With the jacket, collared shirt, and heavy backpack, Mary was warm enough except for her bottom, which soaked in the cold dampness of the sidewalk. She had squished herself into a corner between two buildings and under an awning so most of the rain didn’t hit her, and was trying desperately to sleep but was scared. She missed the country’s spacious skies. The expensiveness of the city held up to its reputation but hopefully it was less dangerous than the reputation described, than the staticky televisions claimed, than the mothers whispered about while sewing pillowcases, their fingers smudged with newspaper print.
Mary was in her brother’s overalls, something she hoped would protect her from any other runaway-turned-homeless person. She dropped her head to her knees.
When she picked up her head some time later, to stop raindrops from dripping down behind her collar, there was a man standing in front of her in a suit too big for him, drenched with rain. He was black, which didn’t scare Mary like it would her mother. She had only met a handful of black people in her life. He knelt and extended his hand, like she was a dog and he was letting her sniff him out first.
“I was wondering if you were alright, Ma’am,” the man said. “Are you alright?”
Mary nodded, captivated by his eyes. He was a handsome man, even in the lumpy suit and slightly overgrown hair.
“May I join you?”
Mary shifted a bit, and he sat down beside her. He had to have been about twenty, Mary figured. Mary herself was sixteen. What her mother would think of her now! Homeless in New York, sharing a dry patch of sidewalk with an older, black man.
“So, what’s your name, Ma’am?”
“Mary McLane,” she said, trying to stifle her accent. “What’s your name?”
“My name’s Bobby,” the man said. “But people call me Treble, because I like music so much. And so they can say, ‘Here comes Treble!’ Sounds like ‘trouble,’ get it?”
Mary smiled. She took her backpack off and began rummaging. “Do you play harmonica?”
“I play a little harmonica. My mom’s family had money when I was young. I learned piano, trombone, a little violin, bagpipes—”
Mary pulled out a harmonica and offered it to Treble. “It’s my brother James’. He didn’t notice I took it.”
“Hey, check it out!”
Treble played a little tune, which made the rain seem softer and the city seem brighter.
“So this concert isn’t free, Mary,” Treble said between beats. Mary’s heart leapt. She didn’t have much money. “You’ll have to tell me what a pretty, western, white girl like you is doing huddling on the street in Manhattan.”
“I ran away.”
“Whoa!” Treble said. He gave her back the harmonica. “Usually it takes more convincing than that. You ran away, huh? Why’d you do that?”
“To see sky scrapers and the ocean,” Mary said. “I found one. Not the other, yet.”
She patted the cold steel of the building they were leaning against. It was both bigger and smaller than she’d imagined it would be.
“So you wanted freedom, then? Me too.” Treble shifted a little so he could look Mary in the eyes. “I left my girl while her belly was swelling. I didn’t want to be doing that. I didn’t want my life stuck to the girl and the mistake. So now I’m here. You know what, Mary? I believe that every choice we make is for either love, or freedom. But you can’t have both.”
“I didn’t have a boyfriend.”
“Who said anything about a boyfriend? You loved your family, didn’t you? Your home, your brother? Listen, Mary, you like Janis Joplin?”
Mary shrugged. They didn’t have a radio, or a player. Treble looked straight ahead, eyes closed, and for awhile it seemed like he was just going to go to sleep.
Then, in a sweet, soft voice, he said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
Mary sighed, held back her tears, and asked Treble if he had a coin she could flip.
“Heads I go home,” she said as he found a nickel in his pocket. “Tails I stay here.”
“Me too,” Treble said, finding a second coin. They flicked the coins in the air, and they landed side by side on the ground. One was heads, and one was tails.