NowComment
2-Pane Combined
Comments:
Full Summaries Sorted

Kozol Fire in the Ashes

Fire in the Ashes

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AMONG THE POOREST CHILDREN IN AMERICA

Jonathan Kozol

CROWN PUBLISHERS NEW YORK

CHAPTER 1

The Journey Begins

Christmas Eve of 1985 was not a good time for poor women and their children to depend on public kindness or prophetic reenactments of the Christian gospel at the hands of civic and commercial leaders in New York. It was a time when opulence among the city's newly minted rich and super-rich was flaunted with an unaccustomed boldness in the face of New York City's poor and homeless people, thousands of whom were packed into decrepit, drug-infested shelters, most of which were old hotels situated in the middle of Manhattan, some of which in decades past had been places of great elegance.

One of the largest shelters was the Martinique Hotel, across the street from Macy's and one block from Fifth Avenue. In this building, 1,400 children and about 400 of their parents struggled to prevail within a miserable warren of bleak and squalid rooms that offered some, at least, protection from the cold of winter, although many rooms in which

I visited with families in the last week of December were so poorly heated that the children huddled beneath blankets in the middle of the day and some wore mittens when they slept.

I remember placing calls on freezing nights from phone booths on Sixth Avenue or Broadway trying to reach Steven Banks, a Legal Aid attorney who performed innumerable rescue actions for the families in the Martinique that year. The wind that cut across the open space of Herald Square at night was fierce, the sidewalks felt like slabs of ice, and kids and parents from the Martinique who had to venture out for milk or bread or medicines would bundle up as best they could in layers of old clothes and coats, if they did have coats, or sweatshirts with the hoods drawn tight around their chins.

Dozens of kids I knew within the building suffered from chronic colds. Many were also racked by asthma and bronchitis. Infants suffered from diarrhea. Sleepless parents suffered from depression. Mothers wept in front of me.

I had never seen destitution like this in America before. Twenty years earlier, I had taught young children in the black community of Boston and had organized slum tenants there and lived within their neighborhood and had been in many homes where rats cohabited with children in their bedrooms. But sickness, squalor, and immiseration on the scale I was observing now were virtually unknown to me.

Almost every child that I came to know that winter in the Martinique was hungry. On repeated evenings when I went to interview a family I gave up asking questions when a boy or girl would eye the denim shoulder bag I used to carry, in which I often had an apple or some cookies or a box of raisins, and would give them what I had. Sometimes I would ask if I could look into the small refrigerators that the hotel had reluctantly provided to the families. Now and

4

FIRE IN THE ASHES

then I'd find a loaf of bread or several slices of bologna or a slice or two of pizza that had gone uneaten from the day before. Often there was nothing but a shriveled piece of fruit, a couple of jars of apple sauce, a tin of peanut butter, sometimes not even that.

II continued visiting the Martinique throughout the next- two years. During that time, a play about impoverished children of the nineteenth century in Paris, called Les Miserables, opened to acclaim in the theater district of New York. Some of the more enterprising children in the Martinique would walk the twelve or fifteen blocks between the hotel and the theater district in late afternoons or evenings to panhandle in the streets around the theater or in front of restaurants nearby. Homeless women did this too, as well as many of the homeless men, some alcoholics and some mentally unwell, who slept in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks and in doorways of the buildings in the area.

The presence of these homeless people was not welcomed by the theater owners. People were paying a great deal of money to enjoy an entertainment fashioned from the misery of children of another era. The last thing that they wanted was to come out of the theater at the end and be obliged to see real children begging on the sidewalk right in front of them.

The problem was resolved to some degree when police and private guards employed by local businesses developed strategies for cleaning out the homeless-sanitation terms like "cleaning out" were used without embarrassmentfrom the streets around the theaters. Meanwhile, on the East Side of Manhattan, another group of business leaders went a little further by employing people in the homeless population to drive out other homeless people from Grand Central Station, where they had been taking refuge from the cold for several years by sleeping in the station's waiting

room_g

The ultimate solution, which required the removal of these homeless families from the midtown sections of Manhattan altogether, took a few more years to carry out successfully. In the interim, despite the efforts of the theater owners, many of the older children from the Martinique would manage to slip past the hired guards or the police and walk up to theater-goers, who would sometimes hand them a few dollars.

The younger children from the Martinique, however, did their begging for the most part close to home within the blocks surrounding the hotel, where they would run into the streets when drivers slowed their cars as the lights were changing and where a driver whose compassion overcame his irritation might roll down his window far enough to give the kids some money. Those who were inclined to castigate the parents of these children for letting them go out into the streets at night might have relented somewhat if they understood how rapidly the competence of many of these parents had come to be eroded by the harshness of conditions in that building.

Scenarios of broken will and loss of good decisionmaking skills were apparent everywhere. Some of the parents were emotionally ill when they arrived here; but those who weren't would frequently succumb to the pervasive atmosphere of insecurity and high anxiety that suffused the filthy corridors and crowded living spaces of the Martinique. Many who had not used drugs before this time became drug users in a setting in which heroin and crack cocaine were readily available. (The sixteenth floor of the Martinique Hotel-there were seventeen floors in all, but the top two were unoccupied-was operated, with the knowledge and, apparently, cooperation of some of the guards, as an open market for drug users.) A number of people became HIV-infected under these conditions, although in 1985 the

6

FIRE IN THE ASHES

term was not yet widely recognized among some of the residents and many did not understand exactly why it was that they were growing ill.

The conditions under which these people had to live

were not unknown to New York City's social service system or to its political administration. Anybody who was able to get past the guards, as I did repeatedly with the cooperation of two sympathetic social workers who enabled me to get into the upper floors and visit families pretty much at will, could not avoid, unless he closed his eyes, the sight of overflowing garbage piled in the landings and of children who, for lack of other options, played amidst that garbage.

But physical unhealthiness, the prevalence of drug addiction, and the documented presence of widely known carcinogens (open containers of asbestos, for example, and asbestos-coated pipes in the lobby of the building) were not the worst of the destructive forces children and their families had to undergo. The Martinique, as I was forced to recognize when the social workers started talking candidly to me during the months to come, was not merely a despairing place, diseased and dangerous for those who had no choice but to remain there; it also was a place of flagrant and straightforward criminality on the part of management and ownership. A young man with a raw, salacious smile, to whom the social workers made it a special point to introduce me and who, they told me, was a relative of one of the two owners of the building, used the power he was thus afforded to induce young women to provide him with erotic favors in exchange for items that they needed, such as cribs and linens for their children.

"He boasts about it," one of the two social workers told me. "He describes it to us openly, and gleefully. He goes into considerable detail. ... " Some of the guards, the social worker said, took advantage of the younger mothers too, as

one of those mothers, a smart and savvy woman who told me she had had to fight off their advances, reported to me at the time and has repeated since.

There was no need for secrecy, it seemed, because there was a sense that this was "a closed system," where rules of normal law and normal governance did not apply. Complaint or protest would have no effect except to prompt the guards or manager to punish the complaining woman by denying her essential services or else, if the manager so wished, by calling the police and charging her with one of many forms of misbehavior that were common in a building in which almost every person had to break some rule or operate some petty scam in order to survive.

Cooking, for example, was officially prohibited because of fire dangers, but the city's meager allocation of subsistence funds to purchase food made it unthinkable to buy it from a restaurant and forced the mothers in the Martinique to cook their children's meals in secret, then conceal their hot plates when inspectors from the city came around. The management cooperated with the tenants by providing them with garbage bags to cover up the hot plates on inspection days while, at the same time, it pretended not to know that this was going on. When mothers were reluctant to provide the guards who were hired to protect them with the favors they expected, the guards could use the cooking scam or other scams much like it as a way to break down their resistance.

Children, of course, observed the humiliation of their mothers. The little ones, too young to go to school, might perhaps be sent out to the corridors; but most of the mothers would not dare to let them wander too far from the bedroom door. Even the kids who never witnessed these activities first-hand could not fail to be aware of them. I used to wonder what enduring influence all of this would have upon the capability of children in the building to believe in

8

FIRE IN THE ASHES

any kind of elemental decency in people who have power over their existence. Would they later find it hard to trust the teachers in their public schools? Would they develop an endemic wariness about investing faith in any older person of authority? Would they love their mothers all the more for having done the best they could to protect them from this nightmare, or would they harbor a resentment that their mothers were not able to avoid this situation in the

first~ace?

One of the social workers who befriended me that year,

a sensitive man who had studied early childhood development as an undergraduate at Yale, spoke of the Martinique in unsparing language as "New York City's midtown death camp for the spirits of poor children." He knew that I was Jewish and he asked me later if this choice of language had offended me. I told him it did not. I thought it was justifieTI

Two years later, I published a book about the Martinique Hotel. It appeared first in two successive issues of The New Yorker magazine, and this, in turn, attracted interest from the other media. The Nightline television program, moderated at the time by the journalist Ted Koppel, asked me to go back into the Martinique with a camera crew and do a documentary on the families I had known. The social workers and some of the mothers helped to get the camera crew and the producer past the guards and up into the building. The camera itself was hidden in a baby carriage by one of the mothers, who rolled it through the lobby without attracting scrutiny and brought it with her on an elevator to the floor where she was living. She then accompanied us into other bedrooms whose occupants had told me they were not afraid to answer questions.

By the time we had finished with the final interview,

however, a guard on an upper floor had become suspicious, banged at the door, which we 'did not open, then notified the management. The manager, an unpleasant character by the

name of Sal Tuccelli who carried a pistol in an ankle holster, confronted us with several other guards and insisted that the cameramen hand over the material they had just recorded. When they refused, the manager and guards reacted in the same way they routinely did with residents who defied or disobeyed them. I was slammed against a metal wall. One of the cameramen was seriously injured. The TV producer, an unintimidated woman, removed one of her high-heel shoes and used it to defend us. By this point, the police had been alerted. The cameramen got out of the building with the video.

I knew, of course, that journalists were not welcome in the building and that the social workers who had made my visits possible were taking risks in doing so. But until this time I had never witnessed so directly the extremes to which the management would go in the interest of concealment. It reminded me more vividly than ever that the city and the owners of the Martinique, with whom the city had contracted to sequester homeless people at a price tag of $ 8 million yearly for those 400 families, were determined to discourage any troublesome exposure of the social crime in which they were colluding.

It also left me with a visceral reminder of the terror mothers and their children would experience when the guards or, more frequently, the manager would hammer at their doors early in the morning if, for example, the rental check paid by the city, through no fault of their own, had not arrived on time. "Six a.m.," one of the mothers told me. "He bangs on the door. You open up. There he is in the hallway with his gun. 'Where's your rent?'"

This is the way that one of the richest cities in the world treated the most vulnerable children in its midst a quarter century agoillhen these hotels were finally closed in 1988 and 1989, not for reasons of compassion but because of the enormous damage the visibility of so much desperation was doing to the image of the city and its elected leaders, most of the several dozen families I had come to know, all but two of whom were black or Latino, were shipped en masse into several of the most impoverished and profoundly segregated sections of the Bronx, far from the sight of tourists and the media. These were communities that already had the city's highest rates of HIV infection, the greatest concentration of drug-addicted people, of people who had serious psychiatric illnesses, women with diabetes, women with undiagnosed malignancies, and among the highest rates of pediatric asthma in the nation.

The miserables, although they were no longer homeless, would continue nonetheless to live under conditions of physical and psychological adversity that were only incrementally less harmful than the ones they had endured in the preceding years. In one of the neighborhoods in which the largest numbers of the homeless were resettled, the only medical facility was a city-run institution known as Lincoln Hospital, which underwent the loss of its accreditation more than once because of errors by the staff that led to the deaths of at least a dozen patients, two of whom were infants. For the mentally unwell, psychiatriC care of the thoroughgoing kind lavishly available six subway stops away in the costly and exclusive Upper East Side of Manhattan was all but impossible to find. Children, meanwhile, many of whom had had their education interrupted or repeatedly disrupted during their homeless years, found themselves consigned to public schools that, in the absoluteness of their racial isolation, resembled those of Mississippi fifty or one hundred years beforfl

So this is where they sent them. And this is where I

followed them, invited by their parents to visit them on weekend afternoons or in the evenings during a school holiday, to keep alive the friendships we had formed when they were in the shelters. I went to their schools. I got to

know their teachers. I went to their churches. I got to know their pastors. I went to their hospitals, sometimes at their own request when they were ill because they thought that it might win them more attention. So I became acquainted with a number of their doctors, many of whom were selfless and devoted individuals who did everything they could to compensate for scarcities in the basic services that doctors elsewhere know they can depend upon.

I did this, off and on, for more than fifteen years. Then, beginning in 2005, I lost track of some families for a time when my father, who'd been ill for several years, entered an acute phase of his illness, and, within the same two years, both he and my mother passed away. It took another year before I could regain my sense of equilibrium. At that point I began returning to those neighborhoods again and meeting once more with the families I had known. Some of the children were still in their teenage years. Those whom I had met when they were in the Martinique were already in their twenties. We had long talks. We took long walks. Sometimes we would spend an evening having dinner in the neighborhood. When I was home we kept in touch by phone and mail, and bye-mail in the case of those who had computers. In these ways we rebuilt our friendships.

What happened to these children? What happened to their families? Some prevailed, a few triumphantly. Most survived, even at a rather modest level of survival. Others did not. This will be their story.

CHAPTER 2

Eric and His Sister

One of the nicest but most fragile people that I knew who was in the shelter system at the time when I was visiting the Martinique was a shy and gentle woman whose

name was Victoria.

Vicky had been shunted through a number of the shel-

ters from 1984 until the end of 1989. Her longest stay was in a place known as the Prince George Hotel on West 28th Street, four blocks from the Martinique.

When she came into the shelters, Vicky had been

suffering from clinical depression and periodic seizures, for which she had been treated at a hospital on Roosevelt Island, which is in the midst of the East River. Her husband, who was caring for their children at the time, had not been well for .many years, the consequence of a degenerative illness that, as best I understood, he had contracted as a young man growing up in Georgia. He passed away a short time after Vicky came out of the hospital.

At this juncture in her life, with no money in her pocket, and no prospects of a job, and with two young children who had no one else to care for them, she began to make her way into the less-than-friendly channels of the shelter apparatus, moving at first, as was the case with all homeless families, from one so-called "short-term shelter" to the next. The psychological and physical exhaustion families underwent when they were moving constantly tended to have a predictable effect. It undermined whatever capability for good clear-headed thinking might still exist within the spirits of the stronger women while, in the case of those like Vicky who were not strong at all, it simply added to their pre-existent instability.

Vicky, as she told me later, fell into a "zombie-like"

condition-she felt, she said, "like I was walkin' in my sleep"-a condition that continued when she was living on a "permanent placement," as the city termed it, in a room at

the Prince George.

The building, which was owned at the time that Vicky

moved there by one of the two owners of the Martiniqueit was later taken over by another owner with a record of illegal operations who subsequently served a lengthy term in prison for defrauding creditors of $100 million-was less depressing physically, at least on the lobby floor, than was the Martinique, but it made its claim to notoriety for other reasons of its own. Although the manager of the Martinique had some degree of governance over the Prince George as well, the day-to-day administrator was a man who'd been convicted of abusing his own daughter, beating her and leaving her locked up at home, "alone and without food," according to the New York Daily News. His daughter had been taken from him by the city to protect her from additiona I endangerment.

The city, wrote the columnist Bob Herbert, who was

then a writer for the Daily News, "takes one child out of [his] care and then hands him over 1,000 more." There were at least 1,200 children in the Prince George at the time.

Children were endangered in other ways as well.

Fires kept on breaking out-at one point, four or five times in a week. A three-year-old was burned to death while Vicky's family lived there. The fires were alleged to have been caused by arson, but tenants told me some of them resulted from the carelessness of drug abusers who were cooking crack cocaine right there in their bedrooms-a not-uncommon practice in those days when crack was just emerging as a drug of choice among the very poor.

This, then, is the setting in which Vicky and her children found themselves at a time when Vicky was already ill and loaded with anxiety. Her daughter, who was named Lisette and was only seven when all of this began, suffered less than did her brother, Eric, who was four years older. As in the case of many of the other children in the building who were nearing adolescence, he was very much aware of the sordidness of his surroundings, the unscrupulous behavior of the governing officials, the open market for narcotics, as well as the various semi-legal or illegal strategies other children of his age had inventively developed in order to pick up a little money that they sometimes, but not always, used to help their families. It would be another four years from the time that Vicky'S family came into this building

until the day when they got out.

When I met Vicky and her children in the Bronx in 1993, they were living in Mott Haven, which was then, and remains today, the single poorest neighborhood in the poor-

est borough of New York.

Vicky's home, although it was on a street that was a

well-known center for the sale of drugs-heroin, specifically-was two blocks from a church on St. Ann's Avenue,

an Episcopal church called St. Ann's, that was a place of safety for children in the neighborhood. The church, a beautiful old stone building with a tall white spire at the top of its bell tower, had a large expanse of lawn on a pleasant hillside where there were swings and slides and a sprinkler for the younger children, and a court where older kids

played basketball.

I spent a good part of the 1990s visiting St. Ann's

because it ran an excellent and innovative afterschool, in which I was able to talk at length with children and was sometimes asked to help with their tutorials. Naturally, it wasn't long before I also grew acquainted with some of their parents and with other adults who gravitated to the church for the sense of solace that they found in the inviting and informal atmosphere the pastor had created.

The priest of the church, an extraordinary woman whose name is Martha Overall, came to St. Ann's with a deep commitment to the children of the neighborhood. She was also well equipped to help the parents of the children deal with the legal problems and bureaucratic obstacles that people who depended upon welfare inevitably faced. A graduate of Radcliffe College, where she had studied economics, she also drew upon the adversarial and strategic skills she had acquired as a lawyer who had been a protege of a famous litigator by the name of Louis Nizer.

Even while she practiced law, Martha had been work-

ing as a volunteer and advocate for families in Mott Haven, SO when she turned her back upon the law and chose a life of service in the ministry, she already had a thorough understanding of the sense of helplessness that people in the area frequently experienced in dealing with their landlords or with government officials. She was masterful, and she could be very tough, in her confrontations with people in positions of authority. But she was warm and gentle with people in the parish who came to her in need.

Vicky quickly grew attached to Martha, and she and the children soon began to come to church almost every Sunday. On the weekdays, Eric sometimes came there on his own, mostly to play basketball. Now and then, he

brought his sister with him.

Eric struck me as a complicated boy. In spite of all he

had been through, he had an element of likability and even of good humor. But he found it difficult to be transparent in his conversations and relationships with older people at the church who took an interest in him. As I watched him in the next few years, I could not help noticing the frequently evasive-maybe self-protective-way that he would speak to grown-ups when they questioned him. It was a hint, but only that, that he was concealing things that might stir up worries for his mother if she knew of them.

But she worried anyway. She told me she had seen this

tendency-"not always bein' straight with me" is the way she put it-starting in the period when they were still at the Prince George. But she said she'd noticed this more frequently since they'd been resettled in the Bronx. She said she never knew what he was holding back, but she was

watching him uneasily ....

One day in the fall of 1995, Vicky came into the church

while I was helping at the aftersch061. She came right up behind me and leaned down and whispered "Hi!" before I knew that she was there. She seemed in such a pleasant mood that it surprised me when, a moment later, she asked with a slight tremble in her voice if I had the time to go

outside and talk with her.

As soon as we had left the church, she began to cry.

She didn't tell me what was wrong, and I didn't ask. She was wearing sneakers, baggy slacks, a loose-fitting sweater, and a floppy-looking hat. Her clothes were clean but her

appearance was disheveled.

We went out for a walk.

Sometimes when a person that I know appears to be distraught, I have a tendency to think there has to be an explanation that I can discover if I ask exactly the right questions. I feel embarrassed later when I realize that there isn't any simple answer to my questions. Usually I know this in advance but, because of something in my personality or education, I often fall into this trap of thinking that the answer lies in talkative solutions. Walking around without a destination sometimes leaves an open space that isn't filled already with my own predictive suppositions.

Vicky never told me exactly what it was that made her cry that afternoon. I knew, of course, she was concerned about her children. ~ric, who was sixteen now, was not doing well in school. The high school he attended was one of those places, misleadingly referred to as "academies," familiar in the Bronx and other inner-city neighborhoods, where the course of study had been stripped of programs that might stimulate a student academically and instead was geared to practical and terminal instruction. Having lost so many years of education while he had been homeless-most of the children in the shelters, as I've noted, had seen their schooling interrupted frequently-his basic skills were already very low. His attendance was, in

any case, haphazar

@cky couldn't help him much because she'd had so

little education of her ow'!9 Her mother had died when she was five and, for some reason she did not explain, she was taken from her father and given to a guardian who, however, seemed to have abandoned the customary obligations of a guardian. She had had to leave school during junior high, which she said was not unusual in the rural part of Georgia where she had been born, and went to work "clean in' houses, doin' laundry for white people" for most of the next four years. By the time her son was born and she was married and her husband brought her to New York, schooling was no longer in her mind. Although her writing skills were good (she had learned a kind of slanted printing in her grade-school years), she had little understanding of the work that Eric was supposed to do at his alleged "academy."

Lisette was in the seventh grade and was a better stu-

dent but had also been assigned to a bottom-rated school, which was called a "school for medical careers" but did not offer courses that would likely lead to any kind of medical career beyond, perhaps, a low-paid job within a nursing home, and pretty much precluded any opportunity to move on to the kind of high school that would open up the possibilities for college.

The apartment where the city had resettled them con-

sisted of three tiny rooms on the fourth floor of a six-story building where there was no elevator, no bell, and no intercom. To visit with Vicky you had to yell up from the street and she or Eric or Lisette would lean out of their window and throw down the key to the front door.

Vicky and her children were living on a welfare stipend which, including food stamps and some other benefits, amounted to approximately $ 7,000 yearly. (According to Martha, this was even less than the average income for a family in the area, which she pegged at $8,000 for a year's subsistence.) She supplemented this by getting up at 5:00 a.m. two days a week to go to a food pantry at one of the housing projects, where she had to be assigned a ticket with a number to establish her priority but then was forced to wait for an hour and a half, or else go home and then return, before she actually received a bag of groceries.

The only job she'd had since moving to the Bronx was cleaning houses or apartments in Manhattan, which, she said, was something she was glad to do, but was also forced to do as part of her welfare obligation in New York. "One lady, Mrs. Jacobs, lived on Second Avenue. The other one

lived-let me see, on 14th Street, somewhere around Green-

. wich Village." Both were elderly; one was home-bound.

"They were nice to me," she said but for some reason she could not explain, this heavily promoted "work experience program" lasted only six months and did not lead to per-

manent employment.

She was candid with me, and herself, in her recogni-

tion that at least some of the suffering she had undergone had been of her own making. While she had been homeless, she had grown attached to a kindly-seeming man who was good to her at first but who was subject to depressive swings of mood and soon began abusing her. Once she had her own apartment, she took out an order of protection, but her boyfriend kept on coming back, she said, when he was depressed or hungry. Sometimes when he showed up at the door, she told me that she lacked the will to keep him out. On more than one occasion, he had beaten her severely.

I asked her if she prayed.

"I do pray-but not out loud." She said, "I pray inside." Amidst the sadness of the conversation, she kept

reaching out for gaiety. A nervous laugh would precede the revelation of a longing or a memory that brought an evanescent sense of satisfaction to her mind. "I pray," she said, "for something that I haven't done for thirteen years."

I asked her what it was.

"To pick up my knitting needles," she replied.

A soft smile lighted up her eyes. "I used to make a sweater in three weeks if I had no thin' to upset me. I'd start when it was summertime and I'd have six sweaters made for Christmas .... If you ever see me get my needles out again, you'll know I'm feelin' happy."

At the corner of Brook Avenue, she stopped next to

the stairs that led down to the subway station, looking in a vague, distracted way at a woman in a long skirt who was

20

FIRE I~ THE ASHES

selling bunches of chrysanthemums and roses. She reached out her hand in the direction of the roses but it seemed she didn't dare to touch them.

"Would you like them?" "One rose," she replied.

Tiny drops of water sparkled on the petals. She held the flower in her hand against her chest as we were walking back in the direction of St. Ann's. At the corner, she looked left and right. Then, with relief, she told me, "There you go!" and waved across the street.

Lisette was coming up the avenue with a couple of her friends. When she saw her mother she ran into her arms. Taking a bunch of papers from her backpack, she showed her a book report she'd done that day at school. It had been marked A-plus by her teacher. Her mother studied the book report, kissed her on the cheek, then handed her the keys to the apartment and two dollars to buy something at the

store.

"An A-plus on a book report doesn't mean a whole

lot at this school she goes to," Vicky said once Lisette was gone. "Her teachers like her. They do the best they can. But I don't think that they can give her what a girl with her potential ought to have ....

"You see, this is the best that I can get for her right now.

I don't accept it-yet I do, because I don't know any choice I have." But a moment after that her gaiety returned. "See?" she said. "I know she's home. She's safe upstairs and we have food to eat. And so, for now, I'm happy. There you go!"

Her moods were like that. Sometimes sadness. Sometimes gaiety. Sometimes a bright burst of jubilation. Then she would crash down-so fast-into the pit of a depressive darkness. Then she would be fighting back again and searching for her jubilation like a person looking for an object that she'd put away into a drawer somewhere and

temporarily could not be found. She laughed that nervous laugh, it seemed, when she was near the tipping point between exhilaration and surrender.

In November 1996, a doctor called me from his office in a small town in Montana. He said his name was Dr. William Edwards. He told me that a group of people at his church had read my book Amazing Grace, about the children in the Bronx, and had called a meeting of their congregation. The members of the church, he said, decided that it was "appropriate" for them "to find a place in our community" for any family that believed they'd have a better chance in life in a setting very different from New York.

I did not know how I should react to this idea at first.

I'd never received a call like that from a total stranger and, although I knew almost nothing of Montana, I found it hard to picture any family that I knew beginning life all over in a place so far away, and so unlike New York.

But the doctor's explanations were so plain and simple-it was a nice town, he said, the schools were good, the congregation was prepared to find a house and fix it up and pay the rent at first and help out with the food expenses for a while, and he was a family doctor and had children and grandchildren of his own-that I told him I'd pass all this information on to Reverend Overall and that she would likely call him back if there was ever any interest from a family at St. Ann's.

I pass on a number of more modest offers and suggestions every year to ministers and teachers and other people working in poor neighborhoods and never know for sure if they'll materialize. Some of them do. Churches and synagogues routinely ask me for the names of schools or churches in the Bronx and frequently they follow through

22

FIRE IN THE ASHES

with shipments of computers, books, and other educational materials. Religious congregations from as far away as Maine and Pennsylvania have invited groups of children from St. Ann's to visit them for extended periods of time. But moving an entire family some 2,000 miles to a small town in Montana that I'd never heard of was in a different

ballerk altogether.

J.!.here's another reason why I hesitated to respond to

Dr. Edwards's invitation. There is an intimidating rhetoric of cultural defensiveness in many inner-city neighborhoods like those of the South Bronx, which sometimes has the power to inhibit any actions that might tend to break down racial borders and to stigmatize the people who propose them as "invasive" or "paternalistic." There is a kind of mantra that one often hears from local power brokers in neighborhoods like these that the way to "fix" a ghettoized community is, first of all, never to describe it in such terms and, second, to remain there and do everything you can to improve it and promote its reputation. Those who choose to leave are seen as vaguely traitorous, and those who help them leave are often seen as traitorous as weI!]

Sometimes ideology and rhetoric like this can introduce an element of complicated and neurotic inhibition into issues that should be decided by the people they will actually affect. I wasted a few days debating whether to dismiss the whole idea and, at one point, I nearly threw away the name and number of the doctor. Then, to end my indecision, I sent the information he had given me to Martha and more or less forgot about it for a while ....

A month later, in the middle of December, Vicky came into St. Ann's in a state of desolation: beaten again, eyes purple, worried sick about her son, who was not attending

school, worried about welfare, worried about clinic visits, worried about rent and food.

The telephone in the office rang while she was sitting there talking to the pastor. "It was the doctor from Montana," Martha told me later. I didn't know if she had called him earlier that day or if the timing of his phone call was a sheer coincidence.

"We had another meeting," Dr. Edwards said. "The invitation is still there."

Martha told him, "Wait a minute," and, looking at Victoria, she told her there was someone on the phone that she might like to talk with.

"I had to leave the office then and go downstairs into the afterschool," she said. "When I came back, Vicky and the doctor were still talking. When she put the phone down, I asked her what she thought. She reached out for my hands. It must have seemed unreal to her. I told her that she ought to give herself a lot of time to think about it and discuss it with the children. I gave her Dr. Edwards's number and told her she could call him anytime she wanted, and I suggested that she ought to question him some more.

"That was only about two weeks ago. Lisette came in today and said, 'Guess what? We're moving to Montana!'"

About a week later, I went to Vicky's home. I didn't want to spoil her excitement, or that of the children, but I thought I ought to tell her some of the reservations I had had ever since the first call I'd received. My concerns, 1 quickly realized, were not hers. When I told her, for example, that there wasn't likely to be more than a small number of black people in the town where she was going, she said that she already realized that.

"You're not concerned at leaving all your friends here, leaving everything you're used to?"

"I want to leave," she said.

The living room in which she slept was already filled

with shipping boxes she had gotten from the church.

"You're sure that you can handle it?"

"I won't know unless I try," she answered.

Another week went by ....

"In about two hours," Martha told me on the phone,

"Vicky and Eric and Lisette will reach their new home in Montana. Dr. Edwards had tears in his voice on the phone today when he called to check on the arrangements. The whole community seems to have gotten together to rent a house for them, and put in some furniture, and work out all the other details so that they'll feel welcome when they get there. I think that everybody knows it isn't going to be

easy ....

"Vicky was up all last night. I brought her a scale so she

could weigh the packages for UPS. She told me she wanted to get her hair done but there wasn't time because the kids were so excited that they were no help to her at all.

"I think that she was happy with a kind of totally 'free' happiness I have never seen in her before. She spoke of taking up her knitting once again, and letter-writing, and she said she'd like to have a garden. She'll be forty-eight in

March.

"A neighbor of Dr. Edwards used his frequent-flier

miles to pay for the tickets, but there was some kind of glitch and we only got two tickets so I bought the third one-for Lisette. The woman at the desk gave her an upgrade to first

class!

"We had lunch at the airport. They were off at two p.m.

I think they had to change planes in Chicago."

One month later, on my answering machine: 'jonathan, this is me, Vicky. Oh yes! I'm tellin' you! I'm really here! I'm in Montana."

She left her number. I called her back as soon as I got

home.

'jonathan!" It was the first time I had ever talked with

her when she didn't need to struggle to sound cheerful.

"Have you ever eaten elk?"

"No," I said. "Are you eating elk?" "Yes!" she said.

"Where do you get it?"

''At the store."

"What's it like?"

"It tastes like steak. You broil it. Delicious!" "How are the kids?"

"They're in schoo1."

"Any problems?"

"No," she said. "Not yet."

"Any black kids in the school?" "N 0," she said, "except for them." "Does that bother them?"

"I don't think so," she replied, "because they know it

doesn't bother me."

The only thing that bothered her, she said, was walking to the store. "People here? They drive real fast. And there isn't any stoplights on this street at al1. None on the next street either, come to think of it. None on the next street after that. In fact, there isn't any stoplights anywhere in town.

"And, oh! The girl next door-Diane?-she drives me from the IGA if I got too much to carry in my arms.

26

FIRE IN THE ASHES

"I'm tellin' you! There's a lot of friendly people here! "One lady came to bring me milk and asked me, 'I don't mean no harm, but are you prejudiced?' I told her no, because I'm not. She looked at me and then the two of us began to laugh! Because-you know?-you'd think the question would have been the other way around ....

"It's like everybody wants to know: How did I ever get here? Well, I want to know that too! The only thing Dr. Edwards told me is that they was goin' to choose someone. It was something they made up their minds about."

"What's the church like?" "Made of logs."

"What's it called?" "Trinity Church."

"What denomination is it?" "Christian."

"What can you see looking out your windows?" "Mountains!" she replied. "They're on almost every

side."

"Is it snowing?"

"Only in the mountains." "What's it look like?" "Beautiful! "

"The day you got there, when you were coming off the

plane-what was it like? Was Dr. Edwards waiting?"

"Yes, he was there. Not only him. It seemed like everyone in town was there. They had their cars pulled up: twenty people, maybe more. Then Dr. Edwards took us to this house. He said, 'This will be your home.' Then he took us to the church. He said, 'This will be your church.' Then the stores began to send us food. Four stores. Each one gave us groceries: a hundred dollars from each store.

"Oh, Jonathan! It's cold here in the winter, but the

hearts of people in this town are warm."

In the first days after she arrived, she said, she had to

struggle to convince herself that she was really there. "The first night, after Dr. Edwards and his wife were gone? I told the children, 'Leave me be. I need to sit here in this chair.' I told them not to turn on no TV. It's just as well, because they only got three stations here and one of them goes off at six o'clock."

"What's the house like?"

"Oh yeah! Well, I'm in the livin' room right now. It would make up two of them that I used to have. I got two sofas. One of them's a sofa-bed. Over at the other end, there's a dining room and kitchen, which is kind of small, but they're both connected, and I got a washer and a dryer, and I got a microwave which is up above the stove. Three bedrooms. One of them is mine. Other two is down the hall. Seems like it's got everything I need."

"Where do kids there go for fun?"

"To school. McDonald's. Burger King. The IGA. To

ranches. To the church .... " "They go to ranches?"

"Me and Lisette, we went three days ago." "How did you get there?"

"Chrissy picked us up."

"Who's Chrissy?"

"One of my friends."

"Have you made many friends?" "Oh yes!"

I heard shouting in the background. "Wait a minute .... "

Then Lisette picked up the phone.

I asked her whether everything was going good at

school.

"My school is fine!" "How big is it? "Fifteen students." "In the school?"

"No! In my class."

"Are the students nice to yOU?" "Yes," she said.

"You feel okay? You're happy there?"

"I don't want to live in any other place."

In April, Vicky sent me a big envelope of pictures of the mountains, and the ranch-like house in which (hey were living, and the one-story wooden church, which looked like a log cabin. In one of the photographs there were six or seven wooden houses, very tiny, at the bottom of the photo. Above the houses, filling nine-tenths of the picture, there was a spectacular blue sky, with white and gray clouds rolling in from the distant mountains. A single tree, its slender branches reaching high. A small white pick-up truck beneath it. "Looking down the street," she'd written on the

back, "the sky goes on forever."

When I phoned her the next night, she told me she was

spending more time at the church.

"Sunday," she said, "I put my name down on the list for

Hospitality Committee."

"What does that mean?"

"You see, after the service here, we all go in and eat

our meal together. Members of the church, we take turns cookin' for each other. I wanted to make lemon cakes, because I'm good at bakin'. So I put my name down for

next Sunday."

"How's Lisette?"

"Doin' okay. Gettin' B's-but could get Ns, her teacher

says. Needs to get her papers done. Do her homework every night. They give them a lot to do. This is something new to

her."

When I asked the same thing about Eric, though, she sounded more uncertain.

"He's havin' a harder time. Missed too much back in

New York. No one here can figure out what they was doin' with him at his school. Principal says they're tryin' hard to catch him up. Dr. Edwards's talkin' with him now."

"You sound good."

"I'm feelin' good," she said, "but I still have times when

I get scared that something's goin' to go wrong .... " A few months later, at the start of June:

"I got a job."

"What are you doing?"

"Bakin' cookies, fryin' donuts-at the IGA."

"What does it pay?"

"Six dollars twenty-five." She'd started with a part-time

job at Burger King, she said, "but IGA pays better."

She said that Dr. Edwards gave the kids some spending money for a while after they arrived, "so they could do things with their friends." But they didn't need it now. Eric was working at the IGA-"couple of hours, after school." Lisette, meanwhile, was baby-sitting for their neighbors. "She put up these little cards at the IGA. People call her. Mostly weekends. Mothers say she's really good. Feeds the children. Washes them. Tells them stories. Gets them into bed. Sings them songs. If it's late they drive her home."

InJuly, we talked again. She said she still was working at the IGA. "Doin' thirty hours now. Rent here is four-fifty. Church covers two-fifty and I pay the rest. Next month I'll be payin' fifty more. Long as I get thirty hours I think I can

handle it."

She told me she had joined a group of women who

were having problems like the ones that she'd been through, some of them with alcohol, but most of them related to abusive treatment at the hands of men. "I go to meetings at the church. Tuesday nights. Fifteen women. Some are single mothers, same as me. I was scared to talk at first. I'm talkin' now. It's hard for them to make me stop."

30

FIRE IN THE ASHES

When we spoke the next time she told me that Lisette had done "something she shouldn't do" and "got herself in trouble" -not bad trouble, it turned out, but enough to worry Vicky for a time. One of the girls she knew from school had been teaching her to drive. "Kids out here," Vicky said, "they start to drive when they can reach the pedals!"

"What's the legal age?" I asked.

"I think you have to be sixteen. But this is ... something

different here! They do it anyway."

The girl who had been driving, Vicky said, banged

into another person's car. Both the girls had to go to court. "The judge gave them a scolding and he made them pay a fine. They also have to pay the owner of the car for what they did. She's been payin' from her baby-sitting money. I think she owes him fifteen dollars more."

I asked if Dr. Edwards was still visiting a lot.

"Oh yes! He's here a couple times a week. Last week all of us had the flu. He came and gave us medicine and shots."

She said that he'd been taking them on long rides out into the wilderness to see the cattle ranges and the wild animal preserves. "He's forever doing that. He loves his car. We went out with the kids this week to look at one of the

abandoned mines."

"What kind of mines?" "Gold mines!"

"How old is Dr. Edwards?"

"Seventy? Sixty? I'd say maybe sixty-five .... He's got

grandchildren who are Lisette's age. Two of them are girls."

"What does he look like?"

"He's a tall man, healthy-looking. Loves to do things

with the kids outdoors. He's got gray hair."

"Is he a religious man?"

"Oh yes. I'd say he must be a religious man. He don't

talk religion but I know that he's religious."

"How do you know?"

"You know it by the way somebody acts."

At the start of August, Martha sent me a reminder that I'd said I'd transfer money to Vicky, which we promised we would do to help her out with buying school clothes for the fall. I had a small private fund that I'd established for this purpose and for other relatively minor needs that families faced. Sometimes only a couple hundred dollars, at the moment it was needed, could help a family catch up with their rent before they got an order of eviction. For most of the families I knew in the Bronx, few of whom had bank accounts, I had grown accustomed to making wire transfers. I asked Vicky whether she would like the money sent by Western Union or if she'd prefer I send a check to Dr. Edwards, who would cash it for her.

She said I didn't need to send her money but, when I said it was a promise we had made, she said I could send the check directly to her home.

"How will you cash it?"

"I don't need to cash it yet. I'll put it in the bank." "You opened up a bank account?"

"Checking," she replied.

"How long is it since you had a bank account?"

"I never had a bank account in my entire life before.

Jonathan, I'm tellin' you! This is the first time .... "

End of summer: Vicky called to tell me that Lisette had had an accident.

"She was with her girlfriend out at someone's ranch that Dr. Edwards knows. They was runnin' with the horses and she wasn't lookin' and she ran into a hole or something that was full of water. Hurt her ankle. She's on crutches. Hoppin' around from room to room. I'll be relieved when she goes back to school.

32

FIRE IN THE ASHES

"Oh, did I tell you? Eric's got a girlfriend. Actually, he's had a lot of different girlfriends since we got here to this town. He doesn't stick with them too long. He goes through them awful fast. We came here eight months ago? I think he's had a different girl for every month since we

arrived ....

"Oh yes! Dr. Edwards had us to his house for dinner

Sunday night. He invited a friend of his, a high school principal from another town. A black school principal. There you go! He says he wants to talk with Eric more. He says that Eric needs to do a lot of work if he wants to keep up

with his class."

Her voice was strong and energized. She said that she

was working hard-"doin' forty hours now." Between her job, her meetings at the church, getting the children set for school, and keeping on top of them to clean their rooms ("Eric's room is an embarrassment," she said. "He throws his things all over the floor"), it sounded as if she didn't have a lot of time to dwell upon the past.

"Do you ever miss New York?"

"N 0," she said. "I do not. But I miss some people there.

"I was thinkin' -once I feel more settled here, I might

go back to St. Ann's. Maybe I won't tell them. Just walk in the door one day and say, 'Well, here I am!' HI do, I'd like to go by bus this time, and not by plane, because I'd like to see what's down there on the ground.

"Oh yeah! I forgot to tell you that I found my knitting

needles. My friend Diane? She took me to the mall in Bozeman and I got some beautiful blue yarn. I'm using a pattern

that my other girlfriend gave me."

"What are you making?"

"Makin' a sweater-for Lisette. Finished with one

sleeve. Workin' on the other now. This pattern's not too hard. H I have the time, I'm goin' to make a couple more of

them by Christmas."

Shy voice: 'jonathan?" "Yes," I said.

"If I made one for you, would you wear it?" "Are you kidding?"

"There you go!"

- 111-

Christmas Eve.

Vicky called to tell me that she had another job. "It's in a home for the elderly. I'm a dietary aide. It's my third job, and I hope the last one.

"I started Monday. I had to learn about the job. Then, on Tuesday, I did a double shift. Started at six-thirty, went to two o'clock. Then went back at four and worked until ten-thirty. I like old people! Some are disabled. Some have lost their memories. When I have a break, I like to sit and talk with them ....

"Lisette?" she said. "She's at the skating rink. They call it 'The Skating Palace' here. My friend Diane? She likes Lisette. She gave her ice skates as a present.

"The church gave us a Christmas tree. Members of the church came over and they helped me decorate it. Oh yeah! It's for Lisette. Not for me. I'm forty-nine years old!"

She said they still were taking rides with Dr. Edwards.

"There's a town here in Montana which is called Big Timber. Smoky skies. It's by an Indian reserve .... I love to go on rides with him. Lisette too. I told him that he takes the place of my father for me. I never seen my Daddy since I was in junior high.

"I think he's up in Billings now to see one of his

patients. He has patients all over Montana ....

34

FIRE IN THE ASHES

"Did I tell you that we have a woodstove in the living room? Oh yes! When it's cold, we heat with wood, because the gas bill gets so high. Now my friend Yolanda, who lives down the street, has been bringin' wood to us, because her mother's got a truck. It's piled out there in the porch so we

can keep it dry."

Lisette was fourteen by now and continued to do well

in school. Dr. Edwards's granddaughters were her closest friends. In the spring, however, Dr. Edwards told me that the three of them had gotten into trouble. "They were apprehended at the mall in Bozeman. Shoplifting," he reported. "In fairness, I do not condemn Lisette as harshly as the others." It had been his granddaughter, the oldest of the two, who had been "the instigator," he believed. "They were given public service to perform. Lisette will do her service at an animal reserve.

"I'm confident that she'll come out of this okay. She's a

loving girl, so boisterous and warm! And she accepts affection easily. My wife and I take her out to dinner when we can. We took her out a week ago after the court hearing. My wife is very fond of her. She hugs us both a lot."

Eric, on the other hand, was a source of more and more concern to him. "When I told him what had happened to Lisette, his response was awful cold. To quote him: 'I don't see why I should care.' I've spent more time with him than with Lisette. His grades at school are really bad. I'm taking him to Bozeman with me once a week for a tutorial in reading that a friend of mine arranged. So we have a chance to talk, to the degree that he will open up to me at all.

"I told him that I have to make a trip out to Seattle in the summer and I said that I'd enjoy it very much if he'd like to come with me. We could camp out on the way, on the Columbia River. I told him we could do some rafting.

But he was not responsive."

During the summer, Lisette managed to get into minor troubles once again, "nothing bad," Dr. Edwards said, "but I talked about this with her principal and we struck on an

idea."

There was, he said, "an excellent program" for students

of her age-"takes place in Yellowstone .... Three months long. Counseling and leadership, and learning to mark trails. Learning about conservation right there in the wild. They don't indulge them. There's a firmness that is always ready to exert itself if a student pushes things too far."

His hope, he said, was to "catch" Lisette before the minor troubles she'd been getting into grew into much bigger ones. He said he believed, as did her principal and teachers, that she was a gifted child and could do honors work in high school and go on to college, but only if she gained a stronger sense of self-control-and, he added, "of self-understanding." He said that she did not object to his suggestion. "In fact," he added, "she became excited at the thought of going out there in the wilderness."

It proved to be a good idea, as I gathered from a letter Lisette wrote to me from Yellowstone, maybe six weeks

later.

"DearJonathan,

"Hi! Hello! It's Lisette here. I am in the woods right

now. I'm here for three months. Clearing trails .... Cool,

huh?"

It was a short note. She didn't give me many details. "I

hope that everything is going good for you," she ended in her neat and curly schoolgirl printing. "Please write back.

Love, Lisette."

Two weeks later, I got another optimistic note from Dr.

Edwards. "The big news: Lisette has been doing extremely well at Yellowstone." He and Vicky and his wife, he said, had had "the great experience" of going out to see her when

36

FIRE I;.J THE ASHES

the students' parents were allowed to visit after they had been there in the wilderness two months. "I'd have given a hundred bucks for you to be there with us."

At the end of the day, he said, "we all sat in a circle.

Lisette and the other kids talked about the parts of the experience that mattered most to them. Lots of tears and hugs among the kids and counselors. She comes home in one more month. Here's some pictures of her that I know

you'll like."

In one of the pictures, Lisette was running with a

bunch of other kids across a grove of trees. The branches, covered with thick foliage, were hanging almost to the ground. In another, a close-up, she was wearing something like an army jacket and a woolen hat that was pulled down to her forehead and was smiling brightly, with a look of mischief, right into the camera. On the back of the picture Dr. Edwards wrote, "When they came back from the woods, Lisette told us, 'I feel like one dirty bird.' They wash themselves and their clothes in cold lakes and streams-no soap!

But she's a happy camper."

The news continued to be good after she returned to

school. "She's really blossoming," Dr. Edwards told me. "Doing honors, getting Ns, and the school by reputation is one of the best ones in the area. She's popular among the other students, does cheerleading, sings in the choir. But

she's careful about boys .... "

The news about her brother was less cheerful. "I'm sad

to tell you he dropped out of school last week because the school will not allow a student to continue to play sports if he has failing grades, and that was just about the only thing he really seemed to care about. The school was willing to work with him and give him extra help. His teachers didn't want him to drop out. The truth is that he never gave it a

real try.

"He's repeated once already. Now he's over eighteen and has no degree and no longer has a job. He doesn't stay at home a lot. He seems to stay with different girls, until they've had enough of him. Then he crashes with Victoria. Then he's gone again.

"When I try to talk with him, he turns away his eyes.

He tells me that he'd like to join the military. But they won't accept him. They insist on a diploma. My friend, who is a principal in another district"-this was the black principal that Vicky had described-"has talked with Eric several times. He tells me that he 'closes down' and gives him almost no replies.

"So Vicky has her hands full. When Eric's home, the house becomes a hangout for a whole group of his friends and, to be quite blunt about it, not the kinds of friends I'd like to see him with. Vicky works 'til late at night, so she can't control this. And, when she's there, the boys are pretty rude to her."

The news continued to be worrisome through the fall and winter of the year. By the beginning of their third year in Montana, Vicky started falling into the depressive moods from which she used to suffer in New York. "She's deeply troubled about Eric," Dr. Edwards said. "I've put her on some mild medication and it seems to make a difference. She's been successful in her job. She tells me that she loves it. I hope that she'll keep on .... "

He wrote me six months later, in June of 1999, with another mixed report: "Lisette remains a spot of brightness in a zone of growing darkness. Eric's a loose cannon. His most recent girlfriend, with whom he's been living now for nearly half a year-the very attractive daughter of a very white truck-driver who happens to be a Christian fundamentalist-is now very pregnant." Her father, he said, "is in a frantic state and is known here as a man that you don't

38

FIRE IN THE ASHES

want to mess with. So Eric's in some danger, which I've cautioned him about. I've also spoken with the father."

Two months later: "The police have put a warrant out for Eric. It seems he's been involved in robberies with one of his problematic friends. I gather they've been doing this repeatedly. Amazingly, his girlfriend sticks it out with him, although it's been real stormy. 'Hurricane force' is how I would describe it. I'm surprised her father hasn't

popped him."

The racial factor, he surmised, was always in the back-

ground and, with Eric out of school, out of work, living off a girl he had made pregnant, Dr. Edwards speculated that her father "may well look at Eric as a prime example of the racial nightmare- 'irresponsible and dangerous young black man' -appearing in real life." Still, no father, he observed, even one without the slightest bit of bigotry, could be expected to be empathetic and forgiving toward a boy who put his daughter in this situation. All the father knew was that his daughter, who was Eric's age but was a student at the university by now, was living with a man who had given ample evidence that he was unprepared to be a husband that his daughter could rely upon. When he heard that Eric was arrested, he had yet another reason for

concern.

Throughout this time, Vicky and I remained in con-

tact with each other, but her letters and her phone calls had become less candid and informative than they'd been before. On a few occasions she confirmed what Dr. Edwards had been telling me, but not in full and, most often, long

after the fact.

"Eric?" she said. "He's with his girlfriend quite a lot,

but he keeps on comin' back. I cannot put him out." She said that she could not forget how hard it was for Eric when they had been homeless and before they even got into the

shelters. "We were sleeping in a friend's house. If we got there and the door was locked, we slept out in the hallway. Lisette was just a baby then. He was the one that went and asked for food at the White Castle. So I sometimes ask myself: Am I the one to blame for all the troubles that he's had? But he makes it very hard .... "

She didn't tell me yet that he'd dropped out of school.

She didn't speak about his girlfriend's pregnancy. She didn't say he'd been arrested. She didn't speak about the medication Dr. Edwards gave her. She did say, "I been prayin' for my son. I'm askin' God to help me."

When we spoke the next time, she said that she had finally made a trip back to New York but had somehow lost the will to go back to St. Ann's and had come back quickly. While she was gone, Lisette had been staying with Dr. Edwards and his wife. Eric, meanwhile, had been fighting with his girlfriend so, in Vicky'S absence, he went back into her house and, because he had no key-"I told him that I didn't want him goin' there while I was in New York"-he'd broken in with several of his friends, "messed up the place, rang up a huge bill on my phone, and robbed me of some money I had left there."

"Where is he now?"

"He's back with his girlfriend, but he comes here when he wants. If I'm at work he pries the window open."

She said that Eric's girlfriend had come to the house alone after Eric robbed her. "Yeah! She knew. She found out that he done it. So she came and told me she was sorry, and she stayed and talked with me while he was gone off somewhere with his friends. She's a sweet girl and I know she likes me and I found out quite a lot. She told me Eric isn't treatin' her the way he should. He yells at her. She says he's raised his hand to her."

This information, Vicky said, had saddened her tremendously. The thought that he had been abusive to this

40

FIRE IN THE ASHES

girl, who trusted him and was in love with him, "made me disappointed in my son."

It was a while after that before I heard from her again.

Her telephone was disconnected for a time because she never caught up with the bills that Eric left her. She wrote me a few letters, and in one of them she opened up more fully than before about the troubles Eric had been going through. "Got three weeks for stealing gas. It was for his girlfriend's car. He uses it whenever he likes. He goes out riding with his friends." His girlfriend was afraid of saying

no to him, she said.

She also told me that the break-ins Eric made into her

house and the wildness of the friends he brought with him were causing problems with her neighbors, and she said her landlord spoke with her about this. I was glad she was confiding in me once again, but I was worried by the growing time-lag between the news that I received from Dr. Edwards and the news that Vicky felt prepared to share with me.

The letter ended on a slightly upbeat note. "Lisette still goes to church with me. Church members taking turns to pick us up on Sundays. I'm trying to think positive.

"I'm ending this letter now. "God bless you.

"Victoria."

-IV-

Vicky had said that she was trying to "think positive."

But positive thinking, as highly recommended as it is, can be overrated as a salutary and sufficient answer to calamitous conditions that are far beyond the power of an individual to alter or control in more than small degrees. For all the efforts she had made, for all the help her neighbors gav.e

her, for all the love and loyalty Dr. Edwards never ceased to demonstrate to her and to her children, Vicky found herself unable to escape the shadow of her history.

It was Eric's uncontrollable behavior that finally brought her down. In April of 2000, after Eric once again had broken into Vicky's house with a number of his friends while she was at her job and Lisette was working late at school, the police were called by people in the neighborhood-"music blasting and loud voices," Dr. Edwards said-and Vicky was at last evicted from her home.

Although the members of the church helped her get resettled, she fell into a state of bad depression once again and, having earlier been careful about overuse of alcohola couple of beers late at night when she came home from work, maybe something stronger on the weekends when she was relaxing with a friend-she now began to drink much sooner in the day in order to subdue the feelings of foreboding that had overtaken her.

"After doing a good job at the nursing home," Dr.

Edwards wrote to me, "and having recently been given a nice raise in pay, she abruptly quit. She simply was unable to get up and out into the world and face the pressures of the day. Alcohol and antidepressant medications, as you know, can be a deadly brew. I'm going to start all over, if she'll let me, with another intervention."

In a follow-up note in May, he was more hopeful, but cautiously so. "Vicky has joined a twelve-step program. It was begun by a young physician here in Bozeman, an excellent man who, unhappily, developed an addictionto Demerol, I think-while he was in training, and is very good and sensitive with people in her situation. He's been successful with a number of my patients but in Vicky's case I have to say I've got my fingers crossed. She's fallen deep into her drinking. I don't know if she can stop." When I asked what she was living on, he said she was on welfare

42

FIRE IN THE ASHES

and, he thought, she might be doing part-time work when she was well enough to handle it.

It was more than seven months after that before I

heard from Vicky. Her phone had been cut off again after her eviction, but she said, "I got a new phone now." To my surprise, and a bit to my confusion, she sounded upbeat

and excited when she called.

"Oh yes! You know what I did? I took the bus to Geor-

gia and I saw my Daddy! He's seventy-four. I hadn't seen him since I was fourteen. His birthday was on Christmas Day. I made him a sweater. Same as yours, except in green.

"Did I tell you that my father's a musician? Yes! He's in a gospel choir. They were having a rehearsal on the day before I left. I said, 'Daddy, you're going to rehearsal. Would you let me come with you?' My father was so happy!"

She didn't say a word about the latest difficulties Dr.

Edwards had described. Not a mention of the job she'd given up, the twelve-step program she'd begun, the struggle she'd been going through to fight off her depression. And she said nothing this time in reference to her son. The same sense of disconnect I'd noted in our conversations from the year before left me with a great deal of uneasiness again.

In his letters, Dr. Edwards's references to Eric had become increasingly disheartening. "I've tried again and again to sit him down and talk with him, but he isn't interested, doesn't want to listen, doesn't want to tell me anything at all." He said that Eric's girlfriend had ended their relationship. He also said he had some reason to believe that Eric and his friends were "gravitating into drugs or stolen pharmaceuticals." He noted, too, that Eric was now living in his own apartment and, by all appearances, paying his own rent. So he said he had to wonder where the money

came from.

In the summer of that year-it was now 200l-he told me Vicky was no longer showing up for meetings at her twelve-step program. He also said she'd moved again, and more than once, as I discovered later. "I stopped by to visit with her just a week ago. She'd been drinking heavily. It was hard to get straight answers from her. It's as if she's sitting there just waiting for the bad news she's expecting."

Six weeks went by.

'Jonathan," Vicky said in a message on my phone.

"I have something terrible to tell you. I lost my son two days ago. Eric was shot-shot with a shotgun to his head. He would have been twenty-two this Sunday." She left me her phone number. When I called her back, her voice was blurred and breaking. "I don't know how to say this," she began. "My son has taken his own life ....

"Day he died, I'd called him in the mornin'. He said that he was with his friends, playin' cards and havin' fun." Then, all of a sudden, she reported, Eric sounded very scared. "'Mummy, I don't feel no good. I need your help.' I said, 'Okay. Come over here right now.'

"A few minutes later, he was at the door. He came in by his self, and then his friends came in. I didn't know why he let them come with him, but I was thinkin' they'll be gone and then he'll be alone with me. They went into another room and it was quiet for a while. Then I heard it, right behind the wall, and I went in and saw the shotgun lay in' there across the floor. There was blood all over him. It was comin' from his head ....

"N ext thing, the police was there. Police was comin' up the stairs. Then they was tryin' to revive him. Then they put him on a stretcher and they carried him downstairs and took him to the hospital, but they said I shouldn't come. But fifteen minutes after that another man from the police, he took me with him in his car and said that he would stay

44

FIRE IN THE ASHES

with me. Then a doctor came out from the door and he got up and spoke to him, and then he sat down next to me and held my hands and told me that my son was dead.

"He asked me was there anyone I would want to contact and I told him Dr. Edwards. But Dr. Edwards, he'd already heard. And he came in and he was there and he took me to my house. And then his wife. And other people from the church. They wouldn't let me be alone. And, after that, Lisette was there. And Dr. Edwards's wife went out-

side to talk with her."

I asked her whether anybody close to him, anyone who

cared for him, had told her that he was depressed before

she spoke with him that day.

"No one. No one knew. He just kept it in. I told Lisette

I pray from this she'll always tell me what she's feelin' when she's feelin' bad. 'Never hold it in,' I said, 'because I been there and I love you and I couldn't bear it if I lost

' "

you 00 ....

Dr. Edwards mourned for Eric like the father he had

tried to be for him. He condemned himself for never having found a way to penetrate those walls of isolation in which Eric had enclosed himself. "Starting months ago," he said, "I had my struggles about being the prime mover, asking whether everything that he was going through was somehow of my doing. I've tried to come to peace with this, but I haven't given up my questioning. It's going to be a long time, I'm afraid, before I do.

"There are some who are convinced it was a homicide.

Several of his friends, as I believe you know, had followed him into that room, and no one has explained what they were doing when that shot rang out. But the police have interviewed the boys and studied the case carefully, and all the evidence seems to confirm it was a suicide."

Again and again, he came back to the question of

t

his own responsibility. "I realized there were going to be problems from the first time Vicky opened up to me. And after she had been here for a while she confided in me more and she told me quite a lot of what the kids had undergone when they were in New York. But I overestimated the potential of a different place and different opportunities to overcome what I had hoped they'd left behind."

Weeks after Eric's death, I found that I kept coming back to what Vicky said he'd told her on the phone. "Mummy, I don't feel no good. I need your help"-and her reply, "Come over here right now." For all of the defensive toughness and aloofness others saw in him, he had spoken to his mother in that moment in the way that frightened children do. If he had only come alone and told her what he feared, might she have held him in her arms and given him the sense of safety he was asking for? Could she have been for him, in the hour when he needed it, the mother she herself had never had?

From that time on, Dr. Edwards and those members of the church who were Vicky's closest friends did everything they could to help her and Lisette to reconstruct at least some semblance of stability. Lisette regained her footing rather quickly. She was now a senior and continued getting honors grades and was making plans to go to college. She was, Dr. Edwards said, "a mature and capable young woman" and "happily in love" with an only slightly older man, a student at the university- "a serious and decent guy by the name of Thomas who is very much in love with her as well." He said that she'd been living with him for a time, but it seemed important to him to explain that they were "married under common law" which, he wanted me to know, "is binding in Montana."

A short time later, he told me she was pregnant but he was confident that this would not prevent her graduat-

46

FIRE IN THE ASHES

ing high school and proceeding with her plans for higher education. "We had dinner with them, and Lisette made clear that she has no intention of returning to New York. She's looking at some colleges around Atlanta now. She and Thomas seem to have a good perspective on the choices they'll be making. As a couple, they seem very solid, very

strong."

Vicky, on the other hand, continued to be almostincon-

solable. "I went over there to visit her the other night. She told me she was drinking. But she didn't need to tell me. I could see that she was pickled when she came to the front door. I'd been told she was starting a new job, but there's no way she could have gone to work in the condition that

I saw."

I spoke with Vicky very seldom after that. Usually her

voice was faint and her words were often slurred and the little information that she chose to share with me was never very clear. Before long, there were no more messages from Vicky on my phone. I didn't know if she had moved again. The most recent number she had given me appeared to be

cut off.

In one of the final letters that he sent me, Dr. Edwards

said, "I don't see Vicky anymore, which saddens me, but she no longer seeks my company. I've tried my best to keep in touch. My wife and I drive over there from time to time, but we never find her home and the messages I leave for her

are not returned."

Eight months after Eric died, I received a very grown-up

and reflective letter from Lisette. "Since my brother was laid down to rest, my mother has been struggling. Dr. Edwards says he told you she's been drinking. She was broken by my brother's death. I love her, but I have to use my strength to

save myself.

"Thomas and I are doing our best to pay our bills and

taking good care of our daughter. We were married in a church on May 15. I graduate next week. Then we're going to move south so I can enter college in September."

She said that they had changed their plans and were looking at a town near Myrtle Beach because her husband's relatives were living in that area. Her husband had applied for transfer to a college there, which she would be attending too.

They must have moved soon after that. I wasn't sure if she received the letter I had sent her in reply. Dr. Edwards, who was well into his seventies by now, was no longer able to maintain the pace he used to keep, and he soon retired. Within another year or so, he told me he had lost all contact with Lisette and Vicky. Many years went by before I got word of them again.

It came in a phone call from South Carolina in 2009.

Lisette still had a little of that buoyant schoolgirl voice that had endeared her to so many people in her teenage years, but she was twenty-six by now, the mother of four children. With time taken off to raise the children, she was heading toward completion of her studies to become a paralegal. Her husband was completing a degree in dentistry.

Her mother, she said, had suffered greatly in her final years from pancreatic cancer. "Her social worker called me from Montana and told me she would probably not live for very long. We brought her here to stay with us. She started chemotherapy. We took her to a hospital in Charleston to receive her treatments and we thought that she was doing well, until she just stopped eating. She had lived eleven months. She died at home with our kids around her. She's buried at the cemetery with my husband's family."

In her final words she said, "I'm going to give a good life to my children. I have to do it. I'm the one who made it through. I'm a stronger person now. I guess that I was always stronger than I knew.

"Please give my love to Martha when you speak to her.

And if you're ever here near Myrtle Beach we would love to have you come and visit us. We have room for you to stay. If you like, I'll take you out to see my mother's grave. I know

how much she meant to you.

"Okay? I have to go! Say a prayer for me!"

DMU Timestamp: March 28, 2013 23:38