October 19, 2005

The Boy Next Door

Croaky, a little boy with a lot of freckles, was about seven years old when he moved into our old neighborhood, and we got to know him very quickly. His mother would disappear from time to time, and his stepfather worked nights. Sometimes Croaky and his two little brothers slept at our house. I can close my eyes and see them now: all marching up the driveway with sleeping bags draped over their heads.

Croaky was a likeable kid who had a talent for getting into trouble. Once he fell several feet from the tree in our yard, crashing down through the pine branches. He would do anything on a dare and never seemed to notice the bruises.

He'd stop by on his way to school in the morning, coming fifteen minutes early so he could stay and chat before it was time for him to go to the bus stop. He was almost always smiling and cheerful. Even when he had bad news, he'd deliver it casually, "My Mom took off again. I guess she doesn't want to be a Mom."

Most of the neighbors hated his Mom, but I could not.

She had the same croaky voice as Croaky, and eyes that held a deep sadness beneath the layers of eye make-up. Her sense of humor was abrasive, and she did not know how to do the kind of neighborly small talk is so important in the kind of community I come from. I had little contact with her because she was hardly ever home, even when the boys were little. No, she was not at work. But a few times, I caught glimpses that explained the pain in her eyes.

When With-a-Why was born, she said to me, "Oh, you have a daughter and three boys. Just like me." I looked at her in surprise. I had never seen or heard of a daughter. "My first was a girl," she explained, "but I had to give her up for adoption."

I remember the time I was talking to her about With-a-Why's colic.

"Croaky had colic, too," she said, "He cried all the time, and it was hard because I was living at a shelter for battered women and he kept other people awake."

And she sometimes surprised me. Once she rang my doorbell in the middle of the night. "There's an ambulance at Elderly Neighbor's house," she said, "I know she would want you." I turned to grab my shoes, and she disappeared before I could even thank her.

Croaky's mother had times when she would stay clean and sober. But always some kind of pain would rise up to haunt her, and she would slip back into that downward spiral. Croaky was the one who took care of his two brothers. He was the one who called 911 when his stepfather grew abusive and started beating his mother up. He was the one who called 911 whenever his mother attempted suicide.

Croaky could be rude and boisterous. He loved bathroom jokes and laughed like crazy at raunchy jokes. I can remember the time he asked if he could smash our pumpkins. When I said yes, he screamed and yelled gleefully, bashing the pumpkins against the pavement with great energy.

One time when the boys were sleeping at my house, I heard one of his little brothers wake up, crying. I got up to put on sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and started down the stairs. But halfway down, I stopped. In the dark house, I could hear the husky voice of Croaky, singing his little brother to sleep.

Of course, Croaky is grown up now. Like most kids in this area who have few options, he joined the military. When he got back from basic training, he stopped to say hello. With his crewcut, his balck boots, and his BDUs, he looked like a man, but his freckled face was still the same. He hugged me, hugged Daughter, and sat down at the kitchen table to talk. I tried not to cry and managed not to.

"Don't worry," he told me. "By the time I get to Iraq, things will have settled down." But of course, he could tell what I was thinking, even if I didn't say it aloud. That was last May.

And last week, I heard the inevitable news. Croaky is being sent to Iraq. I don't know what his mother thinks of the news, but it is making me cry.

27 comments:

cheesehead said...

God bless Croaky, and God bless you for watching over him all these years.

What Now? said...

Thank you for telling us about Croaky so that he can settle into our hearts for awhile, as he's lived so long in yours. Let's pray for blessings for him. Please keep us updated.

Suzanne said...

I got a chill when I read that last paragraph. Thank you for sharing his story. May he stay safe.

Songbird said...

Oh, jo(e). It's making me cry, too.

listmaker said...

Add my tears to the others. Thanks for sharing this story.

bitchphd said...

Oh, I'm so sorry. Here's hoping that Croaky the survivor will continue to overcome life's obstacles and come back safe and sound. And an extra little prayer for his mother, who whatever her failings, must be worried about him.

Friday Mom said...

It makes me so sad and angry that we as a country can't do better for kids like Croaky than provide them an opportunity to put their lives on the line. He's been through too much already.

Do keep us posted. He's in my prayers.

Danny said...

You have done a lot of good with Croaky, being present for him, letting him hang out at your house. I'm trying to do that for the kids in my neighborhood who stop by. Many of them come from dysfunctional families. You never know---Croaky may not have survived this long if it weren't for you. Most likely he will return from Iraq safely; I'll add my prayers to the others that he does.... BTW, great writing & use of words in sharing this. Thank you.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Oh, jo(e). Like Suzanne, I have the chills. How you can wrap up so many layers of tragedy threatened, averted, and threatened again -- in so few words!

Prayers for Croaky's safety, and hugs for you.

frog said...

Well, shit.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

What Friday Mom said... it's so, so wrong that kids with so few options become simply expendable. I'm so glad he had (has) your love and support.

ccw said...

I'm crying...

You have such a kind heart. It is obvious that you mean a lot to Croaky. I also loved to hear that you didn't condemn his mother; that is something few would do especially in a small town.

Prayers for Croaky's safe return.

EverydaySuperGoddess said...

That is a lovely, heartbreaking post.

You captured both Croaky and his mom so beautifully.

My heart aches over the peril he is about to be thrust into. May he come out on the other side as whole and as admirable of spirit as he is now.

liz said...

Nothing to add. Everyone else said it so well.

Jo(e), you need to warn us when it's going to be a three hanky post. I only had two.

Bad Alice said...

Croaky sounds like such a sweet fellow. That part about singing his little brother to sleep is making me weepy. Thank God that you and your family were and are there for him. The men in my immediate family were all military, and like Croaky they saw it as a step up. I'm saying a prayer for him now.

halloweenlover said...

And now I'm all sniffly. Croaky sounds like such a good heart. I'll be praying for his safe return also.

jackie said...

more tears over here. croaky's in my thoughts, and so is his mom.

Teri said...

oh, I'm so sorry. Croaky doesn't need that, does he? Poor kid.

Piece of Work said...

What a remarkable story. And how lucky for Croaky, and you, that you got to know each other. I'll be thinking of him, and hoping for the best.

Running2Ks said...

Oh jo(e) I hope our prayers are enough. I'm so sad. I care about this little man already, and I don't want anything bad to happen to him in Iraq.

Yankee T said...

Croaky has been lucky to have you all these years. I hope for the best...

kyra said...

What a sad, beautiful story. You really know how to pack a punch with your writing, jo(e), it's so expressive.

will smama said...

Everything they have said. It looks different, but on our prayer list at church in the military column I have added: Croaky.

I realize it is your profession, but still it must be said that you are a gifted writer.

And while I am oozing... from what I have read so far you are the Mom that I hope to be.

Orange said...

Jeeze, you had me convinced Croaky had died until I got to the end and saw that he's "merely" going off to war. I will say that I feel a little bit better about our military being in Iraq if their numbers include a thoughtful and responsible guy like Croaky. I hope the experience doesn't rob him of those traits.

peripateticpolarbear said...

(o)

Mieke said...

UGh. We are lucky to live the lives we do, no matter how hard it seems sometimes. Stories like these always put things in perspective.

Psycho Kitty said...

Oh, Jo(e).