A cold wind blew in from the Hudson River rising in gusts that assaulted the stragglers moving along the frozen pier. It was a fierce cold that slowly wore down the body's resistance, stinging the lips and bare knuckles, and nipping at the ears. Puck had grown accustomed to waiting in the subway tunnels, or sometimes lingering near the arcade until his eyelids grew too weary. He had learned how to maneuver almost invisibly through the streets -hardy making eye contact- always alert to the opportunity to pilfer a cake from the bodega, or to earn a few coins blowing one of the three tunes that he had learned on his pocket harmonica. The cuffs of his denim jeans had grown frayed from rubbing against the soles of his work boots. The tan parka was worn and wrinkled and slightly soiled from sleeping against the dusty walls of an abandoned tenement. He felt his hollow stomach grumbling as he blew "Oh Susannah" on the small instrument. Many of the subway patrons were too rushed to take the time to make eye contact. Street performers were common, and they were more of a nuisance than anything else. He was thin and waifish carrying a back pack filled with an odd arrangement of objects: toothbrush, pocket knife, Sterno cans, a Gameboy, pieces of chocolate wrapped in foil, chap stick, deck of cards, red bandana, bar of soap, Vaseline, deodorant, and an assortment of ear rings, watches, and rings. His hair was shorn close to his head, and he wore a small cubic zirconium in his left ear lobe. He leaned against the tiled wall in the tunnel leading out to Fourth street -his butt resting against a large cinema poster depicting a woman's silhouetted figure. The vibrating reeds of the harmonica bounced off of the smooth surface of the walls, and echoed in reflections that faded into the rushing footsteps.
The A train pulled into Washington Square station, and the doors flew open as passengers rushed to the streets. It was Friday evening, and David was anxious to put down the baggage he had strapped around his body. He carried a lap top computer across his left shoulder, a camera bag across his right shoulder, and an oversized backpack clung to his back. As he made his way along, the weight pulling in three directions made him feel like an astronaut walking on the moon. He shuffled along slowly and heard the faint sounds of music in the fluorescent hallway. He caught a glimpse of a small frame leaning against the wall. One leg bent at the knee, a heel against the wall, the other leg straight and supporting the weight of the body. David noticed the baseball cap turned up on the ground and reached into his left pocket. The harmonica was chugging like the sound of a train as he bent over to place the coins into the cap.
"Pretty good," David muttered.
The music stopped, "Wanna party?" the voice asked.
The question stunned David, and he looked up and pierced into the inquisitive eyes of the young street musician. They were haunted eyes, with brows that raised upwards suggesting a friendliness that seemed kind and familiar.
David fumbled momentarily from the surprise of the invitation.
"Didn't your mother ever warn you about talking to strangers?" he asked.
The musician grinned impishly revealing a slightly crooked set of teeth, which were unusually white.
"What's your name?" the kid asked.
"I'm Puck. Now we're not strangers."
David smiled at the brazen answer. He knew to be wary of street people, but the size and youthfulness of this jokester made him ease up a little. David was shocked at finding such a smart mouthed young kid.
"What's your real name, Puck?" asked David with an authoritative tone.
"Puck," answered Puck, "Got money for something to eat?"
David sighed, "And your last name is trouble, right?"
"No," Puck replied, "That's my middle name."
David blasted the young smart aleck.
"What are you trying to do...pick me up?"
"I want something to eat!" Puck shot back loudly.
David stared at the boy whose eyes looked down at the cap. He had heard about street kids, but had never run across one before. He wouldn't have known one if he had seen one. He knew that many of these kids run to New York City to escape troubled home lives, or to strike it big as rock singers, or actors, or any of the foolishly realistic dream occupations that the television tries to sell a young mind.
"Look," David responded, "I'm not looking to party, but if you are hungry, I think I can spring for a pizza, or a burger, but you have to behave yourself. Do you think you can act like a human being?"
Puck bent over and picked up his cap.
"I'm cool," he said.
"I have to drop off these bags. I am house sitting. What would you like to eat?"
The boy stepped close to David but did not touch him.
"Breakfast," answered Puck.
"Breakfast! What'd you do just get up?"
"No," Puck replied rubbing his nose with his shirt sleeve, "I want eggs."
Puck followed David up the two flights of stairs, and down the dim hall to the apartment door. David fumbled with keys, and when he opened the door, the cat meowed.
Puck knelt down and stroked the furry creature without saying a word.
David unloaded his baggage and turned to his guest.
"Do you need to wash up or anything?"
Puck shook his head.
Puck ate voraciously, and David watched him down a side order of hotcakes along with an omelet and a toasted bagel.
"When was your last meal?"
Puck shrugged his shoulders sipping from the coffee cup.
He swallowed what he was chewing.
"Thanks," he beamed, "this is great."
David smiled back.
"Don't you have any place to go?"
Puck locked eyes with David.
"No, not really. I stay here and there."
"What about your parents?"
"Dead!" David replied doubting the answer.
"You know the truth can be a very useful thing."
Puck listened without answering. He just stared at David with magnetic eyes.
"What do you do?" asked Puck.
"I'm a scientist," David replied.
"You put people on the moon?"
"No," David laughed, "nothing quite that elaborate. I work with computers."
"Oh! A geek," Puck teased.
"Yeah, a pencil pushing, book worming, calculating Poindexter."
David was well educated and wore stylish clothes. He held a degree from the University and drove a BMW. He was fond of spreading the geek myth about himself, but it was hardly true. David often played against people's prejudices and was a liberal-minded pragmatist.
"You're not in school either?"
"School sucks!" exclaimed the street urchin.
"Oh, well that goes along without saying -I suppose."
"They don't know shit about nothing," observed David's dinner guest.
David leaned back against his chair placing his napkin on the table.
"I guess you've got it pretty well figured out, then..."
Puck smiled at David.
"I'm not stupid," he confessed.
"I didn't say that you were," David replied.
"They think they know everything, but they ain't been through what I been through."
"What have you been through?"
Puck looked at David and hesitated. He seemed caught in the middle of a thought.
"Same as you," Puck answered.
"You know, Puck," David spoke confidingly," you seem like the weather to me."
"Well, you never really can predict the weather. It's like a force of nature that can't be tamed." David paused and then added, "You just put up with it!"
Puck laughed, "Do you smoke?"
"Too bad," said the boy regretfully.
The waitress brought the check, and David paid the tab with clean crisp bills.
Outside of the restaurant, David turned to bid his young friend farewell.
"Puck, you've been a real gentleman, and the conversation was very educational. Here."
David handed the boy a twenty-dollar bill.
"Get to a shelter or something, kid. Take care."
David turned and walked down Fourth Street back to the apartment. As the wind kicked up, he thought about the tragedy of street kids, and felt helpless. He knew that it was dangerous. Many of the young hooligans would just as soon slit your throat than look at you. There's something about the street that brings out the animal in a human being. The desperation and the survival instinct cultivates a kind of primitive cruelness.
David sat on the sofa after pouring himself a glass of Pinot Grigio. He was glad to spend the weekend alone. He rarely had an opportunity to spend time truly alone as he was always helping his family, or working overtime with his team. He kicked off his shoes and poked his nose into a Chekov short story when the buzzer rang.
"Who is it?"
The sound of static and a muffled voice broke the silence.
"It's me, Puck."
"Puck! Go away!"
"I have no place to stay."
David thought about his answer.
"You're a minor. I can't keep you."
"I don't want to party!"
"I can't keep you!"
The sound of the young voice pleading struck a dangerous nerve in David's heart.
"Puck!" he shouted into the intercom.
"What?" the boy shouted back.
"You're a pest!" David shouted and pushed the unlock button to the front door.
David closed the book and began talking to himself.
"Damn kid. I have a sign on my back....kick me!"
The doorbell rang, and David unlocked the deadbolt lock.
When he opened the door, he found the young boy standing with his shoulders turned down and a friendly winning grin plastered across his face.
"You're a pain, you know that?"
"Thank you, David."
"You know how much trouble I can get into, right?"
"Thank you, David."
David moved to the sofa and sat down.
"What do you want from me?"
Puck bowed his head.
"I'm sorry, David. I won't be trouble. Can I just sleep on the floor with the cat? I'll behave, really, I swear, I promise."
David walked over to the boy, "We'll see. Here, take off your coat."
Puck obeyed and smiled innocently at David.
"Phew! You stink. Don't you bathe!"
"It's been a little while."
"There's a shower in there. For God's sake, clean yourself up, and shut the door."
Puck sat down on the kitchen chair and unlaced his work boots. He placed them neatly by the door. He rose and walked into the bathroom. The sound of water rushing from the showerhead bled through the closed door.
David sat down at the kitchen table and picked up the book. He mumbled to himself under his breath, "The whole damn planet is an orphanage." He spotted the backpack and was tempted to rummage through it, but David was ethical and respected his guest.
The water stopped rushing and there was a period of silence. The door swung open, and Puck walked over to the kitchen table in nothing but a pair of briefs and sat down across from David. He balanced both ankles off the edge of the chair.
When David looked up, he shouted "For crying out loud! Don't you have anything to put on!"
Puck's head bowed low, and the cat meowed and jumped from the ledge above the refrigerator.
"I'm sorry," cried Puck, "I don't have anything else."
"Well you'll freeze! You'd better start learning how to get along in this world. You're not going to find a lot of people who are going to put up with your...nonsense."
Puck sat quietly and didn't say a word. He just stared at David.
David looked over, and then looked over again.
"I didn't say anything," replied Puck.
"Stop giving me that look!"
"You know, like I'm the bad guy."
"I'm not looking...I mean...you're not..."
David put the book down and sat up straight.
"Look. I can't solve the world's problems. I can't even solve my own problems. But one thing I learned is that you have to accept responsibility. You can't always depend on other people to do things for you. Now, if you have any brains, you'll tell me who you really are, where you're from, and what you are running from?"
Puck listened quietly and reflected upon what David had said. He spoke in a quiet whisper.
"Who said I was running?"
"It's obvious. People don't live on the street as a career choice."
Puck grew somber and stared at his feet. He began speaking with his eyes turned down.
"I had to get out. I couldn't stay there anymore. I was living with my old man, and he found out that I was not the son he expected me to be."
David didn't interrupt but listened closely.
"My father caught me doing something that was bad. He threw me out."
"How old are you?" asked David.
"Sixteen. Well, fifteen and a half. I'll be sixteen pretty soon."
"Your father can't throw you out," David protested, "It's illegal."
"Well who gives a damn!" shouted Puck angrily.
"Calm down," David replied, "take it easy. What about your mother?"
"She left my Dad, and she didn't take me. She's kinda got a problem."
Puck's words trailed off into the silence.
"So running away was your only choice?"
"I didn't know where to go. I thought I could meet people like me here. People who understand."
"This city is a jungle. It chews homeless people up and spits them out."
"Look. I am only here for two days, so you can't stay here. I am just doing a friend a favor. I don't even live in the city. I came here to escape. You can stay on the sofa over there, but you have to understand, there's not much that I can really do for you. I mean, even if I wanted to, what could I possibly do for you? You can't come around here and bother my friends. They'll never trust me again. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Puck replied, "I understand.
Around the hour of eleven, David brought a sheet and pillow from the bedroom and placed them on the sofa. He retired to the single bedroom and plopped down into the soft white down comforter. He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling. He began to relax in the warm silence. His eyes drew heavier.
David's eyes opened wide.
"What do you mean, you're scared? You're a street urchin!"
"Please David, can I come in there with you?"
"I don't want to.... I mean...you know what I mean."
The door to the bedroom opened, and Puck entered slowly.
"I'm sorry David, but, I really am afraid."
Puck started to whimper and talk through his distressed sobbing.
"I'm cracking up, David. I can't take it anymore."
Puck wept openly in front of David until David's heart filled with compassion for the lost soul.
"Puck. Don't touch me. Do you understand? If you lay a hand on me, I'll throw you out into the street."
Puck moved quietly to the bed and sat down.
"Stop crying, Puck, you're safe. Just lie down and try to get some sleep."
Puck laid in the bed next to David.
"By the way," David inquired, "you never told me what you did that was so horrible that caused you to get thrown out of the house."
Puck looked over towards David, "You'll flip out."
"No I won't."
"Yes you will."
Puck stared at the shadows on the ceiling.
"I told my dad that I am gay."
"You're gay!" David burst forth in shock!
"Calm the fuck down!" shouted Puck.
"I won't touch you!" Puck tried to comfort David, "besides young men don't go for older guys."
"They don't?" questioned David.
"No, not really," answered Puck, "Well, sometimes they pretend, but only for the money."
David began to relax.
"Now just go to sleep," instructed Puck, "I'm really grateful to you, David."
The two lay quietly side-by-side for a minute, then Puck grew inquisitive.
"I told you my worst secret. What's yours?"
"Please!" David moaned.
"No," Puck turned towards David. "Really, what's yours?"
David pondered in the darkness and whispered quietly.
"I'm a virgin."
Puck's ears perked up.
"I'm a virgin. What are you deaf?"
Puck began to laugh. In fact, he became hysterical. He bunched up into a little ball and had a great guffaw.
"For Pete's sake! It's not that funny!"
All of a sudden the buzzer to the downstairs floor buzzed like a gigantic bumblebee, and David sat up in bed.
"Great! That's it!"
David rose and began to pace hysterically back and forth.
He mumbled incoherently to himself out loud.
"That's it! I'm going to jail. I'll be on the news. My God, I'll never work again! I'm cooked! I'm as good as dead!"
Puck rose from the bed still only wearing briefs.
"David," he interjected.
"David, "he screamed.
But David was panic stricken. He felt faint.
Puck went over to the thirty-year-old and shook him.
"David!" he shouted, "Snap out of it!"
Puck drew back his hand and smacked David across his cheek.
The shock seemed to steady him.
David ran over to the buzzer and pushed it.
He then began rattling commands.
"You've got to hide! Behind the sofa! That's it!"
Puck obeyed and tried to climb behind the sofa, but it was a task.
The cat meowed having become upset by the excitement.
Finally, Puck scrunched down behind the sofa and lay quietly.
"Yes?" David repeated into the intercom.
He waited a full minute, but no voice returned.
He began to think rationally.
"Yeah?" a voice returned from behind the sofa.
"I think it was just somebody who was just looking to get in."
Puck thought about it.
"Are you really a virgin?"
The two returned to bed and slept peacefully side by side. In the morning, Puck rose very early and cooked David a marvelous breakfast. David woke to the smell of coffee. Only now, Puck had dressed in his street worn clothing, and David strolled to the kitchen table in a half-awakened state.
"Oh you," he mocked as he sat down.
"Here David, look, I learned how to do this when I was seven."
"A boy wonder," David quipped.
David watched his guest devour his breakfast, and began to laugh out loud.
"Nobody would believe it!" exclaimed David.
"So, aren't you going to tell me your real name?"
"Puck, David. It's Puck."
"Well, Mr. Puck. You were a perfect gentleman, except of course that I can never forgive you for laughing at me the way that you did. I felt damn embarrassed."
"I'm sorry," apologized Puck.
"Well, Mr. Puck, or whoever you are, what say we take you out and get you some fresh clothes -although I don't know what good it'll do."
Puck smiled a wide and happy smile.
The two friends spent the early afternoon shopping for the essentials that Puck would need to survive the cold winter: warm wooly socks, a scarf, heavy sweaters, a new large bag to carry his clothing, and clean boxers, cologne, a phone card, a flashlight, and just about anything that might come in useful. David signed for everything on his Visa. At the end of the short weekend, the two friends parted ways.
"Puck" David stared at the teen with compassionate eyes.
"David, this is always the hardest part."
"I'll kick your ass!" Puck sounded out brassily.
Puck sprinted across the street
"Puck!" David shouted after him.
"Goodbye David!" shouted Puck.
The young boy bolted down the subway entrance and hopped a train faster than lightning.
David walked the streets for a while, but couldn't concentrate. He wanted to help him.
Often, when David would return to the city, he thought about the boy, but he never saw him again.
The sound of the harmonica streamed above the clickety-clack of the subway trains as the New York sun set behind the Hudson River.