Car Wreck

By Laurie King Billman

I worked in a boys group home when I first moved to the South. In those days we were paid to give the boys “a healthy” home life. The parents, or most often the custodial grandmas, had lost control of the boys, and we were to bring them back into the fold of adult control. Sometimes the guardians were as out of control as the kids.

We had to spend hours with boys who would not give us the time of day in normal life, and yet we had to try to provide them with the great medicine of a healing family environment at a group home. When this was done, the state wanted us to turn around and weave the boys back into their communities and families. It was to this end I took Keeshawn to see his grandmother in Roxboro.

Before we took off that morning, he took forever to get ready. He tried on shorts, then baggy jeans, then three different jerseys. On this trip we weren’t planning on going to see his girlfriend or his “homeboys,” so I didn’t understand the fuss until later.

It was the kind of February day in North Carolina that starts cold but soon picks up some wisps of warmth in preparation for spring. In the car we kept arguing about the windows. He wanted them down and I was freezing. He didn’t want to wear his seatbelt, and he put up a struggle that made his diagnosis of oppositional defiance sound like an understatement. As a mental health underling, most of the time I ignored the tags our psychologist puts on the kids after seeing them for fifteen minutes, but, in this case, she was dead on.

I had to wait for ten minutes in front of the group home until he put on his seatbelt. He slipped it off twice before we even got to the highway. I would pull over till it went back on and try not to lose my cool.

When we got to old 86, he started talking about how he wanted a home pass for his birthday coming up in March. It was the big sixteen, and he kept trying to get me to agree to request a whole weekend pass from his probation officer so he could take his new girlfriend out.

“Don’t I really deserve this because of my improvements?” After all, “I ain’t even touched a gun or seen any cocaine in the past six months,” and he wrote all those “where is my life going” papers for me, so surely he was “cured.” I agreed to think about it.

“Miss Laurie,” he said, “How ’bout you let me put this CD in the player? It don’t break any of the group home’s rules.”

I could see by song titles and the cover picture, which showed half-naked women around a guy with bag-down pants, a do-rag, and a gun, he was lying. But his seatbelt was on, and I was tired of him complaining about my Bob Dylan. How “that dude sounds like he has throat cancer or some kinda gross white people disease.”

He drummed the dashboard to the tune of the CD, and somebody played a violin, and a deep voice rapped about somebody coming back from the dead. When I said, “That’s kind of nice,” he fast-forwarded it to musical cussing and lots of anger with a lot of women is bitches thrown in for effect. He skipped to the next song before I could protest. On came some really fast rap that I couldn’t argue with because I couldn’t understand what the guy was saying. Then, sneaky like, he slipped off his seatbelt, but I didn’t say anything. We were almost there.

We drove past rotting tobacco barns with graying wooden walls. Out in the winter fields, trash was being stirred around by a dirty wind. I was new to the South then. So when I saw the barn with the Confederate flag painted on it with the words “KKK, get over yourself,” I decided to talk about the whole black-white issue in the South.

But he would have nothing to do with it. He ignored my questions about the barn’s history and pulled down his thug cap, saying, “Damn, you’re drivin’ like an old white lady, speed up.”

Out of the CD poured more anger and burning and sex. As we drove down the empty streets of Roxboro, I saw a small fenced plot that contained small worn-down stones and broken crosses labeled “Old Slave Graveyard.”

We pulled up to his grandma’s house, a cute little place with a wishing well outside. She was sitting on a flowered couch, her walker beside it, and she said, “I hope those people can straighten you out, honey,” and he kissed the top of her gray head and said, “Maybe.” She reminded him, “Think of Brother Boo alone there in prison,” and he said, “That’s him, not me. Boo be gettin’ caught for everything. He always stupid, Grandma, not like me.”

Then he asked where his number thirty jersey was. She didn’t know, and he went back to his bedroom to get some of his basketball shoes. She said, “You stay good. I’ll buy you lots more jerseys.”

Then he got a box of Cocoa Puffs from an open shelf and poured the whole box in a big bowl. “They not feedin’ you, honey?” she said.

“Oh yeah, they got food, just none of it good,” he said, as he consumed the whole bowl in three swallows.

She laughed and said to me, “Isn’t he somethin’? It sure is good to see him not on dope and talkin’ normal-like again.”

When she brought him to the group home with the county social worker, he wouldn’t say a word, just watched the windows, wild-eyed. Soon the shift workers at the home were nervous, worrying about what kind of drug-deal-gone-bad retribution he might bring down on the home, a small inconspicuous house in an otherwise quiet small-town neighborhood. It took him a month to decide he was in the clear.

When he started talking, it seemed like he was making up for years of silence. Truth is, although he was a constant problem, he always could make me laugh, so I got accused of favoritism toward him by the other boys.

He started pacing around and looking out the windows of his grandma’s house, so I figured it was time to cut the visit short, and he seemed relieved. We pulled out into Crape Myrtle Road.

He said, “Can you take me to see my mom?”

“Your mom? I thought you never wanted to see her.”

“I don’t know. You goin’ to take me or not?”

“I shouldn’t. Your probation officer hasn’t authorized it. He said she was a bad influence on you.”

“How can that ghetto man say that? She’s my mom. You’re supposed to be helpin’ out, social work lady. So help out. Take me to my mom’s.”

I saw he had put his seatbelt on without a word and decided to go ahead, having somehow been worn down by his logic. We drove down by the courthouse, past more trash blowing, then up and down two hills, and he said, “Turn up there.”

We came to rows of look-alike apartments with cars outside in various states of disrepair and different shades of rust on every panel. We stopped at a car on cement blocks. As he went up to the apartment door, I saw a front curtain flutter. But the door never opened. He stood out there knocking for ten minutes, his cornrows shaking, his red striped boxers ballooning out of the top of his jeans, looking like a little boy that somebody didn’t get around to dressing right for school.

I yelled out, “Come on. We’ve got to get back.”

All he said when he got back in the car was, “As usual, she’s gone.” I just wanted to hug him, comfort him, but that would have injured what dignity he had left. So I yelled at him to put his seatbelt on, and he slumped down and glared at me. After ten minutes of silence, he jammed the CD back into the player. Later, I was real glad I had waited him out on the seatbelt.

As we traveled down Highway 86, when I wasn’t paying attention, little by little, he dialed up the volume until I couldn’t think. I knew he wanted a fight, and I didn’t want to give it to him.

I turned the volume back down and said, “Let’s process your feelings about your mother before you break my eardrums with this noise.”

He said, “OK, just get me a gun and I can get the process goin’.”

I started into a lecture about violence being a faulty way to problem-solve, and he snapped back with, “Then why the hell we fightin’ those A-rabs in Iraq?” Having no good answer to that, I let him sulk.

We drove on with 50 Cent in the background. About every five minutes I would turn it down, and he would turn it back up, right up until we were hit by a truck coming out of a blind intersection. As the truck slammed into his side of the car, he yelled and screamed, “Oh my God!” ten times.

When we ground to a stop, he jumped out of the car and cussed the truck driver out, in between asking me repeatedly, “Are you OK, Miss Laurie?”

When we were done with the police report and headed back to the group home, he said, “Well, damn. Now I can sue you or that other guy and get rich.”

He was in a great mood for the rest of the trip and was convinced that this wreck was going to turn his life around. He said, “Hell, you always tryin’ to help me. After I sue y’all, which will really be your insurance company anyways, so you don’t pay nothin’, I’ll be so rich everybody will want to be my friend.”

For the rest of his stay in the group home until he turned seventeen, we got along really well, having been survivors together. Staff would say the accident had some kind of an electroshock therapy effect on him, because after that he finished his GED and held a job at Burger King for a year.

The staff would call me when he was being unreasonable, and I could talk him down pretty quick. Sometimes when he had broken a rule or wanted a weekend pass, he would complain about his “bad back” and threaten to sue me. I would encourage him to go ahead, but remind him that I had to enforce the rules no matter what.

He talked me into going by his mom’s apartment one more time that year. I had tears in my eyes when we drove off without him being let in yet again. He put his seatbelt on without an argument that time. In fact, he always was the one to get everybody to put their seatbelts on, usually sharing how one had saved his life once.

I wish I could say this story didn’t include a prison detour, but then I’d be lying. I heard he got five years for an armed robbery a few years after he left us. One of the staff at the group home joked, “I bet he remembered his seatbelt in the getaway car.” We all laughed. What else could we do?

——————–

Laurie King Billman has been published in 13th Moon, San Pedro River Review, MacGuffin, Penmen Review, Rambler, Streetlight Magazine, Mom Egg, and Not What I Expected: The Unpredictable Road From Womanhood To Motherhood and Night Whispers. She holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling and works as a mental health therapist, previously for several Native American tribes and currently for youths and their families. She has studied with Joanna Catherine Scott, Ruth Moose, and Karen Pullen.

 


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