One of the best things to do as a six year old is cartwheels in thick grass.
I did this on many occasions on the front lawn of my friend Michael’s house across the street. He had much better grass than we did.
One day, I was rolling and somersaulting as Michael and another boy played fetch with his Border Collie Sasha. In the middle of one of my half-cartwheels, they abruptly stopped tossing the ball. They both looked past me as I struggled to show them a handstand. They snorted and said “here he comes”.
His name was Andrew.
Andrew was developmentally disabled. My guess is he was about nine or ten years old, but I was never really sure.
He came waddling up to us… that’s what he did – he waddled. As far as I could tell, his legs were in working order – he just waddled. It wasn’t unusual to see him on this particular day. He came over to play with us quite often. I suppose I should say play with me, because I was the only one who really paid him any mind.
“Hi you guyths!” he said with his lopsided smile, and a voice that was always just a little too loud.
He held out his hands and started wiggling his fingers. I knew that meant he wanted to pet Sasha, so I brought her over to him. He squatted in the grass, and belly laughed as Sasha aggressively licked his face. I sat down next to him and just watched. He made me giggle.
The two boys went back to tossing the tennis ball. For the most part they just ignored Andrew whenever he came by. Every now and then they would roll their eyes, or whisper to each other.
I didn’t mind so much hanging out with Andrew. He was kinda cool to watch…
His face was a little crooked, and he drooled a bit from his mouth. I would watch his eyes get buggy when he was happy, and I could never figure out why one eyebrow moved way more than the other. He always let me stare at him as long I wanted, without ever getting ticked off.
This day was one where Andrew wasn’t wearing any underwear. I don’t know if he never wore underwear. I just knew that depending on how baggy his shorts were, some days you could see right up his pants when he sat down. This day was one of those days.
I thought that was weird. I was always under the impression that boys wore underwear just like girls did, but I didn’t ask. I wondered if his parents let him dress himself, because he always seemed to wear odd stuff. I never saw his parents – ever. I don’t know who took care of him… and sometimes when we were all called into our houses for dinner, he would just be left on the sidewalk… with nothing to do.
I sat there and watched him pet Sasha while reminding myself silently not to look up his pants. I knew something was peeking out of his shorts and it made me want to move away… but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Suddenly, a loud motorcycle drove down the street and he lunged behind the dog and covered his eyes. I had seen him hide from loud noises before, so after the motorcycle passed, I opened my hands like a magician and said, “all gone”.
He crawled out from behind Sasha, looked at me, grinned… and peed himself. I stared open-mouthed as he grabbed onto Sasha real tight and started to hug her hard. He only did that for a second before he lifted his leg and tried to climb on her back. I jumped up and squealed “ew” when I saw that he was now peeing on the dog. He then started making very loud grunting noises, and accelerated his climbing up and down on the dog. My stomach started to feel queazy as I backed away…
Michael ran over and yanked him off the dog. The other boy picked up the garden hose and started hosing off the dog. “Now you got her all smelly!”, he cried.
Andrew just stood there… with a blank expression on his face… and pee running down his legs.
Michael grabbed the hose and started spraying Andrew. I could see him flinch from the force of the water hitting hard on his skin.
“You smell like piss!”
He then handed it back to the other boy, who squirted him a second time.
“Get outta here, retard. You need a shower!”
He pushed the hose at me…
and I took it.
I don’t know why…
The boys were older than me, but I didn’t feel pressured. I did feel nervous, though… and scared of Andrew for the first time.
I took the hose…
and I squeezed the nozzle…
and I shot him with water… right in the tummy.
For a millisecond, I believe I saw confusion in his eyes. Then he quietly turned and waddled down the street, soaking wet.
He didn’t yell. He didn’t cry. He just left.
I don’t think I ate much dinner that night.
He didn’t come by to play the day after that… or the day after that.
I did see him once sitting on the sidewalk, when we were all inside eating dinner.
Weeks later, my mom and I were driving home from the grocery store and we passed his house. It was surrounded by firetrucks. There was no longer any fire – just smoke, and half of a charred house.
“That’s Andrew’s house” I said from the backseat, but my mother didn’t know who Andrew was. We went home and had dinner… and I glanced a couple times out the window to see if Andrew was sitting on the sidewalk, but he wasn’t.
Andrew’s parents (whom apparently he did live with), made it out of the burning house okay. Fire fighters were unable to find Andrew right away, and speculated that he may have run out into the neighborhood somewhere. It wasn’t until after the fire was put out that they found his body curled up in his bedroom closet.
He was hiding…
hiding from the fire.
Even as a six year old I knew that I had behaved unkindly. I hurt another human being… it wasn’t an accident…
and I never got the chance to make it right.
I’d like to think I haven’t made that mistake again.
Sometimes, we are able to look back and pinpoint the exact moment a life lesson etched itself into our soul.
This was one of those moments.