The heavy pounding was like a rubber mallet banging the wooden door. Bea dropped the small sack onto the kitchen table and tore off her coat and gloves, each finger tingling from unusual cold that permeated the town. She had just closed and bolted the door and was hesitant to check the peep-hole. It might be Mick, that audacious man down the hall with split lower lip healing after his last reported boxing match.
Mick made her skittish sometimes with his wary sullenness, the abrupt greetings tossed her way as they passed one another, the way his black hair fell over his forehead barely covering a scar that trailed between his eyebrows. He wasn’t, she thought, so mean as tough. He had a wife who was loud and friendly in that way that overwhelmed her but they always greeted each other, chatted a bit. Bea had thought the two of them suited one another fine. Then they had a baby over four years ago, a lovely boy. She’d tried to not wonder about his life with such a pair. It was none of her business, was it? They appeared to love him, were happy whenever she saw the three of them together. What did she know about kids?
The banging erupted again. She strode to the door to take a look. It was Mick alright and he glanced at his watch then right at her, his amber eye enlarged by the round concave glass.
“Bea, I know you’re there, please open up. Mo needs you.”
Bea opened the door a little. “Yes?”
His demeanor transformed as he smiled. His pulpy face was oddly handsome with those golden eyes and a square jaw accentuated by a couple days’ whiskery growth. She didn’t smile back.
“Mo, well, she got a job at the convenience store, she hasn’t found a sitter yet and starts tonight. I have my own shift work and I’m running way late. Can you help us out this once? Just until she gets somebody steady?”
“Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t have experience with children–and I work all day long. I do have to sleep at night, of course. Sorry…”
His strong eyebrows came together and he said nothing, then crunched his baseball cap in his hands. “Well, maybe Carter would help, he’s home by ten, usually.”
Carter was a professor at the community college. He taught English literature and creative writing, some grant writing for professionals. They’d gone out a few months but he could be verbose and she was quiet. Things hadn’t gotten far. He was divorced, had two sunny-natured daughters in middle school, and liked to travel so was often gone on week-ends. She saw him in the courtyard and corridors occasionally but barely acknowledged him now. She thought he might still talk to her if given the chance so she gave him little to none. Why complicate life more?
“Yes, that’s a good idea, he might do it awhile. I can vouch for his respectable character. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
She slowly shut the door but it struck Mick’s booted foot.
“Oh, wait Bea, maybe you could at least watch Toby until ten? I’ll make sure Marty or someone will pick him up by then, okay?”
Bea was ornery after a hard day; an ache spread through her lower back. She was hungry for the chicken soup she’d bought. She wanted his boot out of her doorway, his pleading, beat up face with cat eyes to retreat. But she shrugged, then gave him a look of defeat. Everything inside her rebelled against the image of her trying to entertain or soothe a little boy. Hopefully she’d just get him to sleep before the hours were up.
“If there’s absolutely no alternative I’ll do it this once–one time only, okay? Bring him in pajamas with a book or two.”
Mick shook his head as if disappointed in her attitude but thanked her and raced down the hall.
Bea’s nerves jumped about in her center. How did she get suckered into this? It was only a few hours; it couldn’t be so hard. Their lively four year old might turn out to be a pain, but anything was manageable for a short time. She’d seen him chatting with tenants and shared her own brief conversations with him–and had wondered over his strong verbal skills at so young an age.
She got the “to-go” container of soup with its fat penne noodles, chicken chunks, carrots and celery poured it into a deep bowl and reheated it. She took out chilled apple juice, poured some in a tall glass, cut a slice of bakery bread and slathered it with butter. At her small drop leaf table she arranged it all, smoothing a sage green and yellow-flowered cloth napkin. Then she sighed and dipped her spoon into the steaming brothy mix.
She barely managed three spoonfuls when the doorbell rang out. She went to the door and found Mo beaming at her with restrained excitement. Toby harbored a resigned, somewhat suspicious look. They stepped in.
“You’re a real lifesaver, Beatrice, thank you, I can call my cousin for tomorrow and if that doesn’t work out I’ve got a friend needing extra cash. This new job is saving our necks, we need more inflow and less outgo. Mick lost last week-end–he boxes at times, you know, he was almost pro once–that didn’t go as planned.”
Bea plastered a smile on, then held out a hand to Toby who shuffled in with brown furry bear slippers and matching bear (doing cartwheels) pajamas. He ignored her and surveyed the premises.
“Remember Beatrice, Toby? She’s come to our potlucks, even gave you a nice picture book for your birthday, right?”
He looked at her from under a fringe of dark disheveled bangs and nodded. Bea saw he had grey-blue eyes like his mom, not the eyes of a scruffy wolf like his dad.
“Come on in, Toby. I’ll for sure see Carter in a while, right? I work tomorrow, leave at seven. I’d prefer he came by for Toby by 10 at the very latest.”
“Right, he said he’ll come after the last class, after nine-thirty or so. You two are too nice! Off to my new job–thanks a million!” Mo hugged her son who hugged back dutifully and was gone.
Toby looked at the shut door then padded beside her, into the kitchen. After Bea retrieved and placed a fat pillow on a kitchen chair, he sat down opposite her sniffing the air a little, his upturned nose almost quivering. He looked hungry. Bea took another spoonful of soup, blew on it then held spoon midway to her waiting lips.
“You hungry, too?” she asked. “Any dinner at home?” Surely they’d fed him earlier. Or were children always hungry?
He nodded, tried to place chin in both hands despite being too low to the table. He openly coveted her bowl.
“I can share some if you like. There’s good bread. And juice.”
He nodded again, watched her get a smaller bowl from an open shelf plus a juice glass. Soon she’d arranged all before him and gave him a smaller spoon which he turned over in his hand once as if it was a foreign, fascinating thing. But she didn’t stare at him. They ate in silence except for his rhythmical slurping. She got a fat slice of bread and buttered it thickly. He held out his small hand for it, nearly smiling, and held it carefully as if weighing its density, feeling its softness.
Bea took her time, pretending this was any ordinary night after a day of work as a legal assistant. The boy was just a surprise. She loved coming home to the orderly apartment, basked in its familiar homeliness.
She had gradually personalized the place with colorful framed prints, a vase of fresh flowers weekly and her grouping of LLadro fox figurines set on the mantle. On a lamp table were two tall jewel-toned candles and a thick book. There was a blanket or throw on every living room seat. She loved to sit before a fire and contemplate little or much, read or watch a movie after dinner and chores were completed. She’d lived a mostly solitary life a long while; it suited her better than in her twenties and thirties. She’d made it to age forty last October. There was simple contentment in that. And also a restlessness, as if the milestone had left her with a new emptiness despite a rich fullness.
Her mother had always assured her the forties were the best years, a time she would expand her vision more, make healthier choices, find her life met by lovely surprises. A new psychic freedom would abound. And so she still had hope, even though her mother had also believed Bea would get her Masters’ degree, meet “a good, solid man” and have two kids by now. They talked even less than they used to; Bea was not able to think of much to say that wouldn’t cause veering into deeper waters. Not necessary. She admired and loved her mother. She was just not of her ilk, one of domestic yet overachieving women.
Toby and Bea finished at the same time. She took the dishes to the sink as Toby wriggled off the chair, headed to the living room where Bea had lit a fire after her arrival. When she entered the room, he was sitting cross-legged before the flaming wood, mesmerized.
“Real wood?” he asked and pointed at the flaming logs.
“Yes, just old pine. It works well enough, don’t you think?”
Toby inhaled deeply. “Better than ours. We use big crayons stuffed with wood, sawdust it’s called. They don’t make the room warm up like this.”
Puzzled and struck by his intelligent comment–was he really four?–she realized he meant the kind of fire logs at the grocery, ones mixed with petroleum wax and sawdust.
She offered her thoughts as if they were having a complete conversation. “Well, I like real wood. It has a good voice, for one thing.”
Toby crooked his head at her, ready with a question, then leaned closer to listen. The snap and crackle of dry wood as it combusted seemed to bring greater ease to his alert, compact body. She found it remarkable that this boy whom she had met perhaps a half-dozen times could sit in her home without fear or no emitting of whiny longing for parents. Mo and Mick had done something very right so far.
“Yes. It does talk! And smells yummy,” he said and smiled widely.
Encouraged, Bea got up to put on her glasses and took out knitting, thinking this would be a breeze. Toby turned to see what she was up to next.
“Knitting, huh? No books?” he asked. “We have lots of time.” He glanced at the wooden mantel clock and furrowed his brow. “Seven o’clock. Two or three hours? Enough time to read and maybe play a game.”
“You read? Tell time?” she asked him, surprised he could read Roman numerals on the clock face as if it was nothing. How did he do that?
“I like all sorts of numbers, what they do. And clocks. Funny old time.” He scratched his head. “Sure, I read pretty okay. I like stories about real things.”
Bea held his clear eyes for a moment and then slid off the couch to join him.
“Tell me more.”
He pursed his lips. “Like, tell you a story?”
She beamed down at him, liking that idea immensely, but he gave a firm shake of his head as if in disbelief that she would dare ask him rather than do her duty as babysitter.
“I bet you have some good ones, maybe about time,” she said.
Toby looked into the fire, went silent. She thought he had forgotten and now he wouldn’t expect her to entertain him. Relieved, she started to get up and then work on her afghan when he put a hand on her forearm.
“Do you, Bea? Know some stories?” he asked.
“Well, I was hoping you’d bring a book. I just know grown up stories.”
“I have some, then.” He stretched out his legs, flexed his furry bear feet a few times.
“Okay, then. I’m all ears.” She sat beside him.
He giggled, the small sound bubbling up. “All ears, funny thing to think about. Well. There was a boy. He wanted to go to a great school. But his daddy and mommy said no, he was too little. He ate a lot more and tried to grow bigger. He did all they said, was good. They still said no. The boy wandered into woods as he slept. There he met something with wings, frosty and bright. A winter story fairy. And he went along with that fairy. They had school in the forest and he learned so much. He went home but they didn’t believe those things about numbers and light. They said he’d just been dreaming.”
Bea waited for more, almost breathless, a dab of air trapped in her chest then released in a rush. “What then?”
Toby looked at her as if he had really awakened from a dream, blinking at her. “Nothing. He just was at home. He missed the forest fairy. The numbers games. Like one hundred seventy-two plus one hundred twenty making two hundred ninety-two. It’s something great but not really a thing. It’s like light. Numbers get bigger, smaller, change everything. But are the same… it’s all perfect. I love it.” He shrugged.
Bea shivered, pulled back a bit to better see him. He was lost in the fire again, wiggling his toes so that the two bear heads danced about. There was an intensity that moved her, its stillness and clarity unbroken, pure. She wanted to wrap her arms about him but he didn’t seem to want or expect anything. She wanted to set him apart, prepare him for a wonderful future; he was just being himself.
Who was she, anyway? Just Bea. Who was he? He was a genius blooming within a small body, a gift giver for the world. And she got to hear one of his stories before he knew what he was offering.
“I believe you.”
He turned his whole body very slowly toward her, lay on his stomach and studied her. “You do?”
“Oh good. Now your turn.”
He turned over and back to the fire. She sat close and he leaned against her. Bea put an arm about him and just like that she remembered her own favorite children’s story. Not real but then was his entirely? She told him about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail and adventurous Peter Rabbit and how Peter had to elude crabby Mr. McGregor as he explored the delicious garden. He was happy with the telling, quite taken with Peter’s brave maneuvering. She then admitted she had made Peter more hero than disobedient child.
“He was just a kid, he was curious!” Toby said.
“True. But he ended p with a belly ache from too much snacking. This story is over one hundred years old, Toby, so it’s still a good one to share.”
“Huh! But my own story is a secret,” he said seriously, then yawned. “And Peter Rabbit’s long ears are two more ears tonight.”
Bea patted his hand and wondered if she could keep his story to herself, his geometry of life and school of dreaming, the light that he understood.
When Carter came, Toby had been asleep on the couch for an hour.
“Did you know about him?” she asked.
“You mean, do I know he’s very bright? Yes.”
“No, he’s more than bright, he’s…maybe even extraordinary.”
“I suspected it after a talk we had in the courtyard last summer. His vocabulary is impressive, his ideas something else. He’s very confident around adults but sort of shy around kids. You find him interesting, too?”
They’d settled at the kitchen table. She scanned Carter and found him the same, very tall and a bit spindly, reading glasses hanging around the neck of his worn navy sweater, longish wavy hair still out of control.
“I find him quite wonderful. A sweet child with an amazing mind.”
“Not entirely perfect, I doubt.”
“I’m amazed by what Mo and Mick have done–he’s a great kid.”
He chuckled. “They don’t do much. But they love him, take good care of him and that counts most. He baffles them. They talked to me about him once. I told them he was likely gifted, he could be tested. They seemed surprised. Didn’t much like the thought of it. Don’t blame them. He’ll always be noticeably different.”
“Maybe we could encourage the boy, be good grown up friends to him. We might take him to museums and plays and concerts, go on different hikes and more– if they’d allow us. Don’t you think that would be good? To give him more to explore with that fine mind?”
Carter smoothed his forehead with both hands and groaned softly.”You mean, like mentors? He’s only four and a half. He’ll have school soon. He might enjoy all that, sure, but we both work, his parents are up to their ears in more shift work. And he’s their child, not mine or yours. We can just be kind to him, you know. Listen to him, encourage him.”
“Well, I’m going to try something more. He needs more.” She thought how Toby mused over her own use of “all ears” and wondered what he’d say to his parents being “up to their ears.”
“He’s got you hooked already, Bea, just like that?”
“Yes, like that.” She lifted her head, jutted her chin out.
Carter leaned back and tilted his chair on two legs. “And what if this is just another passing attachment? Like you got hooked by us, had a passing attachment to me and my kids? Because I don’t think that would be fair to Toby.”
Bea wanted to bark at him to set those chair legs on the floor and get Toby and just go. She was enthralled with Toby but tired out; he was being too touchy feely. They didn’t need to rehash things. But he was perhaps right. It had been three months since they had spoken much. She had backed away when it got complicated: his life and hers, his children’s comings and goings. Her intrinsic introspection, minimalist ways. His extravagant poetic responses to all. People were trying; people required so much. She liked her legal briefs and research, duties and schedules, more predictable results. But Carter and his kids had fast become important to her.
She had been afraid: how much had awakened in her after being comfortable alone. She’d freed herself, fast.
“Maybe not…” She pushed the chair back, wooden legs squeaking as they scraped the worn tile floor. “Maybe you should gather the boy and go.”
His eyes met hers and it was all so familiar, that soft liveliness with slightly mocking humor, a more often kind regard. Revelations of the poetry in human living that propelled him and finally moved her.
“Or we could wait for Mick to come by here. We could wait on the sofa by Toby. We understand him a little, after all, don’t we? And I could use a steaming hot peppermint tea.”
It took her a moment to decide but when she did it felt good, even right. She fired up a burner and put the kettle on, oddly energized. Carter left her to it. When she brought the mugs of tea to her living small room blanketed in warmth, Carter and Toby were both asleep. She sat on the floor by Carter’s long legs, rested her head on folded arms and imagined her life happier. Slept, too.
Toby’s eyelids lifted to unshutter his eyes. He smiled into the hazy burnished beauty of a firelit night. At his two new grown up friends. Then his eyelids closed as he drifted to his tantalizing forest in search of more numbers, more light, more frosty tales.