I knocked the dirt from the ball field out of my cleats as I walked home from school after baseball practice. It was hot for May and my uniform shirt was damp with sweat. In less than a month, I’d be done with school, I thought. Except for playing baseball, I wasn’t planning on missing high school much. As I got closer to home, I saw my next-door neighbor, Benny, sitting on the curb in front of his house. He was sniffling and crying and scuffing his feet on the pavement. Benny was only in sixth grade but we were friends, in a way that a high school kid and a sixth grader could be. I sat down next to him, sitting so low that my knees almost reached my shoulders. I offered him a piece of bubble gum. He crammed it in his mouth, then swiped at the tracks the tears had made on his dirty face.
“What’s up, Benny?” I asked offhandedly.
He sniffed, rubbed his nose, and looked up to my right. There I saw the work boots, dangling on their long laces from the branch of a tree.
“Where’d those come from?” I asked nonjudgmentally.
“I threw them up there.” Benny mumbled.
“When I got home from school I heard something in the basement. Those boots were at the top of the stairs and I could hear a burglar down there.” He chomped more quickly on his gum, becoming animated with his retelling of the tale. “I knew I had to call the police but I was afraid he’d get away, so I took the boots and called nine-one-one, real quiet. Then, I took some glass jars from the cupboard and threw them hard on the stairs so they would smash. He wouldn’t be able to walk up the stairs without his boots.”
“Sounds smart to me.” I smiled at him. His face clouded up and he continued.
“Then I ran out of the house and threw the boots up into the tree.” He looked up at them and I thought he was going to start crying again. I politely looked back toward the boots to give him a moment. They hung motionless from the branch in the heat of the windless day. I put a fresh piece of gum in my mouth. I looked back at Benny.
“Problem was,” he continued morosely, “it was the plumber down there fixing a leak in the pipes, and Mom was down there, too.” He looked at me with a pained expression on his face. I knew that pain. That embarrassed feeling of doing the wrong thing, just when you thought you did the right thing. Somehow it was the worst kind of mistake, making you feel disappointed in yourself. Then that feeling of chagrin would settle down in the bottom of your stomach, living there for days. Like when you miss an easy fly ball in the outfield when your team is ahead, allowing the other team win the game instead.
“I figure maybe you’ve been watching too much TV, Benny.” I mused, wiping at some red clay streaks on my baseball socks.
“That’s what my Mom said, and now I got no TV for a whole month.” The tears sprung into his eyes again.
I sighed and handed him another piece of gum. It was tough being young with a head full of drama, and nowhere for it to go. I stood up.
“Don’t worry.” I said. “A month isn’t ever as long as you think it’ll be.” Something I wanted to believe for myself, as much as I wanted it for Benny.