A drowsy post-lunch hush hung over the large, comfortable room. Small clusters of kids sat around low tables, drawing pictures or building models with brightly-colored Legos. Late fall sunlight dappled little faces and danced over the playful wall murals the community center volunteers kept adding to, whenever someone with a smidgen of artistic talent joined the team.
Donnie glanced through the glass doors into the courtyard. It was a beautiful day, mild for so late in the year. He planned to go outside with the kids for some sandbox playtime soon. He wondered if he could sneak into the staffroom and put the coffeemaker on for an afternoon cup before that, but just then, a small, dark-haired girl at a table near the back looked up from her drawing. “Donnie, can you help me?” she called in a stage whisper that made Donnie smile.
“Sure, Padma.” He wended his way through the other tables and kneeled next to the girl’s child-sized chair. “What’re we doing?”
She held out an orange crayon for him. “Can you draw a lion?”
Donnie glanced down at her paper. “Course. Where d’you want him?”
“There.” Padma pointed at a gray box with bars across the front. “Into the lion cage.”
The girl had drawn a zoo. There were cages for the animals, and enclosures with green grass and landscaping. A big red house had a stick figure outside. Donnie pointed at it. “Who’s that?”
Padma said proudly, “That’s the zookeeper.”
“But where are the animals?” Donnie asked. “Did they all run away?”
Padma shook her head and gave a tragic sigh. “I can’t draw animals.” Her big, dark eyes shone. “Can you do it for me?” she wheedled.
“All right, let’s see.” Donnie settled down on his haunches and pointed at a patch of gray and blue on the paper. “What’s that?”
“That’s the Arctic enclosure, where the penguins go, and the polar bear,” Padma said.
Donnie nodded, keeping his expression serious. This would take a while, but he didn’t mind. “Makes sense. Right, lion first.”
They had drawn the lion and four penguins, and were just getting started on a zebra, when Arthur came into the daycare. Arthur was the community center’s director, a retired high school teacher who had come from England to Atlanta with his wife almost forty years ago. After Bess’s death, Arthur had decided to stay. Donnie couldn’t imagine the center, and his own life, without the old man.
Arthur was accompanied by a young woman Donnie had never seen before. Arthur looked around, and when he spotted Donnie, he and the woman started to make their way to him and Padma. The woman carried a baby in her arms. They stopped in front of Padma’s table. Arthur leaned down to admire Padma’s drawing. “That’s a very nice zoo,” he said kindly. “Well done!”
“Donnie did the animals,” the girl informed him.
“Well, he did a jolly good job, too,” Arthur said, nodding.
Donnie smiled gratefully. Arthur was good with people, and he always took time with the kids, even though running the community center kept him busy. He treated the children as if they mattered as much as the adults, and Donnie tried his best to emulate him.
Arthur addressed Padma again. “I need to borrow Donnie for a little while, is that okay?”
The girl nodded, pleased to be asked for permission.
Donnie got up, shaking the pins and needles from his legs. He loved being with the kids, but maybe he was getting too old to crouch on the floor so much.
The woman by Arthur’s side gave Donnie a quick, nervous smile, and Arthur said, “Donnie, this is Celia.” He indicated the baby. “And this is her son Zac.”
Donnie gave Celia a nod and a smile. Small-boned and no taller than five-two, she seemed to be barely twenty. Donnie had worked at the center for long enough to know that her slenderness and pallor were due to drug abuse. But her eyes were clear, and she seemed alert. She clutched her child to her like a shield. The little boy watched Donnie with big brown eyes for a moment and gave a happy chuckle. Donnie estimated her son to be about six months old.
“Celia has a new job,” Arthur explained. “She’s starting at JFK High tomorrow, with the school lunch team. Zac will be with us when she’s at work.” Arthur took hold of Zac’s foot and jiggled it. The baby grinned at him with toothless gums.
“Thanks, Arthur,” Celia said in a quiet, musical voice. “I’m so grateful. This’ll work out, I promise.”
“Of course it will, my dear,” Arthur said.
So Celia was another one of Arthur’s foundlings. Whenever the old man wasn’t at the center, keeping an eye on things and leading the AA meetings, he walked the streets of downtown Atlanta, talking to homeless young people, junkies and anyone looking as if they might be in need of a square meal and a bed. He would find them a shelter place and then, once they were willing and able, a spot in a detox program or a job, depending on their wishes. Arthur had the biggest heart of anyone Donnie had ever met. He had saved Donnie’s life in more ways than one, and Donnie would be forever grateful.
“Now, then,” Arthur said, turning to Donnie. “Can you show Celia around the daycare? And explain to her about the medication protocol, too. Zac’s positive.”
The protocol held details of all the medication and healthcare needs of the kids at the center. The daycare had been established as a safe place for the children of drug users, rough sleepers and low-income single mothers, and many kids brought their very specific challenges. Several were HIV positive, or suffered from developmental problems related to fetal alcohol syndrome, or showed severe signs of ADHD. No child was ever refused a place, if they had room.
“Sure thing,” Donnie said, and beckoned to Celia. “C’mon, I’ll show you the place.”
“Thanks, Donnie, I appreciate it,” Arthur said. “I’ll leave you to it.” He nodded at Celia, patted Padma on the head, then left.
Donnie showed them around the large main space first. He pointed out the play areas, the row of cots where the smaller kids and the toddlers slept after lunch, and the outside yard with its playsets and swings. He introduced the other volunteers by name, and everyone exclaimed over Zac, who smiled at everyone and babbled away happily.
Only when they went into the quiet staff room and stopped before the medicine cabinet did the little boy begin to fuss. He seemed to miss the attention from the other volunteers already. Donnie held out a finger. Zac took it and put it into his mouth. A warm feeling flooded Donnie as the tiny, wet mouth closed around his knuckle. “He’s a cutie, all right,” he said to Celia.
“He’s my heart,” she said very quietly, more to herself. “I have to make it, for him. He needs a better life than what I can give him right now. The shelter…well…”
She wouldn’t meet Donnie’s eyes, and her face crumpled as if she might start crying. Donnie felt uneasy. He didn’t have a lot of experience with women, or people he didn’t know well. He had no problem relating to kids, but adults were a different matter. He would’ve liked to say something nice, but nothing appropriate came to mind.
“Err, right…this is where we store the meds,” he said, hoping Celia would be okay. He pointed to the locked cabinet. “I’ll add Zac onto the protocol. When you bring him in tomorrow, bring all his meds along, all right? I’ll help you figure out which ones we need to keep here. Then I’ll give you a receipt. At the pharmacy down the street they’ll give you extra refills with that.” That arrangement was another of Arthur’s triumphs. He was amazing at finding donors for the center children’s particular needs.
Celia nodded, back in control. “Thanks, Donnie. You and Arthur, you’re real nice. Do you,” she hesitated. “Do you get a lot of kids with HIV?”
“We got a couple at the moment,” Donnie said. He was about to tell Celia not to worry, that the volunteers were all trained to handle kids with special health needs, and that he was positive himself. But Arthur stuck his head through the door.
“Celia, the AA meeting’s about to start. Do you want to come upstairs and attend?” He nodded at Zac in her arms. “You can leave the little guy with Donnie for an hour. Like a trial run?”
Celia glanced up at Donnie, uncertain. “That okay with you?”
“Course,” Donnie said. “Me and Zac, we’ll get to know each other, and he can meet some new friends, too.”
“Okay,” Celia said, still hesitant. But then she squared her shoulders and handed Zac to Donnie. “He’s had his lunch, he shouldn’t need anything, really. Oh, except this…” She dug in her bag for a moment and pulled out a purple stuffed dinosaur toy. “It’s his favorite. If he gets grizzly, that’ll calm him right down.” She also pulled out a small baby bottle with water and handed that to Donnie, together with the toy.
Donnie held the dinosaur out to Zac, who grinned happily and put the toy’s head into his mouth right away.
“He sure is precious,” Arthur said, smiling.
Donnie nodded. “Yeah, he is.”
Arthur beckoned to Celia. “Let’s go up. Zac’s in safe hands.” Celia took one last, nervous glance at the baby, then let Arthur lead her away.
Donnie watched Zac’s expression as his mom disappeared from sight. The little guy seemed unperturbed, and looked around with interest. It was a nice feeling, holding him. Donnie liked babies. The daycare didn’t often have the very small ones, and Zac was cute. Donnie stroked his back. “D’you wanna meet your new friends, huh?”
He walked back into the main room. One of the volunteers, a bright, bubbly woman called Sonia, was gathering the kids for story time. They clustered around her chair on the floor, fidgeting and nudging each other. Donnie sat in a threadbare armchair to one side. Some of the kids observed Zac with curiosity, but it was Padma again who spoke up. “Who’s that, Donnie?”
Donnie turned his upper body, so Zac could see the children. “This is Zac, everyone. Say hello!”
Many of the kids called, “Hello Zac!”, a few waved, and one of the older girls said, “Aww, he’s so cute!”
Zac grinned at them for a moment, but then twisted in Donnie’s arms and, suddenly shy, buried his face against Donnie’s shoulder. Donnie rocked him, and stroked his soft curls. He could smell baby powder. The little body relaxed.
“All right, everyone,” Sonia called, and the children’s attention returned to her. “Who wants to hear the story of Toothless the dragon?”
Donnie settled down to listen. Zac had snuggled up against his shoulder and seemed very content there, sucking on his purple dinosaur.
It was peaceful, sitting in the sunlit room and listening to Sonia’s cheerful voice as she read the story. When Arthur and Celia returned after the AA meeting, Donnie was amazed to find that an hour had passed. He found it hard to let Zac go, and had to remind himself that it was a very short separation. The little guy would be back the next day, and every day after that.