After Ken van Meter and another social worker came by Brandon’s Boys and picked up Eric Raglan on Saturday, May 14, everyone else felt kind of bad. It was the first failure, and they all felt bad about that, from Brandon, to Aunt Barbara, to every boy there, but especially Freddy. After watching Eric and his effects being loaded into a van and driven away, Freddy went to his room and cried. Everyone spent some time considering what he might have done better, so that the outcome would have been different, but in reality as long as Eric remained hostile to every effort on his behalf, there was nothing to be done.
Nonetheless, the next day was not as joyous as it might have been. After all, six graduations were scheduled for that Sunday. Bobby Ferguson, Freddy Foster, and Daniel Marlow were all slated to graduate from St. Rose of Lima Parochial School, while Oliver Ballard, Clarence Brooke, and Joe Chavez were in line to received their diplomas from Lord Baltimore High School.
At St. Rose, the eighth grade class attended the 11:00 Mass as a unit, and were honored by the pastor, Rev. Joshua Harvey, and received an ovation from the congregation. Then, they marched out of the church at the end of Mass in the procession with the priest and the altar boys. They had a group picture taken on the front steps of the church, which seemed to take forever. Then they made their way, in considerable less order, to the social hall (not the school cafeteria), where there was another ceremony, in which the Principal, Teresa Castro, praised the class, mentioning several young people who had received some special award. Freddy was honored as having put in more time helping others than anyone else in the class. Then they broke for a buffet luncheon, prepared by the women of the parish.
Bobby and Daniel had family to help them celebrate. Bobby’s mother came to the Mass and following ceremony, accompanied by seven of his eight siblings. She had been working two dead-end jobs in order to support her family when first brought to the attention of Brandon, but, thanks to the pastoral advice given her by Lamar Todd, she had no more children. Bobby had been back to see the family from time to time. Just because he was at Brandon’s Boys did not mean he had to be cut off from everyone else. Claretta Ferguson was immensely grateful to Father Todd and to Brandon for salvaging her son, as she saw it. Bobby had been in constant trouble before coming to Brandon’s Boys. It was certainly not easy for her now, but things were better. While Brandon had to be reminded from time to time that he could not solve all the world’s problems, he did insist on helping in this case. He quietly arranged to supplement Mrs. Ferguson’s income to match what she was earning at her nighttime job, and in its place she was attending Madison Community College, seeking a degree and certification as a child care giver and nanny. If she could find a job at a child care center, she would be much happier. So, Bobby was very pleased with the fact that his mother and most of his siblings were there for his graduation. Of course, no one had heard from his father in years, and an older brother was currently in juvenile detention, but those who were available came.
Similarly, Daniel Marlow had family at the ceremony. His uncle, Aaron Marlow, was the Assistant Director of Madison Forest, the extensive wilderness area in the southeast sector of Madison County, beyond the city limits of Clifton. Aaron was married, and had three kids. Aaron had been in the Marines, having gone through ROTC at the University, and leaving as a captain. He had also converted to Catholicism while in high school. His oldest son and namesake was currently away in the Corps, but Aunt Meghan and Charlie and Peggy came to the ceremony. They were closer to Daniel’s age anyway. And his Aunt Penny Roanhorse drove in from Westbrook as well, although none of the rest of that branch of the family accompanied her. But it felt good to have family around along with the other boys on a day like this.
Freddy had no family at the ceremony, but he had Brandon and Chris and the other boys. Everyone was celebrated, and everyone got graduation presents. All of them would be attending Baltimore High in the fall. When they got back to the house, Aunt Barbara also had a present in the form of a great Sunday dinner, with the favorite foods of the three boys among the items causing the table to groan. Oliver pretended that he was upset that the younger boys got their favorites, but the guys graduating from high school later that day, including him, did not. Aunt Barbara just told him to behave himself and let the younger guys enjoy their time.
Commencement ceremonies for Lord Baltimore High School were held in the school auditorium at 7:30 on that same evening. Among those in cap and gown who would walk across the stage and receive a diploma from Principal Felix Ryan were Oliver Ballard, Clarence Brooke, and Jose Chavez. Joe joked that, as they were all at the front of the alphabet, they should duck out after he got his diploma, and not wait around for all those at the rear of the line. One look from Brandon quelled that idea immediately.
Following the commencement ceremony there was a dance held in the gym, with music provided by a local teen band. Many of the family members who had come for the occasion went home at this point, but the kids tended to stay until everything closed down at midnight.
Edward Oliver Ballard had made his plans. As Brandon had pointed out to Catherine Grice and Ken van Meter, he had an inheritance, so he was able to ostentatiously offer to reimburse Brandon for all he had spent on him once he reached his majority on October 9. Brandon swatted his behind, and told him to find some deserving soul and spend his money helping someone else. Oliver rented an apartment at the Kenilworth, located right across Oak Street from the University campus. To inaugurate it, he invited his girlfriend, Mallory Hoff, to spend the night. Mallory was a year behind Oliver in school, and so had another year to go before being ready to celebrate her commencement, but she was quite prepared to help him celebrate, and expected to spend a good deal of time in this apartment. Oliver was able to get furnishings out of storage which had once adorned his parents’ place in Lexington. After Memorial Day, he would have a summer job, but not working construction, as he had in the past. This summer, he had a position with Pennington, Pennington, and Rafferty, the legal firm which handled all Brandon’s Boys affairs. He was little more than a gofer, running errands, but he thought it would be good to help him decide for sure whether he wanted to pursue the legal option, or go down the road to becoming a teacher. On the whole, Oliver seemed pretty well settled.
Then there was Clarence. Clarence Lee Brooke. Clarence was one of the boys brought to Brandon’s Boys by Father Todd when his grandmother appealed for help. For nearly seven years, Clarence lived at Brandon’s Boys and sucked in the positive influences found there. Brandon, Father Todd, and Eudora Brooke had been successful in turning around the direction of Clarence’s life. He now graduated from Baltimore High with a very respectable academic record. Clarence was very fond of the horses, and had told Chris Todd several times he would pursue a career with horses, but by the time he graduated from Baltimore he was not at all certain this was what he wanted to do all his life. Chris noticed, and was perceptive enough to deduce the cause. He called Clarence aside a day or so after the commencement, when they were both out at the Farm.
“Listen, Clarence. I know you love the horses, but I kind of think you might not want to spend all your life here, like I do. That’s okay. It’s really, really important to do what you really want and feel comfortable with. You can do something else, and still come out here to ride, you know.”
Clarence was immensely grateful. He told Chris that he thought he’d like to try police work. He felt a need to try to keep things in order, and to help out other idiots like he had been when he first came to Brandon’s Boys. Chris told him there was a concentration offered by the Department of Sociology called Criminal Justice. If he went to the University, as planned, but chose that as his major, he’d be well on his way towards fulfilling the requirements of the Police Department, and well ahead of those who just came in off the streets, or right after being discharged from the armed forces.
Clarence was so grateful for Chris’s attitude that he kissed the older man. At that moment, Brandon appeared. “Hey! Watch it! That’s my partner you’re kissing,” he teased.
Clarence also had a regular girlfriend. This is Bernadette Ngolo. A long time ago, the Todds had hosted a visiting student from Mali named Omar Ngolo, who became involved with a girl named Magdalena Hoff. Magdalena, or Lena, was the daughter of Aunt Magda, who was then the cook and housekeeper at the Todd residence. The result of their involvement in international relations was the girl Bernadette. She was raised at Todd House from birth, and still lived there. Clarence and Bernadette have been going together for several years, so there was little doubt about their eventual marriage. For now, though, Clarence would be provided with a room at the Warren, the boarding house used by Brandon several times previously when his boys graduated from high school. It would also be the home of Joe Chavez until further notice.
Clarence had family in Clifton. His grandmother, Eudora Brooke, had been there for him all along. She visited often, and had been at his graduation. She provided support and continuity. Clarence’s father, Frank, was in the Army, where he was a lifer. Frank was seldom home, and that had been the case for as long as Clarence could remember, so he played only a minor role in the boy’s life. His mother was hopelessly addicted to drugs, and supported herself and her habit by prostitution. Efforts had been made to win her away from this life, but her addiction was too great, and she always went back to it. As a result, she was a negative influence, mainly showing Clarence what to avoid. But Clarence also had his cousin Leon and several other relatives, so he could feel he had family around.
And then there was Joe. Jose Antonio Chavez. Joe had a drug problem when he first came to the attention of the boys, but by the time he graduated from Baltimore High this had been overcome. He was not terribly academic, and so had no desire to attend the University. Rather, he would enter Madison Community College in the fall with a major in Culinary Science. Joe wanted to be a chef. During the summer, he would be working full-time at a Mexican restaurant on the Pike called La Cocina Latina under the eye of the head chef there, Dante Balducci. Dante also had a hard beginning, and was also a graduate of that program, but he had additional training at the hands of some of the leading chefs in the area. He was not restricted to the Mexican cuisine, but he did that best, and that seemed to be what Joe wanted as well. Brandon would support Joe through Madison, just as he would Clarence through the University. Unlike Oliver and Clarence, Joe was gay, and thus far had no significant relationship, but he was definitely open to the possibility.
Joe also had family in Clifton. While Joe’s father was impossible, he had a grandmother who was supportive, his mother’s mother. She was Dorotea Immaculata Espinueva, a woman who survived by cleaning houses after her husband died, and who managed to show up for Joe’s graduation. She was the only member of his family to support him, and he greatly appreciated it. It was Grandmother Espinueva who provided the next Brandon’s boy.
On the Saturday after Memorial Day, Joe was visiting his grandmother, just to make sure she was okay. He always did little jobs around her place, as she was getting on in age, and not as able as previously to take care of things. They sat and talked as well, as Dorotea needed companionship as much as anything else. Joe was trying to get her to take part in a senior group at St. Francis Xavier, but she objected to being lumped in with ‘all those old people.’ This caused Joe to smile. Abuela had spirit. Not much sense sometimes, but spirit.
But she insisted on changing the subject, and talking about Joe’s cousin Francisco, called Paco. The boy was only nine years old, and he had a handicap. His left leg was about two inches shorter than his right. This was due to neglect back years ago, when the boy had broken his leg, and his parents had neglected proper treatment. As a result, he was unable to participate in the ordinary activities of boys his age. His father, Abuela’s son, was dead. He had joined the Army and been killed in Afghanistan. The boy’s mother was considered very unreliable, and Dorotea suspected she neglected the boy, or possibly even abused him. She always spoke of him as a freak and a burden. So, Joe’s grandmother charged him to go by his Aunt Juanita’s place and check on the boy.
Consequently, rather than return directly to the room at the Warren provided by Brandon after his graduation, Joe stopped by the apartment of his Aunt Juanita. It was in a pretty run down building, with graffiti on the walls. Entering, Joe was struck by the odor of urine and marijuana in the corridor. He made his way to the second floor, and knocked on the door. There was no response, although he had been assured when he called from his grandmother’s place that they were at home. He knocked again. There was some sound from within, but no answer to his knock. So, he tried the door, to discover it was unlocked.
When Joe entered the room the most powerful impression was of the stench. He could not identify it at first, and it was so pervasive he wanted nothing more than to escape, but he had promised Abuela to check on Paco. He looked about the room. It was an absolute pigsty. There were dirty dishes on several surfaces, and dirty clothing on the others. The window, supposedly there for light, was so dirty little came through. As he began to move into the room, Joe became aware that there were noxious puddles on the floor. He had to be careful not to step into something. As he rounded the sofa, which was turned away from the door, facing the televison, he became aware that there was someone on it. Although she had deteriorated since he last saw her, it was obviously Aunt Juanita. But she was in no condition to answer any questions about Paco. There was a needle still protruding from her arm. She must have treated herself right after talking to Abuela on the phone. Joe made his way around the mess, and towards an alcove next to the kitchen where he knew Paco had a cot.
As he neared, he was again appalled. Lying on the cot was the boy, wearing nothing but undershorts, but with his body covered with bruises and sores. He looked out of it. Joe was fearful as he approached, but he was relieved when the boy took a breath.
“Paco! Paco, can you hear me?” Joe called.
The boy stirred.
“Paco, it’s Joe, your cousin. Are you okay?” Stupid question. Of course he was not okay.
In a weak voice, Paco replied, “Joe? Is it you? Oh, I’m sick.”
“I can see that. Hold on,” Joe said.
He got out his phone and called Brandon’s Boys. Aunt Barbara answered. He asked whether Brandon were in town, but, as he feared, he was out at the Farm. Joe decided Paco’s situation needed immediate attention. He would square it with Brandon later. He told Aunt Barbara he needed a car to come and deliver him and his cousin to Dr. Castleman. She sensed the tension in his voice, and trusted Joe’s judgement.
“I’ll be there right away.”
Joe gave her directions. Then he called and spoke with Dr. Castleman, whom he knew from his many visits over the years. He then got Paco up, and dressed in some of the least filthy clothes he could locate. Then, Joe carried his cousin down to the curb. No sooner had they arrived than Joe saw one of the Brandon’s Boys vehicles turning the corner, approaching. It was a van, and so, amid many exclamations from Aunt Barbara, they packed Paco onto a seat and took off for the Todd Medical Clinic. There, they found Josh Castleman awaiting them. He said nothing, but the expression on his face said a lot. For well over an hour, he worked with Paco. Then, he insisted that the boy be admitted to University Hospital. There were some things he could not do at the office, and the boy needed rest anyway. One thing which they did accomplish was a complete bath. Before himself leaving for the hospital, Josh also took a shower.
While all this was going on, Joe called Brandon out at the Farm and explained what he had found that morning. There was no need for Brandon to come into town, but Joe did want him to know that he was charging Paco’s care to the Brandon’s Boys account. Brandon was in complete agreement. The boy obviously needed immediate attention. But Brandon also suggested that Ken van Meter and Social Services needed to be informed. And so, with a number supplied by Brandon, Joe called Mr. Van Meter. Ken listened with disgust to Joe’s description of the conditions in which he had found his cousin. Ken had encountered similar conditions in the homes of other drug addicts. He got busy, and, with a police escort, went to the Espinueva apartment, where he found conditions as Joe had described them, including a still comatose Aunt Juanita. She was roused and taken down town, and the apartment locked up. There was nothing there anyone would want to steal, but they wanted to preserve the scene as evidence of the conditions in which young Paco was living.
Paco had multiple problems. In addition to the problem with his left leg, which was now several years old, Paco has sores all over his body. Some were bruises, and seemed to be the result of beatings. Others may have been a result of falls. But there were also other sores. There were burned places, some of which were infected. In a weak voice, Paco admitted that sometimes he was bad, and did not finish his chores as quickly as his mother wanted. At those times, she would punish him by rubbing her lighted cigarette on his exposed skin. Moreover, the boy was seriously malnourished. There was often nothing in the apartment to eat. He had lice and worms, a result of the unsanitary conditions in the apartment.
When all the busyness of getting Paco admitted and checked out had subsided, Joe was at last able to just sit by his bed and talk to the boy.
“You’ve had it rough, little cousin, but things will get better,” Joe promised.
“I’m already better. I felt really yucky. Thanks, Joe,” Paco said.
Joe smiled. “It’s going to be a while before you’re all well. I hope you have lots of patience.”
Paco very seriously said, “I have lots.”
Joe hugged the boy. He was careful, as he did not want to irritate anything. But the grin on Paco’s face was more than enough assurance that no harm was done.
“I’ll come visit you every day while you’re in the hospital here,” Joe promised. “Then, when you’re better, you can go live where I lived, at a place called Brandon’s Boys. There are other boys there, and Aunt Barbara fixes great meals every day. And it’s clean.” He had no qualms about promising this, as he knew Brandon well enough by now to be assured of his response to Paco’s situation. Besides, he had spoken to Brandon while the doctors were examining Paco.
“What about Mama?” Paco asked.
“I don’t know, Paco. Your mama has some serious problems, too. Maybe she can get help, just like you. But tell me, how did you get in such bad shape? Didn’t anyone at school ask about you?” Joe asked.
“I haven’t been in school since before Christmas. Mama said it was too much trouble to get me down to the school, because of my leg, you know. So she said I would be home schooled. She got some books for me, and she let me watch programs on television in the mornings, when she was usually asleep, as long as I kept the volume down,” Paco explained.
But Joe noticed that Paco was getting weaker in his responses, and so he told him to do what the doctors and nurses told him, and he’s be back tomorrow to check on him. “Just get well, little Cuz.” Then Joe left, so Paco could get some sleep.
The next day, after praying earnestly for Paco at Mass, and after telling his boss at La Cocina Latina about things, Joe was told by Pedro Hernandez to take care of his cousin, and not worry about the job for the next few days. Then, Joe went to see Brandon. He knew Brandon had come in from the Farm early in the morning, as he saw him at Mass, and asked to stop by later. He explained in more detail what he had discovered, and what he had done. Brandon congratulated him for his concern for his cousin, and for the way he handled things. He assured Joe he would, indeed, accept Paco as a new Brandon’s boy, and cover all expenses associated with his medical condition.
Then Joe went to see his grandmother. When he described the conditions he discovered at his aunt’s apartment, she was appalled. She knew Juanita was irresponsible, but had no idea things had deteriorated that badly. She had not visited recently, as Juanita had been distinctly unfriendly when she was last there, as a result of a few ‘suggestions’ Abuela made about her housekeeping.
Brandon contacted Anjali Pennington, the legal advisor to Brandon’s Boys, and had her look into the situation. As a result, well before Paco was in any condition to leave the hospital, Juanita Espenuena was in jail, accused of aggravated child abuse, and Paco was assigned to Brandon’s Boys group home. His effects were gathered up, and there were not many. A cleaning company was hired to clean out the apartment, and said they had never seen anything quite as bad.
And Joe did go by to see Paco every day.