A naked man stole beer
from a Florida convenience
store before diving into a lake,
attempting to fire his gun
at pursuing deputies and then
shooting and killing himself,
After my cousin’s death, I grudgingly returned to Southwest Florida for Christmas. Mommy and Cricket had moved with him one hundred miles up the Gulf Coast from Naples to Sarasota when I fled for college two years earlier. They hoped that detaching him from the buyers and dealers he hung with would halt his fast downward spiral into drugs and despair. It didn’t. Getting off the plane from Santa Fe, NM, the salt and swamp air oppressed me. Two blessed years without the smell of rotting fish or eggs from the groundwater system. And their new town had all the tourist chintz of our old with none of the natural splendor of the Everglades. The house that they’d moved to was squat, grey, and dreary. It had a suburban, somewhat saggy, front lawn with a lone, barely clipped palm tree. The fenced side yard was less maintained. Like the house they’d left behind, it was small. A real bedroom each for Mommy and Cricket, of course, a living room, a “cozy” kitchen, a fabric closet, and a lanai where they kept the computer.
I took the mostly finished garage which he no longer needed.
I don’t know if he had to make that room for himself as he had in our old log cabin in Naples, putting up walls where the screened porch had been, or if the garage door was already walled up when they moved in. But it still had the feel of a provisional space tacked on to the real house — concrete-floored, without closet, far from a bathroom, and accessed through the laundry hall off the kitchen — which felt apt. Mommy and Cricket were essential, a self-refreshing perpetual trauma machine, while everyone else came and went. It had been that way since my infancy when Mommy (who was really our grandmother) had Child Protective Services remove me and Cricket from our birth parents, her son and his wife. If I, the elder sibling, could not crack that duplet, he, coming late to the party, never stood a chance.
I stepped down onto the cool, concrete floor of his world, and a wave of exhaustion crashed into me. The air in the room was thick, still, and heavy, like an undertow. The sliding glass door to the right, which led into the side yard, was partially covered by a cheap sheet. In the month and a half since his death, they’d barely touched the room. It was dirty and packed with his life. A pile of socks, wife beaters, and baggy jeans sweated by the doorway. Stacks of High Times and sleeves full of baseball cards. His hip hop and rap CDs tumbled out of cases and off the shelves along the wall. He had liked to spend his money on flashy things. A large silver ’90s-style stereo took up most of the side-dresser, topped with change, ashes, and something sticky. A large-screen tv stood focally atop the dresser opposite the futon (every room besides mine had always featured a T.V. — this made it easier for us to avoid one another.) But there on the futon, mixed in with his soiled sheets, was the soft, green stuffed frog that his mother, me and Cricket’s Titi Lauri, Mommy’s elder daughter, had given him before she died.
It was hard to stay awake in that room — the whole house, really, and this had been true long before he died. Growing up, I had the strange sensation that I was wading through a graveyard wherever we lived, so I’d avoided home as much as possible even as a kid, spending long hours at school or the mall. But it was much worse in his room after his death. It got so bad that I took a book outside and tried to read under the anemic Palm Tree one morning. The neighbors called the cops. Even after I’d convinced them I belonged, they made it clear that sitting on the grass outside the house was unacceptable, so I trudged back in. I didn’t try to stay awake after that. At one point, I woke up and the tv was on, blue-screened, as though waiting for me to insert a VHS tape. I turned it off, but there must have been something wrong with the wiring, because the next time I woke up, it was on again. I staggered up and unplugged it. The next time I woke up, the sliding glass door was open, though I hadn’t opened it. I closed it. When I looked up a few minutes later, it was open again. Then, the T.V. turned itself back on. Even though it was still unplugged.
I never stayed out there again.
One in every twelve children have experienced parental incarceration.
This US phenomenon is unique in the world.
Studies report numerous negative outcomes as a consequence,
ranging from depression and anxiety to aggression and delinquency.
My cousin was so beautiful as a baby that they actually used him in commercials. He was born with a full head of Titi Lauri’s thick, smooth, dark hair, huge blue eyes, and dimples so deep, he made everyone laugh just by looking at him. In a rare picture from his first weeks, Titi Lauri, the family beauty, cradles him with a private look of love and joy while his father, JC “Gator” leans against her holding up their baby’s head while looking down at him with unmistakable pride. We all doted over him.
We nicknamed him Baby J — a name we chose to represent everything lovely and innocent about him. A name we later clung to in hopes that it might one day fit again when it didn’t. Because as soon as Baby J was born, it seems like the stars started turning against him. Gator, a tall, thin, tan, wiry, cowboy of a man, several years older than Titi Lauri, was imprisoned for life after another man broke into their tiny east Naples house. The man came to kill Gator; who managed to disarm that man, instead, and shoot him. Because the invader was unarmed when he died, even though he’d broken in with obvious intent to harm, the courts ruled that Gator’s actions were not self-defense. Gator was sentenced to life in prison. And Titi Lauri, in her early twenties and with no real source of income, was left alone in that house to care for Baby J as best she could.
In my earliest clear memory, I am four years old. It is just me and Titi Lauri in the living room of that tiny east Naples House. Baby J is in his cradle in her bedroom. Titi Lauri often watched me and Cricket for Mommy in our early years. I don’t know why I’m alone with her in this memory. It might be that Mommy and Cricket were having their “one on one” time. But it’s just me there. Titi Lauri is leaning against the sliding glass door, and her face is half-covered by Venetian blinds. It’s late afternoon and getting dim. There are no lights on in her house, so her face pressed against the glass is almost all I can see. I am looking up at her. Baby J is crying in the other room.
She says, “Pam, go take care of the baby.” I leave.
Then, I hear a shot. And she is gone.
I have been told that I wasn’t there. If that’s true, no one can explain how I knew that she shot herself. What I did not know at the time was that Mommy had talked her into moving back home so she could support Titi Lauri and Baby J, too, on her public-school teacher’s salary, somehow. I’ve wondered more than once if the looming prospect of returning to that house was part of what resolved her to check out early.
There are over 400,000 kids in foster care.
Only 50% graduate from high school. 3% will graduate from college.
They suffer from PTSD at two times the rate of a returning veteran.
80% of inmates on death row come from foster care.
With no parents left to take care of him, Baby J became a “ward of the courts” like me and Cricket. When Mommy and Grandaddy were married, they had three children. Tommy, the eldest, fathered me and Cricket. Titi Lauri gave birth to Baby J. And the youngest, Titi Lucinda, had one daughter, Lali. (Titi Lucinda also died when Lali was a baby, within a year of Titi Lauri.) None of us were raised by our parents. We all fell into the clutches of Florida’s child welfare system. We all wound up in what’s known as “kinship care.” It’s the fad in foster care to give kids to someone else in the family unit. About a third of kids in the system are in kinship care. The official reasoning is that it’s supposed to make the kid’s life more stable and less traumatic to stay in the family. But that assumes, of course, that the rest of the family is more stable and less messed up than the parents who couldn’t raise their kids, to begin with. Which, fat chance—family trauma. I think the real motive is that it’s just cheaper and easier for the state. They don’t bother to train kinship parents or check-up to make sure that kids are ok.
Baby J was not ok. He was sent to live with Grandaddy, a wealthy asshole (think Scrooge McDuck, but more portly), and his second wife, Grandmommy, a sweet, pillowy vacuous woman. But J told me his earliest memory was of having Grandaddy take his name away from him and rename him a “Watts.” I don’t know what else went on in that mansion. But when Grandmommy died from a liver transplant that didn’t work when Baby J was 10 or 11, he ran away rather than stay there. Grandaddy immediately remarried Grandmommy’s attractive, young nurse. At his funeral years later, she told us she once heard Grandaddy tell Baby J that Titi Lauri would never have killed herself if she’d really loved him.
Baby J bounced around on people’s couches for a while. Grandmommy’s daughter eventually invited him to move in with her family. However, she had a son about Baby J’s age and Baby J had already started smoking pot and stealing hubcaps by then. She decided he was a bad influence, so she told him he had to leave.
Many youth find themselves involved in both the
juvenile justice system and the child welfare system.
Most frequently, they enter foster care and then commit
an offense that brings them into the justice system.
When I was five years old, not long after Titi Lauri died, I stood out on the curb of my school in the Southwest Florida sun for two hours after my first day of kindergarten. Mommy forgot to tell me I should take the bus. (Mommy forgot a lot of things in the years after she lost both her daughters.) I got sunstroke. I was desperately ill. Lying on the couch, feverish, I saw Titi Lauri looking down on me. She didn’t speak. But I was convinced she was asking me to “take care of the baby.” like she had that day. I don’t know if I decided it was my job to take care of everyone before or after that. But when Baby J had no place else to go, I convinced Mommy to let him move in with us.
Our cabin was out in the boonies in the not-nice part of Naples. It was set back in the woods, and I heard a panther calling outback more than once. An actual donkey lived in the house to the right of my bedroom. And a girl down the street once opened her front door to faint knocking that turned out to be a baby pig. I was 14, Cricket 13, and Baby J was 12 when Grandmommy’s daughter drove her grey minivan up the long driveway from the road. She dropped Baby J off with his one duffle bag of clothes.
Mommy and I met him at the door, made eye contact, and, in unison we all started singing, “Reunited, and it feels so good . . .” by Peaches & Herb.
The cabin was made of thick logs, and it was quite small. The most irritating of our three cats had learned that if he yowled on the bathroom sink at 4 am, he’d wake up the whole house and somebody would cave in and throw him outside. There was Mexican tile everywhere but the bedrooms, which had ratty carpet. One of the tiles in the kitchen had a raccoon’s paw prints set into it by accident. There was a central living room with some couches, a computer in the corner, and a garish yellow table surrounded by macabre chairs with leering suns on them. I have never known why Mommy thought that was the right choice. The kitchen, Mommy’s bedroom, mine, Cricket’s, and the porch all radiated off the center room like broken Starfish stubs. I had promised to give Baby J my room to get him to move in, but I lied. It was the only thing I had of my own in that house, and I couldn’t give it up. So, he slept on a couch for a month or two. Then he got up, took some plywood, and put up walls in place of the screens on the back porch.
And that’s pretty much how it went. I have been around other families enough over the years now to know that he was probably expecting something different than we were. We ate exactly one meal together every year: Thanksgiving. And that was about it for family time. Mommy stayed in bed watching CSI constantly. She’d retired from teaching by then but her retirement wasn’t enough to support us, so she dragged herself out of bed to go sling fabric at JoAnn’s. That was about it. Cricket dropped out of high school freshman year, and the two of them were thick as thieves. And not friendly, Robinhoodish ones. They talked about boys, drugs, and I don’t know what else. They didn’t have much space for anyone else.
I tried to get Mommy to do something that she would enjoy with people outside of the house; I tried to help Cricket get a GED; I tried to make Baby J feel like he had a family. But I just couldn’t breathe when I was there, so I mostly stayed gone. My teachers loved me, so I spent as much time as possible at school.
And Baby J, well, he spent more and more of his time getting high with his friends. I mean, we were all just drowning our pain in that house one way or another — with avoidance or tv or drugs. He got tagged for possession at school, which quickly got him labeled as trouble. He had no money. We had no money. And he wanted nice things, so he started dealing. Weed at first, which landed him in boot camp. But he also made enough to buy a fat, shiny new blue pick-up truck. Before long it was coke, meth, painkillers, ketamine, Xanax. He was kicked out of every high school in the district his first year. Then he got picked up for dealing and petty theft and was sent to Juvenile detention. He had to learn to use his fists to survive in there. He came out mad, and he came out mean.
15 years old, he was wiry and muscled like his dad. He shaved his head, and he had the pock-marked adolescent skin type. There was so little of Baby J left. But he still had those big, blue eyes, and he could still charm with those dimples. Sometimes, things were almost good between us. Sometimes he would blast one of his favorite songs, and we would dance around the house singing. Sometimes, we would wrestle and it was almost like trying to hug. But he spent more and more time doing coke, and when he was high, he didn’t know what he was doing. He just knew that he was angry, and the world was fucked up, and I was there. To this day, I’m not sure if he ever remembered beating me in the living room outside Mommy’s bedroom, while she refused to intervene, telling herself I could take care of myself.
I had terrible migraines every day for a year and a half that the doctors never solved.
I knew he was sinking. I knew Mommy was sinking and pulling Cricket down with her. I knew every damn person who came into that house would eventually sink. But Mommy was right about one thing, at least: I could take care of myself. And I did.
The man was apparently under
the influence, an authority said.
“He was stoned. His eyes were
almost shut. He was really out of
it,” she said.
The moment I turned 18, I ran 3,000 miles away to the desert, to a tiny College up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains where the air was light and easy to breathe and where I could lock myself away in a tower, reading The Great Books of Western Literature with other misfits who also wanted to live in their minds. Mommy and Cricket thought moving might be enough — get Baby J away from that house, from the drugs and the thugs. But they weren’t the real problem — we lived in four houses over the years, and it was always the same. It was never the house, itself, or the town. It was the way our family carried the dead around with us. It was the weight of their choices and our own.
One night, towards the end of the first semester of my sophomore year, I was sitting in a New Testament seminar where we were discussing The Gospel According to John. Out of nowhere, it struck me — atheist, though I was, that I could be saved. It was a physical, visceral experience, a knowing that shot down through every part of me. I had no idea either then or afterward what I’d meant by “saved.” I was not then or for many years later even slightly concerned about the state of my eternal soul. But at that moment, I was ecstatic. Pot was the hardest drug I’d tried, but I had not smoked any that night. And yet, it was definitely an altered state, having no cause that made sense. I couldn’t focus on the conversation in class anymore at all. The world was suddenly too beautiful, strange, and full of shapes and colors and physical sensations. Something was riding me.
I left class and went back to my room. I threw out my completed end-of-semester seminar paper on Shakespeare and started writing some mashup-treatise based on the Gospel of John, the book of Genesis, and Plato. My central argument, looking back, seems to have been that God is the embodied concept of Reason and that by being rational, we can become like him. The irony of that thesis, which I was writing in a moment of peak, inexplicable emotional intensity, was wholly lost on me at the time. So, I wrote and I wrote; about how to be saved, until just after four in the morning Mountain Time, at which point, it suddenly ended. Whatever had been riding me was done. I was mid-paragraph, mid-sentence, less than half a page from the end of the paper, but it didn’t matter. It was done.
I went to bed.
The next morning Mommy called to tell me Baby J had been on drugs the previous night, had driven down to Naples, and had tried to rob a liquor store while naked. He died just after 6 am Eastern Standard Time (4 am Mountain Time). Cricket filled in some of the details later. Apparently, he converted to Christianity the week before he died, something almost unthinkable in our family at the time. That night he’d called every local person he knew, including all of Cricket’s friends. He was trying desperately to find someone, anyone, to be with him.
When no one took his call, he did a line of coke and took a handful of Xanax.
“As he was swimming, he
pulled out his gun, pointed it at the
deputies and pulled the trigger,
but it didn’t go off,” an authority said.
Deputies dove for cover, but did
not fire, she said. The deputies then
heard a single gunshot, she said.
They looked toward the lake, but
he had disappeared.
They say that while high, he dove into a lake. They say the police didn’t fire a shot. They say that while swimming, and high, he was able to fire blanks at the police and then turn a real bullet on himself. There was never an investigation. But even if that police account is true, I often wonder what would have happened if just one chain in the link had been different: if Gator’s prosecutors had shown leniency, if CPS had stepped in to investigate his kinship placement, if he’d been given help instead of punishment when he started to act out, if even one school had taken a chance on him.
He had been 18 for one month when he died.
A year and a half after his death, Mommy was diagnosed with cancer but told she would be fine. She was gone three weeks later. Technically, it was starvation. Cricket thinks it was a broken heart. I’ve had a recurring dream for years since then. He is always about to die, and I need to get there in time to stop it, but I am always minutes too late. And I find him hanging from my favorite childhood climbing tree or the monkey bars of our jungle gym, and I have to cut him down.
I was living in Vermont years later with a partner and another foster child I was helping to raise. He had his own world of rage and abandonment issues. It brought up so much of the old stuff that I finally knew what Baby J must have realized all those years earlier, just before he died — people aren’t built to walk through a fallen world alone. It took another six years of struggle before I, too, converted to Christianity. But I took the first step then, walking into a Unitarian Universalist Church in town. For El Dia de Los Muertos, the young, idealistic minister blithely welcomed back the spirits of all the people in our lives who had died.
I had a panic attack in the sanctuary.
He died from a self-inflicted
gunshot wound to the head,
said an authority.
After Baby J died, they tried to rent out his room. Four times, in fact, in less than two years. Carly, Brook, Joanie, and Justin. All in their early 20s, just like me and Cricket. None of them lasted more than a few months in there. Carly, a nice girl who waitressed at the Ale House with Cricket, randomly started selling coke and left. Brook, who was studying for law school when she moved in, suddenly became a drug addict, got five cats, got pregnant, and dropped out of school. Joanie was only there for two weeks before she had a mental breakdown and checked herself into the hospital. Justin’s stay was even shorter. Almost as soon as he moved in, he also took Xanax and cocaine and ended his life. They stopped trying to rent out the room after that.
A decade later, I found out from Cricket that I was not the only one who the sliding glass door had uncannily opened for. •