by w harrison
A teen on her own in the South in 1984 - what is there for her to learn?
Looking at Myself, Closely
The steam from the scalding shower lingers on the motel-room mirror; that same warmth soothing my still aching neck and shoulders. Massaging my skin with my wet hands brings me instant relief as I unconsciously glance at the bathroom door. She is no doubt still asleep in the other bed. It was over. I’m here now, safe, as I stare at the frosted image in front of me. My mind is spinning out of control like I am still traveling along the road. It’s unbelievable how all of this could happen in just a matter of weeks? How much can a teen-age girl learn in such a short time? How many disappointments can she have? How much confusion?
Unfurling the towel from under my arms, I swirl the fog momentarily off the mirror. Leaning in to the image staring back at me, I twist my face from side to side to examine it closely. My pale blue eyes sometimes run to emerald green; today they are a little red and puffy. Really high cheek bones hint of some Indian blood, but that is belied by a porcelain complexion and a platoon of freckles that marches across them. My fleecy hair isn’t flying about my head today since the wet strands are now thin and straggly and sticking to my moist skin. My neck is just long enough to hold my shoulders square and high. My breasts rest gravity-defiantly high on my chest and disproportionately large for my age. Men notice them … notice them first … and last … and always. My appearance hasn’t changed but there is something deep within me that will never be the same.
It was my looks, the whole package, which started me on my terrifying trek that landed me here in room 201 of the Budget Inn somewhere in Tennessee with two people who will evidently be a part of my life now whether I like it or not.
I remember, I had blamed Mr. Frump back then. I’m not sure if I still believe it, but at the beginning of this whole thing, that was exactly what I thought. Yes, it was totally his fault. OK … I know … the truth is … this whole thing started when I ran away from home and all that was my life, less than a year before I met Frump. I sought to be on the road in the South doin’ what I liked doin’, what I wanted to do. I guess a lot of people would disapprove… you know… because of my age. But then again, a lot of people would have zero idea what I got away from. And then double-again, right or wrong, it was my business. I was mature enough to handle it – I thought.
Busted on the Beach
Ya know, I’d been doin’ just fine - until Frump interrupted my way of life. I had my ID and Social Security; I was workin’ the concert and NASCAR circuits – mostly Florida to Virginia and back. I sold t-shirts one week, hawked programs the next - all the way from the 500 and Spring Break in Daytona in February and March, to the April race in Darlington, and further north with each month.
Last year I got down here just in time for the Firecracker 500 at Daytona. It was nothing like I’d seen before. The cars looked like … cars, ya know - not exotic, screaming machines. These stock cars sounded… muscle-ly and durable, not whiney and temperamental. And even the air smelled different, exhaust and burnt rubber mingled with coconut tanning oil and BBQ’ed meat.
The 82 Champ, Darrel Waltrip, became my favorite. Everyone booed him, but I liked his goofy, care-free approach. That day, he got muddled back in the pack. So Terry LaBonte was leading, but ran out of gas with less than 2 laps to go and Buddy Baker – an old guy – won. Bart taught me, as soon as the race was over, to hit those exit gates. It was my last shot at selling the few1983 Firecracker 500 shirts I had left. Bart was one of the good guys, supplied my inventory. I trusted him and I don’t trust too many people, especially guys.
So for nine months running since then, I had kept outta trouble. And I planned on stayin’ that way, too – no law, no attachments or entanglements, no tight places. I became skilled at keeping my eyes open, was cautious about the situations I got in, horded my money, and took very few chances. Always reminded myself: don’t go down alleys that smell like stale beer and ash trays; walk on the opposite side of the street from strip joints, tattoo parlors or bars with captain’s chairs on the sidewalk; don’t befriend any woman with more than one hair color; don’t talk to men with more hair sticking out of their shirts than on their heads or who wear more than two rings; never get close to a guy who wears white crew socks with his sandals; never go into any place where there are no women and three or more guys together. Most importantly, don’t be alone after dark.
I also learned that youth hostels and camp grounds were cheaper and safer than motels. It didn’t take me long to figure out what to pack in my duffel and why, where to keep my money, how to speed wash and dry my hair, and to pick the right car and driver to hitch a ride with. I’ll never trust anyone over 30. I don’t really trust anyone under 30 or exactly 30, for that matter. You should only trust yourself and then worry a lot about the things you may never see coming.
Even though I led a pretty innocent life before I went out on my own, I will not continue this way of life, on the road, living hand to mouth, forever. I have aspirations. I want to make something of my future. I have been lucky, so far. I heard about some who were unlucky: took the wrong turn late at night; owed too big a favor to the wrong guy. But in all my planning and trying to take care, I never planned on Dan Pike, Mr. Frump, coming into my daily routine and messing it up.
The whole thing was going so well. I’d just done the Air Show and the Doo Dah Parade in New Smyrna. I sold out my inventory and felt like celebrating. Shoot, I let loose. That night back in Daytona Beach, me and a local girl and two local guys bought two cases, iced them in coolers and headed for the beach. As we popped the first cans, I told them about the parade – all the goofy, disorganized, crazy marching units, and said, “There were some groups I didn’t understand – the girls that looked like boys, and boys that looked like … no one I wanted to meet.” Bob snorted beer out of his nose. Feeling the buzz already, I giggled and whined, “Baaawwwbb, don’t waste good beer.” Beer is never better than that first gulp, and the gulps that followed that night were no worse.
They talked about their boring lives and so wished they could be free like me. I put on my brave face and agreed it was supreme. Deb giggled “The Supremes?” and started singing, “Stop … in the name of love.” Bob and Barry chimed right in. Soon two couples were swaying and singing together “before you break my heart …. Stop … in the name of love” across the sandy beach dance floor. Only when Barry tried to pull me too close, did I stop and the singing trailed off.
I ran into the surf to escape his advances and they all followed. We splashed around for what seemed like an hour but it was really only a couple of minutes, enough to sober us. We stopped our frolicking, and returned to our blankets. The atmosphere quieted; each lost in private thoughts. Mine snagged on far-away places and faces I’d just as soon forget. After several more beers, I vaguely remember trying to snuggle closer to the coolers to get away from the chilling sea breezes and hearing all those empties clink as I did.
Seagulls were screaming and ravaging the night’s leftovers at dawn. We woke up to two deputies, arms folded, looking at our Miller Lite massacre. They were nice enough, but cuffed us and took us off to jail, anyway.
The four of us were loaded up 10 o’clock the next morning, driven to City Island Court House, walked in and lined up for our arraignment. The court room was wood-paneled all around, and paddle fans rotated slowly above our heads, one creaking hypnotically. The rows of seats beyond the gated barrier reminded me of church pews, but the judge’s bench seemed to loom above and over the whole scene. Only the state and U.S. flags seemed to be non-wood and even they furled with a starchy precision. The aroma of Lysol and Pledge was everywhere. I half expected to see Atticus Finch walk in.
Two guards escorted us, and another carried in our individual possession bags. I knew – I hoped - mine contained my four t-shirts, six complete changes of underwear, four shorts, three pairs of jeans - one dressy, a sequined spaghetti-strap top and matching denim jacket, purse, a dog-eared paperback I picked up cheap, all my ID’s and $556 in cash - still a nice nut from program sales.
A cluster of Mommy and Daddy-types mumbled to each other in the back row, the Moms twisting their well used hankies. My beach-buddies’ families, I’d bet. The hulking bailiff glared from beside the American flag, his massive hands tucked under the opposite elbows, his flat-top immaculate. I thought I could even smell the butch wax.
A preoccupied, dark-haired, 30-ish man slouched in the front row, studying his shoes. His suit-coat and slacks had not seen a dry cleaner or a hanger in months. His hair suffered from several nasty pillow-mash-swirls. His hands were rolling a wad of legal-looking papers into a good baseball bat-handle, but he set them aside without a glance. He was just a mess all around. Well, so maybe he was a little darkly good-looking, if that’s the kinda thing you like. I could not figure what his business was there. A frump, ha, Mister Frump, at a late morning arraignment made no sense. My radar vibrated; I’d watch out for him. As I gawked, my bud Deb bumped me toward the gate, bringing me back from my distraction. The guard motioned, and as I grasped the wooden gate to enter, its smoothness reminded me of the thousands who had stepped into justice’s house before me. We sat at the table to the left – the defendant’s table I figured from all the TV court shows I’ve seen.
At the prosecutor’s table sat the skinniest human male I’d ever seen. I was transfixed by his boniness. From the side all I could see was nose, chin, Adam’s apple and bow tie.
The bailiff boomed out, “Hear-ye, hear-ye, hear-ye: Volusia County Juvenile Court is now in session, the Honorable Judge Blanton Bronson presiding.” He strode in and up to his bench. His hair was snow-white and full, even at his temples; his robe covered slab-arms and squared-gallows shoulders. He carried himself ramrod straight. Bad news already; I didn’t think he would be treating us especially kind.
Rap-rap-rap. “Be seated.”
He leaned forward and glared from under massive silver brows, “Ladies and gentlemen,” meaning us, “This is a first appearance before the bench. Its purpose is to determine how your case will be handled. This is not the guilty/not guilty phase, but simply to assure you of your rights and also assure the community of its security.” I knew he’d said this maybe thousands of times, but he sounded like he really meant it – like a stern grandfather would.
“Do you have any questions?” Yes, I have Your Honor, many. We all shook our heads, negatively.
He turned toward the skinny lawyer, cleared his throat and called, “Assistant District Attorney Mixus?”
Mixus stood, his rumpled white shirt never straightening. That skinny man’s voice was going to crack like a nervous teen-ager’s, I just knew it. His hands twitched to his rimless glasses; his propeller bow-tie torqued clock-wise as he gulped.
Here it comes. How could I anticipate so well? He pursed his lips and opened them with a tremor, “Your H-OOONNNK-ner.” Three octaves, I swear. And I was as helpless as he was, “PPPPFFFFTT.” The laugh at least had to force itself out between my tightly closed lips. My hand was too late to cover my mouth.
Judge Bronson’s eyes were blue, I discovered – gun-metal blue. He looked clean through me. Mixus gathered himself and waded in, “Your Honor, the charges are loitering … loitering HHHH-AND possessionofalcoholbyminors.” He raced through the words to avoid another crack.
With only the slightest twinkle in his eye, Judge Bronson checked my demeanor. He got my reddest face ever, but not a breath or muscle-twitch. I followed the grain of the wood in front of me clear to the far end and off the edge of the table.
Mixus continued, “Defendants Rousch, Givens and Edwards have local tHHHies – all live with their parents. Miss Caldwell, however, is from out of state and was in possession of an unmatched identification. So with no such ties, we would consider her a flight risk and recommend remand” I began to breathe – had to. I felt the bulls-eye paint going on me.
Judge Bronson again eyed me, “Miss Caldwell, please stand.”
As casually as I could, “Yes, Your Honor?”
“Miss Caldwell, do you understand what ADA Mixus is saying?”
“Well, Your Honor, yes … but not exactly.”
“Young Lady, what is your name?”
All the times I’d practiced it, here was the one that counted, “Alyshia Marie Caldwell.”
“And where do you live?”
“2567 East Ridge Road, Greenville, North Carolina.” Not fast, but not stumbling.
A quick glance to Mixus got the Judge a nod.
“Your birth date?”
“October 30, 1965” That ’65, of course, meant I WAS 18, but I left it real low-key.
Mixus grunted to confirm.
And your Social Security number?”
Everyone does their Social fast. “527-89-4454,” I said, quickly.
MIxus again confirmed with a nod.
“Miss Caldwell, Mr. Mixus is essentially saying that other than the documents in your possession at the time of your arrest, you do not exist.”
Not the time for a complete breakdown – just a little fluster would sell it, “But, but… how can that be? I AM me.” And I heard shifting and rustling from the guy in the front row – Mr. Frump. Something had finally interested him.
I looked up at the judge, and the bailiff, even caught Mixus out of the corner of my eye. All of them were looking directly at me and calculating. They were thinking – IF my ID was bogus, there was only one reason – I was under-age. And every one of them was looking at the “woman” in front of them – the one with square shoulders, smoothly flaring hips and full chest. They were all trying to get their regular-mind and their male-mind to agree. Was I 18 like my ID and body said, or was it somehow possible that I was indeed a juvenile?
Judge Bronson brought me - and them - back to the present. “Be that as it may, I am afraid we must approach your charges differently. In spite of evident conditions, you could conceivably be something like - a sixteen-year-old run-away.”
I anticipated this grenade from a veteran like the Judge. As even-toned and firm as I could be without forcing it, “Your Honor, I am Alyshia Caldwell; from Greenville, North Carolina; I’m eighteen; I want to go to community college next fall so I’m working to earn money. Other than that, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Young Lady, without corroboration, that is simply not enough. I will not be responsible for placing a minor in a general population facility. If you would care to give us another name, address, or social…?”
“Your Honor, I’m sorry: there is nothing else; I am who I am.” My chin went to my chest, lifted, and then I gave the Judge my strongest rivet-eyes, not glaring, but trying to look right through him.
He only shook his head a little, “Very well, I have only one option. Until we can verify your age and identity, you will be detained at the Peacock’s Pocket Juvenile Detention Center. Considering the strong possibility that you are still a minor, the Court has no other choice. Mr. Pike?”
“Yes, Your Honor?” The reply came from directly behind me. The judge was talking to Mister Frump!
“Please transport Jane Doe number 27, A.K.A. Alyshia Marie Caldwell to the Peacock’s Pocket Center.”
“Yes, Your Honor”
The guard at my side turned me in Pike’s direction. Pikes’ eyes moved from the judge to me. His stare locked. He scanned my face: hair, nose, eyes, freckles, moved down to my chest, and up and down twice more. His body froze in place. He just kept staring – mostly at my chest and hair. He righted himself and made eye contact once more and muttered, “Oh, it can’t be.”
I think I was the only one who heard it. His hazel eyes welled up slightly and he bit his lower lip, as if holding something … in. In a voice matching his, I whispered, “Damn straight, it can’t be.”
I’d seen that look before and knew his kind usually folded to force. It didn’t matter how deep and magnetic those eyes were, I was not about to knuckle under to a pervert, no matter what his job was.
The Judge unwittingly broke the tension, “Very well, Miss Rousch, Mister Givens and Mister Edwards, you are released to your parents’ recognizance; you will be notified of your trial date. We stand adjourned.” Rap, rap, rap.
The guard with my possessions accompanied Frump and me outside. The hair-frizzing humidity was full-blast close to mid-day. It carried a salty crunch to my nose. It made me realize the City Island facility had awfully good air conditioning. We headed toward an empty van with the County logo and Peacock’s Pocket on the side. The guard tossed my bag in the back of the van and mumbled a good-bye.
My lips were numb. I realized they’d been pressed tightly together all the way out. Mr. Pike - how could I think of him now as frumpy - began to lead me by the elbow in between the van and the car beside it. Whispering, like I’d done inside, I spoke slowly and distinctly, “I don’t think you should touch me… ever again... in any way.”
I figured he’d fluster. He slowly released my elbow. But he kept walking, and I subconsciously kept pace. As he opened the van’s sliding door, he said, “I assure you, Miss Caldwell or whatever your name really is, I will be a complete gentleman.”