Orphan train, p.2
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       Orphan Train, p.2
 

          
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  After Jack’s Hail Mary pass—or “Hail Molly,” as he called it—Dina grudgingly agreed to give her another chance. “Cleaning an old lady’s attic?” she snorted. “Yeah, right. I give it a week.”

  Molly hardly expected a big vote of confidence from Dina, but she has some doubts herself. Is she really going to devote fifty hours of her life to a crotchety dowager in a drafty attic, going through boxes filled with moths and dust mites and who knows what else? In juvie she’d be spending the same time in group therapy (always interesting) and watching The View (interesting enough). There’d be other girls to hang with. As it is she’ll have Dina at home and this old lady here watching her every move.

  Molly looks at her watch. They’re five minutes early, thanks to Jack, who hustled her out the door.

  “Remember: eye contact,” he says. “And be sure to smile.”

  “You are such a mom.”

  “You know what your problem is?”

  “That my boyfriend is acting like a mom?”

  “No. Your problem is you don’t seem to realize your ass is on the line here.”

  “What line? Where?” She looks around, wiggling her butt in the seat.

  “Listen.” He rubs his chin. “My ma didn’t tell Vivian about juvie and all that. As far as she knows, you’re doing a community service project for school.”

  “So she doesn’t know about my criminal past? Sucker.”

  “Ay diablo,” he says, opening the door and getting out.

  “Are you coming in with me?”

  He slams the door, then walks around the back of the car to the passenger side and opens the door. “No, I am escorting you to the front step.”

  “My, what a gentleman.” She slides out. “Or is it that you don’t trust me not to bolt?”

  “Truthfully, both,” he says.

  STANDING BEFORE THE LARGE WALNUT DOOR, WITH ITS OVERSIZED brass knocker, Molly hesitates. She turns to look at Jack, who is already back in his car, headphones in his ears, flipping through what she knows is a dog-eared collection of Junot Díaz stories he keeps in the glove compartment. She stands straight, shoulders back, tucks her hair behind her ears, fiddles with the collar of her blouse (When’s the last time she wore a collar? A dog collar, maybe), and raps the knocker. No answer. She raps again, a little louder. Then she notices a buzzer to the left of the door and pushes it. Chimes gong loudly in the house, and within seconds she can see Jack’s mom, Terry, barreling toward her with a worried expression. It’s always startling to see Jack’s big brown eyes in his mother’s wide, soft-featured face.

  Though Jack has assured Molly that his mother is on board—“That damn attic project has been hanging over her head for so long, you have no idea”—Molly knows the reality is more complicated. Terry adores her only son, and would do just about anything to make him happy. However much Jack wants to believe that Terry’s fine and dandy with this plan, Molly knows that he steamrollered her into it.

  When Terry opens the door, she gives Molly a once-over. “Well, you clean up nice.”

  “Thanks. I guess,” Molly mutters. She can’t tell if Terry’s outfit is a uniform or if it’s just so boring that it looks like one: black pants, clunky black shoes with rubber soles, a matronly peach-colored T-shirt.

  Molly follows her down a long hallway lined with oil paintings and etchings in gold frames, the Oriental runner beneath their feet muting their footsteps. At the end of the hall is a closed door.

  Terry leans with her ear against it for a moment and knocks softly. “Vivian?” She opens the door a crack. “The girl is here. Molly Ayer. Yep, okay.”

  She opens the door wide onto a large, sunny living room with views of the water, filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and antique furniture. An old lady, wearing a black cashmere crewneck sweater, is sitting beside the bay window in a faded red wingback chair, her veiny hands folded in her lap, a wool tartan blanket draped over her knees.

  When they are standing in front of her, Terry says, “Molly, this is Mrs. Daly.”

  “Hello,” Molly says, holding out her hand as her father taught her to do.

  “Hello.” The old woman’s hand, when Molly grasps it, is dry and cool. She is a sprightly, spidery woman, with a narrow nose and piercing hazel eyes as bright and sharp as a bird’s. Her skin is thin, almost translucent, and her wavy silver hair is gathered at the nape of her neck in a bun. Light freckles—or are they age spots?—are sprinkled across her face. A topographical map of veins runs up her hands and over her wrists, and she has dozens of tiny creases around her eyes. She reminds Molly of the nuns at the Catholic school she attended briefly in Augusta (a quick stopover with an ill-suited foster family), who seemed ancient in some ways and preternaturally young in others. Like the nuns, this woman has a slightly imperious air, as if she is used to getting her way. And why wouldn’t she? Molly thinks. She is used to getting her way.

  “All right, then. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me,” Terry says, and disappears through another door.

  The old woman leans toward Molly, a slight frown on her face. “How on earth do you achieve that effect? The skunk stripe,” she says, reaching up and brushing her own temple.

  “Umm . . .” Molly is surprised; no one has ever asked her this before. “It’s a combination of bleach and dye.”

  “How did you learn to do it?”

  “I saw a video on YouTube.”

  “YouTube?”

  “On the Internet.”

  “Ah.” She lifts her chin. “The computer. I’m too old to take up such fads.”

  “I don’t think you can call it a fad if it’s changed the way we live,” Molly says, then smiles contritely, aware that she’s already gotten herself into a disagreement with her potential boss.

  “Not the way I live,” the old woman says. “It must be quite time-consuming.”

  “What?”

  “Doing that to your hair.”

  “Oh. It’s not so bad. I’ve been doing it for a while now.”

  “What’s your natural color, if you don’t mind my asking?”

  “I don’t mind,” Molly says. “It’s dark brown.”

  “Well, my natural color is red.” It takes Molly a moment to realize she’s making a little joke about being gray.

  “I like what you’ve done with it,” she parries. “It suits you.”

  The old woman nods and settles back in her chair. She seems to approve. Molly feels some of the tension leave her shoulders. “Excuse my rudeness, but at my age there’s no point in beating around the bush. Your appearance is quite stylized. Are you one of those—what are they called, gothics?”

  Molly can’t help smiling. “Sort of.”

  “You borrowed that blouse, I presume.”

  “Uh . . .”

  “You needn’t have bothered. It doesn’t suit you.” She gestures for Molly to sit across from her. “You may call me Vivian. I never liked being called Mrs. Daly. My husband is no longer alive, you know.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “No need to be sorry. He died eight years ago. Anyway, I am ninety-one years old. Not many people I once knew are still alive.”

  Molly isn’t sure how to respond—isn’t it polite to tell people they don’t look as old as they are? She wouldn’t have guessed that this woman is ninety-one, but she doesn’t have much basis for comparison. Her father’s parents died when he was young; her mother’s parents never married, and she never met her grandfather. The one grandparent Molly remembers, her mother’s mother, died of cancer when she was three.

  “Terry tells me you’re in foster care,” Vivian says. “Are you an orphan?”

  “My mother’s alive, but—yes, I consider myself an orphan.”

  “Technically you’re not, though.”

  “I think if you don’t have parents who look after you, then you can call yourself whatever you want.”

  Vivian gives her a long look, as if she’s considering this idea. “Fair enough,” she says. “Tell m
e about yourself, then.”

  Molly has lived in Maine her entire life. She’s never even crossed the state line. She remembers bits and pieces of her childhood on Indian Island before she went into foster care: the gray-sided trailer she lived in with her parents, the community center with pickups parked all around, Sockalexis Bingo Palace, and St. Anne’s Church. She remembers an Indian corn-husk doll with black hair and a traditional native costume that she kept on a shelf in her room—though she preferred the Barbies donated by charities and doled out at the community center at Christmas. They were never the popular ones, of course—never Cinderella or Beauty Queen Barbie, but instead one-off oddities that bargain hunters could find on clearance: Hot Rod Barbie, Jungle Barbie. It didn’t matter. However peculiar Barbie’s costume, her features were always reliably the same: the freakish stiletto-ready feet, the oversized rack and ribless midsection, the ski-slope nose and shiny plastic hair . . .

  But that’s not what Vivian wants to hear. Where to start? What to reveal? This is the problem. It’s not a happy story, and Molly has learned through experience that people either recoil or don’t believe her or, worse, pity her. So she’s learned to tell an abridged version. “Well,” she says, “I’m a Penobscot Indian on my father’s side. When I was young, we lived on a reservation near Old Town.”

  “Ah. Hence the black hair and tribal makeup.”

  Molly is startled. She’s never thought to make that connection—is it true?

  Sometime in the eighth grade, during a particularly rough year—angry, screaming foster parents; jealous foster siblings; a pack of mean girls at school—she got a box of L’Oreal ten-minute hair color and Cover Girl ebony eyeliner and transformed herself in the family bathroom. A friend who worked at Claire’s at the mall did her piercings the following weekend—a string of holes in each ear, up through the cartilage, a stud in her nose, and a ring in her eyebrow (though that one didn’t last; it soon got infected and had to be taken out, the remaining scar a spiderweb tracing). The piercings were the straw that got her thrown out of that foster home. Mission accomplished.

  Molly continues her story—how her father died and her mother couldn’t take care of her, how she ended up with Ralph and Dina.

  “So Terry tells me you were assigned some kind of community service project. And she came up with the brilliant idea for you to help me clean my attic,” Vivian says. “Seems like a bad bargain for you, but who am I to say?”

  “I’m kind of a neat freak, believe it or not. I like organizing things.”

  “Then you are even stranger than you appear.” Vivian sits back and clasps her hands together. “I’ll tell you something. By your definition I was orphaned, too, at almost exactly the same age. So we have that in common.”

  Molly isn’t sure how to respond. Does Vivian want her to ask about this, or is she just putting that out there? It’s hard to tell. “Your parents . . .” she ventures, “didn’t look after you?”

  “They tried. There was a fire . . .” Vivian shrugs. “It was all so long ago, I barely remember. Now—when do you want to begin?”

  New York City, 1929

  Maisie sensed it first. She wouldn’t stop crying. Since she was a month old, when our mother got sick, Maisie had slept with me on my narrow cot in the small windowless room we shared with our brothers. It was so dark that I wondered, as I had many times before, if this was what blindness felt like—this enveloping void. I could barely make out, or perhaps only sense, the forms of the boys, stirring fitfully but not yet awake: Dominick and James, six-year-old twins, huddled together for warmth on a pallet on the floor.

  Sitting on the cot with my back against the wall, I held Maisie the way Mam had shown me, cupped over my shoulder. I tried everything I could think of to comfort her, all the things that had worked before: stroking her back, running two fingers down the bridge of her nose, humming our father’s favorite song, “My Singing Bird,” softly in her ear: I have heard the blackbird pipe his note, the thrush and the linnet too / But there’s none of them can sing so sweet, my singing bird, as you. But she only shrieked louder, her body convulsing in spasms.

  Maisie was eighteen months old, but her weight was like a bundle of rags. Only a few weeks after she was born, Mam came down with a fever and could no longer feed her, so we made do with warm sweetened water, slow-cooked crushed oats, milk when we could afford it. All of us were thin. Food was scarce; days went by when we had little more than rubbery potatoes in weak broth. Mam wasn’t much of a cook even in the best of health, and some days she didn’t bother to try. More than once, until I learned to cook, we ate potatoes raw from the bin.

  It had been two years since we left our home on the west coast of Ireland. Life was hard there, too; our da held and lost a string of jobs, none of which were enough to support us. We lived in a tiny unheated house made of stone in a small village in County Galway called Kinvara. People all around us were fleeing to America: we heard tales of oranges the size of baking potatoes; fields of grain waving under sunny skies; clean, dry timber houses with indoor plumbing and electricity. Jobs as plentiful as the fruit on the trees. As one final act of kindness toward us—or perhaps to rid themselves of the nuisance of constant worry—Da’s parents and sisters scraped together the money for ocean passage for our family of five, and on a warm spring day we boarded the Agnes Pauline, bound for Ellis Island. The only link we had to our future was a name scrawled on a piece of paper my father tucked in his shirt pocket as we boarded the ship: a man who had emigrated ten years earlier and now, according to his Kinvara relatives, owned a respectable dining establishment in New York City.

  Despite having lived all our lives in a seaside village, none of us had ever been on a boat, much less a ship in the middle of the ocean. Except for my brother Dom, fortified with the constitution of a bull, we were ill for much of the voyage. It was worse for Mam, who discovered on the boat she was again with child and could hardly keep any food down. But even with all of this, as I stood on the lower deck outside our dark, cramped rooms in steerage, watching the oily water churn beneath the Agnes Pauline, I felt my spirits lift. Surely, I thought, we would find a place for ourselves in America.

  The morning that we arrived in New York harbor was so foggy and overcast that though my brothers and I stood at the railing, squinting into the drizzle, we could barely make out the ghostly form of the Statue of Liberty a short distance from the docks. We were herded into long lines to be inspected, interrogated, stamped, and then set loose among hundreds of other immigrants, speaking languages that sounded to my ears like the braying of farm animals.

  There were no waving fields of grain that I could see, no oversized oranges. We took a ferry to the island of Manhattan and walked the streets, Mam and I staggering under the weight of our possessions, the twins clamoring to be held, Da with a suitcase under each arm, clutching a map in one hand and the tattered paper with Mark Flannery, The Irish Rose, Delancey Street, written in his mother’s crabbed cursive, in the other. After losing our way several times, Da gave up on the map and began asking people on the street for directions. More often than not they turned away without answering; one man spit on the ground, his face twisted with loathing. But finally we found the place—an Irish pub, as seedy as the roughest ones on the backstreets of Galway.

  Mam and the boys and I waited on the sidewalk while Da went inside. The rain had stopped; steam rose from the wet street into the humid air. We stood in our damp clothing, stiffened from sweat and ground-in dirt, scratching our scabbed heads (from lice on the ship, as pervasive as sea-sickness), our feet blistering in the new shoes Gram had bought before we left but Mam didn’t let us wear until we walked on American soil—and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. Except for this sorry reproduction of an Irish pub before us, nothing in this new land bore the slightest resemblance to the world we knew.

  Mark Flannery had received a letter from his sister and was expecting us. He hired our da as a dishwasher and took us to a neighborhood lik
e no place I’d ever seen—tall brick buildings packed together on narrow streets teeming with people. He knew of an apartment for rent, ten dollars a month, on the third floor of a five-story tenement on Elizabeth Street. After he left us at the door, we followed the Polish landlord, Mr. Kaminski, down the tiled hallway and up the stairs, struggling in the heat and the dark with our bags while he lectured us on the virtues of cleanliness and civility and industriousness, all of which he clearly suspected we lacked. “I have no trouble with the Irish, as long as you stay out of trouble,” he told us in his booming voice. Glancing at Da’s face, I saw an expression I’d never seen before, but instantly understood: the shock of realization that here, in this foreign place, he’d be judged harshly as soon as he opened his mouth.

  The landlord called our new home a railroad apartment: each room leading to the next, like railway cars. My parents’ tiny bedroom, with a window facing the back of another building, was at one end; the room I shared with the boys and Maisie was next, then the kitchen, and then the front parlor, with two windows overlooking the busy street. Mr. Kaminski pulled a chain hanging from the pressed-metal kitchen ceiling, and light seeped from a bulb, casting a wan glow over a scarred wooden table, a small stained sink with a faucet that ran cold water, a gas stove. In the hall, outside the apartment door, was a lavatory we shared with our neighbors—a childless German couple called the Schatzmans, the landlord told us. “They keep quiet, and will expect you to do the same,” he said, frowning as my brothers, restless and fidgety, made a game of shoving each other.

  Despite the landlord’s disapproval, the sweltering heat, the gloomy rooms, and the cacophony of strange noises, so unfamiliar to my country ears, I felt another swell of hope. As I looked around our four rooms, it did seem that we were off to a fresh start, having left behind the many hardships of life in Kinvara: the damp that sank into our bones, the miserable, cramped hut, our father’s drinking—did I mention that?—that threw every small gain into peril. Here, our da had the promise of a job. We could pull a chain for light; the twist of a knob brought running water. Just outside the door, in a dry hallway, a toilet and bathtub. However modest, this was a chance for a new beginning.

  I don’t know how much of my memory of this time is affected by my age now and how much is a result of the age I was then—seven when we left Kinvara, nine on that night when Maisie wouldn’t stop crying, that night that, even more than leaving Ireland, changed the course of my life forever. Eighty-two years later, the sound of her crying still haunts me. If only I had paid closer attention to why she was crying instead of simply trying to quiet her. If only I had paid closer attention.

  I was so afraid that our lives would fall apart again that I tried to ignore the things that frightened me most: our da’s continued love affair with drink, which a change in country did not change; Mam’s black moods and rages; the incessant fighting between them. I wanted everything to be all right. I held Maisie to my chest and whispered in her ear—there’s none of them can sing so sweet, my singing bird, as you—trying to silence her. When she finally stopped, I was only relieved, not understanding that Maisie was like a canary in a mine, warning us of danger, but it was too late.

  New York City, 1929

  Three days after the fire, Mr. Schatzman wakes me from sleep to tell me that he and Mrs. Schatzman have figured out a perfect solution (yes, he says “perfect,” parr-fec, in his German accent; I learn, in this instant, the terrible power of superlatives). They will take me to the Children’s Aid Society, a place staffed by friendly social workers who keep the children in their care warm and dry and fed.

  “I can’t go,” I say. “My mother will need me when she gets out of the hospital.” I know that my father and brothers are dead. I saw them in the hallway, covered with sheets. But Mam was taken away on a stretcher, and I saw Maisie moving, whimpering, as a man in a uniform carried her down the hall.

  He shakes his head. “She won’t be coming back.”

  “But Maisie, then—”

  “Your sister, Margaret, didn’t make it,” he says, turning away.

  My mother and father, two brothers, and a sister as dear to me as my own self—there is no language for my loss. And even if I find words to describe what I feel, there is no one to tell. Everyone I am attached to in the world—this new world—is dead or gone.

  The night of the fire, the night they took me in, I could hear Mrs. Schatzman in her bedroom, fretting with her husband about what to do with me. “I didn’t ask for this,” she hissed, the words as distinct to my ears as if she’d been in the same room. “Those Irish! Too many children in too small a space. The only surprise is that this kind of thing doesn’t happen more.”

  As I listened through the wall, a hollow space opened within me. I didn’t ask for this. Only hours earlier, my da had come in from his job at the bar and changed his clothes, as he always did after work, shedding rank smells with each layer. Mam mended a pile of clothes she’d taken in for money. Dominick peeled potatoes. James played in a corner. I drew on a piece of paper with Maisie, teaching her letters, the hot-water-bottle weight and warmth of her on my lap, her sticky fingers in my hair.

  I try to forget the horror of what happened. Or—perhaps forget is the wrong word. How can I forget? And yet how can I move forward even a step without tamping down the despair I feel? When I close my eyes, I hear Maisie’s cries and Mam’s screams, smell the acrid smoke, feel the heat of the fire on my skin, and heave upright on my pallet in the Schatzmans’ parlor, soaked in a cold sweat.

  My mother’s parents are dead, her brothers in Europe, one having followed the other to serve in the military, and I know nothing about how to find them. But it occurs to me, and I tell Mr. Schatzman, that someone might try to get in touch with my father’s mother and his sister back in Ireland, though we haven’t had contact with them since we came to this country. I never saw a letter from Gram, nor did I ever see my father writing one. Our life in New York was so bleak, and we clung to it with such an unsteady grip, that I doubt my da had much he would want to report. I don’t know much more than the name of our village and my father’s family name—though perhaps this information would be enough.

  But Mr. Schatzman frowns and shakes his head, and it’s then that I realize just how alone I am. There is no adult on this side of the Atlantic who has reason to take any interest in me, no one to guide me onto a boat or pay for my passage. I am a burden to society, and nobody’s responsibility.

  “YOU—THE IRISH GIRL. OVER HERE.” A THIN, SCOWLING MATRON in a white bonnet beckons with a bony finger. She must know I’m Irish from the papers Mr. Schatzman filled out when he brought me in to the Children’s Aid several weeks ago—or perhaps it is my accent, still as thick as peat. “Humph,” she says, pursing her lips, when I stand in front of her. “Red hair.”

  “Unfortunate,” the plump woman beside her says, then sighs. “And those freckles. It’s hard enough to get placed out at her age.”

  The bony one licks her thumb and pushes the hair off my face. “Don’t want to scare them away, now, do you? You must keep it pulled back. If you’re neat and well mannered, they might not be so quick to jump to conclusions.”

  She buttons my sleeves, and when she leans down to retie each of my black shoes, a mildewy smell rises from her bonnet. “It is imperative that you look
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