As Long as it Lasts

The story of two mothers, a child, and a fair shot at the foster-care system

The rules fall into four categories: Cleanliness of Home and Environment, Personal Care, Self-Control, and Respect. The hardest ones for Tracy are the sixteen under Self-Control. Number one: "no whining about personal choices that have gone bad." Consequence: $5. Number five: "leaving the house without permission will not be tolerated." Consequence: a call to 911 and $20. Number seven: "name calling/verbal abuse will not be tolerated." Consequence: $5.

The rules also cover common courtesies, things--Nancy reminds me--"that you and I did growing up just because. They didn't have to be written down. But with these kids, they do." Things like number six under Cleanliness: "wet towels, washcloths, bath mats, swimsuits will be hung up on towel bars, shower stall, side of bathtub, or other predetermined area." Consequence: $.50. Or number six under Personal Care: "daily shower/bath is encouraged. Shower will be no longer than fifteen minutes. Maximum of one per day, unless permission obtained." Consequence: $1.

They're thorough. They're legalistic. They give me the creeps. But Nancy explains how important it is for Tracy to have these reliable, literal expectations. And she tells me Tracy thrives when she's in compliance. "She's very pleasant. She's funny. She's very respectful. Fun to have around. Willing to give of herself and help out others."

I think about Jeanne. A warm, lush, earnest mother with windblown blond hair, big blue eyes, and a lot of work invested in her budding self-discipline. If rules like these are the things Tracy needs, then Jeanne isn't the one to give them, not right now. Better, perhaps, that her daughter is with Nancy, secure in her seventy-seven rules, learning to keep her towels off the floor, respect her own body, accept her own choices.

I ask Nancy whether she thinks I could talk with Tracy. Maybe get her take on the system. Maybe hear for myself what this precious, volatile creature has to say. I ask Nancy how she thinks Tracy would respond. Nancy laughs and shrugs. "Depends on her mood." I'm not sure if she wants to protect me from Tracy, or Tracy from me. I want to interview Tracy in private, somewhere she feels comfortable enough to talk. But Nancy's not going to grant me a private audience. Instead, she tells me about Tracy's two part-time jobs at nearby fast-food restaurants and offers her schedule for next Saturday. "Just go see," she says. "Introduce yourself. Tell her you work with her mom. Go see."

Before we get up to leave, Nancy grabs the check for her 7-Up and my decaf. "For making you wait," she says. I thank her and leave, hoping that it was proper to let her pay; pretty sure Nancy would know.

The Force Disrupting

The taco place is dead Saturday at 1:30 p.m., close to the end of Tracy's shift. The first thing I see is her curly yellow ponytail tumbling out the top of her visor, blunt bangs and ringlets wet with deep-fryer sweat sticking out underneath. No makeup on the big blue eyes. Her skin is gorgeous. Her arms are strong. She's as tall as the clean-cut, nervous guy standing next to her, squirting mild sauce into lined-up tacos. Tracy's eyes don't look malicious or out of control. They look bored.

A wiry middle-aged woman steps in front of Tracy to take my order. I stammer and stall for more time to watch Tracy work. She looks patient. Polite. Normal. I'm the conspicuous one, staring.

I'm in a trance thinking about her calm eyes and perfect skin when she leans across the counter and moves my taco salad closer to me. "Excuse me. Is this yours?" I tell her it is, apologize, take it, find a seat. She lifts up a broom, walks out from the counter and starts to sweep.

Nobody else in the restaurant. Nancy had told me to introduce myself and I could, right now. So easily, I could pretend to notice her nametag and say: "Hey, you're Tracy? Your mom is Jeanne? I work with her. Great to meet you." But the afternoon lull at Taco John's is no backdrop for trust. It's not the quiet, respectful setting I had in mind for talking with Tracy. I am choked by the thought of becoming one more grownup probing around in Tracy's head, knowing what I know. I know she's going home in a half an hour because her foster mom has her on house arrest. I know that the wage she'll get for making my taco salad will probably go toward a fine for leaving a wet towel on the floor. I know she's the force disrupting two families even while they join together to give her the things she needs.

Tracy sweeps with strong slow strokes. The taco salad sits heavy in my gut. I don't want to see anything but boredom in Tracy's blue eyes, and I am not going to tell her what I know. I leave unsettled.

The Things She Needs

In the cool coffee shop just off campus Jeanne and I are finishing up fruit plates and big warm mugs of coffee. She has told me a lot. When her story catches up to the present she tells me she's breathing a little easier today, less than a week after a pivotal court date with Nancy, Tracy, Tracy's social worker, and Tracy's guardian ad litem. It was the date they made the foster placement permanent. The co-parents and the professionals had been afraid she might fight it, lobby for emancipation. She didn't.

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