Florence R. Kraut
Don’t be afraid. Clutch your official notebook. Walk up the cracked sidewalk, past the beer cans and boxes from the pizzeria strewn over the brown grass. Climb the broken steps in the dark November evening. There. The cop is waiting for you on the porch. You can do it. You can decide where the children go. So what if the neighbor complained for two days before the police came and called Social Services. You’re here now.
Go through the house with him. There isn’t much to it: a kitchen stinking from garbage; a saffron colored sofa, its armrest ballooning stuffing; a television blinking cartoons from the Nickelodeon channel. Follow the cop to the bedroom where he found three kids sleeping head to foot in the only bed. The cop’s as green as you are. Listen to his wisecracks about the one boy who still lays there, his legs pulled tight up to his neck, his large brown eyes darting every which way; his thumb in his mouth, sucking like a greedy baby.
“He thinks he’s got a bottle there,” the cop says.
Nod your head. Force yourself to look competent. Don’t gag on the smells of sweat and urine coming from the bed, and the dark corners of the room. Now go into the living room. See the four kids waiting there. You know how to ask the questions. Ask the oldest girl. She’s probably 13.
“Where’s your mother?”
“When did she leave?”
“Two days ago. But she always comes back.”
Breathe slowly. Be gentle. “What’s your name, honey?”
“Did she leave you in charge, Debbie?”
She shrugs, nods.
Get the other kid’s names and ages and write them on the DSS form. Brian, 8, in the bedroom. Ruthanne, 10, lounging sullen on the couch. Michael, 6, mesmerized by the cartoons; Amber 3, prancing around while her diaper sags around her knees.
Ask: “When did you eat last?”
Listen as Debbie’s eyes dart to the debris on the table. “We had macaroni before.”
Don’t think when “before” is. It’s okay if you look into the refrigerator and the cupboards, taking inventory: two cans of Chef Boyardee, a half empty box of elbow macaroni, a tub of margarine. You’re only trying to help. Empty the curdled milk from Amber’s baby bottle into the sink and run the water.
Watch while the cop turns away in disgust and hear his muffled: “Whadaya expect from these people, anyway.”
Tell him what you need to do before you make the call to the office.
Don’t notice Debbie listening with the tears sliding down her cheeks. It’s not your fault that her mother’s gone. Take Amber’s hand as she swings by, her chubby fingers clutching your pants, but don’t look into her sweet face. Answer the cop’s whispered, “What’s happens now? Can they stay together?” with a furtive shake of your head.
Shudder to yourself, because, even though you are new to this business, you know the answer.
Florence Reiss Kraut is a social worker and writer who lives and works in Rye, New York. Her short fiction has appeared online and in print in The Evening Street Press, The Write Room, Peeks and Valleys, The Westchester Review and most recently in SNReview. She has had op ed essays in the Westchester section of the New York Times and is currently working on a book of linked short stories. Ms.Kraut was a therapist in and then President and CEO of a large social service agency in Connecticut. Her blog can be found at florencereisskraut.blogspot.com/ or follow her on Twitter at Florence@frkraut.