The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I had seen the boy many times before, but never really looked. I did not actually know his name until the day he was being escorted to the front office by a smug-looking assistant principal. He had finally “gotten the goods” on this thirteen-year-old criminal; a set of school keys had been discovered in his locker. As I saw the boy go by, my impression was that he was from India. This impression, like many others to follow over the next three years, was false; it was attributable to the strange fact that when the boy was in trouble his complexion took on an ashen hue, hinting perhaps at the fires burning deeply within him.
An amiable black police officer was waiting in the front office. He shook hands warmly with the assistant principal, and the three of them — the two large men and the small boy in between — disappeared into the office. I was able to learn from the secretary that the boy’s name was Rico Papanou, and that this incident with the keys was the fourth time he had been suspected of stealing at the school, but the first time they had actually found “hard” evidence. Suddenly, the assistant principal burst through the door, his face meat red, a purple vein throbbing on his forehead.
“I’ll phone your mother and tell her to meet you down there.” This was not said solicitously.
The police officer, however, was still smiling as he took Rico out the front door and into the waiting car and drove away. For him, evidently, the case was a lark.
Seeing me in the office and needing someone to talk at, the assistant principal said, “Lying criminal bastard. You know, Ted, when we get rid of all the bad apples in this place, we’ll have ourselves a decent school. We actually found the keys in his locker and he won’t even admit that he did it. He says that somebody must have planted them there. There’s only two ways of handling a kid like this and I can’t use either one: either take him out back and beat the shit out of him, or throw him behind bars and scare it out.”
According to his records, Rico has transferred schools at least once for every year he has spent in the system. In the sixth grade, he saw the insides of four separate institutions. Teacher reports bristle with outright anger or, more typical, repressed anger gilded by the euphemistic language of behavioral psychology: “Rico has had an interesting stay at our school. He is a clever boy who must learn to use his intelligence in a more constructive and positive manner.” He has also seen psychiatrists: “When asked to draw a picture of his mother, Rico asked the interviewer if she wished to see how his mother looked in the morning or the evening. ‘I wouldn’t suggest you see her in the morning. She’s pretty terrible in the morning.’ The entire interview was indicative of just how uncooperative this boy has become.”
Two days later, I’m getting into my car to drive home from school when I see him in the parking lot.
“Sir, you think I can have a ride?” So, he’s been watching me as well.
I think to myself, “Do I really need this, especially after a full day in the classroom?”
“I go out to the highway,” I tell him. “I don’t think. . . .”
“That’s OK. Just let me off at the entrance.”
“Look, Rico, I just want to. . . .”
“Please. Come on, sir.” His hands on the door, he stares at me, face pressed against the glass, features comically distorted.
“All right.” I unlock the passenger door. “Where do you live, anyway?”
“Right there by the highway.”
Since I’ve already checked the files, I know he lives two miles in the opposite direction. What does he want?
Saturday. South Scarborough. Driving along Birchmount Park.
“There! That’s the place.”
“It’s back there. You missed it.”
“What’d you say it was?”
“That’s where I spent the first year of my life. Until she had second thoughts and took me back. It’s a home, run by Children’s Aid.”
I’ve known him for two weeks and I’m never sure if what he says is true. The story about the home seems real enough.
“Why did she take you to Children’s Aid?”
“She was ashamed when my father ran off.” He smiles. It’s the kind of pained smile one sees in a proud but beaten child. “They never got married.”
“That’s not so terrible.”
“It’s terrible to her.”
“Where is your father now?”
“They say he works in Germany. I’m going to find out exactly where he lives. Then I’m going to pay him a visit. Then I’m going to kill him.”
“Rico, you’re going to waste your life thinking that way.”
“He deserves to die.”
We go to a hamburger place. The staff behaves as if it’s on basic training with the U.S. Marines — very forced smiles and lots of rhythmical chanting. I find the use of my first name embarrassing.
“Order for Ted. Homeburger, salad, coffee with. Rico. Homeburger with cheese, fries, strawberry milkshake.” It’s repeated by the people up front.
“This place is fascistic,” I whisper to Rico.
He likes this statement. He throws his right arm out, clicks his heels. “Sieg Heil!” His loudness is even more embarrassing. The staff does not find Rico very funny. Neither do the rednecks behind us in the line.
“Let’s take the food out to the car.”
We sit in the front seat and eat. “You’ll have to stop embarrassing me if you want this relationship to continue. I hate eating in a car.”
“I love eating in a car.”
“You’ll also have to clean that pink milkshake off the upholstery.”
“You’re being very difficult, darling.”
Despite myself, I laugh. “I think your mother must have been tempted to send you back a few times.”
“More than just a few.”
“Why did she take you back home?”
“The same reason she sent me there. The Witnesses.”
“The Witnesses. They tell her what to do. They tell her what to think.”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses? You’re Greek.”
“I’m from Rhodes. There’s lots of ’em.”
“You don’t believe in that stuff.” Silence. “Do you?”
This hesitant answer disturbs me. “Let me explain something to you, Rico.”
“Here comes the teacher.”
“They let you die before they allow you to have a blood transfusion. What kind of people could let a child die for no reason?”
“There’s something in the Bible about mixing blood —”
“Would your mother let you die like that?”
“That’s crazy. It’s evil.”
It occurs to me that I’m tearing down the fragile walls of his life which, even at this moment, are no more substantial than a movie backdrop. What do I want?
Georgian Bay. The shallow aqua and deep blue waters, the white rock, white clouds blowing in a blue sky, the cliffs of the escarpment. Lion’s Head. Along the bay and this entire side of the Bruce Peninsula are beaches of white dolomite, limestone rocks which, when you walk on them, clatter like potsherds. Their abundance is an embarrassment of riches to the very young, who are never sated by the simple act of throwing one rock into the water. Over and over we throw handfuls of these smooth white stones into the perfect blue of the water. They make a satisfying clap on the rock at the bottom of the bay.
The sun is amazingly warm when it finds its way through a space in the clouds. The contrast between warm and cold on this bay front reflects the discrepancy I feel between my apparent purity of motive and a certain residue of self-doubt. Rico, on the other hand, appears to be in that state of joy which is the sole prerogative of childhood. I watch him, and as another white rock arcs toward the blue water I imagine that he is whole again, that through me he has erased the damage of the past and started afresh.
Back in the cottage, I try to give him a reading lesson. For that, he has no patience. Instead, he kneels in front of the fire, poking the embers, throwing in logs.
“You gotta understand,” he says abruptly. “My father is evil. I’m bad, too — you don’t know how bad.”
“Other people have said so. Not me.”
“I am. . . . Promise you’ll never tell this to anyone.”
“You don’t have to worry.”
“No one. Not Melissa. Not anyone.”
“It’s in confidence. Complete confidence.”
“I promise. No one’s going to know.”
“She kept tissues all around the house. Everywhere. Boxes and boxes of the stuff. I could never touch anything without a piece of Kleenex in my hand or she’d hit me. Sometimes I’d forget and change the channel on the TV — my fingers touched the dial. She’d start hitting and screaming.”
“I see what you mean.”
“She hit me with a stick. She’s never touched me. You can’t touch her either. She’s still the same.”
“The tissue boxes and everything?”
“No, not anymore. I know not to touch.”
Moved, and wanting to do something tangible, I get up from the rocker in front of the fire and embrace him. “Rico, I love you. Maybe. . . .”
“Shut up. I don’t mean it that way.”
“Rico! Stop! Listen to me. That’s not a joke! What I mean is that you don’t have a father. . . .”
“And you don’t have a son?”
“Right . . . and just maybe. . . .”
There is a look on his face I will never forget. I have never seen it before: vulnerable, open. He can make no reply. For the first time in our relationship, he has nothing to say. Until this moment, we have been angling with uncertainty.
Now, every time he arrives at our apartment he has a gift, usually flowers for Melissa or feta cheese or overly sweet pastries.
“Where do you get the money for all these gifts?” Melissa asks.
“I didn’t know that.”
“Don’t give him the third degree, Melissa.”
One night, he comes up empty-handed. Realizing that he has neglected to bring a gift, he starts out the door.
“Forget about it, Rico, I’ll have to come down again to unlock the door for you.”
“Just lend me your key.”
“Christ, would you look at this!” A colleague in the staff lounge is shaking his tabloid. “Bloody sods, the church is full of them, the schools are full of them. Listen to this one: ‘Porno priest charged with pederasty.’ Alliteration for bloody sodomites! Shoot the lot of them.”
“That’s really brilliant, Richard,” I say.
“Your bleeding heart . . .” he sings, country with an English accent.
“Why don’t you just shut up?”
“Aren’t we being sensitive today.” Then a change of tone. “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, Ted. Certain to be spoiled goods.”
I try to think of something to say without appearing defensive. Jill, an English teacher, is listening in. “Richard is still angry with Rico for flattening his tires,” she says. This saves me from replying.
New York. Battery Park. A March day, cold in the shade but surprisingly warm in the sun. In the haze across the water, a less-than-beautiful Statue of Liberty, under reconstruction, looks ironically like a prisoner locked inside her scaffolding. Sometimes, with a child, you do the things you never did yourself as a child, or if you did them then, you see them now with a double perspective, the naiveté of childhood and the cynicism of adulthood. For Rico, since he knows I grew up here, the places, the sights, even the traffic congestion are of inordinate interest. He takes many pictures with my camera, occasionally bothering to focus. He takes a full roll on the ferry approaching the Statue, another full roll at the Statue, and one more approaching the golden, sun-reflecting towers of Wall Street.
Later, we walk, endlessly. Chinatown. Little Italy. The Lower East Side. Trash and dust fly everywhere. We pass stained, worn tenement buildings, underwear and sheets flapping indecently on improvised clotheslines. The camera continues its frantic activity, collecting these exotic sights. Rico photographs a group of derelicts encircling a rusted, flaming oil barrel. They stare at us with hangdog expressions. Across the street, an old oversized brown Pontiac careens out of control and smashes into a parked car. Pieces of glass fly in all directions. Click. A drug addict naps on a square of pavement as if it were a cozy bed in a warm garret. Click.
Click. Click. Click. I push him along.
We rummage through the stalls of Orchard Street, and the shops with the never-ending sales of radio equipment and designer clothes. I buy myself a ghetto-blaster and him more film, batteries, jeans, and sweatshirts. A voice rings out from across the street, three buildings north, from at least the second story — a black voice, unmistakable, saucy. “Love child!” it calls.
Rico seems not to hear this impudent cry, even when it’s repeated. He doesn’t notice my reddened face.
“Let’s get out of here.”
“I’ve had enough of all this shopping. Come on.”
My father, at whose house we’ve been staying, is clearly relieved when I tell him that we’re leaving, lopping two days off the March break so that I can catch up on work. Neither he nor Rico actually believes this excuse, but for my father, at least, the real reason doesn’t matter. The narrowing look in his eyes from day one has implied an unspoken question: “Why don’t you give me a regular grandson instead of this?”
The drive home is somber, formal, distant. Rico spends much of the time hooked up to the ghetto-blaster, an annoying tinny sound issuing from the headphones.
Rico and I are supposed to go to the Bruce Peninsula for Easter weekend, but Melissa decides that she wants to go. Ordinarily, I’d hate to disappoint him, but instead I’m relieved. I promise him a future weekend, some time in May. He seems to take the news well. It’s as if we were both beginning to disengage. He hopes Melissa and I have a great time.
The peninsula is unusually warm and bright for this time of year. We search for wildflowers. We visit the blue and white of Lion’s Head where, desultorily throwing rocks into the water, I begin again to feel his presence.
Back in the cottage, there are traces of him everywhere: cards and a jar of pennies sit in front of the fireplace; an old jacket of mine he once used lies on the floor of the closet.
Even as we make love, Melissa senses an apartness. Afterward she asks, “What is it, Ted? It’s him, isn’t it?”
“You love him.”
“Yes,” I hear myself say, without hesitation. “I thought I’d be able to, well — get away from him?” I end with a question because I want her to understand without my having to explain.
She slowly shakes her head. Her face is sad and amused at the same time.
“Can he live with us?” I ask. I realize that the idea has been inside me since the day I learned his name.
“Ted, I was happy enough to go along because I knew how much it meant to you, but — living with us?”
“Just a hundred reasons. No privacy. We live in an apartment and he’s an incredible snoop. I’ll have nowhere to do my painting. What’ll we do when friends come over? And what about his mother?”
“I think she’d be willing.”
“Just to give him up? Just like that?”
“He’s a lot of trouble . . . to her.”
“You are just so desperate to have a child.”
“Yes, damn it. So desperate. If only you’d put on some weight, like the doctor said. . . .” I trail off, having said more than I wanted to say.
“Then you wouldn’t have to bother with him anymore.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well, Ted, it’s just never been that important to me, and it wasn’t important to you either until this year.”
“It’s so easy when you just live for yourself, Melissa.”
“Don’t pretend you’re doing it for him.” She turns away.
I soften my tone. “All right, then. For me. I want it. Would you consider a trial period? If any of us says no, the deal is off.”
At least she doesn’t refuse.
That brown stain on the horizon, Toronto. In certain areas of the city, such as our tree-lined street, the illusion of beauty persists. As we turn into the driveway, I see him at the front step with a blue knapsack on his back, waving a greeting. His face is ashen.
“Thought I’d be here to help you guys unload.”
“Great.” I snap open the hatchback and step from the car. “Stick around. We’ll order out some Chinese food and you can eat with us.”
“Mother wants me to be home tonight.”
“Really?” Despite myself, I’m jealous. “What’s so important about tonight?”
“I just have to go, that’s all.”
“OK.” I shrug. Of course I think it’s his way of emphasizing the distance I’ve put between us. Well, that can be fixed.
He helps to unload the car and pile all the stuff on the porch. Then he starts to head for the subway, turns around, and comes back.
I unlock the door to our apartment and, as I enter the living room, I notice immediately that the ghetto-blaster is gone from its perch.
“Where’s the ghetto-blaster, Melissa?”
“Wherever you put it.”
I have a sinking feeling as I look around the apartment. At first there are no obvious signs of a break-in, but then I find that my spare car key has been taken. That’s worrisome. Some bank books and tax papers have been ruffled through. Nothing else that I can see.
“Why don’t you call the police?” says Rico.
“Yeah. I guess I have to.”
The police arrive, clucking solicitously and offering tips on robbery prevention. After a perfunctory and fruitless inspection of the premises, one of the officers, a porcine fellow with a drooping black mustache and a heavy Scottish brogue, looks squarely at Rico and asks, “Who’s this?”
“Don’t worry about him,” I say. “He’s a friend of the family.”
“You say the door was locked when you got home?”
Afterward, I send Rico home, as the robbery has upset me too much to eat. Stunned, I sit on the couch and stare at nothing. Melissa offers me a sip of her beer. “Have you considered that it might have been him?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Him. . . . Rico.”
“Stealing from us? Not bloody likely. That’s ridiculous. I see what you’re doing. You want to make sure he never lives with us.”
“That’s not true.”
A deep freeze comes between us. We go to sleep. At 3 a.m., I awaken, feeling unusually alert. I walk over to the closet and reach into the back where we keep our camera. It’s missing. I shake Melissa.
“You were right, of course. He did it. The ghetto-blaster, the car key, the camera — he must have taken the camera. God, am I a fool! And the cops were here. He probably had it all in his knapsack. What cheek! The covetous little bastard must’ve gotten the key to our apartment copied.”
Melissa is barely awake. I’m not even sure she’s heard what I’ve said.
“I’ll call him. He’ll give it back. He’s got too much to lose.”
The Broadway subway station. I said nothing specific on the telephone but he must have known from my voice that I am disturbed. I wait five minutes and he emerges from the station door, smiling a bit less than usual but smiling nonetheless. We drive over to Withrow Park, sit on a bench. It is a perfect evening, cool and very clear.
“What’s this all about?”
“I’ve thought about it — what you did, Rico — and it’s understandable, but. . . .”
“What are you talking about?”
His feigned innocence is predictable but still infuriating.
“You don’t have to pretend. You took the stuff. The radio, the key, the camera. Just return it.”
He says nothing.
“We’ll continue on just as before.”
“I didn’t know about the camera. They got the camera?”
He puts a hand on my arm. “Ted, I didn’t do it.”
“You did it. Just give it back.”
“You’re wrong. . . .”
I believe he could outstare the devil. He’s incredibly brazen.
“Do you think I could do that to you?”
Against my will, he forces me to review the evidence inside my head.
“You did it, Rico. I can forgive you. Just give me back the stuff.”
He sits and smiles at me, as if he were completely innocent. I suddenly remember the assistant principal and the keys. A repeat performance — but to me! To someone who dared to love him, not some uptight school official.
“Rico, we were going to take you in to live with us.” I’m on my feet, walking away.
“Can you give me a ride?”
I don’t even look back.
A government housing project in Scarborough. Very high. Very wide. Three monoliths.
The Papanou apartment is much larger than I expected. The walls are bare, the fixtures and furniture tacky. A framed photograph of Rico smiles from an otherwise empty bookcase. The place is abominably filthy. Cockroaches wander unmolested on the kitchen walls and the counters.
Mrs. Papanou is a very small woman with black hair cut like Cleopatra’s. She keeps a wide distance between herself and me and, as Rico has said, between herself and him. I conclude that the condition of the apartment is the result of her not wanting to touch anything.
“Does not matter what I say to him,” she says, “Rico, he won’t do nothing I tell him. Sit up straight.”
Rico moves a bit on his chair.
“You don’t have to return the stuff, Rico. You probably sold it or threw it out. I’m just going to ask you to do one thing.” I pause for effect. “Just one request.”
“Sit up straight. Listen to Ted. Nobody never does nothing for you before. I’m sorry this happen. What do I do with him?”
“Rico, just admit you did it. That’s all.”
He sits. He smiles. He stares.
“I can’t have a relationship with you if you continue to lie to me.”
“He does steal before — many times. He stealing from me all the time. But this, I don’t know. He tell me he does not do this thing. I never see these things you talk about. Maybe he tell the truth this time?”
“He doesn’t tell the truth this time, Mrs. Papanou. He doesn’t ever tell the truth.” Another pause. “Rico?”
He shakes his head. “I didn’t do it.”
Melissa is on the living room couch trying to sleep, legs propped under pillows, one hand on her forehead, the other on her expectant womb. The telephone rings.
“Hello.” Eerie silence on the other end of the line.
“Take it off the hook, Ted. I’m getting the creeps.”
Minutes later, the phone rings again.
“Ted, I feel sick,” Melissa calls out. “Take it off the hook.”
I pick up the receiver. “Hello? Rico? Listen to me. I’m going to call the police.” This time, when he hangs up, I leave the receiver dangling. “We’re getting an unlisted number.”
A terrible sadness inundates me, a feeling of suicidal sadness when all I should be feeling at this time is joy. Melissa sees my pain. With great effort, she rises from the couch and comes over to comfort me, stroking the back of my head.
“Ted, you tried. You tried to reverse the irreversible. Please. Please just try to forget about it.”
“Because it’s hopeless. . . . And we have other things to think about.”
“No, I mean why did it get messed up like this?”
“Who cares? I mean, who fucking cares? I’m giving you a child. Isn’t that enough?”
She’s crying again. Lately, she has been breaking into tears at the slightest trifle. A result of pregnancy — so we’ve been told. This time, I comfort her. I walk her back to her place on the couch.
“It’s our child,” I say.
“Oh, I know, I know, and I’ll love it — unconditionally, despite whatever I’ve said. Whatever it’s like, whatever it does, I’ll love it, because I’ve seen what they turn into when you don’t.”
“Whatever he does. . . .”
“No, I’m thinking of Rico. Don’t you see that’s where I failed him?”
“Ted, I don’t want to hear about somebody else’s messed-up kid anymore.”
For the first time, what Melissa has been telling me all along is all too plain before my eyes. I put too much trust in him, not wanting to face the angry, needy child, because this reality had little to do with the image I was creating. It was more important that I see the truth than that he be forced to tell it. The only difference between me and all the others — his mother, the assistant principal, his father, all those who have left him, rejected him, or cast him out — is that I saw an angel where they saw a devil. What we all would have seen, had we looked, was a soul in torment. I wanted only to possess him, to steal the precious name of son from his mother, just as he stole in order to possess me. An act of love is nothing like that — surreptitious, hoarding, greedy. I am afraid, yes, of what others think, but I am even more afraid of love, love that requires you to continue loving even when you’ve been hurt.
“Melissa, you’re not going to like this, but I’m going to call him again.”
“I mean, I just can’t leave him out there like that.”
“Ted, do what you want.”
“Yeah, I’m going to call him.” But I don’t.
Oh, god of love, save us from our fear.
“Second Thoughts” is from Kenneth Klonsky’s unpublished collection of short stories called Songs of Aging Children.
Klonsky, who lives in Toronto, took the book’s title from a “sad and wonderful” song by Buffy Saint Marie. The stories, he says, are about young people “prematurely forced to surrender the preciousness of childhood,” and about the possibility of their redemption.