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Image by Umar Farooq

‘Crying Boy’

The boy looked like most boys. His brown hair had grown over his ears and fell below his brows. His red lips were full, but his eyes seemed larger and rounder than most. Tears came from both, ran down his face, and stopped before reaching his chin. The Spanish painter had done an incredible job with the large teardrops. Different colors brushed onto the canvas, they looked identical to large drops of water hanging onto a faucet and fighting gravity. Like the other thousands of originals and prints of Crying Boy, they were based on one street orphan in Barcelona, and he was painted with different backdrops, different outfits, and different poses.

My grandmother’s Crying Boy was a print, not an original, and hung on the wall facing her wagon-wheel print sofa in the living room. Below the print was a gas space heater next to her Magnavox television set encased in faux wood. There was a pine coffee table featuring wagon wheels on a hooked rug. I wasn’t sure why she chose this print compared to the thousands of other possibilities, such as Dali, Van Gough, or Renoir that probably wouldn’t have blended with her inexpensive early American motif. Depending on the selection, a Rockwell might have fit better.

When my grandmother heaved herself up from the sofa to walk up the wooden steps to her bedroom on the second floor of her Cape Cod just outside of Detroit, she fell asleep quickly. 

A fireman shattered her glass window from the ladder and yelled into her smoke-filled room, “Ms. Gaskins! Can you hear me?” She rolled out from under her electric blanket, smelled the smoke, and saw the flashing lights from the firetruck reflecting on her neighbors’ homes. 

She coughed and yelled back, “Yes.”

“Come on. I can’t carry you. You’ll need to jump. We’ll catch you.”

“I don’t know about that,” she told him.

She recounted to us almost every time we saw her that she knew she was heavy and didn’t think the life net would hold. She didn’t know what was worse: burning to death in her house or her busting through the life net and breaking every bone in her body on the sidewalk below. 

In an instant, she flung herself out the window and landed safely in the net. Though there were experiences in her lifetime that took longer and were more defining—giving birth to my mother, which took twelve hours; her never letting my mother forget it; nursing her own mother through cancer and to the end of life tunnel; and having a wreck where something from the bottom of the car’s dashboard punctured her appendix, requiring life-saving emergency surgery—the experience of flinging herself out of the window seemed to be the cherry on top of her ice cream sundae.

Sifting through the still-warm ashes the next morning, she reached down and pulled a dirty Crying Boy from the debris. “Oh look!” She turned toward our family, held him up, and while he didn’t look as young and innocent as he had hanging on her wall, he had survived the fire with her. She put the print under her arm and vowed to hang him again. 

My grandmother didn’t know the history of the Crying Boy prints and paintings associated with fires or that the orphan who modeled for the painter had grown up to burn to death in a car fire. The firemen investigators blamed discarded cigarettes, overheated stoves, and faulty wiring for the hundreds of fires where the Crying Boy hung. My grandmother’s fire was said to have started from the gas heater.

When she moved into the assisted living facility after her house burned, she told us, “You wouldn’t believe how many people here have a different Crying Boy in their efficiency apartments.” We never saw them but had no reason to doubt our grandmother. We recalled that information one morning when we got the call that a natural gas line exploded, leveling the assisted living facility and killing all the residents. We cried at the funeral but were relieved to know she had a life insurance policy and that the utility company had committed to a settlement for victims’ families. That became our life net.

Niles Reddick is author of a novel, two collections, and a novella. His work has been featured in over four-hundred-fifty publications including The Saturday Evening Post, PIF, BlazeVox, New Reader Magazine, Citron Review, and The Boston Literary Magazine. He works for the University of Memphis in Tennessee., Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter


  1. Anonymous

    Your imagination never ceases to amaze me. Your loving mother❤️

  2. Anonymous

    I don’t know if to call this piece sad or sweet. But you have gracefully mustered both emotions in me. Wonderful writing Niles. Your fan always.


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