The mechanic was right: the park was well-watered and peaceful, the ideal place to wait while he replaced my two tires that had been slashed that morning. I had attended lectures on people-centered management at the town’s Ritz Carlton, a building starkly out of place in this area full of dilapidated houses and gutters strewn with garbage. I could almost hear my wife’s indignation about a luxurious hotel amid such poverty. While I also disapproved, I figured there was nothing I could do about it, so I relaxed on a bench and took in the view: a few aspen trees and picnic tables, a swing set, and a merry-go-round.
I hadn’t been sitting there more than a couple of minutes when I noticed a young girl under a picnic table about thirty feet away. She was sitting on her knees and staring right at me. I looked around for an adult, but she and I seemed to be the only ones in the park, so I stared back to figure out what she was doing — playing hide and seek? Looking for rocks or insects? Then she stood up and began walking towards me, barefoot, hair in a tangle, sundress too big for her. She couldn’t have been older than ten and it was Wednesday. Shouldn’t she be in school? I thought.
“Hi,” I said tentatively, hoping not to scare her. “Are you okay?” She shook her head. She looked down and stuffed her dirty hands into the dress’ oversized pockets. “Where are your parents? Do you live here?”
“Sometimes,” she said, her voice cracking as she coughed without covering her mouth. I thought of my daughters, seven and nine, sitting around the breakfast table with me that morning eating the eggs and toast my wife had made for us, imagined them coloring in the living room as they watched cartoons or lying in their canopy beds and drifting off to a peaceful sleep. Then I imagined this little girl sleeping under that picnic table, digging in garbage cans for a half-eaten sandwich.
She bolted away from me and climbed onto the merry-go-round.
“Push me!” she shouted. She was smiling, but I hesitated. What if people driving by the park saw us and thought I was a pervert? But wasn’t I obligated to help a child who might be homeless? I decided to play along to find out more about her and whether I needed to contact child protective services, so I jogged over to the merry-go-round and pushed it. She laughed and whizzed around and around, brushing her hand over my chest every time she passed me.
“Faster!” she shouted. I pushed it again and again, but the trees and sky began to spin and I started to feel lightheaded as though I were on an amusement park ride. Too queasy to continue, I let go and the next time she passed me, she brushed her hand over my groin, and I jumped back, almost falling over.
“Don’t do that!” I told her, steadying myself. She jumped off the merry-go-round and, standing in front of me, pulled a spaghetti strap down over her shoulder and blew me a seductive kiss in the air. I reached in my front shirt pocket and pulled out my phone.
“I’m going to call someone who will help you, okay? You shouldn’t be living out here.” She then put her hands around my hips and rubbed my ass.
“Stop that!” I shouted. I started to dial 911.
“You don’t like it?” she asked.
“You’re too young to be acting like that, especially with a stranger!” She started to cry and then to scream.
“I don’t want to go away! They’ll hurt me!” Then she ran towards the street and I panicked, thinking of the street dog my wife and I once tried to rescue, accidentally chasing it into the street where it was hit by a truck.
“Stop!” I yelled, as I ran after her. Just then, a VW bug with a shiny blue paint job slowed down, and the driver, a teenage boy, opened the door and the girl climbed into the backseat. She stuck her head out the window and waved to me, smiling. I was both relieved and worried: maybe she did belong somewhere and this was just a stupid prank. But who was that boy?
I considered calling the police but what would I have told them? A little girl who might be homeless got into a car and waved at me? I hadn’t gotten the car’s license plate number and didn’t know the girl’s name. Deciding it was a hopeless situation, I walked back to the mechanic’s.
“Your car will be ready in about fifteen minutes,” he said when I arrived. “You can pay now if you want.” Then a different sort of panic struck me. Feeling the back pocket of my trousers confirmed my suspicion: my wallet was gone.
Catherine A. Kelley writes in California, USA.