by Gary Clifton
“Michelle, you make sure little Jill’s oatmeal gets warmed up. Hear?”
“Mama, we ain’t got no oatmeal.”
“Well, give her some of them corn flakes.”
Michelle, gaunt, nine years old, with a chronic cough, was the oldest of the four kids, all girls. Jill, the baby, was two. Michelle had missed so much school, the truancy man hadn’t been around in two weeks.
Mama, Shayla, was twenty-four, plump and disheveled. Mentally a tad slow, heavy substance abuse had further eroded her judgment.
“Mama, can you come home on the last bus tonight? The kids gets scared when you don’t come back till morning.” She didn’t include how terrified she was when Mama didn’t show. Shayla was the lifeline, the only source of contact with the outside world.
“Michelle, I ain’t never missed the last bus more’n once or twice. Always brings back a few extra dollars... Buy you kids something nice.” She stooped to pat Michelle’s cheek.
Michelle’s tired little eyes, wise beyond her age, studied her mother’s face furtively long after Shayla looked away. The kids hadn’t seen any extra money from Mama’s prowling in the night in as long as she could remember. The cupboard had always remained nearly bare, no matter how late Shayla dawdled before drifting home drunk and stoned, hopefully on the last bus.
Michelle had an idea of what her mama did for money. The few times Shayla had brought tricks to the apartment, she’d made all four kids hide in a closet while Mama spent time with the man on her bed.
Mama usually came home on the last bus. The schedule would have said it arrived at 2:00 a.m., but Michelle, unable to tell time, didn’t actually know the hour.
Shayla had more or less fallen by natural progression into working the streets. After several of her own mother’s men had raped and used her over the years, bedding a man seemed the natural thing to do. She actually enjoyed the sex, booze, and drugs. She could not have identified the father of any of her four children. On occasion, she spent her money on gin. Sometimes she was having such a good time, she forgot to come home on the last bus.
Shayla stepped out into the gathering dusk of Crossroads Boulevard, the icy wind cutting at her bare, mini-skirted legs. She stopped, blew a kiss to all four girls hovered in the window above, and hustled while the bus driver waited for her a half-block down. Tonight, she’d work the Derby on 37th Street. Out behind the dumpster, she’d do a few quickies with men who worked in the packing house down the street, pick up forty, fifty bucks, and get a good snoot on.
* * *
Little Michelle lay trembling as the sound wafted in of the last bus pulling away. Shayla was not in sight. Michelle had parceled out the last of the cornflakes after Shayla had left, and the three little ones would soon wake up hungry. Her growling stomach made her wish she’d eaten a few of those corn flakes.
At dawn, when buses began stopping again, Michelle counted four, then five. She bundled up the three younger ones with all the clothes she could find and led the sad procession across Crossroads. They waited at the bus stop in the unrelenting wind. Surely, Mama would come soon. She had to.
Old man Murphy first saw them there around eight o’clock, when he pushed out a cart of cabbages for the day’s run at his small grocery store. Murphy knew a decent man should give the children a bite to eat, but he felt, with riffraff, you give an inch and it becomes a mile. Sure, he’d visited Shayla upstairs a couple of times, but he’d paid up and owed nobody a thing.
Finally, watching the children still standing in the cold at just past ten, he flagged down a passing squad car. Grubby urchins right across from his door, that was bad for business.
A squad car pulled up. Murphy leaned down to talk into the car window. “Dunagan, the whore who lives over there didn’t come in again last night. Dunno how many times she’s failed to show and left them little buggers alone. Why the oldest there insists on parading the smaller ones out in the cold is beyond me. She’s got a nice ass on her, but too bad we jes’ can’t put some of this gutter trash down like we do with wayward dogs.”
Dunagan, a big man with tough eyes, stepped out, the cold wind fluttering the silver badge on the chest of his leather jacket. He gave Murphy a long look. “You’d be knowin’ about her ass, would you, Murphy?” He flipped open a notebook. “The woman’s name wouldn’t be Shayla? Shayla McGuire?”
“Didn’t know guttersnipes had last names, but yeah, I think I heard her name’s Shayla.” He evaded the cop’s expression in his effort to distance himself from sin and degeneracy.
“Looks like she won’t be coming home this morning, Murphy. They found her butchered behind a dumpster up on 37th a while ago. Wagon’s haulin’ off the pieces now. Sarge sent me to find her place.”
“Mother of saints!” Murphy exclaimed, crossing himself.
Across the street, Michelle was doggedly holding little Jill in her arms. Staring into the wind in the direction of oncoming buses, her lost little face was a granite copy of despair and equally as hard.
Dunagan caught the grocer’s eye. “Still workin’ on a plan to put ’em down, Murphy? I’ll be watching. Wayward dogs don’t ask to be born.” He started across the busy street, struggling for the words he’d need to deliver his terrible message.
Copyright © 2019 by Gary Clifton