Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
In the summer of 2011, I was driving my youngest son and his friend to swim in a lake when I got the call that Zachary, my oldest son, was on his way to the county jail to turn himself in. I can’t say that I didn’t expect this, but my body shook at the news. I had stopped in a parking lot and gotten out of the car to take the call. I felt like throwing up. But I had to keep going. I had promised his little brother we’d go swimming, and there was nothing I could do anyway.
Zachary had recently turned 21, had been a volunteer firefighter for two years, and had been going to college. He had also just completed training to be an EMT. Apparently, in his spare time, he was hanging out in a trailer park south of town with a group of kids. He had always been emotionally immature, so it made sense he would gravitate to people younger than himself. One night, one of them texted him, asked him to bring them some alcohol. She said a girl wanted to meet him. He went. The girl jumped in his truck. They rode off.
To have sex? To not have sex. It’s not clear. But the next day, the girl’s parents called the sheriff. The charge: “Lewd and lascivious fondling of a minor.” A few days later, when it became apparent that he would be arrested, my son turned himself in at the jail. The girl was 14. He said he had no idea. His biological mother — my ex — was no help in getting him to accept responsibility for his choices, ill-informed or not. She was already plotting a way to get him out of trouble, while simultaneously telling him he would go to prison for life. That was their pattern.
I was unable to stop this cycle. Zachary had not lived with me since he was 2 years old, although he had his own bedroom in my house. I wish he had lived with me. His life might have turned out differently. At least, that’s what I tell myself when he gets into trouble.
I met Zachary’s mother at an AA meeting when I had just gotten sober and was still psychologically wobbly. She was sober but clearly not well emotionally — even though she was a therapist. I knew the relationship was doomed, but it tapped into my own dysfunctional childhood with a bipolar mother, and I stuck it out. She wanted to have a baby, and so we had Zachary; I became his primary caretaker. I finally left his mother when he was 2 years old against her threats to never let me see him again. I had to save my own life. And for four long months, she followed through on her promise, saying he would forget me, it would be best. But through shit, grit and motherwit, I wore the ex down, and got him back.
From then on, though, I was always on the periphery of his life, always at her mercy. She would refuse to let me see him for the slightest infraction, Zachary’s or mine. I had no legal right to do anything, to demand more time or to call myself his parent; he was forbidden to call me any name that might suggest I was more than a friend. I felt like my father must have felt when dealing with my mother: impotent and ineffectual.
Zachary was an extraordinary child; he stood at five months, ran at 10. As a toddler, he’d ride his little plastic motorcycle up and down the street a thousand times, powering it with his feet. He wore out shoes in weeks dragging them against the pavement. When he went to preschool, he had too much energy to contain; one teacher later described him as “the kid who ruined my classroom.” In the car, he would sit quietly in his seat next to me, rubbing a tube of chapstick on his lips, round and round and round, till he fell asleep. Then he got kicked out of a Montessori school for escaping, for hiding under tables, for refusing to participate in circle time. Later he went to a private “art” school and after insulting a teacher who had torn up his artwork, the principal grabbed him by the chin and threatened to “break his face.” At home, he sold lemonade and donated the money to the homeless shelter. Days before he was asked to leave the “art” school, I took him to a carwash. He’d worked out a deal with the owner to collect all the aluminum cans. The owner told me, “This kid has the best manners of any kids I know. We love him around here.” His teachers said he would end up in jail.
I wrote about his struggles for Salon in 1999, how his mother and I ended up allowing him to be put on Ritalin. The piece is hard for me to read now.
I wrote then that I felt like the mother in Anne Tyler’s short story “Teenage Wasteland”: “Had she really done all she could have? She longed; she ached, for a time machine. Given one more chance, she’d do it perfectly, hug him more, praise him more, or perhaps less, Oh who can say…”
You can multiply that ache by a thousand now.
As a writer I can’t help but look for the arc of the story, and mine and Zachary’s have a similar pattern. I grew up with a bipolar mother and a father who had no idea how to deal with her shifting moods. When she was having a bad day and couldn’t stand the sight of her four children, my father would hustle us into the car and off we’d go to the woods for a ride until the air changed. He often had us go into her bedroom after one of these episodes and say we were sorry. At the time I didn’t know what I was supposed to be sorry for, but now I know: I was supposed to be sorry for being born. By the time I was 12 years old I figured out how to deal with the tensions in that house: drugs and alcohol. Fast-forward about nine years. Both my parents were dead and I was reeling out of control. Selling drugs. Shooting up cocaine. Drinking heavily. Getting arrested. Getting arrested. Getting arrested. Getting arrested.
More than a decade ago, when Zachary was 10 years old, I was already wondering how much of this I should tell him. I wrote a Salon story about that, too. I didn’t tell him anything.
After turning himself in, and spending the night in jail, Zachary got out on bond, wearing one of those ankle bracelets that register alcohol intake. He was in deep trouble; Florida does not play around with any sexual activity with minors, consensual or not — his charge could get him up to 15 years in prison. I know he was terrified. But his tone veered from utter despair to cockiness. I could hear his mother’s voice along with the lawyer’s, spinning out the strategy they would use to convince a jury to find him not guilty. The lawyer has a theory, Zachary would say, and I would stop him. You were in the truck with a 14-year-old girl. That is indisputable. No jury will give a shit about your lawyer’s theory.
Three months after his release he came over for dinner. The court had agreed to let him take the ankle bracelet off in exchange for routine breathalyzers. My last words to him that night were “Don’t drink.”
The phone rang early the next morning before sunup. I didn’t answer it. Again, it rang. Again I didn’t answer it. Death or destruction, I thought, and I don’t want to know yet. The third time, I picked up. An automated voice said, “You have a collect call from an inmate in the county jail …” Then Zachary’s voice. A weak hello. He sounded sick. What did you do, I asked. DUI, he said. Goddammit, I said. He said he wasn’t even driving; he had parked his truck, then passed out after vomiting all over himself. A cop had passed by, seen the light on in the cab, and two hours later when he drove by again, he saw the light was still on. He stopped and arrested Zachary, charging him with a DUI. He may have saved his life. Zachary wanted me to bail him out. I told him no.
I decided to go for a long drive instead. Almost instinctively I drove toward my hometown, headed for the backroads of my own wild youth looking for abandoned houses and old tobacco barns to lose myself in. And to photograph. Leaving the city, I passed the road that leads to the jail and thought of Zachary sitting there in the gray light of the dank cell, feeling a feeling I knew only too well. I remember the polished steel mirror above the toilet. I can see myself now, hung over, standing before that wall contemplating my blurred image in that otherwise sharply drawn space.
I drove away from town, past truck stops and farmland and wooden churches and shacks. About 20 miles out into the country, I made a left, and bumped over the railroad tracks. I used to drive this road drunk when I was a teenager and longing to leave home. I remembered fall evenings, deep orange sunsets, green fields and barns, my eyes taking in the beauty of the landscape like a balm.
I was driving between two fields when the barn caught my eye. Skeletal, it was like a ship run aground.
The dirt was soft as powder. Junk was piled everywhere, but I was only interested in the light falling in through the cathedral-high roof. A bird flew out of a corner with a flutter. I felt the air move. Something was going to happen. Then I heard a car and turned to walk outside.
A van drove up. The woman flung open her door, aimed her phone at me like a gun and said, “Don’t move.” She resumed her conversation on the phone. Yes. An intruder. A thief. In my barn.
I was not alarmed. I held my camera out to her, said I was just taking photographs; there were no “No Trespassing Signs.” As far as I knew the barn was abandoned. (And as I write these words, I realize those statements of defense are mere technicalities, the sort my son’s attorney might say to the jury. No matter my intention, I trespassed in the earliest sense of the word, to transgress, to offend, to sin, and that there is nothing I can say to this woman to excuse myself and there is nothing I can say to my son that will save him. We are both trespassers. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and forgive us our nada as we forgive our nadas.) The woman moved closer to me.
I don’t want you going off anywhere, she said.
I am not going anywhere, I said. I wanted to calm her, to let her know I thought the barn was beautiful, and that I was photographing it, not trying to steal from her.
That camera might be part of a disguise, she said, a diversion, a trick. A prop to hide my true intentions. I told her I’d grown up in a nearby town, that my friends had picked tobacco, that I had been on that road a thousand times and loved the barns. She wasn’t from the area. Her mother had been dying; she’d had to come up from Central Florida to take care of her. She told me how hard it was, driving back and forth from this place in the middle of nowhere to the town where her mother ended up in the nursing home. She was exhausted from trying to take care of her, keep up the house, care for the dogs. Her mother had died. And they keep stealing from me, she said. They know when I go to town. Things go missing. Forty-five minutes passed. We talked about dogs. I bent over and photographed a seed pod lying open in the leaves at my feet. Five perfect seeds. Will they germinate, or will they dry out; will they be stunted by rocks, or drowned by rain?
The deputies finally arrived. I showed them the camera, gave my name, profession and phone number and stood accused. But I drifted off for a second while the woman talked to the deputy about my trespass. My son is in jail. And I am facing a sheriff. We are twinned reflections in a mirror. The jailhouse mirror that blurs identity. The glass wall that will stand between us when I go in to see him and see my own face layered over his.
The woman’s voice brought me back. She may be part of a gang, she was telling the deputy. He leaned on his car door and listened while his partner sat behind the steering wheel, brought out a clipboard and wrote my name on a slip of paper. You have been warned. Do not trespass again. The woman told how she’d called the sheriff many times to report thefts. Someone, she said, was hauling off that scrap iron. The deputy looked toward the barn, more holes than wall. He leaned over and whispered to me, You can leave now. The woman talked on. They check things out, she told the sheriff; they are part of a gang. They’ll be back.
They’ll be back. Those are the words my jailers said, every time someone got released, hooker, child abuser, drug dealer, drunk. Me. You’ll be back. My son got out of jail and then was arrested again for missing a breathalyzer test. This time there was no bail. He sat in jail for over 60 days. I visited him there, walked down the long corridor nearly gagging from the smell of jail food. Zachary and I sat on either side of the glass and talked through the black telephones, our voices muffled, barely audible.
Over the next couple of months I began to talk to him in detail about what I’d done and how I had changed. How the first step was taking responsibility for landing myself in that place. I had no one to blame and no one to help me or to rationalize what I had done; both my parents were dead. Yes, people had done worse things that I had and had gotten off, but I was on my own. I couldn’t afford an attorney and was given an overworked public defender.
I told him about the woman who killed her boyfriend; the woman who shot her daughter and left her to die in the woods. How I felt I didn’t belong with those people, because I was an alcoholic, but that I had to realize that no matter how I felt, I had done things that had placed me with those people. I told him about going to the AA meetings held by outside volunteers in the jail, and I told him how I used drugs again when I got out. How I hadn’t wanted to live. How I was lying in bed one day, and saw a pine tree outside and realized I hadn’t seen a pine tree in a long time because I had been so intent on destroying myself. Seeing that tree brought me back to the world. Made me realize I had to change or die. I chose to change. I reminded him that technicalities aside, he was the one who let the girl into his truck; he was the one who got a DUI; he was the one who missed his breathalyzer test. No matter what strategies his lawyer used, he would need to accept the truth or he would not be able to change his life. All those words were words. Air making sound. A little disturbance in the atmosphere. A bird flying out of a hole in a barn.
Zachary wisely agreed to forgo a trial. He managed to negotiate a plea bargain and get credit for time served. The judge reduced the charge to one of a non-sexual nature, withheld adjudication, and put him on five years’ probation. The prosecutor had it out for me, he said when it was over. Had it out for you? Jesus Christ, I said. She could have sent you to prison. I knew then that this five years of probation would be the longest five years ever. The prosecutor was probably banking on that too: He will be back.
About three months ago, almost a year to the day after his first DUI arrest, and just three months after being put on probation, Zachary got stopped for doing a U-turn over a median at 3 a.m. The cop smelled alcohol. He didn’t have to request a breath test; he simply ran a background check, then arrested Zachary for violating his probation. This time there was no early morning phone call. And I didn’t go right in to see him. I couldn’t. Not for almost three weeks.
But when I do go, I am resigned. This is where our stories diverge. I tell him if this is the life he has chosen I will visit him in prison. Some days he tells me he wants to go to treatment; on other days he tells me he has created business plans; he wants to go back to college; he wants to join the Army. Then frustration creeps in: They are letting me sit here, he says. And in some ways he is right. The criminal justice system does not address alcoholism or drug addiction; if it weren’t for volunteers, they wouldn’t even have AA meetings once a week. But that doesn’t prevent him from turning his gaze inward, so I tell him: They are not letting you sit there. You were given not just one chance, but a second and third chance. You did this to yourself. And nada nada nada there is nada damn nada I can say to nada you. He goes to court again within hours of my typing this.
If this were fiction, there are many ways the stories I have told could have ended. I could’ve ended up in prison and learned how to make leather belts like my friend Mickey. The thieves could return to cart off the iron. The birds could eat the seeds. My son could decide to live instead of killing himself in increments. That’s the story I would write if I could. It would parallel mine. But this isn’t fiction, and it isn’t my story. It is his. I can only hope that he will write a better ending for himself than the one that seems inevitable.
Karen Shoemaker is the pen name of a writer who lives in Florida.More Karen Shoemaker.
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Real Families is a personal-essay series that celebrates the surprising and ever-shifting nature of domestic life in the 21st century. If you have a fascinating, original story you'd like to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org.