Taking care of business

a learning experience

My mother left just before Memorial day when I was fifteen. She was usually gone for three or four days at a time, so this was not the first time she vanished for more than a couple weeks. I didn't bother calling the police because I had done that before when I was twelve. After the nice folks from social services had left, she and her new boyfriend gave me several beatings to make sure I didn't repeat that mistake.

She left her purse and her wallet, which was not unusual. I knew the pin codes to the food stamp card and her bank account. I also had her personal information like Social Security numbers and the like, so I went to the library to set up her bank accounts for electronic payments so I could pay the light, rent and other utility bills. I was able to get groceries and keep the payments going so the lights stayed on all summer. Which was unusual for us.

For some reason the TV gave out the first week of July, so I took the cable box to the cable company and told them we didn't have a TV anymore. I was sure my mother would want her cable TV, but she could set that up again herself.

I could have called Social Services, but I had been in foster care a couple of times already, and due to that had suffered my first sexual experience. While most guys my age were all hepped up about the prospect and several virgins regaled the locker room at school with stories of their conquests, I always felt kind of sick at the thought. And while I liked my mom's latest caseworker, I didn't trust her much. She was a starry eyed dreamer with a lot of learning and not enough sense to come in out of the rain. As for who, where or what my father was, I had no idea. All there was to him was a check that showed up from social services twice a month. I learned early on that asking questions about that was good for a slap and not much else.

July moved into August. I spent most of my afternoons at the library, stopped off at the grocery store some days for TV dinners and soda. I did my own laundry, got good with the dishes. I visited my friends, but they were mostly getting ready for their big next step forward: their driver's licenses. We didn't have a car. I just gradually began to be left out.

Meanwhile, every month my mother's bank account and the food card would get replenished. My mother had never been frugal. She always had lottery tickets, beer, wine and enjoyed pay per view on cable. By September her bank account got over $2000, which created a new complication. In order to receive benefits, she couldn't have a bank account with that kind of money. So I began to siphon off from her bank account to mine. I kept sending her bank statements to Social Services, as required. They just never noticed the weekly checks to my account because of the way the bank reported them on the statement.

September brought along yet another complication. School was starting up again. It wasn't a problem for me, but there was the problem of Kimiko.

Kimiko moved in next door to us with her father sometime in January. I don't know where the name comes from. She looked kind of Asian, but her father didn't. Kimiko was about 4 at the time. I would see her looking out the window when I came home from school. She was usually quiet. Her father was a bit of a bum. When the weather was not totally miserable he would have her play in the parking lot so he could watch TV in peace. So on the nicer days I would stop and talk to her. I wasn't so sold on the idea of going directly home either. There was only the one TV, that belonged to my mother, and so when I got home I would waste my time by actually doing my homework or reading with the door closed. As we got more nice days I would spend more time with her. At first it was a matter of that or homework, but on a few occasions I could do both. English homework was McBeth in April, Twelfth Night in May. She liked to have me read from those stories.

At times when my mom was gone, I would let her in the house. What she really liked to do was draw with crayons. For four years old, she was very good at it. I would do my math homework and she would draw we would enjoy the comfort of each other's company as we worked. We had the TV on, and promptly at 6:00 when the local news was over she would scoot home. Like many other kids she had the bruises from the excessive clumsiness arising from angry parents. The walls were thin, and I could hear her being clumsy as well, as her father would yell and screech and let loose so much profanity I was amazed the walls didn't turn blue.

School let out in June. That meant I would see her out in the parking lot when I got up. Her level of clumsiness was also increasing, as was the number of beer cans and fortified wine bottles in the garbage.

I took to getting up earlier in the morning to the point I was getting up at 5:30. I would see Kimiko out in the parking lot. Her father seemed pretty oblivious as to what she was doing out there, so I began taking her to the park. She liked doing all the usual kid stuff. I would bring along some peanut butter sandwiches and soda, and we would stay there till noon, and then go to the library so I could take care of my mother's business. They also had a children's story time around 1:00 where some volunteers at the library would read to the kids. While Kimiko thrilled to the adventures of Clifford the dog and Thomas the Tank Engine, I would be in the mystery section, reading police procedural type story. We would get back by 5:30 and share some fresh fruit and milk and she would go home.

All this time her father remained oblivious. Several times I thought of calling Children's Services myself, but remembering my experiences with them, I decided to wait it out one more day.

By the end of June I had decided that my Mom wouldn't be back soon, so I began putting some of her stuff like her bongs and the like into storage. I found she left behind about 15oz of marijuana in various bags around the place. I took them to the high school and sold them and kept the money for myself. I knew by then that if I called the cops and reported my mom missing after two months I would be the one in trouble.

After July 4 I decided to toss all her stuff and face the consequences. If she came back I would have a lot more problems, mostly with the law, than just tossing out my mom's old stuff.

The apartment complex is a two story structure that faces north on a cul de sac. There is a long wide porch in front of the apartments, with a set of stairs at the west end. Kimiko's apartment was on the east end, my mothers was next door, and there were three more between us and the stairs. In the summer the parking lot gets very hot, but the porch can be pleasant even on the worst days.

July 4 that year was one of those cloudy but really hot and stuffy days that just begs for thunderstorm to clear the air. I sat on the porch in front of the apartment reading a science fiction book but the oppressive atmosphere made it hard to concentrate. And while I liked this author, this particular book was not one of his better efforts.

For some reason Kimiko stayed inside. She had engaged in a great deal of clumsiness last night and I think she was too scared to come out of her room.

As the day wore on, I began to be a bit concerned. I made up my mind that Children's services would have to be a better alternative than what she was going through. It was just after lunch that I began to notice the smell. There was also the amazing number of flies bunched up on the screen window desperately trying to get inside. You live in an apartment complex like that one you get used to unpleasant smells. But this one was really strong and very unpleasant. I stood by the window and noticed that Kimiko's father never moved.

I went back to my apartment and grabbed a couple baggies. I put them over my hands and went back to Kimiko's place. I noticed when I cam out of my place how bad the smell was then. I took a couple deep breaths and reached for the door. It was locked. I went back to the window and its carpet of angry flies.

The screens are held in place with simple butterfly nuts. A quick twist on each of the four nuts and the screen fell forward into my hands and the flies zoomed in toward the chair where Kimiko's father slumped in front of the TV. I quickly but carefully stepped into the apartment which was a mirror image of my own. The two bedrooms off to the right with both doors shut, the kitchen across the back and the bathroom over to the left. The smaller bedroom in back would be Kimikos, but it was shut and there was a reclining chair in front of it so the door would not open. I stepped to the reclining chair and pulled it from the door. I knocked and went in. Kimiko was wet and dirty and sitting in the opposite corner, mewing like a lost kitten. I put my finger to my lips and went to her closed and pulled out some clothes at random. There was no dresser, but there was a cardboard box with some girls panties in front of the closet. I gathered a few and dropped them all back and put the clothes in the box with the panties and socks. I gestured to Kimiko to stand up and come to me. Then I put my hand over her eyes and led her to the window where I picked her up and put her outside, then went outside myself. I lead her to my place and brought her inside and pointed her to the bathroom. She just stared and kept on mewing.

I figured she had enough terror for one lifetime and I kneeled down and told her directly that I wanted to her to go to the bathroom and clean herself thoroughly in the shower. Then she was to take a long warm bath.

"Daddy says showers only. Baths cost too much."

"This time" I told her "He won't care. You father is very sick and he is going to go to the hospital. You just wash and soak till you feel all clean"

She marched into the bathroom, and I reached for the phone and called 911

I told the operator I thought the guy next door was very sick, because he wasn't moving and his room smelled bad. 40 minutes later a police car drove up very slowly and a young female officer got out. By this time I had removed the screen and put it by the trash, wearing gloves all the time. I watched her climb out of her car and I walked to the end of the porch and met her at the stairs.

"I thought 911 was for emergency response." I said.

"Some guy sick in his room is room is not an emergency. An emergency is some guy chasing his wife with a knife. We are very stretched today and I am going to be giving you a citation if you are wasting my time."

I walked her down the porch to Kimiko's apartment. She tried the door and then went through the window. When she got around to the front of the chair her face went to the color of a school hallway, and she reached for her radio and began calling in numbers.

She told me go to my apartment and wait there.

Meanwhile Kimiko finished her bath. When I came back inside, she was sitting at the kitchen table shivering in the intense heat wearing only a towel. I went into the bathroom and got the box of clean clothes and took her to my mother's room and told her she needed to get dressed. I asked if she had eaten. She shook her head. I told her after she was dressed I would give her a sandwich. She started mewing again. I kneeled down to her again and said "Please get dressed. It is very important." This time she nodded.

I went into the kitchen and grabbed several plastic grocery bags. One of the problems of going to the store on a regular basis was I had so many of them. And they all had my fingerprints on them. I went into the bathroom and wrapped Kimiko's dirty clothes in several layers of grocery bag. Then I poured some peppermint on the top bag and then wrapped them in several more layers. At the end I had a huge ball of plastic. This I dropped into the garbage bag under the sink. This done, I washed my hands and made a pair of peanut butter sandwiches. I knocked on my mother's bedroom door and went in. Kimiko was sitting in the opposite corner again, but she was dressed. I had her sit at my mom's dressing table and put the sandwiches in front of her. "Eat, they are yours" I told her. Then I went back to the living room and got her crayons and her coloring block. I put them on the dressing table and waited while she finished her breakfast.

When she was done I took away the paper towel they had been sitting on and kneeled next her. "Do you have any relatives?" She shook her head. I thought over my experience with foster care. I liked her. I didn't want to be the kind of person who would send her there. I asked "Do you trust me?" She nodded. "Do you want to stay here?" She nodded again. I thought of asking her to hide in the closet or under the bed, but I figured that would freak her out. "Please don't come out of here unless I call you, Ok. And please be very quiet."

I left her drawing in my mother's room. I knew what was coming, so I was full of nervous energy. The place was very different from when my mom was there. The dishes were washed and put away, the laundry washed and sorted, the floor clear of beer cans, the ashtrays washed and stacked, the windows clean. I grabbed a wash cloth and began dusting my mother's reservation souvenirs. I nearly had them all done when the knock came at the door.

Since I am a minor, there are protocols before you can be interviewed by police. One of which is an advocate. Not a lawyer. Just someone to make sure the cops don't overstep the bounds when it comes to dealing with a minor. Of course, if it a matter of they catch you with a bottle of wine you boosted from the grocery store, the advocate will be part of the public defender's office. In this case the cops have been here before, so they call the family case worker, Sarah Moskeet. She insists on being called Sarah, as Moskeet means something embarrassing in Russian.

Ms Moskeet likes to dress in long sleeve blouses, buttoned to the chin, even on hot days. She also wears a jacket that is sort of supposed to obscure the fact she has a big chest. She also wears long natural fiber skirts and clunky shoes. The only jewelry she wears is a small star on a chain. She wears no make up and square rimmed glasses.

When I open the door, Ms Moskeet is there with guy in a quiet tan suit that is meant to be plain clothes. You live in the neighborhood it practically is a neon sign that says Detective. Ms Moskeet introduces him as Detective Cotton, only she pronounces it funny: More like Ko Tain. I always assumed Ms Moskeet liked girls better, but she is giving Detective Cotton a look both predatory and besotted like you see on some of the girls who follow Dick Richardson, the power forward on the school basketball team as he goes around school.

Detective Cotton asks a bunch of questions about my relations with Kimiko's dad. I basically say I had nothing to do with him. He kept to himself but he seemed to go through a lot of beer and fortified wine. You sort of know which bottles in the recycling belong to who as people move in and out.

Then he asks about the previous night. I told him I was reading in my bedroom. I heard a lot of banging and slapping. Maybe some noises like an unhappy cat. That ended around 8:30. After that, the apartment was pretty quiet. Even though the walls are thin, I couldn't hear their TV. And I was listening to my own music anyway.

After that, he walks into the bathroom and looks around. He sees my clothes in the laundry basket and looks carefully at the cuffs and sleeves of my shirt, checks out the bath mat, goes into the kitchen and looks through the knife drawer and then goes back to the main room and tells Ms Moskeet he is almost done. He asks if I have any objection to a lab tech looking around for a bit, I tell him no and he is gone. Ten minutes later a lab tech comes in with Detective Cotton and sprays some stuff all around the bathroom and then shines an ultra violet flashlight on the walls. He repeats the process in the kitchen.

I watched enough TV to know what they were up to. I saw Kimiko's father's body. Quite a lot of blood had splashed around and I am careful to avoid it. There is this fluid they can squirt on the walls and see if any blood has been splashed around or washed off. None of it had got on me or Kimiko, so I wasn't afraid of the tech.

I was afraid of Sarah Moskeet. She is very earnest, very sincere, very committed, as dangerous in her good intentions as a leak in a dike during a spring flood. If she knew my mom is gone, I get to go back to the loving arms of foster care. Her good intentions frightened me more than Detective Cotton's frank hostility.

While the tech worked, Moskeet opened up her note case and got out the family folder. It is about 5 inches thick and has numerous sub folders. She gets out her legal pad and washes her glasses Then she puts on her compassionate smile that resembles the look a vet gives a wounded mountain lion she is trying to extract out of a bear trap. It is supposed to be reassuring, but it isn't.

She asks "Where is your mom?" I tell her she went up to one of the reservations with an uncle. She asks "Which reservation?" I tell her I don't' know. It could be any one of the seven within two hours drive that offers slots and craps. She asks "Which Uncle?" I tell her I don't know, I have so many. Moskeet looks around the apartment. She gets up and takes a tour. My bedroom is clean as always. She sees the apartment is spotless, the kitchen is spotless, the only laundry is my clothes in the basked in the bathroom from yesterday. She prowls through the kitchen and looks in the cupboards. There is bread, peanut butter, grape jelly, rice, pasta, tuna fish. She looks in the freezer. There are several frozen dinners. She looks in the fridge. Usually I have a couple three liter bottles of soda, but I had finished the last of my soda yesterday. Today there are apples, bananas, cherries, a gallon of milk half full and a gallon of orange juice I haven't opened yet. There is no beer. There are no wine coolers. The cigarettes are all gone too. (I had tossed them all the week before) After she pokes around a lot she looks into my mom's room and sees Kimiko working on her drawing. Kimiko is drawing a picture of the lake in the nearby park. She likes drawing landscapes when she is upset. Moskeet looks at Kimiko for a moment and asks "Cousin?" I say sure. I have all kinds of uncle. Mother isn't a bigot. Her attitude is that if it is long and hard and there is cash on the dresser, then it is all good. I don't tell Moskeet that though. She just gives me a look for a moment and prowls around the room. She finds Kimiko's box of clothes in the corner and gives it a fishy look. Then she looks around the room and sees all my mother's stuff hanging in the closets. My mother's room is still kind of disorganized. I never clean in there. There is still a full ash tray next to the bed and an empty wine cooler on the floor. She points to the ashtray and makes a waving motion so I pick it up, along with the wine cooler bottle and take them away to the kitchen where I toss the bottle and the cigarette butts and wash the ash tray.

When I come back Moskeet is squatting next to the dresser, trying to talk to Kimiko, who is keeping her mouth shut. Moskeet is asking if I ever hit her. She shakes her head. Moskeet puts her hand on Kimiko's chest and asks if I ever touch her there. She shakes her head. Moskeet puts her hand on the front of Kimiko's pants and asks if I touch her there. Kimiko shakes her head. Moskeet tells her that she won't get in trouble for telling the truth. Kimiko gives her a look of pity and derision. Moskeet asks "You feel safe here?" Kimiko nods.

Moskeet goes from a squat to kneeling next to Kimiko. She stares into the mirror for a good long time, but it is if she is looking at a place several miles away through the mirror.

Finally, she stands up and addresses me. "One of the other neighbors tells me she has seen you take Kimiko places."

I nod. I tell her "We go to the park together. And to the library. Her old man can't be bothered."

Moskeet looks at me real close. It is like she is trying to solve one of those math puzzles in the newspaper with the grids and numbers. Lots of people find them hard. I can do one in five minutes. I don't see the attraction. She goes back to the living room and motions for me to follow. We go to the back of the kitchen next to the washing machine. I notice the tech has squirted that too. She looks at me for a long time. "You never hurt people. You have a rough history, but that is not an excuse, and you know that. You don't have a history of doing things to kids...." She stands and stares at me for another five minutes. "You don't BS me either. At least not obviously. And not where other people could get hurt." Finally she walks past me and walks over to Detective Cotton who is talking to one of the other neighbors. Detective Cotton finishes his discussion and the two of them move down the porch to the other end.

After five minutes she comes back into the apartment. "The coroner is almost done next door. They have to move some stuff and I would rather your cousin didn't see it." She said "cousin" with a weird sort of emphasis. "I'd like the two of you to come with me for a couple hours or so while they finish up in there" I have no way of telling her no, especially since my mother is not here. I go to Kimiko and ask her to come along while Moskeet arranges her paperwork. Moskeet has a minivan with the county logo on it. Kimiko piles into the back seat. Moskeet makes Kimiko get into the kid seat, which makes Kimiko make a face. Moskeet says she is there to make sure the rules on car seats are enforced, and Kimiko is way too short not to be in one. Kimiko makes another face, but complies. As we drive off, another county van with the word "Coroner" in big letters drives into the parking lot. Kimiko asks what that is about, and I tell her it is something to do with cops, and she chills.

Moskeet drives us down McClellan St. There isn't much traffic on the holiday. Every so often we hear bangs and whistles from people letting off illegal fireworks. Moskeet tries asking us questions, but I have found it is generally a bad idea to talk to government people, so I just give really short answers. Kimko won't say a word.

Moskeet seems to be one of those people who are afraid of silence. She gives up on asking us stuff, instead she tells stories about college. She keeps this up all the way down to 32nd, where there is a Subway store. Moskeet gets a vegetarian for herself, Tuna for Kimiko and I order a Philly cheese. Moskeet pays for all three. I offer to pay for mine, but she just says "Expense account." We go to a table in back and Moskeet gets out her file and opens it up. Then she leans on her elbows and begins talking college again. She had a class senior year on comparative linguistics. She said that the professor told her that most languages had a distinction between speculative and conditional, but that English often confused these. So that in English it is easy to confuse a statement where a question over whether something is likely can be confused as a statement that it is assured. Then she pauses and says "Your mom should be home tonight, correct?" I tell her she should. We eat in silence for a bit. Then she says that she is going to leave Kimiko with my mother tonight. It looks to her like Kimko will be well cared for and safe with my mother, despite her history from several years ago. And there is just no other place to put her on a holiday.

Moskeet notes that Kimiko is getting tired. She loads us back into the van and we drive across the river and then up past the cemetery to the top of a hill overlooking the river, where there is a big apartment complex hanging on the hill facing the river. Moskeet put Kimiko on the bed, and Kimko promptly falls asleep. While Moskeet gets a blanket and covers her over, I look through around myself. The apartment is very small, one room with the kitchen and bathroom. One whole wall is books, there is a narrow bed against another, one whole wall is windows. I spend time looking over the books. It is amazing to me that someone has a wall of books like that. I have never seen anything like before.

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