Once upon a time there was a boy who grew up in chaos. His father was a father of many. He had already had 11 children (that he knew of) from one woman when he met another woman who became the mother of 13 more of his children. The Boy was the tenth, or the twenty-first, depending on where you started counting.
The mother was a schizophrenic. And an alcoholic. The boy was the first of her children to be born in a hospital. Was she there for other reasons than giving birth? Who knows? Who remembers? She lived with her mother, an abusive, violent, woman. There was a ritual, if you will, to her violence. Every Sunday there would be a beating. With a belt. With a shoe. Sometimes she would be sober. Sometimes it would be the mother and grandmother. Sometimes both of them would be drunk. Sunday mornings, week after week, before chores were done or after. Beat the devil out of the boy, a terrible truth from which he could not escape.
Unless, sometimes the father would come and he would claim the children, take them somewhere else to live for a while, away from that crazy bitch. Did he mean the mother? The grandmother? Both? Being away meant no more beatings on Sundays. It meant other things. It meant the father leaving the house for work and not coming back for a few days, leaving some money behind to buy food, money the older children used to buy cigarettes for themselves and maybe food for themselves too. But there was never enough food or maybe there was never enough money to buy enough for everyone. The little ones would get less, raiding the pantry for remains, scrounging as best they could.
They didn’t go to school either, where maybe they could have had a free breakfast or lunch. Instead, they were home, hidden, not legally allowed to be there but content watching television, when it worked, and playing games.
There are games the older children play the younger children are too young to play or don’t want to play. It doesn’t matter. Eventually the father would come home. Eventually he would bring some food. And things would be better. For a while. Until too many children became too much for one man and he returned them to their mother and the waiting for a rescue would begin again.
But there, at the mother’s, there was school. The boy was skipped not once but twice. He was smart. Smart enough to know that getting a hole in his pants on the playground during recess was dangerous. Smart enough to charm the home economics teacher into sewing the hole so that nobody would ever know. He would eat. And learn. And he made friends.
Friends are hard to keep, however, when you have to disappear and eventually a teacher would notice a bruise or cut too many, a some-familiar-sign of something very wrong. Someone would be called and someone would show up at the mother’s door and soon the children would be scattered in different homes in different places. Maybe two or three would be assigned the same foster home or group home. Maybe. Not usually. But never could anywhere take all thirteen of them. Ever.
Together, they were safe. Safer. From the abuse or neglect of their foster parents or the other abandoned children who cluttered the beds in a group home. Sometimes there was the grace of a place with clean linens and clothes, with food and comfort. But placement never lasted long or long enough. Eventually the father or an older sibling would come by with an invitation to a lunch that would turn into an escape and even the best of strange places could not compare to the rightness of being home again, surrounded by faces that are kind, if not kind.
Complicated. Chaotic. Familiar. Family.
The boy knew who to be and how to be when he was home again, whether with the father or the mother. And the pattern repeated from year to year, from place to place, and he lost love of learning, and lost his brother, and eventually followed his father one last time away from a group home that promised him something. Which is why, perhaps, he took hope with him, hoping to make something different for himself in the future.