The concrete is the color of stale sand. Faint striations from the leveling of machines and workers’ hands. Weeds and the hint of grass peek from the cracks, fresh and verdant green. Out of place in the aging, fading colors of a metropolis on the wane.
Baltimore in August. One hundred degrees Fahrenheit. It feels hotter. At three in the afternoon the shadows are harsh and angular. The row homes stare at one another from across the asphalt streets. Brick and stone with concrete steps. Plywood boards act as doors and windows as more of them than not are no longer homes, having been vacated or abandoned.
In the alley. In the shadow of a dumpster is a man. Sleeping. Or unconscious. Or dead, possibly. It’s hard to tell. He is gaunt and sunken. Withered. Wiry yet frail. His skin probably used to be the color of mahogany. Now it’s ashy and flaky with uncomfortable sores on his bare arms and shins.
A pink plastic ball rolls into the alley, its path a lazy series of serpentine arcs. It comes to rest against a foot and the man lets out an unconscious or post mortem grunt of escaping breath. The letters in silver glitter on the ball are upside down — BARBIE.
A little girl with pig tails comes running after the ball, the patter of her feet in flip flops beating out a sloppy, squishy rhythm.
She hesitates. She says, “Ew” to herself before she even notices the man half swallowed by shadow. The ball has rolled through the puddle in the alley and she, at the prodding of her mother, just washed her hands no less than five minutes ago. Another child’s voice yells out impatiently, “Go get it, Bebe!”
Bebe bends to tug on the legs of her shorts, straightening them, smoothing out the wrinkles on her light blue t-shirt.
“Bebe!” the voice calls out again.
“I’m going,” Bebe says to herself, rolling her eyes. The hum of the power line over head sings out, another voice in the orchestra of city sounds. Car honks, a yell, a curse, children playing, the wail of police car sirens, an argument, thudding rattling bass from a passing sedan with glistening rims, and the salsa music from an upstairs window down the block.
Bebe looks up at the large, metal cylinder that hums on the telephone pole, shielding her eyes from the sun. Her eyes trace the intersection of wires and cables. She wipes the beads of sweat from her upper lip and dries her hand on her shorts. She takes a breath, taking in the light pole with the blue light on top.
Stepping into the alley, Bebe wrinkles her nose at the sudden wafting aura of garbage stink hovering wetly in the stagnant air. A thick, brown liquid is dripping out of the rusted, dented green dumpster, staining the man’s disheveled trouser leg.
Bebe tiptoes. One step then another. Her flip flops betray her, squelching despite her best attempt at stealth. A cloud of flies hovers over the dumpster. Their wings singing in a way that makes her skin crawl. She wills the goosebumps on her arms away, tosses caution aside and runs to the ball. Quick as she can be, she grabs the shiny pink plastic sphere, sticky in her hands, and turns to run away.
She stops. A pang of conscience taps on her shoulder. She turns around to face the man. She starts to say hello. The words get caught in her throat. She takes a step back, her legs with a mind of their own. She thinks about saying goodbye but she doesn’t. Most of all, she wants to ask, “Are you okay?”
She runs out of the alley and turns the corner to home.
A gaggle of kids, ignoring the heat even as they complain about it, sit on the stoop.
“What took you so long? Did you go to the bathroom or something?”
Bebe sticks out her tongue, blowing a raspberry. She tosses the ball to one of the kids and the drops of puddle water on the ball fly like glistening wet shrapnel.
“Yuck!” one of them shouts as one of the girls squeals in disgust.
Bebe runs into the house and up the stairs to the room she shares with her two sisters and one brother. They won’t be back inside soon, though, so she goes to her bed on her knees and reaches under for a pink shoebox. She pulls out a doll. No good, she puts it back in carefully and roots around until she’s satisfied. A slender, one armed Barbie with long blond hair and a black G.I. Joe action figure.
“Hello, my name is Bebe,” Barbie says.
“And I’m –”, Bebe pauses as she thinks of a good name. “Mr. Fly. No. Um, I’m Mr. Shade.”
Barbie says, “Hello, Mr. Shade. It sure is hot. I think it’s global warning.”
“I agree,” says Mr. Shade in the deepest voice Bebe can conjure. “I think it’s the global warning, too.”
“Do you have a house, Mr. Shade?” Barbie asks.
“Why yes I do. I sleep here in the shade next to my green house,” Mr. Shade answers as Bebe positions him next to the shoebox.
“Oh how lovely! Your house is very nice. Would you like some tea? The President will be visiting again and he likes tea. Maybe you would like tea, too.”
Hours later when the sun slides toward the horizon and the sky turns orange and purple, Bebe starts awake at the sound of her mother’s voice from downstairs.
“I said come down here, girl! I know you heard me. It’s time for dinner,” her mother shouts.
“It was nice meeting you, Mr. Shade,” Barbie says properly as Bebe makes the dolls shake hands and then bow to one another.
The ceiling of Bebe’s room begins to glow red then blue. Over and over. At first Bebe is confused. She clambers over the bed to the window to see police cars gathering at the corner.
Bebe puts Barbie and Mr. Shade back into the shoebox and slides the shoebox back under her bed.
She hustles down the stairs. Her little feet thumping on the treads and she flings herself at her mother’s legs, hugging her tightly.
Her mother hugs her back and asks, “What’s that for, girl?”
“I love you, mommy.”
Bebe’s mother steps back and looks at Bebe with a hint of suspicion. “Child, did you do something? Were you jumping on the bed again? I told you about that.”
“I don’t want to go to jail!” Bebe blurts out.
An aroma of baking poultry and spices flows throughout the kitchen down the hall and out of the screen door into the dusk of evening
“Girl, you ain’t going to no jail. Not no child of mine.”
“Promise?” Bebe questions while staring up into her mother’s eyes as if she’s looking for truth.
“Promise,” her mother says. “Besides, even if you did, in a month that jail would look like the Sound of Music. With everybody singing and dancing. Doing each other’s hair and nails. Growing gardens and raising kittens and bunnies.”
“Oh, and turtles!” Bebe adds.
A look of mock disgust crosses her mother’s face. “Oh right. And turtles. Dirty little things.”
Bebe laughs. An honest to goodness child’s laugh. Innocent, free and unrestrained. Her mother’s eyes glisten wetly. She doesn’t hear that sound often enough. She makes a promise in her heart to let her children grow up a companion of innocence and wonderment as long as she possibly can.
As the front screen door bangs open and shut in announcement of the arrival of her other children, Bebe’s mother sings to herself, “How do you solve a problem like Maria…”