The kids who disappear

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, June 07, 2006 | ,

During college in 1997 I lived on one side of a pink duplex across the street from a purported crackhouse owned by our local fundamentalist Christian state senator. My roommates were a Korean Dutchman and a guy who drove a VW bus that he'd hitchhiked to Florida to buy from two girls who'd spent the previous six years painting grateful dead lyrics and flowers on its beige exterior. On the day we moved in I found them tapping on the walls and moldings, "gonna hang a picture?" I asked. "People used to hide money in the walls of old houses," they said, leering at echoes like those old guys you see combing beaches with metal detectors.

When we moved in, the other side of the duplex was unoccupied, but soon a woman with five children rented the place. The oldest was ten or eleven, the youngest just a baby. I have no idea how old the rest of them were, just that they fit somewhere on that spectrum between the oldest and the youngest. They had the look of children sired by different fathers but intrinsically bound to each other by the genes of their mother, a straw-headed woman who had given each of them a similar head of scrubby blond hair. The oldest kid, a gangly girl of eleven, attended the same elementary school I once did, where we found crack pipes on the playground and played with them like toys. There was another straw-haired woman with them, the children's grandmother. She took care of the youngest ones while the mother worked.

One day not long after they moved in, my friend Koby from high school pulled up in his 1984 Datsun Sentra Hatchback. People called him Cold Cuts, because he really loved cold cuts, I guess. One thing I always admired about Koby and his family was that they never paid more than $200 for an automobile. They'd find somebody who needed to get rid of a 1983 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight station wagon and then they'd just drive that sonofabitch until they had to take the tags and the tape deck and leave it on the side of a highway somewhere. Koby told me that he'd heard about this farmer's field down in Indiana with a couple acres of mature marijuana plants and he wanted me to come with him. He had become much more dangerous since high school, and he was even more so when he had a treasure map. "You'll get shot," I said, and he just got pissed and drove off. A few hours later that night he pulled into our driveway and laid on the horn. We went out to see what all the commotion was about and there was Cold Cuts Koby with a shit-eating grin on his face. He popped the hatchback and under some Indian blankets were four or five garbage bags full of marijuana. Stalks of it. There had to be sixty or seventy pounds of dewy-wet plants in there, enough to get him sent to federal prison. He pulled off a few handfuls of buds and brought them inside our apartment. "Aren't you supposed to let those dry or something?" one of my roommates asked him, but he was too excited not to smoke his bountiful harvest immediately. He emptied out a Philly cigar casing (Koby refused to smoke anything but blunts) and I swear to god as he loaded it a cricket jumped out from among the buds. From that day forward my roommates referred to him as "Cricket-Weed Koby."

So Koby enjoyed his yield like a 19th-century shipping magnate with a Bolivar and a glass of Lagavulin Single Malt while clouds of wet brown campfire smoke filled our living room, and about five minutes later we heard a knock on our door.

It wasn't the cops: it was our neighbors. The mom. Or the grandma. Years of heavy smoking and hard living had made it impossible to tell. She had some sleepy-looking old guy behind her with a longneck in his hand and a cigarette tucked behind his ear. "What you guys smoking in there?" she asked coyly. My roommate feigned incomprehension. "Don't play with me boys, we can smell what you're smoking. Can we have some?" Koby was not one to suffer fools. I believe he got up in her face and used some hostile language unbefitting a gentleman of his stature, including, "fuck no"; "skanky-ass bitch"; "dirty-ass hoe"; and "white-trash-piece-of-shit motherfuckers."

We didn't hear from our neighbors for a couple of weeks after that, other than the dull screams and wails of the kids through the walls. One night we did get another knock on our door. This time it was grandma for sure, holding a lit cigarette and a nearly-empty bottle of vodka in one hand. She was holding her other hand up to her head and kind of moaning. "Do you boys have any aspirin?" she asked. "I just got a nail shoved up in my head." She removed her hand from her head, and true to her word, there was a small puncture wound with dried blood streaming down her forehead. One of us rushed to grab some bottles of aspirin and ibuprofin and I said, "You know, you should probably go to the hospital for that."

"Oh, I'll be alright," she said. "I just need some aspirin."

After she thanked us, my roommates and I just kind of sat around dumbstruck. How does one get a nail "shoved up in" one's head? What was going on on the other side of our walls?

Over the next few months of autumn, we really started to get to know the little kids, who were all starved for attention We shared a front porch, and whenever one of us sat out there reading or just watching co-eds walk down the sidewalk, the kids would get us to toss them up into the air or swing them around the front yard. One time a bunch of hippies made a gigantic vat of hummous and ate it on our front porch. The little kids joined in, a bunch of bearded guys breaking pita with a gangly troupe of towheaded porch urchins. They were always after our food. The porch was old and dilapidated and they treated it like a jungle gym (they had no other toys as far as I could tell). They were always getting hurt when wooden planks or beams broke or collapsed. We'd hear them scream and rush to see if they were okay. Nobody would emerge from their side of the duplex. The children were easily calmed as children who never get attention for their screaming often are. I did wonder, then, what it took to get them screaming as loud and as long as they did at night.

One of my roommates was the kind of guy who actually took his studying seriously, and he preferred doing it at our dining room table. With time, the screaming and constant noise of footsteps storming up and down the stairs next door and through the wall became too great a distraction, and he called to complain to the landlord, an ineffectual little twerp named "Dale" who washed his hands of any involvement. Over time the sounds we heard on the other side of the wall only grew more and more disturbing. A man had started living with them and his hoarse yells were more and more often the prologue to long bouts of screaming and more yelling. It all became very My name is Luka. I had long talks about what to do about it with the girl in the next house down who was getting her degree in social work. We thought about calling Child Protective Services.

By November they were gone. Dale had evicted them. They had only paid him $700, one month's rent. We came back from class one day and he was standing there on the porch wearing a dust-mask like an old Chinese lady and a big pair of rubber gloves carrying garbage bags full of clothes out of the house. He was very upset about the damage to his property. "They didn't even have any furniture in there," he said, disgusted. "Those kids were sleeping on piles of dirty old clothes, and everything smells like urine." We looked inside. The house, a mirror image of the one we inhabited on the other side of the wall, could not have been more different: there was no thrift store furniture; no empty bottles of Goldschlager decorating the mantle, no environmental science textbooks or Peruvian wall hangings. There were just piles of clothes, and stains on the carpet, and filth all over the walls.

The other side of the duplex sat empty for a month, and Dale came to us, desperate to learn if we knew of anyone who needed a place. "I don't want to rent it out to anyone like that again," he said. At that time Wood and her two friends were looking to move, and he offered us a finder's fee and gave them a huge discount on rent if they agreed to paint the walls and clean the place up themselves. I wanted so badly to live on the other side of the wall from Wood, I helped them paint the walls white. I will never forget what that side of the house looked like, or how it smelled, and how easily it was all cleaned up. When we were done, Wood and I sat on the porch, kicking at a broken plank still nailed to the porch.

I told her how I remembered kids in elementary school who were there one day and gone the next. I remembered the kids who really smelled, the kids whose outrageous behavior problems shocked the class and prevented the teachers from ever really teaching us anything. I had never seen how those kids lived. They had not been my friends. Their parents were not acquainted with my own.

What will happen to those kids who lived on the other side of the wall, we wondered. Where did they go?