A boy slung his backpack over one shoulder and reached for his jacket. As he did, a beefy man shoved past him, knocking him face forward onto the bench. He stopped his fall, one hand on the back of the bench, the other on the seat.
“Sorry,” grunted the man.
The boy grabbed his jacket, draped it over his shoulder, and followed him to the front of the Greyhound.
“Better put that on,” the bus driver said to him. “Detroit gets pretty chilly this time of year.”
The man turned on the steps and said, “Better listen to him. Feels like a refrigerator out here.”
He stopped, set his backpack on the seat behind the driver, and put on his letter jacket, blazoned in green and gold, the colors of his high school. No one here would recognize them. He’d sat thirty-five butt-numbing hours to get away.
When he stepped out of the bus, the driver followed him. “Hey, kid. The phone is over there.” He nodded to a lit booth on the west wall of the small depot.
“Yeah, okay. Thanks,” he said, but he had no one to call and nowhere to go. He looked at the lights of Downtown Detroit reflected on the water. “How many miles?” he said.
The driver grimaced. “To the downtown area? About five. Best call someone to pick you up.”
The boy walked toward the booth as the driver climbed into a parked vehicle and drove away. As soon as his car was around a corner, the boy set his sights on the lights of Downtown Detroit. He blew on his chilled fingers. Five miles wasn’t that far. He was a fast walker. He blew on his fingers again and stuffed them into his armpits. Walking would warm him.
Charlie Marchesi reverently polished the counter in his bar. He’d long since removed every fingerprint and smudge left by the evening patrons, but he needed time to think. One of his studs had worked a rival’s territory today and a brutal beating was his payment. The kid was useless until his face healed. Charlie’s loss amounted to $5,500 with medical bills and lost revenue. He loved this bar with its rich ambiance of masculinity, but it would not cover the loss. What he needed was another experienced stud because the rest of the colts in his stable were too green to make that kind of money.
He tapped the warm wood and glanced around his man cave. It was time to lock up. He glanced at the back wall with pictures of his kids, wayfarers that had stumbled in looking for a way out of whatever they were running from. He flicked off the “Open” light in the big picture window that framed the corner across the street. The rain had stopped and the pavement glistened with diamonds.
A young man stepped into the halo of the street lamp, illuminated as if spotlights had just turned on over center stage. He was tall and stood with strength, even though Charlie could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was shirking from his current situation. His dark hair and arched eyebrows stood out against his pale skin. The scruff of his beard outlined a strong jaw. He looked the part of a young god unsure of where he was, or what he was about.
Had serendipity knocked on his door? “Come this way, mister,” he said. “I have time for one more.” He flicked the light on again and draped the polishing chamois over his shoulder while walking closer to the window to get a better look at him. “Come on. It’s warm in here. Get out of the cold.”
As if he heard Charlie’s words, he turned and looked at the glowing sign in Charlie’s dark window. His eyes were wide-set, though from this distance Charlie couldn’t read them. He could only read the man’s body movements, and something about the way he adjusted the pack on his shoulders and the garish green and gold jacket said ‘mature teenager’.
Serendipity rose, a questing snake peering over tall grass. The youngster just needed to come in. That’s all. Charlie would wrap him with something beneficial to both of them. “Come on, it’s open. There isn’t anything else. I bet you just got off the bus, didn’t you.”
The young man resettled his pack upon his shoulders, flipped up the collar on his jacket and strolled across the street toward Marchesi’s Bar and Grill.
Charlie moved to the far end of the counter where it was dark, becoming a simple barkeep cleaning up for the evening. The bell over the door tinkled as the young man walked in. Bold as brass he sat at the counter. It was a move calculated to feign maturity and hide the fact that the boy couldn’t be older than fifteen or sixteen.
Charlie’s breath hitched. God, he was beautiful. He could hardly wait to hear the tale this one was going to spin. He approached. “How can I help you?”
“Something hot,” said the young man, as if he owned the world.
Charlie nodded. He grabbed a white, ceramic mug from shelving under a simple drip coffee maker and filled it. The whole time he did so, he studied the youth.
Perhaps noticing his scrutiny, the boy frowned and hunched his shoulders, turning in on himself.
“Cream?” said Charlie.
The boy glanced at him. “Sure.” Then, he remembered to say, “Thanks.”
Charlie was generous with the cream. “Kind of late for you to be out and about all alone.”
Guilt flashed across the boy’s beautiful features. “Got off the bus about twenty minutes ago.” His voice had dropped into a full bass rumble, probably because he was tired.
Charlie chuckled. He liked the brassy attitude of this one. “Where’re you from?” he said.
“Stockton. Stockton, California,” said the young man.
Never been,” said Charlie.
“You wouldn’t like it,” said the boy.
“What brings you to Detroit?”
It was just small talk, no need to rush this. If Charlie was reading this right, the boy had nowhere to go, or nowhere he wanted to go. A boy like this could easily end up on the street and be picked up by someone else. Charlie had never lost a gold mine sitting at his counter, and he wouldn’t tonight.
The boy took a deep breath and relaxed his shoulders.
Carefully keeping his voice warm and considerate, Charlie pressed. “You didn’t answer my question. Detroit’s not a place people come to for pleasure. You must have some business here?”
“Just like everybody else,” said the young man. He sipped the coffee, gazing toward the pictures behind the bar. A dip of sadness settled on his mouth for a second.
Charlie said, “Can I help you find someone?”
“No,” said the young man, a little too harshly. He squirmed in his seat. A lie then, there was someone here.
“So you do have a place to go tonight,” said Charlie.
“Not yet,” said the boy, shifting his defiant gaze toward him.
Not willing to give up, Charlie said, “It’s past midnight. It’ll be hard to find a place around here, and folks aren’t going to lease to a minor anyway.”
If looks could kill, the boy’s expression would have dropped him to the ground. Wow. Keeping this one engaged was imperative. Fresh meat like this would attract all kinds of predators.
The young man folded his arms on the counter and leaned into them. He turned to Charlie and said, “Why would you assume I am a minor?”
Charlie sighed. How many times had he seen this now? He glanced at the pictures on the wall across from them, his stable of young, lost children that grew up under his tutelage, learned the ways of the street, and lived to tell about it. “Seen a lot of runaways come through here. I guess you look the part.”
“There’s a part?” said the boy. His voice raised three notches as he lifted the cooling cup of coffee to warm his hands.
Cold and scared, that’s what Charlie saw. He chuckled and said, “Name’s Charles. Most people call me Charlie. Charlie Marchesi. I have a room in the back. Forty dollars a night.”
“How much for the coffee?” said the boy.
So, he had no money either. Charlie admired the bravado. What did it take to leap into the world with nothing, hoping that it would take care of you? It took a keen mind and a quick wit. Most of these kids didn’t have it. They were scared and lonely, and he took them in and made something out of all that. This kid, though, was different. Charlie pushed a little more. “Coffee is on the house with the let of the room.”
The boy looked him right in the eye. “I don’t have the cash for the room. How much do I owe for this?” He lifted the cup and took another sip.
Tough guy, thought Charlie. He said, “Two-twenty five with a free refill.”
The boy pulled a ten and handed it to Marchesi.
Charlie hesitated. Was he going to let this one walk?
The boy insisted, slapping the ten onto the counter and pushing it toward him.
“Tell you what,” said Charlie. “Put down what you have for the room and you can work for the rest in the morning. It’s a rush here, and I can use someone to bus tables and wash dishes. Beats an alleyway somewhere. Especially this time of year.” He glanced outside.
The kid turned and stared out the window.
Why was he hesitating? Just take it. It’s cold outside, and I am offering a room.
The boy continued to stare.
It was about four miles to Downtown. If the kid walked briskly, he could probably make it in an hour, but there was no guarantee he’d find a warm place to sleep, and he’d run the risk of getting snatched by one of his competitors. Charlie could not have that. He said, “I am offering a room, and a way to pay for it.”
The boy looked down. “I’ll think about it.”
Charlie Marchesi tapped his pointer finger on the counter, twice. “Working the morning kitchen will get you breakfast on the house. For tomorrow, anyway.”
“Okay. Maybe I’ll take it.”
There was no maybe about it. Charlie had found his replacement. He slapped the counter and said, “Smart man.”
He grabbed the coffee and cream. A little refill should cinch the deal. The boy smiled as Charlie poured warm coffee into his mug. Yep, he’d found his replacement.