Reaching Out to a Stranger

Reaching Out to a Stranger

From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul

Reaching Out to a Stranger

To give pleasure to a single heart by a single act is better than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.

Gandhi

Frank Daily stared down at the frozen ground. He kicked chunks of snow, blackened with car exhaust, to the side. He only pretended to listen to the chatter of his friends, Norm and Ed, as they all clambered aboard the number 10 bus after school. He spouted out automatic answers to their questions: “Yeah, I aced the Milton test . . . No, I can’t tonight. I’ve got to hit the books.”

Frank and his friends flopped down in the back of the Milwaukee city bus along with several other high school boys, some from other schools. The bus belched a gray cloud out the back and headed west on Blue Mound Road.

Frank slouched into his seat. His hands hung from his two thumbs stuffed in the center of his belt. It had been another cold, gray day just a month ago in November when his world had come crashing down around him. He knew that his basketball skills were as good as the other boys’. His mom used to call him “the athlete of the season.” When he was smaller, she had nicknamed him “Search and Destroy.” He smiled at the memory.

The bus lurched away from a curb, and Frank instinctively braced his Nikes against the floor. It must have been my size, he thought. That had to be it. Five-feet-four. Since I’m new at Marquette High and only a freshman, the coach must have taken one look at me and decided I was too small to make the basketball team.

It wasn’t easy starting a new school, especially an all-boys Catholic school. The older boys tended to be a bit clannish. It was especially hard for Frank because he had been a star athlete in all the sports in elementary school. Not only had he excelled in athletics before arriving at Marquette; he had also come alive to politics and history in the fifth and sixth grades. He recalled the advice his teacher, Don Anderson, had given him: “Look, Frank, if you’d put as much time into books as you do into basketball, you could do great in both.” Now, it seemed, he was a nothing.

Well, Frank thought, Anderson was right about the books, at least. My grades have been A’s and B’s ever since. Basketball is another story.

A loud horn and a screech of brakes somewhere behind the bus startled Frank. He looked at Norm and Ed. Norm was leaning his head against the window with half-shut eyes, his warm breath creating a circle of fog on the glass.

Frank rubbed his own eyes. He still remembered his stomach chilling into a frozen knot as he approached the locker room last month. He had read the team list posted on the locker room door, hoping, searching frantically for his name. It hadn’t been there. It was missing. No name. He had felt suddenly as if he had ceased to exist. Become invisible.

The bus jerked to a stop at the County Institutions grounds. The bus driver called to some noisy boys at the back to settle down. Frank glanced up at the driver, who had been dubbed “Kojak” because of his bald head.

A very pregnant woman hung onto the silver handrail and slowly pulled herself onto the bus. As she fell backward into the seat behind the bus driver, her feet kicked up, and Frank saw that she was in stocking feet.

As Kojak steered the bus back into traffic, he yelled over his shoulder, “Where are your shoes, lady? It ain’t more than 10 degrees out there.”

“I can’t afford shoes,” the woman answered. She pulled her fraying coat collar around her neck. Some of the boys at the back exchanged glances and smirked. “I got on the bus just to get my feet warm,” the woman continued. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just ride around with you for a bit.”

Kojak scratched his bald head and shouted, “Now just tell me how come you can’t afford shoes?”

“I got eight kids. They all got shoes. There’s not enough left for me. But it’s okay, the Lord will take care of me.”

Frank looked down at his new Nike basketball shoes. His feet were warm and snug, always had been. And then he looked back at the woman. Her socks were ripped. Her coat, missing buttons, hung open around her stomach, as swollen as a basketball and covered by a smudgy dress.

Frank didn’t hear anything around him after that. He wasn’t aware of Norm or Ed. He just felt a warm thawing in his gut. The word “invisible” popped into his mind again. An invisible person, marginal, forgotten by society, but for a different reason, he thought.

He would probably always be able to afford shoes. She probably never would. Under his seat, he pried the toe of one shoe into the heel of the other and slipped it off. Then the other shoe. He looked around. Nobody had noticed. He would have to walk three blocks in the snow. But the cold had never bothered him much. When the bus stopped at the end of the line, Frank waited until everyone else had emptied off. Then he reached under his seat and picked up his basketball shoes. He walked quickly up to the woman and handed them to her, looking down and saying, “Here, lady, you need these more than I do.”

And then Frank hurried to the door and stepped down. He managed to land in a puddle. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t at all cold. He heard the woman exclaim, “Look, they fit me just perfect!”

Then he heard Kojak call, “Hey, come back here, kid! What’s your name?”

Frank turned around to face Kojak. At the same time, Norm and Ed asked where his shoes were.

Frank’s cheeks burned in confusion at Kojak, his friends and the woman. “Frank Daily,” he said quietly. “My name is Frank Daily.”

“Well, Frank,” Kojak said, “I’ve never seen anything like that in the 20 years I’ve been driving this bus.”

The woman was crying. “Thank you, young man,” she said. She turned to Kojak. “See, I told you the Lord would take care of me.”

Frank mumbled, “You’re welcome.” He smiled at the woman. “It’s no big deal. Besides, it’s Christmas.”

He hurried off after Norm and Ed. It seemed to him that the grayness had lifted. On the way home, he hardly felt the cold beneath his feet at all.

Barbara A. Lewis

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