I ran away with a girl one summer. We stole money from our parents and stuffed our things into a large backpack. Jacqueline had two pairs of jeans, a thin leather jacket, bras, her pairs of red espadrilles, assorted oversized sweaters, and toiletries. I put some shirts, pants, and underwear in the backpack with a couple of first editions from my father’s library that I hoped to sell.
We made it to London where it rained for two weeks. Our room was close to the train station. The room had a sickly-sweet smell that clung to our clothes and seemed embedded in the pores of our skin. The smell must have come from the drain, or the nearby kitchen, or the rotting green carpet. Each morning we went for long walks in Hyde Park to escape the smell, but the rain would drive us into department stores or movie theatres, where we watched looping newsreels and the feature movie. It didn’t matter that the same movie repeated night after night.
One afternoon in the London Underground, at the Charing Cross station we had our pictures taken in a PhotoMat. We posed with our faces close together. I kept the picture as a souvenir. Jacqueline’s face is in the foreground, and mine is set back slightly, cut off by the edge of the photo, so that my right ear is missing.
The money we had stolen didn’t go far and the first editions brought a pittance. At night we teamed up to pick the pockets of tourists in Trafalgar Square. Jacqueline got a job cleaning an office building. She went through the trash looking for anything that would help us make money. We were able to blackmail some poor bastard who had stupidly thrown into the trash a letter from his mistress.
In a public house not far from the international youth hostel on Oxford Street, a man sat down at our table without saying hello. He was of average height and quite fat, round face, bald in front and on top, and he wore tortoiseshell glasses. His childlike hands contrasted with his substantial build. A cigarette dangled from his mouth and ash had dropped onto the lapels of his tweed jacket. He said his name was Renchfort. He had heard about our predicament and wanted to help. I knew he was lying, as we had no friends who would tell him such a thing. I told him to go to hell. He insisted that he meant no harm and that he wanted only to be of service. He swallowed his smile when I called him a pervert and told him to try a different hostel. But Jacqueline pulled his unlit cigarette from his mouth and asked him for a light. He slid a thin blue envelope across the small table. Jacqueline took the envelope and excused herself. In the bathroom, she opened the envelope and found a 100£ banknote and an address, written in a shaky hand. Jacqueline returned from the loo. She swept the ash from Renchfort’s lapels and slapped his face. No, she said. Not there. We would return to our hotel room which smelled of rotten carpet and filthy water, or not at all. I was paid an additional 100£ to watch.
After the PhotoMat flashed our picture that afternoon in the London Underground we couldn’t stop laughing, and Jacqueline wanted to stay seated on my knees for a long time. Much later, I found the picture in an old suitcase of letters, and I was struck by the innocence of our faces. We inspired trust in people. We had no real qualities, except for the one youth gives to everyone for a brief time, like a vague promise that will never come true.
Gary Percesepe is the author of eight books, including The Winter of J, a poetry collection published by Poetry Box in May 2020. He is Associate Editor at New World Writing (formerly Mississippi Review), where has worked closely with Executive Editor Frederick Barthelme for many years. Prior to that, he was an assistant fiction editor at Antioch Review. His work has appeared in Brevity, Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, Wigleaf, Westchester Review, PANK, The Millions, Atticus Review, BULL, The Good Man Project, Word Riot, Necessary Fiction, Solstice, and other places. He resides in White Plains, New York, and teaches philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx.