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When We Needed You

by Gary Clifton

The two children must have had parents or somebody who’d fixed their hair into a bobbed-off semblance of dreadlocks, the better to prevent head lice. Both about seven or eight, they’d survived the barefoot crossing of the searing pavement and the tire-screeching traffic of Central Avenue to reach the old fountain in the park. Defunct for years, the fountain held about a foot of muddy water from a recent, rare August heavy rain.

The city had increased the speed limit and removed the stop sign there so citizens could hurry to the freeway past the public housing project opposite the park. No need for suburban commuters to be exposed to the scruffy poverty of the “unfortunates” warehoused there.

With the innocent reasoning of children, the little boy had shed his only garment, a threadbare pair of faded shorts and his female companion had followed, dropping her ragged dress beside the retaining wall. Another time, they might well have jumped in, clothes and all. They successfully picked their way through the minefield of beer cans and broken wine bottles and climbed in the slimy water. If either could read the faded sign forbidding wading in the pool, it had no effect on their wet frolic in the blistering heat.

A squad car pulled onto the curb to get out of traffic. The husky officer, with thinning blond hair going to gray smiled knowingly. He stood in the swelter, allowing the children a few extra minutes.

Although witnesses couldn’t hear what he said, he managed to coax both out without getting in. Fishing in his uniform pocket, he had handed each a small candy sucker on a stick. The candy was probably a freebie from the Mexican restaurant up on the interstate, but that didn’t make it any less sweet.

The cop must have had children of his own, because he handled the boy and girl gently and quite handily. His trousers were soaked from helping the boy pull on the shorts, and he managed to get the worn dress back onto the girl with less difficulty.

With a hand leading each, he stepped to the curb, then hoisted a child in each arm to protect their bare feet from the blazing concrete. He carried both back across six lanes of Central to the massive housing project standing like a medieval prison. Rude drivers knew to stop and honk no horns. He was the law, and he looked like a man who could handle whatever necessary, whenever necessary.

A gaggle of teen-age punks was lounging beneath a scrub elm tree along a concrete wall on the housing project front. They melted away as the trio approached. They were experts in choosing their battles, and it was apparent the cop was no stranger to them.

Someday, both children would become part of that crowd and be carefully taught to hate him and his uniform. But, in the midday heat and deadly traffic, that would have to wait till another day.

Copyright © 2019 by Gary Clifton

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