THE HARDEST BUTTON TO BUTTON

Tipping back in our chairs, we were poised. I could hear the clink of spurs, the wooden report of the saloon door swinging shut. Across the small table, he waited for me to make my move. He had thrown down a green 0. I had a green 4, and a yellow 0. I had to play by my wits. It was now or never. I reached into my hand of cards, and slowly withdrew the yellow 0, placing it before him. Five years old, with a blond cowlick, he narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “Are you sure you want to do that, kid?” he asked, generously.

 

UNO

 

Shane was in foster care. At first, he wouldn’t speak a word to me. Shy? Perhaps—although not so shy that his native mischief was quelled in my office. In our first visit, he discovered that he could disconnect my favorite fidget toy—a rainbow circle of mobile wooden spheres—by popping its joints from their sockets. Henceforth, he would do so theatrically, holding the circle up whole to engage my attention, then breaking it apart while I feigned horror at the sight.

During our second visit, I had to step out of my office to pick up some printouts from reception. “Whatever you do,” I said sternly, “don’t take that apart while I’m gone.” I returned to find that, not only had he taken it apart, but he’d scattered the pieces flagrantly hither and yon in the room. I smiled an inward smile.

Outwardly, I merely paused and said, “Something in here feels different, but I can’t put my finger on what…” I stepped near a piece, as if oblivious; he gestured to it with a lift of his chin. “Is something wrong, Shane?” I asked innocently. He started nodding his head toward the wooden sphere at my feet. “I feel like you’re trying to tell me something, but I’m not sure what,” I said. He pointed, his eyebrows straining higher as his eyes grew wider.

I turned to his foster mother, who was observing the whole process with amusement, and engaged her in conversation. While we talked, Shane continued pointing, now in an urgent, wobbily manner, like a weather vane in high wind. “Shane,” I interrupted myself, “Are you okay? You seemed fine when I left, but I’m starting to feel quite concerned.” Jabbing frantically toward the magenta ball I was studiously ignoring, he practically fell from his chair.

It was the pillow fight that really broke the ice, though, I think. In our third visit, when he continued wordlessly to break the circle up, eyeing me all the while, I reached for a cushion and said, “If you take that apart, I will gently bop you on the head with this pillow.” He shook his head no, then popped the thing anyway—so bop him I did. Thus the game evolved. I would promise to bop him on the head, and he would shake his head, then do the thing anyway. Finally, I said, “You know, there are two pillows—I feel bad that I’m always the one bopping you. You could bop me back once, if you like…”

Shane began using words with me, here and there, then whole sentences. Not about his feelings, though. Not about what it’s like to see your parents and siblings by appointment. Not about what it’s like to live with strangers, to have someone else’s mom tucking you in at night, someone else’s dad telling you to take a timeout for stealing candy from the cupboard. Those feelings were in there, though. One evening he was coloring a picture to give to his sister. He was assiduous but slow, and the hand was on the hour, so I had to ask him to stop. He burst into tears. He just wanted to color a little longer: “Please,” he cried. He’d never said that before. I spoke softly and let us run late.

Shane could tie his long shoelaces expertly, but he still had trouble with buttons. Something about that seems so poignant to me. Before my path led me where it has, I was a graduate student of English, teaching basic composition for a meager stipend, along with the other new fellows, and learning the meaning of pedagogy. We had a lot of guidance in our teaching, the first semester. One of the maxims we were meant to relay to our students was, “Write to discover, not to rehash.”

Here’s what I realized, writing this: that a little boy whose family circle was repeatedly broken—first upon his removal by DCYF, then at the end of each visit—zeroed in on a circle that he could break at will. A circle that was always—could always be—put back together. And that seemed to satisfy some small need in him.

 

*Title borrowed from a White Stripes song.

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