By Wendy Hodge
There’s a vacant lot on Marvyn Parkway that sits between a busy road and a business complex. It is neglected and lonely, easy to overlook, but as powerful a spot to me as any on this green earth. I’ve driven by it thousands of times, literally. Sometimes it lets me pass without much pause. And sometimes, it reaches out like a hand from my childhood and stops me cold. Today was one of those days.
It wasn’t always a vacant lot. A house once stood there – brick, small, and just as sad and lonely as the bare ground it left behind. Of course, that was more than 40 years ago. Life seemed slower, and Opelika felt both vast and very small all at once. The borders of the city were far flung to my six-year-old eyes, but my world was small and distinct.
As a first-grader at Carver Elementary, I passed that dark little house on the corner every day without really seeing it. Carver was a typical southern elementary school in the 1970s, and my class was a typical group of 6-year-olds, complete with two very loud, very large bullies whose names were Bubba and Junior (I wish I was making that up.) They teased and tormented, and I avoided them at all costs.
There was also one very singular classmate – a boy so quiet and folded into himself that he was almost invisible. His clothes were faded and so thin they appeared to float around his bony arms and legs. His shoes were held together with electrical tape. It was the shoes that broke my heart the most.
It was early one morning as I rode to school staring out the window at the falling leaves that I saw that sad boy coming out of the dark little house. I sat straight up in the passenger’s seat of the old Nova – that’s who lives there.
I paid attention that day, finally seeing him as more than a shadow. As I watched from my desk across the room, as we sounded out words, and struggled with spelling our teacher’s name (Mrs. Stejskal, sounds like Stay-Skull,) he never even looked in my direction. The morning passed, and the lunch bell rang. From my table in the cafeteria where I sat with a group of little girls very much like me, I continued to watch.
His lunch was practically non-existent, and he sat alone. It hurt me to see him there, and it wasn’t five minutes into the lunch period before I just couldn’t bear it anymore. Among the chatter and the controlled chaos that is a school cafeteria, I rose and walked to his table. He looked up at me like a startled animal. I wanted to wipe the smudge from his cheek, but I held my right hand with my left to stop that impulse.
“What’s your name?” I asked. All these weeks of sharing the orbit of Mrs. Stejskal’s first grade classroom, and I didn’t even know his name.
“Keith,” he whispered. His voice was faint, like it was as afraid as he was.
“I’m Wendy,” I said and sat without being invited.
His sandwich was one piece of bread folded in half with a dollop of some unknown substance in the middle to glue it together. And that was it. Not one bite more, nothing to drink.
I felt a wave of pity so strong I could barely swallow. And something else, too. A dawning realization that the world is not always fair. Some children are hungry or embarrassed or lonely… or all three.
My Wonder Woman lunchbox suddenly seemed like an affront with its matching thermos full of Kool-Aid, a turkey sandwich, potato chips, and a homemade Rice Krispy treat. When I opened it, it looked like Thanksgiving dinner spilling onto the table.
“I’m not very hungry. Wanna share?” I asked quietly, instinctively knowing this could be dangerous ground.
He looked at me without blinking, long enough that I wanted to fidget, but I held still and returned the stare. I will never know what silent bargain he made with himself, but he decided I was friend and not foe because he finally blinked and said, “Thank you.”
I scooted my sandwich in front of him and put the chips between us. He ate quickly and quietly. I poured some Kool-Aid into the top of my thermos and handed him the rest. He drank without stopping, leaving a purple Kool-Aid mustache on his upper lip.
The bell rang, and I knew I’d be sitting right there the next day. And I was.
This did not go unnoticed by Junior and Bubba. “Wendy has a boyfriend!” they chanted at every opportunity. I told them both if they didn’t shut up I’d “bring my killer dog to school to bite your butt!” (I didn’t have a dog and may have been a little too big for my britches…)
Days passed, and autumn became winter. I’d like to say that Keith and I became close friends, that he told me about his life and that we grew up and stayed in touch…. But I learned very little about Keith. He preferred ham sandwiches to turkey and purple Kool-Aid to orange; he liked to read; and his shoes were handed down from his brother who got them from a cousin.
We did not become best friends, and Keith did not grow up.
“Your boyfriend died,” Bubba called out one December morning as I walked into the classroom.
“Yeah,” Junior added. “Completely died.”
In a flash, Mrs. Stejskal was there bending down to put her arm around me and lead me into the hallway. “Wendy, honey, I didn’t want you to hear it like that. There was a fire last night in their house. Keith and his whole family were killed.”
I don’t remember what I said or how I got through the rest of the school day. I do remember riding home from school and seeing the still smoking pile of rubble on the corner lot, the police tape, and the city workers. All that was left was the remains of a chimney. How had I missed it that morning on the way to school? I guess I’ll never know.
I do know that Keith and the way he died haunted me as a child. I dreamed of fire and yellow police tape and ancient shoes. But, in the way we do with people who are no longer here, Keith has become a silent friend. I carry him in the quiet part of myself.
There is no monument for Keith on that vacant lot – nothing marks that spot – because that’s the way the world is. We hurry on, we rush past, we move forward. So I’ll leave these words that have risen from that corner of my heart as a memorial for the boy who let me sit with him.