The Orphanage Blues
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Life is almost never easy or relaxed or even happy in a routine sort of way.
That's a statement a lot of people would argue about. First of all it's a broad statement. The argument would probably start with the definition of "almost never" tied to "routine sort of way".
How many hours of the day is one relaxed or happy before the statement becomes false? Maybe you don't think it's fair to decide the truth or fiction of the statement based on the quantity of number of minutes or hours a person is happy during a day. Perhaps you think that if, at some time during the day, more days of the week than not, a person feels happiness, or relaxed, or that life is easy, then that statement is false.
Obviously, one can't feel gloriously happy all day, every day, but if a person isn't miserable for the majority of the day, wouldn't that suggest that life is happy? For the most part?
But people who want to argue about the amount of time a person is happy are missing the point. It isn't really about how often you are happy that really counts. What counts is if you can find a way to be happy at all.
Life is a struggle, almost all the time. Abraham Maslow's theory of needs illustrates that, whether you agree with his hypothesis or not. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that hypothesis, Mr. Maslow believed that all our energy goes into providing for ourselves in the following manner:
First we use our energy to obtain basic physiological needs - food, clothing, shelter etc.
Once we have that, we work towards safety and stability for ourselves and those we care about.
When that is taken care of we concentrate on obtaining friends, the feeling of belonging and love.
Once we feel we are loved by others, we try to rise to the top of the heap. We look for respect, and status, among other things.
After all that is done, we look toward self actualization, which involves truth, justice, and finding a meaning to our lives.
It's a five level pyramid when it's presented in graphic form, like this:
So, at what level can we say that we're happy most of the time? It's fair to say that few people spend the majority of their time on self actualization, which means they're still struggling primarily to get to one of the other levels. And if you spend your time and energy struggling to climb to another level, can you really say that you're happy "most of the time"?
It's complicated even more when you realize that, in reality, we try to work on all five levels of the pyramid at the same time.
Well, the fact is that this is supposed to be a story, not a philosophical argument. So let's get on with the story and maybe that will illuminate the argument in a way that will make you ... happy.
The story is about a boy named Bobby Martin. Bobby would probably have been described as an unhappy boy. His parents were killed in an automobile accident in 1935, when he was seven, and there was no other family to take him in. It was then a society that had little use for a seven year old orphan boy, and he was shuttled from one miserable institution to another over the years. The Great Depression in America had made it hard enough for people to feed and clothe their own children, and adoptions were not popular for the most part.
Conditions in America's orphanages might have been roughly compared to the top of level one of Maslow's pyramid. Bobby generally had enough to eat to stay alive, and clothes to wear, and a roof over his head. He was safe, for the most part, though he was beaten fairly regularly because of his attempts to climb higher on Mr. Maslow's pyramid. To be fair, it must be said that the social structures in those places were well developed, both among the children housed in them, and the staffs that took care of those children. So perhaps Bobby was familiar with the twists and turns of level two or three, once he'd been at some institution long enough, though each time he was moved, he had to start all over again.
But talk to any of the people who lived or worked in those places, and you'll be hard pressed to find even one who would characterize them as "happy places."
Bobby's story started in 1935, but we'll pick it up on New Years Day, 1945, which is when Bobby's life took a turn for the better. It wasn't intended to take a turn for the better. Quite the opposite. It was intended that his life descend a little further into Hell. But fate has a way of altering intentions, which is exactly what happened.
He was then sixteen years old, only ten months shy of being old enough for the system to permit him to join the war effort and go off to die for the country that had no other use for him. He was, on that day, a resident of the Taylor School for Boys, a three story brick building that had, at one time, been a warehouse for bales of cotton, but had been taken over by the Government when the owner went bankrupt during the depression. Even renovation into a dormitory style warehouse for boys couldn't expunge the fine cotton lint that pervaded the place, coating everything, no matter how often things were swept or dusted.
Bobby had lived at Taylor for just over a year, and had just been called on the carpet for perhaps the thirtieth time for fighting. Bobby wasn't a strapping strong boy. He was tall for his age, probably due to heredity, and painfully thin, probably due to a diet that provided only eighty percent of his daily needs. As such, even boys a few years younger than he was picked on him. He had spirit, though, and was quick to lash out at those who sought to keep him low on the social totem pole. He fought dirty and he fought for keeps. He couldn't understand how, even though the boys he fought usually ended up in the hospital, the others kept trying to beat him.
He faced Mr. Ridgemont, the so-called Principal of the so-called school.
"You're incorrigible, Bobby," the man said flatly. "I'm tired of you causing trouble. I'm transferring you. You'll wish you'd been more tractable when this is done. I promise you that!"
Bobby stayed silent. Ridgemont loved the sap he carried in his back pocket, and he loved using it on the boys he was angry with. Bobby had a lot of experience on the receiving end of that anger. He didn't care where they sent him. In less than a year he'd be inducted into the Army and he'd be free at last. He didn't even care that it meant he'd have to fight and probably die. The Army couldn't be any worse than what he'd lived in for almost as long as he could remember.
"I'm sending you to Millstone," said Ridgemont, his tight mouth smiling a little.
Millstone was well known in orphanages as the place where boys were "corrected". It was what passed, in those days, for a maximum security prison for 'wayward' boys. It was rumored that not a few boys died while they were at Millstone.
"Get him out of here," said Ridgemont gruffly to the two burly, and only marginally intelligent men in what had once been white uniforms, who stood by Bobby. They were too stupid to be inducted into the Army, and this was the only job they'd been able to find. It suited their temperaments too, because they got to beat the boys.
One of the men cranked Bobby's right arm so high up behind his back that he felt tendons stretching to the breaking point. Bobby stepped quickly forward and kept his whimper of pain in. It was better if you didn't vent your pain. They fed on that. He knew where they were taking him. There was a windowless room, with only a mattress on the floor. He had been in that room many times.
Back in the office Harry Ridgemont scrawled the order to transfer Bobby Martin. He was busy, and his handwriting, even at its best, was difficult to read. He was lazy too, and didn't cross the "T" in Millstone, in the destination block of the transfer order.
Bureaucracy being what it is, it took two weeks for that transfer order to reach an office two states away, where a woman peered at the scrawled word and read the "M-I-L-L" at the beginning, but then could recognize only an "o" and an "n" later in the word. She pulled out a book and began leafing through it, trying to match those letters to one of the many orphanages the system supported. Ah. There it was. "Milleson House", in Nebraska.
She processed the transfer and sent it on its way, for another two week journey to the location where someone would read it and actually do something about it.
Bobby sat in the punishment room the entire month. In some ways, he didn't mind. There was no one to talk to, but then talking to people always ended up making trouble. If you talked in school, you got the sap. If you said something behind someone's back ... or even in front of him ... he wanted to fight, and you got the sap. If you talked in the evenings, when the attendants were listening to the radio, you got the sap. It was just easier not to talk.
Randy Covington was what could be called a happy-go-lucky fellow. He'd broken his leg in a farming accident when he was young, and the bones had been set poorly, leaving him with an obvious limp. His prospects hadn't been good as a young man, and the Army wouldn't take him when the war broke out, but then he was offered the job of accompanying orphans during transfers from one facility to another. Most of that was done seated, in this or that bus, car or train though, and it was a steady job. He lived with his mother when he wasn't traveling, and, together, they made do. All in all, Randy Covington knew when he was well off, and appreciated it.
He had seen his share of brutal situations and, when he arrived at the Taylor School for Boys, and saw the two men flanking the boy he was there to pick up, he recognized brutality in them immediately. He handed over the transfer order, put the boy in the passenger seat of his Government sedan, took the burlap bag that he knew contained the boy's worldly possessions, and left as quickly as possible.
They were possibly a mile from the Taylor School for Boys when he first spoke to the boy whose name he knew was Bobby.
"So, all excited about going to a new place?" he asked genially, just trying to make conversation.
Bobby didn't speak. It was easy, since he hadn't said a word to anyone in a month. Besides, he had found that speaking to adults was both profitless, as well as sometimes dangerous.
Randy had seen it before. These kids closed down to the outside world. He couldn't do anything about it, but tried anyway. By the time they got to the train station he had still been unable to get the boy to say a word. Once at the station he launched into his memorized litany of instructions.
"OK, your ticket is for Hamptstead, where someone will meet you. That's in Nebraska. You're sixteen, so you're old enough to travel by yourself. Your ticket includes a voucher for one meal. It's good at any station that has a placard in the window that looks like that." He pointed to a blue triangle in the upper left corner of the paper he was holding out to Bobby. "Don't get lost. They don't like it when they have to hunt you down. Your trip will be overnight, but you don't have to change trains, so just find a seat and get comfortable in it. You got any questions?"
Bobby peered at the paperwork the man was trying to give him. The transfer site clearly said "Milleson House" and not "Millstone".
A lot went through Bobby's mind during those few seconds. He'd never heard of "Milleson House", but he had a pretty good idea that, if he was being sent to Millstone, they wouldn't put him on the train by himself. He also knew that Millstone was in New Jersey, and not Nebraska. He looked guardedly at Roger, but still said nothing.
Roger had other things to do. It wasn't that he was impatient. He just needed to be moving on. The boy's look suggested that something was wrong, but he couldn't tell what.
"You can talk ... can't you?" he asked.
Bobby's mind moved faster now. He had a chance to escape. He shook his head in the negative.
Roger peered at the paperwork for the silent boy. There was a block for "special needs", but it was empty. He pulled out his fountain pen and neatly printed "Mute" in the block. Then he looked at the boy again.
"Can you understand what I've told you?" he said in that slightly loud, over-pronounced way that people use when they talk to people who are either deaf or mute. For some reason people assume that if one can't talk, one must be stupid as well, or that if you over-enunciate and shout, they'll hear you better.
Bobby nodded his head this time. He pointed to the blue triangle and pantomimed putting something into his mouth.
"Yes, that's for you to eat. Good," said Roger, happy that a possible problem had been resolved. "I've noted your ... problem ... on your papers, so they'll know about that when you get there. Do you think you'll be all right? Maybe I need to get someone to ride with you."
Bobby shook his head violently from side to side. He reached for the papers and bent to pick up the burlap bag at Roger's feet.
When the boy stood, Roger slapped him on the back, and then was ashamed instantly when the boy flinched.
"Er ... sorry. I meant that as good luck." He stuck out his hand instead. Bobby took it gingerly, as if he'd never done that before. "Good luck, my boy," said Roger. "I hope you like it where you're going."
Bobby found it difficult to believe it when Roger turned and limped off, leaving him alone.
Being alone was something very different and new for Bobby. The only time in his life he'd been alone was when he was locked in a punishment room alone. That might seem odd to you, the reader, since most of us would have considered Bobby to be "alone" most of his life, in the sense of not having parents or siblings.
But wherever Bobby went he did have family, of a sort. True, it changed, as kids came and, less often went, or when Bobby was shuttled off to a new "home", but in every situation Bobby had found somebody to be pals with. He didn't know how to "love" in the sense that you and I think about it, but his capacity to care was still intact and functioned as well as it could have been expected to.
And, the fact that he was among throngs of people either boarding or leaving trains in the station around him didn't give him the feeling of "belonging". These were all strangers, who hurried by him without looking at him for the most part, as if he were invisible. He was used to being invisible. Many adults had come and looked at the children in the places where he had lived. All had let their eyes glide over him as if he weren't there. He was too old to look at as a possible adoptee.
So Bobby luxuriated in the feeling of being alone, there among the hundreds of other people around him. Tentatively, he walked a ways down the hallway, toward a big sign that said "Trains". That seemed like an odd sign to him, what with this being a train station and all. What else could be down that hallway? He looked over his shoulder, expecting someone to yell at him ... to tell him to stop. But he was invisible.
Bobby Martin smiled for the first time in a month. He smiled even though he was only on the very first level of Mr. Maslow's pyramid. He had the clothes on his back, and a spare set in his gunny sack. He had a voucher that was good for one meal during the next twenty four hours. And, as soon as he was on the train, he had shelter from the winter cold.
He knew he had to board the train. He had to make his freedom last as long as possible. Sooner or later somebody would notice that a mistake had been made, and he would be snatched up and put in another bare room. He had no doubt that the mistake would be blamed on him, and that, someday, he'd pay for it. Until then he'd just enjoy the feeling, strange as it might be, that he was just another traveler, on his way from one place to another.
He walked past a lunch counter and eyed it longingly, reading the menu items and smelling the odors of food. Breakfast had been conveniently "forgotten" that morning. They hadn't come to let him out of the punishment room until that man had arrived to pick him up.
There was a girl sitting at the lunch counter, beside a woman and man who were probably her parents. She was about his age, with long brown hair and a pretty face. She looked at him and smiled. He looked away quickly, afraid to keep eye contact with her. She might tell her parents he was bothering her. He'd have liked nothing more than sitting beside the girl. She looked like she might wear that stuff that women outside the orphanage put on themselves, and which smelled good, like flowers.
But he had no money, and getting caught trying to steal would end his freedom quickly and savagely, he was sure. So he walked on.
He found the platform that his ticket said would be where the train was that he was supposed to get on, but it was empty. Not knowing what else to do he found a corner and sat down on the floor, his burlap bag on his lap. That bag contained his other shirt and pants. He only owned one pair of shoes. They were a little tight, but he kept them anyway. He used a rope as a belt. The bag also contained two changes of underwear, one of which was originally meant for a woman to wear. When you were given something, you kept it. If not you were never given anything again.
There was one other item in the bag. It was a lump of wood, one side of which had been carved into the representation of the head of a dog. The carving was exquisite, finely detailed, the tongue hanging out of jaws as if the dog were hot and panting. One ear was raised, and the head, if viewed from one angle, looked like it was tilted slightly. There wasn't enough of the body recognizable to tell for sure.
Bobby had carved that piece. He had found a pocket knife on the ground one day and hidden it. He had sharpened it by scraping the blade against a cement floor until it was sharp enough to cut the hunk of wood he'd also picked up off the ground. Bobby had "seen" the dog in that lump of wood, imagining it for over a year before he found the knife. Then, when he had a tool, he'd begun to make the wood look like what he saw in his mind.
He'd gotten the head almost done before being caught with the knife, which he was immediately accused of having stolen. A male worker had looked at it and taken it away, putting it in his own pocket. The same man had thrown the carving across the yard and put Bobby in a punishment room. It had taken Bobby a week to get to the part of the yard where his dog had been discarded. It was still there and he'd been able to recover it. He'd managed to keep it hidden until he was transferred to another orphanage. After that he just claimed it had been given to him by an old man. Had he been able to finish it, it probably would have been taken from him too. It was master carver quality ... that part that was done, anyway. He felt the carving through his bag and it comforted him to know it was still there.
"And who might you be?" came a gruff voice above him.
Bobby looked up to see a man in a blue uniform, with a strange conical hat. It didn't look like the hats most men wore, and had a bill on it. Bobby didn't say anything.
"Come on, now, where are your parents? What are you doing here?" asked the man.
Bobby held up the papers in his hand and the man took them.
"Oh, a waif," said the man in a kinder voice. "Sorry about that. Most people sit on a bench instead of the floor," he added.
Bobby looked at the bench only a few feet away. It hadn't occurred to him to sit on that. Adults sat on benches and chairs. Children sat on the floor unless they were eating. Sometimes even then.
The man looked at the papers some more.
"Mute eh?" he said. "Can you understand talk?" he asked.
"Good," said the man, handing the papers back. "Shouldn't have left you alone if you couldn't understand talk," he said. "Your train will be here in about forty-five minutes. I'll be back to see you get on it. Meanwhile get up off the floor and sit on a bench like normal people."
Bobby scrambled up and sat, as instructed. This acting like you couldn't talk was not a bad angle. People didn't ask so many questions if all you could do was shake or nod your head.
The man did come back later too. He came over and sat down beside Bobby, taking his hat off. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose before stuffing the cloth back in his coat.
"Well" he said. "The San Francisco Challenger will be here on time. There'll be a bunch of our boys getting off and then we'll find you a good seat. We'll be picking up more soldiers going the other way. Ever been on a train before?" he asked.
Bobby shook his head.
"Greatest way to travel ever invented," said the man. "I'm going to be one of the porters on this ride, so I'll keep an eye on you, OK?"
Bobby didn't know quite how to take that. Usually having an eye kept on you meant you were in trouble. But the man didn't sound angry. He just sounded like he was giving Bobby information. Bobby tried for a nod and the man got up.
"OK, then. I'll see you in about fifteen minutes."
When the train arrived Bobby watched in amazement. He'd seen trains before, but always from a distance. This huffing, chuffing monster was loud, and smoky and ... just big. Not wanting to take any chances, Bobby waited until the porter came back for him and led him on the train. He was taken to a seat where the man tried to take his bag and put it up above. Bobby didn't want to let go of it, though and eventually the porter gave up.
The ride itself would make a good story, but that's a story for another day. What Bobby saw out the window of the train was amazing to him. The people who sat on the train around him were amazing to him. He was afraid to get off the train when it stopped. Sometimes it stopped for a long time, and at others for only ten minutes or so, and he was afraid to use his voucher to get food because he didn't know how long that would take and he might miss the train when it left or, worse yet, have to leave the food behind while he ran to get back on.
Soon the train was packed with young men wearing uniforms of various kinds ... military uniforms. They were loud and laughed a lot, talking about what they intended to do to the Hun, or the Japs. The porter told them to leave Bobby alone, and that he couldn't talk. They did leave him alone, for the most part. One boy offered him a cigarette, which he took, though he'd never smoked one before. You always took what was offered. Then the soldier was off to talk to the others, as if they were all friends who had known each other for years.
When it got dark the men slept, and Bobby tried to. The rocking of the car and the click clack of the tracks was soothing. His stomach growled and hurt, but he ignored it as best he could. Finally, his bag gripped firmly in his hands, he dozed off.
He woke again in the morning. The train stopped, and then went and stopped again, until Bobby, faint from hunger now, dozed off again.
A blast of cold air woke him and he realized it was late in the day, and the train had stopped yet again. He wanted to get off and get something to eat, but again, he was afraid to do so. He was very hungry now, and was tensing his muscles to stand up and go to the depot when a voice shouted "All Abooooooaaaard!" and the train blew its whistle. He sat back and watched still more snowy land glide by.
Bobby was wondering when the trip would ever end when the porter suddenly appeared beside his seat.
"Not much longer now, son," he said. "North Platte is coming up. The boys'll all be getting off, but I don't want you to. They only get ten minutes there and it's hectic. Your stop is only an hour farther down the line."
Bobby was amazed to see hundreds of people on the platform when the train stopped. They were all waving and calling out, as if they knew all the soldiers on the train. They had things in their hands that they gave the men. When the train stopped the servicemen stampeded out and into the depot, running. A girl, all bundled up due to the cold, came along the platform and saw Bobby through the window. She ran up to the window and thrust something at him. He lowered the window to feel a frigid blast of cold air and she thrust the bundle in through the open window. He took it, to find it was a cloth bundle. He had time to notice her face was pretty and smiling, and then she was off, going to other windows where men were sitting who had not gotten off the train.
Bobby opened the bundle carefully and found it contained a sandwich and a pastry. He tried to stuff the sandwich in his mouth all at once, both because he was ravenous, and because he didn't want anyone to take it away from him. It took him several bites and he almost choked. The pastry he crushed, unconsciously, in its cloth wrapping, and hid it between him and the side of the car. He was astonished at how good the sandwich was, and looked around guiltily. No one paid any attention to him. He was almost alone in the car. Quickly he unwrapped the pastry and took a tentative bite. It was fantastic ... unbelievable ... sweet and soft, round, with a hole in the middle. He felt like he could die happy after having eaten this delicious thing. This he ate a little more slowly, savoring the taste, knowing he'd never get to have this delightful thing ever again and making the most of this amazing mistake that had been made.
Then the girl was at his window again, peering in at him. He leaned away, afraid she had come to rectify her mistake. She held out another bundle and he lowered the window again.
"Want another?" she yelled through the window. Her hand came through holding the cloth-wrapped bundle.
"Go on ... take it," she smiled. He almost dropped the new bundle, she let go of it so quickly. Then with a shouted "God Bless you!" she dashed off down the platform.
Bobby had never been 'blessed' before, though he'd heard the word. He looked unbelievingly at the new bundle and opened it carefully. Inside was another sandwich and a flat package wrapped in paper. It was the first chocolate bar Bobby had ever held in his hand.
Mavis Milleson was forty, though this particular day she felt closer to what she imagined sixty would be like. She waited patiently on the platform for the train that would bring her her latest acquisition. She tried to think of the children as acquisitions rather than human beings, because her heart burst every time she thought of what it must be like to be an orphan, and that was too hard. You had to keep them at bay or they'd tear your heart out. She wasn't very good at it, and she grew attached to all of the children anyway. It was painful to her when they got adopted, though that was, to her view, the best possible outcome for a child. Still, it was rarer than it should be, and some of the children she cared for had never been anywhere else. She was proud to be doing her part to serve her country during the war. And if she could take care of ten or fifteen orphans then that meant the Government could concentrate more on winning the war. At least that was how she thought about it.
She wiggled unconsciously at the cold. February in Nebraska was always cold, but she never got used to it. Her high topped shoes protected her ankles from the snow, and her old fashioned long skirts helped too, but it was still cold.
She was surprised that she was getting another child, not to mention that it was a boy. She was full up at her boarding house-turned-orphanage. Business hadn't been good because of the Depression, and then the war came along and strained things even more. Then she found out about the program that was trying to make space in the nation's overcrowded orphanages, and found out that she could make more by housing waifs than she could by operating a boarding house. She hadn't had to do much renovation. With two children to each of the six rooms that were set aside for boarders, she could comfortably handle a dozen children. Right now she had thirteen, the oldest of which was ten. She had three of the smaller children in one room, but they didn't complain since two of them were a babies and the other felt like he was their big brother.
When she got the official message that she'd be receiving another boy she was surprised. The war must be causing problems. Usually she reported that a child had been adopted before they sent her another one. Then again, she had a pretty good placement record. The children she had were young, and therefore easier to place. And Nebraska was a place where farmers sometimes adopted children, since that added hands to help with the work, even it it was only in the house.
She saw the smoke from the smokestack before she saw or heard the train itself. Even before that she heard the rails singing as they vibrated with the coming of the heavy engine. She saw it was another troop train coming, so it would be more difficult to spot the boy, since he would be able to get off at any number of places. But the soldiers would stay on the train at this stop. Other than an exchange of mail bags and whatever passengers got off, there would be no need for the train to stop longer. There was no one waiting to board, and troop trains didn't haul freight.
She was standing and waiting when the train groaned to a halt, the bell ringing its insistent tone that meant a short stop. Her eyes were drawn to a porter and a young man who got off together. The porter she expected, and a chaperone for the child.
But she didn't see the child.
Still, she gravitated toward the porter, who would know about the child and chaperone.
As she approached, her stomach sank. The young man was dressed in rags, for all intents and purposes, his pants too short and his shirt patched many times over. He was holding a burlap bag too. Mavis had been in this business long enough to know an orphan when she saw one, but he was much too old to be sent to her!
Her worst fears were soon confirmed as the she identified herself to the porter and asked about Bobby Martin. The man shoved a fistful of papers at her and said "This is him. Had no trouble from him. Not sure whether he's eaten or not. Good kid for a dummy." Then he turned and remounted the steps of the coach as Mavis held her hand out in supplication.
"But ... wait ..." she said uselessly as the door closed. Almost immediately the train began to inch forward. In frustration she yelled the first thing that came to her mind. "WHERE'S HIS COAT?"
Mavis swallowed. It was too late to do anything about it now. She'd just have to take him home and then write letters until some other place was found for him. She couldn't take care of a grown boy! She didn't know anything about teenagers, and if she knew anything, she knew this boy was in his teens.
She turned to him, but didn't look at his face. Instead she opened the wrinkled papers in her hand and looked at them.
"You're Bobby?" she asked. She looked up to see the boy nod, his lips pressed together.
"There's been a mistake, Bobby. I'm sorry about this, but I don't take older children. I don't know what to do," she said, uncertainly. The boy stared at her. Her eyes strayed across the paper to the square she always hated to see anything in. The word "Mute" leapt off the page at her. THAT was what the porter had meant when he called the boy a dummy!
"Oh you poor baby!" she gushed, a tear forming in her eyes. "Can you hear me honey?" The thought that this young man was handicapped made her heart break. He wasn't a bad looking boy, under that layer of dirt and grime. His arms and legs, both of which stuck out of his clothing in the frigid air were slim and well formed. He looked thin in his ragged clothing. She saw him nod and shiver at the same time and burst into action.
"Well come along. You'll freeze out here. We've got to get you into the warmth or you'll catch your death of cold." She tugged at his shirt sleeve and herded him toward the depot.
Once inside the depot, standing by the pot-bellied coal stove, which was cherry red at the bottom, Mavis took stock. She had a car, one of the few luxuries she was entitled to as a custodian of the children. If a child got too sick for the local doctor to treat, she had to drive to the hospital over in Bridgeport, the nearest city of any size for miles. The car's heater worked well, and the house was only ten blocks away, so they should be fine. She gave him a chance to warm up and then hustled him out to the car.
Mavis didn't talk to the boy on the way home. She was trying to figure out where she was going to put him. She wasn't sure if putting him in a room with little ones was a good idea. There was so much she didn't know about older children. She was childless herself, and the only children she had any experience with were the babies and children under ten. Still, she couldn't just turn the boy out. Unable to speak. She choked up again and blinked her eyes rapidly. She darted a glance at him, but he was sitting stock still, staring straight ahead. What must the poor dear be thinking?
What Bobby was thinking was that this must be the strangest orphanage in the world if people acted like this woman. She wasn't mean, and actually cared that he was cold. She said a mistake had been made, and in any other place he'd been that was cause to blame him. Punishment soon followed in his experience. But this woman didn't seem angry at all. He looked out of the sides of his eyes at the houses they were driving by. This place was tiny by comparison to the cities he had always lived in. Just as he'd been able to see for what seemed like miles from the window of the train, across wide expanses of snow-covered flat land, he could see that, beyond the houses there were only a few bare trees and that same flat land that seemed to roll into low hills.
The woman turned into the yard of a house that looked like any other house on the street. It was tall, with three stories. It was white, like all the other houses on the street, and had the same kind of porch that went all the way around the house, from what he could see. He assumed the woman was stopping at her home before taking him to the orphanage. He sat quietly. It was clear he had to wait to see what would happen. He had thought about jumping off the train and making a run for it, but the cold weather had quashed that plan. It was the same here. He hoped she'd leave the car running so the heater would work while she went to do whatever she had stopped to do, but she turned the motor off and then opened the door. He was still sitting there, staring straight ahead when she spoke.
"Well? Come on. Let's get inside before we both freeze to death."
Surprised, Bobby opened the car door and stepped out into the snow. It was deeper than his shoes and his socks got covered immediately. He was sad about that. He only had one pair of socks.
He let himself be hustled into the house and was hit suddenly by warmth, and the smell of food all at once. Even though he'd eaten the two sandwiches and that delicious round pastry only an hour or two before, he was still hungry. He couldn't bring himself to eat the chocolate bar. It was too special. He had put it in his bag. Now the smell of cooking meat made his mouth water. He shivered again as the heat wrapped all around his body.
The woman - he didn't know her name - stopped and took off her coat. She was younger than he'd thought. Under that coat she had a young woman's body, slim, though not tall. He noticed her breasts. Bobby had been noticing women's breasts a lot the last couple of years. He looked out the windows of the orphanage in the spring and summer to look at the women as they walked by. Once there had been a woman who worked in an orphanage he was in, but she was old and irritated all the time. Boys and girls weren't allowed to mix in the orphanage, eating at separate times and playing outside at different times too. So the only women he ever saw were the ones out the windows and the ones who he was invisible to. They hadn't put him on display for adoption for a long time now. He knew it was years, but not how many.
Bobby heard voices ... lots of voices ... the voices of children, and the clatter of plates and spoons. He was puzzled now, but at least it was warm inside. He sat down gingerly on a chair in the hallway, looking at the woman to see if she'd yell at him for sitting there to wait for her. He sat just on the edge, trying not to get the fabric on the chair dirty.
Mavis looked at him, her head cocking sideways like the partially done carving in his bag. "Don't sit there," she said, meaning he should sit at the table with the rest.
Bobby jumped up immediately and sat on the floor next to the chair. He made sure not to lean against the wall, which was covered with floral wallpaper.
Mavis' eyebrows rose. "Whatever are you doing?" she asked. "It's supper time. Don't you want supper? Did you eat already on the train?"
Bobby's eyes darted around. Something was wrong here. She couldn't be talking to him, but he was the only person in the hallway except for her. He looked up to see her hand stretched out toward him and flinched before he could control it.
Mavis knew uncertainty and ... yes, fear when she saw it. Her knees went weak as she realized the poor boy was afraid she was angry at him. Her heart broke yet again and she sniffed, trying to control her feelings.
"Don't be afraid," she said, her eyes filling again with tears. "I won't hurt you. You're safe now. Come on. Come with me. Let's get you something to eat."
Bobby reached tentatively for the hand that was offered to him. He marveled at how soft her skin felt. He had no way of knowing that she had thick calluses on her hands from laundry and dishes and hauling coal for the stove and all the other things there was no man around to do. They felt soft to him.
He followed, being led by his hand as she turned a corner into a large room with a huge table in it. There were children sitting all around the table, some on stacks of books that got them high enough so they could reach their plates. There were four adults around the table too, some standing, and some sitting. One was feeding a baby who sat in a high chair.
Most of the eyes of the children turned and fixed on him. All but the eyes of the woman feeding the baby locked on him too.
"Children?" said the woman who had taken him from the train station. "This is Bobby. He has come to live with us for a while."
Bobby thought of himself as a tough kid. He had gone up against boys bigger than himself for most of his life. He knew how to steal, and how to lie and how to cheat. He knew where to hit a boy to take him out of the fight instantly. He could write quite well and read even better. He thought he could take anything anybody could throw at him.
But this ... this was something he didn't know how to deal with.
By our standards the table was set modestly. There was a bowl of mashed potatoes, a bowl of green beans, a bowl of corn and a platter piled with gravy-covered brown meat. There were pitchers of some light brown liquid and that liquid was in some of the glasses set around the table. Other pitchers had milk in them and water. There was what had been a loaf of bread on a wooden board, with a knife lying beside it. And each child had his own plate, with food on it. Most of the children were chewing, or had food poised on a spoon between plate and mouth. One little boy had a piece of meat in the fingers of both hands, tearing at it with his teeth, his mouth circled with brown juices where the gravy had smeared his skin. He looked at Bobby curiously as he jerked his head to tear off a piece of meat, which he began to chew vigorously.
To Bobby's eyes there was a feast spread on the huge table ... more food than he'd seen in a long time. He jerked his eyes away from the food, assessing his surroundings. The adults were all women. There were no men present. No uniforms. No sap being slapped into a palm from time to time as an adult patrolled the eating area.
Bobby looked around, looking for the men who had to be there, ready to grab him and beat him if he made a wrong move. His eyes were a little wild as he looked for the danger he knew had to be there somewhere.
One of the women spoke.
"Mavis? He's almost a man! What's going on here?"
So that was the woman's name. Mavis. Bobby looked at her, to see what she'd do.
"Yes, there was some kind of mistake. They sent him here without even a coat! Lands sakes, I was afraid he'd freeze solid before I could get him here. I don't know what we're going to do with him. He can't talk. I don't think he's had anything to eat either."
At that she looked at Bobby, whose hand she still held, and who was still clutching his bag in his other hand. She dropped his hand and reached for the bag.
"Let me just take that Bobby, and we'll get you something to eat."
Bobby didn't know what to do. This all seemed too unreal to him. He knew he wasn't dreaming, but this was all wrong in his experience. He clutched his bag closer to him, acting on instinct.
Another woman stood up. "Mavis the poor thing's scared to death!" She moved toward Bobby. "He thinks you're going to take his things."
Bobby looked at the woman, who was perhaps a little younger than Mavis. She had a more matronly look to her. She came up to him slowly, as if approaching a wild animal.
"Bobby?" she said, her voice soft and mellow. "I have a boy about your age. He's off in the war. Let me just put your things right over here." She patted an empty chair along the wall. "We'll just set them right here while you eat. Nobody will bother them. Aren't you hungry Bobby?" Her voice had taken on a high note, as if she were talking to a stray dog, trying to get the dog to come to her to be petted.
"He can't talk, Donna," said Mavis again, as if no one had heard her before.
"Well," said the woman named Donna. "You don't need to talk to get some food in you, now do you? Come along, Bobby, we'll make you a place. Please? Will you eat something for me?"
Stranger and stranger was how Bobby felt things were getting. The woman was actually asking him to eat, like it would be a favor to her. An old fairy tale Bobby had heard when he was little, and still had a mother, came to mind. It was about a boy and girl who were invited into a house made of Gingerbread. The woman who invited them in intended to cook them and eat them, but she tempted them with food.
Still, they were all eating the food ... even the adults ... and he was ravenous. The food smelled so good ... looked so good.
One of the women got up and left, going to what Bobby supposed was the kitchen. She came back with another plate and glass and spoon. There was a general scooting of chairs, the adults helping move chairs with children still in them. One little girl, about seven, got down and pulled her own chair aside to make room for another one. She stared at Bobby with serious eyes and then climbed back up on her chair. Donna got another chair from against the wall and inserted it into the hole and Bobby sat down.
It was just natural that, when he sat down, Bobby sat and looked at his empty plate. In the places he'd lived somebody put food on your plate. If you reached for food you got the sap. Another of the women poured some of the brown liquid into his glass.
"It's just tea," she said, sounding apologetic for some reason. "We don't have sugar, of course." Nobody had sugar because of the war. Even Bobby knew that.
All the eating had slowed to a stop, with the exception of the little boy with the meat in his fingers, who was still chewing industriously on the bite he'd already torn off.
Donna spoke over Bobby's shoulder. "Patrick, how many times have I told you not to eat with your fingers? If you want your meat cut up all you have to do is ask.
The boy smiled and swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing as he forced the meat in his mouth down.
"Like it this way," he piped.
"Yes, dear, but it's not civilized," said Mavis. "You need to learn your manners if you want somebody to take you in."
The boy's jaw jutted slightly.
"Like it here," he said simply. Then he promptly put the piece of meat to his mouth and began worrying another hunk off.
Bobby couldn't believe the conversation he'd just heard. The boy had sassed and nobody had beaten him ... not even a slap!
"Go on Bobby," said the mellow voice of Donna in his ear. "Eat something."
To his astonishment, the little girl who had moved her chair stood up on it, reached for the bowl of corn not far away, and handed it to him. Bobby didn't know what to do. He expected the girl to be disciplined for touching the food bowl, but it was obvious she expected him to take if from her. In HER defense he took the bowl, so that by the time an adult got there it wouldn't be in her hands.
At the same time he realized there WAS an adult standing right behind him, and she had made no move to slap the girl. There was a large spoon in the bowl. Tentatively Bobby took the spoon and scooped up ten or fifteen kernels of the gold food on the tip. He tensed as he transferred that to his plate, still expecting violence.
"Gracious sakes, boy, no wonder you're so thin," said Mavis. "You'll never grow strong eating like that!"
In an odd way, the censure in her voice, even though it wasn't angry, was something that Bobby expected and was comforted to hear. He was used to censure. And yet, it was clear from her statement that she expected him to take MORE!
It took another five minutes, and Bobby knew now that he was in some kind of supremely realistic dream. Hard as it was to believe, it became clear that, as long as there was food left, he could have as much as he wanted. He had arrived while supper was well in session, and the smaller children had already had most of what they'd eat, so the food in the bowls on the table was, for the most part, available to Bobby. Still wary, his eyes darted this way and that as he accepted the bowls that were passed to him. When the food on his plate was eaten and the bowls were passed to him again, he couldn't believe it, but took more anyway, now just trying to take advantage of his luck.
One of the women across the table was a pretty young woman with short straight bouncy blond hair, like the flappers had made popular in the twenties. She watched Bobby shoving food into his mouth and finally spoke.
"Mavis, this boy is going to eat us out of house and home."
Mavis swallowed some of her own food and chided the woman. "Meg, don't make the poor thing feel bad. I suspect he hasn't eaten in a while."
The little girl next to Bobby stood up on her chair again and strained to reach the bread, which hadn't been passed to Bobby yet.
"Emily!" said Donna, who, for some reason, was still standing behind Bobby. "You know better than to reach like that. Ask someone to pass it to you."
Emily, who had managed to get her thumb and finger on the platter, and had dragged it toward her, took it in both hands and presented it to Bobby. "You need a bath," she said seriously.
"Emily!" scolded the woman Mavis had called Meg. "Where are your manners tonight?"
Another little girl put her spoon down and spoke. "The Umpelty Oog got her manners."
Mavis took a drink of tea. "Constance, I've told you a hundred times ... there is no such thing as an Umpelty Oog. He's all in your imagination dear."
Constance looked at Bobby with the same serious expression Emily had. "The Umpelty Oog lives in the closet. He comes out at night and scares us."
Bobby tried to chew and smile at the same time. He couldn't help smiling. She sounded so serious. He wiped the smile off his face quickly, though, before an adult could see it. Adults didn't like smiles.
"That's nonsense," pronounced Mavis, but she smiled.
Patrick had managed to swallow another glob of meat. He put the mangled piece of meat in his hands on his plate, almost daintily, and reached for his glass with both hands and the woman next to him put two fingers under it as it slipped in his greasy fingers. She kept her fingers there as he gulped milk. He set the glass back down as the woman deftly removed her supporting fingers as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Bobby stared at the smudges on the glass and then at the moustache of white that was on the boy's upper lip. Patrick wiped it away with his sleeve.
"I seen the Umpelty Oog one night. Wasn't skeered." He stuck out his chest, proud that he had faced the horror of the night like a man.
"Fairy tales!" snorted Mavis.
One of the women who hadn't spoken yet wiped her lips with the corner of a napkin. She had been eating with one hand and spoon feeding a baby with the other. "Well, I wouldn't mind if the Umpelty Oog visited my house some night," she said.
Mavis almost choked on the food in her mouth. "Why Prudence Watson, you hussy!"
The woman named Prudence laughed. Her laughter made something deep inside Bobby want to twist and wriggle. She had auburn hair, and big thrusting breasts that strained the fabric of her dress where it covered them.
"Well if Harold can find some tart in France to leave me for, then at least I should get some kind of compensation, don't you think?"
Mavis looked sad, but then frowned. "That's no excuse to talk that way in front of the children," she said. "Your husband is fighting a war, and he's a long way from home. I know that's no excuse for being unfaithful to you, but that's no call for you to talk like a common whore."
Prudence got red in the face. "He's not being unfaithful to me Mavis. He told me in no uncertain terms that he's not coming back when the war's over. He's going to stay there with his French bitch and leave me all alone. As far as I'm concerned we're divorced and I can let any man in my bed I want to!"
Mavis's face had gone pale. She was visibly trying to control herself. "Mrs. Watson, I will NOT have that kind of talk at the dinner table, and ESPECIALLY not in front of the children. We all know how difficult this is for you, and our hearts go out to you, but I will not tolerate that kind of talk in polite company."
Prudence ducked her head.
"Of course, Mavis. I'm sorry. I have no idea what got into me," she said.
Donna suddenly laughed, and her laughter got harder and harder until she had to sit down. She did so right on top of Bobby's burlap bag, on the chair behind her. She bruised her buttocks on the carving in the bag and jumped back up, laughing harder still.
"What in the world's gotten into you?" said Mavis, starting to smile herself. When someone laughs that hard it's just natural to want to laugh with them. The other women around the table were smiling now too and even some of the children.
Donna laughed so hard she started coughing. Eventually she calmed and then giggled, holding her stomach until she could talk. "I'll get in trouble if I tell you." Then she started laughing again.
Meg giggled in sympathy. "Come on, tell us. We could all use a good laugh."
"It's horrible." She giggled again nervously.
"What?" asked Prudence.
Donna took a deep breath, visibly trying to control her giggles. She looked at Prudence. "What you said ... you said you didn't know what got into you. And I couldn't help but think what you HAVEN'T gotten in you lately." She giggled again. "and then Mavis wanted to know what's gotten into ME and I couldn't help but think about what hasn't gotten into ME lately either!"
She started cackling again, great heaving sobs of gut laughter as the women around the table came to the realization that she was talking about sex. It was too ludicrous not to be funny. Soon the room was filled with rueful laughter as the children looked on uncomprehending.
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