“I’m telling ya, Len,” Squiggy declared, snapping his apron as he stared out into the group of homeless people eating their Christmas meals. “There ain’t nothing like helping the little guy get fed.”
“Yeah,” Lenny grinned, shoving the last dirty tray into the dishwasher. He turned around, wide-eyed, and added, “they’re all really tall, though, Squig – do you think we fed ‘em enough?”
Squiggy lifted his shoulders, carefully pulling the apron he’d worn for most of the afternoon off to avoid destroying his carefully-sculpted hair. “That ain’t our problem no more,” he replied. “Our time’s up. Wanna take a ride down to Bradstreet Burlesque and see who’s sweating?”
“Ooh!” Lenny cried out, “d’you think Toni Galore’s doing her hot tinsel routine?”
“Course! It ain’t past twelve, is it?” Lenny grabbed his winter jacket from a peg in the backroom, giving Squiggy enough time to clock out with. Community service wasn’t too bad of a gig – they’d normally be down with Mister DeFazio doing his usual dinner for the homeless, but a diaper truck and a fire hydrant had disrupted their plans. That wouldn’t matter, in the end – Mr. D usually needed help with the clean up more than the serving, and he and Len could lollygag their way through half-assed dishwashing any day.
Lenny quickly caught up, and the two men ambled out of the shelter and headed up the street, where they’d parked earlier in the afternoon. The back hallway was grimy and mostly deserted – except for something rustling about in a garbage bin.
Lenny’s features turned antic when he quickly picked up the noise; shrinking behind Squiggy, they both tried to gradually step beyond the bin and to the street at the head of the alley. The plan worked brilliantly until they reached the curve of the main road, and something medium-sized tumbled out of the bin with loud, unceremonious thud.
Squiggy shrieked in the most masculine, macho, potent way he could. Lenny , meanwhile, had no qualms about trying to maintain his cool at a time like this. “It’s the curse of the poorhouse! Let’s get outta here!” Lenny cried, his fingers clamping down on his best friend’s shoulder.
“I’ll get the truck, you hit it with…” Squiggy grabbed something out of the garbage-strewn alleyway, “this!” He tossed Lenny a cardboard wrapping paper tube and ran away.
“Whatt’m I gonna do with this, sword-fight him to death?” Lenny’s eyed widened. “You don’t have a sword, do ya mister dead guy?” He slowly crept back toward the dumpster, until he could reach the still figure with the tube. Poking the still figure in the shoulder with the tube, Lenny grew even tenser when the lump didn’t move. Very slowly and cautiously, he knelt down to better examine the figure. He would find his fear a better alternative to the sudden pain between his legs when the figure struck out.
He punched it out of instinct and felt guilty when the cry that issued forth was a feminine one. “I don’t wanna hurt you, Miss…” The fight had peeled back the top layer of her dirty hood, revealing the face of a pugnacious but very tired-looking twelve year old.
“That’s what everybody says,” she said, slumping, defeated, against the bricks.
“Aww geeze, you’re just a little kid,” he said, instantly letting the girl fall to her feet. She glared up from her minimal number of inches.
“I ain’t no kid,” she snapped. “I’ve been out here by myself for years
“Don’t you got a mom or a pop?”
She rubbed her face. “What’s it to you?”
“Well, y’see – it’s gotta be to me – otherwise they’re gonna be awful sore about you bein’ gone.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she tucked her scarf close to her nose. “They ain’t around no more.”
Their conversation was abruptly cut off. “Len, why’re you talking to the dead lady?” Squiggy asked. “I started the truck.”
“We ain’t going to Bradstreet, Squig,” Lenny said gravely.
“Not even to see Wanda and her glitter dance?”
“Sorry. This is one of those problems we ain’t equipped to face all alone.”
“Hey, I’m plenty equipped! Ask anyone in the fifth row at that Braves game we went to!”
“…I ain’t talking about that Squig. Let’s just get her to the Pizza Bowl…”
Laverne was lost in a whirlwind of trays when Lenny approached her. “Whatever it is, it can wait,” she said, tossing a stack of order slips onto the counter. “Two pies, one with spots, two red rafts a bottle of cold turkey and a plate of old men’s shoes!”
Joe grumbled and turned back to the grill to fulfill Laverne’s request. “Laverne, I really gotta talk to you!”
“I toldja it’s gotta wait.” She turned to give him a glare, only to note his intensely sincere expression and large, blue puppydog gaze. Laverne heaved out a sigh. “You got three minutes.”
He took a deep breath. “MeAndSquigFoundAHomelessGirlHalfFrozeToDeathInADumpsterAndSheWon’tSayIfSheHasAnyFolks.”
By the end of that protracted sentence, Lenny had run out of oxygen. Laverne grabbed both of his shoulders. “Easy, there,” she urged. “Did she say if she knows anyone else in town?”
Lenny shook his head. “She ain’t said nothing – she just ate a whole pizza and now she’s playing cards with Squig.”
Sounds from their corner booth confirmed this quickly. “Gin!” Squiggy cried.
The girl laughed. “We’re playing hearts. And I’m clearing your clock, old man.”
“Hey, I ain’t old!” Squiggy complained.
“Yeah-huh. There’s a little grey hair poking out of your head right…here!” she plucked out a stray hair from his eyebrow.
“WOMAN!” Squiggy roared.
Lenny and Laverne shared a private laugh. “I kinda wanna keep her around.”
Laverne’s nose wrinkled up at the idea of the two of them raising a teenager. “You can’t do that, Len. Why doncha let me talk to her.”
“Okay….” Lenny dragged Laverne to the table, protesting all the way.
“Len! I didn’t mean now!” Squiggy stood up and moved back toward Lenny, quickly giving Laverne all of the space she wanted, boxing her in.
“I’ll cover for ya. This is Laverne.” He gently pushed her forward, receiving a slap to the face for his trouble. “Let’s high-tail it to the alley and play a coupla rounds.”
Squiggy pouted and yanked on his jacket. “ Woah woah woah, just hold on a minute. Since when’re you the boss of me?”
“Since I paid for a couple of games,” Lenny pointed out.
“Y’drive a hard bargain,” Squig muttered, but did as Lenny bade. The two of them retired to the bowling alley together, where they managed to make it through two frames before Laverne interrupted them.
“She’s tougher to crack than a brazil nut,” Laverne moped. “I think her folks are gone – she’s been living out on her own for a couple of years now. But I don’t know anything else. My Pop’s trying to give her a little advice now.”
“Hope it sets in,” Lenny admitted.
“Aww, you guys really do like her, doncha?” Laverne asked.
“She’s a nice kid,” Lenny said.
“Yeah, and we need someone around to use as a stool to reach the top shelves.” Squiggy frowned. “And we kinda like her.”
They were interrupted by a sudden clatter in the restaurant, and rushed out to confront the cacophony. Their friend was arguing violently with Frank. “I ain’t going to no orphan’s home!” she shouted.
“You gotta go somewhere you’ll be safe. The streets’re no place for a kid!”
“I’ve already tried that jazz!” she shouted. “I HATED it! I’m never going back!”
Frank shot the guys a quick, desperate look – Laverne was stunned into silence by her father’s helplessness.
“Just leamme alone,” she growled, grabbing her jacket and running out.
It took the collective team of them a whole two hours to find her again, curled up on a park bench near Skid Row. Lenny, shivering, unzipped his jacket and handed it to the girl.
She glared and shoved it away. “Forget it,” she growled. “I don’t need no kind of charity.”
“We ain’t trying to give you anything,” Squiggy said. “But I wanna get in before my nose freezes off.”
She curled into a tighter ball. “Why do you guys care so much, anyway?”
“Cause we ain’t exactly rollin’ in the dough ourselves. I grew upon the state’s lunch money,” Lenny admitted. “Squig slept on the street. We know how people treat each other out here, and we don’t want you to get hurt.”
“That’s why we passed the hat,” Squiggy grinned. “I tossed in two stale Sno-Balls…”
Lenny shoved Squiggy gently, then said, “Mr. D’s willing to let you work part-time at the Pizza Bowl if you go back to school, and Mrs. B’ll let you stay in one of the empty apartments at Knapp Street.”
She turned to glare at them with contempt. “You guys think you can just slap together my future like a sandwich,” she slammed her palms together. “Life ain’t that easy. I know that much.”
“Nah, it ain’t. But if you keep going the way you are, there ain’t gonna be a future for you.”
She locked her jaw. Suddenly, she sat up. “My name’s Mary,” she said, finally giving them a grin.
“We’re Lenny and Squiggy,” Squiggy said, slapping his chest, and then Lenny’s.
“You guys gonna show me around Knapp street?” she asked.
“I guess Len could,” Squiggy grumbled.
“C’mon! Where’s your holiday spirit?” He asked.
Arguing, they ran together toward the building. Friendships had been borne out of less. That grey December evening saw the emergence of a beautiful and brand-new one.