Orphan train, p.9
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       Orphan Train, p.9

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  “It’s bothering me,” she says. “There’s no reason this girl needs to tell the world far and wide that she’s a Catholic.”

  Mr. Byrne laughs. “Look at her hair. There’s no denying she’s Irish, is there?”

  “So unbecoming in a girl,” Mrs. Byrne says under her breath.

  Later Mr. Byrne tells me that his wife doesn’t like Catholics in general, even though she married one. It helps that he never goes to church. “Works out well for the both of us,” he says.

  Albans, Minnesota, 1929–1930

  When Mrs. Byrne appears in the sewing room one Tuesday afternoon at the end of October, it’s clear that something is wrong. She looks haggard and stricken. Her cropped dark bob, usually in tight waves against her head, is sticking out all over. Bernice jumps up, but Mrs. Byrne waves her away.

  “Girls,” she says, holding her hand to her throat, “girls! I need to tell you something. The stock market crashed today. It’s in free fall. And many lives are . . .” She stops to catch her breath.

  “Ma’am, do you want to sit down?” Bernice says.

  Mrs. Byrne ignores her. “People lost everything,” she mutters, gripping the back of Mary’s chair. Her eyes roam the room as if she is looking for something to focus on. “If we can’t feed ourselves, we can hardly afford to employ you, now, can we?” Her eyes fill with tears and she backs out of the room, shaking her head.

  We hear the front door open and Mrs. Byrne clatter down the steps.

  Bernice tells us all to get back to work, but Joan, one of the women at the Singers, stands up abruptly. “I have to get home to my husband. I have to know what’s going on. What use is it to keep working if we won’t be paid?”

  “Leave if you must,” Fanny says.

  Joan is the only one who leaves, but the rest of us are jittery throughout the afternoon. It’s hard to sew when your hands are shaking.

  IT’S HARD TO TELL EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING ON, BUT AS THE WEEKS pass we begin to catch glimmers. Mr. Byrne apparently invested quite a bit in the stock market, and the money is gone. The demand for new garments has slowed, and people have taken to mending their own clothes—it’s one place they can easily cut corners.

  Mrs. Byrne is even more scattered and absent. We’ve stopped eating dinner together. She takes her food upstairs, leaving a desiccated chicken leg or a bowl of cold brisket in a chunk of brown gelatinous fat on the counter, with strict instructions that I wash my dish when I’m done. Thanksgiving is like any other day. I never celebrated it with my Irish family, so it doesn’t bother me, but the girls mutter under their breath all day long: it’s not Christian, it’s not American to keep them from their families.

  Maybe because the alternative is so bleak, I’ve grown to like the sewing room. I look forward to seeing the women every day—kind Fanny, simple-minded Bernice, and quiet Sally and Joan. (All except Mary, who can’t seem to forgive me for being alive.) And I like the work. My fingers are getting strong and quick; a piece that used to take an hour or more I can do in minutes. I used to be afraid of new stitches and techniques, but now welcome each new challenge—pencil-sharp pleats, sequins, delicate lace.

  The others can see that I’m improving, and they’ve started giving me more to do. Without ever saying it directly, Fanny has taken over Mary’s job of supervising my work. “Be careful, dear,” she says, running a light finger over my stitches. “Take the time to make them small and even. Remember, somebody will wear this, probably over and over until it’s worn through. A lady wants to feel pretty, no matter how much money she has.”

  Ever since I arrived in Minnesota people have been warning me about the extreme cold that’s on the way. I am beginning to feel it. Kinvara is rain soaked much of the year, and Irish winters are cold and wet. New York is gray and slushy and miserable for months. But neither place compares to this. Already we’ve had two big snowstorms. As the weather gets colder, my fingers are so stiff when I’m sewing that I have to stop and rub them so I can keep going. I notice that the other women are wearing fingerless gloves, and when I ask where they came from, they tell me they made them themselves.

  I don’t know how to knit. My mam never taught me. But I know I need to get a pair of gloves for my stiff, cold hands.

  Several days before Christmas, Mrs. Byrne announces that Christmas Day, Wednesday, will be an unpaid holiday. She and Mr. Byrne will be gone for the day, visiting relatives out of town. She doesn’t ask me to come along. At the end of our workday on Christmas Eve, Fanny slips me a small brown-wrapped parcel. “Open this later,” she whispers. “Tell them you brought it from home.” I put the packet in my pocket and wade through knee-deep snow to the privy, where I open it in the semidarkness, wind slicing through the cracks in the walls and the slit in the door. It’s a pair of fingerless gloves knit from a dense navy blue yarn, and a thick pair of brown wool mittens. When I put on the mittens I find that Fanny lined them with heavy wool and reinforced the top of the thumb and other fingers with extra padding.

  As with Dutchy and Carmine on the train, this little cluster of women has become a kind of family to me. Like an abandoned foal that nestles against cows in the barnyard, maybe I just need to feel the warmth of belonging. And if I’m not going to find that with the Byrnes, I will find it, however partial and illusory, with the women in the sewing room.

  BY JANUARY, I AM LOSING SO MUCH WEIGHT THAT MY NEW DRESSES, the ones I made myself, swim on my hips. Mr. Byrne comes and goes at odd hours, and I barely see him. We have less and less work. Fanny is teaching me how to knit, and sometimes the other girls bring in work of their own so they won’t go crazy with idleness. The heat is turned off as soon as the workers leave at five. The lights go off at seven. I spend nights on my pallet wide-awake and shivering in the dark, listening to the howling of the seemingly endless storms that rage outside. I wonder about Dutchy—if he’s sleeping in a barn with animals, eating only pig slops. I hope he’s warm.

  One day in early February, Mrs. Byrne enters the sewing room silently and unexpectedly. She seems to have stopped grooming. She’s worn the same dress all week, and her bodice is soiled. Her hair is lank and greasy, and she has a sore on her lip.

  She asks the Singer girl Sally to step out into the hall, and several minutes later Sally returns to the room with red-rimmed eyes. She picks up her belongings in silence.

  A few weeks later Mrs. Byrne comes for Bernice. They go out into the hall, and then Bernice returns and gathers her things.

  After that it’s just Fanny and Mary and me.

  It’s a windy afternoon in late March when Mrs. Byrne slips into the room and asks for Mary. I feel sorry for Mary then—despite her meanness, despite everything. Slowly she picks up her belongings, puts on her hat and coat. She looks at Fanny and me and nods, and we nod back. “God bless you, child,” Fanny says.

  When Mary and Mrs. Byrne leave the room, Fanny and I watch the door, straining to hear the indistinct murmuring in the hall. Fanny says, “Lordy, I’m too old for this.”

  A week later, the doorbell rings. Fanny and I look at each other. This is strange. The doorbell never rings.

  We hear Mrs. Byrne rustle down the stairs, undo the heavy locks, open the squeaky door. We hear her talking to a man in the hall.

  The door to the sewing room opens, and I jump a little. In comes a heavyset man in a black felt hat and a gray suit. He has a black mustache and jowls like a basset hound.

  “This the girl?” he asks, pointing a sausagey finger at me.

  Mrs. Byrne nods.

  The man takes off his hat and sets it on a small table by the door. Then he pulls a pair of eyeglasses out of the breast pocket of his overcoat and puts them on, perched partway down his bulbous nose. He takes a piece of folded paper out of another pocket and opens it with one hand. “Let’s see. Niamh Power.” He pronounces it “Nem.” Peering over his glasses at Mrs. Byrne, he says, “You changed her name to Dorothy?”

  “We thought the girl should have an American name.” Mrs. Byrne mak
es a strangled sound that I interpret as a laugh. “Not legally, of course,” she adds.

  “And you did not change her surname.”

  “Of course not.”

  “You weren’t considering adoption?”

  “Mercy, no.”

  He looks at me over his glasses, then back at the paper. The clock ticks loudly above the mantelpiece. The man folds the paper and puts it back in his pocket.

  “Dorothy, I am Mr. Sorenson. I’m a local agent of the Children’s Aid Society, and as such I oversee the placement of homeless train riders. Oftentimes the placements work out as they should, and everyone is content. But now and then, unfortunately”—he takes his glasses off and slips them back into his breast pocket—“things don’t work out.” He looks at Mrs. Byrne. She has, I notice, a jagged run in her beige stockings, and her eye makeup is smeared. “And we need to procure new accommodations.” He clears his throat. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

  I nod, though I’m not sure I do.

  “Good. There’s a couple in Hemingford—well, on a farm outside of that town, actually—who’ve requested a girl about your age. A mother, father, and four children. Wilma and Gerald Grote.”

  I turn to Mrs. Byrne. She is gazing off somewhere in the middle distance. Though she’s never been particularly kind to me, her willingness to abandon me comes as a shock. “You don’t want me anymore?”

  Mr. Sorenson looks back and forth between us. “It’s a complicated situation.”

  As we’re talking, Mrs. Byrne drifts over to the window. She pulls aside the lace curtain and gazes out at the street, at the skim-milk sky.

  “I’m sure you have heard this is a difficult time,” Mr. Sorenson continues. “Not only for the Byrnes but for a lot of people. And—well, their business has been affected.”

  With a sudden movement, Mrs. Byrne drops the curtain and wheels around. “She eats too much!” she cries. “I have to padlock the refrigerator. It’s never enough!” She puts her palms over her eyes and runs past us, out into the hallway and up the stairs, where she slams the door at the top.

  We are silent for a moment, then Fanny says, “That woman ought to be ashamed. The girl is skin and bones.” She adds, “They never even sent her to school.”

  Mr. Sorenson clears his throat. “Well,” he says, “perhaps this will be for the best for all concerned.” He fixes on me again. “The Grotes are good country people, from what I hear.”

  “Four children?” I say. “Why do they want another?”

  “As I understand it—and I could be wrong; I haven’t had the pleasure to meet them yet, this is all hearsay, you understand—but what I have gleaned is that Mrs. Grote is once again with child, and she is looking for a mother’s helper.”

  I ponder this. I think of Carmine, of Maisie. Of the twins, sitting at our rickety table on Elizabeth Street waiting patiently for their apple mash. I imagine a white farmhouse with black shutters, a red barn in the back, a post-and-rail fence, chickens in a coop. Anything has to be better than a padlocked refrigerator and a pallet in the hall. “When do they want me?”

  “I’m taking you there now.”

  Mr. Sorenson says he’ll give me a few minutes to collect my things and goes out to his car. In the hall I pull my brown suitcase from the back of the closet. Fanny stands in the door of the sewing room and watches me pack. I fold up the three dresses I made, one of which, the blue chambray, I haven’t finished, plus my other dress from the Children’s Aid. I add the two new sweaters and the corduroy skirt and the mittens and gloves from Fanny. I’d just as soon leave the ugly mustard coat behind, but Fanny says I’ll regret it if I do, that it’s even colder out there on those farms than it is here in town.

  When I’m done, we go back in the sewing room and Fanny finds a small pair of scissors, two spools of thread, black and white, a pincushion and pins, and a cellophane packet of needles. She adds a cardboard flat of opalescent buttons for my unfinished dress. Then she wraps it all in cheesecloth for me to tuck in the top of my suitcase.

  “Won’t you get in trouble for giving me these?” I ask her.

  “Pish,” she says. “I don’t even care.”

  I do not say good-bye to the Byrnes. Who knows where Mr. Byrne is, and Mrs. Byrne doesn’t come downstairs. But Fanny gives me a long hug. She holds my face in her small cold hands. “You are a good girl, Niamh,” she says. “Don’t let anybody tell you different.”

  Mr. Sorenson’s vehicle, parked in the driveway behind the Model A, is a dark-green Chrysler truck. He opens the passenger door for me, then goes around to the other side. The interior smells of tobacco and apples. He backs out of the driveway and points the car to the left, away from town and toward a direction I’ve never been. We follow Elm Street until it ends, then turn right down another quiet street, where the houses are set back farther from the sidewalks, until we come to an intersection and turn onto a long, flat road with fields on both sides.

  I gaze out at the fields, a dull patchwork. Brown cows huddle together, lifting their necks to watch the noisy truck as it passes. Horses graze. Pieces of farm equipment in the distance look like abandoned toys. The horizon line, flat and low, is straight ahead, and the sky looks like dishwater. Black birds pierce the sky like inverse stars.

  I feel almost sorry for Mr. Sorenson on our drive. I can tell this weighs on him. It’s probably not what he thought he was signing up for when he agreed to be an agent for the Children’s Aid Society. He keeps asking if I’m comfortable, if the heat is too low or too high. When he learns I know almost nothing about Minnesota he tells me all about it—how it became a state just over seventy years ago and is now the twelfth largest in the United States. How its name comes from a Dakota Indian word for “cloudy water.” How it contains thousands of lakes, filled with fish of all kinds—walleye, for one thing, catfish, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, perch, and pike. The Mississippi River starts in Minnesota, did I know that? And these fields—he waves his fingers toward the window—they feed the whole country. Let’s see, there’s grain, the biggest export—a thrasher goes from farm to farm, and neighbors get together to bundle the shocks. There’s sugar beets and sweet corn and green peas. And those low buildings way over there? Turkey farms. Minnesota is the biggest producer of turkeys in the country. There’d be no Thanksgiving without Minnesota, that’s for darn sure. And don’t get me started on hunting. We’ve got pheasants, quail, grouse, whitetail deer, you name it. It’s a hunter’s paradise.

  I listen to Mr. Sorenson and nod politely as he talks, but it’s hard to concentrate. I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.

  Hemingford County, Minnesota, 1930

  After about half an hour, Mr. Sorenson turns onto a narrow unpaved road. Dirt rises around us as we drive, coating the windshield and side windows. We pass more fields and then a copse of birch tree skeletons, cross through a dilapidated covered bridge over a murky stream still sheeted with ice, turn down a bumpy dirt road bordered by pine trees. Mr. Sorenson is holding a card with what looks like directions on it. He slows the truck, pulls to a stop, looks back toward the bridge. Then he peers out the grimy windshield at the trees ahead. “No goldarn signs,” he mutters. He puts his foot on the pedal and inches forward.

  Out of the side window I point to a faded red rag tied to a stick and what appears to be a driveway, overgrown with weeds.

  “Must be it,” he says.

  Hairy branches scrape the truck on either side as we make our way down the drive. After about fifty yards, we come to a small wooden house—a shack, really—unpainted, with a sagging fro
nt porch piled with junk. In the grassless section in front of the house, a baby is crawling on top of a dog with black matted fur, and a boy of about six is poking a stick in the dirt. His hair is so short, and he’s so skinny, that he looks like a wizened old man. Despite the cold, he and the baby are barefoot.

  Mr. Sorenson parks the truck as far from the children as possible in the small clearing and gets out of the truck. I get out on my side.

  “Hello, boy,” he says.

  The child gapes at him, not answering.

  “Your mama home?”

  “Who want to know?” the boy says.

  Mr. Sorenson smiles. “Did your mama tell you you’re getting a new sister?”


  “Well, she should be expecting us. Go on and tell her we’re here.”

  The boy stabs at the dirt with the stick. “She’s sleeping. I’m not to bother her.”

  “You go on and wake her up. Maybe she forgot we were coming.”

  The boy traces a circle in the dirt.

  “Tell her it’s Mr. Sorenson from the Children’s Aid Society.”

  He shakes his head. “Don’t want a whupping.”

  “She’s not going to whip you, boy! She’ll be glad to know I’m here.”

  When it’s clear the boy isn’t going to move, Mr. Sorenson rubs his hands together and, motioning for me to follow, makes his way gingerly up the creaking steps to the porch. I can tell he’s worried about what we might find inside. I am too.

  He knocks loudly on the door, and it swings open from the force of his hand. There’s a hole where the doorknob is supposed to be. He steps into the gloom, ushering me in with him.

  The front room is nearly bare. It smells like a cave. The floor is planked with rough boards, and in places I can see clear through to the ground below. Of the three grimy windows, one has a jagged hole in the upper-right corner and one is seamed with spidery cracks. A wooden crate stands between two upholstered chairs, soiled with dirt, stuffing coming out of split seams, and a threadbare gold sofa. On the far left is a dark hallway. Straight ahead, through an open doorway, is the kitchen.

  “Mrs. Grote? Hello?” Mr. Sorenson cocks his head, but there’s no response. “I’m not going into a bedroom to find her, that’s for sure,” he mutters. “Mrs. Grote?” he calls, louder.

  We hear faint footsteps and a girl of about three, in a dirty pink dress, emerges from the hall.

  “Well, hello, little girl!” Mr. Sorenson says, crouching down on his heels. “Is your mama back there?”

  “We sleeping.”

  “That’s what your brother said. Is she still asleep?”

  A harsh voice comes from the hallway, startling us both: “What do you want?”

  Mr. Sorenson stands up slowly. A pale woman with long brown hair steps out of the darkness. Her eyes are puffy and her lips are chapped, and her nightgown is so thin I can see the dark circles of her nipples through the cloth.

  The girl sidles over like a cat and puts an arm around her legs.

  “I’m Chester Sorenson, from the Children’s Aid Society. You must be Mrs. Grote. I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am, but I was told you knew we were coming. You did request a girl, did you not?”

  The woman rubs her eyes. “What day is it?”

  “Friday, April fourth, ma’am.”

  She coughs. Then she doubles over and coughs again, harder this time, into her fist.

  “Would you like to sit down?” Mr. Sorenson goes over and guides her by the elbow to a chair. “Now, is Mr. Grote home?”

  The woman shakes her head.

  “Are you expecting him soon?”

  She lifts her shoulders in a shrug.

  “What time does he get off work?” Mr. Sorenson presses.

  “He don’t go to work no more. Lost his job at the feed store last week.” She glances around as if she’s lost something. Then she says, “C’mere, Mabel.” The little girl slinks over to her, watching us the whole time. “Go check and see that Gerald Junior’s okay in there. And where’s Harold?”

  “Is that the boy outside?” Mr. Sorenson asks.

  “He watching the baby? I told him to.”

  “They’re both out there,” he says, and though his voice is neutral, I can tell he doesn’t approve.

  Mrs. Grote chews her lip. She still hasn’t said a word to me. She’s barely looked in my direction. “I’m just so tired,” she says to no one in particular.

  “Well, I’m sure you are, ma’am.” It’s clear Mr. Sorenson is itching to get out of here. “I’m guessing that’s why you asked for this here orphan girl. Dorothy. Her papers say she has experience with children. So that should be a help to you.”

  She nods distractedly. “I got to sleep when they sleep,” she mumbles. “It’s the only time I get any rest.”

  “I’m sure it is.”

  Mrs. Grote covers her face with both hands. Then she pushes her stringy hair back behind her ears. She juts her chin at me. “This is the girl, huh?”

  “Yes, ma’am. Name’s Dorothy. She’s here to be part of your family and be taken care of by you and help you in return.”

  She focuses on my face, but her eyes are flat. “What’s her age?”

  “Nine years old.”

  “I have enough kids. What I need is somebody who can help me out.”

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