There's an eruption of shouting from behind the screen door, then silence. The houses in this development are pastel-colored boxes, and I remember a remark of Sylvia's the day I helped her move in. She said she never thought she'd be living in a Silly Putty-colored house, and I wondered if she remembered how the corn used to cover this area when we were kids, and how we once drove out this way for a picnic. Now there's a red Chrysler parked in the street by her mailbox, with a jumble of ratty suitcases and shopping bags alongside, and as I look at the car and the bags, I wonder why Sylvia even bothers keeping track of her expectations. The world takes a shit in your mouth, I could tell her, and you swallow it whole. If you're waiting for compensation or payback, forget it - or else I've got a lot due for what happened to me. I think again of her saying I'm part of her problem, and I glare at the screen door. Hell, I'm not even to blame for Ryan, but here I am.
Sylvia reappears, accompanied by a gray cat and a well-groomed social services type. They don't look up when I stroll over, so I touch Sylvia's shoulder, and she darts me an anxious glance. "You two know each other," she says. "My sister Caroline, my interventioneer."
I put out my hand. It's perhaps fifteen years since I saw Sylvia's little sister, and in those days she looked like an overgrown cheerleader. Now she's a dressy woman in stockings and a silk scarf tied in a Windsor knot. She takes my hand and drops it, then gives me a smile that's no smile at all. "Could I speak to you?" she says to Sylvia, and the two of them step away. I stare at Caroline, refusing as much as possible to grant her her privacy, and after a minute she turns her back on me. She keeps her voice low, but any idiot could guess what she's saying.
Actually, I'm not a bad choice when it comes to child care, even if no one's asked me before. There's nothing wrong with my intellect or judgment, and my steady gig, maintenance at the convent, makes for a flexible schedule. Living on disability, I'm home a lot, and I run a stable household and keep my nose clean. So I'm a poster boy: a drug-free, contributing member with no record of violent episodes. I'm practically a hero. If I don't utterly love life, so what? I don't know anyone who does. Of course, with my scar, I'm not most kids' preferred associate. I decided years ago I had nothing to hide and threw all my caps away, and as my hair's thinned, the dent in my skull has grown more noticeable. Then there's the language thing, but people learn to deal with that. Anyway, it's my impression that kids like talking but care less about being talked to.
These are my thoughts when the front door opens and Ryan steps onto the stoop: a brown-skinned, lanky guy of about nine, with wide-set hazel eyes, tightly curled hair, and a few dark freckles across his nose. He's wearing a clean white T-shirt with long basketball shorts and big white basketball shoes. I've never known who his father was, but it's not me: his dad wasn't Caucasian. And of course, my time with Sylvia was long, long ago, whereas Ryan was the surprise of Sylvia's mid thirties. I watch him bend to scoop up the gray cat, and I notice that his hair, which was a fluffy halo last I saw him, is cut now in a sharp fade. He's more a black kid than a white. I walk over to pat his head, but he flinches when I raise my hand, so I stroke the cat's chin instead. He doesn't greet me.
Sylvia steps toward us. "Caroline doesn't think I should leave him with you," she says unnecessarily. "Like I have so much choice." She eyes us as though we'll disagree, but it's true. Sylvia's circle is barely larger than mine. Ryan says, "Why can't I go with Aunt Caroline?"
Copyright © 2005 by Dave King
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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