Ripton, VT: North Branch School
“Tough guy, eh?”
“Oh yeah, you know it.”
Steve arrived before me every morning. No matter how assiduous I had been about locking up, he was always already inside the house. I knew why he came early: The school was a cleaner, warmer place than his home, a trailer in which there was no phone and where his father was almost always on the road driving trucks.
Most mornings he was lounging around in the school with the lights off, still wrapped in his jacket, playing games on the computer, doing a late homework assignment or resting, still half asleep, on top of the science table. He occasionally answered early morning phone calls and left scrawled messages on my desk.
One morning in December I arrived to find Steve’s footprints leading through the snow on the deck. I followed them around the building until I came to a window. Snow, leaves, and dead pine needles were ruffled where he had climbed in. I imagined him inside, dozing in the dark.
I opened the front door, kicked the snow off my boots, and turned on the lights. He was pecking away on a computer with his hood pulled tight around his face, his eyes fixed on the glowing screen. He didn’t turn around. I hoisted my backpack up onto my desk, where I saw a torn sheet of composition notebook paper, placed perfectly in the center of my desk for me to see, signed S. H. Above the initials was a six-line poem, handwritten, the neatest handwriting he’d ever proffered.
Steve knew where I was and where I was going to be, and he had met me there. It was his offering, a tentative idea, a fragile gesture saying, “Look, will you look? I have something to say.”
I held it in my hand and read it.
If I could pick a day
To spread my wings and fly
I would never break a promise
Even to this day.
I wonder if I’ll have to pay
To spread my wings and fly away.
It wasn’t much of a poem, but it stood for something magnificent, a little prayer infused with hope and tragic longing, laced with an awareness, as well, of his relative impoverishment. His words expressed a sense of foreordained limitation and his co-existence with dead ends.