Thursday, April 3, 2014

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What To Do About The Neighbor Boy Who Lives At My House

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The first time I met Jake was on a Saturday morning. Tristan, Norah, and I were playing basketball in the front yard just after 10AM when this slender, dark-haired boy approached us and asked what we were doing.

“Playing ball,” I said. “You want in?”

He smiled back at me like he’d waited his whole life for someone to say those exact words. For someone in the neighborhood to look him in the eyes and invite him in.

We moved into a small house on B-loop, a circle-shaped street, about five months ago, but we hadn’t gotten to know any kids in the neighborhood yet. Jake was the first.

He seemed like a nice kid. He was nine years old, almost two years older than Tristan. He was polite and good to help Norah, our four-year-old, learn how to dribble a ball. He smiled a lot. He told us that he lived just down the street in a green house, and that he had 7 brothers in his family.

Mid afternoon I asked him if his mother knew where he was, and he looked at me with a straight-faced smirk, and said, “Nope.” 

So I sent him home and told him to come back after he’d told his parents where he was. I suppose I assumed that one of his parents might come back with him to make sure we weren’t creepers. To make sure that he was in a safe place. But they didn’t. Instead Jake just came back a few moments later and reported that she now knew where he was.

Overall he was a nice kid; however, he stayed at our house ALL DAY.

And then, he came back the next day. And the day after that. He’d been hanging out at our house almost every day for a couple weeks, eating our food, sitting on our sofa, playing our wii.

There are a few things that bother me about this. First off, I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood. I grew up surrounded by farms. No one just came over to my house and stayed all day. Things don’t work that way in a farming community. If someone hung out at your house too long, they were put to work.

This has made me feel uncomfortable with long-term guests.

Secondly, I find it unusual that this kid’s parents didn’t seem to care that their son is hanging out at some strange house down the street. For all they know, I’m one of those red dots on the sex offender registry. But perhaps this is part of having 8 children in the house. Perhaps the parents are so frazzled that the thought of having a kid at another house for a few hours is worth the risk.

Maybe Jake was simply blown away to be in a home with enough wii remotes for everyone, and to not have to fight for food. Or maybe he was lying to his parents for some reason. Perhaps they thought he was at another home in the neighborhood, one they trusted, but in fact he was hanging out at our place. Maybe things are bad enough at his house that he needed a safe place to hang out and get away. When I think about that, I think about what it was like when my parents were going through a divorce, and how I basically lived at my grandmother’s house as a way to get away from the fights.

I’m not the only one who thought Jake’s constant presence was strange. Mel felt the same. She didn’t let him in the house for his first few visits because she was worried it might turn into a liability thing. At one point she sent Jake home with a note asking if he could go to a movie with her and the kids. She included her phone number thinking that one of Jake’s parents would call to make arrangments. Jake came back with the torn off bottom half Mel’s note. On it was a name and number. No explanation.

“Why didn’t your mom just call me?” Mel asked.

Jake shrugged.

The more I thought about it, the stranger it all seemed. Then I became reflective. Perhaps it was us. Maybe we needed to be the ones to go chat with them. After about two weeks of him hanging out at our house, and never meeting his parents, I decided it was time to get to the bottom of things.

It was almost dark, and I gave Jake a ride home. I waked him to the door in hopes of meeting his parents. They lived in a dark green two-story house with two mini-vans parked out front. The screen door was bent back and half off the hinges, and I could see light from a TV in the living room through the broken blinds.

Jake walked ahead of me, opened the door, and said something to his parents. Four or five children swarmed the door, ranging from a one-year-old in a diaper and a binky, to a six-year-old with messy blond hair. The front room was sparsely furnished, and sitting on the sofa was a tall slender man in Hawaiian themed shorts and a white undershirt, eating an omelet and watching TV. Jake’s mom came to the door like a sheepherder keeping her children from escaping.

She shook my hand. 

She looked frazzled, while her husband hardly looked at me. He held an expression that seemed to say, This is the only time I get to sit down and you are ruining it.

He didn’t get up.

I chatted with Jake’s mother for a bit. She was a slender blond woman who seemed far too young and small to have birthed 8 children. I wanted to ask her why she’d never come to meet us. I wanted to make snide remarks about her parenting. But I didn’t. I just looked at her tired eyes. I looked at her husband sitting on the sofa, ignoring their children.

Maybe this was all just a snap judgment. Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions. But things didn’t feel right at their house. And in that moment, I began to wonder if Jake hanging out at our house was part of a larger problem, and somehow I knew that I was going to have to get used to seeing him on my sofa. 

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley