I have lived in Special’s neighborhood for seventeen years, the last five of which have been on the street. To elaborate on my current position would be detrimental to this story, so let’s just recognize that I’m homeless and get on with it, shall we? There are a few begging areas I’m particular to in The D. Nevada Avenue ain’t bad. The corners of Dequindre Street and Grixdale East are good in the mornings. By the stoplight on Outer Drive East and Conant Street from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM is where I make most of my money. There are a lot of kind people moving by there; although, they don’t seem to have as big of bills as they used to. Those twenties are now a five at best. Times are hard to give up your cash. I would know.
In the field near Special’s house, there are three benches scattered about. They were most likely stolen from other parks. One of the benches has a busted seat, but the other two are solid. I alternate sleeping on them because my back fits differently on both. There’s nothing worse than having your back mold to a hard surface over time. Makes me feel old, and yes, I have seen many seasons, but I’m not ready for a cane yet. My legs still do what they’re supposed to do and you can’t ask for much more than that. This neighborhood is trying to flush me out, but I ain’t budging. Some kids tease me and wake me up when I’m napping. They have no respect for nobody, and I bet that someday, many of them will be sleeping on the very same bench as I am now. This is my home. Nothing’s going to get me to leave. It ain’t all bad, though. There are good people here, people who have my back. Our community sticks together. I’ve seen many unbelievable things, things that would make your eyes water with happiness, and things that would chill you to the bone. But I ain’t ever seen a ladybug papier-mâché walking around on its own while a young girl stood by, acting like all’s well. Not until that Sunday afternoon when Ianchelle asked me to accompany her daughter to her play spot.
I was sitting on the BLESS THIS HOUSE rug that Special had laid out over the cement when I said, “Special! What madness is this?”
Special stood in front of the ladybug, arms raised. “Don’t shout at it, Mr. Potmis. It hasn’t met a stranger yet.”
“Well, I ain’t no stranger to you. What is it? I never seen anything like it!”
“I think I’m going to name her Ariel.”
“Are you controlling her with a remote?”
“No, she’s alive.”
“I don’t understand. I must be tripping.”
I wasn’t ready to believe what Special was saying, so I made her explain to me what was going on. She told her story (same as I’ve told you so far, except for a few tweaks here and there—not fabrications, just tweaks so you could feel what Special felt at the time) and showed me the notes she had compiled about her creatures. They were very astute and detailed. What I was seeing wasn’t possible, yet I couldn’t deny that it was real. It was like out of a fairytale, something from Disney or one of those old fable books, only it didn’t happen to some rich prince or princess; it happened to a bright little girl in the city. God bless it, it happened to someone right in Morrow Square.
“How many of these creatures have you brought to life so far?” I asked.
Special counted on her fingers. “This one makes five.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“Ivory. She was the first.”
“Ivory sounds lovely.”
Ariel rubbed her body against Special’s shoes. Special giggled.
“She likes you,” I said. “Maybe she knows you’re her mother.”
Special picked up Ariel and sat next to me on the rug. “How do you think they come alive? Is it some kind of magic?”
“Magic? Well, I can’t say for sure. I don’t know a lot about magic, but I do know that there are things that happen that you can’t explain. You say they only come alive after you put them in the barrel?”
“And none of your other toys come to life when you put them in there?”
Again, she nodded.
I rubbed my chin and thought about the strangeness of the situation. Why did it work for the papier-mâché creatures but not her other toys? Was it something about their texture that sprung them to life, some secret element that scientists had yet to discover?
I got up and examined the exterior of the barrel. It was quite old, 1800’s if I had to guess. The wood was very dry, almost black. There were a total of six metal bands called hoops (three on top; three on bottom) wrapped around the wooden barrel. On the backside was the bunghole. Some barrels have a cork plugging the hole, but Special’s barrel didn’t have any kind of plug. I looked inside and noticed the interior was charred. Someone had set a fire inside years ago, perhaps trying to keep warm during one of those bitter winters. There were no markings or stamps imprinted on the surface; no engravings in the hoops or names carved into the wood. The barrel, like many of us in Morrow Square, had a long history that was only known to itself. Where and how it got its magical powers was a mystery, and maybe that was a good thing. Sometimes, knowing all the why’s can cause something to lose its luster. It can ruin its charm. The most important thing was that the barrel belonged to Special now. She had discovered it all by herself. Rather than toss it with the rest of the garbage by the freeway, she had held on to it for some reason. Something about it had made an impression on her, and perhaps that little bit of care was enough for the barrel to give back to her in some way. I don’t believe that barrels have some sort of consciousness and reward their owners for taking care of them, but I also don’t believe that a little girl’s paper creations can come to life, yet here we are. Seeing is believing, as they say.
“I don’t know, Special,” I said. “It looks like a regular old barrel to me. Who knows what makes it do what it does? Maybe we’ll never know.”
“Do you think there are more like it?” she said.
“I think it’s one of a kind. Who else have you told about it?”
“And she believed you?”
“Maybe that’s good.”
“How do you figure?”
“Well, things like this can be taken advantage of by the wrong people. People can get jealous. You found it instead of them, and that somehow isn’t fair. They might seem like they’re on your side, but they only want the fame. And power. This is your barrel, Special. Nobody else needs to know about it right now.”
“Even mama. From now on, it’s just you and me. I can keep a secret if you can.”
“Secrets are my specialty.”
I laughed. Special let me hold Ariel. The papier-mâché creature felt like a real bug crawling around in my palms. There was even warmth to its shell, a proof of life. It was unreal.
“I heard you calling these things paper mushies,” I said. “You know that it’s pronounced—”
“Paper mushy is better.”
I paused. “You know, I tend to agree with you there.”
Special took notes, watching how Ariel reacted to me. I tell you what, that girl could concentrate like no other. Very thorough, too. The end of her Sharpie looked like it had gone through a machine press.
I noticed a cut on Special’s chin when I gave Ariel back to her.
“What happened to your chin?” I asked.
“I fell,” Special said, eyes on her notebook.
(At this point, she had omitted the part about Shawn tripping her in the kitchen when she told her story).
“How did you fall?”
“I was clumsy.”
The fact that she wouldn’t look at me meant she was hiding something. I know how to read people. You have to in my position. Being able to decipher a look, a sigh, or fidgety hands can mean the difference between earning cash or being told to get a job. Special (like most kids) was easy to read. Kids are terrible liars. The inflection in their voice is the dead giveaway. I already knew about Shawn and what he was doing to Ianchelle. Word travels fast around here. My heart hurt for their family. There were nights when I laid on the benches and prayed for it to all stop.
“You should tell your teachers at school about what’s happening at home,” I said.
Special sighed. “What are you talking about?”
“You know what I mean. About Shawn and how he hurts your mama.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Don’t you know? I’m very wise.”
That got a smile out of her. “What would the people at school be able to do?”
“They could call the right people and get that man away from your family. They could get assistance for you and your mama so you could get back on your feet.”
“But sometimes she likes it when Shawn comes over. Sometimes, it’s her idea. Sometimes, he gets her things and she smiles. It’s hard to explain.”
“What if it’s my fault that this is happening? What if I’m the why, Mr. Potmis?”
“Now you listen here … This is not your fault. You did nothing to deserve any of this. Your mama loves you very much and I bet you love her too.”
I could see there was a lot of activity happening behind her eyes. If you’ve ever looked into a child’s eyes who you knew was hurting you would understand what I mean. Eyes tell the truth. Ain’t no polygraph needed.
“If Shawn ever hurts you again, you come to me, ok?” I said. “Don’t go to The Boys. Shawn’s rolled with them before. You come to me, you hear?”
“You know, if I had the power to create living things out of paper, I might try to make something that could put an end to all of my problems.”
“What do you mean? Are you talking about the paper mushies?”
“I don’t know. Just thinking out loud. When you get old like me, you’ll have moments where you say things that don’t make sense.”
“I already do that all the time.”
We laughed. Special agreed to let me take Ariel for the rest of the afternoon. I was planning on taking a nap around 4:00 PM. She was curious to know if a] it mattered that the papier-mâché was with another person when they slept, and b] if it mattered that the person was sleeping during the day rather than at night.
I was against this idea because I didn’t want to see another one of her creations die. She assured me that it was important to figure out some of the why’s together rather than all by herself.