The Lesson

May 20, 2015

The low clouds and cold befit my mood. There is a story in the local paper today, about a grandmother bludgeoning a cat and four kittens to death with a hammer. She did it she told the sheriff, to teach her grandchildren, a fourteen-year-old girl and a thirteen-year-old boy, a lesson. Something about not cleaning their rooms. They learned a lesson all right.

I know the kids. They live near me (well, they did until the D.C.F.S. took them away). They are regulars at the local convenience store, often sitting in the store until closing, no real prepared, hot food, sustaining themselves on soda and beef jerky and snack food. They are lost children. They won’t be recruited by Peter Pan.

They are tall and lanky and sweet. When I’m in story-telling mode, about my adventures in the greater world, a world of which they have no concept, they sidle over and sit next to me and sip soda and listen. The boy talks to me, the girl responds to questions.

Abused and neglected kids follow a herd instinct, walking along the highway with fellow abused friends, white and black, outwardly defiant, ultimately cynical, particularly about adult behaviors—they have seen it all. Their parents have sunk so low, the characters of Erskine Caldwell’s literary ejaculation, “Tobacco Road,” seem reasonable.

The lost children know they will bear children before they are twenty, play the lottery so they can get rich and escape, get high: alcohol, meth, weed, sugar, “natural” Indian Spirit cigarettes. This is their American dream.

This moment, I want to adopt them all. I know I can’t. I know I could.

Over forty years as an artist-in-residence in schools, I have met countless lost children, victims of violence and addicted parents and sexual abuse and poverty and cultural insult and assault. Many of them, I am happy to say, make it through, become responsible parents and citizens, and—this blows my mind—don’t bear grudges. Some of them, the early childhood P.T.S.D. victims (I am one of those) barely claw their way through life.

The café talk this morning was about a deranged psychopath killing cats. The talk among mothers was what they could or could not do, about those kids. The talk at the store last night—the story had already reached there—was what a shame it was, the unloved kids going from relative to relative to cat-killer grandma.

Plus: the high price of beer, the differences between brands of cheap bourbon and cherry-flavored vodka, and how the store is “unlucky” in that no one ever wins the Mega Millions.

A staggering old man lurched in and bought a twenty-four pack of Pabst. No one looked at him. Their eyes scanned the lottery ticket rolls above the counter. He wobbled to the cash register and said, I hope you got more cases back there. I’ll need more later on. He laughed and cackled and described his drunken driving techniques to beat the cops. And oh, them poor kids.

In the land of Babbitt, one keeps one’s business to one’s self. You can just hear Mel Gibson as that Scottish hero yelling, “Freedom!” Among the impoverished and uneducated and addicted and recreational sociopaths, here is what freedom has evolved to: stash your high, lock the door, experiment on your kids (mere meaty nuisances), cock the pistols, rack the machine guns, kill the colored people–they’re the source of your misery, after all–and let God sort it out while He blesses America.

Oh, the poor kids.

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