When my mom left my dad we moved into a huge old house downtown. My older brother and I did not want to switch schools, so we split our time: dad’s country home through the week and weekends with mom and our siblings in town. This could get complicated, as mom did not always have reliable transportation and her new status as working mother did not always allow the flexibility of making other arrangements. Usually, on Friday we would take a different school bus to get as close to town as possible and then walk the remaining several miles to mom’s. I was in the seventh grade—a skinny, timid kind of girl. I carried my clothes in a navy blue duffel bag and struggled to keep up with my brother’s much longer legs. He didn’t often slow down for me.
Monday morning, we would do the same in reverse—run to the bus rendezvous and end up at school. Often, we were late and made it on only adrenaline. I still remember that sense of urgency about getting to school. Sometimes I wonder what we must have looked like to the passersby—these two kids running up the street, clutching school books and the remains of the weekend in our arms.
Two kids left to fend for themselves.
This morning, on the way home from dropping the boys at school, I see them: two young boys, hurrying up the sidewalk. It is the way the shorter one walks—with a sense of urgency—that makes me take a second glance. They are only about a mile from the grade school, but these boys look much too old for grade school. If they are walking to the middle school—where I have just dropped my own boys—it is a pretty good hike—over three or four miles. They most certainly will be late.
I look at their figures in my rear-view mirror as I pass by and feel something stir. When I reach our neighborhood I make a u-turn and head back out on to Teays Valley Road. I pass the boys and pull into the Farmer’s Market, loop around and wait for them to catch up with me. When they reach the market, they cross in front of me without a glance. I can see that the short one is especially earnest to hurry along.
I roll down my window.
Are you boys going to the middle school?
The tall one looks at me.
Yes, he says.
Do you want a ride?
They do not hesitate.
As they climb in the back seat I fleetingly think of my own two who had just sat there a short while ago. We pull out on the road and I glance at them in the mirror.
What’re your names?
J, the short one offers.
W, says the other.
I try to make small talk. J is in the sixth grade and W the eighth. Just like my boys. They tell me that they are brothers, that they missed the bus this morning, that they live in the housing project up the road. I tell them who my boys are. They don’t know them. They just moved here from Charleston.
We have another friend who was with us, says J, and he looks up the street to see if the kid is anywhere to be found.
I don’t see him, I said.
I ask if they are going to the talent show at school today, tell them my Jeffrey will be playing the drums. They don’t have the two dollars the school is collecting for attendance. I kick myself for not bringing my purse with me.
I’d like to play the guitar, says W. W has a speech impediment. He is cute as can be.
It’s really super-cool-awesome, he adds, grinning at me in the mirror. I smile back.
How come you moved from Charleston? I ask, after a minute.
My mom wanted to get away from the West side, J says. It was getting really bad there.
Was it dangerous?
Yeah, she thought so.
Do you like Hurricane?
Yeah. It’s ok.
Do you have other brothers and sisters?
My mom has four…five…no six kids.
Six kids? That’s a big family.
Some are cousins.
Your mom takes care of your cousins?
Does she have anyone to help her?
No. Just her.
We fall silent. I begin to pray. Again.
What does one say in the span of a fifteen minute drive that can make a difference? I want to ask them if they go to church. I want to ask if they know their dads. I want to ask if they are hurting, what they need–if anything–and why don’t they have backpacks, anyway? I can’t find the words.
So I just ask, Do you boys like school?
Yeah, says J.
W says nothing.
You need to stay in school, I say. Stay in school and do well. That’s one way to get out of the bad stuff.
J looks out the window.
I struggle for words, keep praying silently. I don’t know these kids. I don’t know what their life is like.
What to say, Lord?
And then we are at school and they are gone.
I start to cry right away.
What just happened, Lord? I ask. I regret not saying anything meaningful. I regret letting them go so easily. Lord? Will you give me another chance? If I see them again, will you give me the words?
That’s when I see him. He is walking up the sidewalk towards me, arms pulled in the sleeves of his t-shirt to defend against the morning cold. He doesn’t have a backpack either.
I pull over at the next opportunity and turn around. When I catch up with him, I pull in the turn lane and roll down my window. He stops walking.
Are you going to the middle school?
I yell over gobs of oncoming traffic.
I repeat and he nods, yes, he would like a ride. I caution him to be careful crossing over to me and he hops in the van safely.
Do you know W and J?
Yea, they’re my cousins, he says.
What’s your name?
Well, S, you’re going to be a little late, I say, and I smile at him in the rearview mirror as I head toward the middle school for the third time this morning…
photo by floridagizzi, via flickr Creative Commons.