*(The following is an excerpt from my novel “The Ghosts of Nagasaki”)
I am sixteen. Up until this point I’ve developed three rules of thumb: first, never love anything too much; second, always keep moving and anticipate the worst; and third, a direct result of my experience in my first foster home, fear the evangelicals. The first time I see her, standing next to her car dealership-owning man, Chuck, I think of rule number three and cringe. She is a friend of one of the administrators at child services who has taken a liking to me. One day out of the blue, the administrator tells me that a family is coming in to see me. I shrug. Then I wait.
I soon find out what I’ve suspected all along. She is the worst possible mix for me, one of those people who’s getting married for the second or third time. Fresh start and all that. And she loves her Bible. Praise Jesus! Beyond that, I assume she will be like every other adult in my short lifespan―full of her own self-righteousness.
The moment I see them sitting together, I think immediately that it’s entirely possible that after only three months as husband and wife I am being called on as the mechanism to save their marriage. I’m not very old, but I’m smart enough to know when I’m headed for a shit storm. And here they are: she, with her broad smile, the energetic talk; him, trying so hard to sound like the alpha male, hard and in charge. It all makes it so easy to dismiss them both as the latest drop in the evangelical bucket.
“Don’t worry. You’ll have a good home, a chance at a life. And we won’t hold any of your past over your head,” she promises. Then she gets to asking me about school. I answer obediently and truthfully about my taste for some Hemingway novels. I like his simple writing and the fact that he writes a lot about poor people.
Debra nods. The car dealership man, Chuck, tries hard not to look out of place. He’s sweating. The air conditioner in the meeting room is broken again—but I think it’s the vibe of the foster home that gets to him the most. Maybe it reminds him that a part of the population has to survive off public money, that that public money doesn’t go very far, and that my and every other kid’s life in this building basically sucks. Or maybe it’s just me that bothers him.
“Who turned you on to books, young man?” Debra asks.
“My first foster parents bought me books. They wouldn’t let me watch TV.”
“That sounds like a pretty reasonable idea, now doesn’t it?”
I keep my mouth shut. The fourth rule is unspoken, but if I had to say it, it would be: never to talk about my first foster family. I had already embarked on the long process of disappearing them from my memory. It was better to just leave them in the past to rot than to let them fester and bleed out into the real world.
“What do you read?”
“Novels. A little bit of history here and there, and biographies, lots of biographies.”
“Do you like school?” Debra asks.
“Yeah, sometimes it’s okay, but I don’t think anyone knows I exist.”
Chuck is about to say something. Maybe a crack about that being nonsense.
“Is that why you act up?”
“I don’t know why I act up,” I say honestly. “But I’ve been trying to be better. My grades are pretty good too, but it’s hard for me to concentrate because the yelling doesn’t stop.”
“Whose yelling?” Debra asks.
I shrug. “Them.” She doesn’t know what I’m talking about, but it doesn’t take long. Soon, someone in the background starts yelling about something. Debra doesn’t hear it, but I do. I let my eyes just sort of wander, and I can hear a dead silence falling on us. Car dealership man Chuck is shifting around in his seat, but Debra lets out a simple smile.
“You know something,” she says, looking me in the eyes with something that could be empathy, “you’re an old soul.”
And just like that, she changes the balance of our relationship. She must have been a pro at offsetting troubled young people with her compliments. How many kids had she complimented as being wise, or having old souls, or being brilliant? How often did she start off with that same smile as a setup for her classic one-liners?
I had to admit, though, she drew me in. I could see that when we really started talking, when she started on the books, and asking me which ones I liked, she wasn’t just talking at me. She genuinely wanted to know.
That was Debra.