Joey, Harry, Lilly, and Me by Thomas Laver
The screen door had no window. I stared at it, shocked. Nobody that I knew, certainly not my parents, would have put up with such disrepair, especially on the front door. Bob, my colleague from the social agency that had just hired me, had transferred a young man to my caseload. This was our introductory visit.
I knocked on the silver aluminum frame. No one answered. However, Bob knew what to do.
He led the way as we simply walked into the living room, its paint-peeled walls filled with holes. How did all these holes get there? Fights? My uneasiness increased. I had never seen a place like this before. Nonetheless, I thought I could cope, especially being dressed for success like a veteran social worker. It didn’t hurt that my image-conscious mother had a hand in my choice of attire.
So, I attempted to grab some composure from wearing my brand-new blue suit and red tie. My just-polished black oxfords gleamed in the bit of light the room offered. I removed the brown, fashionable-for-1964 fedora my mum persuaded me to buy. I selected a large, comfortable-looking easy chair, sat down, and assumed a professional air, a mixture of compassion and calm business-like self-confidence. All faked. The house, at least what I’d seen of it, was a horror show. Who would live in this dump? What would this first client be like?
Then, another surprise.
The chair had no springs and in less than a minute it swallowed me like a killer whale swallows a tuna. Immersed in its maw, I waited, anxious to see what would come next. Bob had chosen, because of his familiarity with the furniture, a wooden seat. He glanced at me with a bemused look.
As this Fellini movie continued, a sign of life appeared. Footsteps ascended from the basement. In seconds, a door opened wide into the living room, another oddity to a middle-class person like me. That was nothing compared to what came through that door – a tall, barefoot, unshaven man in blue overalls, the kind held up with wide suspenders. He approached what he could see of me buried in my chair. He did not say who he was or extend any kind of greeting. I could tell by the puzzled look on Bob’s face that he hadn’t seen him before. Instead, the man presented for my culinary delight a skinny yellow animal that he probably had just slaughtered in the basement. He identified the species of the headless creature with the word “chicken”, as he dangled it with his dirty finger- nailed hands closer to my face. I smiled, nauseated. The only chicken I’d ever seen came wrapped in plastic in a supermarket, the cause of its demise not apparent. The blood from the featherless fowl dripped on my shiny oxfords, and then rolled across the bare, green-tiled floor.
I was now ready to leave and find a career-exploration programme, when conscience intervened. I had left a Roman Catholic seminary that year. I felt I had a moral obligation to continue helping people. With a reassuring nod from Bob, I remained seated.
Suddenly, I heard a rapid movement coming down the steps from the second floor.
A tall young man, even taller than the chicken killer, thinner than a steel pole, his brown hair slicked back like a West Side Story member of the Jets, burst into the room. The rapier-like motions of his hands suggested he would be as fast with a knife as he would with his feet. Briefly, I envisaged my “too too solid flesh” penetrated by his unsheathed blade. He slumped against a wall. I climbed out from my clamshell. Bob introduced us. “This is the new social worker I told you about.”
The youth mumbled something that sounded like his name and dropped to the floor. I had met my first client, eighteen-year-old Joey.
Joey had not made it past grade eight. I had a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy, which would give me a syllogistic advantage if I ever had to convince him to shape up. But he had an arrow in his intellectual quiver that wiped out that advantage – street smarts. I was putty in his hands and he knew it. Forget the degree. Plato and Aristotle had no chance against this kid.
Shortly thereafter, I met another client, Joey’s friend Harry. He was also eighteen. His slower gait, and less assertive manner suggested he was Joey’s follower. As I would soon learn though, while he was not as good a manipulator as his buddy, he too had figured out I was a classic mark who had no clue what he was up against. Thus armed, they set out on their mission…make me quit.
The initial weapon they used was a simple scam – they altered a cleaning bill to get more money from me. Part of my job was to give them an expense allowance. At a very naïve twenty-four, it did not cross my mind that such a theft could happen. After all, I was a Catholic, a believer in the Ten Commandments. Who would do this? Eventually I caught on, but let it go. I didn’t wish to alienate my new “friends”. My supervisor, Mr. Gallagher, helped me understand that this was the wrong way to deal with these guys. I trusted his judgment because he had far more expertise than I did. He was also a Catholic. If he didn’t feel guilty about using a tougher approach, neither should I.
One day I was driving the boys back to the social agency. I had found them a small flat that morning. Without warning, a parked car pulled out in front of mine and missed my right fender by inches. I yelled through the open window, “Watch out. You nearly rammed into me!”
The driver got out of his car and approached. He was large and looked mean. I reacted, I must say, with a great deal of courage. I rolled up the window. He shook his fist, its huge size and raw meat colour indicated it did not belong to a concert pianist. He threatened what he would do to me if he wasn’t in a hurry and went back to his vehicle. I carried on, shaken. In the back seat, the two amigos sensed another opportunity to test me and began their assault.
“He was gonna thump yah.”
Thump was a word with which I was not acquainted, but it sounded like what a fellow employee confirmed it was – a punch in the face. The lads were masters at their craft. They shoved in the knife, let me relax, and went at it again.
“You were really scared weren’t yah…You were almost cryin’.”
Almost? No, not almost.
Finally, I told them to cut it out or there would be no expense money this week. They had won again.
Over the subsequent few months, I learned how to deal with these kids. Since so many adults, including their parents, had betrayed them, they worked us social workers over to see if we would abandon them too. I realized they needed more than just a social worker as therapist and general life guide; they also needed and wanted a firm hand to give them some control, because they intuitively grasped that people who were concerned about them, would not let them run amok. I resolved to end their manipulation.
A week after the near-car crash, they arrived in my office, and demanded their usual allowance. I had already told them that I expected them to show me job applications, or proof that they had signed up for a skilled trades course.
“Are you crazy, man?” Joey snarled. “We don’t wanna work at some crummy job and we’re too dumb to go to school.”
They were not too dumb, and they knew I knew that.
“C’mon man, give us our money,” Harry ordered.
I did not and told them to leave and come back when they were ready to cooperate. Sometime during the ensuing weeks, they showed up with job offers and threw them on my desk. I had passed the test, at least for now. A start for them; a step forward for me.
“Congrats fellas,” I said with a smile, and gave them their allowance. “See you next week. Lots of luck with your new jobs.”
“Yah, OK,” they grumbled, and left. Of course, I checked to see if they showed up at work.
However, it’s rarely a straight line with deprived adolescents like Joey and Harry. On a sunny spring afternoon, I saw Joey on a main street, dressed in what looked like a new expensive suit with a girl on his arm. He looked good, maybe too good. A day or two later, Mr. Gallagher informed me that Joey had been arrested. He had broken into a store. I was frustrated and angry. I thought we were past that stuff.
“Joey, why did you do that? Everything was going so great.”
“I dunno. You’re a cheapskate. I needed more money so I could take my girlfriend Suzy to a fancy restaurant.”
“Harry doesn’t ask for more. I saw him the other day with his girlfriend.”
I understood one of the reasons he did it. Old habits die hard. He had done this before and unlike Harry, he wasn’t finished assessing if I really cared about him.
As his social worker, I had to speak for him in court. He stood there and tried to look cool and I think he was. It was clear that court appearances were not new for him. He remained cool until he heard the judgment in another trial, a case that involved incest. The judge sentenced the convicted offender to a jail term and five strokes of the lash. Joey was no longer calm. He thought this might be his punishment too. Perhaps it was cruel, but knowing he needed more self-discipline if he was to stay out of jail, I did not make him aware of his false fear.
About this time, I switched to high school teaching. Social work was too stressful. With great regret, I said goodbye to Joey, Harry and the youngsters that were on my caseload and set out on my new career. When I returned for a visit, Mr. Gallagher said they missed me. I felt gratified about my achievements.
Fifteen years later, while counselling a student about family problems, I discovered that he was the nephew of Joey and Suzy.
I was stunned!
What struck me most was not the improbability of discovering this relationship. It was something else.
Joey, abandoned by his teenaged parents at birth, then shunted from foster home to foster home. Joey, who had kicked his girlfriend Suzy in the stomach in an unsuccessful attempt to end her pregnancy. Joey, who then became so possessive about his newborn child, that for weeks he refused to let anyone see Suzy and their offspring. Joey, who despite his early life of endless chaos, had persevered, and had stayed with the same girl whose baby he had tried to abort. And this was after fifteen years had passed since I had been his social worker. At that moment, I had great admiration for Joey, and Harry too. I’ve often thought how different their lives might have been if more breaks, such as fewer foster homes, had come their way when they were much younger. I never forgot Joey and Harry and believed that the effect on me of the tragic events of those lives, particularly Joey’s, couldn’t be surpassed.
Then, I remembered Lilly.
Neighbours had informed the agency that a child in one of our foster homes was the victim of severe neglect. Mr. Gallagher had dispatched me to investigate. While her family enjoyed a BBQ in the backyard, I scribbled furiously as the foster mother guzzled her third beer and spewed out answers to my questions.
“Who cares? Most of the time we don’t know where she is.”
I happened to look out the living room window and there she was with her doll, seated alone on the hot asphalt driveway beside the back wheel of my blue Ford Escort agency car.
“What’s she doing out there by herself? She’s only five. Shouldn’t she be in the backyard at the BBQ with the rest of your family?”
“She’s a picky eater. If she wants to be on her own, that’s her problem.”
By now, I hated this woman. I clenched my fists, gritted my teeth, and struggled to keep my now seasoned professional demeanour.
Take notes man, lots of notes. She’s climbed into the coffin. Let her nail it shut herself. We have to get this child out of here.
This move wasn’t possible. At least not right away. There was a shortage of foster homes. We had no place to send her.
A few days after my visit to her foster home, I brought Lilly to the agency. The staff psychologist needed to see her. When the appointment was over, I knelt down on one knee to button her red-riding hood coat. The weather had turned colder on that first day of fall. She looked at me with sad, but trusting blue eyes. A wisp of black hair, and her soft, pretty face glistened from beneath her red hood. I decided right then I would be a father someday. We said goodbye to the psychologist and headed back to her house.
Around the end of September, as warm weather returned, her foster family went to a conservation area for a swim and a picnic. They would have left her at the house but they knew it was illegal. When they arrived at the park, Lilly, as usual, had to fend for herself. On that beautiful afternoon, as she wandered around alone, absorbed in her own thoughts, she must have wondered why no one cared about her. Distracted, she slipped and fell into the lake. She couldn’t swim. Nobody had taught her. In my imagination, I can still hear her tiny voice crying for help as the unforgiving water engulfed her. She didn’t know what was happening.
Lilly, my little red riding hood girl, drowned.
Just before I left the agency to attend teacher’s college, I asked an older colleague for advice about a minor dispute I was having with my parents. His reply? “No one will ever love you like your mother and father.” True, for most people I think. Definitely true for me. To my Mum and Pop, I mattered more than life. But tell that to Joey and Harry. Tell that to Lilly. Their parents gave them away and unlike most people who foster children, their foster parents were in it for the money. Nothing more.