By THOMAS G.M SHARPE
I have always had kids in my house. Aside from my own three children there have been nearly thirty kids who have either traveled through our house or, for various reasons, have lived here for awhile. They are all very bright and very creative.
When I left corporate America and started working out of my house, I saw that they needed a place to go where they could hang out and do their thing in a safe and comfortable environment. That is when I started, what the kids, specifically young Mr. Beggs, subsequently named my garage studio the Underground Art Farm. It had benches, easels, furniture, an awesome sound system, lots of paints in drawers, and a big thing of cubbies my father-in-law gave to me that I filled with stencils, fabric, markers, scissors, glue…everything I need to be creative.
Everyone who comes in was free to take advantage of it all. They could work on art, write, or just sit around listening to music, and talk. They could come during the day, or sometimes late at night, but I didn’t care.
We, my wife and I, generally let the kids who came have the run of the house. They could go out for games in the backyard, go down in the basement and play video games, mess around with the instruments we have, or just even explore some of the things I have in my home office, which are mostly books. Some nights I made big pots of spaghetti for them, and sometimes they just helped themselves to a snack out of the pantry. They are all nice kids that I have known for years and always respected and trusted. There was only one kid I ever really had any sort of difficulty with, because he was a thief.
For quite some time I have called this boy, Brother Bear, because he is quite large, although he has lost weight over the years by walking. When he was in high school he had dreadlocks. He wore glasses and he has an interesting tattoo on his leg, a bass clef. I always called him Brother Bear because even when he was a little kid he always reminded me of that character in the Bernstein Bears books. He had a reputation in our neighborhood of being unflappable and sort of invincible.. My neighbor, John, once told a story about how he saw Brother Bear get distracted while running home very fast and he ran full-smack right into a tree. John ran over to him but Brother Bear just shook it off and kept running. He did the same thing when he had an accident playing on his scooter at a park. He went off of a set of concrete stairs, crashed, and when Ms. Beggs ran over to him, he said, “I think I might have a problem here.” The problem was the bone of his arm was protruding out of his skin.
Ms. Beggs said, “I going to call your mother and take you to hospital.” Brother Bear said, “Well, alright, if you think it is necessary.”
I never had to reprimand any of the kids who visited the Farm, but I did have to confront Brother Bear. He had a tendency to take pens, paint, tools, and a host of other stuff that he felt he needed. At first I overlooked it, because he always created beautiful things with them, but after awhile I couldn’t tolerate it any more.
One day when he was in the Farm alone I went to him and said, “Brother Bear, I’m all about lending and borrowing things, but when you take something without asking, and then don’t bring it back, that’s not borrowing, that’s stealing. Please stop stealing.” He didn’t say anything. He just got up and left. He didn’t come back into the studio for a few days.
Brother Bear was a good kid and is a good man. In high school, he was an editor on the school newspaper, and focused on writing music criticism. He also writes poetry and had two published in his school’s literary magazine, which is very competitive. Sometimes he gets a bug and starts painting and produces four quality pictures in a week. He has strong opinions on a lot of things and is not afraid to vocalize them. I generally don’t step in on this because his ideas are always intelligent and well-informed, if sometimes profane. He is also very kind-hearted and witty. I have always liked very much having him around.
I never knew when I would see Brother Bear. Sometimes he came into the studio early in the day to drink coffee and read. He reads books by Dostoyevsky, Woolf, and Huxley, among many others. He might often not say a word before he left. Sometimes when I was working he came in and played music on the turntable through the sound tower I have and we talked about why he likes one artist or another. At some point he might say, “I need to get some sleep,” and after we went through our usual good-bye rituals, he left.
One night, while I was working on a collage, he came into the studio and sat down in the chair he likes the best. He stared at the floor awhile and then he very seriously said, “I need to talk to you.”
I was concerned by his tone, so I stopped what I was doing right then, looked at him, and asked, “What is it, Brother Bear?”
He said “I have to confess something. I stole one of your books.”
I have a lot of paperbacks and a few hardbacks on the bookshelves in my home office, and I have always kind of encouraged the kids to use it as a kind of lending library. As such, I said, “That’s OK. You’re allowed to borrow books, and if you ask you can even keep some of them.”
He shook his head and said, “No, I didn’t steal one of the books in the office. I stole one of the old and valuable ones from the china cabinet.” I keep all my antique and first editions in the large glass-fronted cherry china cabinet in the dining room. Everyone who floats through our house knows that what is in there is hands-off.
I sighed and asked him “Which one did you take?”
“I took the little hand-tooled leather copy of Macbeth.”
I sighed again and shook my head, “Why that one?” It was one of my favorites. It was my late mother’s that she gave me.
“You talk a lot about your grandfather and your mother. You told me this book inspired him. He gave it to your mother when you were born and it inspired her. She gave it to you and it inspired you. I was hoping it might inspire me.”
I paced around the room, running my hand through my hair like I always do when I’m thinking. He sat there, just waiting for me to talk to him. I finally went back to him, made him look me in the eye, and I said, “Listen, this book is yours now. Just promise me that you’ll take good care of it.”
He nodded his head, and said, “Thank you. I will.”
For the next half hour or so we talked about Shakespeare and why Macbeth was an important play in his canon. Then as usual, Brother Bear got up, and said, “I need to get some sleep.” He also did the other thing he always does when he leaves me. He hugged me, kissed my cheek, and said, “Good night, Dad. I love you.” Then he went up to his room.
My son, Matthew, the one I call Brother Bear, is a thief. Fortunately, the only person he ever steals from is me. He takes a lot of my things, and never returns them, but the thing he steals most often from me is my time and attention, which really requires no theft, because I would give it willingly and without question for free.
After Brother Bear graduated high school, he shaved off his dreadlocks and went to college as an honor student. Got himself a job in sandwich shop. I love him just as much as I love all my children, but I really miss having that thief in my world full-time as he has gone out and is now, in a good way, stealing time and attention from the bigger world.
Thomas G.M. Sharpe is an author, artist, teacher, and an advocate on behalf of many causes but especially the Parkinson’s Disease community, of which he is a member. He was raised in Chicago, but currently resides in Iowa. His work has appeared in Chicago Poets, Chicken Soup for the Soul and other publications. He occasionally does live readings at the Giving Tree Theater in Marion, IA, and other venues.