I could hear the sound of children's voices as yet another chorus of Hark The Herald Angels Sing echoed from further down the street. Carol singers. We still got them, though winter in Oakland was hardly the winter of Christmas cards. Usually it rained - a lot, but this winter hadn't been too bad, so far, an extension of the balmy weather we got in the fall and this Saturday night was one of the warmest I could remember. Not scarf weather and certainly no need for Wellington boots. I, myself, was dressed in just a pair of old shorts and every window I could find was open - it wouldn't last, it couldn't last, even the weather forecasters were bemused by it all.
The carol singers would, doubtless, be knocking on my door soon, collecting, as they did every year, for some charity or other. I was prepared - my checkbook was already one slip lighter as I had pre-empted their arrival and filled in a reasonable cash amount and placed it on the kitchen table. "Glory to the new born king..." the words were louder now and the sound drifting through the open windows was not unpleasant.
I was in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches to my evening meal - it wasn't going to take long - a dash of mayonnaise and it was ready - my salad. Okay, not the most difficult meal to prepare, but it was a light, filling meal and just what I was wanting on a night like tonight and was I ever ready for it? It was 9.30 and I was eating later than I would normally have done due to having had a late lunch, itself due to having overslept as the result of a slight hangover resulting from rather a late outing the night before. At 38-years of age I should know better. I couldn't take my drink it quite the same way as I could when I was younger. Did I really vow never to drink again? Probably - I'd done so on a number of occasions, but then again, perhaps I hadn't done, I'd just poured myself a glass of white wine!
The sound of the carol singers still drifted through my windows, as I sat at the table and picked up my knife and fork ready to enjoy my meal and that's when the knock at the door came. Typical - always the same! A knock at the door, or the telephone rings and just as you're about to eat or, more frequently, when you're in the shower.
I replaced my knife and fork, but as hungry as I was feeling, I made no great effort to rush to the expectant carolers with my check, giving them time to get into the words of their carol. Another knock. Patience, children, I'm coming. I picked up the check and walked from the kitchen. Strangely, the carol singers still sounded distant, as I opened the door to be greeted by one lone boy - not even singing. One lone boy who just said, "Hello, Sir."
"Hello. Can I help you?"
"I'm sorry, Sir, but I couldn't think of anywhere else to go."
"I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I understand."
I didn't! I was expecting to find carol singers on my doorstep, not a grubby-looking boy - a grubby-looking colored-looking boy, Mexican? Well, maybe not Mexican, I couldn't really tell, but through the dirt he looked as though he maybe had his origins somewhere in Central America and, going by the size of him, I guessed at aged 11 or thereabouts - whatever, he was still grubby - dirty, dusty, smelling like he hadn't washed for a week or so. This was definitely not a carol singer.
"God and sinners reconciled..." I knew the words - I had been listening to the carol for the past half hour. "...Peace on earth goodwill to men..." The voices were getting very close. Goodwill to men? I had a grubby-looking boy on my doorstep. "...Christ is born in Bethlehem..." The voices were getting very close. "...Hark the Herald Angels sing, glory to the new born king." They were almost here. The carol singers were about to arrive.
"You'd better come in," I said, ushering the grubby-looking boy inside, just as the carol singers found their way to my front door. They were still singing and I smiled, handed my check to the one adult amongst them, received a smile back, was thanked, wished a happy holiday and then they were gone - onto the next house - all over for another year.
Oh, there would be more carolers, of that I was sure, but if I handed out checks to every group that turned up on my doorstep, I would soon be very short of cash. A teacher doesn't get paid that much. No, I worked on the principle of 'first come, first served' - they had been the first and, as far I was concerned, they were the last! Now I had other matters to attend to - a grubby-looking boy in my hallway and a salad in my kitchen waiting to be eaten.
I closed the door and looked at the boy, head down, eyes fixed firmly to the floor. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn't quite make it out.
"So, you couldn't think of anywhere else to go, eh?"
The boy shook his head.
"Well how about we make ourselves more comfortable in the living room and you can start by telling me your name?"
The boy nodded and I led the way into the living room. My salad would have to wait.
"Take a seat," I said, unsure that this was a good idea - he was grubby - I think I already said that, but I could hardly make him stand, could I? He looked around and walked to the piano and sat, not on one of my rather large armchairs, but on the piano stool. Good choice, easier to clean - I think he may have thought so, too, how thoughtful.
"Okay, let's make a start, shall we?" God, I'd gone into teacher mode. Amazing how I suddenly become very authoritative in front of young people. "What's your name?"
"It's me, Sir - Antonio. Tony."
Tony? The name was certainly familiar, but the only Tony I knew was 15-years-old and had been one of my students. One of my brightest students, too, but this surely couldn't be him. I looked into his face as he looked at me. A grubby, sad-looking face, but yes, I could see now that it was my student. It was Tony. My jaw dropped.
"My God!" I half whispered. "Tony? What the hell has happened to you?"
I moved from the sofa on which I had placed myself and over to the boy whom I now recognized as having been one of my brightest students - the grubby, dusty boy who now sat on my piano stool and who had begun to cry, his silent sobs sending tears falling down his cheeks washing the dust away as they fell and creating two uneven tracks on his face.
"Hey, don't cry - come on, it'll be okay. It can't be as bad as all that." I wasn't convincing myself, so I doubted I was convincing Tony, but the words must have had some effect, for he sniffed a little, rubbed a grubby hand over his eyes and smiled at me.
"Look, how about you run upstairs, take a hot shower and when you've done come back here and have something to eat?"
"Yes, please, Sir," he smiled and I smile back. I stood - he stood and we headed towards the staircase.
"There's a fresh towel in the closet and if you leave your clothes outside the bathroom door, I'll throw them in the washing machine. I'm not sure I have anything that will fit you, but I'll leave a pair of shorts and a T-shirt for you, okay?"
"Thank you, Sir."
"And listen - this 'Sir' business - I'm not your teacher anymore, so it's John - okay?"
"Okay!" He smiled again and I led him to the bathroom before heading to my bedroom to dig out a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, grabbing a T-shirt for myself, as I did, suddenly realizing that I was still only wearing shorts myself. As I returned to the door of the bathroom, I could hear the shower running and a pile of dirty, smelly clothes were outside. I scooped them up, replaced them with the promised shorts and T-shirt and returned downstairs.
The washing machine was busy churning its way through the cycle as Tony walked into the kitchen. I turned to see him standing just inside the doorway looking quite ridiculous in an oversized T-shirt and I had to presume he was wearing the shorts as the shirt came well below his waist. I grinned and shook my head. He must have read my mind, for he looked down at himself and then looked back at me and began to laugh.
"I prefer the 49ers myself," he said, indicating the logo of the football team on the shirt - Oakland Raiders.
"Well, at least it's clean," I said. "And I must say you look and smell better than you did. Now, come on, sit down and tuck into this."
I had placed hot lasagna on a plate on the table - a quick microwave meal for one, surrounded by oven fries, quickly prepared - there was no way he was having my salad and he looked like he needed a hot meal.
"I hope you like lasagna."
"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir." He walked to the kitchen table, sat down and began to eat, greedily.
"Hey, slow down, you'll give yourself indigestion."
"John - not Sir, remember?"
"Yes, Sir - John - and thank you."
Not another word passed between us as Tony and I ate our respective meals. I washed mine down with a glass of white wine, he with a glass of orange juice. As I ate, I studied him. He had been a bright boy in school - always full of life, but something had happened - something bad, but what? I knew I had to find out, but not just at this moment.
Tony had also been one of the most handsome, some would say beautiful, boys in school, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by a large percentage of the female students, or by myself! Okay, I admit it, I'm gay - not 'out', but definitely gay. Never had the nerve to go over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco's heartland, though the stories I'd heard about clubs like Martuni's, The Metro, Moby Dicks, Powerhouse and the 100 Club did sound appealing.
In another circumstance, had he not been my student, I could have fallen in love with this boy. In fact, I think I had - light brown skin, shoulder-length, straight black hair that surrounded a perfectly formed face. Dark brown oval-shaped eyes, long black eyelashes, a straight nose, widening slightly at the nostrils, his mouth, a beautiful mouth with full lips, lips that he now licked lasagna from as he forked in yet another mouthful. Yes, indeed, I think I had fallen in love with this boy.
It was quite wrong, of course, so I kept it quiet, to do otherwise would have been a big mistake. I valued my job. I loved my job - for the most part, so falling in love with a student was definitely out of the question. Now he was here, in my kitchen and he was no longer my student. Did it make a difference? Jesus Christ, what was I thinking? Of course it didn't - he was an ex-student that had turned up on my doorstep out of the blue and obviously in need of help of some sort and, apart from anything else, he was straight - 15-years-old and straight. It was definitely out of the question.
We continued to eat in silence. He finished first and sipped at his orange juice until I finished my own meal.
"Thank you, John, that was great."
"You're welcome. If I'd known you were coming I'd have given it more thought."
"Oh, no, that was terrific, really it was and I'm sorry for just turning up, but I didn't know where else to go."
"Well, we can talk about that later, right now, I have to do the washing up."
"Please, let me, it's the least I can do."
"Maybe next time. You look tired. Why don't you just go into the living room and make yourself comfortable, watch some TV?"
"I'm sure. Now go, before I change my mind."
The washing up didn't take long and once I'd finished, I checked on the washing machine, which was still churning away, before heading to the living room. The TV wasn't on and I saw Tony curled up in an armchair fast asleep.
Explanations would have to wait for another day.
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