The Ghosts We Know
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Two Rivers, Oregon
The mother in her bottomless grief nearly sat alone.
Harry couldn’t bear it. He moved beside her, accepted her tear-streaked face pressed into his shoulder, felt her sobs rolling through his body like a terrible thunder, as the pastor attempted the impossible.
Consoling the inconsolable.
“There are no prayers, no words of wisdom, to utter on such an occasion as this,” the minister told mourners filling the maple pews at his small Methodist church. “When a child is taken from us. A boy with such a bright future.”
Harry bore no relation to the 38-year-old woman he was comforting other than as her next-door neighbor, but that was enough.
He had watched Sam Mendez grow up, tossed a football and a Frisbee with him, entertained him with stories on his front porch, sipping lemonade together as if he was a second grandson.
Like all boys, Sam was enthralled by the war medals and black-and-white photographs of American airmen in uniform that the old man next door had framed and hanging on his wall, the one along the staircase. Those were the stories he wanted to hear, the ones behind the medals and photos, and Harry Bolden obliged – omitting the more gruesome details that still haunted him more than a half-century later.
Sam was always welcome in the Bolden house, even after Mrs. Bolden passed, but the visits suddenly stopped when the boy turned 14.
Harry figured Sam was just going through adolescence and was now more interested in girls than a graying veteran afflicted with Parkinson’s. That made him sad, because he was lonely and missed the boy’s company.
When he learned that Sam had taken his own life, Harry couldn’t believe it.
The boy was always so upbeat, so excited about the future. He wanted to be a football player and then maybe an astronaut. His room was decorated with posters of space shuttles and quarterbacks.
What could possibly cause someone like that – his innocent young friend – to commit suicide?
Maria Mendez didn’t know the answer, which only added to her sorrow.
The pretty, raven-haired single mom had noticed that her son’s grades had suddenly slipped, that he had nothing to say at the dinner table, that he spent most of his time silently watching TV or in his bedroom, the door closed.
Convinced he was being bullied, she marched into the administrative offices at Two Rivers Middle School and demanded to know what was going on.
The vice principal investigated, talking privately to Sam’s teachers and observing him from a distance in the cafeteria and on the playground. After two weeks, not a single clue had emerged that could explain the boy’s freefall.
Frustrated that she couldn’t get anything out of her son, with whom she had forged the closest of bonds on the battlefield of an acrimonious divorce, Maria hired a counselor with experience in child abuse.
The counselor came to the house and managed to get a few minutes alone with Sam in his room.
“Sam, why won’t you talk to your mother?” the woman in the sky-blue suit and ruffled white blouse asked softly. She made the question sound almost nurturing – not at all like the surgical incision that it was.
The boy shrugged. He was sitting on his bed, hands pinning his knees to his chest.
“Are you mad at her?”
He shook his head.
“Did she do something wrong?”
“Is it something that happened at school?”
“No, please stop.”
“Is somebody hurting you, Sam?”
The boy’s eyes widened. There was a flicker of pain and then anger. He screamed.
“Get out! Get out! Leave me alone!!”
After that episode, Maria decided not to try counseling again. But she became even more convinced that someone was bullying her son.
The following morning, she walked next door with a bag of fresh bagels. There were few things that Harry, the former Brooklynite, coveted in the morning more than that. He even accepted the Pacific Northwest version of a bagel – smaller, slightly bland, with a softer crust.
As he poured some dark-roast coffee and toasted sesame bagels, Maria recapped her efforts to get to the root of her son’s malaise. It was getting worse, she said, sounding scared. Sam had been one of the school’s top students. Now he was barely passing his classes, even science. He stopped showing up at football practice.
Instead of reading books about space and fantasizing about walking on Mars, he had taken to writing dark poems accompanied by disturbing drawings of winged beasts with fangs and razor-sharp claws.
“What can I do?” she asked.
“I thought it was just a coming-of-age thing, but after what you just told me, I’m sure you’re right. It’s more serious than that.”
“Will you talk to him? He’s close to you. You’re like the father he never had.”
“Sure,” Harry said, bringing two plates to the table – a half bagel each, open face, with shmeer, lox and thin slices of red onion and tomato. “I’ll come over this afternoon when he’s home from school.”
“I’ll be at the office until 5:30, but just knock and Sam will let you in.”
Maria worked as an attorney at the county public defender’s office. Six years ago, she split from her philandering husband, a computer salesman who did his cheating at trade shows. She hadn’t dated much since, instead focusing on rebuilding her shattered self-esteem, her promising legal career and raising Sam. Her son came first.
After their breakfast talk, Maria told her neighbor she had to go to work. At the door, she turned around. Looking deep into Harry’s blue eyes, she said, “You’re my best hope.”
“I’ll see what I can find out. Lord knows, he owes me a story.”
When his alarm sounded later that afternoon, signaling the end of his daily power nap, Harry ambled down the stairs to the living room, wincing a bit from the strain on his aching knees. He waited by the front window until he heard footsteps next door and caught a glimpse of Sam walking up his front steps.
Minutes later, Harry rapped on the door. He had a football in his hands.
Sam opened it a crack, saw who it was and then pulled it wide. Surprising Harry, the boy rushed over and gave him a hug.
When Sam pulled back there were tears in his eyes. Harry could have asked his questions then, right on the porch, but he told himself to move slowly on the thin ice surrounding the troubled teen.
Bouncing the ball in his right hand, he grinned.
“Thought you might be interested in a little catch today. Want to see how your spiral is coming along.”
Sam hesitated. His brow briefly furrowed, as if he was trying to fight past his depression. Then his slender body sagged.
“Can’t. Too much homework”
“Ah, that’s too bad. Sure it can’t wait? A few minutes? We can toss it in the street.”
“Sorry, no time.”
Sam stepped back inside and was about to close the door when Harry surprised him by sliding past him sideways.
“Your mom asked me to check on your bathroom pipes. Mind if I take a quick look?”
“Um, sure … but I’ll be in my room.”
They walked up the stairs, Harry trailing. The old man watched with sadness as Sam went into his room and immediately shut the door. Harry ran some water in the bathroom to make his ploy seem more plausible.
After a few minutes, he knocked once on Sam’s door and walked in without waiting for an invitation. The boy was lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling. His eyes were puffy and red.
“Tell your mom the pipes seem fine.”
Harry sat on the edge of the single bed with its moon-and-stars comforter. He was known more for blunt candor than subtlety, but he decided to give it his best shot.
“Nice sneakers,” he said, admiring Sam’s white Air Jordans with contrasting black laces. “Bet you can dunk with those suckers.”
Sam, who would normally laugh at such a remark, cringed instead.
“I don’t want to talk. I need to be alone. I’m sorry.”
“I miss my buddy. You haven’t been over in a while.”
“You know, there’s nothing we can’t talk about, man to man.”
“I mean, if it’s drugs …”
“So, is there something bothering you?”
“I … don’t want to talk about it.”
Harry looked at Sam intently, then lowered his voice as if to keep anyone lurking in the shadows from overhearing.
“I won’t let anybody mess with you, pal. I’ve got your back, understand?”
A tear rolled down Sam’s cheek and he looked away.
Harry stood and gently tousled the boy’s bushy brown hair. His mother is right. There’s something bad going on.
“Come see me when you’re ready to talk. I’m right next door.”
But Sam never did.
When the service ended, Harry walked Maria out, following the shiny mahogany casket that held her son’s body.
A couple of uncles and aunts, some nieces and nephews and cousins, and a few dozen shocked members of the community were in attendance, but the ones who mattered most weren’t there.
Her parents lived in Costa Rica and hadn’t arrived yet, and her younger sister was in the wilds of Vietnam working for the Peace Corps and hadn’t yet responded to Maria’s tearful calls. So, it fell on Harry to host the wake.
The non-practicing Jew did the best he could. He hired a caterer with experience in such things and had his home filled with food and booze and white lilies, all of which would later find their way into the Mendez home. There was even a platter filled with chopped liver and bread, which he’d seen at a few shivas in New York City. He was covering all bases.
Harry debated whether to include the large, framed 7th grade portrait of Sam that had rested in front of the coffin in the church, ultimately placing it on a chair in the living room so that guests would see it when they arrived but could escape the eerily happy gaze of the deceased when it came time to eat and drink.
“Thank you, Harry – for everything,” Maria said, squeezing her neighbor’s arm. They had been the first to arrive and were standing in the kitchen.
“Glad to help.”
“Sam appeared to me last night. I could feel his presence in my bedroom, and I looked up and he was sitting across from me, bathed in a sort of shimmering light. He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘It’s not your fault, Mom.’ His lips didn’t move, but his words entered my brain somehow. Does that sound crazy? Am I losing my mind?”
Harry smiled. A similar thing happened to him when his wife died. He could still remember the relief and comfort he felt.
“On the eve of her funeral, Bonnie told me she loved me and to be strong. No, it’s not crazy.”
“Will he … see me again?”
“Maybe, if you need him to. He’s watching from heaven. The last thing he wants is for you to suffer.”
People dressed in black were starting to enter the house, momentarily silenced by the power of Sam’s portrait.
Maria drew closer to Harry. There was a strange look on her face, a mix of despair and determination.
“There’s more to Sam’s death than you know,” she whispered.