(Originally printed in “Too Much Not Enough, and in the Wrong Place, later reprinted in RTN zine)
Angry? I’m not angry. You just have to be careful. I’ve heard all sorts of stories about people who do this sort of thing, and accidentally let something slip. If you think this is angry, you should have seen me as a kid, there was definitely a chip on my shoulder then.
Try being six years old with no parents. Mom died, Papa was a rolling stone and all that. It wasn’t Mom’s fault. She really tried. In the end though, three jobs plus odd work just to keep a roof over our heads and some clothes on my back was just too much for her tired body. She was always so small, but all those years… falling asleep in her waitress uniform may have been too much. I think her soul was thankful for the rest.
Dad didn’t show up for the funeral. No one did except the State. The State came in the form of a social worker named Miss Crutchfield. She was wrinkly, smelled of cheap perfume and cigarettes. Her hand was on my shoulder for the last half of the service. It was almost as if she couldn’t wait for Mom’s body to be lowered to the ground so they would own me for good.
I lived in an orphanage that first year. The State doesn’t call them that anymore. They have other names for them. Institutes, Schools for special needs, Mercy Homes, whatever… Inside, we knew what it was. It was a prison for kids. The bars on the windows and locked doors at night told us enough for that. I don’t think I remember nightmares before I spent my first night in that place. After that night I’ll never forget them.
I had my first fight there. That’s something that doesn’t come up in polite conversation. It was a kid who wanted to prove himself to the others that had been there for a few years. Even in kiddie prison… there are kiddie gangs. I was followed to the playground and surrounded. The kid, his name was Jose, shoved me and I didn’t push back. I noticed his pack of friends watching me too late, and felt the sting of Jose’s shoe treads bite into my back. I slumped like a bag of groceries. I stayed on the ground on my knees and cried as Jose kicked me in the back again. It hurt, but not as much as the realization that I am in this situation by myself and no one is going to help me ever again. I couldn’t understand why this Spanish kid was kicking me in the back. I stood up, dug inside myself, and felt an explosion of power as I punched Jose in the face. I was expecting a gunshot sound effect like those TV shows, but I didn’t get one. I felt a sickening thud as his face gave way to my little fist. But I punched and kicked and screamed until the staff came out to break it up. I had blood on my fists. It was warm at first, then turned sticky and cold. I’ll never forget the feeling of it as the nurse washed it off with hot soapy water.
I was put in a room by myself. No books, or TV, one window that faced a brick wall. I tried to tell my side of the story. Miss Crutchfield didn’t want to hear about it. “It’s so hard to find a family for you older kids,” she stated, “And you’re not helping.” I don’t know how long I stayed in that room. It was a few days.
The next time I was in a fight. They strapped me to a chair. It was off white, and looked well used. Miss Crutchfield told me it was for “time outs”. The straps were built into the chair and looked like belts on some kind of go-go dancer. Huge notches and a wide strap would keep me from “hurting myself” they said. It was another fight with Jose, who had been looking to settle a score with me to save his reputation in the building. Getting beat by the new kid is never good. But Miss Crutchfield said they were more worried about Jose than me. I was tied down pretty good when the nurse came in with a needle. They said it was for my own good. The world went blurry as Miss Crutchfield kept talking to me. The only comfort I had was that the State was worried about me. They thought I was dangerous enough to tie down. For some reason, that made me sleep better than ever.
When they let me out of the chair, Jose was gone. I don’t know where he went, and didn’t care. The whispers in the hall were that he was taken somewhere else, to another institution. There was always some rumor he may have found a foster home, but I always liked the idea that somewhere, Jose was going to be the new kid being picked on, and I felt an odd sense of peace with that.
Foster homes weren’t that big of a deal, I was put in a few from time to time. One couple were a real couple of weasels. They already had a couple of kids, but always kept a foster one because the State paid them a little extra a month to keep one, plus they got a tax break. Their kids were mean. I knew I was never a real part of the family, but after dealing with them, I was almost homesick for the Orphanage again. The oldest kid was a boy, named after a fancy car… Royce. Who the hell does that anyway? He was smug, had freckles and red hair, like someone out of a Rockwell painting, only he had a real nasty streak. The daughter was a brat. Her cheeks were fat from a lifetime of chocolate and privilege. She probably would have had them rotted out if I hadn’t kicked them in. It was doomed from the beginning. I had harsh feelings for the rich once I saw the way the kids treated the help hired around the house. Every time I saw Royce slap the maid, or the little girl scream bloody murder if the cook made something different, my stomach would turn. All I could picture was my poor Mom, in a diner cleaning up after a spoiled businessman. For all I know, she had once served Royce’s dad, and he treated her like dirt. I kicked her teeth in, I shoved Royce in a closet because I knew he was afraid of the dark. I don’t regret it. I knew they would send me back, I couldn’t wait. They did, but not before Royce’s dad came back and beat me within an inch of my life.
I woke up in a hospital. Miss Crutchfield was there, so were the cops. The State would be lucky if Royce’s dad didn’t press charges. I told her I didn’t care. But the State did. They gave him more money in a settlement. I was sentenced for community service and counseling. I didn’t bat an eyelash when the judge gave me the sentence in juvenile court. I had been in “counseling” since my mom died, didn’t matter to me.
The shrink was a nice lady. But I knew better than to tell her the truth. The way the orphans and throw away kids are really treated, and the way some of the foster families scam extra tax breaks out of the system while the kids eat on crumbs and wear the same clothes to school everyday. I didn’t tell her about Jose… or the other Jose’s that came in his place since then. I didn’t tell her about the chair with the straps that I had spent more time in than my own bed. I didn’t tell her any of those things. I’m not stupid. I know what would happen to me. I wanted out, and to get out I would tell them what I wanted to hear. So I told her about puppies, balloons, and my dad. I made up a good story about him.
Mr. Phillips came to the orphanage when I was twelve. There’s something odd about a single man looking to foster a ward. The way he walked through the place like he was picking an animal from the pound, at first I thought he was some kind of pervert. That changed when I met him face to face. He looked me in the eye like he did the other boys, it was a serious stare, like he could see something in my eyes. “How would you like to walk out of here?” he asked me, “Never to come back, to put these problems behind me and never think of them again.” I shook my head. “No?” he asked surprised. “I’ll walk out,” I agreed, “But I would come back to burn this place to the ground.” I thought the reply would spook him enough to leave me alone, but he smiled.
Against the advice of the State, my doctors, my permanent record, and the Public School District of Milner County, Mr. Phillips took me as his ward. I thought of trying to scare him with some little threat of killing him in his sleep while he ushered me in the car, but something told me Mr. Phillips would do much more than call my bluff. I realized I was afraid of him. I asked him what he did for a living. He smiled but didn’t really answer. His answer revolved around having people respect him, having lots of money, but having lots of guts too. I told him I’d like a job like that one day. He said I had the guts, but the other stuff would come later.
The years dragged on. I learned a lot. Fighting is like killing. The first one is the hardest, after that it’s easy, even fun. Mr. Phillips died when I was twenty three. The funeral was the biggest one I’d ever seen, by then I had been to a lot. If he could have seen it, Mr. Phillips would say that was a sign of respect.
I was dressed in my best dark suit. By then, I had earned enough to have a fleet of them made overseas just for me from some short Italian man whose name I can’t pronounce. I never minded funerals, they always belonged to people who didn’t mean much to me, except for my Mom’s. Mr. Phillips’ though, his made me pretty sad, my life would have been much different had he not taken me in. He always made me keep my promises, and the last thing he told me while he was coughing up his life was to go back where he found me and do what I said. I was way more relaxed than when I was a kid, nothing in haste. I picked up a shovelful of dirt, dropped it down the hole, and walked away.
On my twenty fourth birthday I went to see Miss Crutchfield.
I was twenty four for about ten whole hours and I already smelled like gasoline. Miss Crutchfield was tied to her leather chair. She never replaced it, and the grooves held pockets of liquid so well. The smell of the gas was a great improvement to the cheap perfume and cigarettes she usually smelled like. She stopped struggling and trying to speak through the gag for a few minutes, she was quiet, but I knew she was alive. There wasn’t a rant, or a big speech like the movies. I lit a match and dropped it on the rug, her office went blazing with the rest of the orphanage. I could hear the howling of the demons being exorcised as the wood burned. I watched the kids spill out to the courtyard as they watched the building burn to the ground. I was sure, somewhere, a younger me was weeping with joy.
When I was twenty five I mellowed out, changed my name. I met Julie when I was twenty seven. I told her I was in real estate… We’re getting married, and as long as we don’t have kids I’m OK with it. No kids, they come out too screwed up.
The room comes into a blur. I don’t know where the hell I am, but I feel very relaxed. There is a room of slack jawed onlookers in tuxedos staring at me. The amateur hypnotist doing his parlor trick stopped counting to wake me up some time ago. I vaguely remember the dinner party I am attending when I notice Julie looking horrified at me as I fully wake up. I began to wonder just what I might have said while I was in a trance, life holds so many secrets. She starts to cry, and I sit up. I’m not angry. You should have seen me as a kid.