Mosaic artwork by Laura Robbins
This happened after the Phoenix family had broken with the Children of God, had left Guatemala, and was staying at a friend's farm in western New York, between Olean and Salamanca. The farm was really just an apple orchard, and it was really just a commune already past its prime, but the Phoenix family stayed there for six months or so before heading to Hollywood, and we know the rest.
My grandfather was at his office one day—his medical office, he being a general practitioner in Olean, population 19,000 at the time of this story—when his receptionist (it was actually my mother, home from nursing school for the summer) stuck her head in and said there were three children who wished to see him but did not have an appointment.
My grandfather being a man who liked children (he had eleven himself), and it being a slow day, he told my mother to show them in.
And in they filed, three of the most sharply featured, wary-of-the-world children my grandfather had ever seen.
"Hello," he said to all. "What's your name?" he asked the tallest, the one with the heart-shaped face, the pouting lips, the sandy hair.
"And what's your name?" he asked the shorter boy, whose chin was unusually strong.
"And what's your name?" he asked the girl, who was cute as a button.
"And what's the problem?"
The two younger looked to the eldest, and he nodded, his brow creased. All three of them kicked off their sneakers, dropped to the floor, and picked up their left feet, stretching them out to my grandfather for inspection.
Their soles were red and wet-looking, marked with splotches like rotten carnations. The smell shot straight for my grandfather's nose—soil and sweat and manure and the fetid, soured smell of infection.
"Children," he said, not bothering to bend for a closer examination, "you have ringworm. And some of the worst cases I've ever seen."
"Worms?" asked Rain, her eyes stretching up to her forehead.
"No." My grandfather chuckled. "It's not actually a worm. That's just the name."
"What do we do?" asked River, already putting his shoes back on.
"Where are your parents?" asked my grandfather.
"Back at the farm." River stood up. "We biked in."
"And where's the farm?" My grandfather moved to his desk for his prescription pad.
"Down Ten Rod Road."
My grandfather nodded. Everyone in town knew the farm and the sorts who lived there. He worried for these three beautiful, strangely named, hard children.
"You bring this down to Walsh's Pharmacy." He handed River the prescription. "You take what Mr. Walsh gives you, and you rub it on your feet once a day, in the morning. And you do your best to keep your feet dry. And you be sure to wear socks."
River looked at my grandfather's outstretched hand.
"We can't pay him for that," he said.
"You don't worry about that," said my grandfather. "I'll call him."
River took the prescription.
"We can't pay you, either."
My grandfather walked back to his desk and sat down.
"Well, how about in a month or so, when your Cortlands are ready, you come back here, and you bring me a bushel. My wife likes them for pies."
The children looked at each other, deliberating in their private, silent language. Joaquin and Rain nodded. River looked at my grandfather.
"We can do that."
"Good. Go down to Walsh's. I'll call him now."
The children walked out, and my grandfather called Bill Walsh and told him about the three with their odd names and their horrible ringworm. Walsh told him he'd send the bill, and my grandfather said he'd mail the check, and both laughed, because this was a joke of theirs.
My grandfather hung up and stood to open a window. His office still smelled like the children's feet.
A month went by, and the weather got cooler. The Cortlands came in to the grocery store, and my grandfather told my grandmother to hold off, because he had a fresh bushel coming any day. A couple weeks passed, and the Cortlands got scarcer. My grandmother got nervous and bought some to make a pie, saying to my grandfather she could use the children's for apple sauce.
It got to be October, and the Phoenix children still hadn't shown up with the Cortlands. My grandfather didn't mind the loss of the apples, but he worried himself thinking of those poor, peculiar children, living on that farm with those sorts of people.
Finally, one afternoon, almost into November, my grandfather drove out Ten Rod Road. He passed cow pastures and trailers until he came to a dirt road with a sign hanging from a tree reading, "Where it is."
My grandfather drove down the road for a quarter mile. The woods on either side were messy and young and bordered by a stone wall tumbling down in spots. The road came into a broad clearing with a two-story farm house, a mural splattered along the first floor walls—flowers, rainbows, mushrooms, some faces my grandfather had seen on his children's records. There was a barn next to the house, the front of its roof caved in, the foundation sinking. Rows of gnarled apple trees ran from the house down to where the woods began, the grass between the trees thick with weeds. My grandfather parked his station wagon and got out. He smelled the rank sweetness of apples rotting on the ground.
My grandfather walked to the porch and knocked on the door. A man answered, shirtless, his thin, graying hair pulled back in a ponytail.
"Police?" he asked.
"I'm a doctor."
"I'm fine, thanks." The man smiled and began to close the door.
"Wait." My grandfather put his hand out. "Are there children here? Two boys and a girl? River and Rain and something?"
"They're gone. Left about a month ago."
"Gone west, old man. Gone west."
My grandfather wanted to ask about their feet. Had they used the cream, and had the ringworm cleared up? Were they happier now that their feet were healthy? Did they keep them dry and change their socks every day? But he didn't think these were the kind of details a man like this would have noticed.
"I'm not much older than you," my grandfather said.
"Maybe." The man pushed the door shut. My grandfather pulled back his hand.
He walked back to the car. A dog, a shepherd mix, limped over from the barn. He sat at my grandfather's feet. Half his right ear was missing. He whined, and my grandfather patted his head.
This was no place for a dog, he thought. Looking at the animal, my grandfather got the impression the dog wanted to leave with him. But you can't just take someone's dog. He scratched behind the dog's good ear and got in his car. The dog hobbled back to a hole under the barn, which looked ready to collapse on him at any minute. My grandfather turned his car around and drove home.
Years later, on All Saints' Day, my grandfather saw on TV that River Phoenix had died the night before from a drug overdose outside a nightclub. He remembered the name and thought back to that afternoon when the boy had shown him his infected foot. The smell came back to him, and my grandfather gagged. Chances are there wasn't anything he could have done to change the course of that boy's life; people are pulled along by forces we don't understand to ends we can't divine.
My grandfather sat in his chair and let his eyes water for that boy he hadn't been able to help. When one of his grandchildren walked into the living room with a plate of cheese and crackers prepared by his wife, my grandfather accepted it like the gift of grace.