More of my experiences at my summer job at VA, a halfway house for juvenile delinquents in Stilton, Vermont.
I forgot to mention that everybody in the Northeast Kingdom hated VA. When I first started, Meg had said to me, “The dopes up here think the girls are going to seduce their sons and the boys are going to rape their daughters.” I realized belatedly that that explained why I’d gotten such a weird reception from the checkout girl at Chet’s IGA and the lady who ran the artists’ colony.
But I found out later from Rich Bolotin, who ran VA, that there was more to it than that. Because there were so few voters up there in the Kingdom the place had become a dumping ground for halfway houses, addiction centers, prisons, and other stuff people didn’t want in their backyards. The folks in that part of Vermont were understandably annoyed and therefore they hated us on principle.
The kids at VA didn’t get many visitors. Because they were technically still under the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts, only family members could visit and these kids’ families were seriously messed up. Almost none of them knew their dads, and almost all the moms were lousy moms.
As long as I’d been working at VA, no one had ever shown up to visit. But one day Mikey’s mother called and said she wanted to come and see her son. Mikey was the youngest and slowest of the kids, more like a nine-year-old.
Rich Bolotin took a dim view of visits by moms because he saw them more as part of the problem than as part of the solution. Mikey’s mom, for example, had been addicted to drugs for years and had been in and out of jail, mostly for drug possession and prostitution. But she swore to Rich that she was in a recovery program and even had a parttime job, so Rich reluctantly agreed that she could come.
Mikey was wildly excited – he hadn’t seen his mom since he’d been sent to juvie when he was twelve. He wanted to look nice for the occasion but didn’t have any nice clothes, so he borrowed clothes from the other boys. They were way too big for him and, in particular, the necktie looked ridiculous, hanging down almost to his knees. But Mikey thought he looked terrific.
Visiting hours at VA were from two to six p.m. on Sundays. At two Mikey went out on the front porch to wait for his mom and at six he was still waiting. She never showed up.
I’d missed all this because I’d taken the other boys on a field trip up to Newport, the biggest town thereabouts. Newport sat on the south shore of Lake Memphremagog – the town on the north shore, in Quebec, was called “Magog.” Newport had a used clothing store that was open on Sundays and the boys badly needed clothes.
When we returned to VA after the field trip, a little after 6:15, I told the boys to run upstairs and get washed up for dinner – the girls cooked, but the boys set the table, cleared, and washed the dishes.
Meg heard us come in and she rushed up to me and told me what had happened with Mikey. “The poor kid’s just completely devastated,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I’m really worried about him!”
Meg said that she and the girls had done everything they could to try to console Mikey but that he was having none of it. He’d stormed off across the side yard screaming and sobbing and was now sitting under a pine tree looking heartbroken. I watched him through the screen door, then said to Meg, “I’ll go see what’s up.”
“He won’t talk to you,” she said, wringing her hands.
As I headed across the side yard I couldn’t tell whether Mikey knew I was coming or not. He was sitting back against the pine tree with his chin on his chest, his feet straight out in front of him, his arms dangling down. The look on his little face could only be described as “bereft.” Tears were running down his cheeks and his chest was heaving. He was still wearing the goofy clothes that were way too big for him.
I sat down beside Mikey and nothing happened for fifteen minutes, maybe a little longer. When I realized Mikey could wait me out I said, as casually as I could, “I wish you could’ve been with us on the field trip, Mikey. You should’ve seen the guy who owns the clothes place. He was a wreck, what with all these dangerous criminals from VA running around his store!”
I shifted my eyes towards Mikey – had that been a slight smile on his lips? Maybe not. More time went by.
Eventually, the aroma of dinner wafted out across the yard toward us, and that gave me an idea. I said, “Oh, man, that smells great! We’re having meatloaf, my favorite!”
Actually, I wasn’t fond of VA’s meatloaf, but I knew Mikey loved it. Still, he didn’t respond, so I said, “Tell you what, Mikey, let’s go have some of that meatloaf before it’s all gone. Then, if you want, we can come back out here and sit under this tree.”
Another minute passed as Mikey thought this over, probably imagining the last slice of meatloaf disappearing down some kid’s gullet. Then he put his little hand in mine and said, “Okay,” and that was that. It was over and it was almost as though the fiasco with his mom hadn’t happened. But of course, the key word there is “almost.”
Next up: VA, Part 7
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