ou are watching me, mister?” The small, sturdy dark-haired boy had run to the park bench unnoticed while Curtis was momentarily distracted by a squirrel digging furiously in the loam under a tree. Up close the boy’s eyes were very blue, and they were regarding Curtis intently.
The old man collected himself. “I like to watch all of you children playing.”
“But you are watching me. I see you here every day looking at me.”
Curtis answered carefully. “I like to watch you. You run a lot and climb and swing higher than the others. They usually just play slow games.”
The boy hooted derisively. “That’s because the nannies tell them ‘be quiet’ most of the time.”
Curtis shifted uncomfortably. “Do you want me to stop watching you?”
“That’s OK.” The blue-eyed boy turned and ran back to the group of children who were starting a game of tag, unnoticed by their minders who were all gathered around the latest nanny to arrive. She was pushing a very elegant perambulator. The nannies aahed and cooed and admired the baby within, while the game grew louder with shrieking and dodging and running until the nannies turned as one and shushed and grabbed arms and brought the game to a halt.
The boy looked over at Curtis and spread his hands. Curtis grinned and stood up, so abruptly he became momentarily dizzy. He’d been sitting too long. He swayed awkwardly until he got his cane organized, then started off slowly toward his home on the other side of the park.
* * *
“What’s your name? Mine’s Alex.” The boy had headed for the bench as soon as Curtis arrived.
“I know,” said Curtis leaning on his cane, preparing to sit. “I’ve heard your nanny call you.”
“That’s not my nanny; that’s Annie’s. I must walk here with her. My papa says.”
“Where’s your nanny?” asked Curtis.
“I don’t have one. We’re poor. We live in basement.” The boy spoke matter-of-factly.
The old man lowered himself onto the park bench with a sigh. “My name is Curtis.” What was he thinking? He should just get up and leave. Find another bench, maybe over by the fountain. He shouldn’t even be talking to this child.
“Hello, Curtis. Alex is my American name. I’m really Alexej, but my tata, er, papa says we have to speak American now we live here.”
“We speak English. We’re Americans, but the language we use is called English.”
“That’s the way it is, though, and learning all about things like that is part of being American. Have you lived here long?”
“We moved here just the one month.”
“No, I meant have you been in this country a long time?”
“As I say, just the last month we arrive. All the way in airplane from Praha!”
“Ah,” said Curtis. He felt uncomfortable prying into the boy’s background. In fact, he felt uncomfortable just being around this engaging boy. Here was Alexej, called Alex, who was the most interesting personality he’d encountered since he started coming to the park, and he would probably be arrested if someone decided to object to him talking to the boy.
“Will you go to school, then, Alex?”
“Soon! Fourth grade!” The boy was clearly excited about the prospect. “Next month, I think!”
“Well, this is August, and schools begin in September...” Curtis was wondering just how old Alex was. The boy looked a little small to be a fourth grader, but maybe it was lack of nutrition. Perhaps he should bring a snack to share next time.
What was he thinking? He could see the headline now: ‘RETIRED TEACHER LURES CHILD WITH SNACKS! Candy Kidnapper Lurks by Playground.’ It wasn’t the least bit funny. He could go to jail.
* * *
“Can you walk me across this street?” Alex stood beside Curtis on the bench. He had finished Curtis’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the apple and was eyeing the bottle of juice.
Curtis passed the bottle to the boy and looked around the busy playground. “Where’s Annie and her nanny?”
“Annie fell off swing and bumped her head. Margaret had to take her home.”
“Didn’t the nanny want you to go with them?”
“That was when we just got here, so I say I want to stay. Margaret say then I must go home with Sheila’s nanny, but she doesn’t like me.”
“Tell me where you live.”
“Just across street, at the Beacon Towers. I live in basement.”
“I do remember that.”
The boy laughed and jumped a little. “Then you will!”
Curtis knew this was going to be a very bad idea. He thought for a moment, then got to his feet. “Let’s find Sheila’s nanny.”
Alex smiled a big smile and grabbed Curtis’s free hand. He walked carefully alongside the old man who made his way slowly, leaning on his cane, over to the group of minders.
“Excuse me,” said Curtis. “Is one of you Sheila’s nanny?”
A large, stern-looking woman raised her head and quickly glanced over toward the sandbox where her charge was busily digging. Reassured, she turned back to Curtis. “What is it?”
“Alex here is ready to go home. He said you would be taking him today.”
“That’s news to me. I’m not his nanny; he’s just the janitor’s kid. I think he comes with Margaret Black and Annie.”
“They’ve gone. I just wanted to tell you I can take Alex across the street.”
The woman shrugged as she turned away. “Up to you.”
Alex jumped up and down, holding his hand. “See? Let’s go, Curtis.”
* * *
It became clear to Curtis that Alex was in fact somewhat older than most of the children who had minders, and he wondered at the arrangement that had the boy accompany and remain with the platoon of nannies and their charges. Curtis also noticed that Margaret, Annie’s nanny, had little real interest in Alex and even less sense of responsibility toward him. In fact, it seemed the boy was simply being escorted across the busy street to the park. It was only a matter of a week or so after his first encounter with Curtis that the boy began to spend most of his time running back to the old man instead of to the nanny when he wanted reassurances or an adult to talk to. Margaret seemed hardly to have noticed that Alex was missing from her sphere of influence, and more often than not she scooped Annie up at the end of play and left without a backward glance.
Curtis began waiting until Alex was ready to leave so he could walk with the boy to the corner, cross with him at the light, and accompany him to the side entrance that led down to the basement of the huge brownstone apartment block. There Alex, with a casual wave, would disappear. Curtis watched to make sure that Alex had his key and was safely inside the building before he walked on, bemused at the realization that this was a boy who was essentially without an adult to oversee his safety, at least while he was outside the protection of his home. There, Curtis assumed, his parents were mindful of him.
As Curtis walked along toward his own home he was staggered by the thought that this boy’s fate was now somehow partially in his hands. He was an old man, a tired old man, with issues of his own. He was a weak reed indeed for an active boy to lean upon. Plus they were embedded in a society that saw in any such interaction only the most sinister of motivations. Yet Alex’s enthusiasms, his joy for life was so engaging and so contagious Curtis couldn’t pull away. He was overwhelmingly flattered to be so sought after by this inquisitive, spirited boy.
* * *
Curtis walked slowly toward the park carrying the small backpack. He had found the L.L. Bean backpack in the Goodwill; it was practically brand new and he had bought it for a couple of dollars thinking that Alex might be able to use it on his first day of school.
“My mama, she does not know the standard here,” Alex confided to Curtis, stroking the backpack. “I am teaching this to her all the time.”
“Don’t forget to pay attention to the things you must learn yourself,” Curtis admonished him.
“And who will correct me when I get it wrong?” Alex asked, looking intently at Curtis. “Perhaps that should be you, Mr. Curtis.” He hoisted the backpack and smiled.
Curtis was immensely pleased at this vote of confidence. “I am old and you are young, and a great deal has changed from when I was your age. But of course I will help you all that I can.”
“I thought so!” Alex said decisively. “Old men know a great deal, is this not true?”
“Only if we have learned from our mistakes,” said Curtis, suddenly saddened by memories.
“I have hurt your feelings?” Alex, still hugging the backpack, leaned against Curtis’s knee.
“Not at all. I was remembering some of my mistakes.” Curtis looked carefully at Alex. “If I am going to be advising you, perhaps it is time I met your mother. She will be wondering who this old man is who gives you presents and tells you things.”
“I already told her I am meeting an old man in the park,” Alex said dismissively.
Curtis flinched and took a deep breath. “What did she say?”
“She said it is good I am making American friends.”
Curtis shook his head in wonderment. “She wasn’t concerned that I would do you harm?”
“I told her you were good person. Besides, I told her you were old and walked with cane, and I could outrun you easy any time.”
Curtis smiled, and Alex hooted when he saw it. The boy danced away, heading for the swings, and wore the backpack for the rest of the afternoon while he clambered and slid and played with the other children.
* * *
The next day Curtis dressed with a little more care and carried a grammar book when he walked to the park. It was a very busy afternoon, the last afternoon before school started in the city, and the playground was filled with shrieks and screams and busy children. Alex was the busiest among them, and except for a wave at Curtis when he arrived the boy was caught up in taking his turn again and again on every piece of playground equipment. Curtis polished his eyeglasses and leafed through the familiar book.
As the shadows deepened Alex finally came to sit with Curtis on the bench where they shared some fruit and a drink the old man had brought.
“Don’t eat too much, Curtis,” said Alex. “This is the day you will meet my Matka.”
“I know,” Curtis replied. “When we finish our snack.”
“That is what I am saying. If you eat too much now you will burst later, because Mama will feed you.” Alex took the juice bottle from Curtis and capped it. “And me,” he added with great satisfaction. “She has been baking all morning. We will have strudel!”
“You should see how she does it! She pulls and stretches until the dough is so thin you can see through it, and it covers the whole table. Then she blows under one corner to lift it and begins to fold it. She lets me sprinkle the nuts and the raisins over the apples but then she makes me stop because I eat too many.” Alex hooted, flushed with the telling, and Curtis resisted the urge to hug him.
* * *
“Come through here,” Alex whispered. “We are living behind the furnace.” He snickered and tightened his grip on the old man’s hand. It was dark and gloomy in the basement.
Bemused, Curtis felt forward with his cane and ducked as he saw thick pipes loom overhead. They edged past a great mechanical contraption, all valves and wheels and dials. Thankfully it seemed benign, although it was giving off a great deal of heat in spite of the August temperature outside.
“We have to run it for the building to have hot water,” Alex said matter-of-factly, “I help my tata with it sometimes. We are to think the heat of it will be a blessing in the winter.”
Curtis marveled at the boy’s assured tone. Then they stood before a dark door.
“Here is where the second key goes. It is too dark to see the lock and you must feel it.” They stepped into a warm, lighted kitchen, redolent with wonderful smells.
A woman’s voice: “Alexej? Is that you?”
“Alexej! You were to bring the gentleman in the front door,” the voice scolded, and both Alex and Curtis looked at one another.
“But Mama, I have no key to the front door!” protested the boy.
“Please excuse being in the kuchyne, sir.” The voice came at waist level, and after a hasty glance around Curtis looked down and saw an elegantly-coiffed lady rolling into the room from another doorway. She was in a wheelchair, and at once Curtis realized why Alex had to tag along with indifferent nannies going to the playground.
She waggled her finger at Alex. “Of course you cannot expect a lazy boy to walk around to the front of the building.”
Curtis cleared his throat. “Perhaps he was being thoughtful of my old bones, and chose the shortest route.”
“Exactly!” said Alex, looking down.
“I see you have a formidable ally, Ales.” There was a glint in the mother’s eye, and a suggestion of a smile on her lips.
“Ho ho, dearest maminka!” the boy shouted, and ran to his mother’s side, where she pulled him close with her arm around him. She whispered something into his ear, and Alex straightened.
“Curtis, may I present to you my matka, Alzbeta Svobodova.” He turned. “Mama, this is my friend Curtis…” and he paused, looking back toward Curtis.
“Good afternoon, madam.” Curtis stepped forward and made a courtly bow, his hand extended. “I am Curtis Eades and, as your son has told you, I am his friend.”
She grasped his hand firmly. “Please, you must call me Elizabeth, as in your American language.”
“Hush, smart boy.” She slapped Alex playfully on his wrist. “You have told me this already. Welcome to our home, Mr. Eades. It is to regret that my husband is not here to greet you, but he is having to go upstairs to attend a problem.”
“Please call me Curtis.”
“Well Mr. Curtis, since we are already in my kitchen, please to sit at the table and we shall have some refreshment while we talk.”
* * *
Curtis admired the tidy, efficient kitchen which he surreptitiously inspected as he settled onto a sturdy chair. Apparently Alex’s father, as the building superintendent, had worked hard to make this kitchen accessible and usable for his chair-bound wife. Along one wall the cabinets had all been lowered so that their contents could be reached from a sitting position. Even the stovetop and the sink were made somehow lower. The result was that both Alex and his mother could reach everything, and the table was soon filled with small plates and cups and saucers and silverware as Alex danced around the room organizing the settings, while his mother filled the teapot and positioned it and a tray of wonderful-looking pastries at the end of the table.
Elizabeth paused to inspect the table. “Napkins,” she announced. Alex sprang up from the chair he had just occupied beside Curtis and remedied the lack. “Good. How do you take tea, Mr. Curtis?”
“Just Curtis will be fine, Elizabeth. We don’t use ‘mister’ with first names.” Curtis paused, uncertain; had he offended his hostess by correcting her?
“Exactly!” announced Elizabeth. “Do you hear, then, Alexej? You must listen to Curtis!”
“But I do, Mama! He is my advisor!”
Curtis shifted in his chair but Elizabeth beamed at him. “And your tea, Curtis?”
“Ah, sorry. A little milk, please.”
She poured and passed a cup to Curtis. “Alexej, of course, has the white tea,” she said as she prepared a cup of mostly milk and sugar, with a little tea to warm the brew, “but you cannot let him near the sugar bowl.”
“And now, Curtis, you must try my strudel.”
* * *
Curtis’s mouth was still filled with the remains of his second piece of Elizabeth’s strudel, and he waved his hands in a pushing away gesture as she tried to give him yet a third piece. He thought he had died and gone to heaven.
“You must, of course, take some of this with you,” announced Elizabeth. “More tea?”
“Just a half cup, if you please.” Curtis passed his cup as Alex, beside him, hopefully held up his empty plate, tilting it so that his mother could see that it held only crumbs.
“Ales, you are finished.”
The boy turned as a noise came from the front of the apartment. “Tata!” he announced as he slipped from his chair and ran through a doorway.
Voices were heard faintly as Elizabeth smiled at Curtis. “You must give my husband a moment to compose himself. He has known you would be coming here, but we can never foresee when he must work upstairs.”
“Of course, Elizabeth.”
“So, you are ‘advisor’ to my son.”
Curtis shifted in his chair. “That is an exaggeration, I think. I have helped him with his English now and then, when we are talking together in the park. I could not resist—I’m a retired English teacher, with perhaps too much time on my hands.” He retrieved the grammar book from the floor where he had laid it. “I want to leave this with you, to help Alex with his grammar.” He set it on the table.
“Ah, a teacher! So lucky for my Alexej to meet you, then. Why have you picked him to help like this?”
Here it is, thought Curtis. “We’ve become friends at the playground over the past few weeks. I go there to sit in the sun.”
“He has told me of this. You are friends with other children, too?”
“No.” Curtis considered his reply. “I had not planned to become friends with Alex, but he seemed to want to talk to me, and he was in need of an adult to turn to for advice from time to time.”
“You seem troubled by this?”
“It is difficult for an adult, especially a single man like me, to befriend a child that is not part of his own family.” Curtis paused, organizing his thoughts. “It is especially difficult when meeting in a public place like the park, where others who see might draw the wrong conclusions.”
“And what are those conclusions?”
“That I intend to do harm to your son.”
“Alex does not think you mean harm to him.”
“I assure you, I could never harm a child. I would never knowingly harm anyone, but most certainly not a child.” Curtis was tense with the emotion of his reply, and his fingers gripped the edge of the table.
Elizabeth nodded. “We will not need to speak of this further today. Please, you must enjoy your visit to us. We have looked forward to meeting you.”
Alex returned, pulling on the hand of a man who was at a glance Alex grown to adulthood. Tall and lean, his dark hair glistened with dampness and appeared to refuse the comb just as his son’s did. His intense blue eyes found Curtis as the old man rose slowly to his feet.
“Curtis, I present to you my otec, Vincenc. Tati, here is my friend, Curtis…Eades!” Alex finished triumphantly.
“How do you do, Mr. Svobodova.” Curtis offered his hand as the entire family burst into laughter. “What?”
Alex snorted, while his mother hid a giggle behind a hand. Finally Alex’s father suppressed his grin and said, “I cannot speak in English so good, but I know you do not speak in Czech, and it is not right of us to laugh. All languages are hard sometimes. It is my wife Alzbeta who is Svobodova. I am husband, and I am Svoboda.”
“Ah…” Curtis felt his face redden.
Alex’s father clasped Curtis’s hand in both of his and looked at him intently. “No matter. I am glad to meet American friend of my son. Please to call me Cenek, or better, Vincent as you speak it, for as you know we must all speak in the language of this country now.” He turned to direct a look at his wife and son, and then went on. “We are in your debt for helping Alex with his speech. I want very much for him to be American boy.”
“I think now it is my speech that needs improvement,” said Curtis.
“No, no.” Vincent Svoboda waved his remark away. “Czech is hard language. Many variations. We have no one language. Always ways to trip over.”
“Trip up,” said Curtis.
“See!” Vincent roared with laughter. “Alex, pay good attention!”
“I will, papa. Curtis is my American advisor.”
* * *
The next morning, at 7:30 a.m., Curtis found himself on a number 57 crosstown bus, in the midst of several dozen nervous and noisy youngsters and their sleepy parents riding toward Penn Forest Elementary School. He had come out early to see Alex off on his first day, relieved to see two other children from the Beacon Towers also waiting at the bus stop in front of the building.
What he hadn’t expected was an apprehensive Alex, who gripped Curtis’s hand tightly and hissed “I don’t know them! And I shall get lost!”
“I thought you and your father rode this route a couple of times last month when he took you to the school to register. In fact, didn’t you tell me you were the one to help him find the right bus home?”
“That was summer. I didn’t know I would be alone!”
“This will only last a day or two, Alex. You will soon get to know, or at least recognize, other kids on the bus and it will become an easy thing to do.”
“I have never been alone in this big city!” Alex was trembling, and Curtis realized that behind his usual bravado the boy was terrified.
“You aren’t alone, Alex. I am with you, and I shall stay with you until you grow accustomed to this. After all, I am your advisor, and that includes riding buses.”
“Dekuji, my Curtis, dekuji.” Alex pressed the old man’s hand.
Curtis raised his eyebrows.
“Er, means ‘thank you’ Curtis.”
Just then the 57 crosstown bus arrived within a cloud of diesel smoke, the door opened with a groan, and the two clambered aboard and found a seat together. Curtis sighed, but then smiled at the sturdy figure with the canvas backpack who was braving the frontier of his new life.
“You are good, Curtis?”
“I am. But tomorrow I will remember to bring my coffee.”
* * *
“Hi, Curtis, watch my backpack please.” The canvas backpack, a little more worn, landed at Curtis’s feet and Alex was striding off toward the soccer field with a group of larger boys. Curtis bent to retrieve the bag. It was heavy with books and notebooks and whatever else fourth-grade boys deemed necessary to haul around. From the heft of this one that probably included loose bricks, thought Curtis as he heaved it up onto the seat beside him.
Curtis was glad that Alex was making friends—he knew that an old man wasn’t the right companion for a young, energetic boy—but at the same time he felt a pang of loss as he watched Alex run circles around the larger American boys as they all played an impromptu game of soccer on the park pitch.
The game ended with a shout of acclaim, and boys on the same team with Alex high-fived him and slapped him on the back. Alex came running over toward Curtis.
“Did you see? I showed them!” The boy was flushed with excitement.
“I saw that your team won.”
“When we played kickball against the fifth grade at recess today the older boys said I just make lucky kicks, and they dared me to play a real game of football with them after school. I showed them!” Alex grabbed the bottle of juice Curtis was holding out and swigged it down. “They asked me to play after school another time, and be on a team!”
Curtis smiled. “How did you get so good?”
“My papa, er dad…” Curtis nodded to acknowledge his correction. “My dad played football for his school when he was a boy. He showed me how to do the ball since I was little, before we came here. Sometimes he shows me how to do the ball out behind our apartment by the dumpsters. That is where we played before I start coming to the park.”
“Do you miss playing with your dad?”
“Some. But he is very busy. He arranged with the nannies for me to play in the park to learn English better. We still kick the football, some.”
Curtis smiled. “You are very good at it, but remember we call it ‘soccer’ here.”
“Yes, sir advisor. But it is crazy. Tell me, how is the ball moved, in soccer?” Alex waggled his foot. “And how is the ball moved, in your foot-ball?” Alex waggled his hands.
“I think that is your dad talking.”
“Yes! Did you think you were the only one to teach me things?” Alex hooted and danced away, laughing.
* * *
Curtis met with Alex regularly every day after school, usually in the park but at the side entrance to the Beacon Towers if the weather was a problem. Either on a park bench or at his mother’s kitchen table the two worked on improving Alex’s English, both spoken and written. They also discussed what Alex had encountered that day at school, and Curtis offered what insights and explanations he could, based on his years as a teacher. The culture that had been so foreign to Alex and to his family was gradually becoming, if not always understandable, at least manageable. His father and mother appeared to be pleased with Alex’s progress, and it could be noticed that Curtis was putting on a little weight thanks to Elizabeth’s pastries.
Curtis began to depend on these meetings with Alex, for his life had been quite empty before he had met the boy. In fact, Curtis had been deeply depressed, without much motivation to go on. He had lost Simon, his life-long partner, just the year before to cancer. They had met in college, fallen in love, and somehow they had managed to stick it out through the bad times as well as the good over the long years, ‘in sickness and in health’ Curtis often thought, ironically. The irony was that it was Curtis whose health had been failing, with a heart condition growing worse over these last few years, and it was Curtis who had insisted that Simon go for a complete checkup ‘just to be on the safe side’ if he was going to be the caretaker for Curtis in his decline. The shock of discovering Simon’s advanced cancer had been profound, and Simon’s deterioration had been rapid and unrelenting. Now all that was left for Curtis was his empty home, the family town house on the other side of the park stuffed with old furniture and old memories and dusty memorabilia of his life with Simon and his career as an educator, all in the past.
Alex and his family were like the gift of new life to Curtis. They, but especially Alex, gave him a reason to get out of bed in the morning and invigorated him with a new-found purpose. His feelings were very confused. He felt enabled once again as a teacher, but added to that was a new sensation that was as puzzling as it was exhilarating. Curtis teased at it over and over and finally came to the conclusion it was what parents must feel toward their children. It was a combination of nurturing, protectiveness, and management, all overlaid with a profound pride in accomplishment. Curtis recognized it for the dangerous temptation it represented and knew he must not overreach, or he could lose his tenuous tie to the boy. If that were to happen, Curtis knew, the darkness would certainly return and his life would be a wasteland once again.
* * *
“I notice you never talk to the boy who lives upstairs,” Curtis remarked one day after Alex stepped off the 58 bus along with the other children. A slender boy wearing thick glasses about Alex’s age had slipped off the bus behind him and quickly walked away, his head down in the slight drizzle that was beginning to intensify. “Isn’t he in your grade, too? Do you know his name?”
“It is Andrew. He sucks. He is a fairy. I must not talk to him,” Alex said, dismissively.
Shocked, Curtis stopped walking and stared at Alex. The boy walked on a few paces until he noticed, then turned.
He looked questioningly back at Curtis. “What?”
“You have just made three statements about another person that I find unacceptable.”
“What do you mean?” Worried now, Alex returned to stand in front of Curtis. He looked up at the old man, whose face registered deep concern.
“How do you know these things about Andrew?”
Alex shrugged. “I know. When we play at recess, Andrew cannot catch any ball. Tony says he sucks at playing. Then Andrew goes to play with the girls. The fifth grade boys say he is a fairy to play with girls, and we must not talk to him.”
Curtis was stunned. Where to start? He made a quick decision to postpone any comment until they got inside, for anger was at the forefront of his thinking at the moment.
Alex shifted uneasily. He was puzzled, for he had a feeling that Curtis was disappointed in him. He swallowed hard. He did not know what he had done to make his friend upset, but he did not like it. Alex turned and walked slowly with Curtis from the corner to the entrance of the apartment building as the rain continued to increase in intensity. They were finally using the front entrance, at the insistence of Alex’s mother, and the old man was grateful to have an elevator to ride instead of the challenge of the stairway to the basement.
* * *
Once inside the family living room Curtis decided he had better get right to it before the memory of the remark faded from the boy’s mind. “Alex, what do you mean when you say someone ‘sucks’?”
Alex considered it for a moment. “It is just what the other boys say.”
“Is it a good thing, to be called someone who sucks?”
“No. They also say ‘multiplication sucks’ or ‘spelling sucks’ and they mean they don’t like learning those things.” Alex shrugged. “But I like learning those things.”
“So it means something is not wanted, something is disliked?”
“Let’s look in the big dictionary. Could you bring it, please?”
Alex went into the hallway that led to the bedrooms at the back of the apartment. Curtis stirred restlessly, and rose to lean on his cane while he examined family photographs arrayed on the mantel. A young Alex, dressed in a miniature coat and necktie, stood smiling between two young, vibrant parents; the family was arrayed on the steps of an imposing civic building, somewhere in their homeland. Curtis shook his head wistfully. How life had changed for this dear family.
Elizabeth entered the living room, gliding in her wheelchair, the wheels ticking over as she pushed along. “I could not help overhearing. Did he do a wrong thing, Curtis?”
“Yes. But he does not understand it fully, and I want him to realize for himself how hurtful he has been toward another boy.”
“Ah. Then I shall not interfere. Besides, I must start thinking about supper. You will be staying?”
“Thank you, Elizabeth. Your offer is deeply appreciated, but no, tonight it will be better if I go.”
Elizabeth looked at Curtis for a long moment, then she nodded and turned the chair back toward the hallway. As she ticked away Alex came in with the large, desk-sized dictionary Curtis had given him. He put it on the coffee table and began to page through the S’s.
“Here, Curtis.” He bent to study the entry as Curtis seated himself beside the boy on the couch. “But I do not understand it. It says suck is ‘to draw liquid into the mouth…by movements of the tongue and lips that create suction.’” Alex thought about that for a moment. “I do that, I think, when I drink.”
“You are entirely correct. Good thinking.”
“How is that a bad thing?”
He bent over again. “More of the same. Oh, wait. Here is one very different. ‘To be dis…disgust something…”
“Disgustingly,” said Curtis.
“…disgustingly disagreeable or off…offensive.’ What is this, Curtis? It says ‘vulgar slang’.”
“Vulgar means bad, or nasty. Slang is using words not with their usual meanings. People who speak any language often take words and use them in ways that change their regular meanings into bad meanings in order to say nasty things.”
“Like swear words?” Alex leaned over to whisper into Curtis’s ear. “Like ‘shit’?”
“I must not say swear words. How is ‘suck’ a swear word?”
“It can sometimes be used like a swear word. It has become one of those words used in bad language, because somehow ‘sucking’ has come to mean a nasty thing.”
“So when we say someone sucks it sometimes means they are bad, not drinking?”
“Or it sometimes means we think badly of them.”
Alex thought about that for a while.
Curtis waited, then sighed and decided to press on. “While you have the dictionary open, please look up the word ‘fairy.’”
“Fairy?” Alex raised his eyebrows. “Oh! What the boys called Andrew.”
“What you called Andrew.”
“But I…” Alex paused. “I did, didn’t I?”
“Look it up,” Curtis said gently.
Alex flipped pages backward. “Here.” He bent down. Curtis was extremely pleased at how well he could read.
“‘A tiny, imag…’”
“Pretend, make believe.”
“‘Imaginary being in human form’…what is this, Curtis?”
“That is its original meaning: a pretend creature.”
Alex thought. “Ah! That is like in a fairy tale!”
“Exactly. But this, again, is a word that has changed its meaning and is now often used for bad purposes.”
Alex read further. “Here is one, also called slang. ‘Used as dis…’”
“It means to show disapproval. Finish it.”
“‘Used as a disparaging term for a homo…’” Alex looked up. “Hard words, Curtis.”
“What does this mean?”
Curtis took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. “It means that some men fall in love with other men, instead of with women. They are called ‘homosexuals.’ Many people do not approve of this sort of love. One way of expressing that disapproval is to call homosexual men bad names. ‘Fairy’ has come to be one of those bad names.”
Curtis sat back on the couch. His leg hurt, he was tired, he was dizzy, and this was way too complicated for a ten year-old boy.
Alex, quick to sense the old man’s mood, turned. “What is it, Curtis? Do you want a drink of water?”
Alex returned, bearing a tall glass of water. Elizabeth rolled into the living room right behind him.
“You are alright, Curtis?”
“I’m a little tired, Elizabeth. I did a lot of walking today.” He took the glass from Alex, tilted it, and swallowed. Alex watched intently.
Curtis choked, then lowered his glass. “Yes, you scamp!”
They smiled at one another. Elizabeth shook her head, then turned and wheeled away.
“So, Curtis, I am saying two bad things about Andrew. I am saying he sucks, and I am saying he is a fairy. I do not understand that last thing, but now I know it is bad.” Alex’s face was distressed.
Curtis held up a finger. “We will talk about that last again, but not today. You must just know that a homosexual man is not a bad man, but some people will say he is bad and they are the ones who will call him a bad name, like ‘fairy.’”
“Is it like someone calling me ‘foreign boy’ or ‘immigrant’?”
“Yes, dear heart! Exactly like that. There is nothing wrong with being an immigrant, except in the minds of some nasty people.”
Alex nodded. “Yes, I know this name-calling.”
“There is one more thing you did to Andrew.”
Alex stopped nodding, his mouth open. “What?”
“You accepted the words of other boys, hateful words, and repeated them without understanding them and without making up your own mind about Andrew.”
The boy looked stricken. Curtis waited, deeply weary.
After a long silence Alex finally said, “You are right, Curtis. I never thought about those words, or what they meant.”
“I doubt the other boys know what they mean, just that they are words that are intended to hurt someone.”
“But the other boys are my friends. Why do they say bad words about Andrew?”
“Friends can make mistakes. They reacted against Andrew because they see that he is different, that he cannot play as well as they can. They chose to turn away from him, and say bad things in order to push him away.”
Alex sat, thinking hard. Finally he said, “It would be better to help Andrew.”
“Yes, my friend,” said the old man, with a deep sigh. “Now I must be going. But I think you understand what we have been talking about, and you have done well.”
* * *
The next day was Saturday and one of the few times Vincent was able to spend some time with his son. Together they walked to the park, where they planned to kick the ball around.
“The soccer ball, yes, Alex?”
“Yes, papa!” They chuckled, and Vincent nudged his son. Alex skipped beside his father, his spirits vastly improved.
As they neared the recreation field they saw Curtis seated on the bottom plank of the bleachers. Beside him was a small sandy-haired figure, and they were talking earnestly. When Alex saw them his brow furrowed, and he reached for his father’s hand.
“It is the boy Andrew,” he whispered.
“The boy you treat bad,” Vincent stated.
“Yes, papa.” Alex scuffed at the sidewalk and walked with his head down.
“So, then?” asked his father, and put his hand on Alex’s shoulder. Alex tensed, then nodded.
He walked slowly up to the bleachers. “Good morning, Curtis.” He looked up at the boy. “Hello, Andrew.”
Andrew shyly darted a look at Alex, then at Vincent. “’Lo,” he said softly.
Curtis considered Alex for a moment, then glanced at Vincent, who gave him a wink and nodded. “Good morning, Alex, Vincent. Vincent, this is Andrew Moore. I asked him to join us this morning. Andrew has been telling me about his difficulty with seeing the ball.”
“Seeing the ball?” Alex asked, puzzled.
The other boy hesitated, then pointed at his glasses. The thick lenses distorted his eyes so that they were magnified hugely.
Alex had a sudden moment of realization. “But you do not wear these when we are at recess!”
“I can’t,” Andrew said softly. “They are too expensive, and I broke them once already this year.”
“So you do not see well without them?”
Andrew nodded, then bent his head.
Vincent turned to Alex, rested his hand on his son’s shoulder, then lifted his chin toward the other boy. Curtis sat, waiting.
Alex cleared his throat. “Andrew…”
The boy looked up.
“Andrew, I am sorry I call you those names.”
Andrew flushed and quickly looked down.
“I did not know their meaning, and it was wrong for me to say them.”
Andrew sat very still for a moment, then looked back up at Alex. He had tears running down his cheeks.
“Thanks,” he said, very softly.
Curtis pulled out his big white handkerchief and passed it to Andrew. “You know, when I was a boy I had a problem similar to Andrew’s,” he stated. Alex turned to look at Curtis as Andrew carefully dabbed at his face.
“I couldn’t see the blackboard in my school unless I sat in the front row, but I was ashamed to admit it.” He gestured toward his own eyeglasses. “I didn’t want to get glasses, because everyone would call me ‘four-eyes’ like they did other kids with glasses.”
“Four-eyes?” Alex snorted, and even Andrew gave a little giggle. By now Alex was sitting beside Andrew.
“See? It’s a funny thing to say, but when kids say it over and over it isn’t so funny.”
Both Alex and Andrew stopped laughing.
“What did you do?” Alex finally asked.
“Well, I got by for the first year because no one had a last name that came before mine, and I was seated in the front row.” The boys nodded; they were familiar with alphabetical seating. “But then in second grade Billy Baxter and Susan Coleman came to school in my class and I had to move back. So then I had to get glasses.”
The boys sat silently for a few minutes. Finally Andrew cleared his throat. “And at recess?” he asked softly. They both looked at Curtis.
“We did not play with balls or bats in elementary school. We played supervised games like tag and red rover. Or we ran foot races. I was very fast.”
“Lucky,” muttered Andrew. Alex leaned and nudged his shoulder.
“Come. Play soccer with me and my father.”
“I can’t…” Andrew began to say.
“Wait. I have idea,” said Vincent. “You wait and I be right back.” He turned and walked away rapidly, back toward the Beacon Towers. The boys looked at each other, then at Curtis.
Curtis thought for a moment. “Kick goals,” he suggested.
“Brilliant!” said Alex. “Come, Andrew.” He jumped up and ran onto the field. It was already set and lined for youth-league soccer. Andrew followed slowly.
“See,” said Alex. “This is how you do kick.” He positioned the ball in front of the goal, backed up, and neatly footed it into the goal.
Andrew watched. “Looks easy,” he said.
Andrew watched Alex position the ball similarly in front of the goal, then he backed off just as Alex had done, ran up to it, and kicked it in.
“Good,” said Alex. “But the ball is not always in front of the goal.” He placed it to one side, a little ways in from the sideline. This time his run-up was just inside the line and he hit the ball with the side of his foot. The soccer ball arced neatly into the netting.
Andrew tried from the side, and missed. The ball went over the goal and out of bounds.
“This mistake everyone makes, Andrew. It is easy to hit the ball too hard. Try again.” He ran and returned with the ball.
Again Andrew missed, but by a smaller margin.
“See how your foot controls the ball? You must practice many kicks from many places on the field to get idea of how to hit the goal.”
Andrew nodded, doubtfully. “What I see is that it takes a lot of practice.”
“So does life, Andrew,” said Alex. The boys smiled.
Curtis sat up in astonishment. Where had that come from?
The boys moved back over to the goal. “This time,” Alex said, “you kick and I will be the goalkeeper. I must block your kick.”
Andrew looked for a good place to put the ball. “Wait,” said Alex. “We’ll start with penalty kicks. That means no one can block you except the goalkeeper. Me.” He grinned, and showed Andrew the mark for placing the ball for penalty kicks. “This way we will not have to make Curtis play defense.” Both boys looked over toward Curtis, giggling, and Curtis waved them off. He marveled at how well Alex was instructing Andrew, and at how relaxed both boys had become.
Andrew tried several kicks. Each one reached the goal, but was effectively blocked by Alex. Andrew frowned. “How do I get it in?”
“It is hard,” said Alex. “This is why soccer is a low-scoring game. Very few players can kick well enough to score, especially when all the other team are running and a good goalkeeper blocks the kick. That is why it is the most exciting sport.”
“I don’t think I can do it,” said Andrew, looking down.
“No one thinks they can, when they start. But we will start small, with only me and you, and I will show you each thing. Do the kick again.”
Andrew kicked the ball, and this time it sailed over Alex’s head and into the goal before Alex could jump to block it with his hand.
“Yes!” said Alex.
Andrew had a huge smile. “But why did you try to catch it with your hand? I thought soccer was only for the feet?”
“Aha. Now we are getting into it,” said Alex. “Only the goalkeeper can stop the ball with his hands, to prevent scoring. All other players cannot touch the ball with their hands or arms, you are right. But you can touch the ball with all other parts of your body, and we will show you that now for here is my father back.”
Vincent came onto the field holding a cardboard box in his hand, and walked over to the boys. “I have this to give to Andrew to try. It will protect him.” He handed the box to the boy and Andrew opened it to find a pair of safety goggles.
“I have these extra, never used, and they will protect your eyeglasses.” Carefully he took the goggles from Andrew and, adjusting the rubber strap, fitted them to Andrew’s face over his eyeglasses. They gave Andrew the look of a swimmer, and he moved his head carefully up down and side to side as he looked out through the clear lenses.
“I can see pretty good.”
“Good!” said Vincent. “Now we try some things. You were kicking goals?”
The boys nodded. “Andrew got one past me, papa,” said Alex.
“Excellent! Now is your turn to try goalkeeper, Andrew. You will keep your glasses on. No fear, eh, for your eyes are protected! ”
Andrew hesitated, then stepped into the goal. “Let’s try,” he whispered.
“Your job, to keep all balls out of goal,” said Vincent. “This box is goal.” He showed Andrew the rectangle formed by the goal posts, the bar, and the line on the ground. “Ball scores only if fully past goal, so if you stop it halfway you save from score.
“Use hands, feet, whole body. Catch if you can, but do utmost to block ball. Even use head if you are confident.” Vincent spoke with feeling, waving his arms. “I stand behind net, advise you. Alex, you kick, but from all about. See how many points you score.”
Andrew stood in the middle of the goal. He reached up and positioned the goggles. A slender boy with huge bug eyes stared out at Alex, waiting.
Alex grinned. This was the game he loved. He started by positioning the ball directly in front of the goal, stepped back, then kicked it straight at Andrew. Andrew started to duck, then threw up his arm, as though by reflex, and the ball bounced away, out of the goal. Andrew cringed and bent, shielding his head.
“No, no, Andrew! You did it!” Vincent’s enthusiastic shout startled the boy. “Keep your eye always on the ball. Even failed attempts can be tried again by other team!”
The boy straightened, adjusted his goggles. Alex had retrieved the soccer ball and was positioning it off to Andrew’s right, a little farther away. Then Alex backed up and ran full tilt straight at the ball. His kick was a thing of beauty, and the ball shot directly toward the upper corner of the goal, on Andrew’s left. Andrew’s feet left the ground, he twisted in midair, and interposed his shoulder between the ball and the goal frame. The ball bounced back.
“Like that?” Andrew had landed on his feet, and he crouched, watching the ball dribble away from the goal. Alex stood, wide-eyed. Vincent opened his mouth.
“Exactly!” said Vincent. “Just like that, if you please!”
Alex situated the ball close in and off to Andrew’s left side. He knew all goalkeepers have a better side and a lesser side, and he figured he’d just seen Andrew work his better side. He backed up and again sent the ball flying, perfectly aimed off his foot. The soccer ball sailed, a line drive, straight toward the right corner of the goal. Andrew lunged with both arms extended and somehow connected with the ball in a blur. The ball bounced aimlessly back toward Alex. Andrew, breathing hard, bent over his knees and then straightened, adjusting his goggles.
No one said anything for a moment. Curtis had risen to his feet.
Finally Alex’s father spoke. “I think you are a natural goalkeeper, Andrew.”
The boy smiled, a huge, toothy smile that lit up what little of his face could be seen. Alex ran over to him and gave him a big hug that staggered the slender boy.
“That was my best shot, Andrew! Good job!” Alex was beaming. “Now we should teach you some rules, eh Papa?”
“Now we learn some soccer,” the father agreed. “I think you have goalkeeper for your team, here.”
* * *
The two boys became fast friends, to their mutual surprise. For Andrew, Alex had evolved from tormentor into tutor, and then into a boy with a warm and open heart who always had something new and exciting they could do. Andrew, in Alex’s eyes, had become transformed from a nonentity derided by his friends into a boy who needed his help, then into a receptive and understanding companion who provided an astonishing array of entries into the mysterious culture called America.
“He has his own television! In his room! And electronic games!” Alex reported breathlessly, arriving home after spending Friday afternoon after school upstairs with Andrew.
“And you have books, and your music, and the company of educated people!” his mother replied, a bit waspishly. The boy hugged his mother and apologized to Curtis as he opened his backpack and got his weekend homework arranged on the coffee table in the living room.
Curtis had watched the friendship progress, bemused by how well each boy fulfilled the other’s need. Andrew clearly needed someone who would take the time and make the effort to understand his differences, which included his visual handicap, extreme shyness, and a lack of social skills. Alex was convinced that all of these issues could be surmounted, and his boundless optimism fed Andrew’s growing confidence in himself. On the other hand, Alex had been essentially incomplete without even knowing it, with little opportunity to just be with someone his own age, for he had been a child raised by adults and isolated by circumstances in a strange country with little outside contact except through grownups.
Including me, mused Curtis. What business do I have, keeping this bright, active, curious child hidden away from his own world? I’m just an incompetent and selfish old man, and a single afternoon in the company of another boy his own age has done more to refresh Alex’s spirit than weeks of my dreary lectures and withered observations. He sighed, and bent to help Alex with his grammar lesson from school.
That night Curtis thought long and hard about what he had done. As Alex’s ‘advisor’ he’d been solely intent on treating the boy as an adult-in-training. He was a childless old man who had been depending upon pick-up soccer games in the park and the recess period at the school to satisfy Alex’s need to be a kid. He was too old, too old by far to even recognize the need for play and exploration and fun. Well, he still might be able to do something about that.
* * *
Elizabeth was trilling scales on her flute to loosen up her fingers before she started practicing in earnest when the sound of thudding feet coming down the foyer stairs signaled the arrival of two excited boys.
Alex burst through the doorway first, followed closely by Andrew. Both wore identical oversized tee-shirts decorated with a huge etching of Ben Franklin’s face. “Mama, guess where Curtis took us!”
“To elephant stampede training place?” said Elizabeth, with a glint in her eye. She gestured with the flute.
“Er, sorry Mama.” Alex’s face was contrite for a brief moment, then he smiled hugely. “Franklin Institute!”
Andrew chimed in. “We went to the Franklin Institute! We saw a giant heart!”
“And walked through it,” Alex interrupted.
“But then we saw a heart operation, right in someone’s chest!”
“It was a model.”
“I knew that! But it looked just like a person.”
“And the Wright Brothers airplane! Did you know two brothers built an airplane out of sticks and bicycles in a shed, mama?”
Vincent came into the room, wiping his hands. “What is this?” He was grinning.
“Did you know, Papa?” Alex was jumping up and down. “You knew what Curtis would do, didn’t you?”
Vincent smiled. “Let me look at your shirts.”
The boys modeled their Ben Franklin tee-shirts, turning so both Vincent and Elizabeth could see them.
“Did you know Ben Franklin started the fire company? And the post office?”
“So you boys had a good time today?”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Svoboda. It was a big surprise when Curtis met us out front this morning and said we would do something different than going to the park.”
“Papa, you must see this place! It shows how tools go together, and how to build with levers and things! We saw huge pendulums, and pulled levers to raise us up!”
“And you, Andrew, what did you like best?”
“I liked everything.” Andrew thought for a moment. “I think I liked all the medical exhibits, and the giant heart.”
“Everything was so good we must return to be sure,” Alex grinned, and his father grinned back. “They have a giant room where you learn how to work your body to do sports best, and a wall to climb up.”
“Spacesuits,” Andrew murmured.
“Yes, and spacesuits, and…” the two boys burst into delighted laughter.
“Where is Curtis?”
“He is worn out. He told the taxi to let us out here, and then they would drive to his home so he could rest.”
“Oh my, do you think it was too much for him?” asked Elizabeth.
“Oh, no, Mama. He has tee-shirt, too!”
“He said he hadn’t been since he was a boy.” Andrew smiled shyly. “But he said it was the best time he had ever had there.”
“And he said we would have more adventures!”
* * *
Curtis had had a leisurely afternoon on his own with no meeting planned with Alex. The boy had been going to stay late at school to learn more about a music program that was being organized. Now it was very late and the phone was ringing. Curtis, startled, glanced with bleary eyes at the television set. It was still showing the old movie that had managed to put him to sleep. But that wasn’t the source of the insistent ringing. He fumbled for the phone on the desk beside his chair.
“Hello,” Curtis managed to croak.
“He is not speaking to us. He is only sobbing in his bed.” Curtis recognized Elizabeth’s voice, and she seemed highly agitated.
“What do you mean he isn’t speaking?”
“He come home from the school, late, but not himself. All he said was he would not go back! Then he is gone into his room. Not come out for supper.” Elizabeth was quickly losing command of her English. “When we ask what is it about, what is wrong, he turns his back to us and cries.”
“Elizabeth, be calm if possible. I will be there as soon as I can. Make some tea. Make some cocoa for Alex and put it beside his bed.”
“Yes.” The phone clicked. Curtis stared at the silent handset, then placed it back in its cradle. He had better call a cab.
* * *
Alex was a huddled lump under an elaborately embroidered duvet. The cup of cocoa on the bed stand had skinned over. Curtis took a quick look around; it was his first time in the boy’s room. Aside from a couple of posters featuring what Curtis took to be European soccer—that is, football—stars, the room was bare of decoration. Instead, the walls were lined with bookcases, bookcases overflowing with books of all description, but Curtis had no time to inspect them. He bent over the bed.
Vincent stood in the doorway, glowering, his long striped nightshirt a vivid reminder of this family’s recent European past. “He said he would not return to the school,” Vincent announced. “He would not say reason. I cannot accept this.”
Curtis turned slightly, nodded, and motioned for Vincent to leave. The father scowled at the old man for a moment, then spread his hands expressively.
“So advise him well, mister advisor.” Vincent turned, pulling the door as he left.
“Alex,” Curtis murmured, bending over the bed again. “Remember, I am your friend. Will you talk to me?”
There was the sound of sobbing from underneath the covers.
“I cannot stand up very long, Alex. Do you mind if I sit on the edge of your bed?”
The small form under the mounded duvet shifted to one side. Curtis sat heavily, with a sigh. He laid his cane on the floor and straightened, then placed a hand where he thought Alex’s shoulder might be. The boy moved quickly, startling Curtis, throwing back the covers and flinging himself onto the old man’s lap. Alex’s face was tear streaked, his eyes red and swollen.
“I cannot return, Curtis! I love the school, but I cannot go back!” he wailed, and buried his head against Curtis’s chest. The old man put his arms around the boy and rocked him slightly.
“And who will prevent you?” Curtis asked, softly.
“You must promise never to tell, Curtis! It will be terrible for us if you tell!”
“If someone has harmed you I must tell your parents…”
“Nooo,” Alex wailed. “They must not know!”
“Clearly it is too much for you to bear alone. I am your friend, and I will help you understand this thing that has happened. I cannot promise what you ask, but I do promise that what you tell me will remain just between us until I can understand it and until you agree what we must do about it.”
Alex considered what Curtis had said, then nodded his head.
“I stayed after school was over, because there was going to be a meeting for students who want to play music together.”
“Yes, I remember you were going to do that.”
“I was walking in the hall, looking for the door to the music room. It was not where I thought it was, for somehow I had become turned around and was in the wrong hallway. Instead I went into a dark room.” Alex stifled a sob, and took a deep breath.
“Were you alone?”
“No! Someone, a big man, came out of the shadows and grabbed my arm! He had a long stick, but he dropped it when he grabbed me!” Alex trembled and began sobbing. Curtis held him, stroking his back gently.
Alex caught his breath in mid-sob. “He said I must go with him, that I was a naughty boy for sneaking around after school was out, and that he must punish me.” Alex groaned. “I tried to tell him about the meeting in the music room, but he pulled me and bent me over a desk. He said he must take my trousers down and…” Alex gulped, “and my underpants.”
Curtis held Alex tightly, furious, his mind racing.
“He pulled my clothing off and began to smack me. Then he felt me, all over.”
Alex hiccoughed and wailed. His eyes and nose were streaming, and Curtis pulled out a big white handkerchief and gently wiped at the boy’s face. Alex slumped, and Curtis began to lay him back on the bed, but the boy struggled to sit up, clinging to Curtis and burying his face in Curtis’s chest.
“He held me tight to him and stunk so bad of sweat and garlic I could not breathe. Then he said that I was a bad boy and he would be watching for me, and I would be punished whenever he saw me late in the school.”
“Did he let you go then?”
“No! He said I must never tell, because I was a damn foreigner and if I ever told anyone he would get my parents sent back! He said any American could report foreign people to Homeland Security and they would be sent away! He said then I would be an orphan, so I must do as he says.” His sobbing increased as he clung desperately to Curtis. “I cannot have my tata and mama be sent away!”
Alex shook violently as he clutched onto Curtis. “He left me, and I find all but my underpants in the dark and put on clothes and run. I run out and catch the bus to home but I am afraid he will follow!” The boy howled. “I cannot go to school there anymore or he will catch me! I must disappear from him!”
Curtis held the sobbing boy for a long time, rocking him gently and thinking hard. Finally Alex seemed to slump and his tears abated. The boy was exhausted. Curtis gently laid him back onto his pillow and covered him with the duvet.
He looked up to see Vincent staring in anguish through the half-opened doorway. Curtis put his finger to his lips and eased himself off the bed. He fumbled for his cane and moved slowly out of the room.
“He has had a terrible experience,” Curtis said.
“I have heard it. I could not remain away.” Vincent’s eyes were intent.
Curtis grasped his hand and spoke reassuringly. “Of course you couldn’t.”
“I must protect him.” Vincent shook his head, bewildered. “I must protect my family. Our papers, they are all in order. Can this be true, reporting us to Homeland Security? We must flee, quickly!”
“No, it cannot possibly be the truth,” said Curtis. “I will find out immediately what is the truth. You must stay here, and I will go to look into this as soon as it is morning. I am sure you have nothing to fear.” The old man looked earnestly at Vincent.
After a moment Alex’s father nodded. “Come, we must have coffee, and tell Elizabeth this thing.”
* * *
Curtis was desperately tired. Although he had thought he would return home to spend what little remained of the night in his own bed, Elizabeth had prevailed on him to stay. Curtis could tell that they were enormously upset, not far from hysteria. He realized that he represented some sort of anchor for these fine people and that he could not leave them adrift.
He spent an uneasy few hours stretched out on the couch in the living room, having resisted all attempts by Vincent to persuade him to take their bed. Curtis knew Elizabeth could not spend the night sitting up in her wheelchair, and although he doubted they would get any sleep he insisted that Vincent must allow his wife to lie down. The additional burden of a strain such as this could only add to her discomfort.
He was dozing fitfully when he became aware of someone standing beside the couch. It was Alex, in his pajamas, red-faced and puffy eyes and solemn.
“You stayed, Curtis?”
“Yes.” Curtis cleared his throat and tried again. “Yes. I talked very long with your father and mother, and it became too late for me to go home.”
“You did not tell them!” Apprehension opened Alex’s reddened eyes wide.
“No, but I must tell you that your father overheard us when we talked.”
“Nooo!” Alex flung himself onto Curtis and began sobbing.
“Alex, listen.” The old man hugged the boy and whispered in his ear. “It is best that they know so we can all help you. You did nothing wrong, and it is the man who hurt you who is evil and must be stopped.”
“But the Homeland Security!”
“I am sure that is not true, and I will find that out this morning.”
“But I cannot go to the school! He will find me and hit me with his stick!”
“We all agree; you should not go back until we fix this situation.”
Alex hiccoughed a few times, stood, and regarded Curtis gravely. After a moment he nodded. “Tell me what we must do.”
“At the very least, we must be healthy and strong so we can do our best. For you that means a hot bath and clean clothes and a good breakfast.” Curtis, in his wrinkled clothes, disheveled hair, with fatigue lines etching his face, looked solemnly at the boy.
Alex stared for a moment, then turned to hide the slight smile that teased his lips. “Advise yourself, friend Curtis.”
Curtis’s heart leapt, gladdened at this small sign of the boy he knew. He arose, stretched with a groan, and tottered to the bathroom. There he caught sight of himself in the mirror and shook his head. He returned to the living room. “Alex, go and draw your bath. I want you to get dressed and then after you eat we will start on your homework. You won’t be going to school today but we must make sure you don’t fall behind. We will not disturb your parents while they are finally getting some necessary rest.”
* * *
When Curtis got back to his home he enjoyed a hot, steaming shower, followed by a hot, steaming cup of coffee. He longed for his bed but it was already eight o’clock in the morning and he knew what he must do. He reached for the telephone.
“Penn Forest Elementary. How may I direct your call?”
“I need to speak to the principal, please.”
“Mr. Richardson’s office. This is Susan. May I help you?”
“My name is Curtis Eades. May I speak to the principal?”
“I’ll see if he’s in. He may be in the halls, Mr. Eades.”
“I’ll wait. It’s very important.” Curtis drummed his fingers on his desk.
A male voice came on the line. “Did you say Curtis Eades?”
Curtis cleared his throat. “Yes, this is Curtis Eades.”
“You wouldn’t be the Curtis Eades who taught Honors English at Central High and was Teacher of the Year in, oh, 1991?”
“Why, yes. How do you know of that?”
“I’m Tom Richardson, Dr. Eades!” The voice paused, waiting.
Curtis searched his memory. His fickle, porous memory. Finally he gave up. “I’m an old man, Mr. Richardson, and I simply don’t remember your name.”
“I was one of your students, Dr. Eades. In fact, thanks to your example, I became a teacher.”
Curtis momentarily flushed with pleasure then, with a jolt, he remembered why he was calling. “That’s very heartening, Mr. Richardson, and I’m gratified. But I am calling about a serious problem.”
“How can I help you, then?”
“I’m calling about one of your students, a fourth grader named Alex Svoboda. He was assaulted yesterday while he was in the school.”
“Assaulted! By a student? But we’ve had no report…Susan?” Tom Richardson’s voice dropped as he turned away from the phone.”
“It was after school, and no, I’m sure it wasn’t a student. Alex had stayed to attend a meeting concerning the formation of a music program. He was attacked by an adult male when he became lost in the school and entered a dark room. He came right home as soon as he escaped from his assailant.”
“My God,” said Tom Richardson. “Have you notified the police? Are you a relative, er, his guardian perhaps?”
“No, and no. I suppose it would be correct to call Alex my protégé; his parents are recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, and I am helping them with Alex’s transition into our culture.”
“Can you give me any more details about the assault? An adult male? I can’t believe one of our teachers…I must bring our security officer into this immediately. You must be familiar with our regulations, Dr. Eades.”
“Yes, I am, Mr. Richardson. We haven’t called the metropolitan police because the parents are understandably terrified, especially because Alex received a warning from his assailant that if he ever said a word he and his parents would be ‘reported’ to Homeland Security on some fabricated charge. You can imagine how complicated that could become. So no police for now, please. I’m perfectly willing to meet with your security people, however.”
“What is it you want me to do, then?”
“I want to come over there and, with your help, see if we can find the perpetrator immediately.”
“Do you think it is one of my teachers?”
“I think I know who it is.”
“My God, Dr. Eades, you’d better get over here right away!”
* * *
Alex was the one who heard the faint tapping at the front door, and he was the one to let in a clearly exhausted Curtis.
“Curtis, you are hurting!” The boy rushed to hug his friend.
“Some, but I will be fine once I catch my breath.” The old man wheezed once and looked around. “Are your parents up?”
“We are in the kitchen. Mama has been examining me.” Alex blushed. “She looked at my bottom,” he whispered.
“I am glad, for I forgot to ask her to do that last night. We shall have a doctor examine you, also.”
“But I am fine. My papa—er, dad—looked too, and he says soccer players look worse after a game!”
The boy certainly seemed lively enough, thought Curtis, as he slowly followed Alex into the kitchen. There he greeted Vincent and Elizabeth, who were seated around the table, their faces drawn.
“I have news,” said Curtis. “It is over. We’ve identified Alex’s assailant, and he is already in custody.” The old man turned to Alex. “He is gone from the school and will never return, and I expect he will receive a good long prison sentence. You should have no fear of returning to school.”
Everyone stirred, and Alex clutched onto Curtis’s hand as he sat down heavily onto a sturdy chair with a sigh.
“How is this?” demanded Vincent. “How is this done?”
Elizabeth put her napkin to her face and rocked in her wheelchair, crying softly. Alex went to his mother and hugged her.
“Last night, as Alex was telling me what had happened to him, I noticed several details that troubled me,” said Curtis. “By the time he had finished his account I became fairly confident I might know enough to identify his assailant, but I could not be certain so I said nothing to you.”
The old man gratefully accepted a cup of tea from Elizabeth, and sipped from it before he resumed. “I went to the school where it turned out I knew the principal, Tom Richardson. I told him about my suspicions, and he and a school security officer and I went to the school basement and searched in the custodian’s locker. There we found Alex’s missing underpants––thanks to your skills at embroidering his name,” he said, glancing toward Elizabeth, “plus underwear apparently taken from other students—students who also had never dared report any such trouble as Alex’s. It was enough. The Philadelphia police were called and the custodian was apprehended while he was in the gym pushing his long-handled duster—that was the stick you so helpfully remembered, Alex.”
“But how did you know?” asked Elizabeth, still wringing her hands.
Curtis smiled reassuringly at her. “I was a teacher for almost thirty years, Elizabeth, and I have never encountered another teacher who was permitted to stink and smell heavily of garlic during the school day. So I began to think of other adults who had freedom of movement as well as access to the school, and who might be on the premises after classes were over for the day.”
“So all is over?” asked Vincent.
“Essentially, yes. The police will require a statement from Alex, I am sure, and it is imperative that we have him examined by a doctor who will have to make a statement also. I have already arranged for that, Alex, with my own doctor.”
“He will have to go with the police?” asked Elizabeth. Curtis could see that she was still very upset.
“No, someone will come here to take his statement, and only when you give permission. We will be here with Alex, and he will be represented by his attorney as well.”
“We have no such attorney.” said Vincent. “We have stayed clear of law, since emigration hearing.”
“You do now. You have retained the services of Adrian Eades, senior partner in the firm of Eades, Chauncy, and Toomey. He’s my younger brother, somewhat retired, but still fit enough to file a brief when necessary. I spoke with him this morning and he can be here at moment’s notice. You have a real Philadelphia lawyer on your side, my friends.” Curtis smiled.
“I can go back to school?” Alex was wide-eyed.
“You can go to school, my boy.”
“Thank you, Curtis.” The boy hugged the old man for a long time.
* * *
Curtis’s body felt every one of his seventy-three years as he perched on the bleachers in the weak springtime sunshine and wished desperately for a bench with a back. However, his spirit was that of a ten year-old as he waved and cheered and watched Alex race across the playing field with a dozen other shouting boys and girls in pursuit of the ball. It was not just another pick-up soccer game that he was witnessing; these all were Alex’s friends from school, both fourth and fifth graders, assembled here for Alex’s eleventh birthday. Curtis’s foot twitched sympathetically at every try for a goal. He even managed to jump to his feet and, placing two fingers side by side in his mouth, to emit a piercing whistle as Alex succeeded in tying the score, 1 to 1.
Elizabeth was in her wheelchair beside the bleachers and she looked up in astonishment at Curtis’s antics. “I think you must grow young again, Curtis. Inside old body is still young boy.”
Curtis laughed. “That boy was pretty well hidden, Elizabeth, but Alex and his friends have found him again even though I thought he was gone forever.”
Curtis watched as Alex deflected someone’s kick by jumping straight into the air. The ball spun into the center of the field and one of the tall fifth graders—Curtis thought it was Raymond, or maybe Carl—booted a line drive straight ahead at the goal posts. Andrew, begoggled and crouching, launched himself at the ball hurtling in and managed to block it with his chest and envelop it with his arms. The fourth grade side cheered and whistled, and Andrew flushed as he kicked the ball back into play far downfield.
“Good one, Andrew,” Alex yelled, and ran hard to catch up with the play in progress. Small-sides youth soccer was a game of constant motion. Vincent, splendid in a heavily-striped black shirt and a whistle on a lanyard, ran the field with the pack as he officiated the game. The children all knew him well; he had been asked by Tom Richardson early in the spring to take over coaching responsibilities for the Penn Forest fourth and fifth grades on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. The stipend from the principal’s discretionary activities budget was more than welcome in the Svoboda family household.
Curtis shook his head in wonder at the stamina of these children. “You know, Elizabeth, I was ready to give up before I met your son that day by the playground. I thought all I had to look forward to was sitting on park benches waiting for my time to come.”
“Your spirit was very dark when you come to take tea and meet us.” Elizabeth laid a hand on his arm. “You spoke of serious, sad things about old men and boys.”
“I was afraid, Elizabeth. Afraid to take a chance, afraid of what others might think. I was afraid of responding to the life I could see bubbling over within Alex, for I was convinced that my own life force had dried up. But I was most afraid of the love I was already feeling for your son.”
“I know, Curtis my friend. I saw it then.” She gripped his arm. “I also know your love was like my love. Good love. Never bad, as you feared people would say.”
“No, never bad. I will fight to my last breath to keep your son, and any child, safe from that kind of bad love.”
“As you already have, for you are cestny bojovnik, honorable warrior. But we must be alert, for the elephants come!”
With a final whistle the game had ended, and the fourth graders had managed to hold the fifth graders to a 1-1 tie. The pack of children came panting to the sideline and jostled playfully over the cold fruit drinks and orange wedges in the cooler at Elizabeth’s feet.
“Now we go to pavilion for the food,” she announced. Alex broke into a big smile.
* * *
Andrew’s mother Trudy, who had arranged a day off from her nursing duties at Hahnemann University Hospital, was in charge of preparations at the picnic pavilion and Peter Moore, Andrew’s dad, was already busy at the grill with hamburgers and hotdogs. When the crowd of children arrived the focal point was the center of the long table. There glistened a fantasy of sugar frosting, a cake in the shape of a medieval castle, with turrets and parapets and a drawbridge over a moat made of chocolate. Curtis wheeled Elizabeth up in time to watch the children as they crowded around to marvel at it.
“I learn fancy cake from my own matka,” she whispered to Curtis. “As a young person I must learn patience to do it.”
“It is beautiful, Elizabeth.”
They were joined by Vincent, still mopping his brow. “Kids make this old man run too much!” he laughed. “So, Curtis, this is American birthday barbeque, not Czech, so we have no pig roast to offer you, instead hamburger and the hot dog. But would you like a cold pilsner?”
“I’d love one.”
“And Alsbeta, mother of birthday boy?”
“Today, one only.”
The adults took turns with Andrew’s parents supervising the distribution of the food. In addition to hotdogs and hamburgers there were roasted vegetables (“In our tradition,” whispered Vincent) which most of the children regarded doubtfully but managed to snag seconds of when they came around again.
The assembly soon ate their way through these offerings, along with lemonade and fruit punch, and then sat eyeing the magnificent cake. “It’s time,” someone said. The children shifted restlessly.
“Just so,” Elizabeth said, wheeling her chair beside Alex. “Papa, slide it further to us.”
“Wait!” Andrew called out. “The song!”
Andrew began and all the rest joined in enthusiastically until the song ended with a great shout: “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday DEAR ALEX! HAPPY BIRTH-DAY TO YOU!”
Amid shouts of “Alex S.! Alex S.!” and much hand-clapping a smiling Alex approached the cake, as his father carefully lit the eleven candles placed along the battlements of the castle.
“Do you know what you must do, Alex?” asked Curtis.
“Yes. On this I seek no advice.” The boy grinned hugely and took a deep, deep breath. He got up onto the tabletop on his knees so that his face would clear the brightly glowing cake, and he blew carefully as he moved around the parapet of the castle. All of the candles but one flickered, bent in the breeze of his exhalation, and finally yielded. Alex addressed the one reluctant candle and, his breath nearly exhausted, gave a mighty snort and the candle flame vanished. The children cheered.
Vincent, with Elizabeth supervising, carefully cut generous slabs of the decorated cake and Trudy passed them around to each guest. Curtis attempted to hold up a hand but a piece of the cake was pressed on him. “Everyone must eat some, for luck.” It was delicious. When Curtis looked down at his plate he was astonished to find it empty.
Reluctantly Curtis placed his plate in the trash bin before he could yield to temptation.
“Presents!” someone shouted. Attention turned to the stack of gifts waiting the birthday boy. All of his classmates had brought something small as was the custom in the school; no one was to feel obliged to spend more than a few dollars, and Alex’s eyes sparkled as he opened gaily wrapped packages containing small games, sports cards, paperback books, and CDs. The previous evening Mr. and Mrs. Moore had given him a small desktop radio with a built-in CD player, and he was overjoyed to receive interesting titles to try on it. The large box at the back of the pile was from his own parents, and he saved it for last, for it had come all the way from Prague. It contained an official game shirt from the Czech national football team, red with blue piping, with the Association badge on its left breast. Also in the box was a full-size match grade ball, signed by members of the team. Alex was beside himself with excitement and immediately pulled the shirt over his head. It was the smallest adult size available and hung from his shoulders, but he put his hands on his hips and struck a dashing pose. “Beware my foot,” he cried, and the crowd erupted in laughter, hooting, and jeers.
Curtis had thought hard about what he could give Alex for a birthday present. He knew of the danger of offering too much; he did not want to bring embarrassment to Elizabeth and Vincent, yet he wanted to give Alex something that would enhance and support his new life as an American boy. Something he would not get without someone like Curtis in his corner.
Smiling, he felt to make sure the envelope was still in his jacket pocket. In it was the admission folder for Camp Lackawana, the camp in the Pocono Mountains where he and his brother Adrian had spent so many wonderful summers when they were young and the world seemed endless. He would make this gift to Alex later, alone with the family.
He’d had great misgivings about proposing such a gift, afraid that for Elizabeth and Vincent it might seem a preposterously expensive offer for him to make. He also became concerned that for Alex to spend three weeks away at summer camp might seem an overwhelmingly long time for this tightly-knit and interdependent family. Curtis already knew that it would seem so for him. As a trial balloon Curtis had discussed his plan with Andrew’s parents, and they had jumped at an opportunity for Andrew to emerge even more from his shell and promised to sign him up for the same camp sessions if Alex was able to go.
Then, when Curtis had sat down with Alex’s parents on an afternoon when Alex was upstairs with Andrew exploring the arcane mysteries of video games, he had been surprised at their reaction to his proposal.
“It is time for my boy to explore, to learn and grow,” said Elizabeth, with Vincent nodding agreement. “We know what we can and cannot accomplish by ourselves, just here.” She indicated her surroundings, the basement apartment. “Why do you think I give up chair in symphony orchestra, and Vincenc should walk away from finish of engineering degree to come here? It is for Alex. We have child, we know obligation to ensure future. You, Curtis, you point him toward that future.”
Vincent reached across the table and clasped the old man’s hands. “We see your love for Alex; you are like dedecek, grandfather to him. His true grandfathers are gone, so you are worthy replacement. We accept gift of dedecek.”
Curtis nodded, unable to speak, his eyes tearing.
“But, one condition!” said Elizabeth, straightening in her chair. Curtis looked at her, then at Vincent. Vincent raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
“You must take evening meal here, at this table, every night. This I can repay you with.” Elizabeth tapped firmly on the tabletop. “No more microwave or Campbell soup, Curtis Eades!”
“Yes, Elizabeth.” Curtis stood, bowed, kissed her hand. They heard the thunder of footsteps on the foyer stairway.
“Two boys for supper, I think.”