Monday, May 14, 2012

Zachary - the other half

In "Zachary," the previous post, my daughter and I went to Duck Park (Cortez Park for those of you who live in Phoenix) after running errands on a Tuesday morning.  While there, we met a young boy with a lazy eye, and a speech deficiency.   The three of us spent time together enjoying the ducks who hang around the park's lake.  This is the second half of the story of our encounter with the little boy.    

There is a fountain of sorts in the island’s middle, made to look like a spring.  It is formed from granite boulders of various size, pushed together to create a rocky trough.  The water pools and trickles downward through the gully until it is absorbed into the green water of the lake.  The boy practically beats you there.  He clambers immediately up onto the rocks and looks down into the water, where some sparrows are dousing themselves in a shallow pool.  “Bird ’imming?” the boy asks, pointing at them.

“No, not swimming.  I think they’re just taking a bath.”  Your little girl wants to see the bathing birds, and starts to climb, far more inexpertly than the boy, onto the rocks.  He’s a stocky boy, and you’re not certain of his coordination, so you subtly change positions so that you’re ready if he happens to stumble into her, or bump her obliviously.  Also in your mind is that persevering intimation of wildness.

The sparrows seem to have given him an idea, and now he creeps closer to the water, almost dipping his shoe in.  “Go ’imming?” he asks with a smile. 

“Oh, I don’t know.  That’s not my decision.  You need to go ask your Dad.”  You smile helplessly, but your tone is serious.    

To your surprise, he accepts this and says, “Be ’ack,” scrambling down from the boulder and over the short wall.  You watch him as he hurries over to where the man in the red shirt is sitting.  It is then that you first notice the shopping cart next to the rock where the man is seated.  The cart holds a half-load of clothes and other things, none of which you can readily identify.  Your heart sinks.  You knew the boy was in need of cleaning, because of his messy face, and you also noticed that his dark red Diamondbacks shirt had some dirty streaks on it.  But it hadn’t crossed your mind that the boy might not have a home.  You focus on the man in the red shirt, but he’s too far away to see in detail.  In addition to the shirt, he’s wearing a non-descript ball cap, and some baggy pants.  A brown, scruffy beard is the only other thing that stands out.  This new element, the shopping cart, inspires multiple chains of questions, about the man, about the age of the boy, about school, about the boy’s safety.  Is that where that latent sense of wildness you detected comes from?  It would explain that, too, wouldn’t it? 

The boy returns, interrupting your reverie with slumped shoulders.  As he climbs past you, he says, “Dad say no.”  He goes back to the same spot he left, and puts his feet where they were before, close to the water.  You move closer to your little girl, who’s balancing a little unsteadily on a rock, and watch her for a minute.  When you look back at the boy, his smile returns, and he asks again, brightly, “’Imming?”

“That’s up to your Dad,” you remind him firmly.

“’IMMING, DAD?” the boy yells.

For the first time, you hear the man in the red shirt.  “NO.  I DON’T WANT YOU IN THE WATER,” he yells back.  The boy looks angry, and he folds his arms over his chest. 

The next time he asks, not much more than a minute later, the boy bypasses you completely.  “’IMMING, DAD?”


Angry pout and folded arms.  This continues at least two more times, but it barely registers because you are now inspecting the boy with a finer eye.  His hair seems clean, like you thought; his face is fairly clean, too, except for the orange and brown smears over his mouth.  His shirt is dirty, dirtier than you realized, but it is entirely intact, no rips or holes.  His jeans are trampled muddy at the cuffs, but the material is thick and sturdy.  His sneakers had a black-and-white pattern, you remember seeing them when you were squatting down over by the ducks; but now when you look you realize he’s taken them off, and is inching his bare toes down to the water.  His feet, anyway, look healthy and clean; he looks healthy, it just looks like he’s been playing too long with the same clothes on.  How long?  And when did the boy’s day start?  More importantly, how did it start?  You find it difficult to even contemplate some of the bleaker possibilities.  You begin to wonder if you should do something, and then you wonder if that’s the reason the man in the red shirt was going to stop the boy early on.  But the boy seems comfortable with the man; you’ve picked up on nothing to suggest that something’s truly wrong here.  Nothing that you would consider unsettling, in the darkest sense of that word, coming from the boy, or between the man and the boy.  Just that hint, that indeterminate hint, of wildness. 

You suddenly realize that you’re in the middle of a very complicated and potentially very troubling story in which the author has thoughtlessly given you no introduction; scant, superficial information about the characters; and next to nothing about the relationship of these two people, their history.  And with only this paltry description, you now feel a question is being put to you squarely.  But the tiny fragments you possess, which give you so little real information, but possibly imply so much, and which seem to be rooted in very deep, serious issues, stupefy.  It’s like one of those trick questions high school teachers like to ask students, where the answer seems obvious at first, but the more you think about it, the murkier everything gets, the less clear-cut an answer becomes, any answer. 

You think about this boy, his difficulty speaking clearly, his emotional swings, and that subterranean sense of wildness, and feel that maybe you are supposed to intercede.  You feel an unspoken, exterior pressure to do – something.  What, though?  Call the police? Call Child Protective Services?  Is that justified?  Maybe.  But would it be better?  The boy looks healthy.  From what you’ve seen, the boy looks to be better cared for than the man in the red shirt.  That means something, doesn’t it?  Chaplin’s The Kid is suddenly in your mind, with its story of a tramp who finds a baby in the trash, and how they come to mean the world to each other.  You know you don’t want to be one responsible for separating Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan.  But that was just a movie.  And maybe your memory of the movie is just a convenient excuse to avoid getting involved.  You know all too well how fearful you are of getting involved.

But is even that knowledge enough to decide?  Are you going to make a phone call to prove to yourself that you’re not afraid to make the call?  Or are you doing it because that’s what you think the boy needs? 

The boy looks healthy.

How do you know what’s best for the boy?

That wildness…

You don’t know.  You don’t know.  You don’t know.

You just don’t know.

In the absence of necessity, or perhaps because of it – you’re so confused inside by now you don’t really know which – you make the choice to accept things the way they are.  You accept the boy with the lazy eye, and the garbled speech, and the sudden emotions, and the hint of wildness.  You had already accepted him once, before you knew anything more about his situation.  You accept him again in the same way now, choosing to remain the same person for the boy.  You don’t know if it’s right, and you hope to God you’re not wrong, but you feel as though it’s the best thing you can do under the circumstances.   

For the boy, right?

So you start talking to the boy again, in between the “DAD, ‘IMMING?’s” and the “NO’s.”  You talk more about the birds, and the water, and the sky; simple things, since you still don’t understand most of what he is saying. 

A short while passes, and then you notice that the boy is fixing you with an expectant look.  He even waits on you to make sure you’re watching.  He smiles widely, and then mischievously sticks his foot into the water, pulling it out again just as quickly.  His eyes never waver, and his smile anticipates your reaction.  You give him nothing in return:  approval, disapproval, nothing.  The man in the red shirt probably didn’t see it because he is silent.  You instinctively understand where this is headed, and seeing that, decide that now it’s time to go.  You don’t want him pushing beyond his boundaries in an effort to impress you, and you don’t want to see him get in trouble.  You call to your little girl, who is playing in the grass, and tell her that it’s time to leave.

The boy’s face abruptly transforms into a wretched display of unconcealed anguish.  He holds out his arms to you as though he were your own son.  He doesn’t cry, but the look is of terrible loss.  You tell yourself it’s a calculated display, like the foot in the water, designed to provoke a certain reaction, that he just hasn’t mastered the skill of subtlety yet, the way your own daughter has, for instance. 

But you also know that you and this boy connected somehow, and you’re now deliberately breaking that connection.  You talk to the boy, and try to reassure him (what can you say to reassure this boy?), and try to affirm that connection even as you prepare to cut it.  The boy, probably lacking the sophistication to see your hypocrisy directly, only knows that this man was here, was with him, and now is leaving.  The simplest kind of math to do: subtraction.  It’s all too clear, how well he understands simple math.  It’s in his face. 

You’re reading too much into this, you tell yourself.  The boy will forget you by the end of the day.  You were just a novelty anyway, a way to pass some time, a poultice to draw  a little boredom out of one of childhood’s eternal, interminable summer days.   

The boy looks healthy.

How do you know what’s best for the boy?

That wildness…

You just don’t know.

You talk to him, and soothe him as best you can.  You resist the easy lies you could say.  It takes a few minutes, but you manage to calm him enough to exchange high-fives, and then fist bumps.  Then you ask him his name.

“’Ackery,” he says, although it almost sounds like he says “daiquiri.”  Again, it takes you a few moments to decipher his speech.


He nods his solemn confirmation.

“Zachary,” you say again. You tell him your name.  Then you tell him it was nice meeting him. 

His expression begins to slip again.

“Hey,” you say, motioning him to come closer.  He forgets his expression, and moves closer.  “Do me a favor, will you?  Keep an eye on the ducks for me.”  He looks at you in confusion.  You motion with your free hand, the one that’s not holding your little girl, to the tree and the shade and the ducks.  “Keep an eye on them for me, okay?”  You don’t really know what it means, or why you say it, other than as something to distract him further.  His face is oddly blank again, as if he doesn’t understand.  You decide this is better than the alternative, and, lifting your little girl up into your arms, turn and walk away. 

The man in the red shirt is still sitting in the shade by the bridge.  You look at him more closely as you approach, although he purposely avoids your eyes.   When you are at your closest, with great sincerity you say, “That’s an awesome kid you’ve got there.”

You get the feeling you have caught him off guard, either with the comment or just by addressing him at all.  “Well, he thinks he is,” the man says, and almost immediately starts to fumble out a half-audible explanation.  But you are already walking up onto the bridge, and you don’t look back. 

Once past the playground, your little girl wants to walk, so you set her down.  You discover that you’re willing to accept the Charlie Chaplin/Jackie Coogan story, or at least some distant approximation of it.  You know this because you don’t dare hang your head as you walk away, even though you want to.  You know his dad is watching you leave, and you don’t want him to feel shamed, or angry, or lose hope.  But your insides are knotted up good. 

The boy looks healthy.

How do you know what’s best for the boy?

That wildness…

You just don’t know.

Your perfect, happy little girl is holding your finger as you walk.  You want to pick her up and hug the sh*t out of her, but you don’t dare do that either.  Instead, you walk back towards the car, talking about the sky and clouds and sunshine, simple things.

As you close in on the parking lot, you pass by a bathroom building.  A man lies sleeping in the shade on the north side, his head and shoulders resting against the bricks.  And you start to have this thought, which oddly was not inspired by, or connected to, the man who is either sleeping or passed out alongside you.  Even before you think it you know it’s not fair, but you think it anyway: 

Maybe this is why people move to the suburbs. 

You secure your little girl in her car seat, and then you cross around to the driver’s side and climb in yourself.  On the drive home, you find that the uncomfortable knots in your stomach don’t matter at all.

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