The bus drove off.
Angie followed it all the way to town. At the corner of Driftwood Way and the highway, she had a choice: turn for home or follow the bus.
For no reason that she could articulate, she followed the bus.
Finally, deep in the darklands of West End, the girl exited the bus. She walked through a neighborhood that would have scared most people and went into the remarkably misnamed Luxury Apartments. A few moments later, a light came on in a window on the fourth floor.
Angie parked at the curb and stared up at the building. It reminded her of something out of a Roald Dahl novel, all decaying wood and blank, black spaces.
No wonder the girl had been putting Work Wanted flyers on windshields.
You can’t save them all, Conlan used to say to Angie when she’d cry at the unfairness of the world. I can’t save any of them had always been her answer.
Then, she’d had him to hold her when she felt like this.
It was up to her. She couldn’t save that girl, certainly; it wasn’t her place to do so.
But maybe she could find a way to help her.
IT ALL CAME DOWN TO FATE. THAT WAS WHAT ANGIE thought on Monday morning as she stood in front of the Clothes Line’s display window.
There it was, right in front of her.
A dark green knee-length winter coat with faux fur around the collar, down the front, and encircling the cuffs. It was exactly what the girls were wearing this year. In fact, Angie had had a coat very much like this one in fourth grade.
It would look beautiful on a pale-skinned, red-haired girl with sad brown eyes.
She spent a nanosecond or two trying to talk herself out of it. After all, she didn’t know the girl and this was none of Angie’s business.
The arguments were weak and didn’t change her mind.
Sometimes a thing just felt right, and truthfully, she was glad to have someone to think about besides herself.
She pushed open the door and went into the small store. A bell tinkled overhead at her entrance. The sound took her back in time, and for a moment she was a pencil-thin cheerleader with Brillo-pad black hair, following her sisters into the only clothing store in town.
Now, of course, there were several stores, even a J.C. Penney department store out on the highway, but back then, the Clothes Line had been the place for Jordache jeans and leg warmers.
"That cannot be Angie DeSaria."
The familiar voice pulled Angie out of her reverie. She heard a flurry of footsteps (rubber-soled shoes on linoleum) and started smiling.
Mrs. Costanza made her way through the rounders of clothing, bobbing and weaving with a finesse that Evander Holyfield would envy. At first, all that was visible of her was a pile of teased, dyed-black hair. Then thin, drawn-on black eyebrows and finally her cherry-red smile.
"Hey, Miz Costanza," Angie said to the woman who’d fitted her for her first bra and sold her her every pair of shoes for seventeen years.
"I cannot believe it’s you." She clapped her hands together, palm to palm to protect her long, heart-spangled fingernails. "I heard you were in town, of course, but I figured you would buy your clothes in the big city. Let me look at you." She latched on to Angie’s shoulder and spun her around. "Jeans by Roberto Cavalli. A good Italian boy. This is good. But your shoes aren’t sensible for walking in town. You’ll need new ones. And I hear you’re working at the restaurant. You’ll need shoes for that."
Angie couldn’t contain her smile. "You’re right, as always."
Mrs. Costanza touched her cheek. "Your mama is so happy to have you home. It has been a bad year."
Angie’s smile faltered. "For all of us."
"He was a good man. The best."
For a moment they fell silent, staring at each other, both of them thinking about her father. Finally, Angie said, "Before you sell me a pair of comfortable shoes, I’m interested in the coat in the window."
"That coat is awfully young for you, Angela. I know in the city–"
"It’s not for me. It’s for … a friend."
"Ah." She nodded. "It is what all the girls want this year. Come."
An hour later, Angie left the Clothes Line with two winter coats, two pair of angora gloves, a pair of non-name brand tennis shoes, and a pair of black flats for work. Her first stop was the packaging store in town, where she boxed up the coats.
She intended to drop them off at Help-Your-Neighbor. She really did.
But somehow she found herself parked on the girl’s street, staring up at the dilapidated apartment building.
She gathered up the box and headed for the front door. Her heels caught in cracks in the paved walkway, threw her off balance. She imagined that she looked like Quasimodo, lurching forward. If anyone were watching, which, frankly, the blank, dark windows denied.
The main door was unlocked; indeed, it hung off one hinge. She opened it, stepped into a gloomy darkness. There was a bank of mailboxes to her left, with numbers on them. The only name listed was that of the manager’s: Dolores Mauk, 1A.
Angie was across the hall from 1A. Hefting the box under her arm, she went to the door and knocked. When no one answered, she tried again.
"I’m comin’," someone said.
The door opened. A middle-aged woman with a hard face and soft eyes stood there. She wore a floral housedress and Converse high-top tennis shoes. A red kerchief covered most of her hair.
"Are you Ms. Mauk?" Angie asked, feeling suddenly conspicuous. She felt the woman’s wariness.
"I am. Whaddaya want?"
"This package. It’s for Lauren Ribido."
"Lauren," the woman said, her mouth softening into a smile. "She’s a good girl." Then she frowned again. "You don’t look like a delivery person." Mrs. Mauk’s gaze slid pointedly down to Angie’s shoes, then back up.
"It’s a winter coat," Angie said. In the silence that followed, Angie felt compelled to explain. "I was at HelpYour-Neighbor when she–Lauren–came in, asking for a coat for her mother. I thought … why not get two? So here I am. I could leave the box with you. Would that be okay?"
"You’d best. They aren’t home now."
Angie handed her the box. She had just started to turn away when the woman asked her name.
"Angela Malone. Used to be DeSaria." She always added that in town. Everyone, it seemed, knew her family.
"From the restaurant?"
Angie smiled. "That’s me."
"My daughter used to love that place."
Used to. That was the problem with the restaurant. People had forgotten about it. "Bring her by again. I’ll make sure she gets the royal treatment." Angie knew instantly that she’d said something wrong.
"Thanks," Ms. Mauk said in a husky voice. "I’ll do that."
And the door shut.
Angie stood there, wondering what she’d done wrong. Finally, with a sigh, she turned and headed for the door.
Once in her car, she sat there, staring through the windshield at the rundown neighborhood. A bright yellow school bus pulled up to the corner and stopped. Several children spilled down the steps and jumped out onto the street. They were young–probably first or second graders.
No moms waited for them on the corner, talking to one another, sipping expensive lattes in Starbucks cups.
She felt that old wrenching in her chest, the blossoming of her familiar ache. She swallowed hard, watching the children move together in a pack, kicking a can down the sidewalk and laughing.
It wasn’t until they were almost out of eyeshot that she realized what was missing.
Not one of those kids was wearing a winter coat, even though it was cold outside. And by next month, it would be colder still.
The idea came to her right then: A coat drive at DeSaria’s. For every new or gently used coat donated, they’d offer a free dinner.
It was perfect.
She jammed her key in the ignition and started the car. She couldn’t wait to tell Mira.
LAUREN HURRIED ACROSS CAMPUS. COLD AIR SMACKED her in the face. Her breath released in white plumes that faded fast as she walked.
David stood at the flagpole, waiting for her. At her appearance, he smiled brightly. She could tell he’d been waiting awhile; his cheeks were ruddy pink. "Damn, it’s cold out here," he said, pulling her close for a long, lingering French kiss.
They walked across the commons, waving and smiling at friends, talking quietly to each other.
Outside her classroom, they stopped. David gave her another kiss, then headed to his own class. He hadn’t gone more than a few feet when he stopped, turned around.
"Hey, I forgot to ask. What color tux should I get for homecoming?"
She felt the blood drain from her face. Homecoming. The dance was ten days away.
Jeez. She’d organized all of the decorations and set up the DJ and the lights.
How could she have forgotten the most important thing: a dress?
"Uh. Black," she answered, trying to smile. "Black is always safe."
"You got it," he said with an easy smile.
Things were always easy for David. He didn’t have to wonder how to finance a new dress–forget about shoes and a wrap.
All through her trigonometry class she was distracted. As soon as class was over, she bolted to a quiet corner in the library and burrowed through her wallet and backpack, looking for money.
$6.12. That was all she had to her name right now.
A frown settled into place on her forehead and stayed there for the rest of the day.
After school, she skipped her decorating meeting and raced home.
The bus let her off at the corner of Apple Way and Cascade Street. It was raining hard. No longer a silvery mist, this was an onslaught that turned the world cold and gray. Raindrops hit the pavement in such rapid succession it looked as if the streets were boiling. Her canvas hood was ineffective at best. Water dripped down the sides of her face and burrowed cold and sticky against her collar. Her backpack, stuffed full of books and notebooks and handouts, seemed to weigh a ton. On top of all that, her vinyl shoes had broken a heel three blocks ago, so now she was limping down the hill toward home.
At the corner she waved at Bubba, who waved back, then returned to his tattooing. The neon sign flickered tiredly above his head. The smaller sign, posted in the window–I Tattooed Your Parents–was streaked with rain. She limped forward, past the now closed Hair Apparent where her mother allegedly worked, past the mini-mart run by the Chu family and the Teriyaki Takeout that the Ramirez family owned and operated.
Outside her apartment building, she stopped, loath suddenly to go inside. She closed her eyes and imagined the home she would someday have. Buttery yellow walls, down-filled sofas, huge picture windows, a wraparound porch overgrown with flowers.
She tried to latch on to the familiar dream, but it floated past her, as insubstantial as smoke.
She forcibly changed her mind-set. Wishing and hoping had never put food on the table or brought Mom home one minute early. It certainly didn’t get a girl a homecoming gown.
She walked down the cracked concrete path, past the box of garden tools that Mrs. Mauk had set outside last week in a feeble attempt to encourage tenant pride. Soon they would begin to rust. Those tools would be ruined long before someone bothered to cut back the leggy roses and runaway blackberry bushes that covered the back half of the lot.
The dark hallway greeted her.
She went upstairs and found the door to their apartment standing open.