Marcy, my wife, is quiet. She rarely smiles. Days go by with no contact at all. Still, I have trouble imagining that she is truly unhappy. When she cries, it seems less about emotion and more like drainage.
For years we talked about having children. But things were always happening. The phone would ring, for example. Or the commercials would end. Or suddenly one of us would become hungry, and so the conversation would pause. At some point we stopped talking about it. We decided, I think, to just see what happened, which is to say we quit with the usual precautions. What happened was we continued to not have any children.
Our life isn’t complicated. Marcy is forty-four. I’m forty-one. She was married once before, when she was twenty-three. For some reason she was living in Kansas. We have money now, and a house. The house is closer to the highway than we’d like it to be, but with the trees all around you can sometimes forget it’s there. Marcy’s father chose the property. It used to be a tree farm – spruce, white pine, cedar, all organized by type, in what feels like a sort of checkerboard arrangement. He bought it, and then he died, but not before insisting that we live here – he was dying even as he said this, he was medicated. But we listened. I’ve thought about hiring a pilot to see what it looks like from above, but I haven’t done more than think about it. I drive nearly an hour each way to work. And the trees keep growing, larger already than they were ever intended to be, the branches tangling into each other in places. We’ve considered selling them, but then we’d have all these stumps. Unless they’d cut out the stumps, too. But then we’d have the highway. In the middle of it all, surrounding the house, are four acres of open grass. I keep it trimmed with a tractor. Marcy’s father bought the tractor too, and the mower I tow behind it. If I knew how to weld, I would rig a sun shade over the seat. Instead, Marcy bought for me a large straw hat.
I hadn’t cut the grass in weeks when Simon appeared. I remember seeing him step out from the trees, the grass nearly reaching his shorts. We were out on the porch, Marcy and I, drinking tea, not talking, but we were together, and then there he was. But Marcy remembers it differently. She says we were coming home – she was driving – and when we pulled up at the house, Simon was there waiting, on the porch.
For a minute or two, he chewed on his lip. He didn’t speak. None of us did. Or maybe I said hello, but that was all. Eventually I began to worry. I asked if he was okay. He nodded. I asked if he needed help, but he wouldn’t answer. He just kept staring, not at my face, but at the air beside me.
We gave him water, Marcy did, in a large, insulated cup. He had to hold it with both hands. Slow down, she told him, drink slowly, don’t choke. When he finished, she filled it again. ‘Keep it,’ she said. The boy still hadn’t spoken. He didn’t move. He was about ten years old, I guessed. Small. Rounded shoulders. His hair was like brown fur, short and thick.
Finally, he said, ‘Thank you.’ When he turned to walk away we saw that his back was filthy, his shirt, like he’d been lying in mud. Marcy shivered. Then she went inside and I waited, watching the driveway. After he was gone, I kept scanning the treeline. I walked a few laps around the house. All through the night, I kept startling, thinking I heard something.
I think it was two weeks later when he came back. He knocked. I was alone. My wife told me later – I forced this – that she’d seen him out in the yard a few times. She’d been leaving food for him. I wondered if she’d been leaving notes too, but she said no, only food. At the time, though, when he knocked, I didn’t know anything. He stood there at the door, dressed as he had been before, and asked if we had any crackers.
‘The sandwich kind,’ he said, ‘with cheese in the middle.’
‘We do,’ I said. ‘Hold on.’ Only recently had my wife started buying them. I hadn’t asked why. The boy waited at the doorway, shifting back and forth, peering inside. When I came back with the packet of crackers, he said he was thirsty.
He seemed clean this time, less like he’d been living outside. That was Marcy’s assessment anyway, later that night, after he’d left again. When she’d pulled up outside, the boy and I had been sitting together on the porch steps. I saw her smile – I saw her teeth – through the windshield.
‘Of course he doesn’t live outside,’ I told her.
But Marcy was doubtful. She worried.
The next day we saw him through the window. He was out in the yard, holding a stick in each hand. He looked like he’d lost a drum. I watched Marcy walk out there. I watched her squat and reach out with a drink, a cookie.
Soon we began expecting him. Late in the afternoon, he would step out from the trees to the east of the house, and we’d be waiting on the porch. Occasionally we’d open the door and find him out there already, staring out at the yard.
One day we were all out there together. He was sitting on the steps, Marcy and I in the chairs, looking down at him. Beside him was a line of ants, moving diagonally across the step. I wondered if he was aware of them. Suddenly he turned and started telling us about his grandfather, how he’d been in the army, how he’d gone blind and for a long time no one believed him. And then he began describing the grandfather’s feet. They were wide, he said, but also short, but the toes were long, like fingers, like monkey toes. Every night he would wash the old man’s feet out on his porch, in a bucket, with dish soap and vinegar and salt. The heels he did sometimes with steel wool, sometimes only a thin yellow sponge. Something strange was happening. It wasn’t shame, and it wasn’t pride – he was just telling us these things. They’d meet, he and the grandfather, outside after supper. He’d fill the bucket with hose water, then kneel at the old man’s feet. ‘They’re not fine china,’ the grandfather had told him. ‘They’re feet.’
‘It wasn’t like this,’ he told us.
‘The porch,’ he said. ‘It was bigger.’
By now he was sleeping on our porch some nights. He never asked, and we never said anything. We just began leaving a pillow and blanket out there, and he’d fold the blanket neatly and be gone again early in the morning. I caught my wife once holding the pillow up to her face, sniffing it.
After a pause I told him, ‘Well you don’t have to wash anybody’s feet here.’
I meant this to be comforting, though I was afraid I’d offended him. But he said he didn’t mind – he liked it. He said he’d washed his mother’s feet too. ‘Hers were soft.’ He said with his mother he would heat water in the kettle, then pour it in a bowl. He’d dip his cloth and wring it out, keep dipping it so the cloth stayed warm. His mother would have a second cloth, a dry one, draped over her face. She would lie on the floor with her feet propped up on the couch between his knees.
I interrupted him. I said, ‘You don’t have to do anything like that here.’ This time I’m certain I offended him. He never said any more about it. I could feel my wife’s eyes on me, but I kept facing the boy. He sat perfectly still, staring down at his feet.
Marcy broke the silence. ‘Did you get enough to eat?’ she asked. ‘Do you want any milk?’
In the dark, in bed that night, we talked about it. We spoke quietly, in case he was still out there, in case he’d moved near the window. I said, ‘We don’t know anything about him.’
‘He’s a child,’ Marcy said. ‘He’s a child who needs help.’
She knew more than I did – I think I suspected that already.
‘He’s not a dog,’ she went on. ‘It’s not right to make him stay outside all night.’
I brought a towel to wipe her face, but she said, ‘Stop it. Stop that. Listen to me.’
The next day I called the police. I’ve known the sheriff since high school, since before high school. I dialed him at home. I told the truth.
‘Tom,’ I said, ‘we’ve got a boy out here. I don’t know where he came from. He just showed up. Marcy wants to keep him.’
Tom laughed. He tried chatting. I said, ‘We’re fine, Tom.’ I held up a finger for Marcy to wait. ‘We’ve just got this boy here . . .’
Marcy walked away.
After I hung up, I went to the bedroom. ‘Tom says hello.’
Marcy brought her head out from under the pillow. ‘What else?’
‘He asked how we’re doing.’
‘He knew you were serious?’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘I told the truth. It doesn’t matter what he thought.’
That evening, we brought him inside. We knew by now that his name was Simon, but we asked him anyway what he’d like to be called.
‘Simon,’ he said.
‘You can be whoever you want,’ Marcy told him. She was crouched on one knee so they were eye-level. We’d talked about this before. We were in agreement that a child should have a say in what their name is. We’ve always felt that way.
But he chose to remain Simon. ‘I like my name,’ he said.
‘It’s a good name,’ I tried to assure him. ‘It’s great. We just wanted it to be your choice, is all.’
We set up the room across the hall for him. I moved out the boxes, the clothes rack, the crates, making our own room crowded, but I knew Marcy was right. I thought we could leave the exercise bike where it was, though – I thought Simon might like to ride it if I lowered the seat – but Marcy said, ‘He needs a real bike.’
So we bought him a bike. We bought a twin bed, a nightlight, a dresser, books.
I said, ‘Are we sure he can read?’
‘Of course he can read,’ Marcy said. ‘He reads the labels on everything.’
I mounted a shelf on the wall – that was my idea. Marcy wanted him to choose his own decorations, but I said I wanted to give him a surprise. ‘Trust me,’ I said. ‘He’ll like it.’
The shelf was shaped and painted to look like a small airplane wing, white with a blue stripe. I poured out pasta sauce and pickles and olives and washed the jars and arranged them on the shelf, all in a line, with the lids loosened so that Simon wouldn’t have any trouble. I said, ‘I thought maybe you’d like to put things in those.’
Marcy watched us from the doorway. Simon and I stood there at the shelf, his head moving slightly, examining the jars one by one. His face was blank. Finally he looked up at me. ‘What kind of things?’
‘Whatever you want,’ I said. ‘Anything. I don’t know. Rocks, coins, buttons . . .’
‘Or food,’ Simon said.
‘You could do that,’ I said, ‘but usually we keep food in the kitchen.’ It struck me then that I was wrong to discourage him, that I should be supportive instead. ‘That was a great idea, though. Really practical.’ I went on for a while. ‘If you keep a little food in here, you won’t have to go all the way to the kitchen when you’re hungry. You’ll have food right here.’
‘Or a lizard,’ Simon said.
‘Yeah.’ He seemed excited now. He had a jar in his hands. I thought about his pockets – he had so many pockets on his shorts.
I said, ‘You don’t already have a lizard, do you?’
‘No, sir. But I could catch one.’ I said that was true, and he said, ‘We’d need to poke holes in the lid, though, or else it would suffocate.’
‘Do you have a hammer?’
‘We could use either a nail or a screwdriver. For making the holes.’
‘That’s right,’ I said again. ‘You know a lot about this – I’m impressed.’ He called me sir again, too – I think it was, ‘Thank you, sir.’ I felt like saying he didn’t need to do that, that it was kind, respectful, but not necessary, but I wasn’t sure what I would say if he asked what to call me instead. Also, I liked it, which surprised me. I liked the way it sounded in a small voice. ‘Sir.’
He slept soundly. We took turns watching him through the hole I’d drilled high in his bedroom door, high enough that my wife needed to use a stool to reach it, though that hadn’t been my intention. For a while, we would stand waiting beside each other until it was time to switch places. Eventually we grew more relaxed, but still sometimes, when Marcy had her eye to the hole, I would whisper that I was tired, that she could stay there on the stool, and then I would slip outside and watch Simon through the window. I don’t think Marcy noticed. I liked watching him breathe. How remarkable, I thought, the way the body keeps itself going, which of course is true of my own body as well, but it’s something else to see it in miniature. There’s a sort of clarity. And of course the body, anyone’s body, can stop at any time – that was part of it too: we were scared.
Marcy started cutting up his food for him, making his bites very small. Mine too. I didn’t say anything, though, until we were in private, and she said she didn’t want Simon to choke.
‘But what about mine?’
‘It can’t just be his,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to make him feel’ – and here she paused for a moment – ‘odd.’
I don’t know why, but I kept going. I said I thought Simon was probably old enough to cut up his own food. He was nine, we’d learned. That seemed old enough. ‘It’s probably bad to do things for him,’ I said, ‘things he can do for himself. He won’t learn.’ And in a strangely polite tone, almost cheerful, Marcy asked what did I know about raising children. She waited for an answer. I thought about it, sensing then that we were on the edge of something. I’ve gotten better at this. I decided I would say nothing else. I would defer.
We ate a lot of soups. We ate mashed potatoes, oatmeal, creamed corn. We began keeping ice cream in the house again. We tried cottage cheese. I wondered when Simon would grow.
‘It takes time,’ Marcy told me, and I said I knew that, but weeks had gone by. The clothes Marcy had chosen for him continued to fit. ‘It takes time,’ she said again.
I walked away. I went to the door and watched Simon through the hole.
‘He’s fine,’ Marcy said, walking by. There was an implication, but I stayed quiet. I thought but didn’t say, ‘What do you know about raising children?’
I also wondered if we should worry about how quiet he was. How little he spoke. But Marcy said he was simply shy. ‘Give him some space,’ she told me.
One Saturday he asked if he could help me cut the grass, and I said, ‘Of course.’
When he asked for a bucket, I found one in the shed. What he wanted was to walk along in front of the tractor, gathering sticks and rocks in the bucket. The bigger objects he would fling to the side, then fling them again when we got over to where they’d landed, again and again, until we’d covered the field. I didn’t tell him that this wasn’t necessary, that I’d never really worried about the mower’s blade being damaged, that I always just paid for a new one. I steered the tractor carefully, slowly, watching him work.
Another Saturday he cleared the field first, before I got out there. Then he asked if we had any rope, and I brought out a ten- or twelve-foot length of old clothesline. Simon stared at it, squinting. He nodded. ‘This should work.’
He looped one end around his waist and tied the other around the tractor’s grill.
‘Start it up,’ he told me, ‘but don’t give it any gas.’
He leaned forward and the rope went taut. It took me a moment to understand that he was trying to pull me. I put us in motion as slowly as I could. We crept along. When we finished, Simon was dripping sweat, panting. He knelt in the shade of the tractor.
That evening, on the porch, I felt oddly proud. I thought of the way he’d paused earlier at the window, flexing at his own reflection, shifting to see both sides of himself in profile. I’d nearly reached out and touched him, but seeing my own reflection in the glass, I paused. I moved my hand upward, swatting the air. On the porch, I felt like trying it again. I wanted to pat him on the head, put my hand in his hair. He had his own chair now, but he was sitting on the steps, watching for bats. Instead of patting him on the head, I spoke. I said that bats were nothing to fear, that people were often wrong about bats, that they were actually quite useful.
‘I know,’ Simon said.
Then one night we were eating watermelon out on the porch, and I got up to put our plates away. I wasn’t gone long, but when I came back, Marcy was leaning back, eyes closed, with her feet propped up on the rail, and Simon was standing there. He dipped his napkin down into his water glass and began to wipe my wife’s feet, starting at the heel, then patiently working up to the toes. I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t say anything the second time either. It only occurred to me later that this may just have been the second time I’d seen them – maybe there were more. This time we were in the kitchen, Simon had a towel and a wash cloth. I could see steam rising thinly from a saucepan filled with water. Marcy’s slacks were rolled up to her knees. Simon was sitting in a chair across from hers – my chair – with the towel folded on his lap. Marcy lifted her feet one at a time to Simon’s lap. The look on his face was one of deep concentration.
‘Just try it,’ Marcy told me later. It was the next morning. Simon was still asleep. We were in the kitchen again. We still hadn’t spoken about the washing.
‘Try what?’ I said.
It felt like a line I was crossing, but that evening I tried it. I wasn’t sure what to do at first. Was I supposed to ask? What would I say? What would I do if he refused?
I came out to the porch barefooted, with my pants rolled up. Simon knew. His eyebrows moved. I saw Marcy smile at that. But then Marcy went inside, and Simon followed her, and I felt a surge of resentment. I felt angry at myself, too – I felt like a fool.
Then Simon came back. He was alone, with the water and the cloth. He knelt and cleaned each foot, with surprising force. Such small arms and so strong, I thought. But it wasn’t unpleasant. I stared at the top of his head, then out at the trees, the tops of the trees – I kept leaning farther and farther back until I was staring up at a cloudless sky.
It happened that way most evenings. I’d leave Marcy out there alone with Simon for a while. I’d occupy myself inside. I swept. I cleaned the kitchen. I showered. Then when Marcy came in, I went out to the porch. With Marcy he used just the cloth and a little water. Occasionally she’d add a drop or two of lavender oil. With me, he used the bucket. He’d leave my feet to soak for a few minutes, then lift them out one at a time and do a sort of massage with his fingertips through the cloth. He’d cup the heel with one hand and do the massage with the other. Sometimes he would kneel. Sometimes he would settle in on the floor with his legs wrapping the bucket. Sometimes he would get up and say he needed the brush, and he’d go inside and come back with an old toothbrush he must have gotten from Marcy. That was all. We were happy. Simon seemed happy. Marcy seemed happy. I was happy. Even at work I was happy. I found myself wishing I had a photograph in my office – of Simon, or of Simon with Marcy, or of the three of us – but I knew it was a bad idea. Instead I drew three circles. I devoted an afternoon to this, circle after circle, until I liked the way they looked, the proportions, the balance on the page. I removed a certificate from a frame and hung the drawing. Throughout the day I would turn and stare at it and smile.
Some nights Marcy and I would fall asleep holding hands. This was still mid-summer. We didn’t have a plan yet for the school year. Surely it was coming. I think we thought we would wait and see. We would let Simon take the lead. If he asked, we would not tell him he couldn’t go. We would not hide him, and we would not lie. We would try not to lie.
I did get scared once. I’d come home early, soon after lunch, and found that Marcy was also home early, in the living room with Simon. Marcy was on the couch, Simon on the floor. Her feet were on a stack of pillows. At first neither of them noticed I was there, standing in the doorway, at the screen. I watched Simon lift Marcy’s left foot from the pillows and bring it toward his face, toward his mouth. He’s kissing her foot, I thought. Then I thought it had to be a trick of the light, as it began to look like more than a kiss, like the foot actually going into his mouth, all the way, into his mouth and down his throat. Gradually it was disappearing, up to the ankle, my wife’s slender foot. Simon was swallowing her. And then Marcy shifted her weight on the couch – I heard her moaning – and as her leg moved, Simon’s body moved with it. It was like she was slipping herself inside of him, bit by bit, his body wiggling up like a pant leg. I blinked to refocus, but nothing changed. Marcy trembled, Simon trembled. Quietly I backed away. Out in the driveway I made noise, opening and closing the car door, coughing, dragging my feet through the gravel. I kicked the porch steps on my way up again. When I got back to the door, they were separated. They were smiling. They didn’t look frightened or ashamed. ‘I’m home,’ I said as I stepped inside.
Image © Christian Collins