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.