Sonny Boy

Taylor wasn't sleeping exactly, when he heard the knock at the door.

But the lights were off in the rest of the apartment, his computer was dozing in the shadows next to the closet, and his finger had fallen from its place in his biology textbook. He jumped from his bed, hoping to beat his mother to the door, since it was after midnight on a Thursday.

No good ever came from unscheduled visits in the middle of the night. He knew this from sad experience.

But she was too fast for him, even though her bedroom was farther down the hall. When he got to the front door, she was already on tip toes peering through the peep hole.

The squeal she let out startled him. But as she tore the silk scarf from her head and grappled with the bolt locks, he could see that her face was creased with a broad grin. To his relief, the frown that had seemed a perpetual feature for the past month was now smoothed from her forehead.

The man he knew as John was suddenly in the room, fierce eyes trained on his mother, arms reaching for her as he moved forward.

They embraced, and since he was much taller, John's face was buried in the top of his mother's head. Taylor couldn't make out the words he mumbled into her hair, but he could see that she was trembling because the hems of her pink pajama pants were fluttering around her ankles.

John looked at him over her head. His eyes were sparkling and he mouthed the words 'Thank you' so that Taylor could see, but his mother couldn't hear.

Taylor nodded and then looked beyond John's shoulder to the form silhouetted in the door frame.

This was the man he knew as Harold. But this didn't look like the focused and buoyant getaway driver Taylor remembered from the night of the kidnapping and bold rescue last spring.

This Harold looked deflated, vacant; as thin and white as the bed sheets that hung on the line in back of his great aunt's house in Roanoke every wash day.

Taylor moved forward to grasp Harold by the hand; the skin felt dry and crinkly like tissue paper. He pulled firmly and led the man into the apartment, around his mother and John.

The next fifteen minutes were compressed into a dizzying slide show of images both cozy and haunting: John steering Harold to the sofa; leather jackets flung across the arm chairs; his mother turning on the lights around the living room; John gently pushing the older man by his shoulders until he sat down; shoes untied and tossed under the coffee table; Taylor bringing glasses of water from the kitchen.

His mother kept up a barrage of questions and orders, her voice rising as the minutes passed; but the two men remained silent.

Finally, John took his mother by the shoulders, held her at arm's length from his body and shook her slightly.

"Joss, look at me. I'm alright. I'm not hurt. I will answer all your questions later, I promise. But right now, we have to help Harold.

"He hasn't said a single word since I found him five days ago."

Taylor moved beside his mother and looped an arm around her waist. All three of them looked at the stricken man on the sofa.

Harold stared past them with a mild gaze that was cool, blank. As if he saw them clearly enough but couldn't, or didn't care to, acknowledge their presence.

"I found him at an old lodge on Lake Priest in northern Idaho. The innkeeper told me Harold had been like this for three days before I arrived.

"He said she had paid for the room through the end of the week. She said someone would be along to pick him up.

"Like he was a goddamn package!"

Taylor saw his mother squeeze John's hand as he collected himself.

"We drove straight through from Idaho. Only stopped to eat and sleep. But I couldn't get him to do much of either.

"He wouldn't eat, no matter what I gave him. Only a little water once in a while.

"And at night he would just sit on the side of the motel bed staring out the window.

"Or at a corner of the room. Or at nothing. Just like now. All night. For five nights. He's… I don't know what it is. Shock, maybe. Or something… I just ..."

John's scattered account was delivered in a soft monotone that Taylor had to strain to hear.

This story seemed to galvanize his mother into action. She told Taylor to run a bath, not too hot. And she whirled around her own room changing the sheets on the bed.

She rummaged through the hall closet for a pile of clean towels, wash cloths, and a new bar of Palmolive soap. These she stacked on the closed toilet bowl in the hall bathroom as Taylor turned off the stream and tested the water in the tub.

John asked Taylor for aid and together they lifted his partner from the sofa, propelled him down the hall and into the bathroom. Taylor edged away, moving to leave, but the other man stopped him.

"I could use the help here. I'm afraid to drop him."

Together they pulled off Harold's clothing. So many layers of a once-immaculate dark gray wool suit: jacket, vest, and pleated trousers, the knife-sharp creases now blunted, stiff patches of a dark stain stippling the lapels. The coordinating socks, red tie and a silky handkerchief had been folded carefully in the jacket's outer pocket.

She had dressed him with great attention to detail.

John slid Harold into the tub, the older man's lax muscles offering no resistance or support.

Standing with his back pressed against the door of the tiny room, Taylor watched as John silently worked the soap bar against the other man's scalp until it foamed and dribbled down his neck. The light trails made by the lather revealed how gray with grime the skin was.

When he was done and the tub was drained, John nodded again and together they pulled Harold to a standing position. Taylor lined some of the towels along the bottom of the tub to make a secure platform and they dried him as best they could.

Taylor noted several tiny wounds, pairs of red crusted marks at the wrists, arm pits, groin, and soles of the feet.

He didn't think he was staring, but John saw and explained softly:

"She tortured him."

"Why?"

"I don't know exactly. He must know something she wants."

The finality of John's tone put an end to that line of conversation.

He pinned Taylor with his eyes and gave a gentle order.

"You're his size, just about. You must have something he could wear. Pajamas or something."

Taylor fled the bathroom as nausea rose in his stomach. He was glad that his mother was in the kitchen so she couldn't see him and ask what the matter was.

Swallowing hard to keep down the bile, he found in his bureau a soft blue t-shirt and a pair of blue-and-white striped pajama bottoms and brought them back to John.

"Mom said to put him in her bedroom. That way he can rest better."

John nodded and the first hint of a smile moved across his mouth, although it didn't reach his eyes.

When Harold was finally settled in the bed, slumped against the headboard like a life-sized doll made of wax and linen, Taylor pulled the white coverlet up to his chest and tucked it in around his flanks.

They had done what they could for Harold for the moment.

As Taylor turned to leave, a hand flew to his forearm, gripping it like a vise. The pain was sudden, intense, but welcome.

At Taylor's quick intake of breath, John turned his head and saw the startling tableau: the man absent and stiff under the covers, holding onto the boy's arm, while continuing to stare straight ahead.

White nails pressing livid crescents into dark flesh, both mouths gaping.

"No."

The word was sharp.

A plea? A command? A defiant proclamation? Taylor couldn't judge the meaning exactly. When he tried to tug his arm free, the grip tightened.

"No."

Harold was adamant and clearer now.

John's eyes were bright. Taylor thought there might be tears gathering along the reddened rims.

"I think he wants you to stay, Taylor."

I hope I'm not crowding you too much, Harold. This bed looks wider when you're not in it, right?

John said you wanted me to stay with you, so I'm going to try it for a while. I guess since you haven't talked in a long while, he thought I should hang close and see if you had anything else you wanted. Or wanted to say.

Or maybe needed tonight.

Don't worry, he hasn't gone far. He's just in the kitchen with my mom fixing something to eat. Probably the mac-n-cheese I made for dinner this evening and the left-overs from the roast chicken from last night. I hope you like mac-n-cheese. It turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself.

I learned how to make it from my great aunt Ella this summer when I stayed with her and my other great aunts and all my cousins in Roanoke. Those old ladies are really amazing cooks, which is weird because my mother doesn't even know how to boil water! Maybe the cooking gene jumped a generation and landed on me. That'd be cool, wouldn't it?

I guess you don't know what I've been up to since you and John rescued me last April. I don't know if you want to know. Maybe you don't care. That's cool. But we have a whole lotta time tonight, so I'll tell you anyway. Better than just sitting staring at the wall, right?

So. My mom took me to Virginia, like she does every summer. She says she wants me to get to know her side of the family better. But I think she's afraid that if I stay in the city, I'll get mixed up in some kind of gangsta trouble or something; that's why she wants me outta here.

I think she's even more scared now after the kidnapping, you know? She wants to protect me. I get that, of course.

But after that shit went down and you and John rescued me, she didn't want to talk about it. Not at all. I asked her a few times about you and John, but she just blew me off. Said I didn't need to know anything, that it was too dangerous.

Like she was scared that if we talked about it, it would happen all over again.

She made me see the counselor at school a few times, but what's the point of that? He wasn't there, didn't know anything. Completely clueless.

All he could talk about was that school guard that got shot. Made me feel like it was my fault he got killed or something. The teachers looking at me like I was a lost kitten. The kids staring at me, whispering that I was the one who got taken. Like it was my fault.

Made my stomach hurt sometimes, but I never told Mom.

That whole kidnapping thing was just so weird, you know? I mean, you do know now, don't you?

It felt like it was happening to another person. Like you're cut off from your own body or something crazy like that.

Did you feel that way? Like you were thrown off the diving board and you could look down from the ceiling and see your own body splashing around and going under and coming up and going under again, but you couldn't scream or anything. Nobody could hear. That's how I felt then.

That's how I feel now sometimes...

Well, anyway. Here's the rundown on my family in Virginia: my great aunts Alice, Juliette, and Fannie Ella. They are my grandmother's sisters. We were ten cousins in all, visiting from all over the country, sorta like a family summer camp.

My cousins don't get called by their real names anymore. I know what they are, but sometimes I forget because they only get called by family names when we are together. It goes like this: Son, for the oldest boy, then Big Buddy, Sister, Tikki, Peaches, Little Buddy, Tac, Puffi, and Baby.

And me. I'm Sonny Boy 'cause I'm the youngest of the cousins.

I was there with the whole crowd for almost two months and most days were pretty cool. We played basketball or went fishing every day. Went to the movies each week and visited other kids in town every evening after dinner, while my aunts stayed on the front porch talking.

And we had to go to church every Sunday, rain or shine. My mother was just rolling her eyeballs at that, but I know my grandma was happy to hear it. We had to eat dinner every evening at six o'clock sharp. I was late a couple of times and let me tell you, it is hard lasting all the way to breakfast without any food!

Aunt Ella insisted we all say grace before we ate and we took turns, a different cousin saying it every night. We said grace this way: "Dear Lord, make us truly grateful for what we are about to receive for the nourishment of our bodies, for Christ's sake, Amen." Short and sweet like that.

Big Buddy taught me to play the harmonica a little bit, taught me three whole songs. And he would tell the aunts that Sonny Boy had real talent, even though I doubt it was true.

The aunts had projects for us too, like painting the whole inside of Aunt Ella's house and then rebuilding the garage and working in the big vegetable garden out back.

To get out of some of that heavy labor, I volunteered to help in the kitchen. I learned a lot from those old ladies and it was fun hearing their stories about the rest of the family too. I learned how to make macaroni and cheese, biscuits, fried catfish, hush puppies, yellow layer cake, salmon croquettes, creamed spinach, and deviled eggs. And lots more dishes too. My mom makes me cook a couple nights a week now that I'm back, which I like to do. It takes a load off of her when she works so late, so I don't mind doing it.

The summer went fast, too fast. And then I had to come back home.

Don't get me wrong. I wanted to come back, see Mom, catch up with my friends and all. But the mood she was in, it was like living inside a permanent thunder storm.

Look here! Just like I told you, they were fixing up something for you to eat.

His mother smiled at him and set the tray down on the bed next to Harold. She seemed sad and hesitant, even though he smiled in return.

A minute later John followed with two cans of ginger ale which he placed on the tables at either side of the bed. Harold didn't turn his head or track either of them with his eyes.

After they left Taylor inspected the tray. A tablespoon of macaroni crusted with golden cheese, a similar sized mound of Cheerios, a cut up banana, and slices of roast chicken were arrayed around the small white plate. He shredded the chicken into pieces and slowly stretched across Harold's inert body to move the plate closer to his right hand.

Harold made no effort to eat the food. Taylor leaned back against the headboard, not wanting to look again at the absent eyes, the sagging mouth. He scooted a little closer so that their shoulders touched and then remained still.

John knocked on the bedroom door and Taylor said he could enter. He wondered why John was being so formal given the intimate circumstances the four of them were in this strange night. But it wasn't his habit to ask too many questions out loud, so he let the moment pass.

"I need to take a shower. It's been a long drive."

John was already unbuttoning his soiled black shirt as he spoke. He went into the little bathroom that made this a master suite and soon the gushing sounds of the shower took over both spaces.

Taylor could feel the heat rise in the bedroom as the steam seeped under the door.

After a while John came out, his middle swathed in a large white towel. As he roughed up his head with another towel, Taylor noted that his hair was shaggier than it had been when he had last seen John three weeks ago.

Grayer too, Taylor thought.

He saw the golden brown color on John's face and arms to the elbows and a patch of red like a badge just below the notch at his throat, marks of the long hours spent driving. Sunglasses had left pale squares around both eyes, making their watery gray starker than usual.

Taylor was surprised when John pulled open the bottom drawer of his mother's bureau and removed a folded white t-shirt and a pair of faded jeans, ironed.

This clothing wasn't his mother's, wasn't his, weren't the few items they still had from his father.

These belonged to John.

He thought John looked graceful and strong as he pulled on the jeans and t-shirt. Without a word, John left the room and closed the door behind him.

The apartment was quiet now that the shower was off. Taylor could hear the tick of the clock on the bedside table and then the gentle swoosh of the refrigerator being opened and closed. He thought he could hear the snick of cans being popped open. Beer, he guessed.

He could hear the soft mingling of tones as his mother and John talked, first in the kitchen then in the living room. This distant confiding murmur of adult voices, muted and mysterious, reminded him of nights lying upstairs in the old house in Roanoke, listening to the sing-song of his aunts as they talked in the summer dark on the front porch.

He felt comforted, enclosed, and safe.

He wanted to talk with Harold again.

When I got back home, it didn't really feel so much like home to me. I don't know why, but it felt different.

My mom was happy to see me, for sure. All clingy and teary eyed for days after I came back.

I checked in with my boys Ozzie, Mike, and Levon and caught up on what was happening here while I was gone. Nothing much really: same old same old.

School started again and it was good. The teachers still looked at me like they felt sorry for me, but the kids were O.K. about it. It was good to have a routine to get into because Mom was all weird then, not like her usual up-tight, cheery self. Different.

I thought something bad was going on at work, but when I called to the station and talked with her partner, Detective Fusco, and he seemed alright: bouncy and loud like he always is.

I couldn't really ask Grandma directly, didn't expect her to know much anyway. She and Mom talk every other day, but mostly about public stuff, you know, like what's on TV or who's saying what at the beauty parlor or what's happening in Grandma's church committees. Stuff like that. Not about feelings.

I heard my mother cry a few times in here, when she closed the door after she thought I had gone to sleep at night.

And I heard her on the phone lots of times, with pretty harsh words too. Lots of "No" and "I can't" and "Don't ask me that." It seemed like it was a single argument, but it went on for days and days.

One night, I heard the front door creak open and then shut again. I jumped out of bed and went to the living room windows to look out. I could see my mother, in her robe and pajamas, running across the street to a black car parked under a street light. I still remember how her flip-flops sounded slapping against the pavement.

She leaned in at the driver's side and then talked for a long time to whoever was there. When she finally turned around to walk back to the apartment, I could see in the lamplight that her eyes were all red and puffy. I got back to my bedroom just before she came in the door.

Two nights later, it happened again. I heard the door open and softly close. I made it to the front window just in time to see my mom get into the passenger side of the car, the same one as before.

But this time, since she wasn't blocking the view, I could see who the driver was. John.

I thought they would drive away, but they just stayed there, double parked. For about half an hour.

When she got out of the car, I could see that her eyes were red and puffy like before. But so were her lips.

Crying and kissing both.

I guess I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.

And somehow, underneath, I wasn't really surprised either.

Something about the way John first introduced himself, that night he rescued me, really stuck in my mind. I asked who he was. And he said, "Your mother sent me." Plain and short, like he wanted me to take in each word and hold onto them.

It meant something; I just didn't know exactly what then.

After that night under the lamplight, she changed back to more like her old self. She started spending lots of time with me.

It was like every weekend was time for a new field trip.

One Saturday she took me to dinner way across town in a funny old Indian restaurant. She knows I like Indian food because I always vote for that when we order take-out.

But the food at this place was off the chain good and the people we met there were such nosy characters, so bossy and friendly. The head lady promised to teach me how to cook an Indian dish, which I would love to do. I hope we go back there again soon.

Another weekend, on a windy Sunday afternoon, we went down to a tiny little park near Chinatown. Mom introduced me to this cool old dude who was out sitting under a tree by himself.

This guy was blind, but really clued in. He taught me a few of the basic moves for Chinese chess. It's called xiangqi, which means "Elephant Game."

If you want, I'll teach you how to play sometime. I belong to the chess club at school and I think I'm going to try to get them to at least take a crack at learning xiangqi this year.

Then Mom took me to Harlem. We go there pretty often because she likes to shop or go to the museums. But this time we went to St. Nicholas Park which is near Strivers' Row.

We didn't really do much; just sat on a bench in front of a ginormous rock and talked. She told me lots about famous people like Cab Calloway and Andrew Austin and Adam Clayton Powell and plenty of other people she knew about from history. It was fun, but she seemed sort of blue by the time we came home.

All these trips, meeting these people, hearing these stories. I think she wanted to teach me stuff like she always does. But I got the idea this was more personal, like she wanted me to know about her too. About her and John, in a roundabout way, I guess.

One day about five weeks ago, I called Mom's station house one morning because I needed her approval for a school project. I asked for her but Detective Fusco said she had called out sick, said she had a bad headache.

Well, I didn't say anything more because I didn't want to get her in trouble. But he could tell something was going on: she wasn't at the office and she wasn't answering the home phone or her cell either.

When she got home that evening, I had already made some fried catfish, which I know she likes a lot. I didn't exactly tease her; she doesn't take too well to leg pulling, you know. But I did let her get the idea that I knew she was off playing hooky that day.

She just laughed and said it was none of my business where she went.

But she said it with a spark in her eye, so I knew she wasn't mad at me.

I don't know about you, Harold. But all this talk about food is making me hungry again. You don't mind if I take some off your plate, do you?

Taylor picked at the morsels of chicken and turned the can of ginger ale upside down to finish it.

He thought he noticed a glint of something sharp in Harold's eyes as he leaned over him to retrieve the food.

"Hey, you're right. I forgot to say grace before the meal. My bad."

Taylor repeated the phrase he had learned from his aunts and cousins:

"Dear Lord, make us truly grateful for what we are about to receive for the nourishment of our bodies, for Christ's sake, Amen."

After a pause, he added, "I'm sorry I don't know any other way to say grace, just that one. Sorta boring, but it'll have to do. Unless you got a better one."

Taylor finished off all the chicken and the banana for dessert.

"Sorry to put a crimp in your style there, Harold. I'll go get some more for you. Wait here and don't worry, I'll be right back."

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and slowly backed out of the room, keeping his eyes on the broken man as he moved through the door.

Before entering the kitchen, Taylor tiptoed into the darkened living room. He could see his mother's head, angled against the sofa back, her smooth face directed toward the ceiling, her eyes closed in sleep. When he crept further into the room, he could see John stretched along the sofa, his head on her lap.

Their hands were entwined, clasped on John's chest as it rose and fell in a peaceful rhythm.

Taylor returned to his mother's bedroom carrying a plate restocked with chicken, some red grapes pulled from the branch, and another can of ginger ale. He sat the new offering down on the tray.

"I got the grub, Harold. Hope you're ready to dig in."

Nothing.

I don't know exactly when you were taken.

I guess my mom found out from John a few days after it happened. She didn't say anything directly to me, but I figured out something was wrong.

Several afternoons in a row, when I came home from school, Detective Fusco and my mom were huddled in the living room, talking low about something pretty urgent. They changed the subject when I came in the door, so I knew it was police work, something real bad. But something they couldn't discuss at the station.

Lionel stayed for dinner those nights and when I went to my room after washing up in the kitchen, I could hear them talking on the phone to somebody. I figured it was John, but they never said his name.

Then one afternoon ten days ago, John was standing on the steps to our apartment when I got home from school. He looked real pale and the skin around his eyes was sooty and sunken. I noticed his lips were all dry and flaking too.

We stood in the lobby just behind the glass door, even though I invited him to come up. He looked shaky, like he needed to sit down, but he refused to come further inside.

He told me that you were gone, kidnapped.

He said he had an idea of where to find you and that he was going to leave that evening to get you back.

He told me that my mother and Detective Fusco had been helping him locate you. But now he had to go and get you. He was going to do it alone.

I asked if it was dangerous and he said yes, it could be. He didn't look afraid at all, just determined and hard.

He wasn't angry, exactly. But he was pacing in front of the mailboxes like a lion in a cage. Like he had so much energy inside he needed to let it out somehow or he would burst.

I asked if I could help.

He said yes. Then he asked me to take care of my mother while he was gone.

I said, "Of course."

He grabbed me by both shoulders and said, "Not like that. Not 'of course.'"

He pinned me against the glass door.

"Say it with your heart."

So I gave him my word as a man that I would take care of her and protect her until he came back.

He let me go then and disappeared around the corner while I was still catching my breath.

That evening, I didn't tell my mother that I had seen John. She was worked up enough as it was without thinking about his request to me.

These last ten days have been a nightmare, Harold.

We didn't hear from John, didn't know where he was. Didn't know if you were safe. If he was safe.

My mother cried quite a bit. Not as much as she did in the summer when I first came back, but a lot.

One night, she invited Detective Fusco and his son over for dinner. We had a great time just playing video games and laughing about the way she burned the fried chicken. It tasted pretty funky, I'll tell you, but we ate it all the same.

At least the creamed spinach I made came out good!

I pulled out the harmonica Big Buddy had given me last summer and they applauded when I finished the three songs he taught me how to play. So I played an encore, the same three songs all over again.

I don't know who needed the distraction more that night: her, him, or me. But it worked and the gloom lifted a little for us all, at least for that one night.

Waiting like that, day after day, alone with nothing to do, no word, no idea. It makes all the worst thoughts swirl around until your head just pounds and your stomach hurts.

Then you two turned up tonight. And you know the rest.

I don't know about you, Harold, but I'm getting a little sleepy now.

So I'm just going to slide down here next to you and take a few winks before the sun comes up.

Wake me if you need me.

Taylor did as he promised and lay flat on top of the covers.

He pulled the pillow from behind his back and laid his head upon it. He rolled to his side, away from the still man next to him and curled his knees to his chest in the same familiar position he always found most comforting.

Harold turned stiffly to look down at the boy beside him.

He clutched Taylor's forearm in a trembling hand and pressed down firmly.

"Grace."

Taylor heard and rolled over to look at him with drooping eyes.

"I already said grace before I ate. But if you want to say it again, be my guest."

"Grace."

The man was insistent and alert now.

"O.K. Alright, don't get in a sweat about it. Here goes:

"Dear Lord, make us truly grateful for what we are about to receive for the nourishment of our bodies. For Christ's sake. Amen."

Harold reached for the grapes on the plate at his side and placed one in his mouth.

Taylor sat up and watched as the man slowly chewed the grape, then a Cheerio, then a few bits of the chicken.

"Grace."

Harold repeated the incantation again and again as he finished all the food on the plate.

Taylor finally fell asleep, listening to the soft chanting of that single word.

Was it a plea? An oath? A name? A prayer?

He didn't know yet. He would ask in the morning.

And when the sun came up the next day, blazing into his eyes, he heard again Harold's charmed song, still softly insisting on its single note of hope.