By: Marilyn L. Davis
I was always glad that we lived on the top floor. I felt safe up there. I called it my roost. We learned about birds that perched in school, and I just liked the way that word felt when I said it. And sometimes, a bird did sit on the railing. Course, it flew away if I came out.
I read my books up there, and when it got too dark, I looked at the world above me. I knew there were constellations, planets, comets, and sometimes in April and October, I would watch for a shooting star. I never saw one. My teacher said that the lights from the city blocked our view. There was one light that shined through my bedroom window. The curtains didn’t meet, and that light was so bright. I would cover my head except in the summer when it was hot. Mamma called them security lights. I thought that was a funny way to describe them.
A bunch of the boys used to throw rocks at the lights, and sometimes, they shattered them. It would be months before a city truck came by to fix them. I never understood the fun in throwing rocks at the only source of security in that deserted alleyway.
Maybe I put too much faith in the light.
Carney got raped in that lot the year I turned eight.
I might have done something, but I was inside because it was the hot summer, and I’d get sick to my stomach from the bad smells of the overflowing trash bins in the alleyway if the window was up.
Mamma complained that the heat made her prickly and nauseated, and I learned what to call my upset tummy. Mamma’s new boyfriend bought us a floor fan. It was dented, so he got it on sale. That meant that the blades made a clicking sound each time it hit that dented place, so it was noisy, and Mamma said it drove her nuts. Mamma’s boyfriend didn’t like his TV time disturbed, so the volume was always up because of the fan. With his drinking, Mamma yelled at him a lot, too.
I felt bad I didn’t hear Carney crying or calling to someone for help, but the yelling and the TV were always loud in the summer. Three months after they found her unconscious in the alley, the city put protective metal covers on the security lights.
Afterward, the school brought in some people called counselors to talk to the girls. They thought we might be traumatized. I learned how to spell that word and was glad because now I had a name for how I felt.
Those counselors must have asked our teachers if there were any of us who might need more counseling than the rest. I got picked. I talked to a woman named, June. She smelled like flowers; not like the skunk-weed in the alley, but like the smell from the florist shop that used to be on our block. When that door opened, it was clean and earthy, and sweet, and just a jumble of smells; but all of them good.
I went to the shop once; I must have been about ten. I knew Mother’s Day was coming so I collected all the bottles from the alleyway. I made sure the men were gone. Most days they sat on the stair that belonged to the building behind mine and drank from brown and green bottles.
I was afraid of them; they were loud and looked at me funny, and Mamma said to stay away from them, but I knew I could trade their bottles at the store. I didn’t want Mamma to know I was getting the bottles, so I used our metal ladder, and when I’d get an armful, I’d take them to my roost. I got four bags of bottles and took them to the store.
I got $2.78 and was so proud. I put my money deep in my pocket; I didn’t want to risk losing it. People get all stressed and upset when they lose things, and waste a lot of time looking for the misplaced items. And I didn’t have much time, so I hurried to the florist shop.
The florist wasn’t friendly at first. Mamma always said that when someone comes in a room, you’re supposed to say, “Hello.” He didn’t. So, I thought maybe that was just our rule.
I asked him if I could buy some flowers for my Mamma. I told him I had $2.78 and asked him which flower smelled the best because that was the one I wanted. He smiled at me then. He said that there were so many aromatic flowers in the world. I asked him what that word meant because I’d never heard it before.
Then he wrote it down for me. I thought that was really nice. He said that Jasmine, Wisteria, Lily of the Valley, Gardenia and another funny word, Frangipani, were the flowers that smelled the most and the best. I got real excited at all those choices, but he didn’t have them.
But he had a rose.
In fact, he said he had more than one kind of rose. I asked him if any of them were red; my Mamma liked red. He had four kinds of red roses. He called them, “Bailey Red,” “American Beauty,” “Dame de Coeur” and one really funny one, a “Chrysler Imperial.” I thought he was making fun of me for, not knowing about flowers, so I told him that I knew a Chrysler was a car. I’d seen a commercial on TV.
He got serious and said he wasn’t making fun of me and that he could tell I was a smart girl.
He went into the back of the shop and told me to wait right there. He was gone a long time, and I knew I ought to get home. I almost left, but then he came out with what he called a bouquet. It was as tall as the brown bags I used to carry the bottles.
There were green leaves and a ribbon around the stems. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Before I took it, I got my money from my pocket. It was all crumbled, and I dropped some coins on the floor. One rolled under the counter, and I started to crawl and get it, but he told me to keep the money and just give the flowers to my Mamma.
I thanked him because that is what you do when someone is nice.
I miss him. He got robbed and shot so he moved, and the shop closed. No one ever opened it again. Sometimes when I walk past the shop, I think I can smell the roses through the broken windows, but probably not.
I’m no longer that little girl. But it is through her eyes that I write today. She found a way out. All those words that people shared with her. She wrote them in a notebook and practiced writing them.
She got a library card and spent hours marveling at the books. No one ever asked her to leave. She didn’t need to be told to be quiet and behave; she valued the books too much to mark them or dog-ear the pages. Instead of succumbing to the streets, she studied. Her roost became her salvation. She could find an answer to any question up there as long as she had a book.
I went back home today; yet another funeral. The roost is there, but it sags. Some of the rungs are missing, so it’s not safe or useful anymore.
The alleyway clearly defines which gang controls it. The men are gone from the stairs – dead in gang wars, bad drug deals or prison.
I started crying, for all the little girls and boys who will never get out. They might not ever know that they are traumatized, or that there are funny sounding fragrant flowers in the world or see a shooting star, only hear the shots fired on a Saturday night.
Originally published in response to an image challenge from Bill Holland on Hubpages.