An afternoon at Lincoln Zoo with two kids he barely knew was not Matt Pagano’s idea of utilizing time to his advantage although he had to admit these kids were kind of cute. Instead of the drab clothes of the orphanage, they were dressed in their Sunday best, clothes he figured must’ve come from Giulietta Bracca. If she’d done the same for all the Guardian Angel kids, he figured Sister Mary Joe would be hitting him up for a beyond-the-customary contribution in the near future.
To add to Matt’s current annoyance, Ugo Sapone had deposited the three of them at the zoo’s entrance and said he’d be back around four o’clock. While they were walking along the pathway, Matt glanced at his wrist watch, probably longer than he should have because the little girl stopped, as did the boy and, of course, Matt.
“Miss Giulietta’s watch has diamonds in it,” the girl said. “She never looked at it when she was with us.”
Oh, yeah, how well he knew that watch, having moved it and its diamond studded case from Giulietta’s best jewelry box to the wall safe. Matt’s watch had been a graduation gift from the parents who raised him, and seldom left his wrist, other than to avoid the possibility of its getting wet. Ugo being Ugo had suggested the purchase a pricier model befitting Matt’s new position but he couldn’t bring himself to shove the economical Elgin in his drawer of forgotten things.
“You’re still looking at the watch,” the girl said.
Blessed Mother, who made this kid his keeper. She’d probably report his dereliction of duty to Mary Joe. “Sorry. It’s just a habit with me.”
“What’s a habit?” the boy asked.
“Something you feel the need to do even when I don’t.”
“You mean like sitting on the toilet when you don’t have to poop?”
The girl reached over and yanked her brother’s hair. “Michael! Sister Barbara said no more poopy talk.”
He lifted his head upward, all the better to view Matt’s face. “Are you going to tell Sister Barbara what I said?”
“Nah, I got better things to do with my time.”
“Better than being with us?” the girl asked.
“Nothing I can think of right now.” He started walking, all the better to keep them occupied. “So, what’s your favorite thing to see at the zoo?”
“Come on. I’ll show you.” She grabbed his hand and began skipping, the boy trotting alongside to keep up.
What she just had to show Matt came as no surprise, their winding up in front of the gorilla Bushman’s cage—the one place he could’ve done without. Not so with the Baggio kids who squealed and giggled as they watched Bushman hurl his shit at the crowd. Another reminder of Gemma Costa and their day with the gorilla’s antics and the unrelated aftermath of death and devastation neither of them could have anticipated. But that was then and he needed to be in the now. “Not too close,” he warned the kids.
“We’ll all be in trouble with Sister Barbara if I bring you home stinking like an outhouse.”
“Outhouse? What’s that?” the boy asked.
The girl shook her head and gave Matt a look straight out of a nun’s handbook.
Message received, he’d have to choose his words more carefully in the future. “Never mind I guess you’ve never been to the country.” Nor out of the orphanage for more than a few hours here and there.
“Our papa lives in the country,” the girl said.
“Does it stink there?”
“Nah, forget what I said about … outhouses.”
No sooner had the words left Matt’s mouth when a glob of shit struck the boy on his bare leg. “Sonofa … blueberry,” the boy said, inspecting the damage. “You gotta a hankie, Mister … mister … I forget. What should we call you?’
“Matt. Matt will do just fine.” Having pulled out two handkerchiefs from his trousers pocket, he gave the crumpled one to the boy. “See what you can do with this.”
Holding the handkerchief between two fingers, he turned to his sister and made a face.
“Mr. Ugo cleans up Bushman’s shit,” she said.
“Not anymore. You two wanted to play dodge the-you-know-what with Bushman so you clean up your own mess.”
“Miss Giulietta wouldn’t like this, not one bit,” the girl said, tears welling in her eyes. “Sister Barbara said she’s never coming back.”
The boy lowered his head and sniffed. “Yeah, she’s with God now.”
“That’s right,” Matt said. “But Miss Giulietta is still watching over you so be nice. Okay?”
Evidently being nice was not in the cards since the girl stomped her foot and crossed her arms. “It’s not fair,” she said, “getting stuck with someone like you.”
“I agree. Looks like we’re stuck with each other—you, me, and … and …”
“His name is Michael. Mine is Mary Ann. Try not to forget next time. Okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Now give me the damn handkerchief.”
Michael handed it over but the little snot nose just had to add, “Oh-oh. He said a really bad word.”
“Guess that makes us even-steven.” Matt countered while wiping the boy’s leg. Damn. Ugo should’ve given him a heads-up. Or a wet rag. He pulled out his flask, dampened the cloth with some whiskey and finished the cleanup with a gently rub.
“I don’t like Steven,” Mary Ann said. “He pulls my hair when nobody’s looking.”
“Even-steven isn’t real. It’s … it’s … forget about even-steven. As for mean Steven, shall I tell Sister Barbara?”
“She’d say I should pray for him.”
“How ’bout I tell him to knock it off.”
“No, I can take care of myself.”
End of excerpt, Chicago’s Headmaster (a work in progress)