Daniel and Donald were the boys who lived next door to me when we were growing up. Well, they weren’t boys, really, but it was before the expression “teenager” was popular for those past childhood. By the time I was old enough to notice them – and their mother, a widow, Grace Grant – they were tall strapping young men. Donald, though, in some ways always remained a child.
Grace Grant was a lovely woman with dark, thick, short hair curled around her head. She was always rather quiet but seemed somehow indefinably strong and though we were never close, every year she would buy several boxes of Girl Scout cookies from me. She lived in the house right next door to ours in Sunnyside Garden with her two sons for as long as I remember. My parents seemed always keep a distance from the neighbors. “Nobody needs to know our business,” my father would say.
Our backyards bordered an alley that faced a lovely large communal garden. The Grants’ kitchen however was located in their basement, so whenever I played out in the backyard in the summer I would hear the comforting clatter of pots and pans and dishes. Our house had a cellar on that same level, but our kitchen was one level up; my parents had a concrete porch built with steps down into our yard to get outside in the back without having to go through the basement. In the summer, one could hear everything that went on in the houses of all the neighbors as air conditioning wasn’t yet common. Heat was, though; windows stayed wide open.
Grace Grant – and it seemed her first name was always accompanied by her last – was our nearest neighbor. Though I never stepped into her brightly lit kitchen, I often wondered how it would be to go inside, to be closer to her. It seemed, however, that she had appointed her elder son, Daniel, to be a replacement father for Donald, her younger one (Never Dan, never Don; always Daniel and Donald). It was clear in the way he would talk to Donald, right in front of his mother. More than once I heard Donald squealing like some kind of wounded animal and know that Daniel had hit him. I somehow knew that it wasn’t in a sibling kind of way – they were several years apart and a fight would never have been equal – but as if he had the authority to discipline his younger brother; and he did. Then there would sometimes be the sound of loud voices – Daniel and his mother – shouting at each other. And after that, the sounds would diminish to a soft whimpering.
I never knew how Grace Grant’s husband died; World War II maybe, since the boys were old enough for that to have been the case. Although it might have been mentioned just once, such things weren’t discussed in those days. Just as no one ever never talked about what made Donald so different, so childlike. All my mother said when I asked was, “He was born that way.” Even though he grew big and strong like all the other boys on the block, Donald never played with any of them. His brother Daniel was his only friend; on rare occasions, they’d throw a ball around in the alley. That made me feel sorry for Donald, but he, after all, was a boy, and boys and girls didn’t play together much then – most girls had their doll carriage and games of “school” while most boys played trucks and balls. Donald was also enough older than I so there was no way that we would ever have played together. I would sometimes watch him flex his arm muscles like the heroes in comic books and I often saw him outside alone. I never saw him playing with anyone else. I have a vague recollection of my father playing catch with him one time. Or perhaps I imagined that. Or wished it.
The only times Donald seemed regularly to be happy was after the garbage men would come from the side street next to our alley to lug our heavy garbage cans over and dump them into their truck. One, or maybe several, would stop with talk with Donald, friendly-like, and I would watch Donald sucking in the attention like someone thirsting in the desert taking their first drink of water.
One time I saw Donald waiting outside on what would have been our regular pick-up day – for the familiar rumble of trucks down 49th Street. I was outside playing in the backyard. It was a holiday, but I figured that he didn’t know that. So, although I never talked much with him – just as my mother didn’t exchange more than a hello with his mother – I told Donald that there wouldn’t be any garbage pick-up that day. His face fell; minutes later he descended the few brick steps into their basement kitchen.
The only other conversation I remember having with Donald was about what he wanted to be when he grew up. Not surprisingly, “A garbage man,” he said proudly.
Heidi Rain is a writer trying her hand at watercolor and pastel painting having recently relocated to the inspirational east end of Long Island with her husband and their four cats.