Some moments show no mercy. They sneak up on you like a starving cougar driven out of the high mountains into that little neighbourhood park near you. The cougar stalks. It plans. It picks its moment. And then, it pounces.
You can be sure it is looking for your children, your tasty, tiny little pets.
This was not quite like that.
Alfred Packer Secondary is the largest school in the city. Two thousand kids and one hundred teachers and support staff make it hum every day. There is a vibration of movement, Pavlovian-frantic, a fearful flood of youth swarming the locker lined hallways, a stampede, a drove of adolescence, feverish and trapped.
The whole parade may be run in an orderly manner but to the casual outsider, yours truly being an occasional visitor, it smacks of chaos.
I entered the maelstrom of this prime example of educational storage towards the end of the school day to speak to Gayle. She had been avoiding me. It’s not that social workers take this evasion personally. We are an eminently thick-skinned species.
Gayle lives on her own. She is, for two more months, a child in the care of the state. I have the responsibility to help plan her exit. She is dodging this reality. I understand her reluctance. Talking to me makes pending emancipation horribly real.
We meet in her counsellor’s office. There are tears. Hers, mostly. I contain mine. I explain, as I have done numerous times before, that she is eligible, upon approval by the bureaucracy, to receive some funds to assist her to continue her education once she ages out. She will not be supported, however, if she slacks off. She will be an adult then. Penalties for aging are steep. There are few if any excuses allowed once you enter unforgiving adulthood.
Afterwards, I offer to give Gayle a lift home to her basement suite. As usual, I have a secondary motive. We meet in the car park. She is with a friend, a pretty, pale brown haired girl, one of those young woman who stare more at the ground than in your eyes, as if they are carrying an untenably crushing weight.
“My friend, Sherry,” Gayle says.
“Hello, Sherry,” I say.
“Can we give her a lift?”
“Sure,” I say. “We’ve got a bit more talking to do, you know?”
She makes her face. I like her ‘why are you bothering, but it’s okay’ face. It is a familiar facade. Time-tested and child-like. It will fade in just a few short years, lose its artlessness.
“Sherry knows all about me,” she says.
But do I, I wonder? I suppose I do. But, as with all of the youth in my charge, I trust they have some secrets I will never know. Safe ones, preferably. Much of their life is on a file. Some of it deserves concealment.
Gayle offers Sherry the front seat and she jumps in the back.
It is a short hop to Gayle’s home. We are halfway there before I plunge in. “Have you thought about finding a new roommate?” I ask. We have been topping up Gayle’s rent but that will end when she leaves care. The system of services for former youth in care is more difficult to fiddle with. As we are somehow less responsible, we pay less.
She shrugs. I catch the gesture in the rear-view. It speaks its own language. Gayle has had at least three roommates in the past two years. That I know of.
“Sherry would like to move in…” she pauses…”But she’s only seventeen. And her mother…”
“Her mother what?”
“Okay,” I say, suspecting the conversation will continue.
“Jesus! Look, Wally, no one should have to live with a crazy mother.”
“Don’t, Gayle,” Sherry pipes up. “Don’t.”
I know a few things at this point. Gayle is a level-headed advocate. Even though she is currently struggling with abandonment issues, she is, essentially, a young woman imbued with a sense of fairness. There is likely something awry in Sherry’s home.
I also know that, whatever it is, there is probably little to be done. Sherry, being seventeen, is on the bitter brink of maturity. It is pretty much too late to remedy whatever is off in her home. Still, I will listen if we make it that far.
“Run it past me, Sherry. What’s going on?”
We have by now, arrived at Gayle’s street. She is my priority but it is sometimes difficult to sever situations. Well, easy for the system; not so easy for me.
I pull up and wait.
“Tell him, Sherry. Or I will. I swear I will.”
Sherry seems not to be afraid of this threat. She turns, reaches back and lightly strokes Gayle’s shoulder, “My…I’ll try, Gay.”
She lets loose a gasp of air, a gush of breath, and starts in on her saga. “My mom, she’s…she’s kind of lost it. Grand Papa died three years ago. We’ve been living on the inheritance ever since. Me, Molly, my older sister, mom. Living! Sort of living. Maybe not like…like most people live…”
“We’re all different…” I begin vague words of solace.
“Before then, we were mostly on welfare. Mom never really worked…she tried but she was always so angry…my dad…he left us …married Trish…they live out on the Old Highway…with Oscar…he’s six…and now, well, Mom, all she does is buy things. Things we never even open…or use.”
Tears flood out; her eyes, a red, ghostly, broken faucet…
Gayle reaches out to hug her, picks up the tale…“It’s a pigsty, Wally…junk, papers, boxes of crap, garage sale stuff. I went there once, couldn’t stand it…the living room, crap piled waist high, there is a trail…and no Kitchen…”
That got my attention. A house with no kitchen.”
“Sherry,” I pursue this thread, “in my experience all houses have kitchens.”
The blood, what there was of it, drains from her face.
“We can’t use ours. There are…rats. They live there. They stole our kitchen.”
Sherry’s story unfolds, an accordion of collapse, a disgorging of parental miscarriage.
There will be steps to follow. Though I know them off by heart, they are always new. The actors, raw and untested, have never played these parts before. The script, well worn, is as old as the hills, the high mountains which, oh so recently, dislodged the cougar that always, always swallows the young.
A spill occurs, what do you do next? See if you can come in at more than a Word Count of 600.
Control your word usage. (SUGGESTED)
Using the above scenario, create a scene about a spill of some kind and what you happens. Is it related to you, to someone around you, the world, love, death, sports. Get creative. (REQUIRED)
I live by the sea. Annually, a local group gathers the spillage of floats and nets and detritus belonging to the local aquafarmers that get swept away by storm and tide. I thought about that sort of recurring spillage but found myself being swept away by memories of disclosure, the courage exhibited by children who let loose the complex and secret conditions of their lives.
I’m not sure if I succeeded in capturing this in The Beans. Still, here it is, albeit somewhat longer than suggested.