Between Sunlight and the Skipping
–by Laura Lee
(Reprinted with permission; a version of this story was published in 2013 at Staxtes.com)
Last Sunday evening I decided to take a ride to a park and watch the sunset, but found the sunlight flooding my eyes. I reached for my sunglasses, remembering how often during the last several years I was one of those people driving at night while wearing sunglasses. I needed to hide my eyes.
“Excuse me! Lady!” Abdullah said, skipping from the porch to the garage.
Abdullah is a chubby black- haired boy who lives next door, a boy who seems to smile all the time. I noticed that he had on dark green sweat pants and wondered how he could be skipping in such heat. His older brother Hassan was still sitting on the stairs next door.
“Excuse me, please. Can I? Please, can I please borrow your pumpie thingie?”
“My what?” I asked him.
“You know! I’m six, going on seven, you know!”
“He’s SIX going on SEVEN,” his older brother Hassan added, walking over to us. “You told her last week.”
“I’m six! Going on seven! I will take good care of the pumpie thingie!”
“Oh! The bike pump?”
“Yes! Can I use it? I will return it, lady! It is a good pump! Works good on these tires,” Abdullah said.
As Abdullah tried to pump up his tires, Hassan looked at me and said, “I’m nine, you know that? Abdullah is my little brother.”
“You told her that!” Abdullah said, laughing.
“I will help him,” Hassan said. “I will be ten soon. Abdullah is the laughing one,” Hassan said. “He is the baby. I like to hear him laugh.”
And Abdullah dragged his bike over to show me his flat tires and I didn’t have the heart to tell this small SIX going on SEVEN- year- old boy that he was using a girl’s bike. It was hot pink and sparkly and had two very white “mountain” tires that were very flat.
“Sure. You can use it whenever you want. Just leave the pump by the side of the garage, ok?”
“Oh, no! Lady, no! What if a big boy steals it? I could not face my father. You wait, ok? I pump fast and you go then, ok,” Abdullah said.
Hassan did most of the pumping but left a little work for his little brother. As Abdullah finished pumping up his tires, Hassan looked at me and said, “He is my little brother and I watch him. We are Muslim you know.”
“You told her that last week,” Abdullah said.
And after that, Abdullah called “Father!” and soon his father came out of the building. The older boy shook his head, grinning.
“My little brother is so happy,” Hassan said, “even my father smiles.”
“Father! This is the teacher lady who lets me use pumpie thingie,” Abdullah said. The father touched Abdullah’s head, running his hand through his son’s thick sweaty hair.
“Lady! This is my father,” Abdullah said, kissing his father’s hands.
“I’m sorry, Miss. Are you the teacher?”
Yes, I said, not knowing how they knew this. I am sure I never mentioned this to the boys.
“Excuse me, we have seen you carry many books up and down those stairs many times. It must be a wonderful thing to be a teacher in this country. And you teach in the big school at the bottom of the big hill?”
Yes, it was a wonderful job, I told him, and yes, my school was the big high school at the bottom of the hill.
“Excuse me, but I thought so. I have seen your school uniform shirt with the name of the school, so I think you might be a teacher. You do not remember me from the store? By the school?”
Now that he mentioned it, yes, he did look familiar. Maybe it was from the little store where I bought my morning coffee or my afternoon newspaper, but I wasn’t sure. I did remember a very small woman, so short she could barely reach the cash register. I wondered if that was the boys’ mother. I remembered that she smiled a lot, had very warm but frightened brown eyes, always seemed tired, but did not ever speak to me. Ever.
“That store is my brother’s. He came here first and then I help him in the store some days.”
The father seemed to be waiting for something, or someone, and finally said, “You do not have a husband or father I should talk to?”
No, I told him it was all right to talk to me about the bike pump.
“I do not see a husband or your father with you, so forgive me I must talk to you like this. Do you like to teach?”
I told him that I loved teaching English, and that it was okay to talk to your neighbors here, that Americans are usually very friendly and very casual.
“English! An important language,” the father said. “There is so much freedom here. I think of such things for my sons. But that is not what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Father!” Abdullah said. “She gave me the pumpie to use. I did not take it. I am not a thief!”
“Excuse me, please, but has my son bothered you?”
I assured him that his sons never bothered me, that they were polite and nice young boys.
“That is good,” the father said, “but I will deal with him if he has taken anything of yours. I wanted to meet you and say I am sorry if my son takes your things. I tell him he should not bother you.”
I assured him that Abdullah was never a bother.
“I have talked to his mother about this,” the father said, “but I am afraid the boy is becoming rude as he gets older.”
I assured him that Abdullah was never rude.
“He must not yell at you like that,” the father said. “In public like that to a strange woman he does not know I thought was very rude. Is that something American? My brother said in America everyone is so loud. Even in school?”
I laughed, but told the father that yes, it was very American, and I did not think it was rude. His son was never rude to me. I told him I knew about these things and he could trust me that Abdullah would not be in trouble at school. He was a good boy.
With that, the father seemed to relax and then smiled.
“My wife could not talk to you,” the father said, “because she is very afraid about talking because of her English. I told her a teacher would not mind about the bad English and that she must learn. It is bad in the store if she does not speak English and that is why we came here, for the freedom and the chances. And she wanted you to know she does not wish her sons to take your things.”
I told the father that I remembered his wife from the store, I remembered her very well, and she always understood what the customers wanted.
“That is good,” he said, “but she wants you to know we will pay you for anything my son has taken.”
Oh, no, no. I assured the father that I let the boy use the bike pump, that he could use the pump any time. I wanted to tell the father that he had no idea how much it meant to me that Abdullah still skips even though he is using a girl’s bike and wearing green sweat pants in summer. I wanted to tell the father that he and his shy wife must be doing something so right with their son that he still skips.
But I did not tell him that. Between the sunlight and the skipping, I had to put on my sunglasses again. I handed the bike pump to the father and muttered something about the sun this time of day, they can use the pump any time, I barely ever ride my bike anymore. I think I said I would talk to his wife more when I went into the store and maybe I could help her with her English and that English was a hard language to learn.
The father might have said something about a blessing, more blessings, but I could not really hear him well since my sunglasses did not cover enough of my face, which had suddenly turned into a stranger’s face with its weeping. I am sure I walked away from him while he was still speaking, being such a rude American, and I know I should be a better example, but I could not help it. I could not take the sunlight and Abdullah’s skipping at the same time.
I got into my car, backed out of the garage, and waved weakly to Abdullah and his father, marveling at a boy who skips in joy and does not need sunglasses to protect him from beauty.