Don Tassone's short stories and essays have appeared in a range of literary magazines. His debut short story collection, Get Back, was published...read more in March 2017. His debut novel, Drive, was published in September 2017. He lives in Loveland, Ohio and teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
Anthony took his first toke when he was five. He got drunk the first time when he was six. He started shoplifting when he was seven. He had sex when he was 10. He couldn’t fully perform. But she could. She was 12.
By the time he was 11, he had gotten into so many fights at school that he was expelled. At 12, he tried to rape a 10-year-old girl. While he was being held in jail, he tried to hang himself. When his mother didn’t show up to post bail, he was released into the custody of the county and admitted to a juvenile detention center.
That’s where he met James, who had just started an internship there. He was a junior in college.
A few days after Anthony was admitted, James’ supervisor, a woman named Marjorie, approached James to ask him if he would work with Anthony.
“What’s his situation?” he asked.
“This is a tough case,” she said.
“This kid has been in trouble his whole life.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Well, last week, he tried to rape a girl. A few days ago, he tried to kill himself.”
“Sounds like he needs some serious help.”
“He’s getting it. He’s seeing our best psychiatrist. But he needs more. He needs someone he can talk with.”
“Marjorie, you know I don’t have any real experience in this.”
“Just talk with him, James. If you decide it’s too much, I’ll find someone else.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll arrange for a meeting in the morning.”
Anthony was sitting on a bench under a maple tree in a small courtyard bordered by the brick walls of the U-shaped center as James approached him.
The boy looked much older than 12. His face was worn and drawn. His eyes were deep-set, with dark circles under them. His coarse hair splayed out, long and wild. He looked like a stray dog.
He extended his hand, but the boy didn’t take it or even look at him. James didn’t say anything. Instead, he simply asked, “May I sit down?” The boy didn’t answer, at least not verbally. But he did look down at the space on the bench next to him. James took it as a sign of engagement and sat down.
“So when did you get here?” James asked.
Anthony rolled his eyes. “Man, you know when I got here.”
“You’re right. I do know. You got here four days ago.”
“Then why did you ask?” chopping his hand into the air.
“Because I was wondering how, being here for four days, you've managed to escape getting a haircut.”
“You gotta be shittin me, man.”
“I wouldn’t do that, Anthony.”
“Well, whatta ya mean then? You think I’m a mess?”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“I think you need a haircut, that’s all. You need a haircut badly.”
“Is that so?”
“You gonna cut it for me, big man?”
“Yeah, I’ll cut it for you, Anthony.”
The boy didn’t believe him.
“Where you gonna do that?”
“There’s a barber shop inside.”
“I can get the key.”
“Man, you’re shitting me,” he said, looking away and shaking his head.
“Anthony, I told you. I wouldn’t do that.”
“OK, big man. You’re on. But you better know what you’re doin.”
James had never cut anyone’s hair in his life. But he saw an opening with the boy, and he took it.
The barber shop didn’t open until noon. It was not even ten. But James got the key from the front desk, then stopped by Marjorie’s office to make sure this would be OK. She was surprised but said yes and reminded James to keep the door open. Center policy.
“Be careful in there,” she called after him.
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
“I’m talking to Anthony,” she said, smiling.
James unlocked the door and flipped on the lights.
“Your hair looks dirty, Anthony. We’re going to need to wash it before I can cut it.”
“Screw you, man.”
“Anthony, that’s the deal. And watch your language.”
James didn’t know if he was pushing too hard. But he stepped over to the sink and turned the water on, running his hand under it to test the temperature. Out of the corner of his eye, he was pleasantly surprised to see Anthony sitting down in a chair in front of the sink.
“That chair tilts back.”
“I know, man,” the boy said, fumbling with a lever on the side. The chair lurched back, and he nearly slammed the back of his head into the sink.
“Be careful,” James said. “Let me put a towel around your neck before you sit back.”
He draped a white, cotton hand towel around Anthony’s neck, slipped his hand under the back of his head and lowered it into a curved notch in the edge of the sink. He thought the boy might resist. But instead he closed his eyes and sat still, with his hands folded on his lap.
James pulled the nozzle from its mount, pressed a button on the handle and sprayed the boy’s hair, smoothing it with his hand.
“Is that water temperature OK?”
“It’s fine. It’s good.”
James turned off the water, grabbed a bottle of shampoo and began working it into Anthony’s hair.
“Funny?” He looked down. James had a small smile on his face.
“Yeah. Nobody’s ever washed my hair before.”
“Now, Anthony. I find that hard to believe. You’re telling me your mom never washed your hair when you were little?”
“If she did, I don't remember.”
“What’s your earliest memory?”
At first, Anthony didn’t respond. He’s ignoring me, James thought.
But then, with his eyes still closed, he said, “The first thing I remember is getting whipped.”
“Who whipped you, Anthony?”
James turned the water back on and began rinsing Anthony’s hair. Neither of them said anything. Then James grabbed a towel and gently rubbed the boy’s hair until it was semi-dry.
“OK, Anthony,” James said, lifting his neck and helping him sit up. “Let’s cut your hair.”
Anthony walked over to a swivel chair and sat down. James spotted a short stack of small, folded sheets. He grabbed one and draped it around Anthony’s neck. The chair was too low, so James raised it by pumping a pedal underneath.
Then he looked up and saw the reflection of himself and the boy in the mirror. Anthony was looking at James’ face. Up to that point, he had not made eye contact. Now, he was at least looking at his face, if only indirectly. James took this as a good sign.
“How do you like your hair cut, Anthony?”
“Same length all over?”
“Well, then, we’ll give you a buzz cut,” James said, picking up a trimmer. No scissors, he thought. Thank God. He had had a close-cropped beard the winter before and knew how to use a trimmer, at least on his own face.
“I’ll use a number four,” James said, snapping on a clipper guard. “That’s pretty short. But if you want to go even shorter, we can do that.”
“What about you, James?”
“What about me, Anthony?”
“Did you get whipped when you were a kid?”
“No, Anthony. I didn’t. My parents never hit me.”
“You had a mom and a dad?”
“Yep. Still do. What about you?”
“My mom’s not around much. I never seen my dad.”
James clicked on the trimmer. As he began to cut Anthony’s hair, in the privacy of the barber shop, over the whirr of the trimmer, the boy began to tell him about his life. How he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn't in trouble for something. How he felt alone in the world. How he was afraid he’d end up in a place like this.
James listened and began to tell Anthony about himself too. How he grew up in a big house. How he planned to become a financial adviser, like his father. How he was at the center only because a semester of “community service” was required at school.
For Anthony, it was the first time he had ever talked about his life, the first time anyone had even seemed interested.
For James, it was a huge surprise. He was a “numbers guy” and had signed up for this internship as a check-the-box exercise. And yet here he was, watching a perfect stranger go from being unwilling to acknowledge his presence to trusting him to cut his hair, and now beginning to share his story, within the span of an hour. And all he had done is show up.
James finished cutting Anthony’s hair. Suddenly, he looked younger. James grabbed a towel and brushed the loose hairs from his head, face and neck.
“Great,” Anthony replied, smiling and, in the mirror, looking James in the eye. “Thank you.”
And with that, the two of them left the barber shop and walked down the hall to the cafeteria, where they continued to talk over lunch, then well into the afternoon.
That fall, James worked at the center two days a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On those days, and sometimes on weekends, he came to see Anthony. They would play video games and talk for hours.
Over the course of the semester, Marjorie assigned James a few other children too, to round out his internship. But seeing how close he and Anthony were becoming, and the positive effect it was having, she let James continue to focus on him.
Anthony attended school at the center. He was so far behind that he had to begin with the fourth graders. But now, for the first time in his life, he actually enjoyed going to school. By Christmas, he had caught up with kids his own age. By the following spring, his grades were among the best in his class.
By Christmas, James’ internship was complete. But he decided to keep seeing Anthony. In fact, he began to come see him nearly every day. Not because he had to. But because the two of them had become like brothers.
Anthony spent another year in the center because his mother took no interest in him and no one else claimed him. He continued doing well in school and ended up graduating from the eighth grade near the top of his class.
The center’s policy was to house children for no more than two years. After that, provided they were stable, most kids and teens became candidates for either foster care or adoption.
As Anthony was graduating from eighth grade, James was graduating from college. Several months before he graduated, he accepted a job with the biggest investment firm in town.
Once he graduated, James took Anthony into foster care. A year later, Anthony’s mother died of a drug overdose. Three months after that, when Anthony was 16, James adopted him.
Anthony was valedictorian of his high school class. He spoke at his graduation. James was sitting in the front row of the parents’ section.
“Our lives are filled with moments of great joy, like this one,” Anthony said. “But there are moments of despair too, times when we feel alone and afraid and wonder if we can go on. But we will go on because, completely unknown to us, someone is out there, waiting to save us. They will come to us when we least expect it. It will not be dramatic. There will be no soaring music or beating drums. It will happen when you’re sitting on a bench or getting your hair cut. But you will know it. You’ll feel a new presence, a divine presence, in your life. And you will realize that you were never really alone.”