Orphan train, p.10
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       Orphan Train, p.10

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  “It’s all part of the deal,” Mr. Sorenson says. “You feed and clothe Dorothy and make sure she gets to school, and she will earn her keep by doing chores around the house.” He pulls his glasses and the sheet of paper out of his various pockets, then puts his glasses on and tilts his head back to read it. “I see there’s a school four miles down. And there’s a ride she can catch at the post road, three-quarter mile from here.” He takes his glasses off. “It’s required that Dorothy attend school, Mrs. Grote. Do you agree to abide by that?”

  She crosses her arms, and for a moment it looks as if she’s going to refuse. Maybe I won’t have to stay here, after all!

  Then the front door creaks open. We turn to see a tall, thin, dark-haired man wearing a plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves and grungy overalls. “The girl will go to school, whether she wants to or not,” he says. “I’ll make sure of it.”

  Mr. Sorenson strides over and extends his hand. “You must be Gerald Grote. I’m Chester Sorenson. And this is Dorothy.”

  “Nice to meet you.” Mr. Grote clasps his hand, nods over toward me. “She’ll do just fine.”

  “All right, then,” Mr. Sorenson says, clearly relieved. “Let’s make it official.”

  There’s paperwork, but not a lot. It’s only a few minutes before Mr. Sorenson has retrieved my bag from the truck and is driving away. I watch him through the cracked front window with the baby, Nettie, whimpering on my hip.

  Hemingford County, Minnesota, 1930

  “Where will I sleep?” I ask Mr. Grote when it gets dark.

  He looks at me, hands on his hips, as if he hasn’t considered this question. He gestures toward the hallway. “There’s a bedroom yonder,” he says. “If you don’t want to sleep with the others, I guess you can sleep out here on the couch. We don’t stand on ceremony. I been known to doze off on it myself.”

  In the bedroom, three old mattresses without sheets are laid across the floor, a carpet of bony springs. Mabel, Gerald Jr., and Harold sprawl across them, tugging a tattered wool blanket and three old quilts from each other. I don’t want to sleep here, but it’s better than sharing the couch with Mr. Grote. In the middle of the night one kid or another ends up under the crook of my arm or spooned against my back. They smell earthy and sour, like wild animals.

  DESPAIR INHABITS THIS HOUSE. MRS. GROTE DOESN’T WANT ALL these kids, and neither she nor Mr. Grote really takes care of them. She sleeps all the time, and the children come and go from her bed. There’s brown paper tacked over the open window in that room, so it’s as dark as a hole in the ground. The children burrow in next to her, craving warmth. Sometimes she lets them crawl in and sometimes she pushes them out. When they’re denied a spot, their wails penetrate my skin like tiny needles.

  There’s no running water, and no electricity or indoor plumbing here. The Grotes use gas lights and candles, and there’s a pump and an outhouse in the backyard, wood stacked on the porch. The damp logs in the fireplace make the house smoky and give off a tepid heat.

  Mrs. Grote barely looks at me. She sends a child out to be fed or calls me to fix her a cup of coffee. She makes me nervous. I do what I’m told and make an effort to avoid her. The children sniff around, trying to get used to me, all except for two-year-old Gerald Jr., who takes to me right away, follows me like a puppy.

  I ask Mr. Grote how they found me. He says he saw a flyer in town—homeless children for distribution. Wilma wouldn’t get out of bed, and he didn’t know what else to do.

  I feel abandoned and forgotten, dropped into misery worse than my own.

  MR. GROTE SAYS HE’LL NEVER GET ANOTHER JOB IF HE CAN MANAGE it. He plans to live off the land. He was born and raised in the woods; it’s the only life he knows or cares to know. He built this house with his own two hands, he says, and his goal is to be entirely self-sufficient. He has an old goat in the backyard and a mule and half a dozen chickens; he can feed his family on what he can hunt and find in the woods and on a handful of seeds, along with the goat’s milk and eggs from the chickens, and he can sell things in town if he has to.

  Mr. Grote is lean and fit from walking miles every day. Like an Indian, he says. He has a car, but it’s rusted and broken down behind the house. He can’t afford to get it fixed, so he goes everywhere on foot or sometimes on the old mule that he says wandered off from a horsemeat truck that broke down on the road a few months back. His fingernails are rimmed with grime made up of axle grease and planting soil and animal blood and who knows what else, ground in so deep it can’t be washed off. I’ve only ever seen him in one pair of overalls.

  Mr. Grote doesn’t believe in government telling him what to do. Tell the truth, he doesn’t believe in government at all. He has never been to school a day in his life and doesn’t see the point. But he’ll send me to school if that’s what it takes to keep the authorities out of his hair.

  ON MONDAY, THREE DAYS AFTER I ARRIVE, MR. GROTE SHAKES MY shoulder in the darkness so I can get ready for school. The room is so cold I can see my breath. I put on one of my new dresses with both sweaters layered on top. I wear Fanny’s mittens, the thick stockings I wore from New York, my sturdy black shoes.

  I run out to the pump and fill a pitcher with cold water, then bring it inside to heat on the stove. After pouring warm water in a tin bowl, I take a rag and scrub my face, my neck, my fingernails. There’s an old mirror in the kitchen, spotted with rusty stains and freckled with black specks, so ruined it’s almost impossible to see myself in. I divide my unwashed hair into two pigtails, using my fingers as a comb, and then braid them tightly, tying the ends with thread from the packet Fanny made for me. Then I look closely at my reflection. I am as clean as I can manage without taking a bath. My face is pale and serious.

  I barely have any breakfast, just some wild rice pudding made with goat’s milk and maple syrup Mr. Grote tapped the day before. I am so relieved to be getting out of this dark, fetid cabin for the day that I swing Harold around, joke with Gerald Jr., share my rice pudding with Mabel, who has only just started looking me in the eye. Mr. Grote draws a map for me with a knife in the dirt—you go out the drive, turn left there where you came in, walk till you get to the T section, then go over that bridge back yonder and on till you get to the county road. Half an hour, give or take.

  He doesn’t offer a lunch pail, and I don’t ask for one. I slip the two eggs I boiled the night before when I was making supper into my coat pocket. I have that piece of paper from Mr. Sorenson that says a man named Mr. Post who drives the kids to school in his truck will be at the corner at 8:30 A.M. and bring me back at 4:30 P.M. It’s 7:40, but I’m ready to go. Better to wait at the corner than risk missing my ride.

  I skip down the driveway, hurry up the road, linger on the bridge for a moment, looking down at the reflection of the sky like mercury on the dark water, the foaming white suds near the rocks. Ice glistens on tree branches, frost webs over dried grasses in a sparkling net. The evergreens are dusted with the light snow that fell last night like a forest of Christmas trees. For the first time, I am struck by the beauty of this place.

  I hear the truck before I see it. About twenty yards from me, it slows to a stop with a great screeching of brakes, and I have to run back along the road to get on. An apple-faced man in a tan cap peers out at me. “Come on, darlin’. Don’t have all day.”

  The truck has a tarpaulin over its bed. I climb in the back, laid with two flat planks for passengers to sit on. There’s a heap of horse blankets in the corner, and the four kids sitting there are huddled in them, having wrapped the blankets over their shoulders and tucked them around their legs. The canvas cover gives everyone a yellowish tint. Two of the kids appear close to my age. As we bump along, I hang on to the wooden bench with my mittened fingers so I don’t fall onto the floor when we hit a rough patch. The driver stops twice more to pick up passengers. The bed is only big enough to seat six comfortably, and eight of us are crammed in here—we’re tight on the bench, but our bodies give off much-needed warm
th. Nobody speaks. When the truck is moving, wind slices through the gaps in the tarp.

  After several miles, the truck makes a turn, brakes squealing, and climbs up a steep driveway before grinding to a stop. We jump out of the truck bed and line up, then walk to the schoolhouse, a small clapboard building with a bell in front. A young woman in a cornflower-blue dress, a lavender scarf wrapped around her neck, is standing at the front door. Her face is pretty and lively: big brown eyes and a wide smile. Her shiny brown hair is pulled back with a white ribbon.

  “Welcome, children. Proceed in an orderly fashion, as always.” Her voice is high and clear. “Good morning, Michael . . . Bertha . . . Darlene,” she says, greeting each child by name. When I reach her, she says, “Now—I haven’t met you yet, but I heard you were coming. I’m Miss Larsen. And you must be—”

  I say “Niamh” at the same time that she says “Dorothy.” Seeing the expression on my face, she says, “Did I get that wrong? Or do you have a nickname?”

  “No, ma’am. It’s just . . .” I feel my cheeks redden.

  “What is it?”

  “I used to be Niamh. Sometimes I forget what my name is. Nobody really calls me anything at my new home.”

  “Well, I can call you Niamh if you like.”

  “It’s all right. Dorothy is fine.”

  She smiles, studying my face. “As you wish. Lucy Green?” she says, turning to the girl behind me. “Would you mind showing Dorothy to her desk?”

  I follow Lucy into an area lined with hooks, where we hang up our coats. Then we enter a large, sunny room smelling of wood smoke and chalk that contains an oil stove, a desk for the teacher, rows of benches and work spaces, and slate blackboards along the east and south walls, with posters of the alphabet and multiplication tables above. The other walls are made up of large windows. Electric lights shine overhead, and low shelves are filled with books.

  When everyone is seated, Miss Larsen pulls a loop on a string and a colorful map of the world unfurls on the wall. At her request I go up to the map and identify Ireland. Looking at it closely, I can find County Galway and even the city center. The village of Kinvara isn’t named, but I rub the place where it belongs, right under Galway on the jagged line of the west coast. There is New York—and here’s Chicago. And here’s Minneapolis. Hemingford County isn’t on the map, either.

  Including me, there are twenty-three of us between the ages of six and sixteen. Most of the kids are from farms themselves and other rural homes and are learning to read and write at all ages. We smell unwashed—and it’s worse with the older ones who have hit puberty. There’s a heap of rags, a few bars of soap, and a carton of baking soda in the indoor lavatory, Miss Larsen tells me, in case you want to freshen up.

  When Miss Larsen talks to me, she bends down and looks me in the eye. When she asks questions, she waits for my answer. She smells of lemons and vanilla. And she treats me like I’m smart. After I take a test to determine my reading level, she hands me a book from the shelf by her desk, a hardcover filled with small black type called Anne of Green Gables, without pictures, and tells me she will ask what I think of it when I’m done.

  You’d think with all these kids it would be chaotic, but Miss Larsen rarely raises her voice. The driver, Mr. Post, chops wood, tends the stove, sweeps the leaves from the front walkway, and does mechanical repairs on the truck. He also teaches mathematics up to geometry, which he says he never learned because that year was locusts and he was needed on the farm.

  At recess Lucy invites me to play games with a group of them—Annie Annie Over; Pump, Pump, Pull Away; Ring Around the Rosie.

  When I get out of the truck at four thirty and have to walk the long route back to the cabin, my footsteps are slow.

  THE FOOD THIS FAMILY SUBSISTS ON IS LIKE NOTHING I’VE EVER eaten before. Mr. Grote leaves at dawn with his rifle and rod and brings home squirrels and wild turkeys, whiskery fish, now and then a white-tailed deer. He returns in the late afternoon covered in pine-tree gum. He brings home red squirrels most of all, but they aren’t as good as the larger fox and gray squirrels, which he calls bushy tails. The fox squirrels are so big that some of them look like orange cats. They chirp and whistle, and he tricks them into showing themselves by clicking two coins together, which sounds like their chatter. The gray squirrels have the most meat, he tells me, but are hardest to see in the woods. They make a harsh chich-chich noise when they’re angry or scared. That’s how he finds them.

  Mr. Grote skins and guts the animals in several fluid motions, then hands me tiny hearts and livers, slabs of deep red meat. All I know how to make is boiled cabbage and mutton, I tell him, but he says it’s not that different. He shows me how to make a gallimaufry, a stew of diced meat, onion, and vegetables, with mustard, ginger, and vinegar. You cook the meat in animal fat over high heat to sear it, then add potatoes and vegetables and the rest. “It’s just a hotchpotch,” he says. “Whatever’s around.”

  At first I am horrified by the ghoulish skinned squirrels, as red and muscular as skinless human bodies in Miss Larsen’s science book. But hunger cures my qualms. Soon enough, squirrel stew tastes normal.

  Out in back is a homely garden that, even now, in mid-April, has root vegetables waiting to be dug—blighted potatoes and yams and tough-skinned carrots and turnips. Mr. Grote takes me out there with a pick and teaches me how to pry them from the earth, then wash them off under the pump. But the ground is still partially frozen, and the vegetables are hard to extract. The two of us spend about four hours in the cold digging for those tough old vegetables, planted last summer, until we have a gnarled and ugly pile. The children wander in and out of the house, sit and watch us from the kitchen window. I am grateful for my fingerless gloves.

  Mr. Grote shows me how he grows wild rice in the stream and collects the seeds. The rice is nutty and brown. He plants the seeds after harvest in late summer for the crop the following year. It’s an annual plant, he explains, which means that it dies in the autumn. Seeds that fall in autumn take root in spring underwater, and then the shoot grows above the surface. The stalks look like tall grass swaying in the water.

  In the summer, he says, he grows herbs in a patch behind the house—mint, rosemary, and thyme—and hangs them to dry in the shed. Even now there’s a pot of lavender in the kitchen. It’s a strange sight in that squalid room, like a rose in a junkyard.

  At school one late-April day Miss Larsen sends me out to the porch to get some firewood, and when I come back in, the entire class, led by Lucy Green, is standing, singing happy birthday to me.

  Tears spring to my eyes. “How did you know?”

  “The date was in your paperwork.” Miss Larsen smiles, handing me a slice of currant bread. “My landlady made this.”

  I look at her, not sure I understand. “For me?”

  “I mentioned that we had a new girl, and that your birthday was coming up. She likes to bake.”

  The bread, dense and moist, tastes like Ireland. One bite and I am back in Gram’s cottage, in front of her warm Stanley range.

  “Nine to ten is a big leap,” Mr. Post says. “One digit to two. You’ll be two digits now for the next ninety years.”

  Unwrapping the leftover currant bread at the Grotes’ that evening, I tell them about my party. Mr. Grote snorts. “How ridiculous, celebrating a birth date. I don’t even know the day I was born, and I sure can’t remember any of theirs,” he says, swinging his hand toward his kids. “But let’s have that cake.”

  Spruce Harbor, Maine, 2011

  Looking closely at Molly’s file, Lori the social worker settles on a stool. “So you’ll be aging out of foster care in . . . let’s see . . . you turned seventeen in January, so nine months. Have you thought about what you’re going to do then?”

  Molly shrugs. “Not really.”

  Lori scribbles something on the file folder in front of her. With her bright button eyes and pointy snout nosing into Molly’s business, Lori reminds her of a ferret. They’re sitting
at a lab table in an otherwise empty chemistry classroom at the high school during lunch period, as they do every other Wednesday.

  “Any problems with the Thibodeaus?”

  Molly shakes her head. Dina barely speaks to her; Ralph is pleasant enough—same as always.

  Lori taps her nose with an index finger. “You’re not wearing this anymore.”

  “Jack thought it might scare the old lady.” She did take the nose ring out for Jack, but the truth is, she hasn’t been in a hurry to put it back in. There are things about it she likes—the way it marks her as a rebel, for one thing. Multiple earrings don’t have the same punk appeal; every forty-something divorcée on the island has half a dozen hoops in her ears. But the ring takes a lot of maintenance; it’s always in danger of infection, and she has to be careful with it when she washes her face or puts on makeup. It’s kind of a relief to have a metal-free face.

  Flipping slowly through the file, Lori says, “You’ve logged twenty-eight hours so far. Good for you. What’s it like?”

  “Not bad. Better than I thought it would be.”

  “How do you mean?”

  Molly’s been surprised to find that she looks forward to it. Ninety-one years is a long time to live—there’s a lot of history in those boxes, and you never know what you’ll find. The other day, for example, they went through a box of Christmas ornaments from the 1930s that Vivian had forgotten she kept. Cardboard stars and snowflakes covered in gold and silver glitter; ornate glass balls, red and green and gold. Vivian told her stories about decorating the family store for the holidays, putting these ornaments on a real pine tree in the window.

  “I like her. She’s kind of cool.”

  “You mean the ‘old lady’?”


  “Well, good.” Lori gives her a tight smile. A ferrety smile. “You’ve got what, twenty-two hours left, right? Try to make the most of this experience. And I hope I don’t need to remind you that you’re on probation. If you’re caught drinking or doing drugs or otherwise breaking the law, we’re back to square one. You clear on that?”

  Molly is tempted to say, Damn, you mean I have to shut down my meth lab? And I gotta delete those naked pictures I posted on Facebook? But instead she smiles steadily at Lori and says, “I’m clear.”

  Pulling Molly’s transcript out of the file, Lori says, “Look at this. Your SATs are in the 600s. And you have a 3.8 average this semester. That’s really good.”

  “It’s an easy school.”

  “No, it isn’t.”

  “It’s not that big a deal.”

  “It is a big deal, actually. These are applying-to-college stats. Have you thought about that?”


  “Why not?”

  Last year, when she transferred from Bangor High, she was close to failing. In Bangor, she’d had no incentive to do homework—her foster parents were partiers, and she’d come home from school to find a house full of drunks. In Spruce Harbor, there aren’t so many distractions. Dina and Ralph don’t drink or smoke, and they’re strict. Jack has a beer now and then, but that’s about it. And Molly discovered that she actually likes to study.

  No one has ever talked to her about college except the school guidance counselor who halfheartedly recommended nursing school when she got an A last semester in bio. Her grades have kind of shot up without anyone noticing.

  “I don’t really think I’m college material,” Molly says.

  “Well, apparently you are,” says Lori. “And since you’re officially on your own when you turn eighteen, you might want to start looking into it. There are some decent scholarships out there for aged-out foster youth.” She shuts the folder. “Or you can apply for a job behind the counter at the Somesville One-Stop. It’s up to you.”

  “SO HOW’S THAT COMMUNITY SERVICE WORKING OUT?” RALPH asks at dinner, pouring himself a big glass of milk.

  “It’s all right,” Molly says. “The woman is really old. She has a lot of stuff.”

  “Fifty hours’ worth?” Dina asks.

  “I don’t know. But I guess there are other things I can do if I finish cleaning out boxes. The house is huge.”

  “Yeah, I’ve done some work over there. Old pipes,” Ralph says. “Have you met Terry? The housekeeper?”

  Molly nods. “Actually, she’s Jack’s mother.”

  Dina perks up. “Wait a minute. Terry Gallant? I went to high school with her! I didn’t know Jack was her kid.”

  “Yep,” Molly says.

  Waving a chunk of hot dog around on her fork, Dina says, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.”

  Molly gives Ralph a what the fuck? look, but he just gazes placidly back.

  “It’s sad what happens to people, y’know?” Dina says, shaking her head. “Terry Gallant used to be Miss Popular. Homecoming Queen and all that. Then she got knocked up by some Mexican scrub—and now look at her, she’s a maid.”

  “Actually, he was Dominican,” Molly mumbles.

  “Whatever. Those illegals are all the same, aren’t they?”

  Deep breath, stay cool, get through dinner. “If you say so.”

  “I do say so.”

  “Hey, now, ladies, that’s enough.” Ralph is smiling, but it’s a worried grimace; he knows Molly is pissed. He’s always making excuses—“She didn’t mean nothing by it,” “She’s yanking your chain”—when Dina does things like intone “the Tribe has spoken” when Molly expresses an opinion. “You need to stop taking yourself so seriously, little girl,” Dina said when Molly asked her to knock it off. “If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re going to have a very hard life.”

  So Molly moves her mouth muscles into a smile, picks up her plate, thanks Dina for dinner. She says she’s got a lot of homework, and Ralph says he’ll clean up the kitchen. Dina says it’s time for some trash TV.

  “Housewives of Spruce Harbor,” Ralph says. “When are we going to see that?”

  “Maybe Terry Gallant could be in it. Show that yearbook photo of her in her tiara, cut to her washing floors.” Dina cackles. “I’d watch that one for sure!”

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