A VOICE BELLOWS THROUGH THE DOOR. “San Diego Sheriff’s Department, open up!” I wonder if cops learn how to do that in the academy.
“It’s gonna be all right,” my mom says, feigning confidence as the tears well up in her eyes. She takes a deep breath.
The sound of the deputy’s banging fist tears through the house like the Pacific Surfliner.
“I’m coming,” my mom says. She wipes her eyes and opens the door. I see the familiar brown uniform. I recognize the stern look on the deputy’s face. A beam of 7:00 a.m. sunlight glistens on one of the seven points of his badge.
Standing behind him is another familiar sight, a locksmith waiting impatiently. Is he the same one as last time? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before, but I recognize the maddening clink of his tools as he fidgets on the porch.
“Ma’am, your thirty days are up,” the deputy says. “We’re here to remove you from the property.” This is blunt. Could he be a little more polite? No, probably not.
“Okay, let me get a few things together,” my mom says dejectedly.
“You’ve got five minutes.”
This is our third eviction in five years. I am 13, my little brother is 11, and we have spent countless nights in Midway motel rooms, eating dinner out of vending machines, watching the free HBO. I keep asking myself why my mom can’t keep a job, and where do all her government checks go? But maybe I should just deal with the uncertainty, because coping with the truth is worse.
I do what I’ve always done: escape to the refuge of school. It’s the only place safe from the insanity. Here I can play make-believe. I ape the actions of the normal kids. I participate in class and get good grades. I know that a solid education is the only way to wake up from the nightmare. And all the while I pretend I’m not sharing a bed in a cheap motel room with my little brother, that I’m not wearing the same clothes I did the day before. I laugh through the embarrassment and smile through the pain. At school, I believe, everything is all right.
It isn’t always easy, keeping up the façade of emotional stability. One day, shortly after one of our many evictions, I am sitting in my U.S. history class, following one of my teacher’s entertaining lectures about “red pinko commies” — he’s a Vietnam vet — when he makes an announcement:
“Starting next week, I want all chapter outlines to be typewritten. Computers are where it’s goin’.”
As grumbles from the class subside, the anger in the pit of my stomach surges. How am I supposed to get a good grade if I have no way of completing the assignments? My family usually doesn’t have a place to call home, much less a computer to use. This teacher is intentionally making it harder for me to succeed. I’m a victim of our capitalist society, and he’s an unjust instrument of The Man. I decide to see my counselor and demand to be transferred out of the class.
First thing in the morning, I storm into the counselor’s office. I am instructed to sign in and have a seat. As I stare at the wall clock, the disdain I have for the system grows in direct proportion to the amount of time I must wait.
“Come on in, what can I do for you?” my counselor chirps, when she finally emerges. Her name is Mrs. White. Though she happens to be Asian, the name still fits. She maneuvers her five-foot-nothing frame around the desk to sit in an enormous black-leather chair. She smiles sweetly.
“I need to be transferred out of my history class,” I announce firmly. “I don’t have a computer!” I cannot contain the rage.
Her tranquility is a stark contrast. She tries to soothe me with her gentle tone. “We have other students that don’t have a computer, which is why we provide….”
“I’m sick and tired of everything being so hard.” My voice cracks, anger giving way to despair. Tears well up in my eyes. “I don’t deserve this. It’s not fair. What did I do?” I drop my face into my hands.
Mrs. White darts out of her gigantic chair, closes her office door, and grabs the flowery pink tissue box on her bookshelf. “What are we really talking about, David?”
A year’s worth of concealed anguish, frustration, and disappointment gushes as I relive the saga of recent days. I vent so much that I miss my first-period class.
∗ ∗ ∗
The deputy’s stiff khaki uniform bunches oddly at the shoulder as he motions to the locksmith, who moves swiftly in his faded jeans and T-shirt. Our eyes meet as he jingles toward the door. Then his gaze darts around the room, searching for something less pitiful to look at. He seems relieved as he crouches in front of the door and begins to fiddle with the knob. The emotional numbness I have felt so many times before sets in, and I stare in detached fascination as he goes about the task of ensuring that I can no longer get into my house.
I am jarred back to reality by my mother’s hollow voice. “David, honey, go upstairs and pack up some of your clothes. And wake up Daniel and tell him to do the same. Everything’s gonna be all right.”
“Yeah,” I say. It’s all I can manage. I dutifully walk upstairs and do as I’m told. I shake my younger brother awake. “Daniel, Mom needs you to get up and pack some clothes.”
“Why?” he asks groggily, in his high-pitched voice.
“We’re getting kicked out.”
“I don’t know, just get up.”
“Mom!” he yells. He throws off the covers and runs downstairs. Highly annoyed with him, I start stuffing clothes into the trash bag I’ve brought upstairs. A minute later my mom appears at the door of our room, holding my brother’s hand.
“Just get some clothes together,” she tells him. It is becoming harder for her to control her emotions. A tear leaks from her eye.
“Can I take my toys?” Daniel asks. He’s just a kid.
“No, honey, not right now. We’ll come back for them.”
“Where are we gonna go?” I ask.
“I don’t know yet, honey. I don’t know.” Tears now flow down my mom’s face. She tries unsuccessfully to steady herself. “Make sure you have all of your school stuff. Don’t worry, honey. It’s gonna be all right. God will provide.”
Sobbing now, she says, “I’m so sorry this keeps happening.”
The apology rings hollow. Disillusionment with my mother grows. I can no longer keep from crying.
We spend the next few months in what my mom refers to as the Sleazy-Eight Motel. The ambiance of the place fits quite nicely with the boarded-up restaurant next door and Pacers across the street — I always wondered who showed up to a strip club in a limousine. On more than one occasion I’m sure that I ride the elevator with a hooker. I desperately try to avoid the malodorous guy who loiters on the oversized electrical box in front, ranting about the devil’s inappropriate relations with his wife. There is also a time when the whole staff is in hysterics because someone has left a pig in one of the rooms.
Days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months. At last my mom proclaims that she’s found us somewhere to live. My brother gets excited. He cannot contain the grin that lights up his face. For someone so adept at make-believe, I don’t know why I feel I have to bring reality crashing down onto his head. I fight the urge to blurt a remark that will make him cry and upset my mother. Instead, I adopt his hopeful tone and ask our mom where this next place is.
“It’s right up the street,” she says, smiling. “It’s a house, too, not an apartment. I’ve always wanted my own house. I saw the For Rent sign and called. The guy is going to get back to me next week. Do you want to go look at it?”
“Yeah!” my brother says excitedly.
“Sure,” I say, trying to simulate his enthusiasm.
We walk the two blocks from the Sleazy-Eight to the driveway of the new place. The three of us stand there. There’s a chain-link fence and a locked gate.
My mom exclaims, “This is our house!”
I can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to get my hopes up. “No, it’s not,” I snap. “Not yet.”
“Yes, it is,” she says. “I’ve claimed it in the name of Jesus, so it’s ours!”
I try not to roll my eyes.
“Let’s pray.” She grabs my brother. “We are gonna lay our hands on this fence and claim this house in the name of Jesus!”
I do as instructed and close my eyes.
“Amen,” I repeat as she finishes her prayer. My hopes are up.
For once, I’m not disappointed. A week later we get the good word. We pack the few belongings we have at the motel and make arrangements to get the rest of our stuff out of storage. Finally, I am going to be a normal kid. I’m not going to have to pretend anymore. Everything is truly going to be all right.
∗ ∗ ∗
I remember how hard it was to breathe when I found her stash. I remember the feeling of isolation and all the questions. Was it my fault? Pangs of guilt, fear, betrayal, anger. I remember the weight of the burden that had just been placed on my shoulders. I remember my little brother. Oh God, my little brother. What am I supposed to tell him? I know I am going to have to raise him myself.
I find the syringes while moving into this new place I am to call home. It is late, around 10:00 p.m. The syringes are in a large ceramic Winnie the Pooh, an item I’ve never seen before. Used hypodermic needles rattle around in Winnie’s head. There must be 20 of them. I finally have answers to questions I should never have asked. The numbness sets in. I know that the money problems my mother is having are not the typical ones faced by most single parents. I am only 13, but I know that my life will never be the same again. My mom lied to me.
Trembling, I carry Winnie, filled with drug paraphernalia, to confront my mother. I find her in the kitchen with the usual — Popov, straight, no ice. She recognizes what’s in my hand. Our eyes meet. Hers tell me everything I need to know.
“Mom,” I say, keeping my composure. “What are these? Why do you have them?”
The lies spew from her mouth and hit me with such force. She sounds so sincere. I know she is capable of lying, but until now I didn’t realize how easy it is for her. My mother is a Monet in the art of deception.
“Where did you…uh…what do you mean, honey? What’s that?” Her eyes are glazed. She’s drunk, and possibly stoned. I don’t yet know how to tell the difference.
I’m surprised at how calm I am. “I found this in your room. It’s filled with needles. Why do you have them?”
“Oh, honey, I’ve never seen that before. Where did you say you found it? I have no idea where it came from.”
“Are they Michael’s?” I ask. Michael’s this guy my mom has just started dating. I barely know him, but apparently he is moving in with us.
“No, honey, absolutely not.”
I pretend to accept her denial. I practice her art. I spend the rest of the night alone and crying.
She and the boyfriend spend more and more time secluded in her bedroom. A beat-up brown Cadillac pulls into the driveway with increasing frequency. I steal money from Mom after she cashes her welfare check, to buy food for my little brother. Not only do I have to deal with the insecurity of being one of the few poor kids attending Point Loma High School, I also worry about not having a home or a mother to return to in the evening. My fears are not unfounded.
After school one day, my brother and I are playing basketball with a friend up the block. His house sits behind a used-car dealership. I hear the sirens but think nothing of them. The owner of the dealership rushes up to me as we play.
“There’s an ambulance in front of your house,” he says breathlessly. “I think someone might be hurt.”
I always thought this guy was a sleazebag, but at the moment he seems genuinely concerned. And now I know what this is — the day I’ve long been dreading has finally arrived. I sprint through the gravel lot, past the cars with the special low prices. I need to get home before my brother. I turn the corner.
An ambulance, lights flashing and accompanied by a fire truck with the same pulsating display, is parked in front of my house. Out of breath, I ask one of the EMTs what is happening. He ignores me and rushes inside. No one ever tells me that this is an overdose, but I already know. Maybe it’s my mom’s boyfriend or one of the other fiends that occupy our house. I have no idea what to do, no idea what to tell my little brother.
I hurry into the house. I look into my mom’s room. My fears are confirmed. I see her boyfriend crying, his shirt spattered with droplets of blood — apparently, he tried to smack her awake. I even catch a glimpse of her before the door closes. She is on the bed with a needle sticking out of her arm, while someone in uniform performs CPR. Numbness again. I wonder if my mom is dead, but I can’t cry. Back outside, I wait.
At last, she stumbles into the driveway, pale as a ghost. She looks barely conscious and still has a little blood trickling from the hole where the needle used to be. My little brother is here now, seeing her for the first time. He’s crying. I start to do the same.
As she is being helped to the ambulance, she looks at me with eyes glazed and nose bloodied and slurs those familiar, meaningless words: “Everything is gonna be all right.”
I wait until well past midnight for her to get home, and when she does, I am sure she can see the fear and disappointment on my face.
“Mommy’s fine, honey, I’m so sorry,” she says with a half-smile, trying to control her emotions. I resent her for talking down to me. My childhood is over.
“Why did you do that?” I ask.
“I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.” Tears stream down her face.
“Are you going to stop? If you cared about me, you would stop.”
“It’s complicated, honey. Mommy’s sick. I wish it were that easy. I’ll try.”
Not long after that night, there is pounding at the front door. Deputy Something-Or-Other, his locksmith standing behind him. We are, once again, being evicted. Only this time, there isn’t another apartment or another run-down motel room. This time there is a tent in the yard of a small house behind the used-car dealership.
∗ ∗ ∗
As the school year comes to a close, it gets harder to maintain my focus. I know that soon I will have no refuge from the chaos. I talk to my counselor, Mrs. White, but it doesn’t really help. Mr. Brandes, one of my teachers, notices and pulls me aside after class.
“Is everything okay, Dave? You’ve seemed kind of out of it the past couple of days.”
“I’m fine,” I say, dodging the question. “There’s been some stuff at home, but it’s okay.”
Thankfully, he changes the subject. “Are you going to sign up for Camp Anytown?” He’s been talking about this program in class for a while.
“No, I don’t think I can. I don’t have the money.”
He runs his fingers through his bright red hair. “Don’t worry. I’ve been volunteering with them. They have scholarships available.”
He goes back to his desk, grabs an application, and hands it to me. On the walk to the tent after school, I decide that a week away from this hell would be good for me. I fill out the application and get my mom’s signature before she disappears.
Camp Anytown is a week-long seminar on diversity issues for teens. Experiential exercises are designed to show the delegates, as we’re called, how to recognize and confront bias on the basis of race, gender, religion, class, and sexual orientation.
On the entire ride to camp, I worry so much about leaving my brother for a week that I have a pain in my stomach. But I am also glad to be getting away from the nightmare. At the camp, I learn a lot and make several new friends. By Wednesday, I forget the problems I’m having at home and actually start to have fun. Things change on Thursday.
Mr. Brandes, who volunteers as one of the camp’s codirectors, motions to me during afternoon free time. I follow him to the nurse’s station, where another codirector, Natalie, is wrapping up a conversation on the phone. She’s a police officer, a fact kept from the delegates until the Occupational Bias exercise that morning.
“Hi, David,” she says in a soothing, professional tone. “I just got off the phone with my station. I have to let you know that your mother was arrested last night and is in jail.”
I am stunned at this revelation. I look to Mr. Brandes, not knowing what to say. He puts a hand on my shoulder.
“What…what happened?” I finally blurt.
“She was arrested after being detained by security at the Target on Sports Arena. She was caught exiting the store with approximately $500 worth of merchandise.”
I feel an emotion that I don’t expect: guilt.
“Where’s my brother?” I ask.
“That’s what I was trying to find out. He’s at his friend’s house, and he’s safe.”
I feel an odd combination of anger and sorrow. I sit motionless and speechless.
“You know that we’re all here for you, Dave,” Mr. Brandes says with a reassuring smile, “if you need to talk.”
The next day is the end of camp. The theme is “Taking It Down the Mountain.” All the discussions and activities are centered on applying what we’ve learned to our daily lives. The question that finally gets to me is “What are your fears about going back down the mountain?” While my delegate peers anguish over apprehensions about their first confrontation with a person using a racial slur, I am crying uncontrollably outside with Mr. Brandes.
∗ ∗ ∗
My brother and I spend the next two years with my father, a former drill sergeant, at the Downtown YMCA. He is still trying to get back on his feet after being laid off from his warehouse-management job. He no longer lives at St. Vincent de Paul’s, but the Y isn’t much of a step up. It is, to be generous, a residential motel. The three of us stay in one room, smaller than most bedrooms. It only has two beds. “The bathroom’s down the hall,” my dad tells us, giving the grand tour. At least it’s better than the tent. As time passes, there are only two of us in that room. My brother stops showing up at night.
I escape back to school. I pretend everything is all right. Most of my free time is spent volunteering at Camp Mini-Town, the weekend version. One of the other student counselors is so inspired by the program that he later becomes a police officer. I acquire a new support system through my volunteer work and with the extra help and guidance graduate with honors and a 3.7 GPA. My brother drops out at 15. I try talking to him. It doesn’t go well.
We are finally approved for Section 8, but Daniel doesn’t help us move into our new place. He doesn’t even come home the night before. My brother is angry, and my dad is frustrated. I keep my head down and try to stay out of their way. I figure my dad will eventually wrangle my brother in, that Daniel will grow up and settle down.
Everything changes when the phone rings one night around 9:00. It’s not my brother on the line because my dad isn’t yelling yet. I can’t read his face as he hangs up the phone. The military taught him that.
“We have to go pick up your brother,” he says stoically.
“Where is he?”
“Just go get ready.”
We climb into the Chrysler Fifth Avenue he got for free from a coworker. The car is as old as I am and stopped being luxurious about the time I started elementary school. We pull up to a tow yard on the edge of La Jolla, near Pacific Beach.
“We’re here,” my dad says.
“Are you sure?”
There is no response as he gets out of the car. He lost some of his hearing in Vietnam, so maybe that’s why. Or maybe he is ignoring me.
A guy in a grease-stained jumpsuit walks up to my dad. I get out of the car. Why is my 15-year-old brother hanging out with this dude?
“Are you Danny’s dad?” Jumpsuit asks. “I’m his friend…”
My dad opens fire. “Where’s Daniel?”
“He’s on his way. I told him you were coming. He should be here soon.”
“I think he was having a bad trip or something. He was outside his ex-girlfriend’s house, naked, calling her name. She called us instead of the cops.”
My stomach begins to churn. I know my brother’s been having a hard time dealing with everything we went through, but I didn’t know he was going down the same path as our mom. I feel guilty again. Maybe I could have been a better brother.
A car pulls up. Daniel gets out of the front passenger seat. His eyes are glazed over, just like hers. He has the same delirious stagger.
My father stares at him. “Shut up and get in the car,” he barks before Daniel has a chance to speak.
We spend the first half of the ride home not talking. My brother’s demeanor is reminiscent of our mother’s when she got caught. The memories are too much for me to bear. Tears trickle down my cheeks.
Finally, my dad breaks the silence. “You’re a junkie,” he says to Daniel. “You should have been arrested.”
My brother remains quiet.
“I’ve been trying to help you, but you won’t listen. It’s getting to the point where I won’t be able to anymore. You’re gonna end up in jail.” He pauses before delivering the final blow. “You’re selfish, just like your mother.” My brother begins to sob.
∗ ∗ ∗
There’s been plenty of collateral damage from the way I grew up. I was angry for a long time and depressed enough to drop out of USD, where I had a full ride. I’ve spent a good amount of time reflecting on things. I’m back in school now and have a pretty good life. I’ve even been able to forgive my mother. I haven’t reconnected with the people I credit for helping me through that horrible time, including Mrs. White and Mr. Brandes, but they know what they did for me. I wish my little brother had more people like them in his life. Daniel has gotten into a lot of trouble since we were kids. My cop buddy even arrested him once.
Danny recently got out of rehab, but I hear he’s back in jail. We don’t talk much.