Kiddo [Part II]

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  11.17.2022

Standing in the middle of the street holding the kid’s football on the 19-degree Maine morning under the gray, sunless sky, I was uncertain as to what was happening. But I was certain of some things. Before walking outside to either helpfully intervene or audaciously intrude (I wasn’t sure which), I had put my coat on but I had not put on my hat or gloves. Almost instantly I could feel the bone-chilling, damp coastal cold infiltrating me.

I understood why he was in the middle of the street – the New England neighborhood, lined with old-growth trees even without leaves, made it impossible to toss a ball high in the air from the sidewalk and catch it. Plus, the streets were safer for walking anyway – an odd nuance about Maine and its priorities is its abundance of provisions for clearing the roads for vehicular traffic while relegating almost nothing to pedestrian sidewalks. Visit Maine in the winter and as antithetical as it may seem, you’ll see pedestrians avoiding the danger of the icy sidewalks for the safety of the plowed and chemically-treated, yet busy streets. I understood why the kid would be in the road but I did not know why he was there.

He was wearing the equivalent of an oversized hoodie, without the hood. With his football in my hands, he stared down at the ground. His jeans hung on him the way they do when someone is still wearing larger-sized clothes after losing weight. Why was this kid losing weight? Or was he? Was my imagination taking over? Something about him said ‘potential’ but I didn’t know why.

Actually, the entire neighborhood was full of potential. That’s why people like then-husband and me had bought the old house. The area was off the beaten path of an already off-the-beaten-path area – working class, quiet. This particular section was located on one large U-shaped road. Traffic consisted of the people who lived and worked there and who were driving up to see the water, now crusted with ice on the sides of the shores. There were far more seagulls and Canadian Geese than cars and trucks.

The houses and buildings were all post-WWII, many with storefronts on the first floor and apartments on the top. The building we bought and renovated for office space had a tenant on the top floor. The area was full of Section 8 Housing, designated for low-income households and underserved demographics. The building beside ours had three apartments and I assumed the boy lived in one of them. The front door didn’t close all the way and a blanket was hanging in the doorway, a futile attempt to keep the cold air out. Sheets and blankets -makeshift curtains and drapes – covered the windows.

Within minutes my fingers had turned red from the cold. I started flipping the ball back and forth in my hands, mainly to keep them warm. I was dressed for an office with nice shoes – completely inappropriate for spending any length of time outside, but I had always been athletic and the ball felt natural in my hands. My then-husband had been a college football coach when we first met and I knew a thing or two or three about the game. Despite my outward professional-looking appearance, I could throw a ball.

The kid who had become increasingly fascinated with staring down at his shoes, looked up as I started flipping the ball back and forth in my hands. Without any indication, I tossed it to him. You can’t fake a smile like that. He had his ball back. It was then when he looked up and I saw his eyes were every bit as blue as mine.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

He didn’t answer but he did toss the ball back to me apparently expecting me to toss it back again. Except I didn’t.

“You don’t your name?” I boldly yet jokingly asked as I tossed it back to him a bit higher, watching the white lines of the ball become one as it spiraled in the air.

Again, with the smile. I noticed his long, thin fingers were red from the cold too. He tossed the ball high in the air and caught it. I didn’t know if the ball was perhaps a symbol for a cry for help, a security blanket of sorts (after all, Tom Hanks befriended a soccer ball in Cast Away), or if it was just a football. Whatever it was, I knew the ball was important.

Without a word he tossed the ball back, matching the height of my previous toss, the ball spiraling beautifully as they do when the fingers follow through just so – mesmerizing in a way. As it stung my cold hands he said, “Justin.” I felt a smile form on my cold face.

“Well, Justin. How ‘bout you go out for a long one?” as I handled the ball indicating I was preparing to throw it long. He took off running and as he turned, I let the ball go, watching it spiral almost in slow motion – a beautiful arc that landed solidly in his hands. We shared a silly, awkward moment of knowing I had just thrown the ball more than half a block and he had caught it with ease as if we did so every day.

I walked up to him, trying to warm my hands in my coat pockets, “Aren’t you freezing out here?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, reverting to the stare-at-the-ground stance.

“Maybe we should go inside and warm up. I work right there,” knowing he knew full well the building I had walked out of. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” clearly fascinated with his shoes.

While he continued to stare at his feet, I instinctively grabbed the ball. “Justin, how about we make a deal? I’ll give you your ball back if you stop saying, ‘I don’t know.’ Because I believe you do know.”

He stood silently shifting back and forth and finally whispered, “Okay.”

“Come on, Kiddo,” uttering a moniker I never remembered using prior to that moment but was about to become a part of my daily vernacular, “let’s go inside and get warm.”

I handed Justin the ball and we walked together toward the building. I stole a quick glance as we got closer to the building still not knowing what was going on with this kid. He continued the full-on stare at his feet, but I noticed a hint of a smile on his face.

Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought and I opened the door. And just like that, the boy walked into my office and into my life.

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Photo courtesy of Nadine Shaabana