Maybe we weren’t meant to be foster parents. It’s important to learn these things early on, I would bet. My wife had signed us up for the project, and some Department of Social Services people showed up to make sure we didn’t have firearms scattered around the house or booze bottles within reach. That we didn’t keep Pine-Sol bottles on the floor, or rat traps. I’m sure they looked into our backgrounds enough to conclude we weren’t child pornographers, dope smokers, domestic batterers, gunrunners, arsonists, that sort of thing. I had some questionable decisions in my past, but nothing worse than anyone else. Vandalism, mostly. Trespassing. I’d been married before, too young, and the vandalism and trespassing involved her. But I wasn’t violent, or a repeat offender. I walked onto my ex-wife’s property once, spray-painted cheater on the side of her house, then left. I spray-painted that, plus bitch and two-timer and whore and Eduardo—really? on the side of what used to be my van. I don’t want to think I’m a racist, but it hurt my ego that she’d fallen in love with a Venezuelan over me.
“It’s kind of like being on-call 24/6,” our personal social worker came to tell Bonita and me. I’ll be the first to admit that maybe I married Bonita just because she sounded like she might be Venezuelan, too. She’s not. She’s from West Virginia [insert joke here]. When I met Bonita—at the Mid-Atlantic Independent Driving Range Owners of America Trade Show up in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, inside the old racetrack—that’s how she introduced herself, “I’m from West Virginia [insert joke here].” When I told her I lived 127 miles from Myrtle Beach, you’d’ve thought I asked her to move in with me to a five-bedroom mansion in some place like Orlando or Knoxville.
For what it’s worth, her West Virginia daddy owned a driving range outside Buckhannon, but he couldn’t make it to Mid-Atlantic Independent Driving Range Owners of America because of a bout of black lung he contracted from breathing in the vicinity of coal mines; so he sent Bonita.
She and I had no choice but to fall in love, what with all the complimentary range balls, hand towels, ball markers, and divot repair tools handed out, not to mention the free symposiums that involved everything from fescue to front wheel pickers to tee line turf. When a man began to speak about the importance of ball washers, we couldn’t take it anymore and retired to my motel room, where I had a bottle of Smirnoff. I’ll jump ahead and say that I visited Bonita a few times up in West Virginia, her daddy died, she sold the land to one of those mining companies, and so on. She moved down to Calloustown soon after and helped me watch my hometown disintegrate into near ghost-town status once the younger kids moved away and the older ones died, once the mill closed, and so on. I’m not complaining.
The social worker said, “It’s like 24/6 instead of 24/7 because we won’t take children away from their biological parents on a Sunday. We don’t want any child growing up and thinking anything bad about Sundays. You know how maybe your momma dies on Arbor Day, and from then on for the rest of your life you hate trees? That’s how we feel about taking a kid away from abusive parents on a Sunday. Most parents get caught abusing on Saturdays anyway, or Tuesdays. I don’t know why those two days. Someone did a study and concluded that, you know.” Her name was Alberta. Bonita had met the woman at one of those kitchen appliance parties. They noticed they both had names that ended in –ta, and started meeting up at an Applebee’s out by the interstate on Thursdays and calling each other plain old “Ta”; when they encountered one another sometimes you heard “Ta-ta,” like that, kind of racy.
“We’re ready,” Bonita had said.
Here’s the situation: Sometimes children had to be taken away from their parents and sent to a safe place for anywhere from one day to a month. It’s called “temporary protective custody,” just like when somebody in prison tattletales on a gang member and the next thing you know the tattletale’s got about six thousand death threats. It should be called something else, if you ask me, but I don’t know what. It should be called something else just so children don’t feel as though they have something in common with prison tattletales for the rest of their lives.
“You need to have diapers handy at all time, and Gerber’s. These kids coming in might be six months old, they may be fifteen. Boys and girls. So you might need to have some tampons in your medicine cabinet, too,” Alberta said. This conversation took place in our den, in our wood-framed house, which sat on two acres of land with another twelve across the road where the driving range stood. My father had started Calloustown Driving Range back in the sixties after he realized that nothing—corn, soybeans, tomatoes, tobacco, whatever—would grow in his soil. When Bonita came into my life she said, “Why don’t we call it the Calloustown Practice Range? That way it comes out CPR. Get it? That would be cool. People could always say, ‘I need me some CPR,’ and then when everyone’s sitting around, you know, Worm’s Bar and Grill wondering who’s going to give mouth-to-mouth, the first guy can say, ‘No, not that kind of CPR—I need to hit me some dimpled balls.’”
It’s not like we had a bunch of advertising in the Yellow Pages, or weekly coupons in the newspaper. We didn’t have either of those things in Calloustown. I just went out and repainted the sign that day to CPR, and kind of liked it.
Bonita was also behind the idea that I let the grass grow higher October through February and allow quail and dove hunters to partake of the landscape. She said they used to kill bears on their driving range in West Virginia [insert joke here].
The first boy showed up and he was nine years old, named Pine. Alberta drove him over, and we showed him to the spare bedroom that we’d painted half pink and half blue. I said, “Pine? Are you sure about that?” I thought maybe Alberta had some kind of odd dialect, that she meant “Payne,” and that the kid was named after the great golfer Payne Stewart who died an airplane death. What would be the chances of a kid being named Payne coming to live temporarily, under protective custody, with the owners of a driving range?
“Pine,” she said. “Daddy got hooked on oxycodone, and mother got hooked on Loritab. You might’ve seen it on the news. They went into that Rite Aid up thirty miles from here and tried to rob the place. Both of them are in jail, and Pine doesn’t have any aunts or uncles we can find yet to take care of him.”
Bonita and I hadn’t seen it on the news, because we didn’t have cable TV or one of those satellite dishes. We got one good channel some days, but mostly watched static and pretended like it snowed on the Weather Channel.
“Well, we’ll take good care of Pine,” Bonita said. “This is exciting! You know, we always wanted to have a child, but maybe we met too late in life to have one. We were both thirty.”
I was glad we didn’t have good television reception or newspaper delivery, because Bonita might hear about how women now had kids halfway into their forties. Sometimes I listened to an NPR station while sitting around CPR’s “clubhouse,” which was a metal storage shed filled with buckets of balls, a card table, four chairs, and an ice chest.
Alberta gave us a sheet of paper with some emergency numbers, and said she’d be checking in daily to see how Pine fared, et cetera. She said, “His parents homeschooled him, so you don’t need to deal with getting him back and forth to Calloustown Elementary.”
I should mention that this entire conversation took place in a whisper. I thought, I bet a nine-year-old kid is smart enough to realize that some things have changed in his life, and we don’t have to be all hush-hush about it. But I didn’t want to come off as a bad pre-foster parent.
Bonita said, “Edwin here’s good in English, and I’m good in math. We can help out.”
Well I don’t know that I’m so great in English. I can read, you know. I read a lot! Sometimes I’ll go over and sit around across the road and finish a Mickey Spillane book in a day, if we got customers who don’t mind retrieving their own balls. Sometimes I give special deals on people who want to go pick up their own balls.
“Okay,” Alberta said. “So we have his clothes, and we have his books and assignments—though I don’t think he really ever follows any kind of schedule, from what we’ve figured out. I’ll call tomorrow.”
She went to walk out the door. I said, “We look forward to hearing from you. Listen, is there any kind of special meal he likes? Like cheeseburgers or hotdogs? Shrimp? Vinegar-based barbecue? Macaroni and cheese? I used to love macaroni and cheese when I was that age. I still do!” I tried to come off as both concerned and gastronomical. To be honest I was brought up by parents who put a plate in front of me and said, “Feel lucky there’s anything, seeing as we can’t grow corn, soybeans, tomatoes, or tobacco in the field.”
“Well, yes, there is a thing you should know,” Alberta said. “He’s a quiet boy. He might have a speech impediment. Listen, I hate to drop Pine off and run, but I have a kid I need to pick up in Orangeburg whose mother left him straddled to a moped for four hours while she went into a bingo parlor.”
When she left, my wife and I stood there and looked at each other. From back in the spare bedroom it sounded like termites were eating our molding. It sounded like the kid was clicking his tongue over and over. It sounded like an old LP skipping, or one of those bush people clicking and clacking when a pride of lions has surrounded the encampment, or when a pickup truck’s not running on all its cylinders, or a pileated woodpecker’s intent on making its mark on fiberglass.
I said, “Well, you’re not in West Virginia anymore.”
Bonita laughed. She said, “I’m glad our first one doesn’t need to breast-feed,” which I thought was kind of a strange first response, but maybe I’d been shielded growing up in Calloustown.
I would ask the kid a question and he made only those noises—dit, dat, dah, dit, dat, dah. I brought him out to our den on that first night, and asked him things like, “Are you scared?” and “Do you know that we’re here to protect you from harm?” and “Do you know what the state capital of South Carolina is?” only to get “Dah-di-dah-dah dit di-di-dit” or something like that. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Ptooey, ptooey—those kinds of noises.
Pine looked like a normal nine-year-old kid. He didn’t have head lice, which was good. His parents—drugstore robbers—made sure that his bangs weren’t crooked, I’ll give them that. He had good posture, wasn’t knock-kneed, didn’t seem affected by rickets. His ear had healed nicely from where he had a piercing for a day. It looked like only two green freckles on his arm where his father’d gotten the idea that his son should have a tattoo, then reconsidered.
Pine didn’t make much eye contact, and kind of reminded me of these kids brought down on a field trip to CPR one time from the School for the Blind. That was a catastrophe. A few of them had fine eye-hand coordination—well, except for the “eye” part—but their inner compasses didn’t work well, and I lost two windows on the house when this one child in particular got turned around on the tee box and smacked a three-wood straight across the road the wrong way. I tell you who ought to be placed in temporary protective custody, and it’s those good blind kids. They need to be protected from sadistic teachers who take them to a driving range, ruining what little self-esteem they had.
“We had a boy back home who had a similar speech impediment,” Bonita said. “I did some research on it when I went to college. It was called ‘echolalia,’ and he would mimic things that he heard. In the real world, a child with echolalia might just take off singing the theme song to Gilligan’s Island or The Addams Family, ’cause that’s what he heard a week or more ago. Back in Buckhannon, this boy made the same noises as Pine because all he heard was the machinery from the coal mines. And his daddy’s misfitted false teeth.”
Pine didn’t seem either happy or distraught. He sat down and did his homework. Bonita brought him over to the Calloustown Practice Range and Pine hit balls, playing like most people do, hitting some solidly, whiffing every sixth shot, topping most of them. His reaction to every swing was about the same, either a series of dits or dots or dats. I concentrated on the kid, and tried to figure out if he followed the melody of a song, and sure enough sometimes it sounded like he rocked out on the opening guitar licks of “Sweet Home Alabama,” though Alberta told us over the phone one night that the kid had never left South Carolina.
“You should take him down to the Invasion of Grenada Festival,” Bonita told me ten days into Pine’s stay with us. “What the hell? You never have any business on that day ’cause all the locals are over there. Nobody even hunts on that day.”
She spoke the truth. Every year since 1984, Calloustown had hosted the Invasion of Grenada Festival—more of a reenactment than a festival, though Bonita hoped that one day there might be rides and craft shows—because one of Calloustown’s own, a young Marine named Clarence Reddick, was one of the nineteen fatalities. After Clarence’s death, some of the more forward-thinking denizens of Calloustown thought it tribute-worthy to reenact the United States’ great exploit by dressing up people as either Grenadian and Cuban supporters of the New Jewel Movement, or as members of the Marine Amphibious Unit, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 75th Ranger Regiment, Navy Seals, members of Delta Force, and so on.
There, on a small island in the middle of Lake Calloustown, a couple of skydivers came in to join the reenactors who arrived via pontoon boat, and so on. People fired shotguns into the air and shot off Roman candles in a lifelike rendition of the actual invasion. In the end, somebody planted an American flag on the island—though that’s probably not what really happened—and then the “body” of Clarence Reddick got brought back to shore on the pontoon boat. It was supposed to be an honor to get picked as Clarence’s body, and even women put their names in a bucket in hopes of being selected. Afterwards, there was a community-wide covered-dish picnic, square dance, and regular carnival-type games to play.
I said, “I don’t know, Bo. You might want to call up Alberta on this one. Do you think exposing an echolalia-ridden homeschooled child under temporary protective custody from his drugstore-robbing addicted parents to the horrors of what was also known as Operation Urgent Fury, dreamed up by President Ronald Reagan in order to shift Americans’ focus from the 10 percent unemployment rate, is a wise decision?” I’d done some research. I’d been reading up on U.S. history, in case I needed to help out Pine with homework in that area.
Bonita said, “It might make him feel better about his upbringing.” She said, “My father took me one time to a John Brown thing down at Harpers Ferry, and I knew right away that I was better than okay.”
I don’t know exactly how many Civil War reenactments take place yearly both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, but it has to be over eighty-five. I know this because one day before I met Bonita I drove down to Charleston and met a guy in charge of the Fort Sumter Museum, but he kind of scared me all dressed up in regalia and I didn’t trust him, so I drove to the closest library and looked it up. I counted eighty-six of the things, not including the unsanctioned ones in Hawaii and Alaska and Puerto Rico. Civil War reenactments bring in droves of people, both participants and spectators, so you can imagine how many people drive from afar to witness Calloustown’s Invasion of Grenada reenactment, the only one in the country.
Pine and I got there a good hour before two paratroopers flew in from Fort Jackson outside of Columbia. I doubt the Air Force used a Cessna in Grenada, but it was still quite exciting to see a skydiver in faux action. Pine looked up from where we sat at a wooden picnic table on the outskirts of the Lake Calloustown Public Swimming Area #2—that had been labeled for Blacks Only up until 1968—surrounded by locals, older veterans wearing their garrison caps, half-stoned long-haired Vietnam vets, and a couple women who kept yelling “U.S.O.! U.S.O.! U.S.O.!” like sad forgotten debutantes.
Pine let off a slew of his noises, and for a second I thought he imitated “Taps,” or a slower version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“You damn right those boys are going to land right on their targets,” this man next to us said. “You got that right, son.”
Of course I looked over at the man—he wore a white curled Navy gob on his head, and had his shirtsleeves up to show off two anchor tattoos. I turned my head from watching the pontoon take off and said to the man, “Hey.”
Pine went off on a rant, in his clicky way.
The man next to me said, “Jesus Christ boy, slow down.” He said, “It’s been a long time since I worked as a radioman.” I learned this later; all I heard at the time was “Di-di-dat di-dah-di-dit dah-dah-dah di-dah-dah dah-di-dit dah-dah-dah-di-dah-dah dah-dit.”
Pine fucking beamed. That’s the only way I can explain it. He broke out into a smile that would’ve made Miss America look toothless.
I said to the man, “Hey. Hey, what’s going on?” and introduced myself and my near-foster child. I said, “Is he talking in a language that no one can understand?”
The skydivers came down. Shotguns sounded. People who came by my driving range to hit scarred and damaged range balls whooped and hollered a couple hundred yards offshore. “I’m retired Radioman Petty Officer Ronald Landry, and I haven’t been able to keep up with my Morse code since retiring,” the man said in English. I think he must’ve said the same thing in code to Pine right afterwards, for the radioman went off ditting and dotting until they saluted each other.
I looked at Pine, who nodded. Oh, he understood the English language just fine, but had made a pledge not to speak it for some reason. I said to Pine, “Is this part of your homework? Are you taking Morse code for a foreign language and need to practice? You can tell your answer to retired Radioman Petty Officer Ronald Landry, and he can translate to me.”
Pine took off coding away, gesticulating with his hands. He looked like some kind of foreigner with a stutter. Landry nodded and laughed. I got bored after about ten minutes—it seems to me that the Armed Forces could come up with a quicker form of communication, like plain calling up people and speaking Pig Latin—and watched as the American flag went up on Lake Calloustown Island, then this year’s Clarence Reddick got shoved onto a raft and pushed with the help of reenacting Navy Seals toward the spectators on shore.
Presently there would be a celebratory three-legged race made up solely of Purple Heart–awarded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, all of whom teamed up to have left prosthetic and right prosthetic legs in the sack. Those vets could still run the 100-yard dash in something like eleven seconds.
“It’s a long story,” Landry finally said to me. “It all boils down to Pine here having an imaginary friend. His name is Di-dah-dah-dah dah-dah-dah dit, which comes out to ‘Joe.’ Listen, I used to be an adjunct professor of Morse code over at Eminent Domain College by the Savannah River Nuclear Site before the place self-imploded. If you want, I’d be glad to come over and do some translating, plus give you a crash course in the code. I’ll do it for minimum wage. And beer. Dah-di-di-dit dit dit di-dah-dit. That means ‘beer.’”
Pine nodded and smiled, rubbed his stomach in circles like a fifties kid overacting in a TV commercial for whole milk. Then he ran off to partake in the Bobbing for Grenades contest. I made a mental note to tell him not to mention this part of the day to Alberta or Bonita, seeing as it would mean the end of our pre-foster days. They weren’t real grenades, but miniature finials. Still, social workers and wives frown on toy guns, too.
I don’t know why I said, “That’s a kind offer,” and asked for retired Radioman Petty Officer Ronald Landry’s phone number. I had no intention of calling him. My theory went like this: Let’s say I became fluent in Morse code. By that time, Pine would be back living with relatives or bona fide foster parents. Even if Bonita and I took in another emergency child, what would be the chances that the child communicated only in dits and dahs? What would be the chances that I’d have a field trip of military personnel at CPR who would find it amusing to speak in Morse code? Hell, I would be better off filling my head up with Hindi or Gullah.
I walked over to where Pine stood, his head dripping, a wooden pineapple in his jaws. I said, “Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah,” just jabbering, not knowing that I had looked at him and said the code for “Zero.”
We got home and I told Bonita everything that I’d learned. She said, “Is that true? Six hundred thirty-eight Cubans were captured in the real invasion? Where did they go?”
I said, “That’s not what I want you to focus on. We met an old guy from the Navy. He communicated with Pine just fine, because that noise he’s been making has actually been Morse code. There’s an imaginary friend involved named Joe. Maybe it’s G.I. Joe—and if it is, that would be even more worrisome. I think you need to call up Alberta and tell her this isn’t working out.”
Bonita shook her hair out. She laughed. “Are you serious? I had an imaginary friend in West Virginia named Charlie. As in Charles Manson. Who was brought up in foster homes in West Virginia [insert joke here], when his mom was off in prison and whatnot.”
Pine had walked straight back to his room. I looked over my shoulder to make sure he didn’t stand in the doorway. To Bonita I whispered, “I think Pine’s parents damaged him in ways we’re not capable of handling. I’m serious.”
“Pine! Come on in here, Pine, I got to get to the bottom of something!” Bonita yelled out. He came running. She spoke in a voice I’d not heard before, with really hard long i sounds, and ts that came out ds. She said, “Why’s your head wet? Back where you come from, you walk around with a wet head all the time? You know who walks around with a wet head all the time? Fish. You just a fish, Pine? That what you consider yourself to be, a fish, ain’t come out of the water yet to join the rest of us humans on dry land?”
I looked at Pine and noticed how he teared up. I said, “Goddamn, Bonita. Ease up. It’s my fault about letting him bob for apples.”
“You can speak in English, and you’re about to do it pronto, Pine. I don’t care about your mom and dad sitting around in their trailer letting you say dit dot dit dot all the time with your head and shoulders wet, this is a whole new ballgame here where you got to interact with us in a polite and honest procedure.”
I’d never seen my wife get so wound up. In a way it made me wish we had had children of our own, but in another way I saw it a blessing that she didn’t go all mountain girl on our kid, yelling, speaking in a way not that much different than Morse code.
I walked around my wife, opened the refrigerator, and pulled out two cans of ginger ale. I handed one to Pine. We pulled our tabs open within a half second of each other, to make a dit-dit sound. And then fucking Pine said, in a voice that came out as gravelly as the oldest cigarette-smoking, bourbon-swilling, black blues singer of all time, “I’ll dry off in time. It wasn’t apples. I bobbed hand grenades.”
I said, “Hey, you talked,” and Bonita said, “What?”
I said, “Okay, Pine, good job. Don’t wear yourself out in one day. Go on back to your room and take a nap. Later on we can go across the road and hit some pitching wedges at doves flying up.”
“They bob for hand grenades at the Invasion of Grenada reenactment? No goddamn wonder we got problems with the youth of today,” Bonita said. “What else did y’all do, play ring toss on severed heads? Enter a hollering contest see who can yell ‘Kill!’ the loudest?”
“Dah-di-dah di-dit di-dah-di-dit di-dah-di-dit,” Pine said, which Bonita and I knew spelled out K-I-L-L.
She said, “No. You are not going to be having any secret language with a secret invisible friend from this point on.” She pointed at the telephone on the wall and said, “You want me to call up the Department of Social Services and have them come pick you back up and take you to a family that might try to exorcise you? That what you want, Pine?”
“Okay, let’s just settle down. It’s only been a couple weeks. Things will smooth out,” I said. I drank my ginger ale and burped accidentally, which made Bonita glare at me.
Pine shook his head no. He said in his grating, aging voice, “I’d like to go visit that drugstore my parents tried to hold up. I got me some money. I’d like to go to that drugstore, maybe buy me a Timex watch.”
Bonita smiled a self-satisfied smile I hadn’t seen since she found some kind of study that ranked West Virginia ahead of my home state in education, quality of living, and so on. (I felt pretty sure she’d written it herself, sent it to a friend somewhere, and had that person post it on the Internet.) I said, “Well, then let’s go to that drugstore.”
I loaded Pine into the car and off we went. We drove past the remnants of the Invasion of Grenada reenactment and saw straggling “Cubans,” “Grenadians,” and “Americans” laughing and clinking beer cans, gauze wrapped around their heads. We drove by the defunct bus station where men still met mornings in order to think up ways to resurrect Calloustown. Out on Old Charleston Road we passed children selling used golf balls—under normal circumstances I would’ve stopped to make sure they weren’t stolen from me—then another group of children selling sweet potatoes.
Pine made his noises off and on, I assumed spelling things out in Morse code. I didn’t have it in me to tell him to stop, that he should speak English, et cetera. Little steps, I thought, kind of like spreading democracy whether Third World nations wanted it or not. I said, “Is there a reason you have to go to this particular Rite Aid?” I didn’t say, “I understand how you might want to apologize for your parents, that it’s a healing process,” that sort of thing. I didn’t even think about it until later that night, when Alberta came to pick Pine up and take him out of our home.
Pine shook his head no. We got there. The saleswoman took a small key and opened the rotating Timex display case. Pine chose a regular, old man’s, silver wind-up wristwatch with a stretchy flexible band that caught arm hairs too much, in my opinion. He shoved it all the way up his arm past his elbow, stuck his ear to it, and said, “Tick tick tick tick tick.”
The woman said, “I bet we can find you a watch with a band that’ll fit better.”
Pine shook his head. “I’m going to use it to make a bomb anyway,” he rasped. The woman stepped back a bit. “Y’all took my parents away from me after they came in here to get what they needed. I’m going to make a bomb.”
Maybe there’s a reason Bonita and I never had children of our own. I didn’t know what to say or do. My father would’ve beaten me with a nine-iron right there next to the perfume counter, but I knew that kind of behavior no longer found acceptance. Should I have laughed and said the boy was kidding? Should I have told the woman she should feel honored that he didn’t say that entire monologue in Morse code? I guess, in retrospect, I should’ve waited thirty minutes in line for the pharmacist and asked him or her to explain to Pine how scared everyone gets when a robbery takes place, and how a nation cannot be considered civilized until its citizens stop attacking each other with little provocation. Evidently the wrong thing to say was, “You got that right, son. I don’t blame you.”