"Mamá!" the boy said, pointing. "Mamá!"
"Yes," Delaney said, "that's your mama."
The coals were ashen gray in the fireplace, and Delaney squatted, crumpled an old newspaper, built a small house of kindling, struck a match. He thought: What the hell is this, anyway? I've treated about three thousand kids this size, this age, but I don't know a goddamned thing about taking care of them. Not even for a day. I didn't even know how to take care of my own daughter when she was this boy's age. I went to the war instead. The boy watched him, his dark eyes widening as the flame erupted. He glanced back at the photograph, then looked again at the fi re, as Delaney used a shovel to lift a few chunks of coal from the scuttle. Delaney felt his right shoulder begin to ache. Not from the cold. But he would have to do something to keep the boy warm in this large, drafty house. In the good years before the Crash, Delaney had installed a hot-water system in the house, not easy because it was built in 1840. Before he could convert the house to steam heat, the banks had failed, taking his money with them. The heat still belonged to the nineteenth century. Wood and paper and coal in a manteled fi replace. The boy seemed to love it, flexing his small hands for warmth. I've got to feed him too. But almost no restaurants would be open on New Year's Day. Not until tonight. He must need to eat. Christ, I need to eat. Breakfast. Christ, no: lunch.
"How about some food, Carlos?" Delaney said. "I think I've got cornflakes and eggs and stuff like that."
The boy looked at him blankly, and Delaney realized that he didn't understand the words. For almost three years, they had been in Mexico, where the boy's father had family and friends. They surely had spoken to him each day in Spanish, even Grace. So had the maids. And the cook. For Santos was not a peasant, according to Grace's meager letters. He came from money, as so many revolutionists did. Delaney knew a few words in the language, but he wished he and Molly had spent their European time in a land of vowels, instead of among the consonants of Vienna.
"Quiere . . . comer?" he said, making a spooning motion with his empty hand.
The boy nodded, Delaney took his hand. I'll have to keep him off these stairs. Have to buy some of those folding gates. I'll have to do a lot of things.
The boy ate two bowls of cornflakes and kept sipping from a cup of cocoa. He was watching Delaney, as if trying to understand who this strange man was. And where they were now, in this vast house. He started to imitate Delaney too, shifting his spoon awkwardly from hand to hand, the spoon too large, slopping the wet flakes on the table, spilling some milk. His mother must have fed him for too long. Or a maid. Spoiling him rotten. The boy was propped up on a cushion, and his eyes kept glancing from Delaney through the two kitchen windows to the yard. Glancing at the blinding whiteness.
"O," the boy said, gesturing with the spoon.
Delaney followed his gesture.
"O," the boy said.
Delaney smiled, suddenly understanding.
"Yes, that's snow."
Thinking: At least your mother found time to teach you one word of English. You probably never saw snow before this morning. And your mother waved a hand and said its name. Before abandoning you in a goddamned doorway.
"Want to see the snow?"
Delaney got up and lifted the boy off his cushion.
"Wait," he said, groping for the words of the Cuban orderlies at the hospital. Wait. What was the word? And said it: "Espérate."
Delaney climbed the hall stairs two at a time, retrieved the boy's wool cap and new hooded jacket with mittens attached, and came back down, again wearing his winter clothes. The boy was at a window, squinting at the glaring snow.
"Let's go," Delaney said, pulling on the jacket, shoving the boy's hands into the mittens, tying the hood under his chin. "Vamos, boy. Let's see the snow."
Copyright © 2007 by Pete Hamill
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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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