Noe Valley Voice July-August 2010

selected fiction and poetry - the noe valley voice summer 2010

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At the Buffalo Paddock

By R. J. Martin Jr.

We married late and weren't able to have children. Leah, my wife, had just had her second miscarriage. She seemed so crazed and desperate when she flushed the unformed fetus down the toilet that I called Catholic Charities and asked about the adoption program. At the orientation meeting, the people were all as frantic as my wife. A nun was in charge. She told us it would cost $18,000 for the whole thing. We stayed until the end of the meeting, but we didn't go back.

After that, we tried it all: holistic remedies, in-vitro fertilization, and then there was the private adoption attorney.

It's illegal to buy a human being. But where there's a will... This lawyer placed newspaper ads in areas where there were lots of poor people.


Loving Home$ for Babie$

Call 506-841-3950--Confidential

These people from Alamogordo, New Mexico, answered our ad. They had two kids and another on the way and they were living in their car. They said they were willing to give up their baby to the right people. We ended up getting a hotel room in Alamogordo, and when the mother was ready to deliver, we drove them to the hospital in the middle of the night. The baby was born healthy, but they didn't want to give it to us. They never intended to.

In the end, it was Reality House. We had both been out of the program for several years, but when our former case manager, Donna Yarick, died of pancreatic cancer, we went to her Celebration of Life and saw Lupe. Donna and her lesbian partner adopted this kid out of foster care when he was 6. When the couple broke up, Lupe stayed with Donna. He grew up in Reality House, pampered like a little pharaoh by all the addict mothers who had lost their own children.

When she was alive and working at Reality House, Donna's shift began at 7 a.m., and she showed up every day with Lupe in tow. Someone had to drive him to school across town and Donna chose me for the job. Lupe and I had this gag we used to pull. See, when I took him to school each morning, I had to take a "buddy." My buddy was another Reality House resident who had to come along for the ride, the theory being that we would keep each other out of trouble. I usually chose an attractive ex-prostitute as my buddy.

On our way from the Western Addition to Holy Name School in the Sunset, we would drive through Golden Gate Park. We stopped at the buffalo paddock. Each day at the time we went by--about 8:15 a.m.--the sprinklers would be on, watering the grass. I would say something like, "Did you know there were buffalo in Golden Gate Park?" Then Lupe would chime in, "Let's stop! I want to see the buffaloes." We would pull up next to the sprinklers and I would roll down the automatic window on the passenger side of the Reality House van. If we timed it just right, the sprinkler would splash through the window and get the buddy all wet.

One time, this beautiful babe, Catalina, had all this gel on her hair holding it in a perfect geometric pattern, and she got soaked. Her hair fell down like a deflated balloon and I thought she was going to take a swing at me, but Lupe was laughing so hard Catalina couldn't help but start laughing herself. I miss those sparks....

THE NEXT TIME I saw Lupe was at the celebration for Donna. He was 16 now, and big--half-Samoan and half-Mexican from his birth parents. The first thing he said after the obligatory Reality House hug was, "You remember the buffaloes?" We laughed and I put my hand on his shoulder.

It turns out that he had been living at a boot camp in Utah. Donna, before she died, had adopted two other kids. Little ones. Lupe became jealous. In the last-straw incident, he set fire to their Section 8 housing unit.

Now, Donna was gone and Lupe didn't want to go back to Utah, so he had called his social worker to get a placement in the city. He told me, "I'm gonna be staying with Debbie Alfano," but I doubted it. Debbie was director of clinical services at Reality House and had her own teenage daughter living with her.

A couple of days later we got the call. Debbie knew what had happened to us in New Mexico. Could we take Lupe? He was staying in a group home. There was a $700-a-month foster care stipend. After all, we didn't have any kids, and...

We went down to sign the papers. They designated us as "extended family," which meant there was no background check. Lupe moved into our house. He had the keys to Donna's car--his only inheritance--and he had a small urn that contained her ashes. We put the urn in the trunk of the car and I parked it in the garage.

The school district had designated Lupe as "gifted and talented," so we enrolled him in the college preparatory public school. They wanted him in class at 8 a.m., but he stayed up all night watching TV or sitting in his mother's car in the basement, pretending to drive. Every morning there was drama.

We both worked, so no one was around when he came home. I set up an account for him at the corner store and gave him some walking-around money. Soon there were empty junk food wrappers all over his room.

We did the best we could. Leah went to PTA meetings and volunteered for a school fundraiser. Lupe helped her light the Hanukkah candles and stood there while she said the prayers. For Christmas, we had a real tree with presents; he got all this hip-hop gear and $200 running shoes. We ate in good restaurants--Chenery Park was Lupe's favorite. He would finish a huge plate of food in about five minutes, and then order two desserts.

We were trying to buy a home and we took him out to look at real estate with us. One time in Oakland, we looked at a house that had a small tool shed in the back yard. We were standing there with Sarah, our elegant young realtor. I pointed to the little tool shed and said to Lupe, "You can stay there." He said, "Okay, Dad," without even cracking a smile, but he had that same mischievous gleam in his eye that he used to have when we were driving to the buffalo paddock with a new victim. Later, I tried to tell Sarah that we were kidding, but I'm not sure she believed me.

LUPE WAS DENIED contact with his birth parents, but when he asked to see his father, I couldn't tell him no. I knew the father from jail. He was an old-school gangster from Hunters Point. They called him "Island Boy." I drove Lupe to Crocker-Amazon Park and we parked. For a second, we both thought the father wouldn't show. I was trying to think of something meaningful to say when an old Ford pulled up. All four doors opened up and an enormous man got out of each one. Lupe leaped out of my car and they all ran towards each other. I drove away. Later, he showed me some of the pictures they took that day, and I told him he looked like his father. He stared at the photo for a long time after that.

Everyone wanted him to "live up to his potential." He played off this, just as I had when I was his age. All I wanted him to do was graduate the 10th grade.

One day, the school principal called me at work. Lupe had been in a fight. The Gang Task Force was there. At the meeting with the principal, I fell on my sword, told them my wife and I worked-- that Lupe wasn't getting the support he needed at home. When I told them Lupe wasn't going to have any trouble with anybody from Chinatown anymore, very quiet and confident, they seemed satisfied. They would let him finish the semester but he was suspended for three days. We went straight from the meeting to General Hospital. When Lupe got out of the emergency room, high on Vicodin with a new cast on his right hand, scared about what was going to happen when he went back to school, I told him he didn't have the right stuff for street fighting and that he should lie low for a while.

In March, the landlord told us he was selling the house and that we would have to be gone in a month. I told Lupe I didn't know where we were going but he was welcome to come with us. He had only two more months to graduate the 10th grade. He said he wanted to go with his aunt--his birth mother's sister who lived by Rolph Park. This needed to be approved by Child Protective Services. Leah called the aunt, who somewhat reluctantly agreed. Then we called the social worker to tell her. No one answered, so we left messages.

The car and the urn that contained Donna's remains were still in the garage. Lupe had planned to drive the car once he got his license, but he never got his license, and nobody was making payments on the car. I had known for months that the repo man was looking for it.

The night before we had to move out, Lupe got busted shoplifting at a record store in Stonestown. The police called and I said I would be there in 15 minutes. I pulled up, and there was Lupe in the back of the squad car. Handcuffed. The police were looking at me a little funny, and it occurred to me that Lupe must have told them I was his father. I explained that he was in foster care and that I was his legal guardian.

I have to admit, I felt proud saying it.

Then I ran the same drill as in the principal's office: mincing apologies, stern glances at Lupe, and promises that this would never happen again. They undid the cuffs, and Lupe walked back to my car with me.

The next day we had to move. Our stuff was all in boxes, ready to go, but the car and the urn were still in the basement. I knew how he'd dreamed about this car. I told him to come downstairs with me and he looked a little scared. We went down and I took the urn from the trunk. I set it down carefully on the basement floor and said, "Donna was a friend of mine..."

I wanted him to challenge me but he was silent. I told him we would have to ditch the car. He said nothing. I asked him if he wanted to drive, and he perked up a little. I pulled the car out of the garage and drove a half-block down to Bosworth, then handed him the keys. I told him that we were going to Lake Merced, where there was a big parking lot, and leaving the car there. Lupe said, "Why don't we leave it at the buffalo paddock?"

I had to fight hard to keep a poker face.

When I asked him if he was taking Sunset Boulevard, he said "I guess so" in a way that told me he had never driven a car before. I showed him the gas and the brake, and I prayed. Leah was following us in the other car. We eased out into traffic and I told him that this car might be on the hot list and that he had better drive slow, but not too slow. He tried to look at me like I was crazy but I pointed to the road and he gripped the wheel and leaned forward. We made it to Golden Gate Park and took a right toward the buffalo paddock.

The sprinklers were off but the bison were all there, one huge one up near the fence and the rest sitting in the fog across the field. I congratulated Lupe on his driving and slapped him on the back. Then I started to wipe the car down for prints.

Lupe was watching the buffalo. After I finished in the car, I walked up to the fence near him. An old bison with matted fur and decaying skin was eating grass right up near the other side of the chain-link fence.

Suddenly the beast made this great groaning sound and charged the fence. Lupe leaped up the embankment. This buffalo kept snorting and pushing at the fence while Lupe stood at the top of this little hill shaking his head.

From a cell phone, I called CPS and asked to talk to a supervisor. I railed about how this kid's social worker couldn't even return a phone call. We had left messages for two weeks. There was no place left to go and Lupe would be staying with us at the Gaylord Hotel on Jones Street if anybody was interested.

The CPS supervisor said Lupe's social worker had died suddenly and no one had checked her messages yet. She was sorry. We were not to tell him--she would handle it. He could spend the afternoon at the office on Third Street until his aunt got home from work, at which time a proper transition could be made.

And that's where I left him, my son, watching TV in the waiting room of the San Francisco Department of Human Services' Child Protective Services Unit on Third Street with his mother's ashes on his knee.

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Schooled by the Archdiocese of San Francisco and San Francisco State University, Richard J. Martin's work has appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, literary journals, and magazines. His first book, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys, was released in August 2009 by Soft Skull Press and favorably reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review in September. This summer, he will be teaching English at Five Keys Charter School in the San Francisco County Jail. He divides his time between San Francisco and Lakeport, California.