Whittling Away Time

“My name’s Adam, what’s yours?” The little boy with golden curls came up the weedy path.

“Nunya biz-ness.” The old man, cigarette dangling between his lips, answered after a few seconds contemplating the child.

The little boy watched the old man with the knife, scraping away at a bar of soap. He didn’t seem to notice that he wasn’t welcome. “Whatcha doin’?”

The old man paused, taking a final puff of his smoke before dropping the butt into a can of sand. “Magic.”

Adam’s blue eyes opened wide in surprise, and he stepped closer to the rickety porch steps the old man was sitting on. “Can I watch, Nunya?”

A flicker of amusement flashed over the lined face as the old man studied the young boy. After a minute or so, he shrugged. Didn’t matter if he’d said yes, the little boy had already settled on the step below him.

Adam watched as the soap shavings piled up on the step beside him. “Whatcha gonna do with the bits of soap?”

The old man shrugged. “Sweep em up.”

Adam looked around the peeling porch for a broom but didn’t find one. He found another can, rusted but empty, and used his hand to sweep the soap shavings, careful to get them all into the can. When Adam put the can where the shavings had been, he sat back and stuck out his chest proudly. “I’m five. How old are you, Nunya?”

“Sixty-eight.” The old man felt his pockets for the pack of smokes, then peered at Adam and seemed to think better of it. Shrugging, he went back to whittling the soap.

“I go to school, and I can do gym and math and all sorts of shit.” Adam boasted as he picked up a curly soap scrap and dropped it in the can.

The old man hissed and growled, his dark face menacing and mean looking. “Watchya mouth, Son.”

Adam studied his angry face, the blue in his dark brown eyes, the stiff shoulders. After a tense moment, he shrugged. “Sorry.”

The old man nodded, returning his attention to his craft. “Your ma know where you at?”

Adam’s eyes widened as he shook his head, studying his new friend. “She don’t know much of nothing, you know?”

“Aye.” The old man reached over unexpectedly and ruffled the soft golden curls that needed trimming.

Adam chattered about nothing and everything as the old man continued to whittle away the soap. The boy was observant, and bright, full of questions and usually answered them before the old man could.

“Albert? Time to come in now.”

Albert stiffened at the voice, his eyes darting to Adam before nodding. He blew on the bar of soap (now a bird) and narrowed his eyes before seeming to deem the small figure done. He stood, brushing soap scraps from his pant legs.

“Hey, Nunya, why’d that lady call you Albert?” Adam asked, getting to his own feet.

The old man lifted one thin shoulder as he reached out his hand to give Adam the bird. “Take flight, Son.”

Adam watched the older man as he shuffled up the stairs and across the peeling-paint porch. Then he spotted the two cans on the step. “Hey, Nunya, can I have these?”

Albert turned around, his hand on the handle of the screen door. “Not the sand?”

Adam shook his head and tilted the rusty can with the soap shavings. Albert shrugged again and Adam watched as he went inside the old house.

*

Summer passed in a haze of heat and smog. Most days, Albert ‘Nunya’ Giles, and Adam ‘Son’ Riley passed the afternoons and evenings on the old, peeling porch. On the rainy days, they sat on the rickety bench until the young woman came out to collect the old man, and Adam made his way down the street towards home.

“You late,” Albert muttered as Adam ran up the path.

“Sorry. Goddamn school.”

“Watchya mouth, Son.” Albert dropped his mostly finished cigarette into the can beside him and went back to whittling.

“Sorry, Nunya. Whatchya makin’ today?” Adam asked, trying to see what Albert was turning the soap into that day.

Albert shrugged. “You give your ma that deer yesterday?”

Adam’s face turned red and he busied himself scooping up the soap scraps. He set the can between Albert’s feet and picked up the book sitting on the step next to Albert. “What’s this?”

Albert’s eyes narrowed at the boy. “Read it.”

Adam glared at the old man for a second. When Albert didn’t break eye contact, Adam let his gaze drop to the cover. He put one grimy finger on the title and followed each letter to the next as he spoke. “B-A-N-G B-A-N-G B-O-B-B-Y. What’s that mean?”

Albert nodded. “Read it to me.”

“I can’t read.” Adam studied the book cover, curious about the little boy holding a bow and arrow.

“Your teacher never tell ya what sound letters make?”

Adam nodded, his attention back on the book. “B-b-baahnnng?”

Albert nodded, blowing on the soap in his hand. “Don’t bring that book back here ’til ya can read to me proper.”

“Ain’t never gonna see this book again.” Adam tried to smile, but Albert saw the boy wince.

“I want that book back, and I want ya to read it to me.” Albert leveled a rheumy eyed stare at Adam until the boy finally nodded.

While Albert whittled, Adam flipped through the pages of the book, admiring the pictures and staring for a long time at a page with a sketch of an owl. The owl had an arrow under its wing, and feathers floating down around him. “Does the owl die?”

Albert paused, brushing soap from his hand. “Read it and tell me.”

“Albert, it’s time.” The young woman, standing at the screen door, sounded irritable today.

When she’d walked away, Adam helped Albert tidy up the bits that had missed the can. “She looks mad. What’d you do?”

“More like it’s just me bein’ here makin’ her mad.” Albert decided after a moments careful consideration.

“I hear ya, bruh.”

Albert paused at the top step. “I ain’t your bruh. Use proper names.”

Adam looked properly chastised and nodded. “Sorry, Nunya.”

His dark face split into a wide smile that showed yellowing teeth and gaps where there should’ve been teeth, Albert ruffled the shiny curls and handed the latest creation to Adam. Another deer, the same as the day before. Adam wondered if Albert knew, if he’d talked to his ma, found out that Adam had melted the deer with the soap bits when his ma had yelled at him for making a mess, then gone to bed without making any dinner for Adam. Adam had felt bad after, but it was too late.

*

“Nunya, Nunya!” Adam crunched up the path, over dead leaves, to where Albert sat on the rickety bench, a ratty old blanket over his legs.

“Where’s the fire?” Albert looked up, eyes peering through the haze of smoke curling around his face. He took the cigarette he’d just lit and tossed it into the bucket of sand beside him.

“No fire, it’s okay,” Adam wheezed, clutching his small chest through the jacket he wore. “I made a friend.”

Albert nodded, whittling his bar of soap. “What’s his name?”

“Her name is Janice. Girls can be friends with boys, ya know.” Adam narrowed his eyes as he spoke, as if expecting Albert to taunt him.

Albert didn’t laugh. He nodded his head and kept whittling. “Is that the one that gave you a muffin the day you had no lunch?”

“Yeah. And today she shared her cookies with me, even though Ma had packed me a lunch.” Adam flushed with excitement. “Janice didn’t want any of the tuna sandwich, but she shared her Oreos. Then she said we was friends because she don’t share Oreos with nobody.”

“Whatchya gonna make for lunch tomorrow, so as you has somethin’ to share with her?” Albert nodded his agreement over Janice’s sentiments about sharing cookies.

“Not sure what Ma’s makin’.” Adam shrugged after a second or two.

“Why’s your ma gotta make it? You told me you make your own supper sometimes, why can’t ya make yer own lunches?”

Adam opened his mouth but said nothing. After a second, he shrugged and got the can to gather the soap shavings. “Guess I could make a sandwich. Ma made cookies, only some of ’em are burnt. I’ll pick out two of the best ones.”

“You read that book yet?” Albert asked after awhile.

“Slow goin’, but almost.” Adam noticed the darkness was creeping up earlier and earlier these days and he sighed. “She’s gonna come get you, tell you it’s time?”

Albert blew on that day’s work as he nodded. “Reckon so.”

A thought crept in, one that Adam had been trying to block out for days. Without realizing he was going to say anything, he blurted out the troubling question. “What’re you gonna do when the snow flies? When it’s too cold to sit out here?”

Albert brushed soap from the ratty blanket and shrugged. “I’ll be here. Some days too cold for whittlin’, but I be here.”

Adam took the bar of soap, now a howling wolf. He’d never admit to Albert that he had all his sculptures lined up in rows on a battered old table in his room where he was supposed to do homework. He stared at them for hours at a time, awed that his friend had made them. They were the best art he’d ever seen – and he’d been on a school trip to the museum. He’d seen the weird pictures that kinda looked like flowers, or vibrant coloured slashes on canvas that didn’t look like anything at all. What his friend gave him was a hundred million times better than anything he’d seen that day.

“Albert.” The older woman at the screen door sounded impatient. She had dark hair and skin like Albert, but none of his sparkle in her eyes.

Adam waited until she’d gone, after Albert got to his feet. “She don’t look too friendly.”

Albert ran his hands over Adam’s shiny hair and shrugged. “Ain’t yer biz-ness. Go on home.”

*

Winter had been cold and cruel. Most days were too cold for snow. Albert hadn’t sat outside for long since the beginning of the last cold snap. Adam hadn’t been by since the new year had been rung in with a nasty snowstorm that ended in record low temperatures. Albert shook a fresh cigarette from his pack, put the filter end in his mouth, then froze with the matchstick hovering over the striker.

“Nunya, Nunya, guess what?” Adam, bundled head to toe in winter clothing, crunched up the snow packed path.

Albert dropped the unlit cigarette and matchbook back into his pocket and pulled his gloves back on. “What?”

“Ma’s done her chemo and her doctor said he thinks she’ll be fine. She’s not going to be all better real soon, but I think maybe in a month or two.” Adam’s face was pink from the cold, or his excitement, as he pulled his scarf from around his neck and sat down on the bench beside Albert.

Albert’s face split into a smile so wide some kids might have been scared, but Adam just smiled back at him. “Janice gave me both her oreos today to celebrate.”

“Wait right here.” Albert shuffled into the house and came back a minute later with a small bag. “Don’t open this now, the snow and cold will ruin ’em, but I been savin’ em for you.”

Adam took the bag, his face lit with pleasure. “I got somethin’ for you, too, Nunya.”

Albert watched as Adam unzipped his coat and reached under the bib of his snowpants. He pulled a picture glued to cardboard free and passed the artwork to Albert. “It’s you and me and we’re whittling, see?”

Albert studied the picture, blurred by tears and cataracts. “S’good, Son.”

“My teacher said you must be a saint to teach me anything.” Adam frowned at the picture Albert held in his gloved hands.

Albert glanced over at Adam, his smile almost sad. “You tell your teacher I ain’t taught you nothin’ you didn’t already know.”

Adam nodded, not really understanding, and not thinking what Albert said was true. “No point arguin’ with Mrs. D. She’s a know-it-all and thinks she’s always right.”

“That’s because they usually are. Right, I mean.” Albert sighed and tucked the picture inside his own coat. “How’s the book?”

Adam’s face lit up. “Real good! I’m almost done for the fourth time. Ma’s teachin’ me to read in my head, so I’m not drivin’ her nuts readin’ out loud.”

“Just move your lips if you have to, no voice.” Albert pulled his glove off and reached out to tug on the escaping curls.

“Albert.” The grumpy older woman shivered from behind the glass of the screen door.

Adam waited until the woman had closed the bigger door. “Already?”

Albert coughed a dreadful cough, The sound was deep and scary and gross. He coughed and coughed, his gloved hands over his mouth. After a minute, he nodded. “This winter’s been a rough one.”

Adam stood, gathering the blanket Albert dropped. “Yeah, sucks havin’ to stay inside so much.”

“Don’t I know it.”

*

The dead grass was coming back to life, little shoots of green mixed with the brown. Albert settled on his step, the empty can for soap sitting beside him.

“Nunya, you’re so skinny.” Adam, taller and somehow more grown up looking, settled on the step beside Albert.

“Nah, you just ain’t seen me without that big ol’ coat for so long.” Albert pulled out a fresh bar of soap and wiped his knife on his pants.

“You ready?” Adam pulled the book out of the bag he’d brought.

“You sure you ready?” Albert nodded, starting to whittle.

To answer, Adam opened the book and began to read. “Bang Bang Bobby.”

Albert listened to the boy, pausing to cough now and then. Adam read well, better than Albert had hoped. He only stumbled a time or two on the harder words.

“And the owl flew in a slow circle over Bobby’s head, once, twice, three times. When Bobby was sure he’d fixed what he’d broken, the owl soared higher and disappeared into the night.”

Albert never stopped whittling. “Impressive.”

“Who is Albert Giles?” Adam asked, surprising Albert. The knife slipped and a spot of blood bloomed on Albert’s thumb. “Sh-crap, sorry.”

“Slipped. You done good, Son.” Albert took a quick second to suck the blood from his thumb then went back to whittling. “How’s your ma?”

Adam frowned at Albert for a moment before shrugging and getting the can to sweep up the soap shavings. “She’s going back to work soon.”

Albert nodded. “And you’ll be in daycare.”

Adam’s brow creased and he looked like he wanted to kick something. Then his face cleared, and his happy smile spread over his face. “Ma says I can do baseball and soccer this summer. Darren says I can be on his team, but Janice says Darren’s stupid and I should ask to be on Isaac’s team instead. Janice sucks at baseball, but she might join soccer with me.”

“Five minutes, Albert.” The woman at the door was older than the woman who’d been there the last few times. She smiled at Adam before her brown eyes filled with worry as she looked at Albert. Her white face creased with concern, but she turned and went back into the house.

“She seems nice.” Adam decided as he helped Albert clean up.

“Aye.” Albert brushed the soap from his pants. “Don’t you want the shavings?”

“Nah. I been tryin’ and tryin’, but I just can’t make nothin’ when I melt the soap and make my own bars. Just look like soap someone left in the tub forever.” Adam’s sheepish smile made him look like a cherub.

“Keep tryin’.” Albert took the book Adam handed him. He reached out but instead of ruffling his curls, he squeezed his shoulder. “See you around, Son.”

Adam took the latest offering, an owl in full flight.

*

Adam felt worry cramp his belly as he made his way up the steps. He’d figured out so long ago that Nunya was really Albert, but he still called him Nunya, in person and when he talked or thought about him. He knocked on the screen door, then got brave and opened the door and knocked on the wooden one behind it when no one answered his first knock.

No answer. Adam stepped back and peered around the porch. How long had it been since he’d been by? With a sinking feeling, he realized he hadn’t seen his friend since before summer vacation started, and now his ma was talking about back-to-school shopping. “Nunya? Albert?”

A sound from the side of the house caught his attention, and Adam hurried to the gravel driveway. There was a small car parked beside the door, and the trunk was open.

The nice woman who’d been there the last time Adam had stepped out of the house. “Oh, Adam, you startled me.”

“Where’s Nun-Albert?” Adam tried to see around the woman blocking his view.

The old woman’s kind eyes filled with tears. “Wait here.”

Adam did as he was told, but his instincts screamed for him to run. Somehow, he knew she wasn’t going to get Albert.

She came out carrying a box. “I was going to drop this off for you.”

Adam took the box, almost dropping it when she let go. The box was sealed, his name in neat writing on the flap. “Albert’s not coming, is he?”

The older woman shook her head sadly, and she ruffled his golden curls. “No, honey, he’s not.”

Adam carried the box, each step he took felt heavier then the last. He carried the box to the porch, and settled on the step, feeling the need to open the box here rather than at home.

He didn’t know what he thought he’d find inside, but the dozens of whole bars of soap weren’t anything he’d have guessed.

“Those are the bars he didn’t whittle. The days you weren’t here, or the days he wasn’t feeling so good.” The nurse backing out of the driveway called over to Adam. “I think he wanted to teach you one day.”

Adam swallowed hard and turned his head until she’d driven away, then went back to looking in the box.

The book, the one that he’d spent months agonizing over learning to read was in there, and Adam pulled it out. He flipped the pages without really looking at them. Back to front, front to back, he fanned the pages, his eyes blurring with unshed tears.

Written and illustrated by Albert Giles. Adam’s fingers ran over the words his mother had helped him learn all those months ago. Albert Giles had written the story, and drawn the pictures. Until now, Adam hadn’t really believed his friend was Albert Giles. Or maybe he had but hadn’t put any thought into it.

Adam paid closer attention to the pages. At the end, on the blank page after the final drawing, words had been written that Adam hadn’t noticed at first.

Son;

You might have to ask your ma to help you understand, or you might not and not really understand until you’re older. Or maybe, like me, you’ll see there are things in life we’ll never understand. It’s okay to not know some things, and never understand them even after they’re explained to you.

Like you – I don’t understand how a kid could come around, day after day, worming his way into a heart that hadn’t felt for so long. All I know is that it’s been over forty years since a kid mattered to me, a kid that never got to grow up. My little boy, Bobby, was smart like you, funny like you, handsome like you. His ma and him were in an accident, a real bad one, and that’s when I stopped feeling. Until you.

So, I will pass on the things I would’ve wanted to tell my own son, things you should know. First of all, never forget who your friends are. Never treat someone who shares things like their oreos with a lonely, scared boy who cries at school worrying about their mother badly. Forgive the kids who laughed at you, because they didn’t understand, but never forget the ones who didn’t laugh. Always share your oreos with others. Never give up, never quit. You might become amazing, or you might stay so-so, but eventually you’ll be happy you kept trying.

Take care of yourself, help your ma when you can. You’ll drive her crazy, you’ll get mad at her, but always remember that you love her, and she loves you. Your ma always knew where you were, even when she was too sick to come looking.

Always be honest, and if you can’t, don’t say anything at all. Watch your mouth – you kiss your ma with that mouth, so leave the dirty words out of your vocabulary. If you’re gonna use slang and silly things like bruh, use em with your friends, not your elders or your ma. I was your elder, and I was your friend, so that silliness didn’t fly. You’ll have good and bad teachers, but if you buckle down, you’ll learn from them. Some lessons will get you passin’ grades, some lessons will help you pass through life.

Never stop being you – observant and inquisitive and full of questions. Never let grumpy people hold you back, hold you down. Never let yourself get so beat down you can’t feel, and never tell a good kid ‘nunya biz-ness’ because he’ll make it his business if he’s like you.

Albert Giles

Adam wiped his eyes and put the book back in the box. He saw the familiar handle of Nunya’s knife. Like learning to read, Adam knew he’d learn to whittle. Maybe only be so-so, maybe he’d be amazing, but he wouldn’t give up.

Adam hefted the box and started the short trek to his house. He passed a group of kids going the other way, the same rotten kids who’d taunted him for crying over his ma.

“What’s in the box?”

“Nunya biz-ness.”

 

 


 

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