When Claire Bellinger first saw the boy, he was sitting on the porch of a ramshackle rental house at the edge of town. No suitcase, no bundle of belongings, not even a teddy bear or favorite book, just a scrawny little kid whose only local kin were a mother and grandmother who had died four days before in a car crash. Her newest case: Danny Cummings, age six. His sweater, shirt and slacks, although clean, were too large for his slight frame and his light brown hair was in sad need of a barber. The boy said nothing in response to her greeting, and his narrow blue eyes failed to follow her when she crossed the yard to his uncle, a wheat farmer from the northern part of the state.
"None of us can take him in," the man said, his stiff manner telling her that no one had even considered that option. "Most of us think he's bit tetched in the head. Probably takes after his pa."
"Do you know the father's name?" Miss Bellinger asked him.
The uncle shook his head. "Nope. Didn't stick around long enough for introductions. You gonna take the boy?"
That was her job as a social worker: to take the child. First order of business was the paperwork relinquishing him to the state. Next was a physical exam at the county clinic. After that, she would place him in a temporary foster home or at the county's group facility. Once he had a bed to sleep in, other people would evaluate him to see if he really did need more help than his relatives could provide or if neglect and lack of stimulation had temporarily stunted his development.
Miss Bellinger had the uncle sign the necessary papers then she drove the boy to Fredericksburg, where her office and the county clinic were located. During the thirty-minute ride, the boy sat still and stared straight ahead, taking no note of the scenery nor the woman next to him. Her attempts at conversation failed thanks to the boy's one-word answers. He was "fine;" the funeral had been "okay" as was first grade at Leadville Elementary. When asked if he knew his letters and numbers, the boy said "Yes," but did not elaborate. Finally, the social worker gave up and they finished the trip to the clinic in silence.
She waited outside the single examination room while the county nurse performed the boy's physical. Through the open door, she heard him answer the nurse's questions with flat monosyllables, and she worried that maybe the boy truly was slow. If so, finding him a long-term foster placement, let alone someone to adopt him, would be almost impossible.
Her worries vanished when the nurse poked her head through the doorway.
"The boy's sound as a dollar," was her prognosis. "His hearing's fine, but he's terribly near-sighted—can only read the top line on the eye chart. Get him some glasses and he'll be as right as rain."
Back in her car, the boy resumed his silent staring, but now the social worker knew the reason for his passivity—why watch the scenery when it's nothing but a blur? She left him to his thoughts while she drove across town to the Williamsons, a couple paid by the state to keep children for short-term and emergency placements.
"Oh, we'll fit him in somewhere," Mrs. Williamson told her, "and the Ladies' Guild just dropped off a bag of clothing. I'm sure we can find him something to wear."
Miss Bellinger's last glimpse of the boy that day was of him following Mrs. Williamson into her house. He didn't turn back to wave nor did he watch her drive away.
Two days later, the social worker returned to take the boy to the optometrist. His hair had been buzzed short by an amateur with electric clippers, but his winter coat, red plaid shirt and dungarees were clean and the proper size. He responded politely when she asked about the Williamsons and the other children at their house then he focused his attention on the dashboard and remained quiet until he was seated in Doctor Burdette's examining room, where he gave the strange metal equipment a nervous glance.
"It's an optical refractor," the optometrist explained in response to the boy's fear. "I'll use it to check your eyes after you read my chart. How about giving it a try?"
The boy again failed to recognize any letter except the large E at its top. Dr. Burdette patted him on the shoulder to console him.
"Don't worry about it. Now, look straight ahead for me while I shine a light in your eyes."
The boy sat stock-still while the doctor examined each of his eyes.
"No cataracts," he murmured, "no retinal tears, no problems that I can see. Now, let's try this..."
He made some adjustments to the refractory, each click of the mechanism causing the boy to flinch, then he swung it around until it blocked Miss Bellinger's view of the boy's face.
"Look through the lenses and read me the smallest line that you can make out," the optometrist ordered.
Seconds passed, but the only sound was a quick inhalation as the boy caught his breath.
"Which lines can you read?" Dr. Burdette prompted.
The answer came in an awe-struck whisper.
"All of them."
Dr. Burdette chuckled at his surprise.
"I'm a good guesser," he said. "Now, let's make sure we've got you the right lenses."
It took five minutes and a series of "Is that first one clearer or is this one?"questions to fine-tune the optometrist's selection. When he went to move the refractor away from the boy's face, the boy reached up as though to pull it back.
"Sorry," Dr. Burdette told him, "those lenses are mine. You'll have your own glasses next week."
The boy's hand returned to his lap as his shoulders slumped. The optometrist ignored his disappointment as he turned to Miss Bellinger.
"Basic boy's frames, right?"
She nodded to confirm the state's unwillingness to spend a penny more than was necessary—not that the frugality mattered to the boy when he and Miss Bellinger returned one week later. The moment his new glasses were placed on his face, he began to examine everything in the office, drinking in the details and intricacies of the equipment, tools, and charts. Pointing to each one in turn, he asked what it did and where it came from and how it was made until the doctor threw up his hands and pleaded for a chance to see his next patient.
The drive back to his foster home was spent with the boy pressed against the passenger window. Miss Bellinger watched him as he observed the rhythmic curves of the telephone and electrical wires along the road. She saw him follow the swoop of a crow as it flew from treetop to ground, and she noted how he tracked the tree branches as they narrowed from trunk to twig to bud. She smiled as he began to read the license numbers of the cars on the road and the names on the mail boxes. He found the button to the glove box and, seeing the owner's manual for her car, read aloud the table of contents for it, working out the pronunciation of the unfamiliar words so quickly that the social worker marveled that she had once thought the boy slow.
A pair of thick lenses set in cheap plastic frames. It was a miracle the boy never forgot.