Writer Susan Straight recalls the challenging story of a little boy from her neighborhood.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Fall, especially the Thanksgiving holiday, conjures a painful memory for commentator Susan Straight. It reminds her of a little boy from her neighborhood who disappeared from her life long ago.
SUSAN STRAIGHT: When the leaves turn lime and gold, I think of Deon. I met him as kindergartener 15 years ago. On Mondays, I volunteered in my middle daughter's class. My job was to help with scissors and paste, making a book of jack-o-lanterns. He liked to pull on my daughter's slinky-like black curls. His hair was uncombed. His sneakers, dusty hand-me-downs the size of bread loaves on his small feet.
Kindergarten seemed exhausting to him, all the listening and pasting. He would study the web of dried glue on his palms if he sat in my lap. During one recess, Deon kept tugging at the waistband of his jeans. Then, he lifted his striped polo shirt absentmindedly to scratch and I saw burns on his lower belly. Hey, little man, I said, let's go inside and get some cream for that ouchie. He shook his head and I said, sweetie, we have to get that checked.
In the nurse's office, he said a pot of soup fell on me. When she unsnapped his jeans, there were round pink burns like rosettes lower down. That was not soup. That was cigarettes. Child Protective Services was called. His grandfather said it was soup. His mother said it was soup. Deon said it was soup. I met his mother in October in the school parking lot. She was about my age and she looked vaguely familiar. Had we seen each other in high school at a football game or a dance?
She smiled at me gently and I couldn't help but say that it was hard to see Deon in pain after the spilled soup. She smiled again patiently and said, I don't know how that happened. At Thanksgiving, I took her a frozen turkey, clothes and shoes from my nephews. I put the bag on the Formica counter and she got up so we could talk briefly about turkeys.
Then we left, and after the holiday, Deon didn't come back to school. He never came back to school. Last month, my three daughters heard me read a story about a boy like Deon. I did not write the truth. The burns were on the boy's back because I couldn't bear to think that someone could look at a boy's face while scarring him with a lit cigarette.
I said to the audience that my daughter remembered this story. But afterward, she said to me with some anger that she hadn't known about the burns. Of course, I never told her back then. I didn't want her to know that kind of pain had been felt by a boy who liked to touch her own curly hair.
CORNISH: Writer Susan Straight, her most recent novel is called "Between Heaven And Here." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.