Updated: Feb 8
Part I - Four Days Dawning
Pat Riordan stared at the ceiling fan. The soft hum of the blades twirling had coaxed him to sleep the night before. He pulled his knees up to his chest and held the position tightly for ten seconds, then eased out to the edge of the Murphy bed.
He sat for a moment and collected his thoughts about the day to come—meeting at a middle school with a new kid and his mother. He checked his cell. Only innocuous advertisements about fitness and travel. From the wicker rocker, his roommate, Pig, a feline tabby, bounced down and began meowing for his morning chow.
The cat serpentined around him as he let the blind fly up and cranked open the bay window, just enough for a whiff of the fragrance from the shortleaf pine in the courtyard below. Two doves, one a white-wing, took off to a telephone line. Above the tree line the nightlight still beamed off the dome of the Old Administration Hall.
In the kitchen nook he opened a can of Frisky Doodle and dumped the ingredients into a bowl. The cat buried himself in the dish. “Now go slow,” he said. “This will have to last all day.”
He shook out the Irish Cream grounds into the coffee filter. He set out the ceramic mug, with its picture of Churchill in a homburg hat waving the V sign. The brew would be ready by the time he returned.
In the corner mirror of the small cubicle next to the bed, he examined himself; not exactly rugged stalwartness, but a long way from middle-aged slovenly.
Draped over a cherrywood valet were running shorts and a frayed gray sweatshirt. He stepped into the shorts, pulled on the top, and again looked in the mirror. Two-day stubble. He took out a blue elastic band from the pocket of his shorts and tied his hair back. He locked up and walked down one flight, through the apartment foyer, and outside.
On the stoop he again inhaled the smell of the nearby pine. He checked the university staff lot across the street, where his forest-green Jeep was illegally parked. No ticket. How many past dues did he owe? Down the cobblestone street was the Red Campus. In a few short hours it would be full of comings and goings. He bounded down the three steps and headed away from the college, remembering he forgot his cell. No mind.
He was a solitary figure at this time of the day. The mornings were good. The autumn crispness invigorated his soul. The quilt-patch scarlets and Indian golds of the sugar maples glistened. Each home he passed needed a fix of some sort. He stopped and dug out a small pebble lodged in the right heel of his Adidas, then resumed, the trot moving to a purposeful jog.
The chaos-on-chaos of the school day flooded in. The three-ring-bound, wannabe textbook, Bessinger’s Basics for Boys, A Primer for the Oppositional Student, mailed to him by a teacher in Vermont, might have some useful thoughts. He’d remember to take it to work today.
He huffed on. Living near a college campus energized him, even though it had been over two decades since he’d called this special place home.
In the early days, a century ago, the faculty elite lived in the Tudor and Victorian houses with vaulted ceilings and big front porches. Now those houses were makeshift residences for students. Cars were parked in the weed-infested yards. Ivy, once the mark of prestige, was overgrown and dying, despite an effort by preservationists to re-establish the neighborhood as a viable part of the city.
Most mornings a jog sent the dream demons running, but this day an impending doom hung over him like a sword of Damocles. The school’s principal, Doug Donovan, had said he felt there was something astir at the district office, suggesting that the powers-that-be were less than supportive of the teaching that was being done at the school.
He turned down Bath Drive. The cobblestone continued into a winding, village-like street, with hedges lining each side of well-kept cottage homes, sequestered away from the once-stately homes of yesteryear. Tucked back in a leaf-covered yard was a neatly manicured, red-brick building. An unobtrusive white sign read “San’s Dojo.” To the side of the building was a Dodge pickup, 1970s vintage. Riordan smiled as he huffed by.
Serendipity had played its role the day he met the man who owned the gym. His name was Tom San, and he came from the Japanese island of Shikoku. Riordan had slowed his jog, that day over two years ago, when he heard the crack of a tree and saw a diminutive figure in sweats jumping on the trunk of a fallen elm.
“She a stubborn thing,” the man shouted out that morning. “It come down last night in storm.” Riordan had jogged for a moment in place, then opened the makeshift gate and did what came naturally—jumped atop the trunk. Both men balanced themselves as the tree cracked to the ground. “Berry kind,” Tom San said. “I just move in and try fix up place. Can make you tea?”
Riordan had declined, but said he would take a rain check.
Tom San had pointed to the sky, chuckling. “Uh, rain check.”
In two short years the small building had become a fixture in the area. And although only a few nearby residents were enrolled in the aikido program, many of the town’s women signed up for yoga, tai chi, and jazzercise.
Riordan felt the kick of his endorphins. He smiled about that first encounter. He put himself in high gear back to his apartment for a shower and the eight thirty meeting at Benway Middle School.
The World’s Worst Mom
She lay curled in the moon’s glow; eyes wide open, staring at the wall.
From the doorway, a deep cough. A silhouetted figure stumbled in and moved across the room. At the bed he stopped, hovered for a moment, then dropped his Wranglers and fell in.
She closed her eyes, clutching the pillow.
Another cough, this one a kind of rattle.
She possumed, waiting for his next move. But this night, his breathing quickly slowed to a snore.
She rode the waves of his wheezes. And went to that place in the Rockies with the deep lake and pines, where she had gone after her mother had died. For several minutes, her mind stilled; she drifted.
Suddenly his snores stopped and his breathing quickened, as if he were about to awaken.
Like a whacked piñata, full of sorrows, she was brought back.
Sorrows of shame and sadness; two husbands and a father gone, binges, hospital stays, and single motherhood, always single motherhood.
And now this.
His breathing again slowed. His snoring continued. Safe, she slid out of the bed. She moved to the hallway and Bobby’s bedroom, where Bear had been sleeping.
The lab whipped his tail at her arrival. She shushed the dog, bending over and whispering in his ear, “Bobby will be home today.” The dog followed her down the stairs to the kitchen. It was hours until the meeting at the school.
Somewhere nearby, a siren sounded. She turned on the small light by the sink and sat down. Bear rested his boxy head on her thigh. On the wall hung a wood carving that read World’s Best Mom. Tears welled up. She reached down and scratched the dog’s ear. “I’m not the world’s best mom, boy. I’m the world’s worst mom.”
For the past two weeks Bobby had been in a group home and she had been hospitalized. She had engineered the whole thing, telling Bobby her depression was acting up again and that she needed a rest. And she had told Dr. Lacy she was having self-harm thoughts, which opened the door to her stay at St. Mary’s, as well as an emergency admittance to a group home for Bobby. Bobby had cried and said she couldn’t make him go to a home and she couldn’t lock Bear up in a kennel. But she did.
She got up, went into the small laundry walk-in, and took down the clothes she’d hung on the hanger for the morning meeting. She ran her finger over the monogram, SAM, on the blouse collar. She shook her head in disgust. “Well, Sarah Ann Malloy, how will you ever make things right again?”
In the living room she opened a window to let out the stink of tobacco, then nestled into the futon. She took her cell off the coffee table and scrolled down the screen for messages. She’d remember to leave him a note. Bear hopped up and melded his body with hers. She listened to the snores from upstairs. She’d leave for the meeting before he awoke.
Yards down, a bark. Blocks away, a howl. Daybreak would come. She pulled up the afghan, closed her eyes, and went to that special place.
At the Oakdale Community Group Home on Craymere Street, Bill Widemore and Trisha Burke made one last run-through of checking supplies before leaving. Both were caring kids and wanted to make a difference, but the reality was that neither could find another job.
As Trisha placed documents in her tote bag about the boy they were to discuss in the meeting, Bill called out to the custodian about the upstairs toilet being stopped up.
“At it again, are they?” the man hollered back.
“This time they tried to light it. We are going to have to make them go outside from now on,” Bill groaned, half serious.
Oakdale housed five to eight boys at a time. Staff, like Bill and Trisha, came and went almost as frequently as the residents did. There was no time limit on how long a boy could stay, but most were there until their families would take them back or until they found a foster home.
Outside, Bill and Trisha did a quick count of the belongings needed for the meeting, then climbed into the Astrovan, a loaner from the Presbyterian Mothers. The van was infused with the smells of fast food and body odor, remnants of many cross-town trips with a capacity load.
“We need to clean up this thing,” Trisha said. “It is an embarrassment.”
Bill sniffed. “Boys.” He lit a low-tar, his first of the day, turned on the blower, and steered the van down Craymere to the highway. He had to monitor his behavior around the boys. There had been workers at the home who had treated the boys like friends. Once they concluded that you wanted to be a chum, they would run all over you and ask to bum a smoke.
“Traffic isn’t too bad this morning,” Bill said.
Trisha shuffled through the file, which read “Robert Allan Malloy.” She searched for clues as to why this particular boy was having so many problems. She made a small checkmark beside the date of the first incident of delinquent behavior, which had started months earlier. She made another checkmark beside the behavioral report, which read “ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” The file said the boy was seeing a local psychologist, but it didn’t show any diagnosis from him.
“I don’t see Bobby as having ODD. He seems too gentle to have that,” she said. “ODD is sometimes a precursor to conduct disorder and anti-social disorder.” She googled something on her cell, seemingly for verification about her comment.
Bill shrugged. “I don’t think the schools spend too much time diagnosing these kids,” he said. “They just give them a label and move on to the next problem child.” He ditched the cigarette out the window, took the exit, and drove south toward the school.