A peer named Harley ran off and stole a motorcycle. We didn’t know what kind. Somebody said he wrecked it and tore off his leg. Somebody said he was still riding, that he’d called from Canada. It was hard to get good info.
We decided he wasn’t coming back. I took his Bible. Another peer took his condoms. Damico Sears took his pictures from home.
There were twelve of us. When a kid ran away or lost his mind or was otherwise removed from the program, I always swiped his Bible. Peers thought I was religious, but that was where they hid their money. They laid their bills out flat—a one slipped into the book of Job, a five wedged into Mark and so on. I gave a couple of bucks to Damico. He had a baby somewhere. It needed things.
Damico was sixteen. He told us stories about holding his baby in the palm of his hand. The truth was, he had never seen it. He didn’t know its name. He was pretty sure its birthday was in December, though. In December, the baby was turning one and Damico was going to be there.
Couple weeks after Harley went AWOL, we got a new peer. Fat kid with copper hair. He thought he had an attitude.
“Wipe that look off your face,” we told him the second he walked in the door.
The JTOs—juvenile treatment officers—shaved his copper hair down to his scalp. We could hear him putting up a fight. We dragged him into a shower, stripped him down and blasted him with ice-cold water. His skin was soft and freckled and lumpy.
“He’s got tits,” one of us said. “This peer’s got tits.”
Damico paired off with him and tried to teach him the Orientation handbook. Freckles called him a motherfucker. Damico took a smoke break.
It was 1988. They let you smoke cigarettes at boys homes back then. You could pair off with a Graduation phase, step outside and get away from the group for a few minutes.
I was on Graduation. We lived in an old brick Victorian on a hill. Damico and I sat out on the fire escape not really saying anything. Back inside, he tried to show Freckles how to make his bed like a soldier. Freckles farted real loud. The group went nuts.
“Don’t you pass gas!”
“He passed gas!”
“This is our bedroom! This is where we sleep!”
Peers were in his face, spraying him down with spittle. A JTO had to break it up. Damico and I ducked back out onto the fire escape to smoke another Camel.
“I bet he never farts again the rest of his life,” I said.
“What am I doing wrong?” Damico asked me.
I shrugged. When peers first came in, you couldn’t take care of them. You had to tear them down first. Damico didn’t have it in him.
So I sold him a Butterfinger and he paid me with the money I’d given him out of Harley’s Bible. I had all this candy I’d mark up. I had a little business. That night at snack, peers were eating Paydays, Zagnuts, Snickers. For Freckles we opened an ancient can of slimy dark green spinach. You could almost see the stink wafting out of it. Somebody had given him a fork, but Freckles just sat there with it in his fist, hungry, pouting, however many miles from home.
Damico broke out that Butterfinger. Snapped it in half. He never even said a word, just slid half to Freckles, and then they were friends.
* * *
One Saturday we were out in the community raking leaves. On the back of the van, riding from one house to the next, I heard Damico telling Freckles about his baby. Damico said, “You want to see a picture of him?”
I cut my eyes and saw Damico digging out of his camouflage work pants a nylon Michael Jackson wallet he wasn’t supposed to have. From that wallet, he slipped Freckles a photograph someone had been torn out of, and what was left was a wispy-haired, roly-poly, fat-cheeked child that looked, even from where I was sitting, a whole hell of a lot like Harley’s baby brother.
Freckles said, “It’s white.”
“His mama’s white,” Damico responded.
Freckles was quiet.
“That’s my baby,” Damico said. “That’s him.”
Freckles made it about two weeks, maybe three. It came out in group that he had dressed up like a ninja and lured boys younger than him—real little boys—into the backseat of a Buick Regal.
In the shower a bunch of us held him down and punched him in all the places the JTOs wouldn’t see.
Not long after, Freckles ran away. I took his Bible, but there wasn’t any money in it.
* * *
We had all done things, but Damico was famous. A man had chased him out of a mall. Damico couldn’t really run—the clothes stuffed inside his jacket were falling out. People were laughing. Damico didn’t want to go to jail. Outside on the sidewalk, he stopped running. He picked up the clothes and tried to give them back. The man wasn’t having it. He grabbed Damico by the throat, and Damico responded. It was a matter of impulse, a simple reaction: he reached out and cracked the man on his chin.
It wasn’t until Damico hit him that he saw how old he was. Thick silver mustache, furry eyebrows. He’d dropped somebody’s grandpa.
The back of the old man’s head bounced hard off the sidewalk. His eyes fluttered white. His fists clenched, and his arms went stiff as poles.
Everybody gasped. Damico had an uncle with epilepsy—he knew what a seizure was. He knelt beside the old man and tucked his arms down by his sides. He tried to relax his legs. Real calm he said, “You’re okay, mister. You’re okay.”
He was still there when the cops came.
Next day, the local paper ran a picture of the old man when he wasn’t old. Turned out he was some kind of hero or something. He’d flown a plane over Germany. Damico, he’d never even been out of Louisville.
Teen Thief Assaults Elderly Combat Veteran.
It was all the newspaper people wanted to write about, what was wrong with kids these days, what was wrong with society. They couldn’t use Damico’s name—he was a juvenile—and so they called him a thug instead. And it was true that he’d punched somebody, but the whole deal, Damico hadn’t meant for it to happen. Nobody wrote that he was sorry, that he didn’t want to hurt that old man. Really, he hadn’t even meant to steal the clothes. Just walked by and saw them in a store, the light blue pajamas with the little feet in them, the little pink shirt that said FREE HUGS. Nobody wrote that the clothes Damico stole were baby clothes.
We were in group when he told us about it. He’d been at the home a couple of weeks. Our counselor asked, “What’s the takeaway here?”
“Keep running, sir,” two peers answered at the same time. Another said, “Don’t hit old people.” Another said, “Sir, Damico’s got a kid.”
We were gathered around in a circle in gray metal fold-out chairs, our hands flat on the thighs of our sweatpants. Empathy wasn’t the word we were using then. Our counselor called it care and concern. It was something we were working on, showing care and concern for people. For the old man, for instance. Peers wanted to know if he’d died, if he was brain damaged.
Damico sat there among us counting the floor tiles.
“Look up,” we said.
He didn’t mean to knock that old man out, but we were encouraged to understand how one thing leads to the next and the next and the next.
“Until shit explodes,” a peer said.
“Don’t talk like that,” we told him.
Our counselor said, “Let’s stop here today. This was good.”
Peers got up like group was over. I stayed in my chair. Damico was on Orientation phase then. Peers on Orientation wore bright yellow sweatshirts and sweatpants so staff could see them when they went AWOL. We’d cut the elastic out of their sweatpants to slow them down but also so we could tell them over and over, all day long, to pull up their pants. New peers would come in thinking they were hard, thinking they were going to punk us, but if they couldn’t even keep their pants from falling down—
Damico had swaggered in the door with a hitch in his step, a hole in his ear for an earring, pair of blue-green-white Converse ERX-200s on his feet. Those were basketball shoes. Pretty nice ones.
We’d eaten him alive. Pull those pants up. Uncross those arms. Look at staff when they’re talking to you. Then: Don’t you look at staff like that. Pull those pants up.
We knew he’d hit an old man. We’d get in his face and tell him we ain’t no old man. You raised a peer’s expectations—that’s what we called it when you stepped up to another kid, when you went nose to nose—you raised a peer’s expectations to find out who he was, to tell him who he wasn’t.
We didn’t know Damico was a dad. Not until he’d told us about the baby clothes. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe him—I just needed to hear the rest of it.
“Where’d you get those shoes?” I asked him.
He was lining up to leave. I was still in my chair. The whole group glanced down at his Cons. He tried to tell me his grandma had bought them. I told the group to sit back down. Our counselor said, “I feel that we’re being a little aggressive here.”
I all but told him to shut up. He was a new guy. He wouldn’t make it a month. I said it again: “Where’d you get those shoes, Damico?”
He couldn’t believe it, that I was the one busting him on his shoes. I had paired off with him when he first came in. I had helped him learn his handbook. I’d snuck him a Snickers bar, some Milk Duds, a Twix. You had to know when to shine a peer a little bit of light. You had to know when to switch it off.
Damico told the group he’d stolen the shoes. This was a mistake. Number one, he had not stolen the shoes. Number two, it raised questions.
“Hold up,” said a peer. “When that old man ran after you, what was in your jacket? What’d you really steal?”
“I told you—”
“You think we’re stupid?”
“Naw, I never said nobody—”
“You’re lying to us. He’s lying to us.”
“Tell the truth,” peers said.
“I am. Sir,” Damico pleaded, turning back to our counselor. “Sir, I swear. I saw those pajamas in the window and—”
“Talk to the group,” someone told him.
Damico dealt dope. That was how he bought the shoes—he was a corner boy, a runner. He hadn’t wanted to get into any of that, but see, how it happens—
“You want us to feel sorry for you? He wants us to feel sorry for him.”
“It ain’t like that.”
“Tell us what it’s like.”
We were back in our circle, Damico shaking his head. He’d done some things, been into some things, before he hit the old man, but he was trying. He’d met this girl.
He shook his head again.
The girl’s aunt sat him down one day. Damico knew what he’d done. He had a friend who’d got a girl pregnant. The girl’s mother had given his friend a lecture about being a man. Damico was ready for it—ready to be a man—but the aunt had sat him down to tell him something else. No one expects anything from you, she said. Go on and live your life.
His friends said, What! She let you off?
But it was crazy. He couldn’t stop thinking about it: he was going to be a dad. He was pretty sure his own dad was in Eddyville. Eddyville was prison. Not knowing anything else about him had fucked Damico up.
“Hey,” we interrupted. “Can’t talk like that.”
Our counselor said, “How, how did it mess you up?”
“Man, I don’t know,” Damico said. He was in those yellow sweats squirming in his metal chair, sweat blistering his forehead, wide-set eyes that gleamed, that glanced, that saw again the things he spoke of.
All he knew, he didn’t want to mess a baby up. So he called the girl and her aunt. It had been a few weeks. Damico said, It’s Damico. The aunt said, Who? Like she’d already forgotten him. He had a whole list of names he wanted to pitch. The aunt said they already had a name. Oh, said Damico. Okay.
He called another time or two hoping the girl would answer. He wanted to ask about that name, what it was going to be.
Somebody said something about a shower. He pictured the baby in a shower, everybody cleaning it off. Somebody told him no, you dumb as hell, Damico: the shower’s when you bring clothes and stuff before the baby’s born. The somebody didn’t tell him it was girls only, and so Damico got it caught in his head he was going to show up with a crib, maybe a little Lakers jersey, all this stuff.
That’s the dad, they were going to say.
But he didn’t have any money because he was off the corner, trying to do things right. We could believe whatever we wanted, he told us, but that was the truth: he’d quit running dope. But nobody had told him how to get a real job. He’d walked into a McDonald’s and waited in line. They said, Can I take your order?
I need a job, he said.
They asked if he’d ever been arrested. He wasn’t going to lie. They told him to come back in a year, but the baby was coming now—it needed shit now.
“Hey,” we said.
“Y’all don’t understand. Y’all can’t.”
He hadn’t understood it either. It wasn’t like he wanted to worry about a baby. He just did, constantly—it was something inside him telling him you bring a kid into this world, you take care of it, but it wouldn’t tell him how and no one else would either. He knew how he’d taken care of himself, but so did the girl’s aunt—I know what you do, she’d told him—and so he had to do this straight, but the world wouldn’t let him.
Finally, he’d nailed an interview at an arcade. Damico was a gamer—he’d lived in arcades. He put the word out, hoping the girl’s aunt would hear: he had a job, a real one.
Somebody from the arcade was supposed to call, let him know. Damico went down to the mall to check on it and they’d hired somebody else.
It was like, how are you supposed to—
If you can’t even—
That no one expected anything from him, that’s what killed him. It was like everybody always knew he wasn’t going to be a dad. He wasn’t going to take care of that baby.
He was trying to get out of the mall, thoughts swirling, when he saw the pajamas in the display window, the shirt that said that about the hugs. Suddenly he was inside the store stuffing onesies inside his jacket, grabbing little blue jeans, little socks, little white shoes.
“I messed up,” he told us.
A bubble of snot in his right nostril shrank and swelled with each breath. Nobody told him to wipe it. The bubble swelled up and burst.
A peer asked our counselor, “Sir, how’s Damico supposed to be a dad in here?”
Our counselor didn’t have any answers. No one did.
“Man,” another peer said. “There is something wrong with society.”
* * *
Even the peers who bought in right away, who believed in the program, were looking at ten months. That was if you had somewhere to go home to. Some of us didn’t. Some of us had been there for years.
Damico was a good peer. He’d speak up in group, pair off with new peers and go over their treatment plans. If anything, he was too easy on them. That peer Harley, who ran off and stole the motorcycle, Damico had buddied up with him. He’d ask to see Harley’s pictures and stare at that one of Harley’s baby brother. “He’s just a little guy, isn’t he?”
Then Freckles, when we had him down in the shower, it was Damico who stormed in to stop us: “Y’all gonna kill him!”
We weren’t gonna kill him.
“He ain’t a baby, Damico,” we said. Jesus Christ.
The months crawled by. His story, when he told it to new peers, kept changing. The night before he got sent off, the girl had reached out to him. He’d seen the baby—he’d held it. When he went home, they were going to live together.
It was sad, but it drove us nuts too, Damico asking peers if they knew how little a newborn baby was. “Hold out your hand,” he’d say. “You can hold it in your hand, like a little melon.”
We heard that so many times. “Man, fuck his melon,” was our quiet reply.
He made Progress phase in six months. That was quick. The trouble was, he’d done four in detention before his clock even started, just waiting on a placement. He’d told everyone he’d be home by December. December came, and the baby was turning one and I guess he realized he wasn’t going to be there.
He wanted me to run off with him. He didn’t know how to get back to Louisville. He wanted me to get him home.
We were out on the fire escape smoking cigarettes I’d bought with my candy money. You could cut through an office and be out there, climb down and run. All those newspaper articles they’d written about him, all that publicity, Damico didn’t believe they were ever going to let him go home.
“Look at you,” he said. “You been here forever.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’d seen it before: peers who had somewhere to go, they’d lose their patience, run off and get picked up somewhere and have to start the program over. Do another year.
“You’ll be home in a few months,” I told him.
When I wouldn’t help him, he asked another peer and another. He was showing peers that picture of Harley’s baby brother, slipping it out of his Michael Jackson wallet, telling us the girl had sent it to him. Telling us the baby’s name was Antwan.
Peers went along with it—“Hey, wow, look at that kid”—but everybody knew the kid in the picture wasn’t his. A white baby named Antwan—Jesus. Damico was losing it. We were worried about him.
A couple of weeks before Christmas he slammed a peer into a pop machine. It was a Sunday. Sundays were visitation. All afternoon we’d sit around our day room about to fight because no one had come to see us. Someone said later that Damico was showing the other boy a picture of “Antwan” and the boy had laughed because he couldn’t keep it in anymore, how absurd the whole thing was, but someone else said it wasn’t that—it was the rumor that had spread that weekend that Harley was coming back. The rest of us were free to speculate—whether they’d caught him in Canada, whether his leg had been severed in a crash, whether he was in a wheelchair and how that would work around the home—but for Damico, the news meant something else. The peer he slammed into the pop machine was the one who told him about Harley, and maybe that peer had laughed or maybe he hadn’t, but Damico, he was holding the picture of that baby, and then he was on top of the other boy, trying to choke him.
It wasn’t rare for a peer to be restrained. If possible, the JTOs would drag you down the hall into an office, not to beat the daylights out of you, like at other places, but for your own dignity. It was humiliating to be pinned down to a tile floor, screams flying out of your mouth, announcing to the world the secrets of your soul, the precise dimensions of your pain. I’d seen peers struggle until they wet themselves. I’d seen them blow blood vessels in their eyes and claw tracks into their cheeks. I’d heard them cry for their mothers.
Damico cried for no one, but he screamed and he fought. The JTOs held him down right there in front of us. They couldn’t get him down the hall.
After, they took his phase. Busted him down from Progress back to Improving, which, God knows, he wasn’t. By then he’d put in seven months and he was going to flush them—either start the program over or get himself sent off somewhere worse.
We wanted to help him. We wanted to show him some care, some concern.
Somebody had an idea. Every job we did out in the community—raking leaves, shoveling snow—staff would put a little money in our canteens. Typically, peers spent it on the candy I’d mark up, stuff like that, but with Christmas a couple of weeks away, some of us had saved to buy gifts for our families in the event that somebody came to see us. But nobody was coming to see us. So we decided to buy something for Damico’s baby.
Peers dug money out of their Bibles. Cleaned out their canteens. The peer Damico had tried to choke pitched in a ten-dollar bill that smelled like it had been hidden somewhere private, but most of the contributions were crumpled ones and Bible-flattened fives. Damico was away from the group on timeout when we counted up what we had.
“Holy shit,” one of us said.
Fifty-eight dollars we’d raised, but we had no idea what to buy a baby. One peer said diapers. Another said milk. Fifty-eight dollars, I told the group. Fifty-eight. That was a lot of milk.
Suddenly peers were all shouting at once, calling each other dumbasses, wanting to buy the baby a trampoline, a train set, a football.
“What if it’s a girl?” somebody asked.
Peers were silent.
“Books,” I said. “We should buy the baby some books.”
Peers laughed. Babies can’t read, they told me, and I didn’t push it, the whole idea of your mom or your dad, somebody reading to you—I didn’t push it.
We went on a while longer, arguing, until finally we figured it out: clothes. The baby needed clothes.
* * *
I was the only Graduation phase, and so I collected the money and a JTO dropped me off at the mall. They did that sometimes—they’d take me out into the world and leave me.
I had never shopped for a baby. A woman in a store asked how old the child was and I told her maybe one. Boy or girl, she asked, and I said I didn’t know, maybe a boy.
She helped me pick out some outfits. Some socks, some shoes, some pajamas. There was money leftover. I didn’t see any shirts that said anything about hugs. I got it some diapers and a book about the moon.
I sat a while in the food court. I had a pair of blue jeans I wore in public, a flannel shirt I tucked in. My hair was slicked and combed. A group of middle school boys were with their girlfriends. They were joking around, being kids. Their parents had dropped them off. Their parents came back and got them.
I hid in a bathroom stall and tried to calm down. Outside, I found a bench that wasn’t near anyone. I waited for somebody to pick me up. When I got back to the home, peers weren’t speaking. They all had the same solemn look on their face.
“Where’s Damico?” I asked.
* * *
We didn’t know what to do with the baby clothes. All that money we’d spent. Peers said forget it. We folded up the clothes real neat and tucked them into Damico’s drawer, just in case he came back.
It was that same December that a peer at another home, a place called Blue Jay, smashed a glass Pepsi bottle and gutted himself with a shard. Word spread quick. Even the JTOs weren’t allowed to have glass anymore. In the mornings when older peers shaved, the JTOs watched us with our razors. At night as we slept we could hear midnight shift shuffling by our bunks, taking count, making sure none of us was hanging from the ceiling.
I broke off from the group one evening and sat alone on the fire escape. It was cold out, dusk, the dwindling light a dark blue, the hill we lived on covered in snow. I watched for the white gold lights of a Crown Victoria—state police—climbing the hill, bringing somebody back or else a new peer, some kid from the Jacob Price projects in Covington, from Beecher Terrace in Louisville, from a trailer park outside Clay City, a kid about to get a haircut and a pair of yellow sweatpants. Down over the hill I could see the woods we tore through when we went AWOL. I could see the highway where we tried to hitch a ride.
A man in a pickup truck had stopped for me once.
“Where to?” he asked, but I couldn’t say.
Harley did not come back that December, but another peer did. It was that little shit we’d beat up, Freckles.
What we’d done to him in the shower, there were no plans to do it again, but try telling him that. He wouldn’t take a shower. He told staff he was going to kill himself. Nobody believed it, but that had happened at Blue Jay with the peer and the Pepsi bottle, and so they locked us up in that old home to try to get us through the holidays.
Christmas Eve we got Damico back. He wouldn’t look at anyone. He wouldn’t speak. The cops had picked him up across the river in Ohio—he’d made it a half-hour’s drive in the wrong direction. They held him in an adult detention center for a week and then brought him back with scrapes crisscrossing his face. Someone had stolen his shoes. Staff gave him a pair of flip-flops and traded out his red Improving phase sweats for the bright yellow ones that Orientation phases wore. He was starting the program over.
Christmas night Freckles thought we were going to do something to him. He slipped out of bed and scrambled out onto the fire escape. He meant to run off, I think, but he’d mistimed the shift change. A second-shift JTO was just then walking out to his car in the back parking lot while the midnight JTO was taking count and coming up one short.
We heard shouting.
Freckles had climbed over the rail. It couldn’t have been ten degrees out. He was in his socks and sleep shorts, telling the midnight JTO to stay back. Down in the parking lot the other JTO yelled for Freckles to be careful, and Freckles cried, “No sir! I’d rather die! I’d rather die than stay here!”
He was shivering, hugging that rail as tight as he could, a slip away from breaking his neck. The wind whipped and howled, and all around him flurries sparkled as they fell, a great jar of glitter spilled out of the night sky.
The whole group had gathered in the back office. Nobody thought he would jump, but there was panic in his eyes. A flood lamp threw a hard white light at him and he looked caught in it, terrified.
The midnight JTO hadn’t worked at the home very long. He turned to me and said, “Do something.”
I stepped out onto the fire escape, but there were no words. I had punched on Freckles too. I had hurt him.
“You all hate me,” he said.
I almost said yes but that in a month or two we might not. Once we got to know him, and why he’d done the things he’d done, we might not hate him anymore. But he wouldn’t have believed me, and so I stood there saying nothing, watching him—a bald, chubby, freckle-faced kid—realize he was alone in the world.
“It’s cold,” he said. “I’m cold.”
He reached out for the ladder that had been welded to the side of the escape. He lost his balance and fell.
With one hand, he caught himself where the rail met the landing. He was screaming, his feet kicking out below him. A yellow shirt rushed by me and took Freckles’s free hand, grabbed a fistful of his shorts and wrestled him up and over the rail.
It was Damico. They stumbled back onto the landing, safe. Nobody else moved. Damico’s arms and hands were laced with cuts and scratches from where he’d been through the woods, and Freckles, just a fat-cheeked thirteen-year-old boy, just a baby, was wailing now like a child in the wee hours of the night.
Damico held him. He had him in his arms, telling him he was okay. Back and forth he rocked him.
Shh, Damico whispered. Shh, shh, shh.
Joe Bond grew up around the group homes his dad ran in eastern Kentucky. He’s been a child-care worker, a temp, a copy editor, a security guard at a psychiatric hospital and a research librarian at a law firm in Times Square. For several years he covered mixed martial arts for ESPN.com and other websites. His journalism has appeared in various magazines and newspapers in the U.S., Brazil and Japan. His first short stories were published last year by New South, The New Ohio Review and The Journal. He’s working on a novel told in stories set at a boys home in the late 1980s.