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Danton

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I worked in a hospital, briefly, when I was young. I remember the feet, gnarled, twisted, misshapen, painful, worn-out from years of standing on cement factory floors.

Then I worked in a factory. Sometimes the women cut out the sides of their run-down shoes so their twisted toes would have a little more room, hurt a little less.

When the car salesman walked with us to the showroom, I knew his shoes were too tight. He admitted that they hurt his feet, but I was sure he would continue to wear his stylish, highly polished, badly fitting shoes.

My husband thought that new shoes were supposed to hurt, until I made him get some that fit properly. We had a friend then who was a Navy captain, and he brought us a can of shoe polish once; he was distressed at the shabby appearance of our shoes. They were never polished, but they were always comfortable. They could have been both, but I didn't care enough.

Now I am a teacher. The year before last, the next-door first grade joined my first grade for a morning. Among the other frightened children, Danton was remarkable for his clothes: T-shirt too big, torn, and dirty. His high-heeled black shoes might have belonged to his grandmother. They were not laced because they had no laces; that was OK because they were too small. He was unwashed, depressed, and could not write his name, though everyone else in both classes had mastered this skill, after working assiduously at the task for the first three months of the school year.

Their shoes bother me most of all: all those little feet with bunions, calluses, corns, squashed toes. I took Danton into the hall and traced his feet. Later, at the shoe store, a sympathetic salesman showed me how to cut out the pattern and fit it into a shoe.

The shoes fit Danton. I got him a book bag, too, which is the first-grade status symbol in our school, and into the various pockets I put colored markers, a small pad, a large chocolate bar, and a dollar. He investigated each pocket slowly and carefully when I gave it to him. He was thrilled that his new shoes had laces and that there were socks.

I got some other clothes, too. His teacher was uptight, a stickler. "Thank Mrs. Calhoun," she would snarl even before he had time to orient himself to whatever I was giving him. Still, she was glad to see him decently dressed. I didn't see him often because I was busy, he was often absent, and I did not want to impose on his teacher. I needed her as an ally or it would be hard to help Danton. But he and I passed in the hall sometimes, and he always smiled at me warmly.

I received a badly spelled but neatly written note from his mother thanking me and explaining that she intended to come to school to thank me herself but she had been sick. I knew she was pregnant; Danton already had several smaller brothers and sisters.

A couple of weeks after I gave him the new shoes and socks, he came to school wearing the shoes without socks and with unwashed feet. Two weeks after that, he was again wearing shoes that did not fit him but they did not appear to have belonged to an old lady.

The school year ended. Danton survived the summer, and so did I. I found out who his second-grade teacher was and said hello to the boy. When I went back to see him a couple of months later, his teacher said he was doing well, he was fine, but he was not in school that day.

When my grandson gave me a baseball mitt he'd outgrown, I wanted to give it to Danton--not that there was anywhere for him to play ball, but I wanted him to know that I remembered him and that he was special. His teacher looked surprised when I asked for him. Didn't I know? Hadn't I heard? It was in all the papers. His mother had killed the five-month-old baby, and all the children had been sent to various relatives; she was charged with first-degree murder.

How? She banged the baby's head repeatedly against the wall. (I imagine she could not stop the baby from crying, crying, crying.) Were Danton and his brothers and sisters cowering, looking on, or were some of them at school and did they come home to find their baby sister dead and their mother absent, or weeping, trying to revive her dead child, or in a drug-induced trance? How depressed and trapped and helpless must she have felt?

She was on drugs again. At one time she'd had the children taken away from her, and had gotten them back after attending parenting classes. Once the state decided that as a matter of policy families should be kept together if possible (it is cheaper that way), it has kept families together even when it is impossible. This was not the first time a child was killed after being returned to its parents. On the other hand, children have been killed by foster parents too. The law requires me to report signs of suspected child abuse or neglect to the agency that was working with Danton's mother, yet it's seldom that anything is actually done.

I did not know--had never seen--anyone in the family except Danton. And I hadn't spent much time with him, the most woebegone child I had seen but not the only one. When I heard about Danton, I was in the process of trying to get someone to help Michael, who was a year older than the other first graders but a year younger in reading ability--which is to say he could not read at all. He was kept home two or three days a week to take care of his younger siblings, who were six, five, four, and three years old. His Momma had to go out. I don't know why the five- and six-year-old were not in school. Maybe Momma was afraid to have them walk the occasional but ever-threatening gauntlet of gunfire; maybe she couldn't get herself together enough to get them the legally required immunizations.

After school I drove home carefully. I could hardly walk, although I did walk, and could have walked forever. I am not weak; gravity drags me down harder is all. In the morning I could not decide whether to wash one load or two, or not to wash at all. If I did wash, should I put the clothes in the drier or hang them outside? I did not know what to have for breakfast and whether to eat now or later; to go for a walk now, or at all, and if I did go what to wear. I could not find the cat's brush, which was hanging in clear view in its assigned place; it is often hanging behind something, and I looked behind the things that might be concealing it.

When I came home the next day I pulled up weeds for a long time. My husband took me to look at the flowers in the park. That night I slept heavily until very late.

The air is crisp. The sun is bright. Billy, another child in my class, is learning to read. The caseworker will not tell me where Danton is. The public defender will not tell me where his mother is. All they will say is that Danton is not with his brothers and sisters and that the records are sealed.

I can't decide where to send this. It is like a public notice; it is to the one addressed, the one who recognizes that the message is for him.

I still have the baseball glove.

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