Home > Little Lies

Little Lies
Heather Gudenkauf

I’m used to getting phone calls in the middle of the night, like firefighters, doctors and priests. But the calls I receive aren’t to put out a blaze, perform an emergency C-section or administer last rites to the dying. When my phone rings at 2:00 a.m., I know it’s regarding one of my children. Not my biological children, but those that I come to know in my work as a social worker with the Cedar City, Iowa, Department of Human Services.

The late-night calls mostly bring news of violent domestic disputes when a child needs to be removed from the home for his or her safety. They are depressingly similar and rarely have positive outcomes: a father on a drunken binge could mean cracked ribs and broken bones, unsupervised children with access to lighters equal third-degree burns, a marital spat can turn into a gunshot wound to the head or knife wounds. All leave the children traumatized from the horror they have witnessed and reeling from being torn from the life they have known, no matter how dysfunctional and damaging.

So I’m not surprised when my cell phone on my bedside table shrills loudly. Though I’m still half-asleep, my hand automatically grabs to answer it before it can ring again and wake Adam, who is next to me, or my three children, who are fast asleep down the hall. “Hello,” I grunt into the phone.

“Ellen,” comes a gruff voice from the other end. I push the sheets and blankets aside and swing my legs over the side of the bed.

“Joe?” I ask in confusion. It’s not Caren Regis, my supervisor at DHS, but Joe Gaddey, a detective with the Cedar City Police Department and one of my best friends.

“Sorry to wake you up,” he says. His voice is tense but not at all apologetic.

“What time is it?” I ask, squinting at the clock next to Adam’s side of the bed, but I can’t decipher the numbers.

“One-thirty. Listen, we’ve got a situation here at Singer.” Singer is a four-acre green space punctuated with sculptures purchased and donated by Medwyn Singer, a wealthy Cedar City businessman. Twenty unusual and striking sculptures of various sizes and subjects once populated the park, attracting families and tourists, but during the floods of ’93 water covered 1,300 city blocks, and Singer was submerged at one point under twenty-three feet of water, destroying several of the sculptures and much of downtown Cedar City. Despite efforts to refurbish the park, Singer never returned to its earlier glory, now attracting more unsavory types than families.

“What’s going on?” Moving slowly, trying to stay as quiet as possible, I creep from my bedroom into the hallway, pausing to peek into first Leah’s then Lucas’s room. They are both sleeping soundly.

“We’ve got a DOA in the park. Beneath the statue of the lady with the two kids,” Joe says, and I freeze just outside Avery’s room. Just five months old, my youngest has yet to sleep through the night.

“The Leto?” I ask, though I know that sculpture well, better than I want to. I don’t want to know what Joe is going to say next, though the twist in my stomach tells me I already know what is coming.

“Yeah,” Joe says. “Can you come?”

“There’s a child.” It’s not a question. We’ve been here before.

“Yeah,” Joe says again. “Looks like he’s three or four. Doing fine, just really cold. And confused.”

“I’ll be right there,” I say, shivering. It’s January and Iowa winters are brutal. My maternity leave ended just eight weeks ago, I’ve barely adjusted to my old schedule, but here I am, back in the mire of my job. I want to crawl into bed next to my husband, absorb the warmth of his body, but instead I dress quietly and quickly. Before I leave I gently rouse Adam, tell him that I’m going to check on an abandoned child.

“Be careful,” he says sleepily before rolling over again.

“Will you listen for Avery?” I ask. He grunts in response and I take it for a yes. I pause outside Avery’s bedroom door, fighting the urge to open it and kiss her goodbye. Even though she’s my third I still marvel at her tiny fingers, the way her eyelashes fan out, casting shadows on her cheeks, the sweet plumpness of her lips, pursed as if deep in thought. Instead, I blow a silent kiss through the closed door. It wouldn’t be fair to wake her and then leave. Adam is just as exhausted as I am and has to rise at 6:00 a.m. in order to take the kids to school and day care before he begins his day as a high-school history teacher and coach. It’s basketball season and sometimes he doesn’t get home from out-of-town trips until close to midnight.

In the dark, I zip up my winter parka, pull on a wool cap and gloves, and step out into the bitter late-January cold. Dirty snow covers lawns and is piled into jagged dunes where shovels and snowblowers tossed the results of the last snowstorm. My breath emerges ghostly white beneath the streetlamps as I unlock my van that is parked in our driveway and turn the heater to High. I grab an ice scraper. We have a one-car garage, and since Adam has been the one to take the kids to day care and school, I insisted that he park his truck in the garage, so it will be at least somewhat warm when they leave in the morning. I slide the scraper against the windshield; the frost peels away in icy curls. The only sounds are my breathing and the soft rasp of the scraper sliding across the window.

Singer Park is usually a fifteen-minute drive from my house, and though I’m anxious to get there and have so many questions for Joe, I force myself to drive slowly. The streets are cleared of snow, but still there are slippery spots and I don’t want to end up plowing into a tree or telephone pole. Cedar City is a different place in the middle of the night. By day, the bustling city is the second largest in Iowa with a population of just under 200,000. Like all communities of this size there are neighborhoods that hold families of all sorts: the large brick homes of the affluent, the more modest middle-and working-class communities, and the neighborhoods lined with narrow row houses converted into low-income apartments. There are the stark commercial areas with factories, car dealerships, restaurants, even a few strip bars. But on this Wednesday morning the streets of Cedar City are all but deserted and my hometown, the town I grew up in, appears peaceful.

By the time I arrive at the entrance of Singer Park, twenty minutes later, the heater has finally warmed the interior of the van and I’m reluctant to step out into the frigid air. A young, nervous-looking police officer, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his coat, approaches my van and I roll down the window.

“Park’s closed, ma’am,” he says. “You’ll need to leave.”

I fumble in my purse for my license. “Detective Gaddey called me. I’m Ellen Moore, the social worker.” I hand him my identification and he examines it carefully from behind the glare of his flashlight.

“I’ll be right back,” he says and steps away from the van, and I quickly roll up the window, but all the warm air has been leached away. I watch as the officer speaks into his radio and I know he’s checking to see if I’m who I say I am. After a moment he jogs back to the van and once again I roll down the window. “You can drive on in,” he says, returning my license. “Drive right up to the next set of yellow crime tape and park. You can’t miss it.”

I follow his directions and within a minute I see what he was talking about. Six police cars are parked in a half circle, their headlights facing the eerily lifelike statue, a rendition of the goddess Leto.

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