I bought a newspaper at the corner market and came across a story about a young boy who had eaten a peanut butter and banana sandwich and died. He was eight years old and lived in one of the cleanest parts of the city-an unusual sort of life, just him and his third grade teacher in a three bedroom apartment. One day, he suddenly collapsed in his teacher’s reading room-an allergic reaction, most likely. Nobody knew how long it had taken for him to die, but they figured he must have fought it for over fifteen minutes. The young boy didn’t have any in-town relatives or friends that he played with regularly, and it was a good six hours before his body was discovered. The windows had all been open half way; that morning, he and his third grade teacher had made omelets with garlic and artichoke sausage. The teacher loved cooking with the young boy, but insisted all the windows stay open until the entire smell of the sausage was out of the apartment. There wasn’t any medicine in the house that he could reach-the Epinephrine injection that would have saved his life was on top of the refrigerator-a place he was not tall enough to reach even with his stepping stool. Granted, there was a dining room chair he could have dragged over, but he had been told when he first moved in that any furniture in the dining room was off limits-it was only to be used during dinner parties and CPS visits. On the verge of boredom, the young boy-after having sat through countless hours of cooking shows with the third grade teacher set off to surprise his guardian with a peanut butter and banana sandwich.
I read this article to ___________, who was sitting across from me. On rainy days, we’d stop at the corner market, buy a copy of The Chronicle, walk to the coffee shop four blocks away, and I’d summarize anything interesting I might come across as ___________read the current graphic design magazine.
“I like it when you read to me,” he explained. “I want to hear what’s going on. You never used to read the newspaper before, it’s cool. I suppose this means you’re going to read me the rest of the paper?”
We had our own little corner in the coffee shop-with a makeshift waterfall next to us. And I took pleasure in reading aloud. When I lived in Mexico City I used to read teenage novels aloud to my mother while she cooked dinner. Reading aloud always made me feel important-like an elementary teacher, so I took every opportunity to bluster about my reading abilities. Something quite unexpected happened whenever I would read a mystery novel, a kind of indefinable resonance between my mother and I- she’d ask me to translate everything into Spanish for her.
Taking the occasional sip of chai tea, I slowly read the article. I’d read over the previous few lines so that I would not lose the pace of the story. A few flies swarmed through the crumbs left on the table from a previous customer. They spent a moment circling the table before they swooped in and lapped up the tiniest of crumbs. After I had finished reading the whole story, __________ sat there, elbows resting on the armrests of the chair. He turned a page of his magazine, peeping his head to look at me-checking to make sure I was reading and not people-watching.
“Then what happened?” he asked.
“That’s it,” I replied, and folded up the paper. I took a napkin and wiped the table from the small spills we had made with our drinks. “At least, that’s all it says. They said they would try and do a follow-up in tomorrow’s paper.”
“But what happened to the third grade teacher?”
I stood up to throw the napkin away. “I have no idea. It doesn’t say.”
___________ put his thumb and middle finger to his temples and gave himself a mini massage, his own little habit. Whenever he was about to give an opinion—he rubbed his temples like that, as if he was stumbling upon a statement that would put together all the missing pieces of the young boy’s sudden isolated death. When I first met him, I found this habit quite annoying.
“The whole point of a newspaper is to state all the facts surrounding a particular event,” he finally announced. “They only tell you so much-like they want to feel important by keeping some of the details to themselves, then leave you thinking no one cares for this poor kid because there’s no mention of what happened to the teacher.”
He took a piece of gum out from the side pocket of his backpack, put it in his mouth, and flicked the wrapper my way. Every other day he’d have to buy a new pack-he chewed it so often.
I didn’t chew gum. Out of fear, I quit. Four years earlier I had been chewing gum when I heard a hard crunch. I spit the gum out into my hand, ran my tongue along my teeth and felt a chunk of tooth missing. Looking down into my palm, all I could think about was the amount of money and pain I was going to have to put myself through to fix what this piece of gum had damaged.
“What I really want to know,” __________ began, the smell of his gum reaching the air between us, “is where the teacher was while all this was happening to the poor kid? Why was an eight-year-old kid alone for over six hours? What do you think?”
“Six hours.” I replied.
“He was left there for six hours-no more, no less.”
I gazed at the flies that had now found a sweet sensation in ___________’s shampoo. For a quick moment the flies circling __________’s head and the six hours this young boy lay dead became one in my mind. The milk steamer overlapped the buzz of the flies, and for a split second my consciousness couldn’t make out where I was. What was I doing here? I couldn’t get a grip on the situation, and turned to _________.
“Think about it. That kid was obviously taken from his real family to live with his teacher- who was supposed provide a better environment for him, then just leaves the kid alone to die.”
“I’m pretty sure the teacher didn’t know the kid was going to die.” I said. “Unless he purposely left a jar of peanut butter with a sign that said ‘eat me’.”
_________ didn’t laugh. He reached over to drop his magazine on the table between us. “That story reminds me of this kid I went to private school with. Did I ever tell you I went to private school? Right after eating my lunch, I walked over to the basketball courts to see if I wanted to join anyone’s game. This kid Daniel-kind of chunky, runs by and I pay him attention only because I hear him wheezing-trips smack on his face. But what I remember most—is what he said when I asked him why he was running—“They want to throw me in the grass!” he says to me with desperation through broken glasses.”
“Sounds sad,” I said.
“ ‘I’ll die if I touch grass’, he told me after he looked around making sure he wasn’t being chased. ‘At least that’s what my mom told me. Last year I told her I wanted to join a soccer league; wanted to run around so I could lose some weight—do something else other than come home and watch her crochet. Right away she tells me, ‘No, you’ll die if you touch grass.’ Every year she writes a reminder to the principal and staff that I am not to have any contact with grass of any kind. The physical education teacher has to follow the extracurricular activities she writes in for me—she wants to make sure I am getting the same treatment as everyone else.’ Daniel gave me a saddened look. I felt bad for him. What could possibly be the point of telling your kid he could die from grass? I thought, Man, what kind of life can you live being allergic to grass?”