Outside the Foul Lines - Book V

by Rick Beck

Chapter 17

Child Harold

As October faded away our T-shirts were covered by a jacket. The trees began to shed their leaves and the last of the fall gave way to the pending winter. Andy mowed the lawn for the last time and put the mower away, until spring, when our time away from home would exceed our time there.

How we'd manage the house while we were away wasn't yet clear to us but we'd only lived there a month. We were happy to be home together, fixing it up to our liking. We were in no hurry and once the main rooms were furnished to make them functional, we took our time picking out things we'd add one at a time.

One evening, after dinner, as I started preparing a stew for the following day, I watched as Andy got up, pulled out the big frying pan, pouring in oil before turning on the burner under it. I'd placed the package of beef for the stew on the counter next to the stove, and Andy opened that and once he was satisfied with the heat of the pan, he began to toss in the chunks of beef.

"What are you doing?" I inquired as I chopped vegetables, which I would add to the tomatoes I'd already installed in the crock pot.

"I'm browning the meat," he said. "It'll give it a better flavor. I asked Mrs. Olsen about it. You know how damn good her stew is and I asked her how to do it in a slow cooker."

"Browning the meat comes first? I think my mother does that."

"She said brown the meat and the onions, even cook the carrots and potatoes a little. It'll make the flavors blend together better," he explained, confident with what he was doing.

"When did you talk to Mrs. Olsen?" I asked.

"Monday," he said. "I worry about her being alone there."

"And you were complaining about my cooking?" I asked.

"Your stew doesn't have as much flavor as hers. When I told her you used the slow cooker, she told me about browning items to release the flavors."

"I didn't know you paid attention to how I cook," I said.

"Sure I do. I've never cooked but if you can do it I can," he said.

"Yes, you can," I agreed, not having any desire to discourage him.

I put a bowl of onions over next to his elbow once I finished chopping them. He poured the beef fat into the can we kept to add to Tommy's food. He wiped the inside of the pan with a paper towel, poured in a tables spoon of oil and began to brown the onions. This was more than I could have expected.

It didn't take me any longer to have all the ingredients chopped to bite size than usual, and Andy cooked each to his satisfaction before dumping them into the pot. He seemed dedicated to his role. I was happy to be spending the time together.

I must admit the flavor was better using Andy's method. I tried my hand at biscuits, using biscuit mix to get something eatable. It was a nice addition to the stew and Andy polished off enough to make me think they couldn't be all that bad. There was less than half the pot of stew left once we'd finished dinner the next evening.

I wasn't a great chef, learning as I went along. I figured I'd get better in time but we got better together, once Andy took an interest in our meals. Our kitchen was the warmest room in the house in the evenings and we made a point of getting all the food preparation done at the same time to avoid wasting the heat.

We'd get the fire going in the fireplace after dinner and we'd drink coffee or tea as I read a book and Andy checked out the sports pages and the comics to keep up with life in Indianapolis. There was little written on baseball as the Colts dominated that time of year. Would they go undefeated? Would they make it to the Super Bowl? Would the Colt's Manning become the greatest quarterback of all time? Would beer sales in the stands be up or down?

I was more interested in the news from Louisville but we didn't get the paper from there. Life didn't move as fast in Louisville. I had no fear I could catch up on what I issed pretty fast, once I went back.

One afternoon, when Penny wasn't feeling well, Luz asked us to ride along, as she delivered what extras she had from that week in Indianapolis, after servicing their regular customers. It was a ten wheel truck with a couple dozen bushel baskets on the floor in the back. Each basket was filled with some vegetable they'd grown. It was the same kinds Luz brought us.

I'd just picked up a warmer coat and it was a good thing I did. The day was bleak and downright cold. It looked like it could rain and it felt like the rain might be snow. The overcast hung low without complicating the trip by raining, but the stiff breeze made it impossible to get warm.

We got inside the Indianapolis loop, drove down some main boulevards before turning off into a residential area, where Luz tapped her horn once, waited a second, tapping it two more times, as she moved at a crawl down the block, until she pulled into a large packing lot at the end of the block. Tooting the horn once, and then twice, before cutting off the engine and going back to throw open the door to the bed and the baskets.

She pulled out some paper bags and stood at the tailgate, looking down as woman carrying children under their arms, and pushing them in strollers with others simply holding their kid's hands as they flocked to the parking lot.

"Hi, Sue, turnips, collards, squash, potatoes, and I got a few pumpkin if you want to bake a pie."

"That sounds special," Sue said.

The woman smiled, holding her child close to her breast, and pointing at which basket she wanted to buy things from. Andy climbed up in back and slid the baskets forward so Luz didn't need to leave her spot as she greeted customers.

"Okay, let's call it $2.00," Luz said, as she handed the two bags to the woman, who handed her two crumpled up dollar bills from a small change purse.

"Thank you, Luz. See you next week," she said managing the baby and the two bags adroitly.

"Morning, Tania. How's the baby?"

"She still got that cough. Weather sucks. Too damn cold already. Can you fix me up a couple of bags. I only got two fifty, so don't be overdoing it this week."

"We've got some good buys. Let me give you a variety," Luz said, smiling and seeming to know the woman she served. "Turnips are really nice this year."

"My mama loves turnips. Give me a couple extra of those."

The woman came, a few brought a man with them, and they carried the bags. It was a buck, a buck fifty, and at the most she charged two dollars for two bags of vegetables. In no time the baskets were all empty and Luz was closing the door and jumping down from the back of the truck. She was a woman of many talents.

"How come so cheap," Andy asked, as Luz was driving back out of the residential area.

"Oh, I tried to give it away my first few times up here. Talking about being insulted. Some of them just turned around and walked away. These people are poor but they do have their dignity, Andy. That food would all go to waste if I didn't bring it up here to them.

"They get good healthy food at a reasonable price and I don't watch good food rot, because my customers can't eat as much as I grow. The money they pay me pays my gas and it works out fine for me. I hate wasting good food, when there are hungry people."

"You're amazing, Luz," Andy said, and I let him speak for both of us.

Luz was as strong a woman as I'd known. She had a strong back, worked hard, and she had strong ideas about the right thing to do. She was smart enough to understand the people shw liked to help, and allow them to give what they could afford for what she brought them. It added some perspective to our friendship and how she and Penny shared the fruits of their labor with us in turn for using a field Andy and I wouldn't have time to put to use. It all worked out well.

She was good with her kids but firm. While we didn't spend a lot of time together, it was moments like these when we learned something new about her. Luz was tireless and had more energy than anyone ought to have, but she used it well.

"How's it going with Mr. Buckner at the diner?" Andy asked.

"Oh, fine. Kirk is happy with what we bring him. He buys a little bit of everything. We take him milk and eggs since last week. He was getting most of his supplies from Indianapolis and we're way closer."

"Kirk?" Andy asked.

"That's nice," I said, surprised.

He'd changed his mind quickly about the lady farmers. There was nothing like getting to know someone to change the lay of the land, when standing at a distance never would. I thought of how I first felt about Evan Lane and how fast I changed my mind once I got to know him. It made me smile.

As we drove Lus began to speak to us in personal terms.

"I've got a new boy. Harold is older than the other boys. He's not from a very good home situation. They brought him around last week, once we learned about him. He's been living with his mom and a couple of older sisters.

"I was thinking it might be good for him to spend a little time with some men. You being the only men I'm acquainted with who live nearby, would it be too much to ask you to spend a little time with him?" Luz asked. "Not anything too regular. Just for him to have men in his life. I don't know he is much on sports. He reads a lot, but I can tell he needs the hand of a man to give him a view from that side of things. Too many boys grow up without any men to lead the way."

"Yeah, that'd be fine as long as Andy is fine with it," I said.

"Sure. I'll teach him how to play ball. We get a lot of kids at the park, wanting autographs. I like spending time with them."

"I don't think that's Harold," Luz said with a smile. "He's not a typical kid. I don't know he's ever been allowed to be a boy. He's not terribly flawed, just a little lost in the world where he's been living. Having some interaction with men might give him more to go on."

I wondered at the time who Harold was and where he might have come from, but Luz didn't feel it necessary to go into any more detail beyond what she told us. She sounded amused by Harold and that indicated to me he was more misunderstood than maladjusted, but I hadn't met him yet.

It was a few days later when there was a disturbance on our lawn. Andy and I had just finished lunch and I was washing dishes. We walked to the front windows together and looked out upon Child Harold for the first time.

"He's bigger than I am," I said.

"Clearly," Andy said, as we watched.

Harold and Tommy wrestled on the lawn in front of the front porch. Harold giggled loudly, Tommy romped, licking the side of Harold's face, causing him to giggle even more. Then, he lay on his back petting the Collie, admiring the beautiful dog.

There was a certain incongruity to the man child being gentled by our dog. Soon Harold got up to his knees, noticing he'd been noticed. He petted Tommy for a time before looking over his shoulder at the two men standing in the window watching him.

Harold stood up and disappeared around the corner of the porch.

"You think that's him?" Andy asked.

"Who else has been up here since we moved in? That's him."

The boy came back into view carrying a bucket in each hand. He walked up on the porch and stood in front of the door, waiting.

"I'm Harold. I got milk and I got eggs. They figure you'd have containers on account all of ours are out."

"Come on in," I said, holding the door for him.

"Back here. Set them on the counter," Andy said, walking in front of him as I brought up the rear.

"I'm Andy, he's Do," Andy said, setting his coffee down on the table.

Harold looked for a clean space on the countertop where he could put the buckets down. I took care of the eggs first, setting them in some plastic containers I'd picked up at the Thrift Store. I emptied the milk into a large plastic container I'd used for the milk before. It was still warm and I marveled at the idea.

"Luz said I was to hang around with you guys if you didn't mind, because you are guys. You are guys aren't you?"

"Last time I looked," Andy said. "And you."

Harold didn't know how to reply to Andy and so he didn't. He stood in the corner of the kitchen and watched until I'd washed out the buckets and set them back where he'd put them down.

"You want some milk?" I asked.

"Yuk! No. Got any soda?"

"What kind?" I asked.

"Cola. Comes in plastic bottles. About this high," he said, showing me how high.

"There's lots of different kinds of soda," I said.

"Cola. Brown stuff," he explained again, not understanding how I couldn't understand.

"No, we don't drink soda," I said.

"Why'd we go through all that if you don't have any?"

"Because I'll make it a point to get some if it is what you like," I said, explaining my logic to him as he stared as if he wasn't quite sure why it was important.

Thus Harold entered our life. He was smart, probably too smart, and he wasn't a boy who gave in easily to the ideas of others. His independence made it difficult to find things that we could do together. He liked to read, and the first few times we saw him, he brought a book, sat in Andy's easy chair, his left leg hung over the left arm, as he read whatever it was he brought along.

I realized we didn't have a book in the house. There were shelves in the room off to the side of the living room and I'd contemplated putting a desk in there where we could take care of our business matters.

"Do you read all the time?" Andy asked from my chair, looking a little out of place.

"Yes, I read a lot. I learn from books."

"You're going to take root in that chair," Andy worried, thinking there was no real interaction going on between us and the boy.

"You don't clean the chair from time to time?" he asked, nose in book. "If not I'll ask Penny for some seeds. No point in letting good dirt go to waste."

This exchange never got his attention off the page and he read on.

"You can read at home," Andy told him.

"You want me to get out of here?"

"You were interested in coming over so you were around guys?"

"So? We establishd you are guys."

"All you ever do is sit there and read? You can do that at home."

"Yes, I can. It isn't my home. It's where I'm staying, and this wasn't my idea. Luz thought it up. You can tell me to get lost any time you like and I will."

"Tell you what," Andy said with a little excitement. "I'll hit you some fly balls out in the front yard. You can shag flies. Move those bones around. Get some exercise."

"You know how far it is to walk over here?"

"Maybe a mile," Andy calculated thoughtfully for him.

"That's exercise, moving my bones, as you call it."

I watched Andy processing Harold's replies, knowing this wasn't what Andy signed up for, when he agreed to letting Harold come over.

"You don't like ball?" Andy seemed amazed.

"I don't shoot hoops, eat watermelon, or pick cotton."

"What's wrong with watermelon? I like watermelon," Andy objected.

"Okay, I lied about the watermelon," Harold admitted, half looking up at Andy.

"What do you like to do?" Andy asked for clarity.

"I like to read," Harold said, holding up the book as proof.

"What about a ride. We can go out and get some fresh air," Andy said, thinking it was something that would make him move.

"Can I drive?" Harold asked, reassuring us he was a boy.

"No," Andy answered.

"Okay, there's a library over in the next town. When Luz takes me they all stare at us like we're lost and too dumb to ask for directions. Would you take me there. You being a guy might allow me to pick out some books without being under constant surveillance, like I'm going to pocket their 1953 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica."

"Sure. You got some books over at your place? We can run by there and you can let Luz know where we're going."

"All right!" Harold said, the first excitement in his voice since he'd first showed up.

I let the two of them take the journey together, figuring one on one was a better way to handle Harold, who didn't seem to have all that much interest in socializing with Andy and me. He took the sandwiches I gave him and I'd allow him to have one glass of soda, when he came over, but no more. Luz didn't buy soda for her kids and Andy and I didn't drink it, after living on it at State.

Harold objected to the limit but not strenuously. If we had it in the fridge, why couldn't he drink it? was the question on his mind

That day they were gone a couple of hours and Harold asked to be left back at his house once he returned with a stack of books. Andy came in with Huckleberry Finn in his hand, and he sat where Harold usually sat to read.

"I didn't know you liked to read. We can get some books the next time we're at the Thrift Store. They have boxes of paperbacks for a quarter a piece."

"I've always wanted to read this. Never had time. While he was looking for things he liked, I signed up at the library and checked this book out."

Harold was having as much an influence on us as we were having on him. I knew that it wasn't up to us how much time he wanted to spend at our place, but I was open to his presence. He was a fine kid, not all that friendly, but there was nothing objectionable about him.

The first time he fell asleep on the couch on a Saturday night, after coming over to spend time, I covered him with one of the extra comforters Penny brought over for us. I called Luz, explaining he had fallen asleep, and I told her he was welcome to stay if she didn't mind.

Harold didn't want to get up for breakfast or church the next morning, but we didn't do church, so we ate without him, although I cooked an extra stack of pancakes to pop in the microwave for when he woke up.

It was too cold downstairs for him to be comfortable at night, so we bought another space heater like the one we kept in our bedroom for after the house cooled off. It didn't make it warm downstairs in the big living room but it did keep it from getting cold. Harold never complained about anything, except Andy wanting to hit fly balls to him, that he only begrudgingly caught, once Andy explained how to keep his size thirteen tennis shoes out of his way.

I stood in the front windows, smiling, as the crack of the bat launched another ball for Harold and Tommy to chase. It wasn't something that happened often, but more often as time went on.

Harold actually smiled from time to time by then. Oh, he didn't make a habit of it, but slowly he began to talk about his life, his mother, his grandmother, and two older sisters who teased him unmercifully. He didn't say why he wasn't living at home and we didn't ask.

He'd never been around men and was a bit uncertain about us, but Harold was smart and knew he had plenty to look forward to as he grew older and smarter. He made my life with Andy all the richer, as I watched Andy trying to figure out how best to deal with him.

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