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Overview

Teenage America, a not-black, not-white, not-anything boy who has spent many years in institutions for disturbed, antisocial behavior, tries to piece his life together.

Teenage America, a not-black, not-white, not-anything boy who has spent many years in institutions for disturbed, antisocial behavior, tries to piece his life together.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
HFrank's (Life Is Funny) well-crafted and moving story begins with a teenage America in a treatment facility after a suicide attempt and alternates between the present mostly his therapy sessions with Dr. B. and the past. Born to a crack addict mother, America was raised by kindly Mrs. Harper, the nanny of a rich white foster family who gave him up "after he started turning his color." The weekend before he starts kindergarten, he visits his birth mother in New York City, and she abandons him in a seedy apartment with his two young brothers. When the police find him years later and return him to Mrs. Harper, he's behind in school, swears constantly and has internalized the belief that he's bad. America is not a saint, but readers see glimmers of his intelligence (one heartbreaking series of scenes shows five-year-old America, unable to find a working telephone, writing Mrs. Harper's phone number everywhere so that he won't forget it), his sense of the poetic and even his kindness. His gradual progress through therapy is especially well orchestrated. The obstacles in his life seem insurmountable (after he returns to Mrs. Harper's, her half-brother repeatedly molests him and he flees to New York City again). But as Mrs. Harper is always telling America, there's "real meaning in the small things," and the author's ability to capture so much emotion in the details makes this book remarkable. For example, when America works up the courage to visit Mrs. Harper in the nursing home, her walls are covered with angels she painted to look like him. A powerful story of forgiveness both of oneself and of others. Ages 12-up. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
America's mother, he says, slept with so many men that she didn't know who his father was, so she named him "America." And like the country, he is having some hard times. The book is in the form of a diary, written at the urging of his English teacher, so that he can actually graduate from high school. Flashbacks to various times in his life show him living in Harlem with his brothers, then in a juvenile facility, and finally in a foster home where, for the first time, he finds love. Unfortunately, it is here where he also is abused. The abuse is described, but so gently that the reader takes no offence. But America's reaction is understandably violent and might even have led to the abuser's death. Fearing that the police are after him, he flees physically and emotionally, hiding in the silence that will land him in a mental institution. Caring and compassionate psychiatrists work with him when to a casual observer he seems to be beyond help. The work involved in America's rehabilitation is very difficult for him and for everyone who cares about him. But as he becomes an adult we are fairly sure he will be successful, and we are rooting for him all the way. Recommended. 2002, Atheneum, $18.00. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Judy Silverman
KLIATT
To quote from the review of the hardcover in KLIATT, January 2002: "America is a boy who's been a lot of places... America is a boy who gets lost easy and is not worth the trouble of finding." In his short life, America, an emotionally disturbed 15-year-old of mixed race, has been abandoned and betrayed over and over again. Now housed in a residential treatment center, America is encouraged by his therapist to reflect back on his life, but that's just what he doesn't want to do—it's too painful. Gradually, in brief flashbacks, the whole awful story emerges. America thinks back to beloved Mrs. Harper, who raised him when his mother abandoned him after birth. A brief visit back with his birthmother and older brothers at age five turns into a nightmare that lasts years, as America is left alone with his "bad" brothers to fend for themselves, stealing food and hiding from the authorities. Returned to the care of Mrs. Harper and her half-brother Mr. Browning, America finds her aged and ill. Lonely Mr. Browning takes charge of America—and teaches the nine-year-old to drink vodka, read pornography, and eventually to submit to his sexual abuse. America finally sets fire to the house, runs away, and lives for a time with a drug dealer, then ends up in a residential program and tries to commit suicide. We learn about life in the residential program and about the people who matter to America, and we applaud his difficult journey back to some form of emotional health as he turns 18 and moves into a transitional living home, connecting again with an old girlfriend, with Mrs. Harper, and with his long-lost brother. The talented E.R. Frank, author of Life Is Funny, is a social worker, and the horrors ofAmerica's upbringing ring all too true. This is a tough tale to read, filled as it is with pain and suffering (and some obscenities and talk of sex, for those who need to know), but the ending is hopeful, and America is a true-to-life character whose trials will haunt readers. (A New York Times Notable Book; An ALA Best Book for YAs.) KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Simon & Schuster, 242p.,
— Paula Rohrlick
VOYA
America's mother left him to run all kinds of errands and take all kinds of drugs and have sex with all kinds of men. Even if his personal file at Ridgeway, a residential treatment facility for teens, does not say these things, eighteen-year-old America knows that they are true. His mother not only abandoned him but also saddled him with a name that constantly reminds him that he is "this not-black, not-white, not anything, little bit of everything" whom no one wants. Dialogues between America and Dr. B., a therapist at Ridgeway, unveil America's life story one painful event at a time, including sexual abuse, physical violence, attempted suicide, and the failure of the system to ensure a safe and healthful existence for this lost child. The story is not only about America's past but also about his attempts to salvage his future. Although the whole of America's story is a powerful one, following the plot in the beginning can be challenging. The story is told out of chronological order and the protagonist/narrator's interpretation of events is intentionally unreliable at times. Many adolescents might be worldly enough to relate to America's experiences but not proficient enough in reading to untangle the knotted plot line. Why and how America came to this point in his life and his chances for any kind of a future become clear in the end, but a little more information up front would help the reader to better understand events transpiring early in the book. VOYA CODES: 3Q 2P S (Readable without serious defects; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2002, Atheneum/S & S, 242p, $18. Ages 15 to 18. Reviewer: James BlasingameSOURCE: VOYA, February 2002 (Vol. 24, No.6)
From The Critics
At fifteen years old, America has spent much of his life lost—lost in foster homes, in his mother's apartment (she abandons him twice), and in a detention and health system that doesn't quite know what to do with him. America comes to the point where he seems lost himself, racially, sexually, ethically. Even when he finally finds a home where someone seems to care for him, he is betrayed, which finally leads him to murder and to a life in which he defines himself as "bad" and "freakish"— a definition which he escapes only when he can float away in his imagination to the clean, white, cold slopes of Mount Everest, but which leads him inexorably to a suicide attempt. Detained finally at Ridgeway Hospital—its name is suggestive of his flights—he finally meets Dr. B., who, over the span of years, is the single one to never abandon him and to finally gain his trust, and to, in one amazing moment, honestly mourn with him. By the end of the novel, when America has left Ridgeway and moved to a transitional home, he is using that trust to establish relations with others and to leave behind the identity that had been forged for him by those who abandoned and abused him. The conclusion is a moving testament to healing: "Damn, I'm here, I'm alive. What next?" With this line, the reader emerges from a dark, dark world into a real sense that there is true hope, even for one who has been so damaged. America may be meant to be an Everyman name, but his experiences explore the worst that American culture offers—the sense that an individual is essentially disposable. In the novel, it is Dr. B. who rejects this definition and who must lead America—both the character and the culture—to reject that definitionas well. The experiences here are raw, as are the language and the narrative. The language is more than obscene at times, and the scenes of homosexual abuse and rape, the brutality of abandonment, and America's inability to control his own growing sexual desires are depicted with a kind of brutal honesty that is part of the interior narrative that conveys the action of the novel. Though America does try to escape these moments, he does not do it by lying to himself or to his readers. He will depict his world as it is, in the language that is part of that world. Chris Crutcher has described this novel as a "rugged treat"—exactly right. The voice is original and engaging, and the narrative is riveting. One quickly comes to feel tremendous empathy for a character who is, in many ways, not likeable, and herein lies the skill of this author, who can forge that union. A powerful and disturbing read, America not only presents a memorable character but asks questions that will not easily go away. 2002, Atheneum,
— Gary Schmidt
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-Born to a drug-addicted mother, 15-year-old America had been lost in the child-welfare system for years before he finally wound up in a residential treatment center. There, over a period of several more years, a capable therapist coaxes him out of his anger and suicidal depression. In alternating chapters of "Now" and "Then," the teen tells about his anger at Dr. B's efforts to get him to think about his past; his warm memories of his early childhood with elderly Mrs. Harper; his terrifying memories of his stay with his mother, who abandoned him and his two older brothers; his two lost years spent perhaps in foster homes and residential institutions; and his return to Mrs. Harper and her half brother and caretaker, Browning. It was Browning who served as father figure and baseball coach, who taught him to read, and who introduced him, at nine, to vodka and to sex. It was Browning who died when America set his blanket on fire and ran away, hating himself for being so bad, for having enjoyed the sexual tenderness, for caring. The author's control of this story is impressive. It leaks out of America's memories, through the cracks he can't quite cover over with his aggressive behavior. Even at his baddest and most foulmouthed, America is still the appealing small boy Mrs. Harper raised, a boy certainly worth finding. Readers cannot help but hope for his recovery and cheer for the patient therapist. More developed than Adam Rapp's The Buffalo Tree (Front Street, 1997), this is another discouraging picture of our juvenile-care system, but it is also a moving story of one of its survivors.-Kathleen Isaacs, Edmund Burke School, Washington, DC Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
It's hard to imagine what America has going for him. Abandoned at birth by a crack-addicted mother, abandoned again by the white family who wanted a white baby, he has found intermittent happiness with his guardian, Mrs. Harper, and her half-brother Browning. But these periods of stability are threatened, first by the birth mother who reclaims him only to abandon him yet again and then by Browning himself, who slowly turns from protector to victimizer, and who injures America almost beyond bearing. The reader first meets America at age 15, in a residential psychiatric program for youth after he has attempted suicide. As he embarks on his umpteenth course of therapy, the narrative takes the reader back and forth between "then" and "now," laying out in clinical, brutal detail how it is that America became the broken boy that he is, and then how he slowly comes back to life. It's a heartbreaking story, softened only slightly by the human connections he manages to make, almost despite himself: his older brother Brooklyn, a drug addict like their mother; Lisa, a girl from his Special Ed class; Ty, the drug dealer who reads to him; and above all, Dr. B., the therapist who helps America restore his soul. America narrates his story in the present tense, lacing his speech liberally with street language; his attitude is endearing in its candor: "Food here sucks," he tells Dr. B. "Just because I'm crazy doesn't mean I have to eat shit." Frank (Life Is Funny, 2000) creates perfectly both America at five, unsure of anything except the hope that if he is bad enough, his mother will send him back to Mrs. Harper and the belligerent adolescent convinced that the world has nothing to offer him. Awrenching tour de force despite America's overly symbolic name, it is a work of sublime humanity. (Fiction. YA)
From the Publisher
Michael Cart Editor of "Love & Sex" In this searing yet soaring story of a deeply troubled boy named America, E. R. Frank fulfills the promise of her brilliant first novel, Life Is Funny. Like life itself, America is about a little bit of everything, yet Frank — with some magical combination of art and urgency — brings it all together. In its unsparing honesty and respect for its readers, this story of one boy's life is at once harrowing and haunting, intellectually exciting and emotionally satisfying. America is an absolutely unforgettable character and America, his story, takes place at the intersection of life and literature.

Chris Crutcher 2000 Edwards Award winner I don't know which is better, the story or the storyteller. Either way the reader wins. This is one rugged treat.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780613664769
  • Publisher: Turtleback Books: A Division of Sanval
  • Publication date: 12/1/2003
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.34 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

E. R. Frank is the author of two highly praised novels for Atheneum: America and Friction. Her first novel was Life Is Funny, winner of the Teen People Book Club NEXT Award for YA Fiction and was also a top-ten ALA 2001 Quick Pick.
In addition to being writer, E. R. Frank is also a clinical social worker and psychotherapist. She works with adults and adolescents and specializes in trauma.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Now

You have to watch what you say here because everything you say means something and somebody's always telling you what you mean.

"Step off," I tell this nurse when she tries to get me to eat.

"You mean, thank you for caring," she says. "You're welcome."

"I need a lighter," I tell her, and she goes, "You mean you want a lighter. Dream on, sweetheart."

So I take their medicine and walk around in socks the way they make you, and stay real quiet.

• • •

"Hello, America," he goes. "I'm Dr. B." He holds out his hand, but I play like I don't even see it. "I'll be your therapist while you're here at Ridgeway." He drops his arm like it's no big thing and dumps his skinny butt in a chair behind his desk. "You can sit anywhere." He doesn't have any tennis balls or messed-up eyeglasses or an attitude like those other ones back at Applegate. He's just regular. I stay standing. "We'll meet at this time for forty-five minutes every Tuesday and Thursday." I keep my back right up on the door. He's all calm, like it's cool with him. "Our sessions will be confidential. Are you familiar with the rules of confidentiality?" I don't bother answering. "Confidentiality means what's said in this room stays in this room." He stops a second, looking at me, close. "Except for three things." Looking at me straight up. "If you tell me that someone is harming you, if you express the intent to harm yourself, or do so, or if you express the intent to harm anyone else, or do so. Those three things don't stay private between us."

"That's it?" I go.

"'That's it,' what?" he goes. Not in my face. Just normal.

"That's all you've got, if I say I'm going to off myself?"

"Is that what you're planning?"

"Huh?"

"Are you planning to kill yourself?"

"That's not what I asked."

"I know that's not what you asked." He's leaning forward on his elbows, like he's interested, like he for real even cares.

"It's no big secret, doc," I go. "How the hell do you think I got here?"

• • •

They try to make me do group.

"Who wants to share with America what the purpose of this group is?" the lady goes.

Nobody bothers, so she picks on some kid all bent over with his arms crossed looking like he's got nails twisting up his stomach. "Don?" the lady goes, and he squeaks his chair and crosses his arms the other way.

"Supposed to talk or something," this Don goes. I'm out of here.

"Please sit down, America," the lady tells me. I head for the door. "America, you are required to participate in group," the lady goes. I keep walking. "Privileges," I hear her yelling.

Points, tickets, privileges. You do this, they give you that many. You get that many, they let you out. Let you out where? Some other sorry-ass place. I don't need this.

• • •

I'm not stupid. I know it's going to get real tiring standing by his door for near to an hour. So I sit this time.

"I guess you're not in the mood to talk," Dr. B. goes, after a lot of minutes. I lean my head over the back of the chair and stare up at the ceiling. "I guess you're not much in the mood to be here, either," Dr. B. says, all calm.

"You're some genius," I go.

• • •

A week. Maybe two. I don't know, and I don't care. I'm just slamming my pillow on the floor every night. Sleeping on my back, flat out, with my arms straight down my sides. Like I'm in a coffin.

• • •

"It's hard to know how to begin."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

His ceiling is white stripes and a round light in the middle.

"Just what it says," he goes. "Sometimes, it's hard for people to begin their sessions."

"Ah, man." My neck aches, bad, but I keep my head hanging over the back of my chair anyway.

"You seem annoyed."

"Yeah, I'm annoyed. Who wouldn't be?"

"Maybe that's part of why it's hard to start each session."

"Maybe you're repeating yourself."

"Maybe you're so annoyed to start with, it makes you not want to talk."

"Whatever."

"What would it be like if you did talk?"

"I talk, man."

"Not so much."

"So?"

"I'm curious about what keeps you from talking."

"Well, you're going to have to live with curious a long time, doc."

• • •

You get in line, and you slide your tray, and they hand over your baby carrots and your chicken and your roll, and you sit at some table with a million other dudes, and you eat, and it tastes like your own tongue, and you wish you could just choke to death once and forever right here, right in the middle of nothing.

• • •

"Some people believe that depression is anger turned toward the self," Dr. B. says.

He might not have attitude like those other ones back at Applegate, but he's got the same old pile of stupid games. Connect Four and checkers. Chess and Monopoly and all that. I grab his Uno cards and knuckle-shuffle them.

"It's just something to know," Dr. B. says. "Because usually people who try to kill themselves are depressed, and often they're depressed because they're angry."

I shuffle again and then slap the stack down on his desk.

"People who are able to somehow acknowledge their anger often become less depressed."

"Cut the deck," I go, because he's giving me a headache with all that.

• • •

I try not to think about it in the rec room. I watch those guys play Ping-Pong, and I try not to think. About that anger mess. About depressed. Only every time I remember that cement rectangle with a footprint in one corner, I watch Mrs. Harper sending me away, and whenever I see Clark Poign-ant, it's when he's got tubes running all into the backs of his hands, and if I try to picture Liza, I just hear how she said she'd hate me if I ever killed myself, and anytime Brooklyn's face pops up in my head, I see him stealing those green Magic Markers. And every time I think about hide-and-seek, I see Browning.

I watch that ball popping back and forth, and I try not to think.

• • •

"What would it be like?" Dr. B. goes.

"Huh?"

"Being dead."

"Huh?"

"You're interested in being dead. I'm interested in what you think being dead would be like."

"You're the doctor, man. You tell me."

"I don't know. Different people imagine different things. I'm wondering what you imagine."

Empty. Quiet. Nobody's good. Nobody's bad. Nobody's nobody. You don't think. You don't remember. You don't be. Nothing hurts.

"Step off," I tell him.

"Hmm," he goes.

• • •

CONTRACT FOR SAFETY

I, America, agree that if I feel I might harm myself, I will immediately follow the plan below:

1) Notify on-duty nurse of my feelings.

2) Write down the date and time.

3) Write down the name of each feeling I'm experiencing, followed by the thoughts and/or events which preceded it.

4) Notify and discuss all of the above with Dr. B. immediately upon our next scheduled session.

In addition, I give my promise that I will not try to harm or kill myself, should I experience the wish to do so.

• • •

It's one of the most messed-up things I ever heard in my whole stupid life. If you feel so bad you want to die, why would you even care what kind of lame-ass promises you make?

I'm not signing shit.

• • •

"Some kids don't want to feel better," Dr. B. says. So what. "Because it's too frightening," he goes, and then he stops. I'm resting my head over the back of this chair and staring up at his ceiling. "Think about it a second."

"I don't like to think." I hang my head way far back and see his bookshelves upside down behind me. Instead of books, they've got some kind of little statues lined up. Dollhouse people, or something.

We're quiet for a real long time, but then he goes, "I'm guessing you're used to feeling mad and bad."

"So?" I go.

"Feeling better would be something you don't know."

"You got that right," I tell him.

"A lot of people are scared of what they don't know. So they hold on to mad and bad."

I'm not even going to play like I know what all he's saying. So I stay quiet.

• • •

My pills used to be green. Wheatgrass, Mrs. Harper would say. Then blue. Now yellow. They're all the same shape. Stretched-out ovals. The nurse brings me one every morning and watches me swallow it. I don't care. Some people take all different ones. A mess of colors, and all these shapes. They try to hold their pill under their tongue, or sick it up after the nurse leaves. It's likely a million pills these nurses have to keep all stocked up here. Somebody's making a straight-up fortune.

• • •

"How many weeks have I been here?" I go to the group lady.

"Excuse me?"

"I didn't know that kid could talk," some scrub goes.

"How long have I been here?"

"About three weeks," the group lady says. "Is that something you'd like to speak about?"

I shrug and stare at this crack on the wall, this crack that does the shape of a big-ass crumpled square. It looks like a TV after someone smashed

up all the corners. I watch it for the whole rest of the time, so I don't know how I get to noticing it, but all of them that used to be in this group are gone except me. It's new guys now, and I'm the only old one.

• • •

"All right," Dr. B. goes, after I won't play Uno anymore, and I won't play anything else, and I still won't talk, either. "Where would you like to be five years from now?"

"Nowhere," I tell him.

• • •

The thing is, Mrs. Harper might be alive. She might be in some bed somewhere, in some nursing home, just hoping for someone to come see her.

Or she could be hanging out with Clark Poignant up there in Heaven. Dead.

• • •

This one kid screams at night. If Liza or Brooklyn were here, either one, they'd find out quick right where he's at and tell him to shut the hell up. This kid's in some other hall or wing or someplace. The screaming's not real loud, because must be he's far away, but it's bad. It's the kind that makes you picture a movie scene with some crazy-looking dude, wrapped in sheets, all sweaty and bug-eyed. Like something real, real deep went down with him he's likely never going to get out of his head.

I'm betting he's real pissed they're keeping him alive.

• • •

I could ask, but I'm too tired. So I listen instead. I listen to the nurses chitchatting, and I listen to the other guys telling all their private business and everybody else's, and I listen to Dr. B. even when he thinks I'm not. You figure out a real lot when you're just quiet and you listen.

Here's what I figure out. This place, Ridgeway, has just about everything. It's got buildings for girls and buildings for boys and buildings for both. It's got buildings for real serious, like me, where you live, and for people who sleep somewhere else but come in here for the day. It's got a building for if you're here because a judge made you, and it's got a building for if you're all used up from drugs. The street kind, not their kind.

Me. I was in emergency first, right after I tried to off myself back at Applegate. Emergency drugged me up intense for a while, and then they didn't drug me up as much, and then emergency kicked my butt out and put me here. Most people stay about a month, maybe two, and then go somewhere else. They go home for good, or else to sleep at night and then back to Ridgeway or some other place for day treatment. Or they skip home and land right in long-term residential. That's what Applegate was, long-term residential treatment. I wasn't supposed to get sent there in the first place. I should have gone to some group home. Some foster care group home, only the system screwed up. Stupid thing is, right now I would go back to Applegate, only they just got this new rule of not letting kids in older than thirteen, and the other long-term residential eighteen miles away is full, and the rest are out of my district, so I'm not allowed in, and there's no beds left in any group homes, and the only places left besides here is jail, which is where I know I ought to be. Or else a state hospital, but you only get sent to a state hospital if you're so far gone, you're pulling out your eyeballs thinking they're grapes, or some damn thing.

So I'm here.

• • •

"You only let people out after they spill their guts, right?"

"What do you mean?"

"I'm saying, you only let people leave this place if they're all talking every minute in their sessions, right?"

"Something's given you that idea?"

"Hell yeah, man. I see how it is. It's those guys who talk that get to leave. Like that Don guy from group. He used to never say boo, then all of a sudden you can't shut him up. He's talking every second, and bang. He's out of here."

"I see."

"Well, I'm not telling you jack."

"You think if you start sharing your thoughts and feelings with me, you'll leave here more quickly?"

"I don't think. I know."

"So you've decided not to talk."

"Yup."

"So you don't want to leave here."

"I didn't say that."

"So you do want to leave here," he goes.

"So, nothing, man."

"Maybe you have mixed feelings about it. Maybe sometimes you want to be here and other times you don't."

"Can you just be quiet a second?"

"Or, maybe, sometimes right at the same time you want to be here and also you don't."

"I asked you to shut up. You're making me dizzy."

• • •

We play checkers. You don't have to think. You don't have to talk. Say things that might make you remember, might make them send you away when you've got no place to go. No house, because you burned it right down to the ground, no shopping mall to hide out in, or bushes in a park. No couch up for grabs in some dude's crib. No nothing.

• • •

I'm listening to that kid screaming from which-ever wing they've got him in, and I wish I had my shoelaces. You can see good enough in the middle of the night here because they keep the hall lights on, and I could hypnotize my sorry self the way they do in those cartoons where some hanging watch going back and forth makes a dude black out even though the guy's awake and all. I could tie something heavy to the end of a shoelace and swing it back and forth in front of my face and stare and stare, keeping my head real still, and letting my eyes go all side to side, and make myself get all spaced out. Only problem is these Ridgeway nurses, man. They took my shoe-laces, and damn if I can find anything else to use.

• • •

"If you're so interested in my business, why don't you just read my file?"

"Your file."

"I know you've got a file on me, doc. Don't even try to play like you don't."

"I'm not trying anything," he goes.

"So what are you bothering me for?" I go. "You lazy or something? Just read the file."

"Actually, I've read it."

"Then why do you need to talk to me?"

"Why do you think I might need to talk to you?"

"I don't know, man."

"I'm aware that you don't know. I'm just wondering what you think."

"I don't like to think."

"Yes. You've said that before."

"Okay. What do I think? I think it's your job."

"What does that mean?"

"What do you mean, 'What does that mean?' It's your job. It's a job."

"Hmm." Sometimes, he's just stupid.

"So what's in my file, anyway?"

"What do you imagine is in the file?"

"Are you for real?"

"Yes. What do you imagine?"

"I don't go around imagining."

• • •

That file probably says how I was in special ed. How I cursed at teachers and stole lighters and made Mrs. Harper sick. It probably says something like, America is a boy who is a lot of trouble. America is a boy who is crazy. America might be a murderer. Be real careful of America. That's probably what it says. That's how those files go.

• • •

I must be walking my ass from the bed to the cafeteria to the rec room to his office, but I don't know. I just end up wherever I am. I can't hardly remember how I even got here.

• • •

"How's it laid out?" I go.

"What do you mean?"

"Damn, Dr. B. Am I going to have to explain every last little thing?"

"Maybe," he goes.

"How's the order of it? Is it all one paper, like somebody telling some story about me, or is it all blanks and squares and like that?"

"You're asking me how your file is organized?"

"That's what I'm asking."

"Well, how are you picturing it?"

"Would you stop with that, man? I swear to God."

"Stop with what?"

"With that picturing shit. I'm not stupid. I know picturing's the same as imagining."

"Hmm."

"So just answer my question."

"All right," he goes. "Your file has a sort of story about you as well as blanks and squares."

"How's the story set up?"

"There's a section about your medical history. Another section about your school history. There's a section about your people and growing-up history. And other sections."

"How are you supposed to know if they got all those sections right about me, if I don't even get to check it out my own self?"

"You want to be sure what I read about you is accurate."

"That's what I'm saying."

"One way I could know that is to have you tell me about your own self, your own self."

"Nice try, doc."

"I'm not trying anything, America."

• • •

I'm flat straight without any pillow on my coffin bed. Here's what I imagine. The growing-up section starts with me getting born. It goes like this: America got born to a crack addict who didn't want him. Two days after that, America got with a rich white family, only they didn't want him after he started turning his color. So in a couple of months quick, America got taken by the rich white family's nanny.

I'm flat straight without any pillow on my coffin bed and I decide imagining is right up there with thinking. Don't like either one.

• • •

"You're going to blackmail me, right?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're going to make me tell you all my private business before you let me see the file."

"Really."

"What else? You're doing your job the way they tell you. Trying real hard to get me to give it up. So now you're all, 'America, you tell me your business, and I'll show you the file.'"

"Hmm."

"I'm not telling you shit."

• • •

"You dropped your pillow." I didn't used to see these other beds right next to mine. "Hey," this new kid's going. "I think you dropped your pillow." Must have been weeks before I even got to noticing this room, much less any of these other guys in here with me. Thing is, they change over so many times, I never know who all is going to be in the next bed.

"Here," this new dude goes. He picks up my stupid pillow and drops it on my legs.

• • •

America is a boy who's been a lot of places. I bet that's what that file says somewhere. America is a boy who gets lost easy and is not worth the trouble of finding.

• • •

He's all leaning forward on his elbows. "There's an opening at a group home." That's how it works. You stay awhile one place, and then you go. "Medicaid's been clear with us that stays on this unit are to be short-term only. You've been here over six weeks. A time frame Medicaid does not consider to be short-term."

"Medicaid's same as the state, right?"

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"You know exactly what I mean. It's all the same. Medicaid. The state. They're all the same damn thing."

"America, if you're still unable to sign the safety contract. I'm not sure the group home will take you, regardless of Medicaid's requirements."

"I guess you and Medicaid have a problem, then, doc."

"So you're still thinking of killing yourself?"

"I don't think, man. I keep telling you."

• • •

America's nanny's name was Mrs. Harper. Mrs. Harper was real good to America. Also Mrs. Harper's half-brother, whose name was Browning, was real good to America. Also, Mrs. Harper's man friend, Clark Poign-ant, was real real good to America. But then, America turned out to be bad and made people sick, so Mrs. Harper and the state sent America back to his mother. But then America's mother had better things to do and left America with his two older brothers. Lyle was the oldest one, but Brooklyn was the baddest, so Brooklyn was in charge. That's probably in there, too. Stupid-ass files.

• • •

I watch those guys play Ping-Pong, and I try not to think. Trouble is, the more you try not to think, the more you end up thinking.

This is what I think. You can know who you're mad at but still know you're bad and ought to be dead. Partly because just knowing who you're mad at doesn't make you any less bad and partly because if you do get better the way they want, then the feelings are going to come crashing down on you like some kind of goddamn avalanche.

• • •

"If you let me read my file, I'll sign your stupid safety contract, and you can get rid of me to that group home," I go.

"First of all, the safety contract doesn't work that way."

"What way?"

"The safety contract is not some sort of trading tool. It stands on its own. And second, what makes you believe I'm trying to get rid of you?"

"Because that's what you're doing, man."

• • •

I sleep in that room with all the dudes who show up and leave again. Some kid with an earring who used to be in cottage two back at Applegate shows up four beds over for a week and then disappears. I don't care. I stand in that cafeteria line and eat their nastiness. I sit in group and don't listen and watch Ping-Pong in the rec room. That's all I do, besides try not to think.

• • •

He won't show me the file, and I won't sign the contract, and he won't sign for me to leave, and some other kid gets my spot in the group home.

"Looks like we're stuck with each other, doc," I go.

"Stuck," he goes.

"S-T-U-C-K. Stuck," I go. "Rhymes with fuck."

"Hmm."

"Should have let me read the file, man."

"What is it about the file that feels so important, America?"

"Can you shut up with your stupid questions? Just bring it out, already."

"I'm sorry, but I can't do that right now."

"Why not?"

"Partly because I'm not comfortable showing it until we've talked further about what reading it might be like for you."

"Huh?"

"Reading your file could bring up feelings, America. It's a complicated thing to read what other people write about you. I think it might feel too complicated for you to handle right now."

Those files probably only have the bad. America is a thief and a wrecker of property. America did not learn to read right until he was almost ten years old. America is a runaway. They only have all the messed-up stuff. They don't have the smaller things. The parts that matter.

"What is it about the file that feels so important to you, America?"

A red ball lollipop. The UPS man who delivers the angels and picks them up again gives it to me. When I get to the fizz in the middle, Mrs. Harper smiles at my face and touches my chin and says, "Real meaning is in the smaller things."

"It's mine, man."

That smell of mint leaves on Mrs. Harper's hands, same as the Chap Stick she makes me smear on in the winter. A rusty streak in Clark Poignant's silver hair. The way he always brings Mrs. Harper white tulips cut straight from his garden and teaches me to shake hands, real firm and solid. The sweet smell of Browning's brown cigarettes.

"It's yours?" Dr. B. goes.

"That's right, man. My business is mine. I own that shit."

I hide under the paint table, and Mrs. Harper goes, "Where is America?" And I pop up, and she goes, "There he is!" And I scream because it's real good to get found. And she stands up from her stool and puts down her fresh-painted blue-and-gold angel real gentle and goes, "I see you, Mister. I see you over there." And I scream because it's real good to be seen. And she pulls off her smock and goes, "I'm going to get you, America! I'm going to get you!" And I'm banging out the screen door running real hard and laughing real hard, and she's running right after me and laughing, too, and she's going to snatch me up any minute and hold me real close and tickle, and I run harder, and then she catches me, and she's going, "I got you! I got you!" and she's got me right down between her warm self and the scratchy grass, and she's wiggling her fingers up under my arms, and we're laughing like crazy, and I'm screaming my head off.

"My not letting you read your business makes you feel I'm taking away something that's yours," Dr. B. goes.

"Huh?"

I help Mrs. Harper screw the paint caps on and soak the brushes, and those angels stand and fly and kneel and sit on our built-in bookshelves waiting to dry off, get repacked, and sent back to the people who pay us for them. They cover every wall of Mrs. Harper's workroom, the great big mess of them protecting the whole house, like a real pretty army.

"Maybe you could just tell me more about your business being yours," Dr. B. says.

"I told you, doc. I'm not telling you anything."

• • •

I lie flat out straight in my coffin bed, and it's getting on my nerves. How Dr. B. gets things going in my head, making me see things I don't hardly care to see. That's the problem with talking to people. All that talking makes you get cracks in your brain, and then all these flashes start leaking right on through.

• • •

"You seem extra quiet today." I've got my neck fixed on the back of my chair and my eyes all open on that round light.

"I'm always quiet. Nothing extra about it." I lean my head back more and check out those sand people on that bookshelf behind me, all upside down. They're gray and little, the size of my fingers.

"Maybe what I mean is that I'm noticing you're not interested in playing any games today and you haven't looked at me at all."

"Whatever." They've got guns and drums and all that. Soldiers. A bunch of soldiers.

"Maybe something's happened that's brought up some feelings."

"Nothing's happened, man. I eat. I sleep. I piss. I go to group. I come here. Time up yet?"

"Almost. Those are things that happen for you on the outside. Maybe something else has happened with you on the inside that's brought up some feelings."

I'm sitting in a booster seat in the middle of Clark Poignant and Mrs. Harper and Browning, and it's real calm. I'm filling in the coloring book page with crayons the waitress gave me.

"Look," Mrs. Harper goes. "It's America." She points her finger with the round, black ring to my page.

Clark Poignant says, "That's a map of where we live."

"That's New York," Mrs. Harper says. "That's in America. We live in New York in America."

"I'm America," I tell them.

"Yup," Browning goes, hanging his arm over my shoulder. "You're America."

"America is the place where we live, and it's also your name," Mrs. Harper says.

"I'm in America," I say. "And America is me." I like saying that. I like the sound of it and the beat of it and the way it makes Mrs. Harper and Clark Poignant and Browning smile. So I say it again. "I'm in America, and America is me."

"We're done now, if you want to leave." I sit up.

"Huh?"

"I said," Dr. B. goes, "we're done for today."

• • •

You try not to think. You try not to imagine, but then those cracks pop up, and these flashes squeeze right through. At first, some of it's not too bad, and you get stupid, maybe even wanting a little more, but then you pull yourself together, knowing what all is likely going to ooze out if you're not careful. So you try to patch up this one crack real quick, but then some other one pops up faster than you can spit, and then you've got to rush your ass around trying to keep things shut tight. That's the problem with being in one place too long. You're at somewhere too long, and your brain gets weak. It's enough to drive a person straight out of his own mind.

• • •

"So how long am I staying here, anyway, doc?" I go.

"How long do you want to stay here?"

"Who says I want to stay here?"

"I'm just remembering that time you mentioned that you weren't planning to talk much because you believed that meant you would leave soon."

"So?"

"So I took that to mean that a part of you would like to stay here."

"Well, I don't know what all you're talking about now, man."

"Hmm."

"Anyway, I don't stay places long."

"What's long?"

"What do you mean, 'What's long?'"

"I mean, how long is long. A week? A year?"

Clark Poignant's in his bed, even though it's light outside, and he has his own nurse, even though his house isn't a hospital.

"Saturday will go by quicker than you think," he tells me. "You'll be back home before you know it. And then Monday you'll start kindergarten." He raises his arm to touch my shoulder, the way he always does, and I'm scared the tube in the back of his hand will slide out, making him bleed.

"He's just confused," Mrs. Harper says when I hide behind her. A little rip in her voice makes me look up at her face and then grab her finger with the black, round ring on it. I rub the top of the ring, and she lets me, and it's smooth and feels good.

"Kindergarten," Clark Poignant says. "Can you believe it?"

"An unsupervised visit," Mrs. Harper says back, with that rip again. "That's what I can't believe."

"Does he know how to call us?" Clark Poignant asks Mrs. Harper, and she says, "He's got everybody's number memorized," and then I make them smile by saying all the numbers. It's a lot to remember, but Mrs. Harper said a boy my age could do it, and I did. "Tell Clark about collect," Mrs. Harper says, so I do, and he says when I get home to call him collect for practice.

Back at Mrs. Harper's, on the upstairs phone, I push zero, just like she showed me, and I give out Clark Poignant's number, and the operator goes, "Who can I say is calling?"

"America," I say, and Mrs. Harper smiles at me from her rocking chair. I hold the phone out to her for a second, but Mrs. Harper waves it back at me, and then Clark Poignant's voice is on the line, and he's saying, "Good job. Good job." I like the way his voice is real still and buzzes fast, like the way a bee's body is real still and buzzes fast around a flower, both at the same time.

"Long is long, man. Long is whenever they feel like deciding," I go.

"Who's 'they,' America?"

"The state," I tell Dr. B. "Medicaid."

"The state and Medicaid?" Dr. B. goes.

"Now you're getting on my nerves, man."

Before my visit to my mother, Mrs. Harper's going to paint something special with all her angels.

"Can you sit still for half a second?" she goes. I don't figure I can, but if I say no, she'll think I'm being mouthy.

"Do I have to go?" I say to Mrs. Harper.

"You do," she says. "But it's only for Saturday, America. And then you'll come right home, and Monday after that, you'll start your kindergarten."

"If I act extra good, do I have to go?" I ask her.

"Has nothing to do with how you act," she says. "I keep telling you."

"What if she wants to abduct me?" I say.

"Adopt you. Not abduct you," Mrs. Harper says. "She doesn't have to adopt you. You're already hers. She's your mother. I'm the one trying to adopt you."

"What about the papers?" I ask her.

"What do you know about papers?" Mrs. Harper says, and I'm scared she's going to look at me hard and turn her back, the way she does when I've made her mad, but she just pats her paintbrush over angel wings.

"Browning said she could write her name on a paper and then the state would let her keep the paper and let you keep me and I wouldn't have to visit her."

"She doesn't want to write her name," Mrs. Harper says.

"How come?" I ask.

Mrs. Harper looks real hard at her wet wings and then throws the angel down. It breaks into pieces. She never broke one before, ever, and especially not on purpose. "I don't know," she tells me. "I really don't know."

"I'm getting on your nerves," Dr. B. goes.

"Can you stop repeating every other thing I say?" I go. "Damn."

"Unfortunately it's a bad habit of mine, but I'll try to stop."

"Why don't you just try to be quiet?"

"You're pretty aggravated right now."

"I'm not aggravated. I'm pissed."

Browning's gin root beer smells nasty. His bag of Tootsie Rolls is stuffed in my back pocket. It's heavy, like it might just take my pants right down.

"Don't you have yourself together yet?" Mrs. Harper goes after dinner, and I wonder which part of him fell off: his head, or his arms, or his legs. Then I wonder if he has wings, so I go to check, but before I can see, Mrs. Harper sends us outside. "If I've told you once, I've told you a million times," she goes to Browning. "I'm not having liquor in this house." So now Browning holds his gin root beer in one hand and throws me the Wiffle ball with the other.

"Now listen," Browning says, tossing me an easy one. "We're buddies, right?"

"Yeah," I say, hitting it straight to his chest. He drops his root-beer can and claps both hands around the ball quick, the way I catch fireflies.

"So listen to me careful," Browning says. "More careful than you ever listened before. Okay?"

"Yeah," I say, waiting for the next pitch.

"Because what I'm about to say is real different from what Mrs. Harper and Clark have been telling you. Okay?"

"Okay," I say. "Pitch it." He pitches it. I hit a pop fly. He catches it behind his back. Then he sits on his butt in the grass and waves his hand at me to come get next to him. I do, and our faces are real close. His breath smells. He talks real low.

"What you have to do is, when you get to your mother's tomorrow, as soon as you get there, as much as you can, you be bad."

"Be bad?" I back up from his breath.

"That's what I'm trying to say." He pulls a brown cigarette from behind his ear and sets it between his lips without lighting it. "Don't listen to anything your mother tells you. Do as many bad things as you know how. Act like a real bad kid. Okay?" His cigarette moves up and down in time with what he's saying.

"I don't want to."

"If you act bad," he says, "that mother of yours will make sure to send you home right back here to Mrs. Harper before your day is even up, and she won't ever want you to visit again, much less want to keep you."

"But Mrs. Harper will be mad." If I do it like he says, she'll end up looking at me hard and turning her back. "Mrs. Harper will get extra mad."

"Nope," he tells me. "She won't be mad as long as she gets you home for good."

"But — "

"I've told you what to do," Browning says, messing with a dandelion. He knows how to tie a knot in it and then snap the stem so the flower part flies off. "If you want your mother to leave us all be." He shrugs at me and flicks the dandelion top. The flower hits my eye. "It's up to you."

"What's pissed you off?" Dr. B. goes.

"You."

"What is it that I've done?"

"Step off."

"Please sit down, America."

"I'm out of here."

"We have five minutes left, America."

"Fuck your five minutes."

"I'll see you Thursday then."

"Oh, yeah? Fuck Thursday."

• • •

I fuck Thursday. I keep my ass in the rec room watching Ping-Pong. I watch that ball popping all back and forth. I watch it careful, concentrating real hard, and doing that shit helps keep those cracks in my brain sealed up tight. It works so good, I almost don't even notice Dr. B. hanging out in the doorway awhile, looking at me.

• • •

"Something kept you from coming to our session Thursday."

"Whatever."

"I looked for you." America gets lost easy. "I found you in the rec room." And is not worth the trouble of finding. "I was interested in what it was that took you to the rec room instead of to our session." He's got a regular deck of cards in his stupid pile of games.

"War," I go.

"Something happened that kept you from our session, America."

"You know the rules?" I'm knuckle-shuffling.

"You don't want to discuss what happened."

"I asked if you know the rules, man."

"I'm not sure if I know your rules." I slap down the deck. He cuts it.

"Two of spades beats everything, including aces. Aces beat everything but the two of spades. Count your cards."

"Twenty-five," Dr. B. goes.

"Twenty-seven," I go. "Here. Pick one." He picks. "Now we're even."

"All right."

"So throw down, man." We throw down. "See that?" I say. "We got war already."

"War."

"Well, let's go then, doc," I say. "I De Clare War."

Copyright © 2002 by E. R. Frank

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Chapter One: Now

You have to watch what you say here because everything you say means something and somebody's always telling you what you mean.

"Step off," I tell this nurse when she tries to get me to eat.

"You mean, thank you for caring," she says. "You're welcome."

"I need a lighter," I tell her, and she goes, "You mean you want a lighter. Dream on, sweetheart."

So I take their medicine and walk around in socks the way they make you, and stay real quiet.


• • •


"Hello, America," he goes. "I'm Dr. B." He holds out his hand, but I play like I don't even see it. "I'll be your therapist while you're here at Ridgeway." He drops his arm like it's no big thing and dumps his skinny butt in a chair behind his desk. "You can sit anywhere." He doesn't have any tennis balls or messed-up eyeglasses or an attitude like those other ones back at Applegate. He's just regular. I stay standing. "We'll meet at this time for forty-five minutes every Tuesday and Thursday." I keep my back right up on the door. He's all calm, like it's cool with him. "Our sessions will be confidential. Are you familiar with the rules of confidentiality?" I don't bother answering. "Confidentiality means what's said in this room stays in this room." He stops a second, looking at me, close. "Except for three things." Looking at me straight up. "If you tell me that someone is harming you, if you express the intent to harm yourself, or do so, or if you express the intent to harm anyone else, or do so. Those three things don't stay private between us."

"That's it?" I go.

"'That's it,' what?" he goes. Not in my face. Just normal.

"That's all you've got, if I say I'm going to off myself?"

"Is that what you're planning?"

"Huh?"

"Are you planning to kill yourself?"

"That's not what I asked."

"I know that's not what you asked." He's leaning forward on his elbows, like he's interested, like he for real even cares.

"It's no big secret, doc," I go. "How the hell do you think I got here?"


• • •


They try to make me do group.

"Who wants to share with America what the purpose of this group is?" the lady goes.

Nobody bothers, so she picks on some kid all bent over with his arms crossed looking like he's got nails twisting up his stomach. "Don?" the lady goes, and he squeaks his chair and crosses his arms the other way.

"Supposed to talk or something," this Don goes. I'm out of here.

"Please sit down, America," the lady tells me. I head for the door. "America, you are required to participate in group," the lady goes. I keep walking. "Privileges," I hear her yelling.

Points, tickets, privileges. You do this, they give you that many. You get that many, they let you out. Let you out where? Some other sorry-ass place. I don't need this.


• • •


I'm not stupid. I know it's going to get real tiring standing by his door for near to an hour. So I sit this time.

"I guess you're not in the mood to talk," Dr. B. goes, after a lot of minutes. I lean my head over the back of the chair and stare up at the ceiling. "I guess you're not much in the mood to be here, either," Dr. B. says, all calm.

"You're some genius," I go.


• • •


A week. Maybe two. I don't know, and I don't care. I'm just slamming my pillow on the floor every night. Sleeping on my back, flat out, with my arms straight down my sides. Like I'm in a coffin.


• • •


"It's hard to know how to begin."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

His ceiling is white stripes and a round light in the middle.

"Just what it says," he goes. "Sometimes, it's hard for people to begin their sessions."

"Ah, man." My neck aches, bad, but I keep my head hanging over the back of my chair anyway.

"You seem annoyed."

"Yeah, I'm annoyed. Who wouldn't be?"

"Maybe that's part of why it's hard to start each session."

"Maybe you're repeating yourself."

"Maybe you're so annoyed to start with, it makes you not want to talk."

"Whatever."

"What would it be like if you did talk?"

"I talk, man."

"Not so much."

"So?"

"I'm curious about what keeps you from talking."

"Well, you're going to have to live with curious a long time, doc."


• • •


You get in line, and you slide your tray, and they hand over your baby carrots and your chicken and your roll, and you sit at some table with a million other dudes, and you eat, and it tastes like your own tongue, and you wish you could just choke to death once and forever right here, right in the middle of nothing.


• • •


"Some people believe that depression is anger turned toward the self," Dr. B. says.

He might not have attitude like those other ones back at Applegate, but he's got the same old pile of stupid games. Connect Four and checkers. Chess and Monopoly and all that. I grab his Uno cards and knuckle-shuffle them.

"It's just something to know," Dr. B. says. "Because usually people who try to kill themselves are depressed, and often they're depressed because they're angry."

I shuffle again and then slap the stack down on his desk.

"People who are able to somehow acknowledge their anger often become less depressed."

"Cut the deck," I go, because he's giving me a headache with all that.


• • •


I try not to think about it in the rec room. I watch those guys play Ping-Pong, and I try not to think. About that anger mess. About depressed. Only every time I remember that cement rectangle with a footprint in one corner, I watch Mrs. Harper sending me away, and whenever I see Clark Poign-ant, it's when he's got tubes running all into the backs of his hands, and if I try to picture Liza, I just hear how she said she'd hate me if I ever killed myself, and anytime Brooklyn's face pops up in my head, I see him stealing those green Magic Markers. And every time I think about hide-and-seek, I see Browning.

I watch that ball popping back and forth, and I try not to think.


• • •


"What would it be like?" Dr. B. goes.

"Huh?"

"Being dead."

"Huh?"

"You're interested in being dead. I'm interested in what you think being dead would be like."

"You're the doctor, man. You tell me."

"I don't know. Different people imagine different things. I'm wondering what you imagine."

Empty. Quiet. Nobody's good. Nobody's bad. Nobody's nobody. You don't think. You don't remember. You don't be. Nothing hurts.

"Step off," I tell him.

"Hmm," he goes.


• • •


CONTRACT FOR SAFETY

I, America, agree that if I feel I might harm myself, I will immediately follow the plan below:

1) Notify on-duty nurse of my feelings.

2) Write down the date and time.

3) Write down the name of each feeling I'm experiencing, followed by the thoughts and/or events which preceded it.

4) Notify and discuss all of the above with Dr. B. immediately upon our next scheduled session.

In addition, I give my promise that I will not try to harm or kill myself, should I experience the wish to do so.


• • •


It's one of the most messed-up things I ever heard in my whole stupid life. If you feel so bad you want to die, why would you even care what kind of lame-ass promises you make?

I'm not signing shit.


• • •


"Some kids don't want to feel better," Dr. B. says. So what. "Because it's too frightening," he goes, and then he stops. I'm resting my head over the back of this chair and staring up at his ceiling. "Think about it a second."

"I don't like to think." I hang my head way far back and see his bookshelves upside down behind me. Instead of books, they've got some kind of little statues lined up. Dollhouse people, or something.

We're quiet for a real long time, but then he goes, "I'm guessing you're used to feeling mad and bad."

"So?" I go.

"Feeling better would be something you don't know."

"You got that right," I tell him.

"A lot of people are scared of what they don't know. So they hold on to mad and bad."

I'm not even going to play like I know what all he's saying. So I stay quiet.


• • •


My pills used to be green. Wheatgrass, Mrs. Harper would say. Then blue. Now yellow. They're all the same shape. Stretched-out ovals. The nurse brings me one every morning and watches me swallow it. I don't care. Some people take all different ones. A mess of colors, and all these shapes. They try to hold their pill under their tongue, or sick it up after the nurse leaves. It's likely a million pills these nurses have to keep all stocked up here. Somebody's making a straight-up fortune.


• • •


"How many weeks have I been here?" I go to the group lady.

"Excuse me?"

"I didn't know that kid could talk," some scrub goes.

"How long have I been here?"

"About three weeks," the group lady says. "Is that something you'd like to speak about?"

I shrug and stare at this crack on the wall, this crack that does the shape of a big-ass crumpled square. It looks like a TV after someone smashed

up all the corners. I watch it for the whole rest of the time, so I don't know how I get to noticing it, but all of them that used to be in this group are gone except me. It's new guys now, and I'm the only old one.


• • •


"All right," Dr. B. goes, after I won't play Uno anymore, and I won't play anything else, and I still won't talk, either. "Where would you like to be five years from now?"

"Nowhere," I tell him.


• • •


The thing is, Mrs. Harper might be alive. She might be in some bed somewhere, in some nursing home, just hoping for someone to come see her.

Or she could be hanging out with Clark Poignant up there in Heaven. Dead.


• • •


This one kid screams at night. If Liza or Brooklyn were here, either one, they'd find out quick right where he's at and tell him to shut the hell up. This kid's in some other hall or wing or someplace. The screaming's not real loud, because must be he's far away, but it's bad. It's the kind that makes you picture a movie scene with some crazy-looking dude, wrapped in sheets, all sweaty and bug-eyed. Like something real, real deep went down with him he's likely never going to get out of his head.

I'm betting he's real pissed they're keeping him alive.


• • •


I could ask, but I'm too tired. So I listen instead. I listen to the nurses chitchatting, and I listen to the other guys telling all their private business and everybody else's, and I listen to Dr. B. even when he thinks I'm not. You figure out a real lot when you're just quiet and you listen.

Here's what I figure out. This place, Ridgeway, has just about everything. It's got buildings for girls and buildings for boys and buildings for both. It's got buildings for real serious, like me, where you live, and for people who sleep somewhere else but come in here for the day. It's got a building for if you're here because a judge made you, and it's got a building for if you're all used up from drugs. The street kind, not their kind.

Me. I was in emergency first, right after I tried to off myself back at Applegate. Emergency drugged me up intense for a while, and then they didn't drug me up as much, and then emergency kicked my butt out and put me here. Most people stay about a month, maybe two, and then go somewhere else. They go home for good, or else to sleep at night and then back to Ridgeway or some other place for day treatment. Or they skip home and land right in long-term residential. That's what Applegate was, long-term residential treatment. I wasn't supposed to get sent there in the first place. I should have gone to some group home. Some foster care group home, only the system screwed up. Stupid thing is, right now I would go back to Applegate, only they just got this new rule of not letting kids in older than thirteen, and the other long-term residential eighteen miles away is full, and the rest are out of my district, so I'm not allowed in, and there's no beds left in any group homes, and the only places left besides here is jail, which is where I know I ought to be. Or else a state hospital, but you only get sent to a state hospital if you're so far gone, you're pulling out your eyeballs thinking they're grapes, or some damn thing.

So I'm here.


• • •


"You only let people out after they spill their guts, right?"

"What do you mean?"

"I'm saying, you only let people leave this place if they're all talking every minute in their sessions, right?"

"Something's given you that idea?"

"Hell yeah, man. I see how it is. It's those guys who talk that get to leave. Like that Don guy from group. He used to never say boo, then all of a sudden you can't shut him up. He's talking every second, and bang. He's out of here."

"I see."

"Well, I'm not telling you jack."

"You think if you start sharing your thoughts and feelings with me, you'll leave here more quickly?"

"I don't think. I know."

"So you've decided not to talk."

"Yup."

"So you don't want to leave here."

"I didn't say that."

"So you do want to leave here," he goes.

"So, nothing, man."

"Maybe you have mixed feelings about it. Maybe sometimes you want to be here and other times you don't."

"Can you just be quiet a second?"

"Or, maybe, sometimes right at the same time you want to be here and also you don't."

"I asked you to shut up. You're making me dizzy."


• • •


We play checkers. You don't have to think. You don't have to talk. Say things that might make you remember, might make them send you away when you've got no place to go. No house, because you burned it right down to the ground, no shopping mall to hide out in, or bushes in a park. No couch up for grabs in some dude's crib. No nothing.


• • •


I'm listening to that kid screaming from which-ever wing they've got him in, and I wish I had my shoelaces. You can see good enough in the middle of the night here because they keep the hall lights on, and I could hypnotize my sorry self the way they do in those cartoons where some hanging watch going back and forth makes a dude black out even though the guy's awake and all. I could tie something heavy to the end of a shoelace and swing it back and forth in front of my face and stare and stare, keeping my head real still, and letting my eyes go all side to side, and make myself get all spaced out. Only problem is these Ridgeway nurses, man. They took my shoe-laces, and damn if I can find anything else to use.


• • •


"If you're so interested in my business, why don't you just read my file?"

"Your file."

"I know you've got a file on me, doc. Don't even try to play like you don't."

"I'm not trying anything," he goes.

"So what are you bothering me for?" I go. "You lazy or something? Just read the file."

"Actually, I've read it."

"Then why do you need to talk to me?"

"Why do you think I might need to talk to you?"

"I don't know, man."

"I'm aware that you don't know. I'm just wondering what you think."

"I don't like to think."

"Yes. You've said that before."

"Okay. What do I think? I think it's your job."

"What does that mean?"

"What do you mean, 'What does that mean?' It's your job. It's a job."

"Hmm." Sometimes, he's just stupid.

"So what's in my file, anyway?"

"What do you imagine is in the file?"

"Are you for real?"

"Yes. What do you imagine?"

"I don't go around imagining."


• • •


That file probably says how I was in special ed. How I cursed at teachers and stole lighters and made Mrs. Harper sick. It probably says something like, America is a boy who is a lot of trouble. America is a boy who is crazy. America might be a murderer. Be real careful of America. That's probably what it says. That's how those files go.


• • •


I must be walking my ass from the bed to the cafeteria to the rec room to his office, but I don't know. I just end up wherever I am. I can't hardly remember how I even got here.


• • •


"How's it laid out?" I go.

"What do you mean?"

"Damn, Dr. B. Am I going to have to explain every last little thing?"

"Maybe," he goes.

"How's the order of it? Is it all one paper, like somebody telling some story about me, or is it all blanks and squares and like that?"

"You're asking me how your file is organized?"

"That's what I'm asking."

"Well, how are you picturing it?"

"Would you stop with that, man? I swear to God."

"Stop with what?"

"With that picturing shit. I'm not stupid. I know picturing's the same as imagining."

"Hmm."

"So just answer my question."

"All right," he goes. "Your file has a sort of story about you as well as blanks and squares."

"How's the story set up?"

"There's a section about your medical history. Another section about your school history. There's a section about your people and growing-up history. And other sections."

"How are you supposed to know if they got all those sections right about me, if I don't even get to check it out my own self?"

"You want to be sure what I read about you is accurate."

"That's what I'm saying."

"One way I could know that is to have you tell me about your own self, your own self."

"Nice try, doc."

"I'm not trying anything, America."


• • •


I'm flat straight without any pillow on my coffin bed. Here's what I imagine. The growing-up section starts with me getting born. It goes like this: America got born to a crack addict who didn't want him. Two days after that, America got with a rich white family, only they didn't want him after he started turning his color. So in a couple of months quick, America got taken by the rich white family's nanny.

I'm flat straight without any pillow on my coffin bed and I decide imagining is right up there with thinking. Don't like either one.


• • •


"You're going to blackmail me, right?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're going to make me tell you all my private business before you let me see the file."

"Really."

"What else? You're doing your job the way they tell you. Trying real hard to get me to give it up. So now you're all, 'America, you tell me your business, and I'll show you the file.'"

"Hmm."

"I'm not telling you shit."


• • •


"You dropped your pillow." I didn't used to see these other beds right next to mine. "Hey," this new kid's going. "I think you dropped your pillow." Must have been weeks before I even got to noticing this room, much less any of these other guys in here with me. Thing is, they change over so many times, I never know who all is going to be in the next bed.

"Here," this new dude goes. He picks up my stupid pillow and drops it on my legs.


• • •


America is a boy who's been a lot of places. I bet that's what that file says somewhere. America is a boy who gets lost easy and is not worth the trouble of finding.


• • •


He's all leaning forward on his elbows. "There's an opening at a group home." That's how it works. You stay awhile one place, and then you go. "Medicaid's been clear with us that stays on this unit are to be short-term only. You've been here over six weeks. A time frame Medicaid does not consider to be short-term."

"Medicaid's same as the state, right?"

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"You know exactly what I mean. It's all the same. Medicaid. The state. They're all the same damn thing."

"America, if you're still unable to sign the safety contract. I'm not sure the group home will take you, regardless of Medicaid's requirements."

"I guess you and Medicaid have a problem, then, doc."

"So you're still thinking of killing yourself?"

"I don't think, man. I keep telling you."


• • •


America's nanny's name was Mrs. Harper. Mrs. Harper was real good to America. Also Mrs. Harper's half-brother, whose name was Browning, was real good to America. Also, Mrs. Harper's man friend, Clark Poign-ant, was real real good to America. But then, America turned out to be bad and made people sick, so Mrs. Harper and the state sent America back to his mother. But then America's mother had better things to do and left America with his two older brothers. Lyle was the oldest one, but Brooklyn was the baddest, so Brooklyn was in charge. That's probably in there, too. Stupid-ass files.


• • •


I watch those guys play Ping-Pong, and I try not to think. Trouble is, the more you try not to think, the more you end up thinking.

This is what I think. You can know who you're mad at but still know you're bad and ought to be dead. Partly because just knowing who you're mad at doesn't make you any less bad and partly because if you do get better the way they want, then the feelings are going to come crashing down on you like some kind of goddamn avalanche.


• • •


"If you let me read my file, I'll sign your stupid safety contract, and you can get rid of me to that group home," I go.

"First of all, the safety contract doesn't work that way."

"What way?"

"The safety contract is not some sort of trading tool. It stands on its own. And second, what makes you believe I'm trying to get rid of you?"

"Because that's what you're doing, man."


• • •


I sleep in that room with all the dudes who show up and leave again. Some kid with an earring who used to be in cottage two back at Applegate shows up four beds over for a week and then disappears. I don't care. I stand in that cafeteria line and eat their nastiness. I sit in group and don't listen and watch Ping-Pong in the rec room. That's all I do, besides try not to think.


• • •


He won't show me the file, and I won't sign the contract, and he won't sign for me to leave, and some other kid gets my spot in the group home.

"Looks like we're stuck with each other, doc," I go.

"Stuck," he goes.

"S-T-U-C-K. Stuck," I go. "Rhymes with fuck."

"Hmm."

"Should have let me read the file, man."

"What is it about the file that feels so important, America?"

"Can you shut up with your stupid questions? Just bring it out, already."

"I'm sorry, but I can't do that right now."

"Why not?"

"Partly because I'm not comfortable showing it until we've talked further about what reading it might be like for you."

"Huh?"

"Reading your file could bring up feelings, America. It's a complicated thing to read what other people write about you. I think it might feel too complicated for you to handle right now."

Those files probably only have the bad. America is a thief and a wrecker of property. America did not learn to read right until he was almost ten years old. America is a runaway. They only have all the messed-up stuff. They don't have the smaller things. The parts that matter.

"What is it about the file that feels so important to you, America?"

A red ball lollipop. The UPS man who delivers the angels and picks them up again gives it to me. When I get to the fizz in the middle, Mrs. Harper smiles at my face and touches my chin and says, "Real meaning is in the smaller things."

"It's mine, man."

That smell of mint leaves on Mrs. Harper's hands, same as the Chap Stick she makes me smear on in the winter. A rusty streak in Clark Poignant's silver hair. The way he always brings Mrs. Harper white tulips cut straight from his garden and teaches me to shake hands, real firm and solid. The sweet smell of Browning's brown cigarettes.

"It's yours?" Dr. B. goes.

"That's right, man. My business is mine. I own that shit."

I hide under the paint table, and Mrs. Harper goes, "Where is America?" And I pop up, and she goes, "There he is!" And I scream because it's real good to get found. And she stands up from her stool and puts down her fresh-painted blue-and-gold angel real gentle and goes, "I see you, Mister. I see you over there." And I scream because it's real good to be seen. And she pulls off her smock and goes, "I'm going to get you, America! I'm going to get you!" And I'm banging out the screen door running real hard and laughing real hard, and she's running right after me and laughing, too, and she's going to snatch me up any minute and hold me real close and tickle, and I run harder, and then she catches me, and she's going, "I got you! I got you!" and she's got me right down between her warm self and the scratchy grass, and she's wiggling her fingers up under my arms, and we're laughing like crazy, and I'm screaming my head off.

"My not letting you read your business makes you feel I'm taking away something that's yours," Dr. B. goes.

"Huh?"

I help Mrs. Harper screw the paint caps on and soak the brushes, and those angels stand and fly and kneel and sit on our built-in bookshelves waiting to dry off, get repacked, and sent back to the people who pay us for them. They cover every wall of Mrs. Harper's workroom, the great big mess of them protecting the whole house, like a real pretty army.

"Maybe you could just tell me more about your business being yours," Dr. B. says.

"I told you, doc. I'm not telling you anything."


• • •


I lie flat out straight in my coffin bed, and it's getting on my nerves. How Dr. B. gets things going in my head, making me see things I don't hardly care to see. That's the problem with talking to people. All that talking makes you get cracks in your brain, and then all these flashes start leaking right on through.


• • •


"You seem extra quiet today." I've got my neck fixed on the back of my chair and my eyes all open on that round light.

"I'm always quiet. Nothing extra about it." I lean my head back more and check out those sand people on that bookshelf behind me, all upside down. They're gray and little, the size of my fingers.

"Maybe what I mean is that I'm noticing you're not interested in playing any games today and you haven't looked at me at all."

"Whatever." They've got guns and drums and all that. Soldiers. A bunch of soldiers.

"Maybe something's happened that's brought up some feelings."

"Nothing's happened, man. I eat. I sleep. I piss. I go to group. I come here. Time up yet?"

"Almost. Those are things that happen for you on the outside. Maybe something else has happened with you on the inside that's brought up some feelings."

I'm sitting in a booster seat in the middle of Clark Poignant and Mrs. Harper and Browning, and it's real calm. I'm filling in the coloring book page with crayons the waitress gave me.

"Look," Mrs. Harper goes. "It's America." She points her finger with the round, black ring to my page.

Clark Poignant says, "That's a map of where we live."

"That's New York," Mrs. Harper says. "That's in America. We live in New York in America."

"I'm America," I tell them.

"Yup," Browning goes, hanging his arm over my shoulder. "You're America."

"America is the place where we live, and it's also your name," Mrs. Harper says.

"I'm in America," I say. "And America is me." I like saying that. I like the sound of it and the beat of it and the way it makes Mrs. Harper and Clark Poignant and Browning smile. So I say it again. "I'm in America, and America is me."

"We're done now, if you want to leave." I sit up.

"Huh?"

"I said," Dr. B. goes, "we're done for today."


• • •


You try not to think. You try not to imagine, but then those cracks pop up, and these flashes squeeze right through. At first, some of it's not too bad, and you get stupid, maybe even wanting a little more, but then you pull yourself together, knowing what all is likely going to ooze out if you're not careful. So you try to patch up this one crack real quick, but then some other one pops up faster than you can spit, and then you've got to rush your ass around trying to keep things shut tight. That's the problem with being in one place too long. You're at somewhere too long, and your brain gets weak. It's enough to drive a person straight out of his own mind.


• • •


"So how long am I staying here, anyway, doc?" I go.

"How long do you want to stay here?"

"Who says I want to stay here?"

"I'm just remembering that time you mentioned that you weren't planning to talk much because you believed that meant you would leave soon."

"So?"

"So I took that to mean that a part of you would like to stay here."

"Well, I don't know what all you're talking about now, man."

"Hmm."

"Anyway, I don't stay places long."

"What's long?"

"What do you mean, 'What's long?'"

"I mean, how long is long. A week? A year?"

Clark Poignant's in his bed, even though it's light outside, and he has his own nurse, even though his house isn't a hospital.

"Saturday will go by quicker than you think," he tells me. "You'll be back home before you know it. And then Monday you'll start kindergarten." He raises his arm to touch my shoulder, the way he always does, and I'm scared the tube in the back of his hand will slide out, making him bleed.

"He's just confused," Mrs. Harper says when I hide behind her. A little rip in her voice makes me look up at her face and then grab her finger with the black, round ring on it. I rub the top of the ring, and she lets me, and it's smooth and feels good.

"Kindergarten," Clark Poignant says. "Can you believe it?"

"An unsupervised visit," Mrs. Harper says back, with that rip again. "That's what I can't believe."

"Does he know how to call us?" Clark Poignant asks Mrs. Harper, and she says, "He's got everybody's number memorized," and then I make them smile by saying all the numbers. It's a lot to remember, but Mrs. Harper said a boy my age could do it, and I did. "Tell Clark about collect," Mrs. Harper says, so I do, and he says when I get home to call him collect for practice.

Back at Mrs. Harper's, on the upstairs phone, I push zero, just like she showed me, and I give out Clark Poignant's number, and the operator goes, "Who can I say is calling?"

"America," I say, and Mrs. Harper smiles at me from her rocking chair. I hold the phone out to her for a second, but Mrs. Harper waves it back at me, and then Clark Poignant's voice is on the line, and he's saying, "Good job. Good job." I like the way his voice is real still and buzzes fast, like the way a bee's body is real still and buzzes fast around a flower, both at the same time.

"Long is long, man. Long is whenever they feel like deciding," I go.

"Who's 'they,' America?"

"The state," I tell Dr. B. "Medicaid."

"The state and Medicaid?" Dr. B. goes.

"Now you're getting on my nerves, man."

Before my visit to my mother, Mrs. Harper's going to paint something special with all her angels.

"Can you sit still for half a second?" she goes. I don't figure I can, but if I say no, she'll think I'm being mouthy.

"Do I have to go?" I say to Mrs. Harper.

"You do," she says. "But it's only for Saturday, America. And then you'll come right home, and Monday after that, you'll start your kindergarten."

"If I act extra good, do I have to go?" I ask her.

"Has nothing to do with how you act," she says. "I keep telling you."

"What if she wants to abduct me?" I say.

"Adopt you. Not abduct you," Mrs. Harper says. "She doesn't have to adopt you. You're already hers. She's your mother. I'm the one trying to adopt you."

"What about the papers?" I ask her.

"What do you know about papers?" Mrs. Harper says, and I'm scared she's going to look at me hard and turn her back, the way she does when I've made her mad, but she just pats her paintbrush over angel wings.

"Browning said she could write her name on a paper and then the state would let her keep the paper and let you keep me and I wouldn't have to visit her."

"She doesn't want to write her name," Mrs. Harper says.

"How come?" I ask.

Mrs. Harper looks real hard at her wet wings and then throws the angel down. It breaks into pieces. She never broke one before, ever, and especially not on purpose. "I don't know," she tells me. "I really don't know."

"I'm getting on your nerves," Dr. B. goes.

"Can you stop repeating every other thing I say?" I go. "Damn."

"Unfortunately it's a bad habit of mine, but I'll try to stop."

"Why don't you just try to be quiet?"

"You're pretty aggravated right now."

"I'm not aggravated. I'm pissed."

Browning's gin root beer smells nasty. His bag of Tootsie Rolls is stuffed in my back pocket. It's heavy, like it might just take my pants right down.

"Don't you have yourself together yet?" Mrs. Harper goes after dinner, and I wonder which part of him fell off: his head, or his arms, or his legs. Then I wonder if he has wings, so I go to check, but before I can see, Mrs. Harper sends us outside. "If I've told you once, I've told you a million times," she goes to Browning. "I'm not having liquor in this house." So now Browning holds his gin root beer in one hand and throws me the Wiffle ball with the other.

"Now listen," Browning says, tossing me an easy one. "We're buddies, right?"

"Yeah," I say, hitting it straight to his chest. He drops his root-beer can and claps both hands around the ball quick, the way I catch fireflies.

"So listen to me careful," Browning says. "More careful than you ever listened before. Okay?"

"Yeah," I say, waiting for the next pitch.

"Because what I'm about to say is real different from what Mrs. Harper and Clark have been telling you. Okay?"

"Okay," I say. "Pitch it." He pitches it. I hit a pop fly. He catches it behind his back. Then he sits on his butt in the grass and waves his hand at me to come get next to him. I do, and our faces are real close. His breath smells. He talks real low.

"What you have to do is, when you get to your mother's tomorrow, as soon as you get there, as much as you can, you be bad."

"Be bad?" I back up from his breath.

"That's what I'm trying to say." He pulls a brown cigarette from behind his ear and sets it between his lips without lighting it. "Don't listen to anything your mother tells you. Do as many bad things as you know how. Act like a real bad kid. Okay?" His cigarette moves up and down in time with what he's saying.

"I don't want to."

"If you act bad," he says, "that mother of yours will make sure to send you home right back here to Mrs. Harper before your day is even up, and she won't ever want you to visit again, much less want to keep you."

"But Mrs. Harper will be mad." If I do it like he says, she'll end up looking at me hard and turning her back. "Mrs. Harper will get extra mad."

"Nope," he tells me. "She won't be mad as long as she gets you home for good."

"But -- "

"I've told you what to do," Browning says, messing with a dandelion. He knows how to tie a knot in it and then snap the stem so the flower part flies off. "If you want your mother to leave us all be." He shrugs at me and flicks the dandelion top. The flower hits my eye. "It's up to you."

"What's pissed you off?" Dr. B. goes.

"You."

"What is it that I've done?"

"Step off."

"Please sit down, America."

"I'm out of here."

"We have five minutes left, America."

"Fuck your five minutes."

"I'll see you Thursday then."

"Oh, yeah? Fuck Thursday."


• • •


I fuck Thursday. I keep my ass in the rec room watching Ping-Pong. I watch that ball popping all back and forth. I watch it careful, concentrating real hard, and doing that shit helps keep those cracks in my brain sealed up tight. It works so good, I almost don't even notice Dr. B. hanging out in the doorway awhile, looking at me.


• • •


"Something kept you from coming to our session Thursday."

"Whatever."

"I looked for you." America gets lost easy. "I found you in the rec room." And is not worth the trouble of finding. "I was interested in what it was that took you to the rec room instead of to our session." He's got a regular deck of cards in his stupid pile of games.

"War," I go.

"Something happened that kept you from our session, America."

"You know the rules?" I'm knuckle-shuffling.

"You don't want to discuss what happened."

"I asked if you know the rules, man."

"I'm not sure if I know your rules." I slap down the deck. He cuts it.

"Two of spades beats everything, including aces. Aces beat everything but the two of spades. Count your cards."

"Twenty-five," Dr. B. goes.

"Twenty-seven," I go. "Here. Pick one." He picks. "Now we're even."

"All right."

"So throw down, man." We throw down. "See that?" I say. "We got war already."

"War."

"Well, let's go then, doc," I say. "I De Clare War."

Copyright © 2002 by E. R. Frank

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2008

    America

    I had to read this book for a school project and at first I was thinking 'OH GAWD' but this book turned out to be wonderful. It is very touching and releastic. America goes through so much in his life. It has some suprises but im not going to tell you. JUST GO READ IT!!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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