Walking home from the market on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I saw a boy about 15 riding his bicycle in sporadic circles. When I passed him, swinging my paper bag, he had stopped riding and was staring at a pebble in the street. His arms, tanned and muscular, were braced on the handlebars. His face looked sullen, as if he were brooding over a deep personal insult.
Minutes later, as he circled near me, I said, "That bike sure is squeaky."
"Yeah," he answered with a nod. He circled a few more times and returned. "It was just fixed, but you can't tell." We looked each other over, carefully, but casually, as city people do.
"No more late nights wheeling around the neighborhood," I teased. He laughed. His light brown hair swung across his eyes and he tossed his head to flip it back. He hopped off his bike. "Live around here?" he asked.
I pointed vaguely ahead.
"I live over there," he said, and pointed the other way.
We walked side by side.
"I'm Danny," he said.
"I'm Rebecca," I said, making sure to sound firm.
He stole a glance at the bag I'd been swinging. "Are you a teacher?" he asked.
"No, I'm a writer," I said.
"Oh, that's neat! I don't like teachers much." We began a delicate friendship.
"I'm in seventh grade," he volunteered. "Hate it, hate all my teachers."
We talked about his school, how long we had lived in the neighborhood. He moved in too close when he asked me my birthday. Strange, I thought. I clutched my grocery bag with my wallet inside it.
He glanced nervously behind us. "Sure is quiet around here," he said.
He was right about the neighborhood. There were no signs of life, except for us, our shadows stretching behind us.
"Betcha probably don't hear about the stuff that goes on in my neighborhood," he said. "We have robberies and all sorts of stuff. There was a murder last Saturday."
"A what?" I asked.
"A murder!" he repeated. "There was this dead body on our neighbor's front porch, and I saw it. There was blood everywhere."
Seeing that I was riveted to the street, he spared me no details. I heard about the two bullet holes on one side of the man's neck, and the two on the other side where the bullets came out. I heard over and over about the blood, dried up like jelly all over the porch. I shredded the edges of my bag and kept listening, even though I wasn't sure I wanted to.
I heard about the measurements being taken, the porch being roped off, the coroner throwing a yellow sheet over the body.
"Danny!" I finally said. "I don't know how much more of this I can take."
"Hey, man!" His eyes flashed with frightening intensity. "You're just hearing about it. I saw it."
I stepped back and asked, "Well, what did you do?"
He dropped his head in embarrassment. "I had to go away after a while," he said quietly. "All these other guys, they could stay, but it made me feel like throwing up."
As we continued walking, he never stopped talking about the murder, twisting his handlebars and checking behind him.
"Can I walk you in?" he offered when we arrived at my apartment building.
"Uh, that's OK," I told him. A hurt look crossed his face. "You mean we came all this way, and you won't even let me in?"
I waved him off, suddenly eager to be rid of him.
He tossed his head again but didn't look me in the eye. "Guess I'll see you around," he said.
Without looking back, he pedaled down the driveway, lurched through the pothole at the curb, squeaked around the corner and disappeared.
As I locked myself into my apartment, I thought I heard the chain grate louder than usual in its track. I jumped when the refrigerator buzzed on. Only then did I regret not asking more questions, not letting Danny release more of his sad and angry burden.
Sadly, I realized that at less than half my age, Danny already had more experience with the rough ways of city streets than I had. And there was nothing I could have told him, nothing I could have done, that would have made any of it all right.
I opened my grocery bag and laid out my dinner fixings--a heap of cold crisp vegetables, and a potato so fresh it smelled like earth.