Orphan train, p.14
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       Orphan Train, p.14
 

          
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  “She has a point,” she says. “My grandpa’s from Dublin. He’s always talking about what the Brits did.”

  “Well, my granddad’s parents lost everything in the Great Depression. You don’t see me crying for handouts. Shit happens, excuse my French,” Tyler says.

  “Tyler’s French aside,” Mr. Reed says, raising his eyebrows at the class as if to say he doesn’t approve but will deal with it later, “is that what they’re doing? Asking for handouts?”

  “They just want to be treated fairly,” a kid in the back says.

  “But what does that mean? And where does it end?” another kid asks.

  As others join the conversation, Megan turns in her seat and squints at Molly, as if noticing her for the first time. “An Indian, huh. That’s cool,” she whispers. “Like Molly Molasses, right?”

  WEEKDAYS, NOW, MOLLY DOESN’T WAIT FOR JACK TO TAKE HER TO Vivian’s house. Outside of school she picks up the Island Explorer.

  “You have other things to do,” she tells him. “I know it’s a pain for you to wait on me.” But in truth, taking the bus gives her the freedom to stay as long as Vivian will have her without Jack’s questions.

  Molly hasn’t told Jack about the portage project. She knows he’d say it’s a bad idea—that she’s getting overinvolved in Vivian’s life, asking too much of her. Even so, Jack has had an edge in his voice recently. “So hey, you’re getting to the end of your hours soon, huh?” he says, and, “Making any progress up there?”

  These days Molly slips into Vivian’s house, ducks her head with a quick hello to Terry, sidles up the stairs. It seems both too hard to explain her growing relationship with Vivian and beside the point. What does it matter what anyone else thinks?

  “Here’s my theory,” Jack says one day as they’re sitting outside on the lawn at school during lunch period.

  It’s a beautiful morning, and the air is fresh and mild. Dandelions dance like sparklers in the grass.

  “Vivian is like a mother figure to you. Grandmother, great-grandmother—whatever. She listens to you, she tells you stories, lets you help her out. She makes you feel needed.”

  “No,” Molly says with irritation. “It’s not like that. I have hours to do; she has work that needs to be done. Simple.”

  “Not really so simple, Moll,” he says with exaggerated reasonableness. “Ma tells me there’s not a helluva lot going on up there.” He pops open a big can of iced tea and takes a long swallow.

  “We’re making progress. It’s just hard to see.”

  “Hard to see?” He laughs, unwrapping a Subway Italian sandwich. “I thought the whole point was to get rid of the boxes. That seems fairly straightforward. No?”

  Molly snaps a carrot stick in half. “We’re organizing things. So they’ll be easier to find.”

  “By who? Estate sale people? Because that’s who it’s going to be, you know. Vivian will probably never set foot up there again.”

  Is this really any of his business? “Then we’re making it easier for the estate sale people.” In truth, though she hasn’t admitted it out loud until now, Molly has virtually given up on the idea of disposing of anything. After all, what does it matter? Why shouldn’t Vivian’s attic be filled with things that are meaningful to her? The stark truth is that she will die sooner than later. And then professionals will descend on the house, neatly and efficiently separating the valuable from the sentimental, lingering only over items of indeterminate origin or worth. So yes—Molly has begun to view her work at Vivian’s in a different light. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process—in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots.

  “It’s her stuff,” Molly says. “She doesn’t want to get rid of it. I can’t force her, can I?”

  Taking a bite of his sandwich, its fillings spilling out onto the waxy paper below his chin, Jack shrugs. “I don’t know. I think it’s more the”—he chews and swallows and Molly looks away, annoyed at his passive aggression—“appearance of it, y’know?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “To Ma it might look a little like you’re taking advantage of the situation.”

  Molly looks down at her own sandwich.

  “I just know you’ll like it if you give it a chance,” Dina said breezily when Molly asked her to stop putting bologna sandwiches in her lunch bag, adding, “or you can make your own damn lunch.” So now Molly does—she swallowed her pride, asked Ralph for money, and bought almond butter, organic honey, and nutty bread in the health food store in Bar Harbor. And it’s fine, though her little stash is about as welcome in the pantry as a fresh-killed mouse brought in by the cat—or perhaps, being vegetarian, less so—and is quarantined on a shelf in the mudroom “so no one gets confused,” as Dina says.

  Molly feels anger rising in her chest—at Dina’s unwillingness to accept her for who she is, at Terry’s judgments and Jack’s need to placate her. At all of them. “The thing is—it’s not really your mother’s business, is it?”

  The moment she says this she regrets it.

  Jack gives her a sharp look. “Are you kidding me?”

  He balls up the Subway wrapper and stuffs it in the plastic bag it came in. Molly has never seen him like this, his jaw tight, his eyes hard and angry. “My mother went out on a limb for you,” he says. “She brought you into that house. And do I need to remind you that she lied to Vivian? If anything happens, she could lose her job. Like that.” He snaps his fingers hard.

  “Jack, you’re right. I’m sorry,” she says, but he is already on his feet and walking away.

  Spruce Harbor, Maine, 2011

  “Spring at last!” Ralph beams, pulling on work gloves in the kitchen while Molly pours herself a bowl of cereal. It does feel like spring today—real spring, with leafy trees and blooming daffodils, air so warm you don’t need a sweater. “Here I go,” he says, heading outside to clear brush. Working in the yard is Ralph’s favorite activity; he likes to weed, to plant, to cultivate. All winter he’s been like a dog scratching the door, begging to go out.

  Dina, meanwhile, is watching HGTV and painting her toenails on the living room couch. When Molly comes into the living room with her raisin bran, she looks up and frowns. “Something I can do for you?” She jabs the tiny brush into the coral bottle, wipes the excess under the rim, and expertly strokes it on her big toe, correcting the line with her thumb. “No food in the living room, remember.”

  Good morning to you, too. Without a word, Molly turns and heads back to the kitchen, where she speed-dials Jack.

  “Hey.” His voice is cool.

  “What’re you up to?”

  “Vivian’s paying me to do a spring cleanup of her property—get rid of dead branches and all that. You?”

  “I’m heading over to Bar Harbor, to the library. I have a research project due in a few days. I was hoping you’d come with me.”

  “Sorry, can’t,” he says.

  Ever since their conversation at lunch last week, Jack’s been like this. Molly knows it is taking great effort on his part to hold this grudge—it runs so counter to his personality. And though she wants to apologize, to make things right between them, she’s afraid that anything she says now will ring hollow. If Jack knows she’s been interviewing Vivian—that cleaning the attic has morphed into this ongoing conversation—he’ll be even more pissed off.

  She hears a whisper in her head: Leave well enough alone. Finish your hours and be done with it. But she can’t leave well enough alone. She doesn’t want to.

  The Island Explorer is nearly empty. The few passengers greet each other with a nod as they get on. With her earbuds in, Molly knows she looks like a typical teenager, but what she’s actually listening to is Vivian’s voice. On the tape Molly hears things she didn’t when Vivian was sitting in front of her . . .

  Time constricts and flattens, you know. It’s not evenly weighted. Certain moments ling
er in the mind and others disappear. The first twenty-three years of my life are the ones that shaped me, and the fact that I’ve lived almost seven decades since then is irrelevant. Those years have nothing to do with the questions you ask.

  Molly flips open her notebook, runs her finger down the names and dates she’s recorded. She plays the tape backward and forward, stops and starts, scribbles down identifiers she missed. Kinvara, County Galway, Ireland. The Agnes Pauline. Ellis Island, The Irish Rose, Delancey Street. Elizabeth Street, Dominick, James, Maisie Power. The Children’s Aid Society, Mrs. Scatcherd, Mr. Curran . . .

  What did you choose to take with you? What did you leave behind? What insights did you gain?

  Vivian’s life has been quiet and ordinary. As the years have passed, her losses have piled one on another like layers of shale: even if her mother lived, she would be dead now; the people who adopted her are dead; her husband is dead; she has no children. Except for the company of the woman she pays to take care of her, she is as alone as a person can be.

  She has never tried to find out what happened to her family—her mother or her relatives in Ireland. But over and over, Molly begins to understand as she listens to the tapes, Vivian has come back to the idea that the people who matter in our lives stay with us, haunting our most ordinary moments. They’re with us in the grocery store, as we turn a corner, chat with a friend. They rise up through the pavement; we absorb them through our soles.

  Vivian has given Molly’s community service sentence meaning. Now Molly wants to give something back. No one else knows Vivian’s story. There’s no one to read the documents of indenture, of adoption; no one to acknowledge the significance of the things she values, things that would be meaningful only to someone who cares about her. But Molly cares. The gaps in Vivian’s stories seem to her mysteries she can help solve. On TV once she heard a relationship expert say that you can’t find peace until you find all the pieces. She wants to help Vivian find some kind of peace, elusive and fleeting as it may be.

  After being dropped off at the Bar Harbor green, Molly walks over to the library, a brick structure on Mount Desert Street. In the main reading room, she chats with the reference librarian, who helps her find a cache of books on Irish history and immigration in the 1920s. She spends a few hours poring over them and jotting notes. Then she pulls out her laptop and launches Google. Different words together yield different results, so Molly tries dozens of combinations: “1929 fire NYC,” “Lower East Side Elizabeth St. fire 1929,” “Agnes Pauline,” “Ellis Island 1927.” On the Ellis Island website she clicks Passenger Records Search. Search by ship. Now click the name of a ship from the list below . . . And here it is, the Agnes Pauline.

  She finds Vivian’s parents’ full names in the passenger records log—Patrick and Mary Power from County Galway, Ireland—and feels a vertiginous thrill, as if fictional characters have suddenly sprung to life. Searching the names, separately and together, she finds a small notice about the fire noting the deaths of Patrick Power and his sons, Dominick and James. There’s no mention of Maisie.

  She types “Mary Power.” Then “Maisie Power.” Nothing. She has an idea: Schatzman. “Schatzman Elizabeth Street.” “Schatzman Elizabeth Street NYC.” “Schatzman Elizabeth Street NYC 1930.” A reunion blog pops up. A Liza Schatzman organized a family reunion in 2010 in upstate New York. Under the “family history” tab, Molly finds a sepia-toned picture of Agneta and Bernard Schatzman, who emigrated from Germany in 1915, resided at 26 Elizabeth Street. He worked as a vendor and she took in mending. Bernard Schatzman was born in 1894 and Agneta in 1897. They had no children until 1929, when he was thirty-five and she was thirty-two.

  Then they adopted a baby, Margaret.

  Maisie. Molly sits back in her chair. So Maisie didn’t die in the fire.

  Less than ten minutes after beginning her search, Molly is looking at a year-old photograph of a woman who must be Vivian’s white-haired baby sister, Margaret Reynolds née Schatzman, age eighty-two, surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren at her home in Rhinebeck, New York. Two and a half hours from New York City and just over eight hours from Spruce Harbor.

  She types in “Margaret Reynolds, Rhinebeck, NY.” An obituary notice from the Poughkeepsie Journal pops up. It’s five months old.

  Mrs. Margaret Reynolds, age 83, died peacefully in her sleep on Saturday after a short illness. She was surrounded by her loving family . . .

  Lost—and found—and lost again. How will she ever tell Vivian?

  Hemingford, Minnesota, 1930

  When I get better, I ride to school with Miss Larsen in the black car. Mrs. Murphy gives me something new nearly every day—a skirt she says she found in a closet, a woolen hat, a camel-colored coat, a periwinkle scarf and matching mittens. Some of the clothes have missing buttons or small rips and tears, and others need hemming or taking in. When Mrs. Murphy finds me mending a dress with the needle and thread Fanny gave me, she exclaims, “Why, you’re as handy as a pocket in a shirt.”

  The food she makes, familiar to me from Ireland, evokes a flood of memories: sausages roasting with potatoes in the oven, the tea leaves in Gram’s morning cuppa, laundry flapping on the line behind her house, the faint clang of the church bell in the distance. Gram saying, “Now, that was the goat’s toe,” after a satisfying supper. And other things: quarrels between Mam and Gram, my da passed out drunk on the floor. Mam’s cry: “You spoiled him rotten, and now he’ll never be a man”—and Gram’s retort: “You keep pecking at him and soon he won’t come home at all.” Sometimes when I stayed overnight at Gram’s, I’d overhear my grandparents whispering at the kitchen table. What are we to do about it, then? Will we have to feed that family forever? I knew they were exasperated with Da, but they had little patience for Mam, either, whose people were from Limerick and never lifted a finger to help.

  The day Gram gave me the claddagh I was sitting on her bed, tracing the nubby white bedspread like Braille under my fingers, watching her get ready for church. She sat at a small vanity table with an oval mirror, fluffing her hair lightly with a brush she prized—the finest whalebone and horsehair, she said, letting me touch the smooth off-white handle, the stiff bristles—and kept in a casketlike case. She’d saved for the brush by mending clothes; it took four months, she told me, to earn the money.

  After replacing the brush in its case, Gram opened her jewelry box, an off-white faux-leather one with gilt trim and a gold clasp, plush red velvet inside, revealing a trove of treasures—sparkling earrings, heavy necklaces in onyx and pearl, gold bracelets. (My mam later said spitefully that these were cheap costume jewelry from a Galway five-and-dime, but at the time they seemed impossibly luxurious to me.) She picked out a pair of clustered pearl earrings with padded back clasps, clipping first one and then the other to her low-hanging lobes.

  In the bottom of the box was the claddagh cross. I’d never seen her wear it. She told me that her da, now long dead, had given it to her for her First Holy Communion when she was thirteen. She’d planned to give it to her daughter, my auntie Brigid, but Brigid wanted a gold birthstone ring instead.

  “You are my only granddaughter, and I want you to have it,” Gram declared, fastening the chain around my neck. “See the interlaced strands?” She touched the raised pattern with a knobby finger. “These trace a never-ending path, leading away from home and circling back. When you wear this, you’ll never be far from the place you started.”

  Several weeks after Gram gave me the claddagh, she and Mam got into one of their arguments. As their voices rose I took the twins into a bedroom down the hall.

  “You tricked him into it; he wasn’t ready,” I heard Gram shout. And then Mam’s retort, as clear as day: “A man whose mother won’t let him lift a finger is ruined for a wife.”

  The front door banged; it was Granddad, I knew, stomping out in disgust. And then I heard a crash, a shriek, a cry, and I ran to the parlor to find Gram’s whalebone brush shattered in pieces aga
inst the hearth, and Mam with a look of triumph on her face.

  Not a month later, we found ourselves bound for Ellis Island on the Agnes Pauline.

  MRS. MURPHY’S HUSBAND DIED A DECADE AGO, I LEARN, LEAVING her with this big old house and little money. Making the most of the situation, she began to take in boarders. The women have a schedule that rotates once a week: cooking, laundry, cleaning, washing the floors. Soon enough I am helping too: I set the table for breakfast, clear the plates, sweep the hall, wash the dishes after dinner. Mrs. Murphy is the hardest working of all, up early to make scones and biscuits and porridge, last to bed when she shuts off the lights.

  At night, in the living room, the women gather to talk about the stockings they wear, whether the best ones have a seam up the back or are smooth, which brands last longest, which are scratchy; the most desirable shade of lipstick (by consensus, Ritz Bonfire Red); and their favorite brands of face powder. I sit silently by the fireplace, listening. Miss Larsen rarely participates; she is busy in the evenings creating lesson plans and studying. She wears small gold glasses when she reads, which seems to be whenever she isn’t doing chores. She always has a book or a dishrag in her hand, and sometimes both.

  I am beginning to feel at home here. But as much as I hope that Mrs. Murphy has forgotten I don’t belong, of course she hasn’t. One afternoon, when I come in from the car with Miss Larsen after school, Mr. Sorenson is standing in the foyer, holding his black felt hat in his hands like a steering wheel. My stomach flops.

  “Ah, here she is!” Mrs. Murphy exclaims. “Come, Niamh, into the parlor. Join us, please, Miss Larsen. Shut that door, we’ll catch our death of cold. Tea, Mr. Sorenson?”

  “That would be lovely, Mrs. Murphy,” Mr. Sorenson says, lumbering after her through the double doors.

  Mrs. Murphy gestures toward the rose velvet sofa and he sits down heavily, like an elephant I once saw in a picture book, his large stomach protruding from rounded thighs. Miss Larsen and I sit in the wingback chairs. When Mrs. Murphy disappears into the kitchen, he leans forward and smirks. “Niamh again, are you?”

  “I don’t know.” I glance out the window at the street dusted with snow and Mr. Sorenson’s dark green truck that I somehow hadn’t noticed earlier parked in front of the house. The vehicle, more than his presence, makes me shudder. It’s the same one I rode in to the Grotes’, with Mr. Sorenson gabbing cheerfully the whole way.

  “Let’s go back to Dorothy, shall we?” he says. “Easier.”

  Miss Larsen looks as me, and I shrug. “All right.”

  He clears his throat. “Why don’t we get to it.” He pulls his small glasses out of his breast pocket, puts them on, and holds a paper out at arm’s length. “There have been two failed attempts at placing out. The Byrnes and the Grotes. Trouble with the woman of the house in both places.” He looks at me over the top of his silver rims. “I must tell you, Dorothy, it’s beginning to appear that there’s some kind of . . . problem with you.”

  “But I didn’t—”

  He waves his sausage fingers at me. “The predicament, you must understand, is that you are an orphan, and that whatever the reality, it looks as if there may be an issue with . . . insubordination. Now, there are several ways to proceed. First, of course, we can send you back to New York. Or we can attempt to find another home.” He sighs heavily. “Which, to be frank, may prove difficult.”

  Mrs. Murphy, who has been in and out of the room with her cabbage-rose tea service and is now pouring tea into delicate, thin-rimmed cups, sets the teapot on a trivet in the middle of the polished coffee table. She hands Mr. Sorenson a cup and offers him the sugar bowl. “Marvelous, Mrs. Murphy,” he says, and dumps four spoons of sugar into his cup. He adds milk, stirs it noisily, rests the small silver spoon on the rim of his saucer, and takes a long slurp.

  “Mr. Sorenson,” Mrs. Murphy says when his cup is back in its resting place. “A thought occurs. May I speak with you in the foyer?”

  “Why certainly.” He wipes his mouth with a pink napkin and gets up to follow her into the hall.

  When the door closes behind them, Miss Larsen takes a sip of tea and places her cup back on its saucer with a little rattle. The brass lamp on the round table between us emits an amber glow. “I’m sorry you have to go through this. But I’m sure you understand that Mrs. Murphy, generous hearted as she is, can’t take you in indefinitely. You do understand, don’t you?”

  “Yes.” There’s a lump in my throat. I don’t trust myself to say more.

  When Mrs. Murphy and Mr. Sorenson come back into the room, she fixes her steady gaze on him and smiles.

  “You are quite a fortunate girl,” he tells me. “This extraordinary woman!” He beams at Mrs. Murphy, and she lowers her eyes. “Mrs. Murphy has brought to my attention that a couple named the Nielsens, friends of hers, own the general store on Center Street. Five years ago they lost their only child.”

  “Diphtheria, I believe it was, poor thing,” Mrs. Murphy adds.

  “Yes, yes, tragedy,” Mr. Sorenson says. “Well, apparently they’ve been looking for help with the shop. Mrs. Nielsen contacted Mrs. Murphy several weeks ago, asking whether any young woman in residence was seeking employment. And then, when you washed up on her doorstep . . .” Perhaps sensing that this characterization of how I got here might be perceived as insensitive, he chuckles. “Forgive me, Mrs. Murphy! A figure of speech!”

  “Quite all right, Mr. Sorenson, we understand you meant no harm by it.” Mrs. Murphy pours more tea into his cup and hands it to him, then turns to me. “After speaking with Miss Larsen about your situation, I told Mrs. Nielsen about you. I said that you are a sober-minded and mature almost-eleven-year-old girl, that you have impressed me with your ability to sew and clean, and that I have no doubt you could be of use to her. I explained that while adoption may be the most desirous eventual result, it is not expected.” She clasps her hands together. “And so Mr. and Mrs. Nielsen have agreed to meet with you.”

  I know I am expected to respond, to express gratitude, but it takes a conscious effort to smile, and several moments to form the words. I am not grateful; I am bitterly disappointed. I don’t understand why I need to leave, why Mrs. Murphy can’t keep me if she thinks I am so well mannered. I don’t want to go into another home where I’m treated like a servant, tolerated only for the labor I can provide.

  “How kind of you, Mrs. Murphy!” Miss Larsen exclaims, plunging into the silence. “That’s wonderful news, isn’t it, Dorothy?”

  “Yes. Thank you, Mrs. Murphy,” I say, choking out the words.

  “You’re quite welcome, child. Quite welcome.” She beams proudly. “Now, Mr. Sorenson. Perhaps you and I should attend this meeting as well?”

  Mr. Sorenson drains his teacup and sets it in its saucer. “Indeed, Mrs. Murphy. I am also thinking that the two of us should meet separately to discuss the . . . finer points of this transaction. What would you say to that?”

 
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