I followed Joey up Swatara Street. He was still just a noodle of a boy, all sun-browned arms and skinned knees. We were trekking up the high school hill to pass a baseball—me carrying his stepdad’s glove, him loping three paces ahead. I hadn’t lived on this block in years and didn’t recognize many of the neighbors who sat out on their front porches. Joey knew everyone. He waved at some people across the street, then shouted to someone else sitting on a porch.
Sometimes he would stop, address someone on their porch. “My dad’s home,” he’d say. “He lives in New York.”
I’d nod, smile.
I felt vaguely uncomfortable meeting so many people, wondering how much they knew of my story, or if they knew anything at all. On these weekend visits, I tried to let Joey take charge. I followed him. We did whatever he wanted to do, as long as it didn’t cost too much.
We were halfway up the hill and it dawned on me how difficult it would be for me to reach out—wave, or just say hello—to that many people. “You’re popular, son,” I said. “People really like you.”
Joey stopped. I wasn’t expecting him to do that, and I strode past him and then looked over my shoulder to see what had caused him to pull up short. He was standing there with his mouth open.
“Me?” he asked.
“You didn’t know that?” I laughed. “You’re very outgoing. You know everyone, everyone knows you.”
His eyes welled up with emotion, and then he blushed—bright red strawberries across both his cheeks. I was surprised—as much by his reaction as by my ability to elicit it with such small praise.
He put his head down and started walking with me.
“I wasn’t like that when I was little,” I said. “I’m not even like that now, but I wish I were.” I didn’t want to overplay it or embarrass him, but I knew I’d said the right thing.
He needed my perspective. And I wanted to give it to him.