Author: Mechabeira PM
He wasn't really sure how he'd gotten there.Rated: Fiction T - English - Family - Leroy Jethro Gibbs - Chapters: 38 - Words: 111,597 - Reviews: 335 - Favs: 87 - Follows: 98 - Updated: 05-18-12 - Published: 11-09-11 - Status: Complete - id: 7536192
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
...his pocket's heavy / with the year's coins for salt and taxes
-Donald Hall, "Ox-Cart Man"
He wasn't really sure how he'd gotten there. Had it been Abby's suggestion or a flier in the breakroom? An advertisement in the newspaper he'd perused over lunch? Read to poor kids. It must've said. And we just might have one less delinquent on the streets in five years. He may have even rolled his eyes, taken a scornful swig of coffee.
Did it matter, really? Because now here he stood on a clear, warm Saturday morning. He could be having (another) coffee and looking over cold case files, or endlessly sanding the prow of his boat. Instead he was at the Congress Heights Community Center, leaning against a wall in a run-down classroom. Low tables and chairs, posters on the walls advocating reading, writing, washing one's hands. He suspected that senior citizens and do-gooders from across the metro area came here to feel better about their four-dollar lattes and tennis club memberships. He wasn't quite sure what his own motives were, but here he was, undercaffeinated and overdressed in the stuffy room.
An hour ago the kids—most of them minorities, all of them poor—had been paired with a volunteer with whom they would spend the morning reading and doing arts and crafts. Gibbs, uncomfortable in the close quarters, had stepped away from the group to watch, to try to understand what he was supposed to do, and he'd ended up without a partner. But a scuffle near the doorway caught his attention—always on guard, always waiting for a shoe to drop—he'd unconsciously reached for his weapon before realizing he'd left it in the car. He sighed, craving coffee and an escape.
Mrs. Berman a former first-grade teacher and current volunteer coordinator, stood in the doorway, talking curtly to someone outside of his line of sight. She huffed, turned on her heel, and approached him with a steely glare.
"I thought you could just observe for today," she apologized, "but I didn't realize my friend here was hiding in the bathroom." It was clear from her tone that she wasn't addressing him, nor was this person an actual friend.
She motioned for him to follow her, and he did. Just outside the room, leaning—skulking, really—against the wall, was a kid.
"Mr. Gibbs, I'd like you to meet Sara. She's one of our students here, but feels a little reluctant about having a reading partner. Maybe the two of you could spend some time getting to know each other before you join the rest of the group."
She patted his arm and left. Was the woman relieved? Was she as anxious as he was to flee to a quieter, more private place? Was she on a mission to find more kids in more bathrooms? He regarded this small person carefully. The light in the hallway was dimmer than that in the classroom, so he had some difficulty discerning much information about this kid. Mrs. Berman had addressed it as "Sara," so he could assume she was…she. Her pants—jeans?—were threadbare, sneakers scuffed, t-shirt rumpled as she huddled against the doorframe, fists stuffed in her pockets.
He crouched down to her eye level. Low.
"Hi," he offered quietly.
She sniffed, glanced up at him from beneath dark, uncombed, curls.
"Hi, Sara." He said a bit louder.
"Hello," she replied softly. So softly. Was he meant to hear it?
"So, should we find a book to read?" He thought it might be best to get straight down to business.
He didn't offer his hand; she wouldn't take it. Instead he moved steadily to the shelf at the back of the crowded, hot, noisy room. She followed. He crouched to study the spines—and perhaps also to put himself on her level—but Sara hung back, hands still in her pockets. He pivoted, craning his neck in an attempt to make eye contact.
"Well? Which one?" She dug the toe of one sneaker into the carpet and shrugged again. Gibbs could feel something akin to irritation settle over him. Was this going to be the extent of their interaction? He got more cooperation from government paper-pushers in windowless offices.
Turning back to the shelf, he recognized a familiar, dog-eared picture book and pulled it off the shelf. One of Kelly's perennial favorites, it was a short story about a rural family farm. The illustrations were like papercuts—simple, colorful forms. The writing was simple—short sentences, a straightforward tone—without being patronizing.
"I know this one," he proclaimed. "And I really like the picture of the farmer walking his ox-cart through the night."
Whatever relatable moment he'd tried to created had apparently worked, because for the first time Sara lifted her head and they made brief eye contact. Her eyes were gray-green and startlingly clear, the Atlantic on an overcast afternoon. The gaze was short-lived—she'd gone back to studying the floor, but pulled one hand out of her pocket long enough to make a half-hearted motion to the book in his hand.
His brow creased. "Huh?"
She took a steadying breath. "Do you wanna read it to me?"
"Yes. I would like that very much." Gibbs motioned for her to follow him again, but noticed that all the tables were occupied. He hesitated; this was not his territory and he was without a map. With the same hand, she motioned to a bench against the windows, a fair distance from the other kids and their partners.
"Over there?" He made sure to keep his voice light and low.
That side of the room was cast in shadows, even at this bright hour. The dirty windows faced the side of an industrial office building, and the buzzing rows of florescent lights only cast their glare on the center of the room, over the chairs and tables and posters of raccoons in sneakers washing their hands. It dawned on him that Sara probably preferred the dim. A heaviness settled over his heart as she sat cautiously on the bench—not next to him, as Kelly would have—but well beyond arm's reach. Sara made no indication that she was paying any attention to him or the book he had yet to open. Hands loose in her lap, sleeves pulled down to her knuckles, head down, she could have been waiting for a bus.
"In October of the year, he counts potatoes dug from the brown field."
She inclined her head slightly in his direction and began to pick at the fraying hem of her shirt. Gibbs could see that the webs of skin between her fingers were raw-red and scaly even from as far away has he sat. He stumbled over a line about honeycombs and she quickly swept her hands behind her, crossing her wrists behind her back. He tried not to imagine a suspect or prisoner in the same position.
"flaxseeds, birch brooms, maple sugar, goose feathers, yarn."
Gibbs paused. Sometime over the past seven pages, Sara hadn't come closer, but had twisted herself toward the timbre of his voice. Head inclined ever so slightly towards him, knees together, her weight balanced on her left hip, he knew she was listening, but trying hard to make it look like she wasn't. As if waking from a deep slumber, she twitched once and righted herself when she realized that he'd stopped.
"No. I just realized that I didn't show you the pictures."
As if approaching a wounded tiger or an unpredictable criminal, he slid himself down the length of the bench, stopping when her shoulders curled inwards. Her hands, he noticed, were behind her back again.
He held the book out enough that she could see, and turned slowly through the pages they'd read. She blinked lazily at the pictures, sliding herself forward—closer to the book, not to Gibbs—as they came upon the illustration of the farmer and his wife subduing and sheering a sheep, Sara's face hardened.
"What're dey doin'?"
"Sheering a sheep. So they can..." he trailed off, turning the page to mother and daughter combing and spinning wool into fine yarn, "make soft yarn for sweaters and socks."
She nodded, not reconciled to the sheep's plight.
"It doesn't hurt him," He amended quickly, sensing that she did not like one bit the idea of an animal in pain. "It's just to help him change from winter clothes to summer."
She nodded again and Gibbs hoped it was in relief or understanding.
"You keep goin'?
So he began again the story of the farmer's walk into town alongside his ox-cart, the sale of his items, the earning of money, the exchange of that money for new goods, and the long walk back to his home to begin the process again. By the time they'd finished, most of the other children were long-done with their projects and were greeting their parents and grandparents at the classroom door.
"I guess we're done." Gibbs said by way of goodbye.
For only the second time in an hour, she met his gaze. Again, he was taken aback by the clarity of her eye color. He wondered, dully, how bright she was. There was a flatness to her gaze, a lack of expectation, that vaguely upset him, though he didn't quite know why. And he wasn't ready to start guessing.
She glanced once at the last kids leaving the room, then shuffled to the doorway empty-handed. She turned, offered a half-wave, and was gone. He returned the book to the shelf and headed for the doors when a motion caught his eye at the end of the hallway.
Gibbs slowed his steps as he got closer; she was tucked to the right of the outer doors, pressed against the narrow floor-to-ceiling window embedded with chicken wire.
"Yeah. Are you?"
"Ok." He couldn't help but smile, feeling like he'd actually done something in the last hour. "I'll look for you next week, ok?"
Sara grunted some acknowledgement—or at least Gibbs half-hoped it was—and stared openly at him as he swung out into the middday sunshine.
Gibbs turned, waved, and made his way across the cracked macadam to his car.