Cloaked Figures and Crooked Smiles


Lillian has a bruise on her face when she finally shows up. She catches me on the sidewalk, maybe fifteen feet away, staring at an Instagram notification. Sliding open the tall, wrought iron fence surrounding her housing complex, she makes her way toward my car. I glance up. The bruise is the first thing I notice. Secondly, she’s about 15 pounds lighter than the last time I saw her. She smiles from the side of her face. Crooked.

This is Los Angeles, so from a showbiz lense I’d say she’s starting to look viable now, thinner, maybe even fringing on looking really good, but my social work brain says wait-a-minute this probably means she’s back on meth. I hope she’s not back on meth.

Lillian has only managed small stretches of sobriety so far. A month here. Six weeks there. I hope she’s not high. She’s incoherent when she’s high. I also hope she’s not hung over. She’s likely to flare up nasty when she’s jonesing. She stops and makes eye contact just outside the car, peering in. Smiling askew, she shoves her hands into her front pockets. Her jeans are so big on her, now. She seems sheepish, standing outside the car. Lost.

I was thinking of the dream I had this morning. Vivid and semi-conscious, I kept hitting snooze to stay in the dream of Big Sur. Of a vibrant community carved into the side of God’s Cliffs, clapboard houses, a thriving town square. There was a mass shooter in my dream, a cloaked figure with a gun who mowed down the crowd. White picket gazebos tainted with wide swaths of blood.

Lillian gets into the car. I compliment her. She smiles again when I ask if she’s lost weight, when I tell her she looks good. She’s glassy in the eyes, but it’s clear she’s put some effort in today. Her hair is wet. She showered. Okay, I think to myself -we can probably work with this.

I ask about her ID. We’re going to try to enter her into a coordinated database for homeless and at-risk youth. She wants to be able to provide for herself and her baby, when she gets her baby back. There are social service and private organizations that can help. No, she says, she didn’t bring her ID. Should she go get it? Yes, I say. You should always bring your ID and you should have your social memorized. She informs me that she has it memorized this time, thank you very much. She’s proud. She’s the same type of proud my other clients get sometimes when they ace a test, or get a small scholarship for school, or land a job – except in this case her source of pride is the simple fact she has memorized nine numbers. She is 18, and she has a two year old daughter who has already been taken away from her. I wouldn’t put her literacy past the 8th grade level. Go get your ID, I tell her, I’ll wait.

She goes back into her complex. The yard is piebald, barren. Generations of barefoot children have trodden down smooth dirt pathways, linking the units. A quick glance at the ground reveals which families are friendly with which other families, and who doesn’t seem to get along with anyone at all. Some of the lesser worn pathways have weeds growing up, in places. Keep up those connections, I say, admonishing no one. I mouth the words in the afternoon sun.

My phone buzzes. It’s a news update. The BBC News wants to tell me what Trump has in common with Abe Lincoln and Ferris Bueller. Fuck you, iPhone news client, I say to my phone. The dream creeps in, again, around the edges of my morning. 

I’m there in the town square, relaxing on a park bench. Three people play frisbee, laughing, semi-joyous. They are smiling. Suddenly one of them explodes like a watermelon dropped off the side of a produce truck. The other two are horrified, but it’s only seconds before, shocked, they twist and fall. Blood splashes from them in strange angles. It seems to come from nowhere. I’m sure there were gunshots in the dream, but in my memory it’s just quiet. They buckle, and drop. They writhe, broken, pitiful.

Crowds of people being mown down, in bright preppy clothing, against a backdrop of brightly colored cliffside mainstreet businesses. A little girl and her younger brother, staring in horror at blood spattered ice cream cones dripping down their wrists. People twitching, jerking out bizarre dance moves on hot asphalt, gaily dressed in bright gingham shirts. Upbeat, inane music playing reassuringly in the background. A dazzling blue sky; the sun’s eye, indifferent to the bloodbath.

Lillian returns and we set off to the address. Only five miles away, but it’s Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, so this could easily take 45 minutes. I start asking Lillian what’s been going on with her. I didn’t get my hours in with her last month, and frankly, I’m kind of worried. I tell her as much. When she’s not hungover, it’s pretty easy to be frank and open with Lillian. She hasn’t learned the same things most people her age have learned. She’s not great with math or reading. It’s frequent that I can only understand 70% of what she’s saying when she texts me. But there’s a cleverness there. She’s not dumb, just unlearnt, I suppose. In any case, I try to treat my clients as being more clever than they actually are. Sometimes it tricks them into actually being more clever, or making better decisions.

It’s a trick I also sometimes play on myself, when I can get away with it.

We chat about her mom, about her daughter, Lizzie, who Lillian badly wants custody of. They took her away when she was staying in a transitional housing facility for young, single mothers. Lillian had been getting friendly with some of the guys from the streets. She’d disappeared for long stretches of time to do meth with guys in rented hotel rooms. This was all before she turned 18. So illegal.

After they took her baby, they threw her out of St. Theresa’s, and she went back to live with her mother and her aunt. She’s been trying for more than a year to get her baby back. She keeps failing to prove she’s enrolled in school though, keeps failing to prove she can attend drug counselling classes on a regular basis (or, indeed, pass drug tests), keeps failing to show up with any proof of gainful employment.

Lillian opens up to me now. She wants to apply for transitional housing. She can raise Lizzie at her mother’s place, but she’d rather have her own space to live with her daughter. I tell her I was glad to hear from her, finally. She’s likely to have a new cell phone every month, so I’ve become used to getting texts from strange numbers. She never announces herself, either, when she texts from a new number. She’ll say something like, “Hey, are we gonna do the thing you were talking about last time?”

And I’ll say, “Is this Lillian?”  

And she’ll say, yes, and act like it was obvious it was her. It’s infuriating.

I broach the subject of custody. I’m happy to hear she’s getting her child back, I tell her. She’s been texting about that, recently, as if it’s a done deal. I wonder – is it possible a judge has adjudicated custody to her? I ask about the details. They’re going to give her back, she says matter of factly. Because, they’re molesting her – and I already told them and made a report, but the social worker lady doesn’t believe me, but it doesn’t matter because I reported it, and they can’t keep my daughter if they’re molesting her.

No, I say. The people who are keeping your daughter can’t keep her if they’re molesting her, and in fact, they’ll go to jail if it can be proven. What made you think they’re molesting her, I ask?

I notice now, at a stoplight, she’s hungover. Or, maybe still high? Her eyes are red and watery, and she’s not quite making coherent sense. She also didn’t react, earlier in the conversation when I tried to corner her and ask her about missing our appointments last month. About going incommunicado. And this new, slim, model figure, the black eye. The rushed, emotional way she’s describing things, without putting context or chronological order into any of the details. Yeah, she’s not entirely sober, if at all. She sees me noticing, and doesn’t like it. I ask again. What made you think they’re molesting your daughter?

There was all this shit in the back of her diaper. Baby shit, she clarifies, when I ask. Poop. I make a face as if to say, come on now, you said molestation – but now you’re describing evidence of neglect.

Plus, she says, they grabbed her by the neck when she was leaving with her baby. Who, you or the baby? Me. Well, that’s what happens when you try to take a baby from protective custody on a supervised visit. Who’s side are you on, she asks? Plus a mother has her intuition, and that’s just as good as any evidence.

I finally piece a story together. She’s asked the two year old if people have been touching her inappropriately, the two year old has nodded yes, and even said yes, once. But only after repeated questioning and coaching. She hasn’t supplied specific details that add up to molestation, though. She will only answer yes when asked if they touched here in certain places. When the social worker came to ask Lillian and Lizzie about the supposed molestation, Lillian was trying to get the baby to tell her, over and over. Finally the baby recited what her mother had been telling her to say. I nod. I fail to mention my doubts about this. She doesn’t have any real evidence beyond a seemingly coached accusation, a dirty diaper and intuition.

But even further than this, even if she had hard evidence the child was being interfered with – that doesn’t mean Lillian is about to get her back. One thing is not relative to another. A foster parent acting abusive or neglectful doesn’t erase the judge’s knowledge that she once disappeared from St. Theresa’s for five full days on a meth binge, leaving the staff of the facility to care for Lizzie. Or that she hasn’t been able to produce three months worth of consecutive negative drug tests.

(Or that she shows up to appointments with social service and county workers fifteen pounds lighter, with a black eye).

I don’t say any of these things, but I want to. I want to point out – the best case scenario is that she knows her child hasn’t been molested, and she’s trying to make some story up that gives her emotional leverage in this narrative. She may not be academic, but she’s good at emotional manipulation. The other, grosser possibility is that she is paranoid, but clinging to the idea that her child actually has been molested, for the idea of some moral high ground. She either knows she’s making it up, or wants something horrible to be true, for the sake of her narrative.

Lillian, I want to say to her. Being right doesn’t produce clean drug tests. But I don’t say anything. We drive in silence. Lillian puts something on the radio.

We pull into the parking lot of the Covenant House about five minutes later. Lillian starts to get agitated. I told you, she says, I don’t want to go into a homeless shelter. I want transitional housing where me and Lizzie could live together. I know that, I say, but this facility does more than just homeless sheltering. It’s also an entry portal. They have a database which records your name and age and set of circumstances, so that public and private organizations can share information. It will go out to shelters, but also transitional living organizations, and women’s homes.

She’s going into one of her spirals now. She doesn’t like entering databases. Her (paranoid, abusive) boyfriend told her it’s the illuminati controlling everything. He thinks they track poor people. Those illuminati people, they control the things like homeless shelters. They keep people sick. Doped up. Stupid, she says.  I beg her, please, let’s just go up to the front counter and ask for basic information. I figure I can get a seasoned social worker to help me persuade Lillian to just sit down and fill out a profile on the database. She finally agrees, we can go inside and ask the receptionist questions.

We head in. The receptionist explains the program. Lillian would do best to enter the database, alerting all of the relevant organizations in the vicinity to her need. Lillian seems cowed, for a while. She agrees, finally, yes, maybe the database is a good idea, and the social services system isn’t run by the illuminati. I make eye contact with the receptionist and joke that DCFS couldn’t possibly be run by the illuminati – they’d function so much more efficiently! We laugh, and the receptionist affirms my sentiment. Just one thing though, she says, the Youth Entry Portal is in a building across the street, and they’re closed for lunch from 12pm to 1pm. We’ll have to kill a half an hour waiting for them to get back from lunch.

Back in the parking lot Lillian is getting agitated again. No more crooked smiles. I can tell she’s really jonesing. She’s getting sweaty, and it’s chilly out today. She scuffs the toes of her shoes on the parking lot, and says, I don’t want to be here.

I don’t want to be here either, I say, trying to empathize. But I talked to quite a few social workers and explained your situation, and since you’re over 18, with a closed DCFS case, this is the best protocol to follow for getting into a transitional housing program. Neither of us want to be here, I say, but let’s just wait the twenty minutes and enter that database.

No, she says, but this time she’s more forceful. I don’t want to do this. I don’t feel comfortable here. Take me home. She knows I can’t force her to do anything, and she’s setting in her heels. I try a few more angles of reason with her, about waiting just a few minutes and trying, for the sake of her kid, to get into this database for transitional housing. They have housing for single parents under 22, I say. But she doesn’t care, she’s made up her mind.

And I don’t care, either.

I mean. I do – it’s not the productive outcome I’d hoped for when I picked her up today, but I got billable hours, so I won’t walk away not having done my job. I’m defeated, and this sucks – today won’t end up any closer to a happy ending for Lillian, but maybe the timing is wrong for this anyhow? If she gets into one of these housing programs, they’ll require her to stay sober, to keep a job, to be in school. Let’s be honest, I say to myself, she’d bounce out of a transitional housing program just as fast as she could fill out the papers.

There is a quick flash, a memory from this morning’s dream. The picturesque cliffside community, the stores and flowerbeds, the people. The bloodbath.

Okay, get in the car, I say. I’ll drive you home then. Inside, we are icy quiet. Try again next time, I say softly-but-audibly, as we pull out of the parking lot. We have another 45 minute drive back to her place.

After about ten minutes of silence I start talking.

I hate seeing you show up with a black eye, Lillian. I hate seeing you this thin. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my God, you look fantastic right now, but I know you and this is a really rapid weight loss in a short amount of time and I have to worry that it’s meth. And meth, combined with a black eye means you’ve been seeing Victor. I’m worried about you.

You’re right, she says. I saw Victor again. I’m sorry. I know I promised I would stay away from him, but he had my stuff, and I only saw him because I wanted my stuff back and then he hit me in the face and took my EBT card.

I sigh. The last time I saw her we waited in the General Relief office for four hours for the first replacement EBT card, which was only missing in the first place because Victor stole it. Please, just stop seeing that guy? I don’t like this. You have a black eye. I’m a mandated reporter. I have to report this.

No, you don’t, Lillian says. I already called the cops this time when he hit me.

Good, I say, that’s actually the best news I’ve heard all day, hearing that you finally filed a police report. Suddenly, shaking, nearly trembling in my passenger seat, Lillian is willing to throw me another crooked smile. I laugh, and I tell her I’ve known a few people named Victor in my time. They always have to win. She thinks this is funny. Pfft, she says, fuck them!

Yes, I agree. Fuck them.

There’s something in her eyes. A twinkle of conspiracy, perhaps. It makes me feel protective. She has natural, innocent curiosity. But, not unspoiled innocence. She has a few secrets, and can probably keep a few, too. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make her cravings go away, or, more useful – I wish I could fill that empty void in her heart she thinks meth and booze is going to fix.

But, the longer I do this job, the less I wish things, and the more I focus on meeting the client where they are emotionally, that day – preferably in a neighborhood adjacent to reality, if we can make it there.

By the time we get back to her place a tender truce springs up between us. It’s not hard to forgive each other. Even if we’re not firing on all cylinders, we still almost always try to show up for one another.

We talk about her getting a job. Maybe at some place like Walmart, or Target. I think it’s a great idea. She seems buoyed by even this minor level of approval. I tell her again she looks great, and that I hope she’s eating, and that next time we’ll work on finding employment, if that’s what she’d like to focus on.

Lillian signs paperwork for our visit and goes inside her apartment complex. I pull into traffic. It isn’t quite late afternoon yet, but Los Angeles has already jammed itself up nicely on Western Avenue, down in South Central, all the way up through KTown into Hollywood, and further into the Valley. All jammed up and honking. Stuck like cold, thick molasses.  

I stop at a red light and stare into the bulb. I think how powerless Lillian must feel, to be desperate enough to make up a story so horrible. Or, what an awful thing it must be to hope for – that someone is interfering with your child? I think of the dream this morning, of the people in that town square. How different that town was from Los Angeles.

I rev the engine. I go back to the dream. The cloaked figure, loading hundreds of bullets into an automatic rifle. Everyone clean and happy. Nobody shows up itchy, with a black eye, in the cliffside paradise. I see him. I can see what he’s about to do. I open my mouth. He puts the rifle on his shoulder. I adjust the rearview mirror. The people are walking dogs, returning library books. It’s a bluebird day.  He flips the safety open. The light turns green. I open my mouth, but I’m unable to speak. Unable to warn these people, I ease gas into the throttle.

He opens up into the unsuspecting crowd.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s