Cursing fate’s iron grip on his balls, Zekiel Proffit answered the call from the Child Services caseworker who had been assigned to find out if he was a danger to his ex-wife and children. The early spring evening was unusually warm and neighborhood children were running with headfirst abandon through the remnants of midday rains. A few of his neighbors, happy gentrifiers fresh from the inconvenient suburbs, loitered on the limestone stoops of their Lefferts Gardens homes debating the merits of Montessori preschools and bugaboo strollers. It had been a long damn day and when he saw the number on the caller ID, he had been tempted to just let the Miles Davis ringtone send the call to voicemail.
Though the number had been familiar the voice on the other end was not.
“Who is this again?” he asked, as he switched the phone to his other ear.
“Mr Proffit, this is Cher Lachepy, I’m the social worker assigned to your case while Ms Hardesse is out sick.”
Zekiel didn’t care if Ms Hardesse lived or died but new demons bought a fresh hells and he wasn’t in the mood.
“I just saw Ms Hardesse this morning at Family Court, She looked alright.”
“Yes well unfortunately, she’s taken ill. And given the circumstances of the day I’d like to schedule a home visit for this evening.”
Zekiel had reached his house by now and was leaning on its wrought iron front gate. An ice cream truck had turned onto the block, its deafening chimes rendering good parents senseless as their children emptied their pockets of dollar bills.
“Circumstances of the day? How were today’s “circumstances” any different from the last three times Candace didn’t bother to show up for court?”
“Well actually I was referring to the decisions made as a result of your ex-wife’s failure to appear today.”
“Look Miss ‘Lachpee” I don’t know what “decisions” you’re talking about. Ms. Hardesse just did a home visit night before last. Ain’t too much changed in my house since then.”
“Mr Proffitt, I assure you that it would be in the best interest of both you and your children if we spoke this evening. Does 9:15pm work for you? Shall I see you then?”
Zekiel didn’t answer. In front of him a boy about Jaed’s age was looking both ways as he crossed the street, a double-dipped ice cream cone in one hand and his little sister’s hand in the other. The little girl, happily oblivious as her brother led her to the safety, licked at the chocolate cream dripping down her wrist. Zekiel’s didn’t take his eyes off of them until they reached the safety of their own front yard.
“Mr. Proffit, are you there?”
“Yeah I’m here..”
“Yeah fine, 9:15”
Zekiel hung up and the weight of the day’s events lay like a lead cloak on his shoulders. He was so damn tired of this crap. Family Court, Agency for Children’s Services, Orders of Protection. He didn’t understand how his life had taken a wrong turn into this story.
“This front ain’t gone sweep itself.”
Zeke opened the brownstone’s front gate and addressed the man who was holding two brooms and a six-pack of Budweiser in his hands. Standing about a foot shorter than Zeke’s 6’ 2” height, he was barrelchested with biceps like obsidian iron that strained against the bleached out cotton of his Hanes t-shirt. His hair was more salt than pepper and just a shadow before bald. Slipping his cell phone into his jacket pocket, Zekiel took one of the beers and sank onto the house’s front stoop.
“Then I guess you better get to work,” he answered.
“Young man, don’t make me whup you.”
Zekiel grinned and took hold of one of the offered brooms.
“You’re lucky I respect my elders.”
Lawrence Proffit offered his younger brother a half smile, took a sip of beer and said, “just hurry up for all the daylight is gone”.
The two men worked together in silence, clearing the front gate of the day’s damp debris. Falling into a shared rhythm, they also fell into familiar roles. Zekiel swept the parlor floor landing and stoop while Lawrence cleaned out the garbage cans and replaced the liners. The ritual was a remnant of the days when their mother owned the house and had mandated the task as an afterschool chore. Now, decades later, the silent ceremony served to ease them out of a day’s inevitable battles. When they were done, the two men settled back into their beers and surveyed their work under the lowlight of the front yard’s gaslamp. Valerie, Lawrence’s wife of 24 years came outside just as Zeke was draining his bottle. She worked the nightshift as a neonatal intensive care nurse at Columbia Presbyterian hospital and was already dressed for work.
“Lawrence, your plate is in the microwave if you want to eat” she said, “now don’t wait too late, you know that indigestion will have you up all night if you do. Hey Zeke, you hungry?”
“Naw, I’m good Val.”
“There’s smothered chicken, collard greens, potato salad and cornbread in there. You go on in and get your full.”
“Ain’t you leaving kind of late?” Lawrence asked his wife.
“I’m riding to work with Tina and you know she drive faster than a backslid hooker on Easter Sunday. I’ll be at work in no time. Here she go now.”
“Awright, you watch that Tina on them roads and call me when you reach. I’ll be there to pick you up in the morning.”
“Yessir, Mister Husband sir,” she answered as she slid into the waiting car and slammed the door. Rolling down the window of the moving Maxima she yelled “Zekiel Proffit you go on in there and get you something to eat cause I know you hungry!”
Zekiel watched his brother watch his wife as she drove away. Twenty four years and Lawrence’s eyes still followed is his wife as she entered or left his presence. Turning away, Zeke gazed down the now quiet city street.
“So how’d it go today?” Lawrence asked.
“Same,” Zeke answered, “a damn waste of time.”
“She didn’t show?”
“Hell no, she didn’t show. Does she ever show? Yesterday was the second “scheduled visitation” she’s missed since this latest round in family court started.”
“Damn Zeke, I’m sorry. I’d hoped that now that she was living in Brooklyn, things might workout better for you.”
“Yeah well it didn’t. All it got me was another day playing the pitiful plaintiff while family court judges and social workers take inventory of how I live my life.”
Lawrence peeled the cap off another Budweiser and offered it to his brother.
“But I thought the kids had been assigned an advocate. And aren’t you in that new Family Court pilot program? What happened to all of the “holistic intervention” they were supposed to be offering you?”
“The only things this program seems to be piloting are a new ways to screw me over.”
“Well what did the judge say?”
“Lawrence, it was like I was in-damn-visible. When 2 o’clock came and Candace still hadn’t shown her face for the 10am “emergency” hearing, they called me back into the court room and pretty much ignored me. They were all hunched up together at the advocates table while I sat there holding my nuts in my hand. After a while, some new lady shows up and goes into a huddle with the kid’s court-appointed advocate and the ACS worker. Next thing I know they’ve adjourned the date, the Agency for Children’s Services people have left the courtroom, the new lady is giving me her card and the court officer is showing me out the door.”
“They didn’t say anything to you?”
“Not a damn word, the ACS worker said something over her shoulder about calling me to confirm some details tonight.”
“Well what the hell does that mean?”
“Lawrence, I don’t know. She’s been here twice already, looking in my refrigerator and cabinets like I’m some child-abusing terrorist.”
“So what’s the next step?”
“Hell if I know. ACS is coming back over here tonight. Now I’ve got to deal with a new social worker who wants to talk about “circumstances of the day”.
“That’s new right?
“Naw man, all of this crap is real old.”
“I’m just saying, they don’t usually want to “talk”. Usually they just come over here to inspect and judge right?”
Yeah, that’s true…”
“So I’m just saying it’s new. May not be better or worse, but it is new.”
Zekiel closed his eyes and knocked back the last of his beer. He didn’t want to think about what troubles “new” could bring.
“I guess I’ll have to see what “holistic intervention” does next.”
“Well come on in the house and get something to eat. You know Val cooked enough food for the whole block.”
“I’ll come down in a little while. I need to wash this Family Court stink off.”
“Good, the game is on tonight. Maybe I’ll let you win some money”
“Yeah, right man,” Zekiel answered as climbed the brownstone steps, “just give me a little while and I’ll be down.”
Zeke let himself in through the house’s parlor floor entryway and moved up the stairway lined with class pictures, jheri curled headshots and prom photos. Valerie’s interior renovations had stopped short of the brownstone’s narrow halls, leaving his mother’s collage of family photos intact.
Zekiel pulled the ice blue Chevy Malibu to a stop across the street from school that took up the whole of its own city block. The schoolyard of the Sojourner Truth Magnet School was still quiet. Heavy steel colored clouds stood as peculiar backdrop to the yellow school buses idling at size-order attention as they lined the length of the street. Congregations of mothers milled about the sidewalk muttering to each other about the evils of the April day’s cool dampness and the miracle cures that they would employ to beat back the demons of virus and bacteria. The less social sat in the comfort of their carseat-crowded minivans, maintaining poll position for a quick getaway, and preferring their own company to that of their stroller pushing counterparts. Middle-school kids long past the indignities of elementary school, hunched together in iPod-induced aloofness. Their in-school cliques reformed, as they waited with annoyance for the younger siblings they would ignore on the long walk home.
And there sitting in his seven year old Chevy, in their midst and alone, sat a father who hadn’t kissed his kids in years and who, until this last night had been labeled absent. At first, disbelief had made him stutter as he and the ACS caseworker verified the minute details of time and place. Long held daydreams unfurled like ribbons into fantasies of great lawns, park benches and pizza only to be crushed again by the cinderblock of fear that caved in his chest. Years of lynched expectations blanketed the relief and release that threatened to overwhelm him . And now, hours later, Zekiel sat in his car, cemented to his seat with a migraine making a home at the base of his skull, and the truth of all he didn’t know about his kids beating on him like hailstones sent from steel colored clouds. As he looked across the street at the buses and mothers and strollers that told him how much he didn’t know, would never be and should have done, Zeke put his head down, leaned his weight into the car door and went to pick his kids up from school .
Once in the building, he pressed himself into the wall of the crowded hallway to avoid the trample of teachers, administrators and children surging through the slate blue painted corridors of the building’s first floor. The sounds of the controlled chaos echoed through the homework plastered halls as school aids screamed for an implausible quiet. Although they had the short little legs of first graders, their end-of-day enthusiasm seemed to give them a super strength that threatened to rubble the building’s foundations if they weren’t ransomed immediately to the freedom waiting for them outside. As he watched them stampede for the building’s exits, habit had him scan their crowd for Jaira’s face. Catching himself, he turned away from familiar desperation and continued his way to the school’s main office. As he shouldered open the heavy wooden door, he scanned the room, but saw no signs of his kids. Years of battle made him immediately sure that Candace had pulled another one of her fast ones and somehow gotten the kids out of school early. Feeling a familiar helplessness that fueled a familiar anger, he walked up to the chest-high front counter and banged too loudly on the useless little courtesy bell. The all female staff, who had expected to ignore him for at least 2 more minutes, jumped at the sound of his intrusion. Pulling himself up to his full 6’3” height, Zeke turned toward the closest desk with a body sitting at it and said, “I’m here for Jaira and Jaed Proffit”.
“Did you hear what I said?”
Candace held the phone between her neck and shoulder as she groped in her desk drawer for what she hoped wasn’t her last Alleve. Most of the law firm’s other paralegal’s had already gone home for the evening and she was alone on the floor.
“Yes Momma, I heard you.”
“Well you ain’t saying nothing back.”
“I was just looking for something for this damn headache.”
“First of all, watch your mouth, I done told you about cursing in my ear. Second of all, the only headache you got is your baby’s daddy.”
Candace cringed. She hated when her mother went ghetto. This conversation should have ended 10 minutes ago.
“Look Momma, it’s late and I still have a lot work to do. I gotta go.”
“Go? I know where you better go. You better take your tail to that damn appointment. You don’t have to talk. Just smile, nod your head and agree with whatever them head-shrinkers say. Worked for me every time.”
Candace gave up her search for the Alleve and pressed her hands into her temples. Her mother’s references to her “nervous breakdown” experiences in Kings County’s “G” building, Brooklyn’s largest psychiatric facility, always pissed her off.
“Momma, your psych house chats have nothing to do with what I’m going through right now, OK?”
“Don’t get uppity with me. All I’m trying to do is help you get round that crazy baby daddy you got.”
“Okay Ma, that’s it. I don’t want to hang this phone up on you but I will.”
Candace’s mother kept on going, talking, as usual, right over her daughter.
“You best not to mess with them people and make sure you carry your tail to that appointment. I don’t know how you got yourself into this mess but you better act like you got some sense. Don’t act as crazy as you are, girl. You know as well as I do that them people will snatch them kids right from under you. They’ll put them kids in foster care or worse than that, with their crazy daddy.”
Candace’s headache sliced down through her scalp and stomped down into her stomach. Nausea chased her to the bottle of Keopectate in her purse.
“Look Momma, I won’t have you, Brooklyn Family Court, or anybody’s psycho-social therapist telling me what to do with my kids.
“Yeah okay, keep it up. Keep on talking that junk. You gonna be talking to Bureau of Child Welfare in a minute.
“First of all,” Candace said as she slammed the desk drawer shut, “it’s the Agency for Children’s Services now, and for your information, the last time I talked to BCW, they were asking me about you.”
“You better watch your damn mouth! See? Can’t nobody talk to you. You ain’t got the sense God gave you. You and all that bad-assing is why them kids is with their crazy-assed daddy right now.”
“Momma it’s time to hang up.” Candace felt a familiar cramp and wondered if she would be able to make it to the bathroom.
“Never did have no damn sense. Stupid silly since you was a girl…”
“Momma, I’m hanging up.”
“Always running your damn mouth, acting bigger than you was…”
“I am hanging up this goddamn phone.”
“Didn’t I tell you not to cuss in my damn ear?! You know what? Maybe they needed to take them damn kids, ‘because you ain’t fit to mother a dirty rat.”
“That’s it. Goodbye Momma.”
“Don’t you hang up this damn pho..!”
Candace ended the call and dropped the cell phone into the bottom of her bag. The nausea had reached the back of her throat and the migraine was making her skull rock underneath its skin. Leaning her head to her knees, she allowed herself a fruitless few moments before forcing herself to stand. She had an appointment to get keep. She’d stop at the bathroom on the way.
As the train approached her stop, Candace gathered the straps of her purse and laptop case and moved to the nearest subway car door. The car was half empty with a few of the late evening commuters hiding behind isolating barriers of uneasy sleep, while others secured their aloneness behind the blockades of fixed downcast stares. When the train doors opened, she stepped out of the subway car and took no notice of the recent renovation to the historic subway station. Though she’d made many subway connections via this downtown Brooklyn hub, the snakelike corridors and stairways of the Atlantic Avenue station always made her lose her bearings. Seeing an exit, she climbed out of the underground labyrinth toward street level. The landmarked prestige of the Williamsburg building and Brooklyn Academy of Music stood in silent contempt against the backdrop of Flatbush avenue traffic and late night Target shoppers waiting for buses in front of Atlantic Center Mall. Candace pulled the collar of her raincoat tighter to keep out the damp of the recent rain. Her appointment was in one of the ancient office buildings that lined Hanson Place. The address on her referral letter told her she had at least two more blocks to walk. It was after 8 o’clock, she was late and she didn’t give a damn. The Alleve she’d taken earlier had taken some of the knife edge off her headache but she still felt the migraine beating a dull cadence at the back of her skull. Thanks to her self-prescribed cocktail of antacids, Immodium and warm ginger ale, the nausea had subsided to a deep cramping in her abdomen. Experience told her that she had reached her self-medication limit for the day and wouldn’t be able to keep any more pain medicine down.
Feeling the familiar vibration of her blackberry, she reached into her coat pocket to check its display. Her mother had called her 7 times and left just as many voicemails. If it weren’t for her kids, Candace would have turned the damn phone off as soon as she’d left the office. She exhaled violently as if to beat back the flood of malice that she knew was filling her voicemail box. Instead she steeled herself to navigate the madness that had taken her kids from her and abandoned them, defenseless, with their bastard of a father.
When she entered the ancient building’s marble-floored lobby, her migraine riddled senses were ambushed by the bare fluorescent lights and the smell of dirty mops steeped in concentrated PineSol cleanser. Feeling acid surge against the lining of her stomach, she stopped, leaned her forehead into the coolness of the scarred limestone walls and willed the nausea to halt its march up her esophagus. At the other end of the lobby, a septuagenarian sentinel kept one eye on the security desk’s closed circuit and another on her. His loud “Can I help You?” stopped Candace’s slow march toward the elevator bank. Pointing an arthritic finger at a notebook on his desk he said,
“Ya hafta sign the log.”
His graveled Caribbean accent reminded Candace of the uppity Bajan neighbor women that used to whisper behind her psych-ward bound mother’s back.
“Who are you here ta’ see?” he said, as his one good eye scanned her for firearms.
Ignoring him, Candace finished printing her name and destination in the log and turned back to the elevators.
The guard, his due diligence performed, shrugged his shoulders and tossed a backhand wave at her retreating back.
“G’long then” he said, and sent a spittled stream of thick brown liquid into a battered Bustelo can under the desk at his feet.
Thanks for reading my story! *LBD
All content © 2013 Lisa B. DuBois