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Desperate Measures

James Jensen was a good man. An hard-working man. An honest man. So what was he doing crouched on the back porch of Helen Morgan’s house with a makeshift lock pick in his hand?

James Jensen was a tool and die man. His father had been a tool and die man, and his father before him. But James was not designing wrenches and screwdrivers. He took special price in the fact that he worked for Caduceus Medical Products designing surgical implements and components for diagnostic machines. The knowledge that he was creating instruments that were saving lives have James a great joy, second only to the love for his are Jennifer and their three children, Jimmy, Justin, and Junie.

James had it all — a prestigious, well-paying job, beautiful wife, three bright children, house in the suburbs, and matching, expensive sporty cars for him and his wife. Jennifer worked part-time in a downtown art gallery that also displayed and sold her own paintings. The kids were enrolled in a private school, earning top grades. Even their Labradoodle took first place in obedience trials at the county dog show.

Yes, James Jensen had it all.

Then came the virus. Caduceus Medical Products shifted focus and ramped up production of personal protective gear (PPEs) — hazmat suits, face shields, and perhaps most important, N95 masks. For a relatively small company its output was impressive — 50,000 pre-packaged units of suits, shields, and masks were churned out per week by the manufacturing department, which went to running three shifts a day. Fifty new line workers were hired. The company even received a Presidential commendation.

Until.

To no one’s surprise, some of those hardest hit by the virus were those in close, constant contact with the victims. Paramedics, EMTs, respiratory therapists, CNAs, nurses, doctors, police. Perhaps the casualty rate among first responders and medical personnel, while mourned would not have generated untoward suspicion. Until Milwaukee. All but one of Milwaukee’s EMTs and paramedics and half its police force were infected despite being fully outfitted with PPEs. PPEs exclusively provided by Caduceus Medical Products. The medical technologist father of one of the paramedics who died grew suspicious. His daughter still still had a PPE pack in the trunk of her car when she fell ill. Simon Apfel took the gear apart piece by piece. It was the mask. It was labeled N95. It looked like an N95. But when he took it apart he discovered it was not an N95. The filtration fabric was a cheap knock off. Simon sounded the alarm. Across the country, more than 300 deaths were linked to Caduceus products.

Criminal charges were filed. Of the 245 employees, only five executives knew of the substandard masks. Certainly James did not. No matter. The company was shut down and everyone lost his or her job. Worse, they were all tarred with the same brush of criminal negligence. To list Caduceus on one’s resume was poison.

For James, it was not just a lost job. One hundred resumes were met with a wall of no response. Not even a local mechanic would hire him. The children were pulled from their private school and enrolled in public schools. The sports cars were sold and replaced with ten-year-old beaters. Then came foreclosure and the bank took their home. James found a three bedroom apartment in a less than desirable neighborhood in Racine. Through guilt by association, Jennifer was fired from the gallery and her art stripped from its walls. One night after the children were in bed, she screamed at James, “This isn’t what you promised me!”. She picked up a suitcase and walked out the door. Three days later divorce papers showed up in his mailbox.

James had some savings, but the funds in his profit-sharing account at Caduceus had been frozen by the court upon the conviction of his employers. The pension plan was also gone. James took what odd jobs he could find, but he wasn’t the only desperate job-seeker. Thousands were out of work due to the deep recession brought about by the virus quarantine. He downsized again to a one-bedroom apartment. Junie was given the bedroom. Jimmy and Justin shared a futon and James slept in a recliner. Jimmy, now sixteen, began acting out in school and his grades plummeted. Justin, at twelve, turned silent and sullen. Only seven-year-old Junie seemed unaffected, although sometimes she cried for her mother at night. Junie was the only light and joy left in James’ life.

It was a Wednesday. James got the kids off to school as usual. Then he picked up his cardboard sign, “Will work for food” and headed off to the Pick’n’Save on Spring Street to join a motley group of men and women congregated on the corner hoping to find work or at the very least a can of tuna or a gallon of milk. There were just three of them this morning. James recognized Marigold and Patrick as regulars who shared this corner. Traffic was light, although the trio did receive a number of horn blasts and flipped fingers. Just before noon, Marigold and Patrick called it a day. James thought about packing it in too, but decided to eat his peanut butter and jelly sandwich and hang around for another hour. He had just opened the wrinkled paper bag when he heard the car slow down. He looked up in time to see the orange muzzle of the gun protruding from the passenger widow. Splat! He was hit center mass and covered in purple paint. As the car peeled rubber, he got a clear look at the laughing face of the gunman. Jimmy.

James had just taken a shower after bagging up his ruined clothes when his phone rang. “Mr. Jensen, I’m Detecive Hernandez with the Racine Police Department. We have your son James Jensen in custody on an assault charge. Can you come to the station?”

James hastily scrawled a note for Justin and asked him to stay inside and look after Junie until he returned, then raced down to the police station a few blocks away. He was escorted through the reception area to a small office. A smirking Jimmy was seated, handcuffed, in front of a desk. The detective merely nodded as James entered and flicked his finger at one of the two vacant chairs. James sat.

“Mr. Jensen, are you aware of your son’s activities over the past few weeks?”

“Well, other than school, no. I don’t let him go out much after school because he has to watch his younger brother and sister.”

The detective peered at James. Suddenly James was acutely aware of the splatters of purple paint he had been unable to wash out of his hair. “Are you sure about that, Mr. Jensen?”

” Well, I only discovered Jimmy had skipped school this morning, ” James stammered.

“And how did that come about, Mr. Jensen? Did the school contact you?”

” Um. No. ” James hesitated.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Dad! Just tell him!” Jimmy burst out. “I am sick and tired of you embarrassing all of us with that stupid sign of yours. You got what you deserved! Besides, everywhere I go I get treated as a criminal, so it might as well be one!”

James opened his mouth but no sound issued forth.

“Why would you be treated as a criminal, James?” the detective asked.

“You want to know, ask him!” Jimmy waved his cuffed hands at James.

The detective lifted an eyebrow.

James’ mouth went dry. “I was a tool and die maker…for, for Caduceus.” James could see the ice form in the detective’s eyes.

Hernandez picked up a file folder and tapped it sharply on the desk before continuing. “It appears that for the last several weeks, your son and one, Thomas Bruton have been conducting drive-by attacks with paint balls. This afternoon, he shot an eighty-two year old woman by the name of Amelia Porter. The impact of the paint ball knocked Ms. Porter off her feet. She suffered a broken hip as a result of the fall and is now at All Saints’ Hospital. It just so happened that the attack was witnessed by an off duty police officer who was able to get the license of Mr. Bruton’s car and called it in. Mr. Bruton and your son were apprehended four blocks away. Officer Mueller has positively identified your son as the shooter. The charges against him and Mr. Bruton are aggravated assault, which is a felony. Although your son is a minor, there is the possibility he may be charged as an adult.”

At that moment, there was a knock on the door and Jennifer stormed into the room. James hadn’t seen her in over a year; not since the divorce was finalized. “What have you people done to my son!” She was in full screaming mode. ” And you! ” she turned on James. “Why is it no surprise that you’re responsible for this!”

The detective interrupted, “Ms. Jensen, if you’ll just have a seat I will explain…”

” It’s not Jensen! It’s Ms. Saunders.”

James scooted over to make room for Jennifer to sit. “Saunders?” He thought. ” When did that happen? ” Aloud, he said, “How did you know about this?”

“Jimmy called me, of course,” she snapped.

“He has your phone number?”

“Of course. I am his mother.” She turned to Jimmy. “Don’t worry. I’ve called my lawyer. He’ll be here soon and get you out of here.”

Detective Hernandez was in the midst of explaining the circumstances to Jennifer when his phone rang. Listening, his expression darkened. He set the receiver down. “I’m afraid young Mr. Jensen won’t be going anywhere. Ms. Porter has died from her injuries. The charge has been upgraded from aggravated assault to manslaughter and the D.A. intends to charge the boys as adults. James will be remanded into custody until the arraignment.”

Detective Hernandez stood and indicated the door. As James and Jennifer exited, a uniformed officer stepped back in to take charge of Jimmy. The smirk had finally left his face. “Mom! Mom!” he cried out as he twisted in the officer’s grasp. “You said you’d get me out of this!” Another officer stepped up to escort James and Jennifer out of the building.

On the sidewalk, Jennifer began screaming at James, accusing him, blaming him. He finally cut her off by saying he needed to get home to make supper for Justin and Junie. “Fine!” Jennifer snapped. James noted the car she entered was a brand new, high end SUV as he got into his old beater.

That was Wednesday. On Friday afternoon he answered a knock at the apartment door to find a case worker from Child Protective Services. Behind her stood Jennifer and a man in a suit whom James did not recognize. The CPS worker introduced herself and handed James a document.

“I have been authorized to investigate a complaint regarding the home situation of minor children and make a determination of their placement. May I see the contents of the refrigerator and cupboards and their sleeping arrangements? Both the cupboards and refrigerator were nearly empty. “I usually go grocery shopping on Saturday” James explained .

“I see. What about the children’s bedrooms?”

“Well, Junie has the bedroom.” James opened the door to display the unmade twin bed with a tangled, faded pink comforter. Junie’s favorite plush unicorn sat on the pillow. ” And Justin sleeps out here.” James indicated the futon.

“And where do you sleep, Mr. Jensen?”

James pointed to the recliner.

The woman made some throat clearing sounds, the addressed Jennifer. “I can see your concerns, Ms. Saunders. And I must agree. These are not suitable living conditions for a young girl. I will approve of your motion to take custody of Junie.”

“Wait. Waiit. What? Take custody of Junie? Jennifer, when you walked out, you left me with the kids. Even at the divorce hearing you didn’t want them. You can’t do this!”

“I’m afraid she can, Mr. Jensen.” The suit finally spoke. ” Larry Carson. I’ve been appointed guardian ad litem for Junie Jensen and upon authorization from CPS, I have a writ for Ms. Saunders to take immediate custody. Now, if you’ll be so kind as to pack a bag for Junie, Ms. Saunders will pick her up from school.”

“No! No. Why Junie? Why not Justin? For that matter, why not both of them?” James protested.

Jennifer answered, “I can’t take them both because we only have the one spare bedroom and the regulations say each child must have their own room. Since Junie will be with me, Justin will now have his own room.”

Defeated and numb, James packed up Junie’s dolls and plush animals. Jennifer had cooly informed him she had purchased an entirely new wardrobe for the girl. Half an hour later Justin arrived home from school. He took the news of their new living arrangements in his usual sullen silence, although he forcefully slammed the bedroom door behind him when he retreated there after supper.

Though still in mourning over the loss of his daughter, the following week turned slightly brighter. James got a referral To Helen Morgan. She needed someone to paint her garage and she was willing to pay $200.00. The job took two days. Ms. Morgan was a gracious employer, making sure James took adequate breaks and feeding him lunch in her kitchen. She chattered on about her upcoming trip to visit her grandchildren in Florida on Saturday. Friday, when the job was complete, she handed James four crisp $50.00 bills.

Saturday, James did his grocery shopping. Thanks to Ms. Morgan, he was even able to buy some of Justin’s favorite snacks. On the way home from the supermarket, the bald, old rear tire finally gave up the ghost. James fished the spare out of the trunk. It too, was flat. The nearest Kwik Trip was a half mile away. James locked the car then lugged the spare to the service station. He filled the tire, and thankfully, it held. The trip back to his car was even more awkward. The whole process took much longer than he thought it would. By the time he got back to his car, he could only gape at it in shock. The trunk was open and all of the groceries were gone. A week’s worth of food for his teen-aged son and himself just gone and no way to replace it.

As he changed the tire he thought of the well-stocked pantry in Ms. Morgan’s kitchen. He had even glimpsed a full gallon of milk in her refrigerator. She would be gone for two weeks. Surely the milk would be spoiled by the time she returned. So that was why, late on this Saturday night, James Jensen was crouched on Helen Morgan’s back porch with a makeshift lock pick in his hand. A growing boy has to eat.

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