“Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,” Mrs. Stroud said, “there are one or two things you ought to understand.” She took out a State of Maine Department of Health and Human Services folder and laid it on the kitchen table.
My mother looked at me for a long time. Then she looked at my father.
He put his hand on my back. “Jack should know what we’re getting into, same as us,” he said. He looked down at me. “Maybe you more than anyone.”
My mother nodded, and Mrs. Stroud opened the folder.
This is what she told us.
Two months ago, when Joseph was at Adams Lake Juvenile, a kid gave him something bad in the boys’ bathroom. He went into a stall and swallowed it.
After a long time, his teacher came looking for him.
When she found him, he screamed.
She said he’d better come out of that stall right now.
He screamed again.
She said he’d better come out of that stall right now unless he wanted more trouble.
So he did.
Then he tried to kill her.
They sent Joseph to Stone Mountain, even though he did what he did because the kid gave him something bad and he swallowed it. But that didn’t matter. They sent him to Stone Mountain anyway.
He won’t talk about what happened to him there. But since he left Stone Mountain, he won’t wear anything orange.
He won’t let anyone stand behind him.
He won’t let anyone touch him.
He won’t go into rooms that are too small.
And he won’t eat canned peaches.
“He’s not very big on meatloaf either,” said Mrs. Stroud, and she closed the State of Maine Department of Health and Human Services folder.
“He’ll eat my mother’s canned peaches,” I said.
Mrs. Stroud smiled. “We’ll see,” she said. Then she put her hand on mine. “Jack, your parents know this, and you should too. There’s something else about Joseph.”
“What?” I said.
“He has a daughter.”
I felt my father’s hand against my back.
“She’s almost three months old, but he’s never seen her. That’s one of the biggest heartbreaks in this case.” Mrs. Stroud handed the folder to my mother. “Mrs. Hurd, I’ll leave this with you. Read it, and then you can decide. Call me in a few days if . . .”
“We’ve talked this over,” said my mother. “We already know.”
“Are you sure?”
My mother nodded.
“We’re sure,” my father said.
Mrs. Stroud looked at me. “How about you, Jack?”
My father’s hand still against my back.
“How soon can he come?” I said.
Two days later, on Friday, Mrs. Stroud brought Joseph home. He looked like a regular eighth-grade kid at Eastham Middle School. Black eyes, black hair almost over his eyes, a little less than middle for height, a little less than middle for weight, sort of middle for everything else.
He really could have been any other eighth-grade kid at Eastham Middle School. Except he had a daughter. And he wouldn’t look at you when he talked—if he talked.
He didn’t say a thing when he got out of Mrs. Stroud’s car. He wouldn’t let my mother hug him. He wouldn’t shake my father’s hand. And when I brought him up to our room, he threw his stuff on the top bunk and climbed up and still didn’t say anything.
I got in the bunk below him and read some until my father called us for milking.
In the Big Barn, Joseph and I tore up three bales and filled the bins—I told him you have to fill the bin in the Small Barn for Quintus Sertorius first because he’s an old horse and doesn’t like to wait—and then we went back to the cows in the tie-up to milk. My father said Joseph could watch but after today he’d be helping. Joseph stood with his back against the wall. When the cows turned and looked at him, they didn’t say a thing. Not even Dahlia. They kept pulling on the hay and chewing, like they do. That means they thought he was okay.
When my father got to Rosie, he asked Joseph if he’d like to try milking her.
Joseph shook his head.
“She’s gentle. She’d let anyone milk her.”
Joseph didn’t say anything.
Still, after my father was done and he’d taken a couple of full buckets out to the cooler, Joseph went up behind Rosie and reached out and rubbed the end of her back, right above her tail. He didn’t know that Rosie loved anyone who rubbed her rump, so when she mooed and swayed her behind, Joseph took a couple of quick steps back.
I said, “She’s just telling you she’s—”
“I don’t care,” said Joseph, and he left the barn.
The next morning, though, when the three of us went out to the Big Barn to milk, Joseph went to Rosie first, and he reached out and rubbed her rump again. And Rosie told Joseph she loved him.
That was the first time I saw Joseph smile. Sort of.
Joseph had never touched a cow’s rump before. Or her teat even. Really. So he was terrible at milking. And even though I kept rubbing her rump while Joseph was being terrible at milking, Rosie got pretty frustrated, and finally she kicked over the pail because Joseph didn’t have his leg out in front of hers. It didn’t matter much because there was hardly any milk in it anyway.
Joseph stood up just when my father came in.
My father looked at the pail and the spilled milk.
Then at Joseph.
“I think there’s something you need to finish there, Joseph,” he said.
“You need milk this bad, there’s probably a store where you can get some like normal people,” he said.
It was the longest string of words he’d said.
“I don’t need the milk,” said my father. He pointed at Rosie. “But she needs you to milk her.”
“She doesn’t need me to—”
“She needs you.” My father stacked his two pails to the side, then righted Joseph’s pail underneath Rosie. “Sit down on the stool,” he said. It took a few seconds, but Joseph came and sat down, and my father knelt beside him and reached beneath Rosie. “I&...