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Bellwether Award winner Susan Nussbaum’s powerful novel invites us into the lives of a group of typical teenagers—alienated, funny, yearning for autonomy—except that they live in an institution for juveniles with disabilities. This unfamiliar, isolated landscape is much the same as the world outside: friendships are forged, trust is built, love affairs are kindled, and rules are broken. But those who call it home have little or no control over their fate. Good Kings Bad Kings challenges our definitions of what it means to be disabled in a story told with remarkable authenticity and in voices that resound with humor and spirit.
My tía Nene said three is the magic number and when three things happen to you that are so, so bad and you feel like the whole wide world is just throwing up on your new shoes, don't worry. Your bad luck is about to change.
And I am sitting inside a room that smells like a urinal toilet at a place called the Illinois Learning something something. It's only my second day here and would you believe these people already got me in the punishing room? So this is three.
My name is Yessenia Lopez, and before they stuck my butt in this place I went to Herbert Hoover High School in Chicago, Illinois. I went there on account of I am physically challenged, and they send the people which have challenges to Hoover. They send people with physical challenges, but also retarded challenges, people been in accidents like brain accidents, or they're blind or what have you. I do not know why they send us all to the same place but that's the way it's always been and that's the way it looks like it will always be because I am in tenth grade and I been in cripple this or cripple that my whole sweet, succulent Puerto Rican life.
My last day at Hoover was the beginning of all hell breaking loose. I was going down the hallway like usual minding my own sweet business when Mary Molina comes straight up at me and real, real close she says—
No. I cannot even say the words to tell this story. That's how bad those words was that that bitch said to me. But I looked in that horsey-looking face and said, "You trifling desgraciada sinvergüenza. You want to confront with me? You gonna pay the consequences."
That wasn't the first bad name she called me but it was gonna be the last.
Tía Nene told me if anybody talk down on me or talk down on the people of Puerto Rico or get up in my face like they think they better than me, I need to kick that two-faceded person's ass. I told Tía Nene before she died—okay, not really before she died, it could have been I told her after she died when she was already up in heaven with the Lord Jesus—that I would always remember her and always remember everything she taught me. I told her in my mind before I left for school on that very day that I hope she knows I always want to make her proud. Then I imagined Tía Nene kissed me on the top of my head and said, "You do what you gots to do and have a good day, chica."
My mother gave me to my tía Nene on the day I was born into the world. My tía was more my mother than my real mother ever was. I even look like my tía because I gots big eyes and long, wavy hair and my real mother gots tight, curly hair and little, beady eyes. And my skin is more darker like my tía's—not dark dark but just dark—and I am more curvaceous even at my young age, just like Tía Nene. I called my tía my mother and she called me her daughter and that's that.
After school was over I went outside to where all the buses was at, waiting to load us up and drive us home. The fumes coming out the buses looked like big white clouds because it was cold. You could see the breaths coming out the mouth of all those pupils just like Indians sending smoke signals. Everybody was all bundled up in coats and hoods and it was hard to see who was who but I knew to look in the little yard next to where the buses line up. That's where she always goes. That's where I saw her.
First thing I did was wheel right up on her, pull my footrest up offa my chair, and grab onto that hair to hold her steady and whack her acrost the head, and then I pushed her right offa her chair. But I'm still holding her mop in my fist, so when she went down I had a big clump of that ugly-ass hair in my hand and she was screaming her Mexican butt off. Then I hop down offa my chair and sit right on top of her and pin her down to the ground. By now I can feel a bunch of pupils around me, everybody shouting, trying to get close, trying to see what's happening, and all of them yelling, "Fight! Fight!" and she's trying to push me off and hit back but she couldn't land more than a scratch on my face. But that was all I needed 'cause when I wiped blood offa my cheek I felt everything rise up in me and I lifted my footrest high up in the air and I gave her a thwack! Then blood starts trickling down from her mouth and the cheering goes higher and I raise up the footrest again thwack and again thwack! Then Veronique, my best friend from fourth-period hygiene, busts through the crowd and starts yelling, "Yes-sie! Yes-sie!" till it sounded like every challenged person in all of Hoover was shouting my name and I gripped my footrest real tight and felt my arm raising up high in the air—and then a security guard grabbed my wrist hard and yanked the footrest out my hand and drug me up on my chair and pushed me inside to Mrs. Maloney's office.
I looked down at myself and I had blood all on my pink overalls which I was wearing that day and under my nails. I felt my cheek 'cause it stang from her putting her claws on me.
Mrs. Maloney kep' asking me why did I do it, why did I do it, you know? And I told her the truth. I got no need to lie. I said, "Because she called me a Puerto Rican bitch."
I'm not sure if getting three months at Juvie for aggravating assault counts as the number two bad thing that happened or the number three bad thing. I'm pretty sure Juvie was number two.
The number one bad thing was when my tía passed into the next life. So it could be the number two bad thing was going to live at St. Francis Home for Young Women where they sent me after my tía died. St. Francis was a pain but it was okay. It was a whole lot better than living in a foster family with a bunch of people who could be freaks and rapers. So I'm gonna have to say, Juvie was definitely the number two bad thing. And this place, the one I'm in at this very moment? This Illinois Center for Cripple whatever, is three. This is where I got put after I got out of Juvie.
And I'm sitting here in this urine punishment room because that pimple-headed heifer Benedicta, my quote roommate, stole one of my teddy bears out my collection I won playing body-parts bingo, so I chopped up her blanket. Or I started to until some bald dude interrupted. It's not like she was in the bed at the time.
I only been here two days but I already hate it. Even worse than Juvie. But I can't talk no more now 'cause I see cigarette smoke all outside the window of this punishing room, so it must be that bat Candy come to get me. Candy's a houseparent. That's what they call them here. After she sucks that thing to the nub she'll open the door. That's what the boy from on my floor said when they was pushing my chair to the elevator. I guess he's been in this room hisself a time or two.
Okay, I got a question. If three is the magic number, then do you get three good things after you finish with the three bad? Or just one good thing and then three bad things again? 'Cause if that's how they work it, then it is not fair. Or what if another thing happen that's bad? That's four bad things in a row, so that can't happen, right? I wish I knew to ask Tía Nene for more details at the time.
I wish I knew to ask Tía Nene a whole lot of things.
The ad was posted by the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, or ILLC. I was immediately captured by the awkward acronym. ILLC is a state-run nursing facility for adolescent youth through age twenty-one. It's just like a regular nursing home, but instead of locking up old people they lock up young people. They were looking for a data-entry clerk. Not really my thing, but then again I don't really have a thing. Data entry sounded like the kind of job that would satisfy my lack of ambition. No one really thinks about the data-entry clerk. Do they? Data entry allows one to soar beneath the radar and avoid the usual workplace Sturm und Drang. Not that I wouldn't work hard. I always work hard. When I'm working.
Of course the longer you are unemployed, the more they want to know at job interviews why you were unemployed for so long. And though my family has never seemed to progress beyond the denial stage as regards my quadriplegia, there is such a thing as job discrimination. People will see me coming through the door, wheelchair awhir, and momentarily freeze. Then they will marshal their resources and nervously reach out to shake my gimpy hand and smile enthusiastically while they mentally feed my résumé to the shredder. My family said I am my own worst enemy and I have to be more assertive and perhaps I should go back to school for something I can do. They also said I blamed others for my disability. What does that even mean? Do they think we're living in a made-for-TV movie?
I'm rich. Not mad rich but I am a multi-thousandaire. I'm like Rockefeller compared to 99 percent of the rest of the disabled people on earth. There are poor people and then there are poor disabled people. One of those things sucks, but both together suck stratospherically.
I was hit by a bus a long time ago. The No. 8 Halsted. But the CTA paid me generously to apologize for hitting me, which is why I enjoy my lavish lifestyle of jetting off to exotic locales whenever I feel like it. And I do feel like it from time to time, but frankly, what with the inspections of one's privates for explosive devices, the prospect of a broken power wheelchair in areas where local crips travel by wheelbarrow, and the ever-present dread of traveler's diarrhea with no wheelchair-accessible bathroom for miles, traveling is no vacation. Let me say only that the world, Earth, is not a hospitable place for crips.
My job is way far away. South by southwest. Back of the Yards neighborhood, so called because it's next to the old Chicago stockyards. Hog butcher of the world. I'm a North Sider, so I could take the bus to the Red Line but I'd have to take two more buses after that. The No. 8 Halsted Street is a straight shot. So here I am. The air is humid with irony.
My duties are mostly typing. There must have been dozens of far more appropriate applicants. People who type with all ten fingers, for example. But for the first—and I feel certain only—time I think I got a job because of my disability. It's well known in crip circles that the best place for a crip to get a job is a place that's swarming with other crips. So I applied, emphasizing my computer skills, which are pretty good, and how important it is for disabled youth to see disabled adults in the workplace. Places like this love the idea of role models. There was no haggling over the miserable pay either, as money is no object for me. No salary could possibly be too low. They could pay me in rat turds and I'd happily put them in my wallet. What I needed more than money was human interaction.
Recently, over the past five years or so, my world had been shrinking, slowly but quite surely. At first I'd take little "breaks"—just not leave my apartment for a day. But my breaks started creeping up to, say, five or six days in my apartment with no outside contact. Not including my personal assistants and the Thai Palace delivery guy. I didn't have cabin fever. I certainly was not agoraphobic. I just behaved as if I was.
Sometimes I imagine there is an entire subpopulation of people who live out their lives in nine hundred square feet of space. The TV plays, the pad woon sen is delivered and consumed, the sun comes up and goes down. One day our subculture will be discovered by Ryan Seacrest and one by one we'll be sniffed out by German shepherds and burst in upon by lights and cameras and forced to attend a mixer. With each other.
Then one night I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror and stopped. I realized that I'd been in self-imposed solitary at that point for nine days or possibly ten or eleven. I asked myself if I was prepared to look back at my life when I was old and know I had wasted it. I determined at that moment to rouse myself out of my complacency. And here I am on the Halsted, on my way to work. And that's the inspirational true story of how I overcame my disability and became a contributing member of society.
My first week I learned that people refer to ILLC as "ill-see." Emphasis on "ill." The Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center may not sound like the name of a nursing home, but that's how they work it. Naming these places is all about misdirection. ILLC might sound like a fun after-school program with arts and crafts and barbecues but it's just a place they put disabled kids that struggling parents and the state don't know what to do with. Inside, it smells, sounds, and looks like your standard-issue nursing home. Same old wolf but in a lamb outfit.
I've worked there only a week. Taken on the whole—eighty young institutionalized crips—the situation is pretty depressing. But somebody's got to do data entry for almost no money, so why not me? The kids here are called patients. The woman who runs the place goes by the supersquishy name Mrs. Phoebe. She calls the kids her children or her angels. Ick.
I'm about as messed up physically as any of the kids, but I don't have any mental disabilities. Most of them here have both. For instance, in addition to spina bifida or cerebral palsy, they have some kind of intellectual disability or maybe a few learning disabilities. A few have psychiatric disabilities. Some of the kids were taken out of abusive homes and they're traumatized by that. The biggest difference between the kids and me is that I'm a whole lot luckier. I mean, I just work here.
Most of the kids are chair users, but they have manual chairs. Quite a few are too gimpy for manual chairs and should have power chairs so they could get around on their own, but it's against the rules. That's unofficial. The official practice is that everyone who needs a power chair gets one. But just the other day I asked why this one girl, Mia, didn't have a power chair, and Mrs. Phoebe said Mia wasn't ready for a power chair. But I'm looking at her, she's planted in this one spot all by herself, can't move an inch on her own, can't talk to the other kids, has to wait for a staff person or one of the kids who can walk to notice her so she can get a push. Mia looks about as ready for a power chair as anyone I've ever seen.
After I got hit by the No. 8, I went through a rehab process and they finally gave me my first wheelchair. It was manual. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't do more than push myself a few feet on a smooth surface. Carpet was like quicksand. People had to push me everywhere. I'd end up staring at a fern or getting my feet smashed into a wall or being held hostage in the middle of someone else's conversation. I could see where I wanted to go but was powerless to make it happen.
Maybe because no one is paying attention to Mia, she's captured mine. She seems a bit tired and a little wary. She's a pretty girl, Mexican, with a thick black mane tied into a high, messy ponytail.
The good news about Mia is she has a boyfriend named Teddy. He's this skinny, pale blond kid who wears a suit—I mean a real suit with a jacket and everything—every day. And a tie. The suit is always wrinkly and food-stained and one pant leg is usually scrunched up higher than the other, but he is dead serious about wearing this suit every single day. Sometimes he'll take his jacket off and then you can see his little plastic fireman's badge on his shirt. I love this kid. He wears glasses with lenses so thick they make his eyes look like planets. Teddy is a nonstop questioner—he talks a lot and he's really outgoing and friendly and totally unruly, so he annoys the adults but makes the other kids want to be his friend. Unlike Mia he has a power chair, so he's constantly moving. Sometimes he attaches Mia's chair to his with a piece of bungee cord and they roll around together.
I have my own little office with a desk and a too-tall file cabinet. There's a window but I think it actually sucks light out. It's an unwindow. It's placed at the very top of the room, right next to the ceiling, and the glass is opaque. I have a computer and plastic trays filled with handwritten files that I'm supposed to enter into the computer. I can only type with two of my fingers, one on each hand, but I'm used to it and I'm pretty speedy. I have some other duties too, all tasks I have no interest in doing, but I don't mind. Dissatisfaction with my work makes me feel more employed.
After I enter the files in the database, I'm supposed to keep them updated, so I'm beginning to know a little about the kids I see in the halls. I know Teddy has an intellectual disability as well as a physical disability. His IQ is 74 but that's hard to believe. He's so smart. Mia is a ward of the state and has lived here since she was eleven years old. She was sexually abused by her father and has cigarette burns on her arms and back. All this I type into the computer.
Some of the things people write in the files are subjective nonsense. A certain kid "acts like a baby" or "is evil." I do not type it in. Poetic license. I have to put in IQ scores because the first page of every kid's database info includes a place for IQ, right up there with name and age. I hate doing it. It's just that I've been here only a week.
I never get home before 7:00 p.m. First thing I do is wash up really thoroughly and then sit in front of the fridge eating whatever I see. If I have wine I'll pour myself a glass, but I don't have wine because I haven't had time to pick any up. I've forgotten how much energy it takes to actually do something all day without liberal napping throughout. So I drink a lot of water, tilt back, and look around me and think how much I love my apartment and my CD collection and the trees just outside the window and my wok and my futon couch, even though I can't sit in it because I can't transfer by myself. When you spend your day in a noisy, stinky nursing home filled with people who have no choice but to be there, you become more appreciative of your eclectic dish and coffee-mug collection and your wall of oak bookshelves including two entire rows of classic science fiction and a whole shelf that slides out just for your Oxford English Dictionary. It's all in the luck of the toss between living in a cozy apartment with a view and living in an institution where someone's asking you about your bowel movements and you have to go to bed at seven o'clock every night no matter what.
No one works at nursing homes unless they're scraping the underneath of the bottom of the barrel. The kid thing makes it easier though. People think there's nothing more horrifying and depressing than a disabled child, but even when kids are all messed up and spazzed out and needy as hell there's still a ton of good energy coming off them. They're so funny and surprising and they are who they are.
It may not be everyone's idea of a dream job. To severely understate. But when I wake up in the morning I have a destination. If someone should happen to ask what I do, which of course no one ever does, but my point is, I have an answer. I work in a nursing home.
When I get to Mrs. Schmidt's classroom, I see right away it's Pierre again. He's up outta his chair and he's waving his arms and doing his little jumpy thing. He's screaming, "Gimme my Baby Ruth! Gimme my Baby Ruth!" The other kids are just sitting there and Mrs. Schmidt looks at me real exasperated, like will I help her, so I say, "I have to wait for Louie," because you're supposed to have two people if you're going to grab a kid up, but Mrs. Schmidt is freaking and she says, "I don't care! He's out of control!" so I go over to Pierre to see can I get close enough to grab him. It ain't a problem though. He knows me from the two other times I had to tackle him. Soon as he sees me walking over it's like the air goes out of him and he quiets down. He practically offers me his arm. I say, "Come on with me, Pierre. Let's go."
First time this happened I had to put him into a basket hold. Imagine I'm behind you holding your arms like you're hugging yourself—that's a basket hold. It's the position your arms would be in if you were in a straitjacket, but you're being hugged, so it's more calming. I like the hold because sometimes a kid will relax into it. Not all the time though. Some of them just get madder when you put the basket hold on them. But with the arms like that they can't hurt themself.
Next thing is I have to take him to the time-out room. As we're leaving, Mrs. Schmidt calls to me, "He was eating his crayons! Don't feed him!" Real nice. Calling the kid out in front of the world.
On the way to the time-out room I try talking to him, but he's not going for it. I say, "So how you doing today?" and he says, "Fuck you." This kind of thing is not unusual. I just think of it like, you know, that's the disability talking. Pierre has the ADHD. He's real hyper and he just can't settle in, he can't concentrate. I know he's got some other stuff too. He's got that thing that the veterans get. Post-dramatic stress. Believe it or not with a young kid, but some of these kids been through some hairy shit already. It'll make you sick to hear it. I don't know what happened to Pierre but I remember the day he came here he looked pretty beat up and he must have had thirty, forty stitches in a bald patch on his head. Sometimes if you look at him from a certain angle, his face looks like he's got the weight of the world on him. Kid is fourteen. I look over at him now and he says, "What you staring at?" I caught a glimpse of that blue crayon caught in his teeth. His teeth are real white. White like how kids' teeth are because they haven't turned all yellow from all the coffee and what have you.
"I ain't staring. Just looking," I say.
My tía Briselda lived with us growing up. My mom's sister. She was retarded which now they're supposed to say "intellectually disabled" but nobody here uses it much. We got a lot of kids here who are intellectually, you know, retarded. Man, she was stubborn. My uncle had this whole song about her, about a bullfrog because a bullfrog is stubborn or has a reputation for that. She was a hard case, Tía B., but we had a lot of fun with her. You know, we didn't know any better. She died way back.
By now, we should know better how to treat them. Here they use the time-out room as a punishment. They have some other ways to punish the kids, but judging from the times they call me to come and hijack one of them from a class or whatever, the time-out room is a favorite. It's basically legal, I'm pretty sure, except right now, since it's supposed to be me and another person taking a kid out, not just me alone. The kids hate time-out and I don't blame them. It's embarrassing, the teacher calling them out in front of the peer group like that, and the time-out room itself is no picnic. It's got a smell you can't get rid of, which I know because I tried. The walls are carpeted and all the smell has settled in that. I brought in carpet cleaner, Glade, whatever I could think of, but none of it worked. The Glade was bad because of the chemicals—the kids can be allergic and then instead of a pissed-off kid you got a pissed-off kid with a asthma attack or whatever. Hives sometimes.
So the room stinks. There's no window you can open either, so. But what do you do when a kid is causing a big disturbance or whaling on another kid or what have you? You gotta do something, right? Removing the kid, I mean, there are worse things. I come from a family, real hands on, you know? Let your fists do the talking. I don't know, you know? Is that bad? I mean, my parents loved us and they did what they knew to do. My mom, she'd ask you to do something once, and you don't do it and she asks again—"Take the laundry to the Laundromat," or whatever—and meantime you're still reading the back of the cereal box, I'll tell you what happens. She whacks you on the head. Sometimes she'd just take ahold of whatever she could grab onto, a hunk of hair or an ear, and drag your ass in whatever direction she needed you to go. And you'd go. You would definitely go. My dad the same thing. He must've ten, twenty times told my brother Angelo, "Stop hanging around with those gangbangers." He called them "sod oh mon biches," like "sons of bitches," because of the accent. He told Angelo, "You gonna get busted, you gonna end up in jail," but Angelo wouldn't stop. One night my dad unscrews all the lightbulbs downstairs. When Angelo comes in and it's late, of course, because he's been with the bangers, he tries to turn on a light. Nothing. My dad comes out of the dark swinging a two-by-four and beats the living crap outta my brother. My dad felt like talking didn't work no more. I ain't saying that would be my way. But that was them. They were old school.
One time I was babysitting my nephews and we were at a table drinking some juice and the little one, about four—Junior, we call him—was a little excited. Jumping up and down and laughing and he spills his juice. All over the place and I start yelling at him. Really yelling and I look at his face and his lip is quivering a little and his eyes are beginning to drip and he looks like he might crumple up into a little ball. Oh, man. Little César Junior. I remember thinking how I wasn't never going to do that again. Hurt a kid or yell at a kid like that. Why teach a kid to be afraid? I ever have a kid or kids, I guess that's a way I might act different from my parents.
Pierre says, "Can I have something to eat now?"
"I'm sorry, but I can't give you anything now, buddy. Soon, okay?" It's good to keep a little dialogue going with Pierre and get his mind off his problems. "So what kind of computer games do you like? You ever use those computers they got around here?" Now that we're at the time-out room is the time he might try to bolt, so I tighten my grip a little on his elbow.
"I want some pizza."
"Pizza fan, huh? What's your favorite kind?"
"Get out. That's my favorite! You like onions?"
I'm like six feet, 190 pounds. I'm the tallest person in my family. For a Puerto Rican I'm like a giant. But if he's resisting me, even a skin-and-bones kid like Pierre wears me out. He's not big—for fourteen he's a little guy. So he's little but when he's mad he's a handful. He has the mental problems but he also has a physical thing going on. Something with the legs, maybe rickets. We have about eighty kids here, all kinda mental, physical, whatever. They're actually very cool kids.
The main thing I do is drive the bus. I load up a bunch of kids in wheelchairs and take them to school, little field trips, or to church or what have you. When I ain't driving, they call me when a kid gets out of line. I'm a bus driver/cop. Somebody's gotta do it, I guess. No, but I like it here okay.
"Nussbaum wonderfully sweetens a stark subject with doses of idiosyncratic humor and hard-earned pathos . . . [she] upholds the individuality and integrity of her characters, never stooping to saccharine cliches or Hollywood manipulation . . . [a] moving story." —The Wall Street Journal
"This is a world as foreign to most as another planet. That Nussbaum is able to make it as real and as painful and joyful and alive as she does is a spectacular accomplishment . . . a joy for readers." —Chicago Tribune
"Each character tells his or her own story in alternating chapters with lively, diverse, authentic voices . . . Nussbaum will have readers rooting for these brave, vulnerable teens to fight for better lives." —School Library Journal
"Saucy, brutally funny, gritty, profane, poignant and real." —The Kansas City Star
"A knockout . . . Nussbaum possesses an astonishing ear for idiosyncratic voices, and a talent for creating characters who appear in full bloom within a few sentences. This is an easy book to love and admire--but more than that, it's a book that has the potential to change forever the conversation we are (or are not) having about what it means to be 'disabled' . . . In Good Kings Bad Kings, we have the rare opportunity to be awakened by hearing the truth delivered with beauty alongside agony, despair interwoven with possibility." —Los Angeles Review of Books
“Nussbaum’s dramatist skills translate powerfully into fiction as she gives voices to an infatuating cast of characters . . . This is unquestionably an authentic, galvanizing, and righteous novel.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Well-meaning, well-written and well-plotted, with qualified justice for some of the bad guys and hope for a few of the oppressed: A most appropriate winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A stirring debut from a determined writer and activist.” —Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Nov 12, 2013
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Algonquin Books