Low Key moved up from behind John who stood and allowed her to settle into the bus seat next to him. They smiled at one another and up close he realized that the tiny blonde was not an adolescent girl but rather a young woman. John upped his approximation of her age by nearly a decade as he decided she was probably around twenty-five years-old. “Hey,” he said, “nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” came the diminutive woman’s half-smile return greeting.
“Hey,” Tamika said in a voice louder than usual. “I found out about Ebenezer,” she continued in a more conversational tone. “It says here,” she wiggled her phone in her hand, “that Ebenezer comes from Eben Ha-Ezer in First Samuel and that it means stone of help. It wasn’t meant to be anybody’s name but back in the seventeenth century when the Puritans and all those folks were fighting it was used as a name by non-conformists. It wasn’t ever a very popular name but Dickens’ A Christmas Carol made it more common. Says pretty much nobody’s used it since the 1890’s. I think old O. Henry stole the name from Dickens because both men are cheap.”
“Makes sense to me,” John agreed. “And A Christmas Carol is definitely older than Ransom of Red Chief. Thanks, Tamika.”
Reading The Cop and the Anthem was different than Red Chief. For one thing John hadn’t been forewarned and because of this he wasn’t forearmed. His propensity to read a story through a few times before reading it out loud had been thwarted with the extemporaneous request for an additional O. Henry bromide. John knew the basic plot of Anthem but lacked a reasoned and rehearsed presentation.
Fortunately, the majority of the tale was told by a narrator. Because the story takes place in New York City he chose a Brooklynite for a default voice and reached into his bag of accents to satisfy the seven supporting roles. He used his natural voice whenever Soapy, the point of view or main character, spoke and populated the tale with an Irish cop, an Italian waiter, a gum smacking woman from the Bronx, a second cop who sounded a bit like John Wayne, an umbrella dandy who lisped, a final cop that was Barak Obama’s aural twin and a judge who sounded as though he was a member of the English aristocracy.
John introduced Arsu and Aziz to 1904 New York City through the eyes of the down and out Soapy and O. Henry’s words. What he lacked in preparation he tried to make up for in exclamation, facial expression and, within the confines of his bus seat, body movement as he guided them along the city streets in search of Soapy’s elusive and metamorphic goal. The boys laughed and enjoyed themselves and Low Key’s snorting and giggling responses to some of the micro vignettes assured him that she too must be enjoying Anthem to some degree.
When the tale ended with Soapy being sentenced to three months in jail, the homeless man’s original goal, the boys just looked at each other for a moment without speaking. “That’s it!?” Aziz finally exclaimed. “They just send him to jail even though he didn’t do nothing? Soapy must have been a black man, huh?”
John knitted his eyebrows together and pulled his head back, “I don’t think so,” he said, “If he was old O. Henry would have told us so. Cops and judges tend to be harder on people who are poor whatever color they are. Back when this story was written black people usually weren’t main characters in books sold to white people. There’s a lot of stories where O. Henry talks about different races in ways that aren’t very nice. That’s just the way it was back then.”
“Ain’t they ever heard of Black Lives Matter?” Aziz persisted.
“Aziz!” Tamika said, “Not ‘ain’t.’ Haven’t they ever heard. And they sent him to jail even though he didn’t do anything.”
“That’s what I said,” Aziz countered. “Didn’t I?” he added sincerely.
Tamika shook her head. “Remember when we read those Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn books by Mark Twain? Remember the words that they used to describe the runaway slave Jim? This story only takes place like thirty years later. “
“For real?” Arsu asked.
“For real,” John acknowledged. “It was over a hundred years after this story before Black Lives Matter.”
“Why do you read this if the man was a, a racist?” Aziz insisted.
John’s eyes got big. “Well, times change. In this case times are changing for the better. When my dad was born black and white people couldn’t even be married to each other in a lot of states. President Obama’s parents could have gone to prison for being married in a lot of places. I like these questions but if we can only read books by people who act just like us and think just like us then we won’t be able to read very much. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, I mean, I guess so,” Aziz conceded. “That was a good story but I liked the Red Chief one better.”
“Do you think you liked it better because of the ending or because it was sillier?”
“Both, I guess,” Aziz said.
“Yeah, both,” Arsu agreed. “In the Red Chief one it seemed like everybody got what they deserved, you know? Those two men were kidnappers so they shouldn’t have gotten any money and that crazy Red Chief should be able to go home to his daddy. Red Chief wouldn’t last a minute in our house, would he Mama?”
“You can say that again,” Tamika agreed. “‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ Proverbs.”
“I kinda’ like how both of them books had surprise endings,” Aziz said. “Except Soapy’s wasn’t funny, it was sad.”
“Most everything that makes us laugh is sad or mean to somebody,” John said. “And that’s a hallmark of O. Henry, the stories are all supposed to end with a twist.”
“Nu-uh!” Aziz countered. “That part about what makes us laugh? That ain’t- that isn’t right.”
“Thank you,” Tamika said.
“No, it is,” John answered. “I didn’t believe it when I first heard that either but it’s true. Nice things make us smile but we only laugh when somebody gets hurt.”
“I’ll have to think about that,” Aziz conceded.
“What do we say to Mr. John?”
“Thank you, Mr. John,” Arsu said.
“Yeah. Thanks. For real,” Aziz added. “Those were good. Could I borrow your book after I get to play?”
“Sure, no problem. You can even ask me what some of the words are if you want.”
“Thanks, John,” Tamika said, handing her phone up to Arsu. “You not only read well but you listen well too. That’s a nice combination.”
“Shoot. No problem. Helps pass the time away.”
“You do read well,” Low Key said as John started to put O. Henry away. “It’s nice to see a man who cares enough about kids to take some time with them. About that book? Is there a story you think I might like?”
“You want to give O. Henry a try? I’d start with Gift of the Magi,” he said, handing her the thick volume.