Sing, paper collage on canvas board, by gaye gambell-peterson
The Neighbor Boy
Closing in on the boy, the dog dropped into a crouch, its hind end wagging in the air. It barked so loudly that the sound might have come from Marion’s kitchen. In the next second, the boy careened across the street without looking either way. Marion jerked her hand in an instinctive gesture to stop the unfolding scene. Car brakes screeched. The driver snapped toward the windshield, then back into his seat. Child and dog ran into Marion’s yard.
She rushed onto the front porch just as the driver opened his door and swayed upright. “Lady,” he yelled, “I just missed your grandkid. You should keep an eye on him!”
“He’s not mine,” she called back, carefully navigating the steps in her slippers. “Are you hurt? I don’t know who that child is. I think he just moved in.”
The man waved her off, got back in his vehicle, and drove away. Thankful that an accident had been averted, Marion turned her attention to the boy, who was now squeezed between two rhododendron bushes near the foundation of her house. Dirt sprayed up from between the dog’s hind legs as it scrabbled in Marion’s garden.
“Out you get,” she said.
The boy met her eyes with an unblinking stare. Now that he was closer, she could see that his skin was dark, his hair uncombed, and his knees scabby.
She had little experience with children but had come to believe that adults cajoled them too much. She held out her hand and said with authority, “Come on. No dillydallying.”
The dog obeyed first, loping into the next yard. The boy inched forward. Marion tried not to think about the effort it would take to rake the displaced soil and mulch from the lawn back into the flower bed. Instead she considered how to discourage the boy from trespassing in her yard again. It was then that she noticed he was not clutching a toy, as she’d initially supposed. His left hand had no fingers, just a thumb.
She suppressed any expression of surprise or curiosity as she stepped down to meet him. Grasping his undamaged right hand, she led him to the street. There she made an elaborate show of stopping and looking in both directions. Once they were safely across, she squatted down, her face at his level. “From now on,” she said, “please play with your dog in your own yard.” She wondered if he heard her or if he was hearing-impaired as well as maimed. His face showed no flicker of understanding.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He pulled away from her and ran up the walkway, the soles of his filthy feet flashing against the paler cement. As she rose from her crouch, she caught a glimpse of a figure in the doorway and heard a slight cry of alarm. Then the boy disappeared inside, and the door banged shut.
The second load of groceries was heavier than the first. Marion hefted them from the trunk and put them down on the driveway while she locked the car.
The dog’s barking made her look up to see almost the same scene she’d witnessed before: the dog teasing the boy, the boy racing across the street without looking, the dog following. Fortunately, there was no traffic this time. Still, Marion felt a rush of adrenaline, her imagination vivid with what could have been.
The Shepherd sprinted toward her, nosing the grocery bags before she had the chance to lift them. It reminded her of a dog that had belonged to her brother when they were kids, a mongrel that had fetched sticks and balls and had always been at her brother’s heels. David had found it running free by the river, and it was loyal to him until the day it disappeared.
The boy held back at the edge of Marion’s sidewalk. This time, he was dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie several sizes too large. The cuffs hid his hands. He was not bad looking, Marion decided. Straight hair the color of cola. Dimpled chin. Eyelashes so long and thick he looked like he was wearing eyeliner.
“Hello, again,” she said, and then, “Come on, I think it’s time I met your mother.”
She didn’t offer her hand but waved him to her side. Making sure he followed, she again demonstrated stopping at the roadside and checking both ways before crossing. She felt uncomfortable ringing the neighbor’s bell on a weekend when people tended to be at their busiest, but she also felt responsible. Maybe the child’s parents were unaware the boy was wandering from the house. Surely they’d want to know that he needed a brush-up on street safety.
The door opened, just a crack, long after the second ring. Marion glanced down at the boy, who hovered at the bottom step scuffing his toe back and forth. “I’m sorry to bother you,” she said to the figure cast in shadow within. “I’m Marion Kennedy from across the street. I wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. But I also wanted to give you a little heads-up. Twice now, I’ve witnessed your son run across the street without looking, once into oncoming traffic. I’m concerned he may get hurt.” She paused then, trying to find an expression that didn’t suggest judgement or accusation.
The door opened fully and a woman stepped forward. She directed a barrage of words at the boy in a language Marion didn’t understand. As she spoke, she looked left and right, a crease deepening in her forehead. The boy mumbled an answer. The woman rattled back. He answered more abruptly. The harsh-sounding conversation lobbed back and forth.
Marion just stood there, her spine against the open screen, completely ignored. The woman wore a thick grey sweater over wide black pants. She had high cheekbones and eyebrows plucked into a round arch over eyes as dark as her son’s. A scarf hid her hair and neck.
Finally she turned to Marion, speaking in the same urgent tones she’d used with her son, shaking her head. The boy took off around the side of the house. Marion was left holding the screen as the woman retreated and the inside front door clicked shut. Nothing in Marion’s experience helped her to make sense of the encounter or what felt like her abrupt dismissal.
She descended the steps. There was no sign of the dog.
“So, you think they’re recent immigrants—perhaps Syrian refugees?” Parm asked as she and Marion pushed carts of donated books into the library’s atrium for the monthly sale.
“I don’t know. But I do worry about that boy. Maybe he hasn’t had much experience with cars. Or something else is going on.”
“What do you mean?” Parm paused from aligning the carts in a tidy row. It was because of this orderliness that Marion thought she and Parm made a good team.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Marion found herself unwilling to mention the boy’s hand or some of the scenarios she’d imagined. Perhaps he’d lost his fingers to a bullet or an explosive device. Perhaps he’d witnessed appalling things that had lessened the value of life in his eyes and made him careless about his own safety. His relationship with his mother seemed distant, even defiant. She hadn’t seen a father.
“Are you planning to do anything?” Parm asked.
What was there to do? The notion of calling Social Services about the boy appalled Marion. Sure, the boy was very young to be outside alone, but she and her brother had run freely in their neighborhood at that age. She’d heard there was a movement away from helicopter parenting. Was the boy’s safety really her business?
Parm pushed another cart into Marion’s path. “This is the last of the books for this week. You could offer to keep an eye on the boy now that you’re retired.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t. I don’t know anything about children like that.”
Parm stopped. When she spoke, her voice was lower. “Like what?”
The two women avoided eye contact as the question hung in the air. Marion said the only thing she could think of to defuse the sudden tension. “I didn’t mean anything, really, other than I have no experience with children.” She fussed with two books that had toppled.
“Marion, it’s obvious to me that you have always been a self-sufficient person with a clear sense of your place in the world. I’m sure you’ve never had to ask for help in your life. But many people aren’t so lucky.”
With all the carts arranged, Marion followed Parm back to the room where they’d left their coats and bags, feeling she’d been chastised. She wondered how the conversation had become so uncomfortable. Parm’s words could be interpreted in so many ways. But Marion didn’t feel that she could ask what Parm meant. They weren’t that close, even though they’d known each other for more than a year through the library. No, she’d have to live with Parm’s gentle rebuke. She probed her reactions, trying to determine why she felt a sense of guilt. Was it because Parm might be thinking Marion wanted to keep her new immigrant neighbors at arm’s length? Was she accusing Marion of believing that immigrants should deal with their own problems? Before today, Marion would have been quite confident in her ability to distinguish between keeping a respectful distance and shunning people. Parm’s reactions made her wonder if she truly could distinguish between the two.
At a loss, she offered to buy them both coffee, something she’d never offered before. “Please, my treat,” she said, pulling bills from her purse.
She wasn’t surprised when Parm declined, saying she was unable to stay and chat.
He’d done it again. This time, the oncoming car was able to slow down in time. It was beyond Marion’s understanding that this child could not appreciate the potential impact of a car. She pulled on a jacket and slipped four cookies onto a plate. Standing on the front porch, she waved at the boy.
“Would you like a cookie?” she asked, holding out the plate as she lowered herself to sit on the bottom step. The trowel in her jacket pocket clattered to the ground, and he winced at the sound.
“My name is Marion,” she said, shaking the plate of cookies until the boy finally approached. He took one. She patted her chest. “Marion,” she said. “What’s your name?” She didn’t touch the boy but pointed at him.
The boy stopped chewing. “Saad,” he said.
“Your name is Sod?”
“Saad,” he repeated, his gaze drifting toward the plate. His expression was mask-like, suggesting a control beyond his years. She offered him another cookie.
“Look, Saad, I want to show you something,” she said. He lowered himself into a squat, his shoulders rounded in as if to make himself smaller. “Do you speak any English? Well, no matter.” She shoved her hand into her coat pocket and pulled out the items she’d stashed there a few days before: a stick of chalk, a Matchbox car, and a Lego man she’d dug out of the garden years before. She’d thought long and hard about how she was going to complete her demonstration and settled on a couple of bandages for the finale. She kept these in reserve.
She drew on her walkway with the chalk. “This is the road. This is my house. This is your house.” She pointed at each as she drew. “When Saad crosses the road, he must stop and look for cars.” She moved the Lego with one hand, the toy car with the other. “If you don’t look, you may have an accident. Oww!” She banged the car into the Lego, then laid the little man flat on the chalked-in road, draping him with bandages. “Do you understand, Saad? Stop and look.” She went through the charade again, then leaned back.
Saad picked up the Lego man and examined it carefully, moving its arms up and down with his thumbnail. He left the bandages on the ground but picked up the car and looked at it too. Marion had no idea if he understood what she’d tried to convey. Just as she said, “You can keep those, if you want,” Saad’s mother called urgently from the other side of the road. Stunned by the tone in the woman’s voice, Marion looked at her as the boy spun and took off. Later, Marion realized she’d been so distracted by the woman’s terrified face that she couldn’t remember whether the boy stopped and looked before he crossed.
He became her shadow, always appearing soundlessly. There was little work left to do in the garden, but she puttered there anyway, pulling the smallest of weeds, trimming the lilac bushes a quarter-inch here, a half-inch there. He hovered nearby, the Lego and car always in hand.
“Leaf,” she said, twisting the brittle gold in front of him so that it fluttered. “Dirt, trowel, bush.”
“Boos,” she thought she heard him whisper once. He never smiled. She wasn’t sure whether he was old enough for school, or how someone who was new to the country and didn’t speak English was expected to register their child. The dog had disappeared, perhaps tethered in the boy’s back yard.
It got colder, but Saad wore the same clothes every day: pants and a hoodie. One day, Marion spied a child’s brand-new glove in the parking lot of the grocery store and thought to pick it up for him. “Stupid,” she said to herself. He needed two gloves, was missing fingers, not a whole hand.
She neither encouraged nor discouraged his visits. He invited curiosity, and she made up stories about him. He was a blameless victim of war, fingers crushed and then amputated in the aftermath of an explosion. Or he was the unintended target of a sniper. Sometimes she felt she might be getting possessive, so she was careful to say “the neighbor boy” not “my neighbor” when she mentioned him to friends. At night in bed, she often felt satisfied that she was keeping an eye on him, her watchfulness something she felt Parm would approve. Yet she could not shake the feeling that her thoughts toward him were somehow wrong.
One day, pushing aside her usual reserve, she asked, “Do you like songs, Saad?” She sang an octave, “do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti …” and then launched into “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” as the boy stood before her, his brow furrowed. The second time through, she touched her own body parts. The third time through, she pointed at his.
He watched her like a cat might watch a dangled string. His eyes never left her moving hands. Just as she finished, a dog began to bark, loud and sharp, as if chasing a squirrel.
She turned to Saad. “Is that your dog?”
He grabbed at her fingers and dumped into her palm the car and Lego he’d been keeping for weeks. He spoke, an animated chatter, gesturing across the street. She thought she heard a word that sounded like omm. She wondered, briefly, if his mother believed he’d stolen the toys and was forcing him to return them.
“No, you keep these,” she said, but he shook his head. He looked about and then reached to a small pile of faded blooms from plants she’d deadheaded. He plucked out an aster, caught the stem under his solitary thumb and removed all but four adjoining petals at the top. Once it was denuded, he said, “oof, oof!” while snatching at the remaining petals and pulling them free with his hand.
The brown bits fluttered to the ground. He looked at her, his eyes questioning. She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Saad. I don’t understand,” she said, genuinely confused.
He grabbed another bloom, repeated the brusque removal of the petals. As he worked, his eyelids swelled and reddened, his face became pinched. Marion, seeing his frustration, tried hard to put it together.
The deep, guttural barks of the dog were suddenly closer. The Shepherd bounded toward them from Saad’s front yard, followed by Saad’s mother. She screamed over and over as Saad hid himself behind Marion, the whole front of his small body crushed hard against her legs and lower spine.
She finally understood what the boy had been trying to tell her. It clicked into place just as Saad’s mother, hitting a patch of black ice near the side of the road, upended and went crashing to the ground.
“Oh my God!” Marion exclaimed, trying to run forward with Saad stuck to her like a limpet, trying to dodge the excited dog. When she finally got to the woman’s side, she could see she was unconscious. A drizzle of blood flowed from the back of her head. Marion snatched her cellphone from her pocket as Saad fell to his mother’s side, wailing and clearly terrified of the animal leaping about.
She pushed its muzzle away, “I need help!” she said into the phone. “A woman has just fallen on the road. She’s unresponsive and bleeding. No, that’s right, I can’t communicate with her. I think she only speaks Arabic. Her young son is terrified. Yes, I understand help is on the way.”
Afterwards, Marion’s memory of what came next was hazy. She did recall speaking at length to the emergency call center and then to the ambulance attendants. She put the phone up to Saad’s ear and let a translator explain that his mother would been taken to hospital and that Saad should stay with Marion for now. She insisted that the translator assure the boy that she would take him to visit should his mom have to stay overnight. She told the translator she felt bad that she couldn’t provide the names of her neighbors and was told not to worry; that wasn’t her problem. She was advised the police would be arriving soon to help out.
She remembered sitting with the boy on her porch after the ambulance left. She found the toy car and the Lego man in the grass and gave them back to him. Then she called Animal Services. She described the German Shepherd that had been running unleashed in the neighborhood. She described what she’d concluded was the boy’s tragic history with a dog like this one. Then she drew Saad to her side and took his fingerless fist into her hands. He shook, tremors seismic for the size of his body. She told him that she wished she’d tried harder to communicate with his mother. She told him she couldn’t imagine how frightened they’d both been of the stray dog.
Saad seemed content to lean against her as Marion stared at the house across the street, trying to imagine how she’d missed the clues. It would be unfair to pin her wrong assumptions about boys and dogs on her brother and his mongrel. It made her wonder how often she’d made other assumptions that were wrong or had concocted a story about people because making up a story and standing on the sidelines was easier than engaging with the real world.
The boy moved his wounded fist in her hand, as if trying to squeeze it for comfort. Together they waited for the dog catcher and the police to arrive.