Rolly Farrow turned into the scruffy lot housing his first meeting of the day. Independence Hills Elementary School was a staggering mess. It was constructed of brick, which was the best thing it had going for it, but the surrounding trim was peeling and sagging and anyone who actually attempted to walk along the heaving, buckled sidewalk might as well fling themselves down in a preemptive face-plant. There was a playground, of sorts: a chain link fence encircling bare dirt, upon which had been plunked a forlorn playset made of stained, rusting pipes. A lone basketball goal fashioned out of the same dilapidated metal flanked the other end of the area. The whole thing practically gave you tetanus just from looking at it.
Loosening his tie, Rolly walked up to the front doors of the school, and pressed a button recessed into the wall. No response. He waited a few moments and tried again. This time, a buzzing sound floated out and the doors unlocked. He stepped into a hallway with vomit-green walls, capped off by a grid of large speckled ceiling tiles festooned with water stains and what appeared to be spots of black mold, all of which suggested the institutional ambiance of a 1950s men’s prison. Bravely, he made his way to the front office.
It was a little better in here: brighter fluorescent lights, cheerful children’s artwork adorning the walls. The school secretary, a robust woman named Lavonne Fitts, recognized him. “Hey, ho, Mr. Farrow!” she boomed, her wide face crinkling up into a smile. “You here for lunch?”
“Yes ma’am,” said Rolly. He was happy to see Mrs. Fitts, who reminded him a little of his kids’ nanny, Rosalie, but as usual, he was fighting the urge to fidget. Walking into the outer chamber of the principal’s office, even as an adult, always gave him a slight sense of vestigial guilt. Not that he’d spent an inordinate amount of time being reprimanded as a child, but it was just one of those things that made you regress, like spending the night in your childhood bedroom for the holidays, or watching a Charlie Brown special on TV.
“I think his class is finishing math in the gym,” said Ms. Fitts. Catching his confused look, she added, “There aren't enough regular classrooms for them all, so we rotate the math classes through half of the gymnasium.” Swiveling toward her phone, she punched a number, waited a beat, and said, “Hey, Ermina. It’s Lavonne. You want to tell Jarvis Spear that Mr. Farrow is here for him?” She listened to something on the other end and then chuckled into the receiver. “Will do. Alrighty then. Bye.” She swiveled back toward him and motioned to a low bench just outside the glass walls of the office’s reception area. “Have a seat, Mr. Farrow. He’ll be right up.”
“Thank you,” Rolly mumbled, and sat as instructed. He pulled out his phone, which immediately assaulted him with a bunch of clamorous emails. A batch of crucial semiconductors that had gone mysteriously missing yesterday had finally been located in a warehouse in Shenzhen, which was a very large industrial city in the Guangdong region of China. This was obviously nowhere near Boston, where the conductors were needed. Rolly made a mental note to tell the Boston guys to switch suppliers. Another email, from one of his more hysterical investors, was yelping about something related to patent questions; grimacing, he forwarded that one to Daria Harwood, their general counsel. He clicked and sighed.
Presently a little boy came trudging down the pukey hall. He was tiny, with hair so short it was essentially shaved, and little stick arms and legs. His expression was a perfect cross between disengaged and surly, reinforced by a slumping posture when he stopped walking. He regarded Rolly briefly with no apparent recognition.
Accompanying him was a pretty black woman in her late twenties, who, by contrast, was brimming with vigor. She was wearing a orange collared shirt and brown trousers, and she had immense sparkly teeth set in a wide smile. “Hello, Mr. Farrow!” she said, pumping his arm enthusiastically. “It’s great to see you again!”
“Great to see you too, Miss Hardesty,” Rolly said, smiling back. Ermina Hardesty was a social worker assigned to Independence Hills. One of her tasks was matching up children with Lunch Buddy volunteers, which was why Rolly was there. He’d gotten interested in this particular school at the urging of a board member, who had a keen interest in social issues—albeit in a think-tank, macro-level kind of way—but even after the guy rolled off the board, Rolly had kept volunteering. It was important, he believed, to maintain some contact with the world outside five-million dollar Greenwich mansions and private jets. A kid like Jarvis represented the real face of humanity. He kept this to himself though: he felt he could not explain his motivations to Kerry, his wife, who had grown up the daughter of a well-regarded lawyer, and certainly not to Everett or Fritz or any of the other buffoons he worked with. Despite the fact that Jarvis was an eight-year-old very urbanized African-American, in some small way he reminded Rolly of himself as a boy.
This sentiment was unreciprocated by Jarvis, who had not warmed up to Rolly in the least. He was here only because no one had consulted him as to whether or not he’d like to have regular visits with some alien honky banker, and also because Rolly routinely brought him Chik-Fil-A sandwiches, which he ate with enthusiasm. Other than a mumbled thank you for the food, he had yet to say anything unprompted. This was their seventh meeting.
Today it was a pleasant sixty degrees outside, but apparently no one had turned on the heat inside the building, which left it fairly chilly. Jarvis was wearing a regulation collared short-sleeved shirt, which had devolved from white into a stained and grayish color, and a thin pair of navy shorts. He looked like he was cold. He sat goose-bumped and stone-faced across from Rolly, picking at the remnants of the tinselly wrapper his sandwich had been in, responding to queries about his school day with monosyllabic grunts. There was no question that Rolly had it hard as a child, but his life had been all Disneyland and FAO Schwartz compared to Jarvis’s. One thing they shared: neither of them had a dad. If there had been a Mr. Spear, he was never mentioned. But at least Rolly’d had his mother, whom he’d loved with a ferocity that was a little embarrassing. At present, Jarvis was being looked after by his twenty-year-old sister, because his mother was incarcerated for a drug-related offense.
Lately, Rolly’d noticed a bunch of research in the popular press indicating that the educational divide for poor children begins from birth, and is highly correlated with how much family members speak to their kids. Ordinarily, he’d breeze by such articles, but now, because of Jarvis, he found himself taking an interest. One famous study revealed that by the time they are four, children from high-income families will have heard 30 million more words than children from low-income families, and that this difference extrapolates to performance on achievement tests of vocabulary, language development and reading skills as they age. Poor Jarvis barely stood a chance. Outside of television, he probably heard a couple dozens words a day before starting school, most of them in the negative reinforcement genre. He came from a home without a single book, let alone an adult who took the time to encourage his communication skills. In fact, he came from a home without a home. He and the sister with temporary custody of him had been evicted from their apartment and were living in a $25-dollar-a-day motel, which gobbled up almost all of his sister’s minimum wage income. Jarvis had not emerged from this litany of horrors unscathed; he was regarded by his teachers as an unkempt savage, frequently in trouble for cursing at his classmates and throwing things. Last week, he’d hurled a textbook at his teacher, calling her a ‘fat bitch’ after she’d asked him repeatedly to stop drumming on the top of his desk. Even though Rolly’d entered into their weekly lunch dates with a vow to find something to like about Jarvis, he hadn’t found anything yet.
But he was determined to keep trying.
They were walking out of the cafeteria when Rolly’s phone, which he’d silenced during lunch, showed he’d missed thirteen calls from his office. Doubtless some new crisis was going down. “I’m sorry, I have to go,” he said abruptly to Jarvis, who didn't respond. He started for the door, flashing one last look the little boy. He had his arms wrapped around himself as he walked and his jaw was clenched. Rolly realized that he was freezing. He slowed down.
“Hang on a sec,” he said to Miss Hardesty, who had rejoined them. “Can you guys wait here while I grab something from the car?”
“Sure,” said Ermina Hardesty. She must have noticed that Jarvis was a popsicle too, because she put her arms around him and began rubbing his thin arms. “Great,” Rolly breathed, already dashing away from them. “Be right back!”
He sprinted for the parking lot.
He was not supposed to give Jarvis gifts in school. But he thought he remembered… recently he had seen…Yes! There it was! Wadded up under the minivan’s backseat was a neon yellow hoodie, with the words GO GUY! printed on it in big letters. It was his son Garrett’s, although Garrett must have a dozen of these. And even though Garret was huge for a six-year-old, this one was too big for him. Rolly grabbed it and sprinted back toward the building, impatiently chafing at the wait to be buzzed in. When he reached Miss Hardesty and Jarvis, he thrust it toward the little boy. “Here you go, Jarvis,” he said, handing him the sweatshirt. “Take this home if you want.”
“Oh, Mr. Farrow, they’re not allowed to wear—” began Miss Hardesty, but she stopped mid word when she saw Jarvis’s face. His lip was thrust out and he held the sweatshirt tightly, fiercely, locked in his skinny little arms. He might as well have been wearing a sign around his neck: If You Touch This Hoodie, I Will Bite. It was obvious that no one was going to part him from the thing. To his astonishment, Rolly noticed that Jarvis was furiously blinking back tears. Embarrassed, the adults turned slightly away while Jarvis collected himself.
They turned back at the sound of his voice.
“He won’t want it no more?” Jarvis asked in a thin rasp. It was the most Rolly had ever heard him speak.
“Who?” he asked gently.
“Your boy,” said Jarvis. He turned the hood of the sweatshirt down so they could see the tag, which had a homemade label attached reading Garret Mitchell Farrow in Rosalie’s careful embroidered hand.
“Oh,” Rolly said. “No. It doesn’t fit him. Why don’t you keep it?”
There was a pause, and then a small cautious smile crossed Jarvis’s face. He turned and looked Rolly in the eyes for the first time.
“If you sure,” he said. His smile widened into uncharted territory. “Thank you. I been wanting one a these.”
Rolly nodded, careful not to show too much emotion, but an inward elation gripped him. Jarvis had actually smiled.
“Here.” Rolly handed Miss Hardesty a card with his personal cell number on it. “Just in case Jarvis needs anything. You can call me anytime.” He turned back to Jarvis. “I’m glad I got to see you today. I hope to see you again in a week or two. Alright?”
Jarvis nodded cautiously. “Alright,” he agreed. “Thank you, Mr. Farr.”
Elated by this unprecedented display of manners, Rolly managed to keep his face calm. “Okay!” he said. “Well, you take care, Jarvis. I’ll see you soon!”
“Alright,” said Jarvis again. He fell in with a herd of passing boys, carrying the hoodie carefully in front of him like a baby. Rolly felt a goofy grin seeping over his face. Maybe there was hope that he and Jarvis could develop a real relationship. A vision of them attending something at a sports venue, eating some hotdogs—a Giants game, or better yet, the Knicks—crossed his mind. Was there a way to arrange for Jarvis to have a tutor? He could certainly pay for it. Maybe—
Ermina Hardesty touched his arm. A small puzzlement passed through him at her expression: he’d have expected her to shine at their breakthrough, but instead she looked slightly anxious. “You’ll come back?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course I will. I’ll see you next week, or maybe the week after.”
Humming to himself, he trotted back to the parking lot. Inevitably his thoughts turned to whatever fresh hell was breaking out at the office, but a pleasant buoyancy suffused through him anyway, making it difficult to concentrate. Jarvis’s smile! And look at how much he’d spoken! It put Rolly in a fantastic mood.
His car, sensing his approach, clicked open. Sliding behind the wheel, he backed up in a fluid motion, the engine thrumming above the precise, clipped tones of somebody on NPR. He steered toward the parking lot exit, swinging wide around a potholed crater full of festering carbuncular debris. This brought him up against the chain-link fence surrounding the pathetic playground, where a flash of something bright caught his eye.
The hoodie. It gleamed against the cloudy sky like a neon sign, perched atop the rusty slide at the end of the yard. Stuffed into it was a muscular, mean-looking, non-Jarvis kid, who hovered for a moment at the top of the slide and then plunged down it with an exultant war whoop. He gathered himself up and sauntered around the playground with the desultory ease of a lesser king, a gang of perhaps four or five other boys trailing in his wake.
None of them paid the slightest attention to the much smaller figure hunched at the edge of the fence, his weedy arms encircling his knees, his small face empty and dull as he stared at the dirt in front of him.
Swallowing hard, Rolly felt his bright mood evaporate. Hesitating for a moment, he listened to the low growly rumble of the car’s engine, and then he put the car in gear and slowly drove away.