Golden leaves take flight in a gentle autumn breeze. This is the kind of day one draws upon later amid the struggles and doubts of adult life. Simple treasures barely recognized as such when we receive them, but so jealously sought when they are a distant memory. This should have been one of those days one in a lifetime of promise and peace and fond memories. It seemed that the whole world consisted of an old man, a young boy, a kitten, and endless hours. Mornings stretch for days and afternoons seem like eternity.
The old country store was of rough-hewn wood occupying the junction of two dirt roads in Upstate New York. The building might have looked familiar with so many of its kind gracing Christmas cards or rustic paintings. A rather modest location for the center of the universe, it was just that for these three companions.
Poor kid's sure got the strikes against him, thought Big Ed as he studied the boy. Richie, or "Little Richie", as everyone called him, was trying very hard to whittle his branch into a whistle like he'd seen his best friend, Big Ed, do for many of the town's children. Big Ed owned the corner grocery store for the last 35 years or so and had a soft spot for the kids. After all, the folks in Mapleton were not exactly affluent. Poor might not be the word for it, but there wasn't much money to spend on the sort of toys the kids in the city had. So they all kind of adopted Big Ed as their foster grandpa. And he had plenty of time to share with them since business was so slow this time of year. All the tourists had cleared out as soon as the first cold front passed through, which suited people around here just fine.
I don't even know why he tries.
Richie, eyes narrowed, tongue peeking out from the corner of his mouth, was intensely focused on placing the knife blade in just the position his elderly friend had showed him, but his incessant shaking caused the blade to slip and remove too much wood. The whistle was ruined. Richie started to look up to see if Big Ed had witnessed his blunder, but decided he was too ashamed to want to know.
"Richie, why don't you go into the store and get us a pop?" asked Big Ed. Big Ed knew Richie wasn't thirsty, but the request was more of a reflex so he wouldn't have to see the embarrassment in his young friend's eyes.
"Ye-Ye-Yessir", stuttered Richie as he slowly got up and balanced on his good leg before pushing off and hobbling over to the cooler. Richie's left leg below the knee took off at an obscene angle and culminated at an ankle that was so thin, it looked as if it would break under the weight of the ten year old. Richie, being born with this encumberment, had learned to become quite mobile, though his affliction caused him to have more of a hop than a gait. Truth is, he adjusted to it a lot better than the other children of the town. The kinder children, ones from the better families in the small town, wouldn't look at Richie. They didn't acknowledge his presence and even when Richie would try to talk to them, they would turn away and talk amongst themselves, leaving Richie to trail off his sentence while staring at their backs. But the others, the cruel ones, would pay more attention to him. Richie would still light up whenever Josh and his crowd would come around. He was always sure that this time the kids were coming to play with him. And they were. Richie would wave and smile and that always brought the kids over. They would have sly grins on their faces and be nudging each other.
"Hey, Richie, say something" or "Hey, Richie, sing us a song" to which someone would yell "No, don't tell him to talk, we don't have all day" and they would bust out laughing and run away. Richie's wide grin would shrink to a trembling thin line. "Damn kids", thought Big Ed as he would witness these displays of cruelty. Richie would hobble back and plop down on his overturned bucket next to his big buddy and stare at the ground. He would then raise his eyes, break open a wide grin, which never quite had enough authenticity to it, and excitedly say "D--D--Did you s--s--see? Th--th--they c--c--came over t--t--t--to talk to m--m--me!" On more than one occasion, Ed would have to turn his head and remove something from the corner of his eye. Richie's stuttering was always worse after his "friends" came over to "talk to him". And after these encounters, Ed could often see Richie stare off dreamily to the big island barely visible out on the lake. The changing of the leaves made it easier to see this time of year. The island was so far out, and so familiar to the people of the little town, that no one seemed to notice it except Richie. The only time people would give it a thought was when they would bring up the Jensen drowning.
Bo Jensen was a high school swim star who, when not competing (and usually winning), would spend most of his time boasting of his abilities. Although this put people off some, they had to admit, he sure had talent. One night, while drinking at the lake with a bunch of his buddies, Bo bragged that he was going to swim out to that island. And since he had just won the 1931 New York State Swim Championships, by God, he could do it. He instructed his friends not to tell anyone and in the morning to "borrow" ol' man Olsen's boat to pick him up. He set out with a steady splash in the night and no one ever saw him again. Folks said it was no surprise " 'cause no one could swim that far, champ or not."
"Well, Richie, little buddy, its getting to be dinnertime", Big Ed stiffly rose and said, "You don't want to worry your mom".
"N-N-No sir", replied Richie, as he unsteadily lay down his pocketknife and attempted whistle. As Richie rose, his kitten, Angel, stepped out of the way and looked up for direction from her charge. Angel spent her days below Richie's bucket gently rubbing against Richies' bad leg, purring in appreciation for his attention. It was almost as if the cat knew.
Ed looked at the mangled piece of wood and thought to himself, Maybe it's not a total loss. I'll see if I can fix it tonight. "You say 'hi' to your mother for me, Richie." "Yessir", Richie managed to get out.
Now, as Big Ed watched Richie hobble hop down the road with Angel silently in tow, he knew that Richie wasn't due home for another half hour, and he often wondered what the boy did in the meantime. But he figured that whatever it was, if it gave the boy some peace, by God, then leave him be.
Yeah, he sure has got the strikes against him, thought Ed as he watched the boy turn a corner out of sight.
Richie climbed the small hill in the woods, careful not to slip on any of the wet leaves on the ground and smiled as he caught sight of a white flash in the woods. He hobbled up to the small shell of the shack he had found and paused before going inside. He looked around inside at the contents of this all but wrecked building, but he didn't see the rotted wood and litter of years of decaying leaves on the floor. He saw the Truth. The piles of toys that weren't there being played with by the friends he didn't have. He didn't know the history of this old building, but this was Richie's real world. His very own place where he could be alone and think about what really happened that day. Here, there was no limping little boy, there was a ten year old professional baseball player. There were no shaking hands, there was a kind veterinarian who, after carefully and deliberately operating on the townspeople's animals, would be rewarded by a wet lick from an appreciative dog. "No, Mrs. Larsen. I couldn't take money from the townsfolk. You've all loved and supported me all these years", he would say out loud in a mock grown up voice. He never stuttered during these truth games, but the only ones who could know were his friends that weren't there. But it was getting late, so he picked up a charred remnant from a fire that had long ago damaged this building and made another entry on his Truth Wall.
After he had read over his newest entry repeatedly, he broke into a smile and yelled, "See you guys later!". He hobble hopped back down the hill and made it to his house just in time to wash up for dinner. His mom watched Richie wash up, scraping off some stubborn black powder from his hands and wondered where he would have gotten into charcoal. But she knew he needed his privacy and would probably make up another one of his tall tales anyway. "How was your day, son?", she asked as she set out their meager meal. Money was too short to eat fancy and what was the sense when it was just for two? After the slightest pause, Richie blurted out an enthusiastic "Great! I c-c-carved a b-beautiful d-deer with B-Big Ed. And Josh and his f-fr-friends c-c-came over and p-played with m-me for a l-long t-time." He smiled proudly. She looked down at the meal in front of her and uttered a neutral "That's nice, Richie". She knew what must have really happened, but his fantasies of acceptance and her appearing to believe him had long since become a ritual that they both needed in order to make it through another day.
Richie never got to know his father. Not being willing to live the rest of his life with a crippled son and a chronically depressed wife, his dad was gone before Richie's third birthday. Big Ed was a godsend and she certainly couldn't have made it without him, but Richie's mom knew that what this little handicapped boy needed was a regular, normal family. Something she couldn't provide.
This fact was brought out upon the discovery of a few slips of paper hidden under Richie's socks. She had been putting away some of his clothes and pulled out the notepaper and began to read.
there's a look that Daddy
gives Mommy, sometimes, in
the morning when he thinks
I don't see.
He smiles, she frets and points to me
She hurries me out and hands me my books
I don't know what it means
but I like the way it looks.
The crude poetry, almost unreadable due to an uncontrollable hand, made Richie's mom cry. She put it carefully back where she got it and never mentioned it to her young son.
At night when all the chores were finished, sometimes Richie and his mom would just sit back and talk. Richie loved to hear his mother tell stories of far off places where everyone got along and helped each other out. Where little boys played with each other at games no one could lose. Where the mountains were made of ice cream and the clouds were angel hair. And Richie would raise his head from his mom's lap to look out the window. He could barely see his island out on the lake as the sun sank slowly behind it and he knew such a place really did exist. That's the Truth.
Weeks went by and life droned on the same way. Richie would spend his days at the corner store with Big Ed waiting for the kids to come by and being increasingly punished when they did. As the abuses grew in frequency, so did Richie's entries on the Truth Wall. "He seems to be spending alot of time up in them woods", Big Ed thought, "and his stuttering has been getting worse, too." Ed wondered what the boy did up there and made a mental note to see if he could find out where the boy spent his time.
Early in the morning, before Richie came around, Big Ed set out in the direction of Richie's house. As he turned a corner, he could see where the bushes had been repeatedly parted and could see the footprints of someone who obviously had trouble walking. He followed the footprints up over a small hill and caught a glimpse of a small dilapidated shack in a thicket. He walked through the tangled underbrush and paused at the doorway. Gazing around the room, he could see nothing that a person wouldn't expect to find in an old broken down shack. Except on the far wall, dirty though it was, he could make out scribbled notes of some sort, written in charcoal, from the looks of it. He carefully stepped around the debris to get a better look. Though the handwriting was terrible, he could see that there must have been 50-60 entries. And the ones he could manage to read were all stories of happiness and pride. About three-quarters of the way up the wall were two words much bigger and more legible than the rest of the writing. They were:
In a sudden rush, Big Ed realized what he had found and what Richie had been spending his time on. He read every entry that he could make out and realized that there wasn't a bit of truth to anything written on this wall. And on the worse days, the stories were even that much more glorious. Stories of friends insisting that Richie come and play with them. Richie challenging the fastest boy in school to a race and winning (Richie couldn't run!), of Richie entering the Olympics and getting a gold medal in the breaststroke (Richie couldn't swim!), of all of Richie's friends fighting over who was going to get to have Richie sleep over (Richie had no friends). Big Ed's heart broke as he realized how badly Richie wanted to be liked. And he vowed he would never let Josh and his gang mistreat Richie again even if he had to "kick their butts down the street and out of sight himself."
Big Ed hurried out of the shack, down the hill and back to the store before Richie could see him. "Things are going to be different from now on. I'm going to make this boy feel like my own son. Hell, shoulda been doing it all along. Big dumb old Big Ed. Sometimes can't see the forest for the trees", Ed muttered to himself. He had just gotten to the store and eased himself on an upturned bucket when he heard a commotion coming from the turn in the road. He could make out a group of boys. One of them threw a large object at the feet of a boy caught in the center of the group. The boy couldn't make the scream straining for release no matter how hard he tried and Ed realized who it was when the boy recoiled back, but lost his balance due to a leg that was far too weak for such a violent maneuver. Ed leapt to his feet and sprinted toward the group. One of the boys spotted him and they all tore out in different directions. Ed called to them to stop, but the distance was too great to have any chance of catching them. Ed could see the boy who fell down hobble hop into the woods as fast as his defective limb would allow. As he reached the spot where this latest act of cruelty transpired, he could make out the shape of a dead cat lying where Richie had been standing. He could hear the boy moaning as he crashed through the underbrush near the shack.
Ed ran into the woods but stopped. Should I risk letting him know that I saw what these boys, "his friends" as he called them, did to him? Should I follow him into the only place in the world where he could find peace and solitude? No, better to attend to Richie's cat before the boy comes out of the woods to face that. Big Ed lifted the carcass by its tail and walked off toward the store. Gonna be one hell of an entry on that Truth Wall today, I'll bet, he thought.
About dinnertime, or a little after, Big Ed could see a figure walking around the bend toward his store. Well, he thought, I'm going to have to have a talk with him and there's no time like the present. Gonna have to explain to him how people are and that what they think doesn't matter. Yeah, sure, he thought, How do you explain that to a crippled ten year old?
As the figure drew near, he realized with some relief that the walker had a normal stride. "Thank God I don't have to do it now. I really don't think I'm up to it," he said to himself, realizing that the walker couldn't be Richie. He courteously stood when Richie's mother approached him. "Ed", she asked worriedly, "have you see Richie? It's awful late and you know its not like him." She looked so tired and he didn't realize how old looking she had gotten lately. He really must check on her more often. But right now he had a much more unpleasant job to do. She was Richie's mother and she had a right to know. "Sit down," he said, motioning to Richie's bucket, "something happened a few hours ago that you should know about." He told her everything except about Richie's Truth Wall. "Christ, gotta leave the boy someplace he can go to get rid of his pain." Ed looked at his feet the whole time he related the days events to Richie's mother. Only when he finished did he have the nerve to look up. Richie's mom covered her face with her hands. The only parts visible were her tear filled eyes. "Oh Ed, oh my God." She jumped up. "I've got to find him!", she screamed. "What if something happened to him? Where could he be? Oh, my poor, poor Richie!" Ed tried to comfort her. "I think I know where he is." "Where?", cried Richie's mother. "I can't tell you, but I'll go check right away," Ed said. "Go home and I'll bring him to you." "No, what if something happened to him? I'm going to check down by the water", screamed Richie's mother, as she sprinted to the lake.
Ed took off down the road in the direction of the shack. He didn't know how he was going to explain to Richie what had happened today and realized with some comfort that he would have to get the boy home as soon as possible and wouldn't have time for a long talk. As Ed approached the shack, he started thinking of some way to explain to the boy how he had found the shack and how it could still be Richie's little haven. Ed would swear not to tell anyone. "Richie," he began as he turned the corner into the doorway, and stopped. Richie wasn't in the shack. Ed slowly gazed around the room. His eyes came to rest on a brand new entry on the truth wall. It was not like the others. The letters were clear and deliberate, definitely not the handwriting of a person with uncontrollable shaking. This was the writing of someone who was content, precise, and at peace with himself. He began to read today's entry and had almost finished when, in the distance, he could hear a woman screaming hysterically.
Today I swam to my island. It's
beautiful. Just like Mom said.
There are ice cream mountains and
angel hair clouds. There were
hundreds of kids waiting on the
shore cheering me on. Everyone knew
I could make it 'cause I swim so good.