Tagert Ellis

Westside Friendship House

She had the most igneous arms, seriously, she could lift over forty pounds, her arms were Gaulish, they told tales of glory. She’s the reason I took the job at the Westside Friendship House. I wanted this woman with the mutual arms.

The Westside Friendship House was originally founded to give kids a place to go after school. Of course, the kids didn’t have a choice. It was this or one of the other Friendship Houses that they were obliged to go to, after school, always. Westside was pretty nice. They had one big room with a few chairs and some carpet, and a little tub of water in a cage in the corner so the kids could simulate being in a pool. Pools were really special to the kids. That’s where this girl worked, at the tub, lifting kids in and out in five-minute increments.

My third day there, the kids found a tennis ball in an air duct. Ordinarily, the staff wouldn’t have cared, but the ball had belonged to a child with contagious honking. So the staff was upset when they found the kids tossing it around and using it to itch their gums. Three of the kids got corner duty and honked in protest. The one who found the ball, who started the whole thing, was placed on a chair and crinkled.

Crinkling was a punishment unique to the WFH. The offending child would maintain a sitting position as staff members approached. The child was expected to keep a steady countenance while the staff members listed the child’s omissions and shortcomings. The goal was to instill in the child a sense of worthlessness, that it may better serve society.

Even though it was only my third day there, I had to help crinkle this kid. I’d never met him. I didn’t know what to do. One of the head staffers, this guy with a seeping brow, came and whispered to me: He wet his bed on a school camping trip once. Tell about that.

I approached the kid, who was already broken at this point. He was staring past the carpet. “I’ve heard about your camping trip. What can you tell me about that?”

The kid started bawling. It was rough. All the staff told me afterward I had done well. They said my interrogation had subtlety to it, because I was making the child think about his transgressions, making him write the answer to the question of his life. They told me they were going to employ this method in future crinklings. I got upscaled to tub detail the next day.

Here was my chance to work with the girl (with the arms) that I loved. But sure enough, soon as I got on tub duty, she moved to chair patrol. Since there were five chairs total for all of the kids (some afternoons we would have upwards of fifty children), fights tended to break out. One child was stabbed with a sharpened crayon when she refused to give up her seat. The assailant was never identified. There were more chair patrols, now. Chair patrol was a very important job.

Tub duty wasn’t bad, really. It was cool to work with water. Not many people get to do that. The kids loved it. Most of them had never seen that much water in one place. Some got scared and became kind of aggressive about it; I once got a sharp kick to the ribs that sent me home for the day and left the child facing a massive crinkling. But most of the kids were really decent.

The only problem with tub duty was only a problem for my roommates. They complained that I smelled like water. They put a hood over my head and bit my thighs.

About a week into tub detail I was dipping along, and I didn’t know that the next girl in line had a water allergy. I lowered her in and she started to scream, so I was like, “It’s okay, it’s just water,” since a lot of kids have this reaction, but she just wouldn’t stop. Then seeping-brow guy came over and told me. I guess she was supposed to have a necklace on that would alert me to this allergy, but she had traded it to an alpha boy for chair time. Her legs rashed up, looked like they were boiling.

I got downscaled to chair patrol. They knew it wasn’t my fault; it was just politics.

Chair patrol was cool enough. We got this little baton thing we could strike with, just gentle strikes. It was a soft baton, but the kids learned to fear it. Around this time, one of the staffers got canned for drinking the tub water, and the money that had been earmarked for his salary was put toward a brand new mirror to help the kids know about Friendship with the Self. The mirror was installed and instantly the kids went wild. They couldn’t get enough of the thing. Fights broke out; someone got stabbed. Mirror patrols became a reality.

Let me just emphasize the foundational nature of this girl’s arms. The biceps were authoritative and the triceps had goals. I never knew why she didn’t just start flapping her arms and fly away. She was certainly strong enough. She could have taken me with her. I wouldn’t have minded, really. I could have saddled her up and ridden her to Transalpine Gaul and we could have had a place together, a warm hearth and a bucket of water and five Gaulish chickens in the Gaulish chicken run. The skin on her arms was taut like a sundried goatskin. The hairs were lithe and ice-white. They swayed like wheat in the breeze of the steady air conditioning. She probably could have crushed a watermelon between her elbows. In fact, I know she could do it. I saw it once during Watermelon Week.

One day, we were working at the mirror on Understanding Faces. I was doing Angry and trying to get the kids to do Angry but they seemed stuck on Perplexed, which, I couldn’t blame them, Perplexed is a fun one. But then we had to stop so that the ceiling could be lowered, so the space above could be sublet, so our center could afford a new learning tool. The flour-play complex was a recent innovation, and Westside was extremely proud to be receiving one. Kids loved to roll around in it and dust themselves, dust others. They would pretend to be pieces of meat. They would pretend to be cake mix. Many would add saliva to form a doughy clay substance that they could mold into animals, or little effigies of one another. They would make these figures and then smash or crush or stab them. It was a good way for them to work out issues they had with living. One girl made a tiny Danube river, the complete Danube, geographically faithful, slightly Impressionist. Solid work. I told her so.

But then of course one kid had to fill his mouth with it. I guess there was a flour diving game? Which he lost, once his throat filled up with the stuff and it formed a dough plug. That was the end of the flour box. The kids really enjoyed it before that one kid messed it up for everybody.

What we did instead was take the flour from the box and portion it out. We would only give the kids a bit at a time, so they wouldn’t be able to form throat plugs out of it. Around this time, the same girl who had formed the Danube made a scale bust of Paracelsus. Again, very solid work. Clean detail. But she was getting too attached to her crafts, and not Interacting enough with the others, so we had to take her dough away.

Then there was the week when my roommates boarded up my bedroom door, and my window, and piped in tear gas. I called in sick. When I came back, everything had changed. Funding had been cut. The mirror and the tub were out. So were the chairs. The ceiling had been lowered again. The kids couldn’t even stand up straight anymore. The adults either had to shuffle around prone, like soldiers drilling under chicken wire, or else lay supine, stargazing. We struggled to adapt Friendship Situations to this new environment. Most of our exercises centered on effective napping, general dormancy. As the saying goes, “Just as it is important to know when to be a friend, it is important to know, when not to be one.” This was our intended lesson. However, the children somehow managed to develop an economy based on napping, which really threw us off of our game, and their commerce became widespread. We didn’t know what to do about it. Thankfully the ceilings rose again pretty soon, at which point the napping market dried up, and we could at least walk around on our knees.

At this point one child, a young alpha boy with a goiter, used stockpiled flour to make a crude hammer. He smashed a hole in the drywall, and three kids got out before we could do anything. Two of the children were recovered; the third, the one who made the hole in the first place, bit a policeman, and, according to law, had to be euthanized. His parents were inconsolable. The mother hyperventilated rapidly, a series of squeaks. The father just collapsed onto the ground and stayed there. His eyes were hollow. It really was a horrible day.

The kids were pretty ho-hum after all of this. Perhaps they’d really looked up to the kid with the goiter. Perhaps he had been a sort of superior brother to the others. We tried to cheer them up by bringing in a policeman to explain society to them, but they just cried harder. We let them have candy and they nearly choked on it amidst their sobs. We took them on a field trip to the park preserve, with a field of real dirt, and they dug tiny personal holes in the real dirt, and curled up in them, and cried, in these tiny little real-dirt crying holes. They were like little criminals. It was quite a thing.

Arm-girl returned from a week of paid furlough. Her skin had darkened and her arms had grown. She came onto mirror patrol with me. We had a lot of good conversations, mostly about the kids but sometimes about violins or bread.

Then she lost her arms.

The ceiling lowered one day, suddenly, too quickly for her. Both quiet, alpine arms gone. She was laid off silently and didn’t ever come around after that.

At some point, too much becomes too much, you know? The batons, the throat plugs, the crinkling. I’m not saying I had anything to do with the fire, and I’m not condoning the fire, so much as I’m saying that whoever started it probably didn’t have ill intentions, even if the rest of the children ended up euthanized or transferred to SouthEastside. Like, it may have been worse to let it continue. To let those kids continue to live that way.

I saw her again last year. We talked about the center, about the fire. I told her I might have an idea how it happened. I whispered in her ear. She squared back and drew voltage, kicked me straight in the jaw.

I had never noticed before how muscular, how underscored, how ferrous her legs could look. She departed, her calves receding boastfully into the morning sun.

Tagert Ellis is an MFA candidate in Fiction at UC Irvine, where he edits the literary journal Faultline. Tagert is the undisputed leader of his local Regret Club. His work has been featured in elimae and ABJECTIVE.