He was teeny, just sitting there on the corner curb, dark head in small hands at the ends of little bird arms. When I reached him I stopped, asked him if he was okay. He looked up at me, big chocolate eyes too tired for their years. He said simply, “No.”
I’d been on my way home from a head-clearing walk in my neighborhood. It was going on seven o’clock, and the sun would be setting soon. Wyatt was staying at his father's house this night, and a quiet evening lay in front of me: a little scotch, maybe some ‘Bleak House’ on Netflix and an early bedtime. This was an unexpected turn of events. I looked around for an adult who might belong to him but saw no one, and I asked if I could sit down next to him for a chat. I told him my name, and he told me he was Darrion.
“Are you in trouble?”
“You want to tell me?”
“My mom kicked me out the house.”
“Hmh. Where do you live?”
“She was drinking, so she was mad. Compton.”
“How’d you get so far away from home?”
“Trains. Then I just started walking. I’ve never been to Hollywood before. Lots of big houses here.”
He seemed to enjoy the idea that he'd made it to Hollywood; I didn't tell him he'dmissed the mark by a few miles. I wondered if my San Fernando Valley neighborhood seemed to him like another part of the world entirely.
“It’s going to be night soon. Do you have anywhere to go?”
“Just my mom’s. But I can’t go back there.”
“How old are you, Darrion?”
“Eleven,” he said.
Eleven. Hmh. We sat there for a bit while I squinted off across the street, trying to wrap my head around our situation. Did he have anyone to call? No. I asked him whether he’d eaten and if he was hungry. No, and yes. I copped to the fact that I wasn’t sure what I should do, but I thought that calling the police was probably the right thing. That I thought I’d call the police while we walked to my apartment, and then I’d make him some dinner. Did that sound okay? It did, he said.
We stood up and he came with me without hesitation; we walked together while I dialed 911. The dispatcher asked the usual stuff, where we were, the emotional state of the boy. Studio City, I answered. Quiet and calm, I said. She also asked questions I had to pass along to Darrion. His full name. His mother’s name. His school. He told me and I repeated the answers into the phone. His full address and his mom’s phone number? Darrion came up empty on these. He did know the street he lived on though, so I passed that along. The dispatcher took my info and told me a squad car would be with us shortly.
By this time, we’d reached my building. Darrion commented on how big it is (it’s just four units, but I suppose it’s all relative), and we said hello to my nice neighbors who were gathered with their extended family outside, all of them enjoying the warm night and cooing and fussing over the neighbors’ beloved four-month old boy. It was a happy sight, all laughter and familial love, and I wondered what Darrion made of it as I unlocked my door and invited him inside.
We headed for the kitchen where I got him seated at the table and started figuring out what he might like to eat. Something hot, I thought. Did he like soup? Soup it was. While that heated on the stove, I sliced up an apple and some cheese and we talked a bit more. He told me the woman he calls his mother isn’t, really. He’s never actually known his biological mom. He was handed off to his Granny when he was born, and then at age four a grown cousin was made his official guardian. She was the one who had turned him out. She works as a manager at a cafeteria, he said. She had stopped drinking for a while but this time was a bad one, he said. He thanked me each time I put something on the table for him, and he ate slowly and carefully.
The dishes from my lunch were still in the sink, and I turned my attention to them to give Darrion a little peace while he had his supper. He'd mentioned that he liked music, all kinds of music, so Pandora played on the computer. We listened to the Lumineers station, either or both of us occasionally humming along. Sometimes we were just quiet together, him eating, me cleaning. I turned at one point to put something in a cupboard and felt almost surprised to see him there, this little boy in basketball shorts and a baseball cap sitting at my table.
It had been a few moments since either of us had spoken when Darrion told me his mom had given him a bad haircut. He said it very matter-of-factly, and as I went to him to ask what he’d meant, he took off his ball cap for the first time. All over his head, wide swaths of his hair had been shaved off revealing his scalp underneath; the effect was not unlike a field that had been mowed by an out-of-control tractor with no one at the wheel to stop it. My breath caught in my chest—it was as if he had rolled up a sleeve and revealed cigarette burns. I asked him if he knew why she had done that to him. He said it had been an attempt to embarrass him at school. She’d been mad about something he’d said, and this was the punishment she'd chosen. He said it all without emotion, but I could tell it cost him something, that he’d had to muster up the courage to tell me. He put his cap back on and went back to his soup.
By the time the police arrived, Darrion had finished eating and was trying out peppermint tea with honey. He liked how it smelled, he said, cupping his hands around the mug. There was a strong knock on the door, and I left him there at the table promising to return. When I opened the door there were two officers, both on the young side, both men. I motioned for them to come in, but they asked me to step outside for a few questions first. It occurred to me then that, of course, these officers knew nothing about me—I could potentially be a bad guy in this scenario. I answered their questions, and then they asked to be let inside to talk to Darrion.
The Hispanic one, Officer Hernandez, pulled a chair up next to Darrion and began asking many of the same questions he’d already been asked by me and then by the 911 dispatcher. Darrion answered them patiently. While Hernandez was not unkind, there was a sort of skepticism in his manner, as if he suspected he might find a crack in this unlikely story. I realized I'd felt the same way when I’d first sat down with Darrion on the curb; the idea that a kid as little as he was could make his way so far from home on his own had at first seemed somewhat suspect to me, but I think I had just not wanted to believe it could be true. Hernandez said he needed to look inside the backpack, and Darrion took it off his back for the first time that night. A search inside revealed nothing more than a pair of pants and some slippers, exactly what Darrion had told me he’d managed to grab before he left the house.
Officer #2 was Caucasian with a quiet, gentle manner. He pulled me aside and took more information, asked for my ID, took notes on a small pad. He also looked around the place a bit. It’s been a long time since I’ve had cops in my home, but the feeling wasn’t unfamiliar. Like Darrion, I grew up with someone who drank too much and sometimes became violent, and whenever the police came I’d always felt like I was under suspicion as much as anyone was. I felt relieved to have smiling pictures of Wyatt around the place, on the fridge. “See?” I hoped the photos said, “this is the home of a law-abiding citizen with a happy, healthy son of her own. No reason to be suspicious here, officer.”
While #2 talked to me, my attention kept getting pulled back toward Darrion. I was worried he might feel intimidated by the officers. I had no idea what experience he’d had with police, but I was relatively sure it wasn’t the first time he’d run into them either. When my interview was done, I sat near Darrion and listened in on his. Hernandez’s tone still sounded condescending, not in a way that Darrion seemed to notice, but I could sense it. I silently willed Darrion to show them his head, to tell them what he had told me, and as if on cue he took off his cap and told the story. The room became very still, very quiet. The four of us sat there in silence for a moment. Finally, Hernandez exhaled slowly as if he'd been holding his breath. When he spoke this time, his tone was utterly changed. Nobody should treat you like that, buddy, he said softly. You didn’t deserve that.
I excused myself to find some books that I’d promised Darrion he could take with him and went upstairs to Wyatt’s room. Sitting on my heels while I searched the bookcase, I allowed myself for a moment to imagine my own son on the streets alone. I pushed the thought away, found the books I was after and rejoined the others downstairs.
Hernandez and #2 were telling Darrion all about the police station they were going to take him to. Had he been inside a real live police station before? He hadn’t, he said. We’ll give you the VIP tour, they promised. He seemed to like that idea. I showed Darrion the books, one about sharks, the other about racecars, and felt grateful for the whistle of approval Hernandez let out when he saw how they opened up to show 3D versions of the inner workings of both. Darrion smiled for what I’m pretty sure was the first time that night, and #2 helped him get the books into the backpack while I poured the rest of Darrion’s peppermint tea into a to-go cup.
Hernandez asked Darrion if he felt ready to leave. Darrion nodded his head and they walked outside into the night to the squad car waiting across the street. #2 and I held back. Will you let me know what happens to him? They would, he assured me. We’ll find someplace safe for him tonight, he said. DCFS will be brought in, and if we're lucky we can place him with a family soon. It can be tough, he said. There are so many kids like Darrion, all different ages and colors and sizes and all needing safe homes. I was familiar with the process, I told him. I’d spent a year as a social worker in Alaska at a shelter for battered women and their kids, and I knew how the system worked. I also knew how it often failed. I started to cry. “I know," #2 said. "I know.”
By the time we got outside, Darrion was sitting behind the wheel of the squad car playing with the controls while Hernandez showed him how they worked. The red and blue lights lit up the dark night. The siren yelped for a few beats. Darrion beamed. #2 said something about candy waiting for them at the station and Darrion scuttled around into the back seat. He looked out at me, said thank you one more time, and waved as Hernandez shut the door. And then they were gone.
Back in my kitchen I paced in circles and talked to myself, trying to reason the evening out in my head. How strange life can be. A different turn down the street that night, I thought, and I’d have been home without ever having seen Darrion as he moved through the neighborhood like a tiny ghost. I remembered Hernandez saying to me before they left, “He’s lucky he found you.”
Others have said that same thing to me since. I understand what they mean, but I don’t know. A little boy who had no reason in the world to trust me or anybody did just that. He let me into his life for a few moments and allowed me to do something that mattered. I’m pretty sure that makes me the lucky one. I'm pretty sure that's right.
© 2013 Deborah Puette