Basket Case

I pretty much knew the neighborhood kids, but I hadn’t seen this one before. Still living at home in the early 80’s, while attending a local college, I was in my parents’ backyard, looking through the open mesh of the cyclone fence surrounding the churchyard next to our neat brick Philadelphia row house. At first I thought he was just kicking a ball around, alone in the clean swept street, as if he was mad about something, until I heard that cracking sound. Dry matted black hair, unbarbered and uncombed, in a green and dingy white striped T-shirt so oversized it hid his arms, long khaki green baggy shorts that nearly swallowed the pencil-slim brown legs, dirty unlaced high-top sneakers, tongues wagging with each step, grimy shoestrings dragging the ground, he had the look of children who, when they don’t show up at home at dinner time, aren’t missed.

What he was kicking, with a ferocity more like assault than play, was a small peach basket. He stomped it savagely, until its cylindrical symmetry shredded to an inchoate scattering. Then he attacked the shards as though each splint of wood were an enemy deserving of his singular attention.

I bet he’s a mean one.

Lucky for him that Pop was still at work. Anyway, I was sure I could handle this.

"Just what do you think you’re doing, young man?" I shouted as I started up the alley toward the street, my pace quickened with righteous indignation. "Look at that mess you’re making in front of somebody else’s house! Who’s supposed to clean this up? Now you pick up your trash!"

He froze for a second as if struck, or waiting to be. He lowered his small head and stooped in what seemed to be meek compliance. Then he began to collect the splintered pieces of wood. But he kept dropping them back to the ground, as if in silent defiance.

Oh, so we have a smart ass.

I brought an empty trash can from the side of the house and approached the offender, resolved to personally supervise the cleanup. Pop was the traditional Atlantic Street enforcer, the bane of unruly children, alley weeds, and milk crate basketball hoops nailed to telephone poles in his domain, and I was my father’s daughter.

But once I reached him with the trash can, I saw his hands, such as they were. Worse, he had no arms to speak of, only misshapen stubs that sprouted from his shoulders like eyes on a potato. Attached to the end of each was a claw-like appendage, book-ended with two knobs that, according to the standard genetic codebook, should have lengthened into dextrous gripping fingers. One of humankind’s most distinctive characteristics is the opposable thumb, but he had none. I nearly dropped the can I was carrying. I had read about the thalidomide babies of twenty-some years before: His arms looked like those afflicted children – a "seal boy."

A thousand questions flooded my mind. How did he eat? Brush his teeth, comb his hair, blow his nose? Hold a pencil to write his schoolwork? Join his hands in prayer… did he pray? What would this child have to say to God? Who was I to deny him his anger?

"What-what’s your name?"

"Eddie," a soft voice mumbled.

"Well, Eddie, let’s you and me clean up this mess, OK?"

I helped him gather the fragile fragments, thin and delicate and formless as himself, and we deposited them gently into the container.

"Now let’s see about those sneakers."

I kneeled before him, folded the tongues smoothly back into the shoe tops, threaded the laces into a neat criss-cross, and shaped him a firm, tight bow. I spun him around slowly, full circle, brushing the dust from his clothes, and laid my hands upon his damp slight shoulders. As he turned again and at last shyly faced me, I finally caught his large deep brown eyes and held them.

"My name is Miss Hall, Eddie. Thank you so much for your help. You’re a good worker! I hope I’ll see you again, sweetheart." He nodded, returned my warm smile with a bright one of his own, and skipped back down the street, a bounce of affirmation. I was sure that I would.

A month or two passed before I saw Eddie again, in the Shop N Bag two blocks away. Standing at the head of the aisle next to my check-out line, he seemed to be waiting to bag groceries for customers, as other neighborhood boys frequently did to earn the odd quarter. While he wasn’t actually packing any bags, his face shone with the hopefulness of someone who’d bought a lottery ticket and awaited the outcome of the draw. I called to him by name and waved him over. He remembered me, and accepted with a big smile the quarter I gave him, his pincers gently probing my open hand. After several painstaking attempts, he grasped the coin and deposited it into his side pants pocket.

After that, I often watched for Eddie on Atlantic Street and in the neighborhood. He must have moved away, for I never saw him again, though his memory stays close to me even now. I had so wanted to be a friend to him, and I continue to wish for him better luck than the hands chance first dealt him.

Vernita Hall is a lifelong Philadelphia resident, a LaSalle College (now University) graduate, and an M.F.A. candidate at Rosemont College.

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