Prayers of a Lost Boy
By Alexandra Berman (age 12)
“Fairchild, Robert?” asked the agency lady, scanning the rows of children.
A sea of six and seven-year-olds, awaiting the perfect parents. If only they knew.
Five minutes ago the girl next to me said, “That lunch was scrumptious!’ First of all, who uses the word scrumptious? Second of all, it was the exact same slop we get at the soup kitchen every day. I gave her a glare that would scare a turtle out of its shell. She just continued to stare at me. I turned away. Stupid kid. I looked up to find the agency lady smiling down at me. It was a tight smile. The kind where she wasn’t really smiling but you couldn’t tell her she wasn’t.
“Robert?” she said testily. I smiled up at her my most politest, sweetest little boy smile.
The agency lady looked at me coldly. She didn’t buy it. “You.”
“Oh I’m not Robert, I’m… John Ross!” I said, blurting the first name that came to my head. John Ross was my old roommate, who had been adopted weeks ago. He smelled like peas.
“Yes, … John. That’s what I meant.” She didn’t care what my name was, she just wanted to get rid of me. Typical.
“Excuse me?! Miss Lady?!” said the girl next to me. She sounded like a constipated duck. ‘Miss Lady’? The woman has a name! What was it, anyway? I sneaked a look at her name tag. Roberta. What a joke!
“Yes. Linda,” she said, slowly rolling her eyes at ‘Linda.’ She sighed deeply.
“Ummm, that’s not John,” Linda said sweetly. “That’s Wobert.” The kid could pronounce my name and she knew it. She smiled evilly at me when the agency lady looked away. I spat into her open mouth. Instead of shutting up, the kid started wailing.
“Miss Ladyyyyyyyyyy!!!!” she cried, grabbing the lady’s pants. The lady turned around and glared at me.
“Come,” she said, her face turning as purple as an eggplant. She was really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, MAD.
It was hilarious! I was still laughing as she dragged me into the waiting room. I stopped laughing when I saw who was waiting to bring me to my “foster parents’” house. Fudge. We regarded each other coldly. I put on my “Iwouldratherkissatoadthanbeinthesameroomwithyou” face. He put on his “Iwouldrathergeteatenbyasharkthanbewithinthirtykilometersofyou” face. I put on my “Iwillkillyou” face.
Mr. Woodrow glared at me. “Get in the car.”
“So!” I said, squishing my lips together at the end to get that real tough guy sound. “What’s the deal with the folks not hitchin’ me no ride?”
Mr. Woodrow didn’t answer. I kicked my feet up onto the dashboard and put my hands behind my head. Still no reaction. So I said my prayers. I quietly hummed along pretending I knew the words to the song that mom used to sing to me before bed. “How I lay she drown and weep to pray the lord my mole should sweep…” She must have been a great lady. Pretty, too. I bet she baked and sung and if I were with her right now she’d bring me and dad cookies after we finished playing football in the big backyard. We probably had a dog, and dad played for the NFL. Two great people like that wouldn’t want to be stuck with a drag like me. I understand. I mean it’s not like I really care or anything. I don’t care at all. I DON’T CARE. I DON’T CARE. I DON’T CARE. I DON’T CARE. I DON’T CARE. I DON’T CARE. I DON’T CARE. I DON’T-
“Here we are,” said Mr. Woodrow. I opened my eyes. Why were they even closed? Whatever. I gave him my glare to kill. It worked on everyone. He got out of the car and slammed the door shut. He was halfway to the front door when he realized I wasn’t with him. He looked back at me, rage seeping from his pores. I shrugged. Why would I open the door? He was gonna open it for me eventually. I took in the view while he waited for me to break. Not gonna happen, bub. We were in front of one of those sucky little brownstones painted a sickly pink. Finally, Mr. Woodrow came over and opened the door.
“Get out,” he growled. I hopped out, not bothering to close the door. As expected, he closed it behind me. Mr. Woodrow was subdued, but I didn’t remove my glare. If these people were going to hate me, I would need to wear this 24-7.
“Where are we, anyway?” I asked. Mr. Woodrow opened his mouth to reply, but then the door opened.
Two fat geezers stared down at me. They were so big they couldn’t fit side by side in the doorway. The man stood a bit farther back. He wore a little round hat on his head and had strings hanging out of his shirt. The lady wore a soft, pink dress with a horribly colored scarfy thing around her shoulders, her hair in a big blob on top of her head.
“Welcome!” she said, breaking the awkward silence that had formed on the stoop.
She pulled me into her arms and before I knew it I was in the house, the door closed behind me. Goodbye, Mr. Woodrow. Her arms were warm. She pulled me away from her, holding me by the shoulders.
“Oy! So skeeny!” she said.
And I knew immediately that I would hate these people.
They told me this would be the best. They walked me like a million miles to get to this dinky, little resturaunt. We walked in and it smelled like old people and corn beef.
“Hey!” said the guy behind the counter.
“Oy, Moyshie! Tut es shatn tsu zayn mshuge! ” said the man, and then he and the counter guy got into a heated argument in a super strange language.
The woman led me over to a yellow booth saying, “Oy gevult! Feh!” Okay, this was not a real language.
We sat quietly in the booth as we listened to the arguing men.
“Noch di chupeh iz shpet di charoteh!” said the old guy, in what seemed to be a joking tone.
“Nem zich a vaneh!” said the counter guy, angrily. The debate continued in this made-up language.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the old man started laughing. “ Oi, mi nisht gut gevorn.”
The counter guy joined in, slinging his arm around the old man. “Ah, vainiker a vort, abi dem emess,” he said.
Then the old man patted the counter guy on the back and came over to sit with us. What the heck was that?
“Oy, du farkirtst mir di yorn!” the old lady said, and he kissed her on the cheek. DISGUSTING.
The counter guy came over with a red plastic tray piled with steaming unintelligible glop.
“Here you are!” said the man, handing me a disgusting heap of red meat. It was like salami, and it was wrapped over and over within itself like a spiral. The pieces of bread look tiny on either side of the huge hunks of meat. The old people had what looked like big, stale donuts with slimy pink fish on top. No way was I going to eat this. I picked the bread off of the meat. It looked edible. And I was, like, totally starving. So I put it in my mouth, and I was like, ‘What the heck, man?!?!?!?!’ These guys could even ruin bread! It tasted like somebody tried to mix dirt and some fancy-pantsy spices together. I crossed my arms.
“I want a hamburger.”
“Oy, kindelah,” said the woman.
“I. Want. A. HAMBURGER.” What was wrong with these people?
“Oh, they don’t have hamburgers here,” said the man. “But eat the sandwich! *It’s not as bad as it looks,*” he said with a smile. He said the last part in a whisper as if if he didn’t want his wife to hear. Right. I know that trick, grownups act like they’re sharing a secret with you and then you’re gonna be best friends. Mmmhmmm. Sure.
I stared at him stonily. “Fine.” I picked up the sandwich and ripped out a bite, staring at him the whole time. The bread was gross, but I didn’t flinch. These people would not have the satisfaction of seeing me even flinch.
After the bread went down, I was left with a delicious taste in my mouth. The meat stuff was REALLY good.
“So,” said the lady, breaking the awkward silence that had settled over the booth. “How did you like it?” New wrinkles formed around her eyes when she smiled.
I shrugged. My too small sweatshirt from the Salvation Army made suspicious ripping sounds. “It was okay.” I had an idea. “But can I just have normal bread, like white bread?”
They both looked at me at the same time and said “No.”
I guess not then.
The walk home wasn’t as long with a stomach full of pastrami (that was the name of the sandwich that I ate), but I got a cramp halfway there. My legs were burning as I climbed up the steps. As we walked into the house a strange dog waddled up to me and started yipping. He was like one of those little weiner dogs, his oversized tongue hanging out of its mouth. It kept yipping like a chihuahua, which was weird because it was a dachshund. Two years ago, when I was nine, the agency gave me a dog book that no one else wanted because the cover was ripped off and it was missing ten pages. Because I was there the longest, I was always the last one to choose from the donation box. Anyway, I read that book, like, six times so I know about all the dog breeds except for the ones on those ten lost pages.
“This is Faigel!” said the old lady, petting the dog’s head. I petted the dog’s head too. It was really soft. I followed the old couple into the house again, which smelled even more like old people than the resturaunt. I wrinkled my nose up. We all stood there, staring at each other. The dog walked headfirst into the wall to break the silence.
I totally cracked up. You should’ve seen the look on its face as it stumbled away from the wall.
“Oh, Faigel” said the lady, scooping the dog up into her arms.
“Faigel’s blind,” explained the old man as we watched the old lady croon at the dog.
Of course the dog was blind! Really, though, what did I expect from these people?
“Um…” I said tapping the man’s shoulder, unsure about what to call him.
“Ah, call me Zeyde Shlomo,” said the man
“And you can call me Bubbe Yenta!” said the lady, turning around at the perfect moment. It was totally rehearsed.
I turned and gave her my killing stare. “Sure, old lady. Sure.”
My stomach made a strange gurgling sound. I felt like my lunch was coming up through my throat. I clasped my hands over my mouth as I ran to the open door at the end of the room, revealing a bathroom. I was just able to open the toilet lid before I let loose all over the bathroom floor. I sank to my knees, my head bent over the toilet for the next wave that I knew would come. My knees sank into the carpet, now damp from my vomit. I retched again, feeling the throw-up seeping into my jeans. I lifted my head, because this is when it usually stops. But I felt it coming again, even worse than before. I coughed out yellow bits of saliva into the toilet until I threw up again, so badly did it made me gag. I retched and retched for what felt like hours. Now I realized what the strange yellow stuff coming out of my mouth was. Bile. Each time I threw up it felt as if my intestines were being ripped out of my stomach and squeezed through my mouth.
After what felt like hours, my stomach was finally empty. I staggered into the living room.
“Come,” said the old lady. She beckoned me up the stairs. Upstairs there was another bathroom, with a shower in it. She put what I guessed was pajamas on the floor, left, and closed the door behind her. I got into the shower, too lazy to take off my clothes. I turned the knob, not caring whether it was cold or hot. The freezing water cascaded down on me. My clothes soaked up the water, getting heavier and heavier, until I had to take them off. I stood in the water, freezing, but I didn’t care. I waited to turn off the water until my toes turned blue and numb and my teeth chattered. I got out, wrapped myself in a towel, and sat on top of the closed toilet lid. I stared around at the bathroom, shivering. I drew my feet up from the cold floor. I brought my knees to my chin, wrapping my arms around my pale legs. I must have looked like a total wimp, naked except for a towel, sitting on an old lady’s toilet. I was so tired, I felt as if I might doze off right there. On the toilet.
“Pathetic, Robert,” I said to myself. “Get it together, Jesus Christ!” So I stood up and put on the warm pajamas that the old lady put on the floor. The floor was freezing, but I didn’t even flinch. I opened the door to find the two geezers staring down at me.
“Where’m I supposed to sleep?” I said, coldly, I hoped. I felt the air around me turn icy (ish) as I resumed my old glare. I smiled, evilly, I thought. The old lady shuffled to a room at the end of the hall and ushered me in, said “Holler if you need me,” walked out, and closed the door behind her.
What was with these people and locking me in rooms? I’m used to it, though. They locked you in at the agency each night. I don’t care. But maybe… I tried the knob. The door squeaked open to reveal the hallway. I smiled and closed it again, sitting down on the bed. I didn’t smile evilly, though. I dreamt of the unlocked door as I drifted off to sleep.
I woke up and stared at the ceiling, thinking about throwing up. I could still taste it. The “counselor” at the agency said I throw up so much because of stress, but I don’t believe it. I probably have some rare, incurable disease. If I died, maybe my real parents would be sorry.
I swung my legs over the side of the bed and walked down the stairs on the threadbare carpet. My Salvation Army sweatshirt was hanging on the coatrack. I took it off and slid it on. The fabric was extra soft, and it fit me. I took it back off and examined the armpits, where they ripped yesterday, to find neat rows of red stitching. I smushed my face into it and breathed in. It smelled like cinnamon and laundry detergent. I looked up to find the geezers staring at me. I made my eyes cold.
“It still smells like throw-up.”
I put it on. No one said a thing. Then the old man broke the silence.
“Tomorrow you start Hebrew school!” he said cheerily.
I stayed in the bedroom the whole day, reading. It was a pretty boring room, but it was filled with bookshelves. There were all different kinds of books. I sat down on the floor in front of the bookshelf, and took the last one off of the very bottom. This one was a picture book, so I finished it quickly and moved on to the second to last one. This was a huge, thick book about geography, and I read it cover to cover. Then there were a few picture books, and then the fifth book in a series about fairies. I found I could read a book much faster when I wasn’t trying to remember anything it said. I poured through pages and pages, reading meaningless words. I was almost finished with the bottom shelf when there was a knock on the door. I looked up from the book, something about tigers. “What.”
“Honey,” said the voice of the old lady. “Do you want anything to eat for lunch?”
“No,” I said. I was hungry, but I’d rather starve than eat anything these people give to me. And honey? This lady thinks I stay with her for one day and suddenly she can call me honey? My stomach grumbled, reminding me of how empty it was.
“Shut up,” I said, and flopped onto the bed.
Later, I walked downstairs, following the delicious smells.
“Ah, there you are!” said the man, beckoning me into a small kitchen. We sat down at a round wooden table, watching the old lady cook. He tried to break off a piece from the warm loaf sitting on the counter, but the old lady slapped his hand without even looking.
“Ah, ah, ah!” she said warningly. She then continued to rip out the piece the man had started. She wrapped it in a blue cloth napkin and handed it to me. “Just for you,” she said, her eyes crinkling as she smiled.
I didn’t want to eat it, I swear I didn’t, but I couldn’t help myself as I shoved it in my mouth. As I ate, I stared at the loaf on the counter. It looked like it was braided, which was weird, but it tasted sooooo good. I sighed as the warm bread floated down my throat and into my stomach. Soon dinner was ready. It was roast chicken and carrots that actually tasted good, and a mystery vegetable that sat on the edge of my plate. The chicken was good, but mostly I ate the soft bread. I was so tired as I went up to my room and found a toothbrush and toothpaste sitting on my bed. I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth for the first time in three months. After the Wilsons’s, I went on a strike. I collapsed into bed on top of the covers, too tired to turn off the light.
I woke up with my light off and sun streaming through the curtains above my bed. I hopped out and slipped into one of the spare sets of clothes that got delivered by the agency yesterday. I have to admit, I got a little freaked out when I heard that someone from the agency was coming, but it was just some random delivery guy. I swear, he had one of those orange vests and rode here on a bike. Why am I not surprised?
I looked at the clock by my bed. 5:34. I had some time. I went over to the old Dell on the corner and sat down on the ripped, swively chair. I pressed the power button twice, my old trick for starting computers. The first time I rebooted a blue-screened computer was when I was seven, at the agency. We had free period and I sneaked into the director’s office. From then on, I was the technician of Greenborow Foster Agency. Every free period, I had to go upstairs and help another stupid grownup with their pitiful computer problems. In exchange for this, I got an extra roll at lunch. I don’t know why they put out this bribe because it’s not like I would’ve had a choice, anyway. I guess they figured this out, too, because after a couple weeks the extra rolls stopped coming. It didn’t matter though, because my rolls always ended up in the garbage.
The computer made a loud whirring sound as it finally turned on. I quickly opened up the safari browser and typed in christian prayer to sing before bed. One hundred and sixty two results came up, so I just clicked on the first one. The title was The Philosophy, so I closed it. On the sixth link I found the words
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray to God my soul to take.
If I should live for other days,
I pray the Lord to guide my ways.
Father, unto thee I pray,
Thou hast guarded me all day;
Safe I am while in thy sight,
Safely let me sleep tonight.
Bless my friends, the whole world bless;
Help me to learn helpfulness;
Keep me every in thy sight;
So to all I say good night.
I repeated it over and over in my head until I could remember it without looking. It took me two tries. I went downstairs, repeating the words over and over again. I was ready to go to Hebrew school. Ish.
The minute I got into the place a fat lady started yelling at me.
“Why no keepah?!” she shrieked. “You get keepah!” She screamed again as she put a little white hat from a bin on my head. It was weird and round, like the one the old man wore. The old couple shuffled me into a little room on the side.
“Have a good day!” said the old lady. She kissed me on the cheek and split with her husband. I wiped the slobber off, but my cheek was still warm where she kissed me.
“מְטוּפָּשׁ” The teacher said something to me in another foreign language as she pointed to a chair in the back of the room. I sat down and looked around as the lesson started. Our classroom was similar to the ones in the public school. The teacher looked super strict, and she was wearing a suit. All the other boys sitting in front of me wore stiff jeans and polo shirts. The round hats on their heads had intricate patterns. The embroidery of strange shapes looked totally handmade. Figures that the agency kid shows up in the used jeans washed a thousand times and the Salvation Army sweatshirt.
The teacher asked me something I couldn’t understand. I looked up, snapping back into reality. “What?”
The other kids laughed.
“ מְטוּפָּשׁ,” One kid whispered to another. Whatever that meant.
“Can you speak in English please?” I asked the teacher.
“We speak Hebrew in Hebrew school,” she said in perfect English. She gestured for me to come up to the front of the room. I didn’t come.
” לבוא!” She screamed. I sat. She walked over to me and grabbed my left ear. My ear burning, I was pulled slowly towards a chair in the corner.
“TIME OUT,” she said. Then she grabbed the front of my hair in front of my ears and pulled. She pulled and pulled until my face turned red and she held a small brown hair in her fingers. She flicked it in front of my face and I watched as it spiraled down in front of me. She grabbed my chin and pulled my face up until I was looking her in the eyes. I didn’t look away. And then she glared at me the most horrible glare I’ve ever seen. It burned two holes in my head and I could literally feel it crawling inside of me. I felt as if I were slowly dissolving from the heat of her glare. I could feel my eyes watering up, but I couldn’t let the tears fall. Not in front of her, not in front of them. So I painfully looked her right in the eyes, glaring back. My hands were shaking, so I sat on them, and kept on glaring.
Finally the woman returned to teaching and said, in perfect English, “Let this boy be an example of someone who has forgotten his tradition. Let this display of disrespect be our example of an unholy person in the eyes of אלוהים”
The kids clapped, actually clapped, as I sat in the chair in the corner. I felt as if I were on fire, my eyes, my cheeks, my ears, bubbling acid in my stomach. But I kept the tears in and stared straight ahead for the rest of the class.
I didn’t talk on the walk home, and ignored the geezers’ small talk. How could they send me to a place like that? I thought they… Well, I didn’t care. It’s not like I was surprised or anything. It’s not like I thought they would be different.
I took a sandwich up to my room for dinner to avoid talking to them. At seven I got ready to go to sleep. I wasn’t tired, but there wasn’t anything else to do. The way I saw it, the faster you fell asleep, the faster the morning came. I don’t know why I thought about this, though. It’s not like the morning was any better. I wished I could have slept forever.
I knelt down beside my bed to pray like the kid in the picture online did. Before I could start, the old man walked into my room.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Praying.” I don’t know why I answered him, it was none of his business. But I did.
“What are you praying?”
I sighed, wishing I hadn’t answered in the first place. I started to recite. “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the lord my soul-”
“I’ll have none of those prayers under my roof!” he interrupted me, his face turning red.
“We send you to Hebrew school all day, and you come back reciting Christian prayers? What is wrong with you, boy?!”
“Now honey,” said the lady, who had snuck up behind him.
“Don’t you ‘now, honey’ me!” he said “I’m trying to teach this boy a lesson! You-”
“Why don’t you just send me back to the agency?!” I said, louder than both of them, anger rising inside of me.
“Oh, you don’t mean that-” said the lady.
“You don’t know anything about me!” I was yelling now. “I hate you and your stupid Hebrew school, and I hate pastrami sandwiches! I wish I could go back to the agency so I could get a real family!” I screamed, and slammed the door on them. I hopped into bed fully clothed, not bothering to say my prayers before I cried myself to sleep.
They sent me back.
They said it wasn’t because they didn’t love me. They said they were too old and wanted me to have people who are younger. They said they wanted the best for me and that I obviously didn’t want to stay with them. Well, now I didn’t.
Now the bed that I’ve slept in ever since I was dropped off at the agency when I was one was taken by some stranger. They thought this was the one. They used to save the bed for me whenever I left but they thought this was the one. Well, they were wrong.
Now I got to eat hamburgers every day at the soup kitchen, and white bread. I tried to eat some the other day, but it tasted weird compared to the spicy bread on the pastrami sandwich. I try not to, but I can’t help thinking of the warm braided bread and the unlocked door.
I could hardly keep anything down those days. They made me see a counselor everyday, and I had to sleep in the infirmary. I didn’t care. The way I saw it, the less you care about, the less you could get hurt. Though no matter how many times I told myself I didn’t care, I couldn’t stop the hurting.
One day, the counselor left to go to the bathroom while I was still in his office. As I was looking at the books on his desks, two names jumped out at me, written on a piece of loose leaf lying on the desk. It was upside down, but I could see that it said Yenta and Shlomo Goldman 917-755-8896. I said the number over and over again in my head until I had it memorized. It took me two tries.
That night, I snuck into the director’s office, a route I knew so well I could almost do it with my eyes closed. But I kept my eyes open, for I could NOT mess this up. I got into the office and found the phone, where my fingers slowly drifted across the keys. I started punching in the number, 9…1…7…7…5… but I stopped at five and hit the off button. I couldn’t do this, I’d get in major trouble. But it was my only chance. So I tried again. 9…1…7…7…5…5…8….8…9…6. The phone rang once, no one picked up. If they don’t pick up on the third ring, I’ll give up, I told myself. Ring…Ring okay, if they don’t pick up on the fourth ring, I’ll give up Ring if they don’t pick up on the fifth ring, I’ll give up Ring sixth ring Ring seventh ring Ring eighth-
I was so startled I almost dropped the phone. “Hi,” I said sheepishly.
“Robert?” It was the voice of the old lady.
“Yeah.” I could feel my cheeks burning, and I was glad she couldn’t see me.
“Oh Robert, we miss you!” I wasn’t sure what to make of that, so I just nodded. Then I realized she couldn’t see me nodding through the phone. “Shlomo, say hi to Robert!” I could hear her saying.
“Hi,” said the old man’s voice as it came through the phone. He also sounded embarrassed.
“Hi,” I said coldly.
“What do you need Robert?” said the old lady. “Just tell us if there’s anything you need.”
I tried to speak, but the words got choked up in my throat. Suddenly I burst out in tears. “I want to come home!” I cried.
“Okay,” said the old lady soothingly.
“And I want a pastrami sandwich!”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you back home.”
I sobbed again, my next question came out quiet and squeaky. “And you’ll keep me?”
“Of course!” said the old lady.
“Promise?” I sounded like a little kid again but I didn’t care.
“No matter what?”
“No matter what.”
“Even if I’m Christian?”
“Even if you’re Christian,” came the voice of the old man.
“Ok,” I said, smiling for the first time in weeks and putting the receiver down. I picked up the receiver again before the call ended. “Wait!” I said, remembering something.
“Ol- Bubbe and Zeyde?”
“Yes?” They said in unison.
“I-I… um, I love you.”
“We love you too.”