Pete's Pants Part II

No fever, yet, but the body aches rendered me useless most of the day. I managed to get some chores done, but the one I needed to do most — wash Pete’s pants — was delayed. I told him to meet me outside the grocery store at 4 p.m. but I didn’t get there until almost 5. I circled the parking lot several times, his jeans, still warm from the dryer, folded on the console beside me.

I felt puny and really didn’t want to get out of the car. So I drove slowly past the stores, checking the aisles and the people. I drove past the metal bench three times. A woman standing just outside the grocery store doors, stared at me. Did she wonder if I was trying to abduct a child? She had three of them herself — one in a stroller and two more at her side. Her cart was full of bags, as was the space just behind the stroller seat. She seemed to be waiting on someone.

I drove past Big Lots, past the Dollar Store, past 24-Hour Fitness and through the length of the parking lot again, to check the bench. I watched as the mother pulled her sacks out from underneath the stroller and reached for a blue coat for her oldest boy. The setting sun blushed the blue sky pink and turned the air shivery.

Rolling down the passenger side window, I called out, “Have you seen a man with a green blanket?”

“Yes,” she said. “He was at Big Lots earlier but I don’t know if he’s there now or not. I heard the clerk call for the manager.”

“Were they running him off?”

“Maybe. Is he your friend?”

“Kinda. I have his jeans,” I replied. “I was trying to get his pants to him. Are you waiting for someone? Do you need a ride somewhere?”

“Yes,” she said. “I was waiting for a taxi but if you don’t mind. Do you have room in your trunk for a stroller?”

“Yes,” I said. “Lemme park.”

Liz is 40. She has three children, the oldest, a boy, is 10. There’s a girl in the middle and then a toddler boy, who looks nothing like his older siblings. His ethnicity proof positive they don’t share the same daddy. After putting the groceries and stroller in the trunk, Liz buckled the boys in, while I buckled in the girl. In true princess fashion, she wore a bright pink glitter ring on her writing finger. “That’s very pretty,” I said.  She smiled sweetly. Her dark lashes like an artist’s brush strokes against a white canvas.

“We’re  staying at the shelter house,” Liz said, moving my wallet and some papers onto the console with Pete’s pants.

“We have a shelter here?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, and gave me the address.

The youngest boy found the magical power buttons in the Honda and was raising the window up and down.

“Stop that!” his brother yelled at him.

“It’s okay,” I said, clicking the lock on the windows and the door.

“How long have you been at the shelter?”

“I’m staying at the one in Pendleton,” she said. “But they are spraying it for bugs this weekend, so they sent me down here.”

“Do you mind if I circle the lot one more time?” I asked. “I hate for Pete to be without his pants.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

“Are you from around here? I asked.

“No,” she said. “We came to town earlier today to take my girl to the doctors.”

The Oregon Health Plan provides coverage for uninsured children. We don’t get a lot of things right in this state but that is one thing we are trying to ensure — health care for children.

“She okay?”

“A cold,” she replied.

The oldest boy held in his hands a yellow matchbox car that the youngest boy desperately wanted. As I headed North on Highway 395, the youngest boy began punching the oldest.

“STOP IT! STOP IT!” the older boy yelled.

At the red light I turned to the youngest, who had worked up a good fit, and placing my hand between him and his brother, I said, “No hitting. That’s not nice.”

“MY CAR!!!” he screamed, grabbing his brother’s hand, who then began to fight back. Slapping. Hitting.

“I’m so sorry,” Liz said. Her face, puff-fish round, flushed.

“No, don’t be,” I said. “I had four kids. I understand. Completely.”

“Does your brother have his own car?” I asked the oldest boy.

“No,” he said.

We were blocks past the Dollar Store now. Had I known earlier, I could have run inside, bought the boy a car for each hand.  Now it would teach him the wrong lesson. He’d only learn that fit-throwing gets a person what they want.  So when he ratcheted up the screaming a notch, I told Liz again, “Don’t worry. Really.”

“He’s ADHD and autistic,” she said.

Lord. Have. Mercy. Upon. This. Woman.

And. All. Those. Teachers. To. Come.

The chubby toddler splayed out in the back seat, the better to power those cannonball feet of his. He kicked his brother full on in the mouth as I made a turn down Main Street. Brother let out a wail that would have made Charlie Sheen smile in admiration.

Their mother broke into a full-on sweat. “I am so, so sorry,” she said. Then turned and spoke sternly to the boys.

“He’s tired and hungry, huh?”

“Yes,” she said.

The older boy began screaming at his younger brother: “SHUT UP!!! SHUT UP!!! SHUT UP!!!”

“Don’t say that!” his mother instructed. “I don’t want to hear you say that again.”

“SHUT UP!!!” the boy continued.

Diversion, an old military tactic, I thought as I considered this is the kind of behavior you get when domestic violence is the accepted norm.

“Hey kids,” I said, “Look up here. There’s a funny looking man in the road.” I pulled up alongside the man dressed as Abe Lincoln with the mailbox in his belly and rolled down the window.

“Is he real?” the little girl asked.

“No, honey,” I replied. “He’s not real; he’s just silly.”

“Did he swallow the mailbox??” the oldest boy asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

The youngest boy climbed on his knees, and it occurred to me that I was driving illegally. He needed a car seat. Oh. Well. Too late now. I pulled up next to the gated lot that provides the only protection women like Liz and her children have.

“Is there someone else here? A security guard?” I asked. The place looked dark and foreboding, like those empty castles that Victoria Holt wrote about in the twisted Gothic romances with titles like The House of a Thousand Lanterns  that I used to devour as a teen. Holt wrote about the mystery of romance, she never really dealt with the kind of terror Liz and her children have experienced.

“I hope to get into an apartment next week,” Liz said. “And maybe a house after that. I never thought I’d be in this situation.”

Who does? Who plans for that? What teenager sits under a tree on a hot summer day and dreams of the day when she, too, can grow up, fall in love, and subsequently experience enough disappointment that the only place she has left to turn to is a domestic shelter that’s being treated for bugs?

“Put my number in your phone,” I said. “And call me if you need anything.”

“Who do you work for?” Liz asked.

“No one,” I said.  “I’m just a writer.”

I thought later that perhaps I should have told Liz that I’m leading a domestic revolution.

My message: “Quit kicking your brother and your sisters. Be sweet to each other.”

If you happen upon Pete, tell him I have his pants.

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  • This story and the last one . . . when I grow up, I want to be just like you. Seriously.

  • Tom and I met for the first time at Tuesday evening’s Bible study. We always have soup and bread before we launch into Scripture and, for the past few weeks, Rob Bell’s wonderful little short films that I just can’t diminish by calling them DVD’s or videos. He sat at a table by himself in his black jacket with extra hardware, keys, bicycle lights and jeans about 6 inches too large and bunched at the waist. Wet spot on the seat of them… Since he was new to the group, I asked if I could join him with my bowl of noodles and bread. “Sure, no problem,” he said. He had lots to say, but it came out in a kind of mumbled stream which I did my best to decipher. As we ate, a little yellow bug ran out of his stocking cap across the table at me. I smashed it as promptly as I could without making a scene. Little yellow bugs are Tom’s closest companions. He was very attentive during Bible study, enjoyed Bell’s film. After a smoke on the patio, Tom went back out into his world and I to mine.

    A woman I know named M. was going to Salem this past Monday to testify at the Legislature about the need to maintain services and housing for mentally ill folks. Knowing how M. gets trapped inside of sentences that she enters but can’t seem to exit, I can only wonder what message she could have brought them, though none more powerful than her own confused presence. Intelligence and chaos rule her life.

    What were Tom and M. like when they were school age? What got them to where they are now? How much money are we saving by keeping Tom homeless, and how much would we “save” if we made M. that way?

    An insurance company has told a mother of two students at my wife’s school that they will no longer pay for the meds these little kids need in order to be something other than nearly asleep with depression or else unable to sit still and be quiet for more than 5 seconds. An insurance company wants to “save” money by helping to manufacture replacements for Tom and M. when they are no longer with us.

    Letter after letter to the paper complains that Portland is a homeless magnet because we are too kind and the police not aggressive enough even as incidents of suicide by cop and murder by arrest are up. Your stories affirm what we must know if we open our eyes: that people living tough lives are all around us and within us. They are still in NYC even if people who visit Disneyfied Times Square no longer see them there. They are in rural Nebraska, small towns in the South and in Eastern Oregon, in this small city we call home. And so is the kingdom of God.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      If the hope that is within us is of no use to the least of those among us, what good, pray tell, is it?
      Thanks for paying attention, Roger, for seeing and acting.

      • I do so very little other than to be humane to those before me. A letter to the editor yesterday complained that the taxes we pay should be giving us a safe, clean environment. The writer obviously did not know that even before the housing bubble burst and the market crashed, the county faced eight straight years of declining revenue and mental health budgets. So what would the writer propose, rounding up homeless and mentally ill folk and putting them in concentration camps? It has been done…

        But here’s the question we need to look at for the days ahead. How many homeless-in-training are in our schools and falling out of them right now? What can be be doing to mentor and repair families, mentor and repair kids today, to keep some from being homeless and mentally ill tomorrow? Ask any teacher, any police officer who has responded to a domestic disturbance call if there is a need. They could tell us in 5 seconds.

  • There are no words….

  • Oh, Karen. I’m beginning to believe there’s no such thing as a chance encounter. When you asked God to use you, He knew you meant it.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I’ve searched the Scriptures and have yet to find the reference to the God of Serendipity.

  • Amen! So good to hear the connections with people in need that you are making, Karen. We’ve done some of the same, not enough to be sure. Glad for your input into this family’s life in more ways than one.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Ah, Ted, do any of us ever feel like we’re doing enough?

  • Debbie

    Thank you for walking what you talk Mrs Spears.