March and May 2001
Shaking the snow off my overcoat, I immediately felt the warmth of the fireplace and gave Roberta a peck on the lips. She grabbed hold of my hand with some purpose and only then did I notice how exhausted she looked.
“Bobbie, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“Hal, it was a terrible day. I was visiting the guidance office when these two sisters were hauled in, crying hysterically, with the school policewoman and social worker right behind. I've never seen either of the girls before. They’re Hispanic. One's about fourteen and the other thirteen, but they look more like seventeen or eighteen. It seems the older girl reported being beaten at home. The school called the state, you know, Department of Families. DOF took custody immediately, but the girls' mother showed up and created quite a scene. She left swearing like a soldier and, I gather, hurried to the elementary school next door. Before anyone could stop her, she took off with a younger daughter.”
It had been a few months since we had received our foster care license and, privately, I was pleased that the state seemed to have forgotten about us. Now, fully expecting two teenage girls to be somewhere in my house, I paced the kitchen and motioned for Roberta to continue.
“I spent time helping to calm the girls. They didn’t know me from Adam, but they seemed to want to talk. They’re scared, and they seem like good kids. I talked to them for a while, especially the younger one, Valentina. I found out that they’d been in foster homes several times. They've been abused in every way imaginable. I’d love to string up their mother and her sick boyfriends. Anyhow, after several hours they were placed with a woman somewhere in the area.”
I was a bit ashamed at the sense of relief I felt, knowing these girls wouldn’t be my problem.
"That’s a terrible situation, Bobbie. I’m sure they appreciated your comfort.”
“I don’t know, I just wish there was more I could do.”
“Well, sounds like they’ll have a decent place to live for a while.”
Springtime that year was hectic around our place. The wedding of the eldest of our three sons was just two months off, the first of the boys to be married. Jeff and his fiancée, Jane Gargan, lived down in Georgia and hadn’t been back to Massachusetts for many months. While Jane’s parents did almost all of the planning, we had plenty of preparations of our own to do, and adding to the family was the last thing on my mind. Then the call came. Of course I could only hear Roberta’s end of the conversation, but I knew what it was and that there would be no resisting.
“Yes, this is Roberta Allen. Both girls? What happened?”
Even the see-saw Yankee–Red Sox game on TV couldn’t distract me.
“I see,” Bobbie said, “For how long? Uh … that’s much longer than anything we’d planned on. I’ll have to discuss it with my husband. Yes. I understand. I’ll call back tonight.”
“Okay, what’s the story?” I asked, seeing a future without the Red Sox or golf come into focus.
“Hal, it’s not working out for those two sisters I told you about. There are too many kids where they’ve been staying and they haven’t adjusted very well.”
“Great,” I thought, wishing I could trash the damn foster license, and responded, “So why would they do any better here, and how long are we talking about anyway?”
“The man from the Department of Families explained that they’ll do much better with a smaller number of people and they want to keep the girls together.”
I let out a long breath and asked Roberta how long a time we were talking about.
“The state wants the older girl, Selena, to graduate with her middle school class, so they would be here until then and then on to a permanent placement.”
“Roberta, that’s six weeks, and you promised me only weekend emergencies. And the wedding’s coming. Be real.” I clicked off the TV and tossed the remote toward the couch. It landed a foot short and the battery compartment cover flew off, like the roof of a house in the path of a cyclone.
Roberta chose her quiet voice, her soft brown eyes pleading. “I know, I know, Harold, but they’re such unhappy, nice kids. Bounced around, their mother taking off with the other sister for parts unknown, they need something to hold on to. I promise, six weeks and out. That’s before Jeff’s wedding.”
“I must be out of my mind. What the heck will I do with two teenage girls around? I only know teenage boys. My house won’t be my home any more. Damn!”
“So we’ll do it? You’re the best.”
How she made the leap from my house not being my home anymore, to that being a statement of acceptance, I’ll never understand. That’s Roberta, and darn if she doesn’t know me like a book. I supposed that six weeks wouldn’t be too bad, would it?
I don't remember being as nervous at the hospital when the boys were being delivered. Roberta spent an impatient half-hour looking out the front window and assuring me that these girls would be no problem. Finally, she announced that the state car had pulled up the drive. I stood behind her like a child seeking its mother's protection and we moved in tandem toward the entrance. Bobbie opened the door and the Department of Families case worker smiled at us and announced, "Mr. and Mrs. Allen, meet Valentina and Selena Diaz."
All I could hear was the quietest "Hi" that two teenage voices could possibly utter, coming from the mouths of the two most sad-eyed girls I could ever have imagined. The licensing course could never have done enough to prepare me for this moment, a moment when my nervousness vanished and my heart started to bleed. I’d confronted plenty of awkward moments during my years of law practice, but now, I couldn't find any words. Roberta did her best to make them feel welcome.
"Girls, come on in. I have pizza on the way and you can start to make yourselves at home."
"Yes, please, give me your things and come in," I managed to say.
Valentina, the younger sister, and quite a beauty, stepped from behind the caseworker and handed me a suitcase. "Wow, this is such a beautiful house. I've never seen a place like this." She had such a sweet voice, and her lack of a Spanish accent surprised me.
Selena handed me her things. A few inches shorter and a bit heavier than her sister, Selena looked tougher and not as pretty as her sister. She was a little withdrawn, only managing to thank me.
Turning to the prim young woman who had escorted the Diaz sisters, Bobbie said, "Hal, this is Mrs. Harwood, the girls' caseworker. We'll be having a lot to do with her."
I shook her hand and ushered the entourage into the family room. Selena and Valentina looked at their new surroundings and whispered something to each other, giggling afterward, then lapsed into silence. Bobbie and I had a ton of questions for Mrs. Harwood. It appeared from what we'd been told about the sisters, that we were getting involved in one of the more difficult situations the Department of Families was facing. Little in our experience with our own kids had prepared us for what we were about to face.
"Before we start with questions, I want to tour the house and the sleeping arrangements," Mrs. Harwood said.
Roberta answered, "They'll be upstairs. We have plenty of space and the girls can each have a room or they can stay together, whatever they want."
"I'll lead the way," I said, "Come on, girls.”
When we reached the top of the stairs, the sisters looked at me hesitantly as I pointed out the various available rooms. I envisioned my sons, each standing in the doorway of his childhood retreat, unsuccessfully attempting to defend his territory from foreign invasion. Mrs. Harwood nodded her approval of our sleeping quarters, while Selena and Valentina explored. One of the three vacant bedrooms had twin beds and the others a single bed. After a brief discussion between the sisters, Selena came out of her shell and announced that they would take separate rooms, but maybe they would sleep in the same room from time to time, given that she had chosen the room with two beds.
"The girls can unpack while we talk downstairs," Mrs. Harwood commanded.
"Fine," Roberta said. "Hal, go down and grab the girls' things so they can start. Girls, use any empty drawers."
"We can handle our bags ourselves," Valentina volunteered. "We can do everything ourselves. No one helped us before, and we don't need help now."
I exchanged a glance with Roberta, wondering if this was a warning or just a statement of fact. We'd know soon enough. I told them to go ahead and we'd call them when the food arrived.
The sisters went to the first floor landing and began hauling their surprisingly large plastic, belongings-filled trash bags to their bedrooms. Then Mrs. Harwood took charge and hustled us back downstairs. When we were seated in the family room, what I thought would be one of the most important sessions of my life began. Unfortunately, it turned out Ms. Hardwood's determination to keep the evening rolling had more to do with her grumbling stomach than to any concern for imparting information to us.
Roberta started off by asking some questions about counseling programs. The caseworker answered them, glancing from time to time at her watch. I had many questions of my own, and hopped right in.
"Mrs. Harwood, these girls, they've been sexually abused. I don't think I should be alone with them. How should we handle that?"
"I need to be leaving soon for dinner, but ..."
God damn, I thought, I don't give a shit about her dinner.
"… anyway," she continued, "I agree that for now it would be wise for you to avoid being alone with the girls or give them any reason to misinterpret your intentions."
That didn't surprise me. It confirmed my own thinking, but it opened up many other questions and we'd need a lot of time with Mrs. Harwood before she left for the day. Here I was, a guy who only had sons of his own, suddenly confronted with these two girls, looking five years older than they were, and I would have to watch my step in my own house.
I asked a question about how boy-girl relationships should be handled.
"That's jumping a little ahead of things," she answered, and looked once more at her watch.
Roberta noticed the watch thing, but plunged ahead with a question about school.
"We'll be in touch about that. I really have to get home for dinner."
I'm not a violent person, but at that moment I wanted to give her a swift kick in the rear. If we ever needed support from the get go, this was it. I kept my cool, trying hard to ignore her, only because, for better or worse, Mrs. Harwood was our lifeline.
"Their mother is missing, but can they have contact with any other relatives?" Roberta asked.
Mrs. Harwood stood to leave and said she’d get back to us on that.
"I have lots more questions. This is new to us, and we are bailing DOF out by taking the girls, so if you can stay just for a while, I'd appreciate it," I said as calmly as I could muster.
"Look, I really have to leave for dinner. Call me in the next day or two if you need to."
Roberta rolled her eyes. Fiddling with a pen. I toyed with saying something nasty, but thought better of it. Obviously, our visitor could read our body language, but her stomach apparently took precedence over anything that might be troubling our ignorant minds. This was only the beginning with Mrs. Harwood.
Valentina, or Tina as she asked us to call her, and Selena arrived back downstairs in tandem. "Pizza here yet?" Tina asked.
"No, not yet, pretty soon," Roberta answered.
Selena wandered over to the picture window in the family room and looked in wonder at the back yard with its manicured green lawn leading to a dense stand of trees that separated our property from the neighbors to the rear.
"Can we go outside?" she asked.
"Sure," I replied, "let's take a look." I led the way onto the deck and out toward the woods.
"I never seen this kind of place before," street-wise Selena said. "Is this the country?"
I couldn't help laughing a little and even Tina smiled. "No, not exactly," I said, "this is what they call the suburbs."
"Yeah, Sellie, this isn't the country, no cows around here," Valentina added with an authoritative shake of her head.
Selena managed an embarrassed, warming smile, and said, "I know, but there's so many trees, so much grass, home got nothing like this."
"What home," Tina retorted, "we got no home. If you didn't say anything, we'd be with Ma."
"Shut up. You like being smashed like Ma did to us? You like those guys messin' with us? You like that?" Selena shouted.
Too mad to cry, Tina stamped the ground and snarled, "Shut your mouth, just shut up."
"Okay, girls, enough," I interrupted, while whatever hopeful thinking I'd entertained about the next few weeks evaporated.
Selena, her eyes reddening, kicked at an acorn and turned her back on her younger sister. Tina reached down and grabbed a fallen branch. She smacked it against her thigh and heaved it with a purpose into the woods.
Thankfully, Roberta stepped onto the deck to let us know that the food had arrived. The three of us trudged toward the house in silence. Our first evening together as a foster family had begun.****************************************************************************************************************************************************************************
A few worshipers, as silent as the dim shadows caused by the bank of flickering devotional candles in old St. Ann's church, knelt in prayer, oblivious to the merriment in the street outside. There would be more time to rejoin the San Juan Club’s San Jose Festival, but now it was time for some to reflect on the mercy of their God. Luz Diaz, twenty three and pregnant for the third time in five years, kept an eye on her fidgeting daughters Selena and Valentina, aged four and three, and slid her fingers along the thigh of Simon Texiera, the latest love of her life and the father of her unborn child. They sat in a rear pew, as far away as possible from the prayerful, mostly elderly, parishioners. Church hadn't been on Luz's agenda, but it seemed like the only chance to shut the girls up without having to forget about the festival altogether. Most days she couldn't deal with her kids and today was no exception. Given the fact that he'd taken up with Luz only a few years ago, Simon seemed to tolerate the girls' behavior much better than their natural parent. He saved his lady friend a lot of grief and limited the occasions when her frustrations boiled over into unpleasantness. Somehow, he was always able to control himself from hitting them, and Luz thought the girls would rather spend time with Simon than with her. For all they knew, Simon could have been their real father.
Luz looked around and then leaned closer to Simon. "I can't wait until we get home," she whispered in his ear and gave him a light lick on the lobe.
Simon himself checked to see if anyone would notice and then slid his hand under Luz's skirt. "No time like now," he answered, but quickly withdrew his hand when one of those devout old-timers walked up the aisle and gave him a disapproving stare.
Luz laughed, but quickly covered her mouth with her hand, trying not to seem obvious.
"Mami, what's the matter?" asked Selena.
"Just shut up, you see too much. You're supposed to be asking for forgiveness. Fold your hands and pray. And stop your sister from squirming, it's embarrassing me."
"Tina's not doing anything, Mami."
Luz glanced around again and then gave Selena a little shove. Selena reached to steady herself, bumping Valentina, who started to cry.
"Simon, let's get outta here," Luz muttered. "Wait until I get them home."
"Okay, okay, let's go outside. But calm down, I'll watch the girls and we can spend some more time at the festival."
No longer caring who was watching, Luz grabbed her daughters by the neck, forcing them to cry out, and made them stand. Turning to Simon, she spat, "All right, we'll stay, but so help me, if they ruin my day, they're gonna get it later."
Simon reached down to comfort little Tina while Luz pushed Selena toward the doors and out of sight of the gaping parishioners.
Outside St.Ann's on Main Street, a large number of the Hispanic population of Blue Hills, Massachusetts crowded the many temporary booths and regular shops opened especially for the annual springtime San Jose Festival. Simon held each girl by a hand while Luz stopped to talk to every other young woman on the street. On several corners of the eight-block business district surrounding the biggest community church, various local and big city bands played Latin rhythms that energized even the few Anglos daring enough to venture to the festival. Aromas of empanadilla, roast pig, and many other dishes gave the air a snap you could taste. The timing and purpose of the festival might seem strange to an outsider, but to the Spanish population of Blue Hills, it was a meaningful and bittersweet event.
Blue Hills is an unusual place. Basically a small town in the southeastern part of the state, not far from the ocean, it is still largely rural, but also part suburban, urban and largely Hispanic. Much of the Spanish population was drawn to the town during the big employment boom of the nineteen fifties resulting from the expansion of the textile plant in town. The company wanted cheap labor and found Latin America, and particularly Puerto Rico, to be a ready source. Luz’s family had been in the first wave of immigrants, and the family of seven found a decrepit flat for an outrageous rent. That flat was where Luz, the second Diaz born in Blue Hills and the ninth family member, spent her first eleven years. Racial problems plaguing many places in the United States were largely absent from Blue Hills, but the new workers got the lowest paying jobs and the worst housing. Nevertheless, anchored by the new Spanish churches, particularly St.Ann's, which had formerly had a large Italian congregation now fleeing the urbanization of Blue Hills, there was a strong sense of community, undercut only by a troubling growth in the heroin trade.
Then, in the mid-1970's, problems with materials and high state corporate taxes brought an end to the good times at National Designs, Inc. At the beginning of the year, 1976, the company announced that it would be moving operations to North Carolina, effective by mid-April. If prospects for high income for the workers at the plant were minimal under normal circumstances, the news dashed whatever hopes most had for a better life and plunged the Hispanic community into collective depression. That is when the San Juan Communal Club, of which Luz Diaz's father and oldest brother were active members, decided to try and boost spirits by organizing a festival for March 31st in an attempt to inject spirit back into Blue Hills's Little San Juan neighborhood. The Mayor and Town Council gave enthusiastic support, if not much financial backing, and the first festival was born.
That first year, the festival seemed more like a funeral than a celebration, but the coming together of the unemployed workers, their families, and friends, provided comfort to them. When the San Juan Communal Club asked for volunteers the following year, there was a heartwarming response and the event as an annual attraction was secure. Although the festival came at a time when the remnants of winter often chilled the air, nobody would dream of changing the date because most people remembered and respected the original purpose of the event.
In 1990, there was none of the cold. In fact the day was warmer than normal, allowing for a brilliant display of flashy colors in the clothing of most of the celebrants, not the least of whom was Luz Diaz. Luz enjoyed nothing if not a good party and once outside of St. Ann's, she seemed to have forgotten her annoyance with the children. Simon watched her laugh and talk with other young mothers and admired the way her cleavage shifted as she swayed in her yellow halter top, her wide hips moving beneath her tight red, yellow, and orange skirt. He fantasized about what it would be like to take her right then and there in the street, but his attention was diverted, as it often was, by Tina.
Valentina was just getting the hang of putting sentences together, although the mixture of English and Spanish she heard at home complicated the process.
"Papi, Papi, I want ice."
Simon let go of Selena's hand to pick Tina up in his arms and gave her a long kiss on the cheek. "You want ice?" he laughed. "You mean you want ice-cream?"
Valentina shook her head, "Ice keen."
Simon hugged her again and put her down. "Okay, ice cream. You, too, Sellie? You want ice cream?"
"No Papi, I want pollo por favor."
"Chicken, always chicken," he laughed, "You had chicken for lunch. I think you're gonna have feathers. Okay, pollo and ice cream."
Luz had moved a little distance away where Simon spotted her talking with her eldest sister, Carmen, who worked at the furniture store behind them. A circus clown—actually Jorge Perez who owned the furniture store—stood beside them, juggling brightly colored balls, all the while encouraging revelers to visit his showroom. Carmen knew all about her sister's bad temper, but no amount of her efforts to get Luz to control herself ever made a difference.
Selena, Valentina and their papi walked over to Luz and Carmen. Simon interrupted the sisters’ conversation.
"Hey baby, I'm just going up the block with my two sweeties for some food."
"Hey baby, I don't give a shit where you take them."
"What the hell's up your behind, I don't need no crap from you."
"Then you tell Carmen not to give me crap. I come over just to say hello and talk to Jorge and she starts pushin' me on how I been treating my little brats."
Carmen Santiago took her sister by the shoulder. "Why don't you just watch yourself in front of the girls? They're little kids, for Christ's sake."
"Butt out of my business. Just because you got a job and your husband is some hotshot teacher don't make you no better than me. You and these kids enjoy messin' up my fun. I just came to be nice. Forget that crap."
Luz turned and walked away, flashing her middle finger and ignoring Selena's tears. Tina didn't understand any of it and asked again for her "ice.”
Simon looked down at the little girl, with her hand raised to take his, and thought to himself how lucky he was to have Valentina around. Luz was impossible sometimes and he needed someone else to make him happy. Indeed, Tina excited him in ways Luz never would.
It had taken Luz several weeks to get around to finding out where Simon came from. She hadn't really cared. When her boyfriend, the father of her two daughters, up and disappeared not long after Valentina's first birthday, she needed a man, couldn't see life without one. So she'd asked her mother and father to babysit the girls one night so she could go dancing with her girlfriends at one of the local clubs. The fact that she had not yet reached Massachusetts's legal age for drinking was no real problem at the Club Caribbean, but the dope would be more to her liking anyway. She'd spent the early part of the evening flirting with some guys she knew and getting high. Not so high that she didn't notice the unfamiliar face walk through the door.
The guy, maybe thirty or so, was medium height, handsome in the Latin way, muscular, and just what Luz needed. Her mind fast-forwarded to what pleasures the rest of the evening might bring. Luz swayed her hips, pointed at the stranger, circled her lips with her tongue, and began a slow dance in his direction. The man stared at her, then stepped forward, took her around the waist and the pair improvised a sensual dance, much too slow for the number the D.J. was playing. Moving to the center of the floor, Simon and Luz were in a world of their own, while the other couples stopped dancing, and formed a circle around them, hooting and clapping at the spectacle in front of them.
When the music stopped, Luz put her arms around her partner's neck and whispered, "Me llamo Luz. Como se llama, señor?"
"Luz. I like that name. My name is Simon."
"Well, Simon, I like how you dance. Is there anything else you do well?"
"A few things, I guess. Would you like to try some?"
"Right now, Simon?"
The couple further introduced themselves in the back seat of Simon Texiera's old Ford sedan. Simon agreed that the relationship was promising and that Blue Hills was more interesting than he'd expected.
They spent a lot of time together during the next few months. Simon worked a few odd-jobs, but he spent most days sleeping and watching TV at Luz's small place. Aside from the physical aspects of their bond, Luz was impressed by Simon's willingness to help with Selena and Valentina. Anything to get some freedom from their crying was welcome, and when it came in the form of a fine male, all the better.
Although she'd learned that Simon had done a little time for some domestic abuse problem, that information didn't bother Luz. He had never been violent with her and besides, jails and the Diaz clan were no strangers. Her large family of uncles, siblings and cousins was notorious in Little San Juan for its fierce protection of a thriving marijuana trade that had branched into more serious drugs. Somehow, Luz's gentle father had resisted entering the family business and he’d struggled to make do with the modest income he'd had from the textile plant and other jobs. Not so some of his brood.
About two months after he arrived in Blue Hills, Simon moved in with Luz. She had found some part-time work and left Simon to help around the house. Whenever they were home together, he did what he could to take care of the children, including pushing Luz away when she went overboard in disciplining them. Much of the rest of the time, the lovers spent doing what they enjoyed most with each other.
Despite his frustration with Luz, Simon bought Selena and Valentina the treats they wanted and then wandered away from Main Street and the festival. His girlfriend's angry display made him anxious and he just wanted to get home, get the girls to nap, grab a beer and maybe sleep. Knowing Luz, she would stew for quite a while before coming back to the apartment.
Simon picked Sellie up in one arm and Tina in the other and hustled across busy Mountain Street and up the steps to the flat. Opening the door, he uttered an oath when the acrid stuffiness created by the warmth of the day wafted out of the living room and out into the hallway.
"Papi, I'm tired."
"I know, little Sellie. Time for your nap."
Simon walked the girls down the short hallway and into the tiny bedroom the sisters shared. Selena was now in a real bed and Valentina used the rickety crib next to the window. Simon helped Selena climb under her covers and set Tina in the crib. He opened the window to let some air in and walked out into the kitchen to get a beer. He waited a few minutes then went back into the little room and found Selena asleep as he had hoped.
Simon leaned over the crib and scrutinized Mountain Street. There was no sign of Luz. He pulled the shade down and said to himself, as if to excuse his intent, I guess I should see if the baby needs to be changed. He glanced over to make sure Selena was really asleep and when he was certain, he reached into Tina's crib. Quickly, he removed the toddler’s clothes, picked up a baby wipe, and rubbed it slowly from her neck down to her hips. Breathing rapidly, Simon unbuckled his belt, then dropped his pants to the floor. In a full sweat, he pulled the sleeping child up and over the side rail of the crib and against his thighs. When he was fully aroused he pressed himself into the toddler. Valentina whimpered, Simon groaned, then opened his eyes when the child screamed out. Selena, as Simon had come to realize, was never wakened by her sister's crying. Today was no exception. When Simon finished, he backed away and wiped the beads of perspiration from his face. He took a long drink of his beer, pulled on his jeans, and stood over the crib where his victim was shaking, but no longer crying. Taking another baby wipe, he deftly cleaned and dressed her. He rocked her until she calmed, patted her on the head, and went out into the living room.
The place was always neat and clean, a mania of Luz's, and he carefully set his beer bottle on a paper towel on the table next to the couch. He put his feet up and drifted off to sleep, wakened about an hour later by the slamming of the door. Luz was in no better humor than hours earlier.
"I'd thought you'd calm down by now, Babe," Simon ventured and sat up.
"Ah, those people, my sister and her husband, piss me off. Where are the damn kids? I don't need any of their shit now."
"Went to sleep right away. I’ve just been resting."
"Yeah, well, good for them it was you and not me that took them home. Between them and Carmen, I've had it up to here," Luz said, pointing to the top of her head.
"Luz, baby, calm down. The kids ain't so bad. You need to get away from them anytime, just go take a walk. I'll take care of them. I handle them real good."
Luz took a sip of the warm beer left over in Simon's bottle and sat in his lap. A strand of her black hair fell across her forehead. Pressing her breasts against Simon's chest, she held his face and gave him a violent kiss on the mouth. Luz wiped her lips and told him, "Simon, you know something, those kids really are damn lucky you're around. Now, I'm going to make you lucky I'm around."
Simon put his arms around Luz's neck and drew his eyes close to hers. "Yeah baby, I don't know what I'd do without you."