Friday, December 10, 2010

What to do

It’s two weeks before Christmas, I’m outside, strolling the grounds of Holly Grove on a cool evening, at dusk, when I hear a car stop on the Edwards Road, just to the north. You can’t see the road from the house but I can see taillights through the trees. Then I hear a car door slam. Great, I think. Someone dumping something.

Which turns out to be true. Only they aren’t dumping garbage or an old sofa.

After the car squeals off and the taillights flicker out of sight, a child begins to scream at the exact spot where it had been stopped. A child, and a young one at that, has been abandoned on the road shoulder. It’s a scream of absolute terror that’s soon interrupted by cries of “I’m sorry!”, which, because the kid is five or six years old, comes out sounding like “I’m sobby!” He keeps crying that he’s sorry, though no one can hear him but me, and I’m invisible. It’s heartbreaking.

I wait. I assess. Do I call out to the child and risk frightening him even more? A car has just sped away and left him alone in the gloaming, along an empty road, and I’m the only witness to his agony. Maybe it’s none of my business how these people raise their kid, but who can stand idly by while a child screams alone in the darkness? There’s really no debate. I head to my truck to go check on him.

I’m pretty far from the house, and by the time I get there I hear the offending car return. I’m relieved – sort of – to see the taillights again flickering through the trees. Good, I think: They had second thoughts. Maybe they aren’t bad people. Maybe they were just pushed to their limits, and made a bad call.

The car is reversing down the road very fast, toward the source of the screaming. Even from this distance, the flickering red and white lights and the racing of the engine and the whine of the transmission is ominous, menacing. I can imagine what the child is feeling, faced with this. Still, he doesn’t stop screaming. I’m thinking: That’s what got you put out on the side of the road, lad.

Then I hear a man’s voice, shouting. The child’s screaming still does not abate.

OK, so this is someone else’s drama. Interfering in a family fight is as perilous as trying to stop a dogfight. Who am I, anyway? And how might my intervention be received, in that I’m white and they’re black? This is Mississippi. Race is a powerful dynamic.

And yet?

This episode is so not right, and it’s going down within what I consider to be my domain. I’m a guy who once chased a truckload of men who stopped on the road (at about the same point as this one) and started firing a gun into the woods, in the direction of my house. I was outraged that they would be shooting randomly toward my house, so I got in my truck and chased them until they went careering through a crowd of parishioners turning out from the church down the road, and I didn’t want to follow suit.

The deputy later said, “You chased these guys, knowing they had a gun.” All I could say was: Yes. Sometimes you can’t just look the other way.

This is one of those times. But I wait, hoping it’ll go away. I stand by my truck and listen. Monkey and his wild bitches sit in their rocking chairs on the porch, ears perked in the direction of the screaming.

After a few minutes of this, it occurs to me that the crisis is going on a little too long. If the man was only trying to make a point, to frighten an unruly child into submission, he obviously made it, so why does he not let the kid back in the car and head home? I decide to resume my original course, to head down there and see what’s going on. I think hearing a child screaming in the woods near your house justifies some sort of intervention.

The truth is, I’m OK if you want to spank your child. If you want to verbally abuse him, I don’t really think it’s up to strangers to intercede. But this episode seems extraordinary. Am I supposed to wait for it to escalate to physical violence? I don’t know these people. I don’t know what they’re capable of doing. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe I’m a busybody. But the kid is going crazy and the thing is not going away, and it’s right there, in front of me.

When I turn my truck onto the Edwards Road I see the car in my headlights, sitting crossways in the road. It’s an old model Buick with blacked-out windows. The boy stands on the shoulder nearby, crying and clutching a blanket or a stuffed animal; it’s hard to tell which. The car doesn’t move, nor does the boy, but I feel them feel my presence. I stop. I pull out a piece of paper and write down the tag number. Then I wait. The boy stares into my headlights, then, to my relief, opens the door and gets in. I imagine the driver told him to, because I have refused to pass. Then the car pulls onto the shoulder and stops. I drive past, slowly, glancing toward the blacked-out windows. I drive a half-mile or so, turn around at the dead-end. On my way back out I pass the Buick going the other way.