm.
Like life, gone sideways.
Like a dog.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. There’s nothing I can do.”
She does not know the meaning of the word compassion.