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"I adopted him," Natalie adds. "When was it, Love, about ten years ago?"
"Yep," he answers, catching himself, clamming up, and turning his attention back to a plate of chicken and rice.
"He's one of my success stories," boasts Natalie.
On a recent weekday in late February, Natalie is home from work. At noon, she rousts herself from a nap to answer the knock of a New Times reporter. Eduardo is in one of the back bedrooms. Rolando is sound asleep in the living room, laid out facedown on one side of an L-shaped sofa. Natalie settles into the well-worn sofa's other wing and talks about her children. She doesn't know quite how to help her three oldest boys. "He tells me he makes his money gambling," she says of Rolando, shaking her head and looking over at her comatose son. The boy stirs and squints sleepy-eyed at the visitor. "You can get up and go in your room if you don't like it," she admonishes.
In his first year at Hallandale High, Rolando did well. He played quarterback for the football team. He was good-looking, popular, a star. "The coaches loved him," Natalie says. "Everybody loved him." But in tenth grade, Rolando's grades slipped when he began skipping classes to hang out with his pals. The coach told him to improve his grades or he couldn't play football. Natalie says Rolando took the admonition seriously. He loved football. "He was even doing homework," she recalls.
One day, the principal caught Rolando, then 16, skipping class and booted him out of school. Natalie pleaded his case before the Broward County School Board, but Rolando was expelled. The same fate befell several of Rolando's friends, including Tony Edwards, who now works full-time at Atlas Pen and Pencil. "I went to school," Tony says, offended at the suggestion he skipped. "I just didn't go to class." Natalie tried to persuade the school board to allow Rolando to attend another high school. When that failed, she badgered Rolando to earn his GED through adult education. Four years later, he still blames her for not securing his return to Hallandale High. And he refuses to consider adult education. "That's for losers," he says.
Natalie warns Rolando that if police bust into one of the little gambling dens he frequents, he'll go to jail. But he just shrugs her off. He has money, she says, pointing out Rolando's and Eduardo's front teeth, recently capped in gold. She also heard through the grapevine that Rolando bought his girlfriend a Coach handbag. "Where'd he get the money for that?" she asks. "You don't make that much money gambling. You lose more than you make. But if he's doing anything else, he's sneaky about it. I haven't seen it."
When the boys were children, Natalie says, the younger ones followed Rolando's lead. When he left school, she worried. "I thought, 'The others will go too,'" she says.
It was an accurate prediction.
Eduardo was kicked out of Hallandale High when he turned 16, also for skipping. Natalie withdrew Armando from school this year because he had stopped attending. "I can't leave my job every day to run behind him to make sure he gets to school," she says of Armando. "I would get him up at 5 a.m. and get him on the bus. Somehow, he would find a way to get off the bus."
At the beginning of the school year, Armando bought his Delta 88 with $500 his parents had given him for school clothes, even though he didn't yet have a driver's license. Natalie scolds him for driving without a license or insurance. Hallandale Beach police officers stopped Armando four times in January and February. He racked up 11 traffic charges -- for driving without a license, driving on a suspended license, speeding, inadequate insurance, and failing to stop properly at an intersection. "I'm going to drive real slow," the wiry 16-year-old promises his mother as he runs out the door singing "Ten-Twenty-Li-i-ife." Natalie's resolution sometimes falters, as on another night when she gave Armando $10 to pick up one of the boys' friends who needed a ride home from work.
Natalie feels her power over her sons eroding. Admonitions don't work anymore, she realizes. She's counting on a few hard knocks to bring her children to their senses. "Sometimes, I just let them fall on their faces," she says as Armando jumps in the car and takes off. "They're so hard-headed." Since Rolando is now 20 years old, Natalie says he's old enough to make his own choices. She can only give advice -- which she provides as a running commentary from the sidelines -- or kick him out of the house. Rolando has never held a steady job, Natalie complains. He enjoyed working as a roofer. But usually he works for a while and then quits, complaining that "punk jobs" are beneath him. "I don't know where they get their laziness from," she says of her sons. "They act like they're going to live here with me forever."
She talks about booting out the oldest boys but has mixed feelings. If she can, Natalie wants to help them negotiate this time between childhood and adulthood. But she sees them drifting. The kids who hang at the Wiggins house, like Love, seem to pay more attention to Natalie than her own offspring.