The weight of that building seemed to tie me to the Earth, as though, over time, it had filled to bursting with law and order. They were spilling out now, pouring over and around and through me, and I was drowning in them, stuck in the mud of guilt and tears. Images from the moments before flashed through my head like snapshots: my mother, standing up and screaming at the judge; the judge threatening to hold her in contempt of court; the bailiff escorting her from the courtroom; the judge looking at me over the rim of his glasses and mouthing his declaration of, “Unfit parent. State custody.” The echoed memory of the gavel snapped me back to the present.
I watched as my case-worker, Lashaunda, wedged herself into her sea-foam green, base-model compact, and I barked out a short, hollow laugh. The scene was somewhat reminiscent of an inflated balloon being stuffed into a jellybean; she was nearly as big around as she was tall. She waved at me impatiently through the windshield, urging me to hurry into the car. I stood for a moment, unable to move. Movement meant progression. Movement meant leaving everything I’d known behind. Movement meant acceptance of the situation. Finally, I stepped off the landing.
The sea-foam jellybean turned out of the courthouse parking lot and towards Downtown. Lashaunda took to murmuring into her mobile phone about another case of hers, a boy who’d slit his wrists the night before and was in intensive care at the local mercy hospital. I watched her as she spoke, studied her, and noticed for the first time how tired she looked. Lines of misery were etched deeply into her full face, lines that shouldn’t have been there at her young age. I turned away from her pain and stared out the window, letting her voice become fuzzy and indistinct as I concentrated on the things going on around us.
We moved from Downtown into the Historic District, full of renovated Victorian homes. Birds chirped unseen in the trees. Somewhere in the distance, a mower whirred, clipping a manicured lawn to perfection. There were no signs of life beyond the leaded windows. Those big, beautiful homes, full of everything money could buy, were empty. There was no life in them, no love, no joy, no sorrow. For all their grandeur, they served no purpose. The jellybean rolled right past them.
We turned into the suburban neighborhoods. Middle class homes, each nestled precisely in the middle of its designated grid square, each a perfect replica of its neighbors, mirrored themselves down both sides of the street. Familiarity tickled the base of my neck as I looked around this neighborhood, so much like my own. Multicolored family vehicles carried over-stressed, over-medicated passengers back to their perfect, boring houses with their perfect, boring families and their perfect, boring lives. A car door slammed as a brown-haired, brown-eyed man climbed out of a deep red minivan. The color was most likely supposed to look sporty, but failed to hide the utilitarian functionality of the vehicle. He slung his drab suit jacket over his arm, gripping his standard-issue black briefcase in one hand while loosening his hideous tie, most likely a birthday present from one of his 2.5 blond-haired, blue-eyed children. The man stopped suddenly and looked at me, his brown eyes reflected in mine. His shoulders slumped forward, as if the pity there awakened a long-sleeping recognition that his life was a shrine to mediocrity. He blinked, then, and turned away, and we proceeded with our journey. We did not stop at any of those houses.
The jellybean pushed on, turning seemingly random corners, with Lashaunda still a muffled hum in the background. We left the middling neighborhoods and drove through the lower-middle neighborhoods, past town homes and row homes in stern, sedate brick, beyond everything that was familiar and known, beyond everything that had been labeled safe in my childhood. We passed through the upper-lower neighborhoods, the lower neighborhoods, and the lower-lower neighborhoods, past the trailer parks with their doublewides in various stages of disrepair, and turned onto a tiny stretch of street nestled just behind the city projects, into an area even I knew was called Broke Town.
Dilapidated homes with layers of peeling, multi-colored paint were crammed up and down both sides of the street. Broken windows were stuffed with crumpled newspapers and plastic bags, and a torn, moth-eaten blanket hung over a doorway with empty hinges. In one driveway, three young men bent under the hood of an old sky-blue Cadillac with an earthquake of bass pouring through its open doors. Ink-black children and filthy mutt-dogs raced across the street, laughing and barking, oblivious to the cars on the road. Overgrown lawns, littered with car parts and empty beer bottles, were surrounded by sagging chain-linked fences. Some of those fences served to hold in dogs, some were to keep intruders out, and some provided wired prisons where smaller children played. Their mothers carried on animated conversations across side-yards, oblivious to my shock.
Gravel crunched under the tiny black tires of the jellybean as we pulled into the last driveway at the end of the street. Vertical wrought-iron bars covered the faces of the windows, combining with the brick walls and crumbling mortar to give the overall impression of a miniature prison. The lawn, yellowing in the hot summer sun, was edged severely along the side of the drive. A curled old man, who later turned out to be the paternal figure for my new foster family, stood in the doorway, leaning heavily on his cane and sucking on his gums. Shock-white eyebrows stood out dramatically against his wrinkled, blue-black skin. I climbed out of the car, retrieving my bag from the backseat, and staggered back a few steps as Lashaunda backed out of the drive. Not one word was directed at me, not one moment of reassurance, not one ounce of advice. She didn’t miss a beat in the staccato rhythm of her mobile conversation.
I eyed the man on the porch, and he eyed me. Hard ebony eyes pierced me, studied me, dared me to sneer at his proud home, this single thing that was his to tend to, his to care for. We stood for awhile like that, and finally, as the heat drew a bead of perspiration across my forehead, he jerked his head towards the inside of the house and turned away, allowing the barred screen door to slam shut behind him. I stood for a moment alone on that gravel drive, and time stopped. I would not grasp until several years later the precipice from which I had just been thrown, but even then, wrapped in naivety and confusion, I knew my life would never be the same. I took a deep breath, adjusted my grip on my bag, and stepped forward into my new life.