“I thought Karen told you to dress casually,” he said as he strode up. She was the furthest thing from blending in that he could imagine. In fact she was so conspicuous it was laughable, and it only reinforced his belief that she was the worst possible lawyer he could even have been landed with. It was one of the kids that alerted him to her arrival with his snarky, Hey, Madonna’s come to see us. Snort! Who else could that be referring to?
“I did,” she replied, glancing down at herself and pulling her shoulders back and smoothing her hands over her fancy sweater, accentuating her curves.
He blinked to clear his mind of dirty thoughts. “Is that so?” He shook his head. Hopeless. He plucked at the expensive cashmere top and sneered at her pressed dark designer jeans and new leather boots. Hot but wholly inappropriate.
She recoiled, yanking her arm away from his inspection. “What is your problem? Have you no concept of how to behave as a mature adult? Or with professional dignity? Maybe you spend too much time on the street with the problem kids.”
“Hey!” That was not okay. He got up in her face, grabbing her arm and hissing under his breath through gritted teeth, “You do not talk about my kids that way.” If she’d been a man instead of a tiny, pretty little bird of a woman, he might have plowed her in the teeth for that.
She angled her head back, glaring at him. “Which way? Get off of me.” She shook loose.
Fuming, he let her go and stepped back, huffing in frustration.
“Come with me.”
“Ugh. Please.” Her pretty face scrunched, almost pouting. “You could at least try to have good manners.”
He ignored her and led her to the largest classroom, where Karen was speaking to a group of about twelve kids dressed in the usual array of ripped t-shirts, hoodies and baggy pants, displaying more ink every week. Karen blended right in today with old chinos and an ugly sweater. He gestured toward her. “That’s casual.” A few of the kids turned to gawk at the sparkling intruder, murmuring and sniggering behind their hands, until a sharp word from Karen brought their attention back.
Then he led her down the corridor to small meeting room where Sofia and Van, both social workers, were drinking coffee and going over file notes. They tended to dress just like him, which was as much like the people who lived in the neighbourhood as possible. “That’s casual.”
“Hmph. Maybe if you all dressed like adults, the children would give you the respect you’re due.”
He rolled his eyes, not done yet. He led her to the back of the building where old Douglas was sweeping the floor in the lunchroom. He was dressed in grimy brown work pants and the ripped green parka that he slept in and never removed, to Kent’s knowledge. Douglas was one of the local residents who got hot meals, some peace and quiet and, if they wanted it, the occasional shower, in exchange for a few hours of volunteer help. Douglas came for the meals, but not the showers, as his aroma testified. Kent waved at him and said, “Hey D. That’s casual.” Then turned to her in her spiffy designer duds and said. “This. Is. Not. Don’t you own any old, worn out clothes? Something a little baggier, less shiny?”
She sniffed, spun on her heel and stalked back toward the front of the building.
He groaned and followed her.
Shucking his plaid work shirt, he tossed it at her and she caught it, surprised. Then he grabbed a ratty hoodie off of a wall hook and pulled in on, continuing out the front door. “Come on. Let’s go for a walk.”
She scurried to keep up. “Where are we going?”
He shrugged. “I’ve been looking for a friend for a couple of days. I’ll show you around while we search. Put that on please.”
And they walked, with her jogging to keep pace with his long stride. He pulled it back to stop her looking like a hopping chicken in her little booties.
“I assumed we would sit down with Karen today and go over the project outline.” She struggled into his oversized shirt and was immediately swamped in it, the cuffs hanging down over her little hands.
He paused and grabbed first one arm, then the other to roll up the cuffs for her. “Karen’s busy. And you need to meet some people first. I don’t ever want to hear you refer to my kids as a problem again. Understand?”
She swallowed, peeking at him from the side of her eye as they walked. Maybe he saw a tiny nod.
“And as for your comment about dressing like adults to garner their respect, you should know that these kids, these people in general, are highly suspicious and untrusting of any authority figures. That includes cops, doctors, bankers, teachers, lawyers… even parents. These kids haven’t had many loving or responsible adults in their lives.”
She had the decency to look chastised.
“Where’s your briefcase, Ms. lawyer?”
“To take all those notes you were planning on.”
She huffed and waved her giant expensive smart phone in front of him.
This was why he wanted her to blend in. She was like a beacon walking around with him, and would likely scare away most of his usual contacts, making finding Harley even harder.
“Give me that. God you’re dense.” He grabbed her phone and pocketed it, assuming she’d have nowhere to carry it in her tight little designer jeans. Jeez why did she have to be such a little sexpot? He laughed out loud.
She didn’t even know it, either. That was the crazy part. He just peered at her stern, bitchy expression, her fuckable full lips pressed together like a calling card for a prostitute, and shook his head, exasperated.
To Sharon it seemed they’d walked every inch of the downtown east side in the past hour and a half. He was relentless. They walked up every street and down every back lane, glanced into every doorway and behind each and every dumpster. He shoved aside piles of ragged blankets and cardboard with his boot and stopped to talk to and endless stream of unsavoury characters.
Those that were coherent and conscious, that is. She was horrified at the number of people who slumped in doorways, or stood like zombies, barely conscious.
She hung back, quite viscerally aware now of how badly she stood out, even with Kent’s large soft plaid shirt draping almost to her knees. She could hardly give it back, but staying enveloped in it’s fragrant masculine folds was doing weird things to her libido. She felt woozy, and caught herself watching him with renewed interest. There was something both impressively competent and seductively kind about the way he was with people. Strangely, where she though he lacked people skills, was where his true talents lay.
From time to time, thankfully not with everyone because some of them were quite hostile, he’d pull her forward and introduce her to one or another of his people.
First they encountered Marlene, who looked to be about eighty-two, with a sagging, bruised face and toothless smile.
“Hey Marlene,” Kent said. “How are you today?”
“Oh Kent, sweetie. I’m okay, It’s a good one.” Her voice was deep and gravelly like a man. Or a lifelong smoker. Her sharp, deep set eyes darted between Kent and Sharon, her curiosity evident.
Kent folded the ragged bag of bones in a big hug and squeezed and rocked her back and forth like a long lost sister.
“You seen Harley in the last couple?” he asked.
She pulled away, shaking her head. “No sorry, honey.”
Kent pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and hands her one, then lit it with a lighter that came out of another pocket. She took a long pull and filled her lungs as though the smoke was the most delicious elixir. Maybe to her it was.
“Who’s this then? One of the condo people?” Marlene asked, coughing.
Kent turned to her. “No. This is Sharon. She’s going to be hanging around with me for the next little while. She’s on our side.” He hoped.
“Hi,” Sharon squeaked,
“Another social worker, are you?” Marlene said, reaching up to pinch Sharon on the cheek.
She jerked at the intrusive touch, but stiffened before she could recoil completely, forcing a smile. What would they think of her if she acted like she was repulsed by them?
“I won’t bite cha, honey.” She chuckled, hacking again.
“Something like that,” Kent answered for her, clearly avoiding broadcasting the fact that she was a lawyer. Anything to do with the law, or institutions, was clearly feared or hated around here. He tugged on her arm. “See you, Mar.”
She blew him a kiss, expelling a stream of smoke, her wrinkled lips puckering like old rope. “Bye, baby.”
Once Sharon got past the shock of seeing such a weathered, hardened face and body, she found herself being charmed by the old woman’s self-deprecating humour and warmth. “She’s seems like a nice old lady. I’m surprised she’s living down here.”
“She’s only thirty-nine.” Nodding at her shocked expression, Kent told her Marlene was a long-time resident and gentle addict, and in her better moments, a caring and well-loved member of the community, though sadly lived with an asshole of a guy who beat the crap out of her often, leaving Sharon speechless. “She gets hospitalized a lot.”
He continued walking, making rapid turns down different side streets. He clearly knew the area like his own back yard.
“So who’s this Harley we’re looking for?”
He didn’t answer.
They came upon clusters of sullen and snarky young adults loitering around weed shops, soup kitchens and in Pigeon Park, where Kent told her many drug deals were done, and outsiders were definitely not welcome. Sharon was disturbed at the sheer numbers of young people who’d clearly gone of the rails.
He left her standing alone in front of a shop while he wandered casually into the park he’d just warned her about. She couldn’t hear the mumbled words exchanged from her position across the street, but she couldn’t help but read body language. This was not an easy-going group of people. They were tense and full of suspicion when Kent sauntered up, even though they looked up, nodded and greeted him. Or some of them did, while others scowled and sidled away. It was apparent that he was known to them, not disrespected, but rather tolerated. In the end Kent was left talking with one beefy, bearded, tattooed guy in a denim vest. He was perhaps the ring-leader, or by virtue of his maturity, less afraid.
Her stomach quivered like jelly as nerves fluttered through her, and she clenched her fists and glanced around her, wishing he’d hurry back. How could he stand to be immersed in this alien and hostile environment all day every day. She wouldn’t make it a week before she had a nervous breakdown.
Something flashed in her face, sending her heart to her throat, her hand flying to her face in self-defence. She let out a scream when a figure jumped in front of her, throwing herself back against the storefront in shock, trembling and unable to draw breath, certain she was about to be killed.
Instead of stabbing her, the flush faced man waved his arms about, talking a blue streak. In her panic, she couldn’t decipher his garbled words, but fragments finally penetrated her brain until she realized he made no sense anyway. He appeared to be suffering paranoid delusions, based on the few wild things she could make out.
Biting her lip, her gaze darted across to where Kent still stood hunched by tattoo guy, and inching away to escape the still-babbling man, took a few steps toward the curb, hoping to catch Kent’s attention. Hurry up! She felt her pockets for her phone, momentarily worrying she’d dropped it, before recalling that he’d taken it from her.
Thankfully his exchange ended, and Kent seemed to get some useful information, because he bumped fists with pirate guy before crossing the street to return to her side.
Inarticulate with fear, she waved an arm in the direction of the psychotic man behind her. Her self-control was crumbling. Nothing set off her anxieties and fears like loud, erratic behaviour, instability, unpredictability and the threat of violence. Suddenly she was fourteen again and her world was falling apart.
“That’s Lance. Just ignore him. He’s harmless.”
Good to know. She drew a deep breath and her pulse eased down into the normal range now that he was back beside her. She waited for him to share something else, but he simply led the way onward, making a sudden change of direction, presumably on the intelligence he’d just gained.
They passed a large blocky church,
“Ever since the government de-institutionalized mental health patients in the eighties, many of them ended up here, most of them untreated and supervised.” Kent indicated Lance, who’d stumbled further down the street, never ceasing his inarticulate rant.
They walked in the opposite direction, his pace picking up as he rattled off disturbing statistics. “About three quarters of residents here have some mental health condition, nearly half with psychosis. Not all of them pre-existing. There’s a huge overlap of substance use and mental health problems. Drugs like crack cocaine, crystal meth and fentanyl, if it doesn’t kill them, can also cause psychosis.”
He took her elbow and directed her across a street, ducking between two cars that were stopped. Without missing a beat he continued.
“A large proportion of the repeat offenders, financing their addictions, and those who end up in hospital, are those with a combination of mental health and substance use. So much for saving the taxpayers money, eh?”
They arrived at a small green space with a statue in its centre.
“Oppenheimer Park,” he said. “You’ve heard of it?”
“Yes, of course.” Reading about it in the paper wasn’t the same as walking through, though. It wasn’t the kind of park one walked through.
A few solitary figures hunched on benches, but though he scanned every corner, and peeked behind every tree, he didn’t find what he was searching for. Afterwards he led her into increasingly dark and dingy corners and her alarm grew. Somehow she’d found herself depending on him to stay out of trouble and keep her safe.
Disturbed to catch herself thinking of him, of all people, as her protector, when he was exactly the kind of person Sharon didn’t trust, she decided she ought to think about taking precautions to keep herself safe. Hopefully after this introductory tour of the neighbourhood, she wouldn’t be required to wander about, though. Her solution to staying safe involved staying as far away from places and people like this as possible.
When she was growing up, her father had moved in every circle of society, and had friends, and enemies, everywhere from they mayor’s office to the unemployment lines. Some of the people he trusted most were the one’s she thought looked very suspect, but she’d learned to love them. He’d always taught her that you had to judge your friends on their character, and their actions, and that goodness didn’t necessarily align with beauty, wealth or position.
As it turned out, not even fatherhood was a guarantee of good character.
Kent’s agitation grew by the block. She tried not to stare at him, but whenever she glanced up, his gaze bounced from place to place, his attention divided, and though he told her things about the places they passed and the people they saw, he stuttered and often lost his train of thought, interrupting himself to change the subject.
His extreme tension was rubbing off on her. Whatever he was looking for, she hoped they found it soon. Or maybe not.
“My mother’s a community health nurse who runs the safe injection site down that way,” he flapped his hand to the north. “I’ll introduce you. We can get a coffee.”
His mother was what? Oh, my God! This man was full of surprises.
From the park, he hiked back along Cordova, past Main and along yet another unnamed back alley, popping out on East Hastings again. Then he stopped and held open the door of another nondescript storefront for her.
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