Mr. Mason harbors a deep dislike for the kids in my neighborhood, of which I am one. Between four families, we can gather twelve or more children for a day of play in the space between the boulevards. Technically, we are “playing in the street,” but the hulking boulevards serve as safe havens when cars venture down our block. Weathered and gray, Mr. Mason’s house sits on the edge of our playground like a dull cave sheltering an equally depressing troll.
“Throw me the ball, Angie!”
My brother Keith sounds mad that I won’t give him the dodgeball and I chuck it about five feet. It rolls across the centerline where it’s quickly scooped up by our competition.
“See!” He’s wishing I wasn’t on his team. I can’t help that I’m little.
A stinging graze sends me to the sidelines and Keith rejoices not so quietly. I take a seat on the curb and play with my shoelaces. They’re new.
I fidget there for seconds before hearing a creaky sound behind me followed by a few good stomps.
“Get off my sidewalk!” Mr. Mason steps out, his face mimicking a bulging volcano.
Rising quickly, I head toward Mrs. Phelps’ house. She’s nice. She won’t kick me off her sidewalk. I peek over at Mr. Mason and sit on the curb four houses down from his. He closes his door but stays on the porch … watching.
Keith and three other boys step to the sidelines. “What’d he say to you, Angie?”
I tell them. Forgetting the game for a moment, they storm toward Mr. Mason’s cave, shouting insults and waving fists. It’s a good show of disrespect, but even they dare not step on “his” sidewalk; their namecalling is done from the street. The old man, content to have angered our brood, doesn’t respond. The boys quickly tire and return to dodgeball, my honor cast to the curb beside me.
I stare at my shoes. They’re getting dirty from play. Slowly, I glance over at him. He’s still there, eyes darting from the game to me and back again. Creepy? Once I asked my grandmother about with Mr. Mason. “Why does he hate us so much?”
“Oh, honey. Sounds like Mr. Mason’s lost his joy.” She nuzzled me. “An old man alone, no one to love. His heart’s gone cold and he’s forgotten what it is to be warm.”
“Jailbreak!” My brother sounds the call that everyone’s back in.
I take off my shoes, place them on the sidewalk, and return to the game. Moments later, I notice Mr. Mason leaving his house. The game slows as one eye from every pair shadows him. He offers no shouts or glares our way as he heads down the sidewalk. In fact, he almost appears happy. I dodge an incoming ball and recover just in time to see him stop at my shoes, pick them up and hurl them into the street. He calmly spins and returns home. This offense quickly clears our playground and sparks nasty conversations of revenge. I just listen, not interested in T.P.ing or stinkbombing.
“Who does he think he is?” Keith leads the charge. “We’ll fix old Mr. Mason … right, Angie?”
I shrug, using spit to clean my sneakers, and again wonder how someone can be so full of hate. What was it my grandmother said?
“Leave him alone, Keith. He lost his, um … I think he’s not warm.”
I am ignored and a plan is hatched. The mob, led by my brother, spills out into the street and makes a beeline for the gray cave. But once again, we never make it to the sidewalk. An ambulance has beaten us to Mr. Mason. The flashing red strobe reflects in our eyes, a barrier to evil intent.
The other kids abandon vengeance and decide on basketball at a nearby park. Alone between the boulevards, I have no desire to leave. When paramedics bring Mr. Mason out, his face appears covered in new veins. The venom, the sass, the hatred all cast aside. White lids crack and he spots me as he’s lifted into the ambulance. I look down and kick at some twigs. I can’t not pray for him.
“Lord, please be with Mr. Mason. Help him remember what it is to be warm.”
When I look back, he’s wiping at the corners of his eyes. The doors close and I’m strangely sad. Somehow I know … I’ll never see him again.
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