Monday saw us doing what had become our routine – getting ready, dropping off Dan and his sisters, then going to Lulu's and getting to the lot to begin searching for inventory and being ready for customers as they showed up to shop. That Monday was complicated by two factors. Firstly, Elizabeth Rodney called and wanted to meet at my house at one. Second, the guy I'd sold the sedan to the previous week showed up, screaming and yelling how I'd robbed him and the transmission was shot and he wanted his money back.
“Don't yell at him, you cock juggling thunder cunt!” Bailey screamed during the guy’s outburst. I looked at him in surprise, not for the language so much as him raising his voice to an adult. Given his history I had figured that was a long way off.
“What the fuck did you say to me?” the guy yelled, turning toward Bailey.
“Five seconds to calm down before I get the troopers in here, buddy,” I said, moving to slide between him and Bailey. “Bailey, go to Annabelle now.”
“Now, buddy,” I said, firming my tone but trying to be careful that I didn't send him into checked-out territory again.
“Yes, sir,” he said dejectedly and slipped past us.
“That brat has a mouth on him,” the guy snarled.
“Yeah. Have to work on the anatomy lessons I guess, though. Now, you want to take a breath and tell me what happened, or do you want a card-carrying member of AARP to put his foot so far up your ass you'll be tasting shoe leather?”
“No! You don't get to come in here and start making accusations and getting that boy all riled up! You want an adult resolution, you come in here and act like one or get the fuck out.”
“You cheated me!” the guy said firmly, though his volume had come down.
“Car was fine last I knew. What happened?”
“It's quit! I was going over to the laundromat, and I stopped at the drive through across the street when there was this bang and the car wouldn't move anymore, but made a weird, loud noise I've never heard of before.”
“Okay. Where is it?”
He described the parking lot of a burger joint I knew.
“Okay. I'll go get the car and bring it here to check it out. You have the keys?”
“Yeah,” he said a little sullenly and handed them over. “But I'm telling you, I'm not getting screwed on this.”
Yeah, yeah. “I'll call you once I have the car and the mechanic has gotten a look. Today, maybe tomorrow. At the latest.”
“Yeah. All right.”
He eyed me a moment and then turned and left, getting into a waiting car.
“Happy customer?” Annabelle asked calmly as she entered the room from the garage, Bailey in tow.
I snorted. “Come here, Bailey.”
He approached meekly. I patted the spot beside me, and he sat carefully, making sure not to bother the sleeping Daisy. She did that so much these days.
“Look, kiddo. Advice time, okay? I know this is a little longer than my usual advice, but hear me out, okay?”
His posture lost some of its rigidity, and he nodded.
“So first, you don't have to feel like you should defend me. I've won fights, I've lost fights, and I'm still here. You're a good boy, and I admire your instinct to stick up for someone else, especially since you've been on the wrong end of people yelling at you. But if that had gotten out of hand, it might actually be worse for me, because I'd have to make sure you were okay, first. You see? That's my job between us. So you have to let me do my job first. Make sense?”
“Really?” I asked, looking down my nose at him. “Do you understand and don't like it or don't really understand?”
“I'm not weak. I could have helped you,” he blurted.
“No one said you're weak.” I shook my head. “Bailey, it's my job to protect you. Any adult who is supposed to care for you and raise you and parent you is supposed to protect you. I know that's not been the case, but I'm not your parents. If I'm worried that guy is going to hurt you, then I'm not focused on getting him done with – instead I'm worried about you. Do you see that?”
He furrowed his brow and pursed his lips, and I thought he was going to come out with another statement that he could help, but instead he asked, “You mean like a distraction? You couldn't focus?”
“Kind of, yeah,” I said. “I mean, you know when we talk, you have my focus. You're not a distraction. But when I'm supposed to be dealing with someone and Daisy gets all howly or you start insulting people or Annabelle lights the fuse on her tampon, I get distracted.”
“You're such an asshole,” Annabelle said.
“And that brings me to my second point,” I said. “Remember when I said some words aren't for kids? Well sometimes, even as an adult, you have to choose your words carefully. When that guy came in yelling I had to decide really quick – do I yell back? Is he a coward, making a bunch of noise to get his way but he really won't back it up? Or does he have a tire iron behind his back that he's going to use on my head? So my point here is that you don't know when to use those words yet, so if you hear me say something, I'm going to ask you not repeat it. Okay?”
He gave me an odd expression. “Never repeat it?”
“Well, eventually. Time, place and age matter.”
“Wait! Wait. Hold on,” Annabelle demanded. “Who the hell did you call a cock juggling thunder cunt?”
“My grandma,” Bailey piped up.
“His grandmother? Colin McKenzie!”
“Oh you make it sound so bad,” I said, waving a hand at her. “Look, she knew what Bailey's parents were doing and let it happen. She even justified it with some biblical crap. I'm telling you, if ever there was a See You Next Tuesday, she was it.”
She put her nose in the air. “Acceptable.”
“Glad you approve,” I grumbled.
“Will you tell me now what a dildo is?” Bailey asked.
“You want to take this one, you're so worried about what he's saying?”
She leaned forward. “Bailey, sweetie? It's Colin. He's a dildo.”
Bailey looked at her for a moment. “Does that have anything to do with the fuse on your tampon?”
I couldn't help it. I burst out laughing. “Come on, Bail,” I said, still chuckling. “We have to go meet the county lady. Annabelle, would you go get that jerk's car and assess it?”
Elizabeth Rodney was a mixed race woman with hair stacked high on her head and bright red-rimmed glasses. She was dressed nicely, if not very fancy, as probably befitted someone who was working 'in the field' that day – and not her normal position, either. Nevertheless, she had a presence to her that was hard to escape. Daisy went and greeted her, however, and then went to go back to sleep. I guess she didn't smell that interesting.
“I love these farm houses,” she commented, looking around.
“I don't know if it ever was one, but it does have that feel,” I said, trying to be nice. I actually had no idea what she meant. I led her to the kitchen so we could sit at the table. “Coffee?”
“Oh, no, thank you! I've had my fill of airplane fuel for today. You must be Bailey! So nice to meet you, sweetheart.”
“Hello, ma'am,” he said quietly.
“Such a polite gentleman,” she said with a smile. “Come, sit with me for a minute.”
Bailey took a seat across from her, leaving me in my usual spot at the end of the table, between them.
“So. Bit of a busy week you've had. Let me fill you in on a few things, and if you have questions, I want to you ask me, okay?” She smiled toothily.
“Will I have to go back to my parents?” he asked abruptly.
“That is a great first question. So, let me give you some context. My job is to make sure the kids in my care are being taken care of in all ways – mentally, physically and sometimes spiritually.”
“Spirit? Are they dead?” he asked, his tone suggesting he thought there was something wrong.
“Oh no, Honey!” she said with a laugh. “Some families practice a faith, so they may need to see a person from their church or attend worship services, as an example. So my purpose here today is to bring Mr. McKenzie some paperwork he has to fill out and to get you connected to the services you will need for now – educational, medical and so forth.” She smiled again. “I love your outfit! Did you pick those clothes out?”
He grew a bit shy, and shook his head. “Annabelle and Colin helped.”
“Oh, how nice! Who is Annabelle? I don't think I've met her?”
“She's the mechanic at the car lot I work at,” he replied, a bit more confidence in his tone.
“Oh? A working man already?” she asked, her tone impressed, and she smiled a bit at me.
“He helps with customers, looks at cars for sale with me and does some gophering,” I clarified. “Customers seem to like a well mannered, put-together young fellow.”
“And why wouldn't they?” she asked, smiling again. “So let me come back to your question, Bailey. My role is to make sure you're being cared for and to advocate on your behalf for your best interests. So what I mean is, I don't decide, in the end, where you go – I just have influence. Now, the judge makes the decisions about placement and such. The judge saw the evidence that was gathered by Trooper Cooper – do you remember them?”
He nodded. “He came to the lot when my dad showed up. Made him leave. Colin had me hide in the bathroom.”
She nodded sagely. “Probably for the best. From what I've seen of the evidence, I'd say you're not going back to your parents’ home anytime soon. Beyond that it will depend on a great many things.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“Well, some legal things. The state has an interest in preserving families. Sometimes parents are overwhelmed and have very little in the way of parenting skills. Sometimes people can be taught better ways to be a parent, enough that children will be safe and healthy at home again.”
Bailey looked at me. “Please don't let them send me back. No more.”
“Don't worry about it, kiddo,” I told him, trying to express some confidence. “Judges are smart people.”
“So, speaking of the judge, they did rule to put you in foster care for right now, and there will be future court dates. You're going to see a therapist, who is going to help you talk about the things that were going on between you and your siblings and your parents. Did you want to see or talk to your siblings right now? Or do you want to give it some space?”
He shook his head. “My brother and sister – older ones – they think most of the trouble is my fault. My little sister doesn't really know anything about anything.”
“I know some adults like that,” she said, giving him a conspiratorial smile. “So. How do you like Mr. McKenzie here?”
“He gives me advice every day,” he said promptly. “It's mostly about the bathroom, but it seems to make sense.”
She chuckled and widened her eyes. “Oh, does it now! Give me an example. I can use some good bathroom advice!”
“Here's two,” he said, leaning forward a bit and putting his forearms on the table. “Always have a spare roll, and never have a picture with eyes on the wall – people will think it's watching them poop.”
She covered her mouth and laughed a little. “Well, that is good advice!”
I was a little embarrassed, but I guess the kid was listening.
“Okay. So Bailey, I have to go over some of this paperwork with Mr. McKenzie. I'd also like to see your room, but you know what? Boys are messy in my experience, so would you mind running to your room and make sure it's okay for me to look inside?”
His eyes went big. “Like an inspection?”
“Oh, no, Honey!” she said with mirth. “I mean I just have to make sure you don't have lions and tigers living with you – you know, things like that.”
Deadpan he said, “That makes no sense.”
She smiled. “I know – you're probably too old for that joke. I just have to make sure it’s a safe room – no broken windows, no mold – a safety check. You see, foster homes and foster parents have to comply with certain safety standards. That's why I'm here – to talk to Mr. McKenzie and to make sure your space is safe.”
“Okay,” he said with suspicion lacing his tone. He looked to me, and I nodded, so he slid off the chair and headed upstairs.
“Those are expensive clothes,” she commented, most of her humor gone.
“You're telling me – a real pain in the cash.”
She patted the folder with the forms inside. “You know. Most foster parents stay inside a fairly strict budget. The reimbursement for clothes and other items is modest.”
I crossed my arms. “I like him in those clothes. He looks good. He feels confident.”
She smiled, a small one. “So it seems as though you've decided fostering may be for you?”
I sighed. “I'm sure someone could do a better job, but...he's all right. He's smart. I don't know how anything will go, but from everything I've heard, his whole family seems like they are against him. Mother, father, siblings, grandparent. Someone has to stand up with him so he can learn to stand for himself. I don't know if any of that is fostering, but...he's okay.”
She leaned back in her chair, and her smile got a bit wider. “You've fallen for him.”
My face hardened, and I sat up straight. “I won't have that said in my own damn house. You can say it in your pews and your social media – but keep that crap out of your mouth in my house!”
Her eyes went wide and she flushed. “I'm sorry, that was poorly phrased. What I meant was that you've done what so many do when they actually meet a child they fit with – they fall in love with them. I didn't mean anything untoward. Love, like a parent for their child, Mr. McKenzie.”
“Oh.” I felt a little stupid. “Sorry. Small town, small minds, and I live with them, so.”
“No, I understand – it was a poor word choice; I apologize,” she said, waving the situation away. “Now let me go over these with you, and if you can fill them out and get them to me by the end of the week? I can do your home study today while I take a look to make sure the home is in proper condition to house him. In the meantime, I have a sheet here with some names and numbers. If you could call the school to set up testing, and then the kids with Medicaid all see Dr. McCarthy over on State Street. There are a few dentists – you can choose one from the list – and then of course there is getting his eyes checked to see if he needs glasses.”
She spent a few minutes going over each form and its purpose. My head was spinning a bit from it all. She told me to take my time going through them and to call if a question came to mind. We got up and headed back toward the stairs to go up to his room. I was kind of surprised to find him sitting on the stairs. I guess he was listening in and wasn't trying to hide the fact.
He stood, still kind of spindly, but looking like a really put together kid. He took a few steps down to stand roughly at my level and asked me, “You're going to keep me. Right?”
I let out a breath. “Well. I was thinking of selling you. I could get-”
He reached out and put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. His eyes had seen too much hurt too soon. There was fear in them, even though his voice was pretty even.
I smiled nervously. “Yeah. I'm going to do my best to keep you.”
His lips quivered. “You promise?”
“You're asking a used car salesman?” I asked, smiling. He looked at me steadily, and I just felt overwhelmed with the responsibility, the trust, the need from this kid's face. “Yeah. Promise.”
“I'll be good,” he said quietly.
“Of course you will,” I told him. “You're a good kid.”
Tuesday we did our thing in the morning, and then Annabelle and I met out in the garage to look at this car the guy from the day before was so worked up about. Annabelle had put it up on the lift and was walking me through her findings.
“It's obvious he ran over something, maybe a curb. Look at the bend in the sub-frame here and this hole in the transmission case. If I had to guess, I'd say he jumped a curb.”
“Wow. Look at that hole,” Bailey said quietly.
“Yeah. Matches the one in his ass,” I said sourly. “Okay. See if you can find any debris from what he hit, document it, and I'm going to go over to where he said it quit and look to see if there is any proof there.”
Back at my desk I pulled out my list of phone numbers from Elizabeth Rodney and called up the school. Turns out testing is a pretty simple matter, and they'd been given a heads-up anyway. They said I could bring him over shortly, so I called him back from the garage, where he was fascinated with the damage to the car.
“Okay, Bailey, I have to take you over to the school. What's going to happen is they're going to test you to see what your level of knowledge is, so they can figure out what class to put you in and what help you might need to catch up to kids your age, if at all. While you do that, I'm going to see about this curb, and I'll pick you up at the school. Sound good?”
“You mean I'll be there by myself?”
I smiled. “There will be hundreds of other kids in the school. You'll be safe. In fact maybe they'll walk you around the school so you can see where things are. That would be kind of interesting, right?”
He looked at me like I was a little nuts.
“Come on. It's something that has to be done, so it's best just to get it over with,” I told him. We drove over to the school where we'd dropped off Dan and the girls. Two schools were nearly side by side – an elementary and a middle. Across a field in the distance I thought there was the high school, but I wasn't really sure. I walked inside with Bailey and was disturbed at the way I was challenged in a small vestibule that was basically like a prison sally port.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked, who plainly thought she knew the answer. She looked like she might be trying to suck a lemon through her ass.
“I don't know how helpful you'll be, but I'm here for Fanny Hopkins. We have an appointment.”
She looked away to a screen and asked, “Name?”
She picked up a phone and placed a call. She spoke quietly and then hung up. “She'll be right down.”
“Thanks, Officer,” I muttered.
“She's not very nice,” Bailey said with a bit of nervousness.
I looked at him and patted his shoulder. “There are a lot of miserable people in the world. The thing you have to remember is that they aren't your responsibility. If she's miserable, it has nothing to do with you. You didn't cause it; you don't have to fix it.”
He smiled a little. “That was advice that wasn't about a bathroom.”
I leaned in and smiled. “She's cranky because she's constipated.”
He started to laugh a little, but we were both surprised when the inner door opened and a large woman with curly, reddish hair greeted us. “I'm Ms. Hopkins, and you must be Bailey,” she said with a pleasant smile.
Bailey looked at her and, deadpan, said, “He could be Bailey.”
I took on an indignant tone. “No, I couldn't!”
He looked at me. “You could.”
I rolled my eyes and looked at her. “Yes, he's Bailey. He's not really looking forward to the tests.”
She laughed, a nice sound. “Who would? But hey, we all have to do testing some time. I'll make it as painless as possible.”
Bailey looked at me. “If you're not going to be here, what about Dan?”
“Dan? He's probably here somewhere,” I said.
“Oh, you have a friend here? What's his last name?”
Bailey shook his head. “I don't know. We give them a ride in the morning for school, but I didn't ask.”
“He lives in the apartments across from our house,” I told her.
“Oh, I think I know who you mean. I'll tell you what, Bailey. How about we get Dan to give you a tour of the school, and we can do the testing after. Kind of let you see the place a little, get more comfortable?”
Bailey was quiet, and I wasn't sure if he was thinking or panicking. “Bail? Want me to walk around with you?”
He looked up at me, pursed his lips just a touch and shook his head. “I can do it.”
I smiled at him. “Of course you can. Nothing you can't.”
Ms. Hopkins told me she'd call when they were done; I stopped them just long enough to give him some cash in case he got lunch at school and suggested he might be able to eat with Dan. I have no idea if Dan is a good influence, but at least he was a familiar face for Bailey.
Leaving the school I got back in the truck. Daisy coughed a little and sniffed the air.
“He'll be back, Daisy,” I told her and patted her head. I headed over to get a coffee and get Daisy a pup cup. She always liked the sweet cream they put in the cup for her. Then I headed across town to the laundromat the guy had mentioned with a burger joint across the street. I pulled into the lot and let Daisy down with me while I took a bit of a stroll to see if there was any evidence of a curb being struck.
The laundromat had few customers, and the cars in the lot all looked like they'd been there for some time. Traffic was light, but I still picked Daisy up and crossed the street to look at the burger joint's lot. She sniffed around while I walked the lot – and then I saw it. Looked fairly fresh, and there was definitely a chunk taken out. I walked a few feet around the curb and found a small piece of cast metal – maybe from a transmission case. I took a picture of the curb and the metal before pocketing it.
I popped into the burger joint with Daisy sitting in the little vestibule, not unlike the school's sally port, and asked for the manager. I explained the situation and asked if they had any cameras on that part of their lot.
“It's just real time stuff except for the ones on the cash registers and safe,” he told me tiredly. “Sorry.”
I collected Daisy and went back across the street to my truck. I thought for a moment, put Daisy in the truck and went into the laundromat. There was no attendant, but a number was posted you could call for issues. I wrote it down, went back out to the truck, and called.
A guy answered, sounded older. “Yello?”
“Morning. I run a used car lot, and I had a customer come in, says a car quit on him, but it looks like he smacked a curb across the street from your place. I was wondering if you might have caught it on film?”
“Oh, huh. I can have a look and holler back. That be all right?”
“Sure would. Thank you.” I gave him my number and looked over at Daisy. “I think it’s lunch time. Want a burger?” She tilted her head as if to ask just how stupid I was. I ran us through the drive thru, and she attacked her burger with obvious entitlement. I headed back to the lot and compared notes with Annabelle. Then I sat down and started making phone calls about Bailey's appointments that had to be scheduled.
Afterward I leaned back in my chair and thought about looking for cars that were up for sale, but the pickings had been a little slim lately. I thought it might be fun to show Bailey – but then I remembered he was at the school. Man. That happened fast. It's only been a week. He hasn't even had his first tantrum, and we haven't had an argument, but I was used to his presence. There was a part of me that was responding to the part of him that was crying out.
At some point, though, that crying out would turn to anger, and it would come between us. People who have been hurt have a hard time trusting for too long. Right now he hadn't had a lot of choice, but when my will collides with his as this thing goes on, there will be trouble. I didn't like to think about that, but it was an inevitability. Even parents with their natural kids fought from time to time.
Ms. Hopkins called a few hours later. “The testing is complete. He's bright, but has some definite gaps. We think we can place him in the 6th grade, but with some supports. I have a schedule I'd like to go over with you, and of course we need to get you set up with some contact information for teachers. Mrs. Rodney sent us a lot of what we need, but some things we'll need from you – contact information, emergency medical details, things like that.”
“Still setting up his medical stuff, but I'll give you what I know so far.”
“That will be just fine.”
“Were you able to locate Dan?”
“Oh! I almost forgot! Yes, Daniel Ruggierio. His mom is really tough to connect with, but I think it might be good for both boys, really. Their friendship, I mean. Dan doesn't have the advantages some other kids do, and I think he doesn't have as much time to be a kid as some others do, with his home responsibilities. It's nice to see Dan with a friend.”
“His mom – Dan's – I haven't met her. Uh. Kids were walking to school, and we gave them a ride. Is there no bus out our way?”
“There's no bus service at all,” she said, sounding regretful. “The board had a whole group that was elected on cutting costs, and the first thing they did was terminate the bus garage. There are a whole, whole lot of regretful voters out there right now that are scrambling to get their kids to school. Dan's mom works odd hours so...they've been in a bind.”
“Anyway, Bailey is probably anxious to get out of here – he’s not used to the school environment, so we'll want to stay in contact about that.”
A light went off in my head. “Yeah. Uh speaking of, his parents...they used to punish him by not letting him use the bathroom. I've told him if he needs to go, no one is to stop him so...I remember some teachers not letting kids go, and I think that could cause some trouble.”
“Oh! I'll make a note of that. You're right, some teachers do have some strict policies, but we'll do what we can.” She made a small noise, nothing identifiable. “So, I think we should have everything in place to start Bailey next Monday.”
I got ready to go get Bailey, and the asshole from the day before walked in, chest puffed out. “Hey. I want my money back.”
“Oh. Hey. So let's go in the garage. I think your car is still on the lift.”
“It's your car now. I just want my money back, you crook.”
So it was to be the asshole way. Okay, I can do that. “Look. I have you on tape from the laundromat hopping the curb. I found a piece of the transmission case there and photographed it as well as the curb. You want me to put a transmission in it and repair the sub frame, you'll pay for it. Other wise you get a a tow truck to come haul it to the shop of your choice, but you're not scamming me for your fuck up.”
“You...I didn't! I can't...man, I have a family!”
I nodded. “Me too. You didn't come here looking for help, though. You came here to screw me and mine to cover yours. Maybe I could have seen my way to repairing it and restructuring your loan or making some kind of arrangement. But now? Nah. Get out. Come get your car. Take me to court and I guarantee a counter suit.”
His face twisted, and he turned and slammed my door on the way out.
Annabelle poked her head in. “You got the video?”
I shifted my gaze to her. “Nah. He doesn't know that, though.”
“What did the school say?”
“That he's a smart kid. Little behind, but not his fault. We'll get him some extra help and he'll be teaching classes this time next year.”
She laughed and said, “You already brag like he's your own kid.”
I went over to the school to get Bailey. The same unfriendly cow was still up front, but Bailey looked none the worse for wear when I saw him.
“They have a big gym, and they have a band room with all kinds of musical instruments! They said I could learn to play one!” he greeted me.
“If they give you a recorder, I'll jam it up their hoo hah,” I grumbled.
“Dan says they have a baseball team in the spring, and basketball will start in a few weeks. He can't play because of his sisters, but I...well I wanted to, but I feel bad he can't.”
“Well, we'll cross that bridge in a few months, huh?”
“Yeah!” He paused. “Uh. Dan will get out soon too, but he has to walk his sisters home.”
I put my hands in my pockets and regarded him. “Is that our business?”
He frowned a little. “I guess not. Except we've been helping them. Shouldn't we?”
I leaned forward. “Those who can, should. So yeah, we can help.”
“Those who can, should,” he said quietly.
We let Daisy onto the grass and she peed by a post with a sign that said no dogs were allowed on school property. Bailey spotted Dan, and they bumped fists – a kid thing, I guess. We walked over to the elementary school, and the boys talked and played with Daisy a bit until the younger kids got out, then we dropped the three kids off at their apartment. We headed back to the grocery store to get something for dinner and ended up in the Brian clone's line.
“Would you like a bag?” he asked.
“Sure. Paper is fine,” I replied. He turned to look at his screen, and I took a minute to just see him. He wasn't a Brian clone, not really. His nose came to more of a point, his chin was a bit more rounded. But he had that light peach fuzz on his cheeks that had been all Brian ever had, and the same bright yellow in his hair layered with some darker threads underneath. Brian had gotten his from being out in the sun all summer, but this boy probably paid for it in a salon. Still, he dressed nicely and he had some composure.
“Did they promote you to cashier instead of bagging?” I asked, surprising myself.
He looked like he was trying not to smile. “One of the cashiers...agreed working with customers wasn't her thing anymore.”
“Sudden opening, huh?” I said, smiling a bit.
His eyes got wider, and he smiled a bit more. “Yeah. So I'm glad I won't see her next Tuesday. Have a nice day, sir.”
“Don't ‘sir’ me. Makes me feel old.”
“You are old,” Bailey piped up.
“Who are you again?” I asked, taking the bag from the counter. We walked to the truck and headed home to make dinner.