City of Orange California ~ December 1964
I lie in the hall with my legs hanging over the top step outside my bedroom door hugging my chest to suppress my sobs, but there is only a vacuum to absorb them.
Mother, Why did you scream at me to never look for you again and to mind my own business because I called your friend Donna the other night?
Burning smudge pots in the orchard next door smelled like a truck stop trapped by the heavy fog and a cold snap.
I had just turned 14 years of age, uncelebrated.
Mother, I just need you to tell me everything will be okay. Just once Mother, I long for you to mother-hug me; just once. But, I’ll never look for you again.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but cold air wakes me so I go to my room for a sweater. I am wearing capri pants and a long-sleeved applique shirt my grandmother made me. I head outside.
I sit on the front porch shivering while I light a cigarette to calm my nerves. Maybe if I wait for her to come home she might listen. Maybe. Our small portable radio crooned out “Only The Lonely”, Roy’s voice is honey to my aching soul.
Beams of light slash across the front lawn and burn into my eyes. I tamp out my cigarette and shut off the radio. I see my mother’s straight-line lips and her white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. The car lurches to a stop. I pull my sweater tight.
My mother reaches for a handful of my hair and drags me into the house. She lets go and sits hard in the kitchen chair facing the stairs.
“Go upstairs now and change into your nightgown and get back down here. I’m going to shave your hair off.” Her face is as red as her hair.
I ran up the carpeted stairs and into my room. I pulled out my flannel nightgown (also a gift from my grandmother.) As I slip the gown over my head, I begin to panic. I can’t let her shave my hair off. No time to think. I tiptoe into my sister’s now empty room. My sister had been sent to juvenile hall a month ago because she came home drunk one night, setting off a trap my parents had set for her. I fling one leg over the windowsill, hiking up my gown. I step barefoot on the cold porch overhang. I reach for the cypress tree and fling myself around its trunk. I don’t mind the branches scratching my bare legs.
I jump to the ground and run towards the backyard next to my neighbors house. I grab a quilted blanket and yank it off the neighbor’s clothesline. I drape the blanket over my shoulders and run towards the orange grove by the alley. I head down the alley away from my house. Gravel digs into the flesh of my bare feet. Streetlights cast a hazy yellow glow. Now what?
I begin to quake and my teeth clatter. I look around like a wild animal seeking shelter. I begin to try the door handles on parked cars. One is unlocked and I yank it open. I huddle down on the front seat and tuck my gown under my feet. The quilt is damp but manages to hold some of my body heat in.
What will I do? I have no one to turn to. Both my sisters are gone. Why did my sister Becky get locked up? I’m sure I’m next. What can they lock me up for? Past infractions? My “friend” Merilee gave me that orange juice that burned my throat and made me act silly and made me sick all over the kitchen floor. Her mom said I was at fault when the police brought us home. I had never tasted and smelled alcohol before that. That was last year. What did I do this year? I knew social services had been calling and that made my mother angry. She told them to mind their own business and slammed the phone hard against the wall. I have failing grades and remember the knots in my stomach when I handed my parents my report card. I remember my dad’s board. Do you get locked up for that?
The cold creeps under the blanket. My body thrashes. I need to do something. I don’t want to die. I exited the car and began to walk in the direction of the orange groves. My feet are numb. I begin to stumble in the dense fog.
I jump at the sound of my neighbor’s voice. “What are you doing out here?”
“I c-c-an’t go home.”
“You look very cold and your feet are bleeding. Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?”
“Okay. P-p-please don’t tell my mother.
“I won’t. Follow me.” Her sweet voice lures me inside.
She leads me into her warm den, pats the couch, and then hurries off to get me some tea and a warm blanket. I’m safe now.
“She’s back here in the den.” The voice I had trusted returned with two uniformed officers with guns and badges.
They loomed over me, but they spoke softly. “Your mother wants you to come home.”
I rise but begin to shiver again. I follow them to my house where my mother greets us with a smile. She thanks the officers and closes the door. I feel trapped again.
“Get upstairs and get your clothes on.” Her smile has disappeared.
I climb the stairs. This time I’ll layer my clothes and wear sneakers with thick socks.
I tiptoe through my sister’s bedroom once again. Down the tree and through the backyard.
I slip through a chain link gate into a church parking lot. A pillar is the only thing I can hide behind.
Crouching knees to chin, I hold my breath.
“Young lady.” A finger wags from an unmarked car. “Come here. Now.”
Two Cells In One
I am processed at the police station and then transported to Orange County Juvenile Hall.
A guard with a stone face watches as I change into a set of plain clothes and a pair of slip-on shoes that squeak with every step.
Two officers lead me to a cell in silence except for the thud of heavy shoes and rattle of keys on hips down the long corridor.
What did that officer mean when he said, “You’re incorrigible.” His words feel stamped on my soul.
The Soul Cell
The cell is as sound-proof as my life has been. I want to scream, but no sound comes out; not even a sigh.
How many years will I get locked up for being incorrigible? I don’t feel hunger, even though I haven’t eaten for two days. Circles pull down the flesh under my eyes. The socks they forced me to wear, rub against my blistered feet.
A metal bed with a thin mattress, a sheet, a lumpy pillow, a scratchy gray blanket, and a sink are the only other objects in the room. I am just another object.
The sound of metal in a keyhole snaps me back to the present. In steps a girl, with glowering eyes and tight fists. She has medium wavy brown hair, dark eyes, and smooth brown skin. She squirms away from the guards and lets out a growl. The guards push the door shut and turn the key.
She stomps. Words I never heard before spit through her lips and bounce against the wall so hard; I cringe.
I try to be quiet, like a frightened hare hiding from a hound-dog but soon she notices me, and says, “Hi, my name’s Marie.”
I force a smile, hoping to deflect her anger. She’s acts like a wild animal trapped in a cage.
Marie’s cussing runs out of steam. She seems to assess me in one glance. A scared, naïve kid, huddled with knees to chest for protection.
“Hey, let’s tear this place apart.”
She grabs a pillow off the bed, tears open the bottom of the pillowcase and pulls it over her head, and then tears the sheet off the bed, ties it around her chest, and removes all her clothes.
“C’mon,” Marie urges, “Take this pillow apart.”
She throws the pillow against my face. I joined in because I’m afraid she could take me apart.
I tear the pillow. I choke and spit as feathers fly up my nose and mouth.
Marie laughs, turns the metal bed frame on its side, puts feathers in the sink and turns on the water.
A baton hits the door from the outside and two angry eyes fill the door slit. Marie doesn’t stop.
The guards rush in, take Marie by the arms, shove her against the wall and yank her arms behind her back.
One guard takes me since I am subdued and places me in a new cell; this one is barren except for a cot. I slump to the floor.
The next morning I was taken to the courthouse and led between two guards to a stuffy room lined with golden lacquered wood paneling. A long table sat under a judge’s podium, an American flag stood unfurled to the right. A defender sat in a chair next to the one I was directed to. He shuffles through some official-looking papers but doesn’t glance my way. I feel very small. I lift a strand of hair to my mouth. The crunchy sensation soothes me.
Soon, a black robed judge walks in and sits down. The overhead lights bounce off his balding head, as he lifts a pair of thick glasses, hooks them over his ear to rest on the bulb of his nose.
The judge glances at the papers in front of him.
“Miss Skarin,” he said, “Please stand”
The defender turns to face me. “You must address the judge as Your Honor.”
I have never been to court, so I was clueless.
“I’m reading here that you’re in detention for being “Incorrigible.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“I also see that you were destructive after being detained in your cell therefore I am sentencing you to three months in juvenile hall, and after that, I deem it best for you to be placed in foster care.” “Do you understand young lady?” Before I can answer, he drops his gavel, “That’s all.”
My mouth opens but nothing comes out. A guard steps forward and leads me back to my cell, in the facility where juvenile criminals were locked up – to keep society safe. The gavel fell on my heart. INCORRIGIBLE.
I’m taken to the main living quarters, where the other offenders were housed. She took me to what would be my cell bedroom for three months. I shared it with another girl, who made no attempts to befriend me.
One of the day workers shows me around and explains the rules and what’s expected of me.
She shows me the restroom with two shower stalls and four toilets with walls that were only waist high with no doors.
“If you need to shave your legs, you must do it while someone watches and then give the razor to the guard in charge.”
A huddle of girls stare in my direction while others whisper with heads down. Their eyes frighten me.
I see Marie standing with two other brown-skinned girls. She glances up and smiles and begins to walk toward me.
“Pssst…hey…the other girls won’t hurt you. I got your back.”
Later I learned that all the new girls were initiated, by either being cut with a razor or beat up. Marie was their gang leader.
I’m grateful that I’m being looked out for, but I’m also being locked up for three months for joining in with Marie. I guess one way I can look at it – I won’t get cut or beat up. And Marie kept her word.
One night I crawl under the bed and crow (I learned how to crow like a rooster when I was young). I just want to break the silence of my cellmate Lupe’s stiff back. She chats with her friends but never once looks my way.
Lupe leaps out of bed and pounds on the door.
“Help, help, someone please help me!”
I hear heavy footsteps in the hall.
“What is wrong with you. Why are you yelling?”
“There’s a rooster in my cell. It scared me.”
Heavy black shoes stare at me from the light that spills through the open door. Red-veined eyes swing down and peer into mine. “You need to sleep on your cot where we can see you. Get up here now.” I crawl out and slip onto the metal frame bed. It squeaks.
The supervisor turns to my cellmate Lupe, “There’s no rooster in here. Now go back to sleep.”
I crawl back onto the cold floor where I sleep every night.
I heard Anna’s story from some of the other cellmates. They said that her dad had molested her. She was told, “You must have come on to him. It’s your fault that he did those things. He needs to take care of his family.” She was placed in detention to keep her from tearing her family apart.
Anna has a pretty face edged by short dark hair and a taut jaw. One night I hear Anna scream. She is put in solitaire once again. She pounds on her cell wall until her wrists start to bleed and every tendon in her neck bulges. The lady guards and supervisors try to drag her out of her cell but she just stretches her hands and feet across the doorway and leans with face towards the floor. The other girls protest outside their cells. They sit with legs stretched across their doors and refuse to go in, which made it impossible for the guards to maintain control. I hear a call from the desk, “We need back-up. Now.”
A group of armed guards burst through the door, batons held high. “Go back in your cells.” The girls hang heads and arms low and one at a time slip into their cells. I am already in my cell, watching through the window. I crunch a strand of hair.
I don’t understand. It seems most of the parents need to be locked up. Who listens to us? Where are you God in all this? I read about how you held and blessed the children. Do you care about the broken ones?
On Tuesday afternoons, when the chaplain and his wife, Jeanne and Bob, come to visit, I feel visible even though I don’t speak. They don’t preach or judge. They listen as if we all matter.
After I was released, the first foster home I was sent to was the home of Jeanne and Bob. I saw Jesus love and grace and let go of my strand of hair.