Crowe Street is quiet at night. Murphy likes it this way, though most nights he has trouble sleeping. For weeks he hasn’t gotten a good night’s rest, averaging four or five hours each night, sometimes less. He attributes his restlessness to his worries about his job at Granaby Youth Corrections. At thirty-six, he’s the youngest administrator since the facility was built in the early nineties, but in truth he hates it. He wants to believe in the kindness of strangers, the fierce possibilities of hope, the beauty of color. Some nights after work he sits on the back porch and watches fireflies and moths while his son Stephen plays with their dog, Rufus. Lately he has to supervise Stephen outside. Stephen is six, and for several weeks he’s been trying to hurt the dog—poking him with a stick, pulling his tail, throwing rocks at him. Last month Murphy talked to his wife Kate about counseling, but neither of them got around to calling anyone. Murphy’s so beaten down by work lately he can’t concentrate on anything.
Much of what he describes about his work to Kate is corroborated by the younger guys from his neighborhood who’ve been through the system and talk openly about being locked up when they were minors. Outside the Portuguese market down the street, Murphy listens to their stories and pretends to be interested. In the apartment building next door, one of the upstairs tenants, Jack, has Monday Night Football parties that Murphy’s never been invited to. Jack, who’s slightly dyspneic and overweight, talks about his life as a delinquent, all the times he smoked hydroponic pot with his friends in a dim basement while listening to Jane’s Addiction and eating Nutter Butters. When Jack was seventeen he got drunk and stole a car from the neighborhood, put it through the window of a Repo Records, and then got out and asked if they had anything by the Del Fuegos. “But that’s all history,” he tells Murphy. Another tenant, a thirtyfour-year-old construction worker named Lyle, says he was caught trying to steal a rosewood-handled boot knife from an estate sale. Ever since, his father refers to him as slightly worse than useless.
About once a week Kate sends Murphy to the Portuguese market even though she knows Murphy can’t stand the food. Codfish, pickled onions, red peppers, chourico, pork pudding, cacoula, and so on. Murphy can’t stand any of it. On nights she cooks that stuff he purposefully works late, then stops by Anchor Tom’s on his way home for a slice of pizza or a bowl of chowder to go. But the truth is that Murphy never minds going to the market because he has a small crush on the woman who works there. Her name is Mina; she’s divorced and dark and in her thirties. Murphy can tell she has a good bullshit antenna, so he hasn’t even attempted to flirt with her. She shrugs off the guys who try, or else tells them straight, “Sorry, not interested.” Murphy has never once seen her smile. The way her mouth droops on one side is basically the way she looks all the time, but somehow he finds this sexy. He imagines sleeping with her and searching her face. Her expression, her mouth, the whole time looking like she’s just been handed a used sock.
Tonight, yet again, he is thinking about her as he lies in bed next to Kate. “Do we need anything from the market?” he asks quietly in the dark. “I was just thinking.”
“What? It’s midnight.”
“I meant for tomorrow. I could dash over there real quick.”
“Just trying to help out.”
He loves Kate absurdly. He loves that she’s neurotic, afraid of spiders and planes, worried about catching colds or a sore throat. Before they married, he sometimes playfully gave her Indian rub-burns on her arms while they watched Letterman at her apartment in West Haven. She grew up with three older brothers, so she didn’t mind playing rough. In the beginning they were spontaneous; he often took her against the wall in a sort of arabesque position, but that was several years ago. They married just out of college. He was working as a program coordinator in a small juvenile detention center. Now all he thinks about is quitting his job or fucking some stranger, like Mina from the market.
Although, more and more frequently, he is aware of how incredibly lucky he is. He reminds himself of this. Stephen is a joy regardless of his recent behavior with Rufus. Sometimes at night they gather in the living room and play board games or draw pictures. On Sundays, Murphy helps Kate with yard work. When the weather is nice they take walks through the neighborhood, Stephen riding his bike in front of them. “We’re blessed,” Kate said one Christmas Eve when
Stephen was a baby. “We have to remember how blessed we are.”
Murphy sits up in bed and turns on the TV, mutes the sound, finds a nature program on cable. A magnified butterfly sits on a leaf. The butterfly materializes, pulsing, then flutters away.
Murphy’s boss, Hank Drucker, says the city doesn’t like runaways or delinquents. Hank, who’s been a detention director for twentyfive years, is overweight and asthmatic and drinks heavily. He spends most of the day in his office, sucking on his inhaler and leaving Murphy to supervise the staff and handle the residents. For as long as Murphy’s known him, Hank’s been a man who speaks his mind. “I need someone to put out fires,” he told Murphy when he hired him several years ago. He pumped his inhaler in his mouth and sat back in his swivel chair. “The juveniles at Granaby are runaways and criminals. Some get kicked out of youth shelters for getting high or stealing from staff. Others get picked up by the police and brought in. I’ll worry about the court documents and paperwork. I need you out there on the floor, putting out fires.”
For the past fifteen years, Murphy has seen these kids come in and out of juvenile detention. Sometimes the court places them in the custody of social services and they sit in detention and wait to be placed in group homes. Then they run away from the group homes and return to the streets, and the whole cycle starts over again. Murphy is the assistant director and serves as a sort of in-house counselor. The juveniles he talks to during intakes, after they’ve changed out of their street clothes and showered and put all their money and jewelry in baggies, after they’ve carried their bed sheets and pillows down the hall past the medical supply room to their rooms, they tell him what happens when they return to the streets. They always want to talk their first night. Especially the newcomers. Part of Murphy’s job is just listening to them. He thinks they see enough in six months to provide a lifetime of nightmares. Some of the Hispanics tell him they stand in the alley behind MG’s Liquor on Albany Street and see skinheads in leather jackets and camouflage pants walk by and stare at them. The skinheads smoke cigarettes and throw bottles. The skinheads lean against the fence and piss in the street and yell at them.
“We’re not scared of them,” Paolo says. “I’ve seen these guys and they don’t do anything.” Paolo is sixteen and from the north side of Hartford. He’s lived in six different foster homes since he was twelve. His father is part of a large Latin gang and is doing time for possession of firearms and drug trafficking after what the FBI called one of the largest raids since the prohibition era. Paolo tells Murphy about pickpocketing tourists in Boston on the subway T train from Government Center to Harvard Square. For two months he stole toilet paper every day from Captain Jack’s Fish House’s bathroom until the place closed down due to failing health inspections. For a while, before he was picked up and sent to the shelter, he slept wherever he could—in the homes of strange men, under a pavilion in a park on Albany, on the wood floors of abandoned houses. As he talks to Murphy, he looks at the dried blood in his fingernails from scratching the scabs on his scalp. He has lice. Impetigo of the scalp. Tonight the staff will treat his hair with olive oil and a lice comb. They’ve been through this before.
Later in the night, Paolo is upset. His hand is bleeding from punching the concrete wall, and he’s threatening to kill himself. He’s made threats like this in the past. After he calms down, two staff members help him into the medical room and wrap his hand. His fingers are swollen and bloody. Murphy thinks Paolo’s fingers might be broken, so he and Paolo’s probation officer, Rob, have to transport him to the hospital. Rob cuffs Paolo’s hands in front rather than behind his back since his hand is injured, then puts on the ankle restraints.
“Always a flight risk,” Rob says.
Paolo sits in the backseat with his head down. They drive toward downtown to St. Francis. Been here before, Murphy has, but not for a long while. They pass liquor stores, beauty parlors, sheet metal wholesalers, old warehouses and apartment buildings. Downtown, Seymour Street’s darkness is broken at intervals with the yellow light of apartment windows, the open doors of restaurants and bars. The scent of decay emanates from the parking lot as they help Paolo from the car and walk him into the emergency room. Low priority emergency, so they will have to sit and wait as usual. Nobody’s really attempted suicide at Granaby, but Murphy tells the staff they have to take threats seriously, especially when a kid like Paolo is punching a wall until his hand bleeds.
“You need to sit up,” Rob says in the waiting room. But Paolo is exhausted, sitting slumped with his head resting against the wall. He can’t keep his eyes open. When the nurse takes them to a room, Rob uncuffs him so she can check his pulse and take his blood pressure.
She takes his hand and studies it. “Can you move your fingers?” Paolo moves his fingers but winces.
“They’re pretty swollen,” Murphy says.
Paolo sits on the exam table, staring at Rob’s military-style crew cut. The nurse writes something down on a clipboard, tells them the doctor will be in soon and leaves the room. Murphy knew they would be there at least a couple of hours, so he brought along the Courant. He unfolds it and starts on the New York Times crossword but struggles to keep his eyes open.
“I could fall asleep right here,” he says.
Rob sits next to him and chews on a toothpick.
By the time they return to Granaby it’s late, after eleven. The graveyard crew is there, starting laundry. All residents are in bed. Murphy takes Paolo to his room in wing A and logs the prescribed antibiotic in the medical room. Nothing broken, thankfully. He tells Cliff, the eleven-to-seven supervisor, to have someone from the morning shift go to the pharmacy and fill the antibiotic.
“We’ve got other problems,” Cliff says. “Thomas in Wing C.”
Murphy can already guess. Thomas, a fourteen-year-old, seriously unstable kid from Allston who’s in for rape by instrumentation on his five-year-old stepsister. Thomas will possibly be charged as an adult and remain locked up until he’s twenty-one unless the longterm treatment is successful and the justice system considers him rehabilitated. These kids, they’re called youthful offenders, which is a polite term for sex offenders. They’re unlike the others in detention in that most of them are socially inept, immature, obsessive about little things like hiding extra toilet paper in their pillow cases and masturbating two or three times a day in the main bathroom with the door open. Thomas always wants attention. His father is one of those low-grade knuckleheads who wears flannel shirts and drives a 1993 firebird and chews Red Man. During weekend visitation, he once told Murphy he drinks Stolichnaya vodka only. Thomas has an unfortunate facial tic that Murphy thinks he exaggerates for attention at certain times throughout the day, like during meals when no talking is the rule. He’s been in detention for more than ninety days while he’s waiting to be placed in residential treatment. This week he’s in room confinement for making inappropriate remarks about sharpening a broomstick and using it as a weapon on detention officers.
“I can already guess,” Murphy says.
Sure enough. In Wing C, Murphy opens Thomas’s door and sees him sitting cross-legged on the floor with his shirt off. His shirt is crumpled on his bed, and feces are smeared on the wall and all over the floor. Feces, everywhere. Murphy radios a staff member to Wing C and Thomas looks up.
“What’s wrong with you?” Murphy says. “Again?”
Thomas doesn’t say anything. But there is shame, if not embarrassment, and Murphy has to remind himself that most of the state custody abused kids like Thomas developed a habit of smearing feces in bed or shitting in their underwear to ward off their predators. These are the times that test Murphy’s patience, and residents like Thomas are good at grating on his nerves. Before he started working with delinquents, Murphy taught ninth-grade civics at a public high school in East Hartford but got fired for cursing at the students. Murphy, at twenty-four, young and just out of college, still single and staying out late at night, then hungover the next day and trying to deal with hyperactive adolescents with mood swings and hormones. The day he got fired he lost his temper. His students were talking and laughing and being generally disruptive as he stood at the blackboard, and after several attempts to quiet them, he threw his head back and screamed, “Can’t you people ever shut the fuck up and listen to me for one goddamn second?” He has to remind himself of those days when his job gets stressful, as it does trying to deal with Thomas.
“You know the drill,” Murphy says.
Thomas gets up and follows Murphy to the closet, where they fill a mop bucket and get a spray bottle full of cleaner and paper towels. Thomas spends the next thirty minutes cleaning his room and then takes a shower while everyone else in Wing C is trying to sleep. A staff member relieves Murphy so he can go home after such a long day. A twelve-hour day, in fact, and he doesn’t get paid overtime. The extra hours accrue as comp time, which means he can at least take off early tomorrow.
“Try not to call me at home tonight if there’s a problem,” Murphy tells Cliff.
“Don’t call you?”
“Let’s hope for a smooth night. I need sleep.”
At the market, Murphy pays for the jar of pumpkin jam on the counter and waits for Mina to say something as she opens the register and hands him his change. He is nervous near her, edgier every time he sees her. She has an insouciant manner about her that makes him burn with anticipation. And yet he will not tell her he finds her attractive, he knows this. He doesn’t trust himself—how else but by silence can he hope to keep her a stranger? When he doesn’t fill the silence, she does: “Sleeping any better?” she asks, putting the jar in a little brown paper sack, and he remembers he’d told her about his insomnia a couple of weeks ago.
“I think about work too much,” he says.
“Oh, so you’re one of those people.”
“I feel sorry for you,” she says, and he notices she’s joking. “Were you a deprived child? No SweeTarts, right? No candy except on holidays?”
She stops at the sight of what has come over him. He feels flushed, nervous. He crosses his arms so that she can’t see his wedding ring. On the counter behind her, in fastidiously arranged rows, are stacked cartons of cigarettes, Marlboros and Kools and Camels, and for the first time in four years, since he quit smoking, Murphy feels the agonizing craving for a cigarette. What is it about her?
She inhales sharply. “Look at you, all embarrassed.”
“No, no,” he says. “I mean, it’s work.”
“Lack of sleep.”
“Have nice dreams,” she says, and as he leaves he hates himself.
At home, he no longer feels tired. Why does this happen? He goes to the back porch and tends to the dog. He empties the water bowl, refills it with the water hose. He fills the other bowl with dry dog food. Murphy’s dog Rufus, a terrier mix he adopted from the shelter nine years ago, eats with civility. Murphy scratches Rufus on the scruff of his neck and goes back inside.
Upstairs, Kate is asleep. When he gets into bed, she turns over and asks him how work was.
“Fine. We had to take a kid to the hospital.”
She yawns. “Yeah, I thought so.”
“I would’ve called but I didn’t want to wake Stephen.”
“Tonight I caught him hitting Rufus with a broom.”
“Jesus,” Murphy says. “Why?”
“He didn’t say anything. I took the broom and sent him to his room.”
“I don’t know what to do. I thought about taking him fishing on
Kate turns over. “That would be good.”
Murphy turns on the television, flips through channels. For a while he watches some sort of fishing show on cable. A man in a fishing boat, holding a bass by its open mouth. The man tosses the fish into the water. Murphy leans over to embrace Kate, resting his arm against the sheets. “Hey,” he whispers. “Tired,” Kate says, and yawns.
Mark, a detention officer on the seven-to-three shift, is filling out Intake papers on a resident when Murphy arrives to work. The resident is Eddie, a seventeen-year-old boy who’s been to Granaby twice in the last year. Eddie’s been in juvenile detention centers since he was twelve, when he was caught stealing cold medicine and beer from a Cole’s pharmacy. For a while he was living off and on with a man he calls his uncle. Eddie has seizures, so the staff has to be careful with him. The seizures are mild. He once told Murphy that his seizures taste like battery acid. He came in several months ago with damp clothes and a fever, burns, and chills, and spent the next day vomiting in his room. He’s the only resident who can beat Murphy in chess.
Today, at rec time after lunch, they play chess in the Day Room. Eddie plays fast, moving his queen out early. Murphy is all defense; before he can make an aggressive move, Eddie puts him in checkmate.
“You’re really terrible,” Eddie says.
“You’ve gotten better or I’m worse,” Murphy says.
Eddie beats him two more games. Afterward, he tells Murphy he thinks of his mother often. When Eddie was nine, she died in the hospital. He says he should’ve been with her, that he should be the one who disappeared. For Eddie, everything feels ragged, as if he has left behind a thousand lives who depend on him—the ones he takes care of, the younger boys who are left alone. They creep around the city at night, through winding tunnels, dark streets, sidling upon drunken old men and then rummaging through their wallets, forcing up particle board and removing nails, anything they can find and use as weapons if they need to. They aren’t afraid. They struggle to survive.
Later in the afternoon, outside on the basketball court, Eddie runs for the fence and starts to climb, but two detention officers manage to pull him down. He’s taken inside and confined to his room. When Granaby was built, Murphy’s boss, Hank Drucker, wanted the fence fifteen feet high with razor wire at the top. So far no residents have attempted to escape. At staff meetings, Hank is always reading news stories of juveniles escaping from detention centers around the country. Just last month in Gastonia, North Carolina, a juvenile escaped from a detention center and stole a car. “That’s why we need five detention officers with the residents whenever they’re outside,” Hank tells the staff. “I didn’t earn my reputation for nothing. I promised safety.”
Still, there are those in Red Owl with uncertain fears. There are those who believe the residents will escape. There are those who believe they have unique and elaborate plans of hurting young children. Madeleine Simmons, who lives a mile east of the facility, approached Murphy one morning as he was pumping gas at the 7-Eleven on his way to work: “My husband and I took our daughter out of Rose kindergarten after a group of those boys started hanging around,” she told him.
“Sorry to hear that,” Murphy said. “They didn’t run away from
Granaby, if that’s what you were wondering.”
“I’m not blaming you. We’re not saying it’s your fault.”
“Nobody ran away. We’re a lockdown facility.”
“We picketed when the county was trying to raise the tax to have the place built in the first place,” Mrs. Simmons said. “We know Judge Arnott and his wife. Just to let you know.”
The community hates him. They hate Granaby’s location on the outskirts of the city, close to new housing. They wanted the facility to be downtown by the Bureau of Juvenile Services and the courthouse. To get through the day, Murphy sometimes has to remind himself that what he’s doing is a good thing. He decided on this type of work because he wanted to help troubled kids. He was determined then, just out of college. He used to play basketball and volleyball with the residents. Now it’s dominoes and chess.
“But you’re still young,” Hank Drucker wheezes. Murphy’s in Hank’s office while Hank sits behind his desk. Hank’s swivel chair squeaks every time he moves or laughs. “Murphy, you miserable fucker, you’re still in good shape. Look at me, all old and fat. I’m from the streets of Houston. I was raised on red meat and grease. I worked my way here by hard work. No college degree. Just plain old hard work. I can’t do one goddamn active thing anymore.”
“You look fine.”
“I’m pushing three hundred,” Hank says, leaning way back in his swivel chair. He sucks on his inhaler and pumps it twice. “Don’t bullshit me. I drink scotch every night. Johnny Red. When do I have time to exercise? All I’m saying is get the fuck out there and stay active with the residents. Play ball. Shoot hoops. Don’t let yourself turn to shit like I did.”
“Lately I don’t feel like it.”
“Murphy, you miserable shitspeck, I like you. We need to have drinks sometime. Bernice and I need company. Ever since her hip surgery she’s a fucking invalid.”
“Sure, I’ll check with Kate.”
“Check with your wife,” Hank says. He laughs and wheezes. His chair squeaks.
Later, a detention officer radios Murphy that a transport officer is in the carport to take Paolo to court. Murphy helps Paolo clear out his room. Paolo changes back into his own clothes and Murphy walks him down the corridor to meet the juvenile transport officer at the door. The transport officer cuffs and puts ankle restraints on Paolo while Murphy unlocks the doors that lead to the carport outside.
“Hope I’ll get released,” Paolo says.
But Murphy knows it won’t happen. He’ll be placed in a temporary youth shelter or foster home. Then he’ll run away and return to the streets until he gets arrested again. The transport officer helps Paolo into his car. From the carport, Murphy sees him sitting in the backseat with his head down as the car backs out of the garage.
After work, at the market, Murphy buys a jar of green olives, but Mina isn’t working. The cashier who rings him up is an older woman with a veiled, dreamy expression, a kind of pout. She has a rocky chin and cheekbones, her bangs gray-blond. Murphy’s never seen her before. When he asks about Mina, she looks at him.
“I’m new,” she says, “but I don’t think she works here anymore.” She hands Murphy his change.
“Thanks,” Murphy says, and as he walks out he wonders if Mina quit. The thought that he won’t see her again is depressing. He’ll no longer have a reason to look forward to going there. On his way to his car he sees Antonio Perez, who lives in a small house down the street. Antonio’s oldest son was placed in detention once for shoplifting from Repo Records, so Murphy got to know Antonio. Fifteen years ago, Antonio left Queens with his wife and kids and took the train up here to Hartford. He walks with a limp from getting stabbed in the foot with a barbecue brochette by his first wife. “We used to drink whiskey,” he once told Murphy. “Then we’d get into bad fights. Crazy whore. She pulled a knife on me once a week.”
Tonight, Antonio limps over to Murphy and puts his hand on his shoulder. “How are you, my friend?” he says.
“Just getting off work,” Murphy says.
“Plumbing problems for me tonight,” Antonio says. “And my son’s sick. I need cough medicine and a plumber. Any help?”
“What’s wrong with your plumbing?”
“The faucet makes a noise and spits. I don’t know what to do. I can’t afford a plumber.”
“I can have a look,” Murphy tells him, and after Antonio buys red peppers and cough medicine inside, Murphy gets into his car and follows him down the street to his house. The neighborhood is rough, cars parked in yards, wood-frame houses with dirty paint. Inside, Antonio’s wife Rosa is watching TV in the living room with their kids.
“Cough medicine and red peppers,” Antonio says, handing the bag to his wife. “I brought the miracle man.”
“Are you a witch doctor or a plumber?” she asks Murphy.
“Who knows what I am,” he says, and Rosa laughs. He follows Antonio into the kitchen, where Antonio turns on the water. The faucet coughs, then makes a gurgling noise. Water bursts from the spigot.
“I have tools,” Antonio says.
“Where’s the valve? We just need a screwdriver and pliers.”
They go downstairs to the cellar. Pipes are vibrating, and they find the valve next to a box meter. Murphy turns the valve left to turn off the water. On the pliers, there’s corrosion between the gear teeth. Murphy blows on it and hits it a couple of times against the floor. They go back upstairs and Murphy disassembles the cold water handle. With the screwdriver he chops at the plaster, then puts everything back together again. Antonio goes downstairs and turns the water back on.
“Fixed,” Murphy says, turning the faucet on and off.
When Antonio comes back to the kitchen he is overjoyed. “You fixed it, saved me money,” he says. He invites Murphy to stay for coffee and dessert. “Rosa made pie,” he says. He gets plates from the cupboard and cuts them both a piece of banana pie. They sit in the kitchen and talk. Antonio tells Murphy he’s currently working in a little machine shop downtown making nine bucks an hour. He removes screws from a box marked “Made in China,” counts and cleans the bits and then puts them in new boxes marked “Made in the USA” and “Made in Taiwan.”
“Machines will count screws,” he says, “but they cost fifty thousand dollars, plus software and maintenance. People are cheaper and I need work.”
“My job isn’t much better,” Murphy says, and immediately feels guilty for saying it.
“Be thankful it’s a good job,” Antonio says. “You do okay, make a decent salary, right? I have four kids and a house payment.” He takes a sip of coffee. “When I’m not worried about money I’m happy as I’ve ever been.”
Murphy finishes his coffee and sets his cup on the counter. On the way out, in the living room, Antonio’s son Freddie is standing by the fish aquarium, staring into the glass. Murphy stops and kneels down next to him to look. The filtering system is bubbling, but Murphy can’t see any fish. He taps the glass. “Anything in there?”
“He’s in the castle,” Freddie says. “He’s asleep I think. Papa says he’s sick, too.”
“Is he hungry?”
“He won’t eat. We gave him fish food. You can see it on the rocks.”
“Wake up and eat,” Murphy says, tapping the glass. It’s too dark to see anything in the castle. Freddie puts both hands on the glass. He coughs, stares into the glass with his mouth open. Murphy can hear the rattle in his chest as he breathes.
Back at home, Murphy goes into Stephen’s room and checks on him. Stephen is asleep, curled up under the covers. Murphy can see his face in the dim light from the nightlight beside his bed. He closes the door lightly, then goes into the kitchen and fills a glass of water in the sink. Kate is standing in the doorway in her pajamas.
“Antonio needed me to fix his faucet,” Murphy says.
She looks at him. “Seriously?”
“I fixed it,” he says. He takes a last drink of water and sets the glass down on the counter. “That Portuguese market,” he says. “I hate going in that place. There’s a woman who works there.”
“I know,” Kate says. “You’ve already told me that.” She walks down the hall to the bedroom. Murphy pours himself a cup of coffee and sits at the kitchen table. He hasn’t slept well in months. Tonight will be no different.
by Brandon Hobson