The Lost Boys

By June Malcolm

The first kid is a denim blur past my open office door, a war whoop echoing down the long corridor. His tennis shoes slap squeak slap squeak against the vinyl tile. The next kid is chunkier, his gait slower, his shout more like a growl. Behind him comes the third and smallest, who stumbles splat in front of my door. I can smell his not-too-clean denim jacket and pants, torn at one knee and too long for his short legs. A female voice calls out “Get back here right now, you little motherfuckers!”

It’s like this sometimes when you manage a building populated by community-based social-service agencies. Nothing in property-management classes prepares you for these loud dramas. Caucasian skin can be a help or not, and you never know which until you collide with the problem.

I help the kid up and wipe a tear from his brown cheek with a tissue. His skin is smooth, his closely cropped hair soft. A jagged scab puckers his left eyebrow. “Are you hurt?” I ask.

He looks into my face but doesn’t answer. Social-worker friends talk about the kids who are too far gone for help, and this kid’s brown eyes stare back at me without any recognition or feeling. The smell of dirty clothes and burnt bacon surrounds us. The cursing woman is upon us, an average-size, middle-aged African-American woman in a good tweed coat buttoned into the wrong buttons. One stocking is full of runs.

“I’m dumping these motherfuckers here right now,” she says. “I’m done with the foster-parent shit. I don’t care where they go. I’m done with them. Took the poleece just to get them into the car. Animals is what they are. Animals.” She’s crying fat tears now.

The littlest kid hangs just past where either of us could touch him. The two other boys stand down the corridor where a second hall splits off. The skinny first kid rotates his hips suggestively and his cupped hand pumps the air in front of his zipper. Every word from his mouth is viler than the one before. He’s maybe ten years old.

I ask what’s going on and receive a disjointed explanation involving a son in Germany, a whoring mother, drugs, gangs, and broken wrought-iron furniture. I deduce that the chubby child who stares at us around the corner of the wall is the woman’s grandchild and the other two are his half brothers. Same mom, different dads.

“I tried to do what he wanted. I love my son, my only baby, and I did try to do what he wanted. So help me Jesus, I tried. But they’re bad, just bad. That first one is evil. Pure evil. Breaking up my furniture like that was just pure evil. He turned Tony so bad that I don’t want him.”

She points a long index finger at the oldest child. “You’ll burn up in hellfire, you little sawed-off motherfucker.”

The chubby one, I deduce, is Tony, and all Tony sees is the oldest child. He doesn’t look at his grandmother or younger brother or me.

By this time social workers, clients, and curious visitors have come into the corridor to see what’s happening, and I’ve asked one to call for a supervisor. Dumping foster children is a definite no-no. The children must go to one of the state’s “receiving centers,” shelters that few honest souls would claim live up to their name.

I gather the three children–I don’t know why they listen to me–and herd them into the sparsely furnished waiting room.

The oldest announces, “I work for the man. That bitch ain’t shit. See this?” He pulls a fat roll of bills from his pocket. Even if they’re all ones, he must have $50. “I carry for the man. This is his money. She ain’t nothin’. Her furniture ain’t nothin’ now.” He grins through half-grown permanent teeth, still jagged like tiny shark’s teeth.

“That’s right,” the chubby one says. “He’s got all the money. All the money.”

The littlest one moves between the two older boys but doesn’t touch either one. His thumb wanders into his mouth, and he sucks on it like an even smaller child. I expect the other two to make fun of him, but they don’t.

“She got herself all this fancy black furniture–not to sit on, but for looking at,” the oldest explains.

“Stupid,” chimes in the middle child, while the youngest’s eyes stare unfocused into some other zone.

“So we broke it all up.”

“To show her who’s boss.”

I ask them to sit quietly–though I don’t believe for a moment that they will–while I get help for them.

“We don’t need no fucking help,” says the oldest.

The middle child nods in agreement, and the youngest sways in rhythm with the movements of the thumb that’s stuck firmly in his mouth.

I close the door and turn to the foster mother. “You can’t leave these children here. Their worker isn’t here. We don’t accept children here. Just at the shelters. You’ll have to take them–”

“I ain’t taking them nowhere. Weren’t you listening? I said it took the poleece for me to get them this far. Didn’t it?”

She gestures to a man standing a few feet away who’s wearing a Chicago Police Department uniform under a Chicago Bear’s windbreaker. I hadn’t noticed him before, and I look at him inquiringly.

He says, “Look, I’m late to work already. I felt sorry for her the way they were kicking her car and stuff. This isn’t my mess. I could get in trouble. Besides, those kids are something else. I mean it. I just told her I’d help her get them up here, and now I’m going.”

He pushes the call button for the elevator. I know arguing won’t work.

At last a supervisor arrives on the scene, a middle-aged African-American woman with her hair tightly wound into a monumental French twist. She explains that the children’s caseworker is in court, that she isn’t the caseworker’s supervisor, only the supervisor on call. “Won’t you please keep these children?” she says. “Anyone can see they’re special-needs children. We can get you extra money for keeping them, you know? Money for counseling, maybe even clothes.”

“Can you get me new black wrought-iron furniture for my front stoop?”

“Well, we can’t get you that, but–”

“Well, ‘but’ this–I ain’t taking them back.”

The elevator door opens to unload more staff and clients. The foster mother hops on, hits the close button, and disappears. As if on cue, the three boys pop out of the reception-room door and run from the gathering of adults. War whoops, hollers, and shoe squeaks fill the air.

The supervisor wrings her hands, and the children run up behind her. The oldest reaches out as if to grab her around the waist, and she backs away until her shoulders are flat against the corridor wall. The oldest giggles.

I feel the start of a headache. “You guys have to go back to the waiting room and sit down,” I say. I push the oldest boy’s shoulder, and he moves easily toward the waiting room. The other two follow and sit on either side of him on the vinyl bench. I’m amazed.

“We goin’ to the Audry?” the middle child asks.

He means the Audy Home at Juvenile Court. I tell them I doubt it, but don’t know.

Soon after, another caseworker arrives to take over. He’s a young African-American, tall and bulky like a bodybuilder. Even the oldest seems impressed. The worker nods his thanks to me and closes the door to the waiting area.