The rain fell on the dark pavement, forming stepping stones of tiny puddles.
Dear Boy hopped from one puddle to the next, holding his left foot in his right hand behind his back. His long black braid got caught on the bubblegum on the bottom of his left sneaker. He winced as his hair pulled.
He wondered why fun things had to hurt.
Dear Boy knew that he wasn’t very smart, especially in school. Teachers told him that he had to organize things and apply himself – whatever that meant. But for the important things, like surviving day to day, he was getting smarter.
When his mother was alive, she stood over him every night coaxing him to do his homework. It never seemed to help. There were tears of frustration and, as he got older, angry words between them. But he never seemed to get the right answers on paper.
The hopelessness got to him when his mother went into the hospital with cancer two years ago when he was thirteen. He started skipping school. She died two weeks later.
It seemed that the people she picked to take care of him if such a thing happened didn’t want him. Neither did any of his relatives, so Dear Boy went into foster care.
The first couple were white and in their fifties. They were both teachers and excited about helping a black teenager with challenges. They told him firmly that his mother and teachers should not have called him Dear Boy at his age and they immediately began to use his other name. Kevin. It felt strange and bizarre to him and often he didn’t respond when they called him by that other name which seemed not to belong to him.
Dear Boy knew that if his mother was alive she would tell him that they meant well when they did this. Mostly out of fear he played along for a while. He cooperated with all the evaluations they sent him to, the rigorous schedule of five hours of homework seven days a week and went to school every day.
But after two months of being under a microscope and seeing no improvement, Dear Boy rebelled. He began to skip school.
There was no reason for them to keep him if they couldn’t fix him, so he was sent to a second foster home where the foster parents could care less if he even went to school. Dear Boy promptly flunked eighth-grade. That didn’t bother anyone, but the couple decided that he cost too much when he complained to the social worker that he only had one meal a day. So he was sent to a third foster home, the one where he now lived.
It was the worst one. It really was the first one that gave him a reason to run away.
Dear Boy hid the bruises when he did go to school which wasn’t often. But it was clear to him that he had to figure out a plan and get out of there before he got badly hurt or was sent some place even worse. He couldn’t trust adults to take care of him. That was clear even to somebody who nobody considered to be very smart.
So he went down to his old neighborhood to walk around and think about what to do.
“What are you doing down here, Dear Boy?” a woman asked as she shuffled by.
“Visiting the old neighborhood.”
“How’s life treating you?”
He shrugged. He didn’t recognize the woman, although he thought maybe he had seen her in church.
“You hungry? I can make you something to eat.”
“Come on then.” She motioned for him to follow her and pointed up the street. “I live about a block away. You don’t remember me, do you? I’m Viola.”
He shrugged again.
“That’s okay. I was at your mama’s funeral. I was one of the ladies who was in the choir with her. We were pretty close, Dear Boy.”
“That’s good. I guess.”
“You doing okay? Your mama was a fine woman.”
He nodded, suddenly crying hot tears. The grief was like that. It came over him in waves. It was absent one moment, as if nothing was wrong. He would forget that his mother was even dead. And then it would hit him like a hot iron on his chest, leaving a deep aching that made him want to crawl into a hole and not come out. Ever.
The woman said nothing, but Dear Boy knew she had seen him crying. She shuffled up the steps to a nondescript duplex and handed him one of her grocery bags while she fumbled with the key. Then she threw the door open and announced “I’m home and those video games better be off.”
Dear Boy heard the sound of kids scrambling. The woman grinned at him, waited a moment and then walked into the living room. Three kids around 10 years old were sitting on the couch, their schoolbooks open. Two of them were twin boys. Their sister was clearly the oldest and a little taller than them.
“My kids love to study,” Viola said, rolling her eyes. Dear Boy followed her down the long hallway to the kitchen, knowing that the kids were staring at him trying to figure out who he was.
“I don’t remember your kids from school,” he told Viola.
“They go to St. Christopher’s, not to the public school where you went. It costs but I make their father pay for it. It’s the least he can do.” Viola put the grocery bag on the kitchen table and began to pull out boxes of food – pasta, ground beef, and tomato sauce. She grabbed a frying pan and within minutes the aroma of meat cooking had Dear Boy’s stomach growling. He sat at the kitchen table watching her, remembering his own mother coming in from work and rapidly, miraculously cooking a delicious dinner.
Viola turned from the stove and her eyes teared up when she saw him staring at her. “I know it’s hard to lose your mama. It helps to have good people around, Dear Boy, is all I can tell you. Do you have good people around?”
He didn’t know whether to trust her. The words stuck in his throat. What would happen if he told her the truth? So he said nothing.
“That’s a shame.” Viola’s eyes locked on one of the bruises on his forearm. She walked across the room and pulled off his T shirt, revealing a series of dark purple spots on Dear Boy’s chest, like a roadmap. The fingerprints that had inflicted the marks were clear.
Viola gasped. “Dear Boy, who did this to you?”
He shrugged and pulled his shirt back on.
“Didn’t they see this at school?”
He shook his head no, but said nothing.
“Does anybody care?”
He sat back down at the table. “I’m hungry. Can we eat?”
“Sure, okay.” Viola went back to the stove and continued cooking. She appeared to be thinking, but Dear Boy had learned it didn’t matter what people said or thought. Truth was, he’d learned that most people saw what was happening and went back to their own lives.
The twins came into the room and set shyly at the table with Dear Boy.
“How old are you?” one of them asked. They wore identical T-shirts, with matching sports logos. Dear Boy wasn’t sure which one had asked him the question, so he answered both of them with a sweeping gaze.
“I just turned 15 .”
“I remember you. You live down the block.”
“Not any more.”
“Where do you live?”
“Mostly nowhere. Mostly I take care of myself.” And it was true, Dear Boy thought. He really didn’t have a home.
“Where’s your mama and your daddy?”
The twins looked at each other as if trying to register the fact. Neither said anything.
“Stop bothering Dear Boy with all your questions,” Viola said without even turning around. “Get some plates and be sure to get an extra one for our guest.”
The boys scrambled to grab plates from a cupboard and set them around the table, being careful not to disturb Dear Boy, who had placed his arms on the table because he was so tired. His plate wound up about a foot from where it needed to be so he pulled it closer not wanting to miss out on the meal when it was ready.
Within minutes, Viola was calling her daughter Amber to the table as she spooned macaroni and ground beef onto the plates in generous portions. After pouring the milk she sat down to eat herself, watching Dear Boy who had finished his plate already.
“There’s more food, but rest your stomach a minute,” she told him kindly.
“He’s eating like a horse,” Amber said.
Dear Boy stared at her and she stared back, almost looking through him. Amber was a pretty girl with long braids and a hint of eye makeup in blue and purple. He didn’t know anything about makeup, but it made girls look older. She was probably only 11 but could pass for 13 with her halter top and tight shorts. Amber had her mother’s eyes with a hint of kindness in them mixed with something Dear Boy thought was adventure. He wondered what Viola was like when she was his age and he found himself grinning. Probably a handful.
“Don’t be rude, Amber,” Viola said. “Pay attention to your own plate.”
“This food will make you fat, Mama.”
“Nothing wrong with the food. Just eat less if you want. Make yourself a salad. You’re big enough to complain, you’re big enough to make something else.”
“Yes, Mama,” Amber said meekly and began to eat.
“I got pie for dessert.”
“What kind?” one of the twins asked.
The twins began to eat more quickly.
Viola grabbed Dear Boy’s plate and refilled it. She leaned down and whispered “You can have all you want, but eat more slowly or your stomach will hurt later.”
He nodded and began to eat again, but more slowly like she told him. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was and couldn’t remember his last meal. His stomach felt like an empty hole that he couldn’t fill up.
Meanwhile Viola was collecting the plates and cutting up the pie. Dear Boy watched out of the corner of his eye as the twins demolished their dessert. Amber screwed up her nose and shook her head, refusing dessert.
Within minutes the kitchen was empty again except for him and Viola. He was still eating. Viola turned on the coffee machine and turned to him. “So what are you going to do , Dear Boy? These people who are supposed to take care of you are not feeding you and they’re hurting you.”
“I’m not staying there. I’ll figure it out.”
“You’re too young to be on your own.”
“I’ve been on my own for two years. Doesn’t seem like anybody cares.”
“I care. I knew your mama and this is not okay.”
Dear Boy looked at her. “You saying you’re going to take me in?”
Viola took a step back. “I can’t do that.”
It was always the same. He nodded. Then anger surged in him. “Then don’t tell me what to do.”
And there it was, the change in him over the past two years. Dear Boy realized he could not be both a kid and an adult. He had to be an adult because no one was looking out for him. If he talked like a kid, they would just take advantage. It made no sense to treat adults as if they cared what happened for him or to him anymore. All the rules he was taught about respecting adults had to be tossed. Maybe he wasn’t the smartest, but he knew that surviving came first. Manners had to go.
The coffee pot began to sing. It was the old-fashioned kettle type. In the suburban foster homes they had fancy coffee machines with measured amounts of gourmet coffees in little cups and pouches. But not here in the old neighborhood. Even though Dear Boy was upset, the familiarity of it made him grin.
Viola didn’t say anything for a long time. It made Dear Boy feel sorry for what he had said to her, but it had to be done. Other people had talked to him like this over the past two years. They never did anything either. Adults talked and talked but it meant nothing. He still had to go back to the same places every night.
His childhood was over. That was clear to him. He would never get past eighth grade. He had to figure out how to make money, find a place to stay out of the cold, and do it all knowing that he wasn’t really very smart and never would be. Apparently God had seen fit to leave him in this situation anyhow, never mind what his challengers were. That made praying and asking for divine help difficult too. It all made no sense.
Dear Boy reached for his piece of pie. The first taste was like a blast of sugary goodness. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a full meal like this – a real dinner and then dessert. Usually he grabbed whatever he could and just accepted the hunger. If he was lucky they had doughnuts in the teacher’s lounge and he would sneak in and fill up his pockets. Doughnuts filled up his stomach.
But the pie was fabulous. Bite after bite, he savored it. He didn’t have to worry about saying anything, being anything or doing anything as long as he had this pie in front of him. When he came to the last piece, Dear Boy pushed it back on the plate, leaving it there. He couldn’t bear to finish.
Then he looked at Viola’s face and Dear Boy knew this would be his only meal at her house. He pushed himself away from the table and stood up. “Thanks for the meal.”
“Listen to me for a minute, Dear Boy. I can see where it would change a person to go through what you have. But it’s not fair to expect people to do more than they can.”
He nodded. It pushed people away to ask too much, even if you were a kid, technically. Because you were someone else’s kid, even if they were dead.
“I’ll be going then. Thanks again.” He turned to leave.
Viola hesitated a moment. “Never mind. You go on. Be strong. Remember that your mama loved you.”
He nodded. “She loved me just as I was. That’s what I miss.”
As the tears started again, he ran down the hallway and out into the rain, standing for a moment feeling disoriented as he got wet again. He missed the warm feeling of Viola’s kitchen, her food, her gaze.
He looked up to the sky, grabbed his right foot with his left hand and hopped from puddle to puddle. The water splashed and he felt satisfied, proud that he remembered not to grab his other foot with the bubblegum on his sneaker. Happy that his hair didn’t get pulled and that doing something fun didn’t cause him pain.
He was learning to take better care of himself. His mama would be proud.