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Back to School

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“Please, David?”

“We’ll see him on Sunday, Les.”

“Yeah, but that’s six whole days away!” 

Davey looked down into Les’ big brown eyes and sighed. “Okay, fine. We’ll go see Jack.”

“Hooray!” Les leapt into the air and took off running.

Davey cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “He might not even be there, you know!”

“Then we c’n wait!” Les called back over his shoulder.

“Les! Stop it! You aren’t allowed to walk there without me!” 

Les turned around and started hopping up and down in place. “Then come on, slowpoke! Let’s go!”

Davey shook his head and jogged down the sidewalk after his eager little brother. “We saw him yesterday,” he reminded Les. “There hasn’t been enough time for you to miss anything important.”

Les scoffed as Davey caught up with him. “He’s a newsboy,” he said, disdain dripping from every word. “He always knows something new an’ important.”  

David resisted the urge to roll his eyes at Les; as the mature older brother, it was up to him to rise above Les’ know-it-all attitude. Besides, Davey thought wryly, his lips quirking as he made fun of himself in his own head, Les is too young to know that I’m the one who knows it all.

Les wove in and out of the crowded city streets, always just a couple of steps ahead of Davey, who couldn’t fit in between people and scurry underneath street vendors’ carts the way Les could. And so it was Les who reached the Lodge first, and Les who searched the place for Jack, and Les who determined that Jack wasn’t there, and Les who demanded they go straight to Jack’s usual selling spot.

“Oy vey, Leyzele,” Davey grumbled. “We saw the man yesterday, we’re seeing him again on Sunday, and we’ve both got homework to do—can’t we just go home already?”

“No!” Les said, his eyes growing wide. “No, Dovid, no, we can’t, please—I gotta—we hafta—please?”

“Fine,” Davey said, “But if he’s not there, then we have to get home, okay? Mama’s probably wondering where we are.” Les nodded frantically and tugged at Davey’s hand to get them both going again. Davey remained stubbornly in place. “Promise? If he’s not there, we go home.” 

Les bit his lip, and Davey gave him a stern look. Les’ shoulders slumped. “Okay. Promise.” 

“Good,” Davey said, and finally allowed himself to be dragged along.

Les spotted Jack from a block and a half away and broke into a sprint, running straight for his hero. “Jack!” 

Davey frowned slightly at the strangled sound; was Les crying? He watched from a distance as Les barreled into Jack, flinging his arms around the teenager’s waist and knocking Jack slightly sideways.

“Hey, kid,” Jack said, bending down to wrap Les in a real hug. “Whatcha doin’ here all alone, huh? Thought ya had ta stay with your brother when you was around these parts. You okay?”

“Davey’s right there,” Les mumbled, clinging tightly to Jack, who hefted Les up around his waist.

“Oh, so he is,” Jack said, catching sight of Davey, who waved, slowed his pace, and started looking at the displays in nearby shop windows in order to give Les a little more time alone with Jack. Jack gave Davey a nod and then returned his attention to Les. “I don’t unnerstand why your cheeks is all wet, though.” He gave Les a stern look. “You run too fast an’ fall into a puddle on the way here?” 

Les nodded and sniffled, burying his face in Jack’s shoulder.

“Happens to the best of us,” Jack soothed, patting Les on the back.

“Not you, Jack,” Les avowed. “Never you.”

“Yes, me,” Jack said, hugging Les tight. “Sometimes things get ta be too much an’ ya just gotta… uh… run through a puddle.” 

Les was silent, and Jack rubbed his back once more. “Well, so how was your first day back at school, bud?”

Les’ legs tightened around Jack’s waist. “Hated it,” he mumbled.

“Why’s that?” 

“Just did.”

“Hmm,” Jack said, detaching Les and setting the smaller boy on the ground. “Kids bein’ mean?” 

“Nah,” Les said, kicking at the pavement. “I got lotsa friends.”

“ ‘Course you do,” Jack said, grinning. “You’s swell. So what is it, then? Lessons too hard?” 

Les shrugged. “Sorta, but it’s okay. I’ll catch up quick enough.”

“Damn right you will,” Jack said, shoving Les on the shoulder. “So what’s the rub, then, shortstop?”

Les looked sideways and shrugged.

Jack followed his glance and saw Davey, now only half a block away. “Hey now,” he said, his voice low. “I won’t tell.” 

Les shuffled his feet and shifted uncomfortably, but Jack waited him out. Eventually, the younger boy sighed deeply. “I miss you,” he mumbled, unable to look Jack in the eye. Then his voice rose, and his gaze with it. “I wanna be here, sellin’ papes with you an’ the boys, not sittin’ in school learnin’ borin’ stuff I don’t need ta know.”

“Borin’ stuff ya don’t need ta know?” Jack repeated, incredulous. “Kid, that borin’ stuff is what’s gonna get you offa the street an’ inta a job.”

“But I’ve already got a job!” Les protested. “I’m a newsie, Jack, just like you! An’ I’m a real good one, too—you said so yourself! An’ I already make more’n enough ta eat an’ help out my folks.” He crossed his arms and glared up at Jack. “I like the job I got right now. I don’t need any more school!”

Jack huffed a laugh and tipped Les’ hat upwards. “Aw, kiddo,” he said, his voice warm. “You’s not just a good newsie—you’s a fantastic newsie. You’s a natural, in fact. But,” he said, growing serious, “Newsyin’ is somethin’ ya grows out of, ya know? An’ if ya wants a decent job after you’s grown—a job what pays ya enough ta get married an’ have kids an’ live someplace o’ your own—maybe somewheres with an indoor toilet, hey?—then ya gots ta stay in school.” 

Les pouted. “I don’t wanna get married or have kids. I wanna be like you, Jack. I wanna sell papes an’ go ta the theater an’ kiss pretty girls.” 

Jack smiled. “Well, I’m touched,” he said, clapping a hand on Les’ shoulder. “An’ right now there ain’t no reason you shouldn’t do alla them things, squirt. You go right on ahead.” Les brightened, and Jack squeezed his shoulder, crouching down a little more until he was eye-level with Les. “But what if grown-up Les don’t want those same things, huh?”

Les’ brow furrowed. “He will. I mean, I will.”

“Maybe, sure, but what if ya don’t?” Les glared, and Jack held up his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “Just hear me out, okay?” Les nodded grudgingly, and Jack continued. “You ‘members the strike, right?”

Les was indignant. “ ‘Course!”

“Well, was you always sure that strikin’ was what ya wanted ta do?”

The ten-year-old’s voice was fierce. “I never gave up on the Union, Jack.” 

“I know that, kid. I know,” Jack said. “But didja ever have doubts? Be honest, now.”

“Well…” Les shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I guess so… Sometimes…”

“I think we all did,” Jack reassured him. “I know I did.” He paused. “Hell; you know I did.” 

Les scowled at the ground, unhappy to be reminded of that heartbreaking moment at the rally and the sickening hours afterwards when he’d thought—wrongly, thank heavens—that his idol had betrayed him.

Jack lifted Les’ cap to ruffle the boy’s hair and lighten the moment. “Well, so wouldn’t it’ve been nice if you coulda had it both ways? Gone on strike the whole time and kept sellin’ papes the whole time just in case the strike didn’t work out?” 

Les blinked. “But that’s impossible!”

“Yeah, but what if it weren’t? Wouldja have done both at the same time, ‘steada pickin’ one over the other each day?”

“Well, but the new price was bad.” 

“I’m not sayin’ ya woulda liked the new price,” Jack said, adjusting the satchel of papers that was slung across his body. “Just that maybe it’d have been nice ta sell papes an strike ev’ry day, ‘cause then you’da been stickin’ it ta Pulitzer, but you’d’ve also been sure you’d still have the newsie job if the strike didn’t work out.” 

“But it did work out,” Les insisted. Then, seeing the look in Jack’s eyes, he deflated slightly. “Well, okay. Yeah. It woulda been nice.” 

Jack nodded. “It’s the same with school an’ newsyin’. Maybe when you’s older you’s still gonna want ta sell papes an’ see shows an’ kiss girls, but maybe—just maybe, now,” he said, tapping the side of Les’ nose, “Maybe ya won’t. Maybe ya won’t change your mind later on, but maybe ya will. It happens. Like with me an’ Santa Fe, yeah?”

Les made a face and looked away, hating the thought of Jack leaving.

Jack continued. “Hey now. I’m stickin’ around, shortstop. Like I said, I changed my mind ‘bout that.” Les sniffled, and Jack placed his hand back on the boy’s shoulder. “Look—all I means is ya oughta plan f’r if ya wants ta do somethin’ different in the future. If ya don’t go ta school now then you’s gonna have ta sell papes when you’s grown, even if that ain’t what ya want anymore. But if ya do go ta school now,” he said, looking intently at Les, “You c’n still sell papes later on if you decide that’s what ya wanna do. But if that ain’t whatcha wanna do no more, well, then your book learnin’ll make it so’s you can do somethin’ else.” Jack tilted Les’ chin up to meet the boy’s eyes. “You’ll get ta choose whatcha wanna do ‘steada bein’ forced ta do somethin’ that don’t fit ya no more. Ya see?”

Les pursed his lips and thought for a moment. “I… I think so.” 

Jack looked at him gravely. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Les muttered, scuffing his shoe on the pavement once more. His shoulders dipped in disappointment, but then he perked up. “But if I don’t change my mind, will you still sell papes with me?”

Jack laughed. “I’s gonna be so old by then, ain’t nobody gonna wanna buy papes from me!” Then he saw the disappointment on Les’ face and softened. “Yeah, Les. You bet. You’ll always be my partner, kid. Long’s you want me around, I’ll be there.”

“Promise?” Les asked, his lower lip trembling.

Jack winked, spat in his hand, and stuck it out to Les. “Promise.”

Les beamed, and Davey walked up and made a face. “That’s still disgusting,” Davey said dryly, watching Les spit in his own hand and shake Jack’s.

“That’s just—” Jack and Les began together, and Davey laughed.

“Business,” Davey finished with them. “I know.” He shoved Jack on the shoulder. “So, how many papes you got left? Want any help?” 

“From you, Davey?” Jack snorted. “What, didja go back ta school just so someone could finally teach ya how ta lie?” His eyes twinkled, letting Davey know he was just kidding, and Davey pulled off his hat to pop Jack with it.

Les’ eyes lit up. “I’m good at lying! I c’n help!”  

Davey groaned, and Jack stifled a chuckle. “Ya sure, buddy? I don’t wanna take advantage of a little kid, ya know,” Jack said with a wink.

“Please, Jack!” Les begged. “I gotta keep practicin’ f’r when I get big!”

“Okay, then,” Jack said, reaching a hand into his newsie bag. “But soon’s ya sell these, ya gots ta go do your homework, alright?”

“Deal!” Les snatched five papers out of Jack’s outstretched hand and ran to the other end of the block, waving the papers in the air. “Gruesome murder in Staten Island!” He yelled as he went. “A World exclusive! Get the gory details here!” 

Jack smiled as he crossed his arms and shook his head, watching Les go. “He’d be a great politician.”

Davey ran his thumbs back and forth over his fingertips and considered his little brother, who’d managed to sell a paper not ten seconds after calling out the invented headline. “Huh,” he said. “Yeah.” They stood there a moment longer, watching Les. “You’re a good pal, Jack. Thanks.”

“Shaddap,” Jack said, and pulled another five papers from his bag. “Here. Put that big mouth of yours to work.”

Davey rolled his eyes but took the papers. “Fifty-fifty split on the profits,” he cautioned Jack, who shooed Davey away. 

“Sure, sure. Move along, then. You’s saturatin’ the market, standin’ right next ta me.”

Davey’s eyes widened. “You did read the book I lent you!” 

“Sure thing,” Jack said, pulling a battered copy of The Wealth of Nations out of his newsbag. “ ‘S like I was tellin’ Les just now,” he said airily, waving the book under Davey’s nose. “A little book learnin’ never hurt anyone.” Davey grinned and opened his mouth to speak, but Jack cut him off. “But neither did a little practical education,” he said, smacking Davey on the arm with the book. “So get ta work, ya lazy bum!” 

Davey jumped as the book struck home. “Ow!” Then, without warning, he smirked, whacked Jack with a rolled-up paper, and took off running.

Jack leapt into action, too, quickly giving chase. “I’m gonna get you for that, Jacobs!” he yelled, trying and failing to sound annoyed. 

“You gotta catch me first!” Davey called back happily, full of adrenaline.

The two boys laughed as they raced down the sidewalk, Jack grabbing Les’ hand and sweeping him along as they sped by. Les’ face shone with joy as he gripped his remaining papers tightly and fell in behind his two role models, all of his fears temporarily forgotten in the rush of being young and alive and a newsie in the greatest city in the world.