It all started with a note on the Hotel Bulletin Board:
“Child missing – female, 15 year-old, brown hair, 10 digit number tattooed on inside of left arm. Any information, please contact Joan Parnelli, Rm 788.”
I read it again. Below these words I could feel the storyline pulling at me – bittersweet and strangely familiar. Trying to dismiss, I moved on – somehow knowing I was already involved.
I usually play for spare change anywhere I can set up. This week Management let me play the “Happy Hour” slot in the Lounge. Busy, noisy, and wild – but a chance to make some decent money. I started through my repertoire, hat on a nearby table, ready to receive offerings. Another nameless gig with few, if anyone, actually listening…or so I thought.
Counting the evening’s haul after the show, I found a wad of money rolled up in a green rubber band. $150! I was stunned. Somewhere, somehow…I had acquired a secret admirer.
A few gigs later, a second bundle showed up. This time $227. Now I felt queasy. A recent spate of thefts had been reported, amping up security around the Hotel. Were these money rolls somehow connected? Misgivings ablaze, I had a hard time sleeping that night.
During my next performance, I paid more attention to the audience. This time I noticed a young girl, rail thin and yes…about 15 with brown hair, moving phantom-like through the crowd. Moments later, I saw her pick-pocket a paunchy, inebriated man at the back of the room. Sensing my attention, she turned – our eyes collided: her gaze electric with fear. At the same time, her whole being pleaded innocence, free of guile. Bewildered, I continued my song.
When my set was over, a roll of $176 lay nestled in my hat. I hadn’t seen her do it, but the evidence was clear. The runaway was stealing, then donating…to me!
Later that night I paid a visit to Mrs. Parnelli in Room 788. At first knock, the door opened as if I were expected. Framed by a wreath of graying hair, she looked out with large sad eyes…giving way to a soft smile.“Thanks for not turning her in,” she said shutting the door quietly behind me.
Sitting in the living room, she talked about her only daughter. A girl named Sammie…who had a wild streak that churned inside her like a raging river; who ran away whenever she had a chance. “She loves her rebel spirits… you know…Kerouac, Woody Guthrie, maybe a bit of Siddhartha.” Parnelli shook her head. “Riding the rails, crashing on floors in god forsaken places…it’s in her blood, it’s who she is.”
I nodded. Sammie’s desire to hurl herself into the great unknown was deeply familiar to me.
“You probably wondered about the tattoo, the numbers??? Well… that’s my phone number, in case she gets lost, hurt or god forbid, she….” Her voice trailed away, as tears formed in the corner of her eyes. We sat for a moment in silence, as a mother’s pain quietly filled the room.
“Sammie rarely speaks. But she feels…oh god how she feels. She once told me – everywhere she goes…mountains or rail yards or homeless shelters, she’s always trying to hear the lullaby underneath it.” Parnelli paused again, then looked directly at me. “She thinks you’re a kindred soul. Your music speaks to her…she knows you’re poor. That’s what the money is all about.”
I left with a tightness in my throat. I didn’t want to go back to my room, didn’t want to return to my life. All I wanted to do was absorb this soul who lived on the edge of the world…who pressed herself against hardship and loneliness and beauty…listening for the lullabies beneath.