I looked out the kitchen window one day at the biggest attraction on our property: the basketball hoop. A bunch of kids—our neighbor T.J.’s three from across the alley and a few more—shot baskets. I headed outside to greet them. These were younger ones—a new batch of players. I missed the older ones who had grown up on our driveway and had ripped my heart out by vanishing from our lives—along with their basketballs—when they were about seventeen.
These new ones watched me approach the gate, and their faces split into smiles. I remembered the day three years earlier when T.J. had dropped them off—along with their pit bull Daisy—in our back yard and disappeared. Their faces had been wrapped in smiles that day too.
I stepped outside the chain link fence and clasped the gate shut. “Tell me your names again.”
The smallest girl scuttled over to me. “I’m Laya.”
“I remember you. How old are you now?”
“Five.” Laya’s shirt—a couple of sizes too small—crept up above her plump belly, and she patted her bare skin and grinned.
As I listened to the other kids’ names, Laya stroked my hand.
“So you’re all related?”
A chunky older boy nodded. “Some of us are cousins.” He pointed at the duplex across the alley. “We all live over there.”
Ah, the mystery of the rental property across the alley. Husband had heard T.J.’s mother owned the building now and had loaded the place with family members. But although we had tried, we could never track how many adults lived there or figure out which kids belonged to whom.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here.” I turned to go back into the house, but Laya patted my hand, drawing me back.
I assessed the kids with their eager faces. All of them looked overfed. But they were starving.
The next time the kids came over to play, they left behind fuzzy pink slippers, a Barbie doll, several empty Funyuns bags, and candy wrappers. Husband called them back.
“You guys have to pick up your garbage, okay?” He indicated the receptacle by the garage. “All your trash goes in there.”
He oversaw the clean-up, and each time the kids dropped a piece of trash into the container, they peered at his face, their eyes shining.
A week later, the kids were back. But this time when they left, landscaping blocks—once stacked in a corner—were scattered. And some of the old, red bricks—from another pile—were broken, and chunks and shards littered the driveway.
Husband walked over to the duplex. Seven kids frolicked in the front yard, and he told them what he had found in the driveway. Then he had a talk with the adults.
“We enjoy having the kids come over to play, but they need to leave the blocks alone. There’s a mess out there now, and some bricks are broken.”
“How much do we owe you for the broken ones?” one of the women said.
“Nothing. The kids just need to help pick up and not mess around with them anymore.”
With a holler, one of the parents booted the kids back to our place, and Husband and Dicka helped them pick up and restack the blocks.
I emerged from the house and surveyed the progress. “Nice work.”
The older kids’ eyes sparkled as if they were gathering gifts instead of bricks. And Laya scurried over to touch my hand.
I sat in church the next Sunday. The sermon was solid, inspiring. But my thoughts wandered off and meandered back to the neighborhood—and back to the kids from across the alley. And there was that familiar pang in my chest again. Was there something I could do?
Read to them.
Read to them? I imagined halting the basketball games, parking a lawn chair on the driveway, settling into it, and whipping out a book. No doubt the kids would huddle around me. But the trees were already naked, and winter whispered to me from around the corner. How long could my stories last before the biting winds drove the kids home for the dark months?
Invite them in.
Inside the house? But there were so many of them. Sometimes even eight, ranging from ages five to twelve. And they would tromp inside with great clods of snow on their boots and potato chip bags and no sense of time or boundaries. And if their parents allowed the reading sessions, they might view us as free childcare for whenever. I imagined the peace in my home taking wing and fluttering away.
It’s not your house.
I shifted in the pew and sighed. Those kids and their unfettered exuberance. A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. I flicked my gaze at Husband. He looked back at me and furrowed his brow. I’ll tell you later, my eyes said.
I knew exactly which children’s book I'd choose first.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.