Some Hard Questions
The next morning, also around 9:00, Brandon again appeared at the holding center, where he was again escorted by Ken van Meter. But this time, instead of going to an interview room, they just filled out some papers and waited for several minutes, and another employee brought Raman to them.
“Are you ready for another day out?” Brandon asked him.
“You bet. Solitary is boring, but when I’m with the other kids, they beat me up. And you know something else? Yesterday, none of those kids at your place tried to beat on me,” Raman declared.
“They had better not,” Brandon assured him.
And so it was back to Brandon’s Boys, and to another mid-morning snack from Aunt Barbara. This time, the snack consisted of a large red apple and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. None of that frozen stuff.
After the snack, they again retreated to the library. There, Brandon asked, “Do you remember what I told you yesterday when you asked what the hitch was?”
“Some of it,” Raman replied. “I remember not to tick off Aunt Barbara, and after seeing how she handled that guy yesterday afternoon with the washcloth and soap, I’m glad I’ve been careful about how I talk.”
Brandon laughed. “That was Clarence. He’s been here four years now, but when he gets excited he kind of reverts to earlier days. Clarence grew up in a neighborhood where vulgar language was just an everyday experience.”
“I did, too,” Raman said. “But I’ve been really careful, because Mr. van Meter said if things work out, I can stay here, and not get beat up any more.”
“Clarence had that same problem of getting beat up a lot, so you might want to talk to him about that when you get a chance. But that brings up the matter of you staying with us. Do you want to stay here?” Brandon asked.
“Yes. I want that a lot,” the boy said.
“Well, what I was getting at a minute before was when I told you yesterday that one of the hitches was you would have to answer a lot of questions, and answer honestly. Now’s the time for that. First, a couple of ground rules. No matter what, do not lie to me. If I find out you’ve been lying, that kind of kills any deal we have, okay?”
“Uh, yeah. Okay,” Raman said, impressed by Brandon’s seriousness, but also a little hesitant.
“Now, there’s an escape hatch. If I ask you a question, and you really, really do not want to answer truthfully, just tell me you’re not ready to answer that question, okay?” Brandon said.
“That’s it? Just tell you I don’t want to answer?” a surprised Raman checked to be sure.
“Well, if you do it for every question I ask, that will be a problem. But if there is some really hurtful or sensitive issue, then we can skip it for now,” Brandon told him.
Raman took a deep breath. “Okay, shoot.”
“The papers I’ve been given by the Child Welfare people say your name is Raman Gillespie, but sometimes you go by Roman. What’s your real name?” Brandon asked. He was sitting at one of the computers, and was obviously prepared to record Raman’s answers.
“It’s Raman, with an A. About a year ago I read something in the newspaper about a kid named Roman, and I thought if I used that name, maybe I wouldn’t get picked on so much. It didn’t work,” Raman sighed.
“Okay. Do you have a middle name?”
“I guess. I remember having something ... a name card or something ... that said Raman K. Gillespie. But I don’t know what the K is for,” the boy answered.
“Those same papers say your mother is named Deborah Gillespie. As far as you know is she your birth mother?” Brandon asked.
“As far as I know. I’ve never known any other mother, and she’s mostly been around,” Raman said.
“Well, sometimes she’d be gone for a while, and Mrs. Keller next door sort of took care of me. But, until Mom got arrested this time, she always came back,” Raman answered.
“What about a father? There’s no information on that in the records I have,” Brandon asked.
“Don’t know,” Raman said. “Look at me, and you can tell he must have been someone different. I mean, not regular white or black. Mom almost never talked about him, and once when I kind of insisted, she hit me and told me not to ask. But another time, when she was high and giggling a lot, she said he was someone rich and important.” Raman screwed up his face, trying to remember. “Something about being a professor. Isn’t that some kind of teacher?”
“Yes. The teachers at the University are usually called professor. But not many of them are rich and important,” Brandon replied with a smile, thinking of the man he considered his father-in-law, Chris’s father, known as Zip. “I’m kind of a professor, in fact.”
“Yes. I’m called an adjunct professor. That means I’m not a full-time, regular teacher at the University, but they take me on for some special purpose. In my case, I teach a class in acting one day each week, on Tuesday afternoons,” Brandon explained.
“Wow. So, I know somebody who’s rich and important,” Raman kidded.
Brandon just ruffled his hair, and noted that it was very fine. “Don’t try to distract me. There are lots of more questions.”
“So far, so good,” Raman agreed.
“Now, I have at least three different birth dates for you. What’s the truth?”
“Well, I was a little young at the time, and did not know how to read the calendar all that well,” Raman said with a sly glance.
Brandon gave him a warning look.
“Okay. As far as I know, my real birthday was the seventh of September in 2001,” the boy said.
“Two thousand and one? You’re twelve?” Brandon said, obviously surprised.
“Yeah. Is there something wrong with that?” Raman asked. He was kind of enjoying surprising Brandon.
“No, of course not. But everyone thinks you’re about ten. And the last report we had from school has you in the fourth grade,” Brandon said.
Raman sighed. “I’m almost tempted to say this is one of those questions I don’t want to answer.” He was quiet for a few minutes, then shrugged his shoulders and took a breath. “Okay. I’ve always been kind of small for my age. My mom did not send me to school until some policeman or someone came and told her she had to, so I started out behind everyone else. Then, we moved around a lot. And mom would just forget to send me sometimes. She did that twice when the new school year started, so I was behind again. And,” he paused. Another deep breath. “Okay, I goofed off a lot. I mean, if I didn’t feel like doing some school work, I just didn’t do it. Mom never cared. So, I got ‘held back.’ I think that means I flunked a grade. Anyway, I really am twelve, even if I didn’t have a birthday party last week.”
“Thank you, Raman. I can tell you did not want to tell me all that. But it’s important. Let’s begin with this: I do care about school work, and if you stay here, I’ll make sure you do it all,” Brandon said.
“I kind of figured that,” Raman admitted with a theatrical sigh.
“As far as I can tell, you’re not stupid, Raman, but if you don’t get a decent education, your choices in life later on are very limited. I told some of the boys once they would spend their lives picking up garbage. I think that got to them,” Brandon said with a smile.
“I really hate to be giving away so much information, but the truth is, I was beginning to get the same idea from what I saw around me,” Raman admitted.
“It’s no wonder they could not find a birth certificate for you. They were looking for ten year olds, not twelve year olds. Now, for some more questions.” And so Brandon determined that Raman could not remember when he last had a complete medical checkup. There had been a fairly perfunctory one when he was picked up by the juvenile authorities. He had not committed any serious crimes, but admitted to petty theft. An important point was reached when Brandon asked about drug use.
“I tried a few things. Some made me sick. But the real problem is, I felt like somebody else was taking over my body and making me do things, and I don’t like that. And then, there’s Mom. I kind of told you already that she used. She used a lot. And when she was high, I never knew what she might do. Sometimes she kind of wandered off for a few days. Sometimes she didn’t know who I was. And sometimes she beat me pretty bad. She said she needed it to get through all the johns.” At that, Raman looked at Brandon.
“We know about that. You’re not responsible for anything your parents did or did not do. Let’s move on,” Brandon said. “I want you to understand clearly that no drugs are permitted here. That’s something that will get you sent back to the center right away.”
“No problem,” Raman promised.
And so they continued until about 10:30. Then, Brandon told Raman he was about to get a really thorough medical examination. He took the boy to the Todd Medical Clinic, where Josh Castleman awaited them. Josh was on the Board of Brandon’s Boys, and did all the work for all the boys pro bono. He said he could use the tax write-off.
While Raman was being weighed and poked and stuck with needles, Brandon texted his father-in-law and asked that he employ his legendary computer skills to find a birth certificate for a Raman K. Gillespie, born on 7 September 2001. As Thursday was a day Zip spent at home, usually working on his books and articles, or grading papers, he would be able to get the information right away now that they had a correct age.
After the medical exam, which came up with no earth shattering conclusions, they went by O’Malley’s Pharmacy to pick up a few medications to take care of some scratches which threatened to become infected, and to purge Raman of worms, which he most likely got from eating items he scrounged from garbage cans and back alleys. Josh instructed both Raman and Brandon in the procedures, but Brandon had been through it before with some of the other boys.
They went back to the house, where Aunt Barbara had lunch for Raman. She would eat with him, but Brandon had to go next door to his own house to check on a few things before continuing with Raman.
After lunch, Raman was sent upstairs for a shower and shampoo. After Brandon returned, they went out to a mid level mall, where Raman was outfitted in new clothes from the skin out. Underwear and socks. T-shirts and button down shirts and a white dress shirt. Jeans, shorts, slacks, dress pants. Both running shoes and dress shoes. They stopped at some other counters as well, and came away with deodorant, toothpaste, tooth brush, nail clippers, mouth wash, shampoo, and the like. He also got a book bag, which reminded him that he still had those placement tests to do that Brandon spoke about. And paper and pencils and pens and note book. Raman thought it was his best birthday presents yet. He had never had so much new stuff all at once.
When they got back to the house, and Raman stowed his stuff to one side for now, Brandon began the testing. He had standardized placement tests on his computer, and so was able to begin with such things as reading level and basic arithmetic. Raman could read, although below his age level, and he had a decent, if unpredictable, vocabulary. He knew words he probably shouldn’t, but not some any kid his age probably should. But his writing was essentially illegible, and his concept of spelling and punctuation was highly individualistic. That was as far as they got before the level of noise indicated that the daily invasion had begun once again.
At that, Brandon suggested a break, which Raman gladly accepted. They retreated to the breakfast room, where the boys Raman had met the day before were gathering for an after-school snack. He gladly joined in that, and was soon talking a mile a minute. He found that the boys were intent on going down to some park and playing a game called soccer. When they found that Raman knew nothing about soccer, the others insisted that he had to learn, and now. Brandon smiled. “That’s why I told you not to put on your new clothes yet,” he grinned. “Go, and get rid of some of the tension you’ve built up over writing and spelling.”
The other boys had to change clothes, but they took Raman upstairs with them. While they were upstairs, the boys decided among themselves that Raman would bunk with Daniel, and his previous partner, Freddy, would bunk with Oliver from now on. Just how they came to this conclusion was not at all clear, but as everyone seemed to be satisfied with it, Brandon accepted it as one decision he would not have to make.
In their old clothes, eight boys trooped down to Mansfield Park, where they found twice as many boys already there before them, and they all agreed to inaugurate Raman into the mysteries of soccer. Two hours later, eight boys trooped back to Brandon’s Boys, considerably dirtier and sweatier, with clothing in worse condition, but wonderfully happy. Raman was bubbling over, making fun of his own mistakes. He loved being part of the group instead of being the outsider, picked on by everyone else. No one – not a single boy – treated him badly, provided you don’t regard calling him a stupid ass for mucking up a play, or provided you don’t regard tossing him into the fray, as bad treatment.
When they arrived back home, Aunt Barbara sent the whole bunch of them to the showers, and so Raman had the experience of showering with another boy, and not being made fun of or being picked on under those circumstances either. He was just one more boy among the pack. After that, but before dinner, he had the pleasure of bringing all his new possessions upstairs and stowing them in the room he would share with Daniel, while Freddy moved his things elsewhere. Then they went back down, and played some video games until Aunt Barbara announced dinner. Dinner was fabulous. Raman was very pleased to be getting regular meals, and not institutional food like that at the holding center, either.
After dinner, Brandon appeared again. With much grumbling and complaining, all the boys went off to do homework, and Brandon and Raman were again on tap for more evaluation. But, because the other boys would be using the computers in the library, Brandon led Raman next door, to the house he shared with Chris when they were both in town, and where they could have a modicum of privacy for the additional tests.
Before starting, Brandon said, “I guess I should have asked you this earlier, but do you want to stay here with us?”
Raman was astounded. He realized he had just assumed he would be staying. He had stowed his belongings in the room he was supposed to share with Daniel. Was there the chance he would be sent back? “Ye-yeah. I mean, sure. Don’t you want me?” he nervously asked.
“Yes, Raman, I definitely want you. We all want you. But you have a say in that as well, so I had to ask,” Brandon assured him.
“I’ve got to pee,” the boy nervously announced, and ran from the room. Fortunately, the first floor restroom was located about where the same accommodation was to be found next door.
When Raman returned, he was embarrassed, but Brandon took care of that. He greeted the returnee with, “Welcome to Brandon’s Boys,” and held out his arms. Raman ran into them, and the two hugged each other.
Before getting down to more testing, however, Brandon had some news. Zip Todd had called before dinner, and delivered copies of the birth certificates for Raman Kevin Gillespie and Deborah Rose Gillespie. Raman studied these documents carefully.
“Who’s this Harsha Patil? Where is he now?” the boy asked, pointing to the father’s name on his birth certificate.
Brandon took a deep breath. “Some of what I know is not very nice. Let’s just say your father was a very difficult man to get along with, and he has gone back to India.”
“No,” Raman stubbornly insisted. “If you know some more, I want to know, too. After all, if he’s back in India, I can’t go off half cocked and cut his throat for neglecting me all these years.”
Seeing both that Raman was serious, and that he could stand up to what was coming, Brandon spoke. “Dr. Patil was a professor in the School of Medicine at the University here. He specialized in internal medicine. From what I have been told, he was very good at his profession. His papers at professional meetings were always well received, and he obtained several awards.”
“But ....” Raman urged.
“I have been living in Clifton since the summer of 2002, and Dr. Patil did not leave until 2005, so we did overlap, but as far as I know I never met the man,” Brandon said. “My father-in-law, who is officially Dr. Bradley W. Todd, and is also a professor, but in English and Linguistics, did know him. As I understand it, Dr. Patil came from a very rich and influential Braham family. That means he was one of the elite in his home country. He came here to further his career, but was never satisfied here. He thought all Americans were immoral and corrupt because ... well, because we do not following the same customs about food and personal contact and clothing and the like as his people do. Evidently, he also had some bad experiences with ignorant people making fun of him and his beliefs, and he reacted in the opposite extreme. He was fond of referring to white people as ‘half-baked,’ referring not only to our skin color, but also to the use of that phrase to mean ignorant or uninformed. He had two sons, one of whom agreed with him, and the other of whom adapted and became Americanized. There was a scandal surrounding the son who agreed with his father. He got a local girl pregnant, and, when he simply told her that was her problem, he certainly would not lower himself to marry an American, she killed herself. Dr. Patil supported this son. But others in the community began to shun him and to make his life very uncomfortable. As a result, he and most of his family returned to India, as I said. But the Americanized son refused to go with the rest of the family, and is now married and living here in Clifton. I strongly suspect that Dr. Patil regarded your mother as nothing more than an evening’s pleasure, completely unworthy of his serious attention, and he never paid the least attention to you, even if he knew of your existence,” Brandon revealed.
Raman was weeping. “I knew he was a bastard. Oh, but, I mean ....”
“Vocabulary lesson,” Brandon said. “Although a lot of people use the word wrong, technically a bastard is someone whose parents were not married when he or she was born. What people should be saying is ‘dastard,’ meaning a dishonorable or despicable person. It’s a shame we misuse our beautiful language so greatly.”
“I’ll remember that,” Raman promised. “I’m a bastard, but my father is a dastard.” He grinned.
Then, Raman got serious again. “My mom was mostly around, like I told you. But she wasn’t much when it came to being a mom. She was high a lot, and sometimes I don’t think she knew who I was. And then, sometimes she’d just disappear for a few days, and I never knew for sure whether she’d come back or not. And she hit me a lot.” He paused. “Is there a saint or something to pray to for a mother you don’t want to see again?”
“Now where did that come from?” Brandon asked. “What do you know about praying to the saints?”
“My mom was always praying to the saints, but I don’t think it did her any good,” Raman said. “We used to go to church. I don’t remember the name of the church, but Mom said the priest there was prejudiced against her. But then, they got a new priest with a name with a lot of y’s and x’s and z’s in it who was nice, but Mom said they would move him somewhere else, as no good ones stayed at our place. I only remember talking to him once, and he told me to call him Father Cas, because he was named for some saint with that name. Do you know a saint named Cas?”
“There’s a Saint Casimir,” Brandon said. “He was Polish, and I’ll bet your priest is, too, as I don’t know any other group of people who name their kids Casimir. And I bet I know your young priest. If I’m not mistaken, he’s Casimir Rygalski, and was only ordained a priest two years ago. He was assigned to work at St. Pius X Parish.”
“Yeah, that’s the name of the church Mom went to,” Raman confirmed.
“Then I know not only Father Casimir, but his mother and his brothers and sisters, most of whom live not far from here. In fact, some of the Rygalskis attend the school where we’ll be sending you, once we can figure out where to place you. But I’m very glad this came up. All our boys are Catholic, so you won’t mind joining us at Mass on Sunday. I should have known that anyone with a mother named Gillespie would have some Catholic affiliation,” Brandon said. “Now, back to tests, and the intriguing subject of arithmetic.”
After some more painful testing, Raman lay back, completely frustrated. Brandon studied the test results from that afternoon and that evening.
“I would like to put you in the same grade as Daniel and Freddy, as you’re about the same age, but if I did, it would be a disaster. I think you know, Raman, that your education has been woefully neglected. We talked about that before, and now the results of these tests confirm it. I’m afraid if I put you in with Daniel and Freddy, you’d get frustrated and give up. But if I put you where these tests indicate, you’ll be uncomfortable being in class with kids so much younger than you. What are we going to do with you?” Brandon rhetorically asked.
“Send me out to the Farm to ride horses,” Raman suggested.
Brandon laughed. “Chris is going to love having you around. But I’m afraid riding horses is not a substitute for school. Well, we worked with some of the others who had special problems. How about this. Instead of going to school next week, you will be home schooled until you kind of catch up to the others. We’ve done that before, and we kept Spencer home for a while because he was in such poor shape when he came to us. He’s at the University now, but I’ll have him stop by to discuss this with you. If you agree, it will be intensive. My friends and I will be on you every minute to get you caught up. But you have a choice. It’s home school, or throw you to the lions with Daniel and Freddy, or put you in with the little kiddies. What will it be?”
“Gee, thanks. What kind of choice is that?” Raman complained.
“Welcome to the real world. A lot of time, the choices are not what you want. It’s not a choice between good and evil, but a choice between not so bad, and bad, and even worse.”
“Can I think about this?” Raman asked.
“Sure. We actually don’t have to decide until Monday, which is when I planned to enroll you in school. And tomorrow we go out to the Farm, and you can ride horses again,” Brandon said.
“All right!” Raman enthused, pumping his fist.
“Oh, and the only saint I can think of for your situation is Saint Jude, the patron of impossible causes.”
Raman looked at him with a disgusted expression. But, after all that, he was taken back next door, and thrown into the lions’ den, which is to say, he was left with the other boys, who, homework completed, were engaged in an intense battle over a computer game.Before leaving for the Farm the next morning, Brandon drove by the Child Welfare offices and turned in the papers accepting Raman Gillespie as his foster child. He included copies of his birth certificate as well.