William Klein received his M.F.A in fiction from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where “Children’s Home” won a Hopwood Award in 2015. His fiction has also appeared in Pacifica Literary Review. In summers he returns home to commercial fish in Alaska, about which he is writing a novel.
A Grey Parrot with a Yellow Balloon
Ben’s taking four residents to walk on the loose-dirt path behind the Children’s Home when they spot it: a grey parrot in a skeletal tree, the ribbon of a yellow balloon tied to its feet. The residents—young boys—point and hoot. Ben tells them to stay close and, for once, they do. They ask what it is, where it came from. Ben says he doesn’t know.
The path runs along a chain-link fence marking the campus boundary. It’s called the Turkey Trot, although there are no turkeys. The children assume it has always been called this, the way granite has always been called granite, and now, in February, they have forgotten Thanksgiving and their annual run on the path. They might recall if prompted, but not without strain. The path’s dust has gathered in Ben’s sneakers and on his jeans. It has faded his coat. They are high up, above a valley filled with houses, two sludgy rivers, and an Idaho landscape still hibernating. A clouded sky hides the sun, diluting its light and spreading it evenly, like the dust. The yellow balloon is the brightest thing in their vision.
The boys draw near Ben. The parrot watches them, twitching its head to use both eyes. Its crown is darker grey than the body, and the balloon bobs when it raises a foot to its beak. What is it? The residents know what a parrot is. But what is it, this tableau of parrot-balloon-tree? That they don’t know, and Ben, sensitive to their moods, says it’s time to go in.
No one moves. There are houses—homes—around the outside of the fence.
“Maybe it was a birthday present,” Ben says. The boys nod, and the group goes inside.
The Children’s Home was on its hill over the valley when the world began. When the first wind blew the Home was invisible, but dust collected on the walls, and in this way it became real.
Understand, the children don’t say this. Ben thinks it’s so obvious to them they don’t have to. Leading his group up the trot and away from the parrot, the boys turning to stare over their shoulders until they stumble, Ben sees their struggle to make meaning. Above, the Home’s windows reflect squares of sky, and Ben wonders how the residents understand this place. He has difficulty parsing their cognitive disorders from pre-adolescence, but he’s noticed they don’t have a great handle on cause and effect. Magical thinking, the Home’s psychologists would say. To Ben it sounds like myth.
As in: While the dust accumulated children were safe. This was the before-time, when harmony ruled families and parents were good to their children. Then the last mote landed on the Home. Lights were lit, medication stocked, and strange denizens, of which Ben Michaelson was one, emerged from the opened doors.
The world changed. Crackpipes were smoked at cribsides. Prostitute mothers sent children away when they were old enough to creep out the Johns. Drunken fathers stopped tears with a fist. Stays at Grandparents’ homes became longer after the first of the month, until parents never came back.
For some the Home was a hell they were dragged to by social workers and judges who didn’t think it was okay for their parents to act the way they did.
For others, come for in abandoned houses and alleys, the Home was a place of beds and food provided by adults who spoke softly. Soon the veneer faded, new behaviors were expected of them, and how they had acted before would get them punished.
And so the Children’s Home was neither heaven nor hell. Day followed day, and none of the adults were parents.
What makes this so difficult to refute, Ben thinks as he brings his group suddenly rushing inside, is that the information—the important bits anyway—is correct, only the order and cause are wrong. But reality is a minority opinion when Ben spends every day with a dozen consciousnesses who make myth instinctually, and besides, who is he to destroy a child’s story of losing their parents, of a life sent off track?
The boys spread their news, squawking with excitement like the bird they describe. We saw a parrot, one says. Ben said it was a birthday present. There was a party! finishes another, jumping, limbs flaring like a firework for emphasis, to communicate truth. There it is—they have seen a parrot, so a party happened. Ben wonders about the dangers of letting these myths stand, where he is goblin captor, where his pronouncements make birthday parties. He hangs his coat and brushes dust from his forearms, thinking his skin looks a little thinner for it, a little less real.
Ben works at Vista House, a dormitory on the Home’s campus for six- to twelve-year-old boys. All Vista’s residents have been sent by the courts for one reason or another, except Damian, whose residency Child Protective Services “strongly suggested.” His mother annoys Ben when she visits, never failing to mention that her child is not there by law, as though that is her crowning achievement. Maybe it is.
Ben attends the town’s state college, studying to be a teacher. When people asked why he took his job at Vista, he said he thought it matched his degree nicely.
Vista House has bedrooms for twenty residents, but they are never at capacity. There are no locks. The Home isn’t a prison, although there are two saferooms—bare rooms of linoleum floors whose doors don’t have inner handles. If a resident is confined to a saferoom the door must be held shut by a staff until the resident calms down.
In Vista House everyone is on security camera. Ben is grateful for this.
Ben’s shift starts in the afternoon. The boys are in Group. They sit on a ring of couches around the Team Leader, Abe, who lectures them about different Values. Group is very important to the residents’ Program. Almost as important as their Meds, which some take five times a day.
The boys struggle through Group. They are young. They are ADHD, FAS, Bipolar II, OCD, and Aspergers. They fidget, twitch, talk out. The older ones goof off together. Ben moves around the outside to help where he can—comforting, shaming, or bringing his height and muscularity to bear, looming over the children to intimidate them into silence.
One resident, Winder, eight-years-old, Bipolar II, looking like a barn owl on the couch with his long limbs tucked up into billowy gym shorts and t-shirt, suddenly can’t keep it together anymore. “Kaka!” He extends his neck to shout, interrupting Abe. “Poo-poo!” Group is momentarily shattered, some residents nearly puddling off the couches in their laughter. Ben catches Winder under an arm like a marionette yanked from the show.
“Let’s take a break.” He keeps his voice soft to balance the sternness of his grip.
Ben is trained to help the kids. He has learned CPR, emergency response, disease containment. He was taught to deal with bodily fluids, blood-borne pathogens, Band-Aid application. He can differentiate between the chalky meds and check that the kids aren’t cheeking them. He has been taught to physically restrain the residents, although he was given more training on avoidance. He learned techniques to ease restraints but often just physically overpowers the child who screams and weeps and claws for Ben’s eyes.
“It was just a joke,” Winder whines, on his bare toes to keep up as Ben guides him to a saferoom. Ben lectures about appropriate joking, proper group behavior.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Winder shouts in response to the same speech he’s heard a hundred times. He owl-perches in the saferoom’s corner, arms drawn inside his shirt, fingers stretching from the neck to plug his ears. His dark buzzcut still has stripes from last week when he wanted his head shaved to look like Ben. Winder bangs his head for emphasis.
The Home is a non-profit, and Ben is paid minimum wage. He is, however, provided free counseling for any trauma he should suffer.
Much about the residents is stunted: their bodies, thinking, and memory. Whatever variety of emotions felt towards Ben over the course of a shift, short memories mean they are always happy to see him when he arrives, and in this Ben trusts.
Trazodone, Lithium, Adderall, Ambien. None of the residents are without medication. A locked cabinet holds pillboxes marked with their names and little windows for times and dates. During a normal day, residents’ activities are interrupted by an adult rattling a paper cup at them, followed by a water chaser. Ben is amazed at the way the residents take meds without breaking stride—a mental hiccup—a series of moments when pills in an upended cup eclipse their vision, costing no more time than that lost to blinking.
Later in the February week of the parrot sighting, Ben brings in his laptop. This is a dicey play: Residents in the wrong mood could smash it on a whim, but Ben’s Educational Theory class taught him about letting students learn by pursuing their interests.
The kids are thrilled, though mostly by the novelty of Ben’s computer. There’s been no end of parrot talk since the sighting, and the boys have demanded daily forays to the Turkey Trot to hunt the bird. It’s been elusive, and one boy provoked the house to anger by bragging that he had killed it.
They look up pictures of grey parrots. They google different species, finding what they saw was probably a Timneh Grey. This specificity thrills the boys, and they say “Timneh,” tasting its exoticness, the lightheaded danger of the second syllable. They watch video clips. They move to other species of parrots, their habitats. They investigate countries Timnehs live in, like Sierra Leone and Mali, but Ben closes Wikipedia where there are pictures from wars. Vista House has strict rules about what the boys see—even the older residents are easily impelled to nightmares and obsession.
The boys are sullen, having abruptly confronted yet another wall separating them from the outside. They’re old enough, they assure him, they can handle this. Ben blames the Home's rules and then prints parrot coloring pages from the internet. His group is placated for a while, until squabbling erupts over the grey crayons. Ben sighs and sends the residents for breaks in their rooms, taking victories where he can. Gathering papers, he notices several have waxy lemon circles beside their parrots.
Victor, a six-year-old puffy-faced resident with thick brown hair, dislikes being treated like a baby or touched. During tantrums Victor will hit or, more seriously, bite. Some staff laugh off his rage because he is tiny and young, but Ben can’t help but imagine Victor as he grows. He doesn’t like Ben, particularly.
Victor’s mother is visiting, and Ben has been assigned to Observe their Scheduled Visit. She always looks like she’s been recently unrolled from a tarp, slightly off kilter with fried hair the same shade as Victor’s. He’s the only boy not happy when his mother visits. The others love to see her. They like seeing any mother. When she enters the kids crowd the entryway, saying hi, telling her about their days, asking how she is. Ben goes to collect Victor who chooses to wait on his bed.
“Your mom’s here, buddy,” Ben says. Victor looks at Ben with disdain.
“Oh my god, my sweet little boy,” Victor’s mother says, having checked in. Victor turns the look on her. Ben waits for about half a minute, during which Victor’s mother stays outside his room, hands over her mouth, quiet except for an odd burbling like restrained sobs.
“It’s a nice day—let’s take a walk outside,” Ben says.
Outside, Victor’s mother produces a superball from her pocket but ambushes him with a hug when he comes to take it. Victor hisses in false pain, feigning injury to his shoulder. Like their other visits Ben has observed, Victor complains or ignores his mother. Ben and Victor’s mother trail Victor a little ways through the parking lot. The day is bright if not exactly sunny, with the sharp light of late winter. Victor smashes his ball against the pavement but it bounces away, Victor watching it go.
“Well, I should leave,” says Victor’s mother, checking the sun nowhere near the horizon. “I’ve got to set up the tent before dark.” Ben and the other staff find it odd that she sleeps in a tent—there are no campsites nearby. Victor nods at his mother’s words as though they confirm his lowest expectations. His walk away is slightly bow-legged, better fitted to a beer belly and a bald spot than a six-year-old body.
“Can’t I have a hug?” she asks.
Ben thinks the child won’t give one until Victor sees the bedroom windows, each filled with a resident’s face, each grinning tightly while watching the mother’s visit. Victor turns and gives the requested hug, more like a quick shoulder check to the hips, and then stalks away again, smiling at the ground.
Ben worries about the amount of “loving touches” the children get. He worries what will be thought of him if he suggests they be touched with love more often. He hugs them, or rubs their heads, but something is critically lacking. As a college student unsure of where he will be year to year, or if this job can make ends meet, Ben cannot allow himself to love them.
Holly, an older staff whose children are grown and gone, tells every resident she loves them every day. Ben is jealous of this but glad someone can say love. Some days the bad vibes in Vista House seem downright communicable—invisible waves scratching everyone’s brain, including Ben’s. But Holly’s presence and her ability to say “love” dampens the boys’ ability to receive them.
Ben lives in a basement apartment. It’s cheap and near his college. In fall his windows leak spiders fleeing the frost.
His girlfriend Jennifer calls it “the Arab house.” She has beautiful dark hair of astounding length. She also attends Ben’s college and surveyed his building during her apartment hunt but found it filled with Arab guys who had all been praying when she knocked on the door. “Want to see a holy place?” she asked when she helped Ben on his own search. Ben likes it. He pictures men in practical robes bent over mats. He likes imagining someone dignified lives there. Instead, upstairs is a mother of two who constantly fights with her boyfriend.
This is a specific problem for Ben. At the Children’s Home, Ben is attuned to the flow of emotion. He watches anger rise in residents, expecting the peak. In his own home, Ben can’t prepare for the sudden explosion upstairs of swearing and banging on walls. Nothing gets done while this goes on. He listens for the patter of the kids’ feet. The children are opposing magnets, pushed by the field of their mother’s shouting. When Ben hears which corner they’ve slid into he stands underneath, unsure what he is doing.
When a door slams upstairs, he flinches and his heart beats faster. At the Home, slamming doors mean confrontation.
Jennifer doesn’t like it either. He is typing at the table and she is on her back on the couch, reading Lao Tzu for class. Her class is supposed to be Classicism and Romanticism, but her teacher is an amiable hippy who works Taoism into everything. When the fight starts she groans, letting the Tao Te Ching fall onto her face.
“This is not Tao,” she says from under the pages.
“Saying something is not Tao is not Tao,” Ben says, trying to sound lighthearted.
They pull on coats and boots. They take a lot of walks. The valley, warmer than the high prairie above that gets most of the snow, is still chilly and the sidewalks of their pre-Depression era neighborhood are webbed in frost. Jennifer is talking about her parents’ divorce, inspired by the neighbor’s fighting to speak about things she’s considered since childhood. Ben’s parents are still together and he’s quiet, without the time or ability to express himself like her, to turn his feelings into steam which quickly cloud and dissipate against her face. Jennifer notices and doesn’t speak for a block. At the corner, she burrows a hand into his pocket where he’s buried his own, like two wintering mammals.
“This isn’t Tao either,” she says, looking at him.
“I know,” Ben says, but can’t say more although he also knows she wants him to. He thinks of the kids in the apartment above, that he knows why kids from homes like that do poorly in school. Waiting for the fight dominates his attention, unnerves him in the fragile silence. But he knows he doesn’t really know.
He’s cheered by the time they’re back, finding both apartments quiet. Jennifer kisses him and then they’re both flinging clothes off in a celebration of being young, having young bodies and obligations no more dire than studying, as easily tossed aside for an afternoon as their underwear. They take precautions and anyway to Ben it isn’t the babymaking kind of sex—too freeform and weightless for anything other than passing time beautifully. He imagines that other kind of sex in underwater movements, laden with meaning. He anticipates it out there waiting somewhere for him, but feels glad it isn’t here yet.
He’s dozing in bed with Jennifer on his chest when the upstairs front door bangs open and there’s a flurry of shouting in adult voices. The unsteady gallop of toddler feet, a slap, and the kid’s screaming.
Ben pushes Jennifer off and grabs his phone. Adrenaline magnifies his half-sleep instead of waking him and he stumbles, wondering if he’s making sense with the 911 operator.
Probably the kid just fell. Probably a wall or table got hit, and the kid was just scared. Ben stands outside in his boxers, phone pressed to his ear. The concrete leeches heat from his toes.
A quarter of an hour passes before a cruiser arrives. Police officers creak the porch overhead. Ben doesn’t hear his cowed neighbors but the cops’ speech sounds bored, recited. Everyone okay. Reports of a disturbance. Kids okay. Try to keep it down, they say, here’s a number if you need.
Jennifer stands in the door wearing his sweats, hair in sleepy snarls. She asks what he’s doing.
“Nothing,” Ben says. He comes inside, shuts the door.
It’s not easy to run a group home when the residents have superpowers.
Dixon, an eight-year-old resident, can make anything out of Legos, from Michelangelo’s David to a working pipe wrench.
Jamal, an older resident, can sense any offensive fart and produce his own, absorbing and reflecting the attack.
Stephen is secretly Batman, a superhero famous for having no parents.
No saferoom can hold Winder, and when he gets up momentum he breaks through doors, through walls, and out of this place.
If Jeff is in trouble he can summon either or both of his super-powerful mothers to his aid.
Miguel cannot be hit by anyone who is drunk.
Like Shazam, Emery uses a magic word to transform into an older, stronger version of himself.
Dalton teleports to a foster home where he is loved.
When threatened, Sherm becomes invisible.
Trevor controls time, turning it back to the years before his parents abused him.
Damian’s mind control makes his parents love each other, and him.
It happens. A resident becomes upset and then unsafe. Unsafe behavior is the only official reason for restraints at Vista House, but safety is a fluid concept. In a house full of children with anger problems and emotional disorders, any major disruption is enough to trigger a restraint, such as having a loud crying fit because the resident believes he hasn’t been fed enough and the hardware of his brain is convinced the adults are starving him again. Hiding under a bed and screaming “bitch” for over an hour is another way.
Because he is large, young, and strong, Ben often steps up for restraints. He doesn’t mind. He wishes Holly called him more, because her getting knocked down in a scuffle sends the house’s mood into a tailspin.
Ben is never anything but awed at the bravery shown by residents who fight him. Over six feet tall and more than 200 lbs., Ben cannot imagine fighting someone twice his size.
Proper restraint technique is for Ben to hold the resident from behind, isolate one or both arms by pinning wrists to pelvis, duck his head between the resident’s shoulders so he can’t head-butt/scratch/punch Ben, and back the resident to the saferoom. If he “goes boneless,” a ploy involving flopping on the ground to attack from a prone position, Ben catches the resident on his knee. If the resident is small enough, Ben simply holds the snarling, spitting child at arm’s length and tries to keep him from clinging to doorways.
Ben is called to the room of a resident being unsafe. Bedrooms are always the first retreat. If ignored many will slam their door repeatedly, kick their wall, or throw everything into the hallway.
When Ben appears, they back into corners. Ben talks softly, hands up to protect his face. He pleads with them to walk to the saferoom, tells them it’s not too late. Their faces are flushed, eyes glassy. Most are too far gone by the time Ben gets there.
Every resident is different, every restraint the same, and this one is all of them. This restraint starts with Dalton, a thirteen-year-old whose mother drank while pregnant. He is frequently perplexed by cause-and-effect relationships. Dalton is bull-like and Ben parries a wild left hook, spinning Dalton so he can restrain the boy and begin the long drag to the saferoom. Dalton kicks and grunts, too proud to yell. When Ben gains the hallway, Dalton transforms into Damian, a squirmy biter. Crossing the communal couch/TV area, Ben restrains Stephen, seven years old and too tiny for proper technique, who whips his spine like a salmon’s, making Ben’s grip precarious. The door to the saferoom hallway stands closed—an oversight—and Ben waits while Holly and Abe scramble to open it. The change has sped up. Ben’s holding Emery, who tries to elbow Ben’s ribs. Miguel, going for a backwards shin kick or nut shot. Jeff, who flops, screaming that Ben is hurting him.
The door opens and Ben backs through, angling for the nearer saferoom. The body he clasps is protean and feral. Ben’s sweaty palms shift on the fluctuating wrist, the resident’s body as fluid as safety is in this place. He’s holding all the angry residents who have attacked him, all the terrified children who have lashed out, pushed Ben to his limit to see if he, too, will hurt them, will confirm that adults should hurt children. Hit me and make it okay. For Ben to refuse is worse, placing them at fault for their before-life.
Ben reaches the saferoom. The tricky part. There’s no good way to disengage. He braces a knee to make space between them, and the resident, who resolves into Dalton as they cross the threshold, tenses further. He knows what’s coming. Ben must release, whip his arms to Dalton's back, shove, and close the door. Dalton will sacrifice a hand to keep that door open. He’s done it before. Ben takes a deep breath, shoves hard, and slams.
Ben’s heart judders and his hands shake. He holds the door shut and tries to get breath. Restraints are exhausting, as if he’s sprinted a mile, and his hands’ tremor works to his shoulders. The other staff are awed—Dalton is fearsome to restrain and usually gets his way. Holly brings a clipboard with forms to describe and justify the Incident. Another form is attached, to record the resident’s actions while in Isolation.
Dalton’s nose bleeds. Unluckily, he went limp at the exact moment Ben shoved and was propelled into the wall. An accident in the saferoom. He wipes blood on the door’s window, which is rectangular and too narrow to punch. At the bottom on Ben's side is a pedal that slides a screeching bolt into the doorframe, freeing him to write.
Dalton kicks the door like a SWAT team. Ben’s glad Dalton doesn’t have shoes—they’ll kick the door all day if they have shoes. It only opens inward, but the kicking is loud and Dalton doesn’t stop. FAS can reduce sensitivity in the extremities. Ben knows this from an Abnormal Psychology class he took after his first year at the Home.
Years of feet, fists, and shoulders have cracked the doorframe, pre-teen rage and terror splitting the wood wide enough that Ben could get a pinky in. Dalton slams his weight against the door. The concussions hurt Ben’s ears, and the crack grows. Dalton screams—Ben is a bitch, Dalton will kick his fucking ass, when Ben isn’t looking Dalton will stab him in the neck with something. Ben nods, writes it down. He knows Dalton will forget, won’t even remember to forgive. Ben expects Dalton will be surly around the house but likely without remembering why. Ben wishes Dalton would remember, so Ben wouldn’t have to carry this memory himself.
Dalton’s nose still bleeds, and he smears blood on his face, hands, the walls. Ben says nothing. Better not to engage until they’re calm. Dalton slumps against the door and looses blood-clogged, tear-clogged howls.
Ben wonders how old Dalton was when the first parent hit him. Standing in the empty hallway, holding the door closed, Ben feels something bad happening inside. Dalton is venting it all through the door—the hurt, the fear. Ben is the only one listening, a conduit for the pain without grounding to give release.
Ben and Jennifer come outside, because the night is cool and the steamy Thai restaurant with their delayed carry-out is crowded. While waiting they see a cat. White with blue eyes, she’s little more than a kitten slinking between trucks, climbing the large tires Idaho engenders. They love cats and call her to them. She has no collar.
Jennifer holds the cat in her lap but she attacks Jennifer’s long braid so they let her scamper in Ben’s truck bed. Neither’s apartment allows cats, and neither have time to raise a lost kitten. She tries to climb out and they brush her down.
Ben suggests a shelter, but Jennifer heard a story on NPR about overcrowding and euthanasia policies. The shelter is not close. Their food is taking a long time, and they are hungry. Normally Ben would postpone dinner—Idaho doesn’t engender Thai food as it does trucks—but after a long shift he is light-headed from hunger.
A family walks into the parking lot. Young parents, tattooed, and a six-year-old girl.
“You found our Snowball,” she cries. “Oh, thank you!” She runs to him in the dark and wraps her arms around his waist, burying her head in his crotch. A full bodied hug. When she looks up her eyes are glassy. Ben interposes Snowball, giving himself distance.
Reactive Attachment Disorder. Ben has seen it in several residents. RAD children don’t know when or how to touch people. They have a tendency to hang on strangers. They get like this through neglect. The part of their brain that wants touch and love, nestled beside the parts that want food and water, is panicking in the drought.
The father seems surly and impatient, the mother loaded. She titters, explains Snowball’s always getting somewhere. Ben agrees: Cats tend to be places. The mother says they live around the corner. She and her daughter return to dump the cat in the unfenced yard. The father watches, hat brim shadowing his face.
“You do everything you can,” he tells Ben. It sounds like a threat. The mother and daughter return, going inside with a wave.
RAD is a serious warning sign of abuse. Ben could make a call, but can he really diagnose children in parking lots? This is different than calling the cops on his neighbors. The mother upstairs either hit her toddler or didn’t. This is the blind country of psychology, where Ben’s opinion could lend weight disproportional to his qualifications. He once asked Holly about a new resident who missed his parents unreservedly, whose family didn’t yet have a record. “God help all parents visited by CPS on their worst day,” Holly said, counting vanilla sandwich cookies into a dozen coffee filters for Vista House’s bedtime snack.
Ben wonders what it’s like to be a parent, to know the plain desperate prayers Holly knows. He pictures himself typing at his desk at home the next time a fight breaks out upstairs. Will he feel better then, if he makes the call tonight? When he graduates, leaves this town, the home, and has his own children, maybe with Jennifer, then how will he feel about this decision?
Snowball’s on the sidewalk, sizing up four lanes of traffic. Ben grabs her as she scrabbles into the street.
Jennifer is looking at him. He tries to slow his breath. He’s been quiet. Staring.
“Whose life are you living?” she asks. “Yours?”
Snowball climbs his chest and sniffs his mouth. Runs a paw over his face, no claws. He can’t protect her and, like the mother, will return her to the yard. He wants to squeeze her soul out so when the dad kicks her he’ll only hit a moving corpse.
Some of this Ben doesn’t say:
“Hey, Damian. I know you’re going to bed, but I was wondering if you’re okay? Can we talk?
“C’mon man, you haven’t said a word since you got back, why not just talk?
“Okay. Okay, that’s fine, you don’t have to say anything. I’ll talk. Is that all right? I’ll tell you what I know. I know that you left for home-visit without two black eyes—and yeah, I heard about it. Your brother headbutted you. Once in each eye. You guys were wrestling pretty hard. Is that what happened, Damian? Because it doesn’t have to be like that. Have I ever hurt you? I know we’ve had restraints, but I’ve never hurt you. I’m not asking you to rat on your mom. I’m just asking you if you’re safe at home. Are you safe? You’re safe here. I know—she’s your mom. You told me about you guys living in the back of that station wagon, and she would give you most of the potato chips, but I’m not asking you to rat her out.
“I’m not mad at you. You know who I’m mad at? Her fucking boyfriend. I know she moved in with him—a real house. You know what I pictured, while he was shoveling me that horseshit about you and your half-brother wrestling? Breaking his face, Damian. He’s not big. I could’ve pinned one arm behind his back, slammed his head into the wall. Until his nose cracked flat like a stepped-on snail shell, until his teeth cut through his lip. He squeezed your elbow when you tried to talk, didn’t he? That’s okay. I saw it. Just imagine: his red blood running down our white walls, pooling on the tile. Would you like that, Damian? Do you need more violence?
“Anyway. I’m supposed to tell you your social worker is coming by tomorrow morning, so we’re getting you up early. I know you hate that, your sleep meds make it tough to wake up. But the lady’s got like, fifty kids in this county. She’s on a tight schedule.
“Are you crying? That’s okay. This is probably a good thing to cry about."
There are things Ben will never be able to describe. Not horrible things, like Dalton scootering while relating a story about a pregnant sister who wanted to scooter but lost her balance and then the baby.
“It was bad,” Dalton says, concentrating on his bunny hop. “She cried a lot.” Ben could describe those things fine. And not wonderful things, like reading to the boys as they fall asleep or his group breaking into dance and raising puffs of dust around their sneakers because they glimpsed the parrot in a crabapple tree gnawing the pebbly fruit from the upper branches, the balloon wilted and now more like a parachute.
No, the moments Ben can’t describe are glances, body language, and complex motivation that lock Ben and the children in place like islands on an ocean chart.
For instance: Ben is bringing Damian and Sherm back to Vista House from dinner at the cafeteria and it is dark, and the stars are out, and it is cold, and D&S are not supposed to talk but they run ahead without speaking and for this Ben settles although it breaks the spirit if not the letter of the no talking rule because they jump on benches, and Sherm, who leads, is looking back at Damian to see if he is following in doing what they know they should not, and they both look back with excited and quiet faces to see what Ben will do, as though asking what next? or what now? and it is this look, not the rule breaking but the expectant, excited look at Ben under the frozen stars that affects him, and he thinks he will never be able to describe the anger and the calm this makes him feel.