Author Andrea Brunais sees more than just a street-smart boy who can write. She sees a soul who can be saved from a downward spiral. But will Jesse-Ray accept the help of strangers, as glimmers of hope expressed in his writings suggest? Will the couple succeed in steering him toward a new life? And how will the ordeal transform everyone?
About the Author
Award-winning author and journalist Andrea Brunais spent 30 years as an editor, reporter, and columnist for Media General, Creative Loafing, and Knight Ridder newspapers. Her freelance work has appeared in outlets such as the Christian Science, Monitor, TravelPulse.com, DuPont Registry, and Appalachian Voice. Her newspaper honors include first place in Commentary from the Florida Press Club, a Robert Kennedy Journalism Award, and first place in the annual Southern Newspaper Publisher's competition.
Read an Excerpt
Jesse-Ray Lewis walks out of the woods
Curse this lost, broken life.
I need someone But I push them away.
Inside I'm screaming.
Five million life tests and I've failed all of them.
— Jesse-Ray Lewis, "Pain"
How to cast the story of Jesse-Ray Lewis, this man-child who walked into our lives as the Appalachian winter melted into spring? The story could take many turns. What would the headline be?
Homeless Appalachian teen turns life around with strangers' help
Boy who can't multiply becomes poetry phenomenon at college
Meth baby/crack baby beats odds, gets clean, writes book
Barely literate meth-cook returns to the lure of easy money
Gang members execute tell-all poet in burst of gunfire
Any one of these scenarios seemed equally likely.
When we first met Jesse-Ray, my husband and I couldn't imagine how things would end. As time passed, the picture rarely become more comprehensible, and at the seeming close of the case, five and a half months after he came into our lives, the conclusion is only somewhat clearer.
The saga is over. Or was it a hopeless cause? A fool's errand? A story of thwarted redemption? At first, I saw a young man, by turns awkward and innocent, sometimes with a knowing smugness, at moments buckling under the weight of his crimes as a drug-dealer's enforcer, bedeviled by guilt. A motherless child with a brutish father, he was young and fresh enough that Hal and I took him as a stand-in for our own sons, who lived far from us and, unlike Jesse-Ray, had already broken our hearts. Later I saw that I'd been blinded by his promise. He came to us — an Appalachian poet with a guileless smile that was the envy of angels, but he left under circumstances that were nothing close to angelic.
Countless psychology and self-help books show how humans perpetuate the psychic traumas of our lives. We plunge back into familiar chaos so that we can keep trying to make the story end right, this time. Maybe this time, we can make it work. Children of alcoholics choose to marry alcoholics. An employee changes jobs repeatedly, moving from one impossible-to-please boss to the next. Because he feared divorce, one of my commitment-phobe friends refused to marry until he thought he found just the right woman whom he believed would never divorce him. In the end, she left.
I wondered what Hal and I were trying to make right. Hal and I had both been married before. We both had grown sons, and in both cases our relationships with those sons were strained. We also knew what it was like to have alcoholics and drug addicts at close range. We'd seen our own children grapple with the perils of alcoholism and addiction in their teen years. Perhaps we longed to be über-parents at this late stage in life. Maybe we thought Jesse-Ray would soak up the antidrug messages more than our own children had, because for him, those messages were novel. He'd never heard them at home. And he'd certainly never heard them from a compassionate couple who offered the stability lacking in his own upbringing.
I think my role also held a slightly more exploitive note than Hal's — that of a talent scout. I suspected that Jesse-Ray's heartrending experiences combined with his ability to write could propel him to literary stardom in a world newly appreciative of all things Appalachian, not to mention a world newly awake to opioid addiction. The current crop of bestselling books (Hillbilly Elegy), star-studded movies ("The Glass Castle"), and Oscar-nominated documentaries ("Heroin(e)") suggested that the story of Jesse-Ray's life was a train wreck full of potentially bestselling elements. As soon as I discovered that Jesse-Ray had an aptitude for writing, I shepherded him into creating a chapbook of poetry with me as his mentor.
Hal's motivation was purer. Raised in a trusting, sheltered environment in the US Panama Canal Zone, he was often free to roam the jungles during his childhood, where the shamans taught him to catch big lizards for dinner and identify vines from which to drink pure water. To him, home represented safety and community, with the tree canopies and the sea providing daily escapes into nature. So it came as a shock to Hal when his parents decided he was old enough to leave home at seventeen, shipping him away to live with his maternal grandparents in Miami. He had been raised with the law of the jungle — the real jungle — but his upbringing didn't prepare him for life in the big city, and he felt cast adrift and very alone. Now he was positioned to spare Jesse-Ray the same grievous feelings of isolation.
During Hal's formative years, he also nurtured animals, including a mouse and a tarantula. Friends and neighbors would bring him creatures needing care, such as birds that had fallen from their nests, and he fed them round the clock, successfully saving many of them. Jesse-Ray was a perfect candidate to trigger Hal's rescue instincts. At nineteen, Jesse-Ray's character was still emerging, and he was trying to reject his past, which included drugs and crime. His problems seemed solvable. Dirty clothes could be washed. A higher education could be acquired. Spiritual horizons could be broadened.
Hal and I each have two children from our previous marriages — four grown children between us. Likewise, we each come from families of six children. I would have loved to have had more children of my own. Not Hal. He wasn't even wild about the idea of having two. To him, babies represented nothing but duties and chores. And yet, with our own children grown and far away, Hal was a willing partner in opening our lives to this new obligation. Jesse-Ray had received so little of the good things in life — so little good parenting, so few role models — that we convinced ourselves of the power of our influence. We saw promise, and we thought our belief in him would be enough to vanquish even his own doubts.
Hal was the first to encounter Jesse-Ray when a representative of the Bluefield Union Mission ushered the teenager into our safe house. The "safe house" was really just the lower story of the house next door to where Hal and I lived. It was about the size of a hotel's extended-stay suite, but we employed the term as a way to recognize the purpose we had assigned to the structure. Hal showed the staff member and Jesse- Ray how to unlock the door using the keypad lock, which operated by punching in a code rather than using a key.
Hal didn't get to spend more than a couple of minutes with Jesse-Ray, but he glimpsed the impression of an agreeable young man. Jesse-Ray's status as an aged-out foster child also caught his attention. Through my communications job at Virginia Tech, Hal and I had met several aged-out foster children, a class of young people whose state support abruptly ends when they reach their late teens or early twenties. Upon aging out of foster care, many of them couch-surfed, aimless. Some of them needed just a little encouragement, a little money, and a little guidance to get back into school. After meeting them at a university-sponsored panel to inform the community about their plight, I'd talked to Hal about the possibility of us helping out such children a few years down the road when we retired.
My interest in doing volunteer work in this field came from my background as a journalist, when I had researched and written newspaper editorials about public policies that cried out for change. Through the mid-1990s in Florida, the child protection laws elevated "family reunification" over the welfare of the child, resulting in children being placed back into dangerous homes, where many were further abused or killed. Only when children's advocates and journalists like me continued to make a stink was the law reformed.
While Hal and I were too old to take in young foster children and raise them to adulthood, I believed we could help an older teen on the road to independence without much inconvenience to ourselves. Such a project would satisfy my altruistic instincts without turning our lives upside down. Knowing my interest, Hal couldn't wait to tell me about our new tenant.
After we bought the ramshackle residence next door, which had rotting ceilings and walls, obsolete plumbing, and faulty electrical work, Hal employed his skills as a builder and craftsman for more than a year to cleverly redesign the house to create two units. When the upper unit was eventually completed, we planned to rent out the rooms to supplement our income. He had just completed renovations on the lower story when Jesse-Ray walked into our lives.
We had decided to commit the finished portion to the nearby Bluefield Union Mission, a local charity less than a mile from our home that provided lodging to people in need. We were volunteers and supporters of the mission's, having helped with Christmas and Thanksgiving meal preparations during the decade we'd lived in Bluefield.
We had also become friends with the executive director of the Bluefield Union Mission, Craig Hammond. Craig also ran the News and Brew, a downtown coffee shop since closed, and at the time, he was also attempting to build up a news website. We had in common an interest in news and in politics, and I would regularly stop by the News and Brew for a chat and to learn more about my adopted city. Craig was a font of knowledge, having served a term as Bluefield's mayor.
We had always found Craig to be refreshingly open-minded. We had batted about ideas for different ways to reinvigorate the town, such as attracting tourists by making Bluefield a hub for the region's railroad history. Craig would always get excited about possibilities, no matter the topic. When we broached the idea of turning the lower story of the house next door into a safe house for the mission to use, Craig was enthusiastic.
Typically, the Bluefield Union Mission puts people up at motels that are — shall we say — not luxe. When people need a temporary roof over their heads, the mission pays for short-term lodging, usually about three days' worth. Our safe house, completed in early 2017, would fulfill a need for slightly more upscale lodging, which could accommodate traveling missionaries, youth groups on summer service trips, people whose homes had burned down, or interstate travelers with engine trouble, for example. We charged the mission rent to cover taxes, insurance, utilities, and other expenses, but little more. The safe house was not designed to be a money-making proposition.
Craig signed a simple rental contract with us, and the choice of tenants was up to him. Hal provided the Bluefield Union Mission staff with their own unique keypad code, because they never knew what hour of the night or day someone might turn up needing a bed. Although we lived next door, we were not expected to have contact. Hal would be called in only to clean the premises between lodgers.
But instead of traveling missionaries or a family with car trouble, our first lodger was Jesse-Ray Lewis, a former cocaine-and-meth baby. This homeless boy-man had walked out of the woods, out from under the tree he'd been sleeping beneath, in search of a new life. What did he want?
When I contemplate what made Jesse-Ray tick or where his life might go, my mind takes me back to the shimmer and shine of the morning we met, an emotionally searing moment that seems sharper and more poignant with time. I met Jesse-Ray on Saturday, the day following his first night at the safe house. I usually came home weekends as I worked in Blacksburg, Virginia, about an hour away, where I kept a small studio apartment during the week.
We knew almost nothing about him; the staff at the Bluefield Union Mission had told Hal few details. At that point, they knew only that Jesse-Ray had been in foster care and now was seemingly without resources. We also knew nothing about teen homelessness, which is more common than most people think. I hadn't expected anyone homeless to be so young.
After we had our morning coffee, Hal went next door to check on things. Under our original plan, Hal would not have stepped foot on the property, preferring that his identity as landlord was not known to anyone staying there. But because Jesse-Ray was an aged-out foster child, Hal had disclosed his landlord status to Jesse-Ray, and he couldn't resist knocking on the door to check on Jesse-Ray's needs. When he returned, he said that he'd spotted only junk food in the safe house kitchen, the typical white-bread-and-sugar products that get donated to charities like the Bluefield Union Mission and are handed out to those who might otherwise go hungry.
I quickly whipped up an omelet to bring over to Jesse-Ray. Though I agreed with keeping our distance from the Bluefield Union Mission's lodgers, I went next door with Hal. We did not wish for the operation of a safe house to complicate our lives. We were to be landlords only. We were not anyone's keeper. The mission's staff was supposed to check the lodgers in, keep them supplied with food and toiletries if necessary, and let us know when they had checked out. Our role was to be limited. We were not ready to take on an aged-out foster child of our own.
Or so we thought. Clearly, something about Jesse-Ray had already touched Hal.
I remember the moment I saw Jesse-Ray as clear as day.
He had light skin, light brown hair, brown eyes, and pants that scraped the floor. The epithet "big galoot" sprang to mind. He was bigger than Hal, and Hal wore extra-large sizes and shopped in big- and-tall specialty stores. Jesse-Ray's manner was reticent, hesitant. He seemed a little shy.
He swallowed the eggs as if he hadn't eaten for days as he stood at the breakfast bar that Hal had built. Confusion permeated his expression, but he attempted to be personable. He looked us in the eyes as we conversed politely. He flashed a smile of even white teeth. His round face made him seem almost cherubic. He was a good-looking galoot.
Once he downed his food, he shuffled over to the kitchen counter to where his grimy fabric Bob Marley bag lay. It held what I later learned were pretty much his sole possessions: swim trunks that doubled as underwear, a pack of wet wipes, a gold ring, two cotton kerchiefs he called "gang flags," a crumpled grocery-store bag that constituted a wallet for his driver's license and his drug-smoking pipe. That was all.
He told us a little about himself. He had been sleeping outside, under a tree, and then he had moved inside a crumbling, abandoned house. He had been homeless for weeks, maybe months. He had survived without heat during the winter, through freezing temperatures and occasional snow. It was February, and the blustery days were only just ending.
He told us that he had been a foster child. He had worked in a coal mine. He had a father who was not currently in the picture. Jesse-Ray had also been involved with selling drugs, but he said he had turned his back on that life. He had walked into the Bluefield Union Mission looking for food, shelter, and help.
Physically, he reminded me of the young men on my mother's side of the family — large, shuffling Midwestern farm boys with a laid-back manner, a good heart, and an eye for a story. Hal and Jesse-Ray were both big guys, more than six feet tall, and it wasn't such a stretch to imagine that Jesse-Ray could be Hal's grandson.
Standing in the kitchen of the safe house, Hal and I locked eyes, making an instant decision about this person who was now our tenant, even though we knew little about him other than that he had no home, no family to turn to, and no belongings bigger than a box of tissues.
"You can stay here," I said. "Assuming that the Bluefield Union Mission agrees, that is. We'll ask them to let you live here until you can get your life in order. Hal and I have just three rules."
Typically, Hal and I would have talked before announcing such a big decision. But I had read agreement in Hal's eyes. Even if we had stopped to confer, I doubt we would have changed course. Without giving much consideration to how complicated things might get, we were already on our path. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to set minimal rules at the outset. I knew the odds were good that Craig would agree to allow Jesse-Ray to stay longer than the usual three days. I also suspected, rightly, that no one at the Bluefield Union Mission would have time to craft or enforce rules, even though taking on a young person with a questionable background and history of drug use would seem to be a situation that cried out for rules. That job would be left to us. Hal looked on approvingly.
"No alcohol or drugs," I stated. "You have to work. And you have to go to school."
Relief hit Jesse-Ray's face, but his next words stunned me. "This is the first time in ten years I haven't had to worry about the roof over my head."
I drew a deep breath. How could a child be expected to worry about where he would sleep? It didn't occur to me that we might not know exactly how much truth there was to Jesse-Ray's pronouncements. But at that moment, I believed him 100 percent. I felt sad and shocked and sorry for Jesse-Ray.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hillbilly Drug Baby: The Story"
Copyright © 2018 Andrea Brunais.
Excerpted by permission of Boutique of Quality Books Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Jesse-Ray Lewis walks out of the woods 1
Chapter 2 Details of Jesse-Ray's life emerge 21
Chapter 3 Hal and Jesse-Ray revisit the abandoned house 41
Chapter 4 Go directly to jail 49
Chapter 5 Nightmares and the death of grandma 65
Chapter 6 Fathers and father figures 75
Chapter 7 "Do you believe in God?" 93
Chapter 8 Flashbacks from the drug world 111
Chapter 9 Jesse-Ray's recurring dream 123
Chapter 10 The richest homeless man in Bluefield 129
Chapter 11 A spiritual vacuum 145
Chapter 12 Writing to a beat 159
Chapter 13 The screw-ups begin 171
Chapter 14 Eviction day 185
Chapter 15 The way ahead 203
Chapter 16 How we are changed 215
About the Author 237