Placement, or The Sound of Caves

The drumbeat of his brain, a cave dweller sonata; birch branches pounded on scorched log; the curvature of myelin sheaths, the upper elevations of intelligence, the emergence of the bipedal stranger in the dark night gazing at the moon like the flat face of the clock that reads 4:07.That has read 4:07 for the past two hours. Here in the office where he’s been told to wait. To wait for Mr. Sheldon, who never comes. Who may not exist. Who may be a ploy to subvert him. No place to go. No place at all. And he waits on the slimmest of hope. The possibilities wire thin, like the silver lines routing from his ears into some secret location in his pants where he keeps his iPod.

He slouches. In loose clothing looking like a large Hefty someone’s tossed onto a chair and forgotten. He taps his fingers. Eyes are always scanning movement, wary of danger, sharp for survival. If only he could tell the difference.

He twirls the metal stem of a paperclip in his mouth. Eyes focus in on the doorway. Ms. Ginger’s voice comes around the corner. He groans to attract her attention. She stops at the opening. Files piled on an arm. Car keys bunched in hand. “J.?” She looks surprised. “Doing all right?”

He removes the metal from his mouth and works it back into his ear. “When is my court date?”

“Who’s your worker?”

“Mr. Sheldon.”

“You have to ask him.”

“He said you could tell me when my court date was.”

“I’m not your worker any more. You have to ask him.”

“He took off.”

“You’ll have to wait.”

“Why do I have to be here? I’m bored.”

She motions, come, come with me. He offers to take files, but she declines. She angles around the corner with J. straggling along. A large marker board on the wall is divided into sections. The names of the workers in the foster care unit are written in green, the gridlines dividing the names are red, and the magnetic dots beneath IN and OUT are black.

“Where’s Mr. Sheldon’s name?” J. asks.

Ms. Ginger stares at the board. Dentist occupies her destination column. She erases the word and checks her box IN. “I’m not sure,” she says. “He must not’ve put his name up yet. It should be there.”

Others who are IN are really OUT and vice versa. J. smiles when seeing Ms. Upton’s name. Her dot is between IN and OUT. He feels hopeful when he sees the dot is more IN than OUT. She could help him find Mr. Sheldon. Or maybe a place herself.

Ms. Ginger asks the receptionist if she knows where Mr. Sheldon has gone. She says he had court in the morning and then errands to run and then home visits afterward.

“Did he say when he’ll be back?”

She sneaks a look at the open magazine flat on her desk and shakes her head. “He didn’t say.” Ms. Ginger looms over. The receptionist lifts her eyes. “Do you want me to page him?”

J. stares at the marker board. He rubs out the k from Martha Penesk.

“If you don’t mind.”

While the receptionist is brightly mumbling, “Not at all,” Ms. Ginger turns to J. and motions, calm down. “You’ll have to wait here till Mr. Sheldon comes back.”

“Can’t I come with you?”

“Got things to do. You’ll have to wait.”

“I’m hungry.”

“Mr. Sheldon’ll get lunch when we find him. Go back to the office and wait.”

“But what if you can’t find him?”

“Go back and wait.”

“Did he tell you what happened at the foster home? Do you know why I can’t go back? Mr. Wert was cool. Think I can go back? What do you think? About going to Mr. Wert?”

“I have to go. Wait for Mr. Sheldon. He’ll deal with it.”

“What about lunch?”

J. stretches out on a chair in the empty office. Feet propped on boxes that fill the room. Some boxes hold diapers foster care workers take to families. Some contain child restraint seats. Toys overflow others.

J. stretches out on a chair in the empty office. Feet propped on boxes that fill the room. Some boxes hold diapers foster care workers take to families. Some contain child restraint seats. Toys overflow others.

“Why aren’t you in school, buster?”

J. removes the ear-buds and twists onto his hip and stares up the double chin of Ms. Sandy. “Have you come to get me?”

Children roost on her hips. Elephantine legs lunge from green shorts. “Where’d you get a fool idea like that?”

J. spins around. Feet drop on the floor. “They won’t let me stay anywhere, unless you take me, you could tell them.”

One of the children raises a runner of hair and peers into a globular ear. She sputters like a blown tire. “Oh, don’t give me that.”

“Go ask if you don’t believe me.” He boxes himself forward, dangling wires around his neck. “You could do it.”

“Give me a hug.” Her voice booms. The children fall from her hips like paratroopers. She sweeps forward and smothers him. He falls on her, face moonwalking on her breasts.

“Who’s your worker?” she says. “Mr. Franks?”

She wedges a hand, creates space.

“No. Mr. Franks was last year. Then Ms. Burns and then Ms. Upton, and then I think

Ms. Hollis after that and then Ms. Ginger and—Mr. Sheldon’s my worker now. Have you seen him? He was supposed to find a placement for me. I want some lunch, too. You got anything to eat?”

The children hide behind her legs. Pink hands are over knee knots. “I wish I could take you in, honey,” she says. “I’m full now. Anyway I thought you were with—what’s that man’s name?”

“Mr. Wert.”

“What’re you doing here?”

“I want to go back and live with him. But they won’t let me. Will you tell them for me, talk to someone?”

“What happened?”

“I ran away.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“I wanted a cigarette.”

“Honey, you have to do better.” She scoops up the children and backs like a truck into the hallway.

“Hey, don’t go. Will you look at something? I drew some stuff.”

“I’ll look next time.”

“Tell them I’m hungry, OK? Come back and see me when you’re done?”

“Sure, honey. I’ll see you soon.”

The child on the left strokes Ms. Sandy’s face as if it’s a balloon. She wheels around and disappears.

J. wanders into a counselor’s windowless office; navigates a passage between the sled-based guest chairs; beneath bleary slim-line lamps. He plays with small cartoon characters standing on a shelf filled with glossy textbooks. Lavender and baby powder float in the air. He spies on the desk a picture of Ms. Upton. Three beaming children surround her on a jungle gym. He eases open a cabinet and thumbs through files. He goofballs at himself in the wall mirror.

“What’re you doing in here?” Ms. Upton drops heavy files on the desk.

“Looking in the mirror.”

“You aren’t supposed to be in here.”

“Your mirror’s dirty. All covered with dust.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “No one looks in it. Where should you be?”

“Water and paper towels clean pretty good. Want me to get some?”

Ms. Upton closes the file drawer. “What were you doing in my files?”

“Looking for mine.”

“You aren’t supposed to be in here looking for anything.”

J. smiles and sinks into a guest chair. “Remember when we went to Disney together?” His hands slide up and down the molded oak frame. “A long time ago? Remember? And we had a good time?”

She crosses her arms, stares down at him. “I don’t know who you are.”

She scans the room, appears to itemize office details. She crosses behind the desk and rearranges the cartoon characters.

“You were my caseworker for over a year,” he says. “Com’on. You know who I am.”

She shakes her head. “I’m certain I don’t. I have hundreds of cases every year. I don’t remember anything unless the case file is open on my desk and I’m looking right at it. And even then I’m distracted by other things I need to do. You need to leave this office. Now.”

The receptionist brings pizza on a paper plate. Three slices curl like lava over the sides. She hands the plate to J. and sets a soda on the desk. She asks if it’s enough.

“I’m good,” he says and eats quickly.

She’s barely gone when he runs to the doorway. “Can I get another soda?”

“In a bit.” She’s shrinking toward an exit sign.

“Mr. Sheldon call?”

She shakes her head without looking back.

He steps into the hall and then around the corner. Posters stapled every few feet down the corridor. He pokes the large eyes of the child on one that reads, “I’M NOT A BURDEN. I’M A CHILD.”

J. opens his eyes. 4:07. He rubs the cuticle he took too much skin from earlier. He removes ear-buds and puts them in his pocket and stands. Turning one way and then the other like a goldfish in a bowl, he floats across the confines of the office. He steps into the hall and then around the corner. Posters stapled every few feet down the corridor. He pokes the large eyes of the child on one that reads, “I’M NOT A BURDEN. I’M A CHILD.” Workers glance as he passes their doorways. A gray-haired woman facing a computer screen.

“Ms. Tern?”

The woman spins in her chair. “J.,” she says and smiles. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m waiting for Mr. Sheldon. I can’t find him. He’s supposed to find me a placement.”

“Did you ask the receptionist?”

“She says she called him but that was hours ago. Can I sit here a minute?”

She wears a black sweater that makes her look small and deformed. A faint citrus odor wafts from her skin. “Of course. What happened with the Werts?”

J. arranges pens on her desk, sorts them by color and then by length. “They wouldn’t let me go with my sister.”

“You ran away, didn’t you?”

“Who told you that?”

Ms. Tern clasps her hands. “I know everything about you, J.”

J. laughs. “Like a guardian angel.”

“Like an adoptions worker,” she says and taps an index finger on the desk, an indication for him to put the paper he’s just lifted back down. Then she says, “You have to help yourself, J. Remember the Bobbles?”

“My forever family in Naples.”

“That’s right. You were there six months before you blew placement.”

Randy Bobbles was an engineer for a company that contracted with the military. His wife stayed at home and cared for their three-year-old daughter. They had a Manx. They lived in a gated community.

“I didn’t kill the cat,” J. says

“J.,” she says, narrowing an eyebrow, a tone like pulling teeth.

“I get blamed for everything, Ms. Tern,” he says. “That’s why no one wants me.”

“And what happened to the Flextowers’ dog? Nothing to do with that?”

J. shakes his head, shoulder to shoulder. “I can’t remember. He was hit by a car or something.”

Ms. Tern eases back into her chair. The AC grumbles and blows dusty streams of air over their faces. “The dog’s head was crushed. You know something about it.”

His lip curves a little. Then his face assumes a pale mannequin expression. “I can’t remember.”

Ms. Tern folds her arms. “The Flextowers really wanted you, J. They were crushed. You didn’t give them a chance.”

“They had too many rules,” he says. He removes the paperclip from his ear. “And their dog was mean.”

“J., it’s no canyon jump.” Her lips are like orange slices in a baking sun. “No one’s trying to hurt you anymore. Stop fighting.”

J. reinserts the paperclip. His head toddles and a grin forms. “I won’t do that when I find Mr. Sheldon. You’ll see.”

“He may not show up.”

J. sticks his hand up. Air from the vent blows cold over his skin. “Mr. Wert would let me come back. He trusts me.”

How’d he get here? J. lived with the Werts for nearly eight months, the longest placement he’d kept since entering foster care. Ms. Ginger was his worker but she was replaced halfway through by Mr. Sheldon who never came to visit. Very few visited the rural location. The Werts lived in a trailer slowly being converted into a house. Walls were cut, rooms added to accommodate more boys. Four others lived there with J. Half the roof was topped with shingles, the rest with tin. The side of the hill caused the floors to slant. A portion of their land was swamp, feeding a large lake, around which stood several homes.

He lived fine there. Fishing from the shore; exploring the swamp; shooting bottle rockets over the lake; taking an ax to a tree just to watch it come apart; hauling wood for bonfires. He fought with the other boys, but Mr. Wert set things to right, holding them to the wall and threatening to beat the shit out of them if they ever went at it again.

One day J. received a call from his sister in Idaho. The last time they lived together was with their mother and step-father in a trailer with a large hole in the bathroom floor.

“It is so good to hear from you,” she said for the third time.

“You should come here and get me,” he said. “There’s a lake and everything. You could live here.”

“I wish I could see you.”

“They won’t mind. There’s an empty room.”

“Maybe you can come here, you know, when you turn eighteen.”

“Maybe now, maybe you could send a ticket.”

“We have snow.”

“I can get them to pay for it. When can you come?”

“It’s almost time for me to go to work. I love you, J. Call me again, OK?”

“But I can come there, right?”

“Of course,” she said. “Sure. Let’s talk about it next time, OK? Got to go.”

His “love you” died against the device. He folded the phone. He found Mr. Wert in the kitchen. “My sister says she wants me to visit.”

Mr. Wert popped the microwave oven door. “That’s great. Tell the boys to get in the truck.”

“I’ll be staying in Idaho.”

He set the plate on the counter. “Right now we’re going to the market. Get ready.”

“Where’s Idaho?”

Mr. Wert closed his lips over an apple pastry, consuming it in three chomps.

J. leaned against the jamb. “Near Arkansas?”

Bustling up, Mr. Wert bellowed. “Ya’ll come on. We’re going for some fish.”

Five boys piled into the truck bed.

Coming back from the market, Mr. Wert saw Mr. Simmel closing the hardware store for the night and swerved the truck filled with boys and fish into the sandy parking lot and jumped out. “You said one twenty five.”

“That machine’s worth two twenty five and that’s what I told the wife.”

“That ain’t what she said. Now I give the money and I want the machine.”

“Until I see two twenty five it stays in the store.”

During the scuffle J. lifted fifty dollars from an envelope in the cab of the truck and ran for the bus station. Past yellow painted curbs, up concrete steps protected by slick red guardrails, and over the crosswalk to the park. He watched under cover of fat hornbeams. Someone whistled, and cowboys hollered across the street. His hand covered wet knees, panting out full dreams. Idaho near Arkansas dreams mashing his skull. Not long at all now. Dizzy elation down to tingling fingers clutching green bills. He saw the tumbleweed brick building, and figured out his lines, calm exposition. Sure speech. Feet burning like hot crayons. Moving across the lawn; carrying him inside.

An hour later a deputy arrested him and he spent the night in detention. Ms. Burns picked him up in the morning.

“You’re not my worker,” J. said.

“Mr. Sheldon had things to do,” she said. “You’ve blown placement. He’ll be back later and find you a place to stay.”

“Can’t I go back to Mr. Wert?”

“No.”

“I’ll apologize.”

“Mr. Wert said under no circumstance. He can’t abide a thief. That’s what he said.”

J. saw the black Hefty in the back seat. “You got my iPod?”

“Everything,” Ms. Burns said. “All of your clothes and your iPod. Sit back and relax. It’s a long drive.”

She found a vacant office and left him there. When he glanced at the clock it read 4:07.

Ms. Tern walks J. to the staff kitchen and buys him a soft drink. He tries out a lounger, feels his way over the cool vinyl. “Can I sit here a bit?” he says. She nods. “You’ll tell me if you see Mr. Sheldon, OK?” She pulls the loose ends of her sweater together and nods again. He sinks into the cushion. Ear-buds empty Butthole Surfers into Heschl’s gyrus. He examines the ends of his sneakers down long stretched legs. Gray matter climbing over the white rubber toes of his Chucks. He works on the cuticle. A smile spreads. His chest heaves with soft laughter. Mr. Sheldon is just like me: a real good joke. They probably made him up while figuring out what to do. He’s not on the board. Not on the phone. Can’t find him nowhere: a real good joke. Forty minutes later Ms. Tern comes in. A crushed soda can rests by his feet. He rises quickly. “Bet you haven’t found him.”

“I really haven’t looked, J.”

“I don’t think he’s coming.”

She sits and crosses her legs. “Court can take hours. Some other child might need immediate attention. Traffic. A hundred other reasons he’s running late. He hasn’t forgotten you, J. He’ll be here.”

“No, he forgot me,” J. says. “He went home or something and forgot me. He could call. At least he could do that. He could call and tell me where I’m staying tonight. I’d be better off with my sister. I’m hungry. Do you have anything to eat?”

“I’ll check on food before I leave,” she says, rising.

He stares at the leather bag on her arm.

“Who’s staying with me? Are you staying? I thought you were staying.”

“Ms. Burns and Ms. Penesk are working late. I have families to see. I’ll check on you tomorrow.”

People trickle out of the building and cleaning crews empty the trash and mop the floors and pick up the crumpled can. Ms. Penesk brings J. half a sandwich she’d ordered at lunch but couldn’t finish. He chews the brown bread and listens, hooking to every footfall, every door swing, every sucking vacuum, every buffer rotation, every emptied plastic container. There’s swish of fabric. He rushes to the doorway. Frowns as housekeepers in union blue pass by with gray trash bins sporting push brooms and dusters raised high. Waving like battlefield colors. The ingredients soak into the bread, damp and cold on his teeth. The kitchen is quiet. A noise startles him. The AC blows overhead. Then he sees past it; past the chrome fixtures; past the laminates and particle board. The eerie drainage of time on the savannah. The sound of caves just before black blooded meat is dragged inside. A cerebral cortex smell rising from the crusty midden. The brooding silhouette of loneliness on a distant hill. A deep terrifying breath. There’s J. running over the field. A despairing rabbit with no hole to drop into.

D. E. Lee’s work appears or is forthcoming in Emerald Coast Review, Alligator Juniper, Conclave: A Journal of Character, Broad River Review, Mixed Fruit, and Prick of the Spindle