It was a quiet Monday afternoon, July 28, when a knock came on the front door of Brandon’s Boys at 1322 Chestnut Street. The only people there were Aunt Barbara and Aunt Anne, as Brandon and Chris had taken all the boys who were not working out to the Farm to ride.
“I’ll get it,” Anne Payne said, and rose from her chair, where she had been sipping coffee and talking with Barbara Menendez.
When she opened the door, she found a scruffy boy standing there. He looked to be about eight or nine years old, with blond hair and blue eyes, and a face currently smudged with several streaks of dirt. His clothing was dirty and worn, with sneakers too big for him, jeans with holes in the legs, and a t-shirt not only dirty but also stretched tight across his thin chest.
“My, what have we here?” Anne asked.
“Me. I heared a boy can get something to eat, and maybe a place to sleep, here,” the boy answered.
“Well, I think that might be the case. But right now only me and another old woman are here, so you’ll have to wait for an answer,” Anne said.
The boy looked very upset, and started to turn away.
“Wait. Wouldn’t you like to have something to eat while you’re waiting, and maybe take a shower?” Anne offered.
He immediately brightened. “Yeah. That would be great.”
“Come in, then,” Anne said, and led him back to the kitchen. “It looks like we have a hungry boy here who needs attention,” she told Barbara.
“Oh, my. Well, we know about hungry boys here. You wash your hands, and I’ll see what I can scrounge up,” Barbara said.
The boy immediately washed his hands at the kitchen sink and took a seat in the breakfast room. There, he was offered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and glass after glass of milk. He downed everything set before him. He answered “Tom” when asked his name.
While Anne was keeping him supplied, Barbara retired out of earshot and called Brandon. “I think you may have a new boy. A very scruffy boy called Tom showed up on our doorstep a few minutes ago asking about something to eat and a place to sleep.”
“How old is he?” Brandon asked.
“Seems about eight or nine,” Barbara said.
“Wow. We don’t have any boys that young any more. But I’ll see who I can round up, and be there as soon as I can. Meanwhile, entertain him. The older boys should be coming home from work before I get there, so they can help out, too,” Brandon said.
Barbara returned to the breakfast room, and sat down across from Tom. “I just spoke with Brandon, who is more or less in charge here. He’s out at a farm about an hour’s drive away, but will come in to see you. Some of the older boys will be getting off work around three o’clock. Until then, what are we going to do with you?”
“Well, this lady (indicating Anne Payne) said something about a shower, and I kind of itch, so maybe that would be a good idea,” Tom said.
“That’s an excellent idea,” Aunt Barbara said. “And while you’re showering, I will put your clothes in the washer, and find you something to put on while we wait for them.”
And so, Tom was shown up to the second floor bathroom. He carefully removed everything from his pockets. Barbara did not look too closely, as some of the items seemed kind of nasty. She indicated soap, shampoo, towels, wash cloth, then left him, taking his clothing down to the basement laundry room.
Tom spent a long time in the shower. When he emerged, he found a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, along with some underwear, with a note saying, “these will do while yours are being washed.” He donned the borrowed duds, and made his way back down to the breakfast room. The clothes were too big for him, but they were clean. By this time, it was just after 3:00.
Tom found Aunt Barbara and Aunt Anne in the kitchen preparing snacks. “It’s not supper time yet, is it?” he asked.
Aunt Barbara turned towards him. “My, don’t you look so much better after a shower and shampoo? But these sandwiches are not supper, they’re snacks for our working boys.”
No sooner had she uttered those words, than Clarence and Jose came in the back door. They were working construction for the summer, and just got off work.
“Hey, who’s this?” Clarence asked no one in particular.
“I’m Tom,” the boy answered.
“Will you be joining us?” Jose asked.
“Don’t know about that,” Tom answered. “I just heared a boy could get something to eat at this place, so I came along to see about that, ’cause I was hungry. And these ladies let me shower, too. These ain’t my clothes.”
“I can tell that,” Jose responded. “They don’t fit you. Besides, the last time I saw that shirt, it was on Bobby Two.”
“Bobby Two?” Tom wondered.
“We call him that because we have two guys named Bobby here. Bobby One is about the oldest guy still living here, and Bobby Two is the newest, and I think the youngest, too. He just joined us about two weeks ago,” Jose explained.
“Oh, okay,” Tom said as he eyed the plate of sandwiches being deposited on the table by Aunt Anne.
Clarence and Jose each grabbed a sandwich. Tom held back.
“Aren’t you eating?” Clarence asked.
“I had a sandwich a little over an hour ago,” Tom said, but he was still looking at the sandwiches with covetous eyes.
Seeing this, Aunt Barbara laughed. “You can have a sandwich if you want, Tom.”
He lost no time taking advantage of that permission.
“Been on the streets long?” Clarence asked.
“Long enough. Since Easter,” the boy replied between mouthfuls.
“Most of the guys who live here spent time on the streets. We know it’s no fun. Things are a lot better here,” Clarence said.
And so, while Aunt Anne wound up her day and departed for her home and family, and Aunt Barbara got busy with early preparations for dinner, Clarence and Jose told Tom what it was like to live at Brandon’s Boys. They were still at it when Brandon entered, accompanied by Bobby Two and Freddy.
“Hey, guys. How was your day? And is this our visitor?” Brandon greeted them.
Of course, this produced a brief gripe about having to work, but everyone knew it was pro forma and did not mean a thing. Clarence and Jose both really liked having a job, having some independent income, and feeling all ‘grown up.’ Meanwhile, Bobby and Freddy settled down next to Tom and began talking to him. They began by asking, “Have you ever ridden a horse?” The answer was ‘no,’ and so that gave them a lot to talk about, as both of them had been doing that very thing only a couple of hours earlier.
Brandon allowed this unstructured conversation to continue for about twenty minutes, then he suggested, “I think Tom and I need to put in a few minutes in the library.”
The other boys made noises as though this were a big deal, and a real ordeal, but they managed at the same time to let Tom know it was nothing to worry about. He especially liked Bobby’s assurance, “We’ll see you for supper after Brandon gets through with the third degree.”
And so, with minimal hesitation, Tom followed Brandon into the library, where the older of them set up the computer so he could record the information he would receive on a new boy.
“Tom, I understand you’re on your own,” Brandon began.
“How did that happen? Don’t you have parents anywhere?” Brandon asked.
“No, no parents. Leastways, I don’t think so,” Tom replied.
“Tell me about it,” Brandon encouraged him.
“Well, I had a mom once,” Tom began. “Don’t think I ever had a dad. Mom was real pretty, and lots of guys wanted to date her. But she got sick, so she could not get out of bed. So, some people came and took her to a hospital, but she died there.”
“How long ago was this?” Brandon interrupted.
“Um, let’s see. I think it must ‘ve been three years ago. It was cold. Winter time,” Tom replied.
“Okay, so what happened next?” Brandon asked.
“Some lady from the child welfare people took me to a home, and said I could stay there for a while. That was okay, but I was missing Mom a lot, and there was a kid there a couple of years older than me who said some nasty things about my mom, so we got into fights. So, I didn’t stay there very long. Then they took me to live with an old lady. She was real nice, kind of like the ladies here. I stayed with her for a long time, and she was kind of like a grandma. But then the ladies from the welfare people came again, and told me that Miss Higgins – that was the grandma’s name – couldn’t keep me any more. She was getting real old, and had to go into some kind of place called a sister living.”
“A sister living?” Brandon asked.
“That’s what they said. Someplace where they would help her with things like getting her food, and taking showers or baths and things. I was helping her, but they said I couldn’t do that anymore,” Tom said with tears in his eyes.
“I think you mean ‘assisted living,’ Tom. ‘Assisted’ means just what you said. She will get help doing the things she could no longer do on her own,” Brandon explained.
“Yeah, well, I was helping her, but they wouldn’t listen to me, but just took me away. I cried a lot about that. Miss Higgins was nice. And she cried, too, and kissed me when they took me away,” Tom related as tears ran down his cheeks.
“I’m sorry you had to have these things happen to you, Tom. What happened next?” Brandon asked.
“They took me to another foster home. It wasn’t nearly as nice as Miss Higgins’ place. I think they were poor. Anyway, Miss Jellico, that’s the mother, was always talking about how much everything cost, and complaining that the money the welfare people gave her wasn’t enough. She had a real whiny voice, you know, and she never laughed, so it wasn’t very nice to listen to her. Mr. Jellico was a mechanic, like working on cars, you know. He was gone a lot. Miss Jellico complained about that, too. There were three other kids there, and, I’m not real sure, but I think two of them were put there by the welfare people, like me. I liked Betty just fine, but not the two boys. One was a lot older than me, like maybe thirteen or fourteen, and the other was just a little older than me, but he was a lot bigger. They liked to push me around, especially when no one else was around. I told the welfare lady about that when she came to visit, but she said they were just being friendly because I wouldn’t play games with them. That’s not true, but she didn’t believe me. Anyway, I stayed with that family ‘til Easter time, then I ran away,” Tom concluded abruptly.
“Why did you run away, Tom?” Brandon asked gently.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Tom sullenly replied.
Brandon considered this. He decided not to push, but to take a different tack now. “So, do you have any kind of identification, like a Social Security card or anything?”
“Ye-ah,” Tom hesitantly replied. “But if I give you that, you’ll call the welfare lady, and I’ll have to go back to the Jellico place.”
“No, Tom. If you hated the Jellico place enough to cause you to run away and try to make it on your own for three months, something was wrong somewhere. We’ll try to work that out, but I will not force you to go back where you don’t want to be,” Brandon assured him.
Tom thought about that. Then he reached into a pocket, and extracted a frayed bundle of papers, all wadded into a clump. He handed the bundle to Brandon. He cautiously began to unravel the papers, trying not to damage anything further in the process. The papers were dirty, faded, with many creases and crumples. But, to his satisfaction, Brandon found not only a Social Security card, but at least most of what had been a birth certificate, and the remnants of a birthday card. He studied these documents carefully. His interlocutor was evidently named Thomas More Baird, and was born on February seventh, 2006. He was, therefore, just eight years old. His mother’s name seemed to be Mary Jean Baird, although that part of the birth certificate was much creased and almost illegible, and there was no father listed.
Brandon picked up the tattered remnant of a birthday card. It had a cake with a large candle on it, and the numeral 5. “Tell me about this,” Brandon invited.
Tom hesitated a few minutes. Then, in a quiet voice, he said, “That was my last birthday party. It was just before my mom was taken to the hospital and died. I kind of want to remember that.”
“Okay. Thanks, Tom, for sharing this with me. Let’s talk about something else for a while. What about school?”
“When I was with Miss Higgins, I went to school, but I don’t remember the name of the school. I liked it there. Everything was nice and clean, and the kids were friendly, and we had lots of fun in the classroom and on the playground. But after that, when I was with the Jellicos, I was in a different school. It wasn’t nice at all. Everything seemed dirty, and a lot of things didn’t work right. And the teachers were kind of strict and never laughed like the ones at the other school. I was there for parts of two years. And I hated recess and lunch,” Tom ended with some force.
“Why is that?” Brandon asked.
“Cause Billy and Kurt were there.”
“Who are Billy and Kurt?”
“Oh, I didn’t tell you, did I? They are the other two boys at the Jellico place. They had some friends at school, and they were always making fun of me, and shoving me around, and being real mean,” Tom said, nearing crying again.
“Didn’t the teachers do anything about that?” Brandon asked.
“Nope. When I told them, Billy said I was just a crybaby, and they were really trying to help me get in a game. They didn’t believe me, they believed Billy,” Tom said.
“What school was this?” Brandon enquired.
“You’re not going to send me back there, are you?” Tom fearfully asked.
“No, Tom. I said I would not force you to do something, and that includes attend a school where you had bad experiences. But I think I need to know, just to get a complete picture of your situation,” Brandon explained. He was also considering lodging a formal complaint with the school system, but did not mention that. Teachers were supposed to report any examples of physical abuse, even by other students.
“Well,” Tom admitted, “it was at Bedford Forrest.”
Bedford Forrest Elementary was located in the southwestern part of town, in a working class neighborhood. It regularly vied for last place on the annual evaluations of the public schools in Madison County with Malcolm X, the school in the depressed black neighborhood in the northwest part of town. There had been several attempts to change the name of the school, as Nathan Bedford Forrest was the Confederate general who was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. He is remembered for his statement that, “I fit for my niggers.” Even during the war, he was noted as a brutal but successful cavalry officer, accused of what would today be considered war crimes in the treatment of prisoners. But every time the demand was made by the black leadership that the school’s name be changed, there was a violent reaction in the community, with petitions and meetings protesting the attacks on “our history” by the parents and neighbors, and so nothing happened. When Brandon learned that Tom had been at Bedford Forrest, he knew that any complaint he might file would be lost in the bureaucracy. He’d file it anyway, just to be on record, but it would accomplish nothing.
Bringing his mind back to the boy seated before him, Brandon said, “I’m sorry you had such a bad experience, Tom. If you decide to stay with us, I’ll make sure it’s more like the situation when you were with Miss Higgins.
“Can I stay with you?” Tom hesitantly asked.
“Do you think you’d like that?”
“Yeah! The guys told me a lot about how it is here, and I’d like it a lot,” Tom hopefully responded.
“Well, we’ll see about making that happen. Tomorrow I’ll take you to see a friend of mine who works for Child Welfare. He’s a good guy, so you don’t need to worry about someone who won’t believe you. Then, if all goes well, we’ll visit a doctor. When’s the last time you had a check-up?”
Tom screwed up his face in thought. “Probably before school started last year,” he reported.
“Good. Well, there is just one thing. I think you have been truthful in what you told me. I really appreciate you sharing these papers with me. I’ll give them back, but I want to make copies, okay? But the one thing is we really appreciate honesty here. I told another boy this, so it’s not just for you. Do not lie to me. That will get you sent back to the foster system right away. If you really don’t want to talk about something, like why you ran away, just say so, and we’ll put that off until we just have to know. Agreed?”
“That’s it? All I have to do is tell the truth, and I can live here, and not be on the streets, and not be hungry?” Tom excitedly demanded.
“That’s it,” Brandon confirmed.
“All right! Something went right for a change. Yes, yes, yes, I want to live here,” Tom enthused.
“Okay. Let’s go check on things, but I think dinner is not long off,” Brandon noted.
“Yes! Dinner! Sounds wonderful,” Tom exulted, indicating that he was ready to eat again.
In fact, they had to wait about a half hour before Aunt Barbara announced dinner, so Tom was taken down to the rec room in the basement, where he found the boys he had met earlier focused on a video game. He wasn’t very good at that, as Billy had refused to let him play at the Jellico place, but he joined the others as a spectator until it was time to eat again. He was good at eating, even if he was a little out of practice.
After dinner, Brandon took Tom, accompanied by Freddy, out to a mall, where he was outfitted in new clothes from the skin out. Freddy teased that he needed at least one thing which actually fit. They came back home, and Tom was assigned a place in a room with Freddy, with whom he seemed to relate best. This involved some shifting, but after that, he went back to the rec room and watching the other boys slaughter aliens. He even got his turn, although he still wasn’t very good at it.
The next morning Clarence and Jose went off to work, but Bobby and Freddy had nothing specific to do. Aunt Barbara decided they could help her with some housework, and Tom noted that they did so with no protest. “After all,” Barbara said, “you live here, too.” But Brandon, who lived next door, had other plans for Tom. He took Tom downtown to the Child Welfare offices to meet with his friend, Ken van Meter. Ken had been most helpful with some previous boys.
Ken was very friendly, and actually listened to Tom. He checked some files, and found that Tom had been reported as a run-away at the beginning of June, but the Jellicos had collected his maintenance checks for April, May, and the beginning of June. Their responsibility for Tom was terminated, and he was given a temporary assignment to Brandon’s Boys group home. Tom still did not want to describe precisely what led to him leaving the Jellicos, so, with a bow to the divorce courts, Ken wrote ‘irreconcilable differences.’
Leaving Ken’s office, Brandon took Tom to the offices of Josh Castleman at the Todd Medical Clinic. As a member of the Board of Brandon’s Boys, Inc., Josh was the physician who regular saw the boys, including any new boy. It had not been long since he saw Bobby Ferguson. Tom was given a very thorough examination. He was in generally good health, but had symptoms of malnutrition, as well as some scars from some kind of abuse in the past. Like others who had scrounged for something to eat, he had worms. Josh wrote a couple of prescriptions, and Brandon and Tom stopped by O’Malley’s Pharmacy to get them filled before returning home.
After a great lunch, Brandon took Tom back to the library, where he was given a battery of tests to determine his educational level. To no one’s surprise, he was found to be about a year behind where he should be. Given his time on the street, and the school he had been attending, this was no surprise. Tom agreed to work with Brandon over the weeks remaining in the summer, and to continue with make-up work once school began next month. If this worked, he would be placed with his age cohort in the third grade. Bobby and Freddy promised to help.
After another great meal, Bobby and Freddy demanded to be taken back out to the Farm. They were suffering equine withdrawal, Freddy said. And so, before dark, Brandon, Freddy, Bobby, and Tom drove out to Todd Farm in Jouett County. There, Tom met a whole slew of new boys. Not all of them were part of Brandon’s Boys, as there were lots of local boys as well. The next day, Tom had two new experiences. He got his first horseback ride, and he learned what it meant to muck out a stable.
From July 30 to August 2 there was the Shelbyville Horse Show, in Shelbyville, oddly enough. Tom was not there all the time, but he put in enough time to see some fine riding, including some by some of the boys he was getting to know. He was beginning to think that, maybe by next year, he could be doing that, too. But back on the Farm Tom met Chris Todd, which was an experience and a half. He carried out some assignments (like mucking out stables) with no resentment, as he saw other boys doing the same. He was doing some school work, to catch up to where he could successfully compete when school started. And he never had to worry about where his next meal was coming from. Tom found the other boys friendly. They were competitive, and definitely not above pulling tricks on an unsuspecting newbie, but there was no malice in any of it. Not even when they stole his clothes when they were skinny dipping in the swimming pool in Todd Creek, and made him come back to the house in his birthday suit. After all, it was August, and warm.
On Sunday, after making sure Tom had no objections, he was taken to St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Westbrook, the county seat. Tom said he had been to some different kinds of churches with each of his foster families, so he did not object to a new one, especially as he would attend with all the other boys.
By the middle of August, they moved back to town. School was beginning to get in gear. Tom continued to put in several hours each day on catching up on his school work, and was doing very encouraging work. He was registered at St. Rose of Lima Parochial School, with the other boys still in elementary school. He and Bobby Two would be the new boys this year.
On the Saturday before school was scheduled to begin, Tom asked to talk to Brandon in the library. That meant something important, not just an everyday matter. As Freddy and Daniel were on the computers in the Brandon’s Boys house library, Brandon led Tom next door to the house he shared with Chris and their son, little Chris. Little Chris was not so little any more, and in fact would be in the same class as Tom in a few days.
“Okay, Tom, what’s on your mind?” Brandon began.
“This morning, when I was showering, Freddy came in. Because there are so many of us, sometimes we share the shower,” Tom began.
“Is that a problem for you?” Brandon asked.
“Not usually,” Tom said. “But this morning I was ... well ... kind of .... cleaning myself. Down there, you know. My cock,” a red faced boy reported.
“And?” Brandon encouraged him.
“And Freddy said something about making sure I got it real clean, cause it could be real nasty otherwise,” Tom said. He paused, then began to cry.
Brandon moved closer, and put his arm around the boy’s heaving shoulders. “What happened?” he gently asked.
“Billy ...” Tom began, but seemed incapable of continuing.
“Billy made you do things?” Brandon encouraged him.
“Yeah. He started in on me on my birthday. He said I was old enough to help him out. He ... He wanted me to .... He wanted me to suck his cock,” Tom got out.
By this time, Tom knew that some of Brandon’s Boys were gay, so he hastened to explain. “Billy’s cock smelled bad. He never washed down there. Sometimes, there were ... I don’t know ... things ... sticking to it. He called it cock cheese. It was really, really nasty. I threw up a couple of times,” Tom reported amid tears.
“A couple of times? So this was not just once?” Brandon questioned.
“No. All the time. Well, a couple of times a week anyway. And sometime Kurt was there, too, and made me suck his cock, but he was not as bad. He was smaller, and he didn’t shoot anything in the end. But he said nasty things to me,” Tom reported.
“Did you tell anyone?” Brandon asked.
“I told Miss Jellico, but she didn’t want to pay attention. She just complained about how hard it was to raise boys. And I told the social worker. But she asked Billy, and he denied everything, and she believed him. They said I was evil minded, and trying to get the other boys in trouble,” Tom said.
“But with Freddy this morning ...?” Brandon asked.
“No. Freddy didn’t make me do anything. He just wanted to tell me to make sure I cleaned up right. But it reminded me of Billy, so I decided it was time to tell you. That’s why I ran away. After the social worker said she believed Billy, and told me not to be a problem for the Jellicos, I knew I just couldn’t stand it any longer. The next day, I put everything I had in a backpack, and took off. That was the week after Easter. I was on my own until I came here a couple of weeks ago.”
“Thank you for telling me this, Tom,” Brandon said. “I’m going to have to tell Mr. van Meter, and he’ll want to talk to you, but I’m glad to know this. You did nothing wrong. You’re fine. But Ken will want to check on a worker who doesn’t pay attention to her clients. And now, we know all about you, so you had better decide to stay with us,” Brandon joked.
Tom grinned. “I’m not going anywhere. I like it here.”