“Here,” hissed Samuel. “Put this in your bag.”
Keeping a sharp eye on the cashier, Samuel, 13, furtively shoved a bag of chips at his best friend Luis and began slipping a bottle of soda into his own pouch. Outside the tiny convenience store, the sun glared down on the streets of Chihuahua, Mexico. Staring at the package in his hand, Luis felt as though he were standing in that sun. He felt sweat prickling on his forehead.
“You don’t want the other guys to think you’re chickening out, do you?”
A policeman wouldn’t be stealing from a convenience store, Luis heard his older sister retorting in his head. Luis’ stomach sunk as he imagined the look on Ana Laura’s face when he returned home. Somehow she always knew when he’d been making mischief.
“Hurry up,” Samuel urged.
Luis slipped the chips into his bag. “Let’s go.”
|Knowing how to build things with his own hands certainly would be useful if he ever became a soldier and was stranded somewhere while on a secret mission.|
“Luis, would you care to share with
the rest of the class?” his teacher asked.
“Yeah,” said Luis. “I think woodworking stinks.”
But by the end of the class, Luis had to admit he was interested. Knowing how to build things with his own hands certainly would be useful if he ever became a soldier and was stranded somewhere while on a secret mission…
Later that day, Luis sat in the bedroom he shared with Ana Laura, 16, and his younger brother, Jorge, staring out the window to the dusty yard. The roosters and the goat seemed to share Luis’ restlessness. Later on he was supposed to hang out with the guys, and Luis wondered if he’d be asked to steal again. It had been easier after the first couple of times, almost like a game. Still, it didn’t seem quite right to take stuff from other people. Especially when in his own colonia, or neighborhood, about half of the families lived on only about $11 a day.
“Look!” Ana Laura burst into the room waving a handout. “The new center the Sisters built is offering a high school equivalency program!”
Luis smiled affectionately. Ana Laura struggled in school, but she never gave up. Luis knew how much this would mean to her.
“You should go for it!” he encouraged.
“Walk over to the center with me.”
Luis dropped his gaze. “I’m supposed to hang out with the guys.”
Ana Laura narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like you spending all your time with those troublemakers,” she said. “You’re coming with me.”
While Ana Laura busied herself with the enrollment forms, Luis began scoping out the center. The exterior, with its pale orange walls, white gate and doors, and small garden with orange trees, had been nice enough. inside, in one room was a reception desk occupied by a darkhaired American woman who had introduced herself as Sister Sharon. There were also some wooden bookshelves. Luis trailed his fingers along one of the empty shelves.
“We’re just starting our collection,” Sister Sharon said. “Hopefully one day these shelves will be filled with books.”
“I was looking at the wood,” Luis remarked without thinking. I should get out of here and meet up with the guys.
“Oh? Do you work with wood?” Sister Sharon asked.
Luis hesitated. But the Sister seemed genuinely interested.
“Yeah,” he began slowly. “I started taking this class at school. I didn’t think I’d like it, but, well, I do now. I made a Bible stand last week,” he ventured.
“Did you?” Sister Sharon said. “You should bring it along next time. I would enjoy seeing your work.”
“Your brother seems very interested in his newfound talent,” she remarked to Ana Laura once Luis had left the room.
“Yes, I think it will be good for him. Abuela and Abuelo (Grandma and Grandpa) are great, but I think Luis really wishes he had a dad around. Maybe then, too,” she added, a little hotly, “he’d have a good example to stop him from talking back to teachers and hanging around with troublemakers.”
“Does he do well in school?”
“Yes. Though he is having a little trouble with math,” Ana Laura admitted. Her shoulders fell. “He’s such a smart, great kid. He just needs something to keep him busy, something to challenge him.”
“Luis is blessed to have a sister who cares about him so much,” Sister Sharon smiled.
Ana Laura smiled back. “Thanks.”
“So, Sister. How much for it?” Sister Sharon looked up from the reception desk to see Luis holding his Bible stand. It had been only a few days since he’d first stopped by.
“Well! I…” Sister Sharon thought quickly. She hadn’t expected this! “I have a proposal,” she said at last. “The center needs a donation box to put here, on the counter.”
“A sale, then?”
“An exchange,” came the gentle reply. “Your sister tells me you’re a smart student. She also says that math is a bit of a challenge this year.”
“Well…” Sister Sharon began cautiously. “If you will be so generous as to make us a donation box, I would be happy to work with you in math.”
Luis looked pensively at the counter. Sister Sharon could see he was already designing the donation box in his head.
“We’ll give you some wood and an advance for the materials,” she threw in.
Sister Sharon felt relieved. But as she watched Luis walk out of the center, she couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever come back.
Luis wiped a hand across his forehead as he smoothed one wooden edge of the donation box. Not long before it’s done, he told himself proudly.
Samuel popped his head in the doorway. “Where you been these last couple days?” he demanded.
“Busy.” Luis gestured to the donation box. “It’s for the center.”
“Listen,” Samuel said, “me and the guys are meeting up tomorrow after school. You coming?”
Luis felt his skin grow warm. Samuel was his best friend. He wasn’t going to ditch him for good, but he didn’t want to go shoplifting again. He looked down at the tools beside him. Their sturdiness gave him the courage to speak.
“Nah, I gotta finish this. I got an advance on the materials, you know,” he added importantly.
Samuel looked impressed. “Well, I guess we’ll see you around when it’s done, then.”
Luis picked up the sandpaper and returned to work with renewed vigor. The question is, he thought, what will I make next? CD
Photos courtesy of Sister Sharon Brannen.
* Based on the story of Luis Angel Ramirez Gonzalez. Research for this story conducted with the assistance of Sister Sharon Brannen.