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Chapter 11: More Norman


ThinkLink: Did you ever try to tell someone you thought they were making a mistake, but they wouldn’t listen to you?

       What happens at the hearing is we both lose our privs and get two days in lock-up. Tony's right. It's a real vacation to be all by myself for a couple of days. I catch up on my sleep, do pushups, walk around in circles for exercise and read a crummy book.

       After I've been back in Taylor Cottage for two weeks, I get my first-level privs back. It's all I can do to hold myself back when I see Randy and Hi-Lo go down the hall, but I think tags. I'm sitting on a bench, waiting my turn for the phone, thinking what I'll say to Mom. Davis calls me into his office. "You're up next," he tells me. "Don't talk more than five minutes."

       Lori answers the phone. She's so excited to talk to me she goes on a-mile-a-minute. "I drew a picture of me making a snowman. I drew most of it yesterday, but I finished it today. I love first grade. I love my teacher, too."

       "What'd they give you for lunch?"

       " Busgetti and green beans. They didn't have chocolate milk, so I had regular. John, when can you come home? I want you at my birthday party when I'll be seven. You can come? Please come."

       "I don't know, but I'll send you a birthday card."

       "Mom's going to let me have a new cat. Norman's cat had kittens and I get to pick the one I like best. We couldn't find Poppy anywhere. Nick helped me look and look."

       "I bet you felt bad losing Poppy." Wouldn't you know Norman'd have a cat who had kittens. Seems like he's got everything. "Sorry about Poppy, but I'm glad you can have another cat."

       I can hear Nick yelling behind her. "It's my turn. It's my turn."

       "Let Nick have the phone, Lori. I'll talk to you more next time."

       There's more scraping and pulling sounds, and then Nick gets on. "Hi, John. When're you coming home?"

       "As soon as I can." I change the subject quick. "What did you do in school?"

       "I had PE today. The teacher showed us how to play soccer. Norman's going to get me a black and white ball like the one we have at school."

       More Norman.

       "Norman took Lori and me and Mom to a movie Saturday. It was kinda spooky. Lori was scared, but I wasn't."

       "You like him? Norman, I mean."

       "Yeah. He's really nice to us. And Mom likes him, too. I saw him kiss her. They didn't know I saw."

       "You better let me talk to Mom, now, Nick."

       She takes the phone. "John, are you all right?"

       "Yeah, Mom. Did the new lawyer see Judge Shields?

       "Honey, why haven't I heard from you? I've called and called. All they'd tell me was that you'd lost your telephone privileges ."

       "I'm OK, Mom. Another guy and I got into it."

       "A fight? Did you get hurt? That place. Are you sure you're all right?"

       "I'm fine. I got my privs back again. Mom, what did the new lawyer say?"

       Her voice dropped. "I'm sorry. We haven't seen him yet. Norman's going to drive me over again Wednesday. Norman took all the information in last week. He said for us to come back after he'd had a chance to go over everything."

       "Norman? Why is he driving you over? Did the car break down again?" The old wreck needs a new battery, new tires, new everything. "What happened to the car this time?"

       "It's running fine. Norman took it over to the garage near his place. He's been very good to us, John. Norman took Lori and Nick to a church carnival in Philmont, over near his ranch . They really like him, and you will, too, when you get to know him."

       "Yeah, I guess so, but remember what I told you about not getting too involved with him."

       She sounds stern, almost mad at me. "John, this is something you're going to have to let me work out."

       Yeah, sure. It's my life, too. Why should I care?

       "How about Red? He ever say anything about me? Does he want me to come back?"

       "He said to tell you hello when you called." She waited.

       I try again. "How about Pete? Have you talked to him? Will he let me come back?"

       "I tried. It's pretty uncomfortable around here now. Even Red stomps around when he does come in the house. They both spend a lot of time out in the barn lately. Sometimes I think Pete's afraid if I stay on here, I'll go to court and sue for squatter's rights or something."

       "Maybe you should."

       "John, I'd never do that. They've got the legal deed . I'll never fight that."

       "I know, but..."

       "It's OK. It's just until things work out."

       Yeah. Like us winning the lottery. But now it's time for my news. "They finally had my staffing yesterday. All my reports should be all right, so it looks good. Don't worry, Mom."

       "I do wor --, think about it all the time. And, John, I'm trying. There's not a whole lot I can do ... yet."

       Silence swells up on the line and I can't say anything. Then I squeak out. "I know." Davis waves in the door of the office. "I gotta go. My time's up. Bye."

       "Good-bye, Honey. I love you." The back of my neck warms up.

ThinkLink: If you had to live away from your home, what foods would you miss the most?

        Back in the dayroom , I stay clear of Randy and his bunch. They're teasing a wimpy kid over by the TV. I drop down next to Pat.

       "Bad news?"

       "Same old stuff. I'm worried about my Mom, though. She's seeing too much of a guy who's got a ranch in the next county ."

       "So what's wrong with that?"

       "I don't know exactly, but it just makes me mad is all."

       Before dinner Tony pulls Pat off into a corner and it looks like they're talking serious stuff. I can't hear what they're saying, but Tony waves his hands around like he's excited. He's been so down lately, it must be big to jack him up like that. It's probably the same old stuff, telling Pat how he's going to be a famous burglar .

       I sink back on the old vinyl couch and think about the ranch . Even the air smells different there, and it's not overcast and gray all the time like it is here. Sometimes, when I walk up on the hill back of the barn , it's so clear I can see all the way over into the state of Washington. And the sky's so blue and the wheat fields are so yellow, it looks like it could be a painting.

       "Time to eat." Davis calls to Mr. Ferguson. "Line 'em up."

       Inside, B-wing guys unload the carts and put trays of food out on the counter. I bet to myself Tony's going to say: "If this is Saturday, it must be hamburgers."

       "If it's hamburgers, this must be Saturday," Tony says, sliding into a chair. He moves smooth and lazy like Lori's cat. I sit down next to Tony, making sure he's between me and Randy at the next table. Since I've been back, I stick close to Tony. Randy doesn't act like he even sees me. Breaks my heart.

       Pat drowns his meat in a red pool of ketchup. "The only thing that makes this -- this gray turd -- like a hamburger is it's in a bun."

       "Not much like McDonald's," Randy agrees. "Here they boil 'em in soapy water."

       "Shit!" Pat gags. "You're gonna make me puke ." He takes another big bite and talks with his mouth full. "Can't wait to have some of that good home cooking. Only two things my Mom can cook. Best is hamburgers. Next best is canned spaghetti."

       Tony changes the subject , like he usually does when we talk about moms or home. "Now me," he says, "I gotta learn to eat with the high rollers , have steak and that kinda grub. And after dinner I get the good looking babe ."

       We snort at that and then go back to eating. The meals at home I remember best are ones Mom fixed for the crew at harvest time. We'd set up tables out under the trees next to the house. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob I'd picked for her that morning, tossed salad right out of the garden, then apple pie with lots of cinnamon . I flop a limp fry over the edge of my tray.

       Pat shifts his chair to make room for two kids who bring their food to our table. "This is Doc, and this here's Charley. Fresh from Howard." Pat waggles a fry toward Doc's glasses. "We call him Doc 'cause he's always got his nose in a book." He jabs his fork my way, from across the table. "And this here is Cowboy."

       "Cowboy, huh?" Doc says. "Hey, I bet I got a horse story you never heard before. Charley and me was finishing up work in the laundry when we see this wimp slip through the outside door. We look for the staff guy but he's got his back to us. We figure, hell, if this kid's already made it outside, we might as well find out what he's up to. We follow under a bobbed wire fence into a field."

       "Barbed," I tell him. " Barbed wire ."

       Doc pays me no mind and goes right on. "Well, it's starting to rain, and at first we ain't too sure how far he'll go, so I say to Charley, 'You wanna take a hike?' and he says. 'Sure, let's go for it."

       "Then we're both yelling 'Wait. Wait for us.' So the chump stops and we catch up with him. He's standing there shaking in his shoes, his hands out in front of him. 'You crazy?' I say. 'What d'you think we're gonna do to you?'"

       "'You was after me. I thought you was staff, and I was giving up," he says.

       "Hell, no, keep going," I tell him.

       "'Round this way then,' he says, and he ducks under the bobbed wire and starts for some trees growing back there. By then, somebody else is yelling from behind us. We all run like hell. Charley and me get to the trees, too, but we don't catch sight of the kid. Rain is coming down pretty good, and I can't see good out of my glasses. I spy this old shed, and head for it. I come around the corner, going like crazy, and I run smack into the side of this horse -- swear to God."

       "Bet you scared that horse shitless," Pat says, laughing out loud now. Glum as he's been, even Tony smiles. I want Doc to get on with it. Tell how it was to be on the run.

ThinkLink: What do you think the horse was doing out there? Has an animal ever startled you?

       "Scare the horse? What about me? The horse runs off, but it knocks me flat on my ass. I wipe off my glasses and look around and see I'm right by the road. Two security guards are there with their black-'n-white, the red cherry whipping around on top . Charley, here, is already sitting in the back seat."

       "'Come on, kid, it's all over,' the guard says. He holds the fence up for me. I catch my shirt on the bobbed wire, and pretty near rip it off my back. I shoulda sued 'em."

       "Barbed," I say.

       Hi-Lo comes up so quiet I don't even feel him behind me. "Yeah, man, those security guys got eyes coming outta the back of they ugly heads and outta they asses even."

       Doc beams 'cause he's got a bigger audience now. "Then Charley and me spend a week in Howard. They don't catch the other kid for three days. He's been hiding in a field on some farm down the road and he's half-starved when security catches him sneaking back onto the road, looking for a way into town."

       "Who's the kid?" Pat asks.

       "Hell, dunno yet. Some kid from Cleary Cottage . Never seen him before. Hope I never see him again. My backside's still sore."

       I laugh with the rest and the tight muscles in my back sort of float loose. I coat my soggy hamburger with ketchup and chomp a big piece out of it.

       One of the kids at Randy's table leans over and says, "I'm leaving tomorrow for the Gleason group home up in Portland ? They got good food there?"

       "Depends on who's doing the cooking," Hi-Lo answers.

       Randy pokes his pointy nose in again. "Like I said before, I ain't never going to no group home again, I'd rather rot here first. They gotta let me outta here sometime, and I can hold out as long as they do."

       "Shut up, Randy." Tony waggles his hand. "Anything's better than being here. Still, group home workers tell you what to do all the time and they make you go to school or work every day."

ThinkLink: You go to school "on the outs," how is it different from the school at Fire Oak?

       "Going to school on the outs is a pain," Pat says. "I'd sit there, wondering what in the heck was going on, and I'd look outside at the kids sneaking a smoke next to the parking lot. First thing I know, there I was, out there with 'em, puffing away."

       Randy's been leaning over, trying to hear, and he busts in again. "There's nothing like being on the outs . Nobody telling me what to do all day and all night." His grin cracks his weasel face open. First time I ever saw him smile.

       "Yeah, I know whatcha mean," Pat says, like he forgets he's talking to Randy. He catches himself and leans in close to Tony and me and talks real low. "It helps to know some place to go. There's a safe house in Portland , close in to downtown. They let kids stay in the basement, no questions asked, it you do little stuff for them and you don't make no trouble. It's on Emory Street, past a park on Southwest 23rd. The number's 2321. Tell 'em Pat sent ya, like in the movies."

       I say it over in my head ... 2321 ... 2321 on Emory, past a park on Southwest 23rd.

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 Updated on 9/30/03

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