Flash Fiction, based on this photo by Vivian Maier…
I was told they were in an arts and crafts store one wintery day when it finally happened.
Both of them were relieved to be out of the freezing apartment, and although they did not have the money to buy anything, they were out shopping nonetheless.
Charley had on her warmest coat. Though indoors, she kept the hood on. Her father had cut her hair that morning. She looked boyish and was embarrassed by it, but could at least hide the worst mistakes with the hood.
She wore no undershirt, and the coat’s fuzzy material against her skin reminded her of what it felt like to hug a large teddy bear. Like the one three years before, at her Aunty Ella’s place, where she hugged her older cousin Andrea’s teddy while she waited for her father to fetch her.
* * * * * *
Twelve year old Andrea had been picnicking with friends for the day. After lunch, Aunty Ella tossed a book onto the kitchen table. She knew Charley could not read.
“I’m off to rest,” she said. “I need peace and quiet, so don’t dare leave this kitchen.”
A while later Charley tiptoed down the corridor. She needed to pee. Her thin legs momentarily collapsed as she inched past Aunty Ella’s bedroom. Through the doorway she saw the old lady sprawled on her back, gray hair splayed magnificently across white pillow covers, snoring loudly enough to raise the dead. Emboldened, Charley walked towards the loo, but found herself drawn to Andrea’s room instead. She caressed the brass doorknob on the closed door. It was cold and exciting to touch. Dangerous.
Charley held her breath. Aunty Ella snored. Charley turned the doorknob. A loud click echoed through the passageway. Aunty Ella snorted. In a sudden panic, Charley slid into the bedroom and pushed the door closed. She was afraid Aunty Ella would find her there, so she hid in the closet. Having fumbled her way past jackets, shirts and skirts to the deepest recesses, she sank to the ground, drained of all strength.
In the early hours of the following morning, the closet opened and her father’s quivering hands found his sleeping daughter clinging tightly to a teddy bear.
He woke her.
“Aunty Ella died in her sleep this afternoon,” he said.
The quiet sobs of Andrea mourning came from a shadow on the bed nearby.
* * * * * *
She peered up at her father who was dressed as a clown. He wore an enormous, wide-brimmed flat hat on his head and his usual make-up on his face. The sad clown with black tears running down his pale cheeks.
He pretended to read the instructions printed on a packet of face paint.
Again she was embarrassed.
“Yes, Daddy?” she asked.
He placed the face paint back on the shelf. Then immediately picked it up again before turning it in his hand.
“I can’t do this anymore. I’m leaving.”
He turned and loped toward the door. She ran after him.
He didn’t even turn his head. The bell on the handle of the glass door jangled as he pushed it open, bolted down the sidewalk, and pushed aside a woman with a fur hat. As Charley raced out the door, the fur-hatted woman turned to look after the tear-faced clown and the ragged little girl chasing him.
A half-block away, he suddenly stopped and leaned against a brick wall. She reached him, panting. He was crying. Taxis honked; the man selling hot dogs and pretzels on the corner watched as Charley threw her arms around him, wailing.
Her thin body pressed against his, her arms wrapped his waist. Desperation rang through the streets. The near-hideous clown slumped, his weight falling onto Charley. She released her arms and he collapsed in a pile on the hard sidewalk. His odd clown-hat fell off his sweating head and lay at a grotesque angle beside him.
People gathered around them, stood in mute silence, staring. Panic rose in Charley’s chest. When her father performed his strange, dark-clown, street dramas, she played her part silently, passing the hat, eyes downcast, invisible. She had to get him home, out of sight. It didn’t matter that it was freezing in that 5th floor walk-up, the refrigerator shelves were bare and they had to huddle around the gas stove to keep at least their hands and noses warm. They would be alone and together.
“What’s going on here? Make way, make WAY, I said. Police, make way.”
She hissed into her father’s ear.
“The police are here!”
To Charley, the illiterate daughter of an illegal street performer, the police meant one thing. Run.
Her father mouthed some words. She leaned in to catch them.
“I love you. I’m sorry.”
She started to scream and tried to twist away as the cop put his hand on her shoulder.
The woman in the fur hat stepped forward from the crowd.
“Please, sir, unhand my daughter.”
Charley stopped mid-scream.
The cop released his grip. “Ma’am, what is going on here?”
Charley didn’t move.
“Sir, I do apologize. This man has been taking care of my daughter. I will see to them both. I would appreciate it if you could move this crowd along. Thank you.”
The woman squatted down to Charley’s eye level.
“Hello, dear. What is your name?” She said very quietly.
“Charley.” Charley whispered.
“Well, hello Charley. I am Anna. What is your father’s first name?”
Anna stood and spoke to a man standing beside her who Charley had not noticed. A car pulled up to the curb. Her father’s eyes opened as the man leaned down to help him to his feet.
And that is how Charley and Willhelm came to live with us—Mama found them on the street.