I saw his hands first, on the top of the ten-foot wall. No one had ever done that before on account of the broken glass cemented in place last fall. In fact, I couldn’t remember anyone ever making it inside the yard in over a year. No one was foolish enough, then I recognized Joe.
“If you guess what’s in my plastic bag, you can keep it,” Joe said. A broad grin spread across his mottled, lop-sided face. One-Thumb-Joe was the homeless guy who lived on First and Branham near my special school. Why was he here at my home and why was he talking to me through the window’s wrought-iron bars?
Small for my age, I sat inside the shed in the gloom, chilly in the damp air. It wouldn’t be dark until nine, but the light was choked by the concrete parking lot next door. Joe stood outside the shed on the flowerbed, grimy and dirty trampling the wilted petunias. Everyone thinks San Francisco is hot in the summer, but it’s misty and cool with great rolling fogs blanketing everything from sight. Not that anyone saw me here. That was the point–“privacy”–Mom said. She hated the service alley bordering the parking garage and the “unsavory characters up to no good.” But I never saw anyone.
“You’re trespassing.” My voice came out a whisper. Wrong to talk to strangers. I’d seen Joe at the school bus depot with his rickety cart, and he saw me too. We talked most days when the happy yellow bus dropped me home. “A short two-block trip on a too short bus,” that’s what Mom always said. So Joe wasn’t a stranger anymore. Or was he? Didn’t that make him a friend?
“Mom’ll kill me if she catches you, Joe.”
“Maybe she’ll kill me instead.” His fists bulged, deep in his pockets. “Go on, Kate, guess.”
Joe didn’t own anything except the junk in his cart. He had nothing I wanted.
“Aren’t you hungry?” he asked.
He glanced around the yard surrounded by the thick, backdrop of poplar trees, their top halves hidden by heavy dew-laden fog muffling the sound of busy commuter traffic. All those busy people hurrying home safe.
“Thirsty? How long have you been stuck in there today?” Joe’s coat is dark across the shoulders where the rain has soaked through, his matted hair plastered across his forehead.
“Mom’s coming home from work at seven.” I’d give anything chocolate. A candy bar or chocolate milk, I didn’t care. Joe knew what I liked because I told him last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t have. That’s when he told me how he lost his thumb. Sharing secrets meant we were friends, didn’t it?
“Another two hours?” His mouth worked furiously, tongue poking his cheek making molehills on his grey-stubbled skin. “She needs to buy you a new skirt.”
“I promised I’d be good till then.” I yanked the itchy skirt over my scabby knees.
“Maybe we can be good together. I can keep you company. You don’t want to be out here all alone. That’s no fun.”
I didn’t care. I was used to being lonely on a Wednesday when school finished early. Mom couldn’t get a sitter for the long afternoons, but she’d run home on her lunch break to make sure I was all fixed up. I liked being alone. I hated the sitter, Mrs. Price, with her drills and schedules and therapies. I’d never learn to tie my shoe-laces. Why learn when there’s Velcro? What’s wrong with chewing your nails? At least I didn’t suck my thumb. I wanted to chew them now. I wanted Joe to go. I wanted to be alone. Most of all, I wanted him to stop staring at me with his naked eyes.
“I know you want it.” He shook the grocery bag. “I’ve got what you need.”
His fist clenched tight and stretched open like a cat kneading a bed. I didn’t want his claws in me. Right now, I wanted the key, and he didn’t have that because Mom kept it in her purse. She took her purse with her, “can’t be late, got to eat.” I heard her high heels clicking when she ran along the service lane back to work. She forgot her umbrella and left it on the bench.
“You won’t believe what I’ve got in here, Kate. Be bold. Live wild. Go on, guess.”
“Have you got the key to the padlock?”
“No. Something much better. How would you like a taste of freedom?”
“Yes. You can trust me. It’s quite safe.”
“I’m safe already. That’s why Mom locks me in here.”
“But that ain’t right. My dad used to lock me in a cupboard. How about I let you out? Then we could play together.”
“I shouldn’t. I can’t. I mustn’t.”
“Last chance, guess.”
He shook his head slowly, chin down, lips set hard. Rummaging in the bag, he pulled out a pair of heavy clippers, like Mom’s but rustier, the ones she used to cut off the dead roses.
“My Dad called these, ‘thumb trimmers,’ but their real name is, ‘bolt-cutters.'” He moved away from the window. I heard him, but couldn’t see him through the door, scrabbling at the lock, metal grinding on metal. The door swung wide.
“Come on, don’t be scared.” His hand reached toward me, palm open, fingers curled.
I wriggled off the chair, didn’t take his hand, and slipped past his smelly body. I made it to the lawn, a small square of neat green grass.
“Let’s wait on the bench together.” He sat on the wet bench, threw off the umbrella and smoothed the plastic bag flat for me so I wouldn’t get wet.
“Wait for what?”
“The special lady.”
“No, the social services lady. I told her.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her about the trees because I don’t know about addresses and that it’s bad to lock up little kids.”