Saturday, May 14, 2011

Youth of Today

I was cruising on the service drive Friday on my way home from work when I noticed a tiny figure poised on the curb. The small child sat calmly reading a book and I, horrified, watched as cars barreled past the pair of pale, skinny legs that jutted into the road. Windows down and music up, I whooshed past and thought to myself "Jesus. Someone should really do something about that kid." A half mile later I was looping back around.

Due to a parking miscalculation, I ended up a block down from the boy and as I approached him I felt an inexplicable nervous anticipation. There he sat, still seemingly absorbed in his reading, completely oblivious to the approaching stranger. Was I overstepping my boundary? I paused a few yards away from his perch hoping that he might sense my presence, as to eliminate the awkwardness I felt about my imposition. No such luck, so I chose my moment to speak.

"Hey, I'm Paula...what's your name?" is all I could think to say. My experience with children is extremely limited.

To my surprise, the child didn't seem the least bit jolted by my sudden appearance. He simply looked up from his book, proclaimed "A.J.," and promptly hopped up to get a closer look at me.

I felt myself draw back as I wasn't expecting such unquestioning amiability (and his close proximity brought to my attention his general lack of cleanliness), but then I remembered my purpose and said, "Well, A.J., I noticed you sitting here on the curb when I drove by and was worried about you. Did you know you could get hit by a car by sitting this close to the street?"

A.J. stared up at me unblinkingly. Not the slightest twitch on his freckled face suggested the least bit of comprehension. Instead he held up his book for me to see; it was Captain Underpants. I hesitantly took the text from his sticky child-hands and gave it a once-over. "Heh heh. Looks funny. Yeah, reading is cool, A.J.! Good for you!" I said, pleased at the opportunity to impress my values on todays youth.

"I can read," he replied, and proceeded to attempt proof of this by spouting off several lines of jibberish.

My brows furrowed, I gave a "Hmm," feeling concern for his lack of English. "Uh, exactly how old are you?" I asked.

"Six," he replied, distracting me from the language issue as he began stroking my feet. "I love your shoes."

At this point I was getting anxious. I had big plans that night and had no intention of screwing them up because of some weird little kid I met on the side of the road. I tried reiterating my point about playing in traffic a few more times, including an attempt at making him pinky swear that he'd never do it again. We'd been standing on the small strip of grass between the sidewalk and road up until this point, and I finally managed to get him onto the sidewalk. He wanted me to stay and read with him when I said I had to leave.

"OK, but see you tomorrow, right?" he eyed me expectantly.

"Uh, yeah, sure A.J. Tomorrow," I replied, hoping to alleviate his clinginess with steadfast compliance. "And remember, no more playing by the road." I waved goodbye and turned to leave.

He plopped down on the sidewalk and waved back. As I walked away I could feel his eyes on me all the way down the block, so I looked back to wave again. He was sprawled bizarrely on the cement, limbs askew and red-head propped up by a zigzagged neck.

"See you tomorrow, Paula!" he called. "I love you!"

Those words hit hard. Images began flashing through my head: shots of his blackened feet, his waxy ears, his big, brown trusting eyes. The sad, shabby house in front of which he sat, screen door open to reveal only darkness inside. A sole pink plastic Easter egg that lay the porch.

Where were this kid's parents? How could anyone leave such a small helpless thing out by the freeway with no supervision? It physically pained me to imagine poor little A.J.'s potentially loveless home life. What if no one ever told this odd little child that he was loved?

I don't know if it was the right thing to do, but I had to say it. "I love you too, A.J.! See you tomorrow..."

He looked pleased, and finally turned his attention back to Captain Underpants. As I drove away, I watched the tiny figure in my rear-view mirror recede into the distance.

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