A Sight for Sore Eyes
by Daniel Granias
The dorms inside Wabash Juvenile Correctional Facility were as expected: cold, steel, bare bones bunk frames and foam pad mattresses that smelled of mildew, reinforced plate windows set sealed in concrete walls, and the yellowing linoleum floor, scuffed and scrubbed and buffed and waxed to the point of mirroring every flickering fluorescent tube exposed overhead.
Halsted thought back to his bed at the Cottage Grove Home for Boys. Miss Ashland knew he liked corners, so she found a room with a special nook with three sides in which his mattress fit perfectly. Halsted was the only boy in the group home with a single room and was the envy of the other residents, but nobody wanted to bunk with Halsted anyway because of his staring; he’d just sit there, hugging himself, rocking back and forth, squinting his eyes towards one boy or another, muttering under his breath.
At Wabash, Halsted was bunked with five other teens. Nobody made any attempts at greeting their new roommate but when Halsted began to rock and stare, a smiley sixteen-year-old boy named Morgan asked him, “Hey, you that fortune-teller kid they been talkin about ain’t you?”
There were twelve residents in the upper-school division of the Cottage Grove Home for Boys. Miss Ashland ran a strict house and if anyone wavered out of line, she’d never hesitate to lock him up or dismiss him to the streets for the night. As rigid as she was in punishment, she was just as fierce in her love when it was earned. Every boy had a different fable she’d tell to serve as a moral compass. All the upper-school boys had been there since they were young, so they all knew their stories by heart, though some had chosen to reject their fantasies for the bitter reality that faced them the day they turned eighteen.
“I heard about his case,” Morgan told the other bunkmates, “Something about a drug dealer and his bitch, yeah. They’re saying Squinty here assaulted her!” Morgan theatrically gyrated his pelvis to emphasize the ridicule.
“You really think that kid would attack a hooker?” a bunkmate asked incredulously.
“Man, I don’t know but I don’t want nothing to do with this woo-woo-ju-ju crap of his! Who does he think he is, Merlin the Martian? I heard he got sold out of his house for a dope deal, dude, and been kept in this basement measuring bags and shit for some drug lord.”
Growing up at Cottage Grove, Halsted spent most of his time reading mythic folklore, books on mysticism and astrology, and collected the horoscopes from the newspaper every day. When given the opportunity, the fourteen-year-old would fixate on an individual and mutter in a rapid monotone whisper, “Saturn is in your rising house and the Wood Element of the Dragon in your Third Quadrant burns under the Fire of Aries. Your temper will elevate under rising atmospheric climates, but your wealth will prosper as the Moon reaches its Fourth Quarter Phase.” To which he was often met with responses like, “Man, YOU’RE the one making my temper rise! Shut up and leave me alone!” Or was simply punched in the belly while Miss Ashland wasn’t looking.
In Wabash, Morgan asked Halsted to read his fortune.
“You’re not going to believe me,”
“Naw man, it’s not like that! Besides, what else are we gonna do in here?”
“Very well,” Halsted squinted at Morgan, “Your moon is in Virgo, and the bravery of Mars will introduce you to highly influential people. The Water in your Sixth House will bend the time between your present and your future.”
Halsted was the youngest of the twelve upper-school residents at Cottage Grove. The oldest was Harlem, who’d spent his entire life there since the day he was delivered as a newborn—the only infant Miss Ashland had raised from scratch. Miss Ashland may have controlled rule of the house, but Harlem was the ambassador to the people. Harlem’s second-in-command was Austin. Once, when Cicero and Pulaski, the twins, got sent to the Lock Shed for breaking the lamp in the dining hall, Harlem got Austin to distract Miss Ashland with a ballad of “Amazing Grace” and “Clementine” while he picked the pantry lock and smuggled four boxes of M&Ms to the pale-skinned troublemakers through the broken plank in the back of the shed. He’d had a lot of time to work on that opening; being Miss Ashland’s oldest ward also meant Harlem had spent a great deal of time in isolation.
“Remember, Halsted,” Miss Ashland would say, “Every dream needs a dreamer. Every story needs a teller. Your story is to tell stories. Help people see who they are by telling them who they can be.”
“And to help you see these stories better,” Miss Ashland reached for her purse and pulled out a black, oblong case, “They’re not exact, but judging by how I’ve seen you reading, these should help.” The lenses were nearly half an inch thick, perfectly circular, and set inside equally thick tortoise-shell plastic frames of dark amber checkered with black, yellow and chartreuse spots. The frames were loose and slid down Halsted’s nose, magnifying the lower half of his eyes as if he were a crocodile peering over the waterline.
After he got his glasses, Halsted was even more of a bug-eyed pest than usual. His rocking became more aggressive and he’d rub his arms as if he was freezing, and his stare became even wider, rounder, and unbroken, magnified by his lenses, as if in constant shock. The other boys’ patience quickly diminished, and led by Harlem, they plotted to get rid of Halsted for good.
The boys all attended the public high school together and were expected to keep quality grades, though they all struggled, Harlem the most. In detention, Harlem grew close to a girl named Kedzie who did business with a drug dealer named Clinton in the same neighborhood as Cottage Grove. In addition to distributing, Kedzie often accompanied her trades with her abundant teenage sexuality, and Harlem decided how he could use her.
That afternoon, on their way back to Cottage Grove, Kedzie met up with the boys.
“Who’s this?” She asked, winking at Halsted and wrapping her arms around his shoulders, “Cute specks!”
Nervously, Halsted stared back at Kedzie and adjusted his glasses, saying, “B-b-by your expressive demeanor and f-f-flirtatious ph-phy-physicality you must be a f-f-fire sign l-l-like a, a-a L-L-L-Leo? Women born in the sun of Leo tend to be quite g-g-greg-reg-gregarious and express-ss-ssive.” Halsted shrugged to shake Kedzie off his shoulders and began hugging himself as they made their way home.
“Oh my gawd, you’re SO cute I love it!” Kedzie feigned, “My cousin is totally into astrology and all that, I think that’s the coolest thing evah, tell me more!”
As Halsted continued stuttering about prosperity in her seventh house, Kedzie once again wrapped her arms around his shoulder, this time gracefully sliding a bag of weed into Halsted’s backpack, secured the clasp, and kissed Halsted on the cheek in one swift motion.
“Later boys! Bye Haaaa-aalsted!”
Once in sight of Miss Ashland, Cicero and Pulaski started pushing Halsted back and forth between them. Once they grabbed her attention, Cicero ripped Halsted’s backpack from his shoulders and threw it to the ground at Miss Ashland’s feet, spilling its entire contents on the front lawn.
“Whoooooo! Dang man!” Austin called, “now we know where our little fortune teller been getting his ‘inspiration’!”
Miss Ashland stood motionless, stone-faced. In a low, steady tone she spoke slowly, “Everyone to your rooms. Halsted, come with me.”
“B-b-b-but Miss Ashland! I-I-I I don’t— they did— it was—!”
The rest of the boys ran inside to watch from the kitchen window as Miss Ashland took Halsted by the arm, heaving and sobbing, to the Lock Shed. As she locked the door, she glared through the window and the boys scrambled to their rooms, but Harlem stayed, holding her gaze as she pocketed the key and came back inside.
As dusk began to fall, Harlem cued Austin to ignite a quarrel between Cicero and Pulaski, drawing Miss Ashland to the other side of the house. Quickly Harlem stole straight to the key hook opposite Miss Ashland’s bedroom door, ran downstairs and opened the shed. Surprisingly, Halsted was quite calm in the tight quarters, staring thoughtfully out the narrow opening in the roof at the emerging stars on the horizon.
“Mercury is in retrograde. You’re not supposed to sign contracts or travel for the next three weeks, you know,” Halsted whispered.
“Oh you’ll be traveling alright,” said Harlem as he gagged and beat Halsted and bound his wrists and wrapped his arms to his torso with an orange extension cord. Outside, on the other side of the chain-link fence that bordered the Cottage Grove property, Clinton and Kedzie stood waiting. They had bent and pried the bottom of the fence enough to slide Halsted, limp and listless, through to the outside, but not before Harlem snatched the tortoise-shell glasses from Halsted’s weeping face.
“Just take him—” Harlem said as he slid the bag of weed he’d repossessed from Miss Ashland’s room back to Kedzie through the fence, “and we’ll call it even.”
One hour later, the boys came crashing into Miss Ashland’s room and presented the lone glasses, claiming they found them in the open Lock Shed. Frantically—and to Harlem’s envy—Miss Ashland spent the night on the phone with the police reporting a lost minor—something she’d never have done if he, Harlem, had ever left unannounced from the Cottage Grove House for the streets.
“…and the Crow’s nest grew riddled with pesky mites, which just happened to be the Field Mouse’s favorite treat; and even though the Crow liked to do everything himself, and would rather have eaten the Field Mouse for dinner, he learned to be humble and ask the Field Mouse for help saving his home. Can you understand why he did that, Harlem?”
“Mr. Morgan, get me tomorrow’s voter summaries and catalog last week’s briefs from the meeting with the state Board of Education, please. And make sure you get approval from legal before sending the tax deductions to the accounting office.”
“Yes sir, Senator Clark. Where would you like these files for the last eight years’ polling trend forecasts?”
“How are you at reading that data?”
“Yeah, me too. Ever meet anyone who’s good at that kind of thing?”
“Actually sir, I think I might know just the guy.”
“Hey Squinty!” yelled the Wabash guard, “Your presence has been requested in the warden’s office. Get a move on, stat!”
“Adam Halsted, your sentence has been abbreviated for good behavior and you are to report to community service at the campaign office of Senator Madison Clark starting Monday next week. Any questions?”
“Mr. Halsted, I’ve heard a lot about you. I understand you did time in Wabash with Mr. Morgan?”
“Y-yes sir, Mr. Senator, sir. B-but I can explain why—“
“Mr. Halsted, please. I don’t concern myself with that kind of thing. What I’m concerned about is this campaign and how you can help me, do you think you can do that?”
“I suppose, sir, but I’m not really sure how…”
“I hear you have a knack for telling people’s futures, is that right? Reading signs and what-not?”
“Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, sir.”
“That’s exactly where you come in, Mr. Halsted. And Jesus, Morgan, help this guy get a decent pair of glasses, will you?”
And so Halsted became Senator Clark’s data analyst, studying past campaigns’ demographic returns, donation summaries, and poll forecasts. With Halsted’s help, Clark was able to steer his campaign in all the right directions, targeting communities that would have gone undetected without Halsted’s savant study skills.
By this time, all the upper-school boys who had accompanied Halsted at the Cottage Grove House had since turned eighteen or older and had heard news that Miss Ashland had contracted cancer and could no longer run the house on her own. Harlem had been living in an auto garage in exchange for helping with repairs, and it was there he rallied Austin and the twins to discuss what they could do to help Miss Ashland. Austin had since been working at the homeless shelter and had heard about a new government assistance program to help fund homeless and foster youth centers in the city. None of the men knew how to tap into the program formally, so Harlem decided they go straight to City Hall to tell their story. The secretary at the mayor’s office told the boys to contact the governor’s assistant, who would contact the assistant to the senator. After a week of filling out paperwork and signing affidavits on behalf of Miss Ashland and the Cottage Grove House, Harlem, Austin, Cicero and Pulaski finally met with Senator Clark’s personal assistant, a finely dressed individual in sleek designer lenses.
To his dismay, the four Cottage Grove boys did not recognize Halsted, and when he read their request to save the home, Halsted decided to test his foster brothers’ newly presented integrity.
“Your temper will elevate under rising atmospheric climates, but your wealth will prosper as the Moon reaches its Fourth Quarter Phase.”
“Tell me, Mr. Harlem,” Halsted asked, “How many of you were there when you lived under the authority of Miss Ashland?”
“Twelve, sir. Well, eleven, after—we lost one.”
“I don’t see any reports of that in your affidavit, Mr. Harlem. What do you mean by that?”
Harlem bowed his head. “It was our fault, sir. We were young. We got rid of him. We regret it now and hope he’s alright, don’t we guys?”
The others nodded quietly.
“Well Mr. Harlem, I’ve heard all I need to hear. I’ll present your case to Senator Clark and will have notice sent to the address listed within the month. You may go now.”
“Thank you sir.”
As the four men made their way for the door, Halsted took off his glasses, squinted his face, and shouted back at them,
“And guys? Does Miss Ashland still keep kids in that tiny Lock Shed in the backyard?”
© 2014 Daniel Granias