I am six-years-old. It is midnight. I am debating if I can survive jumping from the backseat of a car traveling at sixty-miles an hour onto the highway. I’m not even tall enough to see out the window. I will have to hope I get lucky.
As I contemplate the leap, I decide to question my captors hoping they will set me free or turn the car around and bring me home. “What did I do?” I ask the blonde. I try to be cold and emotionless when I say, “Where are you taking me?”
She responds with a smile so wide it shows her back teeth. Her smile is that of a wolf. “Jan-Ives, you didn’t do anything,” she says, emphasizing the word “you.” She drags it out like laundry from a washing machine. Her words are heavy, cold and wet. “Your mom just needs some time to get back on her feet. You are going to what is called a foster home.” She uses my full first name, proving that she doesn’t know me.
“My name is Jan,” I say through clenched teeth. Her smile fades and as she turns away.
I have never hated anyone before. I am six. I hate this woman.
I don’t know the man and woman in the front seat. I was never introduced, but I silently select the names Dick and Jane for them. I do not respect them, so I do not ask them their real names. I don’t care. My mother held back the tears when she told me I had to go with these people. She said I would be all right–that she would get me as soon as she could.
Alone in the backseat of the speeding car, I stare intently at the lock. It is a silver piece of metal that looks like a skinny bullet the Lone Ranger might load into his six-shooter. With no plunger to press against, the bullet hurts when it is pushed to lock the door. I am deciding if I will pull it. I am contemplating pulling it to unlock the door, open it, and jump onto Route 495.
Jane tells Dick–the driver–that the next exit is the one they should take. I know my chance of escape is growing smaller by the second. I don’t know why my mother told me to go with these people in dark suits in the middle of the night. I have school–1st grade– in the morning. She must have forgotten. I don’t understand why she would let me go. If I can get out of the car, I can get back to her. She will apologize for the mistake. Everything will be okay.
When I leap out of the car, I tuck and roll along the pavement to the grassy median strip. I execute a perfect somersault and rise agilely to my feet and begin pumping my legs for the other side of the highway. I hear the screech of brakes and the blaring of horns behind me and the inevitable crash of several vehicles. I dare not look back as I run onto the opposite highway that leads home. Cars and trucks slam on their brakes, and another pileup ensues. As my feet touch the grass that precedes the safety of the woods I hear shots ring out, and I see several bullets explode into the wood of the trees ahead.
I open my eyes as my fantasy and my journey come to an end. I decide that even if I survived the escape, I wouldn’t know where to go to get back to my mother. The car slows down and pulls into a driveway. I look out the window and see a gold Cadillac though it is too dark to see the color and I am too young to recognize the make. The only car I am capable of correctly identifying is a Pinto. I received the Matchbox version for my sixth birthday. It was my only present.
The engine turns off, and Jane turns toward me. The headrest obscures the right side of her face, and with the warmest smile she can muster she says, “Jan-Ives, we’re here. This nice family is going to take care of you.” She keeps smiling her wolf smile.
Dick opens the door. I step out and take a good look at him. He is wearing a dark suit like Jane’s, and an offensive amount of after-shave. I hold my breath as Dick puts his hand on the back of my neck. It is a loose grip, but if I decided to bolt, it could become tighter. He gently pushes me toward the front door of the largest house I have ever seen. There is an attached garage, but it is empty.–or perhaps it is too small to fit the monstrous luxury vehicle in the driveway.
Dick releases his grip on my neck, steps forward and rings the doorbell. Soon, I am welcomed by the Coutu’s. A father, a mother, two boys, and two girls, all of whom are older than me, greet me from inside what seems like a mansion. Compared to the one-room motel I was living in an hour before, it is.
The kids show me around while the parents discuss ransom with my captors. In the kitchen, Marky, the youngest boy, introduces me to the canine member of the family. I look down to see Sparky a short-haired Dachshund. I have never seen a dog of this breed before. “Go ahead, pet him,” urges Marky with a sly smile.
Butchy, the oldest boy–big and meaty like Thurgood–attempts to assuage my fears, “Don’t be afraid. Sparky won’t bite.” He is an enormous seventeen-year-old with muscles that give shape to his t-shirt, and a buzzed haircut. I doubt he knows the meaning of the word “afraid.”
I crouch down and pet Sparky’s soft fur. The little red dog turns around and chomps me on the wrist! I am shocked, but I do not pull away because he is not biting me hard. I look up at Marky with questioning eyes. All four kids are laughing with joy as Sparky begins to pull me toward a cabinet below the sink.
“Go ahead,” Marky urges. I open the cabinet to find a box of Alpo dog biscuits. I take out a small treat, and he politely takes it from my fingers. I smile and pet Sparky again. I like this dog.
“He can give paw, too,” says the oldest girl, Suzanne (though I have no doubt they call her Suzy).
The four adults have entered the kitchen. “You are going to like it here. The Coutu’s are very nice people,” says Jane. I stare at her. My hate wells up behind my eyes and is released in salty streams of despair. The men shake hands, and my two abductors leave me with my new family.
Mr. Coutu looks at me and extends his hand. I can only stare at it. He is wearing a dark green polyester suit, and I wonder if everyone got dressed up for my capture and delivery.
He is still holding out his hand as I look dumbly at it. I have never shaken anyone’s hand, let alone an adult’s. He takes his hand back and puts it in his pocket when I don’t give him paw.
Mrs. Coutu crouches down to my level and puts her hand on my head. She is wearing a green skirt and white blouse and has wavy, shoulder-length hair. She looks like the stereotypical housewife character on any number of 70s sitcoms and dramas. She strokes my long brown hair, and I suddenly feel like Sparky. I wonder where my biscuit is. “How do you say your name?” she asks me with a genuine smile. Speak! A new command.
“Jan D’Alesio,” I reply with practiced ease. I am new to the first grade, so I am used to annunciating my strange name. I drop the “Ives” purposely.
Mr. Coutu shakes his head. “Jan is a girl’s name,” he says as he runs his fingers along his thick mustache. “Let’s call you…” he ponders for a moment before finishing his thought, almost as if he were indeed thinking, “J.D.”
Now, I hate two people.
As an adult, I continue to use my name as a mental litmus test. The speed at which someone grasps it is the amount of mental lucidity to which I give them credit. All of my adopted animals retain the name they know. To change their names would be to cause them the same subtle trauma I suffered in the foster home. I wouldn’t change my name now. To me, my name is a badge of honor. It is like a tattoo or scar. Names are important. To take a name away from a person is to take away his or her power. This is true when it is done to an animal, or a six-year-old boy who has just been taken from his mother.