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A NYONE CONSIDERING MAKING AN UNDERAGE change in life, such as who you're going to live with, should know there's no way to avoid the government getting in on the decision, so try to be kind to the lady they'll send with a stack of tests and try to stay calm and do your best on them. I moved in here three years ago on Christmas Day of 1971, knowing as I knocked on the door that I was choosing this particular replacement for life with my mother because the foster mother, Laura, had the kind of home you'd be out of your mind not to settle into for good.
My family was either dead or crazy, so there wasn't the fall-back of concerned loved ones. In fact, my mother's sister, Nadine, who looks sane in public, had created a no-room-at-the-inn situation during her and her daughter Dora's festivities that caused me to strike out walking for Laura's house.
The next summer Laura notified the government that all was well and they could go ahead and draw up her parental rights paperwork. Lo and behold a letter arrived to say Social Service was fine with our arrangement as long as I could pass the mental stability tests meant to prove whether I was too much of a damaged goods personality to live with a nice individual permanently or if I needed to be demoted into a more routine nightmare orphan home.
When Laura noticed me at the kitchen table with the letter and a resuscitated nail-biting habit, she said, You can't prepare for tests like these, Ellen, and when I called to say it's been nothing but a joy having you here, and I think I'd know by now if I needed to be sleeping with my eyes open because you were across the hall plotting waking nightmares, the woman said the tests were mandatory but they're a formality. There's nothing to worry about unless you chew your fingers so far down you can't write the answers.
She took me in for the tests the following Saturday morning, and just as I made the last multiple choice decision on whether I'd rather watch television or play baseball the lady told Laura and me to pardon the surprise but I needed to be shut up alone for another two hours with a kind of raw intelligence test they tacked on to the mental health portion. I said it was fine, just let me go to the bathroom and sharpen my pencil, not mentioning my suspicion that this was a fresh trick.
Laura took a breath and quietly blew her words out toward the lady, telling her in a way that could sound rude if you don't imagine it correctly, Well, she's here. She's willing and more than capable. I know the government's always created a certain amount of make-work, but it's worrisome for you to double tests that don't matter.
The lady said every time the court decided a child's life, the individual had to be run through particular tests before they could more or less turn you out into a new future. Pardon her again for not telling us about yet another final detail sooner, but a letter would be coming with instructions on when and where to take me for a thorough physical, courtesy of the government, down to the eyes, ears, and teeth.
She was smiling, hopeful we'd appreciate a free medical visit, but Laura blew gently again, saying, I'll take care of it. We have a family doctor. Shouldn't my fitness as a parent be a concern?
Laura wasn't being conceited, only picturing us in a line of teenage mothers with babies on their hips sucking root beer out of blue plastic milk bottles. Sorry to say it but I filled out that scene in the bathroom. When I got back and saw Laura running my pencils through a motorized sharpener, her tight method of movement and the way she dashed back her hair made her favor Ava Gardner, definite-edged in the midst of murky people, like in The Night of the Iguana when she's managing the old maid and the traveling women. The lady was fixated on Laura. She hadn't answered Laura yet, but she finally said, You can take her to the Mayo Clinic if you want to, and we know you're more than fit to take permanent custody of Ellen. How many pencils does she need?
More than she was led to believe, Laura told her, but since this is the last time, I'll let it be, and hope she'll be ready when I come for her. You know, it's Saturday.
She didn't say she was aggravated that the second test made us miss Willy Wonka and interrupted her plan to help catch me up on ordinary events by taking me to one childhood-type movie a month. She was aware of how when I was little, we stayed inside the house. The thought of heading out to the matinee movies or the family drive-in theater never arose due to different extremes. Now it was another thing available just to get up and go do. After American Bandstand, after the other two foster girls and I ate some sandwiches off the fold-out tables, we'd make the first afternoon showing and then walk around downtown, eating hot dogs and window shopping.
After the tests, Laura let me in the car, not all there, mumbling to me, And I'm even sorrier the downtown theater's switching over from Willy Wonka to Art Garfunkel, of all people, in something you can't see and I don't want to. We need another theater. Who here would buy a ticket to watch Art Garfunkel with his clothes off?
I said, It's okay about missing the movie. They'll probably bring it back on the summer daytime schedule next year.
But you'll be too old for it then, she said. I'm aware you already are, but I thought it was important. How do you think you did on the tests?
I told her fine but draining, so I probably would've passed out in the theater. She said, Well, it's worked out for the best I suppose. We've got ten miles of straight road home if you want to rest your head in my lap.
I was sore from tensing in a hard chair for so long and didn't feel like touching right then, but I didn't want her to take it as I was upset about the movie and do the kind of out of her way thing she was prone to do and suggest we follow it to the next town. I was also guilty from being relieved I didn't have to sit through Willy Wonka and come out jangled up after two hours of watching overly eager singers and have to fix my face to say I'd just had a red-letter time of my life. Sweaty and sticky candy factory children hopping and singing around the chocolate vats, like they just happen to be living out the words to the songs, could irk you. I get more of a bang out of stories of realism that take place in the house or in the city, nothing on the open range, no forest or jungle except for Heart of Darkness, and except for Moby Dick, no man versus nature.
I was glad to feel her fingers on my hair though when I remembered the dark undersoul Willy Wonka had in the book and wondered if they'd allowed enough of him in the movie that you'd come out nervous about opening candy bars. People my age are old enough to know better, but I know some on my road, including myself, who're jubus about unwrapping a new cake of soap because of the nightmare possibility of seeing an innocent, trapped face staring up at you, permanently pressed there after a bad snatched hostage ordeal at Old Soap Molly's house. If you've lived a certain way and already have a lasting set of damages, you avoid what frightening fantasies you can.
It was only ten miles, but the weight of Laura's hand on my head and the tires underneath us knocked me out. I went straight to bed and just as I fell away, I was jerked back by the idea that the government was an expert at making you wait. I was facing another span of time I'd had to get to the other side of, not live wholly inside. After a month had passed, Laura called the Social Service lady, who said she couldn't help the backup, but remember the tests were only formalities. I wanted to shout and ask her if she'd ever needed permission to call her home a home or been jolted out of ease she'd trusted would come because the world couldn't possibly keep turning the wrong way. I pictured her arriving on the scene when I was too far past my ability to endure it and wreck what there was left of the life I'd reduced to reading with bleeding eyes and crawling to the supper table and crying on a pallet in the Easy Reader section of the library at school.
Copyright © 2006 by Kaye Gibbons
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