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Black Roses and Hail Mary’s by Maria Alexander

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As he awoke under the cement overpass, Jonathan heard the distant growl of cars, his own raspy breath, and the old woman’s gentle weeping. The last thing he remembered was Kiro and Sushime cackling over the squeal of tires, although those sounds had escaped into the smog hours ago. Wiping the long, grimy strands of his dyed dark brown hair from his face, Jonathan opened his eyes blearily, gravel biting his back through a beer-stained t-shirt. Steel-tipped black boots, leather pants ripped at the thigh – Fuck! – and a head full of heroin dreams, rolled by his best “friends”…

“Fucking cold, man,” he muttered, shivering as he held himself in the chill. He shifted against the urine-spattered cement wall and leaned back against a gang tag sprayed in white paint. Something small and hard pressed into his ass from the bottom of his back pants pocket. Jonathan extracted it: a small tube of Barges glue. Kiro’s sister owned and ran a designer shoe shop on Dayton in Beverly Hills. He must have swiped this nasty-smelling shit from there.

The party. It started in Bel Air and ended somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, nothing any sane Los Angeles boy would be at, unless he was the son of a big-assed industry financier. Backed two goddamn Oscar nominees. Jonathan rolled the glue tube between his fingers – a cheap high, a cheaper laugh at his expense – then tossed it aside. “Happy fucking birthday to me,” Jonathan exhaled, rubbing his stubble-shaded jaw as he stared into the shadows across from him.

“It’s your birthday?” the old woman whispered, sniffling. Bright moonlight explored the darkness between them as clouds parted above, molding shapes against the wall. “How old are you?”

Jonathan stared harder at the layers of gray draped over the opposing wall, movements flitting beneath like tricks of the eyes. “And you care because…?” he asked gruffly.

“It’s a full moon. And when your birthday falls on a full moon…” Her voice diminished under the roar of a passing car. When it passed, she resumed more firmly, “Are you well?”

“Oh, yeah, I feel great!” he grumbled sarcastically, holding his stomach as he tasted cloves and hops in his bile. He coughed, mucus rattling in his chest. Soon, the shakes would start, with a blinding headache searing his temples.

“I took care of one like you, once.”

Memories flooded his haze: kindergarten vandalism, stealing from his German father’s wallet in third grade, beating Karen Warner’s little brother until he bled for his insults and cried in the hallway for his crippled sister…

Jonathan is a special needs child, the counselor had explained. Let us help him —

“I doubt that, lady,” Jonathan replied under his breath, shaking his head.

“I did,” she insisted quietly. “He was younger, of course. But just as stubborn. I took care of children long before I came here like everyone else…”

Jonathan’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. Against the far wall, nested the mass of shadow from before, but nothing rested against the concrete. Only –

“…to be someone,” she hissed in his ear.

Jonathan turned suddenly to the left, startled that she sat beside him only a few feet away. So strung out can’t even hear goddamn straight. But he saw her more clearly now: a ratted wool blanket pulled around her frail shoulders, a rat-chewed rain cap with an upturned brim over a wiry nest of gray hairs, and thread-worn Nikes torn and crumbling at the spongy rubber soles. Her eyes glimmered faintly, surrounded by a landscape of leathery skin baked under the eye of the Los Angeles sun. Weathered beauty remained in the slope of her nose and the rise in her cheekbone. She rested one withered arm over an enormous bundle on the far side of her.

“Oh, I was already someone, actually, a very great someone. I even had this wonderful lover – he was a street performer and artist, and had many other more humble occupations, some involving cinder. Anyway, he told me that my vanity would catch up with me one day and it did. I wanted to be even bigger. So, when they wanted to tell the story of my life, I came here.” Her face darkened a shade as she lowered her voice. “But I was nasty, a real…bitch.” She wrinkled her already wrinkly nose and smiled to herself at the word; she seemed delighted to call herself such. “But they didn’t want that, you see. So even though my biographer had copiously documented everything, including my personality, the studio changed it. They made me sweet and caring. Soft-spoken, even. Oh, they loved me at first, got what they wanted, then they discarded me…spit-spot.” Her voice cracking, she sobbed and wiped her nose on a rag.

Jonathan squinted. “What did you say?”

“They discarded me — ”

“No,” he interrupted. “That phrase.” He squinted again, then exhaled loudly with pain, slumping against the concrete. Jonathan frowned – the phrase, the lilt in her voice. “You English?”


“My mother was English,” he finished, unsettled by the emptiness between them. The heroin, the booze that night – all sedatives against that simple statement. This night of nights.

An icy cramp crept up Jonathan’s legs and into his stomach, chilling him from the inside where the heroin had kept him sweetly warm. Jonathan sat as still as he could, holding himself tighter to keep the ache at bay. He thought of his father, who had squelched Jonathan’s acting aspirations early in high school. This industry chews you up and spits you out, he’d always say. “So, you some actress or something?” Jonathan asked, hoping her answer would distract him from the physical onslaught.

“Me? Oh, no,” she tittered sadly. “No. I just love children. They’d send me in for the naughty ones. The ones who wouldn’t behave…” She hesitated, then gave Jonathan a tender look. “Your mother was English? You mean, she’s not…with us…any more?”

Closing his eyes, Jonathan felt wet grass against his knees like yesterday, sinking into the lawn by her headstone. Fists beating green blades. Hiding in the mausoleum until his uncle found him sleeping under a stained glass window, face red with grief…

“Shut up!” he snapped, half crazed at the old woman and his raw mind for availing itself so readily to imagery so painful. Then, more gently, “I don’t like to talk about that.” A mild throbbing touched his temples. It hadn’t happened that long ago, after all.

After a long while, the old woman shifted in the gravel and wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, then continued, already well on her own mental journey, a gravel path worn smooth by her heart’s many pilgrimages. “My favorite part about the children, you see, was helping them understand there was something greater. If a child believes in something greater, something…fantastic,” she said at last, “he’ll behave. I’d turn them around, I would.”

Jonathan smoldered. Behave. That’s all those sorry assholes ever tried to make him do. “You don’t know the first fucking thing about kids!” he snarled. “Sometimes they just wanna be left alone, you know?”

“But you’ve been alone for some time…haven’t you?”


Jonathan’s gaze wandered blearily down the dry cement walkway. Cars used to cross the overpass above him, he guessed, but not any longer. He had no idea where he was, probably somewhere in Inglewood. Dumped his ass far away from help or home, The Offspring howling from the Aiwa stereo in their convertible BMW. Consciousness wavering…

And it feels, and it feels like heaven is so far away…triple ice cream scoops, tonsils need new Spiderman jammies, picking me up at Grandma’s, left Where the Wild Things Are at the beach, Cookie monster hugs, I love you…and I ran… pictures that still glow faintly from the celluloid streets …but black roses and hail Mary’s can’t bring back what’s taken from me…

“It doesn’t have to hurt forever.”

Tears ran down his cheek. He lay on the ground now, curled tightly in the fetal position, head on his arm. The old woman watched him from the shadows compassionately, like a grandmother checking her feverish child in the middle of the night. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had looked at him like that. Jonathan pushed himself up hard, spitting on the ground. His chest suddenly bloating with a heated heaviness, he gazed up at the old woman, wishing for a piece of her. A little piece of that which was mother, magic, a small blessing in his hand… “If they loved you so much, how come you became a piece of shit?” With a pang of guilt, he realized what a jerk he must sound like. Jeezus, listen to yourself. Don’t be such an asshole. Rich kid. Homeless woman. Have a heart or something. “I mean…you know. Didn’t you get a piece of the action?” he continued more thoughtfully. “What happened?”

Her bottom lip trembled. “Oh, it’s a terrible story. And it wouldn’t have become so dreadful if they hadn’t broken my…umbrella.” She turned away from him and unwrapped her bundle, revealing a black plastic garbage bag bulging with her worldly possessions. “It’s not the sort of thing one can…repair…on one’s own…for certain reasons…” Her whole face quivered and puckered as she spoke, eyes shifting quickly from Jonathan to her bag. Jonathan craned his neck with childlike curiosity as the big inky maw of the bag opened and she withdrew a tattered black umbrella. Long strips of threaded black cloth hung slack from a wooden frame. A precious antique. Jonathan knew nothing about antiques, but he knew this thing was old. “Look.” She leaned toward him, offering him the handle. Rot wafted from her nearly toothless mouth and her eyes gleamed giddily in the moonlight like beads of water on a leaf. “They broke it.”

Jonathan couldn’t see anything except the jagged end of the wooden umbrella handle pointed straight at his face. The giddiness in her stare made him uneasy. “Yup. It’s broken all right,” he announced, edging away.

The old woman laid the broken umbrella across her lap. Digging in the black plastic, she brought up a round piece of jagged wood. Gazing miserably at the lump in her hand, she spoke to it. “You deserved better. Really you did. And I wish I could have helped you. But without you…I’m nothing.” She dabbed at the wood with her rag, shaking her head sadly. She then held out the lump of wood to Jonathan. “I remember that day like it was yesterday. When I protested and threatened them for misrepresenting me, they said they didn’t need me anymore. They took my umbrella…and broke Polly.” Her voice cracked with the last. Tears welled in her eyes as her lip trembled again.

As he peered into her outstretched hand, Jonathan noted with great surprise that the round piece of mahogany wood had been carefully carved into an extraordinary parrot’s head. He took the parrot’s head from her and examined it in the moonlight. Beak, eyes, fine feathers all masterfully coaxed from the wood with life-like precision – except for the neck, which was splintered. “It’s nice,” he said, far more awed than he expressed. The parrot’s head felt warm and heavy. He imagined it was once an impressive handle. “That’s harsh, man. Why do people hafta do shit like that?” he said, carefully placing the parrot’s head into her outstretched hands.

She peered at him with innocent granny eyes and said, “Because they’re fuckpigs.”

Jonathan grinned widely, completely surprised by her profanity, a low chuckle rumbling in his chest crescendoing to a rosy roar. The laughter shook him hard, tears leaking out of his squinted eyes as he rolled onto the ground…

…but nothing met his shoulder except cold air. Jonathan didn’t care, didn’t notice, didn’t stop laughing. The gnawing stomach pains evaporated. His whole body trembled with joy as he rose higher, arms and legs flailing against the shadows. Jonathan opened his eyes to find himself rising upwards under the grimy underbelly of the overpass. His mouth gaped as he threw the old woman a stunned look.

“Ah, look!” the old woman tittered proudly. “That’s what happens when your birthday falls on a full moon!”

Ecstatic, Jonathan howled maniacally with his arms outstretched like Superman. Tumbling and turning he hooted, making shushing noises. “Look at me! Shit, look at me! This is…this is heaven, man!” was all he could say. “Pure fucking heaven! Woohoooo!”

Suddenly, the rumble of police helicopter blades swept the overpass from above and light abruptly flooded over them – a routine check for drug trafficking. Strong gusts pummeled the ground, throwing dust against the walls and Jonathan’s suspended form. “Shit!” Heart pounding, Jonathan sunk to the concrete as he ran mid-air. Newspaper headline: COPS CATCH FREAKY WHITE BOY SUSPENDED IN AIR DURING ROUTINE DRUG SWEEP. His boots struck the ground and he stumbled as he noticed the old woman: she’d drawn the dark woolen blanket over her head. So still, she looked lifeless and forgettable. Black rags, trash under shadow…

Jonathan’s heart swelled with sadness. Inspired beyond his 19 years, he scrambled in the stirring dust and retreating search light, beating the concrete with his palms until he found what he was looking for. Quiet moonlight reclaimed the walkway as he knelt beside the mound of woolen blanket. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he began politely, “but can I see your umbrella again? And…um…Polly?”

Darkened granny eyes gleamed suspiciously between the folds of blanket. “What for?”

“Look, I’m trying to do something nice for ya,” Jonathan said. “Don’t turn into a psycho paranoid mumbler on me, okay? I’ve had a weird night.”

Obediently, the old woman withdrew the umbrella and parrot head from her black plastic bag. Jonathan took them reverently and, uncapping the Barges, deftly and effectively repaired the splintered break. When he finished, he handed the whole umbrella to the stunned woman.

For several moments they sat there together, unspoken gratitude hanging in the air like burning sigils between them. Craving a cigarette and a hot shower, Jonathan stretched his weary legs out along the walkway, propping his head on his arm. Sleep gently laid a hand on his cheek and soon he dreamt vaguely that the helicopter returned, blades whipping cool winds over his skin as it rose into the clouds…


Sprawled on the concrete, Jonathan didn’t wake until sunlight warmed his brow. Sharp pains stung his bones from sleeping so awkwardly. He sat up, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands. With a thudding heart, he glanced to his left at the abandoned walkway. As he sat up, hand on the wall for balance, something small crunched underfoot: the tube of Barges. He picked it up and rolled the crushed flat tube between his fingers. The cap was missing. Such a fuckin’ dope whore, he thought miserably. He’d fallen to new lows. Fuckin’ glue-induced nightmares. As he’d suspected all along…

He stood unsteadily and, as he leaned against the wall, his nose nearly brushed foil stuck to the concrete at eye level: a chocolate bar wrapper covered with marking pen writing. Surprised, he tugged the note from the wall, leaving two small fuzzy glue spots that reeked faintly of Barges on the cool cement. And he read it:

Dear Jonathan,

Thank you for fixing my umbrella. Now that it’s restored, I am myself again and shall settle accounts. I understand that Walt is dead. But there are others…

Au revoir,


Jonathan grinned. “Hey, I never told her who I was. How’d she — ?”


Profound silence.

He folded the foil note reverently as he wandered eagerly into the Los Angeles morning.

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Posted by on Thursday, December 15th, 2005. Filed under Fiction. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry