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WERE SOMEONE TO HAVE just risen from sleep and looked out over the autumn-touched 6th street, he would have noticed a grey, growing kitten sniffing at a puddle of vomit behind a light blue Nissan. Were he to look over the rest of the street, he would have seen black and brown birds fluttering on the telephone wires, fancy cars lining the sidewalks, iron waste cans every thirty feet, and city-cultured trees in between. Brick apartment buildings were lighting up with the sun, turning copper, and in that hue they looked more like ancient cliff dwellings than modern day city homes.
6th street's first morning human inhabitant was a man standing about six feet tall, face bundled up so tightly that nothing else could be discerned. He walked with a bounce in his step and whistled a melody from a soap commercial. The grey cat ran away into a nearby alley between buildings. After the man passed, more people came out onto the sidewalks. Some got into cars and drove away. Some dropped trash into waste bins. A couple of women in thick robes sipped coffee and smoked cigarettes on the porch outside their building.
Parker didn't have time for such leisurely activities. He came out of his brownstone with his morning grey eyes looking straight ahead, carrying a mission in his heart. He had snapped out of a dream with his first good story idea in months. He had to get down to the magazine office and do some research on the Internet right away, or he'd lose his fire. He hated it when he lost his fire; it always caused him to drop promising leads. If he didn't get busy right away, he would become disinterested. Once when he told Missy about the misery of losing his fire, she hadsaid, "The price of genius. You make me sick."
Her face came to mind as he speed-walked towards his light blue Nissan, and he shook his head as though something were stuck to it. He nearly knocked over an elderly woman as he plucked the car key forward on his key chain. The old woman said nothing, but crushed her eyebrows together and let out a big, white cloud of cold breath.
"Sorry, sorry." He didn't bother with another look. His car windows were a bit frosted, but this didn't daunt a Yankee. He inserted his key and popped open the door, sat down in front of the wheel and put the key into the ignition.
He heard a scream behind him.
He jerked around to face the back seat. "What the--?" There was a bag lady in his car, and she looked terrified. His nose twitched with the smell of aged alcohol breath coming from the scared woman, and he wondered how he hadn't noticed it right off.
"What the hell are you doing in my car?" He was yelling more out of surprise than anger, but irritation was not far off. Her white skin was dusty, as though she had been playing in a fireplace. Her clothes looked nothing more than blankets tied up around her body. Her eyes were blue, like pale gems in the moonlight, yet they were turning dark and loathsome.
"It's past dawn," she said with a scratchy voice, and she held up a curled, grubby hand and coughed. He felt his neck prickle with a familiar response to nonsense.
"Lady, what are you doing in here? Get out, now." The smell of sweet vomit coming from her was making his eyes water.
She pinched up her lower lip and in a soft voice said, "I never sleep past dawn. Never."
"Well, you did today." Parker held the cuff of his leather jacket over his nose. He couldn't see her hair, which was tucked into a hat, but those blue eyes flickered, making him think of a morning glory alone in the mulch of his mother's garden. For the second time that morning, he twitched his head, trying to shake off a memory.
She leaned forward. "Mister, you are one confused man."
"You're just like the rest of them here on this street. Got to get going, don't you? Where are you going?"
He began breathing through his mouth. "That's none of your business. Get out."
"You don't know where you're going. Did you ever know? Or you just going where you think you're supposed to?"
His agitation ebbed and the humour of his situation tickled him. "Okay, lady." His voice lowered to normal talking tones. "What's your name?"
"Cleo." She sat back with a closed-lipped smile.
"Okay, Cleo, I'm going to work. I'm going there because I want to, because I like to, and because I have work to do there. I have an idea for a story. I write magazine stories. Why wouldn't I want to do that, Cleo? Maybe you should ask the voices where the handle to the door is and scat back to your alley."
She sat up again and her dirty face scrunched up like a used paper towel. "You really are a mean reporter to say such nasty things to me. I was only trying to help."
"I'm not a reporter. I'm a writer. And how could you help me?"
"Help by making you think about what you are doing."
"I don't need to think about what I'm doing. I know what I'm doing. I want to know what you're doing in my car."
She started shaking her head back and forth and biting her lower lip. It made her look younger than he originally thought. She might be in her forties still, perhaps fifteen years older than he was. "I think, maybe there's a reason I sleep past dawn today. Maybe I should look a little closer, but you know what? That's the way it goes in stories and television, not in real life. You of all people should know, too, painting your pretty pictures however you want them to look, telling people how to see the world. You see, reporter, I learned about that." She pointed a finger at him, and he saw chipped pink nail polish topping her fingertips. Then her eyebrows drooped over her exotic eyes like thin curtains framing a sad scene. She spoke softly. "I know about you."
He watched her, forgetting the smell, as she clawed at the door handle, swinging the door open wide. In a calm, smooth voice, she said, "Thanks for the lodgings." Then she was gone, walking off into the same alley that the grey cat had gone to--but Parker hadn't noted the cat. He had been shaving the brown stubble off his sharp chin when the cat had been nearby. The grey had been in the neighbourhood for almost six weeks, and Parker still hadn't noticed it.
Parker rolled his windows down as he drove into the downtown area of the city. He was too distracted to think of turning on the radio. He muttered words like, "Reporter," and, "Smell," and once he called out, "Lodgings! My car!" He rubbed the steering wheel and decided to get his car cleaned on his lunch break. It wasn't until a traffic light two blocks from the office that he checked to see if his four CDs and his umbrella were still under the passenger seat, which they were. He didn't think she had been in his car to steal, but he thought that one could never tell with the mentally ill. Out loud, he said, "That's what they all are. Sorry to tell it like it is." A car honked behind him. The light was green.
At work, he surfed the Internet for about thirty minutes looking for information on his dream topic, and then scanned around for other things that occupied his mind. At last he pushed his fingers into the back of his brown hair and leaned into his chair. "Damn it!"
Fred Schnieder poked his head into Parker's office. "Is our most coveted writer having computer problems?" Parker could almost smell the fishiness of the man's hidden resentment towards him.
"Fred, let's go to lunch." Parker wanted to see what excuse he would make.
The rest of Fred's body filled out the doorway. "It's only nine."
"Let me buy you breakfast, then."
"Can't. Got a deadline."
The usual, nothing creative. Parker sighed. "The weirdest thing happened to me this morning."
Fred walked in and leaned on the door frame. "Another burning dream story wake you up at four A.M.?" He smiled like he was sharing his own secrets.
Parker remembered the article written about him three years ago in which he had proudly told the reporter that he got best ideas in this way. It made his neck tingle just a little that Fred remembered it.
"When I went out to my car, there was a homeless lady in the back seat."
"No shit. Don't you have a car alarm?"
"Yeah, yeah. But I lost the remote and I just use my key."
He nodded and looked at Parker's computer screen. "What'd you do? Call the cops?"
"No. I talked to her."
"Really? Hmm." His eyes flicked from Parker to the computer screen, then back. "I would've called the cops. She might do it again."
"No, I don't think so."
"Can't trust 'em. There's a reason she's living on the streets. Drugs, mental illness." He stood straight. "So now you're thinking about doing a story on the homeless?"
"Oh, no. Not at all." The idea had burned his brain for an hour.
"Why not? Could be good stuff, especially with you writing it. Remember when Colin Waries did that piece a couple of years ago on the state of the city shelters? He got some things changed, I think."
Parker felt as though he had just zipped his neglected fly as dancing gophers replaced a Web site on schizophrenia glaring out of his monitor. "I don't have much to go on."
"What, you? No material? That's tough to believe. You always make good stuff up." He looked out the doorway. "Gotta do some final touches before ten. Good luck, Townes."
Parker suspected insincerity in the last wish for luck, and waited a few minutes before finishing up his own last edits on a piece he'd written for the current edition.
After getting his car cleaned, he lunched alone at a Thai restaurant across from his office, despite the gorgeous receptionist Kathy's offer to join him. Although he ate mouthfuls of spicy curry, the food didn't interest him. He thought to himself, why else would someone choose to live on the streets? She must be ill, or an alcoholic. He had smelled stale booze coming off her like mothballs from an attic toy chest.
He wanted to know. He thought of her dazzling blue eyes and strange words, and he had to know.