By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
It was August 1998, early in the school year, and 17-year-old Mickey Dunlap stepped out of the back door of his house and started walking to Pasadena High School, about half a mile away. It would have been a warm day, and if he was paying attention he might have smelled the sickly sweet of the paper mill a quarter-mile from his house, or the cabbagey effluvium of the nearby sewage treatment plant, or the muddy rank of Vince Bayou, which elbowed its course southward a stone's throw from his backyard. He might have smelled all three smells together.
More likely he wouldn't have noticed any of it, familiar as he was with the routine.
He would have walked his way out of the egg-shaped backstreet in the rundown Magnolia Oaks neighborhood -- isolated by railroad tracks on the north, State Highway 225 to the south and the bayou's curve -- in Pasadena's older, poorer northwest quadrant. He would have passed through the oak shade of a Friendship Garden, dedicated by Pasadenans to "our friends in Hadano Japan" before heading south among the boarded-up remnants of a largely abandoned commercial district. He would have cut across the feeders and beneath the 225 overpass, heavy with freight trucks, to the school, home of "Eagle Pride," planted in a humming landscape of motels and gas stations and storage tanks and towers and exhaust and smoke. Mickey was beginning his junior year.
Sometimes if it was raining Miss Lilly drove him to school, if she had the time, but most days he walked.
This day his homeroom teacher handed out start-of-school paperwork for the students' parents to sign. Mickey took his papers to his special ed counselor, Tracey Balusek. He told her, "I can't do this."
Mickey speaks oddly. His voice is incongruently high-pitched for a boy his size, which is large, and he substitutes w's for his r's and l's. Not an impediment quite, just odd at first impression. He is almost compulsively polite with his yes ma'ams and no suhs. He is easily moved to an effusiveness that manifests itself as a smile of what sure looks like unadulterated joy. This gesture also can seem incongruent, considering some of what Mickey says while he's smiling.
He told the counselor his parents were "kind of unavailable right now." She wanted to know if they were on vacation. Mickey told her that he guessed you could say that, "except their vacation is gonna be a little long." He was being willfully vague. He was scared he'd get kicked out of school.
The counselor wanted to know what Mickey meant by that. He told her he didn't think his parents were coming back.
"She looked at me," he says, grinning, "like, well we got a problem here. We got a major problem here."
The counselor says she didn't believe Mickey at first. So she and school diagnostician Ellen Cronin-Moreland "did a home visit." They looked at the house with its faded baby-blue siding and scabbing roof, and they saw that it was falling down, sinking in toward the middle. They saw the bicycle chain Mickey used to lock the front door. They saw that windows were busted out and that the yard was filled with abandoned boats and abandoned cars and trash car parts and trash boxes for car parts and just nasty shit everywhere, carpet inside that a duck hunter wouldn't walk on.
"It didn't look like a house that anyone lived in," Balusek says. "It looked like a junkyard. It was definitely the most deplorable house that I have ever seen, as far as where our students have lived. I could not believe he was living in those conditions."
The counselor and the diagnostician talked to Mickey's neighbors and they found out that yes, it had been a "volatile" homestead. Mickey and his father had been heard fighting. One time the police had arrived, a bunch of them, and had taken the dad to jail. And yes, they were gone. Been gone near all summer. No, didn't expect they'd be coming back.
And yeah, the boy lived there all by himself.
Balusek went back to school and apologized to Mickey for not believing his story. She was just a little shocked, that's all. She had worked with Mickey, whose mild learning disability necessitates special classes and lots of parent-counselor meetings to hash out educational plans, for several years, and had met his mother, Glenda, on multiple occasions.
"The mom had come to the meetings, and was pleasant. I was very, very surprised that his parents had up and left."
"People that need help," she says, "find me. It seems I'm real easy. One friend of mine tells me on my forehead it says sucker."
At one time, Miss Lilly says, she ran a mission for the down-and-out in Pasadena, but "Pasadena don't like missions. They say we have no poor people out here."