Thirty years of police work have honed my instinct for seeking the incongruous, the small something out of place on the periphery. My mind practices a continuous, subconscious probing, like the tongue tasting the space recently vacated by a bicuspid. That’s how I came to notice him.
Standing at the edge of our picnic area, dressed too warmly for the weather, he was staring intensely in our direction, as women laughed and men pitched horseshoes and children ran for the swing sets.
At first, my concern was for the children, but he seemed to be taking in the whole scene, appearing rapt with an almost palpable longing for the comforting rhythms of family at play. I interrupted my conversation with Uncle George. I’d lost the thread of the conversation but I’d been hearing that same story since I was small. I gave my wife’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze as I passed by.
Red wine for meat, white wine for fish, I knew the rules. But what beverage is appropriate to offer a stranger at a July family reunion? I settled on the ginger ale I found tucked in the coldest corner of the cooler and started toward the man.
He looked startled when he recognized my approach. As I neared him I realized he was much younger than I’d first thought. Wisps of brown hair curled out from beneath his Yankees ball cap. Should I tell him I’m a Mets fan? He hadn’t shaven in about a week, but seemed clean enough.
“You have such a nice family,” he offered as a greeting. “Everyone enjoying each other.”
“Well, we’re here, from ninety-three down to six months of age. There’s more, but not everyone can make it each year from all over. How about you?”
“There mostly in Ohio and Indiana, but I haven’t heard from anyone in a while.”
I offered him the ginger ale and he twisted off the cap, draining it in three quick gulps.
“I don’t blame them, though. I messed up badly,” he continued. “Drink and drugs took over, and then jail. I just got out a couple weeks ago.”
“What now?” I asked him.
“Not sure. I started going to a Bible study my last couple months in jail. I’m staying at the mission, helping out with odd jobs. I’ve been clean for a year and still keeping at it since I got out”
“Have you tried to contact your family?”
“I’ve hurt them too badly. I want to see them again, but I only have failure to bring them,” he said, voice trembling and his eyes filling with tears.
“You just told me about a couple of successes. Do you have any of their phone numbers?”
“Mom still lives in the same place, I bet. We had the same number the whole time I was growing up.”
“What’s that number?” I asked, pulling out my cell phone and punching in the numbers he gave me. I heard ringing and handed it to him as I heard a tremulous woman’s voice ask in a Midwestern twang, “Who is it?”
“Mom, it’s Kenny’” I heard him say as I stepped back a few paces to allow him some privacy.
I watched as discreetly as I could. He trembled as he spoke. At times he acted overjoyed, then his shoulders would slump and he’d look profoundly sad. A lot of back and forth, but happy seemed to win out in the end. He was still talking as he returned with my phone.
“It’s not mine, Mom,” he was explaining, “some nice man let me use it.”
“Well it’s settled,” I heard her telling him. “We can get tickets for you to fly out tomorrow. Do you have a place to stay and can you manage a ride to the airport?”
I took the phone from him. “He’ll be staying with us, Ma’am,” I told her. “We’ll see he gets to the airport.”
“Praise Jesus for the kindness of strangers,” she said and I gave him the phone back so they could say their goodbyes.
“What better place to be reunited with your family than at a family reunion, even if it’s not yours,” I commented to my family as I made my introductions and explained the situation.
“What do you mean not his family?” objected my Uncle Vinny. “Kenny, now you have an Uncle Vinny, too.”
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