Orphan

Inky blackness drains away as sunlight fills the room.

In the wake of darkness, I am left gasping, clinging to the shores of mourning.

Filtered through a dull ache, bits and pieces drift into view; a low slung coffee table, a chair resting on its side across checkered linoleum, a window open in a silent scream.

Squinting, I turn from probing sunlight. It extends an arm through the open window, illuminating a swirl of dust bits.

The light, however, does not reach me as it is blocked by a looming shadow.

Above me, the shadow rocks to and fro. Seething under the sun’s steady spotlight.

I know this shadow.

The room rocks as well; as if finding footing within the vacuum of a retreating storm.

In the throbbing cave hidden just behind my eyes I mumble so shadows can’t hear.

And upon hearing unspoken words, Silence enters the room with a stoic grace. Spying the shadow draped across a little boy’s face she takes my hand. She bites a pursed lip wondering what will become of me.

Knowing what will become of me.

‘Don’t cry,’ I tell myself.

Silence buckles, wishing I’d send her away with the sounds of sobs and wails.

Instead she stays and stares.

She squeezes my hand.

In this room filled by Silence and a larger-than-life shadow, I struggle to raise myself from the linoleum floor. Arms and legs are tangled, like Tinkertoys tossed in a pile.

Protesting the effort, my left elbow howls. I falter, rolling onto my back. From a prone position I stare up at a tin plate ceiling, recently painted white.

Touching an aching face, I speak to Silence, ‘What have I done?’

Though she hears me, she refrains from reaching out to touch a swollen eye.

Cautiously, I touch at my elbow before pushing up with both hands. The coolness of flooring against my palms offers comfort. Mr. Clean’s familiar scent joins checkered linoleum and tin ceiling tiles to tell me where I am.

‘Home.’

Like smelling salts, the scent overwhelms me.

As does the returning wave of fear.

I look up at the looming shadow, its chest heaving like a blacksmith’s bellows.

The room stops its rocking.

Steadying myself, I rise to a sitting position. Justification for fear’s swelling tide is splattered across the floor. Dark and crimson, I poke it with an extended finger. As if finger painting, I trace a line through a swath of blood. The imperfect arc offers evidence of a three year old’s shaking hand.

Around me the air is meaty.

Leaden.

It sticks to freckled skin.

Just out of reach, star-like specs skip and dance. Familiar figures, they drift about my head and shoulders. My head throbs, as if recovering from the blows of a mighty piston.

Over time, my constitution shall be forged, one blow at a time.

Over time, I will tally well north of 100 stitches; a reflection of various accidents and activities. Today’s stitches will be the first, laced above my eye to close a gash rendered by the corner of a low slung coffee table.

With the wind knocked out of me, my chest claws for breath. The gasping sounds seem to come from far away; as if leaping from the AM radio poised on a kitchen counter. The sounds of a child’s sucking chest fill our Bronx apartment.

As if curious, or perhaps pitying me, those star-like specs come closer, dancing about my head and shoulders. ‘Are you ok?’ they whisper.

‘You … I know you,’ I mumble to the make believe stars. I reach for them. They look like stars; magical and otherworldly and seemingly ready to lead me into the future, to a day far away, to a night far away.

But at three years old, I know what they are.

‘You’re not stars,’ I stammer into the cave behind my eyes. Hearing my words, Silence huddles to my side. She bends close as I tell her, ‘They can’t be stars. Stars are in the sky. At night.’

Lips pursed, she agrees with a little boy’s logic. Leaning over, she places her lips to the crown of a throbbing head. Closing her eyes, she registers the smell of Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tears Shampoo and the earthy scent of boyhood blood.

To my right, heat shimmers off a neighboring store’s rooftop. The smell of simmering tar follows molten sunlight through the open window to mix with the scent of Mr. Clean. I close my eyes and register the encroaching smell.

The smell of summer.

Inside our second floor apartment, drifting dust specs fill the meaty beam of light. Like the make-believe stars, they skip and leap, just out of reach.

I wonder if they’re scared too.

The sight of summer.

From outside, the rumblings of a passing train rattle puckered windows. More a feeling than a sound, the rumble fills my chest, breathing life into a palpable sense of fear.

With breath returning to my chest, I feel – no hear – my heart pound at its tiny cage of ribs.

Backlit by incoming sunlight, the shadow stares. Feet wide apart, my father stands above me. His chest heaves.

He is more silhouette than man.

He shifts slightly and I see his eyes, his warrior’s nose, his thin lips. Black eyes appear as deep wells, staring into a far off place unseeable by me. Long slow breaths join the rumblings of the train to dislodge Silence from her perch.

She tumbles out the window.

Carried by an August breeze, she strikes pavement below.

The sounds of summer.

Perhaps originating from a shadow’s flared nostrils or a pulsing Bronx summer, a thick breeze wafts over me.

Pressing my hand against the right side of my face I feel a sticky warmth.

Removing my hand from its resting spot, I spy a palm painted crimson. As breaths shorten, I stammer, “It’s, it’s my …”

Dust bits swirl.

‘Don’t cry,’ I tell myself.

Pushing a painted palm as far away as possible, I extend my arm.

Through a swarm of dust specs agitating within a beam of light and past make believe stars swirling about my head, I reach for my father. Within the column of sunlight I watch as drifting dust specs take pause to grasp my tiny hand, each spec eager to cling to a warm wet surface.

Above me, the shadow rocks to and fro.

His eyes grow wide.

Inky blackness drains away.

***

Within the orphanage’s lobby, the three year old version of my father stands still. He holds a burlap sack of clothes tight to his chest. Along with his modest collection of clothing, the sack contains a stuffed dog, white with black checkers, named Spike.

The walk to the orphanage from a Bronx tenement had consumed most of the morning. In an effort to avoid the sun’s unyielding glare, my father and his father marched under elevated train tracks wherever possible. As trains rumbled overhead tiny specs of dust and grime had fallen upon their shoulders to speckle Sunday shirts.

The rumblings filled my father with a sense of dread.

Silently, he asked himself, ‘What have I done?’

Two hours into their journey the pair stopped at a windowless bar.

“Stay here, boy. Don’t go a runn’n.”

My father waited nervously outside while his father took his fill. The heat shimmered off gooey blacktop, baking my waiting father. Twice he checked on Spike, confirming he was safe. And looking about to make sure no one was watching he told the little dog not to be scared. “Don’t cry,” he whispered.

‘OK,’ responded Spike.

Upon exiting the bar, my father’s father listed from side to side as he dragged his first born son by the wrist to a Catholic orphanage. Twice during the second half of the trip my father was slapped across the face, the second time alongside an idling bus packed with staring strangers.

‘Don’t cry,’ he told himself.

Now, in the lobby of the orphanage, lancing sunlight illuminates father and son. Under the sun’s unforgiving glare, they appear drained, depleted.

At three years old my father is depleted.

Squinting, my father turns from advancing sunlight. It rushes through an open window, sending dust bits swirling.

The light, however, does not reach my father as it is blocked by a looming shadow.

The shadow rocks to and fro.

My father’s head throbs, as if recovering from the blows of a mighty piston. Once again he is witness to the piston of anger, the mighty machinery passed from generation to generation. During these early years, the constitution he’ll one day bestow upon his own first born is forged, one blow at a time.

To his right, stands his father.

Before him stands the looming shadow in the form of an ancient nun.

The nun is tall and skinny, stooped by the burden of righteousness. Her pointy nose sniffs the air before crinkling in disgust. Coal-lump eyes narrow before forcing a tight lipped smile. Quickly, she releases the smile to return to her preferred state of disappointment.

Staring at my father she clears her throat, “I am Sister Theresa.”

Watching shadows advance, my father nods.

“And who are you?” asks the elderly nun.

In the throbbing cave hidden just behind his eyes my father mumbles so shadows can’t hear, ‘I hate you.’

And hearing my father’s unspoken words, Silence enters the room with a stoic grace.

Startling Silence, my grandfather smacks the back of my father’s head with an open palm. “Answer Sister Theresa when she speaks to you, boy.” My grandfather wears a brass ring upon his finger and it makes a cracking noise as it strikes the base of my father’s skull.

It’s a familiar sound; the same sound one might hear when a boy is slapped across the side of the face when he’s walked to an orphanage.

Just out of reach, star-like specs skip and dance. Familiar figures, they float just above my father’s head and shoulders. ‘Are you ok?’ they whisper.

He considers answering but thinks better of it.

Shifting his bag of clothes to the crook of his right arm, my father rubs the back of his head with his left hand. ‘Please don’t bleed,’ he silently pleads. Blood will stain his already sullied white shirt, and a stained Sunday shirt will result in a real beating. Withdrawing his hand he looks for blood upon his palm. And finding his hand blood-free, my father returns to the nun’s question. He struggles with his words, “Dick, Ma’am. My name is Dick.”

He stares at the nun’s black shoes, scuffed and scratched by the claws of time.

Again, a hand across the back of the head. “Look at Sister Theresa when you speak.”

The crack is louder this time.

Again, the star-like specs dart about.

My father looks up, staring at the shadow.

She smirks.

“And what happened here, young man?” With a boney finger she points to my father’s swollen eye. And seeing my father refuse to flinch, she jabs his puffy cheek with an unpainted fingernail. She juts a sharp chin forward, “Were you a bad boy?”

My father does not respond. Without a word Silence takes his hand. She bites her lip wondering what will become of him.

Knowing what will become of him.

‘Don’t cry,’ he tells himself.

Eyes narrow and arms cross over a blackened chest as Sister Theresa takes a measure of her newest charge. “Do you know why you’re here, Dick?”

My father looks from Sister to his father and back to Sister. He nods before answering, “Um, yes Ma’am. Because mommy just had a baby and now I’m too much to take care of.”

Sister waivers – just a bit mind you – before bending down to engage my father eye to eye. Clucking her tongue she considers the boy’s parents. Both drunks. Both angry. Both unable to make it through the day without incident. Both have shamed the Church and her Lord Jesus Christ with their drunkenness. She crosses herself at the thought of her thorny crowned Savior, humiliated by the likes of such a family in His flock.

As if seeking to touch a delicate flower, Sister places a hand upon the boy’s sloped shoulder. She offers an initial tap; as if in sympathy. Purposefully, she looks from the boy to his swaying father and back to the boy. She’s disgusted by the lot of them. Eyes narrow to angry slits. Then, under cloak of tenderness she applies a practiced pincer to probe past the boy’s speckled Sunday shirt in search of a slender collarbone. Squeezing tight, she introduces him to the hand of authority.

It’s a hand with which he is familiar.

Holding the bag of clothes in his right hand, my father’s left arm hangs limp.

He thinks of Spike, hiding in the bag. ‘Please don’t let her find Spike,’ he whispers to Silence.

Silence strokes the back of the boy’s throbbing head, sharing the timeless ingredients of bravery.

Sister Theresa rises, glaring at the boy. She continues to squeeze and twist his bird-like collarbone.

Still, he does not flinch.

And seeing this one will be a handful she releases her grip. Standing tall she cocks her hip and nods.

“That’s right, Dick. You’re too much for mommy and daddy.” She leans forward, adding sharp words to her attack, “They don’t want you.”

She looks to my father’s father. She’s revolted by the scent of urine and corner-bar whisky. Returning attention to the boy she declares, “You are a sinner in the eyes of the Lord Jesus Christ and now you’re here at my orphanage because of the way you behaved.” She delivers her verdict, “And I expect you’ll be staying for some time.”

‘Don’t cry,’ he tells himself.

Sister Theresa looks to my father’s father. “Is that not correct, Joseph?”

Under the influence of this morning’s round of drinks my grandfather sways.

He doles out an exaggerated nod. “We tried, but…” his voice fades into the waiting arms of Silence.

The room rocks and teeters; as if buffeted by a retreating storm.

In addition to being speckled by subway grime, my grandfather’s shirt is misbuttoned. His pants and suit jacket hang from a plank of a once proud body. His cheeks are crisscrossed with the unmistakable red lines marking a drinker’s journey. Startling dust specs, he swings his arm through a meaty beam of light. “It’s for the best.”

He steps backward before turning away.

Silently he asks himself, ‘What have I done?’

Without another word he leaves my father behind.

“No,” the boy whispers, “I’ll be good…”

My father extends his hand. Past make believe stars and through a swarm of dust specs agitating within a beam of light, he reaches for his father. In the column of sunlight the boy watches as drifting dust specs grasp his tiny hand.

The orphanage door slams shut.

Above him the shadow stares. “You’re an orphan. Now give me that bag.”

The room is filled with an inky blackness as daylight drains away.

***

In the retreat of darkness, a man who was once deposited at an orphanage like an empty milk bottle clings to the sticky shores of mourning.

In his Bronx apartment he rocks to and fro.

And witnessing the man’s struggle with his past, Silence fills the room with a stoic grace.

Standing by his side, she strokes the back of his head.

To the man’s left, the smell of simmering asphalt and molten sunlight pour through an open window to drench his apartment.

Outside, heat shimmers off a neighboring store’s rooftop.

The smell of summer.

Inside the second floor apartment, drifting dust specs fill a meaty beam of light. Like make-believe stars, they skip and leap just out of reach.

Feet wide apart, he stands above his son, presently splayed across a checkered floor.

Awkwardly, the boy tries to right himself.

Seeing so much blood he’s speechless, frozen.

The sight of summer.

The rumblings of a passing train shake puckered windows. More a feeling than a sound, the rumbles fill his chest, giving life to a sense of dread as he recalls the long walk to the orphanage.

His chest heaves.

His boy’s gasping breaths fill the room. As if sung from the kitchen’s AM radio, the childhood song of sorrow joins the rumblings of the train to dislodge Silence from her perch.

The sounds of summer.

Movement startles the man. From a prone position upon the floor, his son reaches a slender arm through a column of sunlight in search of his father’s hand.

The man’s eyes grow wide as he’s overwhelmed by the memory of a slamming door. He remembers his own extended hand. He remembers nights drifting alone in a sea of darkness before retrieval from the orphanage.

He reaches for his son, or perhaps for his father.

Warm and wet, the boy’s hand falls into his waiting palm.

As inky blackness drains away, sunlight fills the room.

 

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