BROOKLYN, NEW YORK JULY 1983 That thar boy’s got half a bag of sugar in his tank,” Herbie Lucas declared upon setting eyes on Socrates for the very first time. He and his sister, Hattie, watched from their fifth-floor window as their neighbors Jeo and Dorothea Morrison stepped out of a camel-colored Brougham with their five-year-old grandson and his small cardboard suitcase in tow.
“Herbie, hush!” Hattie glanced over her shoulder and snapped her fingers twice. “You see Miss Nita setting over there pretending to fuss with that doll baby’s hair when she really listening at us. You know she repeat everything she hear! Besides”—she tucked a strand of graying hair behind her ear, then turned back to the window and nodded toward the slender boy who shuffled down the pathway nestled between his grandparents—“the poor chile just saw his mama slit his daddy from neckbone to navel, then they make him ride all the way from Alabama to Brooklyn with that crazy-ass Jeo when everybody knows he’s blind in one eye and can’t see out the othern.” She grunted. “And all you can talk about is how sweet he look.”
“Ah-yeah.” Herbie coughed and touched the corners of a starched white handkerchief to his lips. “I reckon old J.J. did go out and get hisself gutted like a fish, and I’m glad Jeo and that old struggle buggy didn’t tear up the road none too bad, but that thar boy is sweet. Mark my words.”
Hattie peered closely as the trio approached the entrance to the building. She studied Scooter’s willowy walk and the way his lean body seemed to move naturally against the soft summer wind.
“Ain’t sweet,” she determined. “He small for his age is all. Look a bit like Diana Ross to me. With all that pretty peanut-brittle skin and them big ol’ eyes, I thank he kinda cute. Plus, Nita got her somebody to play with now. Be good for her to be around another chile.”
Herbie coughed again, this time hacking up a thick wad of phlegm. Leaning out the open window he pressed his index finger to the opening in his throat and hock-spit down into the littered grass below. He rasped, “Don’t know ’bout that. They say the boy mute, too. Jeo say the po-lice found him sucking his fanger and settin’ in four days’ wurf of his own mess. I bet that’s why he cain’t talk. Stuff like that gotta do somethin’ to a boy. Make him turn ’round inside hisself and ball up in his own shit.”
Hattie stepped away from the window and loosened the tails of her apron. She draped it over the back of a kitchen chair before shaking her head. “You can set there and stare all you want, but I’ma go meet them at the elevator. After all that driving, they gots to be wore out.” She lifted a tin pan from a cooling rack and covered it with a glimmering sheet of foil. Despite herself, she moved back to the window for another peek. “C’mon, Nita.” She looked down at the pigtailed little girl who had squeezed herself between the two adults and now stood watching the new arrival in silence. “Let’s carry one of these-here pecan pies to Sister Dot and help her put on some tea.”
When the elevator opened its doors, Hattie stumbled against Juanita’s small shoulder and nearly cried out. Dorothea Morrison had gone down home a spry woman of sixty who made regular visits to the salon to maintain her ebony hive of spiral-curled hair. The woman who stepped off the elevator clutching the hand of a thin boy with miles of eyelashes and a blank stare was stooped in the back and had a head full of snow-white strands.
Sitting in the neat kitchen decorated in tones of tangerine and lime, Dorothea shook visibly as she spooned too much sugar into her teacup and accepted a slice of Hattie’s pie. Her grandson, Socrates, had fallen into an exhausted heap in the first chair he’d come across, and Juanita stood hovering over him, her green eyes roaming his face with undisguised curiosity.
Hattie snapped her fingers. “Come ’way from him, Nita, afore you stare him awake.” Then to Dorothea: “Dot, that baby shole look tired. Didn’t he sleep any all that way up here?”
Dot nodded. “That all he do is sleep!”
“He talk any yet?”
Dot sighed and shook her head. She raked a few large crumbs from the table and into her open palm. “Ain’t opened his mouth. Act like he trying to leave us. Doctors say his mind went so deep he won’t never remember none of it, and when he gets older we should just tell him both his folks died in a car accident.” She squeezed her hands into fists and her bottom lip quivered. “That damn demon oughtta die! Oughtta fry in the ’lectric chair!” she whispered. “Goddamn her wicked soul! Jeo Junior was my onliest son, Hattie! You hear me? My onliest son!”
Hattie stood and retrieved a stiff dishrag from a rack above the sink, then held it out to accept the pie crumbs. She patted her old friend’s back and rocked her the way you would comfort a colicky baby. “Trust Jesus, Dot. He don’t make no mistakes. ’Sides, you got that baby over there to worry about now. J.J. was a man, but that’n there is still a chile. You gots to concentrate on him.”
Dottie nodded and wiped her hands on the dry cloth, sobbing softly as she reached into her dress pocket and blew her nose into a crumpled white handkerchief. “That’s what the doctors say too. They say to leave him be and he’ll quit sleeping and start talking when his mind and his heart is ready.” A fresh wave of tears spilled down her cheeks and she let go of a quiet sob. “I just don’t know if’n my poor little Scooter is gon’ ever be ready.”
It took four-year-old Juanita Lucas three months to chip away the wall of silence surrounding Scooter Morrison. Precocious and determined, each morning after breakfast she marched two apartment doors down and, with her green eyes sparkling and flashing, announced to Dot Morrison, “I’m here to save Scooter.”
And save him she did. Juanita pestered Scooter like a gnat, asking him a million questions and answering every one of them for him. She bossed him around like a prison warden, forced him to play with her dolls, fixed him peanut butter and cheese sandwiches, and demanded he lick his plate clean.
She had no mercy.
While the adults in the building clucked over Scooter, fed him candy drops, and called him “poor baby,” Juanita harassed him like a hornet and left no room in his life for either sorrow or solitude. Every morning she jerked a narrow-toothed comb through his coarse hair, painfully tearing out patches and snapping it off at the roots, slathered his arms and legs with a stick of cocoa butter to get rid of his “skeeter-bites,” and insisted he open his mouth and let her scrub his teeth and gums with wet baking soda and a frayed toothbrush.
After a typical morning of Juanita asking endless questions and then supplying Scooter with the answers, he’d finally had his fill. “Why is your bottom lip so much bigger than your top lip?” Juanita inquired, and just as innocently answered in a voice she assumed would sound like his. “ ’Cause one day when I was down Souf, way back in Ally-bammy, I fell out of a pecan tree and bumped my lip on a rock. Then I sucked all of the blood out of it and filled it back up with tobacco juice and that’s why I have such a big, fat liver lip!” With a burst of laughter she tossed her hair in his direction and leaned against the bright blue card table that was cluttered with finger paints and colorful sheets of construction paper.
Scooter lunged. A strangled cry tore from his throat and he extended his hands like claws. Crazed, he knocked over a child-size yellow chair and snatched ferociously at his green-eyed tormentor.
Bracing herself, Juanita sidestepped Scooter’s assault, and with a heavy thrust sent him crashing into the card table before tumbling to the floor, landing flat on his tear-streaked face.
Scooter recovered swiftly. Oblivious to the mess of paints that splattered his clothing and colored his rage, he scrambled to his feet. Leaping, he sailed forward and sank his nails into Juanita’s face, clawing her left cheek. His skinny arms flailed wildly as he windmilled into her and buried his hands in her tangles down to her scalp, swinging her around by her endless bulk of hair.
Recklessly, they tussled and scrapped and pinched and clawed, until a triumphant Scooter, with tears pouring from his eyes and a slice of red war paint streaking his chin, found himself sitting astride Juanita’s heaving chest. As he stared down into her face he saw no malice and no fear. Whereas he was wild and crazed, Juanita seemed accepting and calm. He pulled back his tiny fist to smash those steady green eyes to Kalamazoo, and then hesitated. Instead of striking, Scooter peered at Juanita closely, tilting his head from one side to the other.
And then he uttered his first words in more than three months.
“You got a big green booger in your nose.” He belched, then grinned. “It’s even greener than your ugly, bugged-out kryptonite eyes!”
And with that, the fighting children burst into uncontrollable laughter, rolling and frolicking in the paint-and-litter chaos of the floor, Scooter’s high-pitched peals ringing and blending with Juanita’s childish chimes and both filling the air with the unabashed glee of two very small children who have suddenly discovered that life can be happy and carefree.