On first glance, from a distance, Gabriel had guessed Tiny to be a boy his own age, or maybe eight or nine. But the closer he got to Tiny, the older he seemed to become. He was a thin, waif-like boy dressed in a threadbare black jacket and a black cap, with the type of physique that suggested either wispy boyhood or aged frailty. He was an odd combination of youth and old age; enthusiasm and weariness took turns on his face, bouncing his age all over the place. Gabriel had decided that he was simply an in-between person. He had seen him several times since then, mostly in the park by the gazebo, and sometimes outside Mancetti’s store, or helping out the newspaper vendor.
Gabriel now ran over to the gazebo, and was delighted to see Tiny down by the lake. He was there with his old black bag slung over his shoulder, gathering twigs.
“Hi, Tiny!” Gabriel called out.
“Hiya, Gabriel.” Tiny spotted a small branch and bent to pick it up; he snapped it into pieces, and tossed them in the bag.
“Picking up sticks for your stove? Can I help?” Gabriel started to search for twigs. “I have a whole bag of sticks for you, Tiny. I got them up at my aunt’s. I told you all about it, but then I couldn’t find you.”
“Thanks, pal.” Tiny leaned against the gazebo and gazed out at the lake, suddenly looking very old. “I haven’t been out much this week. My brother is sick again.” He picked a leaf off a nearby bush and studied it briefly before dropping it to the ground. “He’s really sick this time.”
“Why don’t you call a doctor?” asked Gabriel.
Tiny snatched up a flat rock near his foot and picked a spot out on the lake. Then he leaned to his side, and threw the stone in a horizontal toss, trying to skip it across the water. It plunked into the water with barely a ripple. “I never could do that.” He searched for another rock and tried again, throwing with a little more force this time. The rock went straight down. He kicked at the leaves on his way back to the gazebo, and sat on the rough-hewn bench inside.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Gabriel, sitting next to Tiny.
“He has a weak chest. Especially when it gets cold. He was sick every single winter in the orphanage.” Tiny’s face shifted and became younger. “But the nuns took care of us there. They made sure we were warm, and did their best to keep us healthy and strong. Every winter we lined up at recess, and waited our turn for the honey. They dipped a big wooden spoon into a bucket of honey, and gave each one of us a spoonful. And we just prayed that we would be lucky enough to get a piece of the beeswax. Chew it all day long.” A few years left Tiny’s face as he remembered the chewy honeycomb.
“The nuns read to us, and sat with my brother when he was sick. Brought in a doctor when he was really sick. And cooked for us.” He leaned back on the bench and pulled his knees up, revealing bony white ankles. “Sister Mary Cecelia. Nobody could make chicken soup like her. Nobody.” He smacked his lips and swallowed, as if getting a taste right there.
“My mom makes good soup,” said Gabriel.
“And Sister Rosetta. The best biscuits you could ever imagine. I used to work in the bakery with her – that was before the laundry. And I can tell you, when those biscuits came fresh out of the oven…” Tiny sighed, smiling at the memory.
“Hey! Why don’t you go back there?” asked Gabriel. “Maybe they’ll get some soup for your brother.”
The youth left Tiny’s face and he became around fifty or so now. “Nah. We can’t. You have to leave after the eighth grade. When my brother left, I left with him.” He stood up and searched the ground outside of the gazebo. “You can’t stay there forever, Gabriel. They have to make room for the new kids. They even take babies.”
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