“Do you have gum?” Five-year-old Laya hooked her fingers on our chain-link gate.
“No, I don’t.” I hauled a bag of garbage past her and the rest of the kids—nine of them in all—playing basketball on our driveway. I dropped the trash into its bin in the alley and then passed back through the group again, asking them about their lives during the wintry months that had separated us.
Laya caught my hand and tugged it. “Do you have gum?”
I chuckled. “I still don’t, hon.”
“Oh.” She dropped my hand and patted her belly, poking out from under her too-small shirt. She gazed at the basketball game again.
The early spring sunshine had melted the snow from our driveway and also driven the coats off the kids, but they still clumped around in winter boots.
I retreated into the house, but thoughts of the alley kids snagged my focus away from work. How had the little ones filled their time all winter? What did they do when they couldn’t play basketball?
Spring break soon arrived, and the alley kids lived on our driveway. The basketball games held their fascination for a while, but soon I saw piles of garbage, abandoned toys and clothing, and broken bricks strewn everywhere. I put away my work and headed outside with some books.
I dragged a lawn chair to the driveway. “Why are the bricks broken?”
“It wasn’t us,” said the ten-year-old boy. “Some other kids did it.”
“Let’s pick them up. The garbage too.” The littlest ones scurried to do what I had said. “Do you know why littering is bad?”
A few of the kids stared at me, mouths agape, and shook their heads. One little girl waved her hand in the air. “I know!”
I pointed at her. “Go ahead.”
“It kills the animals.”
I gave her a verbal gold star and explained how littering is unkind to nature, ourselves, and others. But while I talked, the kids’ eyes glazed over, and I imagined I was tucking my message inside a tiny bottle and tossing it into a tsunami.
When the trash was gone and the bricks were piled up again, I sat in the lawn chair, opened a book, and began to read aloud. A few of the boys paused from their game to listen, then they resumed shooting baskets. Two of the girls—ages seven and nine—pressed in against my legs.
“Can I read now?” the nine-year-old asked.
Even though a speech impediment clouded her delivery, she breezed through the stories of a very hungry caterpillar, a mouse’s craving for milk with his cookie, and Noah’s nautical adventures.
“That last one makes me think of water,” said the seven-year-old. “In a glass.”
I held in a smile. “Are you thirsty?”
She nodded, so I went inside the house and returned with a pitcher and some Dixie cups.
I handed out the usual pick-up-the-garbage reminder, but it fluttered away on the wind. When the kids were satisfied, they crumpled their cups, dropped them on the ground, and scampered home.
Months passed—months filled with deserted items of clothing and toys, garbage, and more broken landscaping blocks in our driveway. We reminded the kids they were welcome to play at our place if they were considerate, Husband mentioned the problem to the adults in the rental property, the grown-ups yelled at their children, we oversaw the clean-up, and the cycle repeated.
“I really miss the group of kids who’d come to play when we first got the hoop,” I told Husband one day.
“Yeah. They were always respectful.”
I sighed. “So, what do we do about this bunch?”
“Keep doing what we’re doing, I guess.” He shrugged. “Eventually, they’ll learn.”
One day, we returned home by way of the alley. The usual nine kids played at our place, but as we neared our garage, they scattered. Our driveway, speckled with shards of broken mirror, glittered in the sunlight.
“Oh no,” I said. “This is bad.”
I hopped out of the car and assessed the damage. The pavement was a sea of shattered glass. Glenda’s driveway was littered with splinters too, and so was the alley—in both directions. Blood was smeared along the side of our garage. Then I saw the source: a couple of houses away, someone had propped two large mirrors against a garage for garbage day. One of them was broken in half.
Husband strode over to the rental property. I pulled out several brooms. Soon, he was back, followed by a woman I had never seen before. The pack of kids trailed her.
“Look at this mess!” she screamed at them. “Are you kidding me?”
Without a word, the kids watched her sweep debris into a dustpan. Husband handed the oldest boy our big shop broom, and the kid shoved it around with one hand. After a few minutes, the woman disappeared with the little ones. The boy stayed behind with us.
“You know we want you guys to play here,” Husband said to him. “But you can’t be doing stuff like this.”
The boy nodded and dragged his feet and the broom back and forth, missing large swaths of glass. Husband swept too, and I scrubbed away the blood.
I thought of the basketball hoop and all the good it had delivered before the hard years began. I missed the original four—Keyondra, Antoine, Armani, and Peanut—all done with high school now, except for Peanut.
For the first time in years, questions formed: Was the basketball hoop making a difference anymore? Or had our outreach tool grown obsolete?
The next day, I mentioned my thoughts to Flicka and Ricka, but the words caught in my throat like a piece of apple too big to swallow.
“Maybe it was only meant for that first group of kids, Mom,” Flicka said.
“Maybe it’s time to be done,” said Ricka.
How could we impact the lives of the little ones in the neighborhood without the basketball hoop? I had believed it was our calling—our gift to the kids around us. But did it mean more to me than to them now?
A good thing at the beginning isn’t always a good thing forever. I needed to talk with Husband and the neighbors. Maybe it was time to surrender.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date
*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.