The boy has little chance of becoming a man.
Tall, gangly and uncoordinated, lacking neither emotional nor physical confidence, basic human goals appear out of his reach.
Father deserted mother while he was fed from within. She has used his young presence as a wedge to prop open the rapidly closing door of her choices. Unhappy on levels she will never fathom, she has nonetheless plowed through the decaying thickness of her life, using him for what little comfort she is able to derive from a life that has always been a losing proposition.
Unwittingly, she has taught him that the vehicle of control is driven by manipulation. In fact, most of what she has passed along has been unintended. Inner conflicts, emotional baggage, psychological ineptitude, all have been transferred to him as directly, and as unconsciously, as she nourished him in her womb.
An invidious IV, delivered through the senses, with a potential to destroy, not nourish.
This single mother can determine the quality of her child's life, wielding the power of God in total ignorance, under the diaphanous shroud of motherhood.
Determining ones destiny is a fundamental element of life. The tonnage of accumulated evidence that negates that precept, however, often muscles its way to the forefront, steering us in directions that simply don't work. It is how we wrestle with these forces that define us. Anyone can swim with the tide.
Life is the ultimate metamorphosis. It becomes death.
A boy with little chance of becoming a man.
Unless I help.
We share the same name.
Entering his fourteenth year, Billy Rayburn has command of very little. He is a passenger in the vehicle of fate, occupying a seat with no seatbelt, no exploding pillow of air to cushion the blow.
Discerning his interests and passions has not been easy. One syllable answers are neither evocative nor reflective. Critical thinking has not found its way into his thought process. Yet there is a native intelligence simmering beneath the cowering exterior.
He plays chess.
This unformed 14 year old plays chess, and he's good. Holds his own in dominoes, too.
A human book whose pages evoke so much more than its cover.
The audio visual world has been his babysitter since his life advanced to the vertical stage. Television plays the role of syringe, through which the mind-numbing liquidity of action movies and video games seeps into his veins, poisoning his mind. Thought-provoking flicks haven't crossed his radar yet, but they will.
I want to teach him about thought.
We go for pizza. The place is empty.
"I like linguica," he tells me. No linguica, I am told. For a second, I am tempted by the dramatic image of driving all over hell and back to find this kid linguica. Then I realize the incredibly short life span of the desires of a 14 year old.
"You're out of luck," I tell him. He shrugs, a gesture of such pure innocence that it sends me spinning back to my own fateful acceptance of things at that age.
Sitting at the bar, sipping soda, he parries my queries awkwardly. Enroute to his mouth, half the ingredients of his slice of pizza fall to his jeans. Questions turn to his mother.
"What time does she go to bed?"
"Eight o'clock. Around eight."
"That's early. When do you turn in?"
He thinks for a moment, juggling loyalties.
twelve or one."
"Does she go to bed
that early because of drinking?"
He looks me in the eye for the first time. Betrayal and honesty clashing at the heart of his soul.
"Yeah, I think so," he says casually.
"Are you wondering why I've suddenly shown up in your life?"
He chews his pizza thoughtfully. A piece of sausage tumbles to the floor. He pretends not to notice.
"Yeah," he says softly, through a mouthful of food. I sigh.
This boy will only understand part of my motivation.
"I think I can help you. Maybe teach you some things. How to act, how to deal with people. Maybe we can do some fun stuff together."
My turn to chew thoughtfully. I bite the bullet I've been gumming all night.
"You are going to have to, I'm afraid, grow up pretty fast."
He turns to look at me. The subtle change in my tone has registered viscerally with him. The honed antennae of a boy who's lived with a defective mother.
"What do you
Change must absolutely terrify this kid.
We stare at each other.
"Billy, your mom has done all she can for you. To survive in the grown-up world, you're going to need to know a lot more about things that she can't teach you."
For a moment, the words don't seem to register. Then, through the waves of conflict and emotion that flow from brow to chin, I see him begin to understand. Putting his slice of pizza back on his plate, he runs his greasy hand through his greasy hair.
"Like…like what things?"
"Well, as we progress, you'll see. In essence, I want to teach you how to become a man. Your own man."
He takes a deep breath, the exhalation broken by shudders.
Looking at me, he asks, "Why you?"
Why me, indeed.
When I drop him off at my sister's apartment, he speaks for the first time since I allowed his question to hang between us, unanswered, like a piñata stuffed with explosives.
"Are you gonna be my dad?"
"Billy, you only have one dad, and he is a bad man who doesn't want anything to do with you."
I let the power of those words wash over him.
"I'm going to be your friend."
He nods, turns and exits the car. His shuffling walk breaks my heart. I realize I have never seen his shoulders do anything but slump.
Rain begins to fall, heavily.
I leave the top down and drive home.