The call—a child in need of services.
What I found was a child in need of love.
His house sat at the end of a hard-packed red clay path. It was a shabby structure—a notch below “shack” status— that was clad in random lengths of mismatched clapboard-siding. Shreds of tar-paper and rusted tin covered some, but not all, of a rain-blackened plywood roof. Four white, spray-painted cinder-blocks served as a front stoop.
The front door had no knob or lock, just a curved metal handle worn slick from years of pulling and pushing. A brick propped against its bottom held it closed. Someone, I’m not sure who, “locked it” when they left.
“Come in,” a little voice said.
I used the toe of my boot to push the brick to one side.
It was just days before Christmas. There was no tree.
No running water.
No cabinets. No stove.
No refrigerator. No beds.
No drywall. No insulation.
Just bare studs and rafters.
Lots of cold.
A small dented and soot-caked kerosene heater fought a losing battle against a brutal December evening. Two re-purposed milk jugs used for holding fuel sat near the splintered front door. Both empty. The heater’s gauge rested at one click above E. The weak orange flame would soon fade away.
The temperature outside was 20, and dropping. The wind persistently forced its way through cracks and holes in the walls, floor, and gaps around the door and windows.
The place was not much more than a garden shed, one cobbled together from scrap wood and discarded “whatevers.”
A tattered blanket and two patchwork quilts. Threadbare and slick from wear.
No winter coats. No hats, nor gloves.
Dirty window panes.
One missing, replaced by a square of cardboard.
Dish towel curtains.
A hardware store calendar, two years old, hung on a dingy wall.
A cooler with no lid.
Mom, passed out on the floor.
A bottle of bourbon, its contents long gone.
A pipe for crack smoking.
“Mama says daddy will come home … someday.”
A dog. All ribs and backbone.
Sad eyes and broken spirit.
The floor, bare.
No rugs, no toys.
Three sheets of paper.
The boy, writing.
A saucer for ashes, overflowing with discarded butts.
A deck of ragged playing cards.
Roaches. Scurrying up, down, there and here.
An old quilt.
A squalling baby.
The bugs, they’re there, too.
A tin lard bucket in the corner.
A checkered cloth on top.
A half-empty roll of Scotts.
The only bathroom indoors.
“You writing a letter?”
“To your Dad?”
“No, to Santa.”
“Mind if I have look?”
He held it up for me to see.
“Your handwriting is very nice.”
Don’t worry about the bicycle I asked for.
Or the Tonka trucks and new coat.
And I don’t even like video games anymore.
Or DVD’s and toy trains.
I’m too big for those things now.
‘Sides, some men came and took the TV. Said Mama couldn’t pay for it no more. The ‘lectric neither.
What I’d really like is a warm blanket for my brother. He needs some milk too. And some medicine to make his fever go away. And could you help my Mom some? She needs to stop drinking and smoking. I wish you could make those men leave her alone too. They get all lickered up and hit her and do things to her that make her cry. Maybe you could bring my mom a coat for Christmas this year. She don’t have one and she gets cold when she walks down the street to get her cigarettes and that other stuff she smokes.
And if you don’t mind too much could you bring my daddy something to eat. He don’t never have no money. And if you see God while you’re up there flying around please tell him to say hi to my baby sister. And ask him to tell her I’m sorry I couldn’t make Mama wake up and take her to the hospital. If you can do all that, don’t worry about bringing me nothing. I’d like that just fine.”
Jimmy Lee Bailey
*Jimmy Lee Bailey was definitely in need of some love. So, when Christmas morning rolled around he got his Tonka trucks, a bicycle, and a new coat. He also enjoyed a nice meal before moving to his new home. All courtesy of the guys who patrolled the graveyard shift.