By Bruce A. Smith
The Men of Honor of Unity House is a novel based upon my experiences as a therapist at a foster care facility for young men coping with sexual assault charges. In 2001, during the Anthrax scare that followed 9-11, my agency’s director and I mapped out a plan for how we would deal with our men, aged 12-18, if we had to go into lockdown in the event of a local terrorist attack. The following pages are based upon those discussions.
The plot so far: A 2-kiloton suitcase nuke has exploded in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the staff of Unity House are about to form the Men of Honor Society for two purposes: One, to keep the twelve teen-aged boys of Unity House busy and not fighting each other, and two, to act as a rescue group to the local neighborhood. Due to the destruction and radiation, the police and army can not get into this section of Worcester. The people living on Marion Avenue and Plantation Street only have the Men of Honor aiding them.
To read more of the Men of Honor:
Chapter 3 – Washing off the dust
Day One – 12:45 pm
Kevin A, 14, and Kevin P, 15, stomped their feet and brushed their shirts, depositing dust all over the foyer. Grinning, they announced as we ran up, “Hi everybody, we’re home. We’re nuke busters!”
“Yee-Gawds, gentlemen,” shouted Terry, “shake yourselves off outdoors. That dust is radioactive, and we’ve spent two hours vacuuming this place. C’mon!”
The Kevins stepped back outside for a ritualistic de-dusting, but the damage had already been done.
“Guys,” I said, walking toward them while Jeannie laid down sheets of newspaper on the floor. The boys advanced to meet me, and Kevin P raised his hand for a high-five.
“Don’t touch me Kevin,” I said. “I’m glad you made it home, but I need you to take a shower right away.”
“Bill,” I continued, turning to our SYSCO man, “c’mere.”
I turned back to the two Kevins.
“Did you guys ever see the movie, ‘Silkwood?’”
“Is that one of your hippie flicks?” Kevin P asked.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Anyway, it’s a movie about radiation from a nuclear bomb factory in Oklahoma. It’s a true story about a worker named Karen Silkwood who worked at the plant and got contaminated from plutonium. They had to scrub her down to get the radiation off of her, so me and Bill are gonna do that to you, right now. You two, Kevin P and Kevin A, are gonna go to the south showers with Bill and me. You all know Bill, right, the SYSCO driver?”
“Yeah, Bill’s cool,” Kevin A replied out of the side of his mouth.
“So, get your towels and toiletries, and meet us in the south bathroom right away.”
“You’re fuckin’ kiddin’ me, man,” Kevin P exclaimed. “You’re gonna wash me? No fuckin’ way!”
“Yes, I am going to wash you,” I said. “It’s a matter of life and death, and because of the gravity of the situation I will overlook your inappropriate language. Now go. I’m not arguing with you.”
“I’ve got my rights, you can’t touch me,” argued Kevin A, joining his foster brother in righteous indignation. I held up my hands and stared them in the eye.
“Go.” I insisted, pointing to their rooms.
Perhaps my uncharacteristic directness disarmed their resistance. Regardless, the Kevins walked away sullen and pissed that I had stolen their moment of glory. But I was trying to save their lives, and down deep they knew it.
“Wait,” Terry said. “Where did you get that motorcycle?”
“Mr. D gave it to us,” said Kevin P. “It’s his. He wanted us to take it and go home.”
“You’re kidding!” Terry exclaimed.
“No, yeah, he really gave it to us,” Kevin A explained. “We were in his shop class when the bomb went off. He said he had to stay at school, but he was cool with our leaving. A few of the kids who live right around school left, too, but he gave us the bike because we lived so far away and knew how to ride it.”
“You expect me to believe….” I said, stopping before I finished because it was just wacky enough to be true. Mr. “D,” Don Shanley, was a great guy and the best teacher at North High. Everybody loved him, especially our guys. Maybe, just maybe, he gave the Kevins the keys to his two-wheeled Beamer.
Maybe he wanted them out of his hair, too, and giving them his bike was the best way to guarantee it. Hmmm.
I shrugged, and looked at Terry.
“Go shower boys,” she said. Waiting a moment until they were out of ear shot, she then looked back at me.
“You sure you want to wash them, Dave?”
“I don’t want to take a chance, Terry. Look at them. They’re covered from head to foot from riding that bike. It’s ground into their skin, the grit and all. It’ll have to be scrubbed out, and I don’t trust them to do the job. C’mon, Terry, on a good day Kevin P stinks like Holy Heaven, and Kevin A’s hygiene’s not much better.”
“Well, you’re right about that. They are two stinkers. But, washing naked residents… Dave, it is so far off the regs.”
State law forbade all forms of physical touching with clients: no hugs, pats on the back, or even a handshake. The regulations didn’t even allow our boys to sit next to each other in a car, and on our group outings a staff person had to sit between each kid, which they liked because each got a window.
“I know, Terry,” I said, “but unusual circumstances call for unusual solutions. Besides, it is always easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to.…”
“…ask for permission. Yeah, I know,” she said with a laugh, finishing my favorite response to agency dictums. Fortunately, I had some clinical precedence. Three years earlier at my agency in LA, I had had a 17-year-old resident who refused to bathe, and I had gotten a court order authorizing a supervised scrub. Terry knew about it because the client’s counter-suit and legal wrangling was still going on.
“Since it’s you and Bill, Dave, I guess it okay. Thank Gawd you’ve got some coverage and aren’t asking to do this solo,” she continued. “When you and Bill are finished, we’ll make lunch.”
That finished the discussion. The nuke had made blatant physical contact trivial, at least in the eyes of bureaucratic authority.
“Bill,” I said, putting my arm around him, “welcome to the Wonderful World of Teenage Boy Rehabilitation. You’re gonna love it, and I am goddamn glad you’re here, let me tell you. Are you feeling okay? Are you up for this?”
Bill nodded quietly, and I was appreciative he didn’t object to my plan.
“Dave,” Jeannie interrupted, “Gamma radiation goes right through a person, so the kids have already been exposed. Washing them isn’t gonna help.” She looked desperate and angry.
“But,” I answered, “Bill’s dispatch said that the dust is radioactive, and the Air Force confirms it’s a nuke…”
“Look, it can’t hurt,” Terry added. “They’ve got a lot of dust from their Midnight Ride of Paul Revere even if it’s High Noon. Whatever’s on them, Jeannie, we should get it off.”
“My intuition says we gotta do this,” I continued. “Look, I’m no expert on this. I’m like you, making this up as we go along.”
“Are you going to scrub down Trey and Willy, then, too?” Jeannie retorted.
No, not Trey and Willy, I thought.
Not the Trey who was our oldest and wisest, and who made us proudest. Not the Trey who was only hours away from inspiring us to form the Men of Honor and help the people of the Eastside.
Not the Trey who would have been humiliated being washed by another, and who turned red in the face when I asked him the day of the homecoming dance if he thought his date was going to give him a kiss that night.
No, not this Trey was I going to wash naked.
Nor the Willy who had run away from a violently abusive father at nine and had been living on the streets for the past seven years. Not the Willy who was cute and cunning, and would do anything to stay alive. Not the Willy who got caught soliciting at a truck stop on I-95 the previous July in Georgia, and was promptly remanded back to foster care and the custody of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Certainly not the Willy who looked me in the eye in sessions, smiled and then licked his lips knowing that blood would start rushing to my loins; nor the Willy who sent me running back into analysis panicked that I was a latent homosexual or a pedophile, or just an incompetent, tongue-tied therapist.
And certainly not the Willy who triggered a rage in Terry, who let her Christian fanaticism over homosexuality create a hate that did not allow her to speak to him directly, and who swore to me that she would ‘take him out’ if he ever molested any of the guys, saying, ‘After thirty years, I know how to make it look like an accident.’
No, not this Willy was I going to wash naked.
“No,” I said, “I don’t think we need to scrub down Willy and Trey. Sure, they got some dust on themselves, but not as much as the two Kevins, and I trust them to wash themselves much better. They’re not stupid, so I’m sure they’ve scrubbed themselves as well as Bill or I could.”
Terry nodded. Plus, we both knew she didn’t want to get into the showers with Willy or ask Bill to do a second scrub.
The Kevins came back, and Bill and I took them into the south hallway bathroom. I needed all of my professional courage to scrub a naked, fifteen-year old who had endured years of sexual abuse growing up.
Only God knew what was going on in Bill’s mind. Three hours ago he was delivering chickens, fresh oranges, and hot cocoa packets to hospitals and nursing homes across Worcester County. Now he was saving a kid’s life in a shower that he himself had just vacated minutes before.
Fortunately, the two Kevins didn’t protest. Intuitively maintaining their modesty by facing away from Bill and me, they took off their clothes, turned on the water in their respective stalls, and stood directly in the spray. In the left stall Bill scrubbed Kevin A, and on the right, I washed Kevin P.
The first touch was the toughest. With a wash rag I reached for what I thought might be the most emotionally neutral place on Kevin’s body, his shoulder. He shuddered, but seemed okay. Around his neck and scalp where the dirt was sandblasted into the derma, I really dug in. Then, I scoured his arms and hands. Just like Meryl Streep’s character in “Silkwood,” I turned KP red and raw.
When I was done, I draped the washcloth over Kevin’s shoulder and said, “I guess you can do the rest, right, Kev? Really get your face good, you hear me?”
He nodded, and I was glad my job was done. Now, it was my turn to be naked as I turned away from the stalls, took off my soaked-again clothes, and put on a new set of Goodwill. I hoped the pants didn’t have any lice inside. I blessed them, took a breath and put a leg in.
Dressed, I headed to an empty room on the north wing and hung my wet clothes in a closet. I guess this is “home” for the duration.
Afterwards, I realized I was feeling hungry so I went to the kitchen where Angie was fixing lunch. Trey and Willy were schmoozing her, and disregarding the house rule of no hanging out in the kitchen due to all the knives we had there. Technically, they were locked-up in a “sharps box,” but had been broken into so many times that it no longer locked anything. It fooled the DSHS inspectors, though, so we didn’t fix it.
I walked over to Angie, “You feeling okay, Ange?”
“Yeah, Dave, I’m okay. I don’t mind fixin’ lunch. It gives me something to do.” She shrugged. “Besides, I took a bunch of aspirin and I’m really feeling okay.
“I’m glad you’re up for cooking, Ange,” I said, then faced the boys.
“Only one in the kitchen at a time,” I announced, internally arguing with myself over enforcing the dictates of a bureaucracy so paranoid about kitchen knives that they deemed our hearth off-limits. “Cooking together brings us together emotionally,”I would argue at clinical meetings but got nowhere…Arrggghhh.
Trey moved toward the door and stopped. He knew how to get authority figures happy, but still do his own thing. He was super-slick at it and I liked watching him when I wasn’t the authority figure. But now I was, and I backed down.
“Okay,” I said, “new rules. Because we need to be together for safe keeping….” I hesitated because I didn’t know what to say next, “… we can be in the kitchen at the same time if we’re all helping Angie. Angie? Are the boys helping you?”
“Yes, Dave.” She knew I needed an out and she gave it to me.
I loved Angie. She had the touch. If only she wouldn’t sleep on the job or call her kids for a half hour in the morning just when the other staff were trying to get the guys out to school.
On the occasions I complained to Terry about Angie’s behavior, she had replied, “What do you expect for eleven bucks an hour?”
“We have to change that, boss.”
“Yeah, right,” she said flatly.
“Yo, we got Indians” announced Trey, seeing the red-skinned Kevins enter the kitchen.
“Hey, there, Tonto,” Trey continued, power shaking Kevin P’s hand, complete with the thumb grip, palm twist, and knuckle-knock. “How was your drive back from school, dude?”
“We made it cool, dude, but these ghetto rules here make me want to file a complaint with my social worker. Look at me, look at my skin. I’ve been abused and you’re a witness. C’mon man, testify at my hearing and I’ll split the money with you. Dave makes a ton of money and we’ll get it all. Right, Dave? You’re rich, right? You’re a therapist.”
“Oh, yeah, Kevin,” I replied, and assumed my best ‘power-slouch,’ and street corner intonation. “I make over a million a year. So, if you sue me remember I got enough for a good lawyer, like Johnnie Cochran – or his brother now that Johnnie’s dead. In fact, we were homies in LA- did ya know dat? So, take your best shot, dude. Besides, I got Bill here as my witness to say, ‘we didn’t do nuttin,’ switching into my best “Eastie” Boston accent. ‘Ain’t dat right Bill? Dese poor boys came in here all red, and we t’ought dey had a fever so we took ‘em to da showers to cool ‘em down and SAVE THEIR LIVES.’”
Kevin P smiled. He knew he had been neutralized, but as a righteous jive-ass jester he loved a good round of banter.
“Let’s eat,” said Trey, and we did. Sloppy Joes for the third time that week and it was only Tuesday. The routine became comforting, and we ate in silence. Mentally, I blessed the boys for not indulging their usual round of taunting, one-upmanship, table squirming, and other obnoxious dining room distractions, thereby allowing me to eat in peace.
Maybe the nuke has the effect of chilling these guys? Usually, dramatic events set them off. Hmmm….
Jeannie came in as we were finishing, wearing a poncho made out of a packing blanket.
“You want some Joes, Hon?” Angie asked. “There’s more on the stove.”
“No, I just came to say ‘goodbye.’ I’m gonna take my chances. I just have to go before it gets dark. I’ve got to be with my babies. Do you understand? I still haven’t been able to get through to them on the phone.”
She looked at me and knew she was putting me in a tough place. I had just washed down two of the guys for radiation contamination, and now my fellow therapist was going out into the dust.
“I understand, Jeannie,” I said, “but the roads are probably all blocked with junk, how are you gonna get through? You can’t drive – that’s for sure.”
“I’m going to walk down Grafton Street, it’s all downhill from there. I’ll just keep going south ‘til I get out of the blast zone, and then catch a ride somehow to Millbury. I’ve got an extra pair of sweat pants on to keep the dust off my legs and this poncho for the top. I’ve got a dust mask for breathing, so, I’m going to give it a try.”
“Whew, Jeannie,” I said, “you’re taking a real chance. You sure about this?”
She looked at me hard, took a breath and said, “Yes, I‘m sure. In my heart I’m sure.”
“Okay, do what you gotta do. Guys…” I said, turning to the two Kevins, “what’s it like out there? What can you tell Jeannie?”
I wanted to distract them from the obvious double-standard that staff can go into the dust, but the kids can’t. I wanted them to get back into hero mode. “Think like a mench and be an asset to the house,” is what I always told the boys, and now I was trying to lead them in that direction. I hoped they’d take the bait.
“Oh, it’s cool out there, Jeannie,” Kevin P answered. “There’s a lot of trees down, and parts of houses and stuff…
“… and flipped cars,” Kevin A added, “and a lot of dust, but since you’re walking you’ll make it. You want to take Mr. D’s bike?”
I was impressed with his willingness to share his trophy machine, but Jeannie had probably never been on a motorcycle so forget driving one. She confirmed that by just shaking her head when Kevin A offered. Sensing an impasse, I continued. “How far do you have to go, Jeannie?”
“Just Millbury Junction.”
“Oh, that’s not too bad,” I said. “That’s just off 20.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. The winds are blowing to the northeast, so I’ll be away from the danger, at least a lot of it.”
She turned and walked directly to the Commons door.
“Wait,” I called out, and ran after her. I gave her a hug. “We’ll be okay here, go. Via con Dios.”
“Gracias,” she said flatly, but mentally she was already gone.
The boys had gulped their food down in two minutes so they were looking for something to do. Angie got Trey helping with dishes. Willy and the two Kevins wandered into the Commons room with Bill, and Gina turned on the power for the video game screen from the master switch in the staff office. Since Willy was on “alpha status,” he could have video game privileges, but the two Kevins did not. They had lost three points the night before for “arguing with staff,” and were down a notch to “beta.”
“What should we do, Terry?” I asked, motioning toward the three lads hunched in front of the screen. I had little confidence that the evening shift had judiciously meted out point reductions for who knows what level of sassiness, but staff must support staff, so I deferred to Terry.
“I’ll give them a choice of a new consequence,” she said. “They can play video games if they’ll wash and dry everyone’s soaked laundry in one hour.”
“Sounds good to me,” I replied.
Terry was such a pro, able to turn on a dime when the occasion required it. The boys readily agreed, hoping of course that we would forget in sixty minutes.
I wrote a large-lettered note on the chalk board, one that could be easily read from the screen, twenty feet away.
“Kevin A and Kevin P wash community laundry in 60 minutes (3:15pm) in exchange for video game priv.”
Gina went to take a nap, and Terry and I settled into the comfy chairs. The sheet of cardboard covering her office window was the only obvious sign we were under nuclear attack. I closed my eyes for a cat nap. Relaxing, I felt the encroaching stuffiness of our sealed building, and it made me uneasy because it heralded more challenges. I put up a mental shield. I’m just gonna rest right now. Whatever we’ve got to deal with down the road, well, as my father used to say, ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.’ I smiled, and wiggled my tushie into the chair. My father’s face flashed across my memory banks, and I dreamed of fun family times with my dad behind the wheel of our ’61 Rambler station wagon and our epic journeys from our suburban home on Long Island to my mom’s ancestral haunts in Worcester.
Hey, Nanna. Your old house on Marion Ave is probably toast right now, but we sure had some good times there, didn’t we? Sure hope you and Tanta Teddy and Uncle Bunny are looking out for us guys down here. We sure could use a little help, ya know. Eisse Sveit Katiss.
That’s Lithuanian for “To Your Health,” in the ancient slang that Nanna and my ancestors used before they had to live under Czarist rule and speak a Russified version of their native tongue. Once upon a time, that pronouncement could have opened almost any door in Worcester.