Orphan train, p.18
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       Orphan Train, p.18
 

          
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  wide swath of strangers shifts my attention from myself, that tedious subject, to the world around me. I might as well be in a foreign country for all its similarities to my sober real life, with its predictable routines and rhythms—a day in the store, supper at six, a quiet evening of studying or quilting or bridge. Richard, with his carnival-barker slickness, seems to have given up on even trying to include me. But I don’t mind. It is marvelous to be young on a big-city street.

  AS WE APPROACH THE HEAVY GLASS-AND-BRASS FRONT DOOR OF the Grand Hotel, a liveried doorman opens it wide. Richard sails in with Lil and Em, as he calls them, on his arms, and I scurry behind in their wake. The doorman tips his cap as I thank him. “Bar’s on the left just through the foyer,” he says, making it clear he knows we’re not hotel guests. I’ve never been in a space this majestic—except maybe the Chicago train station all those years ago—and it’s all I can do not to gape at the starburst chandelier glittering over our heads, the glossy mahogany table with an oversized ceramic urn filled with exotic flowers in the center of the room.

  The people in the foyer are equally striking. A woman wearing a flat black hat with a net that covers half her face stands at the reception desk with a pile of red leather suitcases, pulling off one long black satin glove and then the other. A white-haired matron carries a fluffy white dog with black button eyes. A man in a morning coat talks on the telephone at the front desk; an older gentleman wearing a monocle, sitting alone on a green love seat, holds a small brown book open in front of his nose. These people look bored, amused, impatient, self-satisfied—but most of all, they look rich. Now I am glad not to be wearing the gaudy, provocative clothing that seems to be drawing stares and whispers to Lil and Em.

  Ahead of me, the three of them saunter across the lobby, shrieking with laughter, one of Richard’s arms around Lil’s shoulder and the other cinching Em’s waist. “Hey, Vivie,” Lil calls, glancing back as if suddenly remembering I’m here, “this way!” Richard pulls open the double doors to the bar, throws his hands into the air with a flourish, and ushers Lil and Em, giggling and whispering, inside. He follows, and the doors close slowly behind him.

  I slow to a stop in front of the green couches. I’m in no hurry to go in there to be a fifth wheel, treated like I’m hopelessly out of it, old-fashioned and humorless, by the freewheeling Richard. Maybe, I think, I should just walk around for a while and then go back to the rooming house. Since the matinee nothing has felt quite real anyway; it’s been enough of a day for me—much more, certainly, than I’m used to.

  I perch on one of the couches, watching people come and go. At the door, now, is a woman in a purple satin dress with cascading brown hair, elegantly nonchalant, waving at the porter with a bejeweled hand as she glides into the foyer. Absorbed in watching her as she floats past me toward the concierge desk, I don’t notice the tall, thin man with blond hair until he is standing in front of me.

  His eyes are a piercing blue. “Excuse me, miss,” he says. I wonder if maybe he is going to say something about how I am so obviously out of place, or ask if I need help. “Do I know you from somewhere?”

  I look at his golden-blond hair, short in the back but longer in front—nothing like the small-town boys I’m used to, with their hair shorn like sheep. He’s wearing gray pants, a crisp white shirt, and a black tie and carrying a slim attaché case. His fingers are long and tapered.

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Something about you is . . . very familiar.” He’s staring at me so intently that it makes me blush.

  “I—” I stammer. “I really don’t know.”

  And then, with a smile playing around his lips, he says, “Forgive me if I’m wrong. But are you—were you—did you come here on a train from New York about ten years ago?”

  What? My heart jumps. How does he know that?

  “Are you—Niamh?” he asks.

  And then I know. “Oh my God—Dutchy, it’s you.”

  Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1939

  Dutchy drops the attaché case as I stand up, and sweeps me into a hug. I feel the ropy hardness of his arms, the warmth of his slightly concave chest, as he holds me tight, tighter than anyone has ever held me. A long embrace in the middle of this fancy lobby is probably inappropriate; people are staring. But for once in my life I don’t care.

  He pushes me away to look at my face, touches my cheek, and pulls me close again. Through his chambray shirt I feel his heart racing as fast as mine.

  “When you blushed, I knew. You looked just the same.” He runs his hand down my hair, stroking it like a pelt. “Your hair . . . it’s darker. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked for you in a crowd, or thought I saw you from the back.”

  “You told me you’d find me,” I say. “Remember? It was the last thing you said.”

  “I wanted to—I tried. But I didn’t know where to look. And then so much happened . . .” He shakes his head in disbelief. “Is it really you, Niamh?”

  “Well, yes—but I’m not Niamh anymore,” I tell him. “I’m Vivian.”

  “I’m not Dutchy, either—or Hans, for that matter. I’m Luke.”

  We both start laughing—at the absurdity of our shared experience, the relief of recognition. We cling to each other like survivors of a shipwreck, astonished that neither of us drowned.

  The many questions I want to ask render me mute. Before I can even formulate words, Dutchy—Luke—says, “This is crazy, but I have to leave. I have a gig.”

  “A ‘gig’ ?”

  “I play piano in the bar here. It’s not a terrible job, if nobody gets too drunk.”

  “I was just on my way in there,” I tell him. “My friends are waiting for me. They’re probably drunk as we speak.”

  He picks up his case. “I wish we could just blow out of here,” he says. “Go somewhere and talk.”

  I do too—but I don’t want him to risk his job for me. “I’ll stay till you’re done. We can talk later.”

  “It’ll kill me to wait that long.”

  When I enter the bar with him, Lil and Em look up, curiosity on their faces. The room is dark and smoky, with plush purple carpeting patterned with flowers and purple leather banquettes filled with people.

  “That’s the way to do it, girl!” Richard says. “You sure didn’t waste any time.”

  I sink into a chair at their table, order a gin fizz at the waiter’s suggestion, and concentrate on Dutchy’s fingers, which I can see from where I’m sitting, deftly skimming the piano keys. Ducking his head and closing his eyes, he sings in a clear, low voice. He plays Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and Glen Gray, music that everybody knows—songs like “Little Brown Jug” and “Heaven Can Wait,” rearranged to draw out different meanings—and some old standards for the gray-haired men on bar stools. Every now and then he pulls sheet music from his case, but mostly he seems to play from memory or by ear. A small cluster of older ladies clutching pocketbooks, their hair carefully coiffed, probably on a shopping expedition from some province or suburb, smile and coo when he tinkles the opening of “Moonlight Serenade.”

  Conversation washes over me, slips around me, snagging now and then when I’m expected to answer a question or laugh at a joke. I’m not paying attention. How can I? Dutchy is talking to me through the piano, and, as in a dream, I understand his meaning. I have been so alone on this journey, cut off from my past. However hard I try, I will always feel alien and strange. And now I’ve stumbled on a fellow outsider, one who speaks my language without saying a word.

  The more people drink, the more requests they make, and the fuller Dutchy’s tip jar grows. Richard’s head is buried in Lil’s neck, and Em is practically sitting in the lap of a gray hair who wandered over from the bar. “Over the Rainbow!” she calls out, several gin fizzes to the wind. “You know that one? From that movie?”

  Dutchy nods, smiles, spreads his fingers across the keys. By the way he plays the chords I can tell he’s been asked to sing it before.

  He
has half an hour left on the clock when Richard makes a show of looking at his watch. “Holy shit, excuse my French,” he says. “It’s late and I got church tomorrow.”

  Everyone laughs.

  “I’m ready to turn in, too,” Lil says.

  Em smirks. “Turn into what?”

  “Let’s blow this joint. I gotta get that thing I left in your room,” Richard says to Lil, standing up.

  “What thing?” she asks.

  “You know. The thing,” he says, winking at Em.

  “He’s gotta get the thing, Lil,” Em says drunkenly. “The thing!”

  “I didn’t know men were allowed in the rooms,” I say.

  Richard rubs his thumb and forefinger together. “A little grease for the wheel keeps the car running, if you get my gist.”

  “The desk clerk is easy to bribe,” Lil translates. “Just so you know, in case you want to spend some quality time with dreamboat over there.” She and Em collapse in giggles.

  We make a plan to meet in the lobby of the women’s hotel tomorrow at noon, and the four of them stand to leave. And then there’s a change of plans: Richard knows a bar that’s open until two and they go off in search of it, the two girls tottering on their heels and swaying against the men, who seem all too happy to support them.

  JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT, THE STREET OUTSIDE THE HOTEL IS LIT UP but empty, like a stage set before the actors appear. It doesn’t matter that I barely know the man Dutchy has become, know nothing about his family, his adolescence. I don’t care about how it might look to take him back to my room. I just want to spend more time with him.

  “Are you sure?” he asks.

  “More than sure.”

  He slips some bills in my hand. “Here, for the clerk. From the tip jar.”

  It’s cool enough that Dutchy puts his jacket around my shoulders. His hand in mine as we walk feels like the most natural thing in the world. Through the low buildings, chips of stars glitter in a velvet sky.

  At the front desk, the clerk—an older man, now, with a tweed cap tipped over his face—says, “What can I do for you?”

  Oddly, I am not at all nervous. “My cousin lives in town. All right to take him up for a visit?”

  The clerk looks through the glass door at Dutchy, standing on the sidewalk. “Cousin, huh?”

  I slide two dollar bills across the desk. “I appreciate it.”

  With his fingertips the clerk pulls the money toward him.

  I wave at Dutchy and he opens the door, salutes the clerk, and follows me into the elevator.

  IN THE STRANGE, SHADOWED LIGHTING OF MY SMALL ROOM DUTCHY takes off his belt and dress shirt and hangs them over the only chair. He stretches out on the bed in his undershirt and trousers, his back against the wall, and I lean against him, feeling his body curve around mine. His warm breath is on my neck, his arm on my waist. I wonder for a moment if he’ll kiss me. I want him to.

  “How can this be?” he murmurs. “It isn’t possible. And yet I’ve dreamed of it. Have you?”

  I don’t know what to say. I never dared to imagine that I’d see him again. In my experience, when you lose somebody you care about, they stay gone.

  “What’s the best thing that happened to you in the past ten years?” I ask.

  “Seeing you again.”

  Smiling, I push back against his chest. “Besides that.”

  “Meeting you the first time.”

  We both laugh. “Besides that.”

  “Hmm, besides that,” he muses, his lips on my shoulder. “Is there anything besides that?” He pulls me close, his hand cupping my hip bone. And though I’ve never done anything like this before—have barely ever been alone with a man, certainly not a man in his undershirt—I’m not nervous. When he kisses me, my whole body hums.

  A few minutes later, he says, “I guess the best thing was finding out that I was good at something—at playing the piano. I was such a shell of a person. I had no confidence. Playing the piano gave me a place in the world. And . . . it was something I could do when I was angry or upset, or even happy. It was a way to express my feelings when I didn’t even know what they were.” He laughs a little. “Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?”

  “No.”

  “What about you? What’s your best thing?”

  I don’t know why I asked him this question, since I don’t have an answer myself. I slide up so I am sitting at the head of the narrow bed with my feet tucked under me. As Dutchy rearranges himself with his back against the wall on the other end, words tumble from my mouth. I tell him about my loneliness and hunger at the Byrnes’, the abject misery of the Grotes’. I tell him about how grateful I am to the Nielsens, and also how tamped down I sometimes feel with them.

  Dutchy tells me what happened to him after he left the Grange Hall. Life with the farmer and his wife was as bad as he’d feared. They made him sleep on hay bales in the barn and beat him if he complained. His ribs were fractured in a haying accident and they never called a doctor. He lived with them for three months, finally running away when the farmer woke him with a beating one morning because a raccoon got into the chicken coop. In pain, half starved, with a tapeworm and an eye infection, he collapsed on the road to town and was taken to the infirmary by a kindly widow.

  But the farmer convinced the authorities that Dutchy was a juvenile delinquent who needed a firm hand, and Dutchy was returned to him. He ran away twice more—the second time in a blizzard, when it was a miracle he didn’t freeze to death. Running into a neighbor’s clothesline saved his life. The neighbor found him in his barn the following morning and made a deal with the farmer to trade Dutchy for a pig.

  “A pig?” I say.

  “I’m sure he thought it a worthy trade. That pig was massive.”

  This farmer, a widower named Karl Maynard whose son and daughter were grown, gave him chores to do, but also sent him to school. And when Dutchy showed an interest in the dusty upright piano the widower’s wife used to play, he got it tuned and found a teacher to come to the farm to give him lessons.

  When he was eighteen, Dutchy moved to Minneapolis, where he took any work he could find playing piano in bands and bars. “Maynard wanted me to take over the farm, but I knew I wasn’t cut out for it,” he says. “Honestly, I was grateful to have a skill I could use. And to live on my own. It’s a relief to be an adult.”

  I hadn’t thought about it like this, but he’s right—it is a relief.

  He reaches over and touches my necklace. “You still have it. That gives me faith.”

  “Faith in what?”

  “God, I suppose. No, I don’t know. Survival.”

  As light begins to seep through the darkness outside the window, around 5:00 A.M., he tells me that he’s playing the organ in the Episcopal Church on Banner Street at the eight o’clock service.

  “Do you want to stay till then?” I ask.

  “Do you want me to?”

  “What do you think?”

  He stretches out beside the wall and pulls me toward him, curving his body around mine again, his arm tucked under my waist. As I lie there, matching my breathing to his, I can tell the moment when he lapses into sleep. I inhale the musk of his aftershave, a whiff of hair oil. I reach for his hand and grasp his long fingers and lace them through mine, thinking about the fateful steps that led me to him. If I hadn’t come on this trip. If I’d had something to eat. If Richard had taken us to a different bar. . . . There are so many ways to play this game. Still, I can’t help but think that everything I’ve been through has led to this. If I hadn’t been chosen by the Byrnes, I wouldn’t have ended up with the Grotes and met Miss Larsen. If Miss Larsen hadn’t brought me to Mrs. Murphy, I never would’ve met the Nielsens. And if I weren’t living with the Nielsens and attending college with Lil and Em, I would never have come to Minneapolis for the night—and probably never would have seen Dutchy again.

  My entire life has felt like chance. Random moments of loss and connection. This is the first one that feel
s, instead, like fate.

  “SO?” LIL DEMANDS. “WHAT HAPPENED?”

  We’re on our way back to Hemingford, with Em stretched out and groaning on the backseat, wearing dark glasses. Her face has a greenish tint.

  I am determined not to give anything away. “Nothing happened. What happened with you?”

  “Don’t change the subject, missy,” Lil says. “How’d you know that guy, anyway?”

  I’ve already thought about an answer. “He’s come into the store a few times.”

  Lil is skeptical. “What would he be doing in Hemingford?”

  “He sells pianos.”

  “Humph,” she says, clearly unconvinced. “Well, you two seemed to hit it off.”

  I shrug. “He’s nice enough.”

  “How much money do piano players make, anyway?” Em says from the back.

  I want to tell her to shut up. Instead I take a deep breath and say, breezily, “Who knows? It’s not like I’m going to marry him or anything.”

  Ten months later, after recounting this exchange to two dozen wedding guests in the basement of Grace Lutheran Church, Lil raises her glass in a toast. “To Vivian and Luke Maynard,” she says. “May they always make beautiful music together.”

  Hemingford, Minnesota, 1940–1943

  In front of other people I call him Luke, but he’ll always be Dutchy to me. He calls me Viv—it sounds a bit like Niamh, he says.

  We decide that we’ll live in Hemingford so I can run the store. We’ll rent a small bungalow on a side street several blocks from the Nielsens, four rooms downstairs and one up. As it happens—with, perhaps, a little help from Mr. Nielsen, who may have mentioned something to the superintendent at a Rotary meeting—the Hemingford School is looking for a music teacher. Dutchy also keeps his weekend gig at the Grand in Minneapolis, and I go in with him on Friday and Saturday nights to have dinner and hear him play. On Sundays, now, he plays the organ at Grace Lutheran, replacing the lead-footed organist who was persuaded it was time to retire.

  When I told Mrs. Nielsen that Dutchy had asked me to marry him, she frowned. “I thought you said you wanted nothing to do with marriage,” she said. “You’re only twenty. What about your degree?”

  “What about it?” I said. “It’s a ring on my finger, not a pair of handcuffs.”

  “Most men want their wives to stay home.”

  When I related this conversation to Dutchy, he laughed. “Of course you’ll get your degree. Those tax laws are complicated!”

  Dutchy and I are about as opposite as two people can be. I am practical and circumspect; he is impulsive and direct. I’m accustomed to getting up before the sun rises; he pulls me back to bed. He has no head at all for math, so in addition to keeping the books at the store, I balance our accounts at home and pay our taxes. Before I met him, I could count on one hand the times I’d had a drink; he likes a cocktail every night, says it relaxes him and will relax me, too. He is handy with a hammer and nail from his experience on the farms, but he often leaves projects half finished—storm windows stacked in a corner while snow rages outside, a leaky faucet disemboweled, its parts all over the floor.

  “I can’t believe I found you,” he tells me over and over, and I can’t believe it either. It’s as if a piece of my past has come to life, and with it all the feelings I fought to keep down—my grief at losing so much, at having no one to tell, at keeping so much hidden. Dutchy was there. He knows who I was. I don’t have to pretend.

  We lie in bed longer than I am used to on Saturday mornings—the store doesn’t open until ten, and there’s nowhere Dutchy has to be. I make coffee in the kitchen and bring two steaming mugs back to bed, and we spend hours together in the soft early light. I am delirious with longing and the fulfillment of that longing, the desire to touch his warm skin, trace the sinew and muscle just under the surface, pulsing with life. I nestle in his arms, in the nooks of his knees, his body bowed around mine, his breath on my neck, fingers tracing my outline. I have never felt like this—slow-witted and languorous, dreamy, absentminded, forgetful, focused only on each moment as it comes.

  When Dutchy lived on the streets, he never felt as alone, he tells me, as he did growing up in Minnesota. In New York the boys were always playing practical jokes on each other and pooling their food and clothes. He misses the press of people, the noise and chaos, black Model Ts rattling along the cobblestones, the treacly smell of street vendors’ peanuts roasting in sugar.

  “What about you—do you ever wish you could go back?” he asks.

  I shake my head. “Our life was so hard. I don’t have many happy memories of that place.”

  He pulls me close, runs his fingers along the soft white underbelly of my forearm. “Were your parents ever happy, do you think?”

  “Maybe. I don’t know.”

  Pushing the hair back from my face and tracing the line of my jaw with his finger, he says, “With you I’d be happy anywhere.”

 
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