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Chapter 8: First Call Home


ThinkLink: Do you have to do chores where you live? Are there any you especially like or dislike? Have you ever know somebody who blames other people for all his/her problems? Do you think time seems to move faster when you keep looking at a clock, or when you just keep working and don’t worry about the time?

       "What a way to waste a Saturday morning," Pat grouses. "We should be in the sack, making up for sleep we didn't get 'cause we stayed out all Friday night. Or we should be getting ready to cruise on Saturday night."

       "Speed it up," the weekend staff guy calls. I mutter along with all the rest of the guys in Taylor while we change sheets on our beds.

       Randy yells from out of the bathroom, where he's mopping the floor. "How come we gotta work on Saturday mornings? We ought to have a union . We got to strike ." He gets a few weak cheers, but Delgado, the weekend guy, stands up from the desk in the office and glares at us from behind the glass.

       Pat leans close to me. "Delgado's one tough dude. A county deputy sheriff all week. Moonlights here on weekends. Sometimes he pulls a Friday night shift before he gets to Taylor Saturday mornings. Not a good time to tangle with him." He goes back to stripping his bed.

       "Boring." Tony pulls a long face. "This place is starting to rack me. I'm sick of playing the man's game." He pulls the sheets off his mattress and tosses them into a laundry cart standing in the aisle. "At least it ain't our turn to wash toilets today."

       Pat whines, too. "Cleaning the kitchen's the worst."

       Tony snarls at him. "Can it. Think about when you get back on the outs ." Pat puts on a dog-that's-been-kicked face and moves off.

       I pull clean sheets flat and poke them deep under the mattress. I'm used to working on Saturday mornings. I help Mom in the house, or she has me weed the garden or water it. Sometimes I help Red clean up the barn . Then we'd go into town, get groceries, go to a movie. Doesn't bother me it's boring here. A little work's not going to hurt them.

       Today's the day I get to call home. It took me a lousy two weeks to get my privs , but today should do it. If nothing happens. I give my blanket an extra pull to make it tight and flat. "I'll bring the laundry cart, Mr. Delgado," I call down to the office. Maybe he'll notice I'm offering, and give me extra points.

       "Look at mama's boy , brown-nosing the man," Randy sneers. He's come out of the bathroom and is making his bed down by Delgado. Davis moved Randy and Hi-Lo down near the office, where a desk light's always on, making it easier for the night man to check on them. At least I sleep better, not expecting Randy to jump me in the middle of the night. When I told Tony I thought Randy blamed me for being moved, thought I'd snitched on him, Tony told me, "Hey, man, don't sweat it. Randy'd blame somebody for his own shit."

       I wheel the cart wide around Randy and into the entry where the guys on laundry duty'll pick it up. The grumbling's louder when I go back into the sleeping area. "Shut up, you guys," Tony warns. "Tonight we get to watch TV. Don't no one ruin it for me."

       Then Pat comes up, all excited. "You guys hear? Macky did hisself in."

       "For real?" I say.

       "For real. Put a bag over his head and squirted in hair spray, or deodorant or something. Right before he was going to kick off he said, 'Tell Darlene I love her.'"

       Tony snorts and walks away, but Randy leans in to hear more. "Yeah," he says.

       Delgado walks up behind us. "Yes, Macky's in the infirmary . Lucky for him he got caught. Maybe you haven't seen what happens, but I have. Purple face. tongue sticking out. He wouldn't be passing on any romantic messages, believe me." He walks away, shaking his head and muttering to himself.

       The day drags on. I stare at the wall clock every time I pass it. Twenty minutes past one. It's only five minutes since I came by the clock the last time. I push a cart of clean sheets down next to the showers. They even keep the linen closet locked. Do they really think we'd steal towels?

ThinkLink: If you were only allowed one 5-minute phone call per week, who would you call?


After what seems like a twenty-hour wait, it's finally four o'clock. I sit on a bench with three other kids, waiting outside the cottage manager's office on the far side of the dayroom . Inside, I hear a kid's voice go up and down as he talks on the phone. Why can't he finish up so it'll be my turn? Mom'll be so glad I called. She doesn't say much mushy stuff, but she'll be glad. And I can talk to Nick and Lori. We've got a neighbor who sent his kid away to military school. Maybe Nick'll think I'm in a place like that. But what if Mom hasn't talked to anybody about getting me out? I sit on my tailbone on the hard wood bench until I hurt all the way up my back.

       Delgado comes up to the office door and calls out to the kid on the phone, "Time. You've got one minute to sign off." He turns to me. "I see on the tag board you're on yellow level. You'll work your way out of here yet." He sticks his head back into the office. "That's it," he tells the kid inside. He looks back at me. "You're up now."

       Hurry, hurry, I tell him in my head while he puts the call through. What if no one's home? What if they're outside and they don't hear the phone ring? Delgado hands me the phone. "Five minutes. I'll give you a warning before your time's up."

       "Mom? Is that you Mom?" Blood pounds in my eardrums and I have trouble hearing for a minute. Take it easy or she'll think something's wrong.

       "John? I'm so glad they let you call. But you sound funny. Is somebody standing there with you?"

       "It's all right, Mom. Mr. Delgado's out in the hall. I'm OK and things aren't too bad. I just got my privs , that's my privileges . That's how I got to call you. How're Lori and Nick? Do they miss me?"

       "They ask about you every day. They were so excited when they got the letter you wrote to them this week. They both put notes in the letter I wrote back. Did you get it already?"

       "Not yet."

       "Since they think you've gone away to school, they want to know when you're coming home for vacation. And Red asked how you're doing." Her voice drops. "John, I worry about you. If you get sick or something, will they tell me?"

       "Sure, Mom." I don't know whether they will or not, but no use getting her all revved up . "How about the kids? You sure you're all OK?"

       "We're fine. Nick and Lori are out hunting for her kitten. It didn't come in last night. They'll be so disappointed they didn't get to talk to you."

       "Are you trying to get me out of here? Am I going to get to come home?"

       "Norman's going to talk to his lawyer again. Maybe he can do more than Mr. Jackson did."


       "You remember, Norman Ryan, the man I met at the Grange ." I think of him standing at the back of the courtroom during my hearing , butting in where he doesn't belong.

       "Why this Ryan guy? Why his lawyer?"

       "He's been very nice to me, John. He even took Lori and Nick with us to a movie in town last Sunday."

       A movie? A date? Geez, a boyfriend. Hasn't she got enough problems? I flop across the desk and almost drop the phone. "Mom, you got to be careful of guys."

       "He's not just any guy. He's even had some suggestions about ... about ways I could leave the ranch and get started in a new place. Like we always talked about."

       "I bet! Don't fall for this guy's line, Mom."

       "That's up to me, John." Her voice sounds sharp, and I can see her in my mind, her head tipped down, looking up at me from under scrunched up eyebrows. "I'll work things out. Beside, Norman's a good friend, and I can use a friend right now."

       "What about Pete and Red? Have you talked to them about me coming home?"

       "You know how they are ... they're no help." She doesn't say anything for the longest time.

       "Mom? Mom?"

       "Pete's been saying you shouldn't come back to Carroll County until things quiet down. Roy Fletcher has been talking about what happened to everyone who pulls into the gas station . Pete says people will stop talking about us if ... if you don't come back here right away." Her voice cracks and fades out, and then it gets louder. "I told them if you don't belong here, then the kids and I don't either, so you can see how important it is for me to make a ... a move," she says, trailing off again.

       Delgado comes to the door. "One minute, John. Time to say good-bye."

       I start talking fast. "Why does Pete care what people say? What business is it of theirs anyway?" I give up. There's no answer to why Pete does what he does. "My time's almost up, Mom. If this Norman guy can get his lawyer to help, tell him to hurry." No use turning down help, and if it's Ryan's lawyer, maybe he'll pay him.

       "I'll try, honey. I really will try. Write to me."

       "Bye, Mom." I'm mad at her for not doing anything yet, and mad at myself for hoping so hard. I'm mad at Norman for taking her mind off me. And I'm mad at Pete for being such a hardass. I stumble out to make room for the next kid to get his insides tore up.


"If it's Saturday night, it's gotta be hamburgers," Tony says.

       Instead of eating dinner, I push my food around with my fork. When I finally try to spear a soggy French fry, it flies off my plate. Tony sticks his hand out, catches it and stuffs it in his face. "You gonna eat your other hamburger?" I shake my head and Tony scoops it up.

       "OK if I take the rest of your fries?" Pat asks, holding his fork up, ready to stab.

       "Sure. I don't care." I don't feel like eating and I got to think about something besides my flop of a phone call. I bring up the most boring thing I can think of. "Tony, you say we get to watch TV tonight?"

       "Yeah, if you got your privs . It's me starring in a chase movie."

       Kids yelp and boo at the other tables. Randy yells over, "Those creeps you play nursemaid to all day have fried your brains. Those mentals got a bed ready just for you, loony ."

       Staff takes a van load of guys to the state hospital for work duty. They help take care of disabled and retarded kids every school day, right after lunch. Tony snaps his chair back down on the floor and growls at Randy.

       Randy backs right off anyway. "OK, I ain't saying nothing against your little friends." I grin inside. Randy's not about to take on Tony.

       Tony settles back down in his chair. "What does that creep know about real jobs? They got him mopping floors over at the big kitchen," Tony says, gulping half of my hamburger in one bite. "It don't take any style to deal on the street like he does. Any dopester can do that." He looks over at Pat and lifts his shoulders up. "I mean like Randy." Pat puts his face down close to his tray and shovels a fork full of fries into his mouth, acting like he hasn't heard.

       "I like taking care of those kids," Tony says, turning back to me. "Their legs are all twisted up, and some of them ain't too smart, but they really like for me to come." He gulps down the last of my hamburger. "But for some big time fun, give me breaking-and-entering any day. This last time, before I got picked up, I was doing two, maybe three jobs a day. I'd hang around a row of houses, see who went off to work, who stayed home, and then I'd pick my mark."

       "You mean in the daytime?" I try to keep him talking. Take my mind off my own crap.

       "Sure, no use waiting 'til night, when everybody comes home. Guys keep guns in their houses now. I'm not about to stumble across some dude who'll blow me away."

       "They come home in the daytime, too," Pat says, getting in a dig to pay back Tony. "You told us how they picked you up this time. That was in the daytime, wasn't it?"

       Tony puts his arm up over his face, faking shame. "Yeah, right. Caught in the act. But that's the kick you get. Never knowing what's gonna happen, being in their house, going through their stuff." He laughs. "Y'know, one time, the only thing I took was fifty dollars from this guy's pants pocket. I came in through an open window, and I didn't touch another thing, so it didn't look like I'd ever been there. I bet that guy's still yelling at his wife for taking money out of his pants." He points his fork toward me. "I'll give you some pointers. Might come in handy."

ThinkLink: Write about a time that you decided not to do something because you were sure that you’d get caught.

       Not me. Once in here is one time too many. "Don't waste your time. I'd just get caught."

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 Updated on 9/30/03

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