I seldom stop at fast food joints because of the greasy burgers and fries, but I got off work late and don't want to go home and cook. At last a few of the chains have made an attempt to meet modern tastes and offer a chicken sandwich that isn't too dreadful to contemplate, so I stop. Two serving lines are open, so I take the shorter, standing behind a nicely dressed woman. I notice that she's standing well back from the counter, so I lean out a bit to look.
At the counter stands a small boy, perhaps seven or eight, dressed in ragged grubby jeans and a tattered shirt. He's holding out his dirt streaked hand so the clerk can see the coins. She's in her 30's, I'd say, and gentle with him, though her expression is one of slight irritation.
"I'm sorry, son, but you still don't have enough for a burger. You need another quarter." She shakes her head sadly. "Go see if you can find one somewhere." She waves the child away and looks at the woman in front of me. "May I take your order, Ma'am?"
The woman steps closer; the child sidles past me with a look of despair, tears making dark runnels in the dirt on his cheeks. I hear him sniff back a sob and I can stand it no longer. It's obvious he needs food along with everything else.
I reach out and take his hand. "I'll buy you a burger, son. Two, if you want."
The mixed aroma of filth creating an aura about him almost gags me, but the look of gratitude on his pinched face compensates. The lady has received her order, so I step up and order my chicken sandwich and coffee, and look questioningly at the boy.
"Can I have a double cheeseburger and milk, sir?" I nod at the clerk and, as she hands me my change, say, "I'm glad you were gentle with this child. Most would have spoken unkindly."
"Thank you, sir. I wish I could have given him a quarter, but I'm an assistant manager and I have to follow the rules. Thank you for being so kind to him."
"Do you know anything about him? He seems awfully young to be on the streets."
She shakes her head. "He comes in once in a while when he thinks he has enough money for something. He apparently can't count, and he's always wearing the same rags he has on now." She's handed a tray and extends it to me. "Your order, sir. Thank you."
"Come along, son," I say, and the lad follows me over to a table in the far corner away from the other patrons. After we are settled, I take our sandwiches from the bag. He has already ripped open the carton and is gulping down his milk. He all but snatches the burger from my hands as I hold it out to him. Before my hand is fully withdrawn, he has the burger unwrapped and is gobbling it down. I've never seen anyone so hungry before.
Once he's eaten half the sandwich, he flattens four of five paper napkins on the table and starts to wrap the remainder carefully. He then shakes the carton of milk and closes the top.
"You aren't finished already, are you?" I ask.
He nods his head.
"Are you saving it for your supper?" I'm curious.
He shakes his head again. "When will you eat it?"
I see tears form. "It's for my mommy. She's awful sick and we don't have no food. I hope this makes her feel better."
I'm silent for a few moments, thinking what a wonderful little boy who, even when desperately hungry, thinks of his mother and her needs when his own are equally as great.
"Son, finish eating what you have. I'll buy you another and more milk for you to take to your mother."
His face lights in a tiny smile that would melt Scrooge's heart, and he takes the remains of his lunch out of the bag and eats it more slowly. When he's finished, I accompany him back to the same nice clerk. He places his order, chicken this time, and I pay after asking for it to go
Once he has the bag in his hand he comes back and sits with me while I finish my sandwich.
"Thank you, sir." He says, following me out of the restaurant.
"You're most welcome, son. What is your name?"
"Is anyone helping you and your mother, Danny?"
He looks down at the pavement. "No, sir. I don't know how to get help."
"You don't have neighbors?"
He shakes his head.
I'm just a working stiff, clerk in a chain bookstore. My pay is enough to get by on, but doesn't allow for any luxuries. Much of it goes for clothes as I have to dress reasonably well to meet company standards. I can't afford much, but I'm intrigued by this child and his story.
"Where do you live, son?"
He points towards a part of town slated for demolition. The buildings were factories and an ancient deserted fleabag hotel built when the area was the main part of town. Most of these ancient buildings are sited on the recently reclaimed river; they will be replaced by high-rise condominiums.
I reach down for his hand. "Let's go see how your mother is? I'll bet she's hungry and will love that chicken sandwich you got for her."
He says nothing, but lets me take his hand and starts walking. Some five blocks later, he pushes against the door of the old hotel. I follow him into the dim recesses and almost gag at the odors. Once my eyes adjust, I see four or five emaciated men sprawled around on the broken furniture. I'm afraid they'll try to take the food from Danny.
One large man, more alert than the others, says, "Smells like you got sometin' fer your mom, Danny."
"You're a good boy. This man wif you?"
Danny nods again.
"Well, you go on and feed yer mom. She's got to git better, 'cause we can't stay here much longer. They's gonna tear this old place down fer some new stuff."
We climb the creaking stairs to the second floor. I follow him down the ragged carpet of the filthy hall to a room. Danny taps quietly on the door and opens it. The shade is drawn over the window, but the holes in it permit enough light that I can see a young woman, even more emaciated than the men below, lying on the double bed. Someone, I expect Danny, has doubled the mattress so it doesn't sag so much, and the bedding looks fairly clean. The rest of the room is straightened up and about as clean as it could be made under such conditions. It may be trash to me, but there's a sense of pride that made even this possible.
"Mommy, mommy," Danny says, shaking her shoulder gently. "I brought you some chicken and milk to eat."
She opens her eyes and with great effort raises her hand to touch his cheek. "Thank you, Danny. You're such a good boy. But you eat it, I'm not hungry."
"But I had a hamburger and milk, mommy. This nice man got them for me."
She struggles a bit and, with Danny's help, sits propped up on several pillows. Danny opens the milk and hands it to her. She sips a couple of swallows and gives it to Danny to set on the table next to the bed.
She raises her hand and beckons me closer. "Thank you, mister, 'specially for getting Danny something to eat. I worry so much about him, but I can barely get out of the bed with his help even to go to the bathroom. It's just a blessing they didn't get the water cut off all the way. There's a little comes through the taps. I don't know what'll happen when they throw us out."
"Haven't you applied for help from social services?"
She looks at me and then at Danny. "Danny, why don't you go where you can play ball for a little while."
His smile is sweet. "If you'll eat your sandwich while it's warm, mommy. I won't be gone long."
"He plays in the old ballroom. It's empty and nobody bothers him."
"Aren't you afraid to stay here with those men down below?"
She gives me a slight smile. "Danny and me are safer here than any place we could be. Anybody tried to hurt us and all of them would be right here protecting us. They all got messed up in Iraq so bad they can't go back to what they did before. Bill was their top sergeant and still kind of feels he oughta look after them.
Danny don't know it, 'cause Bill don't want him to, but Bill is his granddaddy. I married Billy just before he got called up along with his daddy. They was National Guard. Billy was killed the second day he was there and it just sort of did something to his daddy. It was only a week later when them three men who was in Bill's squad was hurt by a roadside bomb, Bill told me. They was all released from the hospital 'bout the same time and come to Bill.
Roy was a court stenographer, but with just one arm, he can't type fast enough to do that no more. Sam got hit in the back and can't walk very far, so he can't go back to being a fireman. Joe ain't said a word to nobody. Just sits and stares at nothin' and cries a lot. But he'll do whatever Bill tell 'em. He does take Danny to the park to play sometimes. Of course, he just sits and watches, but he wouldn't let nobody get near Danny. Somehow their papers got screwed up and none of 'em exist accordin' to the army, so they don't get nothin' from the government. Bill gets a disability check and I get a little from welfare for Danny, but that's all we got for all of us to live on. It ain't much, but we all share. The old gas stove in the kitchen still works, an' Bill's a right fair cook when he has something to fix.."
"Please let me call welfare or somebody to help you. You need a doctor."
She shakes her head. "I don't need a doctor. I already know I ain't got but maybe a month longer. My worry is Danny. If you called welfare, they would take him away and he's all I got." She reaches for my hand, and grasps it feebly. "You look like a nice man and you already been good to Danny. I gotta ask you to take care of him when I'm gone. If you will, I'll be much obliged. I don't want you to take him now, 'cause he won't go. If you got a piece of paper, put your name and where you can be found. When I know I'm goin', I'll send Bill to bring you to Danny."
It's all I can do to hold back my tears. Having a kid to raise will strain my budget to the limit and probably beyond with him in need of everything, but no way can I refuse this poor mother her most important request. I nod.
"Okay." I happen to think. "I think I need to find a lawyer and get some kind of papers for you to sign so Danny can stay with me. We'll need all that for him to go to school and all."
"Please, do what you have to."
I find a scrap of old hotel stationary in a drawer and write my name, address, phone number, and the name and address of the bookstore.
She seems happy when I hand it to her. She reaches up and touches my cheek again. "You are a good man. Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"I'll see you if I can get those papers fixed."
I've gotta ask one thing of you."
"And that is?"
"If you can take Danny, bring him by to see Bill and them others once in a while. They all love Danny, but I know it would break Bill's heart not to see Danny some, so please let him. You can bring him here. I know he'll be safe, or they can meet at the park, 'cause I can tell you don't like this place. Please take good care of my baby." She slides down some in the bed. "Don't be too long," she says before she closes her eyes.
"You come back, if you do, you just say 'Danny' so we'll know who you are," the biggest of the men says as I pass through the lobby. I assume it's Bill.
I spend a restless night, wondering how I'm going to make things work out. I've made a promise I have to keep, and the look of that poor little boy has stuck in my mind's eye. I know lawyers cost a lot of money which I don't have. I find out there's a legal defender for people in jail that don't have any money, but when I called to see if they could help me, I got a sharp "No" and that was it.
I'm opening a new shipment of special order books and setting them aside with notes to call the buyers. There is a stack of six or seven heavy law books all for the same man. He comes in frequently and always remembers my name.
My supervisor comes in the back room. "Rick, did those books for Mr. Stanford come in yet?"
I point to the stack. "Right here. Just took 'em out of the box."
"I know we don't do this, but he needs them and he's got an appointment. Will you take them to his office?"
"I'll be glad to."
"Right now." She holds out a heavy paper shopping bag with handles.
As soon as the books are in the two bags, I take off my dust jacket and, picking up a slip with the address on it, walk briskly out of the mall.
It's only a few blocks to his office. I'm surprised it's small and he has only a secretary. I ask her where I should put the books and hear Mr. Stanford say, "Rick, is that you? Bring them into my office, please. I really appreciate this."
I brace myself. "Can I ask you something about law?"
He smiles. "I have a few minutes. What can I answer for you?"
I explain about Danny and what his mother asked. "I'm just a bookstore clerk, so I don't have money to hire you with, but is there any way I can get help?"
Just then his phone buzzes. He answers, and hangs up. "My appointment is here, Rick. Let me think and I'll get in touch with you."
"I do need an answer pretty fast. I don't think his momma's gonna last much longer. Thank you, sir."
An afternoon three days later I see Mr. Stanford walk up to the desk. My supervisor immediately goes to him and looks disappointed when he asks to talk with me privately a moment, but tells me to take Mr. Stanford to the employees lounge.
He sets his briefcase on the table and opens it, taking out some papers and handing them to me. He takes a few minutes to explain what each is and where signatures are to go. Only two have to be notarized.
"I don't know how to thank you, sir. If you'll tell me how much I owe you, I'll try to pay you some every payday."
He smiles at me. "No charge for you, Rick, and if you take on a child, you're going to need every penny you make. You've never said a word about having to bring books to my office when I've been too busy to come in for them and you've always refused a tip. It's a pleasure to be able to do something for you."
"But it's too much for a little trip with some books occasionally. I wanna pay you something."
"You're going to need a notary to go with you when you get the boy's mother's signature. They usually get ten dollars when it's done in the office. If they have to go out, it can be as much as thirty. I'm going to suggest that you take my wife, she's my secretary by the way, with you and give her thirty dollars. I want you to be with her every second from the time you leave my office until you are back."
"Oh, thank you, sir. I have tomorrow off if that's convenient?"
"Come in about eleven-thirty. That will give her time to notarize the papers then have lunch with me. We close the office from noon until one. I'll explain where she will be going tonight so she won't be worried."
Old Bill is sitting on a stool outside the door when we get to the hotel. I can tell that Mrs. Stanford is increasingly nervous and ready to run.
"Hi, Bill. This here is Mrs. Stanford. She's got some papers for Danny's momma to sign so I can take care of him when …"
He smiles. "Howdy, lady. You is purely safe here. Ain't nobody gonna mess with them as is helpin' Danny an' his momma. He's a good kid. You all jes go on in."
She says nothing, but squeezes my hand until I'm knocking on the door of Danny's mother's room. I slowly push the door open and see poor Danny holding a spoon to his mother's lips, wheedling her to swallow the soup.
"Mr. Rick," he says, putting the spoon back in the large cup with a chipped rim. "Why you here?"
"I have some papers your mother needs to sign. She knows about them, and this is Mrs. Stanford who's going to notarize them for her."
Danny drops his head. "They's 'bout me, ain't they?"
"Yes, my darling," I hear his mother whisper. "Mr. Rick is going to take care of you when I can't no longer, but it needs to be done all legal so the welfare people can't take you from him. Get up and let the lady sit down, honey. I promise I'll eat a little more when we're done with this."
Mrs. Stanford and I manage to get Danny's mother into an upright position. The poor woman is so weak it is all she can do to scrawl her name on the four pages of documents. I made a move to help her, but Mrs. Stanford stopped me. "It won't be legal if you guide her hand. That could be considered coercion."
By the time Mrs. Stanford has notarized the pages, Danny's mother has slid back down in the bed. "Thank you both so much. Now I know that Danny's taken care of I can go in peace." Her eyes close and she's asleep.
I see Mrs. Stanford back to her office, give her thirty dollars which leaves me five dollars until payday. I'm just happy I have some food in my fridge and a little canned stuff in the cabinet. I go immediately back to work, having taken my lunch hour to get the papers signed. I spend the afternoon unpacking orders and shelving new books, so I'm dog tired when I leave the mall to walk home.
I've taken only a few steps when I suddenly feel a hand on my arm. Startled, I spin around to see Old Bill.
"You gotta come. Danny's momma is done gone and he's beside hisself, cryin' and all."
I follow Bill, surprised at the speed with which he walks. Danny is sitting on the bed holding his mother in his arms and sobbing. One of the other men from downstairs is trying to pull him away. He gets up when Bill and I come in.
I walk over and wrap my arms around Danny. "It's over, son. Your mother doesn't hurt any longer and she's where everything is beautiful and happy. She's healthy again and has all good things to eat."
"But I want her to stay here," he wails.
"I'm sorry, son, but there is a time for all of us to go to a better place. I'll call someone to come get her body and you can say goodbye when she's all fixed up."
Bill stops me as I start to pull out my cell phone. "She told me there was some papers whoever was gonna look after Danny needed to see afore they took her." He pulls open a drawer at the bottom of the old dresser and takes out a dented old metal cookie tin, handing it to me.
I move closer to the old oil lamp, their only source of light, and open the tin, picking through the papers. To my surprise, she has a nice funeral insurance policy all paid up and bearing the name of the funeral home responsible. It is they I call.
They are reluctant when they hear the address, but I promise to remain until they have attended to her body. I give Bill five dollars I can scarce afford and ask him to take Danny for a sandwich and a drink, whispering that I want them to be long enough for her body to be removed and the hearse gone.
I find a paper grocery bag and gather Danny's few pitiful possessions to take with us to my flat. Using a candle I found, I lead the men from the funeral home through the line of four ragged men standing respectfully, two on either side of the old carpet runner through the lobby. The hearse is barely out of sight before Bill and Danny return. I'm standing on the cracked tile entry in front of the double doors.
"Thank you, Bill. I'll let you know about things soon as they worked out." I reach for Danny's hand. "Let's go home, son."
"I'm really gonna live with you?"
"Yes. You can get a nice hot bath, have a good supper, and sleep in a good bed. I only have one bed, though. Are you going to mind sleeping with me?"
He shakes his head. I'm all but carrying him by the time we reach my flat. I pick him up and carry him to my bedroom and remove his rags. He rouses when I put him in the warm bath and begin to wash his hair.
The funeral director is apologetic when he calls me the next morning to inquire if there is to be a viewing. I tell him a small one, and he asks if the men from the hotel will come. I tell him that it's likely. He hesitates for a moment then asks if I mind if he uses the small parlor to the rear of the establishment as it has a separate entrance and there is a concurrent viewing scheduled for the front parlor. I can understand him not wanting dirty men, though I'm sure they would wash up as best they could, in ragged clothing mixing with well-dressed mourners, so I agree.
I have ravaged my small savings to buy Danny some decent looking clothing he can wear for school and at the viewing. As he doesn't remember ever attending a church, he agrees to a grave-side service conducted by a minister chosen by the funeral director.
I put on my best suit, and dress Danny in his best slacks, long-sleeve shirt, and sweater. Cleaned up and with his hair cut, he's a beautiful little boy.
The mortician has done wonders. She looks as beautiful as she must have before her illness. I had lifted Danny when we arrived and he gently touched her cheek with his tiny hand. "She looks real pretty, just like she used to," he says before beginning to cry.
"She is very beautiful, Danny. I know you were proud of her." I rub his back to console him. "Don't cry, son. She is where she will always look beautiful. Be happy that she has no more pain and worry. I'll take care of you the best I can, just like you are my big boy."
He has stopped crying, but is still sniffling a little when Old Bill and the other men from the hotel arrive. They have done their best to create an acceptable appearance and they file solemnly by the bier to see Danny's mother's body. I'm surprised to see one or two make the sign of the cross as they pause. From there they each pause to speak softly to Danny, then leave. Bill pauses long enough to ask me what time and where the funeral will be, asking if they will be welcome. I assure him that they will be.
To my great surprise, my supervisor lets me have the next day off. I'm even more surprised when we reach the cemetery and there's a lovely basket of flowers by the grave. The card tells me it's from the book store.
The service is brief. Danny is stoic until they lower the coffin and he drops the rose I handed him on top. I carry him, sobbing, back to the mortician's large Buick, grateful that the ride was part of the service they offered. We are dropped at my building and go up to my flat to change clothes.
The next morning, Danny is up before my alarm clock goes off. It's good that he woke me earlier than I usually get up because I hadn't given thought to his morning needs. Once I have him washed and dressed, I grab a quick shower and, after dressing for work, fix us some toast, bacon, and eggs. Danny wolfs it all down with a glass of milk. I have no idea what I can do with him while I'm at work.
"Danny, what did you do during the day when you were living at the hotel?"
He doesn't reply, so I ask again.
"Sometime I took my ball and played in that big room if momma wanted to sleep. If I got tired of that, Bill and some of the others would take me to the park to play on the swings and things, but we had to leave when school let out, because there was a big woman cop used to run us away." He looks up at me shyly. "Can I go see Bill sometime?"
"Let's go see if he will play with you today while I'm at work. Okay?"
"My, my, look at you," Bill says. "You done turned into a good lookin' young man."
Bill and a couple of the others quickly agree to entertain Danny while I'm at work, and Danny seems happy to be with them, so I go on to the shop.
"Rick, have you taken in that little boy whose mother died?" The store manager asks.
"Yes. I don't know how we'll make it, or what I'll do with him while I working until he starts school. I do want to thank you and all the others for the beautiful flowers. It was really kind of you and kept things for being so bleak."
"Come back to my office for a minute."
I follow him to his office, where he shuts the door and pours two cups of coffee. I'm happy to have a second one to get me started on my day.
"Rick, I called you back here to tell you something I don't want spread around just yet. Marge (she's the assistant manager and my supervisor) is leaving on Friday to open the new store she will manage. I know you need the money and I've been very pleased with your work, so I'm promoting you to assistant manager beginning next week. That will nearly double your salary."
I start to speak, but he holds up his hand. "Let me finish. I doubt you know it, because you didn't need to, but there is a day care center here in the mall for children of employees of participating stores. It's only forty-five dollars a month and they give the children a decent lunch. They also have pre-school, so Danny can start learning things he should already know. You can well afford it with your rise in pay."
I can barely believe what he's telling me. It's like a dream come true. Now I can get more things for Danny since I'll qualify for an employees' discount at a couple of stores, and maybe we can get a bigger flat so he can have his own room.
"I can hardly take it in, sir. But how did you know all this?"
He smiles. "One of my sisters is assistant manager of the fast food place where you found Danny. You really impressed her by the way you acted and, believe me, she doesn't impress easily. I know you are only in your early twenties and it won't amount to much, but she said any time you come back, she'll give you and Danny the senior citizens discount to help."
He places his hand on my shoulder and squeezes lightly. "Now get to work. Can't have management setting a bad example."
This is one day I can greet people with a genuine smile. Even with the increase in wages it will be tight, but Danny has already made himself a permanent place in my heart. Together, we'll make it.