He is too young to be out here on the corner of Highway 3 and El Dorado. He can’t be more than fifteen or sixteen, standing on the median holding a white poster board sign with a smiley face drawn in yellow and black poster paint. The words on the sign read, “Do a good deed today.” You aren’t sure what that deed might be, but you think how someone ought to find this kid’s mother and maybe that someone should be you, but then you think, “To what end?” He got out here somehow and you can’t save the world.
His poster board might have been left over from a high school project not too long ago. As the street light changes and the westbound traffic slows, he waves with animation and smiles, pointing to his sign as if he were advertising a car wash for the wrestling team. You continue to watch him—the traffic on El Dorado creeps and every time you do it, you regret taking this route—and sip your coffee. You spill a little down the front of your green shirt and mutter, “Shit” and, “Damn” and hunt around in the junk on the passenger seat for a napkin or maybe a Tide pen. You can’t find one and then you look up again and see the kid is still there.
His hair is the color of bayou water and hangs in his eyes. He shakes his head every so often to clear it away. He wears a white t-shirt and jeans, both which look new and the fit expensive. He is new to this line of work.
You continue to sip your coffee and watch him across the intersection. He walks up and down the median. He waves the arm not holding the poster board sign and gives the thumb’s up sign to a red Volkswagen beetle. The car honks and the driver rolls down her window and gives the kid some cash. The kid bows hyperbolically and then moves on, working his way down the line of cars until the light changes. When it does and the cars all take a left-hand turn, he heads back to the corner of Highway 3 and El Dorado, holding his sign aloft.
When you get the green arrow, you take your own left turn, headed in the opposite direction to work. The library where you work feels like a church with books. Right in the middle of the city, it smells of old pages and dust. The spiced vanilla candle on the corner of your desk adds a scent that is reminiscent of incense.
The outside of the library is made of gray stone and some of the inside architecture still has dark wooden floors that creak. While the shelves themselves are no longer wooden, the ends of each aisle are capped with the same dark wood as the floors. Then there is the carousel. Set in the middle of the children’s section, the replica carousel looks as if it belongs in a mall or an old amusement park instead of a library, with bright colors and smelling of varnished wood, but with reading nooks hidden among the dancing horses. The rest of the library has more traditional sitting and reading areas—study carrels, chairs, and yellow vinyl cushioned couches. On several of these couches, the homeless people rest.
Teresa comes in every day. Today, she is dressed in a blue suit that looks like it might have been the cast off from a flight attendant from the seventies, but as always, it’s clean and she’s wearing red lipstick. She has read every Shakespeare play and is currently sitting in one of the comfier chairs reading Herodotus, another favorite. She speaks with a British accent that occasionally lapses into an American one by the end of the day. It is not obvious she is homeless. No one knows except you that she lives in a an empty trailer home with a blown-out roof near the abandoned golf course two miles away and walks here every day to have something to do, a place to go other than the weeds or along the street. The library is a sanctuary for homeless people.
You think also how the library is a sanctuary for all, which is why you work here. You remember when Mama Gene brought you here as a child and read you stories on the carousel. You remember the smell of the dust mixed with Mama Gene’s breath of whiskey, mint, cigarettes, and Jean Nate bath wash, its own kind of incense. Long after Mama Gene had gone, you came here still, searching. Maybe you could see her in the corners, just around the bookshelves, or maybe in a study carrel. Maybe she still sits in the carousel among the horses. Or maybe in one of the books.
You watch Teresa’s lips move as she reads. She brushes a loose gray hair out of her eyes. You head to the small room behind the circulation desk where you keep your lunch and other food. You walk back and hand Teresa a water bottle and a packaged cinnamon roll from Costco. She nods and accepts the food and water, as her lips continue to work their way through Herodotus. Without words, you make your way back to the circulation desk. One reason Teresa comes to the library, no doubt, is that the library is a safe place and you know how precious that is.
When you were a child, after all, you dealt with Curtis the bully. You open your own water bottle and take a sip, thinking how Curtis was not one of those subtle eye-rolling and under-the-radar bullies you’ve witnessed with school kids on class trips to the library, either. No subtle comments such as, “I like your blouse. I saw it on sale at H&M last year,” or, “I think I saw your mom outside Cindy’s Adult Playthings on Friday,” but all-out, fist flying, blood-pouring bullying that would make national news if it happened today. Curtis had been enough of a bully to make your heart hammer when the sturdy hands on the institutional school clocks approached three in the afternoon.
Sometimes, though, you got out of the bullying because Mama Gene picked you up from school in her brown Oldsmobile Cutlass. You lived for those days, those days when you had to go to the dentist, maybe, or needed some new shoes from Sears. Just like knowing there was a peanut butter sandwich waiting inside your lunchbox instead of leftover ham or—on particularly bad days—a sandwich bag filled with Captain Crunch cereal. Your day felt just a little bit better knowing Mama Gene would be waiting outside the school yard fence to whisk you away from Curtis.
Curtis was a short, but stout kid who wore solid colored t-shirts that hugged his girth and outlined his bulging belly button. He once brought a BB gun to school and started shooting kids in the leg after school let out for the day. He wasn’t even suspended for that then, although it would make national news if it happened today. The school just called his mother and he missed a day or two, but the following week, he came back, belly button and all.
When the bell rang, you poured out of the school with everyone else, ducking behind other kids to avoid Curtis. Mama Gene, sure enough, sat in the brown Oldsmobile. You could see her outline from the school exit, tall and broad-shouldered, smoke from Marlboro Red cigarettes wafting from the window. You hoped she’d be in a good mood and that she wouldn’t have the masking scent of mint on her breath.
And then there was Curtis, “Hey, Skinny Four-Eyes!” he yelled. You ignored him. Only a few more yards and you could climb into the passenger’s seat of the Olds and Mama Gene would whisk you away, “Skinny-skinny Four-Eyes!”
He ran in front of you. He wore a worn white t-shirt that looked as if it hadn’t been washed in a week and rode up over his belly. His blond hair hung in his face. His brown freckles popped. Then you said it. It just popped out of your mouth, “Fat Freckle-face.”
His eyes widened, along with yours. You weren’t sure why you said it because you were a coward who sometimes walked an extra three miles around the block in opposite direction to avoid walking home past Curtis and his friends. You bore insults in silence until you could get to a safe place. That day, though, Mama Gene looked imposing in the Olds. That day, Mama Gene was taking you to the library. That day, Mama Gene wouldn’t smell like mint.
Before you could revel in the bravery of your sudden reaction or even give it conscious thought, however, Curtis reached out his hand and smacked you across the face, “Where’s your drunken-ass mom?” he yelled in your face. You ran for the car. Now, you shake your head at the memory and finish your water. You watch Teresa read and she lulls you back to the present.
He’s still on the corner of El Dorado and Highway 3. He’s still dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans, although now they don’t look as fresh. He holds the same sign, “Do a good deed,” it says. Do a good deed today. Yellow and black smiley face. He still walks up and down the median for the westbound traffic. He still points at his sign and gives people a thumb’s up when they hand him cash.
This time you don’t spill coffee as you watch him. You don’t even drink your coffee.
Someone needs to talk to that kid’s mom. He must have to make deals to work on that particular median. Everything has rules, you know; everything has a system including who gets to stand on what street corners and medians and whom they have to pay for the privilege.
When the light turns green, you take a left. You don’t know what else to do.
Today, Teresa sits on the carousel, reading The Tempest for what might be the tenth time. You watch her from your desk. She usually doesn’t venture to the carousel. She is dressed today in a dark green polyester skirt with her gray hair held back in a clip shaped like a green flower. Her lips move every so often.
A little girl in a pink sequined dress leads her mother across the creaky hardwood floors to a horse on the other side of the carousel from where Teresa sits. The mother eyes Teresa, seems to decide she is safe enough to be around, and then lifts the child onto the horse, which isn’t supposed to happen. There are signs posted reminding patrons that the carousel is a replica and that the horses are delicate and that all sitting needs to be in one of the desks or wooden seats on the carousel instead. You sigh. It’s a library and you’d think people could read. You cross the wooden floor. Your shoes tap and creak across the wood and Teresa lifts her eyes from her book, “Our revels now are ended,” Teresa says to no one in particular.
You approach the mother and regard her broad face nestled into a large green scarf wound into a complex knot. You remind her about the horses and how delicate they are. You tell her how you don’t want her little one to be hurt if the horse breaks while she is on its back. The mother’s face pinches a bit, but she lifts the girl down and places in her a bench seat next to the horse, “We are all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air.”
Teresa smiles at you and also at the girl. You resist the urge to approach her, to wrap an arm around her thin shoulders. You don’t know Teresa beyond giving her snacks and drinks and engaging in occasional disjointed conversation about her home in the trailer by the abandoned city golf course and an Uncle Larry who died in the jungle. You are not sure she would appreciate being touched, so you simply smile back. Shortly after that, the mother hoists her daughter onto one hip and lugs her back out the library doors.
One day, you found Curtis alone in the field behind your house. Mama Gene had asked you to get some fresh air and shoved you out the back door, so you invented a game that involved tossing a whiffle ball into the air and smacking it one-handed with a wooden bat. It wasn’t going well—sports, or even being outside, have never been your thing—and you miss ten times for every time you hit.
Curtis had been watching you over the chain-link fence that separated your back yard from the wilderness. You smelled a cigarette and looked up to see him standing there. He laughed, “Baseball ain’t your thing, loser! Can’t do anything right.”
Your grip tightened on the bat. You remembered the hot smack on the cheek from a few weeks earlier. Mama Gene had seen it happen and tried to track him down in her car, but he jogged across the street and hoisted himself over the fence to a series of back yards and lost her. Not that losing Mama Gene would be difficult, though, because on that day, she had smelled like mint.
Curtis laughed again so hard his whole body shook and then your world snapped. Your shoulders stiffened and you lifted the bat. Curtis laughed harder, and didn’t notice how you lifted the latch to the back gate that separated the weeds of your backyard with the wild weeds of the field. The metal felt like ice and you sensed every imperfection on the gate latch, every bump present in the mold used in making the gate, every needless clump of iron. You will remember that cold metal forever—cold metal in one hand and a wooden bat in the other.
You didn’t think. You walked up to Curtis and swung the bat at his head. You expected to hear a crack or something more substantial, but that’s not how it happened. Instead, you heard only a hollow thunk sound, almost soundless as the wood came into contact with his blond head. Curtis fell. He dropped into the weeds like a dandelion shot with Weed Eater and recorded through time-lapse photography. You lowered the bat. You held your breath. You hadn’t meant to do it. It just happened. Happened so fast.
After a few minutes—maybe just one or two, although it seemed longer—Curtis’ eyes fluttered and he woke up. He looked at you long enough for you to see his eyes before he stood up and tottered back off into the weeds. You watched him shamble away through the field like a sick bird.
Mama Gene wanted to know where you’d been. The house was warm when you walked in the door. It smelled of cooked onions, stew meat, steamed vegetables, and cornbread muffins. No smell of mint. You didn’t tell her about the bat, hidden back in the garage on the highest shelf you needed a ladder to reach.
You inhaled the scent of the meal and Mama’s cigarettes. You breathed in her perfume as she hugged you to her chest. She rocked you for a long time as you both stood there in the kitchen.
It’s probably not your fault that Curtis turned into a bad kid. He was a rough one before, with his gruff mother, wheel-chair bound, and his father tipping back bottles on the front porch late in the night. These things are complicated. People are complicated and late at night, you think about that. You think about the green that day—the riotous green of the trees and the lighter green of the weeds underfoot and the fresh-cut scent perfuming the world the day you hit Curtis in the head. You think about the thud and his drop into the green.
It’s probably not your fault; but in the end, he did become a bad kid. In junior high, he was arrested for shoplifting, but that was just the beginning. He also lit fire to Mrs. Patterson’s decorative, “He Has Risen” Easter flag that she hung from a small flagpole in the front yard. Because it was a windy day, the resulting flames caught the branches of a nearby cottonwood tree and pretty soon, many of the yards down the block went up in flames before the fire department arrived. After a series of similar digressions, Curtis graduated to using and selling not only pot, but LSD, Quaaludes, and PCP.
He broke into houses and stole tools. He went to jail and got out. Then he’d break into another house, and another. Finally, one day in October, he broke into the Patterson house for the fourth time. After the fire and the break-ins, Mr. Patterson had had enough. Fed up with the lack of help from law enforcement, he rigged a booby-trap in his garage that ended with a loaded shotgun. He set it every night and then one night in October, Curtis broke in for his fourth and final time. The booby trap went off.
It wasn’t loud. You heard it go off while you were up late reading and Mama Gene slept through the news at 10:00; and it was more like a muffled little pop, like a smothered fire cracker. It occurred to you then that most of the important sounds of life are muted and understated. The police showed up soon after that pop, and later, an ambulance, which you watched from your front yard. The EMTs brought out his body covered in a heavy sheet. Mama Gene doesn’t wake up until morning and misses the whole thing. The next day, she smelled like mint.
But he never once broke into your house. No, he left you alone after that day in the field. He had nothing more to say to you.
A week later, he’s still there. On the median again, but this time, he walks slowly, holding up his sign periodically, “Do a good deed today.” Yellow smiley face. Sometimes he leans on metal pole that erupts from the asphalt. His shirt is no longer white. His hair has grown longer than before and hangs lank and thin. His shoulders poke out of his t-shirt. He seems to wobble a little on his feet so you worry he may fall into the street.
What drug is he on? Where is his mom? Who is going to do something? You are driving the other direction and have to drive past him because you can’t save everyone. You imagine the kid breaking into your garage and stealing your tools. You see him spending his money on a giant can of beer or a huge bottle of Gordon’s vodka. You see him setting fires and stealing from little old ladies and you know that you can’t save everyone.
It takes ten minutes for you to finish your drive to work and pull into the parking lot of the stone library with its carousel. On the way, you pass Teresa and think how she’s up early, ready to face the world, walking to the library. You park. You sit there. You think how he’s skin and bones.
Curtis was high on PCP when he broke into the Patterson’s. Or so you’ve heard. You stare at your empty coffee cup. Outside the cottonwood trees shed their fluff. The fluff has blown around the parking lot like small drifts of snow in the summertime. Teresa walks through a drift and through the heavy doors, on her way to another world. Before thinking, you turn the key to your car and start the engine. You drive to the closest drive-through restaurant, which happens to be a McDonald’s.
At the drive-through, an older woman in a green striped McDonald’s polo greets you and you order three breakfast biscuits, six hash browns, and an orange juice. Across the parking lot, you can see the kid, walking in and out of traffic and you hope you can get to him in time.
And then you order two more coffees, just to be sure.