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    Excerpt from Chapter 12: Dreams Do Come True

    When I went home that night, I shared the story with my mother; she said she would call the school and talk with somebody about it. The next day, true to her word, she came to school to meet with another guidance counselor. After hearing what had transpired, he gave my mother a business card and said, “It is clear to me that the other counselor will not help you, but I have an external resource that could. Her name is Pam Boivert, and she runs an Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) Trio program for low-income, first-generation college students. Perhaps she can help your son out.” He said this to her with uncertainty, but it was another option for me to try.

    My mother called the number on the card that same day to schedule an appointment for us. Our meeting was at the end of the week, and I took everything I had prepared for my guidance counselor with me. I was so concerned and worried that she would say the same thing my guidance counselor had said to me, that I was not college material, and I vowed to do everything I could to prove my case. I was the only advocate I had, and I was desperate for a yes.

    When we arrived at Pam’s office off Main Street in the clean business district of downtown Worcester, I was struck by the college pennants hanging on the walls. They were visual confirmation that this center could help kids like me get into college. My mom asked for Pam, and out walked a well-dressed, conservative-looking middle-aged white woman. We went into her office, where she shared what she did as an EOC counselor and reviewed the information that my mother had filled out. She was friendly yet professional, and wanted to know more about my family, my story, and me. After the interview, she told us that we qualified for the program.

    “So what does that mean?” I asked eagerly.

    “It means that I will help you get into college!” She beamed, sensing the mounting nerves between my mother and me. I nearly fainted when I heard those words. I hadn’t even applied to college yet, and the joy I felt in that moment was unmatched by anything in my life. I felt as if the 800-pound proverbial gorilla had finally jumped off my back.

    “I want you to know that I am committed to doing whatever I have to do to make sure I get admitted to college,” I said, an ear-splitting smile painted on my face. With great enthusiasm, I ran through my litany of accomplishments, both inside and outside of school, to add to the college application process. I was talking faster than I ever had, and was intent on covering it all.

    Pam held her hands up in mock-defense. “Hold on, we’re just getting started. You will have plenty of time to make your case. First, let’s put together a plan for what we need to get accomplished over the next several months.”

    I laughed, and my mother calmed me down by saying, “Douglas, Pam is going to help us. She believes in us, so trust the process and let her do her job.”

    I nodded in agreement, saying to myself, Yes, Pam . . . do your job, do your job, do your job, and help me get into college! My excitement was uncontainable. As we wrapped up our first meeting, Pam gave me a homework assignment, which was to create a list of colleges that I wanted to attend. I was encouraged to put them into three categories: safety schools, good schools, and dream schools. We would discuss each of them the next time we met.

    That night, I went home to start my research. For the next couple of days, I was obsessed with my search and talked incessantly to other students about it, asking adults if they were college graduates and where they went to college, and I watched several television shows about university life. The week before our next meeting passed quickly, and by then, I had neatly written out the list of schools I wanted to focus on. My safety school was University of Bridgeport, which is no longer in existence; my good schools were Fairfield University and University of Hartford; and my dream schools were UMASS-Amherst and Northeastern University. Even the safety school seemed like a dream school considering everything I had been through. Regardless of where I attended, I wanted to leave Worcester and one day come back as a contributing member of society, giving back to other youth and families that were going through some of the same life challenges I had experienced.

    I went by myself to my next meeting with Pam, because I felt that my mother had taken me as far as she could and that I needed to take control of my own future. It was time for me to break new ground as the first member of my family to attend college.

    The meetings with Pam were all very productive, and we treated the application process as though it was a second job, working on deliverables on a daily basis with laser-like focus. Pam helped me fill out each college application, helped me craft my personal statement of purpose, helped me fill out my financial aid application, and helped me research and apply for scholarships that I was eligible to receive.

    Each time I met with her, I could not get over how willing and open she was to helping me. The support Pam gave me was the fuel that got my ignition going and was such a contrast to the guidance counselor who tried to ice me out of a college future. It was clear to me as I worked with Pam that my guidance counselor had no interest in helping me, and I was glad that I did not let his advice become the final authority over my situation. My heart went out to other high school students who, one way or another, were told not to apply to college because they were not college material. Each day I went to school, I passed the main office and glanced into the guidance office. Never again will I allow the voice of someone else dictate what I will become in life, I thought. Never again!

    With Pam’s help, I did everything I needed to do and completed the entire college application process. The EOC paid the application fees. Now it was out of my hands and up to the colleges. And God. I knew that whatever happened, I did what I needed to do. Just one month after getting off the streets as a homeless teen, I had applied to college. Something I thought was merely a dream was starting to come true.

    Several months went by, and even though the process of applying to college was over, I continued my relationship with Pam because I had very few adults in my life who genuinely helped me and wanted me to succeed. I decided that I would try, come what may, to keep her in my life as a source of inspiration and motivation to continue to do my best in life.

    During the spring of my senior year, students started getting letters from colleges regarding their acceptance or denial. The news came in one of two forms: regular-sized, light envelopes meant that you did not get in, while thick, heavy 8½ x 11 envelopes meant official college acceptance . . . You were a college student in the making. When I sent in my last application, I prayed every day for God to make a way for me to receive at least one of those giant, heavy envelopes.

    Sometime toward the end of the month of March, I received my first large envelope from the University of Bridgeport. My mother put my mail on my bed, and when I saw the University of Bridgeport as the return address, I ripped open the letter and read:

    Congratulations on your admittance to the University of Bridgeport.

    I did not need to read the rest of the letter. I dropped the paper and fell to my knees. “Thank you, God,” I shrieked out loud and buried my head in my pillow, crying tears of joy that all my hard work had paid off. I sat in my room for close to an hour, reading the letter over and over again. Eventually, I made my way back to my feet and out of my room to share the news with my family.

    “Ma, I got into college. I can’t believe it, but they want me, I am college material!”

    My mother, beaming with joy, cheered and jumped up and down, putting her fists in the air. “Yes, God is so good!” she shouted.

    Later that week, the next acceptance letter came from Fairfield University, then the University of Hartford, and then the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. My last acceptance letter was from Northeastern University. I had gotten into all five schools I applied to. Not bad for being told that I was not college material. By the time I read the Northeastern letter, I was face down on the ground, thanking God for making possible what had seemed to me to be the impossible. Pam Boivert was an angel sent down from heaven specifically to be my bridge from homelessness to college in less than six months.

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    Excerpt from Chapter 11: Purpose

    In the office, the secretary took one look at me and said, “Just go on back. The principal would like to speak with you.”

    I felt as though I was walking in to a firing squad. But when I opened the door, the principal stood up with a big smile. “Congratulations, young man. Your mother just had her baby! She wants you and your brother to go see her right after school.”

    I dropped onto one of the chairs across her desk. I was happy for my mom, but as I looked out the window, I wondered, What’s going to happen now? How are we going to make it on the streets, in a motel, or staying with friends now that we have a newborn in the family?

    When school ended, my brother and I walked together to the hospital, which was on the same road as the motel. By then, I was just eager to make sure my mother and the baby were okay.

    “Come on, Darrell, hurry up,” I said, pulling on his arm.

    “I still can’t believe Ma had another baby!” Darrell replied as he picked up his pace. The excitement in his voice matched my own, even if mine was tempered by fear.

    At the hospital, we rushed upstairs to the maternity ward to find our mother’s room. I got more nervous the closer we got. What if something had gone wrong and no one had told us? As I opened the door, I saw my mother sleeping. Right next to her, in a portable hospital crib, a tiny little baby also slept, tightly swaddled. Since we had little family, the room was sterile and dressed with just standard hospital fixings. Darrell and I did not have money to brighten the space with flowers, plants, or balloons, but we lit it up as much as we could with our presence.

    I walked up to the bed, putting my hand on my mother’s shoulder. “Hey, Ma, it’s me, Douglas. How are you feeling?”

    Her eyelids lifted heavily before lowering again. “Tired,” she managed. “Just tired.”

    “Well, Darrell, and I are here, and we want you to get some rest,” I said.

    As my mother slept, Darrell and I peered into the crib with big eyes and curious spirits. Our little sister was wrapped up in a pink blanket that my mother had purchased just before giving birth. The words my mother had spoken—“Tired, just tired”—resonated with me. They seemed to describe more than just her experience giving birth. The way she had to live her life, working hard day after day and struggling to make ends meet . . . I thought if she was tired before, the demands of a newborn just might send her overboard. I realized that I needed to help her out more, not just with my new sister Danielle, but also with all my siblings. I needed to be more of a father figure to them, even though I lacked a fatherly example in my own life.

    With a sigh, my mother turned over and seemed to come around. She smiled warmly. “It is so great to see both of you,” she said. “Now, I lost a lot of blood during my delivery and will need to stay in the hospital for the next couple of days. I need you both to take the money in my pocketbook and pay off the bill for the motel room. Pack our things, and then I will need you guys to stay with one of your friends for a while until I figure out what we are going to do next.”

    With her words, the roller coaster ride I had been on crested at its peak. On our creaky seat, we were just moments away from taking off faster than ever before.

    “What about Derrick?” I asked. “Where will he stay once we check out of the motel?”

    Reluctantly, Mom said, “When I knew I was getting close to having Danielle, I called Joe. I asked him to take care of Derrick until I could get out of the hospital. I need you to stay at the motel tonight—Joe will come by with Derrick to pick up our belongings and take them to his new place. I need you to hurry before it gets too late so you can also call one of your friends and see if you can stay with them for a while after school tomorrow.”

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    Excerpt from Chapter 10: Crossroads at the Overpass

    That day, I went to go speak to my guidance counselor about college, as all seniors doing that were college-bound. As I approached his office, I was overwhelmed with the various college pennants that proudly covered the landscape of the walls, from Harvard to UMASS to Worcester State College. I felt like I was standing at the doors of a college admissions office, and on the other side was my dream becoming reality. I teared up with inspiration and was grateful that I would be able to go through the process.

    “Thank you so much for meeting with me,” I enthusiastically said. “I had a dream about going to college, and I wanted to talk with you about how you can help me apply and get accepted.”

    My guidance counselor looked across the desk at me and told me words that even to this day send shivers down my spine. “I hate to tell you this, Douglas, but I don’t think college is for you. You are just not college material.” For a moment, I thought I was dreaming again, but I wasn’t.

    “Excuse me? I don’t understand. Don’t you advise and help all students who want to get into college or just those who fit a certain profile?” I was clearly defensive.

    “Listen, Douglas,” he said, “your family is facing extraordinary challenges right now. I heard that you are working and that is what you need to do. You need to support them by keeping that job, by making money so you can help your family get off the streets. Your mom is also pregnant, right? Wouldn’t you agree that you have other emerging things in your life to work on first that are more important than going to college?”

    I nodded mutely.

    “You need to be the man of the house. College is for other kids. You are doing what you need to do right now—working!”

    I was devastated. On one hand, I knew my guidance counselor was right: staying home and finding a job nearby was a viable option. But I was dying for someone to recognize that I was college material and just needed a chance. Academically, I felt that my grades and extracurricular activities were strong enough to gain college admittance, but I did not know anything about the process or where to begin. And all I heard that day was “Don’t even try.”

    Depressed and hopeless, I decided to stop off at a church that was on the same bus route as the motel. I was hoping to find someone to talk to, anyone who might contradict my guidance counselor’s advice and assure me that I was college material. As I reached the intimidating twelve-foot-tall doors of the church, I knocked, praying that someone would respond. To my surprise, a blue-eyed, red-cheeked, Irish-looking man dressed in a classic black pastoral robe opened the door. When he saw me, his open expression changed to one of mistrust, perhaps even instinctive dislike.

    “What do you want and who told you to come here?” he demanded.

    My first thought was to tell him that Jesus sent me, but then I said, “Excuse me, sir, but I just need someone to talk to. I am currently homeless and staying with my family in a motel. My dream is to go to college, but my guidance counselor just told me that I wasn’t college material.”        The pastor blinked once. “If it is God’s will for you to go to college, then He will make it so.” As he finished his last words, he slammed the big door right in my face.

    That’s it? That’s all he has to say to me? God’s will? Angry and confused, I walked back to the motel with my head down. Was it God’s will for my family to be homeless? Was it God’s will for us to be sleeping in a run-down room, sharing beds with one another? Why did I have to go through this? First, my friends in school turned their backs on me, then my guidance counselor told me I wasn’t college material, and now even the church closed its doors on me. Nothing good would ever come from this, I thought. What was the point in trying? I retreated inward like never before, hating myself, hating my family, hating my guidance counselor, and hating school.

    I decided not to go back to the motel but instead, I would spend the night at Elm Park down the street from my high school. It was not a very big park; you could see from one side to the next. It was centered in a residential community, so many families spent time there after work playing with their children. When I was little, we played there as well. I sat on one of the benches, almost in a trance over the events of the day, replaying the conversations I had earlier with my guidance counselor. As the sun went down, the wind chill of a New England night came upon me; I needed to find a place to sleep that would protect me from the elements. I made my way over one of the bridges in the park and decided to sleep under the bridge. I did not sleep at all that night, between the stray dogs barking and the police sirens blaring through the park. The hard dirt and smell of urine under the bridge made me feel like I was sleeping in a cesspool, but it didn’t matter; at that point, my life had become a cesspool.

    The next day, I wandered through the park, unable to take the chaos of my own thoughts anymore. I crossed over a freeway overpass that I frequently used during my daily walks to the bus stop, and had the thought that jumping into ongoing traffic would be a quick and easy way of ending my suffering. The next thing I knew, I was standing on the overpass, and what seemed like a dream was actually reality: I was climbing over the barrier and getting ready to drop into the cars rushing past below. The only thing I could hear was the racing of my heart, just as loud and fast as the cars passing by underneath me. Images of growing up passed by: my mom getting beaten up by my father, me being bullied, staying back in school, being told that I had delusions of grandeur, watching Joe make an ass of himself, and being told I was not college material. Just jump, my thoughts whispered, and then you will no longer feel any pain. Just jump. You have come too far to turn back know. I closed my eyes, feeling a swoon of vertigo as a gust of wind rocked me. And then I heard a voice. Someone called out to me.

    My eyes flew open. Standing just ten feet away from me was a raggedly-dressed white homeless man with a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and what looked like a weathered bible in the other. I snapped out of my trance, curious as to what he was saying to me and why he was talking to me in the first place. I will never forget what I heard next.

    “Hey, man,” he called out. “Jesus loves you. He told me that He has a plan for you, brother. He has hope and a future for you! Let me show you what I’m talking about,” he said, pointing to his bible with the pages almost falling to the ground.

    I wasn’t sure if the guy was drunk or just plain crazy, but what he said was exactly what I needed to hear. Plan, hope, future . . . words I had sought from school and from church and which had seemed absent in my life just moments before. I was hungry for them. I couldn’t jump when someone was ready to offer me some hope.

    I climbed over the barrier and walked over to the homeless man. Without acknowledging what we both knew I was about to do, he turned his bible to Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Out of all the scriptures in the bible, that one was written especially for me.

    All my life, I grew up witnessing my mother talking to Jesus and not understanding the difference it was making in her heart and in our lives. However, at this moment, it was clear to me that Jesus was now talking with me. I felt so comfortable talking with this homeless guy that I shared with him my story and my situation. We both shared something in common—we both were living on the streets, but, unlike me, he was filled with joy and peace and was content with where he was in his life.

    “Man, I have been on the streets for years, and what I learned is that life is what you make it, young man. God did not get you this far to let you down.” Together, we sat on the side of the street, looking up at the overpass, reading the bible, and finishing off his bottle of Jack Daniels.

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    Excerpt from Chapter 9: Homeless

    The police had arrived to a home at a breaking point. The house was thick with raw emotion: hatred hurt, frustration, heartbreak. How we really felt about our lives came out that night, and the police could not tell the aggressor from the victim. I was in such a rage that I blacked out, not remembering later what I said or did but recognizing that if I did not get a handle on myself, I would go to jail. I thought jail might be the best place for me right then because I was so filled with hatred that I wanted to take out my rage on the next person to cross me, even if it was an innocent bystander. Hurt people, almost without exception, hurt people. They don’t need cause or provocation. They think that by hurting others, they will be able to beat out their own pain, and in those moments when my fists made contact with Joe’s skin, I felt the great release of years of pent-up aggression. I didn’t see yet that when the adrenaline wore off, I would feel more depressed than I ever had.

     My mother, whose belly was round and full, lowered to her knees while another officer pressed her to get down. “Ma’am, I need you to get on the ground.”

    I leaped to my feet and directed my fury at the officer. “For the love of God, can’t you see that my mother is pregnant? Take your hands off of her.”

    Almost immediately, I felt the crushing blow of cold steel against the back of my leg; the officer’s baton knocked my entire body to the ground. With a knee to the middle of my back, a third officer was able to calm everybody down so that even heads would prevail.

    Drunk and with a cigarette still dangling from his upper lip, Joe yelled, “Pack your shit up and get the hell out of here—I’m done with all of you. Get out of my house, now!” At his words, we all froze. The only income my mother received as a housekeeper was under the table. Therefore, and as the police would later confirm, all the bills and the rent were under Joe’s name; if Joe wanted us out, we had to get out.

    Desperately, my mother begged Joe to reconsider, but the deep sense of betrayal he felt was too much for him. “Just get out,” he repeated, wiping his forehead of blood and spitting into a trashcan.

    Just get out. The words rang through my entire body as, in complete shock, I hurried back to my room to pack a couple days’ worth of clothes and my books for school. I flashed back to the early morning sounds of an annoying vacuum cleaner buzzing and my mother talking to Jesus, and for the first time in my life, I wondered if Jesus was really there and why he would allow our family to be broken apart like this.

    As I crammed t-shirts into a bag, I mumbled, “Jesus, if you are there, please rescue me and my family. Please, Jesus, help us now!” I neither heard nor felt anything back and retreated into a cocoon of depression that would manifest itself in destructive ways in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

    My mother, Darrell, and Derrick took a little longer to gather their things, partly because my mother was the only one who knew where everything was. They also may have been procrastinating; hoping that Joe or the police officers would feel a shoestring of pity and not force us out into the blistering New England winter-night streets. In the shadows of crushed beer cans and an overflowing ashtray of cigarette butts, Joe sat quietly at the kitchen table, not uttering one word in our defense.

    Once we were outside, the reality that we were on our own settled in. Dazed and bruised, both physically and emotionally, my brothers and I followed behind our mother with our coats half on, each of us weeping for our own reasons. One police officer had stayed in the house to get a statement from Joe, and two others escorted us down the street. When we got to the bus stop at the end of the road, the officers hung back. We sat down on the steps leading to a big white Protestant church, and I hoped someone would open the doors and help us find a place to stay.

    “Where are we going, Ma?” Derrick asked in a small voice. He was ten or eleven, dark-skinned like Joe, with ivory teeth and a sweet, soft-spoken disposition. “Where are we going to stay the night?”

    “Just shut up and be quiet, Derrick,” Darrell said. Like me, he was still emanating rage, clenching his jaw and fists. Darrell was a loose cannon and didn’t seem to notice the cuts and bruises marring his face and knuckles.

    Rubbing her pregnant stomach as if looking for an answer, my mother did not respond. She just peered further down the road to see if a bus was anywhere in sight. The police car still idled between our house and the bus stop, but otherwise, the street was quiet and empty.

    Ten minutes turned into twenty and then forty-five minutes, and as an hour approached, I realized that we’d been so in shock when we left the house, we had not realized it was close to ten o’clock at night, and the city bus had stopped running hours ago. Numb and cold, my mother alternated covering our hands and ears with her hands to keep the blood circulating and help us avoid frostbite. Then the police car came to life as the officer inside drove forward to check on us.

    As he rolled down the passenger window, steam flew from the combustion of the cold outside air with the heated car air. “No more buses tonight, huh?” the officer asked.

    My mother shook her head without a word, her shoulders held back proudly.

    The officer sighed, and I saw compassion on his face. “Listen,” he said, “I know of a shelter on the other side of town that might take you guys in for a couple of nights. Why don’t you get in?” He gestured toward the backseat of his cruiser.

    My mother looked into our eyes, seeing how hard we shivered, and decided to take him up on his offer. We loaded into the police car fast in search of relief from the frigid, black night. Ma sat in front with the officer, while Darrell, Derrick, and I piled into the back. I was eighteen, and although I had already done much that could have landed me in the back of a police car, I’d never had this experience. I hid my head on the way to the shelter, embarrassed that someone from the neighborhood might see us. I made up my mind that I would never experience this again: this confinement to the back of a police car, feeling the absolute absence of freedom. As we drove down Main Street toward the downtown area, the silhouettes of sterile housing projects overwhelmed me. Life as I knew it was changing.

    When we arrived at the shelter, called the Abbey House, we were greeted by a young white woman in her twenties who had a warm smile and a spirit of caring about her. My brothers and I stayed in the car as the police officer and our mother inquired about emergency shelter for the night. At eighteen, I knew that I would not be able to go into the shelter with my family. I feared the worst, thinking that I would be dropped off at the men’s shelter. I knew what that meant, what some of the men in there might do; I did not want to be another man’s bitch for the night, or ever, for that matter. The thought of defending myself as fresh meat terrified me. It was true that I grew up fighting and had just finished fighting Joe, but fighting grown, strong homeless men with nothing to lose was a different story. I just could not go there—I would rather sleep out in the bitter cold and die on the streets than emotionally and mentally die in the arms of a sick, twisted, homeless man.

    In just a few minutes, my mom and the officer returned to the police cruiser with puzzled looks on their faces. My fears had been so vivid, so forceful, that I was certain bad news would follow. But when they entered the cruiser, no one said a word, and our heads lowered in the back seat as we drove off. Before we turned a corner, I glanced back at the Abbey House and saw the young white lady standing on the snowy front yard, a look of disappointment and apology on her face. I sensed that if it was up to her and she had the power, she would have let us all in the shelter that night, but the rules and regulations would not permit her to do so. I would find out later that the Abbey House was a short-term emergency shelter for women and children only, so my brother Darrell and I would be off on our own to face exactly what I feared most. Thank God, though, my mother wanted all of us to stay together, so we had to find a different solution.

    Still in the police cruiser, we headed northeast on Route 9 toward Boston. We made our way through Shrewsbury, stopping at a dilapidated motel that had daily, weekly, and monthly rates posted outside the front door. The motel sign was dangling by one or two stubborn bolts, and some of the light bulbs were out on the sign. The police officer dropped us off, and we collected our belongings and went to the office.

    It was now around eleven, and the office looked unchanged from the 1970s. A picture of John Travolta from Grease barely clung to the wall, and James Taylor played on a small transmitter radio with a long antenna. The office was empty, but my mother didn’t hesitate. She strode to the countertop and banged on the bell, signifying the need for service. A middle-aged man emerged from behind a door toward the back of the office. He was overweight and disheveled, with long hair and an overgrown mustache, and he looked my mother and all of us up and down before asking, “So what brings you here tonight?”

    My mother replied, “How much does it cost to stay here for a week? We need a place to stay for a little while.”

    The man seemed to soften. “Well, if you need a place to stay and can pay me by the end of the week, you can stay here.”

    We walked, single file, through the narrow hallway to a room on the second floor. We all stayed close to the building because the railing was unstable and rattled back and forth with each step.

    Mom opened the room door with the key, and an immediate reek of smoke made us cough and cover our noses with our shirts. The room was illuminated by a yellow-white light in the middle of two twin beds. My mom asked me to take off the top blankets on the beds because, as a housekeeper who also worked in a hotel, she knew the common practice was to wash only the bed sheets. As we got settled in and took off our shoes, we found that the carpet was sticky, trash from former guests was left behind in the trashcan, and the bathroom was filthy. It was clear that the room had not been cleaned that morning. My mother launched into housekeeper mode, actually going to the office for cleaning supplies, and the room felt more comfortable and livable in no time. I welcomed the strong smell of bleach, especially in the bathroom.

    After she finished cleaning, I could see the depression in her eyes, and she said nothing to us as we watched television. Making herself small in bed, she turned to face the wall and just went to sleep. Traumatized by this entire experience, I told my brothers to get some rest because we had school the next day.

    The lights from the motel shone through the translucent curtains, and tears ran down my cheeks as I wondered why God was making us go through this. I had never experienced such internal pain, fear, and anger before, and I did not know how to process what was happening to us. I started to feel that it was my fault. If I’d just let Joe do what he wanted to do and hadn’t threatened him, perhaps we would still be in the apartment and not in this rundown motel off a two-lane highway.

    Throughout the night, I was woken up by the moaning, weeping, and sobbing of the others, but no one said anything because the cries represented what we all were feeling. Hopelessness deposited itself into my spirit that night. I wanted to close my eyes and sleep forever.

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    Excerpt from Chapter 8: Family Meeting

    The notion of working hard and working often seemed to be rubbing off on other members of my household: Joe took on more hours throughout the week and even on a few Saturdays for overtime pay, and my mother got a full-time job as a housekeeper for the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Shrewsbury, in addition to her regular house-cleaning hours. While I was excited to see more money come into the house, what little family unity we had was giving way to longer hours at work or late-night social events with co-workers. Coming home on a Friday night to an empty house made it tempting to return to my old ways of drinking and partying, but in my heart, I was done with all that. I was used to having a lot of unsupervised time as a child, but this was different because I could see that Joe and my mother’s relationship had drifted apart.

    In fact, my mother had already divorced Joe when I started high school, but since she had three boys and nowhere to go, they agreed that we would stay in the house. Darrell and I still had our own rooms, but my mother and younger brother Derrick slept on the living room couch, an embarrassing reality that I hid by rarely inviting friends over. And even though they were divorced, my mother sometimes spent time in the back room with Joe. I suppose she had to pay a price for keeping some type of roof over our heads. Back then, though, I wondered why she did not muster up the courage to try to make it on her own since her boys were growing up, but as an adult now—a father—I look back and understand that she was trying to hold a semblance of family together for our sake.

    Naturally, working multiple jobs and multiple shifts took its toll on my mother. Because Joe was a horrible example, we grew up letting my mother do all the cleaning and cooking around the house. If she asked for help, we helped, but we did not take the initiative to do it unrequested. One day, my mom came home from work and found my brothers and me sitting in the living room—her bedroom—watching TV. As soon as she came through the door, her housekeeper uniform still on, I asked her if she could clean the bathroom because it was filthy. She looked at me as if I was Joe. “Get your ass up and clean it yourself!” she responded. “But I don’t know how!” I protested.

    She lost it. She screamed and cursed at me and grabbed whatever was closest—her purse, her shoe—and let me have it. That was when I knew she was pushed to the edge. Upset with myself for being such a bonehead, I ran to the bathroom and frantically grabbed a towel and the bar of soap on the sink, but the emotional damage to her was done.

    “Ma, I finished cleaning the bathroom,” I ventured when I finished cleaning as well as a novice could. “I’m sorry for saying that.”

    She walked away from me. “Good,” she said, bone-tired and angry. “It’s about time you learn how to do things around this house.”

    So I did what I always did when things did not go well in my life: I left the house and got drunk. I had someone buy me a forty-ounce and went to the park alone, letting myself sink into buzzed relaxation with each sip.

    When I came home, I had to weave through the living room to get to my room, so I knew I would encounter my mother, but I didn’t care anymore, either. I opened the door, and our eyes met in silence as I made my way to my room.

    During that season in my life, there were many mornings when I woke up to find that both Joe and my mother had left for work, leaving me with the responsibility of making sure my brothers got up, got dressed, got something to eat, and made it to school, especially Derrick, who was still in elementary school. The additional money coming into our home mattered less to me as whatever family unit we previously had vaporized before my eyes.

    One night, the phone rang, and it was my mother. She had missed the last city bus for the night and was not able to get home. “Douglas, please go ask Joe if he can come pick me up so I can get home.”

    Now, it being late in the evening, Joe had already downed a couple of beers and probably should not have been driving in the first place, but I did not want my mother to be stranded alone in the streets of Shrewsbury for the night. As I made my way to Joe’s bedroom door, I thought twice about knocking. I even thought about just taking his car, even though I did not have a driver’s license, but I realized that might have done more harm than good. So I knocked hesitantly on his door.

    “Joe, Ma’s on the phone and needs to speak with you. It’s important.”

    On the other side of the door, I could hear him whispering under his breath, put off by having to talk to my mother. In one surprisingly fluid motion, he opened the door, took the phone from my hand, and slammed the door back in my face. Hoping that he would man up and just go get her, I put my ear to the door. At first, all I heard was silence. Then he said, “What do you mean you missed the last bus? Well, you better start walking because I’m not picking you up.”     When he flung the door open, I fell into the room. He threw the phone at my chest. “Here, take it,” he said, grabbing his silver can from the nightstand. “I don’t have anything else to say to your mother tonight.”

    “Joe, why can’t you just pick her up so she is not stranded in Shrewsbury?” I asked, scrambling up from the floor. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

    Agitated, Joe told me to shut up and closed the door in my face for the second time that night. In desperation, I told my mother I would just take Joe’s car and come get her.

    “No, Douglas,” she said firmly. “You don’t have a license, and that will just make matters worse. You just go to bed, and I will figure something out. Don’t worry about me. I will just see you sometime tomorrow. Take care of Darrell and Derrick for me.”

    Before I could get in a last word, my mother hung up the phone. I stood in our kitchen, staring at the phone in dismay as my chest filled with rage toward Joe. I was getting old enough to no longer be afraid of his drunken escapades and thought that I could actually take him. I harbored a lot of resentment and anger toward him, and I knew that one day I would not be able to hold it in any longer.

    I gathered my brothers from their respective beds (or, in Derrick’s case, the couch) and shared the news with them, adding that it would be best if we all stayed in the same room that night. Without my mom, there was a big void in the house, and I wanted us to feel like we at least had each other. But I could not sleep at all. I kept thinking that somehow, some way, my mother would walk through the door, and for some reason, I felt it was important—necessary, even—that I listen for the moment her key turned in the lock. But as the minutes turned into hours, it became obvious that she was not coming home. My mind filled with fear for her. Would she have to sleep outside? It was bitter cold, twenty or thirty degrees with wind that cut to the bone, and her jacket was as thin and patchy as any of ours. What if she didn’t make it through the night? The uncertainty nearly killed me, but there was nothing I could do.

    The next morning, I woke up and said nothing to Joe. I just did what my mother had instructed me to do: get Darrell and Derrick up and ready for school. I spent the entire school day not knowing what had happened to my mother. I did not know if she was alive or where she was, but I prayed throughout each class that she would be home when I got there.

    I ran full speed toward home as soon as the school bus dropped me off. As I made my way up the stairs, the aroma of my mother’s fried chicken got stronger and stronger. Before I reached the door, my mother opened it with a smile. As if she had been home the entire time and there was nothing to worry about, she said, “I’ve been expecting you. Take off your shoes and wash your hands because I made you and your brothers something to eat.” I had never been happier to see her except the time she came back for us when we stayed with our grandparents in Norfolk.

    As we ate, I asked for details on where she’d spent the night, but she did not want to talk about it. She just shared that she had friends from Crowne Plaza that lived in Shrewsbury and was able to crash with them. And that was it. She did not want me to bring it up again.

    After that encounter, Ma and Joe acted like two rival boxers getting ready for their final fight. On a daily basis, our house was either a silent universe where everyone kept to themselves or a war zone where profanity, yelling, and sometimes fists ruled the night. The financial pressures, lack of family intimacy, and long hours at work were taking their toll on all of us. Over the next several months, my mother worked late-night shifts and stayed in Shrewsbury with a friend from her work—or at least that was what she told us.

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