by John Vanderslice
You step out of the car dreading what you must do. You have already checked the chamber of your pistol—yes, it is loaded—you have already stuck the snub-nosed little man into your pants, that hollow where your back meets your waist and will remain covered by your windbreaker. At least until you don’t want to keep it covered anymore. You will, of course, be fired if it is found out that you brought a gun to this visit. But you know that in some of these places, on some of these visits, to arrive without a gun is to take your life into your hands. You’d rather have your life than this job, although you really need to keep this job. You carry the clipboard to which is attached all the usual forms, with the usual information. You’ve only glanced at them. You know her name and you know their names. One or two things more. That’s enough. In all likelihood, the rest of it is lies, or at least generous exaggerations. Looking at this trailer— propped up on concrete blocks, the boards of its backside starting to pull apart at their seams, its roof missing at least one consequential piece—you know you are witnessing rather serious exaggerations. You don’t know why the trailer is turned around, its back facing the gravel lane, but you assume it has something to do with shame, with the limitations of history, with not wanting to be seen. As your Focus slowly moved down the lane to this trailer, this turnaround point, this end of the road, you passed at least one place you know the cops should investigate—the deranged dogs frothing at you were a tip off—and you passed at least two others you’d like to call your office about. But you won’t. Because the office has too many phone calls and too much to do already. Whatever you told them, no one would be out here for the rest of the year, if ever. Of course, you could drop in yourself: an impromptu, shot in the dark. But that is not the protocol, and those are not the kind of visits you specialize in.
You carry three ballpoint pens in your shirt pocket, another in the pocket of your pants. You wiped your glasses clean in the car and you combed your hair before you stepped out. You have thin, straight, shallow locks: easy to comb, easy to put right, especially on occasions like this one, when you come armed with Vitalis in your glove compartment. It takes only a moment for you to look as professional as you want to be.
You shut your car door. You check your pens. You clear your throat, even though your throat is not blocked. You hesitate a moment longer. The trailer looks as still as a stone, as listless as congealed soup—and less appetizing. No movement outside. No sounds from inside. No voices. No television. No radio. Maybe no one is at home. Parked on the grass, however, not far from where you stopped your Focus, is a white Chevy S-10, probably twenty years old, its tires bald and its body reddening with rust but not quite looking abandoned. Not precisely useless. Someone must own it. Someone must be home. But if someone is home, why is it so quiet? Have they gone off in their second vehicle, the better one? The second vehicle. No, not likely. More likely, looking at this place, is that all three of them are currently strewn on the floor, holes in their heads. More likely, looking at this place, you will find sightless staring bodies, smelling of rot and lacquered with dried blood. A double murder- suicide. And something left on the stove.
But you’re prepared for whatever you will find here. You have your protocols, memorized long before they ever let you take a visit. You have your forms. You have your pens. You have your cell. And you have your gun. You step away from the car and up the grassy hump of ground upon which the dilapidated structure sits. There’s no driveway or walkway to speak of. Just ground between here and there. The ground, thank God, is dry, but rather too dry. There has been no rain for almost three weeks. October is not a dry season. Where is the rain? No time to ponder the question. It won’t rain today; that’s all you know. There’s a listless, gray cloud cover and a cool wind, but nothing threatening, nothing stormy; only what blocks the sun. You spy, behind and to the left of the trailer, the arid remains of a vegetable garden. Chicken wire has been established with stakes, forming a lopsided rectangular encampment. The ground inside the rectangle is grassless, dug up and dug over, all but empty now. You notice the blackening remains of a potato, a solitary, soft-spined carrot as thin as a straw. Hard to imagine this garden was ever anything like fecund. Hard to imagine it ever made good on its promise. But you should go closer. You need to examine it and include it in your report. Attempts at self-sufficiency, you will write, as if you approve. But you will deliberately undercut that note of hope with your devastating next sentence: Attempts obviously failed.
A child appears, out from behind the trailer. She steps over to the vegetable garden and stares at it. She wears a short pink skirt and glittery gold-and-violet flip-flops. Her legs are skinny as tinder; her toes, gripping those flip-flops, look like the tops of broken matchsticks. Her T-shirt is too large for her body. It is a faded cartoony yellow color and says JUJYFRUIT in curdling white and red letters. Beneath a mop of cluttered, shoulder-length brown hair, the girl’s face looks fragile. Fragile or delicate? With another child, in another situation, even one who looked exactly like this child, you would say delicate. With this child, in this situation, your mind fixes on fragile.
Your daughter’s face is also fragile. At least that’s how you like to think of her: fragile, not delicate, especially now, at age eleven, nineteen hundred miles away from where you stand with a gun in your pants; living with her mother, a woman who does nothing but spill bile into the girl’s ears: bile about you, bile about your past, bile about your actions. You wished you had fought for her. You know that you should have. But in the calculus of a pressure-packed decision you decided you could not win. You knew what you’d done. You knew what kind of man you were. You knew what your ex-wife could say. So you let your daughter go, for the sake of being able to see her at all, your reward for relinquishing all legal rights, for giving your ex-wife absolute control. You wonder if you should call your daughter right now. You know her cell number. She might like to hear what you are about to do. She might be impressed by it: I’m saving this little girl from a family that took her in but does not love her.
The girl has still not seen you. Her ears do not react. Her neck does not react. Her toes do not react. She’s still looking at the ground. The form claims she is eleven years old, just like your daughter, but you wonder if she’s actually younger. You wonder who knew her age well enough to tell it in the first place. You’ve never seen anyone concentrate so hard on a vegetable garden: with all of her eyes, and the rest of her body, as if she has been told—and believes—that no one in this world exists save the family inside the trailer, as if every other human life has been blinked out of existence, leaving this family as the only surviving members of a species, the remains of a nearly extinct mankind.
The chicken wire cage around the garden has no door. The side facing the trailer, however, is bent so badly that the girl can simply step over the wire and into the garden. Inside, she rotates, covering the ground anew with her gaze. She stops, hesitates, rotates again, not satisfied with what she sees. As if she’s sure that with enough turning something new will appear. But nothing new can appear. Of that you are convinced. Finally, she leans over and picks up the molting carrot. She examines it, puts it in her mouth. She grimaces but proceeds to bite anyway. She chews. She swallows some of it but spits out the lingering pieces. They dribble from her mouth to the ground like broken orange teeth. She wipes her lips with her arm, then with the sleeve of her yellow T-shirt.
You return to your car. You open the rear driver’s side door. On the seat lies a box of saltwater taffy you purchased at a dollar store in Fort Walton Beach two months ago, back in the summer, before you’d seen any of the girl’s forms. After you bought it, you noticed that the “beach taffy”—packaged in 50s style pictures of happy surf, seagulls, shore umbrellas, and ladies in white bikinis—was manufactured in Livonia, Michigan. You put it in your car, and you forgot about it—until now. Box in hand, you head back to the girl. Remarkably, she still has not noticed you. She surveys the same track of garden as if convinced she will find a diamond there.
“Good morning,” you say.
The girl’s head comes up, quick as a wink. She goes stiff at the sight of you. Not that she’s scared. There’s no fear in those nervy blue eyes, just concentration, and a pointed questioning. What are you? It would seem from the way her shoulders tense that her hands are balled into fists—some anticipatory fighting posture—but they aren’t. You check to be sure. They stay calmly but alertly at her sides. She thinks she knows what she’s supposed to think about you—and you’re glad she does, even if she’s wrong—but she’s giving you this one unholy second before she decides for good.
You bring your arm up, box in hand. “Would you like some candy?”
Her eyes widen. She hops the chicken wire and makes a dash to her left, out of sight behind the trailer. You hear a door open and then slam shut.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. How can you be so stupid? You hear with original ears exactly what you said to her. What it must have sounded like. I meant instead of carrots, you think. Instead of carrots.
You advance a few steps and peer around the side of the trailer. Nothing back here but a weed-scrabbled plot of field that extends maybe forty yards before it meets the wood line. On the other side of these woods are more trailers and a rather ominously large shed. Someone’s first class meth lab, you’d bet. You listen for movement inside the trailer. You listen for voices. The voices of the people who are supposed to be taking care of her. But still there’s nothing, not a single sound. As if the whole universe is paused, waiting on your decision.
You drop the box of taffy. You will let the girl find it on her own. You check to see if the .38 is still in the back of your pants, despite the fact that you’ve felt it every second as you walked, gently abrading your thin skin. You wonder how long it would really take you to slip it out, bring it around, and fire. You’ve practiced shooting the thing often enough, but never with it stuck in the back of your waist. How long? Two seconds? Three? Even two seconds is too long. You can be dead in less than two seconds, squared off against an armed, silent, watching enemy. So why bring the gun at all? Why not take it back to your car, right now, where it belongs? Why not stow it under your seat? No, you decide. The gun is a requirement. The gun is necessary for you to believe you can even do this. You’ve heard the stories: the young male case officer in Shreveport in 2006. The woman in Batesville in ‘09. Both dead before they even realized the nature of their respective confrontations. You know what happened to John Woolf just last month in North Little Rock. Your colleague and your friend who will never walk again. No, you will not keep the gun in your car. That decision was made for you as soon as you turned down this miserable gravel lane.
You walk to the door. It was once painted white but now is a faded cream shade: scuffed, dinged, and mildly warped. You try the knob and are half-surprised to find that it can still be locked. No problem. You were not going to enter unannounced anyway. You know the protocol. You knock. You knock again.
No response. No one moves inside. No one opens the door. No one tells you to go away. Go away or I’ll shoot. You wonder if they are cowering behind this door, too terrified to take a breath. Why terrified? Might there be more than one child inside? Three or four children? Six? Who knows what they didn’t report on the useless forms you carry. Could they use different names to collect on different bodies? Of course, you can’t know the details, but you are certain beyond even the meagerest of doubts that these people have lied. They have lied nakedly, repeatedly, and on a legally binding document. You can smell it around this place: the arrogant, sulfurous odor of deliberate, self-knowing deception.
“Department of Human Services,” you say. Then: “Open up, please.”
“Mr. Compton, I know you are home. Please open the door.”
“I’m from the Department of Human Services, Mr. Compton. Out for one of our periodic inspections. You’re obliged to let us in, I’m afraid.”
You knock harder, as hard as you have knocked on anything in your life. You actually fear for the structural integrity of the door. “This is the DHS. You are required by law to let me enter your home!” Finally, you say your name. You have waited; you have not wanted to give out this information. But now you do, because you are supposed to, because otherwise what you are about to do—which is still in the process of formation—will not be backed by the force of law. Will not be backed by anything except the .38 stuck in your pants. You will, in fact, be guilty of violating the protocols.
You say the agency’s name one more time, this in a more flat voice. Like a bored cop. But again, nothing happens. Again, Samuel and Heather Compton ignore you. You have an idea, perhaps a bad one, but you’re not in the mood to dawdle any longer, not in a neighborhood like this one, in front of a trailer like this. Not with a gun in your pants. You say: “Mr. Compton, don’t make me break the door down. I can, you know. I have done it before.” This is true, but what you do not explain to Samuel Compton is that the door you broke was not a trailer home door but the door of your own apartment, and the apartment was not in south central Arkansas but in Oakland, California, and the person behind the door was not a foster parent but your wife. And at the time, working for any agency called The Department of Human Services was something you could never have imagined for yourself—anywhere, in any state, in any future, in any frame of mind. It would have seemed the worst kind of joke.
But you explain none of this. You say what you say and let the insinuation hang in the air like a sour smell. You let it permeate through the hinges of the bum door.
Then the door opens. You see the girl in the JUJYFRUITS shirt. She does not seem scared of you anymore. She looks older and more in control than she did a minute ago. Knowing who you are has actually made her calm.
“There’s no one home,” she says, as if that should be enough to make you apologize and shuffle off.
“You’re home,” you say.
“I’m not talking about me,” she says, in a tone of voice that means Exactly how stupid are you, anyway?
“You should not be left home by yourself.” You will have to write this down too—Child left alone, unguarded—but you will wait until you return to your car. You don’t want to make her anxious by wielding your officious pen. You don’t want her to feel watched and recorded. Eventually, you will need her cooperation.
“It’s an emergency,” she says.
“Where did they go?”
“It’s an emergency.”
“Did they tell you to say that?”
She studies you for a moment; she shrugs.
So, this is not the truth. Of course it is not the truth. It is so far from the truth as to be laughable that she ever expected you to believe it. They have abandoned her so that they can do God-knows-what: methamphetamine, cock fights, a liquor run, a visit to the Adult Superstore. You know nothing actual about these people, despite the fact that someone from the agency at sometime must have vetted them. Someone must have approved them. The forms you possess provide certain facts—the facts they offered up—but you have been on too many of these visits already. You don’t know what their deal might be, only that anyone who raises children for the sake of getting paid for it must have some deal or another. You are here to discover exactly what their deal is. It’s why you carry a gun.
“When will they be back?”
The girl frowns. “I don’t know.”
“I’m supposed to interview you—and them.”
She shrugs again, carelessly. You watch her for signs of excessive trepidation or mental disarray. You have already examined her arms and her legs for any cuts or bruises. You did that as soon as you spied her. You did it without even thinking. After all, with over 3,600 children in the system, this is the only time you will ever be on this property or speak with this girl. If she is in trouble, you need to know it now. This is your specialty.
“Your name is Juliana,” you say.
Her eyes tick. She’s surprised.
“No one calls me Juliana.”
“Julie. Or Jules.”
“What do they call you?”
You consider if you should write this down too: Refuse to address child by proper name.
“Do you like living with the Comptons?”
Her eyes turn blank and she looks over your shoulder, as if at a ghost floating near your ear. “Aren’t you supposed to wait,” she says, “until someone else is here?”
You don’t know what else to do but smile. You smile as loudly as you can. “You sound like an old hand.”
“This is my third home.”
“It says that on one of your forms.”
“My forms?” Her eyes narrow. Her thin, wispy eyebrows crook slightly on the fact of her forehead.
“Everyone has forms, you know.” You say this as breezily as you can and gesture with the clipboard. You are trying a new tactic. You will be her friend, if she will buy it. If she buys it, maybe she will tell you something. “What was wrong with the other two homes?”
She blinks. “At the first place they left me behind a lot. They just kept leaving me behind. There was never enough money for us all to go, so I just got left behind.”
“Out. To do stuff. They could only afford to take their own kids.”
“And you complained about this to the department? That’s why you were removed?”
“No, they decided to give me back.”
You swallow. You shift your feet. “So,” you start, “they left you behind.”
“Kind of like these people are doing now?”
She pauses, shakes her head. “No, nothing like that.” You wait. You hope she will elaborate. You hope she will explain herself. She doesn’t.
“And the second house?”
At first, she only winces. She winces as soon as the words are out of your mouth. She does nothing for a moment, then pulls her hair away from her neck. You see it, an inch or two beneath the corner of her jaw: a red, charred mark. She turns her back to you and lifts her T-shirt just over her waist. You see other marks distributed unevenly across her hip line. She turns back around, keeps the shirt up. You see two more on her stomach.
“Cigarettes?” you say.
She shrugs. You should not have to write this down. It should be there already. Yet, it is not.
“Did they hurt you in any other way?”
She raises an eyebrow, shakes her head.
“Only the cigarette burns?”
“That’s bad enough.”
“Did they give you back too?”
“You took me out.”
“So someone else from the agency investigated, and as a result we saved you.” Why was this not on any of the forms?
She thinks about your interpretation for a long moment. “Sort of,” she says.
You check your watch. You don’t know how long you are allowed to stand here, keeping the girl, waiting for the foster parents. You are afraid you will be found out, found guilty— but of what exactly you can’t say.
“Are you sure you don’t know when they will be back?”
“You asked me that already.”
You try to think of what else to ask. “What—“ you begin. You almost say What should I do? but you stop yourself. “What do you think about your life here?”
“I love it,” she says. She smiles.
“I saw you nibbling some old vegetables when I came up. Are you not getting enough to eat?”
“I get enough,” she says.
You don’t believe her. You think she is starving. The trick will be to get her to admit it.
“Old vegetables can’t taste very good.”
“So why eat them?”
“I can’t believe there’s no reason. Were you hungry?”
“What they taste like.”
Yes, that would be the obvious answer. You need a new question.
“And what did they taste like?”
“Old shoes with dirt and slime on the outside.”
“That’s not good.”
“So what is your favorite food?”
That ought to be an easy enough question for any child to answer. Any child in a normal home. But the girl only stares at you. Her blue eyes grow unreasonably hard.
“I like everything.”
“Except old vegetables.”
“Okay, but name one thing.”
“One thing I like?”
You nod hugely, as if this is a terribly important answer. As if she is doing great. As if with answers like “bread” she is rewarding your every trust. “And they give you enough bread here?”
She touches her left toe with her right heel. She moves her mouth. You see a thought cross her eyes. “Yes,” she says.
“What else do you like?”
“In the white can, not the black can.”
You nod. “Rice.” You should probably write these answers down, just to show how closely you are paying attention.
“Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli in Tomato and Meat Sauce. Chef Boyardee Lasagna Pasta with Chunky Tomato and Meat Sauce.”
Something else to note: Child given unhealthy, mass produced, canned food items. Too much sodium.
“Any other kind of pasta?”
She stares at you dumbly, the confusion naked in her eye.
“I mean besides those two you mentioned. “
She pauses, still confused. “No,” she says.
“Not spaghetti or linguini? Not macaroni?”
“No,” she says coldly. She glances away.
She’s getting bored with you. “So what don’t you like?”
“I like almost everything.”
“But there must be something.”
“I don’t like the milk in the box.”
“You mean the carton?”
She thinks. “No. The box.” You’re not sure, but you think you should write this down.
“Okay, what else?”
“Ham in a can.”
You almost laugh. “Ham in a can?”
“That’s what he calls it.”
“This is some recipe they make?”
She shakes her head, unimpressed. “It’s what he calls it. He gives it to me with ketchup.”
Cold ham with ketchup. You calculate: Brutally unappetizing, but at least embedded with protein. At least it might help her bones. And if it’s cut fresh in the deli, maybe not quite so much sodium as the pre-packaged stuff. The ketchup is crap, but if it gets a kid to consume protein, especially a kid like this one. . . You hold off on condemning the Comptons for this particular, at least until you have more information. You never fed your own daughter anything much at all. This became your wife’s responsibility. Once in a while you had her by yourself. What did you give her then? You can’t remember. Probably pizza. Pizza. Probably delivery pizza. The eternal fallback. Or French fries. You doubt you’ve ever fixed your daughter a real meal. But you are not the one on trial, are you?
You realize the girl has stopped talking. She looks like she does not intend to say a single word more.
“Any vegetables?” you say.
“Do I like any vegetables?”
“Do they give you any? Green? Or yellow? Red. Orange?” You realize that certain of these colors are more likely to be found in fruit than vegetables, but that’s okay. You won’t complain if the Comptons are giving this girl fresh fruit. You might even reconsider your opinion of them.
“Green,” she says, with a hint of disgust.
“Like what? What do you mean?”
“Green. From a can.”
“Canned green beans?”
She shakes her head.
“Canned green,” she says again, out of patience with you. Refuse to purchase fresh produce. Dangerously low vitamin intake. Of course, there’s no evidence—yet—for that last sentence. But it sounds good. It sounds definitive. You glance at what you can see of the inside of the trailer. Another thing to add: Unclear exactly how they spend their stipend. For the administrators back in the capital, this will probably rank as the most ominous statement of all.
Before you can wrap up, there is one more important category for your interview. “Do they speak to you much, Juliana? Do they read to you? Do they take you to the library?”
“He calls me Julie,” she says.
“Yes, of course. But do they read to you Julie? Or read with you?”
She thinks for a moment. “They love me,” she says.
“But do they encourage you to read?”
“No,” she says flatly. “I don’t mind.”
Neglect child’s intellectual development.
Of course, you did not read to your daughter either, not even when she was a baby. But that doesn’t excuse the Comptons. That won’t keep you from filling in your form in the most critical manner possible.
“They make sure you go to school?”
“I go to school.”
“Just about almost.”
“Do they drive you?”
She doesn’t answer but regards you again from one of the wary breaks in her consciousness. You could only describe the look she gives you as peering out from behind lowered eyelashes.
“To school? From here?”
“To the bus stop.”
“Where is it?”
“I don’t know the street names.”
“Can you try to remember?”
She does try, and she does remember. You can see it in her face, in the way her eyebrows move, the way her forehead tenses. Suddenly, she begins to rock on the balls of her feet. “Wheeler,” she says.
“I think so.”
“Wheeler Road and . . .”
“That fat one.”
Fat one. You try to judge fatness in the eyes of an eleven year old. None of the roads around here really count as fat.
She shakes her head. You name three others that come to mind, but they are all wrong. “The only truly wide road around here is Mayor, but—”
“Your bus stop is at the intersection of Wheeler and Mayor Road?”
“And they drive you?”
“He used to. Now I walk. I don’t mind.” She is speaking fast, as if to answer a thought or beat the thought away before it slides into place. She heard your tone loud and clear. Well, it’s too late. This time you will have to bring up the clipboard. You can’t not write this one down: Force child to walk excessive distance every day to bus stop. You are reaching your left hand into your shirt pocket for a pen when you hear, from your right, “Excuse me?”
The gun is out of your pants so quickly you don’t remember the movement. Now you stand, both arms extended, one hand curled around the handle of the weapon, the other underneath, cupping it. You are pointing your .38 at the face of a man, fortyish, with erratic strands of frightfully thin hair and crooked, black-framed glasses. He’s wearing a gray T- shirt, frayed, bargain store beige pants, socks and sandals. He’s carrying an overfull paper sack, holding it as gently as if it were a collection of ancient artifacts. His face is flushed, perhaps wind-burned, and his expression dismal. You are surprised to see not fear in his eyes, but resignation. For the moment, you hold your pose. You don’t know what happened to your clipboard.
“Where’s Julie?” the man says. He has a thin, breathy voice, like an asthmatic.
“Are you Samuel Compton?” you say, as if that alone were a crime. And, in fact, right now, after what you have seen and what you’ve been told, this is exactly what you believe. You ask him the question again, more urgently, needing to see the telltale note of fear, the impact of the knowledge that he has done wrong. What you see, instead, is befuddlement.
“Who are you?” he replies.
You give him your name. You tell him the name of your employer.
“Why do you have a gun?”
“Why did you leave a child alone in a trailer?”
He looks at you with an off-center, crooked expression. “Julie,” he says. “Are you in there?”
“Yes,” she says neutrally.
“Are you okay?”
“Why did you leave a child alone in a trailer?”
He blinks. He seems to be trying to bring the barrel of the pistol into focus. “Because it was too far to walk.”
“Where I was going.”
“Where?” you say again. You squeeze the gun handle; you extend the barrel a perceptible centimeter forward. You would so much like to end this. Without an argument. Without a fight. Without the lies. For once, without lies.
Compton seems to sigh, at least his shoulders do. He looks at the listless sky, then sits squat on the ground. He sets the bag in front of him. “It doesn’t matter, does it?”
You hear the girl cry from inside the trailer. “Don’t kill him!” she says. That, more than Compton’s question, breaks your concentration. You put on your gun’s safety. You put it back in your pants. You see your clipboard at your feet and you pick it up. You withdraw a pen from your shirt pocket. “Yes, it does matter,” you say. “Everything matters. With this.” He looks at you differently: relieved but also bemused. “So where did you go?” You see him sigh again and get ready to provide an answer, perhaps an honest one. You congratulate yourself on so adroitly diverting the attention of this conversation from the unauthorized weapon you pointed as his face.
“I went to get food.”
“You couldn’t bring the girl?”
He hesitates, then shakes his head. “Too far.”
“Four miles or so. Both directions.”
“Four miles takes ten minutes, maybe less.” You foist the pen in your hand. You actually write it this time, just to show this man what you can do: Unexplained abandonment of child.
What he says next, he says quietly: “Not on foot it doesn’t.”
“There’s a truck parked in front.”
“There’s a crack in the block.”
“Well, fix it. You’re not telling me you mean to keep a foster child out here with no means of transportation.”
Behind the crooked glasses, his bleary green eyes glance in one direction and the next, like a condemned man looking for reprieve. But none is coming. None is coming. You are not here to forgive or even understand. You are here to observe—and to punish.
“You receive money from the state for this,” you say. To say nothing of his employment income, which is listed as $28,000 on the form.
His eyes meet yours again. But he only nods and looks at the ground.
“What’s in the bag?”
He acts as if hasn’t heard you, and that pisses you off. You walk over, feeling the full measure of your authority, as physical a sensation as the gun barrel scraping the skin of your back. You stop, one step in front of Samuel Compton. You give him such a hard look he stands up and scrambles backward. He shakes his head once, as if answering an unspoken question. You don’t know what that question might be. You didn’t ask him anything for which “no” is a salient response. Perhaps he thinks you are about to shoot him.
You pull open the bag. On top is small, white, rectangular piece of paper. You pull it out. A message is printed on its face, in bold black type: “Accept these items along with our thoughts and prayers for your improved welfare. St. Matthias Episcopal Church.” Below the message is printed a list of two dozen or so items. Some of the items have a blue, Sharpied check next to them: rice, peanut butter, milk, canned pasta, canned meat, canned beans, cereal, soap, toothpaste. You glance inside the bag. You see a box of powdered milk. You see cans of dark red kidney beans. You see canned ocra. You see Chef Boyardee brand meat ravioli. You see Spam.
You look through the forms on your clipboard until you find the right one. You hold it up for Compton to see. “You claimed to have a job.”
“A salaried job.”
“And a vehicle.”
He gestures to the far side of the trailer where the truck is stashed.
“And a spouse.”
His face turns newly grim; his mouth turns. No-no. You will have none of the crying. None of it. His pain is not what your visit is about. His pain means nothing to anybody. If he had wanted his pain to count, he should not have fostered a child.
“You claimed on this form to own a house with 1,800 square feet, running water and electricity. You’re too far to be on city water, and I don’t see any sign of a well. Or of an electric meter.” He opens his mouth to speak, but then he closes it. You hear a new noise from the girl inside, not a cry, not a call, not a yelp, not even weeping, but something longer and deeper: a strangled, tortured exhalation, such as animal makes when it realizes it will die. It goes on, but you can’t talk with her right now.
“You think this is a fucking game?” you say. “A game with the state of Arkansas? A child’s life is a game?” The girl is sounding louder now, but you won’t look at her. Compton turns from you. He turns from the trailer, turns from the girl inside, and steps numbly in the direction of the woods. That’s it. That is what you were looking for.
“I’m not saying you’ll never foster again—although I doubt it. I’m saying that for now, in this case, you are done.” Compton stops, nods, looks at his feet. “The department will call you if it needs to. If there’s even a working number.”
The girl’s sounds are too hard for you to ignore anymore, and besides, getting her to your car is your next order of business. You leave Compton to his pointless cogitations and turn to the trailer. Today won’t be your last day after all.
John Vanderslice lives in Conway, Arkansas, where he serves as associate editor of Toad Suck Review. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of journals, including Seattle Review, Sou’wester, Laurel Review, Crazyhorse, and Red Wheelbarrow.