What Child is This

© Jess Mercer 2010
basicwiz@twc.com

With my first promotion after I began teaching at the local college, I felt secure enough in my position to buy a cozy brick cape-style bungalow in a sparsely settled suburban neighbourhood. Besides, the inducements of a large family room recently added to the back of the house, but not destroying the character of the original house, an acre size lot, and a decent size swimming pool made the price - it was a bank foreclosure - all the more attractive.

As one might guess, the paneled family room was immediately furnished with handsome leather wingchair recliners, a matching sofa, lovely but fake oriental rugs suitably placed on the slate floor, and, last but far from least, the three-manual Johannus American Classic organ, my pride and joy. Oh, yes, there is also the obligatory stone fireplace equipped with gas logs. No chopping of wood or lugging out of ashes for me.

Now I enjoy children and they appear to like me, what little contact I've had with them other than my two godsons, but about a month ago a couple with a ten year-old son moved into the house two vacant lots down from mine. I'm certain we all know of parents who dote to the excess, whose child can do no wrong. There are only one or two other kids about his age in the neighbourhood for him to play with, however he quickly alienates them and their parents.

North Carolina weather can be capricious, so though it's only a week until Turkey Day, the temperature is just over 70*. Heeding the forecasts, I turned the pool heater back on to take advantage of my swimming pool. God be thanked, the brat hasn't discovered it yet because of the high privacy fence required by the county codes, my property being a half mile outside the city . Having done my usual number of laps, I returned to my kitchen to fix drink, preparatory to relaxing on the patio. Hearing a noise in my study, I cautiously tip-toe to the door and peek in. The brat from next door is rummaging through my desk drawers.

"What the hell do you think you're doing!" I yell.

Totally unperturbed, he looks up at me. "Just looking at stuff."

"Get the hell out of here and don't you ever come back."

"I go where I want to, mommy said I could."

"This is my house and you'll never set foot on my property again. If you do, I'll take a board to your fat ass because my mommy said I could. Now go!"

Must have been my threat to hit him that set him in motion towards the front door, which I never lock when I'm home, though I shall now start to avoid further incidents.

Sure enough, not five minutes later my phone begins to ring. I pick up the kitchen extension. "Arendson here."

I get the beginning of a vituperative lecture on how no one has ever yelled at Darling Willie, much less threaten to strike him. I break into her tirade yelling that she should keep her brat home and that I'll leave my handprint on his fat ass if I catch him on my property again. Then I slam the phone handset back on its cradle.

I've just started the dishwasher after dinner when the doorbell chimes. On my porch is a nice looking young man apparently in his early thirties with an apologetic look on his face. "I'm William Martin. My wife tells me that you were quite rude to her on the phone this afternoon, in addition to threatening to spank our son. She insisted that I come over to give you what for for." He grins. "So consider yourself told off. Really, I do apologize for your being bothered, but I'm sorry to have to admit that she's so single minded about William Junior that I have no say in how he's raised. We've already had to move twice because she will not correct him and the neighbours' kids got violent. I'd divorce her in a minute, but she'd take everything we've got and refuse me visitation. Despite it all, I do love my son, though I'd dearly love to burn his spoiled butt up on occasion."

My heart goes out to this obviously distressed, yet non-aggressive young man. "Come in and have a drink. I rather believe you need one. I'm Nils Arendson."

After a couple of Canadian and gingers and revealed woes, he's relaxed enough that he rises, thanks me for my hospitality, then takes his leave.

It's nothing short of a miracle, but I never again see Willie near my property. In a way, I do feel sorry for him not having companions to play with. I suspect that their cable TV provides his entertainment.

Whereas I was enjoying my pool a week ago, Thanksgiving night a cold front moved through, leaving five inches of snow on the ground. I grab my jacket and walk out to the road to retrieve my mail from the post box. While I'm glancing through the pile of mostly junk which I will deposit in the recycle bin before I go back in, I hear a plaintive voice say to darling Willie, "Will your momma give me something to eat, I'm cold and real hungry?"

I see a grubby little urchin appearing to be about eight or nine standing on the shoulder of the road looking at Willie in despair.

"Get away from here. You ..." Willie starts to yell, but his mother steps out on the porch and screeches, "What's a filthy little scumball like you doing in this neighbourhood? You certainly don't belong in this area. Leave immediately! William come inside before you catch something dreadful from that filthy creature."

With that, darling Willie picks up a bit of brick from the edge of the flowerbed, rolls it inside a snowball, and throws it at the boy, who cries out in pain and runs toward me, the brick having struck his forehead, breaking the skin enough for it to bleed profusely as most head wounds do.

I hold out my arm and catch him as he tries to run by. "Let go, mister, please."

"No, son, come inside and let me wash your face and put a bandage on your cut." He struggles a bit more then droops in resignation, making no protest when I take his hand in mine and lead him into my home and the master bath where I have first aid essentials.

With warm water and a body wash I know will work better than soap on the layers of dirt, I gently bathe his face and around the cut. "I'm sorry, this will sting a little, but it'll help protect against infection." I wipe away as much dried blood as I can, then dab the cut with peroxide on a gauze pad, pat it dry, then applying a thin coat of Neosporin(r) to speed healing.

By this time, the odour of his filthy clothing and body has gotten to me. "Take off your clothes and get in the tub and take a good bath. I'll put your clothes in the washer. I've a short beach jacket and some heavy socks you can wear until yours are dry."

He still hasn't said a word, so I leave him to soak and bathe. "Be sure to wash your hair, too. There's shampoo on the little shelf beside you, but be careful around your cut."

I rummage around until I find a pair of briefs my godson left after a visit several years ago. Those and the beach jacket will do until his clothes are washed and dried. I lay them on the counter, and tell him to put them on when he's finished. In fact, the water in the tub is so dark, I drain it and put in fresh, rewarded by the first smile I've seen from him.

Taking out the dish of beef filled manicotti I had cooked for my dinner, I warm it up. Just as I'm about to tell him to come eat, he appears in the kitchen doorway. I can hardly believe this is the same little boy I rescued only an hour or so past. His hair is black, his skin a tawny tint indicating a Hispanic heritage. To my eyes, he's a beauty.

"Sit down, son, I have manicotti for you. There's a small salad with an Italian vinaigrette dressing." I take a couple of slices of garlic bread from the oven. "I hope you like garlic bread, it's all I have."

The meal vanishes almost before I can grab a cup of coffee for myself and sit down with him.

"That was so good, Mister. Thanks."

"You're most welcome, son. Won't you tell me your name? Mine is Nils Arendson."

"I'm Ricardo Ramirez, but I'm called Ricky."

"And where is your home, your parents?"

I'm astonished when he bursts into tears. "I ... I don't have one," he sobs.

"How?"

"The men come to the door and take mommy and poppa away. I hid like my poppa told me so they couldn't find me. I waited three days, but my parents didn't come home. I ate what there was in the fridge then had nothing to eat and no family, so I've been asking good people for food, but no one wants to help me. You are nice man. You gave me a good dinner, a place to wash and washed my clothes. It feels good to be clean."

Considering his Hispanic heritage, I'm betting it was Immigration agents who nabbed his parents, for crackdowns on illegals have made the news recently. "I'm so sorry you had to go through all that, Ricky."

He looks at me wistfully. "I wish I could stay here."

Captivated by his charming manner, I reply, "I wish you could, too, but I don't see how it's possible. You must go to school and it's not likely family services will let you stay with me, because I'm not married."

Tears begin to trickle down his lovely face. "Please. I'm afraid to be alone."

"How old are you, son?"

I'm shocked when he answers, "Almost twelve," for he isn't that large.

I pull him onto my lap and hug him as his tears flow. I'm not the biggest fan of kids, but this one has gotten to me. I decide that I'll fight to keep him, if at all possible.

Now clean and fed, he yawns sleepily, so I take him into the bedroom next to mine and tuck him in bed, pulling the covers over him. He's asleep before I kiss him on the forehead.

I switch on a night light in the hall so he is not in total darkness if he should awake, and stop in the kitchen long enough to mix a Campari and soda. Drink in hand, I settle in my recliner and tune the TV to a British sit-com while I await the late news, but my attention is given to my own thoughts.

'What were you thinking by bringing that child into your home and placing him in a bed?'
'I should have left him hurt and hungry with nowhere to go?' I argue in rebuttal.
'Boy, if you're stupid enough to stick your neck out like this, you need a lawyer or you'll likely be out of a job and in jail.'
'But aren't we supposed to care for others? That's what I hear in church.'
'Get it through your thick head that law and the church no longer co-exist. At least talk to one of the professors of law when you go in to work tomorrow. Speaking of which, what are you going to do with the kid? For sure he's too young to leave alone here.'
'Then, too, he's likely an illegal if that's why his parents were taken. Getting involved with Immigration is the last thing you need, fool.'


I kick my thoughts around a bit longer, then turn off the TV and go to my own bed. A solution for tomorrow crosses my mind. There's a class in child development and psychology in the college's education department. They frequently ask faculty and staff with young children and, often, early teens, to bring them in for a day or so to give the students a hands-on practical in evaluation. I know one of the professors slightly so I'll call him as soon as I reach my office. Decision reached, I fall asleep quickly.

Each morning I threaten to commit mayhem on my alarm clock when it sounds, that being a time when I question my sanity, for not being a morning person, why did I choose a profession requiring early rising. I slap the button and groggily grope my way into the shower.

Ablutions finally completed, I go to the kitchen and pour myself a mug of coffee, by now awake enough to remember the child still asleep. Walking into this room, I bend and kiss him awake. But he screams, "Don't hurt me! I didn't do nothin', honest."

I hug him. "It's okay, Ricky. It's me Nils."

"Oh." He nods.

"Let's get you washed up, dressed, and fed, because I've got to go to work." Thankfully, my first class of the day is a nine o'clock. As he dresses himself, I'm thankful that I had enough sense to wash and dry his clothes last night. They could stand a touch of the iron, but at least he's clean.

Not wanting to cook, I decide that we will stop by IHOP on our way to the college. Ricky eats more breakfast than I, then burps quietly when we're back in my car. "Sorry," he apologizes. "Where we going?"

"To the college where I teach."

"You aren't goin' to leave me?" He asks timorously.

I glance at him to see tears beginning to trickle down his cheeks. I reach over, pat him on the shoulder to reassure him, and return my hand to the wheel, both hands and full attention needed in the morning rush hour traffic. "No way, l'il buddy. I'll take you to see a teacher I know. You'll like him, and there'll be things to do and maybe some other guys your age to play with. Then we'll have lunch and you can play some more until we can go home.

When he gets out of the car, he quickly grasps my hand on the walk to my office. There he looks around a lot, but says nothing. I dial the psychology dept. and they are ready and delighted to have another child to study. Ricky and I walk over to the social sciences building where the psychology and early childhood development departments are located, and I seek out Don, the associate professor I know from collegial affairs.

It's easy to see that Don has chosen the right profession, for the rapport between Ricky and him is instantaneous.

My classes go far better than I have any right to expect for not having reviewed any lecture notes the night before. At noon, when I walk over to take Ricky to lunch, Don is bubbling over with enthusiasm.

"Nils, you have no idea what a treasure this kid is. He's about to begin a growth spurt, and the fact that he's bilingual is making my study of him even more valuable. Bring him back at one and let him stay until you're finished for the day. Even if you run over, I'll gladly take the extra time with him this afternoon."

I look at Ricky. "Would you like to do that, son?"

He continues to smile broadly. "I like Mr. Don. He knows some good stuff."

"Okay, we'll be back about one, then."

After lunch in a small café near the campus, I walk Ricky back to Don's office and return for my afternoon class.

As soon as my lecture is finished, I dump my book and notes in my office and walk over to the law school. By good fortune, one of the senior law professors receives a stipend from the college to act as counsel for faculty and staff if needed.

"My God!" Professor Mills yells, when I tell him why I'm in his office. "You must have a knack for getting into the most gawdawful situations I've ever heard of. Sit down and explain fully."

I drop into the chair before his desk and tell him how I acquired Ricky. "I was supposed to let a small bleeding child go without attention? I was supposed to ignore his pleas for something to eat? Come on. I know the law does not support emotions, but, damn it, it should support humanity, even if it doesn't."

Dr. Mills smiles slightly. "Okay, so what do you want?"

"I want to give Ricky a home where he feels secure and can be happy. He's an engaging kid and, yes, he's already captured my affection. So how do we accomplish this?"

Mills' smile grows broader. "You say 'we' as if you're certain of my participation."

"I'm asking you for suggestions on how to give Ricky the things I want him to have. If you can help, I'll be most grateful."

"My boy, I wasn't trying to discourage you. There are quite a few obstacles to overcome, but they are not insurmountable. You have handed me a situation that I can use with my senior family-law students as a practicum, perhaps even graded, depending on the parts of the problem they undertake as individual or small group projects. It will take a day or so for me to evaluate all of the ramifications and then discuss them with the students I choose to work on each.

"Oh, yes, it would help if the lad can obtain any papers, such as a birth certificate, passport, or such. It'll take me a couple of days to set things in motion as regards my students, so drop back by about Wednesday at this same time."

I rise as he does and shake his hand, thanking him profusely. It has gone far better than I had hoped.

Acting on the professor's advice, I ask Ricky at dinner if he knows for certain that he was born in this country.

He nods. "Momma showed me a piece of paper she said was real important if anything happened to her and papa. She said it was my birth certificate or something like that."

"Do you know where it is?"

"She put it in a box and hid it behind a board in our house. She told me not to forget where it was. I can show you."

My quandary now is how to quickly and quietly get my hands on what could go a long way towards my obtaining custody of Ricky. I had thought they probably rented a home, but Ricky informs me that his father was buying their house.

The next morning I drive by the house Ricky points out as having been his home. It looks deserted, but it's a lower middle-class neighbourhood with Neighborhood Watch signs strategically placed. So it's for certain the residents are likely to alert the cops if I show up with Ricky, or he appears alone, especially after seeing the officials taking his parents away. I decide that late night will be a better time for our quest.

As varied as my studies have been, cat burglary has not been included in any curriculum, but I will risk a late night entry since Ricky says he knows where a key to the back door is hidden.

Thankful that it's Friday, Ricky and I go to bed early, only to awaken to my alarm that I had set for 3 a.m. I dress Ricky as I dress myself - in jeans, T-shirt, and dark sweater. In the back of my closet I find an old pair of running shoes which will be as noiseless as his sneakers.

Driving slowly, to be as quiet as possible, I turn into an alley and switch off my headlights, then coast to a stop in front of a vacant lot Ricky says is behind where they lived. Penlight in hand, because the streetlights don't light this area, Ricky leads me on a winding path through the overgrowth and up to the backdoor of the house. He fumbles under the lower of the two steps, finds the key, and ignoring the government seals on the door, unlocks it and steps back. I ease the door open cautiously in case the hinges are noisy. After easing it shut once more, we tip-toe through the bare kitchen into the main room and into the bedroom opening off it.

Aware that police patrols might happen by, I stop Ricky from switching on a light and hand him the penlight we've used thus far. He wriggles under the bed. Kneeling on the floor to watch, I glimpse the light from the penlight he's now holding in his mouth, using both hands to prise a short piece of the baseboard out, then reach into the cavity and pull out a small metal strongbox.

Almost immediately, he slides out from under the bed with a look of triumph. "I remembered!" He whispers, his voice seeming to me as loud as a scream in the silence, though I had told him to be very quiet while we were inside the house.

"Is there anything else you want? We can't come back until the government decides to dispose of it."

He nods and pulls me toward the next room. It was obviously his room, because he pulls a large suitcase from the closet and begins to fill it with clothing, books, and other bits and pieces. Finally satisfied, he closes it, then drags it over to me. It's so heavy I can barely lift it. He slips his lap-top and charger into its carrying case, looks around once more, crosses the room and stands lovingly stroking what in the darkness I take to be a spinet piano. He tearfully whispers, "I guess we'll have to leave my piano."

"No way we could move that, son."

"It's an electric one. I can lift it, but it's too big to carry by myself. Look." He points to a fine quality electric instrument. The upper section lifts easily from the base, which can be disassembled quickly. I'm surprised, but he wants it badly, and I have only the organ.

"Let's get your stuff in the car, then come back and see what we can do."

Our luck holds. Everything Ricky thinks he wants is safely in my car and we drive away. Let the bureaucrats worry about the broken seals and missing items. As I turn out of the alley, I see a patrol car turning into the street Ricky lived on. We got out just in time.

"Excellent!" Professor Mills exults after glancing at Ricky's birth certificate and other papers taken from the strongbox. "Now we shan't have to involve INS, just Child Protection." He looks at me sternly, "They're a nosy bunch, and with justification, though they can be a bit overzealous at times, not to mention officious. If you have any personal skeletons in the closet, best you tell me now, otherwise it may well hit the proverbial fan in court." He grins. "Yeah, I know, a mixed metaphor."

I feel the blood turn my face fire-engine red. I stammer at having to reveal my most carefully hidden trait. "I ... I ... "

"Out with it, man," Mills snaps.

"I'm gay. But not openly, nor active," I hasten to add.

"Big deal," Mills says sarcastically. "It's perfectly possible for a single adult to adopt a child in this state, sexual orientation notwithstanding." His expression changes to one of professional demeanor. "Hell, I was hoping for something my people could really get their teeth into, but this is going to be just basic legal procedure in preparation. About the only thing worth attention is if CPS wants to argue over your marital status. My people are perfectly capable of handling that. Anyway, I'll have them prepare the paperwork and get a date for a hearing. I will be in court with them in any event, since their performance will be graded.

"You're as good as a new father, right now." His smile vanishes and he holds up a document. "This is a mortgage on the house they were living in. What has the boy told you about it?"

"Only that his father was buying the house. I know INS has seals on the doors and all ... . No, don't ask," I tell him as he starts to speak. "Nevertheless, if the house is sold or seized, Ricky should be due compensation in some amount, shouldn't he?"

"Hmmmm," Mills strokes his chin. "Now this could get interesting. Let me look into what's involved in all this. I know how to contact you."

It's when we're back home and Ricky has asked if he can put his piano in his room that I realize that he has not really seen the house, so I take him on a short tour. But it's in the family room that he stops and stares transfixed at the organ. "Is ... Is that for real?" He asks in wonderment.

"Very real. I like to play to relax after I've had a hard day at school." I reply, dreading the question I know is coming.

"I like to play the organ, too. Can I, please?"

I have my doubts, but he so obviously loves his piano that perhaps he does play. I also find it impossible to resist the wistful look he gives me. "Very well, just be careful, will you."

He nods and walks over to the console. I'm amazed when he grabs the little crank at the side of the bench and lowers it to a level from which he can reach the pedalboard with his feet, then climbs on. He turns the keyed switch and begins to select stops, including the primary reeds.

On the music rack is the score of the Lemmens Fanfare which I've been working on; it's not one of those 'sit down and read it off instantly' pieces, so when I see him looking at the score, I'm curious if he'll attempt it. Thirty seconds later I fall into my recliner dumbfounded. I can't believe what is pouring forth from the speakers. Despite a few flubbed notes, he's doing a very creditable job of playing it from memory on, to him, a strange instrument. His registration and manual changes are better than the ones I have been using. Only a few times does he look down at his feet, usually after he's had to shift position on the bench to reach the lower pedals.

As loudly as he's playing, I hope there won't be a call of complaint from next door. To insure we have no interruption, I pick up the phone and switch off the ringer. The ending completed with a chord on full organ, he turns and looks at me. "Was I awful?"

I struggle upright and grab him in a hug. "I can't believe you played so well! How long have you studied, and where?"

I see his eyes mist up. "My poppa played the organ at church. We had no piano at home, so when I was three, he started teaching me on the organ he played. The church was cold in winter, so two years ago he gave me my piano to practice on. Last year I was tall enough to reach the organ pedals, so we worked hard on that when we could." He looks at me pleadingly. "I hope I can stay here and study more."

"Nothing would please me more, honey."

The eve of Thanksgiving, I begin preparing what to me is a traditional Turkey Day feast. It's a pleasure when I have the boy to cook for, though I did have to explain the meaning of the festival to him; his family never having celebrated it.

After our meal, I am too stuffed to move, but manage to put the remains away while Ricky clears and puts the dishes in the washer. I'm wiping down the countertops when I hear the organ. Ricky is playing the Karg-Elert arrangement of Nun Danket alle Gott. Quite fitting, as I think about it. I'm thankful for a job I like, income enough to support the lifestyle I enjoy, and, most of all, for the sweet child that has come unexpectedly into my life.

But Thanksgiving and the Macy Parade remind me of 'black' Friday and Christmas. No matter that I've not heard from the law school, I'm determined to make this the best Christmas the little guy ever had.

Ricky and Don are so compatible, Don begged me to let Ricky stay with his classes until Christmas break begins, a matter of four weeks, which saves me from having to argue with public school officials. Ricky will not be needed during the college exam week. I'm pleased because this gives me an opportunity to shop and prepare for the holiday without his presence.

After hearing Ricky play via a midi recording I made of him playing my Johannus and playing it back on a similarly equipped organ in the recital hall at school, the head of the music department assigns one of his better assistants as Ricky's teacher, amazed at Ricky's age. Though apprehensive, Ricky is thrilled. His MWF lesson hour followed by a practice hour match my two after lunch hours of teaching, so I'm not inconvenienced.

For the first time in some years I feel the joy of the season begin to surge through me when Ricky and I go down to the garden shop to look for a live Christmas tree. Given his druthers, he'd have chosen the majestic tree at the entrance to the lot, however, no way would a twelve foot tree fit under my ten foot ceilings. In the far corner of the lot, I spot a tree about eight feet tall that looks to be as perfect as a live tree could be. Ricky beams when I ask him if this one isn't just right. An attendant carries the tree to the front where I pay for it and arrange to have it delivered on the next truck going out. I also pick out a wreath for the front door and a fir swag to adorn the mantel.

With a fire crackling on the hearth and cups of hot spiced cider to warm us, Ricky chortles in delight as he carefully hangs the ornaments I finally located in the recesses of the attic. I had previously placed the lights on the tree so that the wiring was as hidden as possible. I'm thankful that it's Friday, for it's near mid-night when I lift Ricky so that he can place the angel on top.

Christmas Eve afternoon I interrupt Ricky's playing of carols to encourage him to take a nap, knowing it will be at least one o'clock Christmas morning before we're home from church. Despite his excitement, he switches the organ off and heads to his bedroom. A few minutes later, I ease in and spread a blanket over him. When he doesn't stir, I bend and kiss him on the forehead. This little guy has completely captured my heart.

After we've had our dinner, we relax in front of the fire with cups of hot chocolate, his containing marshmallows, of course. He keeps looking at the packages under the tree and, when he thinks I'm not looking, back at me. I finally relent and point out a large parcel that he can open.

He sets his cup of chocolate down and scrambles for the box. Wrapping paper flies, the box top flipped off, and he's holding up the quilted jacket he'll need on a cold night like this. Then it's time for us to dress for church.

I don't like to drive when there's snow on the ground, so with a possibility of more tonight and the church only three blocks away, Ricky holds my hand, smiling and humming different carols as we walk along.

I would swear that the director of music spends practically all of his budget at Christmas. The organ, augmented by a harp and a brass quartet with tympani provide a pastiche of both familiar and unfamiliar carols for half an hour before mass begins at eleven. Promptly on the hour, the pastor begins the reading followed by the choir chanting the Hodie a capella. Then all of the instruments break forth at full volume in the processional carol.

Ricky squeezes my arm so tightly I almost drop the servicebook. His look of awe makes it all worthwhile, but it's the anthem Love Came Down at Christmas that brings tears trickling down his cheeks. I shift the servicebook to my other hand and wrap my arm around his thin shoulders. He wraps his arms around me and buries his face against my side. He remains so during pastor's brief homily, sitting back up when the chime rings twelve times and pastor begins chanting the Great Thanksgiving. He once again holds my hand as we climb the steps into the chancel and kneel at the railing. I receive communion and, with his hands folded against his chest, Ricky is given a Christmas blessing. Then it's over. With music loud enough to awaken the neighbourhood and shouts of Merry Christmas, we leave the church and walk home in the gently falling snow.

Ricky sits next to me on the sofa before the glowing embers of the fire to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate. I take his almost empty cup from his hand, for he's falling asleep. I carry him to bed, tuck him in with my usual goodnight kiss, and go down to the cellar storage room for his gifts from Santa. The last item I wrestle up the stairs is a bicycle which I hide behind the tree as much as possible, then fill his stocking hanging from the mantel with candy and small things, including an inexpensive watch, and stumble to bed myself.

I would swear that I haven't even closed my eyes when I was being pounced on by an ecstatic boy screaming, "He came! Santa found me and brought me a lot of stuff. Come see!" He pulls at my hand, so I get up and head for the bathroom. He waits for me impatiently, the smell of coffee brewing being my salvation.

Steaming mug of coffee in hand, I start the gas logs, and sit down next to the tree, Ricky so excited he can hardly sit still long enough to empty the stocking I had taken from the mantel and handed him. He squeals again when he sees the watch, holding out his arm for me to adjust the strap. He seems pleased with the new clothing I bought him, but when I bring the bicycle out from behind the tree, he simply stares at it, caressing it. "Can I go ride it, Dad?" He finally asks.

I hate to disappoint him, for I remember my first bike, but the snow has gotten deeper. "After the sidewalk is clear, son." Then I think. "Tell you what, as soon as it stops snowing, I'll clear the snow from the drive and you can try it out. The height of the seat may need adjusting."

I get another hug. "Thanks so much, Dad. I love you."

'Dad' and 'I love you' surpass any Christmas gift I've ever had. I can't help the tears that trickle down my cheeks.

The college reopens on a Monday. Thanks to some holiday work put in by Don, I have Ricky enrolled in an excellent private academy on a scholarship which brings the amount of money out of my pocket within a sustainable range. Ricky appears to look forward to going each morning. I drop him off on my way to work. He rides the academy's van to the college each afternoon when his classes are over, arriving just before my last office hour. He uses the time to practice on one of the college's little practice instruments.

Tuesday of the third week of the new semester, I get a call from Doctor Mills of the law school informing me that Ricky and I are to appear in court on Thursday morning at nine. On my free hour, I rush over to his office.

He shakes his head at me. "I haven't the faintest idea of what's happening," he tells me, "because things suddenly seem so critical after so long a time. But don't worry, my students have everything possible covered, and I'll be in court with them and you." His lack of a reassuring look and tone of voice leave me chilled.

I try to conceal my feelings from Ricky, but it's with great trepidation we enter the assigned courtroom and join Dr. Mills and his students in the front row of seats. Promptly at nine, the bailiff says the traditional words for the opening of court, but I see Mills grimace when the name of the judge is announced.

He leans over and whispers, "We would draw that homophobic son of a bitch. He belongs to one of those crackpot fundamentalist churches and while it's not supposed to, he allows their teachings to influence his rulings. Our bar association has tried hard to get him removed from the bench, but he has highly placed political friends. Pray hard, son."

Our case is called and Mills, one of his students, and I move to the table inside the railing. The judge nods at Mills and he introduces himself, his student, and me.

Before Mills can say a word, the judge scowls at him and snaps, "I have read the documents you presented earlier, Counsel, have you anything further to add?"

"I would like to offer witnesses in support of Doctor Arendson's character and fitness to foster this child with the option of adoption, Your Honour."

"I see no need for wasting the Court's time. The material you have presented is sufficient for me to render a decision," he pauses and looks at me. "I don't suppose that you got married over the holidays," he snarls, "to a woman, I mean."

"Dr. Arendson remains single, Your Honour," Mills says in my behalf.

"Then it's my decision that a queer is not morally fit to raise a child or be around children. Bailiff, take the child into the court's custody and turn him over to the representative from Social Services." He bangs his gavel and disappears even before the bailiff can command, "All rise."

"Miserable old cocksucker," Mills' student mumbles.

"Amen," Mills replies.

I stand in a daze, yet to understand what has happened, it was all done so swiftly and in a manner inconsistent with what little I know of court procedure. I'm pulled out of my trance when the bailiff picks up a puzzled Ricky and starts for the back of the courtroom and Ricky screams in terror, "Daddy, Daddy."

I start toward the bailiff, but Mills' hand on my arm stops me. "You can't interfere. I'll file an immediate request for trial in another court." He sees my tears streaming and shakes his head. "There's nothing we can do until my request is granted, nor will you be allowed to see the boy. In fact, none of us will even know where he will be taken until the new hearing." He pats me on the shoulder trying to comfort me, but it's hopeless. I'm so distraught, he tells his student to drive me home in my car, and he will follow and take the student back to the college.

After assuring Mills that I will be okay, he and his student leave. I stand in the entry waiting to see Ricky come running to greet me. Then it dawns on me that he isn't there. Suddenly, my once cozy home seems as cold and empty as a mausoleum. I walk slowly to my bathroom, open the medicine cabinet, and take out two bottles of sleeping pills the doctor had prescribed for my mother before she died. I'm really tempted by the thought that I will not be allowed to see Ricky again, but my hand is stopped by the memory of Mills saying that he's filing for a new hearing. Maybe there's hope yet, but my feeling of desolation sticks stubbornly in my mind.

I do continue to teach, though I would be hard pressed to tell anyone what I have said in class. My hopes rise when I see a note on my desk to call Mills as soon as possible. I drop my book, grab the phone, and impatiently punch in the number of Mills' extension.

"What?" I cry when I hear his voice.

"Sit down, if you're not already, son. We didn't get a new hearing, but another judge looked over the ruling and found no fault, despite the language. I'm so sorry, son. I thought we had a perfect case prepared. No, damn it! We did have a perfect case, we just were never allowed to present it. But no matter, we lost this one and there is nothing more you nor I can do. My advice to you is to take a week's sick leave and pull yourself together. Again, I'm sorry, son."

It's a few moments before I realize that Mills had hung up, the phone I'm holding beeping an alarm. I drop it in place and wander aimlessly down the hall and out to the parking lot to my car. I'm aware of nothing further until I'm back home at my desk and sending a request for sick leave to the dean, then begin to write my letter of resignation. There's nothing left for me here.

The loneliness of the house is worse than working. At least teaching occupies my mind to some degree, so I return to the classroom. At the end of spring break, I submit my letter of resignation to the dean of instruction and get a prompt order to see him in his office. After my last class I walk over to the administration building wondering at his demand.

He greets me cordially and points to the chair in front of his desk. He takes his seat and taps a finger on a sheet of paper. Dr. Arendson, I know that you have been treated unfairly by the courts and the hurt that goes with it, but keeping your mind occupied with other things, such as your work here, will ameliorate that hurt to some degree. In the short time you have been with us, you have proven to be an excellent addition to our faculty. Therefore I am not accepting your resignation."

"But Dean Allen ..." I begin

"No, Doctor Arendson. I'm sure you must feel as empty inside as your home probably seems. Why not find another place to live where the memories are not so strong? Any of us will be willing to do anything we can to help you."

Dismissed without my resignation being accepted, I wander back to my car and head home, Dean Allen's words echoing in my mind. I stop on my drive just after leaving the highway and survey the domain I had so loved. It still looks and feels bleak.

Sunday I arose late, made restorative coffee, picked up the paper from the front stoop, and turned to the real estate ads, reading them in a desultory manner. The only item that interests me is for a summer cottage on a two acre lot on the river east of town. I make a note of the realtor's name and number so that I can find out if the cottage is built for winter habitation.

The next afternoon I am driven out to see the property by the agent. To my delight, the cottage is an A-frame design popular some years earlier. It is well built, insulated for the heat pump. There is even a standby generator, which the realtor says is occasionally needed as this area is still so sparsely populated that the utilities usually repair the services out here last.

That evening I look over my financial situation and decide that I can swing the payments without having to sell my Cape. I'd prefer to rent it for enough to meet my mortgage payments, just in case, though I know in my heart by now that Ricky will never return.

Making the move from the home we had enjoyed together is painful for me, especially when his excellent electronic piano joins my organ in the loft of my new home. One advantage is that I can play as loudly as I wish in the knowledge that I will disturb no one with my late night practice and mistakes.

Slowly hurtful memories fade and once more I integrate fully into the college's programs and activities, receiving promotions and, finally, being appointed department chair after thirteen years of service.

Browsing through the Sunday paper over my second cup of coffee, my eye is captured by an ad for an organ concert to be held on the coming Friday evening at the municipal auditorium in a city some sixty miles away. I knew of the instrument but haven't heard it, though I've wanted to. I recognize the artist's name from artists management ads in the Guild magazine that I receive. From the reported accolades, I know I want to attend the concert. Monday morning I call and reserve a seat from which I'm certain I can see the console and artist as he plays.

I leave my office early to dress and drive leisurely to the city. After a nice dinner in a small restaurant near the auditorium, I drive to the venue early enough to find a convenient parking spot. I pick up my ticket and find my seat. It's in the second row giving me an almost unobstructed view of the console. Pleased, I look over the program finding an overall familiarity with most of the works to be performed.

The crowd is huge for such an event, but settles quickly, only to break into applause when the artist appears on stage. A brief bow then he slides on the bench and plays the first half of the program brilliantly. To my mind, for I'm familiar with much of the music, his performance is more than deserving of the accolades he's been given.

There's an intermission, then the time moves faster than I would have believed, for the program the second half is performed superbly. I only wish the lighting on the artist was better, for there is something about him that seems familiar to me. After a standing ovation, he consents to play an encore. He tears into a piece - the oh so familiar to me - Lemmens Fanfare. I can't help the tears that threaten to spill over in remembering the first night Ricky sat down at my organ.

The applause from the audience doesn't slacken, even after he's taken several bows. He smiles and consents to just one more encore, prefacing it with the comment, "Ladies and gentlemen, I will be playing a Christmas carol familiar to most of you. I'm well aware it is out of season, but years ago I sat in a church on Christmas Eve next to a young college professor who had rescued me from the streets just a few days before, and gave me not only a home, but love. Fate, however, had other plans for my life and I was torn away from all that he wished to give me. Others determined that we should have no contact with each other. After I became an adult my career demanded virtually all of my time and, oddly enough, I could never remember the name of the college where he taught, so my search for him was fruitless. But enough. Dad, I love you and I hope you can hear and remember this and me, wherever you may be."

Now I know. Blinded by inexpressible tears of joy, I listen as he plays What Child is This more beautifully than I've ever heard it played before.


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