Make Way for Ducklings
In her caramel jumper and black cap squashed down over frosted hair, my co-worker Sharon looked like a burned marshmallow. Her focus ping-ponged over the spot where Jeff, Head Counselor Level Two, was supposed to be standing with the keys to the van. As a Counselor Level One, I was supposed to take the keys from Jeff, and, once I had unlocked the van, escort the seven residents out of the building to board the van. In the parking lot, however, no Jeff and no van.
Sharon lit a cigarette and asked Jesus for guidance. She’d been working for five years at the Spurwink House for Boys and Girls, a residential facility run by the State of Maine for children aged six to thirteen who’d been removed from foster homes. Recently she’d been demoted and put on probation for smoking on the premises and failing to count the knives. Now I counted the knives.
The kids ignored my hand signals to stay in the building. Carla, the oldest at thirteen, and her acolytes, Eric, Tess, Willa, and Mitchell followed her across the parking lot. All five of them looked at the blank space where the van should’ve been, took in the no-Jeff situation, and stared at me. It had been my idea to go to the museum. Now we had no Saturday “fun activity.”
“Well,” Sharon said, squinting philosophically at the sky and the tree line across the road, “we’re all here because we’re not all there, aren’t we? Everyone in my station wagon. I’m fucking driving.”
Eric, age nine, set his backpack on the asphalt. “But Jeff would not approve this action!” he said. “And you’re not supposed to swear!” He covered the thick lenses of his square glasses with both hands.
“But he’s not here, is he? Come on—the will of God will never take you where the grace of God will not protect you,” Sharon said and threw open the back of the station wagon.
“Hold on,” I said, but the kids followed the strongest leader. Without Jeff they would always gravitate to Sharon’s size and the blustering confidence of her AAisms. The kids crawled through the back into the middle seat. Tess tumbled into the front. Eric hesitated and looked at me with his mouth gaping. I told him to get in the back, and I climbed in after him.“I don’t like it when she swears,” he whispered. Sharon rarely swore, and when she did she asked for God’s forgive- ness, so today we had a different Sharon. She lit a second cigarette from the first. “No smoking!” Eric covered his mouth so he wouldn’t catch cancer.
“You think what you’re going through is a big deal, Mr. let go, let God,” Sharon said to me. Ever since I’d seen Sharon at a meeting on Congress Street, she’d been speaking to me in AA lingo. I saw in the mirror that her hands shook as she pulled onto the road. Also, she closed one eye like someone aiming down the barrel of a rifle.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” she said. “Just a little addiction problem for you. Pretty boy pill-popper!”
Sharon was right. Even though my real problem had been pills and powders, I’d been going to AA instead of NA for the four months since rehab. NA over- flowed with frightening addicts.
“You’ll finish college and meet some girl and get a job and have kids and live in a house with an attached garage.”
“What makes you think all that’s going to happen?”
“I don’t think,” Sharon said hoarsely and started coughing.
“I can’t breathe!” Carla leaned her head out the window and gulped for air. Sharon rolled her window all the way down, but now the smoke and flaking ash sucked in through Carla’s window and pooled in the back of the station wagon.
“Sharon,” Eric said, trying a softer tone. “You’re not supposed to smoke. It will make you die.”
Though one of the youngest, Eric always had the most to say. Whenever he didn’t get the answer he wanted, he forgot to push his bottle glasses up his nose and his thin pale nostrils started to flap like the gills of a trout.
“Shut up back there,” Sharon said. I poked my head into the front seat area and noticed that we were driving in the wrong lane. Possibly had been for a few minutes. One of Sharon’s eyes looked right at me, but the other one, drooping and wandering, seemed to scan the seat for loose change.
I reached for the wheel, which was when I smelled the whiskey. Sharon veered left. We just missed the edge of a culvert, bumped down from the pavement, rolled slowly across a field, and came to a stop in the furrows of harvested corn.
I had tumbled into the front seat and landed on Tess, age eight. Both she and I seemed unhurt. Tess touched herself all over with her index finger. Eric, laughing and shaking with adrenaline, jumped outside with his backpack worn front-forwards to protect himself from wild dogs.
“There’s been a fucking incident! A fucking incident!” he yelled. In the case of an “incident,” which this certainly was, we were supposed to call Jeff, though I didn’t have a cell phone. Neither did Sharon. It was the early ’90s.
“And you promised me pictures in a museum!” Eric aimed his finger at my face and shouted. “Pictures of fucking boats!”
“I know I did,” I said, using the calm voice Jeff had taught me. Use the calm voice like a fire extinguisher.
“Boats,” he moaned.
If we tried to walk to the museum (which we couldn’t do, no way, too far), Carla and Eric—especially Eric—would wander into traffic or into strange neighborhoods or suddenly, for no reason, climb the side of an embankment and dive head-first off an overpass. Eric’s file (which I was not supposed to have seen at my level) indicated that such things might happen at any moment even if we successfully created a “nurturing home environment” for him. “Just keep them breathing,” Jeff said. “That’s all we can hope for.”
“We’re getting out of here,” said Carla. “Going to see my boyfriend. He’ll drive us anywhere we wanna go.” They all marched into the field, headed west. Toward Randolph? They approached the tree line with backs as rigid as flag-bearers.
“No!” I said weakly.
Only Eric and Mute Mitchell—The Mute, as Sharon called him when Jeff was not around—stood next to me. Older than Eric by a year but smaller, Mitch- ell clung to the straps of his backpack as if it were a parachute. Unlike some of the other students, Carla and Eric included, Mitchell had never been, according to his file, on suicide watch, but that’s what worried me. Mitchell’s blank expression and closed mouth defied my ability to form an impression of him. As soon as I closed my eyes, he vanished in my mind. He studied me, then Sharon, and decided to follow Carla. Off he went in the direction of the girls.
“No,” I said, but I made no effort to stop him. In extreme circumstances, regulations dictated that I restrain the residents. Wards of the state, they could not be allowed to run away. But knowing about the horrible things that had happened to most of them, I couldn’t understand how it was okay for me to touch them at all. Ever.
“Come back!” I yelled. None of them turned around.
Sure that Eric trusted Carla more than me, I feared he would follow the girls and begged him to stay put.
“Are they coming back?” Eric asked. In addition to dog attacks, he feared that the counselors and other residents would leave him, and he had good rea- son to be afraid. Counselors, especially Level Ones earning minimum wage, fre- quently vanished. Sharon had worked there the longest. Jeff, the head counselor, had been there for two years, and he’d recently told me that after another year, when his girlfriend finished nursing school, they planned to move to Boston. Residents, too, would suddenly take off, sometimes back to foster care, but often to the Mercy psych unit or to juvenile detention.
On the far side of the field, Carla and the others (four small heads, one blonde, one red, two brown) ducked into the trees.
“Shit,” I said. I wasn’t upset, not yet. I never really felt things while they were happening. Always sometime later.
“I should’ve followed them,” Eric said. “Now they’re gone and I’m not.” “I’m here, so is Sharon,” I said, though Sharon was unconscious and drooling against the steering wheel. “Is she dead?” Eric asked.
“I don’t think so.” I looked more closely. She was breathing. I knew I should probably edge closer to check.
Eric leapt into Sharon’s lap and started to dig around in the glove com- partment until he found a Snickers, which he carefully unwrapped and fumbled onto the floor. When he dove under Sharon’s legs to root out the Snickers from amidst cigarette butts and the remains of an Egg McMuffin, his upturned sneak- ers pushed against Sharon’s slack jaw and mashed her nose against her face.
“She has the hungry disease,” Eric shouted back to me. Sharon was diabetic, but I could smell whiskey. She had to be passed-out drunk. Snickers in hand, Eric pried open Sharon’s mouth, used his finger to push her tongue out of the way, and jammed the Snickers a little too far down Sharon’s throat. Gripping the top of her forehead with one hand and her jaw with the other, he started to manually masticate the candy bar for her.
“Stop, that’s not going to work,” I said half-heartedly. I supposed a Snick- ers couldn’t hurt Sharon, unless she started to choke. Sharon wasn’t my biggest worry. All but one resident had disappeared into the Maine woods. For that I might get more than fired.
“Yes, it will work!” Eric said. Sweat filmed his brow and chin. Satisfied, he gently rested Sharon’s face against the steering wheel. Chocolate oozed out of her mouth. Maybe if I didn’t do something she might choke, but then I saw several gooey chunks slide down into her lap. Bubbles appeared on her lips. The will to live.
“Now what?” Eric demanded. “Are we just going to leave her here?” His mouth opened wide with shock. “What if someone comes and puts dirt in her mouth?”
“You already basically did that.”
“What if a pack of dogs comes along and tries to eat her!” His pupils dilated, his breathing grew shallow, and he started to scan the edges of the field.
“We’ll call for help from the house,” I said, trying to sound calm, and grabbed his hand. What I really needed was for someone to lead me back to the house—I had just lost a whole houseful of kids. My breath grew shallow and my vision started to narrow.
“How far back to the home?” Eric asked. The shrinks who visited the kids for a few minutes once a week wanted them to call the building “home.”
“Maybe a mile.”
“A mile!” He gawked at me. “We can’t walk a mile. We need to take a ride.
Where the fuck is Jeff!”
“Good question. Come on. It’s not going to kill you to walk a mile.” Now that I had his hand, I wasn’t going to let him go.
Eric squinted at the sky. The morning haze had turned the sky the color of chicken skin. “I don’t want to die,” he moaned and slowly sat in the breakdown lane with one hand draped over his brow and his other gripping my hand.
“You’re not going to die,” I said.
“But that’s not true. You know that’s not true. I am going to die.” “I mean not today,” I said.
“Can you promise that?”
“No,” I said. We had a pact not to lie to each other. Eric had established the pact, and I had agreed because it was easier at first to go along.
“Then why did you say ‘not today’?” “To calm you down.”
“But now I am less calm.”
“That’s because you don’t want to be calm.”
“But yes I do!” he said and widened his eyes. “I want to be calm. And I thought we were going to the museum. To see the paintings of boats, the most beautiful paintings of boats I’d ever seen, you said.”
“We are—I mean we were.”
“But then Sharon drove us into the field.”
“That’s what happened, yes.” I took a deep breath. “I don’t think we should tell Jeff about what happened today.” Immediately I regretted what I had said.
Not telling Jeff wouldn’t bring the kids back, wouldn’t protect them wherever they were. And now I had asked Eric to lie. Eric never lied. Whatever passed through his head came right out of his mouth—this was in his file—so it was not fair to ask him to hide the truth. To cover my motives, I said, “If we tell, Sharon might get in trouble—she’ll get fired.” Then I felt even worse because for all I knew we had left Sharon to drown in her own spittle.
“Who will read Make Way For Ducklings?” Eric demanded.
I hadn’t thought of this problem. A serious problem. Sharon had to be the one to read. It didn’t say so in Eric’s file, but it was the case. Each resident had two stories, the one in their files and the one not in their files. The one you could read in one sitting that seemed to explain everything about them, and the other one that only flickered as it did now from the corner of Eric’s mouth. I helped him to his feet and lifted his backpack onto his shoulders. I told him it wasn’t far, but he cringed with each footfall as if his legs weighed a hundred pounds each (and at this moment, to him, they did weigh more than he could bear). With every step he rose on the ball of his right foot and pitched forward slightly because his right toe was missing.
We walked for a minute, sat down to take a rest, and walked for another minute. With its white clapboards and black shutters, the Spurwink House looked like a home where a family might live. Inside, though, the second floor had been divided into seven tiny rooms; downstairs, padlocks secured the drawers and the refrigerator. Only four months out of Mercy rehab myself and only three months on the job, I had keys to the place. Why had someone given me the keys? Look what had happened.
Eric checked all the windows, which remained locked day and night for the safety of the residents. I sat down on the sofa to worry about the escapees. I had signed a stack of papers when I took the job, but I hadn’t read any of them. Maybe they could sue me. Put me in jail.
Eric lay down parallel to me on the floor.
“Am I tired now?” he said. “A little bit sleepy?”
I had said to him once that he didn’t seem to realize when he was tired or hungry. He would go and go, then just drop.
“You are,” I said. I was usually tired, too, especially during the day. “When are you leaving?” he asked.
“I didn’t say I was leaving.” “Everyone leaves.”
His fears orbited his thoughts, returning with regularity.
A message beeped on the answering machine next to the phone. Leaning up from the sofa, I pushed the play button. Jeff coughed out of the speaker. He had the flu and had slept through his alarm. We should brave the museum without him, go ahead and take the van. Oh, but, shit, he said, I have the van.
Now that we’d had an “incident,” I should call Jeff, but with Jeff out of action, technically I should call Terry, the administrator in charge of the house. Despite his soft name and scratchy-looking therapist-beard, Terry was scary. He judged with his ripsaw green eyes and kept files on all the employees. The first question he asked me in our interview: “John, do you like to have sex with children?” “No!” I might have answered too loudly but got the job anyway, possibly only because my grandmother knew his boss. Terry’s emergency phone number hung on the wall above the phone and seemed to pulse in my vision. If something terrible happened to just one of the children out there (and something terrible had already happened to each of them—that’s why they were here at the Spurwink house with no one but me in charge), Terry would put me in the same category as the people who’d damaged these kids to begin with. I would have to stand trial.
“I don’t think we should call Terry right away,” I said.
“Don’t call Terry!” Eric said. Most of the residents hated Terry.
The phone rang and Eric shot across the room to grab the receiver and re- turn it to me. Jeff, wanting a status update. He had spent the morning puking his guts out.
“No museum,” I reported.
“Yeah, I will be there as soon as I can. Keep everyone calm and in the house until I get there?”
“Okay,” I said, “will do.”
“Did you just lie?” Eric asked when I hung up. He stood only a foot away from my face.
“Yes, but not to you.”
He furrowed his brow and evaluated this statement as he rested his hand on top of my head.
“Okay, but who is going to read Make Way for Ducklings tonight?”
If Sharon did not read Make Way for Ducklings—and it had to be Sharon— Eric would destroy his room.
“I can read it,” I said. “No,” he said and grimaced.
The rules for handling each resident depended on their file. No Vicks VapoRub around Eric, no dogs around Denise (or Eric), do not say the name Doug around Stephanie, no loose buttons around Mitchell. The smell of tunafish made Willa throw up. Don’t let Carla use the phone to call her boyfriend because her boy- friend only existed in the back of the 1983 National Geographic, which featured a racecar driver named Craig Dempsey. Eric grew up in Mexico, Maine, with his mother and her boyfriends in an old farmhouse with no running water, no electric. Half the time she didn’t come home, not for days at a time. The last boy- friend, a homebody, sodomized Eric with Vicks VapoRub and kept him locked in a closet in his own piss and shit until he almost died. Eric ran away through the woods in the middle of the winter wearing nothing but a pair of wool socks, which explained his missing toe, but not the pale, oval-shaped scar on his fore- head or the scars on his back.
Nothing had ever happened to me. In Tucson I drank too much, took too many pills and other things. Then one day I stopped eating, stopped sleeping, stopped talking. Everything stopped. It felt as if my brain was suspended in black Jell-O. My roommate’s girlfriend found me in my bedroom on the floor, my lips blue. At first I told people in the hospital that I hadn’t known the stuff was cut— Apache. When I landed back at University Med a month later, I admitted I knew what I was doing, and they locked me down for seventy-two hours. During an interview with one of the doctors, I said that my mother had left us when I was fourteen. I’d hardly seen her since. The doctor asked me if I thought that might have something to do with what had been happening to me. I didn’t know, I told the doctor—maybe.
I was back in Maine now because my grandmother had come out to Tucson to see me for the third time, this time to bring me back, and I was still here in Maine because she was still alive. On my days off I drove north to spend the night at my grandparents’ house, where my grandmother sometimes told me she was happy to see me getting better. But I wasn’t getting better. I didn’t believe anyone changed, not at this point in my life. People kept going as long as they could. Then they didn’t.
Eric stood above me squinting at the side of my face. Something I wished he wouldn’t do. I had nothing to offer him. I told him to take out his colored pencils and a drawing pad and spread them next to the sofa. Eric needed special permission to use his colored pencils. He always drew the same lobster boat with a black hull under a yellow sky. No people, no land, no gulls.
“Is this good enough to be in the museum?” he asked, turning the drawing so I could see the black hull sitting in the white water.
“If I were in charge of the museum, I would put it right in the front.” I wasn’t lying, and he knew it. He nodded thoughtfully.
“Look!” Eric pointed across the road where Mitchell stood on the shoulder with his hands hanging at his sides. “He came back!”
Mitchell stood as steady as a lamppost and showed no sign that he planned to cross the road on his own, thank God. Though he’d never said he hated the Spurwink House (had never said anything to me), he had drawn me a crude picture of a building under which he wrote, “I hate hate hate it hear.” At the time I had wondered if he meant he hated it here or what he once had to hear.
I opened the door. “Mitchell, stay where you are!”
Something moved in the woods behind Mitchell, and in moments Carla and the others appeared. I told Eric to wait for me, but he burst into the middle of the road without looking both ways and held out his palms, one facing each direc- tion. Mitchell extended his foot, careful not to touch the white line, and marched toward me. Carla and the others caught up to him and slinked across the road.
“Make way for the fucking ducklings!” Eric shouted down the empty road. I’d almost herded them inside when I saw Sharon crossing the road with her hands gripping the top of her head as if it might fall off. Inside, Sharon lay down on the sofa and Carla flopped down on the floor in the middle of the room and sighed. In obedience to their leader, the others did the same.
“No one, I mean no one, is allowed to leave the building under any circumstances,” I said in my best Terry voice, but no one paid attention to me. I tried to count them to make sure we had everyone, but I kept losing count. Unable to remember how many there were supposed to be, I sat down and yawned. When I slept at night I didn’t really sleep, and when I was awake during the day I wasn’t really awake.
“You find your boyfriend?” Eric asked Carla.
“Shut up, Eric,” Carla said. Eric crawled over and put his head on Carla’s stomach. Without exception, the residents were not allowed to touch each other.
“Sharon, why did you pass out?” Eric asked.
“Hah, hah, hah,” Sharon laughed. “That’s the funny part! I wasn’t drunk at all—but for the grace of God. Do you know what I mean? You will. I ate a cookie for breakfast, which for me is ten times as bad as drinking five gallons of Ballantine. But not really!” She laughed again. “Why would I eat a cookie when I know what it does to me? And then you know what happened? Instead of dying, this little urchin Eric came along and with his little, little fingers placed a piece of Snickers on my tongue. A miracle! I was there but also not there, you know? I had one foot in this troubled world and one foot out. Old Sharon here was floating over the hood of the car watching you all, and I saw John there shaking his head. And Carla and Mitchell walking off—you were not alone! I was watching over you. And seeing I could not chew for myself, seeing I had already given up on the flesh, my little cherub here put the Snickers in my mouth and started chewing for me using his little hands. I saw all this from above, you understand, and even though I had already let go, let God, even though I had already surrendered the shit out of this situation and all future situations, if you know what I mean, all things, even my own thoughts, needing to be accepted as things I could not control, my heart just swelled with my Higher Power at the sight of little Eric chewing for his big old Sharon. And that’s when I decided that I couldn’t, God willing, leave you guys alone down here.”
Sharon broke off, breathless, and taking Eric in her thick arms lifted him off the floor and danced around the room with his legs dangling unhinged from his hips. When she set him down, Eric collapsed giggling as if Sharon had been tickling him.
Sharon fell half-on, half-off the sofa and leaned her head back, mouth open. Eric crawled onto Sharon’s lap and closed his eyes. No one had eaten lunch and it would be suppertime soon. Because of people’s medication schedules and general sensitivity to blood sugar fluctuations, there were no exceptions to meal- times. The plan had been to hand out bag lunches at the museum courtyard, but lunch did not exist because Jeff had been in charge of lunch.
“Should we read Make Way for Ducklings now?” Sharon asked. “I feel like reading it now.”
“But we always read it after supper.” Eric seemed genuinely concerned about what would happen after supper, or maybe if supper would even happen, ever again.
“Let’s read it now and after supper,” Sharon said. They all looked to me.
“Today,” Sharon finally said as she held up her hand for someone to fetch Ducklings, “I was saved by my Higher Power, who proved to me—as if he needed to!—that He is always looking out for me. Always! And each one of you has Higher Powers of your own understanding, and these Higher Powers are all looking out for you. You will never be given more than you can handle.” Eric pulled the flop-eared copy out of the drawer where we kept the board games and solemnly handed it to Sharon. Everyone settled on the floor and stared off at the walls.
“Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live. But every time Mr. Mallard saw what looked like a nice place, Mrs. Mallard said it was no good. . . she was not going to raise a family where there might be foxes or turtles.” They had all heard the story hundreds of times by now and most of them were too old for it, but within three sentences all their eyes glazed over with an opiatic haze. Eric fell sound asleep as the new ducklings Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Quack, and Pack passed the corner shop on Charles Street. In the Public Garden, where they almost got run over by a kid on a bike, and were snubbed by a giant haughty swan on a paddle boat, Mrs. Mallard said she would not raise ducklings in such a violent place. So they moved to an island in the middle of the Charles River. That’s fine—made sense, but then Mr. Mallard decided he’d like to take a trip to see what the rest of the river was like, farther on. So off he set. So off he set? They agreed to meet a week (a week!) later in the Public Garden. “Don’t you worry,” said Mr. Mallard. Where in the Public Garden exactly would they meet? Having been there myself, I didn’t see how you could just decide to meet a duck somewhere in the park. And how would they get there? The ducklings only had to travel a thousand feet at most from the Esplanade to the northwest corner of the park, but they had to pass over Back Street or Beaver Place and busy Beacon Street, where the friendly cop named Michael came along to stop traffic for them. Even with the help of the cops, only a miracle could explain the absence of fatalities by car, cat, shoe, or seagull. They marched across the park to the pond and there found the vacationing Mr. Mallard relaxing and waiting for them to arrive. They had landed here in the beginning of the book, and had found too many reckless kids on bikes and the paddle boat with the strange aloof swan—the same place about which Mrs. Mallard had said, “This is no place for babies.” And now she thought, I’m okay with it?
On a normal day, the last line of the story would send Eric off to bed and he would crawl under the sheets and close his eyes. A normal day ended after supper at 7:45. The current time, 4:30, left him with three hours and fifteen minutes that he couldn’t account for or work around. I saw him try. I spoke to him in my thoughts and told him to breathe, just breathe—another valuable piece of advice from Jeff that usually didn’t work. Eric leaned forward, placed his hands on both sides of his head, and squeezed with his eyes closed and his mouth open. Maybe if Sharon continuously reread the story from now until 7:45, maybe then he would close his eyes and heave a sigh of relief.
“Eric,” I said, but he didn’t hear me. When he finally raised his head, glasses perched on the end of his nose, nostrils flaring, he looked right through me. I said his name again, but he didn’t respond. He rose slowly to his feet, and, slouch- ing like a kid off to do his chores, climbed the stairs to his room. I followed him and the rest of the kids followed me. He swung the door open, grabbed the end of the blanket on his bed and slowly pulled it onto the floor. He leaned forward, and for a moment it seemed as if he might be too tired to continue. The other kids pressed behind me to gain a better view. Downstairs the micro- wave hummed—Sharon making herself a snack. Eric grabbed his cover, yanked it across the room, then swept his hands across his bookshelf. Match Box Cars, books, his drawing materials flew onto the floor. He tipped over the bookshelf, ripped a poster of a racecar Jeff had just bought him off the wall and frantically tore it into small pieces. Picking up speed, he pulled out the drawers, dragged them across the room, and dumped them upside down. His underwear, T-shirts, pants landed in a pile. He leaned his shoulder into the bureau and pushed it over. A clay cup he had painted broke. A plastic sailboat I’d bought for him cracked. His glasses flew off his face as he screamed and pounded his fists into the wall. I called his name, but he didn’t seem to hear me. Every other time Eric had spun out, Jeff had been here to restrain him with the bear-hug move they had taught us in training. A move reserved for moments when we thought a resident might hurt themselves—moments like this. But I stood staring at him as he swung his fist as hard as he could and left a bloody mark on the plaster. He looked over his shoulder at me and tightened his fist for a second shot. Jeff would already have tackled him by now.
“Don’t, Eric. Please.”
But he did anyway—of course he did—because I hadn’t stopped him. His fist slammed into the same spot as if driven by a force of its own, and without thinking I pinned him to the floor, clamped his arms to his sides and squeezed his legs together with my knees. Spit flew from his mouth as he growled and tried to twist his head around to bite me.
“Breathe,” I told him, because I had been told in training to remind the residents to breathe, and because he was starting to hyperventilate. His ribs pounded against my arms. “Breathe, Eric,” I whispered. When he heard his name a second time, he opened his bloodshot eyes and looked at me. He recognized me. He looked around his room, at the bare walls and broken toys. While I waited for him to calm, he rested his head against my arm and stared up at my face.
“You ready to get up?” I asked after a while. He didn’t answer at first. His warm breath washed over my cheeks.
“Yeah,” he said.
The other kids had lost interest and gone downstairs. I took one end of his sheet, and he took the other. I pushed the bookshelf back against the wall, and he placed the pieces of the broken cup and shattered sailboat back on the shelf. The poster had been shredded; we scooped the scraps into his wastebasket.
When we finished, he sat on the edge of the mattress and hunched his shoulders. I sat next to him.
“I’m tired,” he said.
“I am, too,” I said. I asked him if he felt ready to eat, and he nodded. Jeff would arrive any time and hand out everyone’s medication, and then it would be time for me to go home and eat. I started to walk out of Eric’s room, but he told me to wait.
“What is it?” “You’re leaving.”
“In a few minutes, I’m just going home for the night. Jeff is coming in, and so is Sandra. It’s the same every week. I’ll be back in the morning.” So yes, I wanted to say to him—I needed to leave, and not just because I was starving and my hands were shaking. Now I was feeling what I hadn’t felt before: the panic of watching the kids walk across the field away from me. Whatever happened to them would be my fault.
For a moment, as Eric removed his glasses and cleaned them on his T-shirt, he looked like an old man. He replaced his glasses on his face and stood waiting for me to lead the way downstairs.
Sandra arrived first, relieving Sharon, who took a cab home. When Jeff pulled into the parking lot soon afterwards, I decided not to mention our trip in Sharon’s station wagon. His stomach still felt weak, he said, but he’d survive the night. Sandra would sit between the bedrooms upstairs while Jeff counted the knives after supper and tried to sleep on the sofa. I waved goodnight to everyone and ran across the parking lot to the Datsun my grandmother had loaned me.
I lived half an hour away in Portland in the back of a third-story three-bed- room walkthrough with two other guys from AA I didn’t know too well. My one bedroom window overlooked a parking lot and a 7-11. I couldn’t wait to get to the apartment and not talk to anyone.
In the kitchen, I heated toast in the oven and sipped from a glass of water. The other two guys hadn’t come home yet. So tired that I felt as if I had sand in my eyes, I pushed the toast aside and rested my forehead on the table. The phone rang, and when I picked up the receiver, a voice on the other end said, “John?” I recognized him right away.
“How’d you get this number, Eric?” He didn’t answer. He must’ve somehow broken into the office while Jeff slept. Sandra must’ve fallen asleep, too. I pictured the house—dark, locked and quiet except for Eric’s whisper.
“Is everything all right?” Eric asked. “With me?”
He said that I’d seemed upset when I left. Troubled. He parroted the language of his doctors and social workers, but not with irony—he wanted to help. The answer to his question was that I was not all right, not at all. I had no idea how I had ended up like this and no idea what to do about it.
“When are you going to leave?” he asked.
“I’m coming back tomorrow. Remember, I told you.”
“You’re going to leave,” he said. I told him he was just feeling anxious—I would see him in the morning. But I wouldn’t see him in the morning. I would call in sick, and on the day after that I wouldn’t bother to call. I just wouldn’t show up. To be certain of all that would never happen to me—I’d yet to stick a needle in my arm, yet to spend a night in jail—I needed to forget the Spurwink House.
“You promise?” Eric said, and I promised him.
I hung up and went to our kitchen window, which overlooked the roof of the bar next door and, at the end of the block, Longfellow Square. Often a man stood below Longfellow’s statue and hurled warnings about the Second Coming at passing traffic. Tonight he sat leaning against the poet’s leg with his head in his hands. I’d seen him at the same AA meeting where I’d seen Sharon, but I couldn’t remember his name. Couldn’t remember his story. I could only remember his voice in the parking lot after the meeting asking one person after another if they could give him a ride home.