by: Paul Negri
“It is all in the service of the children, our most precious possessions.” A short story wherein a desperate mother fights for the only thing that matters to her, and a caseworker’s slippery behavior illuminates what he believes to be right…
One…two…three…four. Five…six…seven…eight. Nine…ten…eleven…twelve. Thirteen. Thirteen steps. A baker’s dozen, if you will. I never climb — or descend — stairs without counting the number of steps. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD. But why put a name to it? I’m simply a man who counts steps.
These particular steps are ones I would rather have not taken, but alas, someone has to and it has befallen me, once more, to be the one. Several years ago, while ascending just such a set of steps (there were thirteen in that instance also), I experienced a hot flash in my chest, as if my heart had burst into flames and a heat raced like a comet up the right side of my neck and shot down my left arm. It left me quite breathless. It was my rude introduction to unstable angina (stable would have been bad enough, but unstable seemed to add insult to injury). Angina is a troublesome condition of the heart pronounced to rhyme with a woman’s private parts. Since that incendiary incident and my subsequent submission to recurrent surveillance by my ever-vigilant cardiologist, the keeper of my broken heart, if you will, I never go anywhere without my little blue bottle of nitroglycerine tablets to snuff out the flames. I keep the bottle tucked reassuringly in a snug corner of my front pants pocket, next to my little Swiss army knife (with its devilishly clever attachments) and my other most precious possession (which in no way can be pronounced to rhyme with a woman’s private parts).
The door to the apartment at the top of the stairs is missing a lock. Where the lock should be is a fairly large circular hole through which one could, if one were so inclined, peer and view the interior unimpeded, or, if one’s hand was small enough, insert a fist. Of course a fist that small would hardly make a sufficient impression to make the effort worthwhile. Far better to just peer inside and learn what one can. Instead, I insert two fingers in the hole, hook them, and give the door a tug, then a push to see if it opens. It does not. The door, therefore, must be locked from the inside, most likely with a flimsy bolt providing a modicum of security. Assessing such particulars is an essential part of my job, as I see it.
Mrs. Jackson or Miss Jackson or Ms. Jackson or sometimes just Jackson (the agency’s reports on her have been inconsistent in their mode of address) does not expect me today. I suspect, however, that in her heart of hearts she secretly expects me every day when she is lucid enough to expect anything at all. I doubt she is afflicted with such lucidity often, although my colleague Lorelei, who has paid her more sympathetic and less clear-eyed visits, would no doubt take exception to my assessment. I long ago put aside any sympathies that might cloud my viewpoint regarding such matters. Ruthless honesty, unvarnished and uncompromising (and amplified a tad when necessary), is my stock and trade, as those who I visit (as well as the police and family courts) have come to know it quite well over the years. It is, after all, the children who count, their parents be damned, if you will.
I bend down and look through the vacant lock hole and behold the large black-and-white eye of Mrs. Jackson looking back at me. We remain eyeball to eyeball for a protracted moment. Then she blinks. I smile. “Mrs. Jackson,” I say.
“Who is it?” she says, although she already knows.
I straighten up quickly and stand on tiptoes so if she is still peering through the hole she is now confronted with something more formidable than my gentle hazel eye. Is that a Swiss Army knife in your pocket or are you just happy to see me? I imagine her asking with a Mae West drawl. “Mr. Baker from Child Protective,” I say.
“I’m not dressed,” she says lamely.
I duck down quickly and peek through the hole and spy blue denim topped by something pink and wrinkled but definitely fabric, not flesh. She is lying to me already. My heart does a little skip and I finger the nitroglycerine bottle in my pocket. “I’ll wait, Mrs. Jackson. Please take your time. There’s no rush.” I straighten up before she can peek again.
“Just a minute,” she says and I hear her rustling about. I bend down to the hole and watch her rush around in a desperate attempt to tidy up the sty. I put my nose to the hole and inhale deeply and am chagrined to find no whiff of the illicit. But there is plenty of time to nose things out.
I am dressed in my blue pinstripe suit today. The button down shirt is white on white with French cuffs. The cufflinks are double-sided sterling silver Gordian knots with a matching tie tack. The tie has a breath of lavender in its gray. The shoes are oxblood Oxfords — my bit of derring-do, if you will. My former colleague Lorelei — about whom the Jackson woman is bound to inquire — once told me that she considered my mode of dress inappropriate for case visits and that our clients — many of whom are in a fragile or vulnerable state, she maintained — might even find it intimidating. There is nothing to fear from good taste, I assured her, but was secretly pleased with her reaction, which confirmed the intended effect of my couture.
I hear footsteps and lean over the banister. A small black boy is stomping up the stairs. When he looks up he recognizes me and I him. He stares for a second then walks back down the stairs backwards, five…four…three…two…one…and is gone. I’m still leaning over the banister when the door opens. I do not see but can smell Mrs. Jackson. She has splashed on something odious to mask the telltale fragrance of something else, I suspect.
“Mr. Baker,” she says, “sorry to keep you waiting.”
I turn to her, full frontal. “Not at all, Mrs. Jackson.”
She is in jeans, a tad tight in the crotch, I notice, and a pink top, not a good color for her. Except for a quick glance at my tie tack she keeps her eyes on mine. I’m impressed.
“Would you like to come in?” she says.
“Yes, very much.”
“Please,” she says and steps aside to let me precede her into the apartment.
I have been in this apartment only once before but know it as if I’ve lived in it myself, heaven forfend. It is a special talent of mine, a gift, if you will, in regard to interiors. I need only to enter a room and look around once and it is mine, to have and to hold within the depths of my mind, till death do us part. It doesn’t matter if the room is palatial or squalid, remarkable or pedestrian, lovely, ugly or stubbornly nondescript — I look and I remember. As a result, everywhere I go seems familiar, in one way or another, which can be rather disconcerting until one gets used to it. I have long ago gotten used to it and am disconcerted no more.
The living room is large and square and windowless. It is dark, which, given the dilapidated state of its contents, is a blessing barely in disguise. The shadows, like Mrs. Jackson’s cheap eau de toilette, cover a multitude of sins. A black crushed velvet sofa, a convertible, on which, I know, the boy Lincoln sleeps, is against one wall. To the right of the sofa is an end table graced by a gooseneck lamp with a broken neck, an ashtray replete with stamped out butts and an alarm clock on which the luminous red numerals 12:00 are interminably blinking. There is a faux leather lounge chair, ludicrously large, the type, which magically sprouts an oversized footrest when you sit down and lean back. The lounge chair is, of course, facing a big, expensive flat screen TV, incongruously teetering on two large gray cinder blocks, shabby chic at its shabbiest. A book-less bookcase and a glass-less glass wood frame cabinet occupy the other wall. The cabinet houses a pathetic menagerie of miniature animals, from the Serengeti Plain no doubt. All this and a few other odds and ends sit upon a bastardized Persian style rug of the most appalling design, a veritable magic carpet of poor taste, of which, I am sure, Mrs. Jackson is inordinately proud. Beyond the living room is a small bedroom stuffed with a king size bed, as I recall, a white dresser scarred with bottle and burn marks, a solitary window with a jaundiced paper shade — and, oh yes, a closet full of glam and glitzy outfits that would make a whore blush. The whole place smells distinctly of a cat’s litter box, although I know they have no cat.
“How is Miss Lorelei?” Mrs. Jackson is trying to steer me into the kitchen.
“Fine. And thank you for asking, Mrs. Jackson.” I pause and let her stew a little moment.
“She has, however,” I go on, “left Child Protective to pursue another opportunity.” A pursuit that I vigorously instituted, of course.
She knows? Damnation! But of course. “She’s been in touch, has she?”
“She was a good lady.”
“As good as she could be,” I say. So good she was of no practical use except to be used by the not so good, of whom there are so many. Like Mrs. Jackson. Like me.
“Are you going to be my caseworker now?” Mrs. Jackson says, her eyes just a wee bit bigger, a reaction only my trained eye would notice.
“Why no, Mrs. Jackson. I am, as you know, not an ordinary caseworker. I involve myself only when there is a special need.”
Mrs. Jackson nods and for a second — just a split second, if you will — she seems to smile a touch of defiance. Her face retreats to neutrality once more. “Would you like to sit down, Mr. Baker? Can I make you a cup of coffee?”
“Yes, I think we’d better sit,” I say. “But no coffee, thank you. A glass of cold water would be most welcome, please.” I follow her into the kitchen, which is large and bright, the sun streaming through the big open window onto the white cabinets and appliances and white kitchen table, which, I admit, is not dirty. Outside the window is a yellow wood window box in which something green and stunted is struggling to grow. Mrs. Jackson takes a glass from a cabinet, takes a pitcher of water from the refrigerator, sets the glass before me and pours it half full — or is it half empty? Ah, the optimist and the pessimist. I, being neither, see simply a glass of water that will most certainly be empty when I’m finished with it. I put my satchel down on the floor by my chair and sip my water. Mrs. Jackson returns the pitcher to the refrigerator.
“Now, what can I do for you?” says Mrs. Jackson, sitting opposite me. She is very, very black. A deep lustrous black, not brown or yellow-brown or fudge-colored or the tepid color of a cafe au lait. Her hair is black and close cropped on her marvelous skull. Her eyes are large and almond shaped, her nose surprisingly straight and narrow. Her forehead is smooth and broad, her cheekbones high and her strong chin marked by a small scar. She is middling in height, trim but well bosomed, and an undeniably comely woman, if you like that sort of thing. We sit in silence. She awaits my pleasure. I let her wait. I reach down and open my satchel, reach in and take a file, half lift it out, then, as if I’ve suddenly changed my mind, drop it back in. I savor my water.
“Mr. Baker —” she begins.
I reach down with a quick motion, pull the file from my satchel, and place it on the table.
“Now, Mrs. Jackson —”
“I am not Mrs. I am not married. You know that.”
“Forgive me,” I say. “I meant no offense. Ms. Jackson —”
“Miss Jackson will do,” she says, her eyes hard on mine.
“Miss Jackson,” I continue, “I’ve come to review the situation with Lincoln.”
“To what situation are you referring?” she says.
I flip open the file. “Have there been any further incidents with the boy’s father?”
“There has been only one incident and that was seven months ago when he violated an order of protection. Nothing since. But you know that.”
“Please do not presume to tell me what I know,” I say with polite firmness.
“Sorry,” she says. “But Miss Lorelei had all my current information as of last week.”
“But Miss Lorelei, as we both well know, is gone and I need to ascertain certain points of information for myself. May we proceed, Miss Jackson?”
She pauses. Her eyes, how they smolder. I feel a little spark in my heart. I finger the nitro in my pants pocket. A little-known fact about the beastly angina is that it has many triggers, not just stress or anxiety or walking up a flight of stairs. A bit of excitement, a sudden burst of joy, the shock of discovery, or a mere moment of arousal can, at least in my case (and I don’t flatter myself to think I am unique in this regard), set off a 4th of July spectacular in my chest, bombs bursting in air, the rocket’s red glare… yet all quite easily extinguished by slipping the tiny nitroglycerine tablet under my tongue, sublingual, if you will.
“I note you have stopped attending the weekly meetings at Women’s Drug Outreach,” I say, turning a page in the file.
“I finished the program,” says Miss Jackson quietly. “I am no longer required to attend. But I’m still living by the Twelve Steps. Every day.”
“Twelve steps. A true dozen. Not like the deceptive baker’s dozen,” I muse.
“Baker’s dozen?” She gives me an odd look.
“Well, as the Chinese say, the journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step — or twelve, in some cases,” I say, sipping my water.
“I don’t need to go a thousand miles. I just need to stay one step ahead of crack. And I’ve been doing that.”
“A laudable ambition,” I say and Miss Jackson leans forward and seems about to say something but holds her tongue. Smart girl. I make a note in the file, shielding it from her eyes — actually just scribble some lines, dots and dashes for effect.
“Are you still unemployed?” I ask.
She looks down at the table. “I am still unemployed,” she says. She takes a deep breath. “Will you excuse me for a moment?”
“But of course,” I say and emphatically close the file as she passes me on her way to the bathroom, which is just outside of the bedroom. I hear the bathroom door shut and lock. I hear water running. I rise quickly and glance around the kitchen for anything that might suit my purpose. The pantry, perhaps, behind the family-size bags of potato chips and popcorn…no, too obvious. Good heavens, she actually has a tin breadbox on the counter. How homey. I open it. Too small and besides she’d find it there herself too soon. I open the freezer part of the refrigerator. I’ve been told by my friend Hodges at the 43rd Precinct that they sometimes store it there, although there is no need, as crack does not melt, after all. The freezer is chuck full and from the looks of the contents visited nightly for home-thawed dinners. She’s bound to find it there too. The bathroom it is then, the old tried and true, which will do quite well as long as she does not clean it in the next day or so. It has been my experience that very few people clean their bathrooms as often as they should or with the thoroughness of a police search, particularly when they think they have nothing to hide. It always amazes me how many people think they have nothing to hide. I sit back down and wait. Miss Jackson is taking her time. Perhaps I have had an untoward effect on her intestinal tract. I hear the telltale flush and I busy myself with the file. She returns and sits down. Her black-black skin is a little ashen; that is the black-skinned version of pale. I have seen it before.
“Sorry, Mr. Baker,” she says, glancing at my tie tack.
“Are you alright, Miss Jackson?”
She nods. “That’s a Gordian knot, isn’t it?” she says, indicating my tie tack.
“Why indeed it is,” I say and raise my arms to display my cufflinks.
“You’re just full of Gordian knots, aren’t you?” she says with a touch of sarcasm, perhaps?
“Miss Jackson, I’m afraid I need to use your facilities now, if I may.”
“I had a feeling you would,” she says, a slight weariness in her voice. “Take your time.” I put the file back in my satchel and click it shut.
The bathroom is small, old, and untidy and I’m loath to remove my jacket, as there’s no pristine place to put it. There is a pink tub/shower combination with a fish-festooned shower curtain, the fish being of the Saturday morning cartoon variety, a concession to eight year old Lincoln, I assume. The sink is small and yellowed with stains no amount of elbow grease will ever remove and above it a small mirrored medicine cabinet, which I will not open, nor shall I look behind the radiator, nor in the clothes hamper, nor anywhere else. This restraint is necessary so I may honestly state to any and all who may ask that I made no intrusive and unwarranted search of the premises and therefore, quite naturally, found nothing. Ruthless honesty, unvarnished and uncompromising, as I have said. And now for the amplification. From my inner jacket-pocket I take the little plastic baggy with the crack pipe and precious nuggets (secured at my peril, I might add), crouch down on the old octagonal white tile floor (I do so love these old tiles!) and feel with just the tips of my fingers behind the toilet bowl. It is damp and plainly has not been visited by mop or sponge in a geological age. I place the baggy down, well out of sight, discoverable only by those looking with a purpose. I put down the lid of the toilet and take a seat. I’m in no rush. I deserve a quiet moment, I do believe. I look at the rows of octagonal tiles…one, two, three, four, five, six…I listen. Somewhere something is dripping. I take a deep breath despite the malodorous proximity of the clothes hamper. Deep in my heart some little embers are aglow. I take out my little blue bottle of nitroglycerine tablets and finger the screw cap. No need, no need. I pocket the bottle, run the tap perfunctorily, barely wetting my hands, graze the towel by the sink, turn and flush the toilet and leave.
I return to the kitchen and take my seat at the table, retrieve the file and click my pen, poised and ready to resume.
“May I say something?” says Miss Jackson.
“Of course, you may.” I put down the pen and fold my hands on the table, all earnest and amiable attention.
“I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” she says.
I look at the wallpaper. It is covered with butterflies, green and yellow, in a symmetrical design.
“More mistakes than are in that file of yours.”
One, two, three, four…
“And I’ve paid for those mistakes. I’ve suffered for them, more than you’ll ever know.”
…five, six, seven, eight.
“I can’t afford any more mistakes. Just one more and — you know what will happen. Mr. Baker, I love my boy and I’ll never, ever make those mistakes again.”
Nine. A diaper pattern of nine butterflies. How pedestrian.
“He’s all I have. He’s everything to me. Everything.” She puts her hands close to mine.
I click my pen. “Let’s review the school situation, shall we? Lincoln has missed several days of school this month.”
Miss Jackson sits back in her chair. She takes her hands off the table and folds them in her lap. “He had the flu,” she says sternly.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Does he still have the flu?” I inquire solicitously.
“No,” she says. “He’s in school.”
I jot down a note in the file. “I beg to differ, Miss Jackson.”
“He is not in school.” I finish the water. “Could I trouble you for a little more water, please?”
Miss Jackson stands up and leans towards me, her hands on the table. I can see down the black depths of her décolletage. “How do you know he’s not in school?”
“I saw him not thirty minutes ago at the bottom of the stairs here. Upon seeing me he beat a hasty retreat.”
“You saw him thirty minutes ago? For god’s sake, why didn’t you tell me? Where is he?” She seems in a bit of a panic.
“I assumed you knew. You are, after all, his mother,” I say. I’ll get no more water now, I fear.
“What kind of game are you playing with me?” she yells.
“Game?” I say softly.
Miss Jackson rushes out of the apartment, leaving me sitting alone at the kitchen table. I sit and wait. Oh my god! Eight butterflies. Not nine. Eight butterflies in a diaper pattern. I miscounted. Perhaps I’m getting too old for all this. This work does take its toll on one. A child protective service caseworker in this state lasts on average just 2.4 years. The caseload is beastly and the pay an insult. And what one must wallow in! A veritable cesspool of human depravity, if you will. It has its moments, of course, those bland and happy moments which one soon forgets. Tragedy alone is unforgettable, even tragedy narrowly averted, my stock and trade. Taking the necessary steps, even desperate steps, to avert such tragedy can be emotionally draining for the faint of heart. Many wouldn’t survive it. I am the oldest surviving caseworker — and supervisor — in my office. Indeed, others marvel at my thirteen years of service, and they don’t know the half of it. I ask for no reward. It is all in the service of the children, our most precious possessions (next to our little Swiss army knives, of course), children like little Lincoln. Tomorrow I will call my friend Hodges at the 43rd Precinct and ask his assistance in confirming (or not) a little suspicion I have about Mrs. jackson. They take my suspicions seriously. I am trusted. Then a little warrant, a little search of the premises, my little amplification of the truth, to make the truth truer than itself. I feel the heat blossoming in my chest, like someone stuck a bellows down my throat and fanned the flames to life. I take out my blue bottle, unscrew the cap and shake out one of the tiny nitro tablets, slip it under my tongue, feel the tingle, tingle, tingle…and I can breathe again. I sit quietly and wait.
Miss jackson and the boy Lincoln have returned. He is small for an eight-year old and as deeply, beautifully, profoundly black as his mother. He is in sneakers, baggy jeans, a red shirt emblazoned with the cartoon face of a masked superhero with whom I am not acquainted, and bears a big black and red knapsack, like a monstrous hump, on his little back. He moves behind his mother and peeks out at me.
“Tell Mr. Baker why you came home from school,” Miss Jackson says, pushing him forward.
“I don’t feel well,” Lincoln says. His eyes get bigger as he looks at me.
“I’m putting him to bed,” she says and marches him into her bedroom and shuts the door. I hear mother-and-son whispers. Minutes later she emerges and returns to the kitchen. She stands in the doorway, arms crossed over her rapidly rising and falling breasts. “He left after lunch and walked the four blocks home,” says Miss Jackson. “No one from the school called me. They probably don’t even know he’s gone. That’s the kind of school it is.” She wipes tears from her cheeks. I say nothing. I click my pen and put it in my satchel.
“When he saw you he got scared. He went across the street and was waiting for you to leave.”
I close the file and return it to my satchel.
“He’s afraid of you.”
“Now why would he be afraid of me?” I ask quietly.
Miss Jackson looks at me for a long moment. “He knows you can take children away from their mothers,” she says finally and the tears stream down her cheeks.
“And what would make him think that?” I ask, clicking my satchel shut.
“He says he just knows.”
A prescient child! I stand up. “You’d better attend to him. I won’t trouble you further today, Miss Jackson.”
“Ask me anything you want,” she says, her voice breaking. “I’ve been doing fine. I’ve been doing everything I’m supposed to do and I haven’t done anything I’m not supposed to do. I’ve done everything you people have told me to do!”
“Goodbye, Miss Jackson,” I say and squeeze past her.
“Just wait a minute,” she says desperately.
“I’ll be seeing you again soon,” I assure her and am out of the apartment and onto the landing.
“For god’s sake,” she says loudly.
…eleven…twelve…thirteen! Thirteen steps. A baker’s dozen. And I’m gone.
Paul Negri is the editor of a myriad of literary anthologies from Dover Publications, Inc. His short fiction has appeared in The Penn Review, Vestal Review, Pif Magazine, Jellyfish Review, The Quill Magazine, and other publications. He has twice won the Gold Medal for fiction in the William Faulkner-Willliam Wisdom Writing Competition. He lives in Clifton, NJ.