Sarah Schweitzer has spent almost two decades honing her narrative instincts at The Boston Globe and the St. Petersburg Times. In April 2015 she was acknowledged by the Pulitzer Prize committee, which named her story “Chasing Bayla” a finalist in feature writing, calling it “a masterful narrative of one scientist’s mission to save a rare whale.”
Schweitzer was already at work on another story that might win accolades. Sifting through local court records, she came across a decision concerning a young boy who was nearly fatally abused by his mother’s boyfriend. Those court records would lead to “The life and times of Strider Wolf.”
The story, about a five-year-old boy who has undergone untold trauma yet continues to persevere, is simultaneously heartbreaking and essential. Schweitzer spent months reporting on Strider and his destitute and desperate grandparents, including multiple stretches of consecutive full days. Her immersive reporting became a tightly packed 6,500-word story told with grace and power. Each scene, quote, plot point and detail was considered, and only those essential to the story, not of poverty or trauma or generational lack but one of a boy gravely affected by all three, were included.
This interview was conducted over several phone conversations. It has been condensed and edited.
Storyboard: How did you find Strider and his family? Were you always pursuing a longer story?
Schweitzer: When I’m looking for a story, I’m sort of casting about, so in this instance, court records were one thing I was looking through. I found the New Hampshire Supreme Court opinion rejecting an appeal by Strider’s abuser, his mother’s boyfriend, and I was pretty struck by it. The opinion was lengthy, it was heartbreaking, and I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened since with Strider. I tracked the family down to Oxford, Maine, but I couldn’t find a phone number so I called the local police. The chief told me he was looking for the family, too. It turned out the family had been evicted that week and child welfare workers wanted to make sure Strider and his brother were okay. He said he’d let the family know I was looking for them, and Lanette called me a few days later and agreed to a visit. Looking back, it does feel random, but I find stories often come about from some combination of luck and showing up, and those two things came together here.
In terms of size, I aim to find shorter stories than this one, but some turn into longer ones. The goal is to do a mix.
This story features an incredible level of detail. How much time did you spend with the family?
Jessica Rinaldi, the photographer, and I tended to go for several days at a time and just immerse, starting at 6:30 in the morning when the family woke up and staying until they went to bed. We just hung around, and we would do that every couple days, and they were always long, concentrated visits.
I think there’s a correlation between time spent and the kinds of details included in the story. I originally had a lot more details, but with time and reporting some of those details fell away and I was able to focus on the details that most represented and spoke to who the family was. Strider’s “ghost dogs” comment I knew from the very beginning I wanted to use because it captured the dark, magical feeling of a very young child rescued from dire circumstances, but still mightily struggling. That kind of detail stayed with me and others fell away.
How and how often did you interact 1-on-1 with Strider?
More or less I spent as much time alone with him as I could get. Often I’d go into the woods with him and just watch him. His therapist had told me that she communicated best with him when she let him play. So I borrowed that technique, and when he was playing detective or Superman, I would walk with him and watch him, and his mind would loosen up and that’s when he shared things. That’s when I heard about what was happening at school, with his best friend, his teacher, the smiley faces. I tried to stay in the background with Lanette and Larry too, but that was harder. They needed someone there with them to listen. Just listening to their daily challenges, the struggles of caring for the children. Sometimes people need to talk and in those moments, they can’t ignore you and it’s hard to ask them to.
A key for me to understanding Strider and his family were the therapists working with them. There were two, one helping Lanette and Larry understand the manifestations of Strider’s trauma, and one who worked directly with Strider. Lanette gave me permission to speak with them. They had taken great notes in meetings with Strider, which proved really useful in writing. The therapists also helped me understand a lot of what I was seeing in the home setting. I’ve never had a resource quite like that, people who so understand human behavior and so intimately understand the humans who happen to be your subjects.
Had you ever had a child be the centerpiece of a story before? Did you have qualms around that? What were the specific challenges there?
I had profiled other kids, but never one so young. I knew I had to approach it carefully. Children that young don’t have filters. They are heartbreakingly honest. Strider was a more cautious kid than some, because of his background. But he came to trust me and Jessica, and we were mindful of that trust.
Did you have any reservations about putting Strider and his family’s life on the page?
Stories like this are so personal, and so I feel they deserve a lot of care. They are also important. They reveal so much. They alter the perception that lives look one way, when they actually function entirely differently when you’re on the inside. It’s easy to sanctify or condemn the poor, but when you have time, as a journalist, you can show the roots of an individual family’s situation and trace how they got to that point without falling back on assumptions or stereotypes, or, most important, robbing them of individuality. And in that, there is respect.
The piece was accompanied by a series of vivid photos and a short documentary. What was your involvement on that side? Was it always the intention to make this a print-driven multimedia package?
Jessica’s photos are astounding and from a story perspective, she gave us four eyes on the family, which was integral. We were so in sync on the assignment. I feel like that type of collaboration, if you can work together and invest the way we did, is so important. In terms of the online presentation, the way the photos come into view when you’re scrolling is really startling at times. You’re reading along and all of a sudden the photos envelop you. But not to the point of distraction. They don’t take you out of the story. I thought the video was really interesting because it showed just one day in Strider’s life. As a writer I liked that, because it aided the story and didn’t duplicate it. And no, we didn’t set out thinking of it as a full-blown interactive design, but definitely wanting to create an immersive experience.
What was the reaction following the story? Are there plans for a follow-up?
There was an outpouring of help for the family, with a lot of people sending care packages and financial donations. The reporting for the original story finished at the end of the summer, and I visited with them before Christmas, both to see them, and to gather material for a follow-up story we’re planning. It’ll be a shorter story, and will take a look at how Strider and his family are doing.
My questions are in red, her responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button below the byline, up and to the right.
The life and times of Strider Wolf
Originally published in the The Boston Globe, November 2015.
He has traveled so far, from near-fatal abuse to here, invisible among Maine’s poorest, in the care of grandparents who have little left to give but love — and just enough of that. Yet somehow Strider is climbing. How high? How far?
The sunlight was dying, and soon there would be nothing but the shafts of the Walmart parking lot lights. So Strider set his chin and tried again. You begin not with Strider’s harrowing personal story nor with an explanation of where you are, but with an incredibly intimate moment. Was this an attempt to go ahead and break down the wall and get intimacy right off the bat? I tore this story up a million times and it had a bunch of different beginnings, but in the end I decided to go chronologically. It made sense to start at Walmart, where my reporting began. and I remembered very strongly the feeling of the light dying and wondering what were they going to do. Obviously you go to sleep, but you’re worried about where you are and whether you’re going get kicked out. That was the pressure Lanette and Larry were feeling. I wanted to try to let the reader feel that moment.
“How do you spell long tongue?” he asked his grandmother.
His kindergarten teacher had assigned homework. He had to describe an animal. He’d chosen a giraffe and drawn a brown-and-yellow creature with a gangly neck craning to see beyond its own flat horizon. Now he needed help adding words, and for that he had to divert his grandmother’s attention from her phone.
Walmart had given them 24 hours in the parking lot. They’d been parked for double that. A church deacon said he might be able to help. The church sometimes let people camp on a field behind the building. But he had to check with other church officials for approval. He’d promised to call back by 5 p.m., which was 15 minutes ago.
Strider’s grandparents had long lived at the edge, or just beyond it, their troubles unknown and unseen, except by the chance visitor. They had tried to avoid this latest problem in the only way they knew. They’d promised their landlord payment. The $600 would be there Friday. Then it would be there the next. After two years of broken promises, the landlord ordered them off the property. They ignored him for a while. Then he cut the electricity, and they’d had no choice but to pack bags, tape a note to the door saying they’d be back for the rest of their stuff, and gather Strider and his brother.
They told the boys they were going camping. But campground space wasn’t available on short notice.
So they were parked in a corner of the Walmart parking lot, the four of them, a cat and three dogs, crammed into their 24-foot camper. Clothes and pots and toys clotted the floor of the galley kitchen that doubled as a hallway between the bedroom and a table that doubled as a sleeping bunk.
This was Strider’s fourth spring with Larry and Lanette Grant. He’d been just 2 years old on the frigid night when his mother’s boyfriend locked him in a shed and pummeled him. News of his brutal beating filled television screens and newspaper pages. Doctors weren’t sure he’d make it. But he’d fought his way back and state caseworkers went to the Grants and told them Strider and his younger brother, Gallagher, were theirs if they wanted them.
The Grants had burdens already. Lanette Grant was 51 and depended on Oxycodone for a herniated neck disc, Lyrica for fibromyalgia, and Prozac for most everything else. At 63, Larry Grant had diabetes, short-term memory problems, and frequently drove off, returning hours later, still listless, without giving a hint of where he’d been. Recently, they’d lost a job delivering auto parts to stores across Maine.
But family was family, Lanette said.
Strider was thin and fragile when he arrived at their home. In the windows, he saw specters. “Ghost dogs,” he called them. “The owl is coming to get me,” he whispered at night. I’m curious as to how you got this level of detail. Were there other revelations such as this one that you didn’t include? If so, why? One that comes to mind: At the birthday party, the birthday cake Lanette got from Walmart had the inscription “Happy Birthday Strider & Carly.” Carly was their dog and she shared Strider’s birthday. Having watched Strider wait for hours for his cake, it was tough seeing the dog’s name on it too, I really thought hard about putting that in. But at the same time, Lanette loves that dog and she was worried about a lot of things that day and she didn’t mean to hurt Strider with that, so I thought it would distract from other details that mattered more and I took it out. In preschool, his fears took new form. He worried constantly about losing things — toys, friends, and especially his grandparents. He tried to pull them closer. He called Lanette “Mama” and Larry “Papa” and demoted his biological mother to “Bad Mommy” and his father to “Michael.”
He showered Lanette with praise. He aped Larry. But he and his brother taxed what energy his grandparents had left. “Medicine!” Lanette called when the boys were getting out of hand. Even anti-hyperactivity meds didn’t slow them enough for the Grants.
At night, when Strider was in bed, he could hear them complaining of unpaid bills and the unfairness of it all.
Now, there was this — this parking lot and a vast, swallowing sea of uncertainty.
Rain had begun. The white pines fringing the parking lot were caves of drenched green. The whine of trucks from Route 26 penetrated the camper as Lanette wound the gear of a cigarette maker. Pipe tobacco shot through the Top-o-Matic’s chute. Her mouth drew into a shadowed fold as she took a drag.
“We didn’t ask for this. We just didn’t,” Lanette said, her gaze falling on Strider and his brother.
Strider’s face flattened in panic. Caseworkers had explained it would be like this with him. He’d lost so much, any whiff of rejection set off bells of alarm. His traumas were as much a part of him as the trees he climbed or the magic brooms he fashioned from sticks. Researchers now understood that trauma could alter the chemistry of developing brains and disrupt the systems that help a person handle stress, propelling a perpetual state of high alert. The consequences could be lifelong. As an adult, he’d be more likely to suffer anxiety and depression and heart disease and stroke. His ability to hold a job, manage money, and make good decisions could be compromised. And there was evidence, controversial but mounting, that he could pass on these traits to his children.
The one thing known to reverse the cascading effects of trauma on young brains was the constancy, security, and persistence of love.
Strider needed Larry and Lanette. He loved them desperately, and now he studied his grandmother, searching for some assurance that everything would be all right — even as everything was falling apart. In the months to come, they would hit bottom, and still Strider would try to get what he needed and they would give him what they could. Failure, they well knew, could be catastrophic.
Yet Larry and Lanette had their own emotional wounds that looped with the burdens of poverty and forced them into corners — like the one Lanette was in now as she retrained her sight on her phone, checking for a message that might not come.
It’s not known what Justin Roy used to punch a hole in Strider’s stomach in December 2011. Was it a boot? A fist? What’s known is Strider was eating dinner. He was fussy. He was at that age. Roy, his mother’s boyfriend, was tired of having Strider and his brother underfoot in his mobile home near the Maine border in Albany, N.H. He’d texted Strider’s mother a week earlier and told her she should have drowned them at birth. From a narrative standpoint, can you talk about how you decided when and where to interject Strider’s past with his present? This was part of what I went back and forth on. The abuse, from a storytelling perspective, was very dramatic. Chronologically, it belonged at the beginning of the story, but when I put I there, it overshadowed the rest of the story. My editor, Steve Wilmsen, and I talked a lot about this. Steve is really intuitive about story structure and has a keen sense of what works and what doesn’t. I tried out a lot of different places for it, looking for a way to keep it potent, but without making it the peak of the story and making the rest of what I saw over the course of the spring and summer seem insignificant by comparison.
On this night, he yanked Strider outside and shoved him into a dog cage. Then he dragged him behind the mobile home to a shed with cheap, rough siding and a grinding wheel.
Hours passed and temperatures plummeted to the single digits in the shadow of Mt. Chocorua. Strider’s mother went out to the shed during the night. Roy had hung T-shirts over the windows. He held the door shut and would not let her in. Shortly before dawn, Roy stormed into the house carrying Strider. He was still raging by morning. He swore at 11-month-old Gallagher. He flung Strider to the floor.
Strider’s mother told Roy she was leaving and packed the boys into her van. Then she drove to get gas and wish a friend happy birthday. She drove to her mother’s house. There, she wondered why Strider’s eyes were rolling back in his head. Around 7:30 a.m., she plunked Strider in a waiting room chair at the local hospital and walked to the registration desk.
A nurse walking by noticed Strider. He was writhing.
Doctors ordered him flown to Maine Medical Center in Portland where he underwent three surgeries in four days to repair his torn intestine and other damage that doctors later would testify they typically saw in high speed, head-on car crashes.
Strider lay for 23 days in a hospital bed webbed in tubing and bandages and monitors. Police arrested Roy. They questioned Strider’s mother. Each pointed a finger of blame at the other. On Jan. 11, 2012, doctors released Strider from the hospital and, with his stomach fitted with a feeding tube, he arrived at the Grants’ home, aching from losses he couldn’t yet comprehend. Were you ever tempted to blunt or summarize these details, even if just in an attempt to keep people reading? A child experiencing so much trauma is hard to stomach. There were a lot more details and some more terrible than what ended up on the page. I took out and added, then sort of landed here because I thought it gave a sense of how close to the edge he’d come. I thought for the sake of the story it was important to show how low Strider had fallen so the reader could appreciate how far he’d risen by the time we meet him at Walmart, to see what he’d endured before facing even more struggles. So yeah, in the middle of the summer I wasn’t sure how it was going to come out and I was thinking ‘Oh, my God, what am I going to do here?’
The Grants hailed from Aroostook County, Maine’s sparsely settled outpost of potato fields and logging forests bordering Canada. Larry’s father was military, and his family hopped bases every few years. As a kid, he vowed he’d have a horse ranch someday. Horses meant you stayed put. Lanette pined for stability of another sort. At 15, she’d gone to her mother and told her that a relative had molested her. Her mother abruptly ended the conversation, as Lanette recalls it. Lanette pleaded for her mother to listen, to believe her, to do something. In a way, Lanette hadn’t stopped pleading. She called her mother every day.
Lanette met Larry at a VFW dance in Presque Isle in 1991. They were both divorced with kids. He liked her shape and called her Pockets. His hair hung long and shaggy. She pulled hers into a tight bun each morning, as if the winding might bring order to her world. His humor ran to the dry side of parched. She talked and talked to whoever might listen. Together, they divided the world into people who were with them and the ones who were against them. Those people could go pound sand, Lanette liked to say.
In search of work, they moved some 300 miles south to Oxford, with its fry joints and convenience stores sprawled along Route 26, a town waiting for the dividends of the new casino. They bought an Imperial mobile home, parked it on two rented acres down from the speedway, and filled the yard with mowers, washing machines, and random metal frames that could be sold for smelting. Lanette did a few years as a nursing assistant, then as a convenience store manager. But she had pain from the herniated disc in her neck. “Work wasn’t in the cards,” she said. Larry’s long-distance trucking job ended when he collided with another tractor-trailer in 2007 and emerged from the hospital with a dented forehead and a notice of termination.
They were patching together an existence off Craigslist, a roulette of piecemeal jobs, when Michael, Lanette’s son, brought a new girlfriend around. They had met online. Larry and Lanette worried. She struck them as harsh and Michael was sweet and troubled and easily led astray. He’d spent time in a mental health facility as a child and now, at 25, he struggled to hold a job and had a daughter by another woman
The next thing they knew, they had a grandson, Strider Wolf — Strider for the character in Lord of the Rings and Wolf for the howling image on the shirt Michael was wearing the day his son was born. Gallagher came along two years later. Then things went south. Michael and the boys’ mother split. She left with the boys, and Michael came home to live with the Grants.
In December 2011, Michael got the call that Strider was in the hospital. He nodded, then crumpled to the floor and rocked his body in a fetal ball. Who were you relying on for these details on these anecdotes? I had records from family court that I had gotten through Lanette, which were not public, and also public court records. I also had medical records, like the forensic doctor’s report, which had some pretty terrible details. I had reports from the child welfare agency in Maine, and I had notes from conversations with Lanette and Larry and Michael. You seem to prefer to write them out yourself, instead of using quotes. Why? For this particular anecdote, Lanette shared these details spontaneously, and they stuck in my mind, so I doubled back and asked Michael what he recalled, and he recalled things the same way. Larry did as well. I think I didn’t use quotes in a moment like this because there was so much tension and stress for the people involved, and they might not be reliable narrators since they were in the middle of it all. But I could reliably state it myself based on what I’d heard from the three of them. I was reading [Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s] “Random Family” at the time, and I was struck by how much of the book was her voice. She had such a deep understanding of what was happening with the families she was writing about, that she was able to reflect their story back in her own voice and do so with authority. That was the kind of voice I had in my mind when I was writing.
The state initially explored the possibility of putting the boys in the care of Michael and their mother, despite their shortcomings. Caseworkers drew up plans and bullet-pointed lists of activities meant to teach them the obligations and responsibility of parenting.
But hopes quickly dissolved. Strider’s mother was distracted to the point of indifference during arranged meetings with the boys. There was no “mutual affection,” a supervisor concluded in notes submitted to a judge. The visits were halted. A short time later, Michael fled the Grants’ mobile home, checked into a mental health facility, and then moved to a town over an hour away, where he stayed put.
The boys were castaways, stranded for good with the Grants. “People say we r angels but boy if this is what it is like being an angel I’m all set let someone else be!” Lanette vented on Facebook. Gallagher struggled to talk. He pushed up Lanette’s shirt and pressed against her bare skin like a newborn. He was so distracted and prone to accidents that a therapist recommended he wear a backpack stuffed with small weights to ground him. Had he been dropped on his head as an infant? Doctors suspected a calamity of some sort.
And Strider. He was always asking, asking — pressing the Grants for more and more. He had a facial expression when he did, lifting the left side of his mouth into a smile and cocking his head, as if the head-tilt might roll things his way. Did you witness this behavior yourself? When I hear Strider’s name, this is what I picture in my mind. He did this a lot. That little head tilt had yearning, it had need, and it also had incredible restraint, because the last thing Strider wanted to do was push his grandparents too far. It was a perfect encapsulation of him and his relationship with his grandparents. His therapist was encouraged. Asking for what he wanted was a sign that in his young mind the world had not forsaken him.
There was resilience in this boy. He marched off to kindergarten with a dimple in his stomach where his feeding tube had been. Testing showed he had a nimble mind. He made a best friend. He came home talking about rockets and anteaters and prisms. He roamed the woods, finding sticks that could be a sword or a steed and casting himself a Christopher Robin of western Maine.
He was stronger and faster and nimbler in the woods, the boy beneath the mountain of hurt. He tried to be that boy all the time, nodding agreeably and listening closely to his grandparents so that he might slot more seamlessly into their lives.
But the hurt rose up unbidden. A hole opened and memories swallowed him. For weeks at a stretch, Strider would be moody and keep to himself. And then, equally without warning, he would share his pain, often with his therapist. Playing with blocks or drawing pictures on the floor in her office, he would express confusion and fright and a sense of perilous solitude.
“[Bad Mommy] swooped me outside the house with a broom and said ‘go live somewhere else,’ ” he told the therapist during a session last December. “I traveled so far.” Was this revealed in a conversation with the therapist? Either way, how did you feel about sharing such a visceral, personal quote? This came from an extended conversation included in the therapists’ notes. I originally used more of the conversation, but I realized that it would be better if I consolidated it to this very powerful quote. The notion that this domestic object, a broom, could be an instrument of eviction for him was really sad.
Unburdened, he returned for a time to happier ways. His therapist warned Larry and Lanette that memories would seize him again. When they did, she said, he would need them most.
In April, days after loading up the camper and parking it at Walmart, Lanette got the call from Strider’s school. Strider was anxious. His breath had sped into a hot helpless rhythm and he was confused about which school bus to ride.
Was he supposed to take the usual one home or was there another one that went to Walmart?
When their time was up at Walmart, the Grants moved to the Tractor Supply Co. parking lot, and then a few days later, they motored five miles down Route 26, past the speedway and Maine-ly Action Sports, and set up camp off a rutted road in the trees. A scenic lake ran along the length of one side of the campground. Their site was on the other side, in black fly breeding grounds. One of the major tension points in the story is whether the family will find a place to live, yet there’s a practical hurdle to maintaining the narrative since the scene is constantly being reset. Did those shifts in place affect your ability to write the story? I wondered about that before I started writing, but once I’d begun, I found the changes in scenery helped break up the story and added a nomadic, Joads-like quality to their struggle, with bullying campground owners piling onto their woes and making them feel even more powerless.
The flies swarmed in clouds of threatened attack one afternoon as Strider dropped his backpack by the door of the camper. He told no one about the note buried at the bottom. Then he wandered into the woods until Lanette called “Supper!”
Lanette ladled Betty Crocker scalloped potatoes onto plates and stared at the piles. She wasn’t hungry. She’d drunk Pepsi all afternoon as she called everyone she could think of in state government. The woman at the governor’s office said there was no error. Their food stamps had been cut by a hundred dollars because living in a campground meant they no longer had a house payment. Lanette argued back. The woman said it was no use. And on the conversation went.
Larry had equally little success finding a place where they could haul the mobile home. He’d e-mailed a guy from Craigslist willing to sell a piece of land for $10,000 in a lease-to-own deal. But when they talked by telephone, the guy explained the land had no water or septic, and they would need to haul water from the fire station and toss their waste in the woods, like he and his family did.
Strider was forking a potato when Lanette held up the note from his teacher.
“Why, Strider?” Lanette demanded.
The teacher sent a note home every day. It listed his daily activities with a slot next to each. The slots had smiley faces except for one. Next to lunch, she had drawn a face with a slash-mouth. Off to the side she’d written: Hit another boy in the face and called him a whine-bucket.
Strider fixed his mouth, as if that might beat back tears.
The scene had unspooled so fast. A boy sitting next to him held a lunchbox in front of his face. The boy called it a shield. Strider thought he was trying to block his view of his best friend. Strider told him to put the lunchbox down, and when the boy didn’t, he’d let his fist fly. The boy cried, and Strider reached for a word he knew from home.
Kindergarten friendships were fleeting. Someone was your best friend one minute and someone else’s the next. It was the way kids figured out friendship, Lanette had explained to him. But in that moment at lunch, all Strider needed was to hang on to his friend. And now, with his grandparents staring at him in disappointment, the only thing he could think of to say was, “Sorry.”
Larry and Lanette had heard sorry from what felt like every corner of the earth.
“Sorry don’t mean nothing to you,” Larry grumbled.
Strider folded into himself like he wanted to disappear.
His brother started crying. “Gallagher’s going to bed,” Lanette announced. She lifted the wailing boy off the bench and carried him inside the camper. The coffee maker began to gurgle. The boys stripped off clothes. Lanette dipped a rag in the Mr. Coffee pot of warmed water and sponge-bathed the boys’ backs as they angled past each other in the hallway, bumping up against baskets of dirty clothes and the vacuum cleaner and the rolling bin of paper plates and everything that didn’t fit in the crush of half-shelves.
Gallagher soon was asleep under an M & M blanket. Strider’s eyes widened with the coming dark that he still feared, and he scanned the floor for his flashlight. “Oh, all right,” Lanette said, okaying the flashlight as Strider crawled into his bunk above Gallagher’s.
The screen door clapped shut. The calls of peepers filled the night, and then his grandparents’ voices swirled above them. A text had come into Lanette’s phone. It was from their neighbor, Neal. “You f—ing people. Every day,” Lanette read aloud. Neal had had enough. When they’d gotten booted off the land, he’d agreed to watch the weathered bunch of horses they had collected over the years. Neal asked only that they supply hay. Larry hadn’t delivered any in days.
“There ain’t no hay to be found,” Larry said.
“Whatever,” Lanette said.
There wasn’t more to say and so they were still. The only movement came from the silver light peering out from the small window next to Strider’s bunk. The light darted between the trees, as if seeking a path.
A letter from the landlord’s lawyer arrived at the post office where their mail was being held. The Grants had 30 days to get their mobile home off the rented property. If they didn’t, everything would be the landlord’s.
They had nowhere to move the mobile home, but maybe they could save their things. Each morning they made plans to make the 10-minute drive to the mobile home and pack. But one thing or another came up, and they wouldn’t make it over there until late afternoon, when it was easier just not to think about the problem.
“I so want to be back here,” Lanette said, leaning against the mobile home’s kitchen counter one afternoon. The cabinets overflowed with Tupperware and bowls and plates. Crayon drawings hung alongside calendars and taped notes of inspiration. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior,” one declared. How long did it take to get the family to open up like this? Were there things they wouldn’t share? Lanette likes to talk, but it took time to get to the point where she could offer unguarded answers. Some details came out only at the very end, when they had found a home and she was in a comfort zone, both in her life and with me. Larry is a quieter person, but there is a deep sincerity when he does talk, a sort of distilled truth, which I appreciate very much. They’d left in such a hurry that they’d forgotten Gallagher’s milk in the refrigerator. The sour smell permeated everything.
The power was still off, and Larry had hocked the generator for a loan. Now a pawnbroker charged them $62 a month to hold the generator as collateral. It was like that with their money. The $1,827 they took in each month, from Larry’s disability, welfare, and child support from Michael, somehow drained from their Norway Savings Bank account before bills could be paid.
Strider was in his room. It was as it had been. The bookshelf hung crookedly. The Ninja Turtle kite sagged from a few points of attachment to the ceiling. The firefighter boots. The sign on the door that read Captain Strider. He played Legos, clicking pieces together, building an orderly world.
It was getting on toward 6.
“Stri!” Lanette called.
He stood and looked at the Legos. He cocked his head. He’d loved Legos since he was a toddler. But he knew better than to ask if he could bring them to the camper. It was crowded enough.
They piled into their yellow car and angled out of the dirt driveway.
Packing would wait for another day.
He shouldn’t have left the sticks by the camper door. He’d gathered them in the woods and imagined they were clues to a mystery and he was a detective with all the answers. He ought to have left them behind. But he’d wanted to show them to his grandparents, and in the morning his grandfather had tripped on them and swore. Larry was still cranky as he drove him to school. Strider chattered from the backseat — about football, picnics, his upcoming three-day weekend for Memorial Day. “Your vacation, my torture,” Larry muttered.
Strider tilted his head in confusion, then straightened and tried again.
“I’m going to get all smiley faces today,” he said.
“No you can’t,” Larry said.
“I’ll get you an ice cream cone if you get ’em all,” Larry countered. The bet was on, and Strider bobbed into Oxford Elementary School.
Larry gripped the wheel tightly and steered toward the next reckoning.
State officials were headed to Neal’s to look at the horses. Someone had reported them to animal welfare. By the time Larry arrived with Lanette, officials were staring in fixed dismay at the sway-backed elderly horse with mottled fur, the distended stomachs and flat eyes of the others.
“This is not our fault,” Lanette told one state officer.
“Then whose is it?” the officer asked.
Lanette cried messily as she signed paperwork surrendering the horses. Next to her signature, she wrote, “We love our horses.”
They hadn’t been charged with animal cruelty. But there was guilt and shame, and as the afternoon went on, the feelings turned to anger and blame flew. There was the turncoat neighbor. The state officials. And all the people who knew nothing of saving two boys and being punished for it.
“Everything was perfect until we took them boys in,” Lanette said into the quiet.
And then the boys were home from school and Lanette bent down and leveled her face with theirs.
“Can we talk?” she asked.
Strider stared with big eyes that tried to read his grandmother as she explained that the horses were gone. Strider said nothing and she said they would never see them again. “What are you thinking?” she asked.
He paused. She wanted him to say something about the horses. Something to blunt her hurt. He offered what he had. “I got all smileys.”
Larry said, “It hasn’t sunk in.”
Lanette nodded, and when he sensed that he could, Strider escaped into the woods, under boughs of white pines, his slender legs stalking the needle-feathered ground. He quickly conjured a game, imagining himself a hunter of ancient waterways, taking himself away from the day’s turmoil.
Later, when he asked Larry when they could get the ice cream cone, Larry shook his head. The yellow car had begun leaking gas. There was no way to get to One Cow Ice Cream. How difficult was it to document these moments impersonally and independent of them? Were you tempted to get him an ice cream cone yourself, for example? It was so hard to stand there with our wallets not far away. Jessica and I had to do all we could not to hand the $2 over and get the ice cream cone. We often went out afterward to talk and decompress, and we’d reassure each other about staying within our roles, staying out of it. I mean, who wouldn’t want to get this kid an ice cream cone and so much more?
A nightmare woke Strider with a shudder. Lanette recalled going to him, but he couldn’t stop crying. Gallagher woke and started crying too, and then morning came and they stepped outside into the muck. You don’t actually tell us about the nightmare. Why not? That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. I can’t remember if Strider recalled the nightmare’s details. I guess I thought the fact of it was enough.
They were at a new campsite. The one they’d been at was booked for the rest of the season, and so they’d had to scramble for this new one in Poland, a town over from Oxford. This campground owner had put them in a muddy site, across from a high, dry, and empty one, charged them $210 a week and texted them: “I don’t want to regret helping you out.”
The 30 days that the landlord had given them to move their stuff were nearly up. Lanette’s hope was on a guy named Rick. He’d called about a Craigslist posting they’d put up offering the mobile home for sale. Rick said he’d pay $6,000. He was going to come by to have a look.
“You’re dreaming up the wrong tree,” Larry told her.
A few days later, the day before the deadline, Larry and Lanette were at the mobile home at 10 a.m. They recalled waiting and waiting and waiting. An hour passed and then another, and finally Lanette had to agree with Larry. Rick wasn’t coming.
They were out of options.
The weather was clear the next night — a minor blessing in the mess.
Pale moonlight ringed Strider and his brother as they ran in frenzied freedom behind the mobile home, darting between barrels and chain link fencing and a jumble of plywood. Larry and Lanette were scrambling to pack stuff and get it to storage by midnight.
A train whistle blew. The boys sped toward the sound. They climbed into a rusted chassis sunk in the crusted old horse field. Strider held broken automotive hoses to his eyes like a pair of binoculars. He tipped his head upward. “What’s on the moon?” Strider asked.
They stood silhouetted against the pressing darkness, straining to see the universe from the ruined Ford, until a car barreled onto the grass shortly after 9 p.m.
“Our father is here,” Strider said, running toward the car.
Michael had been promising to come and help them move since they got their eviction notice. He wasn’t good about keeping promises to visit. When he did show, he compensated spastically for lost time. One weekend Michael crushed his finger wielding a wood maul. Another time he tried to get a game of football going with Strider, but he threw the ball so hard, it bloodied Strider’s cheek.
Now Strider stood with his hands clasped, then backed away as Michael rushed past him. “My gorilla!” Lanette said. Michael fell into her arms. They hugged until he extracted himself and stalked into the mobile home and flung himself at furniture. He pinched his finger trying to move Lanette’s vanity toward the door and yelped, then was back in motion. I keep coming back to this anecdote each time I read this story. I’m interested to get your thoughts on witnessing this “father” turning into a “son” like that. In the moment, I was totally struck that he bypassed Strider and went to his mom. But what hit me later while I was writing was how it showed a generational cycle. Every generation in this family had unmet needs. Lanette felt it with her mom, Michael felt it with his mom. There was this deficiency within them, and they were intent on getting what they needed, often at whatever cost to themselves and people around them. This moment feels emotional rather than violent or socioeconomic, which will resonate with more people. An emotional hole and a desire to fill it is a pretty universal, relatable feeling. It’s not restricted by poverty or the kinds of struggles this family was experiencing.
Strider wandered to a wicker daybed by the side of the road. The Grants had marked it free to any takers. His eyes pinned in bleary resignation as he watched the dismantling of his home.
He was asleep when a pickup truck parked down the street. Lanette saw a man sitting in the cab.
Moonlight faded. The mobile home hulked like a gray clown car producing an unending stream of stuff. At midnight, Lanette saw the waiting truck’s headlights snap on. The truck crawled forward and halted in front of the daybed. The landlord stepped out.
“Time’s up!” he yelled, as recalled by the Grants and the landlord. “Get off my property!”
Michael lunged at the daybed.
“It’s my baby!” Michael cried.
He scooped Strider off the daybed and carried him away, like a firefighter emerging from a burning house. The landlord stood in the street watching in bewildered silence. But Michael wasn’t done. He yelled at the landlord, until the landlord said enough, and called the cops. Strider woke only enough to pull his legs to his chest, stretch his T-shirt over them, and mumble, “I’m so cold. I’ve been so cold.”
In the days to come, they counted their losses. Cutting boards and tops to pots had been left behind in the mobile home. Boxes of photographs and furniture. Strider’s bike was gone, along with Lanette’s late brother’s autopsy report.
Larry was defeated by the losses. Lanette had plans. She would take the landlord to court. But first they had to set up at a new campground. They’d been asked to leave the campground in Poland after neighbors complained about their dogs. They’d wangled a new campsite, this one on a side road winding behind the casino on Route 26 in Oxford, where the guard watched them warily. Lanette warned Strider to stay out of view and Strider wandered to the campsite’s perimeter, where, if he looked up, he could see snug stick-built houses on the ledge above.
On a Sunday morning, Lanette hung balloons under a tarp that stretched from the camper to staked poles. The balloons were stamped “I love you,” leftovers from her wedding to Larry. Strider was turning 6. His birthday party was set to start at 1. For me this is the most heartbreaking part of the story. What do you remember about this day? And why stick it here in the course of the narrative? This day stuck with me from the start of the writing and I worked through a thinking process to figure out what it meant and where it belonged. For me, it was point in the story where Strider got hit on a personal level with the family’s upheaval. That wait at the campground was just excruciating for him. It was cold, it was wet, Lanette was gone almost three hours and he had no idea of when she’d be back. And Strider was just waiting outside, being so patient, waiting for what he wanted so very badly. It showed his incredible strength and vulnerability.
“Let’s see what you have,” Larry told Strider as he and Gallagher zoomed around, high on anticipation and sugar of frozen blueberry waffles. Gallagher thrust his fist into his grandfather’s shoulder. Larry caught it and released it. Gallagher tumbled to the ground, taking Strider with him.
“Don’t be a whine-bucket,” Lanette reprimanded as Gallagher cried.
Strider scrambled to his feet. He looked to Lanette for reprieve, but her head was turned. She smiled broadly at a car pulling up to the camper. “Great-grammie’s here!” she called.
Lanette’s mother had short hair and a bulldog gaze. “Time’s ticking,” she said as she jangled her car keys. She’d offered to take Lanette to Walmart and pay for Strider’s birthday cupcakes. It was a 15-minute drive. “We’ll be back!” Lanette called from her mother’s car as it winked out of sight.
A half hour passed, then an hour.
At 2:30, Strider balled his fist and thrust it like a microphone in front of Larry: What was the color of the sky last night? How does an airplane keep birds off its back? Whose birthday is today? “I’m not here,” Larry said. Strider slumped onto the camper’s stoop. “The news is all over,” he said. He rested his elbows on his knees and cupped his chin in his hands. Rain began to fall. The temperature dipped to 50 degrees. Strider shivered.
“I’m going to scream,” Strider said to silence.
Shortly before 3 p.m., Lanette’s mother’s car nosed in.
Lanette looked happier than she had in months. Her mother had taken her to get her medicines. She might as well have taken her to the moon. “My mama,” Lanette called her mother. Her sister didn’t talk to their mother, as far as Lanette knew. Lanette took another view. You only get one mother. She set the cupcakes on the misted plastic tablecloth and sang “Happy Birthday” louder than anyone.
“Pop it!” his great grandmother said to Strider, handing him an oversized balloon.
The balloon was full and bouncy and airborne. “I don’t feel like it,” Strider whispered back.
“Come on Strider, pop it,” Lanette said. Larry took the balloon from Strider. He held it over his head and poked it with a knife. POP! Six rolled-up dollar bills showered Strider’s head, then fell to the ground and scattered. “Find ’em,” his great-grandmother called. Lanette echoed her. Strider scavenged in the mud under the table, and when he’d found them, he looked up from his crouch and asked, “Can we have cake now?”
Lanette gave him a chocolate cupcake and kissed him. Then she talked with her mother while Strider bent his head and ate. He asked for another and another, as though the whole bunch might be snatched away and lost. These are such poverty-stricken people, making the narrative fraught with the risk of turning into a kind of condescension. How did you work to avoid that problem within the narrative? I read “Random Family” during the reporting of this story, and was struck by how Adrian Nicole LeBlanc imbued her subjects with respect by delving so deeply into their lives, treating their choices — both good and bad — seriously and putting a lot of thought and reporting time into understanding the motivations behind them. I tried, in a much smaller way, to do that here.
A few weeks later, shortly before the end of school, Strider sat alone, under a DARE sign, curled into a wall alcove. The lunch ladies in blue smocks had piled his tray with potatoes and carrots and chocolate milk, but he picked only at a package of Pillsbury mini-bagels. It was grab bag day. A dollar bought a brown paper bag of goodies, like pencils and erasers. Two mothers from the PTO were stuffing bags at the table over from him. Lanette had told him that morning she didn’t have a dollar.
Strider’s schoolwork was improving, and his teachers were pleased. But what did that matter now? His best friend sat a few seats away surrounded by other boys. They were giggling and having fun. Strider wasn’t up for battling for a place next to him. Trays clattered and voices twittered, the noise rising to the rafters, while Strider tucked his legs up against his chest, deeper into the alcove. Did you go to his school? What was that process like, from getting access to reporting from the lunchroom? We went to his school and spent the morning and the afternoon with him. I was grateful to have another setting. He was more elemental, because he wasn’t being tugged by all the other things that would push and pull him at home — vying for Lanette’s attention or following Larry around or being a big brother for Gallagher — so he could be more himself. At the same time, he was really struggling that day and it was hard to see him alone in that struggle. The teachers were trying to help him, but they didn’t really know what was going on with him. I knew full well, but as a reporter I couldn’t go to him and calm him and that stunk.
The week brought a new note from Strider’s teacher: Strider had mimed putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger.
“A 6-year-old with a 6-year-old attitude,” Lanette vented.
His pajamas were wet most mornings now. He’d begun wearing Gallagher’s pull-ups and draining the supply. His therapist explained that his bed-wetting was a response to trauma, either the unfolding upset in their lives, or some resurrecting memory. It was hard to know. He needed to hear that it was all right, that they would solve the problem together.
Lanette knew something else, often telling Strider: “Them pull-ups are expensive.”
She was a single parent most of the time these days. Larry was washing floors at night at Shaw’s. By day, he prowled the suburbs of Portland. A guy named Al had hired him to collect donations that people had pledged to a local firefighters association.
“I’m stressed beyond stressed right now,” she told caseworkers who visited. When they asked where things stood with housing, she snapped. “My mind isn’t where it can be to appease you people,” and they hung their heads and jotted notes on yellow pads and scurried away. Were there things you were not allowed access to? I got a lot of privileged documents from the Grants and also from social service agencies after the Grants signed releases. Only one agency declined to share information with me after the Grants signed a release.
One afternoon in the final week of school, Larry was sleeping before his night shift. The dishes needed washing. Dinner needed making. Lanette’s cell kept ringing. And suddenly, Strider was in front of her with his head cocked, wanting to know if he could go for a walk down the road that bordered the campground.
“No, you can’t go for a walk,” she unleashed. “You were totally soaked this morning. We’ve tried everything with you.”
Instead, Strider trekked into the woods close to the camper. He lifted a stick. He whacked a tree. He whacked it again and broke the stick. He found a new stick and hit the tree again. He hit this tree and that one. He slashed trillium and trout lilies. Their leaves shredded. Green pieces flew in the air like confetti. Gallagher called for him and Strider didn’t answer.
Strider’s fury rose and rose, flooding him with all the power that a 6-year-old could muster.
He attacked the trees for the better part of an hour, alone, unreachable and hot-cheeked, and then he saw a flower. It was red, with spurred petals — like the columbines Lanette loved because her mother loved them.
Strider picked it and gripped it behind his back, then rushed headlong toward the camper calling, “Mom! Mom!” This is a lovely and hopeful moment, which comes after a bleak scene. How did it come about? How did you know you wanted to use it in your narrative? Thank you! It was a really evocative moment and I knew it had great meaning – even as it was unfolding. It came, though, as you say, at a bleak point in the narrative. My editors felt strongly that it belonged and I recalled something Jess said often – that a story deserves joy too. Because there was joy even in the hardest times, and it’s right to show that.
And then it was summer and it was warm. For the Grants that meant winter was that much closer. They wouldn’t make it through autumn in the tiny camper. School had ended, and with no money for camp, Strider was home with the Grants. Often, he was quiet and reclusive. You compress most of the summer into this one scene. Why? At that point, they were in stasis. They were stuck at a campground, there was no movement on the housing front, Strider was out of school. They were also losing hope. It was a hard time, and it became increasingly hard for them to have us there observing. They needed a break, and we needed one too, and so we all took some time. I find with stories like these, there is almost always a period like this, when people need their space. It’s hard to let go, but it tends to be for the better, as it was in this case. In a few weeks, we came back together, with regained bearings.
He was hunched on a rock outside the camper one July day when the Grants decided enough was enough.
“Stop sulking!” Larry warned him. Lanette ordered him to his bunkbed as a time-out.
“Why were you sulking?” she asked him from the camper door frame.
“I wasn’t sulking,” he said in a trembling voice. “I was thinking.”
“What were you thinking about?” she asked.
He paused. It was dangerous to say what he was about to say. It would not make his grandparents happy.
“Bad Mommy,” he whispered.
Lanette asked, “Are you thinking about what happened to your tummy?”
Strider shook his head. No, he said. It wasn’t like that.
“I want to remember what she looks like,” he said.
Lanette despised Strider’s mother, who hadn’t inquired about him in over a year. There was word she might try to seek custody. The notion drove Lanette mad.
But Lanette knew what it was like to long for a mother. She had spent the better part of her life chasing after her own mother’s care and attention. Was this something she told you, or that you intuited from spending time with her? It was both. I’d watched her interact with her mother over the course of the summer and I saw how desperate she was for something from her. She eventually told me that she felt her mother hadn’t given her the care she craved when she told her she’d been abused. She loved Strider. She failed him sometimes. But she would not in this moment, when it counted most.
So she made him a promise.
She had a photo of his mother. It was somewhere. She would find it.
In mid-August, they found a house on Craigslist in an old mill town, Lisbon, about half an hour away. They paid a visit to assure the owner that they were decent people. He decided the house could be theirs.
Rent was $800 for the old three-story rectory next to a shuttered church. It had traveled a hard path from its churchly days. Scars gashed brown paneling, ancient paint peeled from door-frames, brown streaks of glue gobbed where wallpaper had hung. The third floor bedroom, they suspected from the smell of it, had been a marijuana-growing lab.
“It’s a home,” Lanette said.
Maybe they had been meant to leave Oxford, she had begun to think. Michael had met Strider’s mother there. Maybe Oxford was the past.
On a Saturday morning, Lanette stood in the kitchen. Sallow light filtered through the windows. They had washed one pink-tiled wall from the grease of however many meals past. Larry had mowed most of the lawn before the mower broke down.
The boys were waking from their first night in the new house. They had gotten home late after spending two days with a young, energetic teacher at Gallagher’s school who had taken a shine to the boys’ sweet natures. She had treated them to a Native American festival near Portland and their first trip to the ocean. Now they were curled on Larry and Lanette’s naked mattress, their eyes blinking back the blue glow of a blank television screen.
“Good morning, Papa,” Strider said. “Good morning, Mama.”
“Medicine!” Lanette called as she pulled out the plastic bin of the boys’ medicines.
Larry sighed. Lanette sighed.
“We haven’t been here 24 hours, and I’m tired already,” Lanette said.
Strider wrapped himself in a newly donated bathrobe. He pushed open the pummeled screen door.
The fenced yard was flat and bounded, and all around were neighbors in other houses. So different from the woods. Strider walked to a spindly tree in the middle. In a few weeks he would start a new school. For the first time, he would not need special education. The teachers at his old school had signed off on paperwork saying that he had pulled even with the rest of his pack. In spite of everything, he was on track.
He looked up at its branches. They were hung with burnt-red pears. They smelled of musk and wood and the promise of sweet, and he stood there wondering how he might get the fruit down. Did you know at this point that you would end the story here, with the house and Strider out of special ed? I felt like the story had to answer, or try to answer, two main questions: What would happen with the family’s housing, and what would happen with Strider? There wasn’t enough time to fully answer the second question, and I struggled with how to offer some feeling of finality to it. The housing question ended up getting answered when they moved into the rental house. This was in August, and I still wasn’t sure where Strider’s story ended. Then I visited and saw him staring at that tree. He had shut the door to the house, with everyone else inside, and he was by himself, wondering out loud how he could get the pears down. It was like the future was his own, if he could just chart it, if he could just reach up high enough.