The silent boy


Angela worked weekends at the Hallmark store. It was in one of those outdoor shopping plazas that offered everything from shoes, to toys, to cafes where you could pay $5 dollars for a gluten-free muffin if you liked. It was just after Thanksgiving when she first noticed him, a little boy in slightly tattered clothes who always wore a red knit cap and carried an empty canvas shopping bag—the kind you lug groceries in. He’d come into the store and snake his way to the back where they kept the ornaments. He never said a word; he’d just focus on one area for a few minutes and then leave as quietly as he came in. More than once, Angela would ask him if he needed help but he looked away as if to say, “Please leave me alone.” So she did. He certainly wasn’t causing any harm.
One day around the 10th of December, Angela was stocking Christmas cards when the same silent boy came in and made his pilgrimage to the wall of ornaments. She pretended to be focused on the cards but, in truth, she was watching him. It was then she realized he wasn’t looking at all of the ornaments, just one. Which one? She couldn’t tell from her angle so she waited until the boy left with his empty sack before taking a closer look. The ornament was two children standing in front of a blackboard with the words, “The reason for the season” written in white chalk. The little girl was pointing toward the words and the little boy was doing something silly with his hands. Honestly, it didn’t make sense. For the life of her, Angela couldn’t imagine why the quiet boy was so enamored with that specific ornament, but to each his own.
A week later, not long before Christmas, Angela was working the register when the boy came in like clockwork. She waved hello and he didn’t respond, just made his way back to the ornaments only to leave a few minutes later with his empty bag. Angela was dragging a bit that day so she told a co-worker she was going to the cafe next door to grab a cup of coffee. She got her usual and as she headed back to the Hallmark store she heard a clanging sound coming from outside one of the nearby stores. It was the silent little boy who visited her store so religiously. He was taking a top off the metal garbage can and reaching deep inside to grab something. At one point, he tipped so far in that his feet left the ground and she was certain he’d fall right in. Then he shifted his weight and popped back out and clenched in his tiny grip was an empty soda bottle.
She watched him tuck the bottle into his canvas sack and then move on to the next garbage can a few stores down. All the time Angela had worked in this shopping plaza she had never noticed how many trash cans there were. By the time he reached the end of the plaza, the boy’s sack was bulging full of empty bottles. He then sat himself on the bench and, a few seconds later, a city bus pulled up and he disappeared with a “swoosh” behind the closing doors. “What in the world?” she thought to herself.
Soon it was Christmas Eve and Angela was working at the store when the little boy in the red cap appeared on schedule—only this time he wasn’t alone. He was with a woman in her early 40s and a little girl a couple years younger than him. He marched back to the ornaments; only this time, he took his favorite one off the shelf and brought it to the cash register. The silent boy pulled $9 in quarters, nickels and dimes out of his pocket and carefully counted it out. He then spoke to his mother and sister using sign language. For the first time since Angela saw him coming in to her store, the little boy smiled.
“Excuse me,” Angela said to the woman, “I have to ask. He’s been coming here for weeks looking at that ornament. He’s deaf?” The mother said, “No, he’s autistic, non-verbal. So he signs. And, yes, he loves that ornament but I told him if he wanted it he’d have to pay for it, so he did, one empty bottle at a time.”
It was then that Angela realized the boy on the ornament wasn’t doing something “silly” with his hands; he was signing something to the little girl. “What is the sign he’s doing?” Angela asked the boy pointing to the ornament now resting in his tiny hands. The silent boy took his middle finger on one hand and pointed it to the palm of the other. The mother said, “That’s right honey. Jesus. The boy in the ornament is doing the sign for Jesus.” As the family turned to go, Angela remembered the words on the ornament’s blackboard—the reason for the season. Her heart tumbled a bit as a special little boy took his sister’s hand and led her safely into the world.
John Gray is weekly columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at [email protected]


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