An Invisible Thread
MAURICE WOKE UP IN the closet.
This was where he woke up most mornings. A small, dark closet. He slept there because it was the only quiet place in the apartment where he lived. The apartment was only one room, and sometimes as many as eleven people lived and slept there at the same time. The room had only two single beds, where his two older sisters slept, and his aunt, and maybe a cousin or two. The beds had no pillows, no blankets. Over in one corner there was a chair and on the opposite side was a half a fridge and a small TV. And that was it.
There were always at least four or five grown-ups around, staying up late and making lots of noise. That’s why, some nights, Maurice sneaked away to the closet, closed the door behind him, curled up, and drifted to sleep on a thin mat on the floor. It was a little cramped, and kind of spooky, but at least it was his own private space.
Maurice was eleven years old. He was tall for his age, but
skinnier than most of the other eleven-year-olds he knew. His burgundy sweatpants, which were a few sizes too big, barely stayed up on his waist. He had no choice but to wear them, even when they were dirty, which they always were, because they were the only pants he owned.
On this September morning Maurice woke and eased open the closet door. He stretched his long arms up toward the sky and looked around the apartment. Since there were no curtains on the windows, the room was filled with sunlight. Even so, everyone in the room was still asleep. Maurice counted the people—one, two, three . . . ten. Ten people, not including him. His mother, Darcella, was sleeping. Maurice went over and nudged her shoulder to see if she would budge, but he had no luck. His mother had a funny look on her face that Maurice was very used to seeing. The look meant she was off by herself in some far-off world, and she couldn’t be reached.
Maurice’s mother was sick. He understood that. He wasn’t sure what her sickness was, or why it made her act the way she did. He just knew that Darcella couldn’t always be like other moms. She couldn’t always buy him new clothes, for instance, or make sure he had a warm bed to sleep in. She couldn’t always remember if he was fed every day. Stuff like that.
But just because she was sick didn’t mean she didn’t love him. Maurice knew his mother loved him more than anything in the world. She just couldn’t always show it, because of her sickness.
Over in the corner, in the only chair in the room, sat
Maurice’s grandmother, Rose, her eyes closed. Maurice couldn’t tell if she was asleep or just resting. Either way, he didn’t want to go near her. Grandma Rose was a tough lady. She was a tiny little thing, just shy of five feet, but she wasn’t afraid of anything or anybody. Grandma Rose spoke her mind and said whatever she was thinking, even if it upset everyone around her. And if someone got sassy with her, she might even take a swing at them. Knock them right in the nose. People in their community knew Grandma Rose didn’t take well to being disrespected. The way to deal with Grandma Rose was to just let her be.
Yet when it came to Maurice, Grandma Rose was sweet and kind. She had a real soft spot for her grandson. “You’re a good child,” she told him all the time. Grandma Rose looked out for Maurice and made sure he knew she’d always be there to protect him. For Maurice, Grandma Rose’s attention was like a great big beautiful gift, and he loved her just like he loved his mother. For a brief moment he thought about going to her chair and nudging her to see if she was awake, just to have someone to talk to, but he decided against it. Better to just let her be.
Maurice looked around the apartment. His two sisters, Celeste and LaToya, were asleep on one bed as usual, twisted around each other, arms and legs everywhere. Maurice’s aunt and her two young children, Maurice’s cousins, were asleep on the other single bed. Three grown men were asleep on the floor. Maurice recognized them—they were his uncles. Uncle Juice, Uncle Big, and Uncle Old. Maurice’s uncles came and went
from the apartment, and Maurice never knew if they would be there or not. Sometimes they stuck around for a few weeks; other times they just dropped in for a little while. Maurice had three other uncles, and sometimes they slept there too. They were all nice to him most of the time, but they all seemed too busy to be bothered with him much. Mostly they ignored him.
Maurice understood that the adults in his life didn’t have much time for children. That’s just the way it was. As far as Maurice knew, it was the same for kids everywhere. So why would his life be any different?
Maurice went over to the small, half-size refrigerator that was sitting on the floor of the apartment. A tiny television sat on top of it. Maurice opened the fridge and looked inside. The lightbulb was missing, but he could still make out the layer of grime coating the single shelf. And he could tell there was no food. No milk or butter or cheese slices or anything. Just a bottle of water and a box of baking soda, which Maurice knew not to touch. Another side effect of his mother’s sickness—she couldn’t always remember to stock the fridge.
Maurice felt a familiar pang in his stomach. It felt like he’d swallowed a heavy rock and now it was just sitting there inside his belly, weighing him down, making him miserable. It was a dull, endless ache. Like someone had punched him in the gut.
Maurice hadn’t eaten anything in two days. Two whole days. His body was crying out for food.
Okay, okay, Maurice thought. Time to find something to eat.
Maurice pulled on his dirty burgundy sweatpants and threw his matching burgundy sweatshirt over his head. Then he slipped his feet into his scuffed-up white sneakers that were one size too small and had ripped shoelaces. He didn’t go into the bathroom to brush his teeth, because he didn’t have a toothbrush. He remembered having one a long time ago, but it disappeared. And, anyway, the bathroom wasn’t even in the apartment. It was down the hall. They shared it with everyone on the floor, and it was almost always occupied.
Maurice didn’t have a lot of things. For instance, he didn’t have a Game Boy, or a football to toss around, or a little race car to wind up and race across the floor, or a bicycle. He didn’t have new sneakers or a winter coat or a hat or gloves or scarf. Come to think of it, he didn’t have a home, either. Not really, anyway—the apartment where his family was staying was only temporary. Every place he’d ever lived was temporary. Soon, Maurice figured, they would get kicked out and have to find another place to live. Homeless is what people called it.
Most kids spend their whole childhood in the same home. In his eleven years, Maurice had already lived in twenty different places.
That’s what it meant to be homeless. It meant never getting to feel like you were safe in one place.
Birthday parties. Maurice didn’t have those, either. He couldn’t remember ever having one. Sometimes he wasn’t even
sure how old he was. Was he eleven or twelve? Maybe someone forgot a year in between?
Maurice had never taken a family vacation. In fact, he had never been outside of New York City. He’d never even stepped on grass. He didn’t know what it was like to play on a swing set, or drink a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. These things just weren’t a part of his world.
In Maurice’s world, the only thing that mattered was being able to take care of himself.
Luckily for Maurice, he was a tough little guy. As tough as Grandma Rose. Well, maybe not that tough, but pretty tough for a kid. And even though he didn’t have a father—his dad left when Maurice was just six years old—he had a mother who loved him, a grandmother who was kind to him, two sisters who could make him laugh, and several uncles who liked him well enough. Maurice had a family. Maurice believed that if you have your family, you are doing pretty good.
Maurice didn’t feel unlucky. Sure, some kids had it easier than him—he knew that from looking through department store windows and seeing kids his age getting new clothes or new toys, especially around Christmastime. He could tell from the way some people dressed, in fancy suits with fancy shoes, that they had lots of money, while his family didn’t. But not once did Maurice ever feel sorry for himself, because as far as he was concerned, he was doing just fine. What good would feeling sorry do, anyway? Better to mind his own business and keep taking care of himself. Which today meant finding food.
Maurice knew what had to happen. Whenever he was really starving, he would go out and stand on a street corner and ask strangers passing by for money. A quarter, a nickel, a penny—and on a very lucky day, maybe even a dollar bill. Whatever they were willing to give.
If enough people gave him a few coins, he’d be able to go to the pizza parlor on Broadway and buy a single slice of pizza—delicious, cheesy pizza, his favorite.
And if he got really lucky, maybe he’d even get to buy a cheeseburger and French fries at McDonald’s, on Fifty-Sixth Street and Eighth Avenue, his favorite place of all.
And if he got really, really lucky, maybe he’d have enough coins left over to go to the arcade on Broadway and play a video game like Asteroids, which cost a quarter. It was one of his favorite things to do and he was actually pretty good at it, even though he didn’t get to play arcade games too often.
Maurice went over to his mother and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Then he slipped quietly out the front door. The long hallway was dark and dirty. No one ever came around to vacuum the floors or wipe out the cobwebs. The lights were busted and the carpet had long since been ripped out. The walls were stained and covered with graffiti, and the hallway smelled of grease and mold. Maurice ran quickly past all the old newspapers and empty bottles on the floor, and flew down five sets of stairs, three steps at a time, to the lobby. Then, with one final burst, he was out of the building and on the street.
In a way, the streets of New York City were Maurice’s real
home. He knew the streets. He understood the streets. He owned the streets. On the concrete sidewalks, no one paid him any attention, which meant he could do whatever he pleased and go wherever he wanted and no one would say a word about it. No one cared. No one worried. It was like he was invisible.
Maybe that was his superpower—invisibility.
Maurice liked it that way. But sometimes a man or woman would give him a dirty look if he got too close to them, or they would take big steps to move away from him. A mother with a baby stroller might speed up to get past him more quickly, as if just being near him was a problem. Maybe they thought he would take something from them, which was ridiculous, he’d never taken a single thing from a stranger. But, mostly, everyone left him alone.
Maurice turned the corner of Fifty-Fourth Street and marched up Broadway, the biggest and longest avenue in Manhattan. It was the busiest, too. People were always on their way in and out of delis and diners and office buildings. Lots of people. So many that they formed a kind of rolling human wave that swept down the sidewalks of Broadway, brushing past him and nearly swallowing him up. Maurice had to dart left and right to dodge all the adults streaming past him to their destinations. Finally, he arrived at the corner of Fifty-Sixth Street and Broadway—his favorite corner. He stood on a square of the sidewalk—his spot—and he stuck out his right hand and said what he’d said probably a million times before.
“Excuse me, can you spare any change? I’m hungry.”
The human wave rolled past him. People in fancy suits and fancy shoes. They didn’t stop or look at him or ask him why he was there—they just kept moving. They had their own lives, their own problems. Or maybe he was just too little, and they didn’t even see him. Maybe Maurice actually was invisible.
Then a pretty woman, nicely dressed, with brown hair down to her shoulders, caught his eye. She was about his mother’s age, and she had a kind face. Maurice had learned to read people’s faces, and sometimes he could tell when someone would stop and give him some change just by their expression. This woman was walking fairly fast, like everyone did in New York City, always in a hurry to get where they were going. But something about her felt different. Maybe she would notice him. Maybe she would stop. Maybe she would be the one. Maurice had a good feeling as she got to where he was standing.
When she was right in front of him, Maurice stuck out his hand and put on his best smile.
“Excuse me, lady, do you have any spare change?” he said. “I’m hungry.”
For a split second the woman looked down at Maurice. They made eye contact. She had heard him, and now she had seen him. He wasn’t invisible anymore.
And then . . .
“No,” the woman said as she looked straight ahead and kept on walking.
Maurice watched her walk away. He watched her start to cross Broadway, to the other side of the avenue. Oh well, he
thought. Just keep asking, someone will stop. Forget about her.
And just when he thought that, something strange happened.
Out of the corner of his eye, Maurice saw a woman standing in the middle of Broadway—right in the center of the street, with cars and trucks and taxicabs coming straight at her!
And it wasn’t just any woman—it was the same woman who had walked right by him! The woman with the kind face. Maurice watched as she stood there, looking confused, until a taxi driver blasted his horn.
“Hey, are you crazy, lady? Get out of the street!” the driver yelled.
The sound of the car horn startled the woman, and suddenly she turned around and began walking. But now she was walking back to the side of the street where she had started moments ago.
She was walking straight back to Maurice.