[Short story won the Sarah Tucker Prize from "Confrontation" magazine in 2005 and the Whitman Award for Fiction from Southampton College in 2004, and was a finalist for a "Glimmer Train" fiction award]
When I met my son Alex it was three years ago, on a rainy spring Saturday morning, after I had walked four blocks to the Babylon community center—a place I never had been—and volunteered with a Long Island chapter of Big Brothers. A caseworker named Bryan asked about my interests and the amount of hours I had available. I said I was flexible and he was happy to hear it. The interview was brief, and he suggested I observe the children and their interaction with adults. I proceeded to watch the boys from a distance as they played tag with each other and shot baskets with the older men.
The Big Brothers were white and black men. Being an Indian man, and often the only Indian man in a place, I notice such things. That’s not to say I was uncomfortable. I did keep to a corner of the claustrophobic gym in my damp clothes with my arms crossed; I was a stranger and naturally felt out of place.
The fact the men were of similar age (I’m now thirty-six) and were smiling reassured me. If they attended to feel purposeful, and I suspected they did, then they must have found fulfillment in the process, a sequence of weekly visits with boys who needed every warm emotion and word of guidance Big Brothers could provide.
Unlike the men, the boys were an inconsistent group. They ranged from kindergarten age to teenagers taller than the volunteers who accompanied them. Many were relentlessly giddy, happy to just run around and be social. The time with their designated Big Brother, it was clear, ebbed whatever negativity was in their past or present home lives. For others, malaise could be shaken only for a few moments before they returned to a sulk or grave-faced stare, as if happiness was a boundary they did not want to approach, an untouchable treat they might be punished for indulging in.
Of those boys, Alex was the most fractured. In my eyes, he stood out among this gathering of males that seemed ritualistic in a way. Alex was small and round, and not at all good at the games. He heaved up shots that fell far short of the basket, eliciting snickers, even from the men who knew better. He ran out of breath easily while playing tag and always seemed to be “It”, causing him to be teased and to grow frustrated. At one point, he shoved another boy for an inexplicable reason and stomped away. A young counselor punished him for uncooperative behavior and removed him from the group, isolating him on a bench. I watched this ordeal without knowing how noticeable my vexation and concern was.
“Abusive father,” Bryan, the caseworker, said, “very abusive alcoholic mother. Both long gone, no one knows where.”
Bryan had come out of nowhere to tell me this. “I don’t know what foster care is doing for him. Sometimes kids just fall through the cracks.” He added that most social workers in New York foster care cope with more than forty cases a month, when they’re supposed to have seventeen. Reports are falsified, Bryan told me, because workers can’t handle all the cases. As a result, children such as Alex go unaccounted. He was eight then and had been bounced from home to home, and from Big Brother to Big Brother.
“He’s a loner.” Bryan watched with his arms crossed. “As you can see.”
We moved into a utilitarian cafeteria adjacent to the gym. Lunch was being served, and the situation grew worse for Alex. The Little Brothers made a game of avoiding sitting next to him, then chiding the boy who eventually had to, because he was too tardy or not forceful enough to get another spot. The boy relegated to being Alex’s neighbor shuffled his chair so its legs grated conspicuously on the concrete floor. He then made knowing eyes at his friends and held his nose and pointed until he was told to stop and be nice. Alex, in the mean time, furrowed his eyebrows, bent his head and pouted. He seethed while champing on his pizza, dribbling sauce and cheese onto his Jurassic Park T-shirt, and I turned away.
I pinched the bridge of my nose between my eyes and decided it was time to leave. I told Bryan I was glad I had come. We shook hands and he said he would tell me when the background check was clear, then I could join the group officially. He also informed me he was going to match me with Alex. “If that’s okay,” he said.
The thought had never occurred to me. Somehow I believed that Alex was for a more advanced Big Brother, someone with experience, and I was more suited to one of the well-adjusted kids with a semblance of a family. No such hierarchy existed among the volunteers, though, and when Bryan made that clear, my eyes widened as if I had just received an incomprehensibly large bill. I looked at Alex again. Behind him, a boy was holding two fingers above his head, a mocking gesture that was corrected by one of the men at the end of the table. Obliviously, Alex continued to frown and masticate in a solitude that was endearing in its sadness.
“Of course it’s okay,” I replied.
Bryan smiled and sighed, then went over to retrieve Alex, who came toward me with his chin touching his chest and a gait that resembled a waddle. “Alex, this is Sam,” Bryan said. “He’s going to be your Big Brother, starting next week.”
I grinned, bent down and took Alex’s tiny hand, which was warm and soft, like a freshly used sponge. “It’s very nice to meet you, Alex,” I said.
His response: “Yeah, whatever.”
A gloomy face and an enervating tone matched the words, which deflated me immediately. Later, after I left the community center, the thought of his voice angered me as an insult would. Later still, as I pondered Alex further, I found myself invigorated. Such hopelessness as I saw from Alex that day should not be known by any living, breathing thing, I determined, let alone a child not yet out of grade school. Alex was a boy with scars that needed to be healed and thick memories that had to be gradually reduced until they seemed as if they were of another life.