Life is almost never easy or relaxed or even happy in a routine sort of way.
That's a statement a lot of people would argue about. First of all it's a broad statement. The argument would probably start with the definition of "almost never" tied to "routine sort of way".
How many hours of the day is one relaxed or happy before the statement becomes false? Maybe you don't think it's fair to decide the truth or fiction of the statement based on the quantity of number of minutes or hours a person is happy during a day. Perhaps you think that if, at some time during the day, more days of the week than not, a person feels happiness, or relaxed, or that life is easy, then that statement is false.
Obviously, one can't feel gloriously happy all day, every day, but if a person isn't miserable for the majority of the day, wouldn't that suggest that life is happy? For the most part?
But people who want to argue about the amount of time a person is happy are missing the point. It isn't really about how often you are happy that really counts. What counts is if you can find a way to be happy at all.
Life is a struggle, almost all the time. Abraham Maslow's theory of needs illustrates that, whether you agree with his hypothesis or not. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that hypothesis, Mr. Maslow believed that all our energy goes into providing for ourselves in the following manner:
First we use our energy to obtain basic physiological needs - food, clothing, shelter etc.
Once we have that, we work towards safety and stability for ourselves and those we care about.
When that is taken care of we concentrate on obtaining friends, the feeling of belonging and love.
Once we feel we are loved by others, we try to rise to the top of the heap. We look for respect, and status, among other things.
After all that is done, we look toward self actualization, which involves truth, justice, and finding a meaning to our lives.
It's a five level pyramid when it's presented in graphic form. So, at what level can we say that we're happy most of the time? It's fair to say that few people spend the majority of their time on self actualization, which means they're still struggling primarily to get to one of the other levels. And if you spend your time and energy struggling to climb to another level, can you really say that you're happy "most of the time"?
So, at what level can we say that we're happy most of the time? It's fair to say that few people spend the majority of their time on self actualization, which means they're still struggling primarily to get to one of the other levels. And if you spend your time and energy struggling to climb to another level, can you really say that you're happy "most of the time"?
It's complicated even more when you realize that, in reality, we try to work on all five levels of the pyramid at the same time.
Well, the fact is that this is supposed to be a story, not a philosophical argument. So let's get on with the story and maybe that will illuminate the argument in a way that will make you ... happy.
The story is about a boy named Bobby Martin. Bobby would probably have been described as an unhappy boy. His parents were killed in an automobile accident in 1935, when he was seven, and there was no other family to take him in. It was then a society that had little use for a seven year old orphan boy, and he was shuttled from one miserable institution to another over the years. The Great Depression in America had made it hard enough for people to feed and clothe their own children, and adoptions were not popular for the most part.
Conditions in America's orphanages might have been roughly compared to the top of level one of Maslow's pyramid. Bobby generally had enough to eat to stay alive, and clothes to wear, and a roof over his head. He was safe, for the most part, though he was beaten fairly regularly because of his attempts to climb higher on Mr. Maslow's pyramid. To be fair, it must be said that the social structures in those places were well developed, both among the children housed in them, and the staffs that took care of those children. So perhaps Bobby was familiar with the twists and turns of level two or three, once he'd been at some institution long enough, though each time he was moved, he had to start all over again.
But talk to any of the people who lived or worked in those places, and you'll be hard pressed to find even one who would characterize them as "happy places."
Bobby's story started in 1935, but we'll pick it up on New Years Day, 1945, which is when Bobby's life took a turn for the better. It wasn't intended to take a turn for the better. Quite the opposite. It was intended that his life descend a little further into Hell. But fate has a way of altering intentions, which is exactly what happened.
He was then sixteen years old, only ten months shy of being old enough for the system to permit him to join the war effort and go off to die for the country that had no other use for him. He was, on that day, a resident of the Taylor School for Boys, a three story brick building that had, at one time, been a warehouse for bales of cotton, but had been taken over by the Government when the owner went bankrupt during the depression. Even renovation into a dormitory style warehouse for boys couldn't expunge the fine cotton lint that pervaded the place, coating everything, no matter how often things were swept or dusted.
Bobby had lived at Taylor for just over a year, and had just been called on the carpet for perhaps the thirtieth time for fighting. Bobby wasn't a strapping strong boy. He was tall for his age, probably due to heredity, and painfully thin, probably due to a diet that provided only eighty percent of his daily needs. As such, even boys a few years younger than he was picked on him. He had spirit, though, and was quick to lash out at those who sought to keep him low on the social totem pole. He fought dirty and he fought for keeps. He couldn't understand how, even though the boys he fought usually ended up in the hospital, the others kept trying to beat him.
He faced Mr. Ridgemont, the so-called Principal of the so-called "school".
"You're incorrigible, Bobby," the man said flatly. "I'm tired of you causing trouble. I'm transferring you. You'll wish you'd been more tractable when this is done. I promise you that!"
Bobby stayed silent. Ridgemont loved the sap he carried in his back pocket, and he loved using it on the boys he was angry with. Bobby had a lot of experience on the receiving end of that anger. He didn't care where they sent him. In less than a year he'd be inducted into the Army and he'd be free at last. He didn't even care that it meant he'd have to fight and probably die. The Army couldn't be any worse than what he'd lived in for almost as long as he could remember.
"I'm sending you to Millstone," said Ridgemont, his tight mouth smiling a little.
Millstone was well known in orphanages as the place where boys were "corrected". It was what passed, in those days, for a maximum security prison for 'wayward' boys. It was rumored that not a few boys died while they were at Millstone.
"Get him out of here," said Ridgemont gruffly to the two burly, and only marginally intelligent men in what had once been white uniforms, who stood by Bobby. They were too stupid to be inducted into the Army, and this was the only job they'd been able to find. It suited their temperaments too, because they got to beat the boys.
One of the men cranked Bobby's right arm so high up behind his back that he felt tendons stretching to the breaking point. Bobby stepped quickly forward and kept his whimper of pain in. It was better if you didn't vent your pain. They fed on that. He knew where they were taking him. There was a windowless room, with only a mattress on the floor. He had been in that room many times.
Back in the office Harry Ridgemont scrawled the order to transfer Bobby Martin. He was busy, and his handwriting, even at its best, was difficult to read. He was lazy too, and didn't cross the "T" in Millstone, in the destination block of the transfer order.
Bureaucracy being what it is, it took two weeks for that transfer order to reach an office two states away, where a woman peered at the scrawled word and read the "M-I-L-L" at the beginning, but then could recognize only an "o" and an "n" later in the word. She pulled out a book and began leafing through it, trying to match those letters to one of the many orphanages the system supported. Ah. There it was. "Milleson House", in Nebraska.
She processed the transfer and sent it on its way, for another two week journey to the location where someone would read it and actually do something about it.
Bobby sat in the punishment room the entire month. In some ways, he didn't mind. There was no one to talk to, but then talking to people always ended up making trouble. If you talked in school, you got the sap. If you said something behind someone's back ... or even in front of him ... he wanted to fight, and you got the sap. If you talked in the evenings, when the attendants were listening to the radio, you got the sap. It was just easier not to talk.
Randy Covington was what could be called a happy-go-lucky fellow. He'd broken his leg in a farming accident when he was young, and the bones had been set poorly, leaving him with an obvious limp. His prospects hadn't been good as a young man, and the Army wouldn't take him when the war broke out, but then he was offered the job of accompanying orphans during transfers from one facility to another. Most of that was done seated, in this or that bus, car or train though, and it was a steady job. He lived with his mother when he wasn't traveling, and, together, they made do. All in all, Randy Covington knew when he was well off, and appreciated it.
He had seen his share of brutal situations and, when he arrived at the Taylor School for Boys, and saw the two men flanking the boy he was there to pick up, he recognized brutality in them immediately. He handed over the transfer order, put the boy in the passenger seat of his Government sedan, took the burlap bag that he knew contained the boy's worldly possessions, and left as quickly as possible.
They were possibly a mile from the Taylor School for Boys when he first spoke to the boy whose name he knew was Bobby.
"So, all excited about going to a new place?" he asked genially, just trying to make conversation.
Bobby didn't speak. It was easy, since he hadn't said a word to anyone in a month. Besides, he had found that speaking to adults was both profitless, as well as sometimes dangerous.
Randy had seen it before. These kids closed down to the outside world. He couldn't do anything about it, but tried anyway. By the time they got to the train station he had still been unable to get the boy to say a word. Once at the station he launched into his memorized litany of instructions.
"Okay, your ticket is for Hamptstead, where someone will meet you. That's in Nebraska. You're sixteen, so you're old enough to travel by yourself. Your ticket includes a voucher for one meal. It's good at any station that has a placard in the window that looks like that." He pointed to a blue triangle in the upper left corner of the paper he was holding out to Bobby. "Don't get lost. They don't like it when they have to hunt you down. Your trip will be overnight, but you don't have to change trains, so just find a seat and get comfortable in it. You got any questions?"
Bobby peered at the paperwork the man was trying to give him. The transfer site clearly said "Milleson House" and not "Millstone".
A lot went through Bobby's mind during those few seconds. He'd never heard of "Milleson House", but he had a pretty good idea that, if he was being sent to Millstone, they wouldn't put him on the train by himself. He also knew that Millstone was in New Jersey, and not Nebraska. He looked guardedly at Roger, but still said nothing.
Roger had other things to do. It wasn't that he was impatient. He just needed to be moving on. The boy's look suggested that something was wrong, but he couldn't tell what.
"You can talk ... can't you?" he asked.
Bobby's mind moved faster now. He had a chance to escape. He shook his head in the negative.
Roger peered at the paperwork for the silent boy. There was a block for "special needs", but it was empty. He pulled out his fountain pen and neatly printed "Mute" in the block. Then he looked at the boy again.
"Can you understand what I've told you?" he said in that slightly loud, over-pronounced way that people use when they talk to people who are either deaf or mute. For some reason people assume that if one can't talk, one must be stupid as well, or that if you over-enunciate and shout, they'll hear you better.
Bobby nodded his head this time. He pointed to the blue triangle and pantomimed putting something into his mouth.
"Yes, that's for you to eat. Good," said Roger, happy that a possible problem had been resolved. "I've noted your ... problem ... on your papers, so they'll know about that when you get there. Do you think you'll be all right? Maybe I need to get someone to ride with you."
Bobby shook his head violently from side to side. He reached for the papers and bent to pick up the burlap bag at Roger's feet.
When the boy stood, Roger slapped him on the back, and then was ashamed instantly when the boy flinched.
"Er ... sorry. I meant that as good luck." He stuck out his hand instead. Bobby took it gingerly, as if he'd never done that before. "Good luck, my boy," said Roger. "I hope you like it where you're going."
Bobby found it difficult to believe it when Roger turned and limped off, leaving him alone.
Being alone was something very different and new for Bobby. The only time in his life he'd been alone was when he was locked in a punishment room alone. That might seem odd to you, the reader, since most of us would have considered Bobby to be "alone" most of his life, in the sense of not having parents or siblings.
But wherever Bobby went he did have family, of a sort. True, it changed, as kids came and, less often went, or when Bobby was shuttled off to a new "home", but in every situation Bobby had found somebody to be pals with. He didn't know how to "love" in the sense that you and I think about it, but his capacity to care was still intact and functioned as well as it could have been expected to.
And, the fact that he was among throngs of people either boarding or leaving trains in the station around him didn't give him the feeling of "belonging". These were all strangers, who hurried by him without looking at him for the most part, as if he were invisible. He was used to being invisible. Many adults had come and looked at the children in the places where he had lived. All had let their eyes glide over him as if he weren't there. He was too old to look at as a possible adoptee.
So Bobby luxuriated in the feeling of being alone, there among the hundreds of other people around him. Tentatively, he walked a ways down the hallway, toward a big sign that said "Trains". That seemed like an odd sign to him, what with this being a train station and all. What else could be down that hallway? He looked over his shoulder, expecting someone to yell at him ... to tell him to stop. But he was invisible.
Bobby Martin smiled for the first time in a month. He smiled even though he was only on the very first level of Mr. Maslow's pyramid. He had the clothes on his back, and a spare set in his gunny sack. He had a voucher that was good for one meal during the next twenty four hours. And, as soon as he was on the train, he had shelter from the winter cold.
He knew he had to board the train. He had to make his freedom last as long as possible. Sooner or later somebody would notice that a mistake had been made, and he would be snatched up and put in another bare room. He had no doubt that the mistake would be blamed on him, and that, someday, he'd pay for it. Until then he'd just enjoy the feeling, strange as it might be, that he was just another traveler, on his way from one place to another.
He walked past a lunch counter and eyed it longingly, reading the menu items and smelling the odors of food. Breakfast had been conveniently "forgotten" that morning. They hadn't come to let him out of the punishment room until that man had arrived to pick him up.
There was a girl sitting at the lunch counter, beside a woman and man who were probably her parents. She was about his age, with long brown hair and a pretty face. She looked at him and smiled. He looked away quickly, afraid to keep eye contact with her. She might tell her parents he was bothering her. He'd have liked nothing more than sitting beside the girl. She looked like she might wear that stuff that women outside the orphanage put on themselves, and which smelled good, like flowers.
But he had no money, and getting caught trying to steal would end his freedom quickly and savagely, he was sure. So he walked on.
He found the platform that his ticket said would be where the train was that he was supposed to get on, but it was empty. Not knowing what else to do he found a corner and sat down on the floor, his burlap bag on his lap. That bag contained his other shirt and pants. He only owned one pair of shoes. They were a little tight, but he kept them anyway. He used a rope as a belt. The bag also contained two changes of underwear, one of which was originally meant for a woman to wear. When you were given something, you kept it. If not you were never given anything again.
There was one other item in the bag. It was a lump of wood, one side of which had been carved into the representation of the head of a dog. The carving was exquisite, finely detailed, the tongue hanging out of jaws as if the dog were hot and panting. One ear was raised, and the head, if viewed from one angle, looked like it was tilted slightly. There wasn't enough of the body recognizable to tell for sure.
Bobby had carved that piece. He had found a pocket knife on the ground one day and hidden it. He had sharpened it by scraping the blade against a cement floor until it was sharp enough to cut the hunk of wood he'd also picked up off the ground. Bobby had "seen" the dog in that lump of wood, imagining it for over a year before he found the knife. Then, when he had a tool, he'd begun to make the wood look like what he saw in his mind.
He'd gotten the head almost done before being caught with the knife, which he was immediately accused of having stolen. A male worker had looked at it and taken it away, putting it in his own pocket. The same man had thrown the carving across the yard and put Bobby in a punishment room. It had taken Bobby a week to get to the part of the yard where his dog had been discarded. It was still there and he'd been able to recover it. He'd managed to keep it hidden until he was transferred to another orphanage. After that he just claimed it had been given to him by an old man. Had he been able to finish it, it probably would have been taken from him too. It was master carver quality ... that part that was done, anyway. He felt the carving through his bag and it comforted him to know it was still there.
"And who might you be?" came a gruff voice above him.
Bobby looked up to see a man in a blue uniform, with a strange conical hat. It didn't look like the hats most men wore, and had a bill on it. Bobby didn't say anything.
"Come on, now, where are your parents? What are you doing here?" asked the man.
Bobby held up the papers in his hand and the man took them.
"Oh, a waif," said the man in a kinder voice. "Sorry about that. Most people sit on a bench instead of the floor," he added.
Bobby looked at the bench only a few feet away. It hadn't occurred to him to sit on that. Adults sat on benches and chairs. Children sat on the floor unless they were eating. Sometimes even then.
The man looked at the papers some more.
"Mute eh?" he said. "Can you understand talk?" he asked.
"Good," said the man, handing the papers back. "Shouldn't have left you alone if you couldn't understand talk," he said. "Your train will be here in about forty-five minutes. I'll be back to see you get on it. Meanwhile get up off the floor and sit on a bench like normal people."
Bobby scrambled up and sat, as instructed. This acting like you couldn't talk was not a bad angle. People didn't ask so many questions if all you could do was shake or nod your head.
The man did come back later too. He came over and sat down beside Bobby, taking his hat off. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose before stuffing the cloth back in his coat.
"Well" he said. "The San Francisco Challenger will be here on time. There'll be a bunch of our boys getting off and then we'll find you a good seat. We'll be picking up more soldiers going the other way. Ever been on a train before?" he asked.
Bobby shook his head.
"Greatest way to travel ever invented," said the man. "I'm going to be one of the porters on this ride, so I'll keep an eye on you, okay?"
Bobby didn't know quite how to take that. Usually having an eye kept on you meant you were in trouble. But the man didn't sound angry. He just sounded like he was giving Bobby information. Bobby tried for a nod and the man got up.
"Okay, then. I'll see you in about fifteen minutes."
When the train arrived Bobby watched in amazement. He'd seen trains before, but always from a distance. This huffing, chuffing monster was loud, and smoky and ... just big. Not wanting to take any chances, Bobby waited until the porter came back for him and led him on the train. He was taken to a seat where the man tried to take his bag and put it up above. Bobby didn't want to let go of it, though and eventually the porter gave up.
The ride itself would make a good story, but that's a story for another day. What Bobby saw out the window of the train was amazing to him. The people who sat on the train around him were amazing to him. He was afraid to get off the train when it stopped. Sometimes it stopped for a long time, and at others for only ten minutes or so, and he was afraid to use his voucher to get food because he didn't know how long that would take and he might miss the train when it left or, worse yet, have to leave the food behind while he ran to get back on.
Soon the train was packed with young men wearing uniforms of various kinds ... military uniforms. They were loud and laughed a lot, talking about what they intended to do to the Hun, or the Japs. The porter told them to leave Bobby alone, and that he couldn't talk. They did leave him alone, for the most part. One boy offered him a cigarette, which he took, though he'd never smoked one before. You always took what was offered. Then the soldier was off to talk to the others, as if they were all friends who had known each other for years.
When it got dark the men slept, and Bobby tried to. The rocking of the car and the click clack of the tracks was soothing. His stomach growled and hurt, but he ignored it as best he could. Finally, his bag gripped firmly in his hands, he dozed off.
He woke again in the morning. The train stopped, and then went and stopped again, until Bobby, faint from hunger now, dozed off again.
A blast of cold air woke him and he realized it was late in the day, and the train had stopped yet again. He wanted to get off and get something to eat, but again, he was afraid to do so. He was very hungry now, and was tensing his muscles to stand up and go to the depot when a voice shouted "All Abooooooaaaard!" and the train blew its whistle. He sat back and watched still more snowy land glide by.
Bobby was wondering when the trip would ever end when the porter suddenly appeared beside his seat.
"Not much longer now, son," he said. "North Platte is coming up. The boys'll all be getting off, but I don't want you to. They only get ten minutes there and it's hectic. Your stop is only an hour farther down the line."
Bobby was amazed to see hundreds of people on the platform when the train stopped. They were all waving and calling out, as if they knew all the soldiers on the train. They had things in their hands that they gave the men. When the train stopped the servicemen stampeded out and into the depot, running. A girl, all bundled up due to the cold, came along the platform and saw Bobby through the window. She ran up to the window and thrust something at him. He lowered the window to feel a frigid blast of cold air and she thrust the bundle in through the open window. He took it, to find it was a cloth bundle. He had time to notice her face was pretty and smiling, and then she was off, going to other windows where men were sitting who had not gotten off the train.
Bobby opened the bundle carefully and found it contained a sandwich and a pastry. He tried to stuff the sandwich in his mouth all at once, both because he was ravenous, and because he didn't want anyone to take it away from him. It took him several bites and he almost choked. The pastry he crushed, unconsciously, in its cloth wrapping, and hid it between him and the side of the car. He was astonished at how good the sandwich was, and looked around guiltily. No one paid any attention to him. He was almost alone in the car. Quickly he unwrapped the pastry and took a tentative bite. It was fantastic ... unbelievable ... sweet and soft, round, with a hole in the middle. He felt like he could die happy after having eaten this delicious thing. This he ate a little more slowly, savoring the taste, knowing he'd never get to have this delightful thing ever again and making the most of this amazing mistake that had been made.
Then the girl was at his window again, peering in at him. He leaned away, afraid she had come to rectify her mistake. She held out another bundle and he lowered the window again.
"Want another?" she yelled through the window. Her hand came through holding the cloth-wrapped bundle.
"Go on ... take it," she smiled. He almost dropped the new bundle, she let go of it so quickly. Then with a shouted "God Bless you!" she dashed off down the platform.
Bobby had never been 'blessed' before, though he'd heard the word. He looked unbelievingly at the new bundle and opened it carefully. Inside was another sandwich and a flat package wrapped in paper. It was the first chocolate bar Bobby had ever held in his hand.
Mavis Milleson was forty, though this particular day she felt closer to what she imagined sixty would be like. She waited patiently on the platform for the train that would bring her her latest acquisition. She tried to think of the children as acquisitions rather than human beings, because her heart burst every time she thought of what it must be like to be an orphan, and that was too hard. You had to keep them at bay or they'd tear your heart out. She wasn't very good at it, and she grew attached to all of the children anyway. It was painful to her when they got adopted, though that was, to her view, the best possible outcome for a child. Still, it was rarer than it should be, and some of the children she cared for had never been anywhere else. She was proud to be doing her part to serve her country during the war. And if she could take care of ten or fifteen orphans then that meant the Government could concentrate more on winning the war. At least that was how she thought about it.
She wiggled unconsciously at the cold. February in Nebraska was always cold, but she never got used to it. Her high topped shoes protected her ankles from the snow, and her old fashioned long skirts helped too, but it was still cold.
She was surprised that she was getting another child, not to mention that it was a boy. She was full up at her boarding house-turned-orphanage. Business hadn't been good because of the Depression, and then the war came along and strained things even more. Then she found out about the program that was trying to make space in the nation's overcrowded orphanages, and found out that she could make more by housing waifs than she could by operating a boarding house. She hadn't had to do much renovation. With two children to each of the six rooms that were set aside for boarders, she could comfortably handle a dozen children. Right now she had thirteen, the oldest of which was ten. She had three of the smaller children in one room, but they didn't complain since two of them were a babies and the other felt like he was their big brother.
When she got the official message that she'd be receiving another boy she was surprised. The war must be causing problems. Usually she reported that a child had been adopted before they sent her another one. Then again, she had a pretty good placement record. The children she had were young, and therefore easier to place. And Nebraska was a place where farmers sometimes adopted children, since that added hands to help with the work, even it it was only in the house.
She saw the smoke from the smokestack before she saw or heard the train itself. Even before that she heard the rails singing as they vibrated with the coming of the heavy engine. She saw it was another troop train coming, so it would be more difficult to spot the boy, since he would be able to get off at any number of places. But the soldiers would stay on the train at this stop. Other than an exchange of mail bags and whatever passengers got off, there would be no need for the train to stop longer. There was no one waiting to board, and troop trains didn't haul freight.
She was standing and waiting when the train groaned to a halt, the bell ringing its insistent tone that meant a short stop. Her eyes were drawn to a porter and a young man who got off together. The porter she expected, and a chaperone for the child.
But she didn't see the child.
Still, she gravitated toward the porter, who would know about the child and chaperone.
As she approached, her stomach sank. The young man was dressed in rags, for all intents and purposes, his pants too short and his shirt patched many times over. He was holding a burlap bag too. Mavis had been in this business long enough to know an orphan when she saw one, but he was much too old to be sent to her!
Her worst fears were soon confirmed as the she identified herself to the porter and asked about Bobby Martin. The man shoved a fistful of papers at her and said "This is him. Had no trouble from him. Not sure whether he's eaten or not. Good kid for a dummy." Then he turned and remounted the steps of the coach as Mavis held her hand out in supplication.
"But ... wait ..." she said uselessly as the door closed. Almost immediately the train began to inch forward. In frustration she yelled the first thing that came to her mind. "Where's his coat?
Mavis swallowed. It was too late to do anything about it now. She'd just have to take him home and then write letters until some other place was found for him. She couldn't take care of a grown boy! She didn't know anything about teenagers, and if she knew anything, she knew this boy was in his teens.
She turned to him, but didn't look at his face. Instead she opened the wrinkled papers in her hand and looked at them.
"You're Bobby?" she asked. She looked up to see the boy nod, his lips pressed together.
"There's been a mistake, Bobby. I'm sorry about this, but I don't take older children. I don't know what to do," she said, uncertainly. The boy stared at her. Her eyes strayed across the paper to the square she always hated to see anything in. The word "Mute" leapt off the page at her. That
was what the porter had meant when he called the boy a dummy!
"Oh you poor baby!" she gushed, a tear forming in her eyes. "Can you hear me honey?" The thought that this young man was handicapped made her heart break. He wasn't a bad looking boy, under that layer of dirt and grime. His arms and legs, both of which stuck out of his clothing in the frigid air were slim and well formed. He looked thin in his ragged clothing. She saw him nod and shiver at the same time and burst into action.
"Well come along. You'll freeze out here. We've got to get you into the warmth or you'll catch your death of cold." She tugged at his shirt sleeve and herded him toward the depot.
Once inside the depot, standing by the pot-bellied coal stove, which was cherry red at the bottom, Mavis took stock. She had a car, one of the few luxuries she was entitled to as a custodian of the children. If a child got too sick for the local doctor to treat, she had to drive to the hospital over in Bridgeport, the nearest city of any size for miles. The car's heater worked well, and the house was only ten blocks away, so they should be fine. She gave him a chance to warm up and then hustled him out to the car.
Mavis didn't talk to the boy on the way home. She was trying to figure out where she was going to put him. She wasn't sure if putting him in a room with little ones was a good idea. There was so much she didn't know about older children. She was childless herself, and the only children she had any experience with were the babies and children under ten. Still, she couldn't just turn the boy out. Unable to speak. She choked up again and blinked her eyes rapidly. She darted a glance at him, but he was sitting stock still, staring straight ahead. What must the poor dear be thinking?
What Bobby was thinking was that this must be the strangest orphanage in the world if people acted like this woman. She wasn't mean, and actually cared that he was cold. She said a mistake had been made, and in any other place he'd been that was cause to blame him. Punishment soon followed in his experience. But this woman didn't seem angry at all. He looked out of the sides of his eyes at the houses they were driving by. This place was tiny by comparison to the cities he had always lived in. Just as he'd been able to see for what seemed like miles from the window of the train, across wide expanses of snow-covered flat land, he could see that, beyond the houses there were only a few bare trees and that same flat land that seemed to roll into low hills.
The woman turned into the yard of a house that looked like any other house on the street. It was tall, with three stories. It was white, like all the other houses on the street, and had the same kind of porch that went all the way around the house, from what he could see. He assumed the woman was stopping at her home before taking him to the orphanage. He sat quietly. It was clear he had to wait to see what would happen. He had thought about jumping off the train and making a run for it, but the cold weather had quashed that plan. It was the same here. He hoped she'd leave the car running so the heater would work while she went to do whatever she had stopped to do, but she turned the motor off and then opened the door. He was still sitting there, staring straight ahead when she spoke.
"Well? Come on. Let's get inside before we both freeze to death."
Surprised, Bobby opened the car door and stepped out into the snow. It was deeper than his shoes and his socks got covered immediately. He was sad about that. He only had one pair of socks.
He let himself be hustled into the house and was hit suddenly by warmth, and the smell of food all at once. Even though he'd eaten the two sandwiches and that delicious round pastry only an hour or two before, he was still hungry. He couldn't bring himself to eat the chocolate bar. It was too special. He had put it in his bag. Now the smell of cooking meat made his mouth water. He shivered again as the heat wrapped all around his body.
The woman - he didn't know her name - stopped and took off her coat. She was younger than he'd thought. Under that coat she had a young woman's body, slim, though not tall. He noticed her breasts. Bobby had been noticing women's breasts a lot the last couple of years. He looked out the windows of the orphanage in the spring and summer to look at the women as they walked by. Once there had been a woman who worked in an orphanage he was in, but she was old and irritated all the time. Boys and girls weren't allowed to mix in the orphanage, eating at separate times and playing outside at different times too. So the only women he ever saw were the ones out the windows and the ones who he was invisible to. They hadn't put him on display for adoption for a long time now. He knew it was years, but not how many.
Bobby heard voices ... lots of voices ... the voices of children, and the clatter of plates and spoons. He was puzzled now, but at least it was warm inside. He sat down gingerly on a chair in the hallway, looking at the woman to see if she'd yell at him for sitting there to wait for her. He sat just on the edge, trying not to get the fabric on the chair dirty.
Mavis looked at him, her head cocking sideways like the partially done carving in his bag. "Don't sit there," she said, meaning he should sit at the table with the rest.
Bobby jumped up immediately and sat on the floor next to the chair. He made sure not to lean against the wall, which was covered with floral wallpaper.
Mavis' eyebrows rose. "Whatever are you doing?" she asked. "It's supper time. Don't you want supper? Did you eat already on the train?"
Bobby's eyes darted around. Something was wrong here. She couldn't be talking to him, but he was the only person in the hallway except for her. He looked up to see her hand stretched out toward him and flinched before he could control it.
Mavis knew uncertainty and ... yes, fear when she saw it. Her knees went weak as she realized the poor boy was afraid she was angry at him. Her heart broke yet again and she sniffed, trying to control her feelings.
"Don't be afraid," she said, her eyes filling again with tears. "I won't hurt you. You're safe now. Come on. Come with me. Let's get you something to eat."
Bobby reached tentatively for the hand that was offered to him. He marveled at how soft her skin felt. He had no way of knowing that she had thick calluses on her hands from laundry and dishes and hauling coal for the stove and all the other things there was no man around to do. They felt soft to him.
He followed, being led by his hand as she turned a corner into a large room with a huge table in it. There were children sitting all around the table, some on stacks of books that got them high enough so they could reach their plates. There were four adults around the table too, some standing, and some sitting. One was feeding a baby who sat in a high chair.
Most of the eyes of the children turned and fixed on him. All but the eyes of the woman feeding the baby locked on him too.
"Children?" said the woman who had taken him from the train station. "This is Bobby. He has come to live with us for a while."
Bobby thought of himself as a tough kid. He had gone up against boys bigger than himself for most of his life. He knew how to steal, and how to lie and how to cheat. He knew where to hit a boy to take him out of the fight instantly. He could write quite well and read even better. He thought he could take anything anybody could throw at him.
But this ... this was something he didn't know how to deal with.
By our standards the table was set modestly. There was a bowl of mashed potatoes, a bowl of green beans, a bowl of corn and a platter piled with gravy-covered brown meat. There were pitchers of some light brown liquid and that liquid was in some of the glasses set around the table. Other pitchers had milk in them and water. There was what had been a loaf of bread on a wooden board, with a knife lying beside it. And each child had his own plate, with food on it. Most of the children were chewing, or had food poised on a spoon between plate and mouth. One little boy had a piece of meat in the fingers of both hands, tearing at it with his teeth, his mouth circled with brown juices where the gravy had smeared his skin. He looked at Bobby curiously as he jerked his head to tear off a piece of meat, which he began to chew vigorously.
To Bobby's eyes there was a feast spread on the huge table ... more food than he'd seen in a long time. He jerked his eyes away from the food, assessing his surroundings. The adults were all women. There were no men present. No uniforms. No sap being slapped into a palm from time to time as an adult patrolled the eating area.
Bobby looked around, looking for the men who had to be there, ready to grab him and beat him if he made a wrong move. His eyes were a little wild as he looked for the danger he knew had to be there somewhere.
One of the women spoke.
"Mavis? He's almost a man! What's going on here?"
So that was the woman's name. Mavis. Bobby looked at her, to see what she'd do.
"Yes, there was some kind of mistake. They sent him here without even a coat! Lands sakes, I was afraid he'd freeze solid before I could get him here. I don't know what we're going to do with him. He can't talk. I don't think he's had anything to eat either."
At that she looked at Bobby, whose hand she still held, and who was still clutching his bag in his other hand. She dropped his hand and reached for the bag.
"Let me just take that Bobby, and we'll get you something to eat."
Bobby didn't know what to do. This all seemed too unreal to him. He knew he wasn't dreaming, but this was all wrong in his experience. He clutched his bag closer to him, acting on instinct.
Another woman stood up. "Mavis the poor thing's scared to death!" She moved toward Bobby. "He thinks you're going to take his things."
Bobby looked at the woman, who was perhaps a little younger than Mavis. She had a more matronly look to her. She came up to him slowly, as if approaching a wild animal.
"Bobby?" she said, her voice soft and mellow. "I have a boy about your age. He's off in the war. Let me just put your things right over here." She patted an empty chair along the wall. "We'll just set them right here while you eat. Nobody will bother them. Aren't you hungry Bobby?" Her voice had taken on a high note, as if she were talking to a stray dog, trying to get the dog to come to her to be petted.
"He can't talk, Donna," said Mavis again, as if no one had heard her before.
"Well," said the woman named Donna. "You don't need to talk to get some food in you, now do you? Come along, Bobby, we'll make you a place. Please? Will you eat something for me?"
Stranger and stranger was how Bobby felt things were getting. The woman was actually asking him to eat, like it would be a favor to her. An old fairy tale Bobby had heard when he was little, and still had a mother, came to mind. It was about a boy and girl who were invited into a house made of Gingerbread. The woman who invited them in intended to cook them and eat them, but she tempted them with food.
Still, they were all eating the food ... even the adults ... and he was ravenous. The food smelled so good ... looked so good.
One of the women got up and left, going to what Bobby supposed was the kitchen. She came back with another plate and glass and spoon. There was a general scooting of chairs, the adults helping move chairs with children still in them. One little girl, about seven, got down and pulled her own chair aside to make room for another one. She stared at Bobby with serious eyes and then climbed back up on her chair. Donna got another chair from against the wall and inserted it into the hole and Bobby sat down.
It was just natural that, when he sat down, Bobby sat and looked at his empty plate. In the places he'd lived somebody put food on your plate. If you reached for food you got the sap. Another of the women poured some of the brown liquid into his glass.
"It's just tea," she said, sounding apologetic for some reason. "We don't have sugar, of course." Nobody had sugar because of the war. Even Bobby knew that.
All the eating had slowed to a stop, with the exception of the little boy with the meat in his fingers, who was still chewing industriously on the bite he'd already torn off.
Donna spoke over Bobby's shoulder. "Patrick, how many times have I told you not to eat with your fingers? If you want your meat cut up all you have to do is ask.
The boy smiled and swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing as he forced the meat in his mouth down.
"Like it this way," he piped.
"Yes, dear, but it's not civilized," said Mavis. "You need to learn your manners if you want somebody to take you in."
The boy's jaw jutted slightly.
"Like it here," he said simply. Then he promptly put the piece of meat to his mouth and began worrying another hunk off.
Bobby couldn't believe the conversation he'd just heard. The boy had sassed and nobody had beaten him ... not even a slap!
"Go on Bobby," said the mellow voice of Donna in his ear. "Eat something."
To his astonishment, the little girl who had moved her chair stood up on it, reached for the bowl of corn not far away, and handed it to him. Bobby didn't know what to do. He expected the girl to be disciplined for touching the food bowl, but it was obvious she expected him to take if from her. In her
defense he took the bowl, so that by the time an adult got there it wouldn't be in her hands.
At the same time he realized there was
an adult standing right behind him, and she had made no move to slap the girl. There was a large spoon in the bowl. Tentatively Bobby took the spoon and scooped up ten or fifteen kernels of the gold food on the tip. He tensed as he transferred that to his plate, still expecting violence.
"Gracious sakes, boy, no wonder you're so thin," said Mavis. "You'll never grow strong eating like that!"
In an odd way, the censure in her voice, even though it wasn't angry, was something that Bobby expected and was comforted to hear. He was used to censure. And yet, it was clear from her statement that she expected him to take more!
It took another five minutes, and Bobby knew now that he was in some kind of supremely realistic dream. Hard as it was to believe, it became clear that, as long as there was food left, he could have as much as he wanted. He had arrived while supper was well in session, and the smaller children had already had most of what they'd eat, so the food in the bowls on the table was, for the most part, available to Bobby. Still wary, his eyes darted this way and that as he accepted the bowls that were passed to him. When the food on his plate was eaten and the bowls were passed to him again, he couldn't believe it, but took more anyway, now just trying to take advantage of his luck.
One of the women across the table was a pretty young woman with short straight bouncy blond hair, like the flappers had made popular in the twenties. She watched Bobby shoving food into his mouth and finally spoke.
"Mavis, this boy is going to eat us out of house and home."
Mavis swallowed some of her own food and chided the woman. "Meg, don't make the poor thing feel bad. I suspect he hasn't eaten in a while."
The little girl next to Bobby stood up on her chair again and strained to reach the bread, which hadn't been passed to Bobby yet.
"Emily!" said Donna, who, for some reason, was still standing behind Bobby. "You know better than to reach like that. Ask someone to pass it to you."
Emily, who had managed to get her thumb and finger on the platter, and had dragged it toward her, took it in both hands and presented it to Bobby. "You need a bath," she said seriously.
"Emily!" scolded the woman Mavis had called Meg. "Where are your manners tonight?"
Another little girl put her spoon down and spoke. "The Umpelty Oog got her manners."
Mavis took a drink of tea. "Constance, I've told you a hundred times ... there is no such thing as an Umpelty Oog. He's all in your imagination dear."
Constance looked at Bobby with the same serious expression Emily had. "The Umpelty Oog lives in the closet. He comes out at night and scares us."
Bobby tried to chew and smile at the same time. He couldn't help smiling. She sounded so serious. He wiped the smile off his face quickly, though, before an adult could see it. Adults didn't like smiles.
"That's nonsense," pronounced Mavis, but she smiled.
Patrick had managed to swallow another glob of meat. He put the mangled piece of meat in his hands on his plate, almost daintily, and reached for his glass with both hands and the woman next to him put two fingers under it as it slipped in his greasy fingers. She kept her fingers there as he gulped milk. He set the glass back down as the woman deftly removed her supporting fingers as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Bobby stared at the smudges on the glass and then at the moustache of white that was on the boy's upper lip. Patrick wiped it away with his sleeve.
"I seen the Umpelty Oog one night. Wasn't skeered." He stuck out his chest, proud that he had faced the horror of the night like a man.
"Fairy tales!" snorted Mavis.
One of the women who hadn't spoken yet wiped her lips with the corner of a napkin. She had been eating with one hand and spoon feeding a baby with the other. "Well, I wouldn't mind if the Umpelty Oog visited my house some night," she said.
Mavis almost choked on the food in her mouth. "Why Prudence Watson, you hussy!"
The woman named Prudence laughed. Her laughter made something deep inside Bobby want to twist and wriggle. She had auburn hair, and big thrusting breasts that strained the fabric of her dress where it covered them.
"Well if Harold can find some tart in France to leave me for, then at least I should get some kind of compensation, don't you think?"
Mavis looked sad, but then frowned. "That's no excuse to talk that way in front of the children," she said. "Your husband is fighting a war, and he's a long way from home. I know that's no excuse for being unfaithful to you, but that's no call for you to talk like a common whore."
Prudence got red in the face. "He's not being unfaithful to me Mavis. He told me in no uncertain terms that he's not coming back when the war's over. He's going to stay there with his French bitch and leave me all alone. As far as I'm concerned we're divorced and I can let any man in my bed I want to!"
Mavis's face had gone pale. She was visibly trying to control herself. "Mrs. Watson, I will not
have that kind of talk at the dinner table, and especially
not in front of the children. We all know how difficult this is for you, and our hearts go out to you, but I will not tolerate that kind of talk in polite company."
Prudence ducked her head.
"Of course, Mavis. I'm sorry. I have no idea what got into me," she said.
Donna suddenly laughed, and her laughter got harder and harder until she had to sit down. She did so right on top of Bobby's burlap bag, on the chair behind her. She bruised her buttocks on the carving in the bag and jumped back up, laughing harder still.
"What in the world's gotten into you?" said Mavis, starting to smile herself. When someone laughs that hard it's just natural to want to laugh with them. The other women around the table were smiling now too and even some of the children.
Donna laughed so hard she started coughing. Eventually she calmed and then giggled, holding her stomach until she could talk. "I'll get in trouble if I tell you." Then she started laughing again.
Meg giggled in sympathy. "Come on, tell us. We could all use a good laugh."
"It's horrible." She giggled again nervously.
"What?" asked Prudence.
Donna took a deep breath, visibly trying to control her giggles. She looked at Prudence. "What you said ... you said you didn't know what got into you. And I couldn't help but think what you haven't
gotten in you lately." She giggled again. "And then Mavis wanted to know what's gotten into me
and I couldn't help but think about what hasn't gotten into me
She started cackling again, great heaving sobs of gut laughter as the women around the table came to the realization that she was talking about sex. It was too ludicrous not to be funny. Soon the room was filled with rueful laughter as the children looked on uncomprehending.
There were five women at Milleson House. They were the permanent staff members of the boarding-house-turned-orphanage. Three of them had served guests when it was a boarding house. The other two had been hired on when the children arrived, and had been there now for three years.
Mavis Milleson, the owner, was forty years old and a widow. They had only been married for four years when her husband was killed in a mining accident. They had been unable to have children and, before he died, he had taken her to an orphanage back east to try to find a child for her to rear. That trip had been an eye opener for Mavis. She had been disgusted at the conditions the poor children had to endure, and had wanted to adopt them all. Her husband talked some sense into her, but the process wasn't even yet started to adopt a pair of children when he was killed and it all fell apart. She knew how those children were treated in the state-run institutions, and when she found out she might be able to rescue some of them she jumped at the chance. The fact that the Government subsidized her rescue mission was just frosting on the cake. Now Mavis couldn't even contemplate any other life.
Mavis, had she taken the time to pay attention, was still a handsome woman. Though there were a few gray hairs slipping into her thick hank of dark brown hair, she didn't notice them because she usually wore her hair up, in a bun. And at bedtime, she was too tired to stare into the mirror. The fact that she'd never had children, and was engaged in an active lifestyle, had ensured that her body was still firm and slim. Her breasts weren�t overly large and she had no need to wear the stiff undergarments that were designed to support and control the sagging breasts of most women her age. Her waist was still thin and her hips swelled to make a perfect place for her skirts to hang from. There were men in town ... before the war anyway ... who had gazed longingly on those hips as she walked to and from the market. There were men who had stayed in her boarding house who were interested in her too. But she'd never taken the time to treat any of that interest seriously. She thought herself a sensible woman, and sensible women didn't dwell on dimly remembered pleasures. Just getting by was work enough that when she went to bed she was too tired to think of her unfulfilled physical needs.
Donna Pratt was one of the women who had worked at Milleson when it was a boarding house. She was now thirty-three. She married, at the tender age of sixteen, an older man, a farmer her father had done business with. Walter, her husband, had gotten her with child even though he was in his fifties at the time, and she had given birth to and raised a fine son. Life on the farm had been good, for the most part, even though her aging husband wasn't able to meet her sexual needs. She had only known one lover, and didn't really know what she was missing. She had found, long ago, that her fingers could bring her a very satisfying pleasure, though she'd never admit to anyone that she did that in the dark of night. She had also done something with her husband she couldn't bear to admit. When he was unable to achieve an erection any more, her love for him had led her to take him into her mouth. While he never got hard enough to service her starving pussy, she loved hearing his moans and gladly sucked the few drops of sexual nectar he could produce in those days. He had died peacefully in his sleep one night just before her son had decided to join the Army and go fight the Hun. She still lived on the farm, though she didn't work it. She rented out the land and took a share of the profit. Perhaps, when her son came back from the war he would work the land.
If he came back from the war.
Donna had grown into a lush figure, with large firm breasts and hips to match. She had never quite been able to get rid of the pad of flesh on her stomach that was left over after her son was born, but it didn't bother her any more. She, too, had been sought by men in the small community, but had rebuffed their attentions, choosing to enjoy her freedom to do what she wanted, when she wanted. Not that there was much to do. Still, it was nice to know she was under no man's thumb. The only real regret she had was that she had never had more children. When Mavis began taking waifs in, that urge abated somewhat. She was able to take care of babies, the thing she loved most, and even though they weren't hers, it was enough.
The other veteran of the boarding house phase of Mavis' life was Prudence Watson. Prudence was the only one of the women who had gone on to college after High School. She was ahead of her times in that society, being a confident woman who was willing to go up against a man to get what she wanted. The Depression had ruined that for her when her father, a successful merchant, lost everything and he could no longer afford her tuition. She had had to come back to Hamptstead, where she got a job working for Mavis.
She accepted the attentions of George Watson, primarily because he spent money on her that her parents couldn't. Love grew grudgingly. He wasn't an imaginative man, but he had a job and there wasn't really anybody else in town she was attracted to. And, while he didn't make her heart flutter, he made her loins ache and she was tempted on many occasions to give in to his repeated attempts to claim her maidenhead. He was twenty-three to her twenty-two years in age and when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he decided to join up, she had, in a fit of emotion, married him before he left. After a thoroughly unsatisfying and somewhat brutal loss of her virginity, in succeeding sexual unions she had managed to get to the point where she had an orgasm while George lay on her gasping as he tried to get her pregnant before he left. But there had been just that one orgasm, at least with George. She too had figured out that her fingers were an acceptable replacement for what her husband was now using on some French slut who had stolen him away from her. She knew, at age 26, and with no children, she'd be a good catch for some man, but that was only if she somehow disencumbered herself from George. His letter saying he wasn't coming home might get her a divorce, but it would be horrifyingly embarrassing to go through that. All people would see was a young woman trying to divorce a GI, and would think her distastefully unpatriotic. More than once she'd wished he'd be killed in the war, which would make her situation quite secure. She also felt guilty about that on more than one occasion. Whenever that happened she just took his letter out and read it again. That solved that problem.
George's best attempts to impregnate her had failed. Prudence was torn between yearning to have her own babies, and being happy that he didn't leave her with child, considering what he'd now done.
Meg Johnson had come to work for Mavis after the war started, and after the boarding house had been transformed into an orphanage. She was eighteen on December the seventh, nineteen forty-one, and under extreme pressure from her wealthy parents to find a suitable man and settle down. Their idea of a suitable man and hers were widely diverse. Meg had a streak of wild woman in her, cultivated by stories her aunt Melvina told about the prohibition years, and the gin mills and dancing with men who pressed themselves against a girl in a way that made her want to do unseemly things with them. Aunt Melvina had an old box of photographs that she kept in her closet and one day Meg got into them. At the very bottom was a picture of her aunt at about age nineteen. She was standing in a forest, by a huge rock, with a large body of water in the background, and she was completely naked. She was obviously completely unembarrassed about her nakedness, based on the smile on her face, and the fact that she was obviously posing for the photograph. Aunt Melvina had caught her looking at the picture and had, at first, scolded her, telling her that a thirteen year old girl had no business seeing photographs like that. But eventually aunt Melvina had told her the story of the handsome man who had taken that picture, and what they'd done after it was taken.
Meg had wanted to experience what she had seen in her aunt's face, and heard in her aunt's voice ever since that day. But she didn't want to experience it with the men her parents thought were "suitable". They were stuffy, self-important men who expected her to blush and flutter around them. All she did was think they were boring. She wanted a wild man, a western man, perhaps. Someone who would sweep her off her feet and make her life glorious. Then, perhaps, when she had tasted that sweet forbidden pleasure, she might be willing to settle down with a boring man.
The war gave her a reprieve, since most of the "suitable men" went off to be officers in the service. And working for Mavis not only convinced her parents that she was trying to be responsible and support the war effort by taking care of the unfortunate. Meg had learned something else from her aunt, and that was what the little bump at the top of the slit between her legs was for. It was for making her feel good until she found the man who would sweep her off her feet. She kept that little bump in good working order by using it every single night. Part of her employment contract was that she was supplied with a room in the house, and meals, which got her out of under the thumb of her parents, at least most of the time.
And, Meg found that she had something to offer the children. She loved to read to them, and became expressive when she did, making up voices for the characters in the stories she read. It wasn't at all unusual for all the children in Milleson House, except for the babies, anyway, to be in a pile around her feet, like a litter of puppies cuddling together, while she read stories until it was bedtime. More often than not the only reason she stopped was because Mavis made her stop.
Last, among the women, not only in this story, but in real life as well, was Sally Winston, age twenty-three. Sally was, in a word, plain. She had always been plain, and would probably always be plain. Her nose looked a little off center, or maybe her eyes were too close set. Her hair was thin and a mousy brown color. She couldn't afford the special soaps that might have made it shine more, and it hung limp to her shoulder blades because she didn't know how to style it. Her father was a mill worker who made enough to feed his eleven children, of which Sally was the youngest, but couldn't save anything for his retirement. Her mother was a walking talking baby machine who was thin and worn from taking care of so many children. Now, with only Sally left, they could relax, but that was about all they did. They too were singularly uninteresting and uninterested. Sally had lived at home because no men came calling to see her. She helped her mother around the house, and took the job Mavis offered her at church one day because she didn't have anything else to do. She also took it because it came with a room and board.
As the youngest, Sally had never had to take care of her brothers and sisters. She had always been on the low end of the totem pole and had learned, like Bobby, to be invisible as much as possible.
But working with the children had awakened something in her that had slowly bloomed over the years into a quiet pride that told her, if no one else did, that she was good with children. She also listened when Meg read stories, and put herself in those stories as deeply as the children did. She read the books on her own too. When she was in the fantasy world of a book her life had color and excitement.
Sally had a certain amount of scholarly knowledge about sex and how children were made but, to her own mind, she had never had a sexual feeling in her life. Her breasts were flat, mere swells on her bony chest. Her pubic hair was so sparse as to be almost invisible. She bled, more or less monthly, like other women, but her cycle was nowhere near regular or dependable. It was almost as if her body had suspended its glide toward maturity while she was right in the middle of puberty. And, with so many older brothers and sisters, who pursued their own agendas in the household, it was as if she were invisible as she grew up.
Not that she was sad, or unhappy, particularly. It was more like she was a child who had been kept in a small room all her life, exposed to nothing much, and so she had no concept of what life could be like. True, she had been exposed to more than most with all her reading, but to her that was a dream, a fantasy ... not real somehow.
The women watched in awe as Bobby kept eating. At some point it became a game, to urge him to eat more, just to see if he could. There were occasional surges of vocal emotion at seeing the boy eat like he had been starved for years.
"I can't believe it."
"The poor thing's starved half to death!"
"Take your time Bobby, nobody's going to take it away."
"Well, no leftovers tonight," said Mavis, standing up and picking up her plate.
"If you ask me there'll be no leftovers ever again," snorted Donna.
"That's fine," said Mavis evenly. "I always strain to think of ways to use leftovers anyway. But we'll have to go to town more often." Even though the merchant area of Hampstead was only a few blocks away, they all referred to that short trip as "going to town".
As for Bobby, he knew he would suffer for what he was doing. Once, when a truck had overturned near the orphanage he was staying in, he had picked up eight apples off the road while the driver screamed at him. He had run with the apples, eating one as he pounded away. Then he had hidden and eaten all the rest. He still remembered the sweet juicy taste of the fleshy fruit, and the agonizing pains in his suddenly overfilled stomach as he lay in the punishment room on a thin mattress that night.
But the food was so good he couldn't make himself stop eating it. That he was allowed to do so, and was even handed a knife to cut his meat with, caused a haze in his brain he couldn't quite see through and some part of him still expected to feel a blow as someone finally noticed that he was eating more than his share. He was almost glad when Meg tipped the bowl of green beans over his plate, scraping out the last eight or ten beans. There was no more food in sight, and he could sit back.
He was so stuffed that he didn't want to move, and gave a long sigh.
"Well" said Mavis. "You can't eat like that at every meal. You'll turn into a pig if you do. But we're glad to have you with us Bobby. I hope you'll feel at home here."
Bobby sat and wished he hadn't eaten so much. His stomach felt bloated and he was already uncomfortable. He watched as the children who were old enough all carried their plates into the kitchen, where the woman who hadn't spoken yet took them and stacked them in the sink. The cleanup was surprisingly quick and efficient.
"Bath night!" sang Prudence.
Bobby almost winced as the children erupted in shouts. "Bath time" in his memory consisted of being hosed down with cold water while you scrubbed with lye soap frantically, since the water wouldn't stop until the attendant thought you were clean.
But these children were jumping up and down, for the most part and he saw several of them dash into the parlor. They came back with books in their hands and clustered around Meg, holding the books up and crying "This one!" or "Read this!" among other things he couldn't quite make out.
Donna approached the group and began herding some of the children into a group as they complained. Bobby watched in amazement as he began to understand that one group would be taken to bathe while the other would be read to by Meg.
Since nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him, he just sat and watched.
But somebody was
paying attention to him. One small pale girl stood between the group that was settling to the floor, or had climbed up to sit beside Meg on the settee where she sat, smoothing her skirts as books were piled on her lap. The girl looked uncertainly at the chattering children, and then at Bobby, who sat, leaning back in his chair, still at the table.
Slowly, almost like she was trying to sneak, she came to Bobby and took his hand, from where it lay in his lap. She pulled, looking somberly up at him with big brown eyes. He stood and she pulled him toward the group, which had now quieted as Meg sifted through the books on her lap. She looked up and saw Bobby standing, his hand in the little girl's.
She smiled. "Sit down, Bobby. I read to the children on bath night, and you're welcome to join us." She looked at the little girl. "Thank you June Bug. It was nice of you to invite Bobby." She pointed to a chair that was just far enough away from the crowd of children that none of them wanted to sit there.
Bobby sat down and was astonished to find that June Bug immediately crawled up on his lap. She sat, her legs straight out, and leaned back against his chest.
Meg was staring at Bobby and the girl with a strange look on her face. She saw the astonishment in Bobby's face and the placid look of something close to contentment on the little girl's face too.
"Bobby," she said quietly. "June Bug is like you in one way. She doesn't talk either. I think you've made a friend."
Bobby didn't know what to think. This place was so strange that he had no frame of reference on which to draw to decide how to act. He found it strange that a little girl would want to be his friend when they'd only just met. Always before he'd had to jump through all kinds of social hoops to establish his place in the hierarchy of whatever place he was living in. Sometimes that involved doing things for people. Sometimes that involved fighting. Sometimes it involved comparing stories and the intricate social dance that was casual conversation between people who are forced into close contact with each other.
But here, in this place where he had done nothing other than eat until his stomach ached, where he had said not one word, somebody had drawn near to him simply because he couldn't talk. It was an amazing social experiment that he'd never have thought of getting involved in, but which was suddenly fascinating. Not knowing what else to do, he decided to just sit. The little girl wasn't hurting anything. As long as she didn't pee on him or something he decided to just let her sit there.
While Donna and Prudence herded the unlucky children chosen to be hosed down first into another part of the house, Bobby sat and listened as Meg chose a book, opened it, and began to read.
He was entranced immediately. No one had ever read to Bobby in his life. Bobby knew what books were, of course. They had been used at one time or another in his education, which was based on the "Three Rs", Reading, Riting and Rythmatic. And, truth be known, Bobby was quite proficient at all three of the basics. That was primarily because, if one did well in school, one received less abuse, but the result was the same as if he had wanted to learn.
He had once found most of a book in a trash heap. It turned out to be about four fifths of "Treasure Island". It had been involved in a fire, so both the front and back pages were missing. Still, Bobby had been able to figure out the basic idea of the book and he had been enthralled instantly, comparing himself to Jim Hawkins. There were a multitude of adults in his life who fit the personalities of Long John Silver and his crew of pirates, but the characters of people like Dr. Livesey and Captain Smollet remained a fantasy to him.
The tattered book was taken from him and thrown out as punishment for some forgotten misdeed. Bobby had always wondered how it ended.
Now, as Meg read a simple children's story, her lilting voice rising and falling, changing as the characters in the story changed, Bobby found himself transported in his mind, like reading Treasure Island had transported him to a hot, wet, dangerous, jungle island in some far away place when he read his book.
It seemed like she had only been reading for a few minutes when six naked and screaming children, wrapped in towels, came running into the room. It was time to change over, and there were groans of dismay from the children who had been listening, eyes wide and mouths hanging open, as Meg read to them.
June bug hopped down off Bobby's lap and again took his hand, pulling at him.
Meg spoke to Prudence, who was herding the six unwashed children in the direction the naked ones had come from. "June Bug has adopted Bobby," she said. Then her mouth froze in a look of almost agony as she realized what she had said. "Adoption" was a very special word in this house, and not to be used flippantly.
Oddly, though, neither June Bug nor Bobby seemed to have taken what she said as she feared they might have.
Prudence pulled at June Bug. "Well, Bobby can't take a bath with you little ones. You'll just have to leave him here for now. Don't worry, he's not going anywhere."
The little girl reluctantly let go of Bobby's hand and he sat back, glad that he got to stay and listen to Meg read some more.
Even though she started all over again, at the beginning of the story, Bobby didn't mind.
By now, Sally and Mavis had finished washing and drying the dishes, and emerged from the kitchen with armfuls of clothing, which they dropped in a heap on the floor. The five children who had just come from their bath unashamedly dropped their towels and dove into the pile, pulling out clothes to wear. They did so quietly, though, as Meg kept reading.
Astonishment was the mood of the day for Bobby. He watched as each child picked something to wear and, when that was done, Mavis and Sally picked up the rest and sat at the dining room table, folding those clothes into neat stacks and listening themselves as Meg read. Bobby estimated that there must be three or four sets of clothing for each child present. Only two children had tried to choose the same shirt to wear during the dressing process, but their struggle was silently cut short as Sally took the garment from them both, suggesting that if they fought over it, neither could wear it. Most of the clothing was too big for the children, and hung off their small frames, but none of them seemed to care. They were much more interested in settling in to listen.
Then, not long afterward, the whole hustle and bustle happened all over again as the remaining children, also naked, ran into the room, chose things to wear from the table and sat back down. The two babies were taken to the bath next, and it was then that Bobby realized he hadn't heard screams coming from the part of the house where bathing apparently took place. Most kids yelled at the cold water splashing on them. As Meg read on, part of his attention listened to hear the babies crying as they were bathed.
But they didn't.
When the babies were brought back, wrapped up in towels, carried by Prudence and Donna, Meg closed the book to moans of dismay and pleas for just one more page. Mavis and Sally went into action, though, saying "Bedtime" and "Early to bed ... early to rise" and herding the children toward the big wooden staircase that led to the upper reaches of the big house.
Meg looked uncertainly at Bobby. "I suppose we should get you bathed too," she said. "I don't know how much you understand, but we'll manage. Okay Bobby?"
Perhaps because he was so impressed with her reading, or for some other reason Bobby couldn't have articulated even if he had admitted being able to speak, he stood and followed the young woman as she went in the same direction as the other children had been led. He found himself taken to a large room, with a large white enameled bathtub that sat on clawed feet. It was hot in the room, and Bobby saw immediately that the heat came from a contraption that stood in one corner. It looked a little like a wood stove, also standing on clawed feet, with a fire box at the bottom and a tall round tank above that. There were pipes that went into the tank at the top and out of the tank at the bottom. The bottom pipe ran over above the tub and ended in a spigot there.
Meg opened the fire box and put in several pieces of coal from a bucket nearby and then turned to the tub. There was a small wet rag lying in the bottom of the tub near the drain and she stuffed that into the drain hole before turning on the tap. Steaming water began pouring into the tub from the tap.
Meg stood up and let the water run as she faced Bobby. "We have plenty of hot water, so that's no problem." She pointed to a cake of white looking soap on a windowsill above the tub. "That's the soap, and there are towels in the cupboard up here." She laid her hand on the cupboard. Will you be okay?" she asked.
Bobby just stood there. He had a very dim memory from long ago of his mother, and a tub like this, with warm water. He hadn't had a bath in a tub like this since that memory. He felt a clutching sensation in his stomach, but it wasn't from being overstuffed. That one little memory caused emotions to flow through him that were unwelcome. He didn't want to cry, certainly not in front of this woman, and he was perilously close to crying. That confused him and the safest thing to do was just stand still.
Meg looked concerned. "Bobby? Do you need help sweetheart?"
It was worse and worse, as far as Bobby was concerned. Nobody called him "sweetheart". The warmth of the house ... the food ... the acceptance of him by everyone without asking for anything from him ... June Bug's hand in his ... it all flushed through him like a tidal wave and he couldn't stop the tears that ran down his face. He rubbed at them furiously with his fists.
Meg reacted like she'd have wanted someone to react. She went to the young man and hugged him, murmuring that it would be okay, and that she understood, and that she knew this was all strange, but that everything would be all right."
Then, thinking that this poor boy was much more simple of mind than he actually was, she began helping him disrobe for his bath.
The roil of emotions in Bobby was cut sharply by the feel if Meg's fingers undoing the buttons of his shirt. Already in unfamiliar and startling conditions, this added surprise was enough to keep him immobile as her soft hands slid the shirt off his shoulders and arms, where it dropped to the floor. Her hands went to the frayed hemp rope that held up his trousers and she worried the knot until it came loose. then he felt her fingers brushing the front off his loins as she undid the buttons of his fly. The pants, held up by nothing now, dropped, leaving him in his ragged drawers. Meg knelt and prodded him to lift one leg, talking soothingly to him, words he didn't even listen to in his state of shock. But her soothing tone did what it was intended to do and he stood docile as she pulled his drawers down and off, to leave him standing naked in the bathroom.
Meg felt her own measure of unusual and somewhat uncomfortable emotions as she made the mute boy naked in front of her. He was wiry, with a thin cover of skin over muscles that, while not large, felt firm to her fingers. He stank, as of stale sweat with a trace of dried urine. It was quite clear he had not bathed in a long while. This supported her conclusion that Bobby must have limited mental capabilities, something most people assumed about a person who could not speak. She was mildly curious about his penis, having seen only those of boys ten years old and younger. She stared curiously at the thatch of kinky brown hair that made a bed for his shriveled organ, and thought it looked a lot like her own pubic hair, except for the color. Meg was a natural blond and all her hair was the same color.
She stood to add cold water to the tub from another spigot that came from the wall and tested it repeatedly until the temperature of the water in the tub suited her. Bobby stood, uncertainly, watching. The hot water amazed him. There was no hose in sight, and that's what people used during baths, so even though he knew what a bathtub was, he still wasn't sure that this hot water and this tub were actually for him. That question was answered once and for all as Meg urged him to get into the tub. The warm water felt wonderful on his ankles, but that was nothing compared to the feeling he felt as she convinced him to sit and the water rose up above his legs, submerging them in welcome heat. He was enjoying that so much that he did nothing else but concentrate on the feeling. She pressed something into his hand and he saw it was the soap she'd pointed to earlier. It wasn't coarse and gray like the soap he was used to. He lifted it to look at it more closely and it felt slippery in his hand. It smelled good too, and he lifted it closer to his nose, breathing in. It was amazing.
Meg watched the boy - she no longer thought of him as a young man - smelled the soap like it was the first time he'd ever done that. She stood back up and hissed as she saw the old, healed stripes on his back, remnants of a whipping with a strap that he'd gotten when he was only ten and had stolen bread from the kitchen in the institution he was housed in at that time. She felt a rush of mingled sympathy and red-hot anger as the wide-eyed boy looked up at her in response to her disgusted response to the scars.
"Here," she said, reaching for the soap. "Let me help."
Bobby was sixteen, though he looked closer to fourteen or fifteen. But his body was that of a boy well into puberty. While he had never had a girlfriend, and his exposure to females had been severely restricted, his body knew what to do when it felt a woman's soft hands sliding over it. Meg, while she thought of him as a poor simple minded boy, still realized on some level that the body she was stroking was not only male, but well grown. HER exposure to men had also been limited, and while she had seen the instinctive erections that all males have, they had always been on boys who were so young that those erections, for the most part, more nearly resembled one of her own fingers than what she would have thought of as "an erect male organ."
And so, when she had finished washing his smooth chest, and scarred back, and told him to stand so she could do his legs, she was completely unprepared for the change that had taken place in that shriveled penis she had seen only moments before.
Bobby had the sexual equipment of a full grown man.
Meg stared in awe at the dripping erection that bobbed in front of her eyes. It looked huge to her, even though it was quite normal by comparison to most men. The tip was sheathed in a thin covering that Meg knew was his foreskin. She had seen plenty of those on the babies whose diapers she changed. Most of those had been wrinkled pointy things on the end of the baby's penis that had to be skinned back and cleaned under during a diaper change.
But the one on Bobby's penis was stretched tightly over something that bulged under it. Meg's soapy hands reached for it before she thought about what she was doing, and she grasped the penis firmly, sliding her hand toward the base, to see what was under that tightly stretched skin.
Bobby saw Meg's hand move to his penis, which he knew was hard. It got that way sometimes, and it felt different when it did that, but he hadn't given it a lot of thought. Even though his penis had taken on adult features, living in orphanages, where there was no privacy at any time, prevented him from finding out what most boys found out about their stiff sexual organs. Bobby had never played with his penis while it was hard.
The feelings that resulted from Meg's soapy hand sliding along his penis shocked Bobby to his core. He had never felt anything that was like that. A small sound forced itself out of his throat as her hand slid back toward the tip.
Meg was surprised to find that what was under the thin skin looked pretty much like what was under a baby's foreskin. It was much
larger, of course, but the shape was about the same. And, of course if felt different in her hand. It filled her hand, for one thing, something no younger child's penis had ever done, and that made it feel completely new and unique. It was strangely hard and soft at the same time too, and that made it very different than anything else she had ever felt. She thought back to what Prudence and Donna had laughed about at supper. This
was what neither of them had had ... in them ... for so long.
She realized suddenly what she was doing and opened her hand. Then her curiosity gripped her again and she slid her hand under the stiff organ to cup Bobby's testicles. While before she hadn't even noticed them, now she felt them full and round under his penis.
They were much softer than they initially felt and she squeezed them gently, feeling the harder, smaller things inside. Bobby's hips jerked as she squeezed too tightly and he pulled away.
She looked up to see him staring down at her, his mouth open.
She felt her face get hot as she blushed. "Sorry," she murmured. "I'll be more gentle, okay?"
He made no response and Meg shook her head to clear it. She became more businesslike and washed his legs. Her soapy hand slid up the inside of his thigh in the back and she just naturally forced it between tightly clenched buttocks to clean him there too. He made another sound and bent forward slightly, then stood back up, his butt cheeks clenching even more tightly.
But she was done there and told him to sit back down. The water was grayish, so she turned on the hot water tap again and held a pitcher under it, moving it to the cold tap to finish filling it. She poured half of it over his head as he sputtered and wiped his eyes and giggled at that as she attacked his hair with the soap.
"Keep your eyes closed tight," she warned as she kneaded his scalp with her fingers. Then when she was satisfied she began to pour the rest of the water on his hair to rinse it, reminding him again to keep his eyes closed tight. He didn't sputter and spit this time. She told him to keep his eyes closed as she got another pitcher of rinse water and got all the suds out of his hair.
"Okay, up and out," she ordered.
Bobby, by now, was immensely happy about this bath, and didn't want it to end at all. His belly was full, and he was warm and her hands felt wonderful sliding over his skin. He looked for the soap, which she had put back on the windowsill, and reached for it, trying to get her to wash him again.
Meg laughed. "You're clean enough. Now, out of there and let's get you dried off."
Reluctantly he stood and stepped out of the tub. Meg ran the rough towel all over his body, paying perhaps a little more attention to his still stiff penis than was needed, and then threw the towel on top of a pile of others in one corner of the room. It suddenly occurred to her that he had nothing to put on. She looked at the clothing on the floor and said "You can't wear that. It will have to be washed."
She was startled as he darted to the pants and picked them up, his hand digging in the pocket. It came out with a grimy and mangled toothbrush that he held tightly in his hand as he dropped the pants back to the floor. Then he just stood there again. Simple though he may be, she couldn't let him run out into the house like the other children did, especially since there was nothing in the pile of clothes out there that would fit him. She remembered his burlap bag, and correctly assumed he had more clothing in that.
"You stay right here and I'll get you something to wear," she said.
She left, closing the door at the feel of the much cooler air outside the bathroom and went into the dining room, where his bag had been left. Only Mavis was there, the others having taken the children to their beds.
"Where have you been?" asked Mavis.
"I was giving Bobby his bath," said Meg, her mind on the burlap bag.
"What!?" gasped Mavis. "He's a grown man!"
Meg stopped, her mind realizing what Mavis was thinking.
"He may be grown, but he's a poor simple-minded boy inside," she said. "He couldn't even undress himself. He acted like he'd never had a bath in his whole life! I had to do something," she said. "And now he's standing in there naked with nothing to put on. Where are the clothes he brought with him?"
Mavis found it easy to believe that Bobby was simple minded, and that put him in the same category as a child in her mind. She relaxed.
"He didn't bring much. No coat even. That bag was all he had when he got off the train," she said.
Together they dumped the bag's contents on the table and then stared at it in horror. The shirt and pants were soiled, and the undergarments were tattered.
"What in the world is this?" asked Mavis, holding up what was obviously a pair of women's underwear.
"I have no idea," said Meg wonderingly. "Do you suppose he stole them?"
Mavis snorted. "Where in the world would a boy like him find a pair of those to steal?" she picked up his shirt and set it to one side. His pants followed. "Though to be honest, if this is all he has I could understand why he'd steal anything he could get his hands on."
Meg picked up a wrinkled and bent tube of white. "Why this is a cigarette of all things!" she said.
All that was left was the chocolate bar, bent now, and the lump of wood that lay on the table. Meg picked it up and turned it in her hands. She gasped as the dog's face was revealed.
"What?" asked Mavis, peering at the thing in Meg's hand.
"It's beautiful!" sighed Meg. "Look, it's been carved. It's exquisite!"
Mavis took it and admired the fine lines and realistic nature of the carving. "It is
beautiful" she agreed. "But only part done. Do you suppose he
Together they pawed through the wretched pile of clothes on the table, but found no knife. It was a mystery they'd have to solve later.
"We can't put him in these," said Meg distastefully as she poked at the shirt and pants.
Mavis put her hand to one breast. "You know, I saved some of Randolph's nicest things. I couldn't bear to throw them out when he died. His Sunday shirts and such. Now where did I put them?" She suddenly moved toward the single bedroom that was on the ground floor. Mavis retained that one for herself. Meg followed and saw Mavis get to her hands and knees and peer under the bed. She reached under, stretching, and pulled out a bundle, wrapped in cloth. Picking it up she laid it on the bed and undid the strings tied around it.
"This is them. I kept them under my bed because it made me feel closer to him when ..." She didn't finish. It was too personal and she felt foolish. But now she was glad she'd saved these few things. She lifted a white shirt, and another that was dark blue with a white collar. Under them were two pairs of trousers, one wool and the other finely woven cotton. Both were black. There was a pair of suspenders folded neatly between them.
"He's smaller than Randolph, of course," said Mavis, "but we can alter them to fit. They'll have to do for now."
Together they left the room, carrying the clothing with them. Mavis selected the white shirt and the cotton trousers to take to Bobby and, together they went to the bathroom. They opened the door to a cloud of steam. Bobby had re-filled the tub with hot water and was lying in it, his head back, and his eyes closed, a wide smile on his face.
It took them a while to coax him out of the tub. The impressive erection he had sported before had wilted again, from lack of continued stimulation and the heat of the water. When they got the shirt on him it hung low enough to cover his penis and, since it was bedtime anyway, they decided he didn't need the pants until morning.
While Meg had bathed Bobby, Mavis had made some changes in the sleeping arrangements. She didn't want Bobby sleeping in a room with smaller children. He was too big, and she still didn't know his temperament. So she had put a third child in two more rooms, to make an empty bed for Bobby. The children who were moved didn't mind. It was an adventure to them. And quite often all the children cuddled together in one bed anyway, like puppies, when they slept. So one more just added a little body heat.
Bobby, was exposed to yet another astonishment as he was led to his own bed, which was soft and had three quilts on it, and even a real pillow. He was alone, which made it seem a little like a punishment room, but it wasn't anything like a punishment room in any other way. He let himself be put into bed. He was so relaxed from the hot soak and everything else that had happened that day, that his defenses were abated. When the two women kissed him on the forehead and wished him good night it was more than he could take. Tears leaked from his eyes as he rubbed them with his fists. He wanted to say something, but knew that would ruin everything good that had happened to him on this amazing day. Instead he lay in the bed as the women left the room and turned off the light.
Mavis had tears running down her face too. She had seen the scars on his back while they clothed him, and his tears when he was in bed.
"He breaks my heart," she said, her voice catching.
"I know," said Meg. "I know."