I WAS ABOUT TO GET RUN OVER.
I thought about moving left, maybe right, but my knees were having no part of it. So I tightened the grip on my umbrella, braced myself, and waited for the impact.
When he was less than ten feet away, he slammed on his brakes and skidded to a stop. With his back to me, he moved his head up and down, admiring the four-foot-long black comma left on the pavement. I took off my sunglasses as he spun his bike around and checked me out.
“Hey,” he said, leaning over the handlebars. “Ain’t you that teacher from school?”
“Yep,” I said, slipping my sunglasses into my front shirt pocket. I rubbed my lower lip and flipped through my mental yearbook. It took about ten seconds. “Ain’t you that kid from Miss Levine’s class?”
He didn’t answer, choosing instead to look over his shoulder at his friends, who were too busy putting the piece of plywood back on top of the cinder blocks to notice him shooting the shit with that teacher from school. He turned back to me, wiped his hand across his forehead, and blew the sweat off his brown fingertips. Four o’clock on the second-to-last Tuesday in May, and the temperature was over ninety.
“Whachoo doin’ here?” he finally said. “Afta school and all?”
“Homework patrol,” I said. “You do yours yet?”
“Ahh, that’s wack.” His grin faded. “Ain’t no homework patrol. Is there?”
“Not yet,” I said and shifted my umbrella to my left hand. “I’m here to see someone.”
“He in trouble?”
“I hope not,” I said.
I wasn’t sure the little daredevil heard me as he raced back to his buddies singing out, “Somebody’s in trouble,” happy in the knowledge it wasn’t him. This time.
I looked up at the towering building in front of me. Twenty-plus stories of aging air conditioners, Dominican and Puerto Rican flags hanging from balconies that were used to store old furniture, to park bikes, and to hang wet clothes out to dry. Frankie Rivas lived up there with his grandmother. Frankie was one of my eighth graders, and I was doing a home visit on this tropical Tuesday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, because I hadn’t seen the kid in almost two weeks and I got tired of listening to a busy signal every time I called.
The two glass doors that made up the front entrance to the building were propped open, allowing the outside air—and anyone who wanted—to come in. Above me, in faded gold script, was a sign informing me that this was, indeed, Building One of Roberto Clemente Plaza. “Plaza” sounded far better than “the projects,” which always made me think the people living here were part of an experiment. Or “housing complex,” something someone did not live in so much as suffer from. No, “plaza” would do just fine; this one was named after the late, great Pittsburgh Pirate who died a few months after getting his three thousandth hit.
I stepped into what passed for a lobby and went over to the intercom to the left of the bulletin board. I punched in Frankie’s apartment number and waited for a response. After thirty seconds, I tried again. Nothing. The elevator dinged, and as I turned, the door opened and a Hassidic family stepped out. The father was dressed in black from hat to shoes, and was followed by his wife and six kids: four girls in matching plaid skirts and two boys dressed like their father. You’ve got to have some kind of faith to dress in black in this kind of heat.
The door to the elevator stayed open, and I moved toward it. I stopped when a voice behind me said, “Somebody in trouble?” An older black man in a maintenance uniform and pushing a mop bucket was coming through the front door.
“I’m here to see Frankie Rivas,” I said. “Or Matilda Santos? They’re in 1705.”
He motioned with his head and said, “You buzz up?”
“I tried. No answer.”
He went over to the buttons and pressed the apartment number as the elevator door shut. “She expecting ya?”
“No. I tried calling but the phone’s been busy. For two days.”
He gave me a look, not unlike the one I got from the kid on the bike outside, readjusted his belt, and said, “You a cop?”
“I’m Frankie’s teacher.”
He took a moment to get a better look at me. “You look familiar.”
“I work over at the middle school.”
I told him.
“All my kids’re grown and gone,” he said. He walked over to the desk on the other side of the elevator, reached over the top, and pulled out a clipboard. “Don’t know no one over at the school no more.” He handed me the clipboard. “Go ahead and sign in. Make it official.”
I took the pen that was hanging by a string from the clipboard and noticed as I put down the date of my visit that no one had signed in for two days. Official. I handed the clipboard back. He checked out my name and whispered it out loud.
“Raymond Dawn,” he said, mispronouncing my last name. “Raymond Dawn.”
“Donne,” I said. “Like finished.”
He said it a third time, this time correctly, checking out my face. I looked over his shoulder at the yellow-and-brown tiled mosaic of Roberto Clemente embedded into the wall. The legendary ballplayer’s flawless swing, frozen in tile forever.
“You know Frankie?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Everybody knows Lefty. Don’t know why the grandmother ain’t picking up. Saw her go on up with Elsa and some bags of groceries not more than an hour ago.”
“Seen him lately?”
He thought about that. “Not in over a week, I guess. Maybe more’n that.” He looked back at the clipboard and mouthed my name one more time. “Whyn’t you go on up, Mr. Donne. I’ll try her again. Maybe by the time you get up to the seventeenth, she’ll be answering.”
I turned and pushed the Up button to the elevator when I heard his fingers snap behind me. “I remember you now,” he said.
I took a deep breath and wished for a cold bottle of water.
“You used to work around here.” He touched his finger to the clipboard, tapped it a few times until it came to him. “You was a cop, right?”
“A long time ago. Yeah.”
“And now you a teacher?”
“What’sa matter, mister? You don’t wanna be popular?”
I shrugged and gave him a polite smile. How slow was this damn elevator? As if on cue, it appeared and I walked in.
“I’ll see ya on the way out, Mr. Donne,” he said, as if I’d be interested in carrying on the conversation. I raised my umbrella to him as the doors closed.
The elevator smelled of ammonia and artificial lemon. In less than a minute, the doors opened up onto the seventeenth floor, and I followed the arrows to number 1705. Two dark-skinned girls in shorts and T-shirts but no shoes were blocking the hallway, lying on their stomachs, moving crayons across a large sheet of poster paper. I cleared my throat. They stopped and looked up at me. The one to my right slid over a centimeter, and I took the opportunity to squeeze by. I got to 1705 and pushed the black rectangle just below the peephole. It made a hollow thud, and I waited a full thirty seconds before trying again. The girls looked over at me. I gave them my best teacher smile. They went back to their artwork.
“¿Quien es?” a voice from the other side of the door asked.
I leaned in, my ear about an inch from the peephole, and said, “Mrs. Santos?”
“Sí. ¿Quien es?”
“It’s Mr. Donne, ma’am. Frankie’s teacher?”
A few seconds later, she said, “Frankie no here.”
I raised my voice a notch. “Mrs. Santos, this is Raymond Donne. Frankie’s teacher. I need to speak with you or your grandson.” One of the girls gave me a mean look as the other placed a finger to her lips, shushing me.
“Ay Dios.” The sound of a lock turning was followed closely by the door being opened just enough for me to see the chain on the other side. A pair of bright blue eyes appeared, just over the chain. “Frankie’s teacher?” she said. “Senor Donne?”
“Yes.” My voice was lower now. “I need to speak with you. Would you mind if I—”
“Frankie,” she said. “He is in trouble?”
“You can say that, yeah.” The hint of cooler air and the smell of meat cooking wafted into the hallway. I remembered how thirsty I was. “He hasn’t been coming to school.”
“Frankie no here,” she repeated. “He stay at his father’s.”
“Mrs. Santos, it’s been seven days, and if he—”
“Yes, ma’am. Seven school days.” I unfolded the printout of Frankie’s attendance and held it up for her to see. “Since Friday of last week.” She didn’t quite get that, and I wasn’t sure how to say it in Spanish. I tried anyway. “¿El Viernes de … semana pasado?”
Part of it got through because she said, “Ay Dios,” again and then, “That is when he start to stay with the father.”
“¿Donde…? Where does the father live?”
“El Sud,” she answered. The Southside.
“Do you have a phone number for him?”
“No. No have a phone. He have the, ¿cómo se dice? the cell.”
“Okay. Do you have his cell phone number?” I asked, remembering my own cell phone, which was sitting in a drawer back at my apartment, unused and uncharged for over a year now.
“No. He no give.”
This was becoming a big waste of time. “Mrs. Santos, I need to speak to someone about Frankie’s attendance. He’s in danger of not graduating if he misses much more school.”
“Yes. No graduate. And as his legal guardian, you are—”
“No,” she said. “I am not the … I no have the, ¿como se dice?…”
“Sí. La custodia. The father,” she said with obvious disgust. “He have the custody.”
“Mrs. Santos, this is the only address the school has for Frankie. You are the emergency contact. According to all my records, he lives here with you.”
“Sí,” she said. “Most of the time … Pero Francisco, the father, he takes Frankie, and I no can do nothing. El Derecho,” she added. The Law. “Is best for Frankie to be here, I know.”
The blue eyes stared back at me over the chain, filling up with tears. They’re being wasted on me, I thought.
“And you have no way to reach the father?”
“I have his … his address.”
“Can you give it to me, please?”
“Sí,” she said. “Espera.”
Yeah, I thought as she shut the door on me, I’ll wait. Not so long ago, I’d be waiting on the other side of the door breathing cooler air. Maybe get a glass of water. When I knocked on someone’s door with my nightstick—always with the nightstick—it would be my decision whether or not I waited in the hall or entered the residence. A tip of the hat, a certain tone of voice, and a little “Mind if I come in?” and I would be on the other side.
I heard a door open down the hall. A woman’s voice yelled out, “Maria!” The two girls got to their knees, shoved all the crayons into their pockets, and ran down the hall. A few seconds later, Mrs. Santos’s door reopened. Her small hand eased through the opening, thin gray fingers clasping a piece of paper.
“Aquí,” she said. “Is where the father lives.”
I looked at the address. It was on my way home if I walked from here.
“You tell the father,” Mrs. Santos continued, “es necesario que Frankie be in school. You tell him he will be in trouble Frankie no go to school.”
“I’m not trying to get anyone in trouble, Mrs. Santos. But if Frankie does not graduate, he won’t be going to high school next year.”
She thought about that and then gave me a long look.
“You,” she said, “you are the one who got Frankie—the scolar…”
“Scholarship,” I finished for her. “I got him the tryout for Coach Keenan, yes.”
“You watch Frankie play? He pitch real good.”
Didn’t matter how good he pitched. He flunks eighth grade, and he can kiss the free ride to Catholic school good-bye. And it’ll be at least five years before Eddie Keenan even looks at another kid of mine.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s very good.”
“You tell the father. No school? Trouble.”
Before I could answer, the door shut and the locks slid back into place. My conversation with Frankie Rivas’s grandmother was over.
Copyright © 2012 by Tim O’Mara