He had approached her tentatively and stood quietly watching her before she noticed him standing there. Her hands were red and she was squeezing them tightly together making her knuckles white. It reminded him of the end of a chicken bone before it is covered with flour and cooked in oil. He couldn’t see her face because it was hidden behind her long unkempt brown hair. The nails on her fingers were bitten to the quick. He’d shuffled his feet looking down at his scuffed sneaker feeling guilty for thinking bad thoughts about his mother’s appearance. There had been a slight breeze and it ruffled his bangs and made him shiver.
He remembered deciding that upbeat was the way to go. He ran up to her and hugged her with a big smile on his face. When she had lifted her head he had stopped smiling immediately because her face was covered with tears and her eyes looked like his “Uncle” Frank’s had sometimes looked when he had come over to see his mother. Usually when that happened he would get hit or told to go to his room. One day his mother had told Frank not to come around any more and he was glad. The look on his mother’s face and the tears in her eyes had scared him more than Frank’s looks had though. He had backed away and down the steps to the broken sidewalk. She had just looked at him for a moment and the look made him angry but he didn’t understand why. The rest of the night was a blur in his memory.
The next thing he remembered was living with his first foster family. Whenever he would ask if he could go home or where his mother was they would tell him that this was his home now. They were nice to him and made him feel like a special guest in their home. He had a warm bed and a soft pillow with a little radio shaped like a ladybug next to his bed on a small tv tray. The volume button was broken off but he could still turn it if he pressed his thumb against the nub that was left. The radio worked if he held it in his hands and moved it around until he could find the station. Sometimes he would sit on his bed and listen to the baseball game or to a rock station. He spent a lot of time by himself in those days, walking to and from his new school alone, playing alone in the driveway of the house where the Greenes lived, eating his dinner from a tv tray that matched the one next to his bed in front of the tv in the living room. His foster parents never seemed to eat dinner. They lived on cigarettes and coffee mostly. That placement lasted for about seven months until he’d come home from the basketball court down the street to find Mrs. Greene sitting in her kitchen with Mrs. Goodwin from down the street. She had a black eye and her jaw was bruised and Mr. Greene’s toolbox that always sat by the kitchen counter next to the back door was gone. The next day a lady from social services came to get him and put him with the Crones. This began a pattern that had him in and out of seventeen foster homes from the age of seven to eighteen.
It was his nineteenth birthday and he was sitting in the living room of his friend April’s small dingy apartment. He’d been crashed here for a couple of weeks since she had found him wandering the park downtown and surmised that he had nowhere safe and warm to stay. He had met her at the coffee shop where he worked cleaning tables and serving milk with a little coffee in it to college students. She was working her way through school at the coffee shop and they had talked a few times. Well, she had talked and he had listened, Josh never really had much to say on anything and April more than made up for that because she talked non-stop.
He loaded the bowl and took another hit from the smelly bong holding in his breath, closing his eyes and raising his face to the ceiling. The little bit of weed he could afford to score was his birthday present to himself. He looked down at the letter on his lap scratching his leg where the scab was healing from his attempt to skate down a rail downtown near the old train station. The letter had come to the coffee shop by way of a social services worker. Her name was Helen and she was nice but like a lot of adults she thought she had to raise her voice an octave and speak more loudly when she was speaking to a child or young person. He and some of his fellow foster jail mates used to make fun of them and their attempts to befriend them. No matter how nice they were or how much they cared they always went home to their nice clean homes with their children in braces and their wives smelling like junipers (he didn’t know what junipers smelled like but he thought they might smell like them) or their husbands smelling like Old Spice. Josh had a distorted view of how people “on the other side” lived but one could hardly blame him as he’d never really lived there.
April was staying at her boyfriend’s apartment this weekend so he was completely alone. He liked being alone. Since leaving the Greene’s house he had always had other people around. He had slept in the same twin bed with a boy named Lyle for nearly a year at the Crones house. Lyle was a year younger than Josh but knew a lot more about things. Josh couldn’t remember what happened at the Crones’ house but he had never seen Lyle again after he left there. Everywhere he went he had been surrounded by people. When he’d turned eighteen and was forced out of the system he was so relieved. The first thing he had done was to take a long walk by himself up next to the river all the way to the train tracks. Then he’d sat there with his little stipend of cash a back pack and a large duffel full of all his worldy goods. He felt like he had been freed from prison and it was good. He had sat there until it got dark and chilly then he went looking for a place to stay. No one had really ever taught him to handle money so he had gone through what the state had given him fairly quickly with motels and fast food. That was when he found the sign up in the coffee shop and applied for the job. He’d been working there for nine months now and until April had found him he’d slept in the park or at the 24 hour laundromat when he could get away with it.
Josh closed his eyes and tried to let the feeling from the pot roll over him. He swayed to the music playing on April’s CD player and tried to find the euphoria that he had heard about. No matter how much pot he smoked or how much he drank it never made him feel happy or goofy like it did April and her friends. It just made him feel sick to his stomach and nervous. He shifted himself off the floor onto the bean bag laying next to the coffee table. The coffee table was glass and he lay across the bean bag with his head under the table looking through the glass at the items on it’s surface. He had felt the letter and envelope flutter to the floor when he shifted but he pretended like he didn’t know or didn’t care.
He hadn’t been able to bring himself to read it yet. Helen had tried to get him to open it and read it at the coffee shop when she’d come by but he wasn’t ready. The letter had made it’s way to the social services office about six months prior but no one had known where to find him. It was a coincidence that the manager of the coffee shop had sent a reference request to the social services office and it had finally hit Helen’s desk as she was the last social services worker assigned to him. She had pulled his file to put the request inside and found the letter.
Over the years he’d had memories of a life before foster care but he didn’t know how much of it he’d made up and how much of it was real. He knew from his file that his mother had worked two jobs. She washed dishes at a diner part time during the day and then cleaned offices at night. When she was gone and he was off school he would stay by himself in the one room efficiency apartment where they lived. It had a hot plate for a stove and a small rusty toaster that only burned things. He remembered eating a lot of pop tarts. There was a lady downstairs who he was supposed to tell anyone who asked was his babysitter but he didn’t know her name. Once when he had been playing with matches on the front steps she had yelled out the window at him calling him a dirty name he couldn’t remember any more. She sounded funny, like the men on Hogan’s Heros and she was always carrying a baby with snot on his face. He remembered wondering why that stupid baby never got older. He also knew from the file that his mother was only sixteen years old when he was born. That meant that when he went into foster care she was only twenty three, the same age as April’s boyfriend now.
Josh semi-dozed under the table for a moment or two before getting up and walking into the kitchen. He rooted through the pantry until he found a bag of pretzels and grabbed a coke out of the refrigerator before heading back to the living room. He deliberately stepped on the letter with his stocking feet and kicked the envelope under the table. Falling down on the bean bag chair he flipped on the tv with the remote and watched it muted while Green Day played in the background. He spent the next half hour watching something on the television while trying to ignore the letter laying not more than three feet from where he sat.
It was like he wasn’t alone in the room. He felt the presence of people around him and he hated it. He felt like Helen and the lady with the baby were there and the guy from down the block who yelled at him for running too loud and the weird guy from the newspaper stand on the corner by the school and his principal who always called him “Sport” were all in the room with him. He sat up suddenly and grabbed the bong again to block it all out. He just wanted them all to go away. He finished off all the weed, rolled off the bean bag and went to take a nap on the couch. The people wouldn’t all be there crowding around him once he slept off this high.
He lay there for a while staring at the ceiling and trying to remember. He wanted to have happy memories of his childhood like the movies but April said that no one really lived the idyllic life people saw on TV. She told him that everyone hated their childhood even if they wouldn’t admit it. Josh wasn’t ready to give up on the dream but he’d met April’s parents a few times and they seemed like a pretty normal family. Her Dad didn’t much care for Josh living here but April had convinced him that Josh was not a boyfriend. It was times like that when Josh felt the most like April’s charity project and inasmuch as he didn’t like the feeling the alternative was trying to sleep on the connected plastic chairs at the laundromat and that wasn’t going to happen if he could control it.
With a sigh and a heave he brought himself to a sitting position and stared down at the letter lying on the floor near the leg of the coffee table. “Why now?” he asked himself and then chuckled because there really was no “now” as if something paramount was happening in his world. He had some friends but didn’t date much, mostly because he was too solitary and girls his age tended to grab on and not let go. He’d had too much togetherness crammed into over-crowded foster homes most of his life and he wasn’t ready to relinquish his freedom quite yet. He wished for the thousandth time that it was like in the old days when you could go on dates and not be tied down the first time you touched a girl’s hand. Now if you so much as smiled at a chick she wanted to move in.
The letter seemed to grow larger and closer as he stared at it. He didn’t want to know what his mother had to say but he was dying to know at the same time. Growing up he would vaccilate between being angry with his mother, making excuses for her, telling outlandish stories about why she had abandoned him, wishing her dead, wishing that she would show up and take him away and then feeling guilty for it all. He would look for her face in the faces of strangers everywhere he went. He was lucky he knew what she had looked like because he was almost seven when she gave him up. He asked himself the same question he’d always asked anyone who would listen, “Why did she give him away? What had he done that made her so angry that day?” He had been a good kid mostly, the worst thing that he could remember he had done was to throw rocks and break out the windows of the old abandoned building down by the river with his friend Tommy. Josh had always wondered what Tommy had thought about his sudden disappearance.
He shook his head back and forth quickly as if to purge the memories from his brain. In a swift desperate motion he swung up off the low couch and grabbed the tri folded sheet of paper off the floor. He began to pace the floor walking around the living room and kitchen tables staring at the words without seeing them. At first he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t read the words but then he realized that the blurring was caused by tears. “Crying?!” “Over HER?!” Josh took a deep cleansing breath and pounded his closed fist against his chest while he gripped the letter crumpling it slightly in his left hand.
“Dear Joshie,” the letter began and Josh’s knees dropped out from under him and he lowered himself onto the wooden kitchen chair resting his arms on the table. No one had ever called him Joshie but her and he couldn’t believe he had forgotten that.
Joshie you were a sweet, loving, innocent little boy. You would walk into a room and it was like you had brought the sun with you. When I close my eyes I can still see you with your sturdy brown limbs, strong white teeth, a big smile and tousled dirty blonde hair. Did you ever get braces Joshie? I could tell even then that you would have an over-bit just like me. Do you know that I was wearing braces when I got pregnant with you? Your Dad had braces too and we used to joke about getting them locked together. I know I never talked much about your Dad but there really wasn’t much to say and still isn’t. Joshua even though I didn’t know it until many years later the darkness had already begun to seep into my soul even before I conceived you. You Dad was a boy from my school. We were both fourteen years old when we started sleeping together and we didn’t really know what it was all about. I’m not going to tell you who your Dad is and I know that will probably make you upset but you don’t want to know him Josh, he turned out to be a bad man. He didn’t really want me to have you because I wasn’t exactly his girlfriend or anything. I was just easy and his girlfriend wasn’t.
I’ll bet you’re really proud of me right about now aren’t you? I wasn’t a good person Joshie, I think that some people just aren’t meant to be good. As I write this I’m looking at your school picture sitting on the step next to me. I had it laminated so I could always have it. Sometimes I forget that you’re not that little any more. I don’t sleep much and sometimes when I do sleep I dream about you. Remember when you were five and Frank took us to Disneyworld? I would sometimes wake up with a smile on my face remembering the look of fear and absolute joy on your face when Mickey Mouse came strutting down the street at Magic Kingdom. You wouldn’t look at him, pressing your face against my leg so hard it hurt but you couldn’t hide that beautiful smile. You were scared of that big Mickey Mouse but you’d never been happier than you were right then? I wonder, do you remember that? I know later that night Frank became really angry with us both because we dropped our chili dogs when the bus splashed us and he ruined our night but I hope you remember some of the good stuff.
Don’t get me wrong Joshie I don’t just think about the good stuff that happened. I remember the bad things too and I am not proud of them. Even when I was screaming at you for doing something bad you would always love me. That is what made me finally make the decision Joshua. You loved me enough to forgive me anything and I knew that this made it easier for me to go to that dark place. I was afraid of myself and my reactions. You were getting older and more independent as you were supposed to do and I found myself getting angry with you for it. I was jealous of your easy smile and your joy with the simple things and your ability to make friends anywhere you went. I wanted your life and I wanted to steal your sunshine. I knew I had to get away from you before I hurt you or made you into what I had become. I didn’t know how to do it by myself and I was afraid I would change my mind so I did something that I couldn’t take back.
The office where I worked had a lot of electronic stuff. The shady people I hung around with knew about that stuff and said that they could get a lot of money for it. I didn’t care about the money Joshie I hope you can believe me. I just wanted to get taken away from you. I know that probably doesn’t make sense to you, it wasn’t that I wanted you to be taken away from me, I just knew I had to be taken away from you. I waited until I had no help, I knew it wouldn’t be long because my cleaning partner Lang-Hu called in sick a lot to take care of her grandfather. I was sick but I didn’t want Lang-Hu to get in trouble because she was a nice lady.
I let my friends in and helped them move the equipment out of the office warehouse doors. I had told them all to wear hats or masks but I didn’t. I knew there were security cameras there Joshua. When the tapes were reviewed the next day by detectives they didn’t have to walk far to find me, I was sitting outside those same warehouse doors having a cigarette break before starting my shift.
I was surprised that the detectives were so nice to me. Detective Graham handcuffed me with two sets of cuffs so I wouldn’t have to stretch my arms behind my back so far. They took me away to jail and I stayed there all night until they let me out the next day because my Public Defender asked the judge. You were staying at Tommy’s house then, I had told his Mom I had a four day job in Detroit and asked if you could stay with them. Do you remember going to school with Tommy on the bus? When I came to pick you up you couldn’t stop talking about the hamburgers that Mr. Lessen had grilled on the grill the day before. I knew that I was making the right decision. I needed to be taken away from you so that you could eat grilled hamburgers with cheddar cheese with normal people.
Over the next few weeks I met a lot with my Public Defender. I had lost the office cleaning job obviously but the diner also let me go because I had to be off so much to meet with the lawyer. The lawyer was a complete idiot but I didn’t care because I wanted to go away. He didn’t understand why I was so uncooperative and I wasn’t going to tell him why I was doing it either.
Finally it was time for court. I already knew when I went in there I was going to plead guilty and go to prison. The day I said good-bye to you was the day before my trial. I left you with Marnie Lakely who lived downstairs and told her I wasn’t coming back. I spent the night walking around the city remembering my life and crying a lot. The thing was though Joshie, and I know this will hurt you, I wasn’t crying because I lost you. I was crying because I lost me. Well I guess I never had me. It wasn’t just that I didn’t have a life, it was that I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have memories or a personality and I had never done anything nice for anyone in my life without I expected something in return. I was missing something inside.
I stayed in prison for six years and I tried everything to find that thing that I was missing. Nothing worked Joshua. I could never find those pieces that I was missing. I can’t remember a time in my life when I was happy or content. I wasn’t messed with as a kid or anything like all the people say. I was just a sick person living a sick life. My parents weren’t much help but they weren’t bad people. They just didn’t know what to do with me. They were old when I was born and I was their only child so they had given up and begun to shrivel up like dried apples in the summer sun long before you came.
Now I’m thirty two years old. I live in a small walk up with a man named Lee and sometimes his daughter Lacey comes to stay with us. Lacey is twenty seven and Lee is in his fifties. I work at a place putting electrical components together and have been there since I got out of prison. I don’t like my life and I don’t think I’m any better now than I was then.
I’m dying Joshie. I really didn’t know how to say that, like should I have said I am passing away or I’m really sick and won’t get better or what? I feel like you’re almost an adult so I think it’s better if I just tell you straight. Living my sick life in my sick world has made me sick. I can’t recover from this sickness and the people at the clinic Lee takes me to say I probably will only live for another six months or so. It’s not the actual sickness that is going to kill me and I think that’s kind of funny although Lee and Lacey get mad at me when I say that. It’s like that song “Isn’t it Ironic”. I’m dying from a cancer called mixoid liposarcoma. It started in my thigh but I just ignored it and eventually it spread to other places. It wasn’t until I started having really bad headaches that I finally asked Lee to take me to the clinic. Over the last few weeks I have been poked and prodded and bounced from place to place and all of it was for nothing because they said that I can’t be cured.
I am not alone Joshie, I have Lee and Lacey to take care of me and they love me. I don’t know if I love them because I’m not really sure I even know what that means but I am grateful. I know this is a lot to take in and this letter has taken me a really long time to write. I wanted you to know what happened to me or to us. I wanted you to have a family and I knew that you would get a good one because you were such a great kid. I know in my heart that it was the right thing to do because I feel at peace with myself now.
I don’t know if you would want to meet me or anything but if you do you can call this number 555-235-6565 and leave a message. The number is to a clinic I go to, not the cancer center but a clinic for the sickness that I got first. Just tell them that you are Jackie Macklin’s son and you want to leave a message. They will make sure I get it. I don’t have a phone or anything so you can’t call me directly. If you don’t want to meet with me that is okay I will understand. You probably have so many things going on in your life and I don’t deserve any special treatment.
I had you when I was so young and I didn’t know what to do with you. If I have loved anyone in my life it would be you. I wish I could have been a better person and loved you enough to stay in your life. I hope to hear from you soon. Momma”
Josh dropped the letter and stared at the dust motes floating around in a patch of sunlight shining through the kitchen window for what seemed like forever. Finally he picked himself up and slogged through his sadness, perplexity, indecision and frustration into the living room and picked up the envelope that he had kicked under the table. The post-mark on the envelope was from almost a year ago. He swallowed around the lump in his throat and sat down hard on the couch trying to summon the strength to reach out and pick up the cordless phone sitting on the end table. He picked up the phone and carried it along with the envelope back to the kitchen and the letter.
Josh sat there for a few minutes taking deep breaths and preparing himself for the toughest call of his life. He finally dialed the phone one slow digit at a time. The lady on the other end of the phone sounded cheerful and loud and it pissed Josh off. He knew it was irrational but he didn’t understand why someone could be so happy when he was so upset. The lady was asking if someone was there in her loud cheerful chirp so Josh shook himself out of his reverie, cleared his throat and squeaked in a very small child-like voice. “I’d like to leave a message for my mother Jackie Macklin please”. The loud cheerful voice was silent for a minute and then the same woman said in a softer voice “Is this Joshie? Honey I’m sorry but I don’t have good news for you.”