“Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,” Mrs. Stroud said, “there are one or two things you ought to understand.” She took out a State of Maine Department of Health and Human Services folder and laid it on the kitchen table.
My mother looked at me for a long time. Then she looked at my father.
He put his hand on my back. “Jack should know what we’re getting into, same as us,” he said. He looked down at me. “Maybe you more than anyone.”
My mother nodded, and Mrs. Stroud opened the folder.
This is what she told us.
Two months ago, when Joseph was at Adams Lake Juvenile, a kid gave him something bad in the boys’ bathroom. He went into a stall and swallowed it.
After a long time, his teacher came looking for him.
When she found him, he screamed.
She said he’d better come out of that stall right now.
He screamed again.
She said he’d better come out of that stall right now unless he wanted more trouble.
So he did.
Then he tried to kill her.
They sent Joseph to Stone Mountain, even though he did what he did because the kid gave him something bad and he swallowed it. But that didn’t matter. They sent him to Stone Mountain anyway.
He won’t talk about what happened to him there. But since he left Stone Mountain, he won’t wear anything orange.
He won’t let anyone stand behind him.
He won’t let anyone touch him.
He won’t go into rooms that are too small.
And he won’t eat canned peaches.
“He’s not very big on meatloaf either,” said Mrs. Stroud, and she closed the State of Maine Department of Health and Human Services folder.
“He’ll eat my mother’s canned peaches,” I said.
Mrs. Stroud smiled. “We’ll see,” she said. Then she put her hand on mine. “Jack, your parents know this, and you should too. There’s something else about Joseph.”
“What?” I said.
“He has a daughter.”
I felt my father’s hand against my back.
“She’s almost three months old, but he’s never seen her. That’s one of the biggest heartbreaks in this case.” Mrs. Stroud handed the folder to my mother. “Mrs. Hurd, I’ll leave this with you. Read it, and then you can decide. Call me in a few days if . . .”
“We’ve talked this over,” said my mother. “We already know.”
“Are you sure?”
My mother nodded.
“We’re sure,” my father said.
Mrs. Stroud looked at me. “How about you, Jack?”
My father’s hand still against my back.
“How soon can he come?” I said.
Two days later, on Friday, Mrs. Stroud brought Joseph home. He looked like a regular eighth-grade kid at Eastham Middle School. Black eyes, black hair almost over his eyes, a little less than middle for height, a little less than middle for weight, sort of middle for everything else.
He really could have been any other eighth-grade kid at Eastham Middle School. Except he had a daughter. And he wouldn’t look at you when he talked—if he talked.
He didn’t say a thing when he got out of Mrs. Stroud’s car. He wouldn’t let my mother hug him. He wouldn’t shake my father’s hand. And when I brought him up to our room, he threw his stuff on the top bunk and climbed up and still didn’t say anything.
I got in the bunk below him and read some until my father called us for milking.
In the Big Barn, Joseph and I tore up three bales and filled the bins—I told him you have to fill the bin in the Small Barn for Quintus Sertorius first because he’s an old horse and doesn’t like to wait—and then we went back to the cows in the tie-up to milk. My father said Joseph could watch but after today he’d be helping. Joseph stood with his back against the wall. When the cows turned and looked at him, they didn’t say a thing. Not even Dahlia. They kept pulling on the hay and chewing, like they do. That means they thought he was okay.
When my father got to Rosie, he asked Joseph if he’d like to try milking her.
Joseph shook his head.
“She’s gentle. She’d let anyone milk her.”
Joseph didn’t say anything.
Still, after my father was done and he’d taken a couple of full buckets out to the cooler, Joseph went up behind Rosie and reached out and rubbed the end of her back, right above her tail. He didn’t know that Rosie loved anyone who rubbed her rump, so when she mooed and swayed her behind, Joseph took a couple of quick steps back.
I said, “She’s just telling you she’s—”
“I don’t care,” said Joseph, and he left the barn.
The next morning, though, when the three of us went out to the Big Barn to milk, Joseph went to Rosie first, and he reached out and rubbed her rump again. And Rosie told Joseph she loved him.
That was the first time I saw Joseph smile. Sort of.
Joseph had never touched a cow’s rump before. Or her teat even. Really. So he was terrible at milking. And even though I kept rubbing her rump while Joseph was being terrible at milking, Rosie got pretty frustrated, and finally she kicked over the pail because Joseph didn’t have his leg out in front of hers. It didn’t matter much because there was hardly any milk in it anyway.
Joseph stood up just when my father came in.
My father looked at the pail and the spilled milk.
Then at Joseph.
“I think there’s something you need to finish there, Joseph,” he said.
“You need milk this bad, there’s probably a store where you can get some like normal people,” he said.
It was the longest string of words he’d said.
“I don’t need the milk,” said my father. He pointed at Rosie. “But she needs you to milk her.”
“She doesn’t need me to—”
“She needs you.” My father stacked his two pails to the side, then righted Joseph’s pail underneath Rosie. “Sit down on the stool,” he said. It took a few seconds, but Joseph came and sat down, and my father knelt beside him and reached beneath Rosie. “I’ll show you again. With your thumb and forefinger, you pinch off the top—like this, and then let your fingers strip the milk down—like this.” A squirt of milk against the metal side. Another. Another. Then my father stood.
A few seconds. More than a few.
Then Joseph reached under and tried.
“Thumb and forefinger tight, then run down your other fingers.”
Joseph tried again.
My father took over rubbing Rosie’s rump.
She mooed once, and then the squirting began. It was slow and not all that steady, but Joseph was milking, and soon the sound in the pail wasn’t the sound of milk on metal, but that foamy sound of milk in milk.
My father looked at me and smiled. Then he went around behind Joseph to pick up the pails he’d stacked.
bang!—Joseph leaped up as if something had exploded beneath him. His pail got knocked over again and the stool and Rosie mooed her afraid moo and Joseph stood with his back against the barn wall with his hands up, and even though he usually didn’t look at anyone he was looking at us and breathing fast and hard, like there wasn’t enough air in the whole wide world to breathe!
My father looked at him, and I could see something in my father’s eyes I’d never seen before. Sadness, I guess. “I’m sorry, Joseph. I’ll try to remember,” he said. He bent down and picked up his pails. “I’ll finish here. You boys better go back to the house and get washed up. Jack, tell Mom I’ll be a few minutes.”
It was almost dawn when we went outside, Joseph and me. The peaks to the west were lit up and spilling some of the light down their sides and onto our fields, all harvested and turned and ready for the long winter. You could smell the cold air and the wood smoke. The pond had broken panes of ice on the edges, enough to annoy the geese, and from the Small Barn you could hear Quintus Sertorius at his grain, snorting in his bin. Rosie mooed inside the barn. Everywhere in the gray yard, color was filling in—the red barns, the green shutters, the green trim on the house and the yellow trim on the chicken shed, the orange tabby clawing into the fence rail.
Joseph didn’t stop to see anything. He missed it all. He went into the house, still breathing hard. The door slapped shut behind him.
Still, that afternoon he was back in the Big Barn. And he rubbed Rosie’s rump. And she mooed. And then he milked her. All the way, even though it took a long time.
“Do you think Joseph will fit in?” my mother asked me later.
“Rosie loves him,” I said.
I didn’t need to say anything more. You can tell all you need to know about someone from the way cows are around him.
On Monday, Joseph and I tried to ride the bus to school, which I’d done a million times and it wasn’t exactly a big deal. You wait in the cold and the dark, the bus pulls up, most times Mr. Haskell doesn’t talk to you or even look at you because it’s cold and it’s dark and he didn’t spend all his life wanting to be a bus driver, you know, so you better shut up and go sit down. So you shut up and go sit down and the bus bumps over to Eastham Middle.
Like I said, not a big deal.
But that morning I got on and Joseph got on behind me and Mr. Haskell looked past me and said, “You’re that kid that has a kid,” and Joseph stopped dead on the bus steps. “I couldn’t believe it when Mr. Canton told us. Aren’t you a little young?”
Joseph turned around and got off the bus.
“Hey, if you want to walk, it’s no skin off my nose. Two miles, that way. And—What do you think you’re doing?”
That last part was to me, because I got off the bus too.
“You’re nuts,” said Mr. Haskell.
I shrugged. Maybe we were.
“You know, I didn’t mean anything. Just getting to know you, kid.”
Joseph stood still. His black eyes stared at Mr. Haskell.
Mr. Haskell’s face got hard. “Suit yourselves,” he said. “It’s twenty-one degrees out there.” He closed the door and shifted into gear. I saw the faces of Ernie Hupfer and John Wall and Danny Nations plugged into his ear buds all looking out the windows, staring at me like I was the biggest jerk in the world, walking to school in twenty-one degrees. And then the bus was nothing but rising exhaust down the road.
I blew my breath out, long and slow. I’m not sure it was even twenty-one degrees.
“Why’d you do that?” said Joseph.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You should have stayed on the bus.”
Joseph took off his backpack. It was pretty much empty, since he hadn’t gotten any of his books yet. “Give me some of your stuff,” he said.
I gave him
Physical Science Today! and
Language Arts for the New Century, which was sort of out of date because the new century was a dozen years old already. I pulled out my gym stuff, but he said I could carry my own stinking jock. And he took
Octavian Nothing and looked at the first page and then looked at me, and I said, “It’s supposed to be hard,” and he shrugged and stuck it into his backpack.
Then he slung his backpack over his shoulder and nodded down the road and we set off, two miles, and it wasn’t any twenty-one degrees.
Joseph walked a little behind me the whole way.
I won’t even tell you what my fingers felt like by the time we turned at old First Congregational.
I looked behind me. Joseph’s ears were about as red as ears can get before falling off and shattering on the road.
“Would you have known you’re supposed to turn here?” I said.
When we got to school, the late bell had rung and the halls were empty except for Mr. Canton, who is the kind of vice principal who really wanted to be a sergeant in a foreign war zone, but he missed out so he’s patrolling middle school halls instead.
“You miss the bus?” he said.
“Sort of,” I said.
“Sort of?” he said.
“We got off,” I said.
“Why did you get off?”
“Because the bus driver is a jerk,” said Joseph.
Mr. Canton got bigger. Really. He stood taller and his shoulders spread and his arms widened away from his body.
“Mr. Brook, right? Maybe one of your problems is a lack of respect.”
Joseph knelt and unzipped his backpack. He handed me my books. Except for
“This means a tardy for both of you. You understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
Mr. Canton waited, but Joseph just zipped up his backpack and stood.
“Get to class, Jackson,” Mr. Canton said. “Joseph, you come with me and I’ll go over your schedule. You do have a schedule, you know.”
Joseph didn’t say anything. He followed Mr. Canton, walking a little behind him.
At supper, I told my parents Joseph and I were walking to school from now on. Joseph kept eating. He didn’t even look up.
“That right?” said my father. He looked at Joseph, who still didn’t look up, and after a while my father said, “You boys will need some warm gloves and hats. And probably some heavier sweaters. It’s already pretty cold out. It looks like we’re in for a wicked winter.”
My mother had them all ready for us the next morning.
Which was good, since this time it really wasn’t even close to twenty-one degrees.
When the bus drove past, catching us a little after the turn by old First Congregational, Ernie Hupfer and John Wall and Danny Nations with the wires to his ear buds flapping hard pulled down their windows and they hollered out to tell us what idiots we were, and didn’t we know it was like ten degrees?
When they were gone, Joseph said, “Hey.” I looked behind me. He’d dropped his backpack and picked up a stone from the side of the road. He turned and lobbed it toward the bell tower of old First Congregational.
I’d never heard that bell ring before.
I dropped my backpack too. I missed with my first throw. It’s hard to throw with your gloves on.
I missed with my second throw too. And my third. And, well . . .
“You’re throwing off your front foot. Push off with your back.”
So I did, and the second time, I hit the bell pretty square. The second time!
I nodded. I might have said something if my whole face hadn’t been frozen.
His second smile. Sort of.
After that, we walked to school together every day. At least, kind of together. He was always a little behind me. We followed the Alliance River—running dark and fast this time of year, and cold as all get-out. We’d stop at old First Congregational to clang the bell. If we’d taken a right turn past it, we’d go onto the bridge that humps over the river—or it used to. Now most of the wooden slats were broken through and a gate with a Bridge Out sign stopped traffic.
We turned left to head to school. And even though we didn’t talk much, I think Joseph might have been glad I was there.
But I’m not sure all the teachers were glad Joseph was at Eastham Middle.
For Social Studies with Mr. Oates and Language Arts with Mrs. Halloway, he sat in the last seat in the second row next to me, since I sat in the last seat in the first row. Even though he was in the eighth grade and I was in sixth. He did go to eighth-grade pre-Algebra with Mr. D’Ulney because he was great at math, but Mr. Collum wouldn’t let him into his eighth-grade science class, so we were lab partners in Principles of the Physical World. In PE with Coach Swieteck he lined up with the eighth-grade squad, which is across the gym from the sixth-grade and seventh-grade squads, and once he looked at me from the end of his line and shook his head because he hated being told what to do in PE, but he was trying. Fifth period, we had Office Duty with Mr. Canton together.
At least in the classes he had with me, the teachers were careful around him. Not like they were afraid of him, exactly—they didn’t hear what he said in his sleep at night, how he’d holler, “Let go, you . . .” and then words I didn’t even know. Or how he’d start to cry and then he’d only say a name, and he’d say it like it was someone he’d do anything, anything to find. Maybe if the teachers had heard Joseph late at night, they might have been a little afraid of him.
But they were still careful. I guess it was enough that once, Joseph tried to kill his teacher.That would make a teacher wish Joseph wasn’t at Eastham Middle.
I’m really sure that’s what Mrs. Halloway thought whenever she looked at him.
Joseph had a picture he carried around. Sometimes he took it out from his wallet and looked at it. He held it so no one else could see it. Not even me. During Language Arts on the second day he was at school, Mrs. Halloway told Joseph he wasn’t paying attention, and she walked down to the end of the row and held out her hand and said he should give her whatever he was holding. Joseph didn’t. He put the picture in his wallet and he put his wallet in his back pocket and then he stared down at his desk. Mrs. Halloway didn’t wait very long before she pulled her hand away. She closed her eyes halfway, walked back up to her desk, wrote something in her notebook, put the notebook in her top drawer, and then started in again on Robert Frost and stone walls and stuff.
She never turned her half-closed eyes toward the end of the second row again.
And there was Mr. Canton.
A week after we got to school late, Mr. Canton found me by my locker. I was trying to open it but my hands were so cold, my fingers weren’t exactly doing what they needed to be doing. That’s what happens when you take your gloves off so you can hit the bell of old First Congregational.
“Mr. Haskell said you weren’t on the bus again today,” said Mr. Canton.
“I walked,” I said.
“With Joseph Brook?” said Mr. Canton.
“What’s the last number?” he said.
Mr. Canton twirled the combination to eight and opened my locker.
“Listen, Jackson,” he said. “I respect your parents. I really do. They’re trying to make a difference in the world, bringing kids like Joseph Brook into a normal family. But kids like Joseph Brook aren’t always normal, see? They act the way they do because their brains work differently. They don’t think like you and I think. So they can do things . . .”
“He’s not like that,” I said.
“He isn’t? Jackson, when’s the last time you had a talk with a vice principal? When’s the last time you got a tardy?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Last Monday,” said Mr. Canton. “And who were you with?”
I didn’t say anything again.
“Exactly,” said Mr. Canton.
Mr. Canton wore brown shoes that looked like someone shined them ten minutes ago. There wasn’t a scuff on them. Not even at the toes. How would you do that, wear shoes without a mark on them?
“I’m telling you to be careful around Joseph Brook,” said Mr. Canton. “You don’t know anything about him.”
He walked away with his unscuffed shoes.
“He’s not like that,” I whispered.
That afternoon, I met Joseph at the end of the buses, where he waited for me. Mr. Canton stood near the front doors, watching us. He nodded at me like we were sharing a secret.
Joseph walked home behind me, looking like he didn’t want to share a secret with anybody.
So a little after we passed old First Congregational, I stopped and turned. “You okay?” I said.
“What?” he said.
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
“Listen, what’s your daughter’s name?”
He looked at me. His black eyes. “It’s not any of your—”
“I’m just asking.”
He waited a long moment. And it sure was cold. Maybe fifteen degrees, maybe fourteen, maybe not even that. The bus drove by and John Wall pounded on the window to let me know what a jerk I was.
“Jupiter,” Joseph said.
I guess I looked sort of surprised.
“It was our favorite planet,” he said.
Joseph nodded up the road.
“You mean, yours and . . .”
He nodded up the road again.
Joseph followed me the rest of the way home. My mother took him to counseling a little while later, and when they drove off, his eyes were closed.
Supper that night was warm and dark—sometimes my mother likes to eat with only the candles lit, so we sat in the flickering yellow. Later, though, outside, it was cold and bright. No moon, but the stars were so lit up, we didn’t even need to turn the porch light on to stack splits for the kitchen wood stove. It only took a couple of trips for the three of us, and after we finished, I stopped in the yard and looked at the sky and said to my father, “Do you know which one is Jupiter?”
“Jupiter?” he said. He looked at the stars. “Jack, I have no idea.” He pointed. “Maybe that big one?”
“Over there,” said Joseph.
He was pointing up above the mountains.
“How do you know?” said my father.
“I always know where Jupiter is,” he said.
My father looked at him. That same sad look in his eyes.
Joseph went inside.
If only Mr. Canton had been there. If only he had. Then he would have known that Joseph wasn’t like that.