I met them at the corner between my house and where they live with their mother. The distance between our homes is no more than 250 feet, but our streets are divided at the intersection and we can’t see each other’s properties.
He needed his baseball bag for practice the next day as well as his pants and cleats. They’d been sitting in his room since last week when his team had practiced on my night with the children.
He called first to arrange for me to drop them off at his house in the morning, but I invited him to come to my house to get them and then decided to meet him halfway.
I slung his bat bag over my shoulder and stepped out into the night carrying his pants on a hanger. I walked out onto my front lawn and turned to my left and saw his silhouette coming out of the front door of the house where I used to live. I could see from that distance that his hair was wet and slicked back from his nighttime bath. Behind him I saw his sister moving around as though she were helping him with something on their front porch. Then she turned to walk back in the house and I saw the screen door start to close behind her.
Bare-armed and loaded down with backpacks, the boys were crossing the park when I saw them. Behind them their dark tracks were pressed deeply in grass still glistening with frost. Almost every morning, I see them. The three brothers leave the house next door, cross into the street outside my front window. And then I see them again, passing by while driving my own kids to school. This particular morning in early April, though, the cold had not yet relinquished its hold on the spring. When I drove by them, crossing through the neighborhood park, they had the look of a small band of wanderers left alone to find their way on the path to somewhere – or something. Unprepared. Unaware of the dangers. I started to make a judgment on their parents for letting them leave the house sleeveless on such a cold day, but before that happened, I had another thought: Was I really any more prepared for my life?
The oldest among them, John, is 12, and he was leading the group into the wind gusts. They were moving slowly, but I had a feeling that had less to do with the bitter cold and their pink skin than it did a reluctance to reach where they were going. Over the last two years, I’ve talked to John more times than I have his parents. I’ve learned he is not only the oldest child and mentor to his younger brothers, but also the head of household – the most responsible person who lives in their house. Usually dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt, his hair is shaggy, and not in a stylish way. His hair is the sort of shaggy that shows a boy whose parents aren’t concerned about his looks – the ends jagged and hanging, wild, at angles just above his shoulder. His parents work alternating shifts at our town’s Wal-Mart. The mother, days. The father, nights. That leaves John as the father and mother, of sorts, to two boys. To my surprise, there have been moments when he’s displayed intellect and kindness beyond his years. One night, for example, I gave the younger boys some leftover pork to feed to their dogs. They brought the plate back to me a few minutes later, clean, and told me John had washed it. For a boy whose parents haven’t focused much attention on him and haven’t schooled him in the art of manners, his courtesy was surprising.