© 1999 Jess Mercer

Ex-Con

Dave slouched furtively along the grubby street; only the address scribbled on a scrap of paper clutched in his hand held meaning. He crossed the street, little more than an alley, scowling as the sidewalk became a trodden dirt path squeezed between the curb and a high chain-link fence.

A mournful voice softly called, "Hi."

Dave glanced at the sad pinched face of the child behind the fence and continued on without reply. Cries of other children at play within the fenced yard penetrated his consciousness. Glancing up at the grim brick building, he shuddered, a school. Remembering brought a twinge of pain from his once abused knuckles, for many were the raps from a ruler wielded by old maid teachers; brought their reedy voices shrilling, "You'll come to no good unless you mend your ways, David." The accuracy of their predictions hurt worse.

A few hundred feet further along, a number painted roughly on a riser in the steps coincided with that on the scrap of paper. The house leaned wearily, a few scattered patches of paint betrayed the sickly yellow the graying siding once boasted. He climbed the broken concrete steps, scattering the unswept debris, stopping before the multi-paned door. His look into the dark interior impeded by tatters of lace behind the glass. He twisted the ancient bell by the door. Hearing no sound, he rapped heavily.

A scuffling sibilance, a bloodshot eye peered through the rent curtain, and the door creaked open a crack. "What'cha want?"

"A room. Tony sent me."

The door opened a few inches more. The bloodshot twin to the other eye glared nearsightedly at him from a face so fat no features could be discerned.

"You know Tony from the joint?" The words rasped, reeking of cheap whiskey.

"Yeah."

"I guess it's okay, then." The opening widened enough for Dave to ease past 300 pounds of dowdy flesh into the inner gloom.

"Can I see the room?"

"Third door on the left upstairs. Take a look. I ain't gonna climb no stairs."

The stairs creaked ominously. Dave pulled the door open. Any shred of grandeur the house once held had long before disappeared. Faded wallpaper was re-patterned with dark circles of mildew, the chipped enamel bed vaguely supported a tired mattress, a brick held up the front of the scarred dresser. The limp wicker chair, a battered table by the bed all but lost in the vastness of the room. Another door opened into the bath. Greenish stains in the claw-footed tub echoed the drip of the faucet. The pink marble basin lost color under layers of grime. Dave turned back to one of the windows and pulled the cracked shade aside to look out over weed grown lots into the fenced schoolyard. He dropped the shade and eased back downstairs.

"You gittin' the only room wif a private bath. Cost you extra." The whisky fumes oozed from the semi-darkness of a doorway to his right.

"How much?"

"Seven a week, twenny a month in advance. Do yer own cleanin'. Hot water on Sat'day if the heater works. Hotplate in yer room's okay, but you fix the fuse iffin it blows."

Dave's hand clutched the thin wad of bills in his pocket. "Okay." He held out a worn ten and two limp fives. The money disappeared magically in the bloated hand.

"I'll be back in a little," Dave said.

"Door ain't never locked." A shrill chuckle followed. "Ain't nothin' worth stealin'. Don' make no never mind to me how you come er go."

As Dave walked along side the fence, the small voice called, "Hi." He nodded and kept walking.

With an olive-drab duffel bag thrown over his shoulder, Dave left the bus station to retrace his steps. Once more the voice called, "Hi." Once more Dave nodded without breaking stride.

In the following days, Dave set forth each morning sustained by a meager breakfast, the classified section of the paper folded under his arm. Each day the expectation was crushed by the same words, "Ex con, huh? We got nothin' for the likes of you." And each time he passed the fence, the same voice called, "Hi."

Dave spread the scant handful of change and few crumpled bills from his pocket on the bed. One more week of paid-up rent remained. He'd have to be careful to make the money stretch. He swallowed the last of the lukewarm instant coffee in the mug, replaced the money in his pocket, and went out.

The burley boss of the loading dock scowled at the thin long-haired youth. "Think you're man enough? This ain't no job fer kids."

"I can do it."

"Tomorrow mornin' at six. You got a couple of days to see if you hold out."

Dave turned away elated. He thrust the newspaper into a trash bin and set out whistling softly. At ease for the first time since he'd alighted from the bus, Dave stopped at the call and consciously took in the figure behind the wire. The frail child wore a much faded long-sleeved shirt, worn jeans, his face all but obscured by the shoulder length blond hair.

"Hi, mister," he repeated quietly.

"Hi, yourself."

"What's your name?"

"Dave. What's yours?"

"Robby."

"Why aren't you playing with the other kids?"

"They don't want me," the small voice quavered.

"Why not?"

The child shook his head slowly. "They call me crybaby, and ..."

As the words trailed off a gust of wind blew the left sleeve of the child's shirt to one side. Dave gasped, and slipped his hand through the fence, lifting the partially empty sleeve. "What happened?"

Tears sprang to the blue eyes. "My daddy."

"What'cha mean?"

"He told me to shut up and I didn't, so he cut me."

Dave recoiled from his thought of premeditated murder. "You go home at night?"

Robby shook his head. "I stay here."

"Ain't this a school?"

"It's a place for kids who can't go home no more."

Dave withdrew his hand and fumbled in his shirt pocket. "Here, kid." He held out the chocolate bar he'd splurged on to celebrate his job.

The child's eyes remained fixed on his face, thin lips twisted in a smile.

"Thanks, Mister Dave." Claw-like fingers pulled away the foil, tiny teeth bit into the soft sweetness. As Dave turned to go, the child called, "Will you come back and talk to me again?"

Disturbed at feeling something for one other than himself, Dave hesitated. "Maybe. When I ain't got to work."

Over the next few months, Dave became accepted by his boss and fellow employees for his diligent work, reticent silence. He turned down offers of an after work drink with the others until the offers ceased. His free time and most of his pay were spent reworking his rooms until they became a comfortable, quietly decorated world of his own. His only acquaintance remained the child. Each afternoon, except for a few days of heavy rain, he hunkered down on his heels beside the fence talking with Robby for an hour or more. Frequently, candy bars, comic books, and other small gifts found their way through the wire mesh.

One afternoon, Robby said, "I like you, Dave. You're good to me, and ain't nobody else cares. I hope I'm good as you when I grow up."

"No way you want to be like me, kid. I'm a loser. You can be a lot better than me. Stick to your books and make something of yourself. I know it's hard when you ain't got nobody, but I know you can do it." After a hesitant pause, Dave added, "Stay out of trouble, Robby. I'm an ex con, so take it from me, it ain't worth it." Terrified by the admission, Dave jumped to his feet and fled to his room.

The next afternoon he would have walked by the fence without looking for Robby had the voice not called, "Hi, Dave. Can't you stop?"

Dave dropped to his heels and stared into the anxious face. "You still want to talk to me?"

"I don't care what you done, you're my friend."

Again the feeling pulled at Dave. He stayed at the fence. It was here he told the child his age, twenty-two, amazed at Robby's thirteen years because of his small size.

A few months later, secure in his work and himself, Dave entered the office of the home and asked to take Robby to a movie he had hoped to see. The laughter of the man he spoke with ringing in his ears, Dave fled.

For weeks afterward, each grieved that those in charge refused Dave permission to take Robby from the confines, or even to enter and visit with him face to face, without the fence between. The daily hour through the fence settled into comfortable routine. Nights, Dave spent in his room reading, studying, improving himself in an attempt to keep pace with Robby. As soon as he was able, Dave enrolled in night classes in a small college nearby.

He shared Robby's joy in improved schoolwork, the tragedy of a poor grade. Robby shared Dave's joy in promotions. Dave watched the child begin to grow. Small handmade gifts passed through the fence into Dave's hands, larger more expensive gifts from Dave's hands into Robby's on holidays. Their relationship through the fence filled each life, sufficient for Dave, at least.

Thus four years passed without Dave being aware until one afternoon in late May. When Dave stood to leave the fence, Robby thrust a folded envelope through the mesh. As Dave's hand closed over it, Robby ran toward the building, long hair and empty sleeve streaming behind. Surprised because he had always been the first to leave, Dave waited until he was in his room before breaking the seal. He unfolded the heavy cream paper and read the invitation. Across the bottom in Robby's neat penmanship - 'Only because of you.'

The date two days hence and for neither of those days did Robby appear at the fence. Each time Dave turned away from the void, his feet dragged, scuffing the dirt path as he made his way home. The nights were spent fighting an ever-increasing fear that now Robby had no use for an ex con.

Friday night Dave dressed with care in a new suit. Though the unaccustomed tie choked him, he would go to the ceremony. He would not disgrace himself nor Robby, for if the boy had worked hard, so had he. His hair cut and styled, his speech polished, his dress and manner correct.

Dave's heart pounded with pride as Robby delivered the valedictory in ringing tones, almost burst as the child he'd watched grow into manhood received his diploma, tucked it under his stump, and shook hands with the principal. The rest was but a blur in Dave's mind until he stood in the lobby of the auditorium facing the slender erect boy-man. They looked deeply into each other's eyes until Dave broke the silence. "I'm proud of you, Robby. More than you can know."

"And I of you. You caused this night to happen." He bent to pick up a small suitcase, grinned his crooked grin as he held it out. "Would you believe this holds an entire childhood?"

Dave raised one eyebrow questioningly and waited.

Robby gazed at him expectantly for a moment. "Is this to be the parting, my friend."

"No!"

"Then, let's go."

"Where?"

"You must lead me once more. I remained at the shelter an extra year to finish school and be near you. Now I'm no longer a ward of the state; I am a man in my own soul and body." Robby glanced around the now empty auditorium lobby. "I need someone to help me make the transition."

Dave's outstretched arms gave answer. He embraced the boy then took his hand, leading him outside. Across the table of the restaurant where Dave had taken them, he broke the silence. "What do you want, Robby? I've given you nothing as your graduation gift."

"There's nothing I want that you haven't given me all along. Just be there when it becomes too much for me to face alone."

"You've always had that. I meant for now, as a token of tonight."

Robby shook his head lightly to swing the long hair out of his face. "I want to go to college to study law and maybe help some kid as you've helped me. If you could get your boss to give me a job, I could save for that." He leaned back as the waitress set their plates before them.

"We shall see." Dave picked up his knife and began to cut Robby's steak, then his own.

Neither of them spoke again until they reached the house. As the structure had continued to decline, Dave's rooms had become more complete. He'd taken a connecting room and redone it as well. He unlocked the door and motioned Robby in. "Welcome home."

Without speaking, Robby dropped his suitcase on a chair and returned to the main room to look at the shelves of books. He flipped through a volume and replaced it. "You educated yourself."

"Until I could enter college. It was for you. Once you said you wanted to grow up to be like me. All I was, was an ex con, a crazy kid who knew no better." Dave closed his hand over the end of Robby's stump. "You'd already had the worst; you deserved someone better than me. Yet, we both profited."

"It was because of me that you stayed in this dump of a house?"

Dave crossed the quietly elegant room and parted the drapes. "I could watch over you from this window. I spent hours looking at you hidden under the tree reading."

"I didn't know, but I always felt loved when I was in that one place."

"I always dreamed you would." Dave closed the drapes and crossed to a carved walnut cabinet, opening the hidden refrigerator for ice for their drinks. As he handed a glass to Robby, he replied, "This house is but a shell, all that is in these walls but decoration concealing decay. I scarcely dared hope while I was working that one day you might wish to come here, but this is not reality for me, Robby, nor, I hope, for you."

Robby set his drink down and, without taking his eyes from Dave's face, crossed the room to place his hand over Dave's heart. "What's in there is reality


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