The Shortest Distance by Jason Rohrer

Posted in BitterLemons

HOLDING-HANDS-300x275Last week in the course of my work as a stagehand I was of some use to a little boy. In an annoying month, this unspectacular three minutes might be the best thing that happened to me; certainly it was the best thing that happened at work.

 

He was five or six years old. He stood at the door of a cavernous, makeshift dressing room like a political prisoner at the mouth of his cell, gazing passionately outward. He was due for lunch at a spot a complicated treasure-map away, in the bowels of a theater building that seems enormous even to one who passes for an adult and who has worked in it for years. One of hundreds from a dance academy that had rented the joint, the boy had been admonished not to run about the halls barefoot. Yet here he was, hungry and abandoned, his toes naked, far from his little group that had already been led to lunch while he looked for his shoes.

 

The grown-up supervising the dressing room had other kids to police, and could not take him on a shoe-hunt. It seemed to me that the distance between a) myself and b) a little boy missing his lunch for no good reason was a distance best kept permanent. My work could afford my absence for the duration of this errand. And all rules suck some of the time. I told the boy that we would find his shoes and get him to his meal, and I held out my hand. He reached up and held it, because he wanted to believe me, but his grip did not hold much faith. He insisted that he would get in trouble if he went barefoot. The woman in charge of his room could not help him but she did affirm the truth of this, that he would get in trouble. She held her mouth in a dubious little line. This is how I met him, worried about consequences and in the care of a helpless person.

 

I told him that while we might get in trouble, that was how adventures worked. And that since there were two of us, one might escape alive. He smiled up at me as you do when someone tells you what you want to hear. He took a real hold on my hand and we sallied forth.

 

He grinned at every passing person, proud to be barefoot and not in trouble. I remembered that when I was his age, getting in trouble was the only constant among my fears. Usually Trouble sprang from Report Cards, but sometimes it was in Bad Language and occasionally Lying. I deserved some of my In Troubles, like the time I combined Report Cards and Lying in an act of self-preservation involving a little bonfire in back of the house; but some of them were like this one, a problem easily fixed if some grown-up would place the spirit of the law above its letter for just a minute or two. A man came along the hallway whom I had not seen smile that day. It occurred to me suddenly that a lot of people’s disgruntlement, their lifelong discontent, had its roots at this kid’s age. The unfairness of everything becomes manifest to every child who deals with parents, bullies, teachers. Most people accept this and weave it more or less harmoniously into the fabric of their world. Some never do. My sense of the inequity of things drives many of my actions. It’s a throughline that stunts some of the good that I would do if I weren’t so busy feeling self-righteous. I wondered whether this boy would feel like that later in life, disappointed with humanity and shocked at its selfishness.

 

On the way down the longest hall on earth, through many doors past many busy folks, I asked him whether his feet were cold; he said that they were not. I asked him what his shoes looked like, and he gave a detailed description. I asked where he had last worn them, and he mentioned a backstage area. As soon as he had said so, he said, “That’s where they are.”

 

They were.

 

Shod, he suffered me to lead him to the elevator so that he could get to the basement. The elevator was in use. I asked him whether he was willing to continue this adventure. He said he was. I took him down the stairs, three gloomy flights and two creepy landings down, and complimented him on the accuracy of his description of the shoes, right down to the smear of paint. He answered this with the reply it deserved: “They’re my shoes.” To be polite, he asked me what my job was. I told him that it was to take him to lunch. He laughed and asked if I liked it. I said that so far it was pretty good as adventures go but needed an ending. At the bottom of the stairs we took a quick left and a long right and a long left and he said that he smelled food. I told him that at the end of this adventure, there was lunch. He said that was a good ending. We entered the temporary cafeteria and someone called his name. When I let go of his hand, he walked toward his friends and his exasperated teacher. Before I left, he looked over his shoulder at me and smiled.

 

I smiled too. While he had held my hand I had not thought once about money, or of my prejudices or my problems. The simplicity of the task, of being in the right place at the right time, held all my attention. My hand felt empty already.

 

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