(Note: This is my fifth entry in the weekly "Spohn Challenge" project. I'm posting it a day early because I expect to be busy with other things and thus away from the computer pretty much all day tomorrow...)

The flickering glare momentarily blinds you as the tangled spokes of her shopping cart reflect the morning sunlight, like the jagged shards of a broken mirror.  The sparkle bounces off the bits and pieces of stained glass and broken jewelry that are fastened to her cart with string and wire, creating the momentarily illusion that she is surrounded by dozens of twinkling lights. 

For the briefest of instants, the image actually calls to mind those stories you heard in your childhood about guardian angels.  And given the circumstances of her existence, you can’t help but pray that there might be some measure of truth to such tales.

Few folks seem to know where she might have come from, but everybody knows who she is. She’s just one of the local characters, and has been around for just about as long as anyone you’ll talk to can remember. As for herself, she can’t remember anymore just how old she is – and quite frankly she couldn’t possibly care less. Time is a concept not nearly as relevant to her day-to-day life as we have allowed it to become in ours. 

No, her concerns are far more basic – finding enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. You and I take such things for granted. For her, it is very simply a matter of life and death. 

Some nights she actually manages to find some room and a hot meal at one of the local shelters.  Usually, though, she has to sleep outside.  Not that she minds, for there always seems to be plenty of company –  there are enough homeless people in this community to provide plenty of companionship when she wants it. She doesn’t always want it, but at least they seem to understand her.

Besides, there is something to be said for the notion of safety in numbers.  Life on the streets is a precarious existence at best, and no one is ever safe. The real danger comes not from others like herself, but from those who have laid claim to the night. The small-time drug pushers who scavenge for anything to sell. The teenage gangs that roam the streets like feral dogs in search of prey. They are the real threats.

Her wardrobe, if you want to call it that, reflects an odd variety of styles and eras.  Just odds and ends, really, yet each has been carefully selected from the garbage cans of some of the community’s more affluent residents: a brown plaid flannel shirt; a man’s purple sports coat that more than likely once belonged to some real estate agent; faded and baggy green work pants, held up by a belt made from an old piece of frayed clothesline.  There’s an old discarded parka, but she usually wheels it around in the shopping cart this time of year. Doesn’t hurt it keep it handy, though; you never know when a cold front might move through and drop the temperature down around 85 degrees or so…

There is one item of clothing that sets her apart from the other denizens of the streets. Her unkempt, unwashed hair is encircled not by some ratty old stocking cap, but by an old beat-up plastic tiara, its electroplated silver-hued finish long since faded to reveal the dull gray underneath – all that remains, no doubt, of a dress-up kit some little girl used to wear years ago. 

That’s why they call her Princess Annie. It's the only name she answers to anymore; it’s been so many years since anyone has called her by her given name that it’s doubtful she would recognize it anymore if she was to hear it.

Besides, “Princess” somehow seems to fit her. Despite her ragged, unclean appearance, she carries herself with a certain air of dignity that many people living under far better circumstances wish they could possess. A dignity born of the knowledge that her life – while not necessarily the life she would have chosen for herself if given the chance – is her own. She has learned to take some degree of comfort in knowing that in losing everything, there is little else for her to lose. Such realization can be very liberating.

What few possessions she now holds dear are packed in the shopping cart, which is never out of her sight.  It is laden with treasures accumulated over years of walking up and down the streets and alleys of the city. Every night before settling down to sleep, she unpacks the cart, thoroughly sorts through everything – every now and then she may actually discard something, but not very often – then carefully places each item back in the cart.  But she is careful never to do so in front of anyone else.  Too much temptation. 

Some of the other ladies she knows have had their carts stolen.  But she’s taken measures to see that this never happens to her.  A short length of greasy bicycle chain and an old, rusted padlock secure her wrist to the bright red metal handle. She wears the key on a short length of twine tied around her neck; on those occasions when she does go inside for anything, she’ll remove the padlock from her wrist and secure the cart to a nearby tree or street sign. But she and her cart and never separated for long.

Even on the streets, there are certain rituals which must be followed. For Annie this includes stopping by the big bookstore downtown every morning, to share the latest news with the fellow in the magazine department. Usually the “latest news” is days or even weeks old, gleaned from the headlines of whatever newspaper she used as a pillow and blanket the night before. 

That’s where I meet her, there in the bookstore, while my family and I are in town on vacation. I’m standing there thumbing through the latest issue of Starlog when she comes shuffling in, rubbing the wrist now temporarily freed from the padlock and telling the magazine clerk about something that had happened several days before. He smiles and acts as if he’s just hearing about it for the first time, as if he realizes that he’s helping provide at least a little purpose to her life. He even buys her a cup of coffee from the bookstore cafe, which I gather is his standard contribution to the daily ritual.

And then she is back outside, pushing her cart of treasures toward whatever destination might await her this day.   Her eyes constantly dart from side to side like a blind man's cane, always on the alert for potential danger, as she converses with one of her invisible companions. She has several of them, according to the man at the newsstand; he even remembers the names of two of them,  Tara and Billy.

Are they merely figments of her imagination, or are they ghosts from her past? The man at the newsstand isn’t sure. He tells me that one or two of his older customers actually remember Princess Annie’s previous life – a life that apparently included a loving husband, two bright and attractive children, a house with a mortgage and a much-loved cat. He’s never heard her speak of any of them – well, except for the cat. Its name, he says, was Herman.

My wife and kids rejoin me now, so I pay for my magazine and we head back outside. Up the block I see a group of well-groomed, self-important people moving aside as Princess Annie walks past, sparting like the Red Sea in an attempt to avoid contact. It’s almost as if they are afraid of catching “homeless disease” – as if whatever form of madness has claimed her mind might somehow be contagious. 

She’s used to it, I can tell. From here it almost looks as if she actually enjoys “accidentally” brushing up against one of them, to see the fear or anger on his face. He bellows angrily and commences to perform a four-letter aria denouncing her very existence, but it has little effect – other than offering some proof that the real “bums” in this world aren’t usually the ones whose physical appearance fit the stereotype.

“Who is that woman, Daddy?” my eight-year-old asks as we watch her turn and thumb her nose at the well-groomed, self-important man who still shouts at her from behind.

“I’m not sure, son,” I answer honestly. “Just a poor soul who’s lost her way.”

“Well,” the boy announces, once again demonstrating that wonderful innocence of thought the rest of us seem to lose after we reach a certain age, “I hope she finds it.” 

A final glimpse reveals her to be caught up in an animated conversation with one of her imaginary friends, her hand slicing fervently through the air to emphasize whatever point she’s trying to make.  Gradually, she dwindles to a tiny blur, but even at a distance she stands out from the crowd – a rumpled collage of mismatched colors, weaving in and out among rushing commuters and tourists.  

“I hope she does, too,” I tell my son. And with Tara and Billy and a dead cat named Herman no doubt in tow, Princess Annie finally disappears from my sight. But not from my mind.

(Copyright © 2013, by John A. Small)