Saturday, December 17, 2011

Poor Children

It was a little divot of a backyard, with an apartment building on one side, and a parking lot to the back, but it was mine, so I planted herbs and lay out in the weak Michigan sun when the weather allowed.

 Image courtesy of newleaf01
Wikimedia Commons
The first time I saw the kids, I had set up for the morning with a blanket, a pitcher of lemonade, a little radio, the New York Times Sunday Crossword, and Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. They stood on the little hill in front of the apartment building, looking down at me. This complex mostly housed college students; there were no other kids, no playground equipment, no place to play. There was literally nothing else going on besides me pecking away at the crossword, listening to the classic rock station on a cheap plastic radio.

They stared. My heart melted: no one had ever taught these poor children to entertain themselves.

I beckoned. They tumbled to me.

They were four siblings: Omarion, Sweetie, J’neena, and Buddy. The biggest was about eleven, the little one perhaps five. They were dark of skin, dark of hair, in faded, baggy clothes and falling-apart sneakers, and moved with all the energy of popping corn, their dissatisfaction rippling out through slender limbs in perpetual motion.

“We stuck at Grandma’s,” said Sweetie.

“She got no toys, no video games,” said J’neena.

“No cable,” Omarion added.

They didn’t know what to do with themselves. They had never seen a dictionary, and examined mine with care. They had, apparently, never talked to a white woman, and examined my hair and my accent. “Honey,” they mocked, when I asked J’neena to please not sit on my dictionary. “She say, ‘honey’.”

Lemonade, they were familiar with, and made short work of.

The garden attracted them. “What this?” Buddy asked about the Miracle Gro.

“Plant food,” I said, “but don’t touch. It’s poison to people.”

“It look like candy,” said J’neena.

“That’s why you shouldn’t touch it.”

I let them dig the soil with my trowel. Their grandmother called them up for lunch, and sent them back out twenty minutes later with a little potted tree, a gift for me. “Thank you,” she called out the window.

“She say ‘thank you’ for watching us,” Sweetie explained. “’cause she ain’t got nothing to do in there. She don’t walk too good neither.”

Grandma lived in a third-story walk-up. I cared for the little tree with extravagance.

The next day, I found my trowel halfway up the hill, next to a hole deep enough to break a man’s ankle. The day after that, they rang my doorbell, bored. I loaned Sweetie a jump rope, which I later found in a puddle in the parking lot. They started ringing my doorbell and running away, peeking in my window and later commenting on my bed sheets.

They never knew what they were talking about. “Your neighbor gay,” Omarion said, without having any clue what he meant. When Buddy knocked on my back door and reported, “Sweetie say you make sex with her,” I guided him back to his grandmother’s.

“It’s not true,” I told him. “When your sister says things like that, you can tell her you know it’s a lie.”

I worried, but only a little. They had never been inside my house, had never done anything with me their grandmother couldn’t see from her window. Even if they had could describe my bed sheets, they were not credible witnesses. And anyway, I was leaving for study abroad.

Three days after I left, someone tore up my garden, uprooting all the herbs, pulling plants from their pots, and leaving my trowel and my watering can in a hole halfway up the hill. The girl taking care of my house didn’t work up the courage to tell me for three weeks, by which time she had killed my fish.

The vandals didn’t touch the Miracle Gro. Or the potted tree.

When I got back, Omarion waved to me from his stoop, his face hopeful. I nodded and left him alone.

I never saw Omarion or Buddy again, but I saw the girls, once. They knocked at my back door the week before school started.

“Our daddy taking us away from our mommy,” Sweetie told me, like a challenge.

Keeping my tone blank, I responded, “And how do you feel about that?”

“Good,” she said, the word exploding from her mouth like a cannonball.

“Nah-ah,” J’neena said, jutting her hip into her sister’s. “I going back to Mommy’s after. We going to Disneyland.”

“Who care?” said Sweetie. “Who care anyway?”